Here's to love (and lunch)

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It's a shorter road than one might think from wedding-phobe to frenzied lady with a checklist and dream for that special day. Trust me. I've traveled it.


For the record: Champagne name -- An article about a wedding lunch in Wednesday's Food section misidentified the wine Krug Grand Cuvee as Charles Krug Grand Cuvee. Krug Grand Cuvee is made by a French Champagne producer. Charles Krug, a California winery, does not make sparkling wine.


I used to hear about extravagant wedding parties and think, "They're idiots," then reel off things that they could have bought instead: a car, a home, a farm, a private island, etc., etc. Yet from the time I eloped to the time I divorced, the world steadfastly refused to do the math. Year after year, people insisted on celebrating love, staging bashes where they drank too much, then made gooey toasts to a happily concluded search for companionship.

None of it dented my conviction that wedding season existed to put the dread in springtime, until this year, when my friend Erik Rieder announced that he had gone to Portland, Ore., to get married.

I know Erik through his business partner, Melinda Taylor, the landscape designer behind the garden at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. When he let drop earlier this spring that he had gone to Portland to get married, it was in passing and I was in a foul mood.

"You'll have to have a toaster," I snapped.

The bitterness of my remark registered the minute I hung up. How could I have mocked his news? Erik's gay. It's not like society was pressuring him to find a husband. He must really be in love. Holy moly, Erik not only had to have a toaster, he had to have the best toaster money could buy.

The clerk at Sur La Table had Saturday shoppers lined around the counter, but I made her climb to the top shelf. Not that one, not that, no, no, that one! The Cuisinart model in stainless steel that takes four slices and has his-and-his done-nesses, so each person can have toast done to his exact preference. This much I know about marriage: Things like toast done-ness make or break it. Love is knowing how the other person likes breakfast.

How to give it to Erik? I considered dropping it off, or sending it over by messenger, but that still had a vaguely insulting, take that quality. "Hey, newlywed, here's your appliance."

Melinda and I decided we'd have a lunch. Just us, Erik and his partner, David Herzog, or more properly, Dr. David Herzog. Erik is very proud of having snagged a doctor, a psychologist.

It started with toast

What to serve when giving someone a toaster? Toast! Every wedding-planning fever, I now realize, begins with a kernel of inspiration. Mine was toast. Get me on the subject of toast, and there's no sour commentary. To me, the only thing better than good bread is bread that's been sliced and toasted so its wheaten crumb has taken on a caramelized tang.

At work, writing Erik's wedding menu when I should have been having more businesslike thoughts, it suddenly hit me: We would not only have toast, we would have a lunch where every course was toast! Hee!

I ran through everything I love with toast. Hummus, taramasalata, tzatziki, melted cheese, peanut butter, blue cheese, honey, soft boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, scrambled eggs with truffles, smoked eggplant puree, strips of rare steak drizzled with melted butter, salami, ham, chicken liver pate, anything from a deli -- slow down, I thought, this lunch can't last a year.

I called chef Nancy Silverton, a mutual friend, to ask if she'd cook Erik's dessert. "We'll do it together!" she cried. No way, I thought. I'm not a famous chef. Erik and David were about to have every gay man's dream: Nancy Silverton cooking dessert for them. Kim Boyce, Nancy's former pastry chef at Campanile, also said she'd help.

Every time I asked for help, it came. The Times' restaurant critic, S. Irene Virbila, who also writes the Wine of the Week column, offered to choose the wines. One neighbor did the invitations, another lent her umbrellas, another offered to keep track of me. They would all come. Finally, there was Paul Schrade. To the world, he is the former head of the United Auto Workers Union in the Western United States. To us, he is a regular at Nancy's restaurant. His job was to be a straight man.

Suddenly, a happening was happening: A bunch of women, my neighbors and a legend of trade unionism were about to write the book on how to present a pair of gay newlyweds with a toaster.

Finding focus

Melinda had already warned Erik that I might be getting a bit carried away when I phoned and asked if he and David would mind if a newspaper photographer came. Looking back, the idea to write about it probably came in a call to Kim, when she cut through my toast reverie, bringing the menu down to size from everything (on toast) to a mere four courses. She liked my ideas of Greek dips taramasalata and tzatziki (on toast), followed by steak tartare (on toast), then suggested we follow them with the Italian bread salad panzanella and French toast with strawberries and ice cream for dessert.

The first toast would have no bread. It would be to raise a glass of Charles Krug Grand Cuvee. Wedding planners, beware of Champagne markups. Checking prices in a relatively small patch of West Los Angeles, the Krug was $99 at Wine House, $129.99 at Wally's and $139.99 at John & Pete's. I shopped at Wine House, then spent the savings on a new set of Spiegelau flutes at Pottery Barn.

Next stop: Geary's.

Erik hadn't asked me to choose a china pattern for him; he and David had registered at Williams-Sonoma, a fabulous shop -- for pots and pans. Boys! For wedding china I was going to Geary's. After confounding a series of salesladies with talk of a lunch consisting entirely of toast, I bought a series of dessert plates for the meze-sized savory courses, and one spectacular main course plate, for Nancy and Kim's dessert.

An important note about plates and desserts: The choice of a white plate only seems minimalist. You can bet a disturbing leaf of mint and frantic squiggle of sauce that once that white plate is lined up in a kitchen, cooks will be compensating for its blankness with nervous garnishes. A pattern on the rim does the same job, and some farmer doesn't have to grow it just for some busboy to throw it away.

Dessert is a joyous course, a frivolous finale to celebrate the good fortune of having already eaten, so a really good pattern should almost sing. For me, Limoges is the celestial choir for good pastry. I selected a pattern called "Arcade." This had a ring of what looked like cypresses, simply brimming toward the rim, then capped with gold.

Food shopping was a marathon. It was really too early in the season to be cooking panzanella; the tomatoes weren't up to it. Even desert-grown Early Girls purchased a week before from Santa Monica farmers market still weren't what they should have been. But the menus were printed, wines were chosen. The solution: a strong Tuscan olive oil to carry the dish. That meant Laudemio (available from Surfas and Whole Foods). The basil is still ratty at farmers markets, rattier still at Whole Foods. Trader Joe's had the best, so another stop.

For the taramasalata, I had a recipe, but I don't know cod's roe from snail roe. I also live bicycling distance from C&K Importing, to my mind the best Greek grocery store outside Greece, run by the fabulously named Chrys S. Chrys. So I bought the tarama.

But homemade tzatziki is always better than even Chrys'. For it, I bought Greek yogurt, the only kind that will do: You want it thick. The cukes and mint I bought at the Hollywood Farmers' Market three days earlier. Tzatziki not only can be made the night before, but should be, because you want the flavors to meld and to chill the salad.

The surprise was a search for a steak tartare recipe. Julia didn't have one. Gourmet didn't have one. Even the "Larousse Gastronomique" ignored it. As I searched and searched it seemed a conspiracy. That great French dish, edited from history. Scandale!

Finally, there was a description of it in Richard Olney's "Simple French Food." In France, it was known as an American dish, he said. Aha, another conspiracy solved. But thanks to Olney, I got the gist: good lean sirloin, egg, spring onion, capers, Worcestershire sauce -- good stuff.

Bread: Several friends have remarked on the insanity of choosing to bake for Nancy Silverton. She is, after all, founder of La Brea Bakery. But by the day of the wedding party, I was suffering from a mixture of pride, delirium and more pride. Making bread is one of the few things I do really well, I thought to myself, tearfully, sniff, dab, gleam. I wanted something personal on the table.

OK, I wanted to show off. So I chose to bake Erik and David's wedding bread the night before the party. I started midafternoon, slowly building up the dough through a series of fermentations. Involved, yes, but I wanted a white bread with a rich, wheaten flavor, yet without the persistent acidity of sourdough. In the event, when it finally was done at 3 a.m., the bread was really very good, if I do say so myself. But wedding planners, do as I say, not as I did. Buy the bread. When the first neighbor arrived at 6 a.m. to help me set up, he knew I'd been up all night. My lights had been shining in his windows.

Many hands to help

Fast forward through speeding to the farmers market for strawberries and to Whole Foods for the sirloin. Nancy arrived with boxes of chef-like things, including superfine sugar and two huge brioche loaves she'd made the night before. Kim blew in from a morning working the Coastal Organics stall at the farmers market, six months pregnant and still light on her feet. "Just tell me what to do," she said.

I've always envied those healthy types.

We needed more toast for the steak tartare. As we started toasting in my old Procter Silex (note to self: must upgrade), a burning smell pervaded the kitchen. "It's just crumbs," said Kim, who kept cranking the toast.

As she and Nancy, unasked, started rubbing the toast with garlic and cutting the toast into triangles, or "toast points," Nancy joked about how when she took a Cordon Bleu course, her instructor wrote her off because her toast points were messy.

I didn't hear Erik, David and Melinda arrive until Nancy shrieked, "You've got to come look at this!" Melinda and Nancy were wearing almost identical '50s-style skirts. Melinda, it turned out, had taken Nancy's advice and gone clothes shopping at Noodle Stories on Third Street. "Nancy and I have to get married now," said Melinda.

Erik looked gorgeous. David, I noticed through pre-production panic and all-night blear, was beautiful too. Was he marrying his twin? I stared harder. No, there were clear differences. And David proved simply charming. No wonder he snagged Erik.

After the Krug popped, I made my first wedding toast. Now I know why people write them in advance. As lunch progressed, I'd love to tell you how the food was, but the most I can tell you is that there was food. The problem with throwing parties is that the adrenalized hostess refuses to let herself revert to relaxed reveler.

By the time I had shocked the table by letting drop that the panzanella recipe came off the Internet, we were all genuinely enjoying ourselves. No one was looking at a watch -- on a weekday -- as lunch slowly elapsed into late afternoon.

As Nancy and Kim disappeared to start frying the toast, now was the moment to produce the prize plate from Geary's. I had been right. Big was better. The size was perfect for the arching slice of brioche. At the table, Nancy made service interactive. Guests were offered a jug of maple syrup, a bowl of strawberries, ice cream and a plate of dried strawberries to top their own toast.

When Erik and David opened the present, Erik cried in a surprised voice, "It's a toaster!"

Gay humor.

As guests left about 5 p.m., Erik and David stayed behind for coffee, a walk, and the best part, gossip.

This is always the hostess' moment, the party's end, where you either settle down with the last guests to relish a success, or search for the aspirin, swearing you'll never do it again.

As they left around dinnertime, I was in love with them, in love with toast, in love with love. I wondered who else I knew who was considering marriage.

"Sixty's a good number," I thought.

*

24th Street panzanella

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: 4

Note: This recipe combines one I found on the Web with a description from Anna del Conte's "Gastronomy of Italy," then vastly improved by cribbing ideas from "Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Book."

1 large red bell pepper

4 small or 2 medium tomatoes

1 cup chopped red onion

12 basil leaves

1/2cup Italian parsley leaves

2 tablespoons good Tuscan olive oil, divided

1 1/2 tablespoons bright, good red wine vinegar, divided

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 (1-inch) slices of midsection ciabatta, stale or toasted to a semblance of it

Parmigiano-Reggiano to taste

1. Roast the pepper under the broiler or over a gas flame, turning until the skin chars, a sweet smell fills the kitchen and the flesh begins to collapse. Allow it to cool in a bowl.

2. Scald and peel the tomatoes. Cut them in quarters, press out the seeds and juice, then chop the remaining flesh into rough cubes. Put the chopped tomatoes in a bowl.

3. If you dislike the fiery, fresh onion flavor, put the chopped onion in a strainer, pour boiling water over and then pat dry on paper towel. This will take away the aggressive edge.

4. Combine the basil and parsley leaves. Chop roughly. Add the onion and chop together with the herbs. Mix well, then add the mixture to the tomatoes.

5. Holding it over the bowl of tomatoes and onions, puncture the cooled pepper it so it gives up its juices but not seeds. Allow the pepper liquid to drip into the bowl. Slice, trim, seed and peel the pepper. Roughly dice the flesh and mix it in with the tomatoes. Add 1 tablespoon oil and 1 tablespoon vinegar. Toss and season to taste with sea salt and pepper.

6. Pass the bread slices under running water, then pat them dry on paper towels, leaving them whole, and place on a serving dish. Spoon the tomato mixture over and allow the bread to steep in the juices for at least half an hour before serving. Taste for seasoning, add the remaining olive oil and vinegar and just before serving, dust with a light grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Each serving: 183 calories; 4 grams protein; 24 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 187 mg. sodium.

*

Pain perdu

Total time: 2 hours plus 7 to 8 hours drying time depending on strawberries

Servings: 6

Note: The pain perdu, custard and fresh strawberry topping is from Kim Boyce. The dried strawberry garnish is from "The Food of Campanile." You will need a convection oven or a fruit dehydrator to make the dried strawberries. "Bananas can be dried in a conventional oven," writes Campanile co-owner Nancy Silverton, "but strawberries, peaches, nectarines and pineapple can be properly dried only in a convection oven or a fruit dehydrator." After drying the strawberries, macerate the fresh strawberries, then make the custard, then the French toast.

Dried strawberries

15 large strawberries, ripe but not too soft

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1. Hull the strawberries and slice them, vertically, about one-eighth-inch thick. Heat the convection oven to 200 degrees and set the convection fan to high, or set the fruit dehydrator according to the manufacturer's instructions. Line a baking pan with plastic wrap, folding it around the sides of the pan to secure it firmly. If you are using a fruit dehydrator, the baking pan and plastic are not necessary.

2. Arrange the slices on the plastic wrap or screen. They must overlap each other by at least one-fourth inch because this prevents the small slices from shriveling up or drying too much. There will be small gaps between the pieces, but there should be no spaces larger than about one-fourth inch in the layer of fruit. Generously sprinkle the slices with the granulated sugar. Once dried, the fruit can be removed from the plastic in individual pieces or in small sections to create a decorative pattern.

3. Dry the fruit for 7 to 8 hours. Check a few times during the drying process; if the fruit appears to be coloring, reduce the oven heat to 150 degrees. When the fruit is done, it will no longer be watery; it will be slightly sticky and not brittle, and it should peel away in a solid layer from the plastic or screen.

Fresh strawberry topping

3 pints fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and cut in fourths

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1. In a large bowl, sprinkle the fruit with the sugar, add the balsamic vinegar and gently mix together, using your hands so as not to damage the berries. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to macerate at least two hours before serving.

Custard

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

3 tablespoons honey

1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise

1 cinnamon stick or 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Zest of 1 orange

1. In a small bowl, whisk the egg to break it up. Add the milk, honey, vanilla bean, cinnamon and orange zest. Set aside to infuse for 1 hour.

Assembly

1 recipe custard

6 center-cut ( 3/4-inch) slices brioche or egg bread (challah)

1 to 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

6 tablespoons clarified butter, divided

1 recipe fresh strawberry topping

Maple syrup

Vanilla ice cream (optional)

Dried strawberries

1. Pour the custard into a shallow baking dish. Lightly dip one side of the bread into the custard, flip and dip the other side. (It is preferable to dip one half at a time; when the entire slice is dunked, the bread gets too soggy.) Gently squeeze the bread to remove any excess custard. Place on a plate and continue with the remaining five slices of bread.

2. Sift half the powdered sugar over the surface of the custard-dipped bread. The powdered sugar should lightly cover the entire surface of the bread. Each slice will use 2 to 3 tablespoons of powdered sugar.

3. Heat a cast iron pan over medium-low heat. Add 1 tablespoon butter. Place two pieces of bread, sugar side down, into the pan. Cook until the bread is caramelized to a dark golden brown. The flame may need to be reduced if the bread browns too quickly. The bread may also need to be moved around in the pan if there are hot spots. While the bread is caramelizing, sift powdered sugar over the top side. Once the first side has caramelized, add 1 tablespoon butter to the pan. Swirl to coat the pan and flip the bread. Caramelize until dark golden brown. Use a spatula to remove the bread from the pan and place it on a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil.

4. Use tongs and paper towels to remove all the residual butter and sugar from the pan. Allow the pan to warm again and continue with the remaining bread.

5. Pain perdu can be made up to three hours in advance. Just before serving, warm the slices in a 400-degree oven for about 7 to 10 minutes. If you are serving immediately, bake the slices to cook the custard in the center of the bread, about 4 to 6 minutes.

6. To serve, place one slice of pain perdu on each plate and spoon fresh strawberry topping over. Drizzle with maple syrup and, if desired, a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Garnish with dried strawberries.

Each serving: 677 calories; 8 grams protein; 124 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 100 mg. cholesterol; 303 mg. sodium.

*

Steak tartare

Total time: 15 minutes

Servings: 6 to 8

1 pound lean sirloin

1 egg white

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh, green, extra-virgin olive oil

3 green onions, washed, green and white parts chopped

1/2cup sweet pickles, chopped

Salt

Pepper

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed

10 slices white bead, toasted and cut into triangles

1. Buy the sirloin just before you plan to serve it. Have the butcher choose a lean cut and grind it to order. Keep it cool on the way home and refrigerate until just before serving.

2. Place the ground meat in a ceramic bowl. Add the egg white, Worcestershire sauce, 2 tablespoons of the oil, onions and pickles. Season with salt and pepper. Mix with clean hands. Taste. Clean your hands. Adjust the amounts of seasoning and oil if necessary and mix again. Taste. Correct the seasoning and sprinkle with the capers. Serve immediately with crisp toast points.

Each of 8 servings: 219 calories; 14 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 9 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 30 mg. cholesterol; 385 mg. sodium.

*

Tzatziki

Total time: 15 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: From the 1991 book "East of Orphanides: My Middle Eastern Food" (Kyle Kathie), by Cyprus-based food writer George Lassalle. He gives the Cypriot and Turkish spellings, "Talatouri" and "Cacik" as well. "Everyone claims this cool delicious salad, basically a perfect marriage of two ingredients, enlivened with garlic," he says. "Only in Cyprus do they include olive oil, beating it in to enrich the mixture." Greek yogurt is available at Greek delis and at Trader Joe's stores.

1 pint thick Greek yogurt

1 large or 2 to 3 small cucumbers, peeled if bitter-skinned, and finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup fresh mint leaves (2 tablespoons finely chopped)

2 tablespoons olive oil

Sea salt

6 pieces pita or 8 slices bread, cut into triangles and toasted

Cayenne pepper

1. Mix together the yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, mint and oil. Season with salt to taste. Chill. Serve with hot toast or pita bread, and garnish with a sprinkling of cayenne.

Each serving: 68 calories; 3 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 2 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 5 mg. cholesterol; 95 mg. sodium.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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