Echoes and Mementos

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

Month: March, 2012

Asparagus Risotto

For the above picture I slopped risotto onto a plate. The picture looks appealing, or so my modest visual aesthetic tells me. If I were to analyze the picture, I would tell you the cropped risotto–the right third left off the frame–as well as the plate, with strips of white and alternating colors curling behind the rice, make the shot a good one. But I will leave these thoughts to the professionals.

Food stylists and food photographers professionally–that is, for a profession, for a living–make food look good in pictures. Often food stylists work with tweezers on a single dish for hours. In extreme cases, four or five hours. What does this mean? It means that some food takes longer to style than it does to cook. It means that, while a food stylist is arranging chives at a 35 degree angle, hungry people in Ghana are eating clay. The plate then passes to the photographer. He or she snaps, using four grades of artificial light, 300 pictures and keeps two.

The above risotto took me thirty minutes to cook and two minutes to photograph. The reason I photograph food in the first place is to trick you into reading my writing. I can’t imagine that, before sitting down to a lunch of asparagus risotto, an Italian or anyone would sculpt the slop, take 400 pictures, and then eat the now-cold rice. Better to photograph the meal as is, to show what the food actually looks like, to ignore the patch of sunlight that circles through your kitchen from 1 to 5pm and makes food glow, and to focus on the eating.

Serves 4

3 cups    vegetable stock

¾ lb        asparagus

2 tbsp     olive oil

1 tbsp     unsalted butter

1             medium onion, chopped

1¼ cup   Arborio rice

¼ tsp      salt


½ cup    white wine

⅓ cup    grated Parmesan cheese

1) Put the veggie stock in a pot over high heat. While the stock creeps to a boil, half each asparagus spear. Prepare an ice bath with salted water in a large bowl. Plunge asparagus into boiling stock. After two minutes, remove spears with a slotted spoon and submerge them in the ice bath. Switch the heat to low and cover the stock. Let the asparagus and yourself chill for a few minutes. Drain the asparagus and pat the spears semi-dry.

2) Cut the spears’ top halves into ½-inch pieces. Set aside. For this step, it is essential that you eat as many of the asparagus pieces as you want. Take the spears’ bottom halves and cut them into ½-inch pieces. Put pieces from the bottom halves into a food processor with one tbsp olive oil. Purée and set aside.

3) Put butter, onion, and remaining 1 tbsp olive oil in a heavy pan over medium heat. Stirring often with a wooden spoon, let onion cook for five minutes, until the pieces turn amber. Add the Arborio rice. Stirring constantly, cook the rice for some three or four minutes, until the grains become translucent.

5) Are you still stirring? I hope so. Don’t stop. Add the salt and a shy grinding of pepper. Pour in the wine, continue to stir, and put your nose high above the pot. How good is the smell of wine cooking? Often I will walk my dog hours after dinner. By the time I return to my apartment, the wind coming in off the river has long erased the wine-smell from my mind. The lingering musk greets me as I open the door and toss  Shadow a treat (not risotto). It says, “Someone has cooked with wine here, and maybe you should find the opened bottle and pour a drink.” Keep stirring.

5) When the wine has all but evaporated, add a few tablespoons of the veggie stock. Keep stirring, tracing your spoon along the pot’s walls, cutting it figure-eight through the middle, and sliding it under the rice. When the stock has evaporated, add more. Stir until dry. Spoon in stock again. Repeat for a total of 18 to 23 minutes, adding the asparagus some five minutes before the rice is tender but toothsome.

6) Take the risotto off the heat. Stir in the cheese. Stir in the asparagus purée. Let risotto sit for a minute, then portion onto plates, drizzling olive oil and grating more cheese atop each pile. Eat.

Catching a Ride to Work

Frittata of Leftover Pasta

Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side

1 cup    leftover pasta

1 tbsp   olive oil

4           large eggs

Salt + Pepper

Red pepper flakes

1) Remove the pasta from the fridge at least 30 minutes before cooking. Let the pasta stand on the countertop and warm to room temp.

2) Put a non-stick pan over medium-low heat. Slick the flat part of the pan’s surface with olive oil

3) Over a large bowl crack the eggs. Grind salt and pepper over the eggs, keeping in mind how peppery and salty and spicy your pasta was two nights ago. Add some red pepper flakes if you like. Whisk the eggy solution and, when well mixed, add the pasta and mix again.

4) Pour the egg-pasta liquid into the pan. Use a spoon to spread the pasta, for the noodles tend to gather in one area of the pan, and we want to evenly distribute them. Cover the pan. Let sit for 8-10 minutes, peeking under the lid when the mood strikes.

5) When the egg has mostly congealed and resembles an omelet but for a shallow pool on top, it is time for the flip. Place a large plate next to the pan. Carefully slide a spatula under the omelet and loosen it from the sides and bottom of the pan. (We used a heady dose of oil to ease the pain this step can bring.) Now, tilting the pan to the plate, use the spatula to transfer the omelet to the plate.

6) Breathe. How many times have I messed up the flip? Too many.

7) Invert the pan over the omelet. Put one hand on the panhandle and the other under the plate. Pressing plate and pan together, invert the plate in one quick motion, landing the pan right-side-up on the still-hot burner. Cook the omelet uncovered for another 30 seconds. Transfer to the plate. Eat.

Kiss-Winter-Goodbye Sangria

Perhaps you are familiar with the rain dance. According to legend, some Native American tribes would, when their cornfields were thirsty for water, don tribal masks and vestments and dance wildly. The hope was to invoke the presence responsible for rain and, for the price of a dance, buy a watery drink for the parched fields. Why would a similar dance fail in 2012? From this half-baked thinking follows my strong belief that we can chase the winter by swilling summer drinks and pitchers of sangria in March.

The winter elements of this sangria are cold-weather fruits (apple, pear), a few fingers of brandy (for inner warmth against the frost), a shade of vanilla, and a half-teaspoon of cinnamon. Here we use the shock of cinnamon to stand in for sugar or simple syrup. The absence of sugar makes this an unsexy sangria, and thus a perfect drink for 40- and 50-degree weather. In the same modest spirit, we can use a cheap bottle of wine; the brandy alters the drink’s personality, making the purchase of good wine a bad decision. (For this reason restaurants have a sky-high profit margin on sangria). The hint of warm weather, the brightness with which the sangria summons spring, comes from, what else, citrus.

Makes 4-6 drinks

1                apple

1                pear

⅓               lemon

1 bottle      cheap Spanish red wine (I used Tempranillo)

¼ cup        brandy

½ tsp          ground cinnamon

A few drops of vanilla extract

1 cup         club soda (refrigerated)

1) Core the apple and pear. Discard the cores. Chop the pear into small pieces. When for sangria I cut a pear into crescents, the fruit becomes strange after soaking in the wine, so chop those white wedges to bits. (Other fruits do better; check back in 3 months.) Chop the apple as you did the pear, but leaving a few slices large if you wish. Put the chopped fruit into a large pitcher.

2) Cut the lemon-third into wedges. Remove the seeds. Over the pitcher, squeeze each lemon wedge into submission, then toss the juiceless lemons onto the chopped fruit.

3) Pour the wine and brandy into the pitcher. Add cinnamon. Pour in a whisper of vanilla extract. Stir well. For the night, let the pitcher sleep in the back of your fridge.

4) The next afternoon or night, add the cold club soda, stir, and drink the pitcher with a friend or two.

Japanese Dinner Part Two: The Meal

Two days after I poured rice vinegar over cabbage, as the hour hand slogged to the finish line on its last of four laps, I was swirling chopsticks in a batter for tempura. I had been cooking for a few hours because I was curious to taste a Japanese meal as outlined by Shizuo Tsuji, whose book Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art I was following. When the flour had settled and the last square of squid had been fried, I had a Japanese dinner for two.

Caption: At 8:00 sit the pickles, now pink; circling clockwise we see, at 11, a bowl of dark miso soup and its tenant tofu; a spinach salad in sesame dressing appears with the witching hour; sweet potato and squid tempura, the slippery squid having stubbornly shed its batter in the safflower oil, sizzle on their towels at 2; next comes green tea; and finally, a sunny scoop of short-grain brown rice, framed by a wavering red corona.

Each dish comes from this book:

Tsuji writes well in English. An anecdote he tells before his section on pickling reveals that he was once a journalist. Tsuji laces the text with anecdotes, and the divine details of his stories and aphorisms give us a crisper picture of Japanese food and culture. One of these asides drove me to the vinegar. “For the older generation,” writes Tsuji, “no meal, be it humble or a banquet, is complete without its final pickles.”

So I fished the cabbage out of the mason jar when the cooking was done. You can see the purple pickles, now pink, below. They are in a dish painted with wine barrels and grape pyramids and bolded words like “Chianti.” Here I let slip my familiar food experience, though I can handle a few slivers of cabbage and a scoop of rice, the rice thanks to a rice cooker, a measuring cup, and an on-switch.

Miso soup isn’t much harder. You simmer water with seaweed (kombu) and bonito flakes (shavings from a dried tuna), whisk in miso, and add tofu or mushrooms or veggies or anything. But I have heard of people skipping the broth, of people heating water in a tea kettle, of people pouring this water-flavored water into a pot and then stirring in the miso. Tsuji tells us that miso soup, rice, and pickles form the foundation of the Japanese meal. They are the bread and cheese, the pasta and wine, and the tempura and whatever else are just for kicks.

Fried Kidneys

This week I followed a recipe from my grandmother. It led me to an Italian butcher in Hoboken, Truglio’s, where the sound of cleavers splitting bone came from the main room, and where the back room’s floor was sprinkled with woodchips and sawdust. The owner had called me. My order had arrived. I paid $1.45 for some two pounds of meat, thanked him, and within 10 minutes had my stove set to medium.

The meat was kidney. If you are as off-put by offal as my girlfriend was, then you should think about what fills the skin around a sausage, the buns around a burger: the same stuff as kidney. We are used to eating one, unused to the other. While eating game in Alaska, writer John McPhee asks, “To a palate without bias… which would be more acceptable, a pink-icinged pop tart with raspberry filling (cold) or the fat gob behind a caribou’s eye?” The answer: probably the food closer to the earth. (Note: that does not mean you should cook these foods to woo your girlfriend or anyone else.)

I cooked the kidney in olive oil and onion, adding water when the meat started to sizzle, and throwing in a few bay leaves as the recipe ordered. The result was a food more gelatinous in texture than I am used to, though tasty. I don’t know if I’ll make the dish again. Even so, $1.45 and 20 minutes is a paltry price to pay for exploring the past, widening comfort zones, and finding a butcher who sells cuts of cow for osso buco.