You know what's super awesome? Finally re-connecting with old friends and having even more fun together than ever before. Recently one of my vegan pals and her husband came over for dinner. They live over an hour away, so it was a good trek that took a little coordinating. She and I first met online at the PPK, and we used to see each other more frequently, but it had been quite a while.
I didn't know if they would have a favorite Santa Cruz restaurant that they were hoping to visit, but I was so happy when she said that they would love to come to our place for dinner. Yay! I just love cooking for friends so much. I love the process of thinking about my friends and what they might enjoy, and considering all the many directions a meal might take - and what dessert would go with what dish, and what about appetizers, and so on. So, I got right to work, dreaming up a summery menu that would be yummy and special and seasonal.
After much deliberation, I went with an Italian-summery-tomato route and took it from there. We started with a giant Panzanella salad. I looked at recipes from Vegan Italian Kitchen, Chloe's Vegan Italian Kitchen, and Nonna's Italian Kitchen. In the end, I used elements from each of the recipes: lettuce, arugula, loads of fresh basil (some ribboned and some torn in semi-small bits), fresh parsley, red onion, one million cherry tomatoes from our garden, and avocado (which was a nice, if non-traditional addition). The dressing was a simple oil + vinegar concoction - olive oil, red wine vinegar, a dash of balsamic, pressed garlic, a dash of agave, salt and pepper. I think this was one of the best salads I've ever made. I loved it so much. It was also extremely huge, and even though we each had seconds (possibly even thirds), there was still a little left over for the next day.
Croutons Croutons, yum yum yum
I didn't get a proper picture of the whole salad all mixed together, because I was probably too busy enjoying the company of my friends.* The thing about Panzanella, is that it originated as a way of using up old bread in salad - so an abundant quantity of bread is really a key ingredient to the salad. I used the crouton guidance from Chloe's Vegan Italian Kitchen - and I loved her recipe and technique. Rather than roasting (and the risk of burning) the cubed bread, you simply toast it in a large skillet with a little bit of oil. They were really good and together in the salad, the whole thing was altogether gloriously better than salad should be.
*I also neglected to get a picture of the beautiful Double Cream Chive cheese from Miyoko's Creamery and Crackers that my friends brought along. It was SO good and fit perfectly with our dinner - offering something rich and creamy alongside an otherwise light and produce-filled meal. And it was also perfect because I hadn't bothered to make any appetizers. (oops!) So, as I was finishing up dinner and grilling the polenta, we all got to nibble away happily at that lovely cheese. Tummies were happy.
Grilled Polenta Wedges with Cherry Tomato Sauce
Booya! This is an old favorite, but I hadn't made it in years. This year we are experiencing a Bumper Crop of cherry tomatoes out in our veggie garden... so I knew that our special summertime dinner party just had to feature these guys as the star of the show. This is based on a recipe from "Fresh Food Fast," a vegetarian cookbook by Peter Berley that I really like. The polenta has fresh corn kernels mixed in (of course I added even more), which makes it feel so much more lively and interesting than just a wedge of cornmeal. Also, Mr VE&T suggested I grill the polenta, which was really easy and definitely added a lot -- the grill marks made the polenta wedges so much more beautiful, and also the grilling made the exterior a little crispier and denser, while the inside stayed just as creamy as ever. So good and so easy!
The cherry tomato sauce is pretty straightforward: a little olive oil, garlic, loads of cherry toms, and big handful of fresh basil and fresh parsley. Super easy, but somehow, also super delicious.
Along with the tomatoes and polenta, we also each added a dollop of the mild and creamy ricotta cheese from Kite Hill -- which was a very nice addition.
Apricot + Blackberry Crisp
Of course there was dessert! I had some perfect Blenheim apricots that I had frozen recently - at the now-passed peak of apricot season, and I was looking for something special to do with them. Then, this dinner party came along, and so did a vendor at the farmers market with the world's most spectacular blackberries ever. So, my work was mostly done for me. I combined ideas for fruit crisp recipes from Fresh Food Fast and Local Flavors (by Deborah Madison), and I loved the end result! I didn't add much sugar at all (maybe 3 Tbsp?), because the fruit I was using was already 100% perfect. The recipe from FFF included a suggestion to include sliced almonds in the crisp topping, that is so good! Do it! We enjoyed our dessert with some soy vanilla ice cream. Fruity desserts + ice cream really makes me feel like summer is in full swing.
It was a totally wonderful evening, and mostly not because of the food. We just had such a great time talking about all sorts of things and laughing and exchanging ideas - we stayed up so late (and our friends still had to drive all the way home!) I was still feeling all jazzed up and happy about it for days afterwards. Good connection with good friends really is one of the best things about this crazy human experience.