Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bread and Wine

There are some restaurants you want to return to like a good book. You pretty much know what will happen, how you’ll feel, what you’ll do after (roll around on the sofa wishing there were more/you had stopped sooner), and yet each time there’s also something devilishly charming and nuanced and satisfying that you’ve never found before. This is Pane Vino.

The name may suggest humble fare, and that’s right, it is simple - simple and devastating. When Marty Levine bought the place called Pane Vino 13 years ago, the previous owner had just re-opened the restaurant under its new name in order to up the selling price. And that’s when Levine swooped in. Ever since, he’s been serving food in the tiny, low-ceilinged, warmly-lit dining room on the side of the Post Road. When you arrive, Levine greets you by the door, and you are ushered into the room that apparently holds 45, but feels even smaller. The tables are tight, and sometimes, if you’re sitting in the back, you start to think you can feel someone else’s breath. But it’s like being in Italy; space is precious and bodies are meant to be close to one another. Bread and Wine. The way eating should be.

A few Fridays ago we sidled up to the restaurant at six. It was decidedly early for us, so that we would have the rest of the night to hang out (and, uh, watch City Slickers) before I went back to school the next day. I entered the restaurant with some trepidation - would we be the first ones there? Would the waiters shower us with undue attention only to leave us hanging, begging, please for another napkin, as soon as the first seating arrived?

But, no. We weren’t the first ones there. A couple sat easily reading the newspaper over a bottle of wine. We ordered and the food came at a slow and steady pace. Highlights of the menu included charred grilled calamari with a pesto-like drizzle and sherry vinaigrette, steamed mussels in white wine with Pernod, basil and a little cream, a mesclun salad with chevre-smeared toasts that impressed everyone (the leaves were unusually thick and full of flavor), the classic combination of butternut squash ravioli with a brown butter and sage sauce, lamb in a red wine reduction, sole with pecan crust and chive butter, and pork chops with caramelized apple, pureed fig and calvados demi-glace.

And then the tiramisu. This incarnation used rum as an accent, instead of drowning the dessert to mask the usual staleness of the lady fingers. The freshness of the dessert meant that the textural integrity of all its parts remained, even as it fell under our eager spoons.

Pane Vino Restaurant
1431 Post Road E
Westport, CT 06880
(203) 255-1153

Saturday, March 29, 2008

It's better homemade

Mary Claire's dad came to visit today, and we all ended up spending a lot of time in the kitchen tuning guitar strings, baking cookies, making granola and talking about Anne of Green Gables. The granola was a mix of what I had on hand, because I've been trying to use up what's in the pantry before the year ends and I'm left with a pound of flax seeds that are too old to save through another summer. Flax seeds are usually hard for me. I used to have to drink flax seed oil before bed, and I just don't like the taste, but in this granola they're a dutifully healthy and mellow addition.

I made the granola without measuring anything, but if I had to guess, it went something like this:

Granola, revamp of June 2006 recipe

2 cups of rolled oats
1/8 cup flax seeds
1/8 cup chopped walnuts
long drop of honey
similar drop of canola oil
1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix all this up (with your hands! no spoon!), spread it out on a cookie sheet with parchment paper and bake it for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. You should check on it, though, because I'm not even sure how long I baked it - I was trying to remember the name of Anne's best friend (Diana). The granola won't be crunchy when you take it out of the oven, but just let it rest for 15 minutes, and it'll be perfect. Then you can add dried cranberries, dates, apricots, and anything else you like.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Grapes in the sun

To market, to market

The ever-entertaining Mark Bittman of The New York Times has done some photojournalism in Rome, and his slideshow of the Campo de' Fiori market includes the vegetable man we saw years ago on a family trip. Bittman calls him, "A man so enamored of his fancy peeling device, he couldn’t be bothered to talk to customers." But certainly, Bittman must not have been trying hard enough. Did he even approach the man?

Because I remember this vegetable man - he made me "earrings" out of the shavings of carrots and we took many toothy pictures together. He shook our hands, patted our backs, gesticulated to our stomachs, eyes, hands and incessantly muttered in Italian, sometimes to us and mostly to himself. We bought an arsenal of plastic devices in an effort to repay the man for the experience, and we still use the mandolin. Ever after, when I hear the Jesus and Mary Chain song, "Vegetable Man," he comes to mind. "Vegetable man, vegetable man, He's the kind of person, you just gonna see him if you can, Vegetable man." I mean, Bittman must have caught the guy on an off day.

I really love farmer's markets, and there's one coming up next week here at school. I buy relish for my mom from this one couple every year. It has a little bit of red pepper in it - so good. And when Mackensie worked at the Westport Market, I loved getting gooseberries and sampling goat soaps with her. But my heart belongs to daddy - the markets of all markets (I've seen) are in Europe. Here's a collection of photographs I took a few years ago in France. The market was on the side of a highway, D-90 or something like that. It wasn't the most picturesque of the markets I've seen, but every one of its vendors was a character. For all the buzz these days about gloriously fresh produce and the benefits of a locavore conscience, I have to admit, I'm also in it for the people you meet. If you click on the pictures, they get larger so you can see them better.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

So not kosher

You heard it here first. They're selling smoked bacon without nitrites and antibiotics at Weshop. That meant that on my first day back I had bacon and eggs for breakfast and spaghetti carbonara for dinner. Except, I don't have spaghetti, so it had to be farfalle. It tastes just as good, but it's not the same as slurping up long noodles.

The recipe is from a man named Diuccio, one of my chefs at culinary school in Italy. He loves dogs and markets, and I love him.

Diuccio's Spaghetti Alla Carbonara
Serves 4

350 g spaghetti
4 egg yolks
3 tbs. milk
3 tbs. freshly grated parmigiano
100 g bacon, cut in cubes
3 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
salt & pepper

Bring pasta water to a boil. When it boils add salt and cook pasta (10 to 12 minutes). Put the egg yolks in a large bowl that can contain the spaghetti once cooked. Beat the yolks and add cheese, a pinch of salt, pepper, and milk. Mix well and let it rest.

Put the olive oil in a small saucepan. Add the bacon cubes and some pepper. Turn heat to low and let it cook until the meat changes color. The bacon should be ready by the time the pasta is ready to drain. Add the bacon and olive oil (hot) to the egg mixture and mix it well (fast so you don't get scrambled eggs!). Drain the pasta very quickly and mix it well with the egg sauce. Serve immediately.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Dinner at our house

And on the table? Wild salmon, not farm-raised. I knew when I was getting dinner not to buy the farmed stuff, but when I thought about it, I couldn't remember why. After consulting a short piece in Saveur, a longer one in Eating Well, an article from Cornell University, and my mother, I feel ready to tell you what I've learned.

The debate is this: which is better (or if you're feeling cynical, worse) for your health - farm-raised or wild salmon? Amongst a lot of white water, it seems to me that farm-raised is worse. Salmon, when wild, has good muscle tone and fat so that it can travel back up the river it was born in. I have to admit I like the idea of this, especially when I'm home again. Anyway, because of these migratory patterns, wild salmon are only available at certain times of the year. Now is not one of them, so our Whole Foods salmon from last night had been frozen. Not frozen like when you see bags of frozen scallops in the A&P, way better than that. It was actually delicious. I mean, it wasn't the best of my life - in fact, I think that was a fresh, wild king (Chinook) salmon fillet at The Blue Water Grill in the city when I was 15. Luscious.

So, besides having the potential to be luscious, salmon is a great fish for nutrients. Enter the fish farm. Farming allows us to control the availability (now fresh year-round) of the salmon and what they eat, making sure they digest the kinds of things that result in Omega-3 fatty acids, good for us in all kinds of ways, especially the prevention of arterial plaque build-up. But these farmed fish are apparently also ingesting, in massive quantities, some pretty nasty carcinogens from unclean waters. And the bottom line? Chemical contamination risks outweigh the benefits of more Omega-3 fatty acids.

This is the kind of information that often animated dinner conversation and determined what was on our plates at home when I was younger, and I'm now endowed with a similar curiousity. I mean, what exactly was that broccolini with the snappy packaging?

A little research turned up the fact that Broccolini - a hybrid of the broccoli we know and Chinese kale - has only been available in the U.S. since the late 1990's. It's a little sweeter than the usual broccoli and tender when boiled, as we did last night. Isn't it incredible to think that the leafy green crucifer you're eating, which has an Italian sounding name, was actually created by scientists in Japan and then trademarked as Broccolini when it entered the States?

I handle these moments by making a vinaigrette and tossing it all together with chopped garlic and raisins. Then I made a kind of rogue marinade for the salmon out of Dijon mustard, curry powder, garlic, maple syrup, the juice of a lemon and olive oil, and seared all the flavors in by grilling it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Monday, March 17, 2008

Turn, turn, turn

To everything, there is a season. Spring is coming, and yesterday I went to visit my grandma, who, like clockwork but better, told us that the days were getting longer. While we bemoaned the slow departure of this Connecticut winter, we also talked about how much more enticing it makes the escape into that other world – the one of books. This is a world my grandma is well-acquainted with; she reads more than anyone I know.

For her the reading non-fiction and biographies is only made better with further research. As she says, “a book’s just flat” without all the rich contextual details that surround its text. And, vice versa, sometimes books themselves are great indicators of their contexts. Cookbooks are this way. In fact, two cookbooks I’ve inherited from my grandma's collection are great examples of how reading about the food of an era (trendy ingredients, methods, dishes, who cooks, for what kinds of occasions) can tell you a lot about the era itself.

Case in point: my aunt's oh-so-fifties Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cook Book claims to prepare young girls (let's be honest, brides-to-be) for success in the kitchen. You'll notice the graphic at the top of this post warns Junior cooks to make sure they have a "pretty apron" and "hair looking mighty smooth" before they begin cooking. I mean, the food just tastes better that way. However dated (can you say jello mold?) and sexist this little book may be, it's a heck of a lot of fun to read.

Gee whiz, just look at that boy salivate over Betty's ability to put a hot dog in its bun! But wait, was that double entendre intended?

Perhaps a little more useful is The Modern Family Cook Book, or as we know it in my family, The Meta Given Cookbook. Our 1953 copy was given to me by my dad when I went to college, because his mom gave it to him when he went off to school. According to him, the meatloaf in here is "righteous," and I consider him an expert. But there are also some recipes in this one that just don't quite cut it in the new millennium. Date, cream cheese and iceberg lettuce salad? Uh, yikes. Then there's a whole section on Preserving and Canning, sadly things most people do so very rarely now, except for at country fairs and competitions.

Usually, I read these cookbooks just for the fun of reading them, but because they're just so retro, I decided try the deviled eggs recipe in here. I thought, these will be simple. These will be quick. Oh, was I wrong. The devil really is in these eggs! I had a success of rate of 20%. One in five eggs made it out looking alright. They were good, but way way way too salty. I would cut the salt in half. I also think next time I’ll put a little something green in there, scallions or parsley. But of course, they would probably taste even better if you dressed up like Donna Reed.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

House-sitting in the Haven

This week Andrew and I had the good fortune to house-sit for a few days in New Haven. More even than looking at people's bookshelves, do I love looking in their pantries. And this pantry was so simple --and yet resplendent with ramekins, and glass coffee cups and the like-- that I think I had pantry-envy. Really, it's a beautiful home. (Thank you, D. and S.!) And in-between all the toil and trouble of watering plants and, ah, making sure the couch was in fine condition, we ate pretty well, too. Though we went out for most of it (ogling the goods at a Japanese fish market, eating paninis at Nica's, oddly disappointing crumble-less Lithuanian coffee cake at Claire's Cornercopia, touted slices at Modern Apizza), one home-made meal was particularly good.

Just as the sun was setting yesterday we made, by the grace of Andrew's genius, something kind of like Egg Foo Yung. Brussel sprouts and onion, garlic and shrimp, eggs and honey, oyster sauce and dijon mustard - all collided in this dish. The exotic meal, the dinners out, and perhaps staying in someone else's house, using someone else's pots, reminded me that I definitely have a comfort zone I like to stay within when cooking.

It's just that, well, I like it my way.

Especially after culinary school in Florence, I have an Italian stomach. I like the flavors, the method. The truth is it's been that way forever. At a very young age, I remember being asked where my ancestors were from. Really I have a range of countries to choose from, but my little mind drew a blank and so I thought, "What do I know about countries? Well, I know some food. I know spaghetti! And I like spaghetti, so I must be Italian." And then I answered quite comfortably that my Scottish, Croatian, and Lithuanian roots were, well, Italiano, no doubt.

And I've happily eaten my way through the cucina since then. But, I'm thinking, I'd like to branch out, try making new cuisines. Because, as it turns out, living in someone else's home, in someone else's comfort zone, can get to feel... if not comfortable, then satisfyingly different. I want more umami in my life, and I'd love it if you had some ideas. Any recommendations? Great cookbooks? Emblematic ingredients I can try? I promise to try to resist adding basil and parmesan.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Fresh orange juice

From my mom-mom's 1950's juicer (that would be the fanged thing on the left). Oh, so sweet and tangy! Would that we were in Jersey.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ina's Berry Pavlova

I love raspberries. When Weshop inexplicably stocked them last week I scooped up a half-pint of them. I thought I would try out my new 4-inch tart pans with them, but then I saw this recipe on Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten's Food Network show, today.

A Pavlova is a meringue with whipped cream and fruit on top. It's named after the famous Russian ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova - probably after she visited the Southern Hemisphere on her world tour in the 1930's. Both New Zealand and Australia take credit for the dessert. Ina Garten says it was inspired by her tutu. All I know is it's deadly. The meringue is baked slowly at a low temperature so that the inside is perfectly light and fluffy - not as hard as most meringues. In fact, it's very light while you're eating it, but then you realize you've just downed a lot of eggs, sugar and heavy cream. Ha! Here it is before I baked it:

And then you add fresh whipped cream and berries you have made a sauce of, and it looks something like this, a deflated blimp:

Especially if you put it back in the oven after it's cooled and you don't have time to cool it again and the whipped cream melts and the berries look lurid and red, but it's all okay because it's just you and your parents and they love nearly everything you make and it's been that way since you smeared paint on paper (or the carpet, the kitchen table, etc.) for the first time. A far cry from these French beauties I once spotted in Provence.

Sigh. If you're interested in making the Pavlova, however, I'll refer you to the Food Network site itself for the real deal. You'll note their picture is also pretty messy. Phew. Click here.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Turkish delight

A windy day in the city. Two people sit in the window on the corner of Second Avenue and 74th Street, the sunlight reflecting off a neighboring tower and onto the table in front of them. The restaurant is A La Turka, and the table is covered in an easy sprawl of what has become finger food. Hands are dripping the oils of eggplant and olives, weaving in-between tall glasses of ice water and occasionally smearing each other with yogurt dip, at which laughter, as hazy as the afternoon light, wells over onto the plates below.

That's right! This girl finally got off campus and planed, trained, and automobiled down to the city for the weekend with her boy. We ate very well. Breakfast at the Whitney before the biennial. A two buck slice of pizza. A Spanish meal with the family in the Village. And then, then we ducked into an alluring red restaurant, called A La Turka, for lunch on Sunday afternoon. We paid 18 dollars for a mixed appetizer plate and 8 for grilled calamari. Each tiny Turkish coffee was 4 dollars. Thank God we weren't paying in euros, although something tells me this would be cheaper in Turkey than on the Upper East Side. That said, it was totally delicious.

We got the appetizer plate so we could try a little of everything. Humus, char-grilled eggplant salad, spinach tarator, cacik, tarama salatasi, eggplant with tomato sauce - all swept up with a tortilla-like flatbread. The only thing I wasn't crazy about was the tarama salatasi, a spread with red caviar, lemon and olive oil. It was too fishy a flavor for me, and by comparison the grilled calamari were fleshy and buttery, with so delicate a flavor of lemon.

And the Turkish coffee? It reminded me of drinking an espresso in Florence before morning classes at culinary school. I don't drink coffee, so I can't really say more about it than this: I liked it, and I don't drink coffee. I highly recommend the place.

A La Turka
1417 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10021
(212) 744-2424

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Fear not the poppy seed

Knee-deep in mid-term exam week, I've just written a short paper on Schleiermacher, gone to three meetings in three hours, and now it's time to get heady about logical behaviorism. So, naturally, it's just about the perfect time for baking.

Think of a lemon poppy seed muffin. Now imagine this muffin as a cookie. It has a crust so that it makes a sound if you tap it against the table. But inside your mouth it's soft and crumbly, just so delicate, and the levity of the lemon rind and weight of the poppy seeds are doing something you like very much on your tongue. Let me be clear. These are not knock-out cookies. These are not wham-bam-thank-you-mam cookies. These are cookies for tea. They are cookies for small bites and soft palate contemplation. They are... something out of My Fair Lady. Maybe they slowly win over Audrey Hepburn, maybe she'll always be smiling at high tea with seeds in her teeth. And maybe we like her better that way.

But really, these are worth getting a few poppy seeds in your teeth. Indeed, if you're like me, and about to become nocturnal for a few days, now is a perfect time to look disheveled and seedy (ha!) - and happily so.

So, this is my adapation of
Molly Katzen's Whole Wheat Poppy Seed Cookies. I think you'll like them. My only changes to the recipe are that I used about 1/8 cup poppy seeds and not 1/3, and I added 1/2 teaspoon of hazelnut extract (because I'm a nut fiend). Here is the recipe, a page from the delightfully illustrated The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest. I cooked a whole lot from this book last year, and everything I've ever encountered in it tastes just lovely.

And, please do note my dear friend Anna’s website on the right side of this page under Wesleyan Music Scene. It’s a totally useful index of the shows happening on campus and what they’re like, so you can be a satisfied (and frequent!) concert-goer. I suppose if hers is auralwes, then mine is something more like oralwes – but we don’t need to go there.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Happy birthday, mom!

Yes, without her, I wouldn't be here, but neither, in a sense, would this blog. (Thank you, mom, for believing in both good food and me.)

She's also an incredibly talented photographer; this piece of hers hangs above our kitchen table at home. We were walking through the market in Las Ramblas, Barcelona when this agile hand darted out, lifting eggs, so rapid and so gentle.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

O, The meal was divine

We have just returned from my mom’s birthday dinner, and my fingers still smell of lamb. Earthy – lighter than dirt but deeper than the plants that spring from it. The smell is cavernous and tender, buttery and bloody. It was a wonderful meal, both for the food we ate, and for the company we kept. The courses came and went and we crooned about each one. We just couldn’t help but talk about it!

And it reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about: How exactly to talk about food? And why is it that food writing is so rife with hyperbole? Take, for example, Wednesday’s article “A Stew With a Past and a Future” by Alex Witchel in The New York Times:

"It is hard for me to cook for people I don’t like. I don’t have to do it often, but when I do, I find it a torment because cooking is so personal, so revealing. Even more than sex, I think. You can have a perfectly good one-night stand, be greatly entertained, and still not know the other person when it’s done. But once someone cooks for you, it’s almost impossible not to discover who that person is. Which may be why most of the dinner parties I go to in New York are prepared by a cook or a caterer."

Wait a minute. Really? Sex is less intimate than a meal? We, of course, cannot know about the sex that Witchel is having, so we have to assume that these have been some pretty incredible (and revealing) meals. And, indeed, the article goes on to tell us about a meal with Louis Begley, who, it seems, does deliver earnestly heavy, autobiographical and Polish stories and stews.

But why is it that we so often make these grandiose offerings at the royal court of food writing? Is it that food belongs to the realm of the senses, where emotion may excite and incite to the point where we feverishly channel our inner Italian man, kissing the tips of our fingers and releasing them like firecrackers (all the while cooing, “Bene, bene, bene”)? Perhaps it’s because food defies language, which is not its original mistress. If only our tastebuds could speak! It’s as if we try to translate from flavor to adjective and fail utterly, then turn to hyperbole in a last attempt to do justice to the meal’s essence: The lamb was soft. No, it was rough and real against the backs of one’s teeth! It was earthy. By God, it was as light as if it had been roasted on the lining of clouds!

Now, I’m not saying I’m never a part of this camp. Clearly, I am. In fact, I felt a deep chord of connection was strummed within me when I heard AndrĂ© Aciman speak of just such a food epiphany at Russell House last Monday. He was once on assignment in Barcelona, finding the city detestable and un-inspiring. He couldn’t think of a word to write about the place until he went for tapas. He looked at the small slice of toast, layered with a kind of tomato paste, maybe a vegetable or two on top of that, and an olive on top of that – and he was stunned. “Who could invent this thing with so many layers? I want to talk about the layers ‘cause I’m obsessed with this piece of food,” he admitted to a rapt audience. Yet, he had earlier wondered if just by thinking about it (putting it into words) he was interfering with the plenitude of the Tuscan countryside, brimming with wine of Chianti. There we were again – caught between feeling compelled to speak and unable to do right by our subject.

I think of one the most famous of food moments in print, Proust’s madeleine. To write about food is, indeed, somehow a “remembrance of things past.” Taste is fleeting. No sooner have we suckled the flavors than we have lost them, stubborn though our scented fingers may be and enduring, the memory of them. Remembering Witchel’s lines on the intimacy of breaking bread together, I consulted with the master of food writing, M.F.K Fisher. And she agrees (without all the bombast) that “sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged lightly” [“A is for dining Alone,” in An Alphabet for Gourmets, 1949]. Ultimately, I think food’s very sensuality bespeaks its unspeakable nature and its intimacy – the two are part and parcel of our experience of eating. How hard to capture those moments. How the wonderful the attempt.

Scoozzi Trattoria & Wine Bar
1104 Chapel Street
New Haven, CT 06510
(203) 776-8268