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.