Nothing says freedom like a sidewalk party
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A large part of my life involves throwing dinner parties – whether for friends and family during my time off, or as part of the work I do. My work is analogue – it involves my hands and an exchange with people in physical space. As far as my career goes, there is no such thing as “working from home”. Like many of us, the pandemic was very difficult for me because physical interactions (and therefore my work) no longer existed. But as restrictions started to ease, I began dreaming of reuniting the people I love around the dinner table. I work out of a studio in New York’s Chinatown which is on a quiet and somewhat desolate corner between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. The sidewalk directly in front of the studio is very wide. One day during the pandemic I thought to myself, ‘What if I put a table on the sidewalk and invite a few friends to have dinner on the street?’ We could socially distance by being outdoors but still be together. With that, the sidewalk tradition was born.
Those sidewalk dinners saved me. Every couple of days I would set up a table outside and invite people from all walks of life to simply be together. They gave me something to look forward to. That table became a little ray of light. I once invited my building’s super to supper. It was late spring and I had an especially large arrangement of foraged branches that had explosive little orange buds on them in the middle of the table. Eddie, my super, told me that it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. I was reassured that, even in the most difficult of circumstances, beauty saves. And even though the pandemic seems to be behind us, the sidewalk tradition has remained.
It doesn’t take much to put a table out on the sidewalk. The first thing to consider is the neighbours. In my case my neighbours have welcomed it, and I’ve invited many to join. The police don’t seem to be bothered even though there is a precinct right across the street. I wouldn’t call it the most picturesque street in New York City. For this reason I like the table to be very colourful and pop against the more muted background; this can be done with florals, or colourful plates, or a bright tablecloth. For this celebration I chose colour-block tablecloths that I design for my brand, Gohar World.
And for food, I went with a pork shoulder slowly braised in milk with lemon zest and sage – a riff on maiale al latte. The pork is juicy and needs a starch to soak up the sauce, so I served it with boiled potatoes and a bit of parsley. I had also found puntarelle, a chicory common in Italy, at the market. I prepared puntarelle alla romana, with olive oil, vinegar, anchovies and garlic.
I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to summer, so the rest of the menu included a bean and tomato salad, and a very simple cucumber salad. Initially I had different plans for the cucumbers, but once I tasted them they were so sweet and cucumbery that I decided it was best not to mess with them too much. This is why although it’s good to have a plan of what to cook, it’s also just as important to be deviant once you taste the ingredients.
The cucumbers became the stars of the meal. I dressed them simply with a bit of salt and lemon. When you come across a really good ingredient, allow people the luxury of tasting it in its unadulterated state. There is always something to celebrate – whether it’s a cucumber or a beautiful branch of tiny orange flowers. And when times are tough, it is especially important to birth new traditions that will carry you through, and hopefully continue in brighter days. My sidewalk table is my reminder that after the darkness, the light really does come.
Maiale al Latte
Traditionally this recipe is made with pork loin, but I prefer a fattier cut, such as shoulder
The day before, dry the pork well and season all around with about ¼ cup of salt. Pour the fish sauce over the pork. Leave in the fridge overnight to marinate.
Remove the pork from the fridge two hours before you are ready to cook it and pat dry with a towel. Heat a casserole and place the pork in, skin-side down. Cook for a few minutes until brown. Repeat on all sides until brown all over.
Add the heads of garlic, the strips of lemon skin and the sage to the pot. Let them sizzle for a minute. Then add the milk. The pork should be ¾ of the way submerged. If it is not, add more milk. The acid in the lemon will make the milk curdle. This is what you’re going for here. It will also curdle further in the oven.
Preheat the oven to 130°C/ 300°F/gas mark 2. Cover the casserole and bake for three hours. Uncover and cook for another hour, turning the pork every 20 minutes or so. Once done, the pork should be tender and pull apart easily. If it is still tough, continue cooking for 30 more minutes and test again.
Remove from the oven and allow the pork to rest for 30 minutes in the pot before serving. I like to serve the pork at room temperature or just barely warm, and with the juices in the pot.