Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Dry


 Dry pasta, dry rice, boxes of dry cereal. My husband refers to them as staples, a word he learned from me, and I guess they are. Such an old-fashioned word. Dry goods. Such an old-fashioned concept. A once-a-week shopping trip fills our cupboard with edible necessities that can be grabbed when fresh ingredients and inspiration are lacking. Boxes, bags and cans of sundry items crammed in the small, dark spaces of my kitchen, vying for elbowroom in fear of being lost in the netherworld of the bottomless pit that is my cupboard.

 To be left high and dry.

 But we all have a dry spell when we have no morning to spend at the market, when we haven't the spirit to head out in the rain or when no one wants to shop. Coming home from vacation. Or when the well has simply run dry. Shops are shut, energy low, stomachs are growling. Fling open the pantry doors and hunt among the dry for something, anything that tempts. A large pot of water, rolling, bubbling, a handful of coarse salt and a shower of dry pasta, dry rice, dry anything will do. And watch it come to life, watch it become a meal.


 Dry wit, dry humor, deadpan delivery, poker face.

 Do you get it or not?

 Double take.

 You might want to do a dry run before attempting it if not your usual mode of banter.

 ----

 Like watching paint dry.

 Not knowing exactly when to take the cake out of the oven when the oven is wonky. I keep my nose pressed to the glass and stare at the surface expecting it to signal me when it is done to perfection, just set. Little elfin arms waving, tiny voice calling "take me out now!"

 I have a horror of dry cake. Undercooked is not ideal but can be dealt with by calling it a fondant or a moelleux, serving it with a spoon. Smothered under clouds of whipped cream. But overcooked turns a cake into ash, dry as dust. A mouthful is impossible to choke down until quickly washed down with cold milk. I stare forlornly at a dry and wasted cake, what was once potentially a beautiful dessert has become fodder for jokes and teasing, with nothing left to do but push it into the trash.

 Dry cake.

 Dry ingredients moistened with wet, eggs and milk, juice and booze. Dry ingredients whipped up into something thick and luscious not deserving to be abandoned in the heat of the oven under the glaring light like an interrogation.

 But dry cake? No thank you, ma'am. What's a girl to do? Crumble it up over top juicy fruit compote, tossed with slivered almonds; slice it in chunks or wedges and soak it in boozy syrup or strong coffee or spiked juice and layer it with something rich and creamy for an improvised Eton Mess, a Tiramisu or an English Trifle. Zuppa Ingelese. Whiz it up in the robot then add melted butter, press it all into a tart pan, cover with whipped mascarpone cream and fruit. Or simply slice and toast under the grill, spoon on jelly, dunk into coffee and enjoy a quiet breakfast.

 Home and dry.


 My mother was the queen of dry food. She would place plump, glistening white snapper filets in a baking pan layered with slices of white onion, dust it generously with chopped fresh parsley, salt and pepper and possibly drizzle with lemon juice. To pop it in the oven and bake the poor fish….for much too long.

 Her fish gave flakey a whole new meaning. Bone dry. Swallow mouthfuls of that fish with gulps of cold milk to wash it down.

 Her pan-fried liver was saved by the tasty fried-until-caramelized onion rounds she made as a condiment for she cooked that liver until it was twice dead, the texture of shoe leather. Bone dry. Smother it in ketchup and push it down as quickly as possible. If possible at all.

 She once, at our urging, asked her own mother (from whom she learned to cook) why she overcooked her meat until it was as dry as desert dry and her mother explained: she cooked meat the way her husband, my own mother's father, demanded it be cooked: so burnt, charred and carbonized that any possible deadly germ or unknown toxic horror living within that piece of meat be killed. This was the way they cooked and ate their meat on the shtetl, the ghetto village in Russia when he was a child, before he immigrated. He grew up being suspicious of the food he ate.

 Maybe my love for crudo and tartare, meat cured, smoked or raw, barely seared to bloody comes from this. I have a horror of dry. Pass the ketchup and pour me a glass of milk, please.


 Dry heat. I had never experienced dry heat of summer, arid, thirsty heat, until the summer of my seventeenth year, which I spent in Israel. Temperatures reached dizzying heights, triple digits Fahrenheit yet the intense humidity I knew from Florida didn't exist. This was the heat of a desert country. Dry.

 And I discovered that dry heat is much more comfortable than humid heat, the moisture of humid seemingly sucking one dry, sucking the life out of me, muggy, oppressive. Dry heat is tolerable, just this side of bearable, even as the mercury inches its scarlet self up and up to a place that it never reached in my hometown outside of an airless high school classroom.

 A trek through the Negev, up to the top of Mount Masada, wandering the streets of Jerusalem to the Old City. A bottle of Coca Cola in hand, condensation slithering down the glass, rubbed across my forehead.


  Dry herbs, tomatoes, grapes to dried.

 We spent our honeymoon in Cyprus tucked away in tiny, out-of-the way auberges, sitting on rocks along the cool, clear water, dipping our feet, dry to wet, wandering ruins and popping into noisy, sweltering caf├ęs bustling with locals (to wet our whistle). We loved to wander through the winding, tiny cobbled streets, a hidden, circuitous route through the afternoon silence in the dry heat of September as people stayed indoors in cool shuttered homes, naptime. Large mesh grills would be stretched out the length of porches, the frames perched atop chairs and tables. Halves of tomatoes would be lined up and down those mesh grills, hundreds of tiny purple grapes picked from bunches and spread out in single layers. Left out in the sun to dry. Shrunken and withered. The water from the fruit evaporated in the dry heat of the day, juices concentrated, flavors intensified. Dry to dried.

 Bunches of grapes that hung above our head on our terrace in Milan, swags of vines offering cool respite and a welcoming touch of green to our city life. The rare bunches of grapes were too precious to pick and so we left them dangling above our heads, picturesque, a kiss of rusticity, a feeling of being close to the land as the city traffic buzzed below. As the summer waned, those grapes would shrivel in the heat and light and dry. Seemingly all skin, once tasted their hidden beauty would appear, juices concentrated, flavors intensified. Dry to dried.

 Herbs enveloped in paper towels and placed in the microwave or spread out on baking sheets and pushed into the oven to dry. Desiccated, brittle but stirred into soup, kneaded into bread, tossed into sauces, dusted over marinating meat, crushed to a fine powder between the fingers, the flavor bursts forth infusing whatever the dry herb is added to with gusto.


Panzanella is a typical Tuscan summer dish, a salad made of dry or stale bread and raw vegetables. Although I'm sure there is an official version of it, I have never eaten two alike because the ingredients vary from province to province, from town to town, from home to home. That is the charm of Italy, a profound respect for the tradition and the basic ingredients but openness to what is in season and the flavours at hand. I made it with what I had at hand: the base ingredients of Tuscan bread, fresh tomatoes, cucumber and basil, to which I added tender celery stalks, zucchini and a little fresh chili peppers. You can add thin slices of sweet onions, radishes or peppers, but I would avoid adding olives and such because that would take away the freshness of this summery salad.

ILVA'S TUSCAN PANZANELLA

No measures are given as it really is up to you how much you want of each ingredient.

stale rustic bread, I suggest Tuscan bread which is unsalted because it has the perfect texture when humid, but you can of course do it with salted bread instead
tomatoes, cut into pieces
cucumber, thinly sliced
small and firm zucchini, thinly sliced
tender celery stalks, sliced
fresh chili pepper, without seeds and chopped
fresh basil
salt
extra-virgin olive oil

   Cut the bread into cubes and put these in a bowl with water and vinegar, say 250 ml/1 cup of water with 1 tablespoon vinegar, but you can use more or less vinegar according to taste. Leave the bread to soak while you prepare the vegetables.

   Put the sliced and chopped vegetables in a bowl, add salt and olive oil and mix well.

   Squeeze the bread of most of the water; the bread should not be wet but just humid. Crumble it a bit so you have both smaller and bigger chunks and pieces. When you are ready, add the bread to the vegetables, tear a few basil leaves into pieces and mix it well. Ready to serve.





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3 comments:

  1. Welcome back! I hope you both had a wonderful holiday.

    Thanks you for the delightful post, pictures and recipe. This panzanella looks delicious. A great summer dish and way to recycle leftover dry bread....

    Cheers,

    Rosa

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  2. You're back! Yay! Lovely as ever. And I would never make fun of dry cake. I'd just soak it in sherry and say I meant it to be that way. Plus, I love the idea of using the crumbs plus butter as a tart shell. :) And panzanella? One of my favorites. I served a dessert panzanella as the first dessert I created all on my own as the pastry chef of the restaurant I worked in. Very special. :)

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  3. Love the theme. Did a ton of shopping the other day at Carrefour and came back with so many dry things but nothing much for dinner, lol. Yes, dry cake is always a horror. It put me off cake for a long time. But when you see Jamie's vanilla cake and mocha frosting, it proves the opposite - looks amazing!
    Now you're back, now I'm off on hols. I shall have to make that beautiful looking summer panzanella if I can get Corsican mother-in-law out of the kitchen!

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