“A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salon_(gathering))
The salon was created in Italy around the 16th century and then gained popularity in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. Salon was the practice of people meeting and sharing ideas about life, love, literature and taste for food. That is the best way I can describe the inspiring evening I’m about to share with you.
I was invited to a dinner party at the home of my friend Nilsa Almenas. I’ve had the pure delight of knowing her professionally for the past two years. We worked in child care together at a local community college and quickly grew to be great friends. When my time at the college drew to a close she approached me with the idea of a dinner party incorporating traditional Puerto Rican dishes. She’d read my blog and wanted to host a dinner I could write about. I felt very honored and accepted the invitation immediately. I knew of my friend’s amazing gift for working with children and her love and passion for art, but I never knew she shared my passion for food. I was excited beyond words and lived in eager anticipation until the evening of the party.
The spring evening was chilled as we walked up to Nilsa’s old brick apartment building. We entered the warmth of the doorway and my eyes were met with bright and colorful artwork. It lined the hallways and covered each wall as we ascended the stairs. I knocked on the door. We were welcomed with smiles and introductions to our dinner companions. Two lovely ladies I admire and had met on separate occasions. One is a teacher and traveler and the other an artist and designer. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to be spending the evening with these incredible women. Conversation came easily as we were invited in and handed a glass of hearty red wine. I glanced around in wonder, her walls were also covered with beautiful art. Some she had collected but most she’d made. Every nook and table was decorated with natural materials Nilsa had collected and arranged herself. I relaxed and took in all of the amazing sights and smells.
When the smells from the kitchen began to swirl around me I couldn’t wait any longer. I excused myself and headed towards the source of the inticing aromas. Our hostess invited me into her kitchen and began to describe the beautiful food.
For the appetizer she created almost veggie egg rolls with fresh vegetables and a small amount of ground beef. It intrigued me that they were baked instead of fried. Nilsa explained that healthy food was part of the theme for the evening. The sauce for the egg rolls was Tahini mixed with honey and dried cherries. It was beautiful food. My mouth watered as I wafted the smells up to my nose. It was time to begin the meal.
Nilsa brought out the first plates while I joined the others in the sitting room. Conversation was silenced as we tasted the sweet and tangy sauce drizzled over the warm veggie/beef rolls. After polishing off second helpings of the starter we sauntered into the dining area and took our seats.
Sunlight from the large picture windows bathed us as we waited in anticipation for our next course, the pasta salad. It was a tri-colored rotini pasta with artichokes and slices of black olives. I am pasta’s number one fan so I was thrilled. The pasta was well cooked and it had a nice salty bite from the olives. It was very tasty!
Now it was time for the glorious main course, Carne Guisada. A Puerto Rican lean beef stew with acorn squash and sweet potatoes. Plantains were grated into the base of the stew to act as a thickener and add to the layers of flavor. The beef was delicious and the vegetables were tender and seasoned well. It was topped with a fresh green salad. She explained that in Puerto Rico they don’t have a salad course and a main course, they just eat it all at once. So that’s exactly what I did. There was something extremely loving and comforting about the dish. I can tell Nilsa cooks from the heart and puts passion into her food.
The Carne Guisada was served along side a bed of Arroz con gandules, whole grain rice with pigeon peas. I’d never had any experience with pigeon peas but I was pleasantly surprised. It was especially delicious when you mixed the stew and rice together and let all the flavors mingle. Both had a sofrito mixture of several peppers, garlic, cilantro, onions and recao leaves. She makes the sofrito before hand and freezes it to take out and use when she needs it. It smells amazing even frozen.
While we ate our stew and rice we were served a glass of refreshing orange water. It was cold and crisp and just what I needed to refresh my palate. I was amazed that such a simple drink could seem so complex. Simply delicioso!
After our dinner plates were cleared away, Nilsa returned to the kitchen to prepare our dessert course. It was a gorgeous flan de queso or cheese custard served with whipped cream and garnished with a fresh strawberry. The flan was set perfectly and it was smooth and creamy. The sugar on the bottom had caramelized and created a decadant golden layer of sticky sweetness. She also served a rich and bold Puerto Rican coffee with fresh vanilla bean and ground cinnamon. Needless to say the apartment smelled divine!
Once we had finished our coffee and licked our plates clean we headed downstairs for a tour of the proprietor’s art studio. He had paintings hung all over the walls of the building as we climbed down the stairs. The style was bright and bold. My hubby said it looked a bit like pop art. We climbed down the stairs and turned on the lights. I immediately smelled the oil paints and the coolness of the basement was so relaxing. We proceeded to talk about the artist’s style and use of color and texture. I’m no art buff but I felt comfortable and free to express my feelings and ideas. Every painting seemed to mean something different to each of us, but we would always find a common element. It goes back to the idea of the salon. We shared and discussed each other’s art preferences and experiences with art. All evening we had been talking about life, our views on religion and God, different cultures, music, and now art. The visit to the studio really rounded out an already wonderful evening.
We headed back up to Nilsa’s apartment and I suddenly realized the hour. It was time to say our goodbyes and go home to our sweet son. We hugged our dinner companions goodbye reluctantly. We could have easily stayed there talking and laughing until the wee hours of the night. I didn’t want to leave but we left with the promise of dinners to come.
Fue una velada maravillosa! The evening was a journey of different cultures, friendship, food, music and art. I wait in eager anticipation until the eve of our next Salon.