I love to wake up in the morning and head off to the open-air markets when I'm having friends for dinner. As I walk among the stands gorging with fresh, colorful produce, I draw inspiration for the dishes I'll prepare. On a warm September morning, for example, plump eggplant and Smyrna figs suddenly seem to speak to me in a chorus... and that evening I'm serving up a roasted eggplant risotto topped with baked Smyrna figs, a drizzle of their syrupy juice and a sprinkle of roasted walnuts.
More often than not the meals I conjure up for friends are new attempts at pairing the season’s flavors, textures, colors harmoniously, sometimes with surprising results I record them each in a notebook (if I don't, I often forget what I tossed and stirred together) and next time around I work on what needs adjusting to make the dish sing.
As I shell peas, cut open squash, seed tomatoes, peel artichokes, shuck corn, slice fennel, rinse leeks... I'm always thinking of how to combine and prepare them in the most simple way, remaining as true to their original nature as possible. Coaxing out their subtle savor with a bit of shallot or garlic, a pinch of lemon zest, a splash of white wine, a sprinkle of fresh thyme, a drizzle of honey. Perhaps in a certain sense I tend to undress vegetables as opposed to dressing them up.
I use eggs and cream sparingly, butter when I can't do without it; parmesan, pecorino, goat cheese— from organic farms whose animals are humanely raised and handled—with a generous hand, and extra-virgin olive oil... Everywhere. Beans of every sort: borlotti, cannellini, fava, flageolet, northern white, black, red... Rice, polenta, quinoa, green lentils, chickpeas; pumpkin seeds, sunflower and poppy; walnuts, pine, hazelnuts... They’re all faithful companions. As for the sea, I leave the sea and its inhabitants alone. It's over-burdened; they’re over-fished.
Cooking food, sharing it with others is a marvelous celebration of life: the subtle seasonal harmony of color, texture savor echoing a harmony of existence. It’s also a gentle ritual honoring the interconnectedness of life: in exchange for the bountiful gifts we receive from the Earth (not to forget the toiling hands of those who thoughtfully work the land) we heighten our awareness and offer a multitude of simple, reciprocal gestures to balance our place in nature.
When I sit down to a meal I’ve prepared knowing that care was taken, concern and respect were shown to earth and animal, the celebration takes on a depth, a connectedness that is itself nourishing—deeply so. I feel a humbler sense of place in the mystery that is life.