Echoes and Mementos

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

Category: Eating

Eating in on a Cold Night


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.

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.

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.

Scapes and Shells, Two Ways

On Saturday, I walked Shadow to the farmers’ market on Hoboken’s 14th street. There, sitting in a basket, the stems coiled like green whips, were a bunch of garlic scapes. They were soon in my bag, and I was soon in my kitchen. “Yes, yes!” said my pre-caffeinated mind, “A new food, a new adventure!”

Garlic bulbs grow in the ground. I know this from my days as a garlic farmer. Garlic scapes are what, when a tractor driven by a crazed Italian loosens the clay, you grab to yank garlic bulbs from the soil. I have never cooked the scape, only braided them to make their bulbs sell for more at market. Now I, the customer, had a coil of scapes in my bag and the promise of a rustic dinner in my head.

Food is like writing in that the meals and stories are best when they’re still in your head; put them to plate or paper, and you can hope for at best an echo of your beautiful idea. So there I stood, sharpening my knife, the scapes tangled on the cutting board, about to start my meal and thereby ruin it. The scapes looked like the stems of tulips. If left be, a garlic scape will sprout white or purple petals on its tip. Farmers snip these flowers to shape the bulb’s flavor. Probably flowers had never bloomed on my scapes, and certainly they never would now that I had sliced them to bits.

Two-thirds went into pesto, the rest into a sautée pan with olive oil, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes. I ran the blender when scapes, basil, mint, toasted almonds, and Parmesan cheese were in. In spurts, I drizzled in olive oil, leaving the finished pesto to sit while seeing to the sautée pan. Some pancetta and peas in the pan. Some pasta water. Some grape tomatoes, sweet corn, basil, and ricotta salata after I’d cut the heat.

Above are the pastas: scapes and shells two ways, one sauce raw, one cooked. I’m glad I was able to ruin my meal into something tasty.

On My Doorstep: A Taco-Selling Truck

A truck sells tacos on my doorstep at least once a week. My building’s door slides open, I walk out into the world, and there’s the truck broadside to the sidewalk, marigold-orange and grill sizzling. Deftly, the truck has parallel parked. I know because I have seen these food trucks wiggle into car-sized spaces. Deftly he has parked; every twenty minutes, a new boatload of people too tired to cook are coming home from work via the ferry.

In the past few years, Americans have developed a fierce appetite for Mexican food. Californians have long raved about crema and carnitas, and now New Yorkers and Philadelphians can too. Last September, in Philadelphia, I was thrilled when at a Mexican restaurant, Tequilla’s, the waiter whispered to me about an off-the-menu Oaxacan treat: grasshopper tacos. The tacos were grassy and nutty, pleasantly so. The tacos were a door to another culture, the Mexican-American culture, and I enjoyed how it felt and tasted.

But, zoom out. In the US, the general love for Mexican-American food stands in contrast to how in general Mexican-Americans are perceived and treated. Logic and Compassion tell us we’re out of line here, and so does History. From where do Americans come? One hundred years ago, the immigrants were Italians and Irish, the grasshoppers, spaghetti and potatoes.

Walk through Manhattan’s Little Italy, or Philadelphia’s or Boston’s, and you will see. (Less so Boston; the North End is only more slowly eroding.) When I go to Little Italy in New York, it is because Little Italy is in the way of Chinatown.

Little Italy is two streets wide. Its tenants and their descendants have dissolved into the population and dispersed across the land. Evidence of Little Italy’s erosion stands in Chinatown. On Mott Street, you will see a few lone Italian restaurants in the sea of Chinese shops. The impression is, to the new viewer, that the whole neighborhood was once Italian. The old neighbors have slowly moved out.

On a national scale ( for how else could I be eating grasshoppers at a latitude of 40 degrees North?), new neighbors are moving in. They are bringing red cooking and tacos. Sounds to me like a party.

Artichokes Part One: Food?

Have you ever seen a purple flower and, feeling chancy, eaten it? The first person to ever eat an artichoke did. The artichoke (pictured above) little resembles food. To an unknowing forager, the artichoke’s bulb would as likely contain food as a tree trunk or a cloud. But tap that maple trunk and you have syrup, and stand under that raincloud and you have water.

Then, when the forager was set on eating the inedible flower, he or she has to get past the plant’s natural defenses; its petals taper to a spear tip. When I was harvesting artichokes in Emilia-Romagna, the spear tips often slipped through my gloves and into my skin. A quick prick–no, a puncture–and long after you’ve recoiled the tips stays with you, sending shivers down your arm, as if you’ve been sunburned or taken too much Advil. The shivers keep you up at night. Wine is the cure.

 In June 2010, I was charged with harvesting a crop of artichokes. Unlike the forager, I knew about the choke inside. Here’s how the harvest goes. You walk to the flowers with a bucket and a scissors, along the tips of grape trellises, in the shade of apricot trees, past a few rusty shotgun shells, and to the artichoke field that opens where the vineyard ends. Here, the mountain curves back on itself. You see across the valley: squares of vineyard, crumbling villas on the high ridge, green everywhere, a sun somewhere, a farmer stalking in the nearest vineyard. He waves hello.

I snipped the bulbs from their stems. Mindful of the spear tips, I went from plant to plant, taking the last of the summer’s artichoke crop. I watched the farmer tend his vines across the valley. Shortly, the owner of the farm where I was staying came out and worked on the far artichoke rows. He was shirtless. His toddler son ran screaming among the plants. I worked slowly, drinking in the view, the breeze, and even the jab of a spear tip, a happy reminder of being alive.

Second, when the artichoke has been snipped, the bulb must be reduced to a heart. The unknowing forager must have stumbled here. (Did he or she first try to eat the outer leaves, or to chew and swallow the raw stem?) To get to the edible part, strip away the petals (more spearing) until you reach oily leaves that are mostly yellow. Cut off the yellow tip. Scrape out the choke.

Third, you need to rub the hearts with lemon. Acid prevents them from browning. The forager probably had no lemon (or vinegar), but if he or she ate them raw, as is probable, the first eaten artichokes were likely so fresh they were not yet brown. In parts of Italy, Italians slice artichokes thinly and eat them raw dipped in olive oil. We cooked ours. Here are some of the June 2010 artichokes staying fresh in a lemony bath while we finished prepping the others:

Fourth, cook the artichoke. We cooked ours over a wood fire. Sticks turned to ash in the flames (we used ashes to wash dishes), and embers were still glowing in the pre-dawn the next morning. Early, we drove the cauldron to a small food processor in Brisighella, the nearby town, and churned the artichokes into a coarse paste. For the next three weeks, we put it on toast. But, as he or she lacked a lemon, the unknowing forager was likely also short on a neighborhood food processor. Was that raw, scratchy first artichoke worth the spearing, the wrestling from the stem, and the stripping of leaves? As a knowing harvester in 2010 and a knowing eater in 2012, I hope it was.

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.