I’m back in full swing at the restaurant at Duke since the second semester is just finishing it’s first full week. The big news for us is Duke Dining dropped some serious change to renovate our dining room; now it looks like a real restaurant instead of, well, a college dining hall. I’ve spent a good bit of time and effort trying to come up with a menu that offers some fresh imagination as well. Putting meals together means thinking about flavors and ingredients, and it also means thinking about who is coming to dinner and how much things cost. I also have to think about what I know how to do, what I can learn how to do, and how we can put up good, flavorful, consistent meals with just two of us cooking and – as they did tonight – close to seventy people showing up to eat in a two and a half hour period.
A good dish is a food collage, in a way: culinary multimedia. I want you to look at it, smell it, taste it, feel the textures of it in your mouth, and think about it long after you have cleaned your plate. With all that in mind, one of my favorite dishes on the new menu is the Butternut Squash and Pear Ravioli. The name tells you two of the ingredients in our house made ravioli, which also includes roasted pecan pieces, Parmesan cheese, chili power, a little bit of brown sugar, salt, and pepper, all wrapped in cinnamon pasta. When the ravioli goes in the boiling water, we sauté some julienned shallots and pears, along with some more pecan pieces, until the pears and shallots are caramelized a bit, add a little white wine, then some cream, some fresh baby spinach, and then finally drop the ravioli in the pan and all of that goes in the pasta bowl and out to the table. I like the dish because I think the flavors mix well together, from savory to sweet, that some little things can catch you by surprise, and that it hits on all the senses.
Part of the reason it works is the flavor combinations make sense. I’m not necessarily breaking new ground by putting butternut squash, pears, cinnamon, and pecans together. It matters more to me to do the dish well than it does to feel as though I’m the only one in town doing it. That said, after I got off work last night, I called Ginger, who was also leaving work, and she suggested we grab a bite to eat, since neither of us had eaten dinner. She had a gift card ready to be used, so we went to Six Plates, a wine bar owned by Matt Beason, whose parents are in our church and who was kind enough to help me learn the culinary landscape when we first got to Durham.
The name of the place speaks to Matt’s concept, which is original: six small plates (think half an entrée), each matched with a wine by the glass. The menu changes often and if full of great things, including one “tenured item”: the Lamby Joes, which are unbelievable little sandwiches of ground lamb and chorizo. (I had them last night – five bucks on Wednesdays.) Ginger and I snacked on the cheese plate and a beet salad as well (with herbed goat cheese and blood oranges) and then the chef, Ted, came out with a dessert for us to try: a gingerbread tower with layers of passion fruit mousse with a small scoop of goat’s milk yogurt gelato on the side. I love gingerbread (Ted said his was made with molasses and stout) and Ginger is a big fan of the passion fruit, but I had never thought of the two together, much less to think of making ice cream out of goat’s milk yogurt. But it worked. Big time. Amazing.
Tonight after work, Ginger and I walked over to Watts Grocery for me to drop off my inventory list for my chef and so we could get some late night sliders (we were both hungry again). Most of the folks at the bar were servers and cooks who had finished their shifts and friends or significant others. One of the latter offered us one of her cupcakes. (That’s right, I make it a point to never turn down a cupcake.) They were butternut squash cupcakes with cream cheese icing and they were delicious. She said, “I had all of this squash and I found a recipe for bread, but the recipe made three loaves and I only have one loaf pan, so I decided to make muffins, but they turned out so moist that I figured they worked better as cupcakes.”
I loved getting to follow the trail of her creativity. I wish I could have heard how Ted found his way to the gingerbread tower — passion fruit, goat’s milk and all. What I’m sure of in both cases is they had some time and space – whether serendipitous or intentional – to let their proof, to use a baking term: to rise to their potential. You don’t come up with a fresh idea while ten tickets are hanging, the waiters are restless, and you’re about to run out of mashed potatoes. You might come up with a way to survive, but that’s about it. Creativity needs room to breathe, to grow, to get us to look beyond the heat of the moment.
The lesson carries beyond the kitchen. The Israelis and the Palestinians won’t find meaningful change if life is always lived battle-ready. Our two political parties are not going to govern creatively when their first concern is staying in office and their second is making sure the other party fails. Churches in the midst of these bleak economic times stand little chance of being captured by the creativity of the Spirit when their first question is, “What are we going to cut from this year’s budget?” rather than, “What do you think God wants us to do this year?”
I know new recipes are easier to come by than peace in Palestine and new culinary combinations are easier to talk about than church budgets. Still, tonight, after a week that has swung from long days to gingerbread and cupcakes, they don’t feel so far apart.