Umbria

I’m working on a menu for a week in Umbria for 21 people. One gluten free, one with allergies to oranges, tree nuts and watermelon, one vegan, two pescatarians, two vegetarians, and one no dairy. There is a pizza oven at the house.

Saturday arrival dinner

Selection of salame and cheese (if you’re thinking to yourself, “how boring is that,” you haven’t made it to Umbria.)

Poured polenta with black olive tapanade

Roasted beet with herbs and aged balsamic 

Roasted sweet and sour onion

Yellow jewel beans from Trasimeno with soffritto 

handmade fococcia with rosemary

Salad of wild greens, olive oil and sea salt

Biscotti with dried apricot and Vin Santo

Strawberry Tart (just to sing a little Spring song)

Sunday

Umbrian lasagna with bolognese, besciamella, and Parm Reggiano

Handmade gnocchi with wild mushrooms (pre roll gluten free pasta and freeze)

Braised peas and new onion finished with torn basil

Salad of arugula, raw fennel, pieces of lemon

Panna cotta with wild strawberry sauce

Monday

Start Pizza dough

Arista (pork loin on the bone) with heads of garlic, lemon zest, rosemary and sage

White risotto garnished with baby artichokes finished with nepitella

Whole carrots with rosemary and peperoncino

Swiss chard and stems with olive oil and sea salt

Poached pears (vanilla bean and white wine)

Brioche with buttercream (kids)

Tuesday

Pizza Margarita/spinach or mushroom

Roasted Eggplant with tomato and basil

White bean puree with fried sage

Grilled Sausage from Trabalza in Mercatale di Cortona

Salad

Tiramisu

Wednesday 

LATE LUNCH (dinner at Bonci)

Chicken al diavolo with herbs and lemon

Fennel seed pannelle with tomato jam

Asparagus with aioli

Roasted new potato with sea salt

Salad

Flourless chocolate cake with red wine reduction 

Thursday

Free day (no lesson, just dinner)

Fresh pea soup with mint and wild oregano

Handmade potato gnocchi with pesto (pine nuts will be okay because nut allergy will have departed)

Grilled Lamb Chop (or seared if they have a decent pan)

Caramelized fennel with local honey and red onion

Salad

Olive oil cake

Friday

Pasta al pomodoro with garlic and basil

Chianina steaks on the grill

Cauliflower steaks (balsamic reduction)

Broiled Caesar salad (never broiled whole, dressed heads of lettuce, but I’m going to try because I saw it in a book in the library.)

Marinated Lentils

Cherry tomato, whole radish and olive bowls

Roasted Plum Tart with mascarpone cream

Saturday

Departure

Am I nervous? Yes. But, I have a mountain of a chef coming with me, and we are going to raise it all up to a whole new temperature of delicious.

When you’re tired, there’s nothing like a little sugar

When I’m dog tired, old injuries seep like water into the woodwork, and I carry them around like the earth carries fog.

It’ll pass. It may take until I’m dead, but like my grandmother used to say, “what are going to do, not eat breakfast? Take a walk and forget about it.”

Plus, there’s plenty of all things beautiful in old injuries. There is the love that got you involved in the first place. I would never give that up. I would never wish it never happened. Are you kidding me?

I made the worst curry I’ve ever made yesterday. It started out so delicious and right before it was done, I ruined it. The amount of chickpeas was so close to perfect, and I doubled it. Made it taste like those bendy mouth guards they shove between your jaws when you’re getting an X-ray. I tried to fix it with curry leaves that should have been laid to rest last week, and it made it worse.

Spring

at work last night, I was trying to think of something chocolate, and I remembered chocolate ginger cake. I had to call Ferd to get him to find the book with the recipe, and then I had to wait because Ferd has his phone set to not pick up. I’m not feeling so good at the moment, not in a bad way–just in the way that someone pushed you into the train tracks when the train was coming, and somebody else pulled you out. I’m fine. I could just use a boost. Chocolate ginger cake is a boost, and the perk of being the cook is, you get a piece. There is a roman chocolate ginger cake with enough ginger to be medicinal. I use about half that amount. you don’t want to miss the forest for the trees.

For 250 g of 72% dark chocolate, use 3/4 cup of sugar, 4 inches of grated ginger root (40 g), 2 tablespoons of fine polenta, tiny pinch of baking powder, 2 sticks of unsalted butter and 5 eggs. Beat the eggs with the sugar until tripled in volume and add a teaspoon of vanilla. Melt the chocolate with the butter and add the grated ginger, the polenta and baking powder and vanilla. Add one third of the egg mixture, folding it in gently with your hand, and then add the rest. Bake at 350 until just set, a cake tester should come out with a wet crumb clinging to its side. Cool and then refrigerate. Toss sliced strawberries with a good rum and sugar to taste. Whip cream to very gentle, sloping peaks with a 10X sugar to taste and a little vanilla. Add to mascarpone in portions of 4 parts cream to 1 part mascarpone. Whisk gently to combine. Spread over cooled cake and serve the berries on the side. I covered half the cake in Spring blossoms to remind me it’s on the other side.

As far as I know

When I catch your eye and hold it in mine
I dream in the flash of a moment I pray will last forever
that you will love me.

As far as I know, it hasn't worked yet.
I don't dare let my mouth get involved.

If I tell you straight what my truth is
if I tell you straight that I love you,
that could end it all together

what else are you going to think about when you cook? not your shoes.

I am working on menus for Spain. It’ll be April when I go, and I never remember exactly what is in season in Madrid at the end of April, so I can plan all I want, but if my intended are nowhere to be found, and the artichokes are fat and heavy and calling, then it’s artichokes. One of my favorite ways of doing them is to pull the hard leaves off from the outer edges and simmer them in salted water with a spill of olive oil until they are just tender, then cut them into quarters and remove the chokes. Save the cooking water. Then do the same with peas, fave and asparagus, each in their pot, but I don’t save the cooking water from the asparagus, because I don’t like it. Sauté a few cloves of thinly sliced garlic over a flame that’s barely fluttering, just until the garlic softens. add a thin sprinkle of flour, and stir until there is no more of the raw flour taste. Add a cup of the cooking liquid and taste for salt. Taste it for the magic balance. If you don’t know what that it is, keep thinking about it. Your head’s involved, but it’s not the lead. It’s the rest of you. The essence of one thing shouldn’t over power another; you should be able to taste voice of everything. The sauce should have body, but not any kind of thickness. Add the vegetables, with a drizzle of your best olive oil, and stir to coat. If you’re into prosciutto, warm a few slices in a frying pan, and lay it on top.

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 pretend in possibilities. 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 settled in 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.