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.