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My friends Meghan and Nick devouring the shitake mushrooms al' Italiana

My friends Meghan and Nick devouring the shiitake mushrooms italiano

Sometimes you just need to get out of the norm. Last night I planned a dinner party but did not plan the menu, hence a spontaneous dinner! I prefer to cook “with” friends rather than “for” friends.

Cooking together is such a personal experience. You get to spend quality time with people you like and share great food and wine. Food definitely speaks to people’s souls and activates openness in communication at a deeper level than any way I know.

When my young friends, Meghan and Nick asked me if I would show them a few ways to expand their vegetarian repertoire, I eagerly agreed. Assisting me with this event was Eva, a fabulous cook and bread baker, with a brilliant mind for improvising. Instead of just sharing my favorite recipes, I thought it would be fun to do a spontaneity themed dinner. By this I mean, have lots of great ingredients on hand, a few ideas to get started, then let the creativity flow. And flow it did into an explosion of flavors and colors.

Farm fresh ingredients, a zingy dressing and a mouthful of flavor.

Farm fresh ingredients, a zingy dressing and a mouthful of flavor.

Here’s what we started with and how it played out for a delicious spring dinner.

Our ingredients: Fennel, spinach, zucchini, red peppers, red onions, yellow onions, garlic, shallots, fresh basil, beets, yellow pear tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, parsley, oranges, feta cheese, walnuts, pine nuts, garbanzo beans, Dijon mustard, breadcrumbs and LOTS of great olive oil.

For starters I share a shiitake mushroom appetizer my Italian friend taught me. We ate them so fast that I almost forgot to take a photo!

Delectable, easy appetizer with a happiness factor included for free!

Delectable, easy appetizer. They go quickly so make lots!

Drizzle the bottom of a baking dish with olive oil. Place about 12 medium shiitake mushrooms (for four people) on the dish, stems straight up. Drizzle more olive oil on top, sprinkle with a generous amount of finely chopped garlic and parsley, sprinkle with salt and top with breadcrumbs. A final drizzle of oil on top, then pop into a 400-degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Eat hot right out of the oven when preparing the other courses.

These mushrooms seriously make everybody happy!

These mushrooms seriously elicit the happiness factor in us all!

Eva approves!

Eva approves!

The rest of the dinner unfolded like we were following a recipe, but we weren’t. Fresh fennel, sliced thin, combined with orange slices, sliced red onion, chopped parsley, and Eva’s vinaigrette made with mandarin orange olive oil and the juice of the orange. This was the favorite, next to the shiitake!

The fennel salad gets a final drizzle of orange vinaigrette.

The fennel salad gets a final drizzle of orange vinaigrette.

My beet harvest consisted of one giant beet. Yes, I planted about 20 seedlings I grew from seeds, but only one survived.

The ruby lines of my beet sing of nature's simplicity.

The ruby lines of my beet sing of nature’s simplicity.

I ended up with the biggest beet ever and sliced it thinly into rings, then roasted them. Next I cut the beet slices into triangles and made a “pickle” of white balsamic vinegar, cider vinegar, bay leaf, peppercorns and a dash of olive oil. This would be the heart of a spinach salad.

Our array of ingredients for the spinach and beet salad.

Our array of ingredients for the spinach and beet salad.

To beef up the salad we added garbanzo beans, walnuts and halved yellow pear tomatoes. The dressing came from the pickling marinade.

Colorful, healthy and infused with flavor.

Colorful, healthy and infused with flavor.

For a main entrée, we decided on a roasted veggie pasta. The propane on my grill breathed its final breath so I ended up grilling the veggies on the stove. We grilled onions, red peppers and zucchini and tossed them with penne pasta, chunks of pecorino cheese, fresh basil and a generous amount of basil olive oil. Most of us also dressed our personal bowls of pasta with a generous splash of garlic olive oil. Delicioso!

In my opinion, you can never add too much olive oil!

In my opinion, you can never add too much olive oil!

Sharing good food, friendships and laughter is always good for the soul.

Sharing good food, friendships and laughter is always good for the soul.

For dessert, I had prepared my favorite go-to lemon olive oil cake with fresh strawberries drenched in limoncello.

A moist cake with an almost herbal flavor from the fruity olive oil.

A moist cake with an almost herbal flavor from the fruity olive oil.

Such a whirlwind of activity, chatter and light-hearted fun. I really enjoy cooking this way and recommend it to anyone who wants to have a relaxing cooking experience, expand their mind and their culinary collection.

By the way, the olive oil I use, and love, is Galantino from the southern heel of Puglia in Italy. I will soon be importing these fine oils and have them for sale on my website.

Ciao and love for now!

Mary