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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Dinner Party Conversation

March 30, 2009

WATERCOLOR, FL— The older I become the more I appreciate substantive dinner party conversation.

I am on the second leg of a Spring Break sandwich that started in the rapidly melting Spring snow of Colorado and has ended on the sugar white sands of the Florida Panhandle.

I am here with my family on a dual mission: First, to take the obligatory family break from school and schedule, and second, to support my friend and artist, Bill, whose work is now hanging in the Ogden Museum’s new satellite gallery in Watercolor, Fla (a great space, by the way, and a must visit for anyone in the area).

After Bill’s Ogden opening, our friend Julia invited a small group to her house. My kids weren’t able to attend, so I represented the home team at the dinner.

The conversation during and after the meal was rapid-fire with several people talking at once. All manner of great ideas and opinions were thrown out, discussed, disproved, and argued. We laughed too loud and stayed too long. I soaked it all in and enjoyed one of the more memorable dinners I have attended in a long while.

The food was as enjoyable as the conversation. Julia, an excellent cook and veteran hostess, served several great items, but the most notable and memorable, was a shrimp and pea salad. Digging back into her Mississippi Delta roots, she didn’t opt for chick peas or a more exotic legume, but instead used newly shelled, fresh-from-the-market, Pinkeye Purple-Hull peas. It was fantastic.

She tossed large, boiled shrimp and the peas with some sherry vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, basil, and arugula. Though she said that she would have used collard greens had she had any in her refrigerator.

The next night we hosted a group at our rental house. Many of the faces were the same, but the conversation was once again thought provoking and stimulating. Not too long ago I wouldn’t have been able to imagine that sitting around a table, doing nothing more than discussing ideas with friends, would be so enjoyable. I used to need an event or occasion— an external stimulus— to “have a good time.” Maybe I’m finally growing up. Maybe it’s that I’ve lost my ability to endure blather and gossip.

My children were in attendance this evening and helped my friend David make a pasta dish he had been promising to prepare for the last four years.

David, a retired architect, but full-time gourmet and bon vivant, used angel hair pasta and tossed it in a simple sauce made from extra virgin olive oil, freshly chopped garlic, crushed red pepper and anchovies. Simple, beautiful, delicious. The garlic is infused into the olive oil and the anchovies dissolve once they hit the sauté pan. My children, who might shun the diminutive fish on a pizza, cleaned their plates.

The pasta-plate cleaning could have been due to their roles as Sous chefs, but more than likely was due to the fact that the pasta tasted so good. The four-year wait for David’s angle hair pasta was worth it and served at the right moment.

Someone once said that a good dinner party needed a slight element of danger. I’m not sure how much “danger” was involved in either of these back-to-back dinners, but the older I become, the more I treasure my friendships and meaningful the exchange of ideas that occurs when we get together.

Angel Hair Pasta Trigiani

1/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Tbl Fresh Garlic, finely minced
1 1/2 tsp Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
3 oz. Flat Anchovy filets, drained but not rinsed
1 lb Angel Hair Pasta

Start with a cold 12-inch sautee pan. Add oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper and cook over low heat 4-5 minutes, to allow the garlic and pepper to infuse the oil. Do not brown or burn the garlic (if you do, start over). Add the anchovy filets and gently stir until completely dissolved (appx 2-3 min). Sauce is finished at this point and can be prepared one hour ahead of time, to be completed just before the meal is served.

Cook pasta in briskly boiling, salted water to al dente. Drain and add to simmering sauce allowing a little of the starchy pasta water (appx ¼ cup) to be added to the sauce. Gently toss until pasta is completely coated and serve in heated bowls. Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil.

Variations: Shrimp or oysters can be added to the sauce, or a small amount of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano can be added at the end (but take it easy on the cheese as the finished product can become too salty).

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