Sunday, October 12, 2003

Comfort found in the cooking, not in the food

Food stuff

Chuck Martin

It was one of the few times I didn't know what to cook.

My friend's mother, Patty, died, and the family was planning a lunch buffet at their home after the services. But I didn't know what to bring.

It was Patty's fault, mostly. She was special - a gardener who grew the sweetest sugar snaps and most tender lettuces, and a painter of pretty pictures, including a stunning still life of tomatoes and sunflowers that hangs on our wall. Patty played golf and tennis up until her last few weeks, and she could stay up until the wee hours dealing hand after hand of bridge with friends.

She was an adventurous and accomplished cook long before it became fashionable, frying oysters, rolling tamales and baking bread for her husband and three children.

Patty could do just about anything.

This all came in a small, vivacious package. Patty was tiny - so small even I had to bend over for a kiss on the cheek. And she kissed me on the cheek just about every time I saw her.

Seemingly always happy, the closest she came to being cross with me was when she saw me snap and throw away the bottom third of an asparagus spear.

"Don't waste that," she chided, taking a bite of the chewy end to prove her point.

Even then, she smiled a little.

'A full and wonderful life'

Patty died a week before last at the tender age of 82 - only days away from celebrating her 60th wedding anniversary. A month earlier, she rather casually told me about her impending surgery.

"If I don't make it, I still will have lived a full and wonderful life," she said, while polishing off dessert at her son's Labor Day party.

Only later did I appreciate Patty's spirit in those words. If she could be that positive - that grateful - facing death, why can't the rest of us be the same facing life?

This was why I was struggling over what to cook for her buffet: She was no ordinary woman.

Then I remembered the funeral food of my youth. There was a time when it seemed everyone around me was dying: Grandparents, great uncles and my mother. I remember somber women coming to our door, bearing great casseroles of steaming macaroni & cheese, bowls of brothy butterbeans and tall, pound cakes drizzled with lemon glaze.

Here's something for y'all.

Even as a child, I think I realized what those offerings meant. And nothing has really changed. Even though we swoon over celebrity chefs on the Food Network, covet expensive balsamic vinegar and white truffle oil, and debate the best technique for snapping off the ends of asparagus, at its most primal, cooking for someone shows we care.

Giving is what matters

So it didn't matter what I cooked, as long as I did. I settled on beef for Patty's buffet, because I knew her family loves beef (another reason we get along well). And it would be beef tenderloin, because Patty deserved the best.

The night before, I roasted the beef and threw together a quick vinaigrette using oven-dried tomatoes and roasted garlic. I served the tenderloin cold and sliced thinly over dressed greens.

I think Patty would have liked it. If she were there, she would've probably pulled me down for a peck on the cheek, then asked for the vinaigrette recipe. Not because she wanted to make it - because she wanted to make me feel good.

That was Patty.

Dried Tomato-Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette

6 cloves roasted garlic, peeled

1/2 cup oil-packed dried tomatoes, drained (reserve oil) and roughly chopped

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper, to taste

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Add roasted garlic to food processor along with drained and chopped dried tomatoes. Add vinegar, salt and pepper. Pulse several times to puree.

With machine running, add olive oil in slow stream to processor, using any reserved oil from tomatoes. After vinaigrette emulsifies, taste and add more vinegar and salt and pepper, if needed. (Vinaigrette should be thick and slightly tangy.) Cover and refrigerate until using. Serve vinaigrette at room temperature with grilled or roasted beef or pork, asparagus and other vegetables.

Makes about 1 cup.

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