Alfresco is Alright

the perfect alfresco locale
Last weekend and most of last week, I was in San Francisco for my baby brother's wedding. I did sneak some food exploration into a busy schedule of last minute wedding crafting and visiting with usually far-flung friends and family. Food memories were actually a prominent part of the wedding itself, but more on that later. The entire wedding experience was unforgettable--it was packed to the rafters with joy. And that much joy can tire a girl out. So while I recover, picture this: it's a warm summer day (looks like we're finally going to have some of those) and there is a table in the shade surrounded by exotic foliage.

One of my coffee shop coworkers always volunteered to take the garbage out. This was not a task many--or any--of us liked. Hauling big bags weighed down with wet coffee grinds and heaving them into the stinky dumpster, while trying not to get any of what we affectionately called "trash juice" on ourselves was gross and demoralizing even on days when the tips were good. But Lisandro was enthusiastic about taking the trash out. Why, I asked him, why. And he said that the older he got, the more he wanted to be outside. Taking out the trash got him outside, it was as simple as that.

The older I get, the more I like to be outside. And when the summer comes, I dream about all the places I can dine alfresco. To me, the apex of good living is a meal outside, when the weather is warm, the sun is setting and the company is charming. But what should we eat?

I think my table in the shade (the pictured table, by the way, lives at the Huntington Library in the Desert Garden) calls for mezze, Middle Eastern appetizers. Hummus has fully integrated itself into Western life, but do you realize how easy it is to make? Drain a can of garbanzo beans, mash a large clove of garlic and dump them in a food processor. Add 2-3 tablespoons of Tahini, a pinch of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of cumin and 1/2 a cup of fresh lemon juice. Process, drizzling in olive oil, until it's the consistency you like. I often have to add a little more salt, or lemon juice, or garlic or Tahini at the end to get the flavor I'm looking for. Done, that's it. You made hummus and it will be better than anything you've ever bought.

But alfresco diners cannot live on hummus alone, so get yourself an eggplant, we're making baba ganoush. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and prick the eggplant with a fork a few times all over. I think a little blackened skin gives a nice smoky flavor to the finished dip, so I usually hold the eggplant over a burner on the stove, waving it into the flame, for about 10-15 minutes until I have some char. Then I cut the eggplant in half, put it on a baking sheet and bake in the oven until it's very soft, 15-20 minutes. You could do both the blacking and the baking on a grill, I just don't happen to have one, because grilling inside a city apartment is frowned upon. Once soft, let your eggplant cool slightly and then peel off the skin--it shouldn't be too hard, set aside some good looking pieces. Some eggplants have more seeds than others (It depends on the gender, no really. Female eggplants have an oval navel on the bottom and male eggplants have a round one. Females have more seeds, so choose an eggplant with a round navel when possible.), but the seeds are bitter, so scoop them out. Then put the soft flesh and your good looking pieces of blackened skin in a food processor, add 1/4 cup Tahini, 3 mashed garlic cloves, 1/4 cup lemon juice, a sprinkling of cumin, a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of olive oil. Process until it's a dip-like texture, adjust ingredients to taste.

Both hummus and baba ganoush can be eaten with pita bread, both seem to taste better when eaten outside.

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