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Comfort food, redefined

One of the unabashed joys of being an adult is being able to eat whatever what you want, whenever you want – even when you’re just not supposed to. Ice cream for dinner? Sure. Cold pork chops for breakfast? Why not? Naturally, there are a few nagging issues pertaining to food – cholesterol readings, fiber content, teeth rotting potential, etc. etc. – that creep into the adult mind and temper decisions, but the fact remains – the id, denied as a child, has a tendency to come roaring back as an adult.

We mature ones, however, do have a nice, grown-up phrase for those treats consumed whenever, for whatever selfish reason – comfort food.

My definition of comfort food has shifted a bit over the years. While once I craved candy and sweets, I find myself now drawn towards warm dishes, savory tastes that are close to the earth. Now that I can have all the candy I can buy, I don’t really want it anymore. Lately, my comfort foods have been hot soups, sticky rice dishes, and abundant roast winter vegetables – those ugly duckling varietals like swiss chard, kale, brussels sprouts and rutabaga. Maybe it’s because most American home cooks are still boiling the living bejesus out of their vegetables, but I am continually amazed at how people stick to the same trio of veggies they’ve been eating since preschool – peas, carrots and potatoes. I read recently that a child needs to be introduced to a new food item for at least 8 times before they will accept it. Surely for some vegetables, it’s 20 times or more.

A few years ago, I worked in a chic restaurant in Philadelphia with a young woman named Amy, who seemed normal in every way possible except for the fact that at the end of her shifts, she would beg the kitchen staff to prepare her a bowl of steamed cauliflower, tossed in butter. I don’t know how to explain it, she would say, it’s just one of those things. By the end of the evening, when the music was still thumping and the other servers were cradling cold beers, Amy would stand nearby, fork aimed squarely at her steaming florets. For the next several minutes, the bowl was her sole focus, as she introduced floret after floret to her mouth. We would leave her alone, and she would quietly consume her bowl of cauliflower.

I used to find Amy’s behavior puzzling at best. It wasn’t until recently, when I was walking through the farmers’ market that I remembered her strange ways. As I passed a table overloaded with large heads of cauliflower, including some that had rolled onto the ground beneath the table, I stopped. I thought of the satisfied look on her face as she would finish the last bit and selected two of the most perfectly round heads in her honor.

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Amy’s Bowl of Cauliflower

One head fresh cauliflower, broken into smallish florets
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Toss florets to coat in olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place in a shallow baking dish and bake at 350 degrees till browning slightly – one hour or so? Spoon into bowl and top with thin shavings of parmesan cheese. Eat until properly comforted.

Jamón

jamon2.jpgAn unfamiliar smell woke me up. My eyes opened and looked up at the white ceiling. Rich, yet delicate, the smell was sweet and savory at once. Peering around at my surroundings, I remembered that I was a stranger in an unfamiliar house.

Only hours before, I was crouched on a sunny corner in suburban Madrid, waiting for my host family to pick me up. Tired and queasy from several days of packing and planning, as well as my first overnight flight, I sat on the curb bent over, trying to relieve my sore stomach.

Elisa, all jutting angles and dangling cigarette, came to pick me up. This way to my house, she indicated. I silently nodded, grateful to be going anywhere. We wound through a tight maze of Madrid streets – alleys here, courtyards there. Eventually she buzzed her way into a tiny private street, lined with flowerpots and enclosed patios. At some point I was introduced to a more mature, stockier version of Elisa. Kisses were exchanged all around, and I was shuttled to the upstairs attic and a soft bed. Elisa disappeared, and I drifted off into a sun-filled, warm place.

As I stared at the ceiling, I thought about how difficult the coming weeks were going to be. My classroom Spanish was rudimentary at best, and I wasn’t quite sure why I spent my weekend-job money on a flight to a place so far away. More immediate than that, there was a woman downstairs cooking.

I looked at my watch. 4:30 p.m. Slowly I stood up and took in my surroundings. This room was an office of sorts – a desk, bookcases, some basic furniture, a plastic covered stationary bike – so familiar, yet so not. I walked over to investigate the books. Medical journals and texts in Spanish, I registered with surprised embarrassment. Yes, not everyone speaks English. I walked over to the dormer window in the attic, cranked it open and stuck my head out into the bright Spanish afternoon. Stretched out in front of me was a jumble of orange tiled roofs. The air smelled warm and clean, and dogs barked in the distance.

I was hungry, very hungry. Just how long can a girl pretend she’s asleep anyway? It was time to go downstairs and face Elisa’s mother. I smoothed my clothes and stretched out my limbs, before approaching the staircase downstairs.

Hola? I walked toward the kitchen, following the sounds of utensils clanging against metal pots, sizzling food and soap opera stars arguing fierce and fast. Elisa was gone. In her place, Elisa’s mother looked up at me and smiled. Lo siento, no hablo una palabra del ingles, she said. Please, sit down, she indicated towards the round wooden table. Spanish words were floating in my head, but somehow would not come to my tongue. I sat in silence, while this spirited, solid woman turned back to her hot stove, stirring her pans.

While the heroine on the screen leapt about in fury, cursing the grandchildren of the man who had scorned her, Elisa’s mother set a cool glass of water in front of me. Onto my round white plate she ladled a sticky rice studded with golden raisins, and a few black mounds, slowly leaking their inky sauce. Squid? My world back home was decorated with rows of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup and boxes of Shake ‘N Bake. I formed my lips into a smile and waited for her to serve herself a plate. Together we sat in silence, television yammering in the background. I watched Elisa’s mother pick up her fork and eagerly attack her plate. Please, she said, nodding her heads towards my plate. I looked at the whole squid, blacker than anything I had ever eaten before, and dug in.

The following weeks bled together into a collage of sights and sounds. When I was presented with an unfamiliar food, I closed off my taste buds and quietly consumed. Back home, I prided myself on being the unpicky one – the one, unlike her brother, who would eat anything. Tortilla sandwiches, marinated anchovies sitting in a bed of bitter greens, pungent hard cheeses – I consumed all and tasted nothing.

One night several weeks later, Elisa and I returned home after a long day of cathedrals, museums and monuments. We entered the house, picking up the daily bread delivery sitting in the outside patio, and I followed her into the yellow light of the kitchen.

Elisa’s father greeted us both with a smile and a kiss on each cheek, his beard rough against my cheek. I mimicked her lead and slumped into a chair at the table. While Elisa explained away her adequate biology grade, I studied the kitchen. On the counter, a long, lumpy object sat covered with a checked dishcloth. My eyes traced the lines of the object, landing on the hoof peeking out at one end.

I looked around the table. Elisa was gesturing, imitating her teacher. While her brother buried his head in a comic book, Elisa’s mother pulled dishes down from the cabinets. Does no one else see this? There is a piece of a decapitated animal sitting on the kitchen counter, I thought in alarm, and no one seems to know it’s there.

To my horror, Elisa’s father rose from the table and approached the beast. In between comments about respect for authority, he drew a long knife out from a drawer underneath the counter and pulled back the dishcloth. As Elisa’s mother sliced the bread from outside, Elisa’s father began to rock the knife gently against a huge, exposed leg of pig. Pink ribbons peeled off the edge of his knife, landing into a rippling pool on the plate below. Gently he laid down his knife, and began to pile the ribbons onto the freshly cut bread. From the other end of the counter, he uncovered a gooey piece of cheese and began spooning a bit on top of the bread and meat. On top of all of this he drizzled a bit of olive oil from a pitcher sitting on the kitchen table.

Without a hint of hesistation, Elisa’s father dropped the plate in the middle of the table. The family leaned forward and began feasting. Elisa’s father eased into his chair, and while her mother removed her apron, he uncorked a bottle of opaque, purple wine. Salud, he said, and pushed a fat tumbler towards me. I looked at the hoof on the counter and back at the nearly translucent pieces of meat on the platter in front of me. I took a gulp of burning Spanish wine and reached towards the plate. In my hand was a perfect round of bread, moistened slightly with greenish oil, topped with those pink slices and oozing cheese. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth.

Quite simply, it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

poultry.jpgPlanning Thanksgiving dinner can be stressful, especially if you’re of the traditional, gun-toting sort that actually insists upon bagging your own bird. Most chefs fret over such mundane topics as proper defrosting and internal temps, but hunters also have the added dimension of wondering whether a guest may choke on a bit of birdshot. Fear no more! It may sound like the stuff of late nite infomercials, but two hunters in Minnesota have invented a product they call Season Shot. Both bullet and flavoring pellet, Season Shot will not only kill your bird (provided your aim is on target) but it also leaves a small biodegradable capsule of seasoning inside, guaranteed to melt away whilst cooking. Choices include Lemon Pepper, Honey Mustard and even Teriyaki. Dick Cheney, are you paying atttention?

(P.S. When viewing Season Shot’s website, I highly recommend not skipping the Flash intro. Brilliant!)

To Market, to Market

Now that I have a new Saturday gig selling Italian wines at a lovely shop near Union Square, it’s become my custom to loop through the farmers’ market on my way to work. As I described in an earlier post, these waning days of early autumn are surely the market’s best. When I take my leisurely morning stroll past the piles of pumpkins and potted mums, I’m reminded of the markets I visited this summer. It seems like every country has their own focus – hanging meats of every variety and cut in Spain, rows of glistening fish in Portugal – but no one masters nearly every category like the French. Perhaps one of the only countries in Europe to still rely upon the open air market for daily supplies of fresh bread, meat, cheese and produce, the markets I saw in Provence made all other farmer’s markets I’d seen up to that point look downright shoddy. Let’s face facts – the French know how to eat.

With wicker baskets in hand, local men and women milled through the markets with expert eyes, selecting perfectly ripe specimens of fruits and vegetables, while greeting the visiting farmers with a kiss on each cheek.  The markets in Provence also cover some territory that the USDA would surely gasp at – fresh cheese so young the whey is still running out of it, handmade cured sausages resting uncovered on trays, rotisserie chickens still spinning on portable spits, and fish laying out on beds of ice. Throw in an impromptu jazz band on the market’s outskirts, and you’ve got an entertaining walk through the bounty of France’s farms. Oh, and did I mention the perfect picnic lunch that can emerge from a quick peruse through the market?

I couldn’t decide which pictures to highlight, so here’s a much more entertaining journey through what I saw. (Thanks for the tech advice, Rita!)

Some things never change

oysters-plate.gifChange is good, sometimes great. And then there are some things that should never change. While new restaurants offer the excitement of unexplored potential, other places offer a warm, comforting routine. Last weekend, I visited just such a place – the Oyster Bar inside Grand Central Station.

Though now the shuckers are from Mexico and cellphone chatter echoes across the restaurant, walking into the Oyster Bar feels a bit like walking into a black and white photo. With arched, tiled ceilings that mimic the grand constellation-covered ceilings of the main terminal upstairs, the Oyster Bar invites weary travelers and curious tourists alike to settle into a seat at the bar or in the adjoining saloon and block out the madness of Midtown. Unlike the grand restaurants that look down upon the action upstairs, the Oyster Bar is tucked in a fairly quiet area, with windows facing a dim passageway that commuters stream down en route to the correct track.

The menu is strictly old school seafood house – boiled lobster served with clarified butter, seafood salad, chowder (both Manhattan and New England), clams casino, oysters Rockefeller, scallop roasts, crab cakes, and yes, oysters on the half shell! A large menu on the wall near the shuckers’ station displays handwritten signs with the current offering of oysters. Spanning both coasts of America and Canada, the choices range from the common Bluepoints to the quirkily named Tomahawks (from Long Island and Rhode Island, respectively).

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The oysters, served on a bed of crushed ice, come with a lemon wedge and two tiny paper cups – one filled with classic mignonette sauce and one filled with ketchup. The jar of horseradish sits next to the salt and pepper, ready to meet the ketchup and transform into cocktail sauce.

After downing several different kinds of the raw oysters, I was drawn towards a second order of the slightly sweet, firm Widow’s Holes (suspend all crude jokes at this point) from the East End of Long Island. Perfectly balanced between savory and sweet, metallic and meaty, the Widow’s Holes were definitely the highlight of my oyster exploration. What I relish about all oysters, though — not just the Widows Holes — is the slightly briny whiff of the ocean, followed by the mild seawater taste, all contained within that single slurp. Instant transport from the city to the beach in one bite.

The wine list is large, but surprisingly limited, given that the menu is seafood driven. In this temple to all things from the sea, I was dismayed to see so many oaky whites and big, robust reds. I suppose that if you’re going to keep a classic restaurant intact, you need a classic wine list, but this is one area I would’ve appreciated a bit of modernity. A California Cabernet does not, in fact, go with everything! The list is balanced evenly between whites and reds (unnessecarily so), and yet I struggled to choose a suitable white for oysters. In the end, I settled on a forgettable Chablis, but what I really wanted was a Muscadet or a minerally Chenin Blanc from the Loire. Even a steel-aged Chardonnay would’ve done the trick. Who orders Zinfandel with scallops anyway?

The scene is comfortable without trying to be. You can opt to sit at a table, but why would you? All the action’s at the various bars.

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On the left, a lone tourist studied his map of the city in between bites of scarlet lobster. His meal began with a carefully composed plate of oysters and ended with a perfect wedge of Key Lime pie, served on clunky diner china. Moments after he left, a ruddy faced man sat on the right. A pint of Brooklyn and six Kumamotoes, he ordered in one breath, with nary a glance at the menu. Two cops strolling through the terminal poked their heads in the open window behind the shuckers to crack a joke. Servers ran back and forth from the bar, carefully balancing chowders and bantering with each other. The manager came strolled over to announce the score to no one in particular, and that’s when I realized – how many times has this scene already been played out? And how many more times will it be? Hopefully I’ll be there one of those next times down the road.

In recent edible news

beer-pint-150.jpgFancy an IPA or an Extra Special Bitter? Lovers of bitter beer, beware – a large fire Tuesday at a hop storage warehouse in Washington State destroyed approximately 4% of the country’s entire hop harvest. Only time will tell whether or not this will translate into higher prices for certain brews that use large quantities of the delicate buds to add bitterness and aroma. Though hops are actually flowering vines, what brewmasters are really after is the tiny amount of sticky, yet highly flavorful resin that forms on the petals of the buds. Apparently this resin can also be highly combustible. Who knew that beer could be so dangerous?

But then again, there’s always prosecco. Woman of many talents, Paris Hilton, is the new spokesperson for a brand of bubbly-in-a-can called Rich Prosecco. paris_prosecco.jpg Though the fizzy beverage is all-Italian, it will be sold solely in Germany for now, with the possible addition of other foreign markets – apparently, it’s not legal to sell prosecco out of aluminum in Italy. While Miss Hilton declares the beverage “yummy,” Rich Prosecco owner Guenther Aloys has a more complex reason for selecting Hilton: “Nobody else currently embodies carefree lust for life as convincingly and glamorously as Paris Hilton. That’s why she’s matches Rich Prosecco so well.” Lest we forget, the heiress was arrested in early September on drunk driving charges.

If you think that most rice comes magically from a man named Uncle Ben, the Christian Science Monitor is ready to reeducate you on the dying art of harvesting wild rice. While most “wild” rice today comes in fact from cultivated paddies, some Minnesotans are keeping the tradition alive by hand harvesting the grains. For those in other parts of the country, Native Harvest – a project of the White Earth Indian Reservation – offers mail order for local wild rice, as well as other traditional food staples, such as hominy and maple syrup. The reservation also manages a handy website about the perils wild rice currently faces.

fresh-pork-dumpling.jpgSlate writer Tim Wu searches for authenticity of another sort in his feature about how to find real, honest-to-god Chinese style dumplings. Wu breaks down the regional differences between various types of dumplings, and he also elaborates upon the “magic ratio” that quality dumplings must achieve – the perfect balance between meat and dough. Whether five-for-a-dollar or upscale Asian fusion, the road to dumpling making is lined with potential landmines.

In case you missed it, last weekend was the 21st Farm Aid concert. Though it may seem somewhat surreal, this year’s concert was held in the urban jungle known as Camden, New Jersey. willie_nelson_marijuana_american.gifConcert organizers pointed out that the concert is also meant to draw attention to urban farming projects, as well as the problem of poor nutrition in the inner city. And heck, NJ is the Garden State after all. At any rate, Willie Nelson was able to spring the slammer in order to join pals Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp and Neil Young, among others, on stage.

And it looks the Farm Aid money will be much needed this year for many small, family farmers in the Midwest, who are facing the second warmest year on record since 1895. The high temps have led to a severe drought across much of the country, which has also dried up harvest profits. Many small scale farmers are not eligible for the same subsidies as the big boys, so get out to the local farmers’ markets to show your support!

Farewell, summer days

pumpkins.JPGThe seasons in the city shift in less perceptible ways. Painted toenails disappear under socks and sensible leather shoes. Sweaters hide limbs with quickly fading tans. The afternoon light grows leaner. At this time of year, when a brisk morning can be followed by an absurdly warm afternoon, though, the changing seasons are reflected nowhere more clearly than the farmers’ market. New York may not have crunchy leaves underfoot, but the produce at the market acts as a seasonal barometer.

Though summer’s exited the room, right now are the markets’ days of glory. Insanely large quantities of summer crops – peaches, tomatoes, basil, sweet peppers, corn and the like – are breathing their last breath, offering up one last grand hurrah before they disappear until next year. Nudging alongside these bright characters, however, are the new cool weather neighbors – the gourds, the squashes, the root vegetables and the apples. In one crate, it’s easy to see a picture of ‘Hello fall; goodbye summer.”

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And there’s something sort of sweet and fleeting about perusing the bold flavors of summer in sweaters and jackets.

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P.S. Don’t forget to stock up on one of my favorite late summer/early fall treats — the concord grape. Insiped California table grapes these are not! Dark purple and deliciously toothsome, these varieties of “fox” grapes are a Northeast specialty and will remind you of what real grapes taste like — perfumed, grapey goodness.

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