Giving it the George Michael try

In the 80′s I took a lot of aerobics. “AND UP, AND UP, and 4 and 3 and 2 and 1 and WE’RE NOT FINISHED LADIES, LET’S DO IT AGAIN!!!!” All muscle cramping and Reeboks, loads of clapping and sweat flying and “STAY WITH ME LADIES.” Yesterday I decided to give it a George Michael try to get me to cook. And it worked for about 36 seconds–enough to time to shout “you go girl” and then I was back on the couch. Today I am going to try guilt. I have perfectly good broccoli. One dollar and eighty nine cents right in the garbage if I don’t do something about it.
Cut the broccoli tops into 2 inch bits, then cut the peel off the stems and slice the stem into thin slices on the diagonal. Toss all that with olive oil and season with kosher salt. Roast at 375 degrees until the broccoli is still bright green with a tenderness, but tiny snap to it. On a separate tray, roast cherry tomatoes tossed with olive oil and salt, just the same, with a few whole cloves of garlic and a few sprigs of oregano or parsley. When the tomatoes are done, smash one or two of the garlic cloves with your knife and then chop finely. Toss everything together with a handful of Nicoise olives. Serve with a warm salad of chic peas doused with olive oil warmed with cayenne pepper and garlic and red onions, a wedge of ricotta salata and a crusty loaf of bread. Drink red wine alongside. For God’s sake, there is just so much you can do in a day.

The (damn) Back

Just as I thought that I was sailing through making the transition from the Italian countryside and all that I ate and all that I did and all that I dreamed, I got up from the breakfast table and went right to the floor. My brain is like a refrigerator full of old, old food that I just keep closing the door on–saying I can always clean it out tomorrow or next year, or when I die. If you leave the food in there–whether you bolt the door or wallpaper the whole thing over– the food will find its way out and may leave you without hope that there could ever be fresh air in your kitchen again.

Clean your fridge.

And your larder.

I found a butternut squash and borlotti beans and a bay leaf and yesterday’s bread. Do the like the girls Rogers and Gray and simmer the beans after you soak them with a little of your best olive oil, a few pieces of leek, a clove of garlic, a sprig of thyme and a bay leaf. Peel a butternut squash with your knife then cube it, toss it with olive oil and salt and roast it at 400 degrees. Cook up an onion with another bay leaf, your good olive oil and salt the way you know how until it’s gorgeous. Scoop the beans up from their liquid with a slotted spoon and combine with the squash with a ratio of one to one. Add your onions. Taste. If you have a balsamic to be proud of you could give it a little drizzle of that. Or not. Serve it over a toasted piece of crusty bread and shower the whole thing with pecorino if you are lucky enough to have some, or parmesan–equally good.

Salt

An interview with myself:
“How important is salt to you?”

“You mean in my cooking?”

“Yea.”

“I love to cook. I really love to cook. It is the oxygen in my water. It encourages brain cell, heart cell and soul cell growth when I cook. If you took away the salt, I think I would cook because I had to eat. The salt gives life to the food. The right amount of salt can take food to its deepest and fullest and the essence of itself. The magic is in the right amount.”

“How do you know?”

“How do I know what?”

“the right amount.”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Hm.”

“I can’t tell you how to love, I can’t tell you how to leave, or when to stay.”

“Hm.”

“It’s enough when it’s enough and when it’s not enough, it’s not enough.”

“That’s good; that’s enough.”

***

I am making sauce tonight and when I make my sauce, first I salt the onions and garlic (I leave the garlic in whole halves) that are in the pan with a little olive oil schlepped all the way from Montevarchi. When the onions taste better than you ever thought to imagine, that’s the right amount of salt. Cook that onion until it has no more resistance to your tooth. Add a bay leaf and a sprig of rosemary or marjoram. Add the chopped meat, and as soon as you get it in the pan, salt that too. Cook through completely over medium heat. For one onion, three cloves of garlic, a pound of meat, use 2 28 ounce cans of whole plum tomatoes from somewhere around Naples. Preferably San Marzano. Squish them up with your hands. Your hands need to know what it is to crush a tomato. It will bring you closer to the tomato. Get them in the pot and simmer for at least an hour. Taste for salt. Not too much, never too much, just enough.

When the pasta water is boiling and ready for action, taste it. It should taste like a well seasoned soup. Drop in the pasta and cook the pasta until it almost done, but not quite. There should be a faint trace of a thin white line in the center when you take a bite. Drain and save a few tablespoons of the cooking water. Get some sauce hot in a pan (not all of it because you don’t know how much you will need.) Add the pasta. Add enough sauce to coat well; you are looking to dress the pasta but not drown the pasta. Add freshly grated parmesan. Taste for salt. Go tiny pinch by tiny pinch until you have it right where you want it. You will know when you get there.

Weather, again

I couldn’t call it an inspiring day to cook–to go back to bed, definitely yes, to sit wrapped up in front of a fire, yes again, to have someone say, “even in your pajamas, even with your no-help hair and pasty face, you are beautiful”, uh-HUH–that’s the kind of day I’m TALKING about! But none of that is going to happen. Even if I listen to this same 1990′s hope-hold-out song over and over and over again. So I’m going to start making and freezing Christmas cookie dough. Happy Day.

Make walnut crescents. They have plenty of protein if all you have is cookies and no dinner. Grind 1 1/2 cups of walnuts (not toasted) with a few tablespoons of sugar to prevent clumping. You want them super fine, but you’re not making butter. In a separate bowl, beat 2 sticks of room temperature butter with a wooden spoon or your hand. Add 1/2 cup of sugar, bit by bit, and keep beating until you no longer feel the granules of sugar in the butter. Add the nuts with your hand. Sift 2 1/2 cups of flour and stir that in about a quarter cup at a time, until fully incorporated, using your hand again, or the wooden spoon. Shape the cookies into tiny log shapes, starting with about a walnut sized piece of dough. Bend the ends towards each other to make a “C”. Get them really close to each other on a pan that will fit into your freezer, and then set them in there until they are pretty hard, or until you are ready to bake. Arrange them on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees until they are golden only on the bottom, about 15 to 20 minutes. When slightly cool, set them in a tray of sugar, spooning the sugar over the tops as well.

How does this happen every year? over and over and over

Oh my Lord, it’s Thanksgiving tomorrow.  As Ferdinand says, “WHAT THE HECK!!??”   I don’t know how it happened or what business it has showing up like that–I haven’t mopped, I haven’t folded the laundry, I haven’t shopped, planned or frozen a pie crust.   We could do a repeat menu of the Thanksgiving of 1970 something when the ice brought down the power lines–pigs in a blanket and popcorn over the fire–or cereal and pie or turkey and Entenmann’s or just beautiful wine with a cheese that Jonathan bought me yesterday that is made from half milk from the morning milking, a layer of ash and half milk from the nighttime draw.  Or just do it.  Think of the child.  What kind of cook/mother leaves her five year old to go back to school on Monday to report that his mother fell asleep so he ate the rest of his Halloween candy.  Not so nice.

I’m sticking to the classics.  Turkey.  Remember that turkey is just a big chicken.  Cook it slowly, seasoned really well with kosher salt inside and out, with fresh sage, thyme and rosemary, a head of garlic, an onion, an apple shoved inside, and baste it every fifteen minutes with room temperature water for the first hour.  After that, every half hour with pan drippings.  If you have a rack that it can sit on in the pan, even better, so that the bottom doesn’t get all gloppy.  Set the oven at 350 degrees until the last half hour, which will be when the legs start to get a little wiggly, then shove the oven up to 450 to crisp the skin.

Make stock with the neck, the wing tips, onion, celery, carrot, a clove of garlic, a bay leaf, a sprig of parsley and a thyme sprig.  You have to have stock on the stove like hot water at a birth.  You need it.  Cut up an onion and the inside stalks of a head of celery and season it with salt and pepper.  I like to add a whole, uncut clove of garlic as well, with some fresh sage, but do what you need to do.  Cook this until it is absolutely delicious and crying out to be eaten.  Restrain yourself and leave it in the pot.  Add about a pound of fresh, chunky bread crumbs, four tablespoons of softened butter and a good spill of stock.  Butter a casserole and cook it alongside the turkey.  Not in the turkey.  Danger, danger.  If you have to, you can spoon it in there right before you crank the oven up at the end.

Cube up some butternut squash, coat it with the best olive oil you can find or swindle, sprinkle with salt and roast at 375 until tender on a sheet pan.

Get a few shallots diced and in the pan with a little olive oil and butter.  Cook them until softened and just a bit caramelized.  Remove from the pan.  Another spill of olive oil.  Add some cremini and shitake mushrooms.  Without moving them, get them seared on one side.  Season with salt.  Cook a bit more until tender over lower heat.  Combine with the shallot and serve over toasted bread, or just as a side to your turkey.

Cranberry sauce.  They have a great recipe right on the package.  Add a little orange zest for fun.

String beans.  Just steam them with a spill of olive oil and salt right over the top before the lid goes on and when they come out, butter and salt.

Mashed potatoes.  Add a little roasted whole garlic and parmesan to get the crowd making noises.

You can make a salad, but people might not eat it.  Make carrots instead.  Plain with butter or use up the rest of your shallots , getting them gorgeous in the saute pan with olive oil before they heat the tender boiled carrots, and a teeny shot of good balsamic from Modena.

Start the whole thing off with a roasted or steamed vegetable salad–knock yourself out and use any vegetable you can think of along with capers and olives and sprigs of herbs.

Kiss your man and tell him it’s his year to make the pies.

Light the candles, put the music on, sit, breathe, and eat.

Happy Thanksgiving.

It was a swirl last week of food and wine and wind and life. We stuck together, living and tasting and talking and laughing our way through, and I will always feel lucky to know such women that were with me–the way the mountains must feel lucky each day the sun loyally rises to warm them.

Weather

It is raining today.  We have the morning off.  All we have to do as the raindrops fall is hold a cup of coffee and hot milk, and look out across the fields of hay about to be turned.  Later this afternoon we will make our way to Montevarchi to intoxicate ourselves with the smashing of olives at the press, and then drive back down the mountain to taste chocolates filled with chianti and be enlightened to the magic of making puff pastry into tulips. 

The ladies have been to Cortona for the view that sweeps from the walls of the city, down to the Duomo and below to Camucia, to Deruta for ceramics, to Montepulcino for Vino Nobile, Pienza for Pecorino, Sant’antimo, for the Gregorian chants, and in the kitchen every night to cook from the inside out. We have done our pork chops over the fire, barely touched our spinach and fresh ricotta gnocchi in our hands to make them into little orbs, and tasted cheeses, salami, savory pumpkin tarts, and a chocolate jonty that is a souffle, warm from the oven with the thinnest crust of fudge and an even thinner crust that cracks with the spoon as it sinks into the dish. With cream it is a little bit of mouth heaven.

Jairo has led them off to Citta di Castello for the open market. I always say my prayers that they find the road back.

Sunset

I haven’t seen the ladies all day, not even for breakfast.  They left for Florence before the sun came up and have yet to return.  It’s a funny thing not to have to get up and make your way to the top of the mountain when normally you have to get up.  I got up.  I made coffee, I heated milk and while I waited I cleared off the table and I mopped the floor.  It’s better to stay in practice than just sit in a chair and lay your head back and then fall back to sleep.  I made notes, I drank chai from the second round of people in the house that got up, I got dressed I shopped, came back, hugged my friend Caroline who is back from Africa, and made my way to the top of the mountain.  Now is the pregnant pause of waiting.  As soon as they return we will be searing and braising ribs and stirring our way through the last night with a wild mushroom risotto.  Panna cotta for dessert.