Caffe Sicilia

Some things move you in a way that you can’t get them out of your mind. The ocean, for instance. Cake, is an obvious one. Someone you loved with your whole heart, which is never really past tense at all. Anyway, I was watching a food show a few years ago; obviously I can’t get food out of my mind. And the camera started zooming in on this town called Noto. Noto is in Sicily. I had never heard of Noto.

It was all, Baroque, majestic buildings that are a color gold that didn’t feel like it could ever be contained in stone. It felt more like sunlight; the last golden moments before the whole sun sets. The streets were cobblestone. The hills beyond, pushed into the frame. They looked like they would have a pulse if you took their heart rate. And from there, they started talking about this place, Caffe Sicilia. And the man who came back when his family needed him, and stayed to keep it going. Not because it was his obligation, but because it moved him. He couldn’t get it out of his mind. And somehow, he managed to make magic. From the love he had for his family, for the history of what had been and what could be, for the town of Noto, and the air and earth around it. He talked about flavors the way a few scientists do when they talk about what makes the world spin. That beautiful way that people have when they understand how something works down to the molecules and they have the math to prove it and their soul is all involved in a way that has no math at all. Only mystery. The most certain mystery.

So I showed up because I couldn’t get all of that out of my mind. I wanted to tell him, thank you for all that.

When I got there, I was overwhelmed and ordered a chamomile tea. He came out to meet me and of course I couldn’t stop crying, so my friend Larry had to tell him I wasn’t just a weeping woman, but a cook. That’s enough to explain a fifty nine year old woman weeping, really. But I added that I wanted to thank him for his passion and commitment. That he was an inspiration to this 59 year old weeping woman. Let me just say, he was kind, and let me hug him for the picture. Larry got the caffe granita.

The next day I got the Ricotta gelato with fiordilatte alla ricotta profumata al Rhum, con pistacchio Verde di Bronte DOP and the Mandorla tostata, sesamo e arancia gelato, with Firodilatte alla Mandorla tostata, con sesamo e scorze di arancia candite.

I am going back.

On the corner of Farmington and Evergreen

When I was fourteen and so stupid, I said to my older sister, “Do you know, when I was waiting for the E bus,  a man slowed his car down and stopped.” 


“In front of the Burger King. On the other side of the street.”

“And what.” she said.

“Nothing.” I said. “He looked at me.”

“At what.”

“At nothing. What do you see here?”


“Exactly. What is he looking at?”

“He wants you to get in the car,” she said.

My sister hated me for being taller, but back then she stuck with me.

“He stopped to see if you are a prostitute.”

“He did not,” I said.

“Yeah, he did.”

“How am I going to be a prostitute?  I don’t even have a pocketbook.”

“You don’t need a pocketbook. If a car slows down when you’re walking, don’t look at it.”

The next time I was on the corner across the street from the Burger King waiting for the bus to go to school, with my American History book the size of the Yellow Pages and “As I Lay Dying” and my bagged lunch, I decided if a car slowed down and a man leaned across the seat to get a better look at me, I would look him in the eye.  He had to be a crazy person. Or maybe he couldn’t see without his glasses, but was driving around anyway.  He probably lived at his mother’s house.  He was probably weird and lonely and hated his mother but had no where else to live, because he couldn’t see well enough to get a job. 

I thought about what I was wearing. Blue jeans that flared out at the bottom, and a baby blue t-shirt with short sleeves that flared out the same way my pants did. I had ironed my initials onto the front of the t-shirt. It was Spring, but it was cold, so I had on a long sleeved shirt under the t-shirt. I had Bonnebell watermelon lip gloss, that I wore on a string around my neck, sneakers, and short socks with pompoms at the back.  The elastics on my braces stretched from my eye teeth diagonally down to my back molars. I had never seen a prostitute. I looked around.

The bus was taking forever. I thought about lunch. For 35 cents, you could get a vanilla cake with chocolate frosting or chocolate cake with vanilla frosting at the school cafeteria. Nothing else was worth it. I looked up to check for the bus and saw the same beige Chevy, slowing down in front of me. The man driving opened the window.  Then he clicked the locks. He looked like he had missed dinner the night before and his hunger was starting to leak. I don’t know why anybody would pick beige for a car, unless it was the last one left. 

We stayed like that for a minute, him clicking the locks and me looking at him. His eyes were as still as a lizard’s. I winked at him. Probably because I was an idiot. I could see his thoughts move around like a bunch of trapped flies and then fit themselves back together.  Without taking his eyes off me, he reached over to open the car door.

“C’mon,” he said. “Where you going?”

I laughed at him. “Look at my teeth,” I said. I showed him my braces. That seemed to make his clothes itch.  Or maybe he was late. He tried to gun it, but the car didn’t move because he wasn’t in gear. So I said, “It is not working out for you, is it?”

And he said, “You are some kind of bitch.” 

The bus driver pulled up behind him and got irritated that he was sitting in his designated area and I got on the bus.

I always used to think

I always used to think that if a recipe were written in a book, it knew better than I do. I haven’t thought that for a while and not always to my advantage. I am famous for getting on my soapbox on the 3rd word out of somebody’s mouth instead of listening until the rest of it is said. Sometimes the rest of it has an awful lot of valuable information that needs to be heard. It is not for no reason I am not a great listener–I am a little miracle worker at knowing what somebody is about to say–but not always. Sometimes, I am dead wrong. Same with cooking. I have been cooking for a while now, and so me and my ego look at a recipe thinking things like, “um, you forgot to sear here.” I did that the first time I saw the directions for pot-a-feu, written on a page. If they knew that at the customs counter in France, I would be denied entry. They wouldn’t even look up at me. They would point the finger to get back on the plane where I came from.

However. Sometimes, I am so right. There is a Pear and Almond Tart that is made with a frangipane and pears that sit like fat blobs cobblestones in the batter. The truth is, if you make the tart whole, and your pears are singing they are so ripe, then there is no need to change the recipe. BUT. If you are making individual little frangipane, the tarts are not going to cook for as long, and the pears will be underdone. Or, if your pears are fragrant, but not silky soft, even if you make a whole tart, your frangipane is going to be done, and your pears are not. One way is to slice the pears thinly, so that they take less time to cook. What if you want the lovely whole fruit wrapped with the almond blanket? Poach the peeled pear halves first, in a syrup of sugar, water, a scraped vanilla bean, and a lemon peel with the pith removed, until just tender.

They love me in France. Because I don’t say much. I don’t know how to speak French.

For the tart: 1 1/2 cup of sifted flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/3 cup sugar, 7 Tablespoons of cold butter cut into small pieces, and 1 1/2 egg yolks. Rub the butter into the flour and salt, and then mix the yolks with a fork before incorporating into the batter with your hand, just until mixed. Freeze for 30 minutes and then let sit out for 5. Roll out and blind bake in an 8 in pan, at 375 degrees (or in individual timbales.) (Be sure to line with parchment circles) You want a little color on the crust.

For the filling: 1 1/2 sticks soft unsalted butter, 3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons sugar, 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons blanched almonds, 1 1/2 eggs

Blend the almonds with 2 Tablespoons of sugar. Beat the rest of the sugar with the butter until thick and light. Add eggs and almonds.

Poach peeled pears in vanilla bean syrup until just tender. Remove from syrup and add to the crust. They shouldn’t be crowded. Pour the filling over and bake until the filling is just set.

I am fully aware

I am on a medication that makes me hungry. I am on the medication for the next five to ten years, so I am trying to figure out how to build some road blocks in front of the food supply. My grandmother thought she was always hungry, when dementia started to creep in. She would have full on dinner, get up, shuffle back to Bonanza and about two minutes after she sat down she would say, “HEY! What’s for DINNER?” And you would walk over and tell her she already had dinner, and she would say, “I don’t remember that.” Then she’d say, “What’d you give me?” You would tell her, and she’d say, “Nah, I don’t remember that. I didn’t have any of that. I think you ate and forgot to call me. What’d you have left? You got any cake?”

My hunger has no logic. I am fully aware that I ate, but it has no impact; I have no sensation of filling up. I try to make it obvious to myself that I have eaten my weight by 11:30 in the morning. I make a huge breakfast, and as soon as I finish cleaning up, I start making lunch. Then I drink tea with cream. Cream is supposed to weigh you down. It does nothing. Something else kicks in, which is panic that I won’t be able to afford myself. I (internally) have a go at the hunger, like my mother. “Who do you think is going to pay for all that? You are on Thursday and we haven’t left Monday yet. I just put all of that food away, and you have eaten it. Can’t you let me enjoy a moment of having done something?”

I have nothing to say to that. Plus, I hate doing dishes. I am so tired of doing dishes. It’s the only thing that slows the train down by dinner.

I misread

What I thought the message said was, “I would like a leg of lamb.” Making a leg of lamb is about the easiest thing you can do. My mother would say, it is like making a chicken. She was essentially a vegetarian, but had the basic knowledge of how to cook anything. I asked her once if she knew how to cook a squirrel and she said without looking up, “of course I do. It’s like making a chicken.” I didn’t say anything. I just walked away. But in my head I thought, how does she know that? Why does she know that?

I waited for the butcher to bring the leg of lamb out from the back; It was the length of my arm, which is two feet. I texted my client to see if she wanted that or maybe a shank from what looked like a significantly younger cousin, but she was busy. I bought the whole leg. People want what they want. I threw it into my cart thinking the best way to cook a leg of lamb is by rotating it over a wood burning fire. I love the smell of lamb pierced with garlic and rosemary, pressed into a paste and shoved into a small slash, every few inches. I lugged the cart up the front stairs through the two doors of the entry, down the steps to the kitchen and remembered, the oven. It is not big enough. I walked the leg back to the butcher to get him to saw it in half and decided that I would change my whole plan. Normally, with a fire and small leg, I go for medium rare. It is done in no time. But with a lamb pushing the age limit and an oven, I thought it would be better to go the route of low and slow. The oven should be set at 300. You need to salt and sear your leg halves in a heavy saute pan. Wipe out the excess salt, give the pan a little more olive oil, then add two heads of garlic that have been cut in half, cut side down, and a few halved shallots. When they start to get a little color, add a few rosemary sprigs, bay leaves, and a few cups of white wine. Pour that into a roasting pan and set the lamb leg on top. Cover with parchment and seal tightly with aluminum foil. Roast for 7 hours, basting frequently. Halfway through the roasting, flip the leg. It is done when you can get through it with a spoon. To go with, I made saffron rice with peas, and then poached asparagus with a side of lemon aioli. For dessert, anything lemon. Lemon mascarpone gelato, lemon cake with a cardamom cream or a lemon tart with lemon card and pate brisee. I went off the rails and made a key lime pie with a shortbread crust. The extra egg whites are perfect for making a meringue for the top, but I like barely sweetened and barely whipped cream.

When I got home and read the message again, as you do when it is too late, when the deed is done, when the party is over, I saw that it said, “Maybe, a half of a leg of lamb.”

I love ballroom. I love ballroom in the way you love someone who doesn’t call you for a few weeks and you are like “I am not doing that. I am better than that. I don’t need that.” And then when they call, your heart breaks your ribs from beating and the world gets beautiful around the edges and you say, “hey. how you doin’?” You can’t quit it.

I graduated from beginner’s level yesterday by the skin of my teeth, and when I finished, the woman who runs the place said to me, “come to my desk and we’ll talk.” I can’t afford private ballroom lessons. On the train there, I talked myself out of signing up for more. I figured I could practice with YouTube on my computer and Salsa Basics.

What happened was, they put the music on. The instructor took my hand with the grip of someone who is never going to let go, and without stopping, moved through every dance I learned. It is the first time you got on a swing with nobody pushing you. Just you and your knees; and each time you go a little higher until your butt comes off the swing and you have to grab on to keep from falling. Everything changes. Time stops.

I got to the desk and the woman opened her book. 20 lessons is more than it cost me to go to my first year of college. 9 months of basic health care. Who needs heath care? I do!!!! But first I am going to take some dance classes. She told me I have to get shoes with a heel so that I can lean into my partner properly.

I made cassoulet at work. I am going to have to work more.

You can make your own duck and armagnac sausage, your own French garlic sausage, confit your own duck legs, or you can order all of that and make the rest. That is what I do. I have no shame since I got sick. Where does shame get you? Make sure the quality of the meat is top. Sear the duck legs until they deeply caramelized on every possible inch of skin. Sear the little sausages, and because they come uncooked, wipe out the excess fat from the pan and add a good pour of white wine to the pan to braise them until they are cooked through. Slice the garlic sausage. Put everything in the fridge until you are ready with the beans. The classic is Haricot Tarbais. Soak them overnight, or bring them to a simmer, cover the pot, wait an hour and start again with fresh water, bouquet garni of leek, an onion with a few cloves jammed in, celery, thyme sprigs, parsley sprigs and bay leaf, ventreche (pancetta) and good quality salt. Cover with paper towel and a lid, and simmer until tender. (another hour or so) Taste the beans to make sure they are okay for salt. If they are lacking, add a little more salt to the water and let them go another 10 minutes. You don’t want them to be over salted though; they are going to spend a couple of hours with a lot of sausage. Drain all of that cooking water. Keep the bouquet garni. Rub duck fat on the bottom of a dutch oven. Layer in some beans. Layer in the meat. Add another layer of beans. Dab that with a little more duck fat. Pour veal/duck demi-glace over the whole thing. There should be plenty of liquid. This is against the rules, but I cover everything with parchment that fits neatly into the pan, and cover with a lid that is just askew, no more, and it over a low flame for an hour. I want until the second hour, to put it in a 325 degree oven. A crust will form, but because you went low and slow on the stove, you won’t lose your liquid. Then I break another rule for service. I push down on the crust with a ladle and scoop out liquid, without getting anything wet on top. I heat that liquid in a pan to a simmer, and give it a pour of white wine. Let it go for about 5 minutes, and taste for acidity. You want to be sure that it doesn’t have the raw taste of the alcohol. Swirl in a little butter. Put some of that on each warmed plate, before making sure everybody gets some of everything. Make fine bread crumbs and warm them through with butter, an uncut garlic clove, and finely chopped parsley. Remove the garlic clove and scatter those over. I served it with a plate of planked oranges, a plate of watercress with a French vinaigrette, and red cabbage braised with onions and apples. If you are going to keep a ballroom habit, you have got to compete. xo

On being boring

When I considered that my life might end sooner than I expected, I thought about boring, and I longed for it. I pined for it. I have it written in my will that no one is allowed to mention any god at my funeral; not even a hymn. But you could easily say, I prayed for boring. Desperate can make you wave down strangers from the side of the highway in the dark, when the car starts smoking.

I wanted to call back all the time that my aging body was of flagging interest. When it felt like its job was to cook and carry my brain around. But when something is seriously wrong, it is. It is done. It is yours now, and to get back to boring, can feel so far away. I imagine by design, it is a way to be grateful. I get on the train now and think, “look at me.” Like when you had a baby, and he sat up and you would scream at him, “you sat up!” like it was a bonafide miracle and would put the music on and jump around and kiss him all over his face.

I have passed sitting and standing and walking. I am up to working. At the end of each day I feel like I might lie down and sleep on the sidewalk on the way home, but still. On Friday I made a starter of roasted Kabocha squash potage with marjoram and thyme, finished with just enough cream to make you want more. Cod cakes with a serious piece of cod. It has to be thick so that it takes a while to roast. That way, the aromatics have time to infuse the thing and give up their ghost for the sauce that happens as a give away in the bottom of the pan. Sliced garlic, sprigs of thyme and slices of lemon underneath, then season the piece of fish with salt and Irish butter. Spread butter as evenly as the salt, but in a slightly thicker layer, and only on the top. If you use a piece of foil or parchment underneath, for the last few minutes you can seal the whole thing up to finish the cooking. Let the fish cool, unwrapped. Move just the fish to a bowl, and add a few dollops of mayonnaise, an egg yolk, finely minced red or yellow onion, a little high quality relish, dijon, and just a suggestion of chopped parsley. Not enough to freak anybody out. Taste it for salt and black pepper. It should be nowhere near mushy. Just enough mayo to barely hold it together. Form the fishcakes into two bite pucks and shower them with Panko crumbs. They should be covered on top and bottom, but I leave the sides free. Let them rest in the fridge for about 20 minutes. Gently warm the sauce from cooking the fishing and taste it for salt. Don’t over season it. Fish is delicate. I spoon a pool of that on a plate, and add a couple of fish cakes to the right and left of it, like a Venn diagram. In the center, a tiny dot of best horseradish. Then, bouef bourguignon. Never higher than a simmer when it’s cooking. Side of teeny, tiny Yukon golds with fresh tarragon, parsley and finely minced yellow onion. Shallot would be okay, but I like the pop of that onion. And butter. Another side of baby peas, poached with leeks, but take the leeks out, drain the peas well. And give them some butter. Dessert: caramelized apple tarts with a pitcher of creme anglaise.

Cha Cha

Just when I thought I had been through it, more came.

Recovery feels like waiting for the dead to come and take you home. It is definitely going to happen, but it is going to take a while. Which is a good thing, the goal really. I walk for miles. I am wearing my sneakers out. At five I make coffee and my breakfast. I write down everything that is available, listening for it like I listen for noises in the night.

Thoughts don’t fall on the page the way they used to, but I am sure they are in there somewhere. Where would they go? It is like when you were little and went looking to live somewhere else. They are not going to take you; they got kids of their own for god’s sake. My thoughts are stuck with me.

I am not the same. You can tell by looking. It feels like going in reverse from moth to caterpillar. I inch along and eat. I take naps that can last an hour and then I lie there for an hour more. The trick in getting up is in surprises. It is hard to surprise yourself since you know, it is you who is planning the surprise, but it is not impossible. I signed up for private ballroom dance classes. That is definitely a surprise. A. I am cheap B. I am the worst ballroom dancer there ever was. I laugh too much and focus too hard on going where I think I should, instead of where I am supposed to. I read my dance teacher’s face and it says he has had enough of old women wearing a lot of elastic to keep the guts in. He would way rather be on the stage, where he should be. I appreciate the patience he hustles up. My pink flat shoes covered with more sparkles than there are fish in the sea, leave evidence of my having been, everywhere we rhumba.

And when I walked home after my first class, through the limestone buildings that stand like old scholars in a city square, and have chandeliers that glow when it is dark outside and windows big enough to see everything and trees that tower over with branches that bend and bow, I feel a glimmer of joy again. Have you ever walked through a crowd and out of nowhere you are sure you saw someone you know who makes your heart flood with love? Even if it is not them, you still get to feel it.

I was worried my hands might not remember how to cook, but they do. When one lifts a fork to my lips and what I taste is what I remember, it can make me cry.

You never know

I am tired from all the things I don’t understand.

Like how to deliver a perfectly timed dinner. which is important because I cook for my job. I think the issue may be, I want to let go of the idea of perfectly timed. Of perfect. It is limiting. Perfect leaves no space for all the beautiful things that perfect isn’t. It may mean, giving up my job.

I don’t like the idea of courses. I go for, “what do you want to eat?” and then, “let’s make it.” Unless of course it’s cassoulet, which you have to prepare for. But it doesn’t matter when you eat, with cassoulet. You start it three days before it is going to be ready, and then you can hold it until the cows come home. You can eat it whenever you feel like it.

But let’s say, your heart wants pasta. And there is nothing that would make you happier. Your heart doesn’t care about perfectly timed. Your heart just wants to watch you sift flour across the counter and crack eggs in the middle and roll it out with the wine bottle from a few days ago. You grate the cheese. You watch the water boil. There is no wine to pour before the food is on the table, and it doesn’t matter. There is wine at the corner. A fifteen minute hold up makes your heart beat faster. You ladle pasta water into the pan and drop in the cheese with a cut of butter and whisk, who knows how long. You drag the sieve through the water to catch every strand and turn the pasta into the next pan over, into what is more or less a sauce. Sauce enough. Plates are pulled from the cabinet and the kitchen towel is a napkin. When that is done you might think, “you feel like steak? you want some salad?” or you might think you have had enough and just want to go to bed.

the schedule

I leave for work on a Thursday morning on the 8 am train out of Woodside, bound for Babylon. Not the ruins of the ancient Mesopotamian city, now buried under modern day Iraq; the Babylon on Long Island. You can change there for the train to Montauk. I get off twenty minutes before the last stop, get picked up and driven to buy supplies and then back to the house to cook. In the morning, I don’t need to set an alarm, but I do. I get up to hear the birds, calling to each other. I sit on an old wooden bench outside the kitchen, and when it is time, I meet another car that takes me to the 6:01 train back to West Hampton. I drink a coffee, and then walk the dog. Feed the dog, and start breakfast. It can be anything, but it has always been oatmeal, huevos rancheros, or Eggs Benedict. The man of the house used to like buttermilk blueberry pancakes, but he hasn’t thought about them yet. It is early in the season. I wait to hear what is wanted. Breakfast is on a tray for one.

I open the fridge and think. Then drive myself to shop for lunch. It is four courses, plated. Sometimes an amuse bouche. Or an in between course of a sorbet, made from pears and lemons that won’t last another day. I have been wondering about what would happen with cantaloupe if I added a sugar syrup with sherry vinegar and vanilla bean. I have a genetic predisposition to consider a use for everything. Creativity comes, just because everything in the refrigerator is always on my mind. It is like the way you carry your letters with you from Scrabble, even when the game is over. You will be cursing the x and y, way after you have gone to bed, and then wake up at 3 A.M. thinking, “oxygen. I had, oxygen.”

One direction–the direction of the ocean–is the fish monger, the butcher, and the cheese shop. And Lidl. Which apparently, when it opened, was a problem for some people. They felt it didn’t fit. Lidl has the best olive oil for miles–it is $5.99–and parmigiano reggiano that has been properly handled. If I go the other direction, to Eastport, I get King Cullen. At King Cullen, the cashiers are friendly. They have good blueberries and Bob’s Red Mill.

My life is a schedule, at the moment. I have made it that way so that my feet have a direction and my hands and head, follow. I stop cooking, only when I can’t stand anymore. It is how I breathe.

My son calls, like the sun rises. His voice has the same low rumble as slow, distant thunder in summer. I try to listen to every word, but the truth is, I love the sound of it so much, that sometimes it is not possible. I get caught in the cadence.

I am back in Queens by Sunday, just after dark. I have leftovers in my bag from lunch. I had an ear of corn and soup, last night. When I came up from the subway, I bought chicken breast. My son was on the roof filming the span of 24 hours. On the phone he’d told me he had beef jerky and bananas for sustenance. “You don’t have to cook me dinner tonight. Mom. I mean, I am hungry, but I don’t want you to cook if you are tired.” I made the chicken with garlic, lime, and thyme, and finished it with butter and more lime to make a sauce. I packed it up with the corn and soup and carried it up the ladder to sit with him and listen to him talk.