High tea and a homemade dinner

From a food standpoint, Friday was perfect. Amanda and I planned to leave work early so we could celebrate her birthday which my Pacific Northwest trip caused me to miss. For her birthday last year, we took a private knitting class together at Point and for mine, we had side by side reflexology treatments at heavenly Angel Feet. I wanted to keep the creative celebrations going, so I thought of Lady Mendl's, a tea salon in the Inn at Irving. Though Amanda had been to the inn once for breakfast, she had never experienced their 5-course royal tea service.

It wasn’t until 2:45 that we finally managed to finish up for the day, cutting it close for our 3pm reservation. After a typically frustrating ride in Chelsea Market's elevator, we weaved our way through the crowded corridor past Amy’s Bread, Fat Witch Brownies and Eleni’s cookies, the smells from each shop taunting my starving stomach, only to step outside and be met by an uncooperative summer storm. As we stood stranded under an awning, buckets of rain poured down and occupied cabs whizzed by, sadly threatening our chances of getting to the tea in time. After about five minutes, the rain had still not subsided, but that didn’t keep Amanda from suddenly dashing across the street, determined to flag down a cab that had just turned on 16th, her umbrella flapping behind her as the wind tried to take it away.

The situation felt very similar to this past February during the South Beach Food & Wine Festival when a huge storm broke out during Bobby Flay’s Bubble Q, a beach barbecue extravaganza. On that same evening, Amanda and her husband, Jeff had ran for shelter when the rain was still coming down fairly lightly, while Daniel and I waited, crammed inside a tent with about 100 other people, sure we would escape without feeling a drop. Soon the rain became torrential, flooding the tent and forcing us to flee into the swanky Delano Hotel, soaked and miserable, before walking barefoot in shin-deep water back to our hotel. On that evening, I'd already eaten a fair share of barbecue, and was in no mood to venture back out after a shower and change of clothes. During Friday's storm, it was close to 3pm, and I hadn't eaten since breakfast. Sometimes the pursuit of good food requires extreme measures, so seconds later, I sprinted across 9th Ave, and slid into the cab behind Amanda, my sandaled feet wet and grimy.

When we arrived at Lady Mendl's, we shed our umbrellas, freshened up quickly in the bathroom, and finally settled in at a corner table topped with long lavender candlesticks, matching bouquets of purple flowers and china sets with frilly floral patterns. We also had a perfect view of the storm that didn’t seem quite as dismal now that we’d found shelter. Polite waiters (who insisted on calling us Madame) floated around the fancy room with pots of tea and platters of bite-sized sandwiches, scones and other dainty treats while rain streaked down the windows.

When presented with a dizzying list of teas, I opted for a chai, craving its spicy finish and Amanda went caffeine-free with some chamomile before we both started off with some lightly dressed greens. Soon after our waiter returned with a silver tray full of tea sandwiches, each type served on soft, fresh bread. While all of them were delicious, it’s the simple cucumber with mint creme fraiche on brioche that I could eat every day. Light yet buttery, it just melts in your mouth, feeling both proper due to its petite size, and child-like in its crustless form.

After two rounds of finger sandwiches, we were presented with scones, clotted cream (a thick, buttery type that is made by heating and then leaving unpasteurized cow's milk in shallow pans for several hours) and tangy raspberry preserves. Unlike the supersized scones sold throughout the city, these were dainty little rounds with a tender, flaky crumb that clung to each swipe of cloud-like cream we smeared on them.

I felt that I could sit there forever, sipping tea and playing verbal volleyball with Amanda, talking about marriage, our growing baby fever, fear of losing our freedom when babies do finally come, and our mutual love of New York. Amanda was a perfect high tea companion. She loves food as much as I do and we never run out of things to discuss, dissect and discuss again.

By close to 5pm, we’d received our last two courses, the first being a 100 layer crepe cake that looks light and refreshing, but is actually quite rich due to the sweet whipped cream that’s sandwiched in between. After polishing off our slices, we were so full that the final course, a plate of cookies and chocolate covered strawberries, received very little attention. Though we couldn’t eat or think much about food anymore, we still had an entire evening of cooking ahead of us.

While I have cooked with some of my friends before, I'll admit it's not my preferred form of food preparation. I can’t completely enjoy my time with someone when I’m worrying if the cutting board they just used for raw chicken is the same one they’re using to chop vegetables. Luckily, when we'd decided a few weeks earlier to cook dinner together with Daniel and Jeff, Amanda volunteered her apartment.

Summer demands unfussy food and a menu of gazpacho and crab cakes would deliver just that. Lady Mendl’s is within walking distance of Whole Foods, so we headed over there to pick up vegetables for the soup, $80(!) worth of lump crabmeat for the crab cakes, some Niman Ranch dry salami and a hunk of Manchego for a pre-dinner snack, and two pints of ice cream, including Sticky Toffee Pudding, a new Haagen Daazs flavor created by the winner of Food Network's
Scoop contest, for dessert.

After unloading the groceries at Amanda's apartment, Jeff set to work squeezing limes for his homemade margaritas, Amanda started prepping all the vegetables for the gazpacho, and Daniel and I teamed up to make the crab cakes.

While Amanda was amazed by Daniel’s stellar knife skills, I was more impressed by her completely relaxed state, even as we made a mess of her kitchen, dirtied a lot of dishes and rummaged through her cabinets. Maybe it's that she's been blessed with a dishwasher (something Daniel and I have never had in all our seven years of living and cooking together), or the fact that her kitchen is a bit more spacious than our sliver of a cooking space, or that we chose easy recipes (not the complicated ones I choose to torture myself with), but the entire process was painless. Sipping one of Jeff’s homemade margaritas -- with crushed ice to make it slushy, as he explained -- and being serenaded by Stevie Wonder, made it that much better.

After Daniel molded the crabcakes into perfect rounds the size of quarter pounders, we popped them and the big bowl of summery soup in the refrigerator to chill, then retreated to the living room. Amanda tried to explain to me why everyone in the world is suddenly so obsessed with Sudoku, while Daniel and Jeff swapped similar political views, and at some point, my margarita glass was refilled, which I would only really regret the next morning.

Almost exactly an hour later, our husbands, who clearly did not finish a 5-course tea at 5pm, were getting feisty. We promptly started with the gazpacho, a soup that I only learned to love about two years ago during a sweltering trip to Spain when only big bowls of it offered much relief from the blazing sun.

Though this particular gazpacho could have chilled longer, its colorful assortment of chopped up plum tomatoes, hothouse cucumbers, peppers and red onions provided a refreshing prelude to our summer dinner. Once we scraped our bowls clean, we moved on to the crab cakes, which were plump with a light golden crust. They tasted good on their own, but even better when topped with a nice dollop of remoulade. After a short digestion period, we devoured two pints of ice cream, lingering at the table for a long time after, extremely full, but proud of the satisfying meal we'd made together.

While I don't think I'll be whipping up dinners during the week with friends all the time, I think it’s safe to say that my fear of communal cooking has been overcome. It’s much cheaper than eating out, a lot more rewarding and the best part of all: there are leftovers. And leftovers my friends, come in particularly handy when you’re nursing a hangover and really have no desire to cook with anyone--even yourself.

Lady Mendl’s
56 Irving Place
New York, NY

Real Margaritas
From Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Parties!
Serves 6

1 lime, halved
Kosher salt
½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice (5 limes)
2 Tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 lemon)
1 cup Triple Sec
3 cups ice
1 cup white tequila

If you like margaritas served in a glass with salt, rub the outside rims of six glasses with a cut lime and dip each glass lightly onto a plate of kosher salt.

Combine the lime juice, lemon juice, Triple Sec, and ice in a blender and puree until completely blended. Add the tequila and puree for 2 seconds more. Serve over ice.

If you prefer frozen margaritas, halve each of the ingredients, double the ice, and blend in two batches. Serve with a cut lime.

From Ina Garten’s The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Serves 8 to 10

2 hothouse cucumbers, halved and seeded, but not peeled
3 red bell peppers, cored and seeded
8 plum tomatoes
2 red onions
6 garlic cloves, minced
46 ounces tomato juice (6 cups)
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup good olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

Roughly chop the cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and red onions into 1-inch cubes. Put each vegetable separately into a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until it is coarsely chopped. Do not overprocess!

After each vegetable is processed, combine them in a large bowl and add the garlic, tomato juice, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Mix well and chill before serving. The longer gazpacho sits, the more the flavors develop.

Crab Cakes
From Amanda’s Aunt Karen

1 lb jumbo lump crabmeat
1 cup breadcrumbs
¼ cup mayo
1 large egg, beaten
1 Tsp worcestershire sauce
1 Tsp dry mustard

Mix together the crabmeat, breadcrumbs, Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard and pepper.

Add the mayonnaise and egg to the crabmeat mixture. Combine with your hands and add more mayonnaise if the mixture seems too dry.

Form into 4 large or 6 small crabcakes (TLP note: We decided to make 12 medium sized ones) and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Cook in clarified butter for about 4-5 minutes on each side. (Note from Amanda’s Mom who passed the recipe on to Amanda): I am not great at clarified butter, so I cooked them in a mixture of butter and oil, using 1 Tbs of each.

Suggested wine from Amanda’s Mom: Light Pinot Noir or Alsatian Riesling (TLP note: We drank a Pinot Gris that Daniel and I brought back from our trip to the Pacific Northwest).

From Ina Garten’s The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Makes 3/4 cup

Note from Ina: This sauce is more traditional with celeriac as a salad, but I love to use it with crab cakes. It is like tartar sauce, but with much more flavor. Serve cold or at room temperature.

1/2 cup good mayonnaise
2 Tbs small-diced pickles or cornichons (TLP note: We used cornichons)
1 Tsp coarse-grained mustard
1 Tbs champagne or white wine vinegar (TLP note: We used champagne)
Pinch kosher salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper

Place all the ingredients in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse several times until the pickles are finely chopped and all the ingredients are well mixed but not pureed.

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