Saturday, July 24, 2010

Heirloom Foods: "Sunday" Dinner with Lisa and Louis

I had the most amazing Sunday dinner at the home of my friends Lisa and Louis last Friday afternoon.  Yes, I said "Sunday dinner."  Those of you who read this blog regularly know of my strongly held conviction that Sunday dinner is a state of mind and can occur at any time of day and on any day of the week.  It is true that Sunday dinner is traditionally a family meal eaten in the middle of the day on Sunday.  But to me, Sunday dinner is any meal where people are able to reconnect by enjoying a leisurely homemade meal together.  My dinner with Lisa and Louis did that and more.

When I arrived at their home,  I stood on the porch and rang the doorbell while marveling at the height of the bean plants in their front yard.  I had come for Louis's famous Calabrian Beans, but I didn't suspect that the bean plants would be over 10 feet tall.
Calabrian beans worthy of Jack and the Beanstalk, with rosemary in foreground, L&L's house, July 2010.

I heard Lisa call out "She's here!" from inside and I felt bad that I was a few minutes late, silently cursing the car that blocked the exit ramp with it's flat tire fiasco.  Oh, well, I'd made it.  And I had brought them a jar of my homemade pickles.  They would be the first people to try them outside my own family.  I knew Louis was especially fond of them and I figured they'd surely forgive my tardiness to get their hands on the pickles, if nothing else.  When Lisa got to the front door, I was quickly ushered into the kitchen where Louis was slaving over a hot stove in 100 degree weather, frying up some delicious looking squash blossoms and apologizing that they weren't perfect.  A little messy?  Yes.  Delicious?  Yes.
Lisa distracted me from my discussion with Louis about the importance of finding the perfect frying pan by waving a giant bowl of beans in front of me.  Before I knew it I was back outside photographing Lisa with a bowl of beans in front of the bean stalks, reverse angle.

Louis had warned me that he does NOT give people beans "to go" so I knew I'd better enjoy them.  After all, it might be my only chance to eat them this year.  He does, however, give away seeds at the end of the season, so I'm hoping I'll be able to grow my own next year.  Louis' famous Calabrian beans are actually a variety of Borlotti beans, unavailable commercially even in Italy.  The original seeds were brought to this continent by his family in the 1950's from a town called San Giorgio Morgeto, in the mountains of southern Italy.  His family (and others) have "been propagating and eating a steady supply" ever since.

Always a food purist, Louis also told me that there were only two ways to eat Calabrian beans and we were going to eat them both ways.  Lucky me!  I have to say it was hard to choose between the two ways.

Bean Dish Number One was "beans with pasta", cooked in tomato sauce with a hint of Calabrian pepper, which Lisa and Louis also grow.  Delicious.  Lisa was nice enough to fish out extra beans to add to my pasta when she realized that I was scarfing them down faster than the pasta.  I told them I felt like my Grandma Willie who always requested just enough "seconds" of meat to match the piece of bread she had left on her plate.  She'd hold up her piece of bread and say, "I need just this much!" while pointing at her bread bite.  I held up my plate and said, "I need just enough beans to go with my pasta" and wondered how many beans I could convince Lisa to fish out of the bowl for me.
Calabrian beans with pasta, L&L's house, July 2010.
Bean Dish Number Two was "beans with potatoes".  I thought there was no way that this bean dish could compete with the first, because frankly, how could it?  I was wrong.  Beans with potatoes was amazing.  And very different.  Bean Dish Number One seemed unlike anything I'd ever eaten before and was wonderful for that reason.  Bean Dish Number Two tasted like... beans and potatoes.  With a twist.  Which was better?  I can't say.  Louis told me they hadn't originally planned to serve this second bean dish for our meal together, but when Lisa asked Louis what he wanted for breakfast, he'd said, "beans with potatoes".  Clearly I'd gotten lucky.

Beans and potatoes at L&L's house, July 2010.
I don't think I would ever attempt to make "beans with pasta" without Louis's special Calabrian beans (not to mention the fact that I have no idea how to get my hands on a Calabrian pepper without stealing it from their yard).  Somehow "beans with potatoes" seems much more approachable and I don't feel guilty trying to reproduce the recipe with a basic "Italian pole bean" from the farmer's market.  I can't wait to look for them on Sunday.  I'm not sure if I should tell Louis or not.  

We ate a lot of other great foods at that meal... sauteed greens, two kinds of bread-- Lisa's standard and very good whole wheat loaf and their famous Italian Hard Bread, which I really love.  And I can't forget Louis's father's special homemade salami.  Louis and I share a love of cured meats and we both come by it honestly.  My father cures country hams in his basement using a recipe he got from his Uncle Elwood.  Louis's father is a meat wholesaler/retailer who was born in Italy.  We children of the meat-curers have a special bond and it makes us want to share our father's goods with each other, in spite of the fact that we usually horde it for ourselves.  

In fact, I think it is our shared passion for heirloom foods (for lack of a better term) that makes meals with Lisa and Louis so much fun.  It's impossible to explain this kind of love to anyone who doesn't come from a "heirloom food" family.  I've met such people.  My husband is one of them.  He's a great eater, but his family doesn't have foods unique to them that you can only get by making them yourself.  I have, however, lured my husband into being a part of my family's food traditions and Louis has done with same with Lisa.  Louis's Calabrian bean recipes are now Lisa's too and she made the versions we all ate together.  Louis says Lisa even prepares them better than he does.  

It's interesting that I have just now come up with the phrase "heirloom foods" to describe foods that are based on family recipes, prepared at home with modern ingredients, and often served out of their original environment.  These foods are not simply dishes prepared from family recipes, but foods that you can't get without growing, curing, canning, pickling or otherwise processing yourself.  These are foods that cannot be bought for any price.  If you prepare any "heirloom foods", please write to me.  I want to here more about them.  You can be sure I'll be writing more about this topic in the future.

But for now, a final thank you to Lisa and Louis for such a delicious meal.  And a wonderful afternoon.  This was the best Sunday dinner I've experienced in quite a while.