“There are shells in my pasta!” I exclaim to my dinner partner over the din of French slurred by too much wine and through the fog of cigarette smoke from the 15-year-olds at the next table. She smiles back at me over her heaping salad and pushes her sweeping blonde bangs out of her sea-foam eyes. They sparkle under the Tiffany-style lamps with as much anticipation as my voice portrays. We eat in near silence, every once in a while uttering an “oh wow,” showing reverence for the new culinary high we are experiencing. I dig into my Provencal-style pasta with fruits de mer that steams boldly with essences of tomato, anchovy, garlic, kalamata olive, and fresh basil that surround the scallops, mussels, and littleneck clams that inhabit my seemingly-bottomless bowl. I close my eyes prayerfully as I roll each flavor around on my tongue as it explodes in my mouth. The crunch of a freshly-picked basil leaf and then the creamy tenderness of a meaty sea scallop is transcendental as we sit in the red leather banquette in
I have shared many more meals with Dannii, each a journey in their own way, from the Italian Riviera to
I teach Dannii the correct way to rock her pink-handled santuko knife while she slices the mushroom caps and minces garlic. She is a natural gourmand. I give Jess the task of searing eggplant slices in olive oil. The refrigerator delivers some extra surprises that are all on my favorite foods list: pesto (a staple in the house, I’m told), dried cranberries, and fresh rosemary.
I tend to the risotto, adding vegetable stock until the rice is al dente, while Jess and Dannii joke affectionately about how much fun it would be to cook naked. I encourage this endeavor, as long as bacon isn’t on the menu. Jess moves to the counter and begins to assemble eggplant napoleons by sandwiching the shredded mozzarella and parmesan cheese with a spoonful of pesto in between two thick slices of meaty eggplant. He slides them into the oven as I add the sliced cremini mushrooms and a palmful of fragrant minced rosemary into the risotto and season it. Jess starts taking pictures of his new wife and new friend posing in avant-garde style with random kitchen utensils and wearing frilly aprons.
The napoleons come out of the oven beautiful and brown like little ziggurats. I quickly add the dried cranberries to the creamy risotto and give it a final stir. The result is hearty and woodsy. Only a drop of truffle oil and some chopped walnuts would improve its exquisite texture and earthy taste. Our eggplant was chosen as a worthy substitute for meat. It was substantial and strong next to the risotto. Eggplant is too often used as a vehicle for other things without really standing on is own. The napoleons we made belied eggplant’s status as a “vehicle” and brought it into the forefront.
As we laughed around the small table in the IKEA-furnished apartment, we felt like we were running down the cobblestone streets of Nice against the March wind. After waiting four hours for our check, we decided that our waiter must have forgotten about us and gone home for the night. We chanced it and bolted. The sound of the maitre’d hotel calling “Mademoiselles!” after us in the chilly spring evening was exhilarating, even though we’d been busted. As Jess cleared our plates from the green placemats Dannii had made, we looked at each other and felt just as we had after pizza on the beach in