Dinner for two. (the night before).
The invitation was given on impulse. I wanted K. to see my new shelves (I am so much in love with my new bookshelves I show them off to anyone who will come and visit; soon I will be mugging strangers on the street and dragging them home with me), and the next thing I knew, we had agreed she would come to dinner on the following Tuesday night. Tomorrow night. As soon as the words left my lips the panic set in. What on earth would I cook for my boss, she of the elaborate salads and rice-paper rolls filled with who-knows-what and squid-ink pasta with white truffle oil and, once, an indescribable pudding made of puréed avocado and Kahlua, served in stemmed goblets?
For days I ran through all the possibilities in my head, braised pork and stir-fried corn with pine nuts and chewy cubes of dried tofu with long beans, the sort of thing I would cook for my mother. But that would involve an excursion into Chinatown. Maybe instead I would make grilled sausages with polenta, or orecchiette with braised escarole and tomatoes and spicy Italian sausage and a hefty sprinkle of Parmeggiano-Reggiano. Perhaps I would go down to the Pike Place Market and buy a piece of fish, whatever vegetables are in season, roast them simply with a little olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt. All through the weekend different ideas sprang to mind and then were discarded. K., despite her own extravagant generosity towards others, would be fine with one or two dishes, perhaps a little dessert. It would be easy, if only I could decide on what to make.
Finally I decide on pasta with spicy Italian sausage and escarole, with mushrooms and tomatoes. Perhaps I would buy some fresh fruit for dessert. I sat on the living room floor absently watching the Food Network and making up my grocery list when I noticed that the Barefoot Contessa was making panna cotta. That looked easy, I thought, and quickly looked up the recipe. It seemed simple, cream and yogurt and sugar and gelatin. I would need a vanilla bean, but it promised only five minutes of cooking time. The list grew longer. Time to go shopping.
I buy produce first, escarole and Italian parsley and garlic and onions and tomatoes. I buy strawberries and blueberries and reject the sad-looking cremini mushrooms before heading towards the meat counter. There I buy spicy Italian sausage and bacon and a thick steak for later in the week. I have to think past tomorrow night, and momentarily consider a whole chicken before deciding against it. Milk and juice and eggs and butter, a box of rigatoni - they don't have orecchiette - pile on top of the other things. I can't reach the vanilla beans on the top shelf, and nearly ask one of the tall guys shopping nearby to get it for me when I notice more on a lower shelf. On impulse, I grab a can of San Marzano tomatoes, in case I change my mind and do something different for the pasta.
I get home, and assemble the ingredients for the panna cotta on the counter even before all the other groceries have been put away. The gelatin is softened in a little water; cream is heated to just under boiling with some sugar. I whisk the yogurt and a little more cream together with the vanilla seeds, and then add the gelatin and hot cream. Less than ten minutes pass before the filled ramekins are wrapped in plastic and put in the fridge. I wash the strawberries and remove the stems and leaves, eating a few before putting them away. Everything's ready for tomorrow.