It happened again today. Twice. I was seduced by light.
The first occurrence was late afternoon (5:40 pm to be precise), when I watched a slant of light illuminate the rattan weavings beneath the glass of our mahogany coffee table, causing it to glow and come nearly to life. Finished with work, I was sitting on the couch, reading a book, when suddenly I became aware of the magical moment and set my book aside, reveling in the luminous ambience.
The second time was just slightly later—out walking with the dogs in our neighborhood after supper—when I was entranced by the soft, powdery blue of the Pacific sky strewn with fluffy pink clouds. As the sun descended towards the welcoming arms of the sea, I stood there enchanted, gazing up at the sky and tropical mountains while a soft breeze tousled my hair and rustled the palm fronds. The dogs tugged at me impatiently, eager to get on. What is he looking at?!?
When I lived in the high desert of New Mexico—long known for its remarkable quality of light, luring famous artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Ansel Adams—late afternoon was a holy time for me. I would often stop whatever I was doing so that I could go outside and marvel at the display of illumination on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Stunning. Magical. Living in Santa Fe, if I was free in the late afternoon, I used to go to a little tea house in an old adobe at the upper end of Canyon Road (a mile-long stretch of incredible galleries and ateliers), where I would sit on the patio with my chai and savor this vividly painted moment as it passed.
The intensely captivating light show lasted only a few fleeting minutes, illuminating each thing it touched as if somehow lit from within. El fuego sagrado del Dios, I used to call it. The sacred fire of God.
I should have been a painter, I suppose. I’ve often thought it would be far preferable to have an unfinished canvas at the end of the day rather than rows of tangled sentences of half-polished words on a screen or paper. A canvas seems far more tangible somehow. And yet I probably would have despaired at never being able to even come close to capturing with pigments the elusive quality of illumination that opens all my senses and stirs my soul. Instead, I simply lose myself in moments of light, feeling my heart flutter in my chest as if it had wings.
Rather than with an artist’s brush, I chase after fleeting moments of sensory inspiration through cooking. Perhaps they are not so different, painting and cooking (although one tastes decidedly better). Certainly there are meals that can invoke a sensory revelation, and there is food that seems to celebrate the light itself.
It’s summer in the Northern hemisphere and I want to take you somewhere—someplace that words cannot adequately go. I want to give you a polysensory experience, with taste leading the show. I’m going to offer you a recipe for a simple meal, the kind which should be eaten outdoors. In the right frame of mind, the bright interplay of flavors can transport you to a shaded arbor of rustling grapevines somewhere along the Mediterranean, watching the play of light and shadows on arid foothills and a flashing turquoise sea. This is simple, unadorned food that speaks of bold, summer light as it feeds your soul.
It was living on the Mediterranean where I discovered that the taste of garlicky yogurt and olive oil is, well, addictive. For the ultimate mélange of flavors, the chicken should be grilled; there’s something incomparable that the element of fire adds to food. (If we were living in the Old World, we might be lucky enough to cook it in a wood burning oven. Heaven.) Lacking a grill, you could also pan sear it… it will still be delicious. If you don’t eat chicken, you can substitute a variety of summer vegetables to grill instead. Brush them lightly with a good olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and grill until lightly charred on both sides.
Note: I’m not one to follow recipes exactly. Far from it. Mostly I cook by feel and intuition. When I do need measurements, my choice is always to use metric as I find it a vastly superior and easier system (you can take the man out of Europe but…). The entire world uses metric except us Americans. <sigh> Here I give both metric and imperial measurements for convenience. Please take my measurements as merely guidelines and adapt as you deem appropriate.
If you can get organic ingredients, use them.
Grilled Chicken with Yogurt Sauce
4 chicken breasts, skin on (preferably free-range and unfrozen)
1 – 2 tsp good quality sea salt, preferably coarse (see note below *)
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 – 1 tsp red chile flakes
1- 2 tsp finely diced fresh rosemary (optional)
freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 cup (240 ml) thick Greek-style yogurt, plain
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
good pinch of sea salt
1/4 cup (60 ml) extra virgin olive oil (or more to taste)
juice of half a lemon
three large handfuls of baby arugula (rocket) or other small, garden fresh lettuce
a dozen ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup (40g) toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
*A few notes about salt. First, salt—good salt—is not the enemy as it has been made to be in America. A quality sea salt is rich in minerals and trace elements needed by our body, and has a far more complex taste than the typical, horrid Morton’s table salt (which is simply sodium chloride with anti-caking elements added so that it will pour easily). If there’s a single, easy thing to do to immediately improve the flavor of your cooking, toss that container of Morton’s in the rubbish bin and get some quality sea salt. Though it is expensive, almost exclusively I use Maldon, an exquisite, flaky salt from Essex, England (though I’m also fond of Celtic sea salt from Brittany, France, and ‘fleur de sel’—flower of salt). Lighter, coarse, flaky salts (including kosher) are actually less ‘salty’ than table salt, and more can/should be used in salting and brining. Salting meat early helps draw out the flavor of the meat while cooking and improves its flavor on subtle levels, whereas salting late or at the end of cooking generally just makes food taste salty.
At least three hours ahead of cooking, generously season the chicken breasts with sea salt (alternatively, brine them). Let them rest in the fridge until about an hour before cooking, then bring to room temperature.
Brush off any excess salt from the breasts. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and chile flakes (and rosemary, if using), along with some grindings of black pepper. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil and massage it into the breasts.
For the sauce, put the yogurt into a small bowl and add the crushed garlic, salt, olive oil and lemon. Mix well and allow it to sit for at least an hour at room temperature, giving an occasional stir to move the crushed garlic through the sauce and better infuse its flavor. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary, adding more olive oil if you prefer. (Note: a pinch of spice would not be out of place here—red chile; pimentón ahumado (smoked paprika); ground chipotle; ras al hanout (Moroccan seasoning); Turkish chile flakes such as marash or urfa chiles—but the sauce also stands well on its own). Remove the garlic before serving.
Toast the pumpkin seeds over medium heat until golden and beginning to pop, shaking the pan often to keep them from burning. Remove the pepitas from the hot pan (they’ll continue to cook otherwise), sprinkle lightly with salt, and allow to cool. Set aside.
Preheat the grill. When hot, lay the chicken breasts skin-side down on the rack and cook for 5 -8 minutes. Then turn and grill the other side. (Total cooking time will depend on your grill, whether using coals or propane, and the level of heat). The skin should be pleasantly charred in some places, with the flesh underneath still juicy and meltingly tender.
For the accompanying greens, you can either serve them plain, using the sauce as a dressing, or lightly dress with a simple vinaigrette. Top with the sliced cherry tomatoes and toasted pumpkin seeds. Serve the chicken alongside and spoon the yogurt sauce over the top.
If you’re a wine drinker, transport yourself to the Mediterranean and enjoy this with a pale, salmon-coloured, dry Provençal rosé (Domaine Tempier is a nice, if expensive, choice) or a richer Tavel (from the southern Rhône region). Forget everything you think you know about rosé wine (which has never fared all that well in the States due to the influence of innocuous, mass produced, sweet wines like White Zinfandel). Summer is here… drink pink! Alternatively, serve a tall pitcher of fresh, organic lemonade made with sparkling water, infused with sprigs of fresh mint.
Now, take the plates outdoors where you can sit in the shade and dine al fresco, relishing the contrasts and complements of flavors in the summer light. Let yourself be seduced in a feast for the senses. Eat as a Soul Artist: dining slowly, opening to the ‘other-than-human’ world around you, savoring the moment. Share this simple feast with good friends and someone you love, basking in the joie de vivre of the passing day, appreciating the gift of being alive. Uncomplicated as it is, such a celebration is true nourishment for body and soul.