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it takes a village

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The wood-burning oven at Rafele.

You might say I made the most of my press pass.

Last Wednesday my sister and I, together with a handful of Australians, Brits, Canadians, and a pair from Sacramento, ate up most of New York City’s West Village. Sorry about that.

To be fair, it was the old Italian section of the Village, which at face value sounds as if we were among scuffling men in overcoats worn at the elbows, mourning loudly of Kids These Days, but it actually meant the district in which some of the oldest Italian specialty shops can be found. Which means good eating. But while Italian they may be, our tour guide Naheem pointed out, ‘Today we’re eating like Americans….We’re going to taste our way through it. Now for realsies, let’s go.’

My sister Amanda is the PR rep for Foods of New York Tours. She totally twisted my arm to bring me along on this odyssey*, which started with pizza.

There are 800 pizza places in New York City. We ate at one with a loyal following since 1975: Joe’s. One-ingredient sauce.** Dripless. Firm cheese. Pliant crust. Only four pizzas are baked at once. These are pizza requisites to those of us in the New York tri-state area, but to out-of-area/out-of-country/out-of-bloody continent patrons, what we call requisites can be sadly lacking. Amanda and I wept a little tear thinking of the crap that passes for pizza in other places, because we’ve eaten it, too.

I asked one of the Aussie ladies if the pizza at Joe’s was different from the pizza she gets at home, and her eyes widened and said, ‘Oh, yes–this is amaaaazing!’ I asked how it differed, and she said, ‘It’s not greasy.’

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Peripheral customers.

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The inside-outside counter at Joe’s.

Next we hit O & Co., the olive oil and vinegar purveyor. They do right by olive trees by harvesting their fruit without shaking the trees, and do not use heat to extract the oil from the olives (which destroys nutritional value, to say nothing of flavor). From little spoons we tasted a buttery, thick, late-harvest oil from Provence, then an early-harvest oil that tasted like crushed arugula. Fascinating.

Bread rounds smeared with Pecorino-Romano truffle cream came next, and as I stood munching on my little slice of fungi heaven I remembered that my sister is not a mushroom person. The hushed conversation went like this.

‘You’re grossed out. ”I’m grossed out.’

Cheap balsamic vinegar was next, and tasted like the kind of wedding wine you get in mini bottles with the happy couple’s name in Lucida Calligraphy on the label. It made my eyes water and got me on a coughing fit. The good-quality balsamic vinegar from Modena tasted almost warm, and was sweet, smooth and thick as honey.

We made an impromptu pop-in at Royce’ Chocolate, where we ate chocolate-covered popcorn, green-tea candy-covered almonds, and tiny squares of…I don’t know, but they tasted as if the pastry chefs made butter cream out of powerful milk chocolate, semi-froze it, dusted it with cocoa, and balanced it on a toothpick. A mouth-melter.

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The next sample, from Faicco’s, might have been my favorite, one, because it was the very first rice ball I’d ever had that didn’t taste like hot spackle; and two, because it was so wonderfully crunchy. No bigger than a plum, it was peppery, cheesy, and I need to stop thinking about it. Moving on.

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There. Now it can haunt on. You’re it!

Palma is the romantic little spot we visited next, and is inside a renovated old carriage house. The restaurant is in front, and the owners live in the back. It’s genteel; you can smell the genteel. Naheem joked, but nailed it: ‘You go in, you eat, you say you’re sorry.’

And the details—milk-glass and fat fragrant roses and paint that’s been loved off century-old cabinets. One whole room was sky-lit, and earthy elements of wood and stone and tile were everywhere. I loved all of it before we even ate. The owners make a point to offer dishes from small Italian cities, dishes people don’t usually get to try unless they travel there. When we ate it was from a platter of chopped cauliflower that was vinegary and delicious. And that’s true, I mean it; but that’s all I remember, because the notes I took were about the setting. It’s really that lovely. Go.

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I mean, look at this. A wooden farmhouse table with roses in little glass cups. We met the woman who cuts and arranges all of the flowers. And tiny, colored ceramic cups.

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Right?

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This was the door, heavy and marred and made more glorious with a wooden latch. I was ready to move in and sleep on the floor.

Rafele came next, where the chef/owner keeps the food pure and the setting comfortably homey. I’ve never been an eggplant fan; it’s usually over-breaded and as light as an insulated leather utility boot. But this rollatini was filled with buffalo ricotta and mozzarella that was like liquid velvet, and was delicate as a pappardelle noodle. The sauce was made from tomatoes grown on the restaurant’s Catskills farm.

Oh, may the industry’s current fancy with farm-to-fork cooking continue. There are a lot of things we can rightfully complain about in today’s world. This is not one of them.

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Rosemary, squash and painted piggies at Rafele.

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Plein-air artist. Came across a few of them. Natural habitat and all.

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This was wild—the entire facade of a teensy, triangular shaped locksmith’s place. All in keys.

If ever there’s something to leave room for. Milk & Cookies, a little storefront with a wallop of sweet smells, you are my friend. I’d been before. This time, we all got cookies right out of the oven: oat-based chocolate chip. Translation: hearty and fat.

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And butter-staining. Look, it’s smirking.

While we ate cookies, I asked another vacationing Aussie, a young redhead, if she liked the food she’s had in New York so far. She told me that she had a good slice of pizza outside Yankee Stadium (bit of a head scratcher, that), but didn’t like McDonald’s. I politely made a face and said, ‘You didn’t really expect it to be good, did you?’ Her boyfriend said that when they told their friends they were coming to the U.S., they all said they just had to go to McDonald’s. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘It’s all over the world. You’ve had it before.’ They said they’d heard the price was better here. And so it was. But they learned the difference between price and value, I suppose.

Cool little non-food side trips on the tour: This is one of the two alleyways leading out from 86 Bedford, also known as Chumley’s, the notorious speakeasy from Prohibition days (Naheem: ‘Where my Canadians at? That’s when you saved us from ourselves.’). When the place got raided, the cops came through the front door, the owners would yell ’86!’*** and the patrons would tear out the side entrances, into the alleyways, and scatter.

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This is one of the boot scrapers (for mud) on the front steps of many residences, and is a reminder that this area used to be very much the country.

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And this is a slice of spicy, firm-edged soppressata made in house back at Fiacco’s, a five-generation business. We were warmed to hear how this shop fed New York City’s bravest, exhausted and famished in the weeks after 9/11, and how those firemen come back every single day to support the shop. Community goes both ways, and it always will.

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Murray’s Cheese is an institution. I had never been. Place is massive. Cheese caves right there, cured meats drying behind panes of glass.

We were treated to several kinds of cheese (the white variety was very young and unpasteurized, and was so wonderfully, sweetly fresh tasting. It tasted like spring, if that’s possible), with a dried apricot chaser.

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Not a cannoli girl so much, but Rocco’s—43 years in business—did a pretty nice job of it. Everything in this sweet shop is made on site and by hand except for the sfogliatelle, for which we can give them a break. The cannoli shells were fresh and crispy, and the filling was not insipid pudding or icing but proper sweetened ricotta with citron.

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And baby chippies.

Happy exhale.

*Oh, like you just met me.

**Guess.

***This historic remnant is still in use today, when we say to ’86’ something. This needed to be explained to our out-of-town guests. They dug it.

as you wish

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Strawberry blueberry mulberry clafouti–a combination I threw in the pan one day, and now it’s my favorite.

I recently read Gaiman’s Coraline, in which a ballsy little girl outsmarts, outruns, and hands assorted monsters their rear ends; but this same little girl won’t touch anything her dad cooks.

I’ve been trying to make sense of Little Miss Paradox, and think I might have it: she doesn’t like that he cooks from recipes, that they always produce freakish chicken with tarragon or some such nonsense. This is a child who goes looking for adventure, and when she can’t find any, looks harder. She gets scared, she gets into trouble that’s far more whack than her dad’s chicken, she gets herself out of it, and she goes looking for it again. It follows that she wouldn’t want food made according to a set plan, dinner that’s made on a tidy little track going from Point A to B.*

My kitchen sees both, when it comes to me. I’m equally comfortable with a recipe and with winging it; and admit with zero shame that I have found trouble at the end of both wooden spoons.

On the other hand, there are those who are thrilled with a set plan. My octogenarian uncle had absolutely no problem having a weekly dinner schedule—precisely the same dinner on Monday, and another on Tuesday, and etc., for his entire marriage. When another elderly family friend goes to his favorite Italian restaurant, one that has been around since the 1940s, he gets the ravioli. And I mean every single time. Yet another family friend (gone now) had pizza every Friday night—the same kind of pizza, no less, and it had to be from the same pizza place—for decades. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s a male thing. I don’t know. But I don’t think so.

What makes a person choose recipes versus routines? And what makes others scoff at both?

*Neil, if you’re reading this, correct me. And ohmygod, hi. And wow.

the fix

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My mom’s potato salad with mayo, salt, black pepper, sundried tomatoes, fresh basil, toasted pignoles, and fresh minced garlic.

Last week I dropped my old PC and new laptop off to the kids* at the Microsoft store to do a data transfer. I wasn’t worried about system withdrawal. So I’d be without a proper keyboard for a few days—so what. So substantial agita ensued, that’s what.

That’s the bad news. The good news, which came as a total shockeroo, was that suddenly I was wild with energy and ideas. I needed to be creating something, producing SOMEthing, all the time. So I hit the kitchen. When I was 90% finished with one recipe, I’d start thinking about what I was going to make next. I’m not saying it wasn’t manic, but I sure ate well.

I note, with some dismay, that I didn’t take pictures of too much of what I made. I don’t remember what happened all that clearly, but best guess, I was too busy eating it all. My reputation precedes me.

Here then, a list. Made all of this within 2.5 days.

-Watermelon-lime smoothie

-Carrot cake with a blop of yogurt cheese on top that I stirred some cinnamon sugar into

-Panzanella with local, organic vegetables: basil, onion, cucumbers, and tiny heirloom tomatoes

-Bourbon-spiked jalapeno ketchup (which has already graced many a turkey burger, and I have lots more)

-White-peach vanilla jam

-Fried zucchini blossoms (going back for more because I have a delirious crush on them, not least of which because I didn’t torch them this year, and am obsessing even as I type)

-Potato salad

I have my units back now. But I have more peach jam to make, as well as a quart of beach plums to pit and jam up as well.

The beat goes on.

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Carrot cake. I bought the carrots from the teenager at Silverton Farms who had just pulled them out of the ground and washed them–she handed them right to me.

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Local organic heirloom tomatoes, Red Bank Farmers’ Market.

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That red stuff between the onions and the cheddar? That’s my ketchup!

*The unvarnished truth.

patched in

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A few days ago my favorite organic farm posted a shot on Facebook of one of their workers holding a ripe melon. The caption announced that customers could come and pick watermelons. Of course I had to go.

(I need to take a pause here and switch to normal brain—a place I visited one rainy Thursday in 1978, and it was dullsville, and I ducked out early—and acknowledge what many are thinking: that melons are available dust-, bug-, dirt-, relentless sunshine-, and hassle-free at the supermarket. Now I’m musing on what what would compel me to put on boots and pick my own. Now I’m lost. Oh wait—flavor. And fun :))

I followed Alaina, the worker in the photo, out to the watermelon patch, and she asked if I knew how to tell if a melon is ripe and ready to pick. This was a nope. She leaned over one and held up the stem, still attached to the vine. ‘See this little curlicue, just opposite the stem? When that’s totally brown, it’s ripe.’

So much for thumping it.*

She took off and I went hunting for totally brown curlicues. Found a couple of green ones, then came upon this.

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Score!

It was a very cute melon, the size of your own, and I brought it home.

By the way, the other sure sign that you have a ripe melon happens on top of the cutting board, and I didn’t even know this until I started buying melons from a farm, picked at their peak. Watermelons in particular are over 90% water. When you leave them to drink up rain all summer and then pick them when the curlicue is brown, they’re a taut as Goodyear tire. All they need is the smallest knife incision into the rind, one little 1/8th of an inch of pressure, and the melon will instantly crack open, sometimes right in half. Those who buy their melons at a supermarket, picked unripe, will never know the utter coolness of this.

My melon was seedless and powder pink inside. The flesh closest to the center is sweetest, the case for any melon, I’m pretty sure. I ate some for dessert last night. Today I’m pureeing it into juice and adding a couple of squeezes of lime.

September bliss.

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*Do people still do that? What are they expecting to hear—someone from the inside thumping back?

waiting

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When I was a kid, the jobs that required unusual patience were given to me, for better or worse. My sister Amanda will remember that I took over the Easter bread dough every year at the very end of the process, when it needed cup after cup of flour kneaded into it until the dough was smooth and elastic. It’s tempting to add it in a heap and get on with your life, but then you end up with a mucky, sticky, dusty mess. It has to be done slowly.

Then there was melon-balling for our Fourth of July barbecue. I’d work the flesh out of half of a watermelon the size of an ottoman and add it to honeydew and blueberries to make fruit salad. Then the whole shebang would go back into the watermelon half. This took a while, and there was no way to cut a corner.

Along with not rushing the processes we can control, I wait for seasonal produce. I know I’m an exception. But I maintain that waiting all winter means a kaboom of true green flavor when you bite into that first stalk of roasted asparagus, greenness that gets right in the face of all of the cold and mud and ice and grit you’ve endured for months. It tells you, without question, it’s OVER.

Waiting means strawberries that are so ripe that they stain my fingers red when I pick them, and taste like sunbeams. It means the immense joy of a warm, slightly soft, utterly ripe heirloom tomato; a freshly picked apple that cracks audibly when you bite into it; and the mellow richness of a Lumina pumpkin, chosen from a wagon 32 steps away from the vine where it snoozed in the sun all summer. (Mario Batali got almost misty when he described the flavor of fresh fall produce: “You can taste that the ground has changed.” I can’t do better.) Our ancestors had no choice but to wait for what grew, and reaped the benefits of waiting. They knew from flavor.

There’s an art to holding out for something until it’s ready. Bite into a peach that’s gorgeous and hard as a rock and you’ll get a mouth full of nothing. A blackberry that’s glossy and firm guarantees you an almost painful tartness. A ripe berry will fall off into your palm with the gentlest tug. Forcing it means it’s not ready and not worth the lack of flavor.

Sometimes fruits and vegetables look (to our persnickety, Madison-Avenued eyes) their worst when they’re the most delicious and ripest. Passion fruits are ready when they’re half shriveled. One of my readers, a retired Southern farm wife, swears by the exceptional flavor of summer squash that’s covered in blemishes and warts. And fresh figs—they’re hardly worth eating if they’re not cracked and oozing.

You won’t find produce in stores looking like this, because consumers have grown detached from what food looks like when it’s ripe, and won’t buy it. Seek it out at farms, farmers’ markets, and orchards if you can’t score some off your neighbors who have a fig tree.

There’s an art to waiting for edibles and for non-edibles, for the things we can control (a little or a lot) and the things we can’t. And while I have been credited with having great patience…full disclosure, it ain’t always easy. Sometimes the art fails me. Sometimes it’s bloody hard.

This helps: I think back to a couple of weeks ago when I took a walk along the lake and found two or three patches of wild mint. It’s growing in profusion, because mint can hardly grow any other way. No one planted it. The universe deemed the time and place right, so up it came, and healthy as the day is long, too. If I tasted it in March, it wouldn’t have the bite and sweetness it grew into under the sun and rain all of these months. Mint, like all growing things, is ready when it’s ready. It’s a reminder that I can work for the things I can control, but everything else will come in time, the way it’s supposed to. That’s a comfort. And I couldn’t stop it if I tried.

late summer love

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Cherry-vanilla pie–fresh Bing cherries with homemade vanilla custard. I pulled the cherries apart with my fingers like a heathen instead of slicing them. I swear they taste better this way.

Blogging is groovy because I get to use this forum as a photo album and journal all at once, and no one can make me shush. Here, then, is what I ate, picked, cooked, and ate during the past month or so. We’re getting into late summer and some of the best ingredients available all year, not that I’m against milking every summer ingredient for all it’s worth.

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Cardamom-almond pound cake with roasted local peaches tossed in local honey, and blackberries I picked.

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Pitch for a bakery near me: 10″ white peacock of my homemade marzipan. Leftovers were summarily devoured by my A Few Good Men cast, which was rehearsing that night, and seemed to appreciate the ample sugar.

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One of my weirder ideas, but made a great breakfast: roasted local peach tossed in local honey, stacked with fresh basil and my homemade ricotta on rustic bread from Whole Foods. It needed balsamic vinegar, but I kinda dug it.

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Heirloom tomatoes at the Red Bank farmers’ market, luscious and as big as throw pillows. God, I love this time of year.

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Local turkey figs. Best when split and oozing, I’m telling you.

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Fresh basil pesto with copious amounts of Pecorino Romano, salt, freshly ground black pepper, freshly minced garlic, olive oil, and toasted pignoles over linguine. Slurp slurp.

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Another whack idea for my homemade blackberry jam. I piped some over homemade vanilla custard and a thick layer of 65% cacao. Blackberry black-bottom pie, baby. Small slices imperative.

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Another shot bc I’m me. Currently this pie is in my fridge with half of the custard-jam top eaten off and half still on.

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Marzipan watermelon slices with itty bitty time-consuming-to-make seeds and the last remaining shreds of my sanity (vanished when it saw the camera).

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Wild beach plums on Sandy Hook, NJ. Every year I park my car in a puddled pothole and walk out to tiptoe around the poison ivy for these. This year I sold some to my pastry chef friend at The Flaky Tart, Atlantic Highlands, NJ.

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Beach plum bush at left. Deer at right. It’s not just the park rangers who have me under suspicion.

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Heirloom tomatoes purchased yesterday at the Asbury Park farmers’ market. They’re going into a tabbouleh sometime today…

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…along with wild mint that I found growing down by the lake.

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The tabbouleh in its vintage Pyrex glory, made with all local vegetables: tomatoes, cucumber, scallions, and mint, plus feta, olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Good stuff.

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Blackberry blossom.

Picked blackberries last week. The plants (canes, they’re called) are long and trailing, and are trained to grow in rows across strong cables. This forms a kind of cavern of blackberry canes.

Most visitors to the farm go for the front-and-center fruit, which makes sense. It’s pretty. It’s right there. It’s an easy get. But experience has taught me that the berries on the outside of the cavern tend to be too tart. You’ll occasionally find ripe berries shimmering in the sunshine. But the tenderest and sweetest ones are not usually outside. They’re inside.

Out of the glare of the sunlight, it’s surprisingly dark in there. I have to lift the cumbersome canes even to see inside. And this is an organic farm, so it’s not like it’s just berries living inside. Many’s the time I will be about to pick a berry only to see a fruit fly on it. (Somehow he manages to look thoroughly irked, even when I say, ‘I beg your pardon. Enjoy your berry.’) There are spiders and their webs. Dragonflies, which can pinch. I get tired and sweaty and sore, contorting into odd positions to reach. A cane will slip and knock my hat over my eyes, or smack me across the face. I’ll lose my footing as I reach in, and slip. Luckily I tend to be alone when I pick, which is good, so people don’t tend to see me emerge with purple stains all over me like a virulent tropical rash and with a fistful of leaves in my mouth.

I do it because the berries inside, in the dark, with the spiders, are better. They’ve had longer to ripen because no one sees them. Because no one’s looking. I do it because they’re bigger, often twice the size of the berries in the sunshine. I do it because they’re sweeter and mellower. Invariably. Yes, sometimes I get bit; yes, sometimes I fall; yes, sometimes the berries are so overripe that they fall apart in my hands. But enough don’t. I do it because it’s worth it.

The good stuff is underneath. Every time I pick blackberries or peaches or whatever I’m picking I think of this, but last week it hit me especially profoundly—one, because we lost Robin Williams to the ravages of depression, and two, because I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a lot of friends recently about stuff that’s bugging them, stuff that you can’t tell by looking at them because they’re so good at keeping it under wraps.

And curiously—or heck, maybe it’s not actually a stretch at all—I’m finding that among the most expressive, the most brilliant (on the outside) in my own circle there is often great sensitivity (inside). They knock me out with their talent and charm, all of them. That’s the topside world that they show, and it really does shimmer in the sunshine.

But I’m lucky that after a while they trust me enough that they want to show the bottom-side world inside—the sweetness, the whole 3D person. I’ll lift the canes and come into the dark with them. Get cobwebs in my hair. I don’t mind. It’s nourishing. I have fallen, to be sure, sometimes when I get into the messy stuff with friends. I have run out of energy. I’ve had friendships fall apart in my hands. But I never wanted a life that was too sanitary. I’m shooting for sweetness.

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