Monday, April 6, 2015

Green


Think Green

 No, not Saint Patrick’s Day, although that is what you are thinking. I have never been one to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, no green beer, no green food, no parades for me. Although when I was in fourth grade I wore my Girl Scout’s uniform to school, green head to toe, on March 17 simply because it was the only green clothing I owned, simply to avoid spending the day being pinched for not wearing that most Irish of colors.

 Think green. Easter and Passover, the herald of spring. Trees sprout green finery, green bijoux, the garden overflows with green. A multitude, a brood of tiny yellow chicks stand knee deep in bright green grass, neon yellow fluff, prickly green plastic. Tiny baskets bursting with clouds of shiny green cellophane, a bundle of glossy green strips redolent of spring, art imitating life, in which multicolored aluminum-wrapped eggs snuggle, the colors of spring. Eggs nestled in green, painted like jewels, like candy, gaudy eggs hidden in the green grass, subterfuge, camouflage. Like picking strawberries ensconced in green. Passover greens, bitter and sweet, celery, parsley or lettuce to be dipped into salt water representing the tears of the slaves that we once were, yet the dipping process symbolizing hope and redemption. Rebirth. Green.

 Winter green, hale and hardy, kale and chard and spinach, makes way for spring green, delicate and tender, lettuces speckled with drops of water, bouquets of feathery herbs, fennel and chervil, plump, meaty basil just begging to be turned into fragrant pesto, parsley, both flat leaf and curly like a frizzy afro. Long slender shafts of chive tasting of onion and garlic but not quite; gathered in delicate, flimsy bunches they droop elegantly and wave back and forth. Great sea green artichoke bulbs and smaller, more elliptical artichokes in forest green edged in deep violet, both so aggressive with their tough green skins and prickly, thorny tips yet are so tender when eaten, cooked a paler shade of green. We shift our tastes, our ideas, our recipes, from winter to spring, and now brighten the green with salty feta and sweet tomatoes, bits of pretty violet shallots so sharp, spring green.

 Winter green, huge heads of green cabbage that we turn into pot au feu, long, slow simmering with meat and root vegetables until the bright green dulls to greenish-gray, sage green. There is nothing more comforting, more satisfying, than dipping my spoon into well-boiled green cabbage, scoop it up and slip it into my mouth where it melts on my tongue. A dull grayish-green that is warming. And spring green? Mouthfuls of lamb’s lettuce, long thin fingers of just-boiled green asparagus, buttered, under a shower of Parmesan, leeks served barely warm, white and green, in a puddle of chilled, tart vinaigrette. Now bright French green peas, so sweet, color tagine and risotto with green polka dots. Dusted with flecks of bright green coriander.


The Wearing of the Green

 My father used to make us great big bowls of pistachio pudding to be eaten stuffed into great fat choux or topped with dollops of whipped cream. That pistachio pudding was the color of leprechaun coats and the Jolly Green Giant. The color of store-bought pistachios. Mint chocolate chip ice cream was such an unbelievable color of green but I never liked the flavor anyway. I would honestly have rather eaten spinach.

 We were, in fact, happy eaters all four of us. Seated around the dinner table two by two we would gobble down whatever vegetable was put in front of us (my mother’s liver and onions and cabbage soup was another story). Canned spinach or broccoli would incite games and we’d be off, piling our plates high with green! Who could eat the most spinach would be Popeye for the day! Broccoli spears would become tiny little trees gobbled up by giants! Peas would be picked out of the pile of mushy canned peas and carrots, those carrots cut in perfect cubes pushed to the side of the plate. So not green. The peas pushed onto the tines of the fork for eating. Fried green tomatoes. Long stalks of celery, the hollow pale green trench filled with cream cheese or peanut butter and even if the celery had an odd, far-away bitter taste, flat and watery, the flavor of green, it was an excellent recipient for the stronger flavor of either cream cheese or peanut butter and how adult, bite into the celery (filament catching in between teeth) with a loud, satisfying crunch and I always felt so adult, pretending that I was at a cocktail party nibbling on hors d’oeuvres. A stalk of celery green against the deep orange red of a Bloody Mary, a single green olive glistening in a martini.

 But I hated the color green. As much as I loved to eat green I loathed it as a color. My hatred of the Girl Scouts may have had as much to do with the color of the uniform (or being forced to wear any uniform at all) as the activities. But every Tuesday I would don that green uniform – after school. I would never wear it to school as my sister did, proud as she was to be a Scout, I was embarrassed to be seen wearing the green. And head off to the weekly Girl Scout meeting, despondently. And one day, I must have been in junior high school (as my sister was off to college and I no longer had to share the bedroom with her) and my brother and mother decided to redecorate my bedroom without me. And they dressed it all in green. And not a lovely green the color of oceans or jade, not the faded, mysterious color of sea glass (perfectly rubbed to a smooth smoky green), not evergreen or turquoise green or moss green or emerald green. No. A flat, ugly Kelly green. Green and white gingham curtains, lampshades and pillows. An ugly green bedspread. Ugly it was and I could never understand why they decided on green.


Green Thumb

 I married into a family that spent afternoons discussing trees and plants, their language littered with the correct plant names, both common and scientific. Greenery, verdure, their passion. Those discussion would last hours. What they had planted and what they will plant. What’s growing in the neighbor’s garden, what is sprouting in their own, what they spied along the pathway through the village during a morning walk. They read books on plants, encyclopedias and dictionaries; they have collections of old botany tomes and almanacs, piles of copies of Rustica magazine. I, on the other hand, don’t know from green. A walk through the garden or down a country path and I’m looking for something to eat, berries or mushrooms or cherries on the tree; a stroll through the woods and I’m simply on a search for the perfect picnic spot. As far as greenery goes, if it isn’t greens – chard and kale, spinach and cabbage, romaine and lamb’s lettuce – I am rather a greenhorn. Although husband teases me for being green where greenery is concerned, I can indeed name some beyond the rose bush. I love gardenias and my parents had two beautiful bushes bordering our tiny strip of Florida front porch. Fat, succulent leaves a deep forest green surrounding lush white petals, heady with perfume. Gorgeous hibiscus flowers framed every doorway on the block, their luscious petals in all of their magnificent, ostentatious glory strutting and tumbling down paths in bright yellows, pinks and oranges against a background of green. Bougainvillea and rhododendron, all of those hardy, brilliant, colorful plants, green dotted with magenta, violet, red, or green palm fronds fanning lazily in the ocean breeze, or fat jumbo watermelons sitting placidly, green among the green, beauties basking in the hot Florida sun.

 But ask me to think green, hand me a trowel and turn me in the direction of the dirt and all is lost. I walk into a room and just look at a potted plant and it withers and wilts. Green to brown. Vases of flowers curl up in the fetal position to protect themselves, petals strewn across the tabletop, green leaves drooping pitifully. No green thumb, I am quite the contraire, a Plant Serial Killer. If it is green it will run screaming from me, grab onto my husband’s pant leg and beg for help, drag themselves towards the door trailing green leaves and bits of dirt, every man – or plant – for himself. My thumb, for all intents and purposes, is black.

 Yet my charming, talented better half is all green thumbs. He is a magician when it comes to growing things green, like an elf out of a fairy tale leaping from mushroom to fern to daffodil to mound of moss through the lush, green forest or dancing through some hidden garden at night, watering can in hand, leaving behind him a trail of silvery leaves and dew-kissed buds. All is green at his touch. Darling husband, keeper of all things green, created a magnificent veil of ivy green, a forest of green plants, on our terrace in Italy, recreated gardens around houses we have rented that had been disregarded and abandoned, has more than once swept me off to a nursery after settling into a new home and bought what to create a lovely little kitchen garden. Basil and rosemary, chives and mint and throw in a pot of thyme. Once home, spade in hand, digging down into the rich, dark, earthy soil, lovingly patting it down around each tiny green plant, he hangs them outside my kitchen window where I simply need to turn the handle and pull, touch the delicate, tender green leaves and choose. For, after all, green to me is for snipping, chopping, stirring, simmering, cooking.

 And when the basil leaves are plump and flavorful, when the rosemary is fragrant, the tiny moss green thyme leaves are tender, my fingers dance through their soft summer field of green, feeling like a little garden gnome, and pinch off leaf after luxurious leaf, heaping them up on my kitchen table, knowing just what they were destined for.


Green-Eyed Monster

 Ah, yes, I have mentioned my finicky, persnickety son Simon before, haven’t I? When speaking of food it is difficult to avoid speaking about Simon. Simple Simon he was and still is where it comes to food. My son’s mortal enemy, his nemesis where food is concerned is green. Flecks of green in a tender, moist, sweet, cake-like zucchini bread. He pushes it away, face crumpled into the worst kind of grimace, and he accuses me of treachery, trickery, dishonesty, cheating him like a conman luring him to play the shell game on some street corner, slipping him something green. He leans over the counter and peers into whatever is simmering on the stovetop as I am stirring and asks what weird things I have put into it. Read green. Zucchini, green beans, green pepper, peas, no matter how minuscule the mince or dice, all constitute weird things that I have slipped purposely into the food, secreted them in to force him to eat green unwittingly. He makes me livid green.

 Yet he loves green olives. He eats green olives like other kids eat candy. Any kind of green olives, salty or spicy, stuffed with dots of red pepper, sliced into pasta sauce, scattered across pizza. The only form in which Simon eats green.

 When he was small, I would place a scoop of bright-green steamed broccoli on his plate and before he could complain, before he could protest and say that he doesn’t eat green, I would shower down freshly grated Parmesan cheese, his favorite thing, and beg him to try. And he would suffer through the green in order to eat the cheese. Older, I discovered that spanikopita, layers of filo dough, crisp and tender and buttery, stuffed with loads of spinach, a dark field of green, would be eaten for the feta, salty, tangy, white as white feta, his other favorite thing, and I smiled to myself that I had indeed gotten him to eat green.


It has always annoyed me to throw away all the discarded trimmings when cleaning vegetables; it is such a waste of goodness! so now and then I keep it and use it for soups or purées. Pea pods for example, it is a perfect base for a soup although you need to make a little extra effort to get rid of all the fibrous strings but apart from that, pods are easy peasy to cook and above all eat!

ILVA'S MINTED PEA POD AND POTATO SOUP

The leftover pea pods of 1 kg/ 2,2 lb fresh green peas
1 small leek
4 medium potatoes
1 l/ 4,2 cups water or light stock
as much fresh mint as you want
a few tbs of fresh cream, optional
salt 
extra-virgin olive oil

   Slice the leek and cook slowly in a little olive oil in a pot. Rinse the pea pods well and take away the hardest parts, cut into large pieces and add to the leek. Peel the potatoes, slice and add them and the liquid to the pot. If you use water, season with salt.

   Leave to simmer for 15-20 minutes. When it is ready, blitz the soup and the fresh mint leaves in a mixer until smooth and then pour the soup through a sieve (not too finely meshed) into a pot or bowl and with the back of a spoon press the remaining fibers to extract as much of the soup as possible. Heat up, add fresh cream and season the soup to your taste. 



Monday, March 23, 2015

Piping


Pied Piper

 I have always dreamed of being a master piper. Pied Piper. Although I inherited my father’s piping tools, the pastry bag, now yellowed and stiff, and the many tips, somewhat tarnished and dented, I have never had the patience or the steady hand to pipe as he did. Swirls and squiggles, elegant roses or one’s very own name piped across the surface of a cake, pink or red or blue against the very white of the frosting. Happy Birthday Piping green leaves; press the tip just under the rose, squeeze, lift and pull. Piping edges around the cake, top and bottom, piping sweet frosting shells or rosettes, zigzags or beads. Or swags of buttercream all around the sides, dotted with pearls.

 I pipe out rounds of thick, creamy batter for perfectly round macaron shells. I pipe out choux dough for long, smooth éclairs. Hold the filled pastry bag at just the right angle, nose down, one hand supporting and guiding the pouch and the tip, the other hand gently, gently applying pressure, even and subtle, knowing just when to ease up, a sharp flick of the wrist and it’s done. Piping row upon row of meringue; meringue stars, meringue mounds, long, narrow tubes of meringue, gives me no trouble at all. On the contrary, I love piping, pushing out batter, dough and meringue from a pastry bag and I am pretty darn good at it.

 But I have tried my hand at piping frosting, buttercream or ganache, and have failed. Oh, I can make star shapes with the star tip, plop plop plop, a piping basic, fancy in its way, but not a lot more. I pipe and although my choux and my macarons are expert, perfectly piped, I cannot for the life of me pipe anything in buttercream but a mess. Scrape it off or smear it in and finally just give up.


Piping Hot

 Morning coffee, mugs of tea. Soup. I have an odd predilection. I need my hot drinks, my hot liquids piping hot. Pop a mug of something (morning café au lait reheated and ten and again at four, a bowl of soup from the refrigerator or a box for a solo lunch at noon) and zap on high. Heat.

 I was once told that my great-grandfather, an aged gentleman, educated, once wealthy then down on his luck, a man who never had the chance to leave his native Russia yet sent his son and then his daughters one by one, had this same idiosyncrasy, this same compulsion; he drank cup after cup of piping hot, boiling hot tea.

 All winter long I bathe in piping hot water. Like my coffee, my tea, and my soup, I need, I require my bath water to be piping hot. Submerge my body bit by bit (for it is blazing, scorching, steaming) down into the bath water, until I am under the piping hot water, under a thick layer of bubbles, up to my neck. And when the temperature dips ever so slightly, out I climb, skin slick and pink like a newborn.

 I am a woman of extremes.


Wedding cake: Pipe Dreams

 It was going to be a small wedding, a quick dash to City Hall, appear before the mayor, sign the documents and leave. Head home to a small, intimate celebration. A family affair and no more. We were as poor as church mice and even if we had wanted a fancy do, well, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it. But it made no difference because we weren’t that sort of couple. Duck into City Hall, tie the knot and that was all we desired. But we had to have his family and he had invited a few friends and we were twelve in all. He found an old suit in a pawnshop for which he traded a clarinet, owner unknown. Good old fashioned bartering. I purchased a few odds and ends in white and blue and his sister created my bouquet.

 All that was left was the cake. I made two. But one, a dense, dark, gooey chocolate cake, sinful as can be, would be layered and frosted with a heavenly cognac buttercream that I would make in my soon-to-be mother-in-law’s kitchen, piping on perfect flourishes I had imagined in my head, swirls and curlicues and flowers. It was nearing the end of July, a scorching July, sweltering, torrid, piping hot summer. The windows were thrown open but little air entered that long, narrow kitchen. The heat of the July afternoon was compounded by the heat of the oven as I baked my wedding cakes, increased by the heat of the stove as we prepared a wedding meal.

 Cakes cooled, I proceeded to the buttercream, my hopes, my vision soaring somewhere slightly above my aspirations where the wedding itself was concerned. This was going to be the wedding cake to end all wedding cakes. A drop dead gorgeous wedding cake. I beat the eggs and sugar over a flame and the sweat began to drip down my body, beads of sweat gathered on my brow as the temperatures climbed. I tossed in butter, cube by cube, whipping that buttercream until elegant ribbons spiraled and fell from my beaters. I added espresso and cognac and then I noticed that the buttercream was melting as I was melting in the afternoon heat.

 I frosted the cake, now working as quickly as I could. I spooned cognac buttercream into my pastry bag and began piping. The buttercream began to weep like damsels crying over lost love. It became sloppy, melting and separating faster than I could pipe it onto the surface of the cake, puddles of cognac appearing from within the depths of that buttercream, refusing to blend back in. Lovely loops and my attempt at piping I don’t remember what (our names? The date? Happy wedding?) were swallowed up in a sloppy sea of buttercream, my piping dissipating into a greasy disarray. What began as velvety frosty and graceful piping for a wedding cake had become a hot mess.

 I gave up, never piping our names on our wedding cake.


Pipe Down.

 The old piping would rattle and vibrate, clatter and jangle, seeming to come to life only at night as the lights were dimmed and the shutters closed, as we slid in between the chilly sheets, under the heavy down quilt. The silence outside magnified the noise coming from the piping within the walls. 

 11 Pipers Piping. Little boys given recorders on the first day of school. Everyone had to learn to pipe, although I never really understood why. Little boys standing in their bedrooms, reluctantly gripping recorders, filling their pipes with air and blowing, halfheartedly piping out tunes. Year in and year out, never piping better one year than the year before. There is still a collection of recorders tucked away in a cardboard box somewhere.

 Pipe up. My specialty was fabric hats, cloches, berets, Borsalinos, baseball caps in cotton, linen or silk, cashmere and wool. Hats all dolled up with feathers and blooms, great big blowsy silk roses or tiny cotton and velvet buds. Sometimes I edged the brims with contrasting fabric and sometimes I added piping. Edging a hat with piping was a complicated affair; well, more fiddly, fussy and time-consuming than difficult. A length of cotton cording, more or less thin, more or less thick, would be tucked inside a length of fabric (cut on the bias), which would be folded over the cording and carefully stitched inside. This band would then be stitched to the outer edge of the unsewn brim. The layers of brim fabric would then be pinned together and then sew together, the needle bobbing up and down up and down flush with the fabric-wrapped cording so when turned right side out the piping would run smoothly and tightly all around the outer edge of the brim et voilà! Piping!


 I grew up watching my father make choux, filling them with chilled pudding in a variety of flavors. Since marrying a Frenchman and raising French sons, I now take my dad’s choux and make them into éclairs. Chocolate éclairs are really the best, but I love topping them with a chocolate ganache with a touch of orange for a twist on the classic chocolate glaze. 

JAMIE’S CHOCOLATE ÉCLAIRS

Choux dough:
1/3 cup (80 ml) milk
1/3 cup (80 ml) water
5 Tbs (70 g) unsalted butter
1 large pinch salt
1 Tbs (10 g) granulated white sugar
4/5 cup (100 g) flour
2 large eggs

 Preheat the oven temperature to 300° (150°C). Line a large baking sheet with parchment or oven paper.

 Place the milk and water, the butter cut in cubes, the sugar and salt in a pot and heat over high heat. Bring to the boil; allow to boil for about 3 seconds. Remove from the heat and add the flour all at once. Stir to blend and then mix vigorously until it is homogenous. Return the pot to the heat and “dry” the dough by stirring vigorously and cooking for 30 seconds to 1 minute until the dough no longer sticks to either the pot or the spatula. Allow to cool slightly. Lightly beat the eggs then whisk or beat into the dough a little at a time. Add a little more than 2/3 of the egg or as much as just under the full 2 eggs (you should have at least a tablespoon of egg left), and the dough slowly falls off the spoon or spatula when lifted (not too fast).

 Spoon the choux dough into a pastry bag fitted with a plain, 3/4 –inch (20 mm) wide tip. Holding the pastry bag at a 45° angle from the baking sheet, pipe even, regular tubes of dough 5 ½-inches (14 cm) long onto the lined baking sheet, slicing the end away from the tip with a sharp knife; you can also pipe out large mounds for round choux puffs. Leave space all around the choux/éclair dough to allow for puffing and spreading while baking.

 Using your fingertips or a pastry brush, gently rub and coat the éclair dough with the egg, smoothing the shapes as needed. If you want to top the éclairs simply with slivered almonds, sprinkle the éclairs/choux generously with them now, pressing them gently to stick to the egg wash. Bake for about 1 hour until puffed and evenly colored a deep golden. You can prop the oven open slightly the last 5 or 10 minutes of the baking to allow steam to escape. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack.

Chocolate Pastry Cream:
1 cup (225 ml) + ¼ cup (50 ml), separated
3 oz (80 g) finely chopped semisweet chocolate
2 Tbs cornstarch
6 Tbs (100 g) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter (at room temperature makes it easier)
1 tsp vanilla or half a vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped out *
 * If using a half vanilla bean/pod, split the pod down the center and scrape out the seeds. Place both the pod and the seeds and the 1 cup milk in the pot. Remove the pod once the pastry cream is made and before pouring it into a bowl to chill in the refrigerator.

 Bring the ¼ cup (about 50 ml) milk to a boil in a small pan; remove from heat and stir in the 3 ounces (about 80 g) finely chopped semisweet chocolate; mix until smooth. Dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup of milk; whisk until smooth. Add the sugar to the vanilla and milk in the saucepan. Bring to a boil; remove from heat. Beat the whole egg, then the yolks into the cornstarch mixture. Pour 1/3 of boiling milk into the egg mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not begin to cook. Add the rest of the hot milk to the egg mixture then return all of it back into the casserole and return to the heat. Continue whisking (this is important – you do not want the eggs to solidify/cook) until the cream thickens and comes just to a boil. Remove from heat and beat in the melted chocolate, the butter, and vanilla. Pour the pastry cream into a heatproof pyrex or stainless steel bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Chill immediately and until ready to use, up to 3 days.

Dark Chocolate Orange Ganache:
4 oz (120 g) Dark Chocolate with Orange Zest, finely chopped (or any good quality chocolate)
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
1 tsp unsalted butter

 Place the finely chopped chocolate in a heatproof medium-sized bowl. Bring the cream and the butter just to the boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. When it comes to the bowl, pour the liquid over the chocolate and allow it to stand for 2 or 3 minutes. Stir until smooth and continue to stir until creamy and thick enough to spread. If needed, chill the mixture until the desired pouring/spreading consistency is reached, stirring occasionally.



Share on Tumblr

Monday, March 16, 2015

Water



Flooded

 Rinse the vegetables under cool running water. Pat dry. Add water to the pot to just cover the meat. Bring to the boil. Flick water from your fingertips into the oil in the skillet to discover if it is hot enough. Wait for the sizzle. Add just enough water to thin. Add just enough water to bring the flour mixture together into a scraggly dough and scrape together.

 Water.

 Earth, air, fire, and, of course, water. The Four Elements essential to life, essential in the kitchen. They say that fire is what differentiates man from beast, elevates man as he rubs sticks together, lights his world, warms his body, his soul, but it is fire used for cooking that differentiates man, elevates man to a higher place as he spears meat on a stick or tosses it into a pot with vegetables and places it over a flame. But water? Water and flour to make bread, water in my favorite sponge cake, water and sugar to make syrup (rum or Grand Marnier, of course), water for poaching, braising, simmering. What is fire in the kitchen without water? Water for making coffee and tea, drip drip drip. Water for tea or coffee, heated to the boil or to the simmer?

 He brings me a bouquet of tulips, unwraps them from the crisp brown paper, snips off the tips of the stems and slides them into water. He brings me a bag full of mussels and dumps them into the sink, rinsing them under cold running water, pulling off beards. He brings me oysters and cracks them open, arranging them on a platter, tucking wedges of cold lemons in between the shells. Bits of ice puddling into water. Oyster water tasting of the ocean, do I slurp it up with the meat, the oyster or do I pour it out? A chef once served us sorbet made from the oyster water, oyster liqueur and it tasted like frozen seawater. To wash chicken under running water or not? Well, fill a pot with water and dump in the chicken, add the onion and carrot and celery, salt and pepper for good old chicken soup or poule au pot. The water magically transforms into broth.


Watered Down

 Un Carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît! Sitting at a fine restaurant, one is offered the choice of water. Flat or sparkling. Water can be so fancy. Pretty bottle, elegant label, the crack of the top as the waiter twists it off, twists off the cap in front of you with all the aplomb, all the ceremony of opening the best bottle of wine in the cellar. I would never have the nerve, the composure, to ask for a simple carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait. Tap water. How absolutely gauche.

 My husband claims that the Italians always order sparkling water, fizzy water, water with bubbles when in restaurants so they can be assured, reassured, to be served bottled water rather than tap slipped into a fancy label, tap water all dressed up for dinner.

 In any other restaurant, bistro, brasserie, pizzeria, it is invariably un carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait. And a bottle of wine, of course, water of the gods.

 I never drink sparkling water, effervescent. Not because the bubbles tickle my nose. No. Because it tastes like seawater. And when I tell my husband that I prefer this bottled water to that because of the flavor he calls me crazy. Water is water, but is it?

 We drink tap water brought to the table in an old, rough terra cotta pitcher, crudely made by hand, found on a sidewalk in Cyprus among a jumble of terra cotta bowls and pots the color of the earth, red. Pour water into the dog's bowl from the pitcher on the way to the table. He leaves a trail of splotches of water on the kitchen floor from bowl to doorway.


A Fish out of Water

 When I was a child, maybe six or eight years old, we drove down to Miami Beach to visit my father’s elderly aunt who was living in a retirement complex, a towering apartment building standing in the blazing Florida sun. Shy and very young, I was more than just a bit terrified. Little old ladies, little old men shuffled across the lobby, zimmer frames and wheelchairs and Yiddish accents so thick one could cut them with a knife. Our parents herded us, their little flock, into the massive lobby where we were met by Great Aunt Mary, and we were wrapped in a warm, soft, talcum-scented hug, the fug of old Jewish grandma. We were led into the great dining room where dozens of large, round tables, Catskills resort-style, were dressed. Like a gargantuan Miami Beach deli, the tables, for eight or ten, contained bowls of pickles, pickled onions and cabbage, baskets of rye bread. And lunch was served by waiters in black trousers, white shirts and black bowties, obsequious and brisk. Borscht and brisket and I just don’t remember much else but I remember hating the food. Old people food. It tasted bad to my six- or eight-year-old self, bad and dry and how would I get through the meal? And I was thirsty, so thirsty after the heat of a Florida summer morning. The waiter came and poured water for each of us and I grabbed the glass and drank deeply. But what was this? Surely not water! It was seltzer, salty, fizzy water like drinking seawater and I wanted to wail, to cry it was horrid. But I was too shy, too young to ask for water, regular water, real water. Why does this memory stick with me after all of these years?

 Hot tears course down my cheeks, waterworks. Gently brush them away. Weeping. Trying to keep my head above water.


Through Hell and High Water

 Water rubbing, gnawing into the sand, grinding down the dunes of the beach where I grew up. Erosion. Like wearing down one’s nerves, one’s energy, back and forth, back and forth, day in and day out, incessant, insistent. Water lapping gently, warm, rhythmic, against my legs. I used to think that if I stared out into the distance and looked hard enough, squinting, I could see China. All I saw were the shrimpers like little tugboats bobbing up and down up and down on the water, on the horizon.

 Water dissolving the sand day in and day out, water dissolving the sand like sugar spooned into, stirred into iced tea, the sugar dissolving into the liquid. Water can be so gracious, so comforting, so invigorating (running into the water, into the waves, jumping into the pool, cannonball, jumping into puddles like a kid, the warm water soaking through the canvas of your sneakers, muddy water flicking up the back of your jeans leaving a speckled trail). Water can be so harsh, so destructive (torrential rains pounding against the windowpanes, threatening, seeping under the woodwork edging the bedroom floor, pushing over the massive climbing tree in the front yard, destroying the dunes).

Drip drip drip the noise of the drip of the kitchen faucet into the sink, louder and louder, keeping me awake at night. Tick tick tick onto the porcelain, slow and regular, driving me mad. The eddy of the water rushing down the drain, clockwise or counterclockwise and why? A drink of water and I think of my mother calling my son "a long, tall drink of water"?

 Little boys, little babies, pink and squiggly, wiggly, in inches of warm water, little pink bodies against the white of the tub. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! A muddy dog hosed off, standing stunned and wide-eyed in the water, then dashing off and shaking from head to tail, water all over us. Hands plunging into a sink of hot water, underneath the suds, the bubbles, dishes, bodies slipping into a bath of hot water, underneath the suds, the bubbles. Bain Marie, a water bath. Two rows of ramekins sitting neck deep in hot water, pudding gently poaching in a baking pan, in a bain marie.




I'm dreaming of warmer days. I envision myself in a deckchair sipping this refreshing drink after having mowed the damned lawn, feeling that immense satisfaction of having beaten it yet another time! The cucumber gives it freshness and the ginger adds a nice peppery hint,  and when the time comes, I think I will snip some leaves from the mint growing in that lawn and add it to crown it all.

ILVA'S REFRESHING CUCUMBER AND GINGER WATER

1,5 l/6.3 cups water (still or bubbly)
1 cucumber
2-2,5 cm/ about an inch fresh ginger
fresh mint (optional)
honey (optional but a little does make it better)
ice

   Slice the cucumber and the peeled ginger finely and put them in a pitcher. Pour in the the water and add honey to taste. Stir and let it rest 5-10 minutes before adding a lot of ice and then serve!

Share on Tumblr

Monday, March 9, 2015

Windows


Windows on the World

A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time.
- Mark Twain

 My son always wonders why I don’t listen to music while I bake, the lilting strains of something jazzy or a bit of old rock-n-roll blasting from the radio sitting on the kitchen counter. My husband brings in his ipad and sets it up near my cutting board, near my mixing bowl and offers to leave it for me, wondering why I wouldn’t want to watch a film or even a cooking show while I bake. I shake my head and say no to both. I used to always listen to the radio when I baked but now I prefer silence and the spectacle offered by my kitchen window.

 Spectacle. No, not really for what do I stare at out of my kitchen window? The large tree, naked and brown, long, slender branches stretched across the milky sky, the pewter sky come winter like arms reaching for the sun, begging for light, the large tree bright and bristling with greenery come springtime, long, slender branches holding nests or the dance floor, boxing ring for fat magpies and shimmering black ravens, the large tree is what I see from my kitchen window against a backdrop of apartments, rows of windows like vacant eyes staring back at me offering nothing but deep grey secrets. What I see from my kitchen window while I mix, blend, knead is what is in my own head, words and ideas flitting, cavorting, drifting through my mind.

 A history of kitchen windows reaching back through time. One first floor window overlooking the city street bustling with movement, activity, shoppers and the homeless, groups of ravaged youths with painted hair and ripped clothing and a huddle of dogs in stark, deep contrast to the shoppers (eyes averted). Another tiny window staring out and I don’t remember what but most likely the mirror image of our cement-block apartment building, sad and unadorned, with the slightly acrid smell of yeast wafting into that kitchen from the factory close by. Another kitchen window, high up and wood-framed, offering me a bucolic view of forest and field, blue sky and white clouds like sheep. An Italian paysage. And my mother’s kitchen window opening up into the family room, no outdoors in sight.

 I love working in the silence of the kitchen, staring out the window at the blue skies and fluttering leaves, or the rain beating against the panes, darkening the kitchen, darkening my thoughts. Or dreaming into the inky sky of an evening as I roll out pizza dough. Catch a glimpse of a bird or two, or a shadow flicking across a window opposite, my thoughts, my ideas floating lazily around my head, telling me stories, or skipping joyously, romping crazily, dancing violently as I stare out the window at nothing. This is how I bake.


Oven Window

 How many times have I stood in the kitchen and stared through the oven window watching things bake? Macarons, cakes, cookies, and puddings, staring in through the window into the dim, hazy yellow light, willing them to set, rise, succeed. A long slim streak of something or other, long dry, slides down the oven window in a perpetual, eternal drip, lingering on the oven window.

 Delicate sponge and angel food cakes, don’t open the oven door, don’t slam the front door! barely peeping above the rim of the very tall cake pan, soufflé after soufflé barely glancing above the rim of the aluminum foil collar wrapped around the edge, the top, standing tall, supporting the weight and guiding the height, I strain my eyes trying to see if indeed that is the top of the cake, the surface of the soufflé just underneath the oven ceiling or simply an illusion, a reflection against the oven window giving false hope. I only have the oven window to survey and judge, an oven window allowing a dubious glimpse into a steamy darkness.

 I don’t know how others bake with a windowless oven. Those fancy, retro AGA cookers. I would never be able to. I would feel out of control, as if everything I slipped into that deep, dark space would wither, burn and die a horrible food death.


Window Shopping

 Lèche-Vitrine. The French call it lèche-vitrine, window licking, which really isn’t that what we crave to do? Windows filled with artisan chocolates, pastries and fancy confections topped with froths of whipped cream or dripping with caramel or slick with chocolate glaze. Shoes shoes! Towering on needle-thin heels, beribboned, bejeweled, in glistening leather or elegant python, or baskets, sneakers in pink or aubergine or lettuce green. Oh a stunning coat or a little black dress. Pearl earrings, silver bangles, rings of lustrous garnets and citrines, turquoise the color of the ocean.

 Pastry shop windows offering an inviting glance into a boutique filled with luscious treasures, row upon row of macarons in every color of the rainbow, in astonishing blends of flavors, or tartlets in lemon yellow, dark chocolate, rings of cream-filled choux, perfect, concentric rings of perfect raspberries, impeccably parallel lines of chocolate éclairs. Do you press your nose up against the window, your hot breath mirroring the steam clinging to the other side of the window, the heat from the kitchen misting up the window, blurring your view? Breathe deeply, inhale the scent of fresh bread as you peer in the window of the boulangerie at rows of baguettes, baskets of brioche, piles of croissants and sugar-speckled chouquettes, because what window can keep out the scents of fresh bread, chocolate, perfume? Lick lick lèche-vitrine.

 “I am looking through my little window, and I see that thou art resting. Wilt thou go on at once?” – The Brothers Grimm



Windows to the Soul

 Marriage is an alliance entered into by a man who can't sleep with the window shut, and a woman who can't sleep with the window open. - George Bernard Shaw

 Standing at an open window catching the cool evening breeze in the warmth of summer, let the serenading begin! Soft music, soft words float up in the dusk, language as tenebrous as the twilight. Romeo and Juliet, Roxanne and Christian, Maria and Tony, what could be more romantic? She leans out of the window yet not too far, not far enough to break the mood for will she still love if she sees the man? She remains at the window listening to soft music, soft words, poetry and love, held captive by his voice or the dulcet strains of an instrument or some evil force, a jealous person? Rapunzel. 

 Have I ever been serenaded at an open window? The drunken revelry of college men yelping, singing at the top of their lungs below a dorm window, a boyfriend, guitar in hand, in a vain, innocent attempt to stand out from the others? Maybe. But maybe not.

Heavens, I’ve adored you, it’s true, since that evening
when, under my window, in a voice I didn’t know,
your soul began to reveal itself…..
- Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac

Rear Window. I spy. Out one window into another, eyes scanning rows of windows. Binoculars, a telescope, shhhhh I never said this, did I? Fascination, curiosity getting the better of me, of my better judgment but who doesn’t love to sit at a window and stare into other windows making up stories, creating situations, inventing tales and adventures, spying on one's neighbors.

 Leaning out the window to smoke a cigarette doesn’t count, does it? It isn’t really smoking in the house…









Monday, March 2, 2015

Fake


Be True to Oneself

 Bogus. Fake jewelry, diamonds in paste, rubies in plastic, don’t care let’s call it costume jewelry and layer it on the more the merrier! Fake nails? Nope, never… well when we were kids we faked lipstick with chocolate pudding or mashed potatoes (pucker up!) and fake teeth with corn kernels and little green peas, and fake nails? With something or other, for when we were kids what could possibly have been more fun than playing with our food? Mashed banana spit curls. Ah, fake your age (who, me?) with a little bit of fiction. Color the hair, padded bra, fake but not really. Fake boobs? Well….

 Fake friends, I’ve had a few. Fake smiles and air kisses, all flash, little substance, though little did I know. False words, false pretenses, flowers offered might just as well have been plastic. False positive. Fake friendships have done their fair share of damage to my true heart, to my faith. Fake projects among false commitment painted with false promises, all bluff and bravado. Fake gratitude where my time and energy, my belief and trust have been handed over, and I’ve received fake smiles and air kisses, false pretenses and false affection, affectation, in return. Fake me out.

 When we were young and our brother still sat in the high chair to eat his meals, my older brother received a science kit for his birthday. You can see where this is going… We who were good kids and never (or rarely) got into mischief, got into trouble, concocted a drink that looked pretty much like milk. Fake milk. We waited for our chance and when mom left the toddler alone to answer a phone call, we placed the glass of fake milk on the tray in front of baby brother. “It’s milk!” we cried. “Drink it!” And as he grabbed the glass in his chubby fists and pulled it towards his lips, oblivious to any threat, any joke, mom walked back into the room and we said “Stop! It’s poison!” so well pleased with our joke, bursting into giggles. Fake milk from a science kit. Bluff.

 Faking it.


Truer than True

 My husband threatens me often, saying “I’m going to start buying you fake plants, fake flowers. Plastic. You let all of my plants die. You don’t even notice that they dry up, wither and droop onto the floor. They drag themselves across the parquet, panting, begging for water, as if pulling themselves towards an oasis and you just walk by. And flowers! I buy you beautiful bouquets of tulips, roses, peonies and you never see that they need water. They scream for water and you don’t hear their cries! The petals curl up, brown and scatter across the table and you don’t even realize! I am going to bring you fake flowers. Plastic!”

 Because he brings me flowers.

 And he cooks for me. Faux filet. Honestly.

 I have boxes and boxes of fake flowers, lovely, blowsy things in ethereal silk, and fake fruit in paper maché. I was once a milliner, creating hats from fabric, straw and felt, embellishing hats with circles of fake flowers, jaunty arrangements of silk flowers and feathers dyed blue, magenta, turquoise, the color of no real bird. Real feathers, fake birds. I have boxes of these beautiful flowers, fruit and feathers to dress up a hat, a fabric cloche like a Twenty’s flapper, a straw top hat like an English princess, a coquette beret comme une française real or fake, or a manly Borsalino, all dressed up in fake finery.


A Dream Come True

 I loved Halloween when I was a kid. Fake teeth in strawberry-flavored wax or gum, plates of spaghetti and bowls of peeled grapes masquerading as brains and eyeballs. Fake fingers dripping fake blood.

 Hannukah gelt. A tiny mesh bag handed to each child, a tiny mesh bag filled with shimmering gold coins, thick and shiny. Excitedly I would peel back the gold foil and savor the chocolate coin that would pop out. Those fake coins so much better than real! I still love chocolate coins. And chocolate cigarettes! Sugar lips and candy necklaces.

 Grilled cheese sandwiches made with neon yellow or orange squares of something cheesy. Wrapped in plastic. Go on, admit it, you love it! Peel back the plastic, slap a couple of shiny squares in between soft white sandwich bread (bread?) and slather the outsides, top and bottom, both slices, in…. margarine. Fake butter? Yes, but how easy. Always spreadable. And grills up the charm. Mac & Cheese in a box, the cheese a beautiful deep neon orange powder. Ah, fake cheese. But Mac & Cheese in a box was this child’s dream, a special treat, and I could probably still eat a box of it, hot and creamy, all on my own.

 Sincerity - if you can fake that, you've got it made. - George Burns


Ring False

 The old joke of breaded fish sticks being made from square or rectangular fish. They were the only fish my sons would eat for a number of years. And breaded chicken bought prepackaged, under plastic. Nuggets. Fake fish fake chicken. But oh my how tasty! So yummy that we don’t even bother asking what they really are. And do bouillon cubes really taste like chicken broth, chicken stock, chicken soup? But ravioli in brodo, those tiny little cheese or potato stuffed ravioli no bigger than a postage stamp floating in a steaming bowl of broth is just the homiest, coziest comfort food imaginable and when the craving strikes, when the sky is dark and brooding, rain beating against the window panes, the trees dancing in the wind, the roof creaking, then a bowl of ravioli in brodo is the one thing that warms and soothes, chases away the boogy man. And it is simple and plain, something even the persnickety son will eat. And enjoy. But is the soup real? Freeze-dried squares that I pinch and crumble between my fingers, breaking them up with a wooden spoon in a pot of water; is it soup? I toss a square cube into simmering couscous, into a pot of chicken parts and vegetables bubbling away to reinforce the flavor. Is it real?

 Sitting at the table, we stare at the menu, and wonder if anything, anything at all is homemade, made from scratch. Such a small place, such an extensive menu. And is this dish or that really seasonal? One time a friend of ours mentioned a restaurant and explained, “His kitchen staff is a pair of scissors!” Another friend refers to this type of establishment as a “plastic restaurant,” the food served purchased already made, industrially, sealed in plastic pouches. Scratch and sniff. Fake food. It would have broken my heart to tell my darling son that the lovely little bistro where he took me out as a treat, a mother-son outing, served food purchased in plastic and simply reheated.


 Chocolate truffles may be the most famous, best-loved fake food, one food resembling another. Chocolate, cream, butter and maybe a flavoring, formed into balls and rolled in cocoa powder, chopped nuts, sprinkles… it is a rich and elegant treat offered at Valentine’s Day and Christmas, served at parties and given as gifts. These are my version of the Chocolate Truffle, flavored with earthy, nutty tahini, sesame seed paste, and a bit of sesame oil and finally rolled in black sesame seeds. These truffles with the hint of sesame, are special and so delicious. Nothing fake about that. 

Jamie’s Chocolate Sesame Black Truffles

5.3 oz (150 g) good quality chocolate, a mix of bitter (70%) and semisweet (64%)
3.34 fl oz (100 ml) heavy cream
2 Tbs tahini (sesame seed paste)
1 Tbs (15 g) unsalted butter, cut into a few pieces
1 tsp sesame oil
A few tablespoons black sesame seeds

 Coarsely chop the chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl. Bring the heavy cream to the boil and pour over the chocolate. Let sit for one minute and then whisk until all of the chocolate is melted and the mixture smooth. Whisk in the butter, the sesame oil and the sesame paste until smooth. Place the bowl in the refrigerator until firm enough to shape into small balls. Roll each ball in black sesame seeds to coat.

Share on Tumblr

Monday, February 23, 2015

Bulb


We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb. - Thomas Alva Edison

 The lights flicker in the kitchen, dulling the dull brown of the cabinets, muddying the muddy yellow of the tiles in the dimness. A row of bulbs above the sink, stretching from refrigerator to stove along the top edge of the wall, just under the ceiling, are inconsistent things, not a bright bulb in the lot. Like the great bulbs in the great neon signs standing high above the roadside in those classic films that shudder, flicker and pop, on off on off, these bulbs do the same, and although it is expected that one or the other bulb will flicker and dim before humming back to life, it is always a disappointing surprise. Unpredictable bulbs, so annoying. Flicker, blink, wane, darken. Then jump back to life.

 A kitchen tenebrous as I stand at the counter and handle a bowlful of bulbs, a head of garlic, a handful of shallots, long and narrow or short and plump, and onions. I shuffle and rub the onions, garlic, shallots in my hand, between my fingers, the flimsy, brittle layers of skin fall away. Slice off the ends and peel away the fresher, firmer skin, the oniony odor wafts up and tickles my nose, bites at me, threatening. I toss in handfuls, fistfuls of chopped onion, brush pinches of garlic, shallots off the blade of a knife glittering with the reflection of the bulbs overhead. Sizzle. Sizzle.

 Those damn lights, those cursed bulbs. How unpleasant it is to work in a kitchen with the lights on the lights off the lights on the lights off and one never knows when. Bright lights invigorate the cook, dim bulbs depress. My favorite kitchen was my favorite kitchen because of the lighting. Office lighting. Long, narrow neon bulbs (are they bulbs?) screwed into cream-colored metallic boxes, long and rectangular. The apartment had been offices before we moved in and renovated and I demanded those lights be preserved, not replaced by any number of bulbs, no matter how fancy the fixture. Those neon lights were bright and perfectly white, the better to shoot photos of food under, the better to stand at the counter and cook, cheered on as if listening to jazzy music.


Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep. - Carl Sandburg 

 Fussy little buggers, bulbs are. How many ways to chop an onion so I don’t cry? I try, I do, but I blubber like a baby no matter taking precautions. All those Old Wives' Tales. A toothpick between the teeth, wearing a bandana over my nose and mouth, wearing goggles. chilling the onion before cutting. I have done it all. I breathe in and out through my mouth, tongue out. Stick a piece of bread between my lips, chill the onion in the freezer first or cut under running water. But to no avail. Up against a bulb, I burst into tears. Bulb-shaped tears.

 Occasionally, I bump into my husband as I dash out of the kitchen, tears coursing down my cheeks, nose running, arm pressed across my eyes, sobbing. What’s wrong?! he asks, “What happened?!” Ah no, I am simply cutting onions, I say as I fling open the nearest window and stick my head out. 

 Shallots have the same effect. French shallots, oniony shallots.

 For many years onions no longer made me cry. I never understood why. But now they do again.


Faith sees a beautiful blossom in a bulb, a lovely garden in a seed, and a giant oak in an acorn.
- William Arthur Ward

 We once took a trip to Holland. A road trip, we drove through tulip fields, through cities and countryside, Amsterdam and Haarlem and Leiden and The Hague. We bought packets and little mesh bags of bulbs for my mother-in-law who planted other bulbs, onions, garlic, shallots, radish bulbs and crocus and dahlia bulbs. Tiny, little brown bulbs, orbs no bigger than those big playing marbles, the shooters, my brother and I used to play with when we were kids, a jumble of pale brown bulbs dressed in crinkly skin. We bought a selection for my mother-in-law who loved gardening; tulips, a gift from Holland.

 She snipped open the packets, the tiny mesh bags, and out tumbled the bulbs no bigger than those glistening white bulbs, pearl onions, that keep cornichons company in brine, that find their way onto cocktail toothpicks among the platters of pâté. Papery skin, crinkly, like the skin on raw onions and shallots, those other bulbs, layers that slip off between one’s fingers leaving a trail of dirt and dust across the table. Bulbs huddled together in the palm of her hand, bulbs planted in pots to be kept indoors when icy weather threatened, pushed outside to be buried in a long, narrow row along the shrubs edging the garden, the tiny brown bulbs pressed into the dark, damp earth, to be loved and tended by a woman who loved her garden.

 Bulbs pushing their way above ground, first a tiny green bud, and leaves, arms waving, checking the air, checking the temperature, then bursting forth in ostentation, tulips yellow, pink, red, white, mauve. From a tiny, papery, brown bulb, this.


How Many Does it Take to Screw in a Light Bulb?

 Buxom fennel bulbs, creamy white tinged with green, springtime running through her veins. How I love fennel bulbs. Tough outer layers giving way to tender layers, superimposed, protective of the heart, layers overlapping elegantly like a cache-coeur (hide the heart) sweater that overlaps across the heart. Chop through the layers, the bulb is firm and crisp and allows the knife to slice through thinly, those thin strips almost transparent, translucid, opalescent. I rub my hands over her smooth surface, follow the curves, and breathe in her perfume.

 Feathery greens capping the bulb, waving, a brush of green, fennel fronds, chopped off and fed to Piggy the guinea pig who adored fennel bulb greens. Slender stalks likes arms raised above the head, the bulb. Pull the arms and crack off layers.

 A hefty fennel bulb somehow not hefty but voluptuous, zaftig in Yiddish, because there is something so elegant, so feminine about the fennel bulb. Slice through the bulb, take a bite of the crunchy fennel for a hint of licorice, anise, sweet yet not.

 My husband adores celeriac, that other bulb that I can easily call bulbous. Unlike the smooth, creamy, alabaster fennel, this bulb is ugly, gnarled, splotched with brown. A rustic bulb. A thick, hardy splay of green sticking out of its bulbous, knobby head, an outer skin tough and rough and earthy. Lusty to fennel’s sensuous, celery to fennel’s anise.

 I love fennel bulbs, slivered into paper thin slices and tossed in a salad, or chunked and roasted drizzled with olive oil until sweet and sexy, or simmered in a big pot of chicken soup until so tender it is falling apart, imparting a deeper, smokier flavor than any onion could.

 My husband adores celeriac as the French do, grated and smothered in mayonnaise. Or prepared like those other peasant roots, potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, grated, chopped, roasted, baked or simmered and puréed.


Radishes, small, pink and peppery. When I see radishes, I think of my father but not because he was small, pink and peppery but because he loved them. And so do I, eaten like they are; dipped in salt, in salads or on bread with fresh butter is a treat but I also like them roasted like this, milder but still crunchy.

ILVA'S BALSAMIC VINEGAR AND ROSEMARY ROASTED RADISHES

A bunch of radishes
A sprig of rosemary
Salt
Good balsamic vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil

   Clean the dirt from the radishes and cut off the leaves. Divide in halves and put in a bowl, add salt, 1-2 tbs balsamic vinegar and 4-5 tbs olive oil and then mix it all well before pouring it all in an oven-proof form. Bake in a pre-heated oven (200°C/390°F) for 15-20 minutes.

Share on Tumblr

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fat


Kill the Fatted Calf

 Fat spitting angrily, bubbling and seething, hissing and spattering violently. No matter the fat, like a woman scorned, it begins cool, calm, and collected. Quite placid. Some fats (butter) smell oh-so sweetly, fresh as the morning dew. Cool to the touch, that fat invites tasting, allows being handled, rubbed into flour for crusts, crumbles, and biscuits. At room temperature, that fat is oh-so smooth, spreading across a slice of fresh brioche, whipping into frosting or cake batter, whisking into a sauce, adding body and shape. Luscious, velvety, a beautiful pale yellow the color of tulips or roses. Sexy fat.

 Some fats (olive oil, vegetable oil), may have a sharper smell, a bit wild, of the outdoors, some none at all, like an unknown, a mystery. Slick and slithery, shining and glittering, that fat shimmers down as a waterfall, flavoring what is bland or balancing what is too robust, binding groups of ingredients together into the perfect vinaigrette, mayonnaise, pesto, cubes of tomato for bruschette, a swirl into a bowl of soup. A drizzle, a stream, a smattering, a hint. Slick and slithery, no better beauty product, rubbed into the skin for softness and glow. Or a massage. Sensual fat.

 Other fats, pure, white shortening of the big, blue can, gooey and viscous, unctuous (a bit like Uriah Heap), glossy, like brilliantine, is so innocent, even-tempered and bland. Remember when you and your brother smeared it into your hair, shaping it into spit curls and a bouffant style. Or horns. Fat melted and stirred into batter or whipped, replacing butter when necessary. But only when necessary. Lard? Also. Fat Cat.

 Yet heat it up and beware! What was so placid and peaceful, so smooth and seductive, just put it over a flame and watch the transformation. It froths and foams (toss in the chopped onions the meat the veg the beaten eggs doughnut dough pancake batter cold liquid) and it sizzles and seethes violently! It spits and bristles, biting into skin, burning whatever it jumps onto. Fat flares up angrily like a shrew, tempestuous. Oh what a little heat will do.


To market, to market, to buy a fat pig. 
Home again, home again, jiggety-jig. 

Stuff it till Christmas and make a fat hog. 
Home again, home again, jiggety jog. 

 Low fat? Full fat? Always the dilemma. We love full fat fromage blanc, fromage frais, cheese and ice cream but as we get older the full fat of what we love to eat ends up… full fat on us. Slipping into my favorite jeans is like trying to get the toothpaste back into the tube. And so we eat low fat. Milk, cheese (we often wonder if it really is cheese), ice cream, sour cream, quark. They are each a little bit flimsy in the consistency department – add a bit more gelatin to the mix when making panna cotta with low-fat milk, and tiramisu or mousse with low-fat fromage blanc? Smile and think of the calories we are not consuming. And I readjust my halo.

 Low-fat cheese, milk, ice cream, fromage blanc makes us feel so very saintly. And, in our own peculiar reasoning, allows us to (gives us the excuse to) drink a glass or two of wine with dinner, sneak in an extra slice of bread, toss a handful of smoky lardons into the pan when preparing sautéed something or other. It allows us to (gives us the excuse to) order both a first course and dessert when dining out.


Jack Sprat could eat no fat. 
His wife could eat no lean. 

 I have a finicky son, who does not like fat. Jack Sprat. He refuses to eat veal or lamb for the fat, and he will only eat cuts of beef or pieces of chicken that contain not one iota of anything that he perceives to be fat. Gooey, sticky, stringy fat.

 He is incredibly wary when served, surveying the food on his plate like a detective whose very career is at stake if even the tiniest detail is overlooked, a clue missed no matter how insignificant, then, knife and fork in hand, picking apart each dish with the patience, concentration and skill of a surgeon.

 My culinarily persnickety son has a certain sobriety in his eating habits that, genetically, I have yet to trace. Gastronomically austere. He eats almost no vegetables, refuses soups and sauces with chunks of anything in them, he snubs cakes in which he perceives minuscule flecks of green or orange, and he dissects meat and casseroles to remove every last hint of fat or anything remotely foreign with a minutia that would make a forensic scientist proud.

 It is no wonder that he is rather like a stick figure. A long, tall drink of water, my mom calls him. Not an ounce of fat anywhere on his body. There is nothing corpulent, beefy or fleshy about him. No fat.

 Yet although he spurns fat on his food, fatty foods are his mainstay. French fries and breaded and fried anything, as long as there is no fat fat, piles of buttery chocolate chip cookies, pizza and burgers, slice after slice of cured, spicy sausages, pepperoni, chorizo, merguez, no matter the glaring presence of chunks of white fat stuck in the red, no matter the greasy fat that oozes from those meats when fried. “You should balance those fatty foods, your fatty diet with something healthy," I admonish. “Fruits and vegetables.”

 “But mom,” he reasons, “I’m not fat! You think all of this food is going to make me fat?”


It Ain’t Over Until the Fat….

 We are not a one-fat family. Butter ooh la la butter the French way, butter from Normandy cows, butter for cakes, pats of butter for creamy mashed potatoes, purée, tossed into grains for couscous, smeared across slices of toasted brioche and melted onto crêpes. Butter, the French fat, matières grasses. Gros - gras, like fat baby legs and grandmère’s arms.

 Or butter à l’américaine, sticks of butter, sticks of fat, melted onto pancakes, oatmeal, Poptarts, cornbread and for making mac & cheese oh yeah! Butter whipped into sugar for cakes and cookies galore. Eggs fried in butter.

 Olive oil, grasso mamma mia! Oil from the olives that grow across the boot, pressed and fragrant, strong and peppery or mild and sweet, green to gold. Oil, fat, for tossing into pasta, drizzling over chopped tomato bruschette; we used olive oil, of course, before moving to Italy but rather became addicted to it as a fat for cooking and eating both while living in olive oil country. Warm white cannelloni beans, a bit of salt and pepper and chopped fresh rosemary heady with olive oil. Carpaccio, topped with shaved Parmesan and thin slices of violet artichokes and rocket, rucola, all bathed in olive oil. Big fat gnocchi. Eaten simply, drizzled with olive oil. Spaghetti olio aglio peperoncino, slithery, slurped up, my husband’s favorite dish.

 But, ah, butter for risotto!

 Vegetable oil for baking. Moist and tender fat. Duck fat or chicken fat, schmaltz. Oy vey. Schmaltz and gribenes! Mmmmm rendered chicken or goose fat and the crispy chicken skin… like Bubbe used to make! A big pot of homemade chicken soup, Jewish penicillin, cooled, the fat skimmed and saved. Chicken fat and chicken skin fried up with onions and what a treat, fat from the Old Country! Better than bacon, at least for us Jews! Then schmaltz, the chicken fat, is used for traditional chopped liver or kugel, for making chicken or egg salad, dad’s way, or just spreading on bread, Challah or rye. The fat of my youth.

 Fatty Fatty two by four…


 Around my house, I’m known as the Risotto Queen. I learned the art of making risotto from our elderly Italian neighbor, matriarch of a large family, when we lived outside of Milan many years ago. I have been making it ever since and quite often, all year round. Once the basic recipe and the method for achieving a creamy, tender risotto is mastered, the variations are endless, from the traditional to the unusual, and following the seasons. When you are in the mood for something flavorful, rich and just a tad decadent, you must make this risotto with Gorgonzola, gooey, creamy and fatty, a bit salty, rather fruity, somewhat mellow and perfect when blended into a mild risotto. If you want a sweet touch, add sautéed pear! Forget the diet and enjoy. 

JAMIE'S RISOTTO WITH GORGONZOLA & PEARS
Serves 4 for a nice meal

350 g Italian rice for risotto, preferably Carnaroli or Arborio
1 small onion or 2 shallots, finely chopped
2 Tbs (30 g) butter or half butter-half olive oil
100 ml dry white wine
About 5 cups (1 ½ liters) vegetable broth or bouillon
250 g Gorgonzola cheese, cubed
1 – 2 Tbs (15 – 30 g) butter & 3 Tbs finely grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground pepper
1 – 2 Tbs (15 – 30 g) butter & 1 - 2 ripe pears, optional, peeled and cored, halved and in thin slices or small cubes

 Sauté the onion or shallot in the butter until tender. Add the rice and stir until coated in the fat and cook until the grains become translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until it is absorbed and the alcohol evaporated. Begin adding the broth, a ladleful at a time, stirring until each ladleful has been absorbed before adding the next. Continue cooking this way for around 18-20 minutes until all the stock has been added and the rice is cooked and creamy, with a slight bite.

 Add the Gorgonzola off the heat and stir until it is melted and blended in and the risotto is very creamy. Add the butter and Parmesan; return the pan to the heat for about 2 minutes and stir well until heated through.

 In a separate skillet, heat butter and cook the pear slices or cubes for just a couple of minutes until hot through and tender. Top the Risotto with the pears and serve.

 Share on Tumblr