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.

I am tired.

I am tired. I could have told you that when I was at college, reading until it felt my eyes would bleed. At the end of the night, with every book they would let me take, I stood in front of the elevator on the sixth floor of Bobst Library, waiting. The hour before midnight, was a popular hour for the elevator. I am sure they had a fire code in the 80’s. There must have been stairs, but I didn’t know about them. If it took a while, I sat. The floor was carpeted, with a liner underneath. It was the kind you could easily lie down on; the kind that if you were sent to someone’s house to sleep and there weren’t enough beds, you would say to yourself, “these people have great carpet.” And so I would lie down. Security would find me sleeping with my stack of books and my bags and with no luck shouting down to me, shake me gently, saying, “you can’t sleep here. you can’t do that.”

I could have easily told you I was tired when I was pregnant and couldn’t eat. Or pregnant and could eat, with an unborn baby the size of a spaceship eating everything I could get my hands on before I could get to it.

Or when he was 18 months, in black and white houndstooth shorts and a white onesie, and found the word, “no” and stuck to it with the same magnetic force that keeps the earth swinging around the sun. Or when he was 2 and started walking, and we had moved down into the village of Mercatale, where all doors open onto a main road.

Or when he was 3 and discovered he could climb heights not meant for men, at the speed of the supernatural. If your child is fast, you have to be faster.

If your child is clever, you better be more than one chapter ahead, because a child will finish that book in the night, without ever laying an eye on pages.

I was sure I would be less tired when he got older.

I waited.

Sleep isn’t something I expect or try to achieve anymore. My mother’s words float and settle into my mind in the tiny hours of the the night, when it is as still as the world permits. “Don’t worry about sleep. Think about breathing instead. What a luxury,” she would say, “to lie in the bed, without having to do anything at all but breathe.”

If your greens start to fade before you have decided what to do with them, make them into soup. A soup can take more greens than you would ever believe possible. And think how good that is going to make you feel. Clean two or three leeks by shaving off the dark green ends as if you were carving a twig for a marshmallow stick. Cut them right down the middle from top to bottom, and then into three inch pieces. Leave them to soak in a bowl of cold water until they have released their sand. Lift them from the water with your hands, and set them onto an absorbent tea towel. Get a good sized saute pan going over medium heat with a few tablespoons of butter and a spill of olive oil. Drop the leeks in. Season them with salt and just a little freshly ground pepper. Add a few stalks of the tired celery, finely chopped. (If it is finely chopped, it won’t get stuck in your immersion blender, later). Add two whole cloves of smashed garlic, that you smash to release their skins, a few sprigs of parsley, a sprig of thyme, and a bay leaf. Let that go for about 5 minutes. Peel one potato and chop into small pieces. Add that, with a little more salt. Wait for the potato to grab the pan, and then pour in water, just to cover the potato. Simmer, with the lid ajar, until the potatoes are tender. Taste for salt. Add all the greens you want, at least 12 ounces, and up to a pound. Simmer for another five minutes. Puree with your immersion blender until smooth. Add a tablespoon of butter, or a pour of best olive oil and taste again for salt and pepper. This is good with or without shards of Roman or Umbrian pecorino, or an earthy chèvre from the Loire.

Get it right

I carry lumps of nutmeg in my change purse. I stand motionless in front of croissants, studying the paper layers and reading the smell of butter. I ask too much of the butcher. But at the moment, no kitchen belongs to me. I have a hot plate next to a tiny sink over a fridge behind a cabinet door. I have a box of chocolates in a drawer that opens almost all the way, along with a serving spoon and scotch tape. I have travel containers of baking powder, cornstarch, salt and saffron, under my books, next to plates.

There are kitchens near by that I slip into like those girls who buy a pair of pants to wear and return when the party is over, hoping that everything happens but not too much so that anybody would notice when they bring the pants back.

There is a mushroom soup that is not at all complicated but takes a full stove of burners. Canned stock is not an option. Chicken bones, celery, onion, leek, just enough carrot, parsley sprigs, bay leaf and a garlic clove with a spill of olive oil and a measured amount of sea salt are at the back. Some of the mushrooms are steeped from dried in a bowl of hot, but not quite boiling water that becomes a finishing tisane. Their fresh cousins are seared and sautéed, not too quickly, with a tiny dice of shallot and sprigs of thyme. To take it over the top, the cream simmers on its own with a clove of garlic that gets pushed through a sieve at the end. The steam from each pot rises with the pot next to it, like voices around the table. There is no party if people aren’t talking in and around and on top of each other. Do what you have to do.

Make a chicken stock. Season only to help you taste it–not enough salt to take it to the end. Steep dried porcini or shiitake in scalded water that just covers them. Lift them out after 5 minutes and drain on a tea towel. Reserve the liquid. Remember to pour carefully when you need it so that you leave the sediment behind. Finely chop 2 medium size shallots and saute in butter with a drop of olive oil until completely tender. Season with salt and a bit of freshly ground pepper. Cut nearly a pound of fresh, fat, wild mushrooms into chunks. You should be able to get a few at a time on a soup spoon. You never want to make anyone feel embarrassed when they eat, by giving them pieces to deal with that are unwieldy. Add to the shallot and saute over medium heat with a smashed garlic clove, a parsley sprig and a few sprigs of thyme, until cooked through. Chop the reconstituted mushrooms and add them to the pan. Give them another minute. Reduce a few tablespoons of dry white wine into the mushrooms. Don’t allow the pan to become dry. Remove the garlic and herb. Season with salt and a bit of freshly ground black pepper. Simmer 1/2 cup of heavy cream with a bay leaf and a clove of garlic until slightly reduced, and the clove of garlic is soft. Push the garlic through a sieve and whisk into the cream. Remove the bay leaf.

Add 4 cups of your stock to the mushroom mixture. Reduce until it tastes right. It should taste full, but not heavy. Whisk in enough of the mushroom liquid, which might be all of it so that you get the hint of it. Same with the cream. It is not a cream soup, it just wants cream to bind the flavor of the mushroom to the liquid. Taste the whole thing for salt and pepper. It is critical to get it right. Grate whatever hard cheese you truly love, to dust the bottom of each bowl. Toast a wildly thin piece of baguette and spread with butter to place on top of the cheese. Poach the yolk of a quail until just beginning to create a skin, and set one on each of the croutons. Set the croutons in the bowls, on top of the cheese. Gently pour the hot soup right around the crouton, covering it. Be sure each bowl has plenty of mushrooms. This is adapted from Jose Andres, whom I carry with me always and everywhere. He adapted it from the renowned, Lluis Cruanyes of El Dorado Petit.

Al buio

My bathroom is not big enough for a sink. It is the exact size of a phone booth. It is not that no one can hear me if I make a phone call from the bathroom, but if I whisper and speak in Italian, chances are they will be bored.

When I woke up yesterday it wasn’t yet five, so I waited. If you don’t have to go to work, getting up before 5 feels illegal. I listened to Italian radio. They are wide awake in Italy at that hour. For them, it is almost lunch. They talked about Bruce Springsteen getting pulled over by the police for drinking 2 tequilas in the space of twenty minutes, and then saddling up his motorcycle. Everybody had an opinion. They called in to talk about it. The dj’s played a song not quite to the end. Then they asked listeners to call in again and in 30 seconds or less, let the rest of us know what irritated them. “What irritates you?”, they said, “thirty seconds or less.” In America, you would probably be thinking, “Jesus, can I do it? Can I do it in 30 seconds?” Because they would be serious. You could be weeping, and at the 29 mark they would be like “Faye calling from her toilet; bad day at the office. Not gonna be a bad day for the rest of us though! 400 dollars down and no interest for 6 months in Newark! Who doesn’t need a new car? Jim! How is it in Newark?” Cut to Jim. And Jim has to talk fast.

In Italy, 30 seconds to talk about being irritated is:

someone you haven’t seen for 30 years, and is the mother of your best friend from the 8th grade, who was Bruce Springsteen, just invited you to have a quick cup of coffee.

That is not going to be quick. Nobody wants that to be quick. You want to make a movie about it. You want to break out the table cloth and start rolling the pasta. It is understood.

Everybody called and everybody was listened to for as long as they had something to say. Most of it had to do with traffic.

When the clock hit five, I put my clothes and mask on in the dark and walked to the cafe. I ran the water through the machine a few times and and ground the coffee. I take more than what comes out automatically for a single shot, so I tapped it two more times. I pulled the coffee and steamed milk. I packed a croissant into a paper bag, locked the door behind me, and walked back home.

Then I called Italy and cried.

It will be all right. I will get back there. One day, I will be listening to Italian radio in my car before the sun comes up Italian time, on my way to the bar before work to drink coffee with the farmers who are on their second cup.

Make pasta tonight. You need a pile of sifted flour on a big wooden board with a well in the middle. Pour in some room temperature water. Slowly push the flour into the water, and make a dough. Knead it for a few minutes, until it is smooth. Let it rest under a clean towel. Ten to fifteen minutes is plenty. Roll it out with a wine bottle, from the center to the outer edges until it is a thin as a tortilla (or piadina.). Cut it into 1/2 inch strips. Lift a strip, twist the top, and pinch it off, about two inches in. Repeat until all the pasta is shaped. Boil in salted water and serve with a parmesan/pecorino/butter sauce or ragu. Drink it with a rough red wine in a short glass.

rich man, poor man, baker, thief

My mother played scrabble with my grandmother everyday at noon, and made her pour her own cup of coffee and push her own toast down in the toaster. There was a painted cardboard calendar on the wall next to the breakfast table, and every morning my grandmother was meant to turn its cardboard wheels that adjusted the date. Everyday, when she turned it, she would say, “Is that what day it is. How about that.” I think she lost very little of her mind, to tell you the truth. It would just occasionally get murky, like someone had stirred up the bottom of the lake. Sometimes she would say, “where am I going? I have no idea. Nobody tells me.”

She was a snappy dresser, and before she moved in with my mother, my cousin had gifted her a few button down velour jackets with matching slacks. One was a deep, deep purple and the other was aqua marine blue. She had on the purple set. “These feel like pajamas,” she said. She let it go for a few minutes and then said, “If they send me home from church, it is not my fault. That is on you.”

She took a sip of her coffee and looked down at the buttons as if someone had just stolen them and sewn them on to her jacket for safe keeping. She moved her fingers along the buttons and said, “rich man, poor man, baker, thief.” Another sip of coffee. Then back to the buttons, and one by one, “rich man, poor man, baker, thief.” Except there were five buttons, so she went back to the beginning and ended with “RICH MAN. That is who I am going to marry. A rich man.” And I asked her, “Are you sure, Gram?”

“Of course, I am sure.”

“Do you want to get married, Gram?”

“Heck, no.”

Yesterday, I made Bkeila. My grandmother would have loved the name, but vegetables weren’t her thing. She went for a little sliced, raw tomato with plenty of salt. Or, string beans, cooked past holding their shape. I find that in this pandemic, vegetables are keeping me from losing a little bit of my mind. They feel alive when I buy them. Their color and shape and vibrancy, pulse. Vegetable dishes I am not quite familiar with rewrite my script, repaper my walls, and change the language.

I found Bkeila in Ottolenghi’s new book, Flavor. The recipe comes from Tunisian Jews. Tunisia is in North Africa and sits next to Algeria, just south across the water below Italy, and not far from Spain. I read the recipe for a few days. I thought about how warm it was there. I wondered what kind of bread is popular in Tunisia (a lovely flat, folded, rectangular, rougag for one.) I thought about the idea of spinach and cilantro as a feature. I read about cilantro. Cilantro (what we call the leaves of the coriander plant) is related to carrots, celery, and parsnip. It can help reduce blood sugar, lower inflammation, boost brain health, fight infections, and improve digestion. Spinach is high in Vitamin K, C, folic acid, and iron, so if you can get enough of each in the same dish, it is a medicine cabinet. Bkeila.

I sauted a medium size onion with 3 cloves of whole garlic in a olive oil and butter. I let it go for a while. I gave it a tiny sprinkle of cinnamon. More was called for, but I had never used cinnamon with spinach. Nutmeg isn’t far off, and it is common with spinach in Italy and France, but cinnamon isn’t nutmeg.

I added a few fennel seeds and cumin seeds, crushed with a stone. I added salt. I peeled a potato and cubed it into half inch pieces. A little more salt. I hand chopped about 3/4 pound of spinach and a large bunch of cilantro, and added it to the pan. This would be less than half of what Ottolenghi called for, but I love a different proportion of onion and garlic with long cooked vegetable. I am 57, so what I love has equal battle rights with directions. I moved the greens around until they were completely wilted. I had no beans, but I had frozen some homemade stock with a few random cannellini in it, so I added that. I let the whole thing simmer covered, until it was what I imagined a grandma with borrowed teeth would be happy with. I tasted it. I added the teeniest bit more toasted cumin and gave it another nugget of butter and a squeeze of fresh lime. I let it sit undisturbed for a few hours to grow into itself, and then had it for dinner. So good. I suppose I would be the thief, but who isn’t.