After spending a Saturday night in Philly’s Gayborhood I learned one thing: the noon sun and my mother are both merciless. I squint up at the silhouette of my mother as she lists what she expects to be ready to be served by 8 pm: gazpacho, rosemary roasted rainbow carrots, an endive salad, grilled lamb chops, eggplant and mustard tart, a strawberry coolie for ice cream, and the star of the show, tarte à la courgette.
Tarte à la courgette is a simple French dish that my sisters and I have made for summer parties over the years. The sight of the scale-like arrangement of zucchini swimming along the table, passed from guest to guest, was a familiar one. The greatest challenge of doing this dish would be to do it hung-over and sleep-deprived. I was grateful that my younger sister was around not only to help, but also to drive me to the hospital if I lost a finger.
Before we begin, we establish a soundtrack. It could be Modest Mouse or Beethoven; it doesn’t matter as long as the music has some momentum to keep us in time. My sister and I start without any need of direction. We clear the space and sort the newly bought ingredients for each dish into stations around the kitchen.
We let the piecrust pastry defrost enough that we could work with it without breaking it into pieces. Meanwhile, we prepare the gazpacho and the coolie for the ice cream, since they both have to be served chilled. I ignore the painful whirring of the blender as my sister mixes several over ripe tomatoes, a cucumber, olive oil, onions, and a few cloves of garlic for the gazpacho. I grudgingly remember that with all great work there will always be some form of sacrifice.
My mother stops by to select the serving dishes, refusing to taste the food. When I ask why she won’t check our work, she replies that she was fasting for the day in honor of our guest, an old friend who was observing Ramadan. She leaves the kitchen, to avoid temptation I suppose.
As I work it becomes easier to ignore the hangover and sleep deprivation. Good cooking requires attention and a philosophy. My sister and I were the responsible ones now. In a way the oversensitivity of the senses became an advantage to playing with the nuances of the flavors. With the accompaniment of the music, the work becomes almost hypnotic.
Two hours whisk by and everything, except for the tarts, is ready to be served or placed in the oven at a moments notice. Slowly, we unroll the piecrust pastries from the wax paper and lower it gently into the flour dusted tart tins. We push the dough evenly along the sides and score the dough with forks. We pop the crusts in the oven for eight minutes at 400˚F. We do this so that the crust could be crunchy, rather than gooey from the filling of the tarts.
We gather the ingredients for the courgette filling, only to realize that my mother had forgotten to purchase the crème fraiche. Only those who lack imagination would let that deter them. After poking around in our fridge we found Philadelphia cream cheese. Though this would probably piss off classical cooks, we don’t care. Our household never was one to follow the rules blindly.
The cream cheese had the same consistency as crème fraiche and we were able to successfully beat two cups of it with three eggs, and one ten ounce log of fresh goat cheese. Carefully my sister and I cut basil leaves into slivers. We fold it into the velvety filling so that the fat would carry the secreted flavor.
With a spatula we pour the filling into the cooled pastry shell. We spread the mixture so that it would cook evenly. Now came the moment that required the most patience and focus. Cutting the zucchini into even slices.
We take turns sharpening the knives and testing their edges. We slice three medium sized zucchinis, swearing if the pieces were too thick or translucent. We gather the slices into a communal bowl. We arrange zucchini on the bed of cream. We create concentric circles, starting from the outside with the larger pieces. When we were finished the pattern of the zucchinis created the illusion of the domed ceiling of a mosque. Before we place the tart in the oven, we drizzle olive oil and sprinkle a mixture of sea-salt, Parmesan cheese, and fresh pepper. We take a moment to snap a few photos, because why the hell not?
Once the tarts are in the oven the trance is broken by inoccupation. My sister and I lounge as we watch Netflix’s Chef’s Table to pass the time. After 40 minutes we rouse ourselves and pull the tart out of the 400˚F oven. We see that the edges of the tart had separated from the tin, a sign that the tart was ready.
By 5:30 pm, I was dressed and ready to pick up our guest from her friend’s home. A former colleague of my mother’s she served as a wonderful mentor during my childhood. Before we leave I watch as she conducts her late afternoon prayer, her perfume wafting across the room as she gracefully goes through the motions. We leave together, driving meditatively through the woods.
My parents and their guest catch up as my sister and I set the table. Normally we would have paired the tart with a Sauvignon blanc, but we didn’t out of respect for our Muslim guest. Instead we squeezed lemons and limes into a pitcher filled with sparkling water with a few basil leaves to cut richness of the food.
At sunset, my mother and her friend broke their fast together and hungrily, they began to consume the feast. I watched it all as I settled in my chair, feeling the hangover fade away at last.
This post was written by Tanine Samimi, a friend of mine from school who graduated this past May. Tanine and I have spent many hours talking about culture, history and food to which we both derive great satisfaction because we understand the overlap that culture and food have. Tanine has a wonderful understanding of French and Persian and is an excellent drinking companion.