What are you bringing back

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

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

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

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

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

As Summer floats

I wait.

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

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

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

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

Charred pablano stuffed with cheddar or queso blanco and chives.

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

Braised string beans with shallot and parsley.

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

There is a trick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brain sway

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

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

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

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

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

Caccio e pepe

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

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

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

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

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

My baby is back

Ferdinand flew to Paris with a friend of his, the day after I left for my job. Just the two of them. And today he made it home. I remember just after he was born, my first day back from the hospital I ventured outside with the baby and Jonathan to walk to the East River. Two blocks away. It is a weird time just after you give birth. You are becoming a food supply. Your body is easily mistakable for being pregnant. Still. I had on a red wrap around skirt that I had worn to give birth and a pale blue blouse that was loose enough to hang without stretching around the steadily growing food supply and slowly shrinking baby carrier of a midsection. Everything was emotional. The blue, the red, the feel of shoes on my feet, the baby, and most vividly, the fact that because Jonathan had him in his arms and was walking towards the river at a human pace, the baby was moving away from me. I moved at a less than human pace; an injured, stitched, not well fed or rested pace. And so I panicked all of a sudden that my baby was on the outside now, no longer on the inside where I had much more control of his whereabouts. “Stop!” I shouted. “Stop!” And the human waited for the not quite human to waddle/walk/catch up. I took the baby back. I nestled him into the fabric that kept him strapped to my chest. Where he belonged. Where I could feel his breath in my heart. “You were a world away,” I said. “Ten feet is crazy. The baby can’t be ten feet me from me. It is too much. I can’t bear it. It is too far. It is ten feet.” And the ocean that stood between my world and ten feet away drained from my face in relief. “Okay,” Jonathan said. “Why don’t you hold the baby until it feels right to hand him over.” “Yeah,” I said. And then I cried some more because I couldn’t imagine that that day would ever come. But it is easier now. I got off the bus that brought me to work all the way out here by the ocean, only hours after Ferdinand made it home. I didn’t watch the doors close from my seat when they called my stop so I could stay on the bus for the return trip back.

on the edge

I was on 5th street between 49th and 48th and I got a message from a friend of mine that someone needed a full time live in cook and did I know anybody. I have never wanted to work as a live in cook. If you live where you work, what is that? To me, it sounded infinite. You don’t stop after dinner.

And I don’t know anybody, so I started to type enough of that to release me. Until I thought, “I suppose I could do it. For a week or two. Until they found someone else.”

I am here now, hours from NYC, looking out across the water from my window, listening to birds, fish. They circle twenty feet above the water, flapping their wings like crazy and take a dive head first at full speed. I have memorized where the farm stand is and the King Cullen. I know where the gas station is. A Russian guy pointed out parking spaces to me on the far side of a small bridge, just before the edge of the ocean. I saw dolphins this morning.

Cooking for someone new is always hard for me. It is going on a blind date. They don’t pick you because they like you. They don’t know you. You just show up. Once you are there is when it starts; it is either going to work or it isn’t. So far, so good. I have made salmon flown in from Alaska, chops, shank, risotto, pasta rolled out with a wine bottle, lobsters, scallops, pies, tarts, cakes, creams, and none of it has taken me down. It was blueberry pancakes yesterday that were a wolf in a rabbit suit. I melted the butter, brought the eggs and the milk to room temperature, whisked them all together, sifted the flour and then sifted it again with a little sugar, salt and baking powder. I heated an iron skillet and waited for the butter to stop sizzling. And nothing. No bubble in the batter. No puff in the pancake. Sometimes people ask me what is the difference between a cook and a chef. I will never be a chef, because I don’t want to be, but the first difference is, you don’t sweat. You keep going. If Act 1 doesn’t work, you start writing Act 2 without anyone knowing you are changing the script. I decided it had to be the baking powder. I checked the bottom of the can and it was out of date by more than a year. I swept Act 1 into the garbage, except the blueberries. I lifted those and rinsed them off. Then I walked past the pool to where I keep my suitcase and unpacked a can of baking powder that I carry with me. I started again. I added a few spoons of sour cream to the milk for flavor and body, with a nudge of baking soda to support the acidity. I erred on a little too much melted butter in the batter, which is never truly a mistake. I served them with more butter and a ceramic pitcher of maple syrup on the tray.

When you look.

When you look at the moon at night, you can’t pretend it is flat.  It is round as fruit and heavy as stone, and you wonder why it hasn’t  fallen from the sky way before you had time to think about it.

There are two

There are two ingredients in the chocolate mousse I make. If you forget one, you could just eat the chocolate on its own. Or beat the cream slightly and sweeten it with a few drops of maple syrup. Or homemade jam. But I don’t make jam, and I am feeling too cheap at the moment to buy maple syrup. The stand in is not in my vocabulary. So I am going to do my best to remember both the cream and the chocolate.

If you are cheap like I am, forget about it for a minute. Long enough to buy good dark chocolate. Belgian or Latin American or African are good bets. 70% cocoa content is ideal. Buy organic cream. Very gently melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of slowly simmering water. Be sure that the water isn’t touching the bowl. Allow the cream to come to room temperature. Use nearly equal parts cream to chocolate going either way in your favor. Some people like it a bit more chocolaty and some people don’t. You have to figure out what you want.

Be sure to have extra cream to whip for the top. Once the chocolate has nearly melted, remove it from the pan of water and whisk in the last chunk off chocolate off the heat. Whip the cream just until it begins to thicken. Don’t worry; it is enough. Wash your hands and dry them well. Pour the cream onto the chocolate, (reserving a little) and fold it in. The side of your hand should sweep the sides and bottom of the bowl, gently scooping the mixture from the bottom and lifting it to the top, until it is fully incorporated. Spoon the mousse into espresso cups and top with a dollop of cream. If you really want to go crazy, you can start each cup with a large drop of homemade caramel sauce (caramelized sugar, cream, butter, whiskey) before you add the mousse.

One person’s trivet, is another person’s hairpiece

She was on a self inflicted look out for men with toupees since she learned there was such a thing. She stared at men’s heads in the subway and on the 6 o’clock news. She would tell you she was an expert in the way the color and texture changed from the top layers of hair to the hair underneath and in how the hair should fall on the head.

She was also taken with false legs. She studied the gait of particularly middle aged men, passing by on the sidewalk. She checked for a stiffness in their shoes or shins. She would come to a full stop, to focus on how the legs moved from behind.

She was like the nation’s detective of toupees and prosthetics who worked gratis, and always on the clock.

I am not sure why this was; I imagine she had been deceived one too many times. Maybe she did it to keep her sharp, keep her ready for unexpected truth that was hiding under cover and kept there with the slight of hand. Or maybe it was because she was a queen keeper of subcutaneous secrets and was never sure if the change in her own gait was obvious.

The benefit I suppose, was that she never forgot that nothing is only what it seems. What may appear as a potato can become so much more, in the best way.

The trick with gnocchi is, to never assume you know beforehand how much flour the potato will take. You don’t have to use an egg, but without the experience of having made gnocchi a thousand times before this time, it helps. Boil 3 potatoes that have lost some of their viv and vigor. Peel the potatoes, and make sure that the water is salted. Drain well as soon as they are tender, and return them to the pot. Over low heat, dry the potatoes, just until the stick to the pan a bit. Watch them. Don’t leave them. Turn out immediately, onto a flat platter and smash with a fork until smooth. You can also pass them through a ricer. This is the right way to do it, but I don’t have a ricer. The fork is good enough, just be thorough. Allow the potato to cool to room temperature. Crack one egg in the center, and incorporate with your fingers. Sift a pile of all purpose flour, (or 00 if you are in Italy) into a wide bowl. Spoon about half a cup of the sifted flour onto the potatoes, and gently move the flour into the potato mixture. If it feels too sticky to roll, add a bit more. You should use only enough flour to take it the point that it is just possible to roll. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes, if you have 5 minutes. Break off pieces the size of an orange and roll under two flat hands that are connected at their lowest knuckle of the index fingers, into a snake. Your hands should move towards you and away from you, at the same time as they move away from each. If the snake of dough becomes too unwieldy, break it in half. Roll each log to a bit thinner than the width of a narrow candle. Cut the gnocchi into bits the size of the top most section of your index finger. Allow them to rest on semolina or just flour. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil. Drop them in, about 15 at a time, and as soon as they rise to the top, remove with a slotted spoon to a towel lined sieve, and then on to a buttered, warm platter.

For the sauce:

Simmer a cup of heavy cream over a low heat with a a few garlic cloves, a few sprigs of thyme, and a little salt. When the garlic is soft, pour through a sieve, pressing the garlic through. Taste for salt and pepper. Whisk in a serious knob of gorgonzola, to taste. Add the gnocchi and let them simmer in the cream for just a minute. Return everything to the warmed platter and top with grated parmigiana reggiano and slivered ramps or basil.

I served it with a salad of arugula leaves, with a pesto of smashed, raw, pignoli, garlic, salt, and lemon zest tossed through and a little lemon, olive oil and freshly ground black pepper.