Monday, March 24, 2008

Eating. instant pudding.

The pain began yesterday. Or perhaps the day before; I can't remember. It started out as a dull throb at the back of my jaw, which I ignored all morning and afternoon and evening as I ate leftover pizza and fried rice and that lovely roasted elk tenderloin with root vegetables followed by bread and cheese in lieu of dessert at Lark. By lunchtime Sunday I was reduced to carefully eating small mouthfuls of plain, steamed white rice and making congee (with the rest of the rice) with pork riblets and lots of ginger. It bubbled away slowly on the stove, filling the air with the sweetness of braised pork and spicy ginger, as I nursed my sore tooth (now agonizingly painful) and watched the Food Network. The elk with chestnuts and parsnips seemed very far away. Even the normally soothing congee was like pouring fire over my wounds. Would I ever eat solid food again?

Today it was worse. Opening my mouth was agony. The thought of food was unbearable, and I am someone who can eat through almost everything, even when angry or sad or depressed. But I have a birthday party to prepare for, a cake to bake, and I found myself walking up and down the aisles of my local supermarket, recipe in hand (more on that later). And then I found pudding. All kinds of pudding. Instant pudding, lemon and tapioca and vanilla and chocolate and butterscotch. I have never made instant pudding before, have never poured cold milk into a measuring jug and stirred sweet powders into it until it all becomes a smooth, creamy mass, thickening miraculously in minutes, without the mess of whisks and double-boilers and sieves, eggshells littering counters and spilled cornstarch on the floor. I give into the seductive promise of instant gratification for the first time, and run home with my packets of instant pudding (and some foil-capped plastic tubs of pudding for backup).

I have hardly taken off my coat and shoes before I am pouring milk into a glass jug and adding the pudding mix, stirring it until smooth, dividing the mixture into individual servings. The grocery bags lay abandoned next to the refrigerator; by the time the pudding is ready to eat I have put everything away, the milk and eggs and butter and boxes of cake mix and pudding cups. Now my vanilla pudding is pale yellow, thick and creamy. It tastes good, even with a toothache. It tastes like childhood and school cafeteria lunches and Jell-O ads on tv. I have everything I need: pudding (vanilla, butterscotch, and chocolate), an appointment with the dentist on Thursday, and the day off tomorrow.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Saturday Lark.

Another Saturday at work, another dinner at Lark. Although this time I am done early enough to go home and comb my hair and change into something a little less scruffy and grab a handbag instead of my usual backpack before I head out to dinner. It's a beautiful evening, the flowers in bloom everywhere, sunny and only lightly cool. As usual, it is quiet in the dining room; as usual, I am greeted as a regular. (I am glad that none of my friends or family is here to raise an eyebrow when my new haircut is immediately noted by two people). K. comes by, and tells me about their annual Whole Beast dinner next month. I'm in!, I tell her. There are two specials tonight, and when I hear the word "elk" I know that it will be my dinner tonight. I add a salad, and sit back with my bread and butter.

My salad arrives, and I find that it is impossible to eat a watercress salad gracefully, the stalks going every which way. It is very tasty, though, the watercress leaves tossed with delicate curls of frisée, tiny florets of cauliflower, crunchy bits of toasted pecans, crumbled blue cheese, and chewy little lardons. I eat it slowly, enjoying the contrasts of all the flavors and textures on my plate, as more and more diners filter into the room. A large party takes over the big table nearest the kitchen; a birthday party, it looks like. There is nearly always a birthday party here, just as there is always a "fun" table, happy and almost boisterous, chatting enthusiastically with the owner and the servers and amongst themselves.

Then comes the elk loin, over roasted chestnuts and what appear to be parsnips, scattered with huckleberries and a deep fuschia berry sauce. The meat is surprisingly tender, intense rather than gamy, offset by the sweetness of the chestnuts and parsnips and the berries. I regret that I did not order some pommes de terre Robüchon, that puree of potatoes that is really more butter than potato (or so it seems). Spring has come; winter is at an end, and sooner than I can imagine it will be summer, time to turn to lighter dishes instead of the warm earthiness of roasted and braised meats that have sustained me through winter. Time to put away the pork belly and elk and turn to fish and fresh vegetables. But that comes later.

I want something more, but not something sweet. I don't want dessert, not the lemon parfait or the brown-sugar-date cake or the pineapple tarte tatin. The cheese list is a mystery to me, but finally (with a little help from my server) I order some clochette, a goat cheese from the Loire Valley. A fat little wedge of the cheese comes with a tiny dish of what turns out to be heather honey. The honey comes from Italy, and it is like warm sunlight, with a slightly crystalline texture that contrasts perfectly against the creamy smoothness of the cheese and the nutty bread. I slice the cheese and lay it on a piece of walnut bread with a smear of honey, and it is better than any tarte tatin or brown-sugar-date cake. At least for tonight.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Eating. steak for one.

Steak at home became one of the great pleasures of my life when I began living alone. I would experiment with different methods - broiling it in the oven, searing it in a cast-iron skillet or ridged grill pan, or frying it in the thinnest film of olive oil. (And there was the incident with the flaming whiskey which has yet to be repeated). I would rest the steak for an hour or so before dinner, letting the meat come to room temperature before laying it in the hot pan. Usually I would just season it with salt and pepper, but sometimes I would smash a few cloves of garlic and throw them in a zip-top bag with the steak and a few sloshes of olive oil, soy sauce, and perhaps a little Worcestershire sauce, marinating it for a few hours or overnight. With the steak I would have mashed potatoes or creamed spinach - never both, because making more than two dishes for one person is tedious, leaving the kitchen a disaster and the diner overstuffed - with the steak, usually enough for dinner that night and lunch the next day.

The difficult part of cooking steak at home is achieving the perfect balance between a crusty, well-browned exterior and a medium-rare (my preferred degree of doneness) interior. Many writers have written at length of the science of cooking meat, and they have all confused me. Then there is Jeffrey Steingarten, who warbles at length about marbling and different cuts and different animals and various steakhouses and wet-aging versus dry-aging and low heat and high heat and so forth. Which confused me even more. Not to mention I have no intention of trying to age my own beef at home. Also, I live in a condominium, and therefore his instructions on grilling a porterhouse steak over coal (there are three different recipes for a grilled steak in It Must've Been Something I Ate) are of no use to me. But then he includes a recipe for A PERFECTLY FINE UNGRILLED STEAK. This could be interesting.

My steak - a rib-eye this time - has been marinating overnight with olive oil seasoned with a splash of soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, smashed garlic cloves, and sprigs of rosemary. I let it rest on the counter until I'm ready to start cooking. The rice is steaming away in its white plastic cooker. I'm starting to get hungry. Jeffrey Steingarten's recipe calls for lots of butter, six tablespoons, melted in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan. (I console myself with the fact that I am using a smaller pan, so I only use four tablespoons, and most of it stays in the pan. But I am probably only fooling myself). Actually my pan is a small, heavy non-stick frying pan that I use for omelets and pancakes. The butter melts, and just before it starts to brown I slide the steak into the foaming butter.

The smell of garlic and rosemary and browning butter and browning steak rises in the narrow kitchen. I take a spoon and baste the steak with the golden butter. As promised, a firm, dark brown crust begins to form on the bottom, although I keep the heat on just past medium heat, instead of medium-high. (My electric stove reacts a little differently than the gas range I learned to cook on, and I have had to relearn everything). I turn the steak over, continue cooking, continue spooning brown butter over the top. At last it is done, both sides with a fine, deep reddish-brown crust, the inside just on the rare side of medium-rare. I scoop some rice on a plate, add a piece of my steak, and settle in for dinner. It is perfect, with the flavors of garlic and rosemary and brown butter mingling with the richness of good beef. Who needs a grill when all you need is a little butter and a hot pan?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Dinner for two.

I come home early from work with two hours to clean my apartment and cook dinner. By now I have decided against the pasta with escarole and spicy sausage. (I have been going back and forth about this all day). Instead, it will be rigatoni with spicy sausage bolognese and a side dish of braised escarole. So - first, the sauce. I finely chop an onion and a shallot that had been lurking at the bottom of the crisper. Actually, first I have to clean the pot, because it is full of chicken broth that I made some days before and forgot about (although how you forget about a pot taking up space on the bottom shelf of your fridge is beyond me). Fine. I can use the broth for the escarole. I pour some olive oil in the bottom of the pan and add the chopped onion and shallot. Once they become translucent I can add the sausage, breaking up the clumps with a wooden spatula as they brown. The canned tomatoes go in, and the diced fresh tomatoes. One and a half hours to go.

The sauce simmers away as I run around putting books away, shoving recyclables in the recycle bin, cramming papers in drawers and throwing dirty socks in the hamper. (Luckily K. is all too aware of the chaos that surrounds me at all times and even if it looks like a bomb exploded in here she will not comment, much as she does not comment on my driving, even when I am heading in the wrong direction). Having forgotten to buy flowers, I arrange the Italian parsley into a sort of leafy bouquet on the dining room table, like a feathery green fountain sprouting from a glass teapot. I run back to check on the sauce, which is bubbling away gently, and wash the escarole, which will be sautéed in olive oil and then braised in chicken broth.

As the escarole cooks I suddenly remember that I have forgotten all about the strawberries, which have to be sliced and macerated in a little balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of sugar. The vinegar gives them a ruby-red translucency and a deep, intense flavor, neither sweet nor tart, or perhaps both. K. calls, and she is hungry. I boil water and throw in the pasta. The escarole is done, a whole curly head reduced into a tiny heap. I reheat some of the bolognese - some of it will be saved for another night - as the pasta cooks. Before I forget, I mince some Italian parsley and scrape it into a small bowl. The rigatoni is finally al dente, and I toss it with the sauce, the parsley, and a shower of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Still no sign of my guest, though. Never mind. It will keep.

Then she arrives, with a bouquet of tulips and dazzlingly adorned with her favorite necklace and a fur-trimmed shawl. (And hiking books and backpack). My first real dinner guest. The first of many, I hope.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Dinner for two. (the night before).

The invitation was given on impulse. I wanted K. to see my new shelves (I am so much in love with my new bookshelves I show them off to anyone who will come and visit; soon I will be mugging strangers on the street and dragging them home with me), and the next thing I knew, we had agreed she would come to dinner on the following Tuesday night. Tomorrow night. As soon as the words left my lips the panic set in. What on earth would I cook for my boss, she of the elaborate salads and rice-paper rolls filled with who-knows-what and squid-ink pasta with white truffle oil and, once, an indescribable pudding made of puréed avocado and Kahlua, served in stemmed goblets?

For days I ran through all the possibilities in my head, braised pork and stir-fried corn with pine nuts and chewy cubes of dried tofu with long beans, the sort of thing I would cook for my mother. But that would involve an excursion into Chinatown. Maybe instead I would make grilled sausages with polenta, or orecchiette with braised escarole and tomatoes and spicy Italian sausage and a hefty sprinkle of Parmeggiano-Reggiano. Perhaps I would go down to the Pike Place Market and buy a piece of fish, whatever vegetables are in season, roast them simply with a little olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt. All through the weekend different ideas sprang to mind and then were discarded. K., despite her own extravagant generosity towards others, would be fine with one or two dishes, perhaps a little dessert. It would be easy, if only I could decide on what to make.

Finally I decide on pasta with spicy Italian sausage and escarole, with mushrooms and tomatoes. Perhaps I would buy some fresh fruit for dessert. I sat on the living room floor absently watching the Food Network and making up my grocery list when I noticed that the Barefoot Contessa was making panna cotta. That looked easy, I thought, and quickly looked up the recipe. It seemed simple, cream and yogurt and sugar and gelatin. I would need a vanilla bean, but it promised only five minutes of cooking time. The list grew longer. Time to go shopping.

I buy produce first, escarole and Italian parsley and garlic and onions and tomatoes. I buy strawberries and blueberries and reject the sad-looking cremini mushrooms before heading towards the meat counter. There I buy spicy Italian sausage and bacon and a thick steak for later in the week. I have to think past tomorrow night, and momentarily consider a whole chicken before deciding against it. Milk and juice and eggs and butter, a box of rigatoni - they don't have orecchiette - pile on top of the other things. I can't reach the vanilla beans on the top shelf, and nearly ask one of the tall guys shopping nearby to get it for me when I notice more on a lower shelf. On impulse, I grab a can of San Marzano tomatoes, in case I change my mind and do something different for the pasta.

I get home, and assemble the ingredients for the panna cotta on the counter even before all the other groceries have been put away. The gelatin is softened in a little water; cream is heated to just under boiling with some sugar. I whisk the yogurt and a little more cream together with the vanilla seeds, and then add the gelatin and hot cream. Less than ten minutes pass before the filled ramekins are wrapped in plastic and put in the fridge. I wash the strawberries and remove the stems and leaves, eating a few before putting them away. Everything's ready for tomorrow.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Eating out. Monsoon.

I went to the Baguette Box for lunch this morning, early, just after 11:00. The place was empty of customers; even some of the staff were late, having forgotten about Daylight Savings time. I already knew before heading down there that I would order the braised pork belly baguette; I had seen it on the menu last time. It arrived quickly, the meat rich and fatty against the soft baguette within the thin shell of its crisp crust. There was a sprig of cilantro, a smear of something creamy dressing, the tender meat drizzled with the sweet darkness of Hoisin sauce. It was all very tasty, but it left me with a craving for more pork belly.

This craving would have gone unsatisfied had I not checked my phone upon re-emerging, blinking in the sudden light, from the darkness of the movie theater to find that C. had left me a message. Excellent, someone to drag out to dinner with me. I left the choice to her, but as dinner time came around and she lobbed the choice of dinner back to me, I thought ha! Monsoon! J., foodie extraordinaire (who makes me look like a lazy slob in the kitchen, which of course I am) has told me that it was a great restaurant, and I have always wanted to try it. (Coincidentally, it is the sister restaurant to the Baguette Box, a full-on restaurant instead of a sandwich shop). We hop in the car and drive off. Do I get a bit lost and drive past the restaurant and have to turn into a side street and circle around? Yes.

We arrive at an unspeakably early hour (unspeakably early for normal people, but perfectly normal for me, that is); the restaurant is empty. I have no reservation, but we are offered any table we like along the banquette that runs down one side of the room. The menu is simple, one page with a handful of appetizers and rolls and some main dishes and some vegetable side dishes. Our waiter comes along to tell us that there is one special for the evening, braised pork belly, and I know that is exactly what I want. We order some Imperial rolls, the braised pork belly for me, the grilled pork belly and shoulder for C. Our waiter is taken aback. Whoa...that's a lot of pork belly there, he says.

The Imperial rolls arrive, and our waiter tells us to wrap them in lettuce leaves with some soft white vermicelli noodles and fragrant basil. They are hot and crisp, filled with ground pork and shrimp, and I could make a meal of them. Our main courses arrive, with a pot of steamed rice. My pork belly has been braised in coconut water and served over a tangle of bean sprouts, in a pool of broth. The coconut water has given the pork a sort of wild sweetness, a faintly caramelized taste that emphasizes the natural sweetness of the pork. It is better than candy. Then I try some of C.'s grilled pork belly, chewy and intensely flavored and also a little sweet, and I am not sorry that we are not ordering dessert (it is still Lent for C.).

All I need is some pork belly to make me happy.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Eating out. Made in Kitchen.

J. was late. I had expected this, and was reading Lucifer Unemployed, by Alexander Wat, when my doorman rang to say that he was here. What I had not expected, or perhaps I should have, is that once J. is in front of a wall of books - approximately two-thirds of my library spread across twenty-four shelves that run along an entire wall of my bedroom - it is nearly impossible to budge him, particularly when he begins taking things down from the shelves and opening them at random. We were very nearly late to dinner. My boss had arranged this dinner for some thirty people at Made in Kitchen, a late New Year gathering instead of our usual Christmas holiday party held at our lab.

That morning I had heard K. say there would be four appetizers, nine courses, and three desserts, and I had taken her seriously, eating a light lunch and resolving to pace myself accordingly during dinner. But after we sat down and ordered drinks for everyone and the appetizers began arriving, it was difficult to exercise restraint when confronted with skewers of chicken satay and shrimp wrapped around sticks of sugar cane. There were crisp fried spring rolls and a beef salad (which M. eyed suspiciously until someone pointed out that those were slices of beef draped across the lettuce). Some of us were beginning to falter, full of chicken satay and sugar-cane shrimp and spring rolls. And then main courses began arriving.

K. was joking when she said nine courses, right? People kept asking me, and I kept telling them that they should know by now that the boss never jokes when it comes to food. She is not one to eat a large meal, but her generosity towards others at mealtimes knows no bounds. Christmas parties center around an entire roast pig; birthdays and holidays are celebrated with long lunches where the lazy Susan on our dining table creaks and groans with every turn. This dinner is no exception. It is all a blur.

There is lemongrass chicken and stir-fried chunks of beef and vegetables and cubes of tofu deep-fried and dusted with what appears to be flakes of dried seaweed. There are crunchy fried noodles with seafood and perfectly broiled black cod, the most memorable dish of the evening. The conversation flows from one end of the table to the other; seated as I am in the middle I find myself with the people on either side talking to me at the same time without realizing that I am not listening to either of them, because this simultaneous assault on my ears leaves me dizzy.

But it is good to be with my colleagues, those I work with every day, and those I talk to every day but see rarely. It feels different to be around people whose voices you know almost as well as your own but whom you only see at work-related parties, to talk about our lives as we share coconut sticky-rice and flan and a sort of shaved-ice dessert that involves some kind of weird jello and sweet red beans. We linger over tea and the last bites of melting ice and say our goodbyes over and over. Until next year.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Happy lazy sunny Sunday.

It has been my practice for some months now to walk downtown for a movie on Sunday mornings when I have no errands to run, no work to do. I wake up at eight or nine, have a cup of tea, read the newspaper, check the movie times. Usually there will be a movie showing around 10:30 or 11:00, and one theater downtown has $6 showings on weekend mornings. While drinking my tea - the slightly spicy Chandernagor from Mariage Fréres with a touch of sugar and milk - I watch a Food Network chef make fried chicken in his kitchen with his actress wife. In her funky eyeglasses and sparkly beaded cardigan - so different from her onscreen persona - she dips buttermilk-marinated chicken into a mix of spices and flour before slipping the chicken into the hot oil - and immediately my mind, which had been fixated on cheeseburgers, springs to how soon I can get my hands on some fried chicken.

In the darkness of the movie theater before the film begins I ignore the pre-show advertisements and think about whether I should make my own oven-fried chicken, or head out somewhere to buy some, either at Ezell's or KFC or maybe even out to Atlas for their honey-drizzled fried chicken, which comes with smashed potatoes and whatever vegetables are in season at the moment. Or I could go to the Baguette Box on my way home and have a Crispy Drunken Chicken baguette. As one of our clients would say, ding ding ding ding! Baguette Box it is.

The Baguette Box is an airy, well, box of a room, at the end of a street bustling with shops and cafés and pubs and restaurants, just before the street goes over the freeway and crosses into downtown. The menu is handwritten on chalkboards; the small room is decorated with paintings and photographs of dogs. (The logo on the window is of a bulldog - or perhaps a boxer - holding a baguette in his mouth). There is one long communal table and three small round tables. This place is an offshoot of an upscale Vietnamese restaurant not far away; their signature sandwich is the Crispy Drunken Chicken baguette - the crispy drunken chicken is on the menu at the original restaurant, too - and they have sandwiches made with fried tofu or lemongrass-marinated steak in addition to ones made with gravlax or braised pork or meatloaf or tuna salad. There are french fries, or french fries dusted with truffle salt, and salads.

I order a crispy drunken chicken baguette. I sit back and read an old James Bond that I threw in my bag on the way out the door and drink my Thai iced tea, which is a weird shade of orange, sweetened and made creamy with condensed milk. The sandwich arrives, chunks of fried chicken, a few bits of lettuce and sweet caramelized onions. The chicken is slathered with a tangy-sweet sauce, and bits of vegetables fall out with every bite. It is not Bobby Flay's buttermilk-marinated, spice-seasoned fried chicken, but it is very good all the same, the chicken moist and tender beneath the sauce and the crisp skin, all held together with the baguette that threatens to fall apart in my hands. Oh well. I have a fork, and plenty of napkins, and perhaps a new Sunday routine as well.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Dinner at Lark. (again).

Today C. and I are working together, and this time I manage to drag her to Lark with me after we have finished for the day. We walk into the nearly empty restaurant, to be greeted by K., who jokes that she knows I had to work today, because it is Saturday and I am here for dinner again. C. raises an eyebrow at me as we are seated in one of the booths that run along one side of the room, the way she does when the salespeople at Barneys say hi or the girls at Retrofit (a funky local home-furnishings store) greet me with hugs and ask where I've been lately. (I like to go back to the same places, places where people remember my name, who will take the time to stop and chat, whether it be for food or clothes or bedside lamps). The waiter brings menus and tells us the evening's specials; he is the one who does not remember me and always asks if I have been there before. C. asks me what the kumquat Dry Soda (it comes in other flavors, like lemongrass and rhubarb and lavender) tastes like; I tell her that it tastes like Fanta, if Fanta had a graduate degree in French literature from the Sorbonne.

Our waiter brings us the last kumquat soda, which he pours into two tall flutes. We order recklessly; translucent slices of salami arranged around a small bowl of mostarda di uva, that Italian grape chutney, sweet and intense against the salami. There is a piece of Spanish mackerel over thin rounds of fennel, with olives and tiny, glowing cubes of some spicy, saffron-scented jelly with the rubbery bounce of aspic, but unlike any other aspic I had tasted before. We have braised lamb shanks, served in (or under) a tagine over couscous with some chickpeas - or perhaps they are garbanzo beans. The lamb was tender and lightly gamy, and the couscous was soft and fluffy and soaked up the sauce with each bite. The agnolotti arrived last, this time with black trumpet mushrooms and a lighter, brothier sauce than last time, but with the same savory veal filling enclosed by a dough that has that perfect, firm bite to it, what the Italians call al dente.

Somehow eating here always makes me feel cozy and well-cared for, even when I am alone, perhaps especially when I am here alone. With someone to share it with, it is not exactly better, no, but certainly different. It is harder to concentrate on the flavors mingling on your plate when you are caught up in conversation. And then I have to consider someone else's tastes, someone else's desires, but at the same time, we can order more things and share them, four dishes instead of two. We skip dessert because C. has given up sweets for Lent, and I cannot bear to watch her toy sadly with a cappucino while I dive into the lemon parfait or a warm date-and-pine-nut cake. (As we gather up our things to leave, K. leans over and says, No dessert? I'm worried about you! C. has given up sweets for Lent, I tell her, I'm being a good friend). Next time. Easter is only a few weeks away.