I gave another dinner party this past Saturday night. My dear, dear friend Darlene McGee has announced her retirement from a local college where she served as a campus photographer, a teacher of photography to hundreds of lucky students, and an instructional designer. She is a brilliant, creative and generous artist… a person I am very lucky to know–she took our dinner photos, BTW. So I wanted dinner to be special.

And as I planned this dinner, I fell into a lot of my usual traps—obsessing over the look of the table and the fact that I have only mix and match dishes from lots of sales and giveaways. I worried about the timing of the food and the fact that I only have one oven to work with. Was the house clean (even though we were on the porch)?—was the porch clean? (a porch, for Christ’s sake!)… and on I went.

My husband just shakes his head at times like these (and helps, too). He says to me, “I thought you wanted to do this; I thought you said you enjoy cooking and creating a dinner for the people you care about.” And, of course, I do… love… all of it. But it’s so easy to get off track and make what should be the simplest of things—sharing, caring and giving—a major ordeal.

Sometimes my husband is my best sounding board because he brings me back to the center of things… to the heart of what truly matters. Not the place settings but the sharing of food. Not a squeaky clean porch but the glow reflected on my friend’s face from candles stuck in old wine bottles. Not expensive gifts but heartfelt, handmade creations. Not the things but the people.

If you read this blog from time to time, you’ve heard me talk about this idea before. The concept of “voluntary simplicity” is pretty important to me because the idea appeared to me at a time in my life when I was beginning to open up to a possibility that I could give up what was making me crazy (my high-stress job, my gas-guzzling commute and the apathy that surrounded my professional work) to find something better. I was browsing a campus book sale at the time and landed on a used copy of Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity, published in 1981. Here are the opening lines:

The world is profoundly changing, that much seems clear. We have entered a time of great uncertainty that extends from local to global scale. We are forced by pressing circumstances to ask difficult questions about the way we live our lives…. Am I satisfied with my work? Does my work contribute to the well-being of others—or is it just a source of income? How much income do I really require? Require for what? How much of my consumption adds to the clutter and complexity of my life rather than to my satisfaction?

Talking right to me, Mr. Elgin. And if you know me, you know that I firmly believe the Universe sends us messages when we need to hear them. So this synchronous moment began a little journey that, in many ways, led directly to the creation of this blog and the changes I eventually made in my life to get me here. As Duane Elgin has famously defined it, voluntary simplicity is “a manner of living that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich, … a deliberate choice to live with less in the belief that more life will be returned to us in the process.”

While his definitive work in sociology was developed in the 70s and early 80s, Elgin continues to write, speak and advocate for a more mindful, peaceful and responsible way of life that honors community and the environment—those things that really matter. The book Voluntary Simplicity remains amazingly relevant today, in my opinion.

And I’m not alone. It is echoed in the current work of people like Sarah Susanka, a brilliant architect who explores “the not-so-big-house” in her most popular books and designs and in many other modern-day philosophers from Wayne Dyer and Thomas Moore. The Simplicity Collective is an active organization that calls itself a movement, “a grassroots ‘network of imaginations’ dedicated to creatively exploring, promoting, and celebrating a materially simple but inwardly rich life.” And this list goes on, so I encourage you to explore, as I do. You’ll find simplicity is not about deprivation but rather enrichment. It means less about “doing without” than it does about finding space in our lives for what truly brings us joy.

But hey, back to the dinner at hand and the celebration of a wonderful woman’s professional life through friends, food and community. We actually ate and drank quite a bit that night, with the evening ending near 2 a.m. on Sunday. A fabulous time had by all. So I thought I’d share how we began the meal: grilled fresh asparagus glazed with apricot jam, creamy rounds of goat cheese, rich and savory Olivada, and some homemade focaccia. I stuck with what I felt confident making, dishes that needed little fuss, make-aheads and simple preparations. That way I, too, could enjoy each course. However, the taste was pretty spectacular. Here’s how you can make the first course come together:

Grilled asparagus with apricot jam glaze, creamy goat cheese rounds, rich olivata and homemade focaccia. Photo by Darlene McGee.

Grilled asparagus with apricot jam glaze, creamy goat cheese rounds, rich olivada and homemade focaccia. Photo by Darlene McGee.

Olivada

A day or two before your party, you can whip up a bowl of easy-to-prepare, decadent Olivada, a black olive spread that is the vegetarian answer to caviar, in my mind. It comes together in minutes; and it will only get tastier waiting in the frig. Your real challenge is leaving it alone until your party. Italian chef Jack Bishop of America’s Test Kitchen fame has the winning recipe here:

In the bowl of a food processor, place:

  • Two or three medium cloves of garlic, smashed
  • Eight to 10 large basil leaves (If you have some basil still tucked away in the freezer, as I did, that works just fine.)
  • One tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (Pull down on your leaves to easily remove them from the woody stem.)

Process until all the ingredients are finely chopped, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Add:

  • One and a half cups of black pitted olives—and don’t skimp. The olives are key, so nothing out of a can. Go to your favorite deli, specialty store or upscale supermarket and get quality Gaeta or Kalamata olives, preferably with the pits removed, so that you don’t have to remove them when you get home.
  • Two tablespoons fresh lemon juice (a little zest is nice too, if you like)

Pulse into a coarse paste.

With the motor of the processor running on low, add three tablespoons of olive oil (again, good quality) in a steady stream through the feed tube.

Place the Olivada in a bowl with a tight-fitting lid and store in the frig until ready to use.

Homemade Focaccia

Chef Bishop has the simplest and best recipe for basic focaccia that is incredibly versatile (Top it with just about anything!) and it’s easily prepared the morning of your party. Use the rising time to do other things, like shop at the market for your friend’s retirement gift!

  • Using a large wooden spoon, combine one and two-thirds cups warm water (about 110 F degrees), one packet of active dry yeast and three tablespoons of olive oil in a large bowl.
  • Add two cups of unbleached, all-purpose flour (I especially like King Arthur’s Bread Flour for this recipe.) and one and one-third cups whole wheat flour and two teaspoons of salt—kosher or coarse sea salt. Continue to stir until the dough begins to come together; then, say goodbye to the spoon and finish up with your trusty, clean hands.
  • Once there is a nice dough ball, turn it out on a flour-dusted board and knead until smooth and elastic, about six to eight minutes. (Here’s a great tip I learned from a Julia Child baking episode on PBS: keep a shaker container of plain flour in your frig. Use this handy shaker of flour to coat your kneading surface—no dipping in the flour bag, no wasted flour, no mess. Big smile.)
  • Turn the dough into a lightly oiled large bowl and cover with a clean, damp kitchen towel. Let rise until light and puffy, about one and a half hours until nearly double. Note that this is not precise timing—bread has a mind of its own and much depends on the temperature and humidity in your house. If my house is pretty warm and humid, I let the bread rise upstairs in dark corner. If my house is cold and dry, I turn my oven on ahead of preparing the dough to 200 degrees, then turn it off a few minutes before the bread dough goes in. Ahead of the bread dough, I place a steamy water bath in the bottom of the oven to coax the dough along and keep it from drying out. I usually leave the oven door slightly a jar to prevent any real “cooking.”
  • Your dough will be done when the imprint of your thumb stays in the dough ball. Punch down the dough and turn it back out on your floured surface for a quick knead and roll. Generously spray the bottom and sides of a 15.5 x 10.5 pan with a lip that measures at least one inch deep with cooking spray. Using a rolling pin (my choice not Chef Bishop’s), shape the dough into a large rectangle, place it in the pan and continue spreading it out evenly until it covers the pan.
  • Cover with a clean, damp kitchen towel, return it to its draft-free place and let it rise another hour to hour and a half. It should almost double as it did before.
  • When your dough has risen, preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Note that if the oven was your draft-free place for rising, the dough needs to come out before the oven goes on. Just saying….
  • Just before baking, use your thumb to make “dimples” in the dough every two inches or so. Drizzle with another two tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with coarse sea salt.
  • Bake until the bottom of the focaccia is richly colored and crisp and the top is golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Use a large spatula to remove the focaccia from the pan and slide it onto a wire rack to cool. Wonderful warm, but every bit as good a few hours later. This recipe yields a generous loaf that took us all the way through dinner.

Grilled Asparagus with Apricot Jam Glaze

About 30 minutes before your guests arrive, place washed and trimmed whole asparagus spears in a marinade of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fresh herbs. I had a pound of spears, so I used four tablespoons oil, four tablespoons dark balsamic vinegar laced with lavender—although a good white wine or tarragon vinegar would be equally yummy here—and some fresh thyme. Once my company was on the porch, I placed the asparagus on a sheet of aluminum foil on the grill—for maybe about 10 to 15 minutes total. At this point the spears were turning brown but still had “bite” to them. At the last minute, I glazed them with some low-sugar, organic apricot jam. The asparagus was my sweet foil to the salty Olivada and creamy buttery goat cheese.

It all came together with little fuss and a lot of compliments. So if you are looking for a great, impressive first course that really isn’t that much trouble, this might be it. BTW: local goat cheese is pretty easy to find, but if you can’t maybe a different creamy cheese—anything buttery.

Irie Elements logoOf course, there was gift-giving that night, but I wanted to stay true to simplicity, handmade and local. So I shopped at my

Irie Elements owner and artist

Irie Elements owner and artist Kara Zipprich Hayes

local farmer’s market, as I have often done in the past. Presenting my friend with a handmade, artisan-crafted gift, even if it was small, was a great joy. My choice for Darlene was a pair of bear-print sterling silver earrings from Irié Elements. Owner Kara Zipprich Hayes is a super-talented artist. Her creations in metalwork and layered glass are magical and highly personal. Her energy is embedded in every piece. I felt both privileged and excited to be giving Darlene this very special gift. I didn’t spend a fortune but the moment sure felt priceless.

So what is simplicity like for you? Do you actively practice it? Are you intrigued by the notion that having less is really having more? Share your thoughts.