Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Eating in on a Cold Night

Writing

Never had New York City felt so cold. Dark had caught us early, and a polar wind sent glacial ripples to my toes. For the past three hours, Allie and I had waded the sea of shoppers to buy final holiday gifts. We changed our dinner plans when we were a block from Columbus Circle, retreating across the Hudson with visions of hot tea and home-cooked food.

Back in Hoboken, New Jersey, I had a new steel pan over volcanic heat. This pan, so said my co-worker who gave it to me, was preferred by professional chefs. I was filled with excitement to use the pan for its stellar reputation, its campfire feel, and because the thick steel was vaguely familiar to me.

When I spooned mushrooms into the pan, a steam cloud shot up and the sizzling was like the static of a TV. The molten mushrooms released a scent that registered on the fringe of my memory. They smelled musky, vaguely metallic, earthy, and a touch mysterious—quite like, somehow, the exotic tang of liquor when smelled at an age when you’re way too young to be drinking. I gripped the panhandle. I inhaled. I was 16 again.

A stack of steel pans was soaking in the blue water of a deep sink. Two more pans landed on the counter to my right, bouncing. My shirt was wet. A deep female shout squelched two male voices that had been chattering in French. On the top pan on the counter, I saw a single sausage round. With grotesquely pruned fingers, I scooped the sausage into my mouth.

“Chris!” said a voice. I spun around. “More pots!” barked a balding man in chef’s whites, who I knew as Vito, owner of the restaurant where I worked. A stack of steel pans in each hand, I trundled to the main grill, dodging the dishwasher and ducking between Vito and the grill man, Freddie, a French-speaking immigrant from Cameroon. Pans went on a rack under the string of ovens. Freddie, tongs in each hand, was moving to the swanky rhythm of a song that played only in his head. Hunks of Florentine-style beef were browning on the stove in front of me. Freddie nodded at me as I returned to the sink.

Facing the white wall behind the sink, I fished a pan from the blue water. When I washed those steel pans I zoned out deeply. To the aroma of sizzling garlic and bubbling tomato sauce, smells known from the cooking of my mom and grandmother, I wondered about the past (then, I was blissfully submerged in a stellar European History class), the future, friends, girls, conjugations of Italian verbs, and whatever book I was reading.

Autopilot turned off when dinner service slowed down, usually 9:00 or 9:30, or when Vito or Eddy—Eddy the wispy sous chef, with his orange Philadelphia Flyers hat and his white-hot temper—left a sausage scrap or rigatoni tube clinging to the pan. Now came one with three pasta noodles, their grooves slick with tomato sauce. Warmth and a sweet garlic zing. Starch from the outsize pasta pots was thick in the steamy air.

Six years later, I sat in a bony chair in a farmhouse near Bologna, Italy, and on the stove the farmer for whom I was working, Federico, had a boiling pot of pasta. My body was stiff as an oak from erecting fences and cutting grass in the vineyard. Smelling the cloud that came from the pasta pot, my muscles turned to liquid.

By smell and sound, you knew when the mushrooms hit the steel: an earthy Martian perfume, a machine-gun sizzle. Spellbound, I returned from wherever my thoughts had led me and rejoiced in the spreading darkness of the elusive scent. Lambert, the salad man, cooked the mushrooms, one planetary portobello to crown each bed of dressed greens. His pan bounced by the sink; now, I was used to the aroma.

Smoke was billowing from my new steel pan. I turned on the fan, eager to avoid sounding the apartment’s fire alarm. Tawny, kaleidoscopic patterns seethed in a film of glistening oil on the empty pan’s surface. Mushrooms removed, the pan sent up a column of heat. I warmed my hands in the air over the burner and moved on to something else.

Winter Sunday Pasta

Mix, beat, stretch, and cut eggs and flour to get pasta. Down from the high shelf I grab the chrome pasta machine, clamping the base to my countertop, inserting the crank, and brushing off old flour. Across the counter and on the TV, a football game rolls. Sauce is bubbling on the stove. But first, the dough.

Pasta dough is a strange thing. Recipes for it often produce something else. Eggs come in many sizes, brands of flour are milled to different dimensions of dust, and variables like humidity shape the properties of the resulting ball of dough. Numbers and precision are of little use other than as starting points. Generally, I go with two eggs per one-and-a-half cups of flour, a measurement I cribbed from Leite’s Culinaria.

My great-grandmother, it is said, could measure the temperature of water with a swipe of her finger. If it was right, she added the yeast for bread. My grandmother taught me how to make pasta in half-a-dozen dinners spread out over 25 years. I have learned that the dough is ready when you think it is. Add whatever flour you please, roll to whatever thick or thinness. Touch. Does it feel ready? You’ll know after you’ve made pasta a hundred times.

Taglierini

The sauce simmering on my stove–its murmuring more pleasant than the din of broadcasters and human collisions–was Bolognese. The sauce is popular in Italian-American cooking. It is also popular in Bologna, Italy, where it is simply called ragú, in English, “sauce.”

Bolognese

I first cooked Bolognese four or five years ago from a cookbook that has become my most oil-splattered and timeworn: Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a work of intelligence, rough aesthetic, and surgical recipes and writing. The author, Marcella Hazan, a trained biologist who was born not far from Bologna, prefaces her recipe with a galactic claim: “There is no more union more perfect in all of gastronomy than the marriage of Bolognese ragú with homemade Bolognese tagliatelle.” As the football game unfolded, I was making versions of both.

Years before, I watched the proprietor of an agritourism farm in Bologna make tagliatelle, a thick noodle revered in the region. When the dough was made, he rolled it like a crepe. With a long knife he cut a cross-section of the dough, stuck the blade into the tangle, lifted, and from the knife’s top dangled ribbons of fat yellow noodles. Here they are, uncooked:

Bolognese Tagliatelle

Feeling lazy (squash and a chicken were already in the oven) and blissfully enervated from the wine I drank whenever I washed my hands of flour, I used the machine to cut the stretched dough. Actually, the hand-cut method is easier, but I was in a nice rhythm with the cranking and pulling. Soon, the taglierini noodles were ready, and right when I finished cutting them–right then–the experience of making pasta peaked, before the salt water bath, before the first taste.

Please inhale the below video of an ancient Italian woman making tagliatelle.

From Middle-Deck Seats

Something happened on the middle-deck of Lincoln Financial Field, the Linc, home stadium of the Philadelphia Eagles (3 wins, 2 losses prior to the game), as they took the field against the Detroit Lions (3 losses, 1 win) and everyone was waiting for the kicker to start forward. I noticed, through gaps in the massive concrete bleachers, far-off trees and low buildings, small, still, and indifferent to the game. Above the stadium’s rim drifted wispy cirrus clouds, cotton on cobalt.

The kicker sent the ball flying. Everyone’s eyes followed it down to the return man, but mine stayed in the sky, trained on the residual smoke from the fireworks that went off at the kick. The smoke outsailed the cirrus clouds, passing in front of them, floating on, and vanishing mid-flight into blue. The sun warmed my skin. The breeze rippled my hair. It was an empyrean fall day.

Decked out in plastic armor, uniforms colored bright, the offense and defense came on, and for now I was unallied to either team. The rhythm of the sun and the clouds reduced the spectacle before me to sport. Names on the backs of jerseys were meaningless. Statistics–on the scoreboard, from the PA announcer–were mere history: a record of past bodily movements and counter-movements. I became aware that the same tepid fall sun had seen past sporting events, unalike in their rules and motions but alike underneath. A nearby woman shouted, “Woop. Woooooooop. Let’s go birds,” and she could very well have been, in this space where the timeline had rolled up, cheering chariots as they orbited the Circus Maximus.

Wins, losses, names, and numbers–these are small. What matters is the struggle, the kinetic beauty of it, and the story behind the movements, the forms and narratives that twist and turn as in novels, epics, and routine life.

Later, when the Eagles scored on a two-yard pass to the running back, the frenzy of the occasion re-wrapped itself around me. I shouted along with the lady and sang the home team’s fight song. When the Eagles blew the lead and the game, I sulked out with the silent crowd. The sun had arced low but still felt warm, and I found myself looking forward, the bitter taste gone, to next Sunday.

Souping the Pumpkin

Recipe for Pumpkin Soup: When you are walking past the grocery store and dusk has fallen early, the air perplexes you with its coolness, and the loudest sound you hear is the surf of leaves, check the corner of your eye for squash shaped like a basketball, and there the early pumpkins are, only few laps of the hour hand past Labor Day, but oriole-orange, fluted, and

fat. Take the tiniest, sweetest pumpkin, and take your knife to a length of sharpening steel. Cut off the squash’s top, lifting it by the grip of hard, curled vine, and scoop out the seeds; quarter the topless squash into wedges, halving and re-halving them into crescents, arranging the rearranged pumpkin on a metal sheet, and baking

the whole show; when a fork slides with ease through the pumpkin’s flesh, and when your kitchen smells like Halloween, remove the slices and scoop the pale meat from the orange rinds, whirl the meat in a blender, sprinkle in spices (cinnamon, chile-heat, nutmeg, s+p), whirl again, and pour the soup into bowls. Douse with olive oil. Chop the roasted seeds and splash them on. Before tasting the first spoonful, remember the summer’s river-breeze and lusty evenings, amber like a pumpkin, and, seen looking back from the early days of fall, looking quite like soup.

Cooking Chinese in Queens

On Saturday, Allie and I went to Queens for a cooking lesson with her Chinese co-worker, and on the front-right flame in the kitchen was a timeworn cast iron wok.

Its parabolic walls curve up like an umbrella. They’re black and scarred, mossy with char build-up, and looking as if molded from the same rock as a cannonballs. You see an old wok, and you think: Here is a tool that cavemen used used to stew mastodon.

They very well may have. Woks are designed for efficiency. The parabolic walls vortex heat inward–directly onto the food. Vegetable oil goes into the hot wok. In a heartbeat the oil ripples, and Trudy shovels the oil along to higher parts of the wok’s walls. She drops in a dozen garlic cloves, they brown in five seconds, and the orange peppers are cooked through in 30.

By far, the most fascinating wok-action from Saturday was watching eggs go from liquid to fluffy in no more than 15 seconds. To start, Trudy beat the eggs with chopsticks. She poured them into the molten oil. The eggs appeared to be spongy and cooked in an instant, but Trudy rattled the spatula-shovel in the iron bowl in a circular motion, breaking the eggs’ cooked surface, showing the raw center, and introducing that raw yellow to hot oil and wok’s slick-hot upper walls.

A good wok can heat up past 1,000 degrees without breaking a sweat. At this temperature the eggs were done in a blink. Cooking the eggs was the first step to fried rice, which, in China, is a Tuesday night meal that takes all of three minutes to cook.

In the wok Trudy made fried rice, a shrimp platter, and brown garlic for bok choy. We also had dumplings, hand-rolled. Some were steamed, some were pan-fried, and I ate none of them, for the filling they encased had two kinds of shrimp. The table was filled with pork spare ribs, mochi (rice cakes filled with ice cream), savory rice cakes, and sweet olive juice. It was enough to inspire us to heat up our carbon steel wok tonight–practice for the day I graduate to cast iron.

End of Summer


 

I know summer is ending because the calendar has flipped to September, but also because I can now go outside without sizzling over-easy on the sidewalk. This past July set a record for heat. Bring on Thanksgiving, I say. But if there was a silver lining to summer, it was that I ate more ice cream than I did in my previous 23 summers put together.

Why? It was hot. The AC is taboo in my apartment. But not in the hallways, where it feels like January. Exit the building and you leave the cool halls for a choking breeze and a desert sun. Not to worry–there’s an ice cream store right across the street. There, they scoop graham cracker ice cream and a chocolate peanut butter that must be two-parts peanut to one-part chocolate. And finally, I ate so much ice cream because my freezer is full of it. My office’s test kitchen had leftovers and I couldn’t let them go to waste.

After days at the beach, there was ice cream (dark chocolate gelato, coffee with chocolate chips). At the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, there were “regular flavors” (ginger and black sesame) and “exotic flavors” (vanilla and strawberry). And from The Bent Spoon in Princeton, there were truly exotic flavors: Sriracha-peach and quail egg, pictured above. The flavors aren’t nearly as eccentric at the shop across the street, but there the flavors change with the seasons, which means that maybe my ice cream habit won’t.

 

Greenness and Grass

Today, on the way back from Sunday brunch in Chinatown, I picked up, among other groceries, a jar of wild blueberry jam. Thoughts of work were sailing in like storm clouds. As I often do with food, I wondered about the jam, about the snug rural place it came from, and about the guy who picks blueberries all day.

When I see honey, I imagine the beekeeper. When I read on a menu that a beer has been brewed by monks since 1634, as in the case with Paulaner Salvator, I imagine the monks in their high stone fortress stirring beer with paddles. And today, when I saw in Little Italy a package of penne made by La Terra e Il Cielo, I didn’t imagine anything at all. I remembered. Harvesting grain, chaffing the kernels, driving them to the pasta factory. It is strange to wonder back to yourself.

I once worked at La Terra e Il Cielo, a cooperative of farmers farming mostly in Le Marche, Italy. In fact, I was there for the co-op’s 30th anniversary, and we ate roasted goose and drank verdicchio, the wine of the region, in a castle that would satisfy any beer-brewing monk. There it was, the pasta on the shelf; and there I was, the sun high, the breeze rustling, the tractor rumbling, and my gloves on tight.

When you imagine what it’s like for the guy who picks blueberries, who grows garlic, who brews beer, who serves that beer on a cruise ship, or who makes a living from writing about that beer, there are no clouds, only beaming sunlight. But the beer can go flat, and plenty of cruise ships make their last stop on the ocean floor. With my gloves on tight and the smell of mint blowing in from the woods, I couldn’t see a cloud, only rows and rows of garlic, the bulbs so present I could taste them in the air and, later, would have to throw out my clothes.

But you return to the jam, the honey, the pasta. Work looms. If those wondered about places always seem green and sunny, it’s because some of them are.

‘Tis the Season

“On the tractor right now,” wrote Farmer Ron to begin the email, “Yes 5th generation.” Though I had just interviewed Ron in Union Square as its Wednesday market set up, I had to send him follow up questions because the article couldn’t wait. No—the writing could wait; it was the tomatoes that couldn’t.

Ron, who sells apple mint and cantaloupes and cherry peppers at the market, who works on a farm in New Jersey that has been in his family for five generations, who has an obsession with tomatoes, gave me four of his best. As I typed the email, they stared at me from across my desk: one green, one pink, another crimson, the last orange-red stripe, all fat, skin tight with juice, and white in spots under the office lights. I sent the email. I stared out the window at Central Park.

At 7 a.m. that morning, I crossed the north side of Union Square Park to meet Ron. My two iced coffees hadn’t cooled me at all against the sun. Though early, it was hot, and vendors wiped their foreheads after pulling corn from crates, and the sun shone in their eyes even in the shade. They wore gloves and boots. Sleek vans with the names of restaurants on their sides were pulled up to the curb; the drivers of these vans were getting the good early produce at a good price.

I met Farmer Ron by his stand. He had on shorts and a blue t-shirt sporting the name of his farm, a bright blue, which might be the one color his tomatoes aren’t. There they were in crates, cracked and lumpy and beautiful.

As long as I can remember, I have been a lover of tomatoes. Sauce on pasta. Slices on a sandwich. Whole like a plum. On one occasion, I ordered a grilled cheese with seven slices of tomato at a diner. In recent years I have learned the joys of heirloom tomatoes. Loosely defined, an heirloom tomato is a type of tomato that has been grown since before World War II. Tightly defined, an heirloom tomato is the slew of pink and purple fruits that were on the tables in front of me.

The interview ended, and Ron picked out my heirloom tomatoes. I went to my desk; he went to his field. The day passed, sifted away in a second but for a moment in the evening that has fossilized. After work, after getting up before daybreak, after crossing the state line on my trip home and walking my dog when I got there, I washed off and sliced the tomatoes. They went into the bowl nearly naked; I dressed them up in only olive oil and salt.

When a tomato is good, it is good. You can buy the cheap bananas, and you can argue for the $5 wine, but once you have tasted a tomato that splinters your being and makes you know that, yes, summer is peaking, you will never again see an ordinary tomato as you did. The tomato season is here, and, as with anything temporary, seize, seize, seize it before it sifts away.

Homebrewing, Take One

Two hours into brewing my first batch of beer, I was finally able to relax. Elbows on the countertop, my shirt dark with sweat, I was re-reading the recipe’s fourth and trickiest step: fermentation. On the stove boiled the starchy brown liquid that would become beer, called wort. I was adding hops every 15 minutes, checking the temperature occasionally, reading, and enjoying the soothing heat and aroma that filled the kitchen, a smell like dark wheat bread, or a newly opened bag of pretzels. Then, from behind, from the yellow light under the microwave, where a moment before I could almost see the smell in the steam, there was a splash and a rolling hiss.

The wort was loose. It frothed out of the stockpot and turned my stove into a bath. I grabbed the pot’s hot handles and moved it to another burner. I wiped up the mess. “If you can make oatmeal, you can make beer,” the brewing book had promised. I can make oatmeal. I can make lasagna. I can make gnocchi in a Gorgonzola Dolce sauce that sends my tastebuds soaring. I can make oatmeal. Recently, I found out I can’t make beer.

Beer starts as grain. Grain can be boiled in water and eaten whole (wheatberries). Grain can be ground into flour, combined with water, mixed with other ingredients to form dough, and cooked (bread, pasta). Grain can be simmered long so that it softens into soup (congee, oatmeal). When it’s lucky, grain can be simmered in water so that the warm liquid saps all of the grain’s sugar. When its stars are out, grain becomes a wort. Wort is dusted with yeast and left to sit while the yeast turns sugar into alcohol. Beer is grain, water, and yeast–oatmeal with a few extra steps.

Then why was the beer so tricky? For three hours, you are heating, cooling, stirring, checking, straining, and stressing, all over a gallon of wort that will be ten beers in three weeks. If you are looking to profit from brewing, to flip a few dollars into a few cases, then you should brew at least five gallons at a time. Really, you should run to the beer store and get a six-pack of Victory.

But there is something to be said for the hard way. Let’s take that something from cookbook author and English professor Harold McGee, who writes, “The pleasure of tasting a good beer or wine or spirit grows with the recognition that its flavor is the expression of many natural, cultural, and personal particulars: a place and its traditions, certain plants and the soil they grew in, a year and its weather, the course of fermentation and maturation, the taste and skills of the maker.”

If the “pleasure of tasting a good beer” intensifies for the drinker who can link flavor to base plants (grain, hops), the course of fermentation, and the brewer’s role in the brewing, then I was developing a better taste for beer by attempting to make it at home, even as my wort charred in the burner. Here is the value of fumbling with carboys and siphons in your kitchen. For your effort, you will better understand brewing, the strange alchemy of fermentation, beer as a whole, where it came from, and how it got into your keg, can, or bottle. For your good work, every future beer you drink will taste better.

Tell yourself this when the wort bubbles over. When you’re stirring and your brother Nick has a glass thermometer dangled over the stockpot’s lip, and when the mercury shoots high above the 152-degree limit, cut the heat and cool yourself. When your strainer is ten sizes too small, when the instructions in your book read like gibberish, and when, after three weeks of waiting, the siphon rockets ale onto your rug, relax. There’s more beer than you could ever hope to drink at the store down the street.

Itching for Urchin

Club music from the deck muffled her giggling as the waitress came to our table. She was wearing a false frown, a faux-grimace to show her faux-disappointment. She stopped at my stool with the bad news. At the table, only Allie and I could hear her. “I’m sorry,” she said to me, glancing at our filled plate, “Tonight we don’t have sea urchin.”

No problem. On my plate was a school of fish, in colors covering half the Electromagnetic Spectrum, in slivers, put atop or inside of sticky brown rice. I had plenty of food; I had only meant the sea urchin for a thrill. How many spicy tuna rolls can a person eat? When I first started eating sushi, the answer seemed to be in the hundreds. Now, I yawn and get a dollar-slice of pizza. I have redrawn the borders of my comfort zone to include, somewhere near the center, vinegared rice and raw fish. When I’m in the mood for exploring, for ranging into less familiar zones of experience, I’ll read Walt Whitman, take a wrong turn on the way home from work, or order sea urchin.

“Tonight we don’t have sea urchin,” the waitress said. “But this summer we have new sushi chefs from Japan. They get upset when customers can’t have what they want. We sent someone out to get the urchin.”

Before I could say anything, she left. We laughed at what must have been a similar picture. Mine was of a Japanese sushi chef on a motorcycle. He was in scuba gear and an aerodynamic helmet. With great purpose, he pulls over to the side of the road, dismounts, and parts the reeds on a secret stream. In he dives. With a net, he searches for my dinner on the sandy bottom. Meantime, I am sitting dry at the table sipping a dark and stormy.

The waitress checked in, and I canceled my urchin order. Later, when she came with the check, I asked where my urchin would have come from, the stream? “No,” she said, “A seafood shop the next town over.” Stream or glass tank, I now had a craving for urchin.

Two weeks later, I saw sea urchin on a menu. Soon after, I saw urchin in my bowl. I was eating with Allie and my brother Nick at Soba-Ya, a cozy, one-room restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The room was quiet. Our waitress preferred gestures to speaking. The urchin came not atop brown rice, but noodles spun from buckwheat flour. (Above: the sea urchin looks like an orange tongue.) A few bites, or rather, given the urchin’s texture, a few sips, and your feet leave the hardwood for the sand. Often, miles outside your comfort zone is right where you want to be.

Artichokes Part 2: Stuffed

My grandmother didn’t need the recipe card I brought to her kitchen. She only needed the four fat artichokes. On the TV on the table, Spain’s soccer team was raining goals on Italy’s. She spoke over the announcers, giving me instructions verbatim from the tucked-away card. Verbatim minus the mistakes. The woman who wrote the recipe, my grandmother’s mom, learned Italian and Hungarian before English.

I was chopping parsley and garlic with a curved blade. Shaped like a tall “C,” like a half-moon, the Italian mezzaluna has a sharp outer lip that, holding the grips, you rock back and forth over herbs or aromatics or whatever you want to cut to pieces. Mezzaluna means “half-moon.” A standard chef’s knife is more efficient but less fun.

Before using the mezzaluna, I had used a dinner knife and scissors to undress the artichokes. A small percentage of an artichoke is edible. You have to work hard for those few bites. When you’ve got your four fat artichokes, you must then trim away the outer parts, rub the slippery inner parts with lemon (so they don’t brown), scrape out the fuzzy choke, and cook the flesh for a good half-hour. Artichokes are also expensive. You’re paying $10 and 90 minutes for the meat of a thistle, which doesn’t really have much of a taste.

Stuffed artichokes are different. My grandmother tucks a mixture of bread crumbs, cheese, herbs, and spices behind each of the leaves. When the artichoke is cooked and on your plate, you pull away an inedible leaf and hold it horizontally like a boat on calm water. You then scrape your front teeth along the inside of the leaf, picking up the fragrant and cheesy bread crumbs and then the wedge of artichoke meat at the leaf’s base. Or you can flip the leaf and use your bottom teeth. (I prefer this second way.)

As you go, the artichoke becomes more and more leafless. Eventually the leaves are gone and the party would seem to be over, but no. There’s the heart. Though no breadcrumbs coat the heart’s curves, it is unquestionably the best part of the artichoke. Usually, I can’t wait. I take a knife to the last dozen leaves and cut the heart free. It has an oily, vegetal taste and your teeth slide through it like butter. But these four hearts were still uncooked and cloistered in leaves. By the time Spain had scored its first goal, I had scored off the artichokes’ thorns and tips.

The artichokes cleaned, my grandmother put them in bowl with lemon water. She directed me, and I chopped parsley and garlic with a mezzaluna. (“Go after that garlic!”) My grandfather came in and made fun of me for shaking my hips while chopping. I’m just really excited about artichokes, I said. I had never used a mezzaluna, but now I have on in my kitchen drawer. My grandparents gave me their spare. When the parsley was in pieces and I had sufficiently gotten after the garlic, we made the bread crumb mixture.

The recipe card still hadn’t seen the kitchen’s yellow light. Into the leaves went the fragrant bread crumbs, and into a cavernous pan went the artichokes. Covered, they simmered in a quarter-inch of water for three-quarters of an hour. The timer went off, and I went with my grandfather to check on the chokes. With a small tug, a leaf melted away form the bulb. A scrape, a swallow, a flash of childhood memories.

Flash Essay: Iced Coffee

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