Echoes and Mementos

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

Tag: cooking

Eating in on a Cold Night

Writing

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.

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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.