Last week I celebrated a weekday, just because, with a girls’ lunch with my two lovely new neighbors. The house we have moved into was built ten years ago by the landlord on the land he grew up on; he divided it into 3 parcels and built three similar -though not identical- houses. We live in casa 1; next to us in casa 2 is Maia (& family), who is American, and at the end in casa 3 is Imbal (& family), from Israel.
During the whole month of August, as is the norm in Spain, my neighbors were away, and we never saw them. But as soon as the school year started, Maia stopped by to say hi, followed shortly by Imbal, who rang our doorbell the evening after our container arrived, bearing a fresh-out-of-the-oven carrot cake, accompanied by her curly-haired 7 year-old son. Soon after that, Maia proposed a weekday lunch.
Moving back to Spain has been accompanied by my openness (and willingness, even) to live expat life, something I for the most part rejected when I lived here before. Befriending locals, I thought, and avoiding my compatriots or other immigrants, was the only true way to integrate. Today, 20 years and a couple of international moves later, I know that I will never integrate fully, so it’s perfectly OK to embrace my foreignness. Moreover, I feel closer to those who feel foreign as well.
As soon as I stepped into Maia’s home I was interested: the space was packed with beautiful ceramics, suggesting a potter at work rather than solely a collector. Yes, it turns out Maia does make ceramics, and Imbal is a photographer. Although we have not talked about it yet, I sense that something could be stirring, as the three of us combined are a powerhouse in the making. Stay tuned…
Eating at someone else’s house for the first time is always somewhat of a challenge for me, since I have some food intolerances but hate saying that out front, because I don’t expect people to bend over backwards to cook for me. I usually opt to say nothing, unless I’m asked, and make sure to bring along something I can eat. I still wonder whether this is the best strategy; perhaps my host could be offended after spending all morning making something for me that I then turn down; /you could have let me know, right?/ (In fact, Maia made this point over our lunch, so it was a good call to say something this time.)
For our gathering I made a white wine risotto, which was loosely based on a recipe from one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, Viana LaPlace’s The Unplugged Kitchen. The simplicity of both recipes and prose is a thing of beauty, it never gets old. I decided to add in some beautiful Spanish saffron at the last minute, so the final result was a brighter color and more aroma, though it’s not pictured here, sorry!
Why not accompany it with the same white wine you use to cook with, and toast to new neighbors, new friends, new projects, and expat life. Cheers!
White Wine Risotto
1 leek, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tb butter or EVOO
1 ripe tomato (or 1 Tb tomato paste), roughly chopped (peeled if desired)
2 cups short-grain rice
1 cup white wine (I used a local Chardonnay)
5-6 cups simmering water
sea salt, to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or vegan cheese (I used a delicious cashew-based one, made artisanally right here in my village)
1 pinch Spanish saffron
In a medium, heavy-bottomed sauté pan with lid, sauté the leeks and tomato in butter (or oil) with a pinch of salt until tender but not browning. Add the garlic, sauté another minute. Add 3/4 cup of the wine and cook uncovered until absorbed. (If using tomato paste, add now.) Add simmering water, 1 ladleful at a time, stirring and cooking down and adding again. Keep pot covered between additions, and towards the end of the cooking time (at about 12 min.) add the rest of the wine.
Prepare the saffron by toasting the strands in a dry skillet for a brief minute or so, just to dry them out. Remove to a small mortar and pestle and grind to a powder. Add 1 tsp liquid (water, broth or wine) and dissolve.
When creamy and moist (after about 15-18 min.), remove from heat, add in the cheese, saffron liquid, some fresh ground black pepper, and taste for seasoning. Add in additional cheese or salt as needed.
Cover and let rest a few minutes before serving.