Echoes and Mementos

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

Month: February, 2012

Japanese Dinner Part One: Purple Pickles

For a while I have wanted to pickle something. Recently the chance came by UPS and with a Japanese cookbook, Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. According to Tsuji, pickling is popular in Japan but fading with the years, as we no longer need salt, brine, or vinegar to keep our food fresh. He writes a section on pickling. Having read and tasted it, I better understand the limp ginger served alongside my sushi, as well as the pickled plum that often forms the center to a ricey circumference.

Pickling is common across cultures. Japan pickles plums, turnips, and daikon; Korea salt-pickles cabbage and chiles for kimchi. Chiles, eggplant, and garlic become a pickled dish in Sicily, and in Mexico jalapeños and jicama bob in baths of vinegar. In the US, we pickle mostly cucumbers and tomatoes, but also salmon and eggs. The Japanese recipe I tried featured cabbage, which I swapped for purple cabbage, a change that met three of my needs: pickling, pretty pictures, and alliteration.

Preparation for the pickling was painless. I chopped a half-moon of cabbage, dried the pieces, and packed them into a mason jar. Then I heated vinegar with sugar and salt, and, when the pickling solution started to boil, I poured it to the jar’s glassy lip. The cabbage will pickle in a cool, dark place (right next to the limoncello). In two day’s time, the pickles and the rest of a Japanese dinner will be ready.

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Sicilian Orange Salad

When the sun showed last week, and when I was trying to use ten sad skinless lemons leftover from limoncello, I made a summer staple of mine: Sicilian orange salad. Lemons, oranges, and blood oranges–the colors are too ecstatic for winter, the flavors too florid. But let us defer the matter of seasonality to logic.

Consider Sicily. The island is a heartbeat away from kissing Africa. Surely, given this closeness, and given the climate of Sicily in the summer, so hot that many farmers wait until nightfall and tend their fields wearing headlamps, we should be little surprised if lemons and February are good friends in this distant land. Consider citrus. Even in the summer we northerners bring in oranges from afar, so why not eat the fruits in February?

This salad will wake you up like a coffee. I recommend experimenting with the recipe. For a less-sour salad, use one lemon. Try grating a patch of its rind and adding the zest before the final toss. If you’ve made limoncello and have only naked lemons, zest the blood orange instead. Here we are throwing things together and not calculating. Sliver all of the mint, or for more varied bites keep some of the leaves away from your knife.

Freeze the salad for five minutes before serving. Serve with foods of personality: barbecued ribs, garlicky pasta, whatever nimble beer you have on hand, or all of the above. But often I eat the salad alone, standing in the kitchen, in the afternoon, in the winter or the summer, straight out of the chilled bowl, lemon spirits and the sun mere excuses.

Serves 2 as a snack, 4 as a side

2             oranges

2             small lemons

1             blood orange

1/5         medium red onion (one ounce), cut into slivers

3             springs mint leaves (some 25 leaves), half slivered, half left whole

1 tbsp      olive oil

freshly ground pepper

pinch of salt

1) With a paring knife, cut the rind and white pith from the first orange. Discard the rind and pith. With your knife perpendicular to the lines between the orange segments (the orange’s poles at east and west), slice the sphere into thin rounds, removing seeds from rounds that have them. Put rounds into a large bowl. With a paper towel, wipe juice that has pooled on the cutting board.

2) Repeat for other orange. Repeat for lemons and blood orange.

3) Add red onions, mint, and olive oil. Toss delicately.

4) Add 5-8 grindings of pepper and next-to-no salt. Toss delicately.

5) Cover and put in freezer for 4 or 5 minutes. Take out. Eat.

Recipe Cards

When you read books of fact someone is telling you about the past. You are mostly passive, a listener. When you read recipes you are actively reconstructing and exploring the past. I once read a few Roman recipes. They were from the empire, and they were translated from Latin. Pasta had not yet evolved. Romans instead ate a polenta made from wheat; corn was stuck in the Americas, and so was a favorite jungle-fruit of mine: the tomato. Cooks seasoned food with garum, a fermented fish sauce, similar to the condiment popular in Southeast Asia today. People and foods change; through old recipes we can imagine how we used to be.

My grandparents recently sent me some recipe cards. Mostly, they come from my great-grandmother, who herself came from Avellino, Italy (near Naples) to New York by way of Albania and Budapest. (Recall: the woman who gave me the idea for eggles gnocchi.) She settled in the West Village. Here is a curious fact, for in the West Village I have idled away some Saturday afternoons, slinking into shops, wandering, buying tea and cheese. I am interested in the recipe cards for the food, yes, but also for the portal to Italian-American New York of a century past.

“Christofer,” my Nanni recently asked, “where do you get your tripe?” I don’t know where I get my intestines for cooking, because I don’t know anyone who will eat them with me, except maybe Shadow, but now that I have a recipe for the spongy organ I will search for a butcher who carries it.

Look for some of these foods in the coming weeks and seasons.

Winter Marinara

When I visit the house where I was raised, the smell of simmering tomatoes often greets me before my family does. There it hangs, thinly as I twist the doorknob, and thickly in the yellow hallway, an assault on the senses. If you focus you can see it, the smell. It’s the same smell that, when I was a teenager, would awake me in the late morning, though my room was a floor above the kitchen and on the house’s far side.

Aromatics, tomatoes, and a long simmer give the sauce its strong smell. If you dissect the inner framework of a wall or the sandy shingles of that house, you will find, I am sure, the residue of garlic and plum tomatoes. If you live in an apartment, as I do, expect your neighbors to glance at you in the hallway with the dim hope of a dinner invite.

I use canned tomatoes for a winter marinara. We can shape the sauce’s character by tinkering with these tomatoes. For a chunky and rustic sauce, pour the plum tomatoes and their juices into the blender and pulse 5 or 6 times. For a silky smooth sauce, run the blender for 30 seconds. Also, I add no herbs. We can add other flavors later depending on what we’re cooking.

Four quarts of sauce result from the long  simmer. I recommend trying the recipe on a Sunday, for the leftover sauce will give you nice momentum into the week. On Sunday night, I’ll toss the stuff with pasta and flash-fried calamari and have a main course. You can remix the leftover sauce into eggplant parm, pizza, bean and zucchini dishes, the beginnings of a tomato-based soup, or whatever you want.

Makes 1 Quart

¼ cup             olive oil

3                    medium onions, chopped

4                    garlic cloves, minced

1 28-oz. can   tomato purée

1 28-oz. can   whole plum tomatoes and their juices, pulsed 5 or 6 times

1) Put olive oil and onions in a large, non-reactive pot over medium heat. Stirring occasionally, cook for 10-12 minutes, until onions are translucent.

2) Add garlic. Stirring often, and being mindful not to burn the garlic, for the fragments will fast turn brown and bitter, cook the garlic for some 90 seconds, until pieces are golden.

3) Add tomato purée. Add the pulsed plum tomatoes from the blender. Stir. When the sauce starts to simmer, switch the heat to medium-low. Let slowly simmer for three to four hours, stirring at 10-15 minute intervals, and dipping in bread when you wish.

American Cheese



The Limoncello Will Be Ready in 80 Days

Fat lemons dangle from most tree branches in Sorrento. If you have traveled there, or anywhere else in southern Italy, or to an ambitious Italian American restaurant, or to your liquor store, chances are you’ve sipped limoncello. If you haven’t, here’s a primer: Limoncello is what, when they’re lucky, those fat lemons become.

In places like Sorrento, the liqueur comes thick in a freezing glass. A sip after dinner, the summer sun now down, and the day’s heat seems a distant memory. Or so I recall the experience from February.

Actually, February is the perfect time to think limoncello. Today, February 14, I stored a jar of grain alcohol and lemon peels in the back of a kitchen cabinet. In 40 days, I will dissolve sugar water into the mixture. It will sit for 40 more days, and then, just before Memorial Weekend, the first weekend at the beach, the liqueur will become limoncello, and I can sip the sour spirit from a freezing glass after days of sun and grill smoke.

Dragon Fruit

Thoreau on Winter

Tone endears readers to writing, and Thoreau strikes the most pleasant tone of any writer I’ve read. In his essay “A Winter Walk,” he marvels at winter in a time before gas heating and electric refrigeration:

“We sleep, and at length awake to the still reality of a winter morning. The snow lies warm as cotton or down upon the window-sill; the broadened sash and frosted panes admit a dim and private light, which enhances the snug cheer within. The stillness of the morning is impressive. The floor creaks under our feet as we move toward the window to look abroad through some clear space over the fields.”

From the fireside you can see the snowy yard. There is HDT, standing next to you, and you’re having a one-sided conversation. Though he can speak Latin and Greek, Thoreau never talks down to you. His humility and optimism and love for the natural world make him likable, and for his charm we are likely to listen to his ideas when the vector of his story makes an unforeseen turn into philosophy. But his simple observation will do, especially when the flurries fall and he profiles, exactly, the cozy character of winter.

A Farmer’s Pasta in Six Ingredients

“Guanciale” comes from guancia, the Italian word for cheek. Guancia also means pillow, for where do you rest your cheek at night? Guanciale, a strip of meat, comes from a pig’s cheek that has been cured. The cut is some 90% fat. I seldom eat meat, but in the hour before I do, something like guanciale arrives on my cutting board.

My favorite pasta calls for guanciale, spaghetti, onions, olive oil, tomato purée, and Parmesan cheese. Should you be unable to find guanciale, pancetta can substitute. But Guanciale gives the pasta a deeply animal flavor that takes you to a place out of time, to a sad barn in the hills, to the campfire of Stone Age hunters, to a savage and dirty place where tofu and cream-white chicken have never been tasted.

I learned to cook this pasta in Italy, from the owner of a farm near Bologna, where I worked a few summers ago. “A farmer’s pasta,” he often said while preparing the dish. (It appears on menus as spaghetti amatriciana.) Here’s his version:

And mine:

And a recipe:

Spaghetti Amatriciana (“a farmer’s pasta”)

Serves 2

1 tbsp   olive oil

1/4 lb   guanciale, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1            small onion, chopped

1 cup     tomato purée (or crushed tomatoes, etc.)

1/2 lb    spaghetti

Parmesan cheese to taste

1) Put two paper towels on a plate beside your stove. Sauté guanciale in olive oil over medium heat, stirring often. After three or four minutes, when the guanciale is browned  and a pool of grease coats the pan, transfer guanciale with a slotted spoon to the paper towels. Use paper towels to lazily wrap the guanciale.

2) Sauté onion in the guanciale’s grease for three minutes over medium-low heat. Pour in tomato purée. Let simmer, stirring occasionally.

3) Cook the spaghetti in salted water (about 1 tsp. salt) until al dente. Drain spaghetti. Add to simmering sauce. Add guanciale. Kill heat. Stir well. Sprinkle Parmesan onto the pasta. Eat.

Senses and Soup Dumplings

You see through the front window two chefs making dumplings, and, taking this as a good sign, and also taking the recommendation of your girlfriend’s Chinese co-worker, you order them when the waitress comes. Soon you see the dumplings themselves coming. Here they are in their circular steamer:

Stranger to the soup dumpling, you pinch a pouch between your chopsticks. A dip in the dark sauce, an upswing to your mouth. So far a soup dumpling looks like a doughy bag twisted at the top. It smells starchy, feels like slippery plastic chopsticks, tastes sour and spicy from the leftover zing of pickled cabbage, and sounds like the lilting music of the Asiatic languages heard in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Now you pop that starchy sucker into your mouth and bite.

The dough ruptures; the soup gushes out. There is soup in this thing? There is soup. It scalds your tongue. You chew and swallow the molten dumpling as fast as you can. You feel a hot lump falling to your stomach.

Two minutes later you pick up a dumpling with your fingers. A dip in the dark sauce, a plop on the broad spoon, an upswing to your mouth. With a chopstick you puncture the dough and suck out the soup. Then you eat the dough and the pork meatball entombed therein. A soup dumpling feels fluid, gelatinous, and solid. The dumpling sounds like faraway languages. It smells like winter spices, pork, and ginger. To the eye, a soup dumpling looks like a bag of dough, then greasy drops on a flat spoon.

A Snack at Eataly

Flavoring Vodka

Given a choice between the two, the cupcake vodka winking from the second shelf, and the Southeast Asian spirit in which snakes and scorpions swim, which would you rather drink? Me, I am choosing reptile over pastry. But the question matters little, for, though banana and iced-tea particles may lurk in commercial vodkas, the plain stuff takes well to home flavorings.

Vodka distillers aspire to a tasteless drink. As with rice or eggs, you can build whatever flavors you want onto the blank base. With these thoughts I had another: Why not, instead of turning my leftovers into fried rice or a frittata, turn them into a drink? I used ginger, mint, and jalapeno peppers to flavor the vodka. Here’s how it happened:

Makes 1 cup

1      Jalapeno pepper, halved lengthwise (for a milder drink, use just one half)

1      Ginger knob, golf-ball sized, cut into quarter-thick rounds

12    Mint leaves

1       Cup vodka (or so, I used about a shot glass more)

1) Put jalapeno pepper and ginger in a mason jar. Tear the mint leaves and add them. Pour vodka in jar and twist the lid shut. Let sit for two days, gently shaking the jar two or three times a day.

2) Unseal the jar. Strain vodka over a sturdy bowl. Pour now-yellow vodka back into jar. Seal. Drink soon.

What to do with it…

Mix 1:1 with cranberry juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice. Shake for 15 seconds. Pour into martini glasses. Drink.