Contributed by Hairee Lee On a perfect summer day, it’s hard to think of a greater pleasure than sitting down with friends for dinner and enjoying good conversation al fresco. But as my friend’s mother once said, "Fun is a lot of work." Setting the atmosphere and preparing the food takes planning, shopping, cooking, and good taste, the last of which can often be the hardest to come by.
The theme is Morocco. Besides the couscous, yogurt, grilled meats, and phyllo pastry, the tableware has been selected to match the cuisine. Single stem sunflowers in deep champagne flutes and clear red and orange iittala Kivi votives sit atop a Libeco Home linen tablecloth and a Chilewich table runner, Libeco napkins in Match Pewter rings, and aubergine and green olive colored dishes by Jars. The vivid colors of the glaze make me anticipate the vibrancy of the food, the complex smells and tastes of Northern Africa. The soft sandy hue of the gauzy linen makes me think of the desert at night and the Mediterranean Sea.
Our host, Jonathan, starts the evening with red wine from Southern Spain. The Simon Pearce stemware sings when we clink glasses in a toast and the wide nose really let me take in the bouquet of the wine before taking my first sip. Fresh mint tea, made Moroccan style by Laura, my good friend and our chef, is served next in a brightly glazed Jars Ceramics Tourron teapot that mirrors the sweet, fragrant beverage steeping within. The Heath Ceramics white teacups and tray is a lovely touch--clean, cool, and smooth in the hand. The fresh mint makes all the difference, rendering all the mint teas that I’ve had pale in flavor and fragrance. Moroccan mint tea is served sweetened, but not cloyingly so. The combination is delicious while being a palate cleanser.
The meats and vegetables continue to grill on the outdoor barbecue while we move on to sipping sparkling red wine from Spain that provides the jovial kick start to the evening. I’ve never had sparkling red wine before. It’s sweet and bubbly, not as dry as a sparkling white. The color is a wonderful treat, rich and deep like the dinnerware and suggestive of the flavors of the food to come. I keep staring at the glass which has a double helical swirl captured inside the stem. The workmanship is stunning and gives the wine an extra boost.
Lamb and mushroom shish kabobs and grilled vegetables follow, served on bright yellow Jars Ceramics Tourron Serving Dishes that offset the dark ochre of the grilled meat, green zucchini, green and red peppers, bright orange sweet potatoes, aubergine, and green asparagus marinated in a spicy yogurt sauce. Freshly baked bread accompanies the hot dishes, served with a cucumber-infused yogurt sauce made from scratch, Moroccan hot pepper tapenade-like dip, extra virgin olive oil, and olives contained in long, slender boat-like Jars Ceramics Nenuphar Aperitif oval dishes. The unique shape of the boat-bowls makes the color of the oil and the olives leap out--the muted greens and purples echo the colors of the plates. The bread is dipped into the oil and the paste together for a unique flavor combination: tart, spicy, and rich. The lamb and the yogurt sauce are perfectly matched, the savory meat with a cool and creamy side.
Meanwhile the sun has finally set and the light from the votive candles flutter on the table and on our faces, catching the deep hues of the serving platters and, in particular, playing off the pewter dish in which the couscous and fish tajine is served. The tajine, loaded with rich seafood flavors and spices and citrus is even tastier than the kabobs, which has to be experienced to be believed. The couscous is cooked perfectly, fine and with a bite. The fish broth infused tajine loaded with fish and peppers and other vegetables inspires me imagine beyond the darkened garden of Cambridge the vast spread of the Atlantic ocean that delineates Morocco’s coast line and provides the seafood for such flavorful gastronomic delights.
It couldn’t get better than this, I think. It does. The phyllo pastry filled with almond paste is served in gorgeous raised bowls of various jewel tones--sapphire, amber, pearl white. The desert floods our mouths with buttery, warm, nutty morsels of goodness and most of us can’t get enough. To complement the pastry, blood orange sorbet is also offered and it acts as a great pallet cleanser and cool alternative to the rich pastry.
Throughout the meal, we talk, moving between the food and work and topics that I can’t recall. And this is often times the best indicator of great conversation: rather than remembering specifics that are said, the good feeling is what remains. I have a great time. I had a great time. The food was sublime, the dinnerware inspiring, and the company warm and interesting, all combined in a way that can only be described as the Alchemy of Dining. Not eating, but dining. Long after the last bite was swallowed and the final sip drained from our glasses, we went on talking, reluctant to cut the evening short and break the spell of a great dinner.
For recipes, read Tastes of Morocco (Part 1).