Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On brownies and Brussels sprouts

Three days before my twenty-seventh birthday, I woke up at nine, had brownies for breakfast, and read Harry Potter on the living room couch. Somewhere between spilling chocolate crumbs down the front of my shirt, and reading about a giant bank run by goblins, I became very self-aware -- that this was probably not, by proper standards, a very adult-like way to start one's day.

To be fair, I'm reading Harry Potter in Spanish, in my third novelistic attempt to improve my second language skills. I first started with Gabriel García Márquez's El General en su laberinto (The General in His Labyrinth). That proved to be too ambitious, no matter how much I carried the book around in my bag, from subway to Spanish class to museum. I decided to try something I'd read before, then, in English, so I picked up El Americano impasible (The Quiet American) by Graham Greene . . . but that too fell by the wayside, on the nightstand, collecting dust.

Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal is proving to be much more fun for me to read -- the only genuine reason I am eager to pick up a book, anyway. I understand, on average, about ninety percent of the prose, and continue to learn as I go along. In addition to developing a deeper understanding of the subjunctive, and the various uses of the various past tenses, I am learning vocabulary words like "varita" and "lechuza" and "hechicería" ("wand" and "owl" and "sorcery"), which I'm sure will be very helpful when I go back to the States and start looking for a job.

I came across a part this morning, though, that made me frown. It's the bit where Harry and Ron have just met for the first time, on the train ride to Hogwarts, and the snack-selling lady stops by their cabin with her cart. Harry is enticed by the Every Flavor Jelly Beans and Ron warns him that the candies are, truly, every flavor -- even spinach, and liver, and tripe. Ron picks a green one, and bits into it gingerly: "See? Brussels sprouts."

While I fully concur that it would be very weird to eat certain foods in jelly bean form (including jelly beans), why oh why are things like spinach, and liver, and tripe, considered gross from the get go? I think the author picked these foods not because they would be unsuccessful candy flavors, but for the gut reaction they get when mentioned at all. What's JK Rowling's beef with liver?

There are some foods that, even as children (as evidenced by children's books), we are supposed to just not like. We're supposed to cringe at the threat of cabbage, of spinach, of beets. Liver, though it comes in so many delicious sizes and shapes and flavors, is simply pictured as chopped, stranded and forlorn. And while it's true that many of these flavors may be a bit strong for children's tender taste buds, we so often grow into adulthood without giving them a fair chance.

So, I say, in defiance of brownies-for-breakfast and Ron Weasley, I will have beets for dinner. I have a dish already in mind: sticky, creamy risotto finished off with roasted beets and crumbled blue cheese. Not food strictly for adults, of course, but it will certainly make me feel grown-up.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A short study in duality: two partings/greetings

Less than a week before I left the States to go live in Buenos Aires, Argentina for an undetermined period of time, I had two very memorable partings with two people who had been, for a long time a long time ago, my closest friends. I use the word "partings" because these visits were effectively brought about because of my great move, my big goodbye. In actuality, though, I hadn't seen either of these two people in such a long time, that the visits felt like more of a welcome home than a sending-off.

I give you, then, two brief pictures of two good people, great women, best friends. Through food, of course, as it always has been and always shall be.

Liz

I can't remember if I told Liz directly about my move to Argentina, or if she found out through her mother. Liz's mom, Honi, and mine have been close ever since they met as working middle-aged, middle-class moms, sending their nine-year-old daughters to a daycare off of one of Pennsylvania's saddest excuses of a main street. Though growing apart once college rolled around, Liz and I have managed to stay more or less connected through our mothers' mutual hobbies of daughter-pride and familial gossip. Either way, when I left Liz a voice mail about Buenos Aires, she called back within hours to say, "I can come up tomorrow. Is that okay?"

Because she knows (Pleasant Valley High School Anatomy Honors aside) my heart is buried deep somewhere in my stomach, Liz came bearing a giant bag of soft pretzels from the factory in Philadelphia. For those of you souls unfortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the Philly pretzel, I give the following as a somewhat inadequate description. The Philly pretzel is a perfect street food, inexpensive and deceptively filling. The Philly pretzel is different from, say, the classic New York variety primarily in shape: instead of a stand-alone twist, the Philly version is smooshed up along a long line of neighbors. This makes it extra fun to pull apart, releasing hot steam -- gustatory experiences so often start with other senses. The pretzel is great plain, or, even better, doused with a fat line of tangy yellow mustard, the perfect contrast to the soft, slightly sweet dough. I also find the Philly pretzel to be a bit softer than street pretzels in other cities; its crust, somehow, is less crusty, its dough more doughnut than bagel.

When I opened the door to Liz, she had a big brown bag in her hand. "Chris and I visited the pretzel factory this morning," she told me, and I knew, just like she must have, it was going to be a good day.

We spent hours on my parents' living room couch, catching up, in between mouthfuls of pretzel and mustard. She told me the company she worked for was moving from Philadelphia to Atlanta, and so she was looking for other places to work. We discussed the merits of New York, of Boston. Of traveling for work, of traveling for pleasure. Of marathons and yoga. (I learned Liz is at, maybe even beyond, the stand-on-your-head stage! And I can barely stretch to reach my toes.) We talked about boyfriends, and about books. Later, we played cards with my parents, eating cookies my mother had made, the Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker ready-made dough kind, with the colorful shapes in the middle, which get squished as the knife slices down.

Liz left me with: a few good book recommendations, a present in the workings, and a big bag of pretzels I hid out in our garage, from which I would sneak snacks throughout the rest of the week, a treat I relished because I knew, dough and thought alike, there would be none of its kind where I was going.

Courtney

It's hard for me to think of a time when I haven't eaten when I've been with Courtney. We're either on our way to get food, or in the middle of stuffing our faces, or resting on our stomachs to help heal the bloated-stomach pain (and help hurry along the next round of feasting). My memories of Courtney always seem to involve laughing with my mouth full, or spilling food on myself as I try to describe something with my hands, or spitting out a giant gulp of Coke when she says, well, almost anything.

So it was only appropriate that on my drive down to Courtney's apartment in Pennsylvania, just three days before I left the country, I got a phone call: "I'm at Dunkin' Donuts. You want anything?"

I showed up at her door with a bottle of Malbec, in celebration of my moving to Argentina. She in turn greeted me with a giant bag of Tostitos and a big jar of spicy salsa, in celebration of my arrival in Allentown. We tried, as best as two old friends could, to cram a few years into a few hours. We spoke quickly, leaving out certain details that may have been more important to those less in tune with one another, mortaring our broken pieces with hand gestures, and facial cues, and "ya know?"s -- laying a solid foundation, really, as any.

I drove away from Courtney's place very late, but much earlier than I'd wanted. Time, of course, nagging me all the while -- for what little time I had left, driving home a few hours in the dark, I spent thinking about how much time I had lost.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A plane ride

Or, These Are The Kinds Of Letters I Write



I wanted to clarify my story of the Portuguese girl on the plane. The phone just wasn't right.

I was sitting at the end of a row of five seats, and the girl was two seats away. I was translating a play of Garcia Lorca's (Bodas de Sangre: Weddings of Blood!) into English, when she leaned over and asked, in Spanish, what I was studying. I explained. We talked for almost three hours. Her Spanish was slow and sparkled with that slightly rough sound of Portuguese (I am enamored of the language because they have a sound that seems to me vaguely Slavic: kind of like schkkkah). We talked about the differences in Latin American and North American attitudes towards strangers, the Three Brazils, Mexican food. She complimented my Spanish. She seemed genuinely impressed and thus I was genuinely flattered. Most people who say, "Your Spanish is so good!" are either being polite or have only had short, simple conversations with me. You can easily wow a person by being able to master the present tense and phrases like, "I love Argentina!" and "The day is so pretty."

She told me that she can never sleep on planes, but after three hours of conversation, around one in the morning, over the sea, we decided to try and sleep. She put up the arm rest and laid down and curled up. She was a tiny girl, with very curly hair. She put pillows behind her head but she wound up resting in the crook of my arm (if you could see me, I am making a motion to the inside of my elbow). I don't know if she realized she was sleeping against me. It was nice, though, the simple intimacy of it. Her curls on my skin and me, being careful not to breath too deeply. I didn't want to wake her up.

So that's what I was trying to tell you. Also, there was a guy reading Nietzsche in Portuguese in the aisle across from me. His wife probably thought I was checking him out, but really it was just the situation that was making me smile.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Garbanzos, ahoy!


Buenos Aires is getting hot.

It's happened quickly, and without warning. Two weeks ago we had the windows open to let in fresh, cool air, and we were wearing light jackets at night and in early morning, and I was asking Bennett if he was sure he didn't want to put a long-sleeved shirt over that golf tee he was wearing out for the day, I mean I know it's sunny but it's still brisk and shade can be deceptive, right, honey?

Then everything changed. From the low seventies, the climate has jumped to the high eighties. With the seemingly spontaneous jumps in temperature and time (for some reason, part of Argentina decided not to do daylight savings this year, but all the computer clocks and half of the cell phones jumped an hour ahead, anyway, two weeks ago; I've changed my laptop clock twice but my computer, each week, keeps edging ahead on its own on Monday mornings), Buenos Aires is starting to take on a whole other other-worldly feel.

Clothing in the city hasn't changed much, with women still in tight jeans and high heels, and men still in dark suits and button-ups, but it seems to me there are lines of desperate sweat breaking out along everyone's foreheads. Each person who has been here for at least one summer has told me how brutally hot and humid the city gets, but thus far, I've just nodded and attributed their descriptions to the standard porteño exaggeration style. Though I'm used to sweaty, swampy DC summers, it's been over a year since I've been in true heat, and I am beginning to get a little scared.

Anyway. The point of this all, really, is that today for lunch I wanted to make oeuf cocotte, which sounds very dainty and fancy, all dressed up in italics, but really it's just baked eggs, topped with a little milk or cream to keep them moist. I was planning on a version with smoked salmon and cream cheese and shallots, and fresh baguette for dipping into the runny yolks, set up on our little table in all manners of rustic elegance.

Well, after I did my shopping in the hot hot heat of the early afternoon, and dropped the grocery bags onto the kitchen counter, I realized there was no way on earth I was going to turn on the oven. So, the eggs went into the refrigerator, and the salmon went into a sandwich. And as I had more time to play in the kitchen, I started my slow attack on our full vegetable drawer: the first victim being a head of slightly droopy romaine lettuce.

One of my favorite simple dishes is made up of garbanzo beans, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. I've tried throwing raw greens into the mix from time to time, but the leaves never seem to fit right on the fork, especially when you are chasing the slippery little beans around. I needed to use the romaine, though, before it started to get brown and slick and all sorts of bad things that rest on your conscience, if you think about that sort of thing. So! What's a girl to do, using a minimum amount of heat in a minimum amount of time? She wilts a few leaves on the stove, on the lowest of settings in the littlest of broth, and feels ridiculously proud when her greens, once cooked a bit, are greener than before.

The garbanzos and romaine are happy partners; the beans provide the slightly sweet, nutty base, and the lettuce provides a pleasantly bitter contrast. Everything comes together quickly, and can be eaten warm, fresh out of the pan, or barely cooled, after sitting in the fridge for an hour or so -- perfect for whatever weather is thrown at you.


Garbanzo Beans with Wilted Romaine

I didn't try this today, but I'll bet this salad would also be very good with some thinly grated Parmesan cheese added in, at the very end.

1 head romaine lettuce
1 shallot, chopped
1/3 cup chicken stock (I used 1/3 cup water, and 1/2 a bouillon cube)
1 can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
juice of 1/2 lemon
olive oil, to taste

Clean and separate the lettuce leaves, and tear into medium-sized pieces.

Meanwhile, heat the shallot in the chicken stock in a pot over low heat. Once the water has come to a simmer, toss in the lettuce. This may look like a lot at first, but the leaves cook down quickly. Stir occasionally, until the romaine has wilted and taken on a bright green color, not quite five minutes.

Strain the leaves from the broth. (I saved this, today, and drank it. It was delicious, and filled with all sorts of nutrients, I'm sure.)

Put the wilted romaine and drained garbanzos together in a bowl. Mix in the lemon juice, and drizzle over olive oil, to taste. A little salt and freshly grated pepper, and you're done!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gateway blue cheese


Blue cheese, I wasn't always a fan of you. I would watch as my mother dumped you on top of burgers and steaks, and cringe with involuntary taste remembrance. You would show up, without warning sometimes, stuffed in pastas or topped on salads, rendering otherwise good foods inedible. It didn't make sense to me; my palate was otherwise accustomed to strong tastes: dark chocolate, coffee, shellfish, even from a young age. Fans of yours would gush and goo, as if you were some kind of very addictive drug. But you, blue cheese, did nothing for me.

But then, one day, two years ago, maybe three, that all changed for me. I don't remember the exact moment, but I remember the exact salad: one with roasted baby beets, and endives, and bacon vinaigrette, and Bayley Hazen Blue. Bayley Hazen is a mild, dry cheese, gentle on the palate and a good supporter of other flavors; a beginner's blue: I call it gateway blue cheese. Because, now, just like all the blue cheese fans before me, I'm addicted.


Blue cheese, I adore you. I love putting you with all sorts of things: beets, carrots, figs, pasta, empanadas, burgers. With a slice of thick toast and a heavy hand of honey, there's no better treat. You can be fancy, all long silk and black gloves, served after an elegant meal, with a sweet reduction of port and a dash of pine nuts. You can be casual, ripped jeans and scuffed sneakers, mixed with mayonnaise and served with hot saucy chicken wings. You even allow for typos, bleu or blue, you blew me out of the water!, you silly old thing.

Even better, perhaps, is that instead of turning me off of foods I like, you turn me onto foods I'd rather not eat. Coleslaw, for instance: raw cabbage swimming in mayonnaise is something I tend to decline, at picnics, at barbeques, with burger orders. But! Mix a little blue cheese in, and something rather lame starts to sparkle. Every crunchy bite of this salad is rewarded with a proper tang from blue cheese, and a certain sweetness from the carrots. Last night, after a few forkfuls, Bennett swore: "This is the best coleslaw I've ever eaten."


Warning: this makes a lot. The two of us ate it all in less than twenty-four hours.


Blue Cheese Coleslaw
Adapted from The Boathouse: Tales and Recipes from a Southern Kitchen

1/3 cup mayonnaise (I used Hellman's light; I'm not sure if this makes a difference)
4 tablespoons light sour cream
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
6 cups white cabbage, thinly sliced (about 1 pound)
2 medium carrots, grated
1 small onion

Combine the mayonnaise, sour cream, vinegar, and cayenne pepper in a large bowl, mixing until smooth. Add the blue cheese, folding into the mixture.

Add the vegetables, and mix until well incorporated. Keep refrigerated until serving.

Monday, October 26, 2009

An oversight of an evening

We threw our first dinner party this Saturday.

Oh, dinner party, such a fancy term, smacking of long candles, crystal glassware, elaborate courses. Perhaps, for those a bit less formal, the immediate imagination still brings up basics such as tablecloths and enough chairs for everyone eating.

Ours had none of that, not even matching glasses, or enough of the same type of plates to go around. What we had, instead, was a mismatch of foods and flatware and languages, a sofa-turned-two-seats-at-the-table, seven liters of beer and four bottles of wine, and a hell of a good time.

The great thing about dinner parties in Buenos Aires is that people eat late here. Like, 8 pm is the earliest most places open for dinner, and it's not unusual to see little kids running around in restaurants at 1 am. When I was studying abroad here, oh way back when, I once asked my host-lady to have dinner at seven. She laughed and said, "Oh, just like the country folk!"

So, why is this great for you, throwing a dinner party? It means that you can wake up at 6.40 pm from a late and way too long nap, say "Shit!", go to the grocery store and pick up all your necessities, shower at eight, blow dry your hair at eight twenty, and not even finish putting away all the groceries when your first guests ring the doorbell. By nine, you are sitting at a table with a couple of bottles of beer and wine, and a lovely, artisan cutting board heavy with salami and olives and cheese, nibbling and chatting and all of that, just like you would be doing had you been a much better planner and experienced host.

I love those old memoirs, where people keep list of their menus, each line designating a course. I'm speaking of fancy recordings of Junior League balls, of wedding cards, of the ones thrown in, occasionally, in Alexandre Dumas' Dictionary of Cuisine. Such menus are brilliant keys into social and economic history, if you keep in mind the author and the time. They also, inevitably, make me hungry.

So, for posterity, I give you an oversight of an evening:

Picada (black and green olives, fontina, provolone, and
blue cheese, pate de foie, roasted garlic, variety of cured meats)

Empanadas de morcilla (blood sausage, apple, onion, parsley)
Fideos con salsa de limón (linguine with lemon and cream sauce)
Pan artisanal con aceite de oliva (artisanal bread with spiced olive oil)
Torta de crema y frutilla (crustless whipped cream cake with strawberries)
Mandarinas y chocolate (mandarin oranges and dark chocolate)

Isn't that fun?

I had other things planned, too, like a big green salad and a fig tart and coconut macaroons, but those fell by the wayside as the night stretched out and more bottles were opened. I chopped onions and apples while Danny and Augustín told each other bad jokes in Argentine-Colombian-Puerto Rican Spanish. Bennett and Gimena took cigarette breaks, leaning out of our living room window, smoke going out and cool air coming in. Nacho came later, and Bennett cried laughing as Nacho told us all about Mongolito ("Little Mongoloid"), the Argentine version of E.T. We were well-fed, but most of all we were in good company. Which is probably the most important part of a dinner party, even more important than proper seating.

The only bad turn of the evening, really, was when I was throwing together the sauce for the linguine. At that point, I'd had a little too much beer, and a lot too much wine, and was getting a little sloppy in the kitchen. As I pulled the cream out of the refrigerator, I knocked over an open bag of olives* and spilled its contents all over the place. I cursed, something like "Aceitunas de mierda!" ("Olives of shit!)** What bothered me wasn't so much the spilled olives, as the fact that I'd just given my refrigerator a healthy, hour-long cleanse two days earlier. The next day, I spent twenty minutes on my knees, cleaning the shelves and walls yet again, albiet in a good mood. I thought about why I was happy, as I scrubbed and scrubbed. I think it's because, had this been me a few years earlier, I would have ignored the mess and hoped that someone, real or perhaps some great god of household fairies, would come along and clean up my mistake. Instead, I was being a very responsible adult, even if only in the form of fixing a little spill -- I liked the thought of refrigerator cleaning as being a symbol of Growing Up.

__________________________

*It's weird to me, how the all the condiments are available in bags here. And olives are, in Argentina, most definitely a condiment. They go on, and in, almost everything.

**This is a common way to curse in castellano, and is applicable to almost anything: "_________ de mierda!" Try it! It's a lot of fun. It cheers me up just to say it, which is more than I can say for any curse in English.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Afternoon nap cake


An introduction, by way of a quick note: I've been reading a few things on food photography, and one of the important aspects stressed is to avoid shadows (and use natural light, and use mirrors, and invest in a good camera, oh my). These two photos are ripe with shadows, but that's part of my point with this recipe: this is a good cake for the afternoon, to savor just after a long nap, when the shadows are stretching and you're in need of a bit of sugar to make it to your next meal.

This loaf cake was inspired, originally, by this Everyday Cake -- I'd had the recipe bookmarked for over a month. It was in the long, lazy hours of this October afternoon, spring finally asserting itself, the weather softly warm and the sun taking its sweet time to set, that I at last got around to heating up my oven.

Though I give credit to Molly Wizenberg for the skeleton of the formula (who in turn got it from the late great Edna Lewis), I twisted and I tweaked, until the flesh is quite my own. Oh, and what good cakey flesh it is: soft, and tender, and crumbly. Be prepared to scoop up crumbs between your thumb and forefinger, preferably between sips of iced coffee. Enjoy it, nap or no, but I think that sometimes even relaxation should be rewarded.


A segue, by way of a quick note: this cake has a strong scent and flavor of nutmeg -- if you're not a huge fan, I'd recommend cutting it back to a teaspoon.

Afternoon Nap Cake

1 cup self-rising cake flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 stick butter
2/3 cup granulated light brown sugar (it's called "rubia" down here)
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons nutmeg
1/2 cup light sour cream
2 tablespoons milk

Preheat your oven to 375°F. Grease a large loaf pan (I also lightly floured mine with a half cinnamon, half flour mix).

In a medium bowl, combine flours, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg.

In another medium bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one by one, beating the mixture between each addition. Add the vanilla extract, and beat again.

In a small bowl, blend together sour cream and milk until just combined.

Now, for the grand mixing. Add a quarter of the flour mixture to the beaten butter, and blend well. Then, add a third of the sour cream mixture to the butter and blend again. And so on, until you've added all the flour and the sour cream to your big bowl of butter and sugar.

Pour the batter (which will be thick and goopy) into the greased large loaf pan, and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. The cake is ready when a red chopstick comes out clean.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Robert Downey Jr post

It's weird for me to admit this, but I kind of miss serving celebrities.

("Weird for me" -- I am one of those obnoxious people who take pride in watching little television, and I revel at times in my pop culture ignorance. Instead of debating the merits of Project Runway or America's Next Top Model, I'd like to discuss the differences between the updated Joy of Cooking and the original. [I prefer, with all respect to Ethan Becker, the latter. Mom, when I get back to New Jersey, I am going to steal your stained and splattered copy from the kitchen -- consider this fair warning.])

Famous people do, though, make for interesting stories. Working at the restaurant in DC, I served my fair share of well-known politicians, actors, and musicians. I'd like to say I was too cool to care at all, cool as an English cucumber, but that would not be wholly truthful. It was neat to serve Bono, and Bruce Springsteen, and Giada Di Laurentis, and Faith Hill. It was neat to see how different people would react to my recommendations and descriptions, how those who are so often worshipped as deities, from near and afar, respond to everyday human interaction. It was also neat to hear a fart joke from Tom Hanks.

My first celebrity served was Robert Downey Jr., not long after the restaurant opened. He was, I think, the first big name to sit at one of our tables. I was chosen to be his server, not because of my overwhelming competence (I worked with much better professionals than myself), but because my manager at the time assumed he would like a pretty young woman flitting about while he ate. (This was vaguely insulting, to both him and me.)

As it turned out, Robert Downey Jr. could have cared less about his server's gender or age. I was, I think, like the food, simply functional -- something I would find to be common with many celebrities in restaurants. He was there with his kids and a few friends. I remember two things from that dinner: his teenage daughter (at least, I think it was his daughter) frequently getting up from the table, to talk on her cell phone, conversations from which she would come back in tears. It made me very grateful to be very far from thirteen. Also, one of his friends ordered a bottle of wine, and as I started down a glass next to Robert Downey Jr. (always the "Jr."), he quickly waved my hand away and said, "Just a Pepsi, please." Pop culture ignorance is less cute when it involves serving alcohol to those with a history of intense substance abuse.

So, then, the meal was uneventful -- some of the food untouched, some of the wine undrank. The shift ended, and we servers started to settle into the sidework routine: polishing, folding napkins, and so on. At the restaurant, there is a beautiful, long wooden table just behind the wine cellar, almost invisible to the rest of the place. That is where we would sit, and fold, and talk, and eat. I had taken my suit jacket off, let down my hair, and was in the middle of a big bite of a hefty turkey sandwich, when I felt a hand grasp my right shoulder.

I looked up. It was Robert Downey Jr.

"You were great tonight," he said, and gently slammed his left hand on the table, next to my turkey sandwich plate. "Thank you."

With that, he walked away. Left at the table was a hundred dollar bill, speechless co-workers, and a mouthful of turkey, bacon, and mayonnaise. I never even got to say thanks.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A meta-list and a metaphor (with mention of cookies)


Things I have managed to accomplish today:

- Baked sablés with not enough salt
- Baked a savory bread pudding with not enough egg
- Outlined a short story that I first wrote when I was thirteen, and then again when I was nineteen, and now again would like to write at almost twenty-seven years of age, but neglected to generate any creative content*
- Finished 9/10 of a moderately difficult New York Times crossword puzzle, 9/10 of that percentage being done by someone much cleverer than me
- Made a To Do list involving all sorts of personal and household goals, none of which were overly ambitious, and all being completely achievable by sundown today
- Crossed one thing off my To Do list
- Used a lot of "-" punctuation marks

So, then, here's to my sablés as a sad, salt-less metaphor for the kind of quotidian mediocrity that kicks you in the butt from time to time. The rest of the offending dough is hidden in the freezer, but I refuse to give up on it. I'm not sure how (visions of me letting the cold log come to room temperature, and then working more finely ground salt in, bring more visions of professional, or at the very least more adept, bakers shaking their heads and rolling pins in horror). Maybe a little coarsely ground stuff on top, before the next batch of sliced rounds go in the oven?

Here's then, too, to Bennett making dinner tonight.
_________________________

*For those select few who've read my writing over the years, the story is not "Sandy", though that would be appropriate for this post . . . sablé means "sandy" in French.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Keep the tarts coming

Fair warning: these pictures of a plum tart have little to do with a large chunk of this writing. (Let's say, in keeping even with the visuals, they represent less than one-quarter of the whole thing.)


Two of my favorite fiction writers are, incidentally, two of my favorite writers of food. (This is probably not as incidental as indicated by those commas.) They are, in particular order, Vladimir Nabokov and Ernest Hemingway. Their writing styles are completely different: Nabokov's filled with fat, thick prose you have to wade in, for which you are constantly rewarded in the form of puns, portmanteaus, and subtle humor; Hemingway's shorn clean of excess adjectives, adverbs, and helpful hints as to whom is speaking in extended dialogues. Both, though, in their unique and ever-imitated but never-equaled styles, have managed to write, I think, some of the best damned descriptions of food and drink in the English language.

When I think back to For Whom The Bell Tolls, for instance, I think of, of course, the bridge-blowing-up-plan and the "did the earth move for ye, too?" part, but I also remember the wild rabbit stew and the brutal red wine of the Spanish mountainside. In The Sun Also Rises we have the infamous Lady Brett Ashley (what a cool name, good god), the woman who has "curves like the hull of a racing yacht", who eats little but can drink enough Champagne to put Churchill to shame. And then there's The Garden of Eden, published posthumously and thus never polished, or even finished, ostensibly the story of a young, recently married couple honeymooning in France and Spain, but really, I suspect, just an excuse to talk about poached eggs, fresh fish, absinthe, and lots of gin.

I've already mentioned one of my favorite food passages from one of my favorite books, Ada. That book is so full of food-lust I almost feel naughty carrying it around in public. From standard American cuisine ("'And you, Garden God, ring up room service -- three coffees, half a dozen soft-boiled eggs, lots of buttered toast, loads of--'") to high Russian fare (". . .zelyonϊya shchi, a velvety green sorrel-and-spinach soup, containing slippery hard-boiled eggs and served with finger-burning, irresistibly soft, meat-filled or carrot-filled or cabbage-filled pirozhki -- peer-rush-KEY, thus pronounced, thus celebrated here, for ever and ever"), Nabokov, like his bed-blog-fellow here, captured the Eating Abroad experience so well.


Hemingway lived in America, in France, in Italy, in Cuba, in Switzerland. Nabokov lived in Russia, in Germany, in France, in America, in Switzerland. I'm not sure about Hemingway's feelings towards Nabokov, but Vladimir was quite scornful of his American-born contemporary. I once read somewhere that Nabokov said that Hemingway's prose was a joke, and that his only good piece of writing was a description of someone urinating. (I tried to back this up, via Internet research, but am rather lazy and really, should not be surprised that a Google search for "Nabokov Hemingway peeing" yielded nothing of practical value.)

Both writers (regardless of what either one of them thought about the other, because I'm just writing about how I regard them) were fantastic at describing the guttural, visceral sensations of a good meal. Their characters' interactions with food and drink made them, well, more alive. I used to make fun of my boy friends in high school who loved Hemingway, those who after reading A Farewell to Arms, wanted to go out and fight wars and make love to beautiful blonde nurses. It took me a while to come around, but after all, if Hemingway can develop those urges, for a familiar experience never actually experienced (for example, a strange and solid hunger for warm biscuits and soft butter in the snowy Swiss mountains) that's not clichéd -- that's really good writing.



And now onto the tart.

It's an ugly little thing, isn't it? It was so much better looking a week ago, when I made it. The plums were purple-er, the crust was crustier. The fruit looked so proudly rustic in its concentric circles, which you can only really see now if you round up in your head. But that's okay. I actually like that it's kind of ugly.

It was good-looking, once. When I pulled it out of the oven, last week, I was so giddy with myself, a certain pride completely disproportionate to the talent expended. I suppose I could have taken a picture in its wholly circular shape, but I was too greedy to get out the camera. And the first few bites -- tangy, sharply sweet, with a soft crumb and gentle glaze -- were totally worth a hundred pictures.

I can't wait to make it again. Once I do, I'll put up the recipe -- the pie was originally inspired by this one, and I changed a few things (some lemon juice here, a sprinkling of polenta there), but neglected to note them. I'm excited to keep the tarts coming. It's spring here, after all.

(My favorite green grocer at the nearby indoor market has started to ask me what I'm making with everything I buy from him. He also asks, after every selection, "Qué más?" ["What else?"] and even though I shake my head and say "Nada más" ["Nothing else"], he shakes his head in response and has to wait just a few seconds before I add something else to the gi-hugic kilogram scale.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Our French Chef

Two weeks ago, Bennett and I received a package from his parents in the States, which included, among many other things (such as Season Four of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and seven boxes of Kraft Mac n Cheese), a three-disk set of The French Chef with Julia Child.


I recognize this as a very strong statement, but I am speaking without hyperbole when I say that that collection has been by far my favorite thing from the whole box.


I also recognize that it’s not a coincidence that Bennett and I are now spending our nights curled up on the couch together, watching Julia Child filet fish and truss chickens, at the same time (give or take a few months, given our equatorial delay) Julie & Julia has become such big deal. Bennett’s mother, knowing I love to cook, sent me the book a few months ago, in another care package. I was so happy with it, she sent along eighteen episodes of the original Julia.


I have been a big fan of Julia Child long before I ever heard of Julie Powell – this is illustration less of my culinary savvy than my pop culture cluelessness. Food blogging, apparently for years and years, has been a popular medium of writing and reporting, of discussions and demonstrations of techniques, of food and eating, of sharing words online as you might share a meal on your kitchen table. This is all something I’d been blithely oblivious to as I paged through the “Look! We’ve got color now!”-styled photographs in From Julia Child’s Kitchen.


Yes, I’ve been a fan; a fan, though, of her written word – these episodes of The French Chef are the first I’ve ever seen of her. She’s brilliant, and brilliantly funny. Of course, she tells you, you could use canned clam broth for a base to your bouillabaisse a la Marseillaise, but she does this after cutting up pounds and pounds of fresh fish carcasses, crisp vegetables, and fat garlic, and tossing everything into a big pot brimming with excitement. How could anyone have the guts to open a can of clam juice after that?


So! Today, again, there will be no recipe, only a recommendation of a really good experience: find a couch, a loved one, and some sort of baked goods (for instance, a homemade plum tart, recipe and photo coming soon). Sit, then, and watch an icon of American television, cooking, and education chop onions for three hours. You won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Something to shake up my perspective

Or, How Did This Post Get To Be So Long?

When I was little, I had a saying to describe my parents: "Mom's the boss, and Dad knows everything."

While I think, for the most part, my parents got a happy kick out of their five-year-old's silly sayings (much like me calling high heels "stompers" and scarves "swiffers"), occasionally one of them would question my small (which I think made it very precise) logic.

Usually it was my mother. "Why do I have to be the boss, Jolan?" she'd ask. "Why does Dad know everything?"

"I don't know why," I'd say. "Ask him. He'll probably know."*

This phrase faded over time, as it is less cute for a snotty thirteen-year-old to remark on her parents' relationship dynamics than a young child. Occasionally, though, something will happen to bring up the old saying, and it's always a welcome sign of familiar family (redundancy? redundancy!) structure.

Most recently, we were reminded of Dad Knowing Everything on a car trip from Jersey to New York, the last time I saw my parents before moving down here. I was discussing the possibilities of working with wine in Argentina, and I told my parents about a special gift I'd gotten from my boss at the restaurant in DC. "It's a really nice corkscrew," I explained. "It comes from France and is made out of like, ivory or something. Apparently this kind is really valuable. I forget what it's called, though."

My dad said, "Laguiole." (Pronounced, "La-yoll".)

I watched my mother's head swing fast to look at my father. "How do you know that?" she asked.

"I just do."

"But how do you know that?"

"Laguiole. It's an area in France that makes traditional, high-quality knives. Hunters and farmers use them. They're made of fine wood, or mammoth ivory. They usually have a trademark bee on them, a symbol of expert craftsmanship. They also make corkscrews. They're of excellent quality. Why don't you know that?"

My mother, reading between the lines, settled back in her seat, satisfied. My father is a mechanic, and a hunter. He enjoys working with his hands, and appreciates the tools which help him complete his tasks expertly. His knowledge of a fine knife produced in a small area in France was bound to come to light, eventually.

The corkscrew was a gift given to me by WW, the manager at the restaurant where I'd learn to love, among many other things, wine. When WW first came to work at the restaurant, we were without a sommelier.** This, according to WW, needed to be remedied -- a fair enough objective, given that the wine menu had over 300 bottles, and over twenty wines by the glass. Clients didn't want to ask their server about the $250 bottle of Hillside Select, only to be met with an apologetic shrug.

I'd like to say that out of the whole staff, WW noticed my palate, my presence, my impeccable pronunciation of foreign labels. But that would be a gross misrepresentation of myself.*** When he asked if anyone would be interested in learning about wines, and possibly taking over some sort of person-in-charge role, I was the only one who raised my hand. WW got excited, told me I had an advantage in the business due to my gender (women have more refined tastebuds, it seems; also being a young, bright woman in the world of old, stuffy men could be of help), and gave me a list of books to buy.

Over the course of the next several months, I studied, and studied, and drank. I read about wine regions in France, in Germany, in Canada, in Uruguay, in China. I studied the chemistry of alcohol fermentation, and the geology of soil, sand, and clay. I read about wine as history, and wine as anthropology. I studied the differences in grape varietals, in wine bottle shapes, in cork materials. (I forgot a lot of it.)

Thanks to my new role as wine apprentice, I was able to taste a world of wines I never imagined I'd be introduced to. WW told wine representatives that I was the restaurant's buyer, and wine makers from all over the world wooed me with their fare. I tasted Duckhorn Merlot for the first time, in a pair of ripped jean shorts and one of Bennett's button-downs. (After that, WW told me I should invest in a suit.) I met the winemaker from Catena vineyards in Mendoza, whose evident pride for his product could not be properly expressed in his slow English. I met Jed Steele, the winemaker behind the wild success of Kendall-Jackson, a millionaire and one of the most humble people I've met in the wine, food, and restaurant business.****

Eventually, though, along with learning much about wine, and what I loved about it, I also learned what I didn't love. I didn't love the hospitality business. After almost four years of catering to clients with high expectations (which are good, and provide interesting challenges) and insane demands (which are terrible, and would drive me to tears in the stewarding room), I was ready to resign. It's difficult to work for a company whose customer service philosophy is "Never say no", but whose clientele would frequently ask for things that were not on the menu, nor in the entire building. Want a well-done filet mignon? Want osetra caviar? Want a Caesar salad with grilled unicorn meat? It would be my pleasure.

I suppose there is a certain humility necessary to be a good hospitality person, a character trait I do not possess. Maybe others get by with a passion for haut culture, and a devotion to the cause. I learned to love what our tables were set with, but grew to despise many of the people who sat around them. I was becoming weirdly bitter for someone in her mid-twenties. I was, I finally concluded, too young to not like my job.

For all my love of full-bodied Alsatian wines, and the gentle bubble of a good Champagne, I could not be happy with myself, or my work environment, if I didn't respect the people I was serving as much as I respected what I was serving. I remember one evening when I placed a silver platter of Berkshire pork chops, beautifully stacked one against the other and graced with a slice of a bourbon-soaked peach, in front of an older woman. She looked up and sneered. "What is this?" she asked, upset, apparently, because she needed to do the cutting herself. To make her happy, I carefully sliced the pork and served it to her on her bare, Italian-imported porcelain plate, while she muttered about the travesty that is dining out in DC. It's one thing to filet a whole fish tableside; it's another to cut up a piece of pork chop and serve it to someone with a spoon, like you would do for a child.

Thank god for Mike, my best friend and often savior. After a moment with the Pork Chop Lady I needed something fresh, something silly, something to shake up my perspective. I noticed Mike across the dining room and, striding up to him, said, "Spin me."

Without a blink, he took me by the hand and spun me. "I'll bet you're a wonderful dancer."

I said, "Oh, no! I'm not at all. I'm notoriously awful."

"There are different types of dancing," Mike said. "I'm not talking about the humping that people do in clubs. I'll be you'd be a wonderful ballroom dancer."

"Really?"

"Sure," he said. "Half of ballroom dancing is simply aesthetics. You make everyone in a room look at you, just by virtue of your grace."

"I wish all men were gay. I'd have so many boyfriends."

Mike paused, and then laughed, and laughed hard. "You should write," he said.

"I do write!"

"Yes," he said, "but for real."

________________________

*A clever response and all, but I don't think I actually said that, at five, ever.

**Or a "wine director". Many of the things about the establishment were inspired by the French culinary arts, but we did not use any of the French terms. We were a high-quality, rustic American restaurant, and the dishes' names reflected this philosophy. Ratatouille became a summer vegetable medley, bouillabaisse became a fish stew, and so on.

***Which god knows, I'm probably doing enough of that as it is here, anyway.

****A man who, after meeting me for less than ten minutes but listening to me quickly complain about the lack of variety of wine types in the grocery store (I certainly am less diverse in my complaints about diversity, no?), a month later sent me a package from California, with: two Steele t-shirts (not knowing my size, politely sent both a small and medium), four bottles of wine (varietals not found commonly in the States; for instance the Blaufrankisch, aka the Lemberger, aka Steele's Blue Franc; you should try it), and a handwritten card. I never sent a thank-you card, for which I will be forever guilty. If there is an etiquette hell, I'll be there, getting jabbed with quill-like pitchforks, surrounded by eternally burning thank-you notes, with Judith Martin look-alike devils chanting, "Your mother taught you better than that!"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The girl next grocery store

I have a little bit of a crush on the girl who works the cash register at the nearby supermercado.

I'm not sure of her name, nor her age. She could be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-seven, though I'm guessing she's probably in her early twenties. She's got a big round face, and long dark hair, and slightly bad skin. She smiles a lot. She speaks heavily accented Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, I think, being her native language.

So many of the supermercados down here are owned and run by Chinese immigrant families. The simple supermercado, like the panadería and the verdurería, can be found on every other block. Their layouts may differ, but they are all roughly of the same size and stock: three or four aisles, filled with flour and pastas and crackers and cookies and milk and yogurt and matches and cleaning supplies; that is, the basics. Often, in the back, they will have a glass case filled with cured meats and various cheeses. Some even come complete with a butcher's section, with the ubiquitous quiet character, the menacing shhhk shhhk of his (it's always "his") sharp knife tempered by something humorous, like a plastic chicken hanging in the back. (Today, the butcher was wearing a shirt that said California! in big cursive letters, punctuated by a Levi's logo.)

I'm interested in the dynamics of the Chinese store owners and their Argentine clientele. Buenos Aires, while more ethnographically diverse than many other South American cities, still lacks the vibrant diversity of good old Washington, DC. I find that, while people from different backgrounds do exist, they tend to blend less than I've seen in the States. Everyone has his or her role, according to their ethnicity: the Chinese run the supermercados, the black people sell watches from silver briefcases, the Colombians come here to go to college, the Bolivians clean houses and work in kitchens. White people yacht.

Anyway. Back to the grocery store girl: when Bennett and I first moved down here, we were half a block away from another mini supermercado. That store, too, had its Chinese family, complete with a young girl who worked the register a vast majority of the time. She wore thin sweatshirts too big for her, and was always one step ahead of the customer. You needed a bag? She already had it out. A spoon for your yogurt? Done. Returning your beer bottle, something new to you and still slightly confusing? She was already printing out the receipt, carefully explaining in simple Spanish that because you were buying another bottle, you didn't need to pay the deposit. We loved her.

When we moved, about a month into being in Buenos Aires, we stayed within the same neighborhood. I swore allegiance to the corner store and its register girl, even though there were three stores closer. Bennett smiled and nodded, even though he knew better -- soon, I would be head over heels for the girl next grocery store.

She's come to recognize us, and it's always nice to get a "Hola, qué tal?" when we walk in. We visit the store frequently, sometimes together, sometimes separately. I wonder if she pays any attention to the discrepancies in our purchases. When I'm alone, I pick up things like milk and butter and pasta and baking chocolate; Bennett buys vodka and Red Bull.

She has a cousin, I think, a girl about her own age, who works at the store with her. They'll sit at the same register together, our girl ringing up groceries, the cousin listlessly bagging them. They speak in rapid Chinese to one another, and laugh. The cousin is slightly more attractive, with a cooler haircut, but I've got a soft spot for the ringer.

Today, I stopped in for something and caught her, in her usual spot in the chair behind the cash machine, taking pictures of her hair using her cell phone. It was something personal, both the picture-taking and the observing, and she caught me catching her. Instead of being embarrassed (or feigning any kind of embarrassment), she gave me a big smile and a little wave. I gave her the thumbs up: her hair did look good.

She jokes around with us, too. A few nights ago, Bennett and I went in to buy a few odds and ends. Bennett paid, but instead of giving him back the five pesos in change, she handed it to me dramatically, while smiling. It's simple humor, but considering the language barrier (her average Spanish versus our mediocre mangling of it), it's all the more lovely.

What I think I like most about the grocery store girl is the feeling of warmth, of neighborhood-ness I get every time she smiles at me when I walk in. There's something universal about a slightly bored young lady, obligated to work by familial duties, who is ready to smile when a goofy, handsome young couple pays her attention. There's also something distinctly Argentine about the whole thing, which for all my griping about the little diversity in food and people, smacks suprisingly of home.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Birthday bread pudding


It's my mom's birthday today. She's turning fifty-one. She's beautiful, she's generous, she's funny. She's walking twenty miles today, the first half of a thirty-nine mile walk, to raise money for breast cancer research. She's in New York City, and I'm in Buenos Aires, and I miss her very much.

It's my mom's birthday today. I haven't sent a card, and I won't be able to talk to her very long, because of her marathon. I won't be able to hug her, or kiss her, or tell her just how much I want to be like her, when I am fifty-one, so I did the next best thing I could think of: I baked her bread pudding.

The recipe for this bread pudding comes by the way of my grandmother, my mom's mom. When I moved out of the house, For Reals, my mom gave me a homemade book of handwritten, familiar recipes: chicken noodle soup, deviled eggs, shrimp scampi. The first entry in the "Just Desserts" section is bread pudding, a big favorite of ours. It's the kind of food that, though yielding a hefty amount, disappears within two days or so -- each of us, my mother, my father, my brother, and I, sneaking slices from the refrigerator at all times of the day and night. It's an incredibly simple recipe, without many steps or spices, and provides the intangible, ineffable comfort that comes from standing in front of the fridge, in bare feet, and slowly sinking your teeth into the soft slice of sweet pudding.

I have to admit: my grandmother was no great bastion of home cooking. She cooked only on a grand scale, on grand occasions; take for example, please, our annual Christmas Eve feast: pastelones, surullitos, arroz con habichuelas. Watching us in the kitchen would be like seeing some kind of holiday television special, "The Littlest Biggest Whitest Puerto Rican Christmas!". None of my grandmother's children married fellow Puerto Ricans, nor can anyone, besides my cousin Jonathan and me, can speak Spanish -- and he and I learned it here, in Argentina. Out of us all, my grandmother spent the most time in the kitchen, dicing pork and heating sofrito and rolling lots and lots of dough. I don't blame her, that she only wanted to cook once a year -- everyone, my aunts and uncles and cousins and mother (because though I seem distracted, this is about and for her), would sneak in to steal bites of meat pie filling, or even a whole fried one, hot and painful but worth every juicy, dripping, painful bite. My grandmother would have to swat us out like flies, chasing us with her rolling pin, at the same time trying to get at least one of her eleven grandchildren to come in and help roll some godforsaken dough.

The rest of the time, according to my humble memory, my grandmother was much more of a take-out woman. I remember weekends spent at her house, just she and I and a whole lot of Chinese food. Her kitchen was often rather bare, leaving only a few clues as to her casual cooking style and infamous sweet tooth. Food was usually limited to things like ice cream, breakfast cereal, cured deli ham, Equal packets stolen from the nearby Best Western, whose breakfast buffet my grandmother loved, and Almond Joys. (The "a" in almond pronounced like the "a" ham, and no "l" to keep it company -- the only audible vestige of my grandmother's Brooklyn heritage.) When she was sick, towards the end of her life, her sisters (one in Long Island, one in Alabama) would call to yell at her, to tell her to eat more than frozen waffles and Diet Coke.


This bread pudding was a favorite of my grandmother. It's soft, and very sweet, from sugar and condensed milk. It's dense, too, and vaguely gelatinous. Which doesn't sound flooringly appetizing, I suppose, but I am simply trying to describe its texture. There are a lot of bread puddings out there, and this is not one that is served warm, and eaten with a spoon. This is a cold, thick, sweet pudding, best served cold, and most enjoyable when eaten directly out of hand. It's a good barefoot dessert. (It's also perfectly legitimate to eat as breakfast, I say, or in the middle of the night -- cold comfort never made a person feel so warm.)

I write about this bread pudding for two reasons: one, it's absolutely delicious, and two, it makes me happy to be a woman in my family. My mother's side has been, and continues to be, very matriarchal. My grandmother was one of four girls. My mom is one out of four, with my Uncle Richard following up as the only boy. There was always so much drama in my family, too, which you could chalk up to us being Puerto Rican and/or women (if you are racist and/or sexist). Everything wasn't always as sweet as bread pudding. My mother and her siblings, for valid reasons, had a lot of anger towards their mother. Growing up in a single parent household, with little money and lots of cousins and foster children sharing your bedroom and your mother's affections, can be emotionally trying in many ways.

But. My mother's gift to me, then, as I grew up, was keeping any anger or hurt related to her mother separate from my relationship with my grandmother. That is to say: my mom gave me the gift of innocent, unconditional love for my grandma. That's the beauty of being a grandparent, and a grandchild, I think: you get to skip all the painful crap of parental relationships, of anger and disappointment and frustration, of puberty and middle age and slamming doors, of all of that -- you just get, literally and figuratively, weekends with Chinese food and candy bars and Clerks on video.


So, then, Mom, this is for you: for breakfast I will eat a slice of bread pudding, and drink a coffee, which I normally take black, now made light with milk. I wish you were here to share it with me, but I am happy to know where you are, and happy that you are happy to know where I am. I'm in a good place, and so much of that, bread pudding and all, is because of you.

Bread Pudding

This recipe has been adapted somewhat from the original given to me by my mother -- proportions for things, like evaporated milk and loaves of bread, are different here. Also, I made this at 3 am this morning, after I got home from work. But it has turned out beautifully, and has the familiar texture I was looking for. Raisins are optional, of course.

1 large loaf of packaged, sliced white bread, preferably stale (to speed up the process, I heated up a low oven, and then put the bread in, turned off the heat, and left the slices to harden slightly)
1 can evaporated milk (down here, a can is 395 grams, just about 1 1/2 cup milk)
just under 1 1/2 cup milk
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick melted butter (I used 125 grams, not quite 9 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup raisins

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Grease a large loaf pan.

Tear up the stale bread with your hands. Soak the bread in a large bowl by adding the evaporated milk, regular milk, and one evaporated milk can of water. I used the can to measure the regular milk, as well. Work, with your hands if you like, until mushy.

In a separate bowl, combine butter, sugar, and salt. Let cool slightly, and then add eggs and vanilla. Mix well, and then add this mixture to the gooey bread. If you are using raisins, add them at this point, as well. Or, you could be like me and forget to add them until the mixture is already in the loaf pan, say "Shit!", and then stuff about 1/4 cup of them into the top, which actually makes for a very picturesque loaf.

Bake until browned lightly on top, about 1 hour, 15 minutes. This (very early) morning, mine needed close to 1 hour and 30 minutes. When the pudding is ready, a toothpick or chopstick inserted will come out mostly clean.

Cool on a rack, and when cooled, wrap in wax paper and aluminum foil. Refrigerate until cold all the way through.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The delicate art of getting your hands dirty


I love kitchen projects. Nothing is quite as exciting to me as the prospect of spending hours in the kitchen, chopping and dicing and rolling and kneading and measuring and mixing and tasting, oh the tasting. I adore recipes with numerous steps, especially those that require you to get your hands and your tabletop messy, like apple pie and gnocchi. So a few days ago, when Bennett came home and suggested we make sushi, with all sorts of special props (for example, a sushi mat) and new ingredients (for example, dried seaweed), I was tickled all sorts of pink. Which sounds weird and dirty, but in fact was quite innocent.


We picked up all the basics in the beloved barrio chino, a grocery basket filled with: sushi rice (short and sticky stuff), nori (dried seaweed paper), wasabi powder, sesame oil, and a sushi mat. We neglected to buy rice vinegar, but we substituted inexpensive white vinegar, and it worked out well. Our sushi last night was filled with familiar staples: cream cheese, avocado, cucumber, and pink salmon. We made a few different sauces, as well, the ingredients for which are listed further down.

I thought for a while about explaining the How Tos of making sushi, but I realized, as I was typing that 1) I am still very much a beginner, and 2) I was boring even myself.* So! I've decided, instead, to try and convince you to make your own sushi by describing how much fun it is to get your hands dirty.


I think one of the real joys of cooking is using your hands. I'll almost always opt for mixing and kneading by hand, as opposed to using a machine. I like feeling the change of the dough, from wet to dry, from crumbly to smooth. There is something incomparably, simply sensual about the connection with flesh and food. Think about children: they play, with great pleasure, with mudpies and Play Doh. It's not so different, really, making a dough for, say, a pie crust. Sure, I understand not everyone likes to spend hours in the kitchen, but say you just had to spend five or ten minutes, squishing butter into flour or pushing the palm of your hand into a soft pile of dough -- really, would you want to keep your hands clean, and carefully tucked away?

And who doesn't like to crack eggs into a big bowl?

Sushi, then, follows along the same lines. You need to spread rice along the dried sheets of seaweed, add the various fillings, and roll each sheet up by hand. You need to slice the vegetables, to smear the cream cheese, to pull pieces of raw salmon off the whole filet. Of course, you can use more utensils than we did: for instance, you can use a spatula to spread the rice against the nori. We opted to use our fingers, with a simple mixture (one part vinegar, one part water) to rinse our hands while we worked. I found using my hands very helpful, actually, in making my sushi rolls -- the rice is very sticky, and to properly put it in its place, I could easily adjust a few grains here and there with my fingers. It's a delicate art, really, making sushi, and I have to admit: my rolls were ugly as fuck.** But their ugliness was directly proportionate to their fun-in-making-ness, so I say: bring on the rice.


We made three dipping sauces, each easier than the next: a wasabi, a soy syrup, and a mayonnaise/hot sauce blend (just Hellman's and Texas Pete, until the mixture is medium-pink; Tallahassee, what!). Ojo with the wasabi: many "wasabis" are actually horseradish-based, with green food coloring. We bought wasabi powder, which is not cheap, but a little goes a long way . . . and makes all the difference in flavor.

Wasabi
1/2 cup wasabi powder
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup vegetable, or other neutral, oil
a few drops sesame oil

Mix all the ingredients together. Add water, whisking continuously, until you've got a smooth puree. (This is quite spicy -- increase the proportion of oil to wasabi powder if you'd prefer your wasabi less intense.)

Soy Syrup
1 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
juice of 1/2 lime
very small knob of ginger, peeled and sliced

Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce, at a simmer, until the mixture is not quite one half of its original amount. Discard the ginger before serving.
____________________________

*If you are interested in rolling up your own fish-rice-seaweed rolls, we found this site very helpful. Its directions and pictures are as straightforward as its name.


**A note on cursing: I understand that my audience, while not wide, is still varied. I use a very conversational tone in writing, but am hesitant to include the bad words I use, too often, in speech. My Gifted teacher in high school once told me that curse words, which have no intrinsic value, are only a last resort for those who cannot think of anything better to say. In other words, cursing is for idiots. But my mother, who is one of the most intelligent and gracious women I know, and also the first follower of this little blog, swears like (says my father) a trucker. So I figure: fuck it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A preview


Yesterday, B came home with a big smile on his face. I was in the kitchen, making lunch, when he opened the door and came in to greet me. "I have an idea," he said. "I think we should make something, something fun." He paused, and leaned against the door frame. "But I don't know if I should tell you my idea yet."

"Oh, tell me!" I said, waving my wooden spoon. I really like my wooden spoon. "Please, I want to know. At least give me a clue or two. Unas pistas."

"Well, okay," he said. "It involves rice. And comes from the sea."

"Paella?" I guessed, and watched his face fall a little.

"No . . . guess again."

"Um, my mom's shrimp scampi?"

His smile was just a shadow of its former self. "Maybe I shouldn't guess anymore," I said.

"It's sushi," he said, and my grin (forgive the sentimentality, please) was big enough for the both of us.

Yesterday, we hatched a plan. Today, we went to Chinatown and picked up all the necessary goodies. Tomorrow, I'll give the full report in ample detail.

Until then, goodnight.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Happy soup


I've only recently started using fresh ginger, in cooking. My first hunk of that beautifully ugly root came to my as a rather accidental gift. Or rather: an intentional gift given on an accidental Sunday afternoon.

I'd met up with an American living here in Buenos Aires, a VP at a boutique winery based in Mendoza. I was looking for some sort of job in the wine industry, and he was kind enough to meet with me, and discuss my plans. It was an easy Sunday at a cafe near both of our homes, and the time wasn't so much an interview as a casual meeting. After an hour or so, his wife Martha joined us, and, shortly after meeting me, she invited both me and Bennett to their house for lunch. "I made soup yesterday," she said. "There's so much, we'll never eat it all. It's very good."

The soup was good, full of chicken and beef and hearty root vegetables. The men kept running from the lunch table to the living room, where the US national soccer team was playing Brazil. That is something that usually would have annoyed me to no end, but I was too busy being interested by the slow speech, the lovely English of Martha, a native Argentine.

Martha, who reigned Queen of Rhetorical Questions. For instance, when Bennett and Mickey were in the living room, watching the soccer game just before the food was served, she called, "Miiiiiickey?"

And he called, "Yeah?"

"Would you like to eat lunch in there, or in here at the table?"

"In here!"

"Let's eat at the table. It's much nicer to have lunch in here."

So, of course, we had lunch at their stunning, castle-like table.

Later, when the boys had left, Martha asked me a question: "Do you want to know what makes this soup so good?" She pulled a chicken bone out of her bowl, very gracefully, and set it aside. "It's ginger."

Bennett and I spent the rest of the day at Mickey and Martha's house, eating and talking and drinking wine. We left, both of us with full bellies, and me with ginger in my purse. Martha had given me her piece of ginger, which I kept happily in my kitchen cupboard. I put it to good and varied use: cookies, sauces, black beans and coconut milk, and, of course, soups. The smallest knob of ginger gives a certain happiness to even the simplest of soups.

Happy Soup: Cream of Carrot (with Ginger!)


Oh . . . I know, I know. More carrot and ginger. But really, the pairing is so good -- especially when you add some extra vegetables, like potatoes and onions, for extra umph. The cumin and Schezwan spices add another dimension of flavor, and just a hint of orange keeps this soup very happy.

2 medium carrots, sliced
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
1 small potato, peeled and sliced
3 small garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 small knob of ginger, peeled and sliced
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 teaspoon dried cumin
1/2 teaspoon Schezwan pepper blend
salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring five cups of water to a boil. Add all the vegetables, and simmer, uncovered, for forty-five minutes.

Puree all the vegetables in a food mill, or blender, if you're fancy. If you're not fancy, use a potato masher. If you're not fancy, and a little overeager for a very smooth soup, try smooshing the cooked vegetables through your salad spinner/pasta strainer, make very little puree for a rather large mess, and then dump everything back into the warm soup pot.

Add the sugar, heavy cream, orange juice, and spices. Heat the soup over a low flame, until piping hot. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Breakfast in Spain

Last night I fell asleep with your breath at the back of my neck. I’d been having trouble sleeping: still, now, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with an unreasonable amount of energy, most of it mental, most of it preventing me from falling back asleep easily. I’d woken earlier, and, wanting to keep from waking you with my restlessness, left the bed to go read in the living room.


I came back, though, lonely for the warm curve of your body. I laid down and you, while still sleeping, turned towards me and threw your left arm over the left side of my body. I began a soothing fantasy in my head: us near a beach somewhere in the south of Spain, having breakfast some breezy morning, olives and fresh eggs and bread and I don’t know, what do Spaniards eat for breakfast? Salted almonds? And do they drink strong coffee with clumps of sugar (from the humidity of the ocean air) and thick milk? In this fantasy, I was trying to explain to our host, in my silly Spanish, the plot of an obscure Hemingway novel, por ejemplo: “. . . y el cuento occure en el sur de la Espana, cerca de aca. . .” and I was trying to figure out the conjugation of being jealous, “la esposa celosa,” de or con su esposo?, when I realized your head was further down than usual, usually you’d rest it just above mine behind the pillow, but last night it was buried at the bottom of my neck. And I could feel you breathing deeply and evenly, as peacefully as the waves at the beach in my poor fantasy, and I missed you even though you were holding me quietly.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Bienvenido, primavera

Or, A Salad For All Seasons (with apologies to Robert Bolt)


Buenos Aires seems to be fighting with itself, as to whether or not it is ready for spring. The first day of the season, officially the 21st of last month, was everything spring is supposed to be: sunny, warm, slightly breezy, men in short sleeves and women in sun dresses, and children eating ice cream with renewed gusto.

Since then, the city has dropped down to almost-freezing weather, fraught with heavy winds and cloudy skies, only to bound back up to sunshine. For every beautiful, freckle-season day, there are two with storm clouds and gray rain.

This makes sense to me, when I think of September as being March -- a month I've always been wary of. October is tantamount to April, which I hope will bring sturdier sun. Mentally trading pumpkins and hot cider for daffodils and iced tea, though, is leaving me just as confused as the weather here.


Today was one of the Sunny Days, fresh and bright and full of flower vendors whistling at pretty girls. I played dress up, putting on my long pink raincoat and unnecessarily large sunglasses, and went to the indoor market in my neighborhood. Nothing cheers me up like vegetable shopping -- retail therapy with health benefits, I suppose. I was eager for spring produce, but the selection was still on this side of winter: root vegetables, dark greens, citrus. So, I decided to compromise: lunch would be made up of the staples of colder weather, but made bright with orange (both color- and flavor-wise) and ginger. Oh, and cilantro. Lots of cilantro.

This is a simple salad, but fresh, and functionally so, for most any time of the year.


Carrot and Fennel Salad with Orange and Ginger

I suggest slicing the fennel as thinly as possible; its flavor is assertive. If you've got a mandoline, all the better to slice the carrots with, as well. I think the salad would be prettier, presentation-wise, if the carrots were in thin, elegant rounds. But no worries -- even if you've just got a small steak knife and a grater, like me, you'll do just fine.

1 small fennel bulb
1 small carrot
1/2 very juicy orange (to yield about 3 or 4 tablespoons of juice)
1/2 less juicy lime (to yield about 1 tablespoon of juice)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small shallot, diced
1 small knob of fresh ginger, grated
fresh cilantro, chopped
fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper

Thinly slice the fennel. Grate the carrot coarsley. Combine the two vegetables, and set aside.

To make the dressing, combine the orange juice, lime juice, olive oil, shallot, and ginger. Toss the fennel and carrot with the dressing. Combine cilantro and parsley to taste. (For instance, I simply scissored a few handfuls of leaves over the salad, tasting as I went along. This salad calls for a heady bite of fresh herbs, so if you're not a cilantro fan, try adding a hefty amount of parsley.) Salt and pepper to taste, as well -- and presto! You've got a sort-of spring lunch.