Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Smitten with Bitten

If you haven't gotten hooked on Mark Bittman's NYtimes blog, Bitten, I seriously suggest you take a look. Today he blogged about radish salad. This is great! I always want to buy radishes at the market because they look so nice, but honestly I have no clue what to do with them. (A quick tangent about radishes while they're on my mind: I was treated to a remarkable gazpacho this weekend at a dinner party in Bushwick. I've never liked gaspacho, but this was slightly creamy, almost like chilled bisque. I would have never guesed radish is what gives this dish a special kick.) I love his conversational, light tone; his ideas about food and how to approach the kitchen are welcoming to the novice and encouraging/inspirational for the foodies and unabashed cooks among us. Wednesday is the Times' Dining & Wine Section day which is such a nice thing to look forward to and pleasantly marks the milestone of a passing week. Today Bittman (so gently!) addressed cutting down the meat in your diet.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Amherst Weekend 2008

Every year, my friend, Sarah, takes me with her out of the city to her parent's house in Amherst, MA for Memorial Day weekend. We ride through the fields with the windows rolled down listening to pop music from the '90s, we watch movies, we hang out with her folks, and consequently, we eat great food. Highlights from Amherst Weekend 2008 include:

Greene St. Café in Northampton-- a restaurant after my own heart in so many, many ways. On the front door there was a simple list of all the local ingredients that were incorporated into the evening's menu: swiss chard, asparagus, and wild mushrooms to name a few. The decided favorite at our table was the lavender creme anglaise we ate by the spoonful for dessert.

Flayvors at Cooks Farm in Hadley-- eat your ice cream and wander around the farm. What could be better? Their signiture flavor is grass ice cream, so you can graze just like those happy cows you're moo-ing at.

The Roadhouse-- the apple does not fall far from the tree. At age 25 my dad opened the Fleetwood Diner in Ann Arbor, MI. He ran it for three years and surprisingly still loves (always has) a good diner breakfast. What can I say? I'm my father's daughter, and The Roadhouse offers up nothing but the best-- sour cream coffee cake, asparagus goat cheese omlettes, banana bread french toast, and always very crispy, very brown, garlicy potatoes. Sarah often suggests other breakfast places to try, but I will not be deterred-- Amherst Weekend only rolls around once a year, and I won't take my chances.

The only tough part about Amherst Weekend is tearing myself away from those green pastures of the Happy Valley and boarding a train to go back to New York. As luck would have it tough, the strawberries had arrived by the time I made it home, and just like that I was back in the swing of the city.

Rhubarb and Seas of Strawberries

A few weeks ago, when the rhubarb had just come into the market in the city I bought some of those bitter, biting stalks and packed them in my bag to go to Amherst, MA for Memorial Day weekend. I offered the still-sandy rhubarb to my hosts as a gift, and effectively we got to do a little cooking together. What exactly do you do with rhubarb? How much sugar do you need to add to take the bite out? I would have just gone in head first, adding and tasting until my tongue was raw from all that tartness. My hostess, Sally, is (luckily) so much more practical and found a recipe.

1 1/4 lbs. rhubarb
1/4 c. water
3/4 c. sugar
2 tbs. Grand Marnier

Wash and chop up the rhubarb, throw it in a pot, and add the water. Stir until the mixture has come to a boil. Add sugar and stir constantly until the rhubarb has mostly disintigrated. Remove from heat and add grand marnier. Chill and serve over vanilla ice cream.

It was, of course, as simple as it sounds, and even more delicious. When the dinner guests asked where on earth the rhubarb had come from (it was not nearly in season yet in Western Mass.) I smiled and said I picked it from the city.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sing It, Dan!

In case you missed Dan Barber's Op-ed in Sunday's Times...his closing line "The future belongs to the gourmet," is music to my ears.

Spring Soup for the Allergy-prone Soul

In a snap I have gone from sympathizer to sufferer: the allergies have hit. Since my mother is far from here, the next best solution to fixing a sore throat is to fix a bowl of soup. In my fridge I've got greens, greens, and more greens, and I'm in a race to polish them off before I go back to the market tomorrow! So, spring soup.

Here's what I came up with on the fly:
1/2 purple onion, diced and sautéed in a little olive oil
1 cube vegetable boullion
2 c. water

I let this all simmer while I washed the following:
1/2 c. fresh flat leaf parsley
1/2 a bundle of arugala (about 1 c. when chopped)
2 c. chopped baby spinach leaves
4 scallions

I chopped up the greens, added them to the boiling stock, let it all cook down for a few minutes, and voila! lunch. I'm feeling better already.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Annette's Recipes

Last fall I called my grandma from Central Park on a Sunday afternoon to check in and say hello. I'd just started a new part-time job (I didn't tell her it was really more of an unpaid internship), was looking forward to a trip to Africa, and was working shifts at a cafe to make ends meet. "Are you ever going to pick a career and really do something with your life?" she attacked. Of course my plan of piecing little jobs together felt questionable to me too, but no one in my family has ever questioned the decisions I've made, and she touched on some very raw nerves. "How old are you now? 25?" she went on, digging deeper into the wound. "When are you finally going to settle down?" Actually I was only 23, just a year out of college, and I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I didn't need her to restate the obvious, stability was nowhere in sight and I knew it. A sob had already erupted; I shut the phone off and threw it into the grass. A few minutes later I called my mom "I'm never going to call her again!" I wailed. And, for a few months I didn't.

By the time I was about to leave for Africa she'd written me a letter of apology, and by the time I went home for Christmas we silently agreed to forget the whole thing had ever happened. By then I'd begun writing about food which is what she used to do for one of the local papers, and ever since our conversations have stuck closely to recipes and techniques which is intriguing and safe ground for both of us. Now I call on the way to the grocery store to ask how she makes her pearled onions (it's a special kind of thickener called Wondra), or what is in the dressing on her grapefruit and fennel salad (the key is a little anise licour in the dressing). Just yesterday I received the first of what I hope will be many hand written recipes, scrawled out in her French handwriting on an index card, complete with a list of ingredients and a shopping list with a note saying that this is the most practical way to go about preparing to cook a new dish. The recipe is for ginger and barley soup, and she promises a note on how to make St. Honoré, a French birthday cake, is on its way next. I called to thank her for the letter, and she dove right in, just as if we'd been mid-conversation in her living room back in Michigan. "Now if you're really serious about cooking, and I think you are, you need to have about twelve basic recipes under your belt." I was on the way to meet a friend at a block party. As she noted that soufflés were a must for the twelve, as is a good hollandaise, I passed abandoned lots just north of Flatbush, and let her lessons distract me from the grey industrial buildings and gray sky and the fact that I was running late. "If you can make a good hollandaise, you can dress up many things. And you know, you're going to have to get over this meat thing because you'll have to keep it interesting for the people you're serving." It has taken her six years to figure out how to leave a message on my cell phone, and three to remember where she's written down my address in New York so she can send me letters. It is quite fitting that she's remembered these key details of communication only now that the messages she has to convey are about what to cook. She was all business about the top twelve, and after I got off the phone I thought how lucky I am to have this French grandma.

In Cooking for Mr. Latté, Amanda Hesser writes about building her repertoire in preparation for becoming a wife. For months leading up to her wedding she tries to narrow down eight dishes that will be her standbys-- the recipes she'll be able to cook wherever she is, for whomever is coming to dinner-- those that will be known and remembered by all as signature Amanda. When I read this, the notion seemed decidedly old-fashioned, very dowry, and man-takes-a-wife rather than man-and-woman-take-each other. Unlike many tidbits my grandmother has passed along over the years ("that gray t-shirt does nothing for your eyes") the top twelve seemed practical, and even touching. The last time she tried to address how I was coming into myself as an adult I hung up on her. What does she know about the perils of being a young person in New York in an age of cell phones and blogs? I wouldn't have her balking at my tiny triumphs, and I wouldn't take the time to explain why, say, securing an unpaid internship at a top food magazine was in fact something to be proud of. While I don't know that she will ever cling on to the vernacular of blogs, or flogs, or vlogs, she does know food, and I have grown up hearing stories about a bouillabaisse she made once that quieted an entire table of ten dinner guests with the first sip. I have heard about the curried eggs she made for my parent's wedding brunch, and I remember her testing variations for pie crusts and chocolate mousse in the early years of my parent's inn in Maine-- these were the recipes that guests begged for at the end of their meals. She got married before she graduated from college, a fact that in my mind has always separated us in terms of where she was when she was my age. But despite the vast differences in how we passed our early 20's she just might know a thing or two about learning one's way around a kitchen, and now we both might be old enough to talk about how one goes about learning these lessons.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Midnight Snack

I know, I know, it's terrible to eat before you go to bed...but I was hungry! And I'd missed dinner in order to attend a community garden meeting, and then I came home, starving and boggled by how much bureaucracy goes in to organizing a communal space to grow flowers in this city. I needed to unwind, and my belly was longing for a snack. In the ice box I found the last of the baby portabellas and asparagus I bought on Saturday at the Greenmarket, and then I had to use up the scallions, oh! and there was the fresh goat cheese rolled in cracked pepper. I might have been easily sated by a cup of tea and a piece of toast, but late night inspiration got the better of me, and in no time I was steaming the asparagus and sautéeing it with garlic and soy sauce. In went the carefully sliced mushrooms and the rounds of scallions. Then, because I couldn't help myself, I took out a bag of rarely-used corn meal and mixed a spoonful with some hot water to make a quick cornmeal mush. The porridge thickens almost immediately when you add the cornmeal to the boiling water and it has such a nice, light, barely-sweet flavor to it. I spooned this into a favorite bowl, then poured my vegetables on top and finished the dish with a medallion of goat cheese. Everything except for the cornmeal and the soy sauce was local, and all of it sang me right to sleep.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Out of the Blogosphere and into the World...Now: Back to the Kitchen

It's been over a month since I last posted and my friends are beginning to wonder what I've been eating since there is no trace of activity in my "yellow kitchen"-- no crumbs, no dirty dishes, no recipes, no nothing. As it so happens, life took over, and I've fallen into a new job, launched an e-newsletter, and, well, the trees are in bloom in New York and this dreamer has been gazing out the window, riding her bike, smelling the magnolias and being very caught up in the moment of spring in the city. Forgive me: I'm back now.

Along with the cherry trees and those precious little green leaves (so delicate and new to the world!), yesterday morning I walked up to the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket and there they were: the asparagus have finally arrived! As I waited in line at Maxwell Farmstand with a small collection of coveted vegetables, the man behind me waxed poetic to the purple-headed stalks of asparagus he was holding before him like a bouquet. A week ago we had welcomed this very farm stand back for the season, two weeks before that I'd celebrated the return of kale, and before that it was still gray all the time and it seemed like we'd be living on apples forever. Just in the knick of time, the season has begun.

At the Greenmarket information stand a farmer was ladling out samples of sprouts doused in a dressing of tahini, miso, and soy sauce. A flock of marketers gathered in close to taste and inquire about protein content in sprouts, and how to make this coleslaw-like concoction in their own kitchens. When someone asked where to buy the sprouts she got a pamphlet in response with directions on how to grow a flat of them in her very own apartment. Vist for more info on growing your own sprouts.

Over the last month while I've been out of touch I embarked on some quiet but significant culinary adventures: I invented (more or less) a recipe for grapefruit sorbet, I cooked clams for the first time (the clam sauce was not of note, but the clams themselves were generous in texture and flavor and I will certainly try, try again), and I happened upon an Argentine barbeque. The barbeque offered no less than six courses of meat starting with chorizo sausages enveloped in crusty French bread buns, then on to sweat breads, blood sausage, short ribs, and strip steak...two courses of strip steak. Even I had to give in and do my share of tasting.

Which brings me to vegetarianism. For a while I was trying to hide the vegetarian factor on this blog, even though I haven't been eating meat since I went on a trip to China in the January of 2004. I grew up eating meat, and I still eat seafood, but my reasoning behind giving it up has been that I don't want to eat beef that has been processed, pumped full of hormones, probably moved by fork lifts, and slaughtered by unfairly treated laborers. So, I don't eat meat, and I don't miss it, but then last fall when I really got interested in writing about food I realized there is a time and a place to break every rule, and when the opportunity presents itself, I dig in to make sure I don't miss out. In a similar way my commitment to eating locally grown food (at least as much as possible) started out with the fact that I had no idea where the wilted lettuce at the grocery store was coming from. I've always loved to shop at the Greenmarkets in New York (and before that the farmers markets in my college town or in Ann Arbor where my parents live) because the scene is so friendly, and nothing really gets me going like piles of beets, carrots, fresh peaches, and buckets of blossoms, flats of perennials and herbs. Plus the food tastes better. But then this winter I read Plenty, a book by two Canadian journalists who took a year to document their conversion to a 100-mile diet. Much of the story is that of anticipating the arrival of the first greens, the trials of figuring out how to can properly, and the quest to find local wheat berries. There are marvelous seasonal recipes between the chapters, but there is a whole other factor that I'd never thought about when trumping the local market: eating locally helps reduce our carbon footprint. When food doesn't have to travel as far between the farm and your plate we are actively choosing to "Take a Bite out of Climate Change." Anna Lappé has just launched a site which addresses this specifically: . I encourage you all to explore the position papers, visit the carbon diet calculator, and read up on the advisers to her revolutionary project.

If you're in the New York City area you can sign up for my weekly e-newsletter Local Gourmands by e-mailing Each Monday I send out a list of events that are taking place in the city ranging from Anne Saxelby's cheese tasting tours, to farm festivals, to Slow Food gatherings, book readings, and urban agriculture events. If you're not in the city but caught by the energy of this local food revolution you can join the Facebook group What I Ate for Supper Last Night and share your own stories from the kitchen. While the food crisis manifests in riots, bread lines, and rice rations, there is no time like now to encourage the conversation about what's for dinner, where it came from, and really examining who you're voting for when you're voting with your fork.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Case in Point

For a long time I've admitted to flipping first to the Style section of the Sunday Times. Check out "Leaving Behind the Trucker Hat."

They've got their ears perked, those Times reporters.

Friday, March 7, 2008

This Little Veggie Went to Williamsburg

A few weeks ago, in the name of raising funds for The Greenhorns (check out the trailer: and give generously!!), I hopped on the M (who ever takes the M?!) and headed to a stop I'd never heard of, over a bridge I could only guess at, and mused about how happy it is to happen upon a new corner of the city-- one that makes the city you feel you know so well, seem like it is in fact another city altogether. I asked strangers for directions, and turned right on the corner. Above me the Williamsburg bridge was cloaked by night, across from me was Peter Luger. Wait, wait. I did a double take-- where was I? Really? Peter Luger, as in The? Indeed, thar she blew, and she's been there since 1887, so I am quite literally the new kid on the block.

I pressed on, a little smile now planted on my face. This would be a night of discovery. The address led me to a graffitied door which was propped open with a broom. A party called from the top floor, and little notes along the way urged me forth: "just a little more!" "follow your sweetie!" En haut a young woman in a wispy dress welcomed me in. There was a coat rack by the door, bouquets of twiggy branches framed the entry way. Where am I? I breathed, taking in the cement floor and the twinkle lights, the old industrial windows that looked out to the bridge and the train that was lit like the Polar Express as it chugged by. "You're in Williamsburg!" she laughed. Ah, yes, my forgotten Brooklyn among the young, the hip, the painfully artsy, ridiculously good-looking, and plasticly bespectacled, I found myself dying be a part of the fun. All I had to do was step inside.

At the bar I took a Bell canning jar from the box and requested a cup of "Le Cousin Rouge," one of three local wines on offer. The notes were fruity and inviting, a nice beginning to the evening-- nothing to knock you over, just a light "hello" in the tone of plain berry goodness. The guy next to me (tall, bearded, plaid shirt, terribly attractive) took a sip and nodded along with my murmurs of approval. "Yeah, you can really taste the earth in it," he said. And with that, the classic nod to the party surf, we stepped away to talk to others we already knew by name.

The crowd was fawning over a center table laden with no less than eight plates of local cheeses which were paired with bowls of strawberry preserves, chutney, and cherries that had been kept in brandy. We spread soft chevre on warm herb scones and dipped sticks of comte in a tangy salsa of peppers and fruit. There were little meat balls in one basket and freshly baked bread on a cutting board next to it. A dish of steamed spinach with curried eggs was polished off before I made my way to that end of the smorgasbord. There were nuts and berries spread out on the table cloth for decoration and for nibbling, carefully written tags by each dish announcing where its ingredients had come from, a blackboard listing the local purveyors who had donated the wine, the cheese, the nuts, the meat. There was a table with brochures-- an Eat Well Guide to Brooklyn, information on CSAs, and copies of The Greenhorns movie trailer. There was a "gift store" set up where you could buy Greenhorns stickers, or homemade packets of kombucha. I mingled with farm hands, the bearded Mast brothers of Mast Brothers chocolate, a cook from Diner who had volunteered to help out on his night off. I was introduced to Tom the Butcher who promised I could come by his place of business any time to watch him work (though Tuesdays are best, he emphasized, because that's when he dissembles the pigs). How could I turn an invitation like that down? Back in the kitchen someone was taking a turn at the pile of dishes, and even though speeches had been made and the purpose of the fundraiser had been officially stated, and the crowd was starting to thin, the appointed cooks were still at work.

In the spring issue of Edible Brooklyn there is an article about supper clubs. A new friend and I bonded over this exciting clue into the edible underworld of our boro. "How do we get invited?" we mused. The clubs are invite-only and very secretive unless you know someone who knows someone. My latest dream-plan is to create a local supper club-- forget waiting to be invited, we'll just start our own. As I shopped this idea around the Greenhorns fundraiser people were more than enthusiastic. They wanted to know when it was happening-- they were ready to write it down in their Moleskin planners. Daniel, the young guy working on development for the documentary, nodded in fast agreement. "I think that's where dining is headed in the next ten years-- back into the home." And as we gazed out at the crowd who had showed up and continued to linger his hypothesis seemed undeniable.

Daniel made his way to the center of the room and rattled off a good soundbite about going out into the community to dig up funds for the film. He then introduced dessert: we had chocolate bars from the Mast Brothers, homemade graham crackers, and there were homemade marshmallows too. "There are sticks in the bouquets by the door, and if you like, you're welcome to toast the marshmallows over the candle flames." Which is exactly what we did. Side by side, in a loft in the middle of the city we were kids at camp around a bon fire. S'mores have never tasted sweeter.

As I was starting to say my goodbyes a plate of garlic toasts smeared with mascarpone and pieces of fatty, fatty prosciutto made their way around the room. I had one arm in my coat already, I haven't eaten prosciutto in I can't count how many years, but I'd just met the butcher who had provided the meat, and he knew exactly where the pig had come from and what it had been fed. I happily took a bite...the gentle saltiness was luxurious with the creamy cheese. This is food you are meant to eat and enjoy, even if it comes after the end of the meal-- two weeks later I am still remembering precisely the way it tasted.

As I retraced my way to the subway stop I spied a discarded take home bag from Peter Luger, lost in a gutter under the bridge. Outside the restaurant itself what had been the 8 o'clock dinner crowd now milled around on the corner straightening their scarves and deciding that next time they would order the steak rare. I on the other hand, felt like I'd just descended from cloud nine. Sated and in awe of what my peers are producing-- both food-wise and art-wise-- I floated past the steak house crowd, and up to the elevated train stop. I wouldn't change a thing about the meal I'd just been served or the or the new friends, all local gourmands like myself, who had gathered together to serve it.

Lemons are for Inspiration

I went on a little shopping spree the other day and treated myself to a bowl full of Meyer Lemons. I knew they were in season just now, but a girl from Maine and Michigan hasn't had much of a chance to delight in these delicacies in her green twenty four years. When I was a kid I ate bodega lemons like oranges, sucking on little wedges, much to the cringing of my mother and babysitters and grandparents-- oh! those precious baby teeth were not long for this world!

My habit has mellowed out with age, but I keep staring at this splendid bowl of California Meyer Lemons, and every now and then I draw one to my nose...the scent is sweet and floral...while we continue to get rain and grey skies, I am dreaming of where these lemons will take me. Untouched just there on the kitchen table they offer a shocking promise, and I haven't even sunk my teeth into one yet.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Curry: the anti-anxiety

On Leonard Lopate's show the other day, author of Trail of Crumbs, Kim Sunée, said you should never cook angry. Leonard asked her if by this she meant that there should always be the ingredient of love detectable in the food. She hesitated for a second and then agreed. Cooking should be a calming and emotionally nourishing practice, she went on, and I couldn't agree more.

At my house this week we've been in the throws of a roommate crisis, yet again. February, the shortest month of the year, is quickly drawing to a close and we need to resign our lease on Saturday! The search for a replacement roommate has dragged on and on, and then the person we thought would take the spot backed out at the last second. To complicate matters even more, one of the existing roommates had a death in the family and had to fly back to Ohio on a moment's notice! Grasping for an answer to our desperate situation I tried to take deep breaths and convince myself it would all work out and be done with in a matter of days. But I love this house and its old molding, the jewel box window where I throw dinner parties, the long hallway, and the way the sun comes in my room each morning. What if no one could take the last room? What if we couldn't resign and I had to move out on two days notice? What if I was about to be homeless? Cooking, quite naturally, was what I needed to do to calm me down. "Don't cook when you're angry." Well, what about when everything in your body is ridden with anxiety? I decided the two states were not exactly the same, and turned to the cupboard to retrieve a can of tomatoes.

I'm not sure if it's the cold or the infrequency of good, fresh fruits and vegetables, but I've been craving tomatoes like nothing else these last few weeks. Oh! for the love of a good tomato! Given the housing crisis, I was in desperate need of comfort food, and I thought pasta and lots of sauce would be just the thing to warm me up and calm me down. But before my hand reached the box of linguine, I spotted chick peas and a potato. Then I remembered the coriander I had in the refrigerator. We would be changing course and making curry instead.

In Comfort Me With Apples, Ruth Reichl describes turning to curry to get her through her own love-loaded housing decision. I can always feel the tug at heart strings as I imagine her, young and in deep consternation, sad and stirring a spicy, soupy pot of curry. I channel Ruth when I'm feeling the same way. "[...]I clung to the comfort of my commune. I felt safe on Channing Way, and I cooked a lot of shrimp curry. It was my way of saying thank you."

As I heated oil and chopped onions and garlic for my own cure, I hoped that maybe the smell of the food would lure someone new and wonderful into our house. The cumin seeds were added to the shiny oil and spitting garlic. I waited for them to "smell," like my Indian cooking teacher, Shibana, always instructed. When the seeds toasted and indeed started to emit their dusty smell (it recalls markets around the world), I added chopped potatoes. Red chili, curry powder, ground cumin, salt, pepper. The potatoes soaked up all the spices and then I added the tomatoes and the chick peas, some raisins because I love them, and let it stew for close to an hour.

While the curry simmered, a Craigslist miracle descended on our abode. Stephanie showed up soaked through from a February rain. We sat in the kitchen talking over the room that is up for rent, and familiarizing ourselves with one another. While she and I reminisced about childhood dance lessons, time traveling in West Africa, and days in the park, Sarah found a last-minute ticket to Cincinatti for her grandfather's funeral. By the time I offered Stephanie the room and sent her back out into the world with one of our extra umbrellas, the curry was ready. I chopped some cilantro and sprinkled it on top, along with a dollop of yogurt. I settled into the couch and turned on Woody Allen's Manhattan. The raisins were plump with juice, the tomatoes just the tanginess I'd been lusting after, and the potatoes and chickpeas filled a spot in me that had been longing. Everything was going to be just fine.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Stir Crazy Triumph!

I'm done with February! So, so, done! My stir craziness has started to drive friends away. It's Saturday night and all I wanted to do was stay in and hibernate. But when February gives you ice, I guess you make ice cream...or at least that's what I did.

I've been on a Ronnybrook Farm kick lately. It started with the yogurt, first non-fat, then full fat, then I tried the cream, now I'm hooked on the butter. In between my weekly visits to the Greenmarket I've been dreaming up more and more creative things to cook with the scant resources we're left with in February. (On a side note, I did recently go on a field trip to a Whole Foods and found it boggling that you can in fact buy lemon grass and beautifully ripe red peppers in the middle of the winter in Manhattan. Many people are doing this. The line for the register on a Friday night snaked around the interior of the store. We joined the line. We even bought lemon grass. And then we went home and made a terrific red curry with hake and eggplant and plenty of garlic, ginger, and spice. I love learning to cook Thai food from my friend Rowena just as much as I love the challenge of trying to make something interesting out of what's been kept in the root cellar for the last five months. How many ways can you cook a potato? Everyone seems to be asking this week. We must be getting ready for spring.) This time of year there are Bosc pears at the Greenmarket, and plenty of them. I've cut them up and cooked them with oatmeal, I've eaten them with yogurt, I've poached them in port, I've baked them in tarts. It's like playing a song you can't get enough of-- it fades out and just as soon as it does, you're craving that first chord again. When my yogurt and my pear supply runs out, I go running back to Union Square to stock up on my staples. And then I lug the bounty home and on the train I think of what to make. In my weeks of hibernation there has been much eating of ice cream going on. Favorite flavors include (but are not limited) to: dulce de leche, rum raisin, butter pecan, and of course, coffee. But now that I've got a solid source of heavy cream from a local farm, why not make my own? Then Yonathan loaned me his nifty Cuisine Art ice cream machine and I was left with no more excuses.

First I made a purée of pears adding just a little sugar, a cup of pear juice (admittedly not local, but bought from the lovely and very local shop, D'Vine, a Syrian grocery around the corner), and a quarter cup of water. Then I separated the eggs, saving six yolks for the crème anglaise. Since I didn't have a vanilla bean I ground up some of the cardamom pods I brought back from Morocco and added them to the mix. This is the first time I've made crème anglaise, and I have to say, it went off without a hitch! You heat the cream without bringing it to a boil, pour a little into the yolks (whisking the yolks all the while), then pour your mixture back into the remaining cream. If your heat isn't too high and you continue to stir, you will get a lovely, thick sauce. In the end, the pear purée was added to the crème, and then into the fridge my batter went to chill for a mere four hours.

By midnight the ice cream maker was churning away, transforming my first triumph of the evening into the second: real deal, no two ways about it, nothing fat free in sight, ice cream.

The other day, in a particularly February funk, I decided it was time to take out the last of the raspberries and blackberries I'd frozen in July. The tart and slightly twiggy taste of a raspberry melting in my mouth softened me: I could remember what July feels like-- eventually we'll be there again. For now there are three containers of pear-cardamom bliss in my freezer. I think I'll eat a little bit tomorrow, but when it's too hot to sleep this summer I'll be able to dip into the reserves and recall a chill so fierce outside that it seemed best just to stay in on Saturday night and make ice cream.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Comfort Me With Applesauce

'An apple a day,' 'apples to apples,' 'Eve and the apple.' No doubt, this fruit is 'ripe' with possibility (I can't help myself), and luckily apples remain (relatively) ripe throughout the winter. We used to keep them in the uninsulated mud room in our house in Maine then bring them up to the kitchen when we wanted to make applesauce to go with pork chops-- when stored properly in a root cellar apples keep like champs. I've heard a lot of people complaining about the lack of variety in the Greenmarket lately-- it is February after all, and the the Greenmarket's slim offerings are not the only reminder that we are in the slugging-through-winter phase of the year. Right now, the day before Valentines Day, I am looking out the kitchen window at a street so grey and rainy it makes my heart ache. A week ago it was a balmy 64˚ in Midtown. I was sweating in a black wool dress as I darted between interviews, and at the end of the day felt so disheartened by the suits and ties I'd been bumping elbows with that it was all I could do to drag myself home to Brooklyn. At 42nd St. I pondered my options and chose to take the Q train because the view from the Manhattan Bridge looking back on the maze of buildings and career climbing cradles me when I need it most, and that afternoon I was feeling in need of a little assurance. I was zoning out to my iPod when the car pulled in to 14th St. and then I remembered that it was Wednesday, a market day. I'd almost forgotten! Immediately, things started to look up.

About a month ago I overheard someone say "I went to the market, but all they have now is apples." She said it with a cringe, as though the insult to my beloved farmers wasn't enough. With the complaint ringing annoyingly in my ears I went out one day to prove her wrong, but sadly discovered that she was not too far off the mark. I walked around surveying the produce, taking in the scant collections of squash, the small baskets of mushrooms, the potatoes, and mildly comparing choices and prices of apples--the one thing everyone had in abundance. I bought a few from my apple guy, and then I rounded the corner to find bags of stray apples thrown together with tiny Bosc pears. One five pound bag for $3! Quelle bonne marché! That week I made my first batch of apple sauce along with a variety of poached pear desserts. The next week I went back for more. Now I can't seem to stop myself. I eat warm applesauce alongside greens and squash for dinner, or applesauce with yogurt for breakfast, and once I had the genius idea to use it in a spice cake.

Last week, as I morosely emerged from the subway, there was a pot of hot pear cider calling my name. Then I wandered over to my new favorite apple guy to pick up my now habitual mixed bag of pears and apples. At the Ronnybrook Dairy stand I bought yogurt and splurged on a bottle of heavy cream (either the warm weather or just my quirkiness has brought on cravings for ice cream in February). By the time I was on the Q again, looking back at Manhattan as we traversed the bridge, I was already feeling better. Behind me was another day of job hunting; ahead of me was home, my kitchen, and the solace that comes with diving in to a good cooking project.

In our house growing up, apple sauce was always something of a treat. My dad would make it on Sundays in the winter, maybe because he was a little bored, or a little lonely up there in Maine in the dead of January. He'd call me in to the kitchen and wait for my reaction as he revealed what was under the lid of the stock pot. "Ohhh, applesauce!" Sweet steam clouded around my face, and I could see two cinnamon sticks pocking out of the soft pink pulp. This was, and is, a meeting of happy things-- sweet, cinnamon, and pink-- if that doesn't warm you up, I don't know what will. So now, in the doldrums of winter, in between jobs, pondering days filled with many 'what ifs', I have been going back to the basics and simmering many apples. Sometimes I stand by the stove and watch them cook down. Lately there's time in the day to do this, and I take comfort in savoring the slow simmering process. Even if it is raining when it should be snowing, or it's 64˚ in Midtown when we should be complaining about the city's wind tunnels, it is still winter, and my body knows it is time for hibernation. Applesauce is the perfect companion to hunker down and wait it out with.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dinner with the Canadian

I was getting nervous about my birthday (like I do every year) when Eric asked if I'd like to come over for dinner. I'd devoted the better part of the day to running searches on and and various food blogs figuring out what the heck I should cook for my parties. Somehow I'd wound up with about four celebratory events all thrown by different groups of friends and all to fete me-- I was so touched that (naturally) my response was to cook for every one! But now that it was Tuesday and my birthday was two days away I'd worked myself into a tizzy and my tastes were tied. After a day of imagining how Moroccan eggplant or Rajasthani squash curry or just a zucchini soup would taste I could barely bring myself to throw together a simple salad for the time being. So when Eric called I was relieved, and then I remembered that his Canadian friend (who happened to be a former chef ) was visiting. I immediately responded to the invite saying I hoped the fare would be particularly of the north country.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love surfing through on-line recipes to get inspirations for pairings and new flavors just as much as the next young Brooklynite, but for all my searching I couldn't come up with a semblance of dishes that would make a complete and complimentary meal. I came across an intriguing recipe for greens cooked with raisins, nuts, and tossed in an Asiatic vinaigrette, but it just didn't seem like this would go too well with squash ravioli which featured a different nut and a decidedly round, earthy flavor. Then I thought about making my grandmother's pearl onions, but the cream sauce seemed like it would be unnecessary along side the brown butter sauce for the pasta. Finally, I shut off the computer.

Chez Eric is around the corner, and when I arrived Stephen the Canadian had his ingredients well prepped. I was set to work chopping parsley while he stirred a cheese sauce and mashed potatoes. Eric cut the tops off bell peppers and provided the party with beer. I handle myself pretty well in the kitchen, but the Canadian obviously had his act together, so after the parsley I stepped back to watch him work the show. Fresh mashed garlic was mixed into the potatoes, roasted garlic cloves were tossed with the chickpeas and parsley and then the mixture was generously stuffed into the bell peppers. A little fresh cheese capped les poishice, and into the oven they went. At the last minute, just before we ate, cauliflower florets were steamed.

But in the mean time, while we waited for the stuffed peppers to roast in the oven, the three of us reposed in the living room where Stephen regaled us with stories of growing up five hours north of Toronto. I grew up in rural Maine, and like his neck of the woods, mine too was a land of drunken ice fisherman, hunters and plow drivers. The characters he spoke of (the neighbor who was perpetually drunk, the boys he had worked logging jobs with) were familiar to me, as was his obvious devotion to the land where seasons still rule, and where making it through yet another winter is always a triumph worth celebrating. Eric and I curled up like cats, happy for the entertaining yarns that felt so distant from this little city apartment-- imagine a land where the neighbor's house collapses in on the foundation again and again, so he keeps rebuilding it with his tractor and his own two hands!

Talk turned to college and the friends we cooked with in dorms. Eric and I know one another because we belonged to a group of friends at Sarah Lawrence who cooked family dinner for each other every Sunday. As it turned out, Stephen, up at his university in Canada, had headed up a similar Sunday night tradition. At our gatherings in Westchester one person cooked for the group each week and we rotated around the circle throughout the semester. Stephen, on the other hand, had taken the time to call up everyone involved to organize who would bring a starch, who would bring vegetables, etc. And then there was the meat. Due to an overpopulation of deer, there was always plenty of venison in the freezer, and the Family Dinner crew could have at it for free. As he explained this he prefaced the situation by saying “It may seem kind of cruel, but where I come from, people go out and kill deer because there are simply too many.” Was he trying to protect our city ears and liberal hearts from the reality of game hunting? Eric, who grew up in a ritzy suburb of Boston, looked like he was trying to figure out how he felt about this. It's precious to watch a deer walk undisturbed through your back yard in the dead of winter, and watching his reaction I could see where he was coming from. But then I recalled the over-stuffed freezers in Maine. One of the waitresses from my parent's inn would have a boyfriend who had shot a buck and there wouldn't be enough room in the freezer to keep all the meat. We'd get gifts of frozen venison steaks (or once we got moose burgers) when the overflow was too much to handle. I remember going to someone's house when I was only five or six to eat bear stew. I'd seen a black bear at the Bluehill Fair, but mostly I thought of the animals as characters illustrated in story books like Blueberries for Sal. The bear meat was sinewy but undeniably delicious in a heavy broth with carrots and potatoes. Now, twenty years later, the idea of eating dear or bear seemed so primal, so hunter and gatherer, so pioneer on the Western frontier. My parents now live in Michigan in a house by a river and some woods. There is a pack of deer who parade through their back yard several times a day at feeding hour, and whenever I go to visit I am stunned again and again by their size, their strength, and their wild, unpredictable darting movements. They terrorize my mother's garden, but being able to watch a wild animal in its natural habitat at such a close distance is something we cherish. We hold our breath to see how long it will be before they dash off, and always wish we could have watched them a while longer. I suppose restaurants in New York serve venison on the menu, but if I were to see it listed I would not instinctually imagine the bulging freezer door and the buck that Billy had shot back in October. Venison in the city would be braised in a complicated sauce, it would be considered a delicacy, and it would be so disguised by the theatre of the restaurants that I have become accustomed to, that I wouldn't recognize it as the meat I ate as a child. Our kitchen in Maine was the warmest room in the house, and we kept all the doors leading out of it shut for most months of the year to trap the radiation from the wood stove. When there were power outages we slept on the kitchen linoleum, and we warmed our clothes by the stove so they would be toasty when we got out of the bath. Because we moved away so long ago, and because the era of childhood now feels like a different time in history, I have a hard time believing anyone still lives the way we did (the houses I've lived in for the last ten years have had all kinds of modern amenities like base board heaters, dishwashers, and stainless steel stoves). How, in my twenty four years, have I gone from eating moose burgers without thinking anything of it, to being a city person who must be protected from the notion of killing deer not for game, but simply to keep the population down? I couldn't believe I looked the part of the latter. And yet, I have morphed into this role,so much so that I tried to imagine deer parading down Sixth Avenue in Park Slope but for the life of me could not. The young mothers with their baby strollers would be running for the bridge back to Manhattan. It would be like dinosaurs taking over the city. In the world I live in now deer just aren't part of the picture, and it's nearly impossible to import them from the memory of the rural day-to-day I once knew so well to the Park Slope latte and bagel routine that is so much my reality it seems I must have always lived like this.

Stephen piled our plates with food (smashed potatoes, cauliflower with cheese sauce, the chick pea stuffed peppers, and salad). After all that talk about wintering over and matter-of-fact stories about community members dying from exposure to the elements, we had convinced ourselves that we needed to eat every last bite of his meal to store up energy for survival. The flavors, like the Canadian himself and the stories he told, were simple and robust, not disguised as anything but themselves-- unapologetically pure without a hint of pretense. It was so good I couldn't stop eating, and I never lost sight of the ingredients in each bite-- parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. On the walk home, cradling my nice little box of leftovers, I rethought the upcoming birthday dinner entirely. My guests would be a gathering of old friends and new, an amalgam of companions from high school, college, time spent abroad, and time in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. The food would bring us together around one round table, and I wanted the meal itself to be representative of the reunion. The food wouldn't be fancy-- no need to impress this crowd who know me so well, no need to get lost in the unfamiliar annals of archived Gourmet recipes-- the food would be decidedly a taste of me and all the places I've come from to arrive at this moment of turning a new age. On one plate I could share my history in flavors from Maine to Michigan to New York. There is nothing pretentious about the journey, or what I've grown up eating along the way, there is only the food and the story that each dish tells.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Galette de Rois

The Frenchie cafe where I work has just stopped making Galette de Rois for the year, and officially, the holiday season is over. When I lived in Ann Arbor, our family friend, Claudette, used to throw a Twelfth Night party every year. Around Christmas time we would receive a delicate hand painted or block print invitation in the mail calling us forth to celebrate Twelfth Night in the beginning of January, a commemoration of the adoration of the Magi, and the twelfth night of Christmas, January 6. Because the crowd was always an artsy one, we were all instructed to bring twelve little things to contribute to the kitty. I remember staying up late making a set of twelve matching bottle cap magnets. Other people would bring twelve buttons, twelve beads, twelve stamps. When we arrived we would reveal our little trucs, arranging them gingerly on the piano, and before the end of the night you would go to the piano and marvel at the collection, carefully choosing twelve different treasures to take home.

There was always wonderful food at this party as well-- one year Claudette made tamales (the first tamales I ever had, oddly enough), or sometimes there was Hoppin' John to bring good fortune in the New Year. It was a non-Christmas Christmas party, something to look forward to, a bench mark that meant the holidays were over and we could now get on with things: a cozy release into the new year.

This year, looking over the beautiful puff pastry tops of the Galettes at my cafe I couldn't resist the urge to throw a Twelfth Night party of my own. A cake you only eat once a year? How can you RESIST making one? Plus there is the cute little ceramic figurine inside. The person who bites the piece of cake that holds the figurine is named king and gets to pick his queen by dropping the trinket in her wine glass....or the "king" has to buy his friends a round of drinks...or he gets to kiss the cook, depending on whose version you play by.

The cake was a huge success and it is the easiest thing to make: you simply cut a round of puff pastry, place it in the bottom of a spring form pan, lather on some frangipane (I learned from a trusted source that all there is to frangipane is sugar, an egg, and of course plenty of almond paste) and then rest another round of puff pastry on top. The Galette cooks at 350 until the top is nice and lightly browned, and then you can dust some confectioner's sugar once it is popped out on to a serving plate. Oh! And don't forget to include the surprise! I nestled a little lamb in the frangipan, which Edward found, and then promptly chose Leah to be his queen.

The party was held on such short notice we didn't feel we could obligate our guests to come up with twelve dancing princesses, or twelve reindeer, or even a measly twelve marbles, but we did manage to consume our share of beans in a terrific chili (did you know the secret ingredient is cocoa powder? I didn't until Connie let me in on the goods) so we can all look forward to a year which will rain pennies of wealth.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Picking up right where I left off

When I got back from Africa it was Christmas time. The tree vendors were doing business on corners in the city, my friends were throwing parties with Bouche de Noel, and even our confused and troublesome landlord had dropped off a bottle of wine as a holiday gift. Steph and I had spent the last nights in Morocco on hard twin beds in some shifty hotels. One night we locked ourselves into our room in a fit of protection against a drunk man in the hallway. 'La France! La France!' he kept calling to lure us out. Luckily, we knew better, and stocked with a good stash of meringues, macaroons, and sugared peanuts we happily staid in, munching and smoking hookah to our hearts content. Those last few nights, travel-weary and done with defending ourselves in the streets against imposing shop owners and louche men, we lied on our beds in the dark, dreaming of the gingerbread houses we would make when we got home, the spices we were going to have to smuggle past customs, and the famed Brooklyn pizza Steph promised her parents would bring when they came to meet us at the airport in Newark. As the travel gods would have it, we made it home no problem, luxuriating in the free-flowing wine of Air-France and the chance to catch up on movies while we traversed the last great expanse before home. We nearly missed our connection in Paris, and then a security guard made me unpack all of the twelve soup bowls, the ladle made of a squash goard, the eighteen juice glasses, and other miscellaneous souvenirs I was toting in a ramshackle market bag. Miraculously, only one little glass broke in the process, and even more miraculously, she let me take everything on the plane. Despite the fact that my luggage got lost three times before I finally made it back to Brooklyn for the New Year, I am home again, writing from the kitchen.

When my mother picked me up in Detroit for the holidays I lodged right into the lists of food we were going to cook. I had spices to make a proper Moroccan tagine and dried Hibiscus flowers to brew jus de bissap, but finally back in my own country I was most excited about Christmas cookies. We were driving down the grey strip of highway in Detroit, past foreclosure signs, and billboards advertising strip clubs, when I announced that I'd decided our Christmas tree should be entirely edible. My mother, just happy to have me at arm's reach, got a goofy look on her face, the cogs in her artist's brain already spinning with possibilities. "What exactly do you mean?" she asked. I meant Americans waste far too much money, energy, and wrapping paper on Christmas. For years the holiday has made me sick with anxiety, but I still wanted to make cookies, even if the calorie count, like everything else about the holiday seemed entirely excessive, if not totally wasteful.

No one likes to take the decorations down off the Christmas tree, so why not leave them off to begin with? What about gingerbread cookies as ornaments? How about cranberry and popcorn garlands that the birds could nibble on when the tree got thrown in the backyard to decompose? And why cut down a living tree anyway? Why not put the presents under a little rosemary plant on the dining room table? On this last point I had to concede, at least for now. My dad happens to be in the business of selling beautiful Christmas trees, and my family happened to not be ready to entirely do away with tradition. As for la fin de 2007, the year in which my pen met my palate, it ended on a sweet note, the three of us licking our fingers of lemon icing and brushing double spice gingerbread crumbs from our sweaters. At the last report from the homestead, the deer are making off with the leftovers.