Cat Cora recently inspired me to begin a new family ritual when she described how her family gathers in the kitchen for nibbles while she puts the finishing touches on dinner.  The smells that waft up while I’m cooking dinner make my stomach flip around as I try to wait patiently for my husband’s commuter train to arrive, and he arrives home hungry. So, I decided to institute her idea of having a drop in happy hour at home.

Each evening, I have to leave the house fifteen minutes before my husband’s train arrives at the small commuter station in the next town over. So, when I return with him 25 minutes later, whatever I have been cooking has cooled (and hopefully not congealed), and I still need to put those last minute, finishing touches on the meal.  Prior to beginning this tradition, our return home from the station involved hectic rushing around to get dinner on the table, changing out of work clothes, greeting other family members already in the house, and finding out about each others’ days.   Having a light starter on the table when we returned seemed like a lovely way to welcome him home, to take the edge off our empty tummies, and to start our evening as a family off with warmth and ease.

I started by making sure I set up the snack first.  In the Good Housekeeping article I read, Cat Cora, covered with medals and accolades for her amazing talent in the kitchen, suggested eating a pear while drinking a glass of wine. Having already eaten the pears from the local farm stand, I grabbed a yellow apple from the fruit basket on the counter. Because apples are in season now, they are especially sweet and crisp.  Also, you can find lots of varieties that are not normally available.  Both Fairway grocery store and our local farm market have devoted an entire row of the fruit section to them, stacked high with bright red, buttery yellow, fresh green, peachy pink, and multicolored apples I had never tried before, an affordable embarrassment of riches.

The Road to San Damiano

I decided to add a bit of cheese to the fruit and had the perfect selection, Port Salut, in the fridge.  I cannot take credit for this magical combination.   A helpful Italian Cheese Man suggested it to me.  As a younger, single woman, I spent a month in Umbria, Italy in a quaint hamlet called San Damiano.  No one there spoke any English, except for our Greek landlady, Crisoula.

Our Little Town

Grocery shopping in San Damiano became an adventure.  My roommate and dear friend, Val, had decided that she would not learn to speak Italian because she already spoke English, French, and German fluently.  I had taken one year of beginners Italian in high school, so before we arrived there, I had diligently practiced with the cassette tape that came with my phrase book to learn the language I refer to as “Shopping Italian.”

Rustic Beauty

One day at the only, tiny grocery store nearby, I was faced with a refrigerated counter chock a block with unlabeled and unfamiliar cheeses. Using my Shopping Italian and lots of pointing, I managed to ask the eagerly helpful and very kind Cheese Man for a suggestion of cheese to accompany fruit. He picked out a semi soft cheese in an orange rind and endorsed it with that enthusiastic Italian gesture of making a kissing sound with your lips while pushing the fingers of one hand open suddenly.  The Cheese Man was a genius!  The cheese had a richness, depth, and pungent creaminess which perfectly complemented the sweet tang of apples and pears. When I returned to the US, I searched out this mystery cheese and identified it by the orange rind and semi-soft texture, Port Salut.

Apples, Port Salut, and Crisp Bread

I put the apples, cheese, and some crisp bread from IKEA onto my favorite cutting board, shaped like a pig, and set out a bottle of wine and 2 glasses. Voila!  When hubby and I returned from the train station famished, we could each grab a nibble while he greeted everyone else and changed clothes. We chatted companionably as he poured us each a glass of wine while I finished cooking our meal, and we happily carried it out of the kitchen together.  I enjoyed the experience so much that I try to make it happen most nights.  It’s a little treat at the end of the day and a thoughtful welcome for those returning home.

Pears,St Andre, and Multigrain Crackers

Here are some suggestions for nibbles:

  • Pretzels with spicy southwestern dip (from the refrigerator section of the grocery)
  • Pears and Saint Andre cheese (like brie but with less bite and more buttery deliciousness)
  • Walnuts and sweet apples
  • Hummus with whole wheat pita chips
  • Cheddar cheese and tart apples
  • Olives and almonds

(Feel free to omit the fatty items like cheese and dip if you are watching your cholesterol. Like Cat Cora, put out just one healthy selection.  If I feel I must put the cheese on something other than fruit, I try to stick with healthy choices like whole grain crackers, Scandinavian crisp breads, or whole wheat bread from the local bakery.)

Wishing you every blessing,