Treating guests to the exotic

May 13, 2009|By CHINA MILLMAN / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

During the winter months Heather and Greg Bednarek make a lot of Indian food. In the summer, they're often inspired by Vietnamese, Mexican and Korean cuisines.

While many young couples (Heather is 28 and Greg just turned 31) are buying their first cookbooks and arguing over who has to make dinner, the Bednareks cook full-fledged feasts for friends (and one lucky journalist) without batting an eye or making a complete mess of their kitchen.

When I arrived at their Pittsburgh home, the dining-room table was already set and five or six blue-patterned bowls were filled with tantalizingly pristine mezze. We settled in at the table, a bottle of wine was poured and a wave of deep contentment settled over me. I nibbled on dried dates and spooned up carrots sprinkled with bits of salty feta cheese. As we sat and talked and ate, I nibbled on several dozen olives and piece after piece of pita spread with sweet, moist mashed eggplant.


If I hadn't guessed the theme of the meal -- Moroccan -- from the dishes themselves, a glance around the room would have provided ample clues. Shelves in the dining room hold several earthenware tajines, traditionally Moroccan cooking vessels with conical tops used to make braised dishes. Bowls and tajines, as well as the indirect inspiration for our dinner, came from a four-week trip to Morocco they took a few years ago.

As Heather worked in the kitchen, her husband told the story of the bowls: They were in Fez, a city renowned for the deep blue of its pottery, made in kilns fired by the pits of olives. The burning olives have a strong smell, and they followed that smell to a factory. They paid for the bowls, which would be shipped to them. Time passed, and no bowls arrived, so eventually they stopped expecting them. Then, 16 months later, the post office called with a package, a wooden crate covered with stamps and stickers of bills of lading. Inside were the bowls, all in one piece.

Food is part of their individual as well as their shared histories. Heather's mother was a cooking teacher and dietitian. Growing up, she would sit in the kitchen while her mother cooked, waving off all offers to teach her to make something, but today her ease and efficiency suggest she picked up some things along the way.

Greg, on the other hand, grew up in Canada with two brothers, and because hockey practice often complicated their schedules, he was cooking dinner several times a week by the time he was 15.

While they don't always cook together, food is very much a shared activity that breeds renewed enthusiasm.

As our dipping and spreading of pita started to slow, Heather disappeared for a few minutes and soon re-emerged with the entree. A coy sort of dish, lamb tajine looks plain, the meat braised to a sort of dull brown. But each bite is marvelously tender and so packed with pure lamb flavor that visual appeal becomes irrelevant.

Any cook would have been more than pleased with this dish, but Heather -- who has both a law degree and a master's degree in public health -- is clearly that overachieving sort of cook who breezily whips up a second main course while waiting for the first to finish cooking.

Bstilla, a pie made from crisp layers of phyllo, is traditionally made with pigeon, but today is made mainly with chicken -- Heather used chicken thighs in hers. As she cut into the first piece, the sweet, warming aromas of ginger and cinnamon filled the air. Alongside was a simple couscous, served from a lemon-wood couscous spoon that still smelled faintly citrusy.

Full, content and slightly dazed, I surveyed the gleaming white expanse of a goat-cheese tart drizzled thickly with golden honey, all too aware that I would have room for only one small piece. A perfect combination of cheese course and dessert, the tart managed to be both sweet and creamy and just the tiniest bit savory. The crust of lime juice and pistachio nuts had the buttery, crumbly texture of a shortbread cookie, and the sweetness of the honey lingered tantalizingly on the tongue.

The best home cooks, in whose number Heather is surely counted, don't serve the most courses or make the most complicated food. They balance the impressive -- such as two main courses -- with the reliable -- simple, cold first courses that can be prepared in advance. In short, they find the sweet spot between challenging themselves and ensuring that cooking for guests is enjoyable.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service)

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