"If heaven above lets fall a plum, open your mouth."
Earlier this year I reconnected with a friend that I had not seen for years. My daughter and her son were classmates in elementary school, went seperate ways in junior high, and are now together again attending the same high school. Back in 2006, I invited Rhonda and her husband, Joe for a Valentine's Day dinner that I hosted for a group of married friends. For dessert that evening I made a plum tart and two apple crostatas. Upon seeing Rhonda again this past spring, she shared with me that whenever she makes a tart, she thinks of me. Rhonda's kind remark made my heart sing. I was once again reminded of the importance of sharing a table with friends, and that great food, superb drink, gregarious storytelling and spontaneous laughter make for happy memories.
When my family moved to Tucson in 2001, we did not know anyone, except for my mother. I cranked up the friend-making machine by having new acquaintences over for dinner. The old adage, "A way to a man's heart is through his stomach" also applies to making a new friend. Before long we went from seating six for dinner, to crowding twenty friends around two large tables, with a third table for children. Halloween parties co-hosted with my friend, Michelle could accomodate a much larger crowd for an ever widening circle of friends.
My life changed significantly in 2009. Several successive events put the brakes on my entertaining routine. A few sub plots in the story of my life collided, and left me to try to find order in a newly disordered world. The theme also played out in my physical environment and my home is probably best described as - using nice words - a professional organizer's dream project. My large dining table is stacked high with miscellaneous kitchen goods, decorative items and paraphernalia for entertaining. Cardboard boxes line the walls on either side of the china cabinet. Even more boxes have the table surrounded, as if the inanimate objects are playing a game of cops and robbers. All the boxes have been opened and rummaged through, but not fully unpacked. Quite often I find myself on a scavenger hunt trying to locate a paticular item that may still be in a box, or hiding in plain site amongst the stacks of "stuff."
Until a few months ago, the eclectic mix of belongings were packed neatly in boxes that fit snuggly from floor to ceiling in a 10x10 square foot storage unit. In May and June of 2009, I carefully packed boxes in advance preparation for the move to California. To make a long story very short, Maddie and I lived in California for a year with my sister Linda before we ended up returning to Arizona. It was strange returning to my house. I felt as if I was moving into a familiar hotel. The walls and ceilings were still brightly painted in blocks of color, and our furniture remained, but my personal items were absent, giving the house a muted personality. For all the care I gave to packing, it seems absurd to see the pandemonium of my belongings. When my husband broached the organizing topic last week, I simply raised my hands and said in a dull voice, "I give up." I think I heard my dining room table groan in resignation, too. The boxes cheered. They prefer the house over the dark and dusty storage unit.
An article and glossy photo spread in Elle Decor magazine unveiled recently divorced Courtney Cox's new digs: a tasteful modernist home overlooking the Pacific ocean. At the end of the article she made a comment, a quotable quote, if you will, "This is exactly how I want to live." I scowled. The actress hit a nerve. For about a week thereafter I would walk in my front door, glimpse the garage sale in my front room and exclaim (sarcasm oozing), "Just like Courtney Cox, I'm living exactly the way I want to live." On each occasion, my daughter rolled her eyes, slapped me on the shoulder, and said in an unapproving tone, "Ohhhhhh, MOM!"
Even though I said it, what I said is not true: I have not given up. I am just temporarily resigned to the fact that I only have so much time. I work a lot of hours and travel often. The good news is that I'm too optimistic and stubborn to give up. At the moment, I just have a little bit too much stacked on my proverbial plate. This too shall pass. It will be easier to attack the mess when the temperatures drop into the eighties and I can comfortably work in the garage to ready the space without inviting heat stroke. New cabinets will be installed this fall and will provide ample space to reintroduce order to the massive disorder within my home. In this time of upheaval, I'm learning a lesson about planning, preparation and patience.
I fancy thoughts of entertaining again, but perhaps not on such a large scale. I'm looking forward to decorating sugar skulls next weekend with friends, and afterwards enjoying a Mexican potluck buffet. I have pushed aside the mindset that my house has to be in perfect order to socialize with my friends. I am emboldened with the idea that things can be as they are and not how I want them to be. I have scheduled a dove dinner with friends for mid October, a meal that for me always seems to usher in the fall season. Perhaps candlelight will throw interesting shadows on the victorious boxes. May their reign be short lived.
In the meantime, I will make special meals for my family. Last Sunday I put together a dinner of leg of lamb, sauced with tzatziki, accompanied by side dishes of roasted peppers, tabbouleh and rosemary bread. While prepping the meal, I reminisced about the similar menu that I enjoyed al fresco at Rhonda's house in April, sipping a mojito at a long narrow table draped in patterned cloths surrounded by mismatched chairs. Clusters of flowers huddled in vases were bursting with color. A long string of lights draped between branches of stately trees illuminated the area in flattering light. Softly playing music rose and fell just like the laughter that filled the air. It was a lovely evening that will be thought of often, not just by me, but by everyone that was fortunuate to sit at Rhonda and Joe's table that night under the bright moon, the flickering stars and the swaying lights. Drawn back to the present, I think happily about Rhonda and the dinners we have shared, as I make the plum tart.
As I reflect on the Valentine's Day Dinner in 2006, I recall the plums were quite tart. No wonder, the season for plums is May through October, but I mainly consider plums a late summer fruit. I don't know what compelled me to buy the plums out of season, but I did. The fruit must have looked nice at the time or I would not have bothered. The plums that I purchased to make the tart last weekend were sweet and juicy and the slices pulled away easily from the small pits. For the party, I offset the sour plums by serving wedges of the tart with big scoops of vanilla ice cream. The tart that I made on Sunday was perfect; not too sour, not too sweet. We still included the ice cream. My daughter and niece ate the tart for dessert for three subsequent days. The ladies both declared day two the best. The crust remained crisp but the top layer of streusel had softened and the plums had released a bit more juice.
You can pulse the walnuts in the food processor until finely chopped. Remove and reserve until ready to add to the streusel. No need to clean the food processor bowl, just proceed with blending the flour and the sugar. While the food processor is a lovely convenience, the streusel can also be made by hand in a bowl.
This recipe is based on the recipe of the same name in the cookbook Barefoot Contessa Parties by Ina Garten (Clarkson/ Potter, ©2001).
2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
2 egg yolks
1 cup (2 sticks) very cold unsalted butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
About 1-1/2 pounds, or 5 large, juicy plums
10-inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom
food processor fitted with steel blade
1. To preheat the oven: Arrange two oven racks so one sits in the lower third of the oven and the other in the upper third. Place a cookie sheet on the top rack, which will act as a shield to protect the tart from over browning while it bakes. Preheat oven to 400°F.
3. In a tart pan, add about two-thirds of the streusel mixture and press along the bottom and up the sides of the pan to make the crust. Use a metal measuring cup to help make an even surface and to press the streusel into the fluted edge. Reserve the remaining streusel for the topping. Place the tart pan on a cookie sheet (to easily transfer to the oven).
5. Bake the tart for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until lightly browned and the juices are bubbling. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack for about 15 minutes. Carefully remove the tart from the pan and transfer to a decorative plate. Serve warm or at room temperature with ice cream, sweetened whipped cream or crème anglaise. Serves 12.