Is this my brother’s idea of a “course?”
“So, um, what’s the deal with the chips?” I ask him, as he meanders about the kitchen, stirring a béchamel sauce, turning down the heat on what looks like a red wine reduction, and confidently salting and peppering some scallops near the stove.
“Scallop nachos!” He responds with pride.
I pause, choosing my words carefully lest I betray my leeriness of his starter. “Interesting.”
What I really mean to say is, “I hope you know what you are doing, muchacho.”
My parents, other brother and I have just descended upon my brother and sister-in-law’s home to celebrate my mother’s birthday with a multi-course homemade feast made by the man who wooed us with his mad pizza skills this past Christmas. I’ve been excited about the meal all week – and not just because I’ve been “cleansing” with quinoa, vegetables and a moderate intake of dark chocolate since that past Saturday…
Compelled to be involved in some capacity (I like to monitor the kitchen situation), I begin playing sous chef to my brother, topping the rest of the chips with his avocado mash, and then standing watch as he carefully places a seared scallop on each chip. He finishes it with a dusting of diced Serrano chili (“for kick”) and then instructs us to eat them immediately.
As I thrust the chip into my mouth in “one bite” so that it won’t become soggy from the barely cooked scallop’s moisture, I can’t help but think it is very “Chef Ludo” of my brother to give us such specific instructions. It’s also very “Chef Ludo” of him to do something that challenges my family’s expectations. It is a bold move, but my brother’s vision comes together seamlessly. The tender scallop, bite of pepper, mellow avocado and salty chip prove to be fine dining companions. I’m hooked in “one bite.”
“I was just going to have one, but I think I’m going to take my second!” My sister-in-law – the daintiest eater in our crew – announces.
I laugh at her enthusiasm, but promptly follow her example. Cleanse or no cleanse, there is no way my small-stomached SIL is going to eat me under the table!
For course number two, we freshen up our palates with meaty pieces of heirloom tomatoes that have been topped with mozzarella, basil and a drizzle of balsamic dressing. It’s a classic preparation made compelling by the freshness of the ingredients. Not even my mother, who used to vehemently cite her distaste for heirlooms, can find fault here. She devours her two tomatoes without hesitation.
I take advantage of the brief intermission in our feast and follow my brother outside to watch the preparation of the grilled pizza. I watch in horror as he throws the oversized mass of dough onto the hot grill – he is much more fearless than I in the kitchen.
He turns around with a lopsided smile. “I’ve never worked with dough this large before.”
I gulp, clearly much more concerned about the integrity of the pie than he.
“Okay we need to work fast.” He says, as he uses two spatulas to turn the dough over so it can cook on the other side.
I approach with the bowl of grilled chicken and caramelized onions and we begin throwing the toppings on as quickly as possible. He sashays a ribbon of béchamel over the crust, while I frantically distribute the chicken chunks and onions over it. He reaches over me to liter the top with mozzarella cheese and then I finish with ribbons of zucchini. Moments later we are easing the unwieldy pizza back onto the cutting board. Teamwork saves the day (for our soon-to-be very lucky stomachs).
“Now all I need to do is top it with parmesan.” My brother says as he sprinkles a liberal layer over the zucchini.
I’m impressed. I thought I was catching up to my brother in the kitchen, but his perfectly charred pizza crust contrasted against the lush béchamel and mozzarella, and fresh bite of zucchini, makes me feel Wayne’s World “I’m not worthy.” A second slice disappears into my belly before my conscience has time to remind me that I was going to “take it easy” with the size of my servings tonight.
“I could be happy just eating this.” I think (and observe to my family), but my brother’s meal continues with a cedar-planked wild salmon served with a dill cucumber sauce. The tangy sauce mellows out the intense flavor of the fish, and is a welcome interlude before our final dish of the evening.
“Now Diana, I know you didn’t like the lamb chops we had in Arizona because they were too fatty, so I trimmed off almost all the fat.” My brother tells me as he brings a robust rack of lamb in from the grill. He serves the pink chops over a bed of slow-roasted potatoes and onions that were also prepared on the grill, and then ladles a drizzle of his red wine reduction sauce over the top. Again, I feel very “I’m not worthy.”
Silence descends over the table as we each savor our four bites of the succulent lamb. It is one of finest preparations I’ve had of Mary’s companion to date – a sentiment that my mother echoes when she declares, “It’s the best I’ve ever had.”
The accompanying potatoes and onions accost our tongues with further evidence that we don’t need no stinkin’ restaurant to eat well. Every single plate is bare when I get up to serve my humble carrot cake cookies for dessert. They are a hit, but feel very “home sewn” in comparison to the meal my brother has crafted for us. I already know where I want to celebrate my birthday next month, and it’s, shockingly, no where near the vicinity of Ms. Nancy Silverton.
I’m booking a reservation at Trattoria 174. And there will be lamb.