Echoes and Mementos

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

Strawberry Fields

On the plants were strawberries, and in my hand was a basket. At first, when I crouched in the straw-spread furrow and reached into the leaves, I turned up young strawberries, the sour kind. Lately, food producers have been tugging at our understanding of the berry. My concept of a berry is a tiny, tart fruit. I eat them by the handful. At most supermarkets, the juiced-up strawberries more resemble apples than berries. You eat these fatties in two or three bites. Like peaches, they’re hand fruit.

Strawberries were also on the ground. Friday night’s thunderstorm had scattered them, had pelted my windshield on the ride from New York, and had, I think, caused the farmers at Sussex County Strawberry Farm to spread their strawberry field with hay. When I called the farm from Allie’s, I got a stern message: strawberry-picking season would end today at 2pm. We got in the car.

The city’s concrete and glass receded in my mind as we drove west. On Saturdays, I try to rout the memory of work so that I can relax. But those busy thoughts are firmly entrenched from five days of digging. How can I send them flying? By, on Saturday, making my cubicle the open field, my clock the sun.

I was sweating five minutes into the picking. After seven, my knees ached. It felt good, though I can’t imagine how a catcher crouches for nine innings. Weaving among the rows, I skirted the pickable part of the field, hoping to find a row of perfect strawberries where nobody had searched for a few days. The sun was hot. As a parasol I had the clouds. Busy memories fled to the corners of my consciousness. Better still, many of the sun-warmed berries went into my basket, and the best ones went into my belly.

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In Praise of Paper

Their lips pursed, their eyes like pancakes, friends and strangers often ask me, “What do you mean you don’t have a Kindle?” I mean that, yes, I prefer a paper book. Readers of e-books, please tell me your secrets.  By the time I’ve returned from the office, a day’s dose of the computer has jellied my brain, yet you turn on your device, summon chapter 12, and stare at another screen.

When I read books, I am leveling trees. When I’m 70 and my library has ladders, I’ll have leveled a forest. Reader of e-books, you are a better friend to than environment than I am. Now, can you please tell me how, on nothing but air, your digital page buzzes to life?

Click on that digital page. Poof, a dictionary defines the selected word. A handy service, I admit. But when I find a word I don’t know in my paper book, I reach into my pocket and there’s an iPhone. On that phone I have two dictionaries: the OED and the American Heritage. I’d start talking dictionaries, but I want you to keep reading.

On the subway, people bump me while I’m reading. I’d be worried if my book didn’t cost me $3 at the used bookstore on Washington Street. I tuck the book into my bag. Leaving the train, I push through the turnstile and it smashes into my bag on the way back up. Your e-reader? Destroyed.

Turn on a healthy e-reader. Browse the list of titles. Pick one, pay, and a satellite beams the text to your device; skip the intro and start on chapter one. Nobody can beam me a paper book, nobody other than Amazon.com (they beam by USPS), but no matter, because nothing matches the experience of going to a dusty bookstore.

Some of my favorite memories from college were in the used bookstore, Webster’s, where I ate a bagel sandwich, drank coffee, and read almost every day before class my senior year. I’d stalk between the shelves and crack open a tome. I’d breathe in the smell; it opens your mind as the smell of grill smoke opens your stomach. The page’s scant notes? Gifts from a fellow reader. The notes you will add to page? Something to reflect on when you’ve climbed down from your library’s ladder.

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.

Reading: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Three summers ago, I read an essay for a class that met in the woods. The class was Wilderness Literature, a fantastic and low-key course offered at Penn State, and the essay was “Living Like Weasels” by Annie Dillard. If you haven’t read Annie Dillard, run to the bookstore. She cuts closely to her subject, trimming away the fat and vanity and nonsense that makes most writing unreadable. She starts slowly, usually observing a small event in nature. Then she climbs and climbs (you can hear the clacking of your car on the roller coaster’s track) before plunging into some ecstatic conclusion. Here “Weasels” whirls at its near-end:

“The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t ‘attack’ anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity. I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”

Two years later I bought a book of her essays, “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” The most memorable piece, “Total Eclipse,” saw Dillard see a full solar eclipse in the Pacific Northwest. As the moon blocks out the sun and the day darkens, culture evaporates, and Dillard feels as if she’s on the Euphrates and civilization is beginning. It absorbs you. At times you feel that Dillard’s so skilled she oversteps language and directly communicates raw units of information that have not been translated into words.

In 1974, before any of these essays, Dillard wrote “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” It won a Pullitzer. She was 29.

I am reading the book now. It is a 20th-century Walden; having fled to the woods, the author lives a simple life and gives simple advice for living. Unlike Thoreau, Dillard at times veers far into the abstract. Here, when she loses me, I focus on the language and how it moves, knowing that the half-abstract and concrete stuff will be golden:

“Peeping through my keyhole I see within the range of only about thirty percent of the light that comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many animals, but invisible to me. A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain. Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain: ‘This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is.'”

She writes about blind people with cataracts, who, having gotten a once-new surgery, saw for the first time. These people saw the world as “color-patches” and could not understand size or depth or, like the baby playing peek-a-boo, the idea that when it object goes out of sight it can still exist. Always, you hear the clacking. You know Dillard’s small, cutting observations are whirling to some grand idea. Looking around on the climb up can be just as enjoyable as free-falling down the breathless drops.

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.

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.

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.