From the moment we reunite till the moment we part, my extended family and I talk almost exclusively about food -- and I love it.
It's hard to imagine a family that loves to eat more than mine does. From the moment we get together for holidays, the main topic of discussion is food -- namely, what we plan to eat together, what we've made recently, any wonderful cookbooks or restaurants we've discovered. This past Easter weekend was no exception. My family and I travelled to the Niagara peninsula, where my aunt and uncle live on a lovely old farm near Lake Erie.
As soon as we arrived, my uncle told me and my husband to get into his new wood-fired cedar hot tub and await our drinks. He came out with a glass of chilled Niagara chardonnay for me, a whiskey sour for my husband, and a plate of smoked salmon canapés. We sipped in a state of bliss, the scent of wood smoke in the chilly air, our children mercifully entertained by a distant trampoline.
When hosting 15 people for two days, the best approach is to assign meal duty. My mother took the first night. Her menu began with spicy steamed mussels in a wine-fennel sauce, mopped up with crusty baguettes. The second course was a huge grain bowl on a platter, with a base of millet and lentils, topped with roasted eggplant, peppers, zucchini, hard-boiled eggs, herbs, peas, and vinaigrette.
I was in charge of lunch on Saturday. My aunt had requested soup, so I made a huge pot of beef-barley soup. As I'm always looking for ways to cut down on meat, I swapped half the beef for soy ground round, which made no difference to the flavor or consistency, and used organic barley from a local farmer that gives wonderful chewiness and body to the soup.
Everything on the table at our main Easter meal has a story. Some recipes are recurring, like the lemon-roast potatoes that my mom and aunt learned to make while living in Greece as teenagers. Others, like the labneh drizzled with olive oil and za'atar, and the crisp falafel with tahini sauce on top of each plate of salad appetizer, speak to my family's extensive travels through the Middle East. The homemade sausages make me think of the family's frustration at having lost Grandpa's famous sausage recipe when he died, and it's never been recreated since.
The breads alone are enough to die for. Often my uncle is hard at work flinging Afghan naan on a hot stone in the oven, but this year's dinner included my cousin Jamie's sourdough loaves, which is his latest passion. And, of course, I cannot forget the paska! Any Mennonite family worth its salt will have paska coming out their ears by the time Easter weekend is over. My aunt baked a half-dozen loaves at least, and we were allowed to delve in early, but not given any of her pressed sweet cheese to top it until Easter morning.
As we feasted and drank, we talked about food. We recounted the best meals we've eaten lately, such as Jamie's birthday gift to his wife, which was a six-course seafood meal. My uncle described the greatest hot chicken sandwich he had at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg recently, and argued the merits of a fine creme caramel (his personal specialty) over creme brûlée, which, to my horror, he called a travesty. He has agreed to teach me how to make creme caramel, in exchange for a batch of my brioche-style sticky buns.
I asked for my aunt's advice on what to make for my own birthday dinner next weekend, and she pulled out a well-loved Marcella Hazan cookbook to show me the lasagna con verdure (vegetable lasagna) recipe that's always a people-pleaser. Together, we crafted the entire Italian-themed menu. My mouth is already watering.
As my aunt and two cousins sang the praises of the curried red lentil soup that I'd written about on TreeHugger in January, telling me they've made it many times since, I couldn't help but feel a profound sense of great fortune to be born into this family that takes such pleasure in food. It means we find joy in spending time together in the kitchen. It means our little children are learning at our sides, watching what we do and absorbing the stories that accompany the dishes. It means we eat with gusto, proud of our creations and eager to discover new ones. It makes me think of the wonderful quote by J.R.R. Tolkien that always gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling:
"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."