On Saturday I had the pleasure of eating black-eyed peas, an ingredient that hasn’t crossed my path in a long time. They were part of a succotash that was served with two fried, goat cheese-stuffed squash blossoms.
I was eating at Café Flora with my sweetheart to celebrate (albeit several weeks late) our anniversary. We sat in the garden. A tree snowed tiny purple blossoms into our water glasses.
A sweet plum tomato chutney tied the meal together, like morning kisses do a long-term love affair. A little on top was enough to make it vibrant: the sweetened vinegar stung the blend of mustard, black-eyed peas, corn and limas.
When flavors mix well, it can be hard to pin down exactly what makes a meal great. Perhaps that’s why some food writing is bland. They say to avoid general words, like “delicious,” but when a bite crosses your lips and you enjoy it, that’s the first word you say. How to describe flavors and textures that settle together and pop out individually? What do you say when the evening light is starting to go, you’re sipping the other’s wine and the air is almost too chilly for the dress you’re wearing – then, you cut into a reservoir of warm, soft cheese and the first bite has crunch and cream and the sweet prick of mustard? The addition of a tomato that has burst its skin in a bath of sugar and cider vinegar is too much. You give up on words, write down the name of the restaurant and tell a friend they must, the next time they’re in Seattle, stop in for dinner.
And how to describe, to a curious friend or, worse, a new acquaintance, what works in a marriage that’s closing in on twenty years? “He’s wonderful” doesn’t do justice to the fact that he does dishes. Does them as he’s cooking. That is, as he’s waiting for the pasta dough he just made to chill in the refrigerator. He doesn’t do it for efficiency’s sake (though there’s that, too) but because he doesn’t want us to have to clean up after the kids have gone to bed. Because, he says, he wants me to have time to write.
You know how this goes. How do you describe it when someone is selfless and kind without using those words? How about easy-going and intelligent? They don’t describe someone who can watch the game and discuss the latest peer-reviewed article with equal enthusiasm. A descriptor can’t capture his ability to derail our son’s fear of the dark with tickling games. Or the way he insists, so nicely, that our daughter not complain about school again at the dinner table, prodding her in the best way there is to prod: with honesty and insistence because he loves her and when he asks what happened at school, he wants to know.
So it comes down to something unnameable that makes it work, that makes me observe his jawline from across the room, the way his hand connects to his wrist. The something means I can pick out his voice in a crowded room because it’s altogether noticeable and comforting. It’s this familiarity, of all ironies, that quickens my blood. It’s a surprise, a sudden oh, yes that is both relief and arousal, like biting into a small tomato to find it is, yes, a tomato, but extra soft, extra sweet.
Cucumber and Apple Chutney
I could have tried to recreate the condiment I had this week. There are plenty of tomatoes. But the cucumbers are exquisite and a crunchy option for a sweet-tart condiment. I used slicing cucumbers from Calliope Farm and lemon cucumbers from Wobbly Cart Farming Collective. I still had one Zestar apple from the incomparable Brownfield Orchard, a place I’d like to visit very soon. Zestars are my new favorite, beyond Honeycrisp, if that’s possible. I read, with a tiny arch of my brow, a card at the co-op that described them as having “notes of brown sugar.” I thought it was a lark of a claim until I went home and tasted one.
1½ pounds of cucumbers to yield about 3½ cups, chopped and peeled.
(I seeded the lemon cucumbers.)
1 large apple, to yield about 2 cups chopped apple
¾ cup sugar, about 5 ounces.
(I used a combination of dark brown sugar and raw cane sugar.)
½ lemon, seeded; rind and flesh chopped
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1½ tablespoons chopped candied ginger, about ½ ounce
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
Combine sugar, lemon, vinegar, ginger, salt and mustard seeds in a medium pot and place over medium heat.
Add cucumbers and apple and heat until the liquid is almost boiling.
Turn the heat down, cover and simmer until cucumbers, apples and lemon pieces are soft, about 20 minutes. Test a piece of lemon peel and return to the stove for an extra five minutes if it is not yet soft.
Serve alongside dal, with goat cheese on crackers or on your own version of succotash.