Home cooking. (not mine).
The other day I offered to cook dinner for our guests, which was received with great enthusiasm by two travelers weary of restaurant cooking and Western cuisine. After a few weeks in a foreign country (with another week or two still to come) they were ready for some home cooking, and I was rather looking forward to it myself, until my mother came up with the bright idea to ask her friend, J., to cook for us as well. J. is one of the best cooks I know, and she chose Tuesday for her dinner, which, of course, left the next evening for me. I let out a wail of protest - it was unfair to leave me at such a disadvantage - but I was excited, too. I am always excited when I know that we are having dinner with J., even though this time my mother had requested that there not be any red-braised pork belly on the menu. (Tragedy!). Also, she waited until we were on the the road to tell me that two more guests would be there, when it was too late for me to change into a nicer pair of trousers and comb my hair. But never mind.
J. and L. live in a quiet townhouse complex, shaded by trees. There are rock-lined pools and tidy walking paths, and it is mostly inhabited (I think) by older couples. Theirs is a top-floor unit, with an open, high-ceilinged living area, filled with orchids and books and art. Everything is neatly laid out in the kitchen, platters set out in readiness, covered pots on the stove, garnishes arranged on cutting boards and in little bowls. Our fellow guests slowly arrive - traffic is a snarl tonight - and we sit with drinks (tea) and little nibbles (dried cranberries and nuts) and chat. Presently, there are clinking sounds to be heard from the kitchen, and we are called to the table, on which four plates of cold appetizers await us.
There are peppers, red and green and yellow, cooked with a little soy sauce and sugar until they begin to caramelize (and now I will not be able to make a similar dish tomorrow), slim haricots vert, a sort of soft tofu salad, and bean sprouts, the ends carefully trimmed by L, leaving only the translucent white stalks. We pass the dishes from one end of the table to the other, making happy noises with our second and third helpings, and then the hot dishes begin to arrive. A warm salad of duck stir-fried with slivers of orange zest (a witty take on duck à l'orange) is served in fresh endive leaves, like little boats. There are tofu noodles tangled with vegetables - some Chinese greens chopped fine - and a sort of hemispherical loaf of ground pork mixed with pickled radishes (I think they are pickled radishes), steamed and served in its own juices, which I slice (as instructed by my hostess) at the table and pass around. There is rice, not plain white, but white and brown mixed with all kinds of grains, just a little, so you don't fill up on it. There is more to come.
Sautéed halibut is tossed with leeks and little bits of tomatoes and black olives, for color, laid out on a rectangular platter decorated with little bunches of baby bok choy, and set at a rakish angle across the middle of the table. (Everything must be presented just so). Last is a mound of steamed tofu, surrounded by lumps of fresh crab meat, in a light, brothy sauce. It is airy and soft, almost like a mousse, but a savory one. Most of the dishes tonight are new, save for the cold starters and the orange-peel duck. As always, this is a refined form of home cooking, taking into consideration contrasts of texture, of flavors, of hot and cold and sweet and savory. Only this time there is an added lightness to it, in deference to health-conscious guests who eat little or no meat or who are tired of Western food.
For dessert there is lightly sweet soup of red beans, thick with grains and different kinds of black rice. There are heaps of fresh cherries and huge blueberries, tiny round balls of mochi, pink and yellow and dusty green and white. My mother has brought pineapple cakes, with a crumbly, strangely cheesy crust surrounding a sweetly fragrant filling. We sit there talking until I am ready to lay my head on the table and fall asleep, and it is nearly midnight before we get home. And tomorrow it is my night to cook.