Inviting friends for a casual dinner chases away winter blahs

This can be a difficult time of year for many people, specifically I’m thinking of myself. February brings on some blues: The weather isn’t great, the political scene is dismal and taxes are due.

As I sat weeping in my office, my daughter Violet, reading Anne Frank’s diary, reminded me of her well-known quote, “Think of all the beauty left around you and be happy.”

Taking an inventory of the beauty left around me is a good exercise for my neshama, and I realized how much I enjoy cooking for my friends. Soon I was looking forward to a delicious and casual dinner for a good friend, whom I’d never had the honor to cook for — my editor Janet, and her charming husband, Allen. She asked that I share our dinner with the readers.

This meal is pretty quick to prepare. If you don’t have preserved lemons, substitute 1/4 cup chopped capers. The Caramelized Bananas were delicious with a wonderfully rich chocolate cake our guests provided.

Tomato & Green Pepper Salad | Serves 6-8

3 green bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
4 ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, through the press
1 tsp. cumin seed, ground
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. lemon juice
1 tsp. fine sea salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 Tbs. flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Mix the peppers and the tomatoes together in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients, and toss well to blend the seasonings. Serve cool.

Fish with Green Olives & Preserved Lemons | Serves 6-8

1 preserved lemon, chopped (see below)
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 onion, chopped
4 Tbs. chopped cilantro
3/4 cup pitted green olives, cut in half
3 lbs. fish fillets, such as snapper, halibut or cod
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tsp. coarse sea salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
1/2 tsp. saffron threads
1/2 tsp. hot water

Mix together the lemon, tomatoes, onion, cilantro and olives. Spread a small amount of the mixture on the bottom of a baking dish. Rub the fish fillets with the garlic, and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Place in the baking dish. Surround and cover the fish with the remaining lemon mixture.

Dissolve the paprika and saffron in the hot water, and pour over the fish. Roast the fish for 20 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven. Serve warm with rice or couscous.

Preserved Lemons

4 lemons, quartered to within 1/4 inch of the bottom
8 Tbs. coarse sea salt
1/2 cup lemon juice

Sprinkle some salt in the bottom of a jar. Open the lemons and place as much salt inside as possible; then reshape the fruit. Pack the lemons into the jar, pressing down to release the juices. Pour in the lemon juice and any remaining salt.

Let the lemons ripen unrefrigerated for 4 weeks, shaking the jar each day to distribute the salt and juice. Rinse the lemon with cold water before using.

Caramelized Bananas | Serves 8

4 oz. unsalted butter
6 firm, ripe bananas, peeled and sliced
1 cup brown sugar
1 Tbs. lime juice

Heat butter in a large sauté pan. Add bananas and sauté gently on both sides until golden, about 2 minutes. Stir in sugar, and cook over gentle heat until sugar dissolves and a thick syrup is formed, about 10 minutes. Add the lime juice and serve warm.

Rebecca Ets-Hokin is a Bay Area cooking teacher and food professional. Her columns alternate with those of Louise Fiszer. Questions and recipe ideas can be sent to j. or to [email protected].