Shuck it

I have worked in many restaurants, but never the line. I never had the courage. Cooking is one thing, but cooking and getting it out to a massive crowd who are all ordering on a whim is a whale in a bear suit. (which makes crazy thoughts go through your head like, “why the f…are you ordering a Tbone right now? What about the short ribs? why can’t you have the decency, this one time in your life, to order short ribs?”) Anyway, I was asked to help a friend, and I said yes. When I got there, the chef asked me to shuck oysters. I have never shucked oysters. Not because I don’t have the dice, but because, why would anyone eat a raw gelatinous glob of grey flesh? Not me. The next chef down looked at me and wrote what he was thinking on his forehead. “Fish Tender Grandma. Cardboard box with a captain on it.” It took me three oysters and I was in charge of the raw bar. No one has ever had to wait so long for a plate of oysters. No one. The rest of the table was easily on dessert by the time my plate of half a dozen beauties showed up. Some of them were in tact and some of them were most definitely ripped to shreds with that dull blunt of an ice pick you are meant to do the surgery with, but my hands are without wounds, and everybody ate. If nothing else, I know how to set a goal, no matter what is happening around me. Like some people go for, “my son will win the olympics. I will never yell as a mother.” Quietly, in my head, I tend to go for, “my son will live to see the sun rise. I will remain coherent to witness it.” So, I am so happy that I shucked almost all the oysters I was asked to and tossed a bunch of frites into a fryer (also a first; apparently very popular in haute cuisine) could identify “ile flottante” when it was shouted in my direction, and got floating as directed, all on the plate. The beautiful thing is, I know so deeply, that high end restaurant cooking is not my cooking. I love it, I appreciate it, I will eat it, but it has nothing to do with me. Which makes it possible to show up as the parsley chopper and counter scrubber, the curb hugging bottom of the totem pole with no chops and walk out without a chin scrape. And knowing so much more about raw mollusks than I did when I got there.

The tricks:

There is no drinking or smoking, before or during this. I mean, you can, but not if you want to keep the hand holding the oyster. Make sure you know where your oysters came from. They should have papers to prove it. An oyster knife looks like the kind of short knife you would carry in your inside pocket in case you had to take it to a party and stab somebody with a slow and painful entry. The blade is not sharp. It is like a slender, dull, little dagger. Dampen a kitchen towel and fold it into a square. Hold the knife in your right hand, if you are right handed and set the oyster on the towel with the flat side up and and the narrow end of the oyster pointed to the right. In that nose, there is a line of tight, dark grey flesh. You have got to find that and stick in the oyster dagger, grabbing the dagger with your palm facing your chest. Now wiggle the dagger a bit, holding the left edge of the towel over the oyster for safety. Go slow. Don’t let anyone rush you. Keep your focus. Make sure your dagger is pointed at a forty five angle DOWN; not to the side. Remember you want to keep your hand; for many things, not just shucking oysters. If you are making progress, the tip of the dagger will have made its way into that skinny piece of nearly invisible flesh. Quickly give a flick to your wrist to twist the shell open. Gently. If you go too hard, the shell will flake and crack and all of that mess will get into the pool of oyster liquor that gets thrown down the throat along with the flesh. Don’t throw up yet. Don’t think about that. You have got a job to do. Once your are in, (remember–with just the point of the knife; just enough for entry.) drop the towel. Catch the crack you have got open with your right thumb to hold open just enough to get the flat of the knife between the rest of the two shells so that you can very gently loosen the shells from each other, all the way around their circumference. You want to keep the flat of the knife, scraping against the flat of the top shell, so that you very cleanly and carefully cut the flesh from the top shell without ripping it. Once you feel the flesh has been released, open the shell (the top shell should be completely clean) and hold steady onto the bottom shell that has both the oyster and the liquor in it. Don’t lose a drop of that. Now set the bottom shell onto the towel and with the point of the dagger, carefully loosen the belly of the oyster so that it can slide away when tipped to somebody’s mouth. Keep watching the liquor. Keep it in there. Very carefully inspect the edges for flakes of shell, which can contaminate the whole thing, and wipe any shell bits away from the edges with your clean fingertip. Last and most important step: Smell it. The oyster should smell fresh. It shouldn’t smell weird or suspicious in any way. There should be plenty of liquid and not at all dried up looking. You think that $2 is a lot of money that you spent for that oyster? Think about how much it is going to cost you for an ambulance to take you and your wretching gut to safety.

You did it. Now do what you want with it. At the restaurant they served it with a tiny ramekin of mignonette. Just let a teaspoon of good salt dissolve in 1/4 cup of dry red wine and 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar. Finely chop a small clove of garlic and a small shallot. Bang a sprig of fresh thyme once or twice, and add that with a tablespoon of or two of olive oil and a few good grinds of black pepper. Let it sit for at least twenty minutes and up to overnight. Taste. It should pack a punch.

Love vs Ownership

I can understand the confusion. Language can be a killer.

“My money” means, the money is mine. It belongs to me. If you take my money, there are laws to protect me. You can’t just get in my car and drive it away. If I own it, I can lock it up. I can keep it in the garage. I can put my money in the bank with a password. “And those are my shoes. Take my shoes off. Put the shoes back and wear your own shoes.” You can say all of that. Not that you have to be that way, but if you own it, it is yours. I don’t care what you do with it.

Then there is, “my wife”, “my boyfriend”, “my son”, “my sister”…

This is the part that needs to be cleared up. Some things lose their shape and color when you are old and some things become as clear to me as a bell struck once.

A shoe, cannot walk without a foot. Once you buy that shoe, that shoe is yours, no matter what you do. You don’t have to talk to that shoe. Or say what you want to it. You don’t have to hold that shoe. Wear it on your foot. Throw it in the closet and lock the door. But don’t fool yourself. If it is not a shoe–if it is a person–you don’t own.

So take care of your starter. Listen to it.

Mine has been in the fridge for a few weeks and I know it is time to feed it and warm it up. I have read a library of books on how to make bread with a starter. I have taken notes. But when it is between you and something breathing, you can’t read a book of someone else’s answers and expect them to be your own. All things breathing are not the same. This is how it works for me and the bread that makes me happy. And every time it is different.

Smell the starter. If it is off, bring it back. Pour away the liquid and throw half of the starter. Feed it about half its weight or size of all purpose flour and enough water to make a sour cream consistency. Leave it covered, at room temperature. Do the same again, 12 hours later and keep it up–repeat the step until the starter is full of a fine bubble structure right down the sides of the jar. It should smell yeasty and fresh and full of life. After the first throw away, I keep the half from every feeding in a separate bowl, and add this to my loaf with the fully pumped up and ready final starter. To that, I add about 2 cups of whole wheat flour, and in a moat around the edges, a spill of olive oil and two full pinches of salt. (I don’t take much salt in my bread. You might want to add more after tasting your trial loaf.) The batter should be fairly loose. Loose enough to beat with your hand. If it is not loose enough, add a little more water. If you can imagine quicksand. Now beat that thing in the bowl with 100 strokes. I switch hands, when one gets tired. Lift it up, oil the bowl, and set it back down. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to rest until about doubled size. Pushing your fingertips down the sides of the bowl, as you slowly turn the bowl clockwise, turn the ball of dough onto itself. Recover and set in the fridge for 24 hours, or at least overnight. When you take it out of the fridge, let it come to room temperature. Oil your bread pan. It can be a sheet pan, a loaf pan, or a cake pan. Sprinkle the board generously with whole wheat flour. Cup your hand, and using your fingertips, roll the ball into itself, starting at the top left of your board and moving diagonally down. It shouldn’t be too stiff. It should feel a tiny bit loose. Sometimes I laminate the dough at this point, if I feel it needs more chutzpah. You just lift it up by the middle, and let the ends fall from gravity. Tuck them under each other, do a quarter turn of the dough, and repeat. Roll the dough around itself a bit so that it comes back to a ball shape. Allow the dough to rest in the pan. Cover. Be sure the towel doesn’t touch the loaf. If it is on a sheet pan, I turn a mixing bowl upside down, and set it over the top, with the towel over that. Give it a slice with a razor blade, right down the middle, in sort of a “c” shape. Just through the surface. When the loaf is gentle to the touch, it is proofed. It should give to your finger. Put it in a hot oven of about 425 degrees and bake until the bottom sounds hollow. Try not to cut into it for at least 30 minutes.

tomorrow

Tomorrow is my grandmother’s birthday. She never had a crowd over for her birthday. She had a crowd for New Year’s. If they had to come to hers for her birthday, she would have kept it to cake. Because that is not when a crowd was supposed to come. They were supposed to come on New Year’s. If you wanted to come on New Year’s with the rest of them, there was chopped chicken liver, a quiche, salad, smoked fish, and sharp cheese. And bread that she made. And cookies that she stored in shirt boxes in her closet. I am not saying if you came on your own, she wouldn’t cook for you. She would. Vegetable soup with chunks of beef and butterballs, or a little steak with a side of tomato. Or a snack of fresh fruit with cool whip. Or date, walnut cookies the size of your palm. “Eat” she would say. “What else do you have to do?”

“What are you making tomorrow, Gram?” “Well. The same thing I always make.” “Okay.” “Is there something you don’t like about that?” “Nope.” “Why would I change?” “You are right.” “I just hope you are hungry.” “I am always hungry, Gram.”

Chopped Chicken Liver

In a saute pan, add a little butter and olive oil. Very finely chop yellow onion, shallot, and celery, in nearly equal parts. Maybe a half cup total for half a pound of livers. Add some salt, pepper, a sprig of rosemary, a few sprigs of parsley and a few sprigs of thyme with one small smashed clove of garlic. Let all of that go tender and slightly caramelized. Give it a grind of black pepper. Drop in half a pound of organic chicken livers that you have dried off on paper towel. Season them with salt. Let them cook on all surfaces and then add a pour of dry white wine. Finish cooking until the livers are cooked through completely. You can break them up with a wooden spoon as they cook if you feel like it. Toss in a few capers. Taste. You might have to add a little more salt or pepper. Give it another pour of olive oil. Just a little. Puree with the immersion blender until smooth and taste. You can thin it out with a little water, or if it needs fat, add a little more olive oil. It should be really delicious. It is good on rye bread or baguette with a side of quiche, but I also like it with 9 minute eggs and watercress.

In my head I hear, “what do mean, you are not making quiche?” “People don’t always eat quiche so much anymore, Gram.” “That’s ridiculous. Of course they do.”

where are you living?

It can seriously perplex people what to make for dinner. I am going to tell you why.

A: People don’t know what they want. Because they are not taking the time to think about it, or they are asking themselves the wrong questions.

B: if they do know what they want, they are afraid to eat it. They think something terrible is going to happen.

I am going to help you. Ask yourself what you want. Don’t lie about it. Don’t pick something you think you should want or try to make everybody else happy. That is not what I am talking about. I know you have to think about what other people want to eat sometimes, to be practical. I have a kid. I used to try and stay married. Forget that. I am talking about, what do you want. Close your eyes and focus on your tongue. Go from your tongue to your chest and from there, spill down to your intestines and let whatever is beginning to thrum start to rise up into your brain. Call on your memory. Let it shout. It will shout. If nothing happens, you are tired. Have some oatmeal and try again tomorrow.

If it comes to you, put the music on and have a dance party. That is a beautiful thing, to know what you want. Let it sit for a minute to see if anything else gets stirred up.

Now B: Do not shove A, down. Cook A. Get ready though, because thinking this way can keep going. Just, going and going.

Two days ago, what I wanted was for it to be anything I didn’t have to shop for. I found half of a red pepper and a red onion and looked at those for a while. I added garlic, twigs of rosemary and thyme, and a can of chickpeas. I looked for the pasta and there was none. I thought about it, and walked to the store for the pasta. That is one of the reasons I live in NYC. In less than 3 minutes I can walk somewhere that is open 24 hours a day and has just about everything. If you don’t live in NYC and that sounds appealing, I don’t know, maybe you have more thinking to do. You don’t see me living in Hartford. You don’t see me living in Champaign Urbana. I used to live in Hartford. I used to live in Champaign Urbana.

I like De Cecco.

I chopped up the pepper and the onion pretty finely and sliced the garlic as thinly as I could get it. I dropped it into a wide, high edged saute pan with a few whole pepperoncini and a good spill of olive oil. I added salt and black pepper and the twigs; let it go until there is some caramelization and serious softening of the vegetables. Add a can of well rinsed chickpeas and smash about half with a fork. Add a little water, just to cover and another good serious spill of olive oil. When you are using good olive oil, it adds a flavor you are looking for. You can add either a rind of parm or pecorino at this point, or a little bit that has been grated. You are not looking for the flavor of the cheese to punch, just to be there in the background. Put the pasta on to boil in water that has been well seasoned with salt and scoop it out when it is still unquestionably al dente, right into your sauce. Hold back if you have too much pasta. Your sauce is not a dumping ground. Use extra pasta for something else. Let the pasta cook another 30 seconds in the sauce and then turn the flame off. Taste for salt, pepper and olive oil. The pasta should be well coated, almost soupy, because of the type of sauce this is. Serve extra cheese on a plate.

Alongside: strips of slow cooked bacon and broccoli rabe.

Things you are never supposed to say in certain situations:

“Those lines that I before have writ, do lie: Even those that said I could not love you dearer; Yet then my judgement knew no reason why My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer. But reckoning time, whose million’d accidents Creep in ‘twixt vows, and change decrees of kings, Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharpest intents, Divert strong minds to the course of altering things; Alas! why fearing of Time’s tyranny, Might I not then say, ‘Now I love you best,’ When I was certain o’er incertainty, Crowing the present, doubting of the rest? Love is a babe; then might I not say so, To give full growth to that which still doth grow?” *

So instead I usually say, “give your mom a hug, Ferd.” And he does. And then I cook for him.

His new thing is healthy food for dinner. Last night I made extra firm tofu cut into blocks two inches wide and half an inch high, dried out between tea towels for a few minutes, then seasoned with salt on both sides, smeared with dijon all over, smothered with panko, and fried in a healthy pour of olive oil that has just begun to smoke from the heat. Don’t move the tofu from the oil until you see a deep caramel color on the bottom edges. Then flip. Let the same thing happen to the other side. Remove to a wire rack or the inside of a broken down Panko box. Give the tofu a grind of black of pepper. Wipe out the pan and add 3 inch sections of green onion with a serious tab of butter. Season with salt. Just when they begin to melt, and the butter has a little color, turn off the flame and serve the scallions over the tofu. If you don’t have green onions, use slices of shallot. I served it with a plate of teeny red grapes, a dish of those leftover cayenned and sugared toasted pumpkin seeds, carrot spears, sliced fennel with mint leaves and a bowl of sautéed romaine with a whole chile and a few whole cloves of garlic. Don’t forget to taste for salt and olive oil. The biggest mistake people make is to forget to taste for fat. I take that back. If you are in there cooking, screw mistakes. Who cares. But, think about the olive oil.

He didn’t want the ice cream. I ate it. I didn’t want the tofu.

*I am sure I should mention that that is a sonnet, written by The Bard Man.

What are you bringing back

I have flown across the country. Six hours on a plane with all the masks in my collection and new ones, industrial strength ones that increased my chances of avoiding droplets of any size, vapors, and oxygen. I had to remove a few to survive the flight. I couldn’t believe people risked their life for food and water. “Have you no patience, woman”, I shouted at the little girl next to me. She couldn’t hear me. It is never right for strangers to yell at small children, so I kept the volume of my mouth on mute.

I have no doubt, I am taking a risk. I told myself that I am moving from one highly vaccinated place to another, that the plane ride roundtrip, is the same as 6 bus rides back and forth to the job I had this summer. I knew that I would always wear a mask, that on my arrival I would only linger in rooms with wide open windows. I would eat at a restaurant, only if the seating was outside and each table, far away from another. I could get lucky and get home without the virus. Which would also mean that I was lucky not to potentially pass it on to whomever was in my path from the point that it slung its rock into my cellular structure.

I suppose the decision is like the one a doctor makes. Does the benefit outweigh all that. Except, not. When a doctor makes that decision, it is (nearly exclusively) about you. When I made the decision, it was about everybody that I might come into contact with and then, only about me, whether I chose to accept that or not. The impact of my decision could have been, could be way beyond my own skin. So there is that. This has not been an easy two years.

While I was here, I bought all the vegetables that my hands could carry. I saw stuff I had only read about. Tiny melons that tasted a bit like kombucha. Those (also tiny) butternuts, called Honeynuts, that that guy, Dan Barber, from Blue Hill figured out with a farmer, Michael Mazourek. I almost had a coronary I was so excited, when I saw those. “HOLY TOLEDO,” I said,”Is that a Honeynut? Is that really a Honeynut?” It can be embarrassing being me. I didn’t get that excited when it was just me and Alec Baldwin in an elevator.

I cooked for my girlfriend, whom I hadn’t seen since high school. I cooked for my niece and her new baby. I baked a caramelized prune plum tart with cabernet grapes that were growing on a single vine outside her kitchen window, under a lemon tree, for my sister. Her 8 year old daughter said, “I wish there were more. I loved it.” Visiting them restored me. It gave me joy. It definitely slung its rock into my cellular structure.

As Summer floats

I wait.

I am stuck on a branch like yesterday’s fabric. I am not worried. I am waiting for the wind to change. Until then, I cook.

I bought deep black beans and let them soak until there was a swell. I rinsed them off and gave them a warm bath on a low simmer with a bay leaf, a wedge of onion, an ancho chile, and a slow spill of olive oil to make them tender and to add flavor that makes them unctuous. Not insincere in character-unctuous with fat. You need enough fat to warm the flavors up. Think how you feel when someone has built you a fire and you have eaten your dinner and they move over to be close to you. That is you, unctuous. That is what you need the beans to be. Towards the end, add the salt. Be patient. Add some, taste, and then add some more until they are right. Give them the bottom of a glass of red wine, or a spoon of red wine vinegar, a squeeze of lemon and a few shots of tabasco. Saute an onion with some finely sliced garlic, a sprig of rosemary, and a few sprigs of thyme, until the onions are completely tender. Add the beans to this and enough of the liquid to sauce them. Eat a slice of apple and taste the beans again. Think about what is missing. If they are exactly as they should be, that is it.

On the side, rice that finishes its cooking covered, and off the heat.

Green sauce of avocado, tomatillo, serrano pepper, garlic, cilantro and chive, with a little lemon or lime, olive oil and water to thin it out to the right consistency.

Charred pablano stuffed with cheddar or queso blanco and chives.

Seeded, chopped tomato with olive oil, salt, cilantro and chive.

Braised string beans with shallot and parsley.

The last corn on the cob, or if the corn is over, paper thin slivers of butternut squash, roasted with olive oil and salt until their edges are crisped and caramelized.

There is a trick

I know how to make food that tastes good. I know how to strategize so that everything is done before it is meant to arrive at the table. I know how to amuse the table so that the people eating don’t wilt from boredom if they are not talking. I keep the kitchen clean and organized. I have a food handler’s license. And most importantly for a professional, I can make guests happy again, and again and again.

But there is a trick in cooking, and it is the same trick in being a mother or somebody’s other. A trick as in, “trick or treat” or “I am not crazy about magic shows because I don’t like tricks.” As much as I love cooking, which is almost as much as I have loved another and not nearly as much as I love my son, there is always the trick.

You can tell yourself, you can float away and dream to yourself, you can sing to yourself that you are a cook or a lover or a mother and you can turn the volume up so that those are the only words you hear. The trick is in the finer print. It lives where you live or where you work, like sand does if your house is on the beach. You bought the sand with the house. It may get swept up or to the side but just wait. Stand still for a minute.

The trick is, the sand is, the servant part. As a servant, it is not you who decides if you have done enough, if you have done it well, or if the food is good. And the trickiest bit is–for the whole thing to work, for me to keep my job, I have to give away a little bit of who I am.

I have to shhh or slap back or step on, that part of me that knows if your opinion is different than mine, then I will wait for you to finish and then open my mouth and speak what I know to be true for me. The part of me that pulls a chair out from the table and waits for you to be ready to listen. The part of me that has shape and takes up space. Which I can do. I can take up space.

I have also been crowned in personal competitions for shutting that part down until the crown makes my head sweat and my forehead itch like a cast that has been on all summer.

The thing about getting old though, is the daylight. In the daylight that crown is not gold at all. In the daylight, it is just a cheap fake paint that is cracking and wouldn’t fool anybody outside of a low lit strip club at that magic hour when the last few left are almost sick but not quite from drinking too much.

My favorite way to serve a vegetable is to make sure it has been grown in dirt, looks and smells like the essence of itself, poach or grill it. Just enough to hear it singing the low notes of its aria. Give it a rumble of salt, a grind of pepper, and a fine line of the best olive oil you can find.

Brain sway

I don’t have obvious addictions. I love the taste of a beautiful wine and some wines that aren’t beautiful at all, but cut through the fat so that you can taste whatever comes next. But I don’t drink, really. I don’t ever think about wine in terms of its intoxicating features. Drugs are lost on me. I have no desire to lose touch or take the edge off, touch.

I am addicted to a piece of chocolate off a bar that I keep in the refrigerator no matter where I am. I will have two carts of meat, fruit, flours, flapping fish, cheese and tomatoes and one single cheap chocolate on the top and the checkout person will always hold it up or think of something clever to say about it and I say nothing. I smile, pack up the goods, and hold my chocolate.

I am addicted to words. They work their way in to my central nervous system. They make my brain sway.

I am addicted to finding food that is crazy good. I wake up thinking about it. Fireworks go off in me, thinking about it.

And a crush. A crush can take me down. It is the magic show where the girl is standing there holding one hand on her hat and one, I don’t know, wrapped around a baton or something and then the floor falls out from under her and she is gone.

Caccio e pepe

There are a lot of have to’s for this. There is no way around it.

You have to buy the right spaghettone. It should be a little thicker than spaghetti and cut on an Italian bronze die. (Nobody else has mastered the bronze dies.) You have to buy parmigiano reggiano and pecorino romano from Italy. The romano made in the states is made from cow’s milk. No idea why they are allowed to call it a pecorino. Pecorino means sheep cheese. That is like serving someone a cup of tea and calling it coffee. Not right.

Finely grate each cheese. About 3/4 cup of grated cheese per person, and a one inch handful of pasta per person. Bring a pot of water to the boil and season the water with kosher or sea salt until it tastes delicious. Add the pasta and cook for 6 minutes.

In a heavy saute pan (cast iron or stainless) add freshly ground pepper over the surface of the pan-just whatever comes out of the mill as you move your way around the pan-not so that every millimeter of the surface of the pan is covered with pepper. Toast the pepper over a low flame, until you begin to smell it. Remove from the heat. When the pasta has reached 6 minutes, remove with a pair of tongs or a sieve, reserving the cooking water. Drop the pasta directly onto the pepper and turn the flame back on to about medium. Add one ladleful of cooking water and move the pasta around with pencil tongs. In a separate bowl, add about a half a ladleful of cooking water to your grated cheese. You are looking for a thick paste, just a tiny bit looser than library paste. Keep that on the side.

Continue to add cooking water to your pasta until it is al dente, and has a creamy liquid supporting it. You don’t want to cook it down to completely dry. When the pasta is al dente, add the paste in blobs around the surface of the pasta, and toss immediately with your pencil tongs to distribute the cheese. Check for looseness/creaminess. Add a few more drops of cooking water if you need to. It should have a beautiful emulsification. Plate and grate a bit more cheese over the top. Note: once you have the pasta in the pan with the pepper, it should take 4-5 minutes of cooking max. The al dente part is critical. You want the pasta to stand up in the sauce, not get absorbed by it. Who wants that?