In Search of the Sunday Lunch

Recipe # 4; garlic croutons (sort of)

On Sunday we had friends over for lunch, a couple (one American, one French) and their two very adorable boys. These are people we like a lot and who also make beautiful meals for us, so despite being on the tail end of a cold that made me want to stay in bed and the fact that I was on my own because Jim was working all day (on Sunday!), ordering pizza and making a nice green salad were out. I had planned to serve grilled chicken thighs with a cardamom rub and tomato/mint salad (from Thrill of the Grill by Chris Schlesinger and David Willoughby), grilled zucchini spears, homemade guacamole, bread, cheese and olives.

I become very bitchy when I am not feeling well, parceling out my energy bit by bit and sniping at anyone who asks for more than their fair share. So it was with some hesitation that I asked Luca if he wanted to make the next recipe in the Alice Waters cookbook, garlic croutons (which are more like bruscetta unless you chop them up after). He said “Sure!” and once again, I hoped I had it in me to see him through it.

I lived in London when I was a young child and aside from some truly vile nannies, my most vivid memories were of the Sunday lunches we had at various friends’ houses. They started at around 2pm and involved enormous roasts, vegetables dripping with meaty juices and many bottles of red wine for the adults. We’d get dressed up for these lunches and stay until it grew dark outside and beyond. There would be pies and then other kinds of sweets. There was always a fire in the fireplace. It felt like the perfect way to spend a Sunday, especially in the grey, cold damp of London in winter.

More recently Luca, Jim and I lived in London while Jim was working on a film, and I was happy to see that the Sunday lunch still thrived, and that aside from the more relaxed dress code, it was largely unchanged from my childhood memory. And anyway in London when all else fails, there is always the pub lunch which is a pretty good substitute for the homemade version especially when you live, as we did, a short walk from a really good gastropub. We came back to LA when Luca was three years old and for a while after, whenever we mentioned going out to eat, he would say, “To the pub!” This raised some eyebrows but we had happy memories of sitting with Luca around a wooden table drinking the winter ale and waiting for a plate of haddock and prawn gratin.

I have always wanted to have a real Sunday lunch like they have in London, but people don’t do this in LA. There are too many soccer games and kids’ birthday parties. There is no carry over from a mid-day activity to an evening one; the two are sharply divided by complicated scheduling of playdates and sports activities. Whenever I have invited people over on a Sunday they can’t make it until 5 and then have to leave by 7 to put the kids to bed. Our childless friends have brunches and theater matinees and get testy if they are asked to dinner before 8pm. We have one friend with a good excuse. She is a violist with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra and because she is often performing on Sunday afternoons, she can’t make it anywhere until after 5. Still, she eats whatever is left and has a good time without looking at her watch until her daughter falls asleep in her lap. It’s all in the attitude.

Luca came into the kitchen to make the croutons and right away he started arguing about the kitchen apron I was wearing and that he wanted. Too bad, I told him. I was busy adding salt and pepper to the rub. But he was insistent.

“I can’t wear the other one!”

“You wore it the other day when you made quesadillas.”

“That was when I changed into a waiter. I can’t wear this one when I’m a chef.”

There is no arguing with someone whose logic is completely lost on you. I took off my apron.

Luca searched for the recipe in the book and couldn’t find it.

“I looked everywhere! I looked in the garlic section!”

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I made  a snotty remark about how it must have deleted itself from the book (I told you, I am bitchy when I am not well). Then I found the recipe and Luca read it out loud.

“Cut slices of good tasty bread and brush or rub olive oil on one side…”

I cut the bread from a loaf of ciabatta from Whole Foods, realizing that in Berkeley this would not be considered good and tasty bread. In Berkeley this would have been a sad and desperate measure taken only after every market in town had been sold out of their last loaf of the divine Acme bread. I don’t understand why it is so hard to get decent bread in LA without going to the actual La Brea Bakery itself (the bread they sell to the supermarkets is nothing like the real thing). It seems to me that there are a few places on Earth that have really good bread: Paris, New York, parts of Italy and Berkeley.

I placed the bread slices on a baking dish and told Luca to brush a small amount of olive oil on each one. I started on my tomato salad and when Luca announced, “Done!” I saw that he had brushed just the tiniest smidge of oil on the bread. He is the kind of person, extremely literal and cautious, who when told not to fill a bucket quite to the brim, fills it up less than halfway just to be sure. So I showed him how much more he could use and then got out his oven mitts.

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“My mitts!” he cried, as though reuniting with a long lost friend. These bright blue child-sized mitts have been used in countless science experiments and on spaceships and archaeological digs but rarely in the act of cooking. He put them on but balked when he realized he was going to have to negotiate the oven.

“It’s too hot,” he said turning his head away.

I coaxed him closer and he deftly placed the baking dish on the shelf in the oven.

“That was easy!” he said. He was proud.

The oven light was very bright and we could see the bread inside. I told him to keep an eye on it and to call me when he thought it was ready.

“How will I know?”

“It will start getting brown. You have to watch it.” But he ran into his room to play with Legos. After a few minutes I called him, saying: “Luca! Chefs don’t leave their food untended in the oven!” But all I heard from his room were vocal sound effects of a space battle in progress.

I made the tomato/mint salad and checked the bread. They were very close so I called Luca again. This time he came, put on his mitts again and took the baking dish out of the oven. I had a peeled garlic clove ready and showed him how to rub it on the oiled side of the bread. He backed away.

“I don’t want to work with the garlic.” He was rubbing his eyes. “It will sting my eyes!”

“That’s onion. Garlic won’t sting if you wash your hands.”

He took the garlic and reached for a slice of bread, brushing his wrist ever so slightly against the hot pan.

“Careful!” I barked. “This pan is very hot.” But before I could form the thought that I should have taken them out of the pan myself, Luca was rubbing his eyes and backing away again. “I don’t want anything to do with garlic,” he said, sounding panicked.

“How are you going to cook anything if you won’t touch garlic?” I said. Not to mention having anything resembling a fire in your mouth, I thought.  Ironically, one of the guests coming to lunch that day does not eat garlic so today’s menu had been a challenge. It turns out everything I cook has garlic. Luca’s garlic bread was meant for those of us without the garlic intolerance. There were just six slices.

But Luca ran back to the battleships and I finished rubbing the garlic myself.

Our guests arrived and because she is French, they do not frown on having wine in the middle of the day and can even be counted on to bring a delicious bottle of white. This day was no exception and so we ate and drank well, despite a mishap with the grill that left some of the pieces slightly underdone. (Jim is the grill master of the house. I am better with fricasees and things that braise.) The garlic bread/crouton/bruschetta was perfect with the manchego, and after lunch the boys had a Jacuzzi and splashed around. Because you can’t have French kids over without serving sweets, I had some not-too-terrible store bought lemon cookies which they devoured. Due at another party that evening, our friends left by 4.

Luca and I spent the rest of the afternoon watching Spirited Away, an animated film from the Japanese master Hayao Miyazake. In the opening sequence, a little girl watches her parents eat from a platter of food that they find in an abandoned building. They load up their plates and chow down while the girl watches in fear, certain that something terrible will befall them. The parents snort and make animal noises as they stuff their faces. They grow enormously fat and when they turn around, the little girl sees that they have turned into pigs.

Hmmmmm…

Next up: chocolate kisses for Daddy’s birthday. “Because they are kisses!”

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