I read Nigel Slater’s Notes from the Larder while eating my breakfast and wish desperately that my life looked more like his. He seems to live at a wonderfully slow and thoughtful pace, where there isn’t a plan for every moment and the surprise ripeness of backyard fruit can set the course for the day. Here, he is plucking damsons from the tree in his backyard, the bounty of fruit raining down. He contemplates what to make with them and, genius that he is, throws together a cake that is perfect, as I understand it, on the very first try. Suddenly we’re transported to the close of the day: friends gathered around a table enjoying a meal together, passing around dishes filled with the bounty from Nigel’s garden, drinking wine. Along with jealousy, I am full of questions. Who are these people, and was this planned? Is it the weekend, or just a normal Tuesday? What would it take, really, for me to create a similar scene? Or could I perhaps just be his friend?
I dream of this sort of flexibility and whimsy, the kind that results in a full table at the end of a normal old workday. Everyone drops their plans and weariness to join in the fun, the host is calm and carefree, whipping together tasty and simple things, absent of a drop of sweat, the tower of dishes building alongside the sink no concern whatsoever. I’ve had small glimmers of this, sure, but I’m not sure I’ve ever caught the rhythm. The closest I’ve gotten was just after college. We were all 22 or 23 or so, and it’s no exaggeration that all of my friends were more carefree than I, which made things easier. We had minimal commitments and expectations, all of us living in old crooked houses with plenty of character, cooking and feeling like adults for the first time in our lives. Things felt easy, despite our lack of money, direction, boyfriends, girlfriends, nice dishes, tablecloths or matching silverware. We made meals composed primarily of vegetables sautéed with plenty of garlic, alongside simple things like beans and toast and eggs and grains. I baked cakes and cookies that caught my eye on the exciting new medium of the food blog. We drank cheap red wine from ball jars. My friend Sarah taught me how to cook garlic slowly in olive oil, add red pepper flakes and toss it all with pasta, flavor abounding. I loved recipes, but she didn’t need or want them, and I was enthralled. If we were at my house, we’d pull folding chairs out of the closet and gather around my tiny square table meant for no more than two, or forgo the table entirely and tuck in around the coffee table, sitting on my rocking loveseat or the floor. I longed for a big, beautiful dining table, one that could fit a crowd, not realizing that the haphazardness of my life back then was part of the charm, that I’d miss it someday.
It feels very far away, that time. And yet I’m finding that I’m more flexible than I’ve given myself credit for these last several years, or maybe my whole life. I think it might have been there all along, buried under an excess of structure and plans, those things that bring such great but artificial comfort. I’m trying to be quicker to embrace changes to expectations for my days, invite guests whether the house is tidy or not, celebrate weeknights as much as weekends, give myself a break. I have had guests over not once but twice this week, and it was a thrill to have my apartment full of their laughter and my beloved grown-up table creaking under the weight of a meal shared with friends. Every once in a while, and more and more these days, a simple, unplanned thing surprises me with its grandeur, flawed-but-perfect right out the gate, like friends at the table and tomato salads, and I think that perhaps there’s still a chance for me to be like Nigel Slater.
Tomato, Pickled Peach & Avocado Salad with Labneh
Enough for 2
I love the pairing of stone fruit and tomato, and I got the idea for pickling the peaches from a recipe I clipped out of Bon Appétit way back in August 2013. I’m obsessed with labneh, so it was the clear choice for a creamy pairing. These little salads are hearty, fresh and full of enough flavor and richness to feel positively decadent. You can certainly use store-bought labneh, though making it yourself is so easy and satisfying that I can’t urge you enough to give it a try. Slices of mozzarella or a slathering of Greek yogurt would also work in a pinch.
1 peach or nectarine, thinly sliced
1 shallot or 1/4 red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Big pinch of sugar
Freshly cracked black pepper
1 large heirloom tomato, sliced into wedges
1 avocado, sliced into wedges
Generous handful of arugula, mint, basil and/or microgreens
Extra-virgin olive oil
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
For the labneh: Stir a pinch of salt into some plain yogurt, then pour it into a cheesecloth-lined mesh strainer. Set that over a bowl in the refrigerator for 8 – 24 hours, until it reaches the consistency you like. Remove the yogurt cheese from the strainer. (The leftover whey can be used for bean cooking, smoothie making or bread baking.)
For the pickled peaches: Toss together the peach, shallot, white wine vinegar, sugar, a pinch of salt and some freshly cracked pepper. Let sit for about 10 minutes.
Add to the peach mixture the tomato, avocado and greens. Toss gently. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and toss again.
Spread a big spoonful of labneh on each plate, arrange the salad mixture on top and drizzle the whole thing with whatever dressing is left in the bowl. Finish with more greens or herbs, flaky sea salt and cracked pepper. Enjoy!