I had never been to Astoria before, and my friend A hadn't spent much time there, either. As we exited the subway stop, I think I heard A's jaw drop all the way to the concrete sidewalk. "A Greek place over there! And wait, is that Estonian? And look at all this basil at this corner store. What kind of basil is this? Smell it!" We crossed the street to the liquor store Z had recommended. It was a huge place, with wines organized by country of origin. California over there, Spain, Argentina, France, the regulars, but a whole lot more, too. I told A I didn't know where to begin.
"Oh, I know exactly where to look," and she marched straight to the wines from Croatia. A is a marcher. She knows where she's going. In situations like this, I'm much more of a flitterer. As A led me through a primer of Croatian wine, I got all glowy-happy, thinking to myself, I get to have dinner with both A and Z, people who I likely wouldn't have known if I had lived in any other time in history but who I am so happy to know now. We chose a white that turned out to be bright and minerally and a red with a donkey on the label that tasted of—you guessed it—donkey, in a very strangely pleasant way. Outside of the shop, we stopped again to make sure we knew where we were going and to smell the fragrant basil one more time.
Z's house has grapevines crawling up the front and a rose at the front stoop. The front entry smelled like mysterious flowers we wanted to eat, but neither A nor I could place the scent immediately. Taking in deep breaths of sweetness, we stood on the stoop for the minute before Z answered the door.
After a hug from Z and an introduction between A and Z, both writers I met through their blogs, who before this night, hadn't met each other, we had to ask: what is that smell? Orange blossom water.
The day before, Z thought she had run out of orange blossom water and ran out to get some. Back home, she tripped on the front step, breaking the bottle. She made a second trip for another bottle. The night we were there for dinner, Z discovered she had plenty of orange blossom water all along, so rather than find another place for another bottle, her husband poured the excess out on the front stoop. Two days of orange blossom water on the front stoop makes for one enticing doorway. It may have been an accident, but if anyone is looking for a way to create instant sensory joy, dumping a bottle of orange blossom water at the entrance isn't a bad way to go.
Z is blessed with giant hospitality, a hospitality that has inflections of every language she's encountered and terrain she's walked. She plied us with drinks right away: milk and white rum whirled with dates and almonds, perfumed with a drizzle of that orange blossom water. A plate of eggplant dip and flatbread emerged. We talked, poked around Z and her husband P's fascinating home, checked out the cookbook collection. We watched Z cook as she told us about her latest travel. A hearty lentil soup warmed on the stove, pasta bubbled in a large pot, and Z sauteed shrimp, calamari, garlic, herbs, and preserved lemon. She drained the pasta and tossed it with the seafood. She stirred in saffron yogurt. I can smell all of this as I am writing it down, and though the dominant scent of the evening was orange blossom, it is the saffron fragrance that is sticking with me and poking up in my culinary imagination since I've been back.
After we loaded food and tableware on the outdoor dumbwaiter P designed to accommodate rooftop dining, A and I nervously watched it rise outside the kitchen window. "Nothing has fallen off yet," said Z. Upstairs, food plants grew in pots and sedums, chives, and alpine strawberries velveted a green roof. We sat at a comfortable table and watched the sun go down over the city while we talked. A's wit kept us all laughing. P was wry and had good stories about his students and publishing experiences. Z listened with an active ear and told stories about her travels, one of which I had heard before but I asked her to tell again because it is that good. As it got even darker and later, we continued to talk about food, our jobs, and we told our quirky tales.
This is not a story with a dramatic arc or any kind of transformation. This is a reflection on food and the web, and how food and the web brought all of us together on June evening on a rooftop in a Astoria. If it weren't for the Internet, we wouldn't have known about each others' food, and if it weren't for each others' food, we wouldn't know each other.
Saffron Stuffed Eggs
I can't call these deviled eggs, for they don't contain any mustard, the ingredient that makes something deviled. What I can say is that these are very good—a classed up version of the summer picnic standard. This is a very loose recipe, one that I made on the fly while I was thinking about the saffron in Z's pasta dish. Unexpected, the saffron reminds the tongue of tagines and paella and all sorts of feasts where deviled eggs might not appear. The olives add complexity and the pickled garlic adds zing and crunch.
You will need:
8 eggs, hardboiled and peeled
6 strong-flavored olives, pitted and minced (kalamatas or nicoise with chile or something of the like)
2 cloves of pickled garlic, minced (if you don't have pickled garlic, a couple minced cornichons and a smidge of fresh garlic will do)
generous pinch of saffron threads
mayonnaise to taste
olive oil to taste
salt and pepper
To make the eggs:
Slice six of the eggs in half for twelve halves. Carefully pop the yolks into a bowl. Set the empty white halves on a platter to assemble later.
In the bowl where you have placed the hardboiled yolks, add the olives, garlic, and saffron threads. Finely chop the remaining two whole eggs, yolks and whites, and add them to the bowl. Begin adding mayo and olive oil, mashing the mixture together, adding until the mixture is as smooth and as rich as you like (adding more mayo makes the mixture fluffier; adding more olive oil makes it smooth and silkier). Add salt if needed and generous grindings of black pepper.
Now comes the messy part. Stuff each of the twelve of the egg whites you set aside earlier with a tablespoon or so of the yolk mixture. I scoop a spoon of the filling and set it as carefully as I can in the center of each white, pushing if off and into the indentation with my finger. However you do it, make sure to save a little of the filling as a treat for yourself smeared on a cracker.
This recipe makes twelve egg halves. Eat on a summer night with friends whose food tells stories.