Happy Thanksgiving

I went to work and made parts of somebody’s Thanksgiving dinner yesterday. A lesson in giving up control. It’s the way it should be, really. No one should cook Thanksgiving dinner entirely on their own. Everything else was coming from elsewhere.

I was asked to make a few app’s, 2 veg and 3 desserts.

starters: caponata with candied celery in the mix, chickpea dip with poached garlic, freeform spinach pies with fontina, and liver pate. For sides: roasted brussel sprouts with garlic and balsamic, string beans with fried shallot, leeks poached in cream with buttery whole wheat croutons for the sides. Stuffing with fried sage. Dessert: Apple crumb pie. I blind baked the crust in a high sided cake pan, took the crust out of the pan, and finished the pie in the oven on a sheet pan. Pecan slab pie from the Times. Not sure about this one. It looked good from the outside, but I’m not sure there wasn’t a tablespoon too much flour. I think that may have been the only part of the recipe I stuck to, and I knew I was right and they were wrong when I measured it in there. You should always test something before the day of. I never follow that rule. Especially on the job. That’s why I can’t work for anyone but myself. It’s not that I don’t plan. I plan for days. Ideas wander through my brain that I study like cells in a Petri dish. Books are all over the table for research. I think about the weather and the mood. I think about who’s coming and what might make them happy. But who in their right mind sends a cook out to work who says, “not sure how I’m going to prepare it boss; I’ve really been thinking about this one idea that I have no idea about.” I can’t follow the known road. It would kill me.

I also made strawberry tarts, which I totally disagree with because this is no way, no how strawberry season. But I have to keep working to support my ballroom habit.

I do have the perfect pastry cream recipe. It’s perfect if you need it to be super stable and Italian, on account of Italian pastry cream having big shoulders. It doesn’t pretend it’s a cloud, when there’s a job to do, like stay put. You can lighten it up with a little bit of barely whipped cream to taste, but I like it, as is. 500 g of half cream, half milk. You can use all milk, but why? You’re eating pastry. 24 g cornstarch 125 grams of egg yolk 120 g sugar pinch of salt and a vanilla bean, scraped and added to the warming milk/cream while you scald it. Don’t forget to strain it before cooling.

I’m not saying it

I thought I might clean the legs of my couch today. I’m trying to write a bear of a play at the moment, and it’s wrestled me to the ground and is sitting on my chest playing uncle and winning. Yesterday, I filled out insurance forms and took out the recycling. I spent two weeks in bar in Italy in September. I arrived every morning at half past six for coffee and wrote until lunch. At one, I came back for a popsicle and wrote until dinner. I had to buy another notebook. When I came home and read what I wrote I thought, “this is what it must be like if you push through the ozone layer and get into the silent night of the universe with nothing to do but float, no obvious order to anything floating past you, the knowledge of black holes, and random trash from space ships and satellites.” It is lost. This is another reason, I cook.

I have someone whom I want to cook for, a distant star that feels millions of light years away, but out there. So I do that. I took the train to Essex Street Market made my way to the meat market and got a pound of ground beef and a chicken that should have been sent home in a car service that sent a Cadillac for what I paid for it. I try not to get involved in a conversation about it at the cash register, because it end’s with my mother rising from the dead and using my mouth to get the last word in. I move over to the fruit stall and pick up persimmons, soft as pillows and dark green black cabbage and heads of garlic.

You can take days to make a meat sauce, or you can hustle one up in as long as it takes to get the pasta cooked. Dice an onion as small as you can get it and let if fall into the pan with a good spill of olive oil. Add three uncut cloves of garlic that you peel by giving them a gentle bang with the flat of the knife. Add a bundle of fresh sage and rosemary and a sprinkle of salt. Let that go until the onion is so delicious you can barely stand it. Add your meat, breaking it up as it cooks through. Season it with a little more salt and freshly ground pepper. Go light on the pepper. When the meat is cooked through, tilt the pan to get the fat to one side. Blot that with a paper towel, so that it’s nearly gone. Add a can of San Marzano tomatoes that have been pureed with an immersion blender. You can break them up with your hands, but I like it better when they are completely smooth. Avoid buying crushed tomatoes. They taste like aluminum. Simmer the tomatoes until the sauce looks like you can’t tell one thing from another. There will be no more separation of meat/tomato/onion. They are like one. Add water if you have to. You don’t want it to be so thick so that there is no movement when you slide your spoon around it. Taste it. It might need a little sugar or salt. Finish it with a stream of best olive oil. Strain your pasta before it’s quite done. Remove some of the sauce from the pan, in case you don’t need all of it. Drop the pasta directly into the sauce pan, reserving some of the pasta water. Stir, adding pasta water as needed, bit by bit, to make a satiny sauce. Shower with parm and serve.

Change

A friend of mine told me his mother was born in Brooklyn and moved to Queens. And that’s it. She’s never been anywhere else. He said, just tell her when you’re coming and what’s for dinner, and she’s good.

I tried to figure out how to settle. My mother didn’t want me to get married, but once it was done she was all for Staying No Matter What. For, I don’t know. For things the way they should be. For a solid washing machine. Or to keep the peace. Or for never saying anything ever that would hurt anybody. A disappearing act, really. Sometimes, because I practiced for so long, I can do it. When someone cuts in line. If all of the strawberries in the middle of the basket have gone rotten. Even sometimes when the arrow of an insult is aimed straight at me and hits me bullseye. But not always. Sometimes the elephant skin of my skill set isn’t thick enough to cope with the fact that I was born with emotional Tourett’s. Sometimes, the truth comes flying.

I love Sicily. There was nothing to be done about it, but go.

It’s a thing to eat a granita there with a side of a brioche bun with a topknot, for breakfast.

When the evening church bells ring, you can squeeze yourself up the stairs to the top of the cathedral in Noto, and watch the sun drop across the rooftops.

They don’t tell you this, but the guy driving the boat in Siracusa through the turquoise salt water of the Ionian Sea that’s clear enough to see 20 feet to the bottom, asks if anybody wants to go swimming at the eastern most rock formation, by the caves of the Cappuccini monks. I ripped my clothes off down to my underwear, and jumped. The salt stays on your skin like paint.

You could cry from how good the peaches are.

If you don’t like eggplant, you’re going to have to figure it out.

Pasta Norma

Thinly slice a few seriously fresh eggplants. If the seeds are invisible, there’s no need to press them. Season lightly with salt and fry in a shimmer of the best olive oil you have. Wipe out the pan. Pull the tomatoes from a can of San Marzano, and seed them. Squish them with your hand. Color 4-5 whole cloves of garlic in more olive oil with a whole peperoncino and a few basil leaves (or a rub of dried oregano.) Add the tomatoes off the heat, then turn the heat back on. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste for salt. If they need it, give them a pinch of sugar. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil. Make the water delicious with the salt–that’s how you know there’s enough–then drop the pasta. Cook until al dente, and drain well. Save some of the cooking water. Warm the serving bowl with a pour of the cooking water, and wipe out. Add the eggplant slices. Dump the pasta (about 3/4 of a pound) onto the tomatoes and toss well. Turn out onto the eggplant slices. Rip over a little more basil and add the cooking water a tablespoon at a time, to make a silky sauce. You may need to give it a little pour of olive oil as well. Toss well, but not aggressively. Grate ricotta salata over the top and serve.

Fall

I have always been in awe of the Fall. When your heart starts beating in anticipation of what’s to come and forests speak in colors that take your breath. And after that when inevitably, the last leaf floats to the ground and dries to dust. That there is still a pulse. After the crowds have gone. Under the ice and wind. That there is something alive in the stones and bones. I am sure of it.

To make a pasta fazul, start with dried beans. Let them soak overnight in cold water and in the morning, drain them and add them to the pot with fresh water, a solid spill of olive oil, three or four pinches of salt, thyme and bay leaves tied together, a few whole cloves of garlic, and an ancho chili. Let that go, covered, until the beans are completely tender. Taste for olive oil and salt. One should speak to the other, not overwhelm the other.

In a saute pan, sauté two yellow onions, a peeled carrot, and four or five stalks of celery, all chopped finely, a few halved cloves of garlic, fresh sage and thyme tied together, and a whole peperoncino, in olive oil. Add a good pinch of salt. Sauté until the vegetables are completely tender and caramelized. Add just the tomatoes, crushed with your hand, from a 28 ounce can of tomatoes, and reduce for 5 minutes. Add a cup of homemade chicken stock, or water. Combine with the beans and continue to simmer. Remove about a third, and smash with a fork. Cook pasta separately until seriously al dente. I like fat, short, rigatoni. Drain the pasta well, and add enough beans and liquid to make a soup. Simmer for a moment, then shower with parmesan or ricotta salata and a drizzle of olive oil.

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.” 

“Where?”

“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?”

“Nothing.”

“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 of 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