Echoes and Mementos

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

Category: Recipes

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.

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.

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

pepper

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Nanni’s Pea Soup

My grandmother’s pea soup takes two minutes of work to make. While the soup simmers for an hour and a half, read a book, watch a show, take a walk. A pot of the stuff costs $3 or $4. Best of all, she does not soak the peas beforehand.

Serves 2 (as a main)

2 cups   Dried split green peas

8 cups   Water

3            Bay leaves

1            Garlic clove, peeled

1 tsp      Salt

Pepper

1) Rinse peas in a colander. Dump them into a large pot. Add water, garlic, and bay leaves. Set heat to medium-high and cover the pot.

2) When the soup starts to bubble, uncover the pot. Tinker with the heat so that the soup is cooking at a strong simmer, just below a full boil.

3) Let the soup simmer for an hour and a half. Stir when the mood strikes.

4) The peas should be mostly dissolved in the water; the soup should be thick and viscous. Remove bay leaves. Add salt and a few grindings of pepper. Stir. Eat.

Fennel Salad with Apple + Black Pepper

Pepper brings this winter salad to life; I twisted my grinder 15 times. That’s probably too many, and you will need less of the spice should you omit the parsley. Use good olive oil. Eat with something funky, like Chinese.

Serves 2

1        Fennel bulb

2/3   Apple, cut into matchsticks or thin wedges

3       Sprigs parsley, leaves only, roughly chopped (optional)

Pinch of salt

2       Tablespoons olive oil

1/4   Lemon

Black pepper

1) Remove the fennel bulb’s stalks and fibrous base. Half the bulb lengthwise from top to bottom. Cut each of the halves crosswise into thin, c-shaped ribbons. Put these into a large bowl.

2) Add apple, parsley, salt, and olive oil. Toss.

3) Squeeze lemon over the bowl. Toss.

4) Grate pepper over the salad. Toss well. Taste. If desired, add more pepper and toss again. Eat.