Echoes and Mementos

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

Category: Food

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.

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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.

The Limoncello Will Be Ready in 40 Days

Thank you, algebra, for allowing me to calculate how much sugar water I needed to make a limoncello of 40% alcohol. In my short life I have used algebra a few times, probably once for every year I spent learning it in the classroom.

Better than the subject is the word: “algebra.” It comes to English from Arabic, as does “alcohol,” for the Arabs were some of the world’s first number munchers and distillers of high-proof spirits. Limoncello, the liqueur, comes to my kitchen from Italy.

For 40 or so days the rinds of these lemons have steeped in grain alcohol:

Here’s what the mixture looked like at first:

And after 40 days and an addition:

I added three cups of sugar water (1 part sugar, 2 parts water) to the 750ml of 151 proof grain alcohol. The result, after another 40 day rest, will be a lemony liqueur of about 39% or 40% alcohol. Another result: people drinking the limoncello, me among them, we having just got back from the beach, now sitting on the patio, the sun touching a roof across the street, the distillate of summer cold and like syrup in my glass.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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