what about the pancakes

This is not the first time.

I make pancakes for myself, almost every morning. I have a line of bags of about 8 different flours/grains on a shelf right at eye level on the inside of the fridge door. Today when I got up (it is early, so give me that. Usually about quarter to five.) I opened the fridge door, looked at the bags, saw one that said, “cornmeal,” but I was looking for buckwheat. I went past the cornmeal and picked up the next bag, and read, “dark rye.” I thought, “there is the buckwheat,” and started to make the pancakes. As I was stirring, it didn’t smell like buckwheat. I looked at the bag, which of course told me the truth, up on its high horse. But the whole truth is, dark rye pancakes aren’t bad, if you give them about a half teaspoon of raw sugar to the mix and some cornmeal. The problem is not the pancakes.

The problem is, that I can have a way of seeing something to be exactly what I want it to be, even when it is not.

But who is to say if ultimately, that is a problem? I think it depends. Maybe what you want something to be isn’t what it is, but it takes you places you would otherwise never know? And maybe that original thing that always was always would be, gets to transform for a minute into what you saw and becomes something it never thought it could be. Or should be. Of course, it could be life threatening or life saving. So there is that.

pancakes for one:

Beat an egg with a spill of olive oil and a generous spill of milk. Give it a shot of water from the faucet. Whisk with a fork until it comes together. Add a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, and enough baking powder to fill the well in your hand, when you cup it tight. Maybe 1/2 a teaspoon. Pour in what looks like half a cup of whatever flour floats your boat. Whisk that lightly with the fork, just to incorporate. A few lumps are okay. Heat a heavy saute pan with good tab of butter. When the butter starts to sizzle, tip the pan so that it is well slicked. Pour in your batter. I use a 6 inch saute pan and make one large pancake, because I am lazy. The heat should be medium high. When it starts to bubble around the edges (wait for it, or it will take forever to cook in the middle), flip to the other side. When you press gently on the center of the pancake, it should feel like it is springing back.

on the menu

on the job last night:

app’s
norwegian gravlax on cornmeal blini with creme fraiche, grated horseradish and scallion
pane nero (chicken liver pate) on crouton with gherkin penny
brined, braised shrimp with lemon and olive oil
zucchini the size of a double decker checker, roasted, then topped with wedge of barely hard boiled egg and one side of a sicilian green olive
single checker radish rounds topped with maldon salt, miniature ruffle of irish butter

first course
farinata (a dosa sort of italian crepe made with chickpea flour, water, salt and olive oil) scattered with slivered sauteed artichokes and ripped roasted shitake

main course
Pappardelle (with polenta added. I figured it out) with braised lamb shank (red wine) pulled off the bone and sauce from pan liquor. with fontina and parm reg

salad
shaved fennel and pea shoots with sea salt, lemon and olive oil topped with oven braised beets (fennel, garlic, fennel seed, lemon, bay leaf, thyme, sugar, balsamic, onion, clove, olive oil)
and tiny wedge of petit billy

dessert
chocolate jonty (flourless chocolate cake) with vanilla bean, garnished with creme fraiche chantilly with a side slick of spiced red wine syrup (sugar, clove, star anise and cinnamon stick )and poached oranges (poached in the syrup just til they puff)

What used to be

I was wondering why my thighs ached. I figured it out. It is because what used to be in my heart has moved to my legs, because my heart couldn’t take it.

Like when you are holding a stone platter that somebody’s grandmother brought over on their lap on a ship from some far away country when she was 14 with nothing but a piece of bread in her pocket and that platter and an address, and you drop the platter. You hit something unexpectedly with the edge of your elbow and there is the tiniest slick of grease on your fingers from the pot you have been standing over. And that is it. The platter is on the floor in pieces. Your heart can’t take that. That is why you take it in the legs. Then your legs feel weak, and it is hard to get up from the bed.

There is only so much you can think about that. I get on the train to Essex Street to buy marrow bones and chicken carcasses. I come back home, put them in the deepest pot I have, with water, carrot, celery, onion with a clove stuck in it, garlic, bouquet garni of leek, thyme, parsley and bay leaves tied with kitchen string, three cherry tomatoes, the tiniest shower of salt and a pour of olive oil. I let it simmer for a few hours. I sit there and smell it. Every fifteen or twenty minutes, you have to skim the scum that rises to the top. When it is done, you leave it for a while, just long enough so that it is not too hot to pour through a sieve. I used to throw the bones and tired veg away, but now I pick the meat off, scoop out the marrow with a spoon and float the carrot and celery in a bowl of hot broth.

secrets

I am not sure they are worth keeping. It is like carrying all the furniture you have ever lived with.

I will tell one. When you make beef stew, the simmer bubble should gently break the surface of the liquid at a slow and steady pace. Anything rapid and fierce will break apart the pieces of meat in a way that disperses a heavy meaty flavor from their flesh in bits that aren’t quite visible, but are more than the essence of themselves. Think about standing mid thigh in the ocean. You can see the ocean floor. If you stamp your feet, you might still be able to see a small shark that swims by your knees, but there is more than just a cloud of foaming water with a few plankton and minnows making it hard to see. There is heavy stuff now–dirt from the bottom–and if you drank that water, that is what you would taste. Stamping feet on an ocean floor and too high a flame give the same cloud.

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.