Echoes and Mementos

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

Month: July, 2012

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