A Delaware picnic idyll
My sister, Janet, and I fell head over heels for Sullivan County 20 years ago. We rented a small tucked-away house in Callicoon and eventually bought it when the owners moved south. The place was unfurnished save for a funky speckled green metal table from the ‘50s. Little by little, through gifts from friends, auctions and yard sales, we filled the rooms with furniture, books (many on cookery) and art.
The house became a refuge, a haven. Janet and I both have a lot of interests. She sews quilts entirely by hand and fills the myriad bird feeders on the property; we both write, read voraciously and like crafting and gardening. And I cook three fairly extravagant meals for my non-cooking sister the two days of the weekend we spend at the house.
My passion for food and cooking goes back as long as I can remember, from Kindergarten when I immediately commandeered the beautiful wooden kitchen set in a corner of the room, to the first real meal, breakfast, I made for my parents at the age of seven and carried up two flights of steps on an enormous enamel tray. Later that day my mother began to refine my cooking skills. Apparently, ground Chock full o’ Nuts coffee is not simply spooned into cups of hot tap water.
Janet and I parallel-play most of the day and meet up at meal time. We have a traveling Scrabble set that is used at breakfast, lunch and cocktail hour, and dinner is eaten in an alcove off the living room while we watch old movies. We are not the most social creatures, but are close with some folks in the area. Over the years, we’ve been invited to many gatherings of our friends’ friends. We almost always politely decline. The house has been where we go to get away from the New York City masses and entertain ourselves with the projects we love.
During our August vacation this year, one of our friends was turning 66. His wife said it would mean a great deal to him if we would help celebrate one late afternoon at Skinners Falls for a pot-luck on the beach with a dozen or so of their friends. We had met most of them over the years and decided to give socializing another chance, mostly because we are crazy about the couple, and it also dawned on us that we might want to broaden our community of friends, as we are planning on moving to Callicoon permanently within the next year or so.
We went to the local farmer’s market on Sunday and bought a soft goat’s milk cheese and a creamy herbed cow’s milk log. I picked up a bunch of beautiful, shiny red, yellow and orange peppers and made a dish that has never failed to receive accolades: sautéed peppers with slivered garlic, tiny capers and aged balsamic vinegar. The resulting pepper strips caramelize in the vinegar and become ultra-sweet and charred in places. A smear of soft cheese on a cracker topped with those peppers is something pretty special, as well as visually beautiful.
Late afternoon, everyone set up camp on the rocky beach and plopped into lawn chairs or swam in the warm waters of the Delaware as the lightest drizzle fell on our heads. These aging hippies were not deterred by a little mist, and there were some fairly high-falutin’ dishes, including masterly cooked pork ribs; my silky peppers; a Vietnamese-style coleslaw; a pile of perfectly cooked shrimp; chickpea salad; tomatoes topped with fresh mozzarella; and a bowl of home-grown crunchy, miniscule cucumbers the size of olives.
The conversation, as well as beer and wine, flowed, and Janet and I were comfortable and welcomed by the group. Interestingly enough, two days later we were invited to another gathering, with a totally different and diverse cast of characters. This idea of socializing more might just catch on.
Sautéed Peppers with Garlic, Capers and Vinegar
4 to 5 sweet bell peppers (a mix of red, orange, and yellow)
1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon small capers, preferably in salt, rinsed
2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
Wash peppers and cut into strips between 1/4 and 1/2-inch wide. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium high heat. Fry the strips of pepper in the hot oil, stirring occasionally. Eventually, the skins should char at the edges. When the peppers are softened and a bit blackened, add the garlic and capers. When these sizzle after a moment or two, add the vinegar and salt. Let the vinegar cook off and evaporate for about 1 minute. Place on a shallow serving platter and garnish with the parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature.