Saturday, December 27, 2008

Saturday Lark.

For the first time since it began snowing the streets are nearly clear, and I drive down to work, tired of walking, tired of my rubber boots with the fake-fur lining, tired of the snow and ice and slip-sliding my way to work. I have dinner at Lark to look forward to, and I walk in, shedding jacket and vest and scarf and a sweater, take my seat at one of the benches that line one wall. The dining room is quiet, partly because of the early hour, partly because of the current economic gloom that seems to be everywhere these days. But the staff are as welcoming as always, telling me about the night's specials, commiserating on the week of snow and how we are just ready for it to go away. (I lived in St. Louis until I was five, and in Rochester, NY for four years of college; my first memory is of snow, and I should not be such a weenie. Seattle weather has made me soft).

I order two specials, the branzino, and the braised pork cheeks. I had been leaning towards pork belly, but could not resist the thought of softly braised cheeks over pasta. This is always my dilemma. The bread and butter arrives, and I tear into it, shedding crumbs in every direction. Then my fish arrives, the branzino all crispy-skinned over a bed of curly kale, some sort of salad, all against a blob of some unidentifable creamy puree. I think about A.'s earlier criticism, that Lark is a difficult place to go to with a large group. While the idea of small plates is rather seductive it doesn't quite work; sharing is so messy for anything more than two or three people, and they only take reservations for groups of six. For more than four people, you have to order two of everything, and then the bill mounts up alarmingly.

Leaving aside these philosophical musings I turn my attention to the braised pork cheeks, tonight replacing the lamb shoulder that is on the menu. The cheeks have a hint of orange peel, more kale - now my most frequently eaten vegetable - and sweet-tart cipollini onions, and flat round disks of croxetti, all topped with the crunch of breadcrumbs. I think they are breadcrumbs. I hope they are breadcrumbs. I mop up every drop of sauce - delicious sauce - with bread, counting on the single diner's cloak of invisibility to mask my poor table manners. It was either that or hold up my napkin so I could lick my plate. More tables have filled, but the restaurant is not completely full, and I worry about the future. (A recent anniversary party for Lark was so packed with fans and friends that it was hard to get around the room, so perhaps I should not worry yet). Then I order dessert.

Tonight I bypass the tarte tatin, the persimmon cake, the chocolate madeleines. I have, instead, the chocolate bread pudding. It is dense and rich, but not too sweet, made with what tastes like rye bread, with caraway seeds adding an unexpected crunch of flavor. I eat it slowly and eavsdrop on the conversations going on around me. A man at the table next to me - I can tell they are going to be the fun table tonight - looks at my emptying plate with an envious gleam in his eye, even as he plans his own meal (beginning with a selection of cheese, including the Silly Billy which almost everyone in the room, except for me, has ordered tonight. I think everyone just likes to say "Silly Billy"). All too soon I am done, and head home to lie down, and think about my next Saturday Lark.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas lunch.

A. emailed me a few days ago. Come to lunch, she wrote. I didn't think I would be able to drive to D.'s house, my usual Christmas destination, so I was more than happy to say yes. Christmas morning I woke to a white landscape, more snow falling, even though the main roads were clear. A white Christmas. I hum a little to myself as I head to work for a few hours. Then it's time for lunch, and I walk the long, slippery blocks downtown through empty streets piled with slushy snow. Once I am downtown the sidewalks are clear, and I arrive, slightly out of breath, with my hair every which way beneath my hat and my boots dripping with melted snow, the first to arrive. Everyone is delayed by the snow.

I have in my backpack chocolate-chunk cookies, thin and crispy around the edges, carefully stacked in plastic containers, which A. accepts graciously. It is bringing coals to Newcastle, but my upbringing makes it impossible to show up empty-handed. A.'s daughter and her husband arrive, with their daughter, who at sixteen months is at the stage where she takes off at a run as soon as her feet touch the floor. (Later I take many pictures of her, and in several she is actually running straight at the camera, running into me mere seconds after the shutter clicks). A. (jr.) hands me a bag of cookies, explaining that she only made two kinds this year, because she was too busy to do more. I try not to respond that for me, making even one kind of cookie is an effort, usually one that results in an explosion of flour and sugar and chocolate all over the countertops and floors. (Later, I look in the bag that A. (sr.) handed me, and find five different kinds of cookies. Sheesh).

The last guests arrive, and lunch begins with bread and butter and some cream cheese, smoked scallops and mussels and salmon, cold peppers, bowls of sliced cucumbers and radishes, all arranged casually on the buffet table. This is just the beginning. Next comes some white fish - Petrale sole, I think - served with what is essentially a mirepoix. Then there is braised lamb with tomatoes, a brothy sauce that goes well with the pappardelle, simply tossed with finely sliced red onions and freshly chopped herbs. There are roast poussins (or perhaps they are Cornish game hens) and some concoction involving mashed potatoes and turnips made thick with cream cheese. Afterwards there are cookies and cheeses and crackers, more sliced baguettes, soft, slurpy pears, sweet mandarin oranges in their baggy peels. We nibble away and watch the snow fall.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow day. steak frites.

Yesterday I woke to find that snow had blanketed the world outside, and my heart sank to the very toes of my fake-fur-lined rubber boots. I pulled my boots on over layers of socks and long underwear and fleece and cashmere, wrapped a scarf around my neck and a hat over my untidy head, hefted my plastic carrier stacked with cupcakes, and headed to work. Four of us made it in: two early birds who got here before the snow really piled up, and A., who like me lives within walking distance and therefore has no excuse to miss work because of a few inches of snow. All morning long we watched the white flakes falling thick and fast into the atrium, occasionally dashing outside to measure the accumulation. In between, we ate my red-velvet cupcakes, bright crimson cake topped with a drift of cream cheese frosting, as high as the snow piling up outside.

By the end of the day - a very long day - we are ready for dinner, and we head to the pub on the corner. While we wait for our meal we make our plans for the next day. J. will spend the night in my guest bedroom, K. will bunk down at the lab, and tomorrow we will go through it all over again, a skeleton crew hunkered down at work while our less fortunate - or perhaps more fortunate - co-workers stay home watching tv or building snowmen with their kids. I feel a sense of bitter injustice, but then, it was my choice to move within walking distance of work. For now I have a beer to console me. I order a pumpkin ale and the steak frites, and shed a few layers of clothing. The beer is good, with hints of spices that make me feel like I am drinking the love-child of amber ale and a pumpkin pie, and it warms my tired body like a soft blanket.

Our food arrives, burgers and fries for two of us, steak frites for the other two of us. Here, the steak frites is grilled flank steak served over a pile of fries, all topped with a creamy blue cheese sauce. The meat is a little chewy, as flank steak tends to be, but flavorful (again, as flank steak tends to be), and the fries are especially tasty when dipped in the sauce. After a long day, it is just the thing, and when we head back into the snow for the slippery, cold walk home, I feel happy again. There are cupcakes at home.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cupcakes. (red velvet).

I am not sure when or where I first ate red velvet cake, but it filled me with wonder (and red dye) and remains (mainly for the cream cheese frosting) one of my favorite cakes. I have never made it, since I am not very good with cake, but I came across a recipe for red velvet cupcakes a few weeks ago, and vowed to make it my next project. My recent jaunts into baking - the black bottom cupcakes, that bourbon-chocolate bundt cake - had given me a new confidence. And I had found these adorable dinosaur-printed cupcake liners in a small bakeware shop in Ballard. I really wanted to use them, as well as my new muffin pans. Not to mention my latest toy, a nifty two-level cupcake carrier, complete with plastic cover and a handle, which would protect each and every cupcake, preventing them from getting squashed in transit.

After work yesterday I ran down the street to the supermarket a few blocks from my apartment, list of ingredients in hand. I had butter, eggs, flour, sugar; I needed cream cheese, cocoa, red food coloring. Soon I was home, and ready to bake. This time I would use the standing mixer - making the chocolate-bourbon cake had been hell on my wrist, holding the hand mixer - and cream the butter longer. But first, I got everything else ready - the dry ingredients sifted into a bowl, the cream cheese and butter for the frosting coming to room temperature on the counter. It was hypnotic, watching the white paddle of the mixer beating away at the butter, the pale yellow getting lighter and fluffier by the minute, rising up the sides of the bowls. When it was nearly white, I poured in the sugar, and it became a fluffy cloud. In went cocoa power, vanilla, the red food dye that was shockingly blood-like. In went buttermilk, and the flour mixture, and soon I had a bright red batter ready to be scooped into the paper liners.

The scoop I use for batter is smaller than the one recommended by the author of the blog where I found the recipe, and instead of twenty-four cupcakes, I had thirty. Oops. More for me. I had to adjust the baking time for the smaller cakes, and pray that they wouldn't be overbaked. They weren't, and I did a silent dance of victory around my kitchen as the second tray of cupcakes went in the oven. But first, the frosting. A. likes frosting. So do I. I would be generous, using my smaller ice cream scoop to measure out the cream cheese frosting, but after the first two cupcakes, I realized I would need more. Time to run to the store again, three blocks away. As I dash out the front door I drop off the first two cupcakes to the doormen, calling over my shoulder that I had made too many, and needed more frosting. Ten minutes later, I was back, and the cupcakes were gone, which I felt boded well for the rest of the cupcakes. And I had only missed five minutes of Pushing Daisies.

I felt that the cakes could have been moister; I could have baked them just a minute or two less, perhaps not mixed the batter quite as long. But they were delicious all the same, soft cake, creamy frosting, not too sweet. I frosted my cupcakes while watching tv, packed them carefully in the trays of the carrier, left them by my door so I wouldn't forget them. Then I woke to snow as thick and white as cream cheese frosting, and wondered how on earth I was going to get all my cupcakes to work. Or if there would be anyone there to eat them. I got a lot of strange looks, bundled up as I was, holding a cupcake carrier while tiptoeing cautiously through the snow as various cars slipped and slid down the street. But it was worth it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cold night, hot soup.

Today I get out of work early, home by four in the afternoon, too early for dinner. Too early to laze around on the sofa until bedtime. And I need chocolate. From Claudio Corallo. I drive to Ballard (which means getting lost and driving around Fremont before I find my way back, in the most circuitous of routes) and find the shop open. A. remembers me from last time, introduces me to K., who used to (or perhaps still does) produce espresso equipment and who is the business partner and main distributor of Claudio Corallo chocolate, which has an earthy smoothness, no, smoothness is the wrong word for it, because it has too much texture for that. It is intense, the unsweetened chocolate so complex I can still taste it hours later, but without a trace of bitterness. This time I buy the chocolate with nibs, the chocolate with sugar crystals that crunch as you eat it, and the chocolate with crystallized ginger.

Tonight is the Art Walk, and there will be hot chocolates and snacks later on, they tell me. I say that I'll go for a walk, and then come back, but when I head outside the cold air numbs my face and hands, and I think perhaps I should eat a little dinner before I freeze to death. I pass the Hi-Life, which serves comfort food in an old, renovated fire station. But there is no menu posted in the window, and besides, I have one thought in my head: Pho. Thanh Brothers is just down the street. I walk another block or two, shivering, and walk inside the restaurant filled with diners slurping away. Someone waves me towards a table by the window, and comes over to take my order. I hurriedly pick something - Pho Bo, beef soup with rice noodles, the version with just about every kind of beef they offer - and sit back with a book. A glass of water arrives, along with a plate heaped with cilantro and bean sprouts and lime wedges and weirdly, a cream puff, which I will save for dessert.

Soon, a steaming bowl of noodles arrives, crammed with slices of beef brisket, flank steak, eye-round steak, soft tendon, and tripe. Oh, and noodles. The hot soup warms me from inside out, all the way to the tips of my fingers to my toes. As I slurp away I wonder how anyone could eat something so warming in the steamy heat of Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. All across Laos and in Hanoi we saw people eating pho for breakfast, sitting on low stools at sidewalk noodles stands, bent over equally low tables with their jars of condiments, their plates of sprouts and cilantro and lime wedges. It seems very far away, on a cold December night with the snow beginning to fall. I pay my bill - it is only $4.75, with tax, for a "small" bowl of noodles, a custard puff of a dessert included, the cheapest meal in town save for the $1.50 hot-dog-and-soda combo at Costco - and head back outside, no longer feeling the cold. I buy cupcake liners printed with dinosaurs at a tiny shop that is wall-to-wall cookie cutters and decorating kits and all sorts of baking accoutrements, and knee-high leather boots at a shoe store that I had never noticed before. And then I head back up the street for more chocolate.

At Claudio Corallo there is hot chocolate, made with their unsweetened chocolate and milk and sugar, stirred gently in a pot resting on one of those unnerving induction burners. L. has made snacks: some sort of chewy concoction involving dried cherries, coconut, and chocolate, caramel corn dipped in chocolate, and cacao-bean brittle. The first and last of those are tasty, if a little strange; the chocolate caramel corn is instantly addictive. Then there are two hot chocolates to try, one made with chocolate and sugar and milk, the other with chocolate and cream and a hint of chili pepper. It makes me think of the movie Chocolat, and it is so good I want more and more, but I am too full, too dizzy with good chocolate, the best chocolate I have ever had. And I have those bars of chocolate in my bag, and three truffles that are for my boss, K., and it is enough for now.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Let them eat cake.

Yesterday I woke to an email from K., my boss. She had forwarded me a recipe for Chocolate Bourbon cake, found somewhere on the internet. K. does not cook, but she is full of ideas, usually for other people to execute, usually for her own pleasure. I don't mind, except when she dislikes the results, as with the lemon cake made with Meyer lemons brought back from San Francisco. (Too dense, too pebbly). There was that avocado ice cream, not quite successful, which still languishes in the freezer, furred over with ice crystals, and a cake made with yellow cake mix, chopped walnuts, and an unholy amount of rum, which failed to rescue it from disaster. There have been successes, of course, those brownies and chocolate chip cookies that have become a staple, but we (and by we, I mean she) are always looking for something new to try. And I am not good at cake. I need practice.

I rush home to find all the ingredients at hand: cocoa powder, cake flour, eggs, and, of course, bourbon. I remember another co-worker's advice regarding butter - beat the shit out of it - and remember to keep creaming the butter and sugar together until it becomes pale and fluffy, nearly white. The bourbon is whisked with the cocoa powder and instant coffee and hot water, and then added slowly to the butter, sugar, and eggs, alternating with flour, baking soda, salt, all those necessary things that go into a cake. The smell of coffee and chocolate and bourbon fills the kitchen, spreads to every corner of my apartment, like a fog. I drink some of the bourbon, and it is good stuff, warming my throat and my belly as I slide the cake into the oven, in its fancy bundt pan found at Williams Sonoma, on sale, months ago, and left to gather dust atop a bookcase.

The smells become warmer, more intense, as the cake bakes away and I lean back on the sofa with a small snifter (actually, a teacup bought for a dollar at Pier One Imports when I was a college student) of bourbon and I try to imagine how the cake will turn out, how it will go over with the crowd at work. If it will fall cleanly from the pan, or if I have failed yet again to properly butter and flour the cake pan. I vow to buy that stuff in a spray can for next time. And then the timer buzzes, and all those doubts and thoughts go away. There is only the cake, perfect, deep brown, rising to fill its curved dome carved with a sharply incised fleur de lis pattern that I admired in the store but cursed as I tried to rub softened butter into every crevice. It falls onto the rack with a gentle thump. I brush it with more bourbon, as directed, and let it cool. Later I will sprinkle it with powdered sugar, wrap it carefully in plastic, resist taking a first slice.

The next day, I take the cake to work. It looks beautiful, dark brown, with the sharp white of powdered sugar highlighting the carved design around the sides. K. is offered the first slice. She approves, and I let out a sigh of relief, take a slice for myself. It is good cake. I will make another one, just as soon as I buy another bottle of bourbon.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Leftovers, re-imagined.

Last night, too depressed to cook dinner for myself after reading Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, I called up C. and we headed down to the Honeyhole for cheeseburgers. This is probably not what the editor of that book had in mind when she pulled together a collection of essays about cooking and dining alone, but for every writer who reveled in the pleasures of cooking for one, or dining out alone, without fear or a book to hide behind, there seemed to be another writer who took pleasure in cooking for others, but not for themselves, or had no interest in cooking at all, for themselves or anyone else. (In a beautiful gesture, the book begins with the Laurie Colwin essay whose title gives the book its own title, and ends with an essay by Colwin's daughter, some fifteen years after the writer's untimely death, and it is an almost unbearable pleasure to see that this child whom I have always thought of as "on the cusp of seven" has grown into a writer herself).

Actually, cooking for one is really just cooking for two, with leftovers. And I am someone who gets nervous in cooking for other people. I prefer cooking for myself. I don't have to take anyone else's tastes into consideration, and I am almost never disappointed. There is no pressure, no impatience, no nervousness, which is when mistakes happen, when the knife slips and slices into your thumb, when the meat is overdone and the vegetables undercooked. And I live alone, with two thousand books and lots of stuffed animals. Most of the time there is just myself to cook for. Sometimes I plan my meals even before I leave for the grocery store, and other times dinner is an improvisation based on whatever I find in the fridge. To prevent boredom, I have to transform last night's dinner into something else, adding in new ingredients to change the dish the way you might twist a scarf around your neck or pin on a brooch to change your look.

I have a couple of onions in the fridge; this is always a good way to begin. I slice half of one thinly, slip it in some olive oil that is heating in a skillet on the stove. While the onions turn translucent and then begin to brown around the edges, I slice a small piece of steak left over from earlier in the week, thin slices made easier by the cold meat. Next, I stir the steak into the golden onions, pour in a good slosh of red wine I found in the fridge. A whoosh of steam rises from the pan. Meanwhile, the french fries left over from last night's cheeseburger are warming gently in the toaster oven. The wine reduces to a glaze; it's ready, and so are the fries, newly crisp and golden. I remember that there is still a bouquet of flat-leaf parsley in a glass on my counter. The leaves are beginning to yellow around the edges. It only takes a minute to wash a sprig or two, chop the leaves and sprinkle them over the steak and onions, grind some black pepper on top.

It is steak frites re-imagined, a streamlined Beef Stroganoff of sorts, minus the mushrooms and sour cream and dill. It is better than I could have dreamed of, better than the sad little steak I ate several nights ago (it was a rib-eye, and unfortunately cooked in a manner better suited to a thick New York steak), better than the cheeseburger with fries I had for dinner last night. (The cheeseburger was good, but this was extraordinary). I will probably never make it again. This sort of improvisation is just that, a jazz riff that remains unwritten, belonging to a moment that passes. When I have cold steak in my fridge again, it will become something else; when I have cold leftover fries, I will eat them, reheated, plain or perhaps with ketchup. Just the memory will be enough, will inspire the next improvisation.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Leftovers, again. And an experiment in the kitchen.

This morning I woke up with the determination to do something about those Meyer lemons in the fridge, those lemons with that mysterious scent that was almost floral, not with the citrusy sharpness that ordinary supermarket lemons have. They have been taunting me all week, nestled in their paper sack with a handful of strawberry guavas. Just in time, a new cookbook had arrived, with an enticing recipe for Lemon Lemon Loaf*, a cake (actually, the recipe makes two loaves) made with lemon juice and zest, brushed with a lemon syrup, and drizzled with a lemon glaze. Miracle of miracles, I had all the ingredients on hand, plenty of eggs, flour, sugar, even sour cream and powdered sugar and a few back-up lemons in case the Meyers didn't yield enough juice. It seemed the perfect Saturday project.

Eggs and sugar went into the bowl of the food processor before I zested the lemons, so every microscopic drop, every little scrap, of oil and zest would be captured into the batter instead of scattered all over the counter. In went sour cream and melted butter and vanilla; flour and salt and leavening agents got sifted into another bowl. It all got gently mixed together and scraped into two buttered-and-parchment-papered pans, and then into the oven. As the two loaves baked the smell of lemons and brown butter filled the air; I made a syrup of lemon juice and sugar and set it aside, then made a glaze of more lemon juice and powdered sugar. The kitchen was a mess. Then the cakes were done, ready to be dumped out onto a rack and brushed with the warm glaze; once they were cool I poured the white glaze over their tops, and then, impatient, quickly sliced the end of one (the loaf with a crack across the top) for a taste.

Each bite of cake was a pure shock of lemon, followed by the richness of butter and eggs, more intense where the syrup had soaked in, more sweet where the glaze ran along the deep golden crust. I cut another slice. I could have eaten more, but there was dinner to think about. I had one portion of pappardelle with chanterelles to finish, and I wanted to do something different. I thought of a pasta cake we had at Palace Kitchen some months back; soft egg noodles that had been bound together with goat cheese and tomatoes and other tasty things, and fried crisp on the outside, soft and molten inside. I would do something a little different, dip the square cake of pappardelle into beaten egg, and then into grated cheese, Grana Padano, the whole thing slipped into a small frying pan shimmering with olive oil. Once it had browned on one side, I flipped it over, ground some fresh black pepper over the whole thing.

It turned out to be terrific, the cheese turning into a crisp brown crust, the noodles soft and the eggs custardy inside. Even the chanterelles had caramelized around their edges in the hot oil. It was immensely satisfying, simple - it only took about ten minutes to throw it together - and somehow luxurious - those wild mushrooms, all that cheese and olive oil - at the same time. Like last night's experiment, it was an improvement on the original, which seemed bland and uninteresting by comparison. I would do it all over again, another time.

*Lewis, Matt, and Poliafito, Renato. Baked: New Frontiers in Baking. Stewart, Tabori, & Chang. New York, 2008. pp. 41-42.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Leftovers revisited, and a blast from the past.

Last night I made black-bottom cupcakes, a surprisingly complicated endeavor that scattered flour, cocoa powder, and eggshells from one end of my kitchen to the other. They are chocolate cupcakes with a cream-cheese-and-chocolate-chip filling, the only cupcake that I would consider acceptable without frosting, a happy marriage of cake and cheesecake. These cupcakes were one of the first things I learned how to make from scratch; if I remember correctly we made them in our middle-school cooking class, taught in a tiny kitchen that overlooked the gym. It was the only thing we made in class that later became part of my culinary repertoire, but I haven't made them in over a decade. Now they come back to me, a blast from the past.

Some things are different this time around. I don't have to clean up my mess with my parents pointing out all the spots I missed. Instead of chocolate chips I have a bar of bittersweet chocolate, chopped by hand. And finally I have figured out that the larger ice cream scoop neatly deposits the appropriate amount of batter into each cupcake liner, while the smaller ice cream scoop (the same one I use for cookies) works perfectly for the cream cheese filling. I don't know why it took me so long to figure out these things. And the cupcakes are even better than I remember, the edges just a little crisp, the cheesecake filling smooth and fluffy, the chocolate chunks intensely bittersweet, the cake soft and not too sweet. I take twenty of the cupcakes to work with me; by the end of the day most of them are gone.

For dinner I have some of my chanterelle-tossed pappardelle waiting to be re-imagined into something else. Naturally, I turn to the half-bundle of kale left over in my fridge. Chopped finely and sautéed in a generous amount of olive oil, it blends in well with the wide noodles and soft slices of chanterelle mushrooms. Actually, it is better than the original version. Now there is only one portion remaining for tomorrow night, but I think I will try something different with that one. For now I have a cupcake to occupy my thoughts, black-and-white, the perfect ratio of soft chocolate cake, cream cheese, and bits of chocolate. I will have to make this again, soon.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Market dinner, take two.

On the way home I realized that it was already Thursday and I had a crisper full of vegetables from last weekend that hadn't even been touched yet. Usually at this point in the week I start getting frantic and just throw everything into a big frittata that I eat with some steamed rice (white or brown, usually brown). Tonight was no exception. I found onions, potatoes, kale, a bag of carrots. The first task was to cook the rice; it takes a while, but you can just dump everything in the rice cooker and forget about it. Only then do I start chopping vegetables, cracking eggs into a bowl, arranging ingredients next to the stove.

The carrots are little purple ones, their dark skins almost shocking against the orange flesh inside. I leave them unpeeled, loving the contrasting colors as I slice them into sticks. The kale and onions I chop fairly small, the potatoes fall away from my knife into neat half-moons, still with their pearly pink skins. I am lazy. I don't peel anything unless I absolutely have to. The onions go into the pan first, into hot olive oil flavored with a little butter. Once translucent, in go the other vegetables, kale, carrots, potatoes. C. arrives. The rice is not ready, but oh well. There are potatoes in the frittata. We'll do without rice tonight.

Actually, it is not exactly a frittata. I have not put enough eggs in, and it refuses to come together in a solid cake, spilling all over the stove when I try to flip it with a complicated maneuver involving a large dinner plate. I regret making fun of D. when she said she wanted the frittata pan from Williams-Sonoma, two interlocking frying pans that make it child's play to flip your frittate in one smooth motion. I could really use one right now. Still, I couldn't justify the expense, especially since my non-frittata is perfectly delicious in its scrambled state, all wilted greens and sweet carrots and caramelized onions and tender coins of potatoes, bound together with egg into tasty nuggets of vegetables. Another satisfying weeknight meal.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Market dinners.

When I started doing most of my grocery shopping at various farmer's markets around Seattle, I had to rethink the way I ate, the way I planned my meals. I couldn't count on finding everything I wanted, so I had to learn to think about what I wanted to eat for the next week as I browsed the stalls, instead of having a fixed idea before I left the house. Kale and chard became a staple of my diet. (I haven't gotten bored yet, fortunately). Meat became an expensive luxury. (Not that it is cheap, in any case). Slowly I found myself eating increasingly vegetarian meals, augmented with eggs and small amounts of meat, except for those two weeks when I had to figure out what to do with three pounds of Mangalitsa pork. Dinners became simple one-pot meals based on pasta or brown rice.

Part of the fun of cooking is taking a variety of ingredients and mixing them up in different ways, or taking one dish and transforming the leftovers into something else, like the stir-fried pork served over rice and then chopped up and tossed with pasta, or the cold roast turkey covered in a cheesy béchamel sauce and baked until golden and bubbly. It gets boring eating the same thing over and over again, and living alone, you can only divide a recipe so many times until the math leaves you dizzy and confused, slumped over on the kitchen floor in despair. I think my limit is three meals, possibly four, from a single dish, before boredom takes over.

Last night I browned some finely chopped onions in olive oil flavored with a little butter and lard, added sliced chanterelles, and tossed it all with handmade pappardelle (bought frozen at the Sunday market), flat-leaf parsley, and a generous handful of grated Grana Padano cheese. It was good, better than good, and would have been perfect except I felt the pasta had been rolled too thin and sliced too wide, which made it floppy and somewhat unwieldy. Tasty, though. And there were two more portions remaining, waiting to be transformed into something new.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Columbia City Bakery and Bay Area bounty.

I was so excited that there was time for a trip to the Columbia City Bakery before heading off to the airport (to pick up K.) that I forgot to deposit my paycheck. Fortunately, due to my restraint at the market on Sunday, I had enough money for a loaf of walnut levain, divided into two, a pretzel, a chocolate cupcake, a ham-and-cheese croissant, and a slice of pecan bar. I bought a small glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and curled into a chair by the window to eat my pretzel. It's been months since I was last here, maybe longer, since we sold our old house and moved all our memories and belongings across town.

Now I have new routines, new places where I head for breakfast or a quick dinner on my way home, but I miss this cozy bakery, the diner opposite, the used bookstore across the street and down a little. The cashier takes my lengthy order as patiently as ever, dividing my loaf of bread into two bags so I can share some with K., who is returning home after a week down in San Francisco. The pretzel is as good as I remember, soft and chewy and sprinkled with just enough salt. I have my little snack and watch children play all around me; one little girl isn't ready to go home yet, and dissolves into tears and tantrums, while two young brothers pack up their cards and head for home, their father tucking a fresh baguette under his arm as they leave.

Traffic has slowed me down enough so that K. has just come outside with her luggage when I pull up to the curb. Perfect. I hand her the chocolate I bought on Sunday, and immediately (well, not quite immediately; the 100% cocoa bars are wrapped in some impenetrably sealed plastic bag, so she opens the 70% with cocoa nibs bar) the aroma of chocolate fills the car. Our talk on the way back to her house is of our visits to farmer's markets in the past week, of the upcoming Christmas party, of Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, and how it has changed the way we shop and think about food, of the wonderful things she has brought back in her suitcase. Soon we are home, and I am wondering what could possibly be so damn heavy as I drag a bulging suitcase towards the front door.

K. hands me several Meyer lemons, and I realize I have never had one before. It has a scent that is almost too soft to be lemon, more floral than citrus. It reminds me of the fragrance that filled our house whenever the night-blooming cereus bloomed, and I can't wait to do something with them. A handful of strawberry guavas goes into a bag, some olive oil is decanted into a jar for me to take home. I pour a little of the oil into a saucer and dip some of the walnut bread for a taste. The green-gold oil is freshly pressed, only a few weeks old, and it is spicy and peppery against the warm nuttiness of the bread. There are jars of sugar, flavored with mint and lavender, and giant persimmons, all from the San Francisco farmer's market, stuffed into K.'s suitcase amongst shoes and fleeces and socks.

I head home to a plate of pasta, really just a pause before dessert. Should I have the cupcake, all dark chocolate cake and frosting dotted with colorful sprinkles, or my pecan bar? For dessert I have my pecan bar. It has a shortbread-like base layered with chewy caramel and crunchy caramelized pecans, and with a glass of milk on the side it is absolute heaven.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sunday market. Claudio Corallo chocolate.

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon another food blog, one of those ones that only serve to emphasize my status as a bumbling amateur, and stayed up late to read through the archives. I came across a mention of a chocolatier who had recently opened up shop in Ballard. It comes from Africa, the islands of São Tome e Príncipe, made by an Italian coffee producer who had spent nearly twenty years in Zaire, first as a coffee trader and then a producer. I couldn't wait to try some, and it was one of those happy coincidences that this was our weekend for the Ballard market (we switch off between the Ballard and U-District farmer's markets now that my local one has closed for the winter). We could swing by after our Sunday shopping. Or before.

Before hitting the market we headed off for coffee, and once C. had been caffeinated I dragged her farther up Market Street in search of chocolate, having only the vaguest idea of where Claudio Corallo might be hiding. One block more! I cried, until at last I had to admit defeat, and we turned back towards the market, crossing the street so as to cover all our bases. It was then I saw it, a tiny storefront wedged in between a clinic and an optometrist's office. Or something. It was closed, but would be open at noon. We peered inside. It looked like a office waiting room, with only a small glass-fronted counter with a few bars of chocolate lying around indicating that this was a store. A few articles were posted by the door, which we skimmed through before walking the few blocks back to the market.

After a hot dog (me) and a slice of pizza (C.) we made our rounds of the market stalls (and the many shops on either side of the street). I was going to be good, and stay within a $50 budget, giving up the half-gallon of apple cider in favor of a banana-and-nutella-stuffed crêpe, limiting myself to one box each of pappardelle and trofie, instead of the ravioli or plin, going without flowers, which wither and die all too quickly. I bought chanterelles and apples and pearly-skinned Rose Finn potatoes and deep purple carrots and a giant head of Napa cabbage that weighed a good five pounds. A tiny bottle of cream would be destined for another jar of caramel sauce, a bundle of kale would go nicely into...well, I'm sure I will find something to do with it all. I bought onions and bok choy and avoided the siren song of the man selling chocolate-covered butter toffee. Very good stuff it is, too, but not this week.

Then we finally make it back to the tiny Claudio Corallo shop, where we sample several different types of chocolate - 75% cacao, 80% with sugar crystals, 100% unsweetened, and 73.5% with cocoa nibs. We try whole cacao beans, which have the same smooth intensity and are curiously addictive. As we taste the man presiding over the shop tells us all about Claudio and his chocolate and his farm in Principe but I confess I am too carried away by the chocolate to process what he is telling me. It is like drinking really good wine, intensely complex with all sorts of notes and flavors I lack the vocabulary to describe. It is the best chocolate I have ever had. I buy some unsweetened bars - it is a powerful jolt of chocolate, smooth and complicated but not bitter - and a bar of the 73.5% with cocoa nibs. We are offered a taste of the chocolate truffles, made with an 80% ganache inside and a smooth coating of 75% chocolate outside, and like the bars, it is something beyond mere candy, deep and mysterious. Hours later I can still taste it, and I want more.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The day after. turkey gratin. (after Elizabeth David).

I have always loved turkey tetrazzini, the way I loved things like Velveeta grilled cheese sandwiches with cream of tomato soup, something that seemed exotic to me, dished up on plastic trays in the school cafeteria. Distance and time have lent a romantic glow to those lukewarm lunches scooped without ceremony from a row of stainless-steel trays suspended over steaming water, shielded from the ravenous line of students by sheets of clear plexiglass. I have never eaten turkey tetrazzini anywhere but in the school cafeteria, and that was more than a decade ago, probably longer. There was something so seductive and comforting about it, the soft noodles, the bland yet salty turkey, the creamy white sauce that bound it all together. There might have been mushrooms, but I don't remember. I will never actually make turkey Tetrazzini, even though recipes abound. No one I know will eat it. I would have to try something else.

Then I stumbled upon a recipe from Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking. I confess I have never actually tried one of her recipes. No wait, there was an experiment involving a flourless chocolate cake with almonds once, but it was not entirely successful. I am a terrible baker. But I found a recipe for turkey gratin on another blog and, of course, had to try it immediately. Well, almost immediately. There was Thanksgiving dinner to get through first. I came home last night with some leftover turkey and a little of my own spinach gratin; I spent my entire day at work waiting for the moment I could go home and start cooking. There were several modifications I had to make, simplifications that I considered necessary. First: none of that farting around with a bain-marie (double-boiler, for us Americans). While I have yet to manage a lump-free pudding (there's just something about me and cornstarch, I don't know what), and have had the occasional béchamel disaster, it is generally not difficult to make a béchamel sauce with just a saucepan. And a whisk.

Secondly, I didn't have any turkey or chicken stock. This is the downside of having Thanksgiving dinner at someone else's house: they have their own plans for the carcass. Thirdly, the recipe was sort of vague in terms of how much turkey we were dealing with, so I scaled back the amount of sauce to what I thought would be enough for the pound or so (maybe less) of turkey I had. (A mix of white and dark meat). I omitted the cream, added chopped parsley, forgot the pepper, used Gruyére instead of cheddar, and divided the meat and sauce into small individual gratin dishes instead of one bigger one. By this point I have deviated so far from the original recipe that I probably couldn't recognize the original recipe if it walked up to me and smacked me upside the head. Call this gratin the bastard step-grandchild of Elizabeth David's original Turkey Gratin.

I tend to get everything together so when I start making the sauce, I can concentrate on that instead of trying to grate the cheese and butter the dishes while keeping one eye on the stove. The sauce doesn't actually need frantic whisking, but being able to watch it is somehow reassuring. So long as the flour is completely incorporated into the butter (the roux), and the milk smoothly blended into the roux, and your heat is not too belligerent, there shouldn't be too much trouble, no need for more than the occasional swish of the whisk. Once the béchamel had thickened I added a splash of white wine and let it simmer a little more before stirring in the chopped parsley, Gruyére and some Grana Padano, then divided the meat and sauce between two dishes. My Staub rectangular ceramic cocottes are just the right size. I sprinkled one (the other will be my dinner tomorrow) with breadcrumbs and more cheese (I'll omit the breadcrumbs tomorrow, because I think they'd gone a bit stale...) and shoved it all into the oven. Actually, the toaster oven. I put the leftover spinach into another dish, sprinkled that with cheese, and put that in, too. Soon both dishes were bubbling madly, the cheese on top turning a blistery golden map.

Aside from the fact that having two creamy, cheesy dishes for dinner (no matter that one of them is, at least theoretically, mostly spinach) is a bit overwhelming, it was all fantastic. Better than the turkey tetrazzini of my memories. The sauce was creamy and smooth, spiked with the warmth of nutmeg, the cool sweetness of parsley, a hint of white wine. Perhaps another time I will try adding noodles, mushrooms even, for the nostalgia. Next year.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

P-I-G. part 5.

This part is cheating, because it mainly involves some spicy pork sausage from the same place where I got those Mangalitsa pork trimmings that turned into so many different dishes that it kept me well fed for over a week. Of course, I bought the sausages thinking at some point I would make that other staple of my diet (now equal to fried rice), pasta with chard and sausage. I am not sure at which point dark leafy greens took over my diet, probably around the time I started reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, or a little later, when I started shopping at farmer's markets and buying all these greens that I didn't know how to cook. The first version of this pasta dish came about when I had a head of escarole lying around in the fridge, and a surplus of Italian sausage for some reason I can't remember. Somehow - perhaps I'd eaten something similiar in a restaurant - I thought the two would go together, and a nice sturdy pasta like orrecchiette would stand up well to the spiciness of the sausage and the ever-so-slightly bitter greens.

Variation upon variation ensued, and the only thing that has stayed the same is that I always use onions if I had them, and some sort of pork product. Usually sausage. Bacon (or pancetta, or guanciale) can be substituted, but spicy Italian sausage is the reigning favorite. Escarole and chard and kale rotate through my kitchen, depending on what looks good at the market (super or farmer's). One unforgettable experiment, never again replicated, involved a giant heirloom tomato that looked like a huge millefiori paperweight. Pasta shapes vary depending on what I have in the pantry, and experience taught me that trofie (bought at the farmer's market and kept frozen) and orrecchiette (which I tried to keep on hand at all times) works better than penne or fusilli.

Tonight I have twists of trofie pasta, spicy Italian sausage, and a tight bundle of dark green kale. I found a pot of gold tucked away in the back of the refrigerator, the pork-infused wine reduction leftover from making rillettes that I had also used in another pasta dish. Usually I just use wine, or even water; if I'm lucky I might have some homemade broth on hand in the fridge, but I'm not organized enough to have ice-cube trays of frozen stock lying around. (One day, I promise). The water comes to a boil as the vegetables and sausage bits are simmering away; in go the frozen noodles that take only five minutes to cook. By the time the trofie are ready, the sauce has reduced to a syrupy glaze; there should just be enough to barely coat the pasta, and it all comes together in the pan. Those leftover wine-and-pork juices give the pasta sauce a depth and intensity that nothing else can replicate, not plain stock or wine alone. C. and I eat every bite, and only the lingering aroma of onions remains.

Monday, November 24, 2008

P-I-G. part 4.

It was interesting to see how three pounds of pork scraps could be transformed into so many different things over the course of several days. I remember putting that heavy, frozen package in my backpack at the market and walking away with the thought that I had completely lost my mind. What happened next was even better than I could have imagined, as the pork was divided in varying amounts to make rillettes, stir-fried with vegetables, and braised in soy sauce and rice wine, all with great (in my mind) success. By now the rillettes are only a pleasant memory, shared amongst friends, but I still had a few pieces of the red-braised pork left. I could merely reheat them and serve over rice, as before, but I feared that even heated gently on a low flame, the meat would toughen, become over-salted in its soy-wine infused juices.

Fried rice seemed the answer. Usually I make it with bacon; I figured that once it was sliced, my braised, fat-layered pork would have the same texture as thick-cut bacon. The meat was cold, the fat chilled firm, and it only took a minute to chop the cubes of pork into neat lardons. Finely shredded bok choy replaced my usual peas (in an attempt to add more vegetables to the dish) and brown rice replaced white (they tell me I should eat more grains, avoid white foods). (Last year, in a vegetarian restaurant somewhere in Taipei, I discovered that brown rice makes incredibly tasty fried rice). Sliced scallions and eggs went into their bowls, everything lined up next to the stove, ready to cook. This is my favorite moment, when my mise-en-place is all together, and I know that I am only a few minutes away from my dinner.

The bok choy is the first to go into the hot oil. (Actually, it is hot oil infused with a little bit of lard left over from making rillettes, just another example of how those three pounds of pork scraps have stretched across several dishes and meals in the past week or so). When the green stripes of chopped vegetables begin to wilt and deepen in color, the pork goes in, and then the rice. Next comes the scallions, scattered across the top and stirred in, infusing everything with their scent, and then the beaten eggs, swirling and coating every grain of rice with gold. I add a little salt - not too much, because the pork is salty enough, like bacon - and a few grinds of black pepper, and then a few more. I don't need to taste it for seasoning; it will be fine. I could do this in my sleep. (Not that I am immune to mistakes, even with these mainstays of my culinary repertoire; they happen, but less often than they used to).

With my bowl of fried rice in my lap I suddenly think of Beverly Cleary's childhood memoir, of her youth passed under the shadow of the Great Depression. How one generous family member once gave them a gift of ham, which went into every dish her mother could possibly think of until at last, all that was left was the bone, which went into the soup. My three pounds of Mangalitsa pork made up eight dinners, not counting several days of rillettes on toast. I still have some lard left over, gathered in a bowl in the fridge, some wine-rich jelled juices in a plastic tub, that could go into a sauce, or perhaps become the basis for a soup. I ain't done just yet.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dinner for two. Sunday Lark.

Duty and boredom called me into work this morning, after a breakfast of tea (Earl Grey Silver Tips from Mariage Fréres, the best Earl Grey I have ever had) and a ham-and-cheese croissant from Belle's Buns, a stand at the farmer's market. Lunch was the last of my homemade rillettes on toast, and two of my chocolate chunk cookies, but I must confess that before the last crumb was regretfully swallowed, I was already thinking about dinner. At Lark. And I was lucky. C. wanted to come, too. And then we were even luckier: the dining room was quiet, the weekend before the holiday ahead. J. offers us our choice of tables; I choose one of the booths. I never get to sit in one of the booths when I am alone and the restaurant is busy. We order, the skate wing, the steak, the farro, the carrots, and sit back with our bread and butter.

First, though, comes a surprise from the kitchen: the brandade of salt cod, a warm, airy purée of salt cod and potato, served with toasts under a cloud of herbs, surrounded by tiny Niçoise olives, cornichons, and what appear to be pickled carrots. It would never have occurred to me to order this (I confess, I ate too much salt cod in Portugal to ever care for it again), but it is wonderful. Then comes the skate wing, in brown butter, with beans of some sort (which I cannot identify), a little like garbanzos, and little cubes of chorizo. The farro is creamy and buttery and chewy, with crunchy slices of hearts-of-palm and mushrooms. A mélange of carrots arrives in its Staub dish, sweet and tender, fat little orange ones, skinny baby purple ones, all different shapes and sizes and colors, a rainbow of carrots. The steak is served sliced, rare in some reduction of a sauce, draped across a bundle of dark chard and a layered gratin of potato, celery root, and horseradish. I must say I am not a fan of the gratin, but I love everything else.

We are defeated by the farro, which tends to sink like a stone in the stomach, however delicious it is. But there is always room for dessert. C. wavers between the apple crisp and the quince tarte tatin, but with the help of M. I push her into ordering the tarte tatin, which is my usual choice. I head for the hazelnut chocolate mousse, two dollops of mousse framing another of whipped cream, with light cocoa ladyfingers and candied hazelnuts. It is like eating Nutella, only better, and it is so good, I want another order immediately. Next time.

Friday, November 21, 2008

P-I-G. part 3.

The correct way to make dongpo ro, so my cookbook tells me, begins with a neatly trimmed square of pork belly, blanched and then very slowly simmered in a little soy sauce and rice wine with a few aromatics like ginger and scallions. I have never made it, but eat it whenever I can. It is one of my favorite dishes, and when properly made, it is "tender, sweet, fragrant, tasty, rich without being oily...served with an absolutely clear layer of melted fat overlying a smooth brown sauce. The surface is a rich brown color, the fat smooth and custard-like, the meat brown and tender." It is named for the poet Su Dongpo. (The writer of Chinese Gastronomy, from which the above is quoted, does not know why such a dish should be named after the poet, and concludes that perhaps he would have liked it). Sliced into perfect squares and served over rice with a little drizzle of its sauce, it is heaven in a bowl.

Having no perfect squares of pork belly in my fridge, I made do with some of the Mangalitsa pork left over from the rillettes I made last weekend. Since the meat had been identified as "pork trimmings," half fat and half lean, I had no way of knowing what parts of the pig they were, so I selected the pieces most like the belly (as far as I could tell), layered with meat and fat. I sliced them into cubes about an inch square and an inch and a half long, or as near to that as possible. They went into my favorite small Le Creuset pot, just big enough to hold the meat in a single layer, with a few spoonfuls of soy sauce and rice wine, and were left to simmer slowly in a mix of the soy and wine and the pork's own juices (and some of the fat that melted away from the meat). A few hours passed, and I began testing the meat for tenderness. When it was nearly ready, I set it aside for another night. Tonight.

For some reason I always associate red-braised pork belly with stir-fried bok choy. So along with my pork I had some leafy bok choy, bright and dark green together. There was leftover brown rice, ready to be reheated in the microwave. They came together in a simple meal, the nutty brown rice serving as a bed for the crisp-soft greens, the custardy fat marrying gently with the tender meat, all with a savory-sweet sauce of wine and soy sauce and pork juices softened with a little sugar. Maybe next time I will try to do it properly, with a big square of pork belly quickly blanched and then simmered for hours, steaming in its own juices. But this is good enough, more than good enough, for now.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

P-I-G. part 2.

Last weekend's experiments with three pounds of Mangalitsa pork yielded: just under a pound of rosemary-scented rillettes, perfect for spreading on warm toast, a pile of sliced, well-marbled meat that would do fine in a stir-fry, and a bowlful of chunks of fatty meat that I could braise, Chinese-style, in soy sauce and rice wine. The rillettes disappeared day by day, as I nibbled away at it, sharing with whoever happened to stop by. (We ate some the other night, along with a dinner of clam chowder and oyster crackers). The sliced meat was stir-fried with onions and chopped chard leaves, served over brown rice, with a glass of hard cider to wash it all down. Then I had the leftovers to deal with.

Usually by the middle of the afternoon, after lunch is a distant (that is, a few hours) memory, I start thinking about dinner. By the time I am winding things up for the day I have a firm idea in my mind of what I will cook when I get home (or where I will go out to dinner), and if anything occurs to disrupt my plans, I get very annoyed. But today there is nothing standing between me and a bowl of pasta, which to my mind would make the perfect dinner. I have the leftover pork and chard, I have the trofie pasta in the freezer, I have some mushrooms that could sautéed and tossed with the reheated meat and vegetables.

The first thing, of course, is to put a pot of water on to boil. Edouard de Pomiane taught me this, and very good advice it is. I dump the cold pork and chard onto a cutting board and dice it into neat chunks (well, at least as neatly as I can manage), then scrape it aside and slice the mushrooms. I peek at the is moving, but not yet at a boil. A little oil goes into a heavy nonstick pan, and when it shimmers with heat the mushrooms go in. When they are brown on all sides and starting to soften, I scrape in the pork and chard and onions, leave them to warm a little before I add some of the wine-rich pork juices left over from making the rillettes, which I had poured into a bowl and left in the fridge to turn into a savory jelly. While these juices simmer into a glaze, the frozen pasta goes into the now-boiling water, and as usual, I have just about gotten the timing right, as they are ready at the same time.

What had started out several days ago as a stir-fry served over rice has transformed into a loosely sauced pasta dish, the sweet onions melting into the dark chard, the mushrooms barely glazed with the intensely reduced wine and pork juices, all dominated (no, dominated is the wrong word, because it was not overwhelming) by the flavor of Mangalitsa pork, which tastes like nothing I have ever eaten before. It is perfect.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dinner for one. Spinasse.

The one thought that has carried me through the entire day is that at the end of it I could head over to Spinasse for a plate of pasta before going home to make bread pudding for tomorrow's lunch party. (Time to celebrate the November birthdays). It is nearly 6:30 by the time I make it out the door, and there are a few groups of diners already seated inside. I recognize K., one of the owners of Lark, but she does not see me. Shedding layers of coat and scarf and my backpack, I struggle into a stool at a bar, inadvertently elbowing the poor man sitting to my right. (I find myself elbowing him all evening, and regret not being able to move a few inches to the left).

Having already tried the ravioli and the fine strings of tajarin, I zero in immediately on the maltagliatti ("randomly cut" pasta) with chanterelles, my favorite mushroom. While I wait for my pasta a small plate with two crostini arrive, one with marinated porcini mushrooms (not as good as the one with chanterelles we had last time) and one with rabbit pâté drizzled with balsamic vinegar, which is as good as always. I chat with the couple next to me, briefly; they are exuberantly friendly, and the wife has big blonde hair, the likes of which I have never seen in this neighborhood, except on the transvestites that frequent the bar on the next block. They are busy trying a sort of degustazione of chocolates.

As they ooh and ah over their chocolate, my dinner arrives, and then they exclaim over my pasta, asking me what I ordered, offering me a taste of their Barolo. (I decline. After a long Monday, a glass of wine would send me reeling off the stool). I hear them debating over whether to ask our server if the kitchen can make them a zabaglione, which they do, cheerfully. Nonplussed, she heads into the kitchen to ask the chef (and owner) and she returns to tell them it is not available tonight, but it might appear on the menu in the future. I don't know whether it really will, but I will check next time I come back. Meanwhile I have my pasta to think about, irregularly shaped leaves of pasta cut into random triangles and diamonds and perhaps trapezoids; I am eating it all too eagerly to examine them closely. There is just the pasta, the fresh chanterelles, a little butter, a whisper of Parmeggiano-Reggiano, exactly what I needed on a Monday night, to ease me into a week of work ahead.

As I gather my things to leave K. catches my eye, and I stop to say hello, realizing that one of the couples dining with her were my table companions at the Lark Whole Beast dinner last April. They recognize me immediately, and express surprise that we would run into each other again. But upon reflection, it is not so surprising. Spinasse is one of those places, like Lark, that is simple and unpretentious, a place for people who really care about food. I am so happy that it is in my neighborhood, and that I live here now.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

To market, to market.

Late in the morning (after I have had a hot cup of tea and a slice of toast spread with my homemade pork rillettes) I swing by to pick up C. before we head down to Ballard, circling around before finally finding a (probably illegal) parking spot a mere block or two from our intended destination: Volterra. We brunch on scrambled eggs (mine have wild mushrooms and a touch of white truffle oil) and hash browns and buttered toast made from a curiously seedy bread that reminds me of bits of loofah but nevertheless goes down quite well with generous spoonfuls of strawberry jam. There is hot coffee and the pleasure of eavesdropping on other people's conversations, and then it is time to head off to the farmer's market down the street.

As always, we take a lap around the market (arranged in a double row down one long block, with aisles on either side) and take stock of all the things available. There are homemade pies, jars of jam, freezers full of fish (a man proffers tastes of smoked salmon to all who pass). I regret eating breakfast when I see the crêpe stand and the hot-dog cart. Next time, perhaps. We eye the crates of apples and pears, the bright bouquets of flowers, try a taste of chocolate covered butter toffee. Definitely coming back for some of that. I think about what I need for the week ahead: some fruit, perhaps, and a jug of cider. And that chocolate-covered toffee.

On the second lap around I buy trofie pasta, which comes frozen in plastic boxes; I plan to keep it on hand for impromptu dinners. I get some cider, both the regular kind and the alcoholic hard cider, then a bundle of baby bok choy, two apples and several plums. I grab some dark-chocolate-covered toffee and the final splurge, a bright bouquet of flowers. I have to hand the flowers off to C. so I can arrange my purchases in a way that won't lead to me dropping them all over the street on the way back to the car. It is difficult. I wish cider didn't come in such heavy glass bottles. Or that my bouquet of flowers would stop dripping water everywhere. But I have my chocolate-covered toffee as a consolation.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

P-I-G. part 1.

I am not sure where I first heard about Mangalitsa pigs, but once I did I knew that I had to try them. They are a European breed that produces a much fattier, richer-tasting meat, unlike the commonplace modern pig, bred for leanness and aimed at the fat-fearing public looking for "the other white meat." The only question was, how was I going to get my hands on some? I met a couple at the Lark Whole Beast dinner who told me about their adventures with some Mangalitsa pork jowls, but I am a lazy person and somehow never made it up to the University District farmer's market, where Wooly Pigs sells their pork. Months went by. Summer passed, with jaunts to my own neighborhood market, where I bought berries, eggs, the occasional chicken, and all kinds of leafy dark greens previously foreign to me. Then it was fall, and K. told me all about her plans to order half a Mangalitsa pig. Alas, I would be out of town. I had to take matters into my own hands.

Somehow C. and I finally made it to the U District farmer's market last weekend. I came back with three pounds of "pork trimmings," roughly half fat and half meat, and the suggestion that I make sausages or rillettes with it. Just thinking about it made me nervous, and I quickly stuck my package back into the freezer, hoping that I had not made a very expensive mistake, like those high-heeled sandals I bought four years ago for a then-astronomical price and never wore. The week went by, a week where I savored that curried goat pie from the market and made another pot of borsch from leftover prime rib bones. Then the weekend loomed, and I decided to experiment. I left the meat in the refrigerator to defrost, took stock of what ingredients I had to hand, and decided to divide the meat and try different methods of cooking.

First, the rillettes. I found a recipe in Pork and Sons, a French cookbook whimsically decorated with pen-and-ink drawings of pigs, the padded cover wrapped in pink gingham. It seemed simple enough, white wine and rosemary, pork fat and...fat pork. I simplified things even more, halving the recipe, leaving out the bacon - I didn't have any - and the bay leaf, thinking no bay leaf was better than a sad, crumbly dried bay leaf that might be left over from the 80's. The fat, trimmed away from the meat, went into the pot with a sprig of rosemary, a sliced onion, and some white wine. While the fat melted, I diced up the pork, cursing the cookbook for not specifying how large a dice I should be chopping, and scraped it aside while I dealt with the remaining meat. It was a lot, more than I had anticipated. The leaner cut was sliced, as for stir-fry, and the fattier parts cubed, for braising in soy sauce and rice wine. But that is another story.

Next came the boring part, leaving the diced pork to slowly cook in the aromatic wine and, not to put too fine a point on it, its own fat. I left it to simmer as gently as possible for as long as I could stand it. The afternoon passed. I made myself some dinner, and ate it between peeking into the heavy pot and poking at the cubes of pork cooking away. (I may have sampled a bite or several at various points). Finally, the meat began to fall apart when I teased it with a fork. At this point, you are supposed to scoop out the pork with a slotted spoon or something, and shred the meat with two forks, mashing it all together with a little of the fat until it becomes a sort of rough paste. I got bored with this very quickly, and switched to my food processor. Working carefully so it didn't all get processed into mush, I pulsed the machine just enough so it all came together into a coarsely-textured pâté. I spread some, still warm, onto a cracker; it was rich, intense, deeply flavored with the herbs and the taste of the Mangalitsa pork. Later, it will be scraped into plastic tubs and chilled in the refrigerator. After I have another taste.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Saturday market.

Today we head to the University District farmer's market, located in the parking lot of a community center (like the Phinney community center, also a former school). The sun has come out (it was pouring when I woke up this morning), and I regret wearing rubber boots (very difficult to drive in) until I step into a puddle as soon as we walk into the market. Tents are set up in orderly rows, and we take a lap around before we begin to shop. I make it as far as the Wooly Pigs stall, where we are given a taste of sausage made with a Mangalitsa-Berkshire blend (more on that another day). I pick up three pounds of pork scraps, destined for sausages or rillettes. I have never made sausages or rillettes before, but now would be a good time to try. $60 of pork makes its way into my backpack. C. makes no comment; she knows by now that I am a danger to myself when set loose in a farmer's market with $100 in my pocket.

Next we eye the beautiful homemade pies, crates of chard and kale and carrots and potatoes of all shapes and sizes and colors, buckets of bright flowers mixed with long-stemmed flower-like cabbages. At a stall with a sign reading "Belle's Buns" I buy a soft brioche swirled with caramelized onions and cheese, which I eat immediately. We stop for a bag of oven-roasted hazelnuts, which can be used in recipes, skins on, because they are so good. I try a bite of pear, something called a Honey Bosc (or some such name), and it is so ripe and sweet I buy two for later. We try fresh apple cider, and C. buys a jug to share at work, and debate over whether to get some hard cider as well. (Next time). I dawdle over a table lined with strudels and danishes, presided over a cozy-looking woman with an Eastern-European accent, finally choosing an apple danish for later in the day.

Another lap around, and I buy a curried goat pie, frozen and ready to bake in the oven whenever I feel a sudden craving for curried goat. C. agonizes over the apple or the pumpkin pie; she chooses the latter. They are made with organic ingredients, heirloom fruits with fanciful names. Farther down the aisle I gather together bundles of chard, fennel, and beets, and C. gets her flowers, all autumn colors spiked with the purple-green gaudiness of cabbages, and we loop back to finish our shopping with loaves of fresh bread, a baguette and a honey-wheat loaf. Laden down with our bags (particularly me, who as usual went a little crazy) we stagger back to the car. I have food enough for the next week, perhaps two. I can hardly wait.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sunday Dinner. Poppy.

After work I head home and wait for C. to swing by. We're having dinner at Poppy, lured by the prospect of tandoor-roasted chicken and naan bread. (It is not so much Indian food as Indian-inspired food). I want to see how the thali concept (a set menu, available in two sizes and with vegetarian options) has held up since the restaurant opened in September, and when we walk in to find that all tables are booked for the evening (despite some empty seats) I can only suppose that Jerry Traunfeld's reputation is holding steady, despite the current state of the economy and reports every week of restaurant closings and slow evenings. We take a seat at the bar, where you can order the set thali menu or various nibbles and plates from the bar menu, which includes several appetizers (also available in the main dining room) and three main courses: tandoor-roasted chicken, scallops, and braised beef cheeks. (The last two are also items included in the "thali" and "smali").

I waver between the set menus and the bar plates, but C. has her heart set on tandoor-roasted chicken, so I suggest a plate for each of us and a few appetizers to share. And lemonade to drink. Tonight's lemonade is spiked with rosemary, not too sweet. The couple next to us, who arrived and ordered after we did, receive their eggplant fries before we do, which incenses me until all three of our appetizers arrive together. Well, ok then. We have the eggplant fries that I remember so well from my first dinner here, and the savory strudel, this time with pears and tarragon instead of apples and dill, but with the same leeks and taleggio. We try the gorgonzola cherry-sage puffs, filled with bacon. Without the bacon they would just be weird. Actually, they are still a little weird, but bacon automatically makes anything tasty.

Our main courses arrive before the last puff has been eaten, when half a tart still remains. I have the braised beef cheeks with purple kale and cilantro-spiked naan. They fall apart under the gentlest touch of my fork, and I scoop up a little sauce with a piece of naan. C. passes me some of her tandoori chicken, not the tandoori chicken found in cheap Indian restaurants, languishing in lunch-buffet steam tables, dry and weirdly orange. This is something more subtle. I can't wait to order it next time, unless beef cheeks are still on the menu, because I can't resist braised beef or pork cheeks, all rich, gelatinous meat in some dark, deeply infused sauce. Or maybe I can.

For dessert we share the malted milk chocolate ice cream, and a honey frozen yogurt with Riesling-soaked apricots. I have a few bites of the chocolate ice cream, which is as good as I remember, and then I notice C. looking at it, which makes me feel guilty for persuading her to order the frozen yogurt. We swap. The frozen yogurt is perfect, slightly tart against the faintly alcoholic sweetness of the fruit. I wish there was more of it, but there's no need to be greedy. There will be other dinners here.

Walking down the street afterwards we spy Dilettante Chocolates, which has moved into a new mixed-use complex that combines loft condos and shops along a tree-shaded block. Soon another café will move into the old Dilettante space, a block or two farther down Broadway. New memories will join the old ones. In that old Dilettante both new and old memories collided in my mind, as often happens when I walk through this neighborhood. I have lived in Seattle for more than twenty years. Sometimes I see my eight-year-old self twirling down the sidewalks, trying to match the brass footsteps that trace complicated ballroom dance steps, the waltz, the fox-trot, the box-step. Those twenty years went by in a blink of an eye.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The cookbook dinner. Lark.

I arrived back in Seattle on Sunday night, blurred with sleep and the disorienting feeling you get when you have traveled across an ocean and many time zones, as if someone had dragged you backwards through the time-space continuum by your hair. There were packages and piles of mail waiting for me, but nothing in the kitchen except cereal and vacuum-packed shelf-stable soy milk. It would have to do. Besides, there was something to look forward to the next night. Dinner at Lark. Weeks ago I had read about Cooks & Books on someone's blog, a series of events bringing restaurants and recently published cookbooks together. I would miss Marcella Hazan's dinner (for Amarcord) at the Château St. Michelle winery, but I would arrive home just in time for the David Tanis (for A Platter of Figs) dinner at Lark. It was fate. I had to go.

David Tanis is the part-time head chef at Chez Panisse. He spends half the year in Paris, and the other half of the year in Berkeley, switching off with the other head chef (whose name I forget, but who also lives in France when not in Berkeley). I had read an article about his new cookbook in the New York Times Magazine, and was intrigued. The price of dinner included a five-course meal, a copy of the book, and the chance to meet Tanis (and other new people, as with the Whole Beast dinner, seated as you are at communal tables). This thought sustained me through a long, jet-lag fogged day at work, the walk home, and off the couch again just before dinnertime. I found myself telling everyone I met as I walked in the door that I was nearly comatose, and not to mind if I fell asleep in the soup.

At my table I was delighted to see a couple I had met at the Whole Beast dinner last April (and whose blog has guided me through several excellent culinary adventures in the months since). We had not been able to converse much then, seated at the opposite ends of the table; this was a good chance to catch up. More people joined us; it was time to begin, with a glass of sparkling wine and platters of salumi with olives, crostini with fresh ricotta and cherry tomatoes, slices of a jellied chicken terrine adorned with tiny quail eggs. (Tonight's meal is composed of recipes from the book). David talks to the room, telling us that, despite being the head chef at one of the most reknowned restaurants in the world, that what he really cares about is home cooking, and his book is about home cooking, for the home cook. (I wonder how I can get on his guest list for the dinners he hosts when he is Paris, but I am too shy to ask).

Our first course is a fried egg and red garlic soup, the egg floating in a clear broth with some greens and, apparently, slices of garlic. I discover the latter when I bite into a piece, and the sharp shock of it goes to my head like the first shot of espresso I ever drank, gulped down in some bar on the side of the autostrada in my first hour in Italy when I was fourteen years old. The jetlag disappears. Suddenly I am excited to be home, excited to be reconnecting with people I met months ago and meeting new people. Among my dining companions tonight are a man and a woman who own a café and a bar, respectively, and another couple who, as I find later, live in my old neighborhood and know the owners of Lark because their children are friends. We are of all ages and occupations and yet what we all have in common is a love for food. This is why I come to these dinners.

The second course is wild salmon with Vietnamese cucumbers and jasmine-scented rice, and it reminds me of Hanoi, a clean and modern interpretation of that beautiful old colonial city. It is followed by a third course, duck breast with poached quince, served over black kale, with a duck liver toast on the side. I hand my toast to E., because that unfortunate incident with the foie gras in Luang Prabang has not yet left me and I feel that I am still not quite up to duck liver. The duck breast is good, though now room temperature instead of being hot or at least warm. Considering the dining room is completely full and each dish has to be ready and served more or less at the same time, this does not surprise me. It is lovely all the same.

Before the last course, I work up the nerve to take my copy of the book over to David for an autograph, which he readily gives. (Earlier, one of my dining companions insisted that I should have my picture taken with him, which he kindly allows). I come back triumphant, and eat the last course in a happy daze. A white slice of chêvre is sweetened with acacia honey and served with roasted nuts and homemade crackers. They are all delicious. I resolve to eat cheese and honey with nuts more often, which probably won't happen unless I have them here. Dinner is at an end, and little waxed-paper envelopes in which Lark hands out their checks appear all over the room. I pay my bill, and say my goodnights. Best cure for jetlag ever! I tell everyone. It is cold outside after the heat and humidity of Laos and Vietnam, the slightly cooler and yet still rather warm days in Taipei and Shanghai, but I am glad to be home at last.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Laos, days 1-2.

We flew into Vientiane after a few hours spent in the Hanoi airport, curiously small for an international airport, with a restaurant upstairs serving sandwiches and burgers and bowls of steaming pho to travelers on their way to or from exotic destinations. By the time we reach Laos it is late afternoon, still light enough to see the endless stretches of rice paddies and clumps of trees criss-crossed with roads and rivers stretched away beneath us as the plane nears our destination. A van and driver are waiting, my mother's name on a placard as arranged, and shortly we find ourselves at a beautiful colonial-era hotel, shaded with palms and decorated in dark woods against white walls. We have an uninteresting dinner in the nearly empty dining room, take a walk around the grounds of the hotel. It is hot and humid, even after night falls, and I worry about the rest of the trip.

The next day we hire a car and driver to explore the city and points beyond. We find ourselves at a park filled with Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, huge, beyond life-size figures of various deities and animals in a grassy expanse dominated by a giant reclining figure of Buddha. We head to lunch at an open pavilion of a restaurant overlooking a courtyard at the rear. It is nearly empty; we are the only foreigners there. We order barbecued duck and beef tongue and some green vegetables, and sticky rice that comes in a lidded woven bamboo basket. It is all unfamiliar and a little strange, and I hope I will come to understand more about Lao cuisine over the next several days.

But first there is dinner, and we find ourselves at a tiny little French restaurant a short drive from the hotel. A genial Frenchman greets us from behind the bar and takes us up a steep staircase to another narrow dining room, decorated in dark woods and local fabrics (and red roses in little vases). We order, cream of celery soup and duck breast for me, duck confit salad and brains for my father, eggplant layered with goat cheese and fish for my mother. The cooking is simple and refined, much better than the dinner at our hotel the night before, certainly equal to most meals I have eaten in French restaurants back in the United States. We finish our meal with a chocolate créme brûlée and a shockingly rich chocolate mouse (more like a pot de crême), and walk down to the river before heading back. A sort of carnival is happening along the river, with stalls of trinkets and clothes and snacks and music, a river of people, local and tourists alike.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Taipei, days 2-3.

I woke up very late, nearly lunchtime, to find my mom rushing out the door and a leftover zhong zhi waiting for me. Zhong zhi are triangular bundles of glutinous sticky rice filled with all sorts of ingredients, wrapped in giant bamboo leaves and then steamed. They are the perfect quick meal, because you can buy them frozen and zap them in the microwave. In Taiwan, they can be bought from street vendors, piping hot and ready to eat. There are many variations - in Hong Kong they are filled with salted egg yolks; Shanghainese-style ones are filled with red-braised pork belly, and the rice has been seasoned with soy sauce; Taiwanese-style ones have peanuts. There are sweet ones filled with red bean paste and lotus seeds, but my favorite ones are filled with pork belly. This one has pork belly and peanuts; speckles of black rice are mixed in amongst the usual sticky rice, giving it a more interesting texture and flavor than the plain kind. Because glutinous rice is so filling, one zhong zhi is enough for a simple meal. It is one of those childhood dishes, comforting as a warm blanket on a cold morning.

The next morning brings another childhood memory with it, a breakfast of fried crullers sandwiched between two layers of sesame-encrusted biscuit, with a styrofoam container of hot fresh soy milk on the side. When I was a child I would drink my hot soy milk sweetened; now I drink it savory. It is spiked with pickled radishes and finely sliced scallions, and slightly curdled, salty and almost sharp from the pickles. The crullers are long sticks of fried dough, crisp and golden outside, airy inside. You can eat them as is, or wrap them in sesame biscuits, flaky rectangles of dough sprinkled liberally with white sesame seeds (they make wonderful sandwiches when stuffed with slices of cold beef). They are a standard breakfast, these biscuit-wrapped fried crullers and hot soy milk, as common as pancakes and bacon on a weekend morning, found anywhere from roadside stands with their low tables and stools to hotel restaurants.

For dinner, we have jiao zhi, boiled dumplings filled with pork and cabbage. (At least I think it is pork and vegetables, given that I can't read the package). They are the ultimate fast dinner, easy to keep on hand in the freezer, easy to boil up in a moment, served with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and a slosh of sesame oil. (You could add minced garlic, hot sauce, dark Chinkiang vinegar, or finely sliced scallions, but we have none of these on hand). I have made these by the dozens in our kitchen (instructed by an old friend of my parents who is from Beijing); I have eaten them on street corners, purchased for $3NT each, ten dumplings making a fine dinner for what was then about $1. Now they cost $5NT each, only the slightest increase over a decade. A simple dinner, the night before we leave for Laos; the fridge is cleared of leftovers, our suitcases are packed. And it's time for our vacation to begin.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Taipei, day 1.

I slept nearly the entire flight from Seattle to Taipei, despite a seat that did not recline very far, a seat-mate who tried (unsuccessfully) to climb over me on her way to the bathroom (apparently the foot-rest proved to be an impassable barrier), the lack of an eye-mask, and flight attendants who kept asking me if I wanted food. I woke up in time to watch a movie and eat a breakfast of indifferent congee before we arrived at some brutally early hour, to be met by my uncle's driver who whisked me to my parents' apartment, where they were still asleep but came groggily downstairs to greet me before going back to bed. Left alone I discovered a) a stash of instant coffee and b) the wireless internet signal now extends to the downstairs, and my father helpfully left one of his laptops down here. Finally, my parents got up, and the morning passed before I realized I was hungry, and it was time for lunch.

Just about every visit to Taipei begins with lunch at Ding Tai Fong. On weekends there is always a long line to get in, with a mix of locals and Japanese or Hong Kong tourists. Sometimes there are tour groups led by flag-waving guides, trooping in for xiao lung bao and other kinds of steamed buns. Headset-wearing, uniform-clad waitresses scurry about, promising a wait of 15 minutes. They always tell you fifteen minutes, to give you hope. And then they dash it by saying, ten or fifteen minutes more, so it stretches to half an hour, or forty minutes. This pisses my mom off, who tells the waitress in no uncertain terms that their "fifteen minutes" is total bullshit. (Which she says in polite terms). At last, we are seated, and our order taken. A tray of cold dishes comes around, and we choose a small plate of marinated cucumbers and another of dried tofu with some kind of pickled vegetables I cannot identify.

Soon, a bamboo steamer tray of vegetable buns comes along, which we dip into saucers of finely julienned ginger and vinegar. Some kind of leafy green (I never see these in the States, so I don't know what they're called) sautéed with garlic arrives, as does another steamer tray of xiao lung bao. These are my favorite, tiny round buns of pork that burst with pork broth as you eat them (which is why you are supposed to hold them over a spoon as you eat them, to catch the soup). I could eat a whole tray, but console myself with five or six while my parents are otherwise occupied. A bowl of beef soup noodles arrives, thin white noodles in a clear broth with slices of beef and scallions. My first meal of the trip.

Several hours later I am hauled out of bed, where I had been dozing comfortably, to go out to dinner. Those hours of fractured sleep on the plane notwithstanding, I feel like I have been dragged backwards through the time-space continuum by my hair, and am nearly comatose. A late dinner at a hot-pot restaurant is the last thing I want. But my cousins are here, and I see them rarely - one I saw briefly last year, the other some years ago - so here I am. We are all late. My mother is in charge of ordering, and a succession of things arrive: a tiny appetizer of tofu and some unidentifiable green (there will be many unidentifiable things on this trip), and then tray after tray of vegetables, tofu, seafood, and meat is brought to the table and lowered into a pot of boiling broth.

Each item is taken from the broth as it cooks, and then dipped into one of two sauces (one spicy, the other tangy and full of scallions) before eating. There are shrimps and scallops and crab legs, meatballs and fishballs and mushrooms. Slices of fatty pork - almost like bacon - and well-marbled beef. I feel my appetite returning, and eat a little of everything, until all the platters have been emptied of their contents, all the plates are bare. The waitress stirs cooked rice into the remaining broth - flavored with all the ingredients that have been dipped into its boiling depths - and makes congee, which is ladled into bowls and passed around. My parents talk about how, back when they were young, people cooked noodles at the end of a hot-pot meal, but in the past few years, the fashion has turned to congee. I wonder why, but I am too tired to come up with anything logical. It's time to go home, and sleep.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Adventures abroad.

I will be traveling around Asia for the next three weeks. Posting will be spotty, if not nonexistent, until I return. See you all soon!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Dinner for two. Quinn's Pub.

All week long I have been thinking about my upcoming trip - three weeks in Taiwan, Laos, and Vietnam. I have been worrying about a lot of things - work left undone, my apartment all a mess, what will I pack, and how am I going to choose which books to bring - but most of all, I have been thinking about what my last dinner will be before I leave. I think it will have to be a cheeseburger at Quinn's Pub. I will be going for more than three weeks without Western food, or at least trying to (although being former French colonies, the French food will probably be quite good in Laos and Vietnam), and in my book that is a long time to go without a cheeseburger. By the time I leave work it is still a bit early for dinner, but I grab C. and we head off in the rain. Only a few tables are occupied when we get there, and I only give the menu a cursory glance because I have been thinking about their cheeseburger all day.

Unfortunately, our server throws a spanner into the works by coming to the table and describing the evening's specials: a beet salad, and braised pork cheeks. Uh-oh. I love braised pork cheeks. I always order them (or beef cheeks) whenever they appear on the menu. But I had been thinking about the cheeseburger all day, if not all week. If I order one, I will regret that I didn't order the other. It will haunt me for the three weeks of my vacation, until I come back. C. rescues me from this dilemma: we will order the pork cheeks and the cheeseburger, and split the two. Perfect. I am glad I came here with someone, instead of alone, because it would have been impossible to choose.

Soon, our food arrives, and we are occupied with dividing things and passing plates back and forth. The pork cheeks are served with mushrooms and sliced Brussels sprouts on a pool of pumpkin puree, with a scattering of roasted pumpkin seeds sprinkled on top. The meat is tender but firm, rich and savory against the sweetness of pumpkin. I mop up a bit of the sauce with every bite of meat, and it is so good I could lick the bowl clean. Only after every scrap of the pork cheeks has been eaten, do I turn my attention to the cheeseburger. Still pink and juicy in the middle, layered with bacon and cheese in a soft pretzel bun, it is everything I had imagined, the perfect send-off before I head home to finish packing and get ready for my vacation. I eat a few fries - they have wonderful French fries here - and think about all the things I will be eating in the next few weeks. I'm ready for bowls of steaming noodles, of xiao lung bao and zhong zhi and hot pot and all manner of strange and wonderful things.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pasta two ways. sausages and market vegetables.

Last Friday at the market I came home laden with all kinds of greens, chard and kale and beet and escarole. There were shallots and carrots and onions and two fat beefsteak tomatoes. What on earth was I going to do with them all? The kale we ate that night, sautéed with shallots and finely sliced guanciale and tossed with orecchiette and a handful of grana padano cheese. I reflected that pasta was the perfect lazy cook's one-dish dinner, stuffed with vegetables and a little meat and some cheese. It has everything you need. If you are feeding other people, you might add a salad and a loaf of garlic bread, something chocolate and gooey for dessert. (Or you could go all the way and make it a first course, after a series of cold appetizers, before seafood and meat main dishes, the way A. often does). If you are alone, or with someone else who doesn't mind the lack of garlic bread and salad, then it becomes dinner, followed by brownies or Girl Scout cookies from the freezer.

Last night I made pasta with escarole and sausage for C., who had requested it. It was one of those dishes I threw together on the spur of the moment and has since become a staple, with various refinements and variations. It is never quite the same each time. The escarole was sliced and gently sautéed in a little olive oil, and then braised in chicken stock. I finely chopped some onion and thickly sliced some cremini mushrooms, and sautéed them in more olive oil. Out came the vegetables, in went spicy Italian sausage, enough for two meals. Half of the cooked sausage went into the fridge, for another experiment, and the rest was left to simmer with the escarole, mushrooms, and onions, while the pasta finished boiling away on another burner. When the timer rang, I scooped the rigatoni into the meat and vegetables, and tossed it all together, with a handful of grated cheese and a sprinkling of salt. It was very good, but my mind was already on what I would make with the rest of the sausage, the second half of the onion.

Today I went about my work with one idea fixed firmly in my mind: a ragu of spicy sausage and sautéed onions and those two fat beefsteak tomatoes that I had inadvertently left at work the other day. I came home hungry and determined; it took no time at all to sauté the chopped onions in olive oil, until they were translucent, while I diced the fresh tomatoes and dropped them in with the onions. Soon, the tomatoes had cooked down into a slushy sauce. I stirred in the cold leftover sausage, left it all to simmer, and went back to packing for my trip. The apartment filled with the scent of tomatoes and sausage and fried onions. I went up to the gym to pedal away furiously (well, ok, not very furiously) on the stationary bicycle while watching the Food Network, and came back down ready for my dinner. I boiled penne and brought the sauce back to a simmer, poured the drained, cooked pasta into the meaty ragu. With a handful of grated cheese on top, it was perfect.

Monday, September 29, 2008

And the beet goes on. kitchen adventures.

It is later than I would like when I get home, delayed by work and an unexpected run-in with R., who is in the fashion business, always looks impeccable from head-to-toe, and tactfully manages not to wince when confronted with my messy hair and baggy sweaters over jeans and sneakers. He advises me on what to wear with the new shoes I just bought, and double-dog-dares me to wear them to work. (Not happening). The conversation brings a laugh to my lips that buoys me all the way home, into the kitchen where I lean against the open refrigerator door and try to decide whether to experiment with the beets from the market or just settle for some frozen pizza of uncertain provenance. Even though it is nearly six, and I don't know how long it will take to roast the beets, I plump for a dinner of roasted beets and tiny new Yukon Gold potatoes, since I am alone and don't have to worry about dinner companions who might consider this a rather peculiar sort of meal.

I scrub the beets under running water and trim them a little, leaving about an inch of the stalks at one end but removing the raggedy tail and any stray rootlings. The fat purple beets go into a small roasting pan with a slosh of olive oil and some sea salt, and then into the toaster oven. Unfortunately, I have put too much olive oil in the pan and it is making unnerving spitting sounds after several minutes, so I move the beets into the range oven and leave them. The little potatoes are also scrubbed and trimmed, thrown into a Pyrex dish and tossed with more olive oil and sea salt and shoved into the oven on the rack beneath the beets. More spitting sounds ensue. I peer into the oven to see that the beets have shriveled a little, the skin darkened in spots, but when I stick a fork in, I meet with resistance. I stifle the urge to call up J. and ask him how long and at what temperature I should have roasted them. It is my own fault for not asking yesterday at dinner. A little while later, they seem tender when I pierce them with my fork. The skins have loosened, sagging away from the flesh, and it takes only a moment to peel and slice the beets, revealing a fuchsia-and-white striped interior. These are Chioggia beets, an Italian variety, and I regret that I had not sliced them crosswise to reveal concentric rings of color. Whoops.

Then the potatoes are done, their fragile skins peeling away, and I slice them in half and toss in a little butter and a scattering of Maldon sea salt. Dinner is ready. The beets are more delicately flavored than the red or golden ones I am familiar with, an interesting sensation. I sprinkle half of the thick wedges with a little more salt, and leave the other half plain (save for a bit of olive oil) so I can compare the two, and think of how Laurie Colwin wrote about how wonderful things tasted when they were left to themselves. I find that the beets need nothing, not olive oil, not salt, and I am glad I resisted the urge to add balsamic vinegar, or anything else that would distract from their flavor. I turn to the potatoes, which are hot and buttery - even the bits that didn't actually get any butter on them - and taste the way I never knew potatoes could taste. And even after the last bite, I find myself wanting more.