Saturday, August 30, 2008

Dinner out. Palace Kitchen.

An old friend of my mother's comes to visit, driving up from Portland with her two sons. I have not seen them in many years, a decade or so. She has not changed much, at least to my eye, the way my parents will always look the same to me no matter what, but her sons have grown from seven or eight and ten or eleven to seventeen and twenty-one. The boy who came up to my shoulder the last time I saw him now towers over me by a good twelve inches or so. So here they are in my living room, and I have two seconds to propose something besides a Chinatown seafood restaurant. Because if I am going to eat dinner with people I don't know well, and make awkward small talk all night (I am very bad at making small talk), I damn well better be eating something I will enjoy. So Palace Kitchen it is. They have a table available, an unheard-of occurrence last-minute on a Saturday night.

I have never seen this restaurant so quiet (which is not to say that it is empty; many tables are occupied, but there are several still open, the noise level is moderate rather than deafening, and no waiting patrons block the door). I am early, and occupy myself with the menu while waiting for the others to arrive. As always, I want to order one of everything. I know I will order the chicken wings, but I am madly torn between the pasta with summer vegetables and the pasta cake with goat cheese. Then my mother and her guests arrive, and all is chaos as I order the first round of appetizers and everyone else looks over the menu.

Like last time we have the grilled chicken wings, the pork belly, the plin, a sort of triangular ravioli. The chicken wings and plin have been a constant on the ever-changing menu since the restaurant opened, as far as I can recall. So is the Caesar salad, improperly made with whole romaine leaves and a giant house-made crouton. I also order a salad of heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella. They are all good, and we pass the plates around as the ordering of our main courses spins entirely out of control and ends up, happily, with the decision to share everything.

We order five main courses for the six of us, steak and roast chicken (much like the ones we ate here recently) and sliced duck breast and black-pepper linguine, tossed with those tiny chanterelles like those we'd had at Sitka & Spruce, olives and tomatoes and goodness knows what else. Wide noodles are mixed with goat cheese and tomatoes and other good things and fried into a gooey cake; it is all extremely good, and I am glad that I did not have to make a choice. This is a fun way to eat, tasting a little of everything, eating until you are satisfied. There is just enough room for something sweet, and I have the "Whoopie Pie," two soft chocolate cookies filled with a mascarpone cream, a saucer of raspberries on the side. I reflect that I have not gotten any better at talking to seventeen-year-old boys since I was a seventeen-year-old girl. But the food was good.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dinner for four. Sitka & Spruce.

I arrive at Sitka & Spruce to find an open parking space in front of the restaurant; in the tiny lot, parking is hard to come by, and I take this as a good omen. The restaurant is in a little Eastlake strip mall between a sub shop and a teriyaki place; it seems a little out of place. The small dining room holds only five or six small tables, plus one communal table in the middle of the room, perhaps twenty-six seats all together, and they don't take reservations. This is why I have only eaten here once before. The eight blocks between work and home is packed with cafés and restaurants and bars, and it is rare for me to eat anywhere outside of this half-mile radius, anywhere that involves driving and parking and waiting in line for a table. (I really am that lazy, although not as lazy as my cousin, who reportedly felt taking the elevator down twenty-six floors and crossing the street to the 7-Eleven for some steamed buns or a ham-and-egg sandwich was too much effort).

Inside I find my parents and uncle already eating, having arrived promptly at 5:30, when the restaurant opens (or shortly thereafter) and snagged a table for four, ordering wine and eight of the twelve dishes listed (in virtually unreadable script) on a huge blackboard that hangs on the wall. There is no printed menu, just those twelve items (nearly all available in full or half portions) scrawled in chalk (the wine list is also written up on the chalkboard). They have saved a plate for me with a little of everything that arrived in the first wave of dishes, along with a glass of a powerful red Italian wine and some bread that came to the table wrapped in a napkin, no plate or basket to hold it. As I dig in my mother points out all the things on my plate and tells me about what else is to come.

There are sweet roasted beets tangled with green curls of purslane, fried smelt with a side of the best smashed potatoes I've ever tasted, and a slice of oil-cured tombo (a kind of tuna). There are some slices of pork belly, but they are too dry and chewy, not fatty enough to be truly tasty. Americans are afraid of fat, snorts one of my parents. Grilled quail is served atop a chunky tapenade, grilled octopus tossed with baby clams and chickpeas. Then there is pasta, the Piedmontese tajarin, delicate egg noodles entwined with tiny chanterelles and melting scraps of lardo, sprinkled with a little chopped parsley. It is my favorite dish of the night. At last comes grilled skirt steak, sliced over more peppers and onions and olives, sweet and savory all at once. I tell myself that I will come here again, soon.

I am badgered into paying for dinner by my uncle. But it is worth it.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

48 Hours.

The weekend began with an Egg McMuffin and hash browns and ended with pepperoni pizza, with more of the same filling the forty-eight hours in between. I fear my gastrointestinal system will never recover. But I'm getting ahead of myself here; I have to start at the beginning.

Quite early on Saturday morning I was hustled out of bed and into the car, loaded down with overnight bags and coats and books and bottles of water. We just made the ferry to Bainbridge Island, though without enough time for breakfast before boarding. (When I was in high school and we took the ferry every weekend to our cabin on the shores of Hood Canal, we would buy breakfast or lunch at McDonald's before boarding). Our first stop, then, once we got off the (incredibly empty) ferry, was the drive-thru at the nearest McDonalds, for Egg McMuffins all around. (My mother has a deep fondness for Egg McMuffins which I have never been entirely able to understand). Nearly every road trip we take begins this way. Breakfast in hand, we are soon in Port Angeles, checking into our hotel before heading out towards our ultimate goal: Cape Flattery, the furthest northwest point of the continental United States.

Along the way, we stop for lunch in a tiny port town that seems to boast only one small café. Large windows look onto a deck lined with picnic tables, looking over the marina and the Strait of Juan de Fuca beyond. The hash browns have coalesced into a hard lump in the pit of my stomach, or so it seems, and I feebly order the grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of iced tea. The iced tea comes in a larger version of the plastic cups (thick and translucent and finely pebbled) that I last saw in a school cafeteria; the sandwich comes in a bright plastic basket lined with wax paper. The sandwich, too, is like those I last ate in a school cafeteria, white bread toasted (well, fried, probably) golden brown, oozing with molten, bright orange-yellow cheese. Velveeta, probably, which is not so much cheese as a cheese product. (Wikipedia tells me that Velveeta does not qualify for the term "cheese food," as it contains less than 51% cheese). And yet it so good, I wonder why, when left to my own devices, I bother with real cheddar and whole-wheat bread or slices of miche or even my own homemade rustic loaves and good butter or a fine film of olive oil. I save the potato chips that come with my sandwich for later.

The short hike out to Cape Flattery (steep and winding and a bit slippery at times) revives me enough to enjoy my dinner at a restaurant we find by driving slowly around Port Angeles. In the basement restaurant filled with vintage-looking lamps and furniture and shelves of cookbooks, we eat calamari sautéed with tomatoes and onions and hearty chunks of chorizo, good bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and pasta tossed with fish and shellfish in a creamy tomato sauce. I feel my mother's paella with seafood looks much like my father's seafood stew over saffron rice, except the paella is served in a copper pan and the stew is served on a deep plate. The service is so slow I am actually hungry by the time our main courses arrive, and my mother is nearly asleep by the time we finish eating. Virtuosly, we refuse dessert and head back to the hotel to watch more of the Olympic Games in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains.

The next morning brings rain and...wait for it...breakfast at McDonalds. This time I choose a sausage McMuffin, plain sausage, no egg. I fear that I am no longer capable of eating both sausage and egg, nor can I take even a bite of the hash browns that my father proffers. No sirree, not me. It is a low moment. The rain is unceasing, so we head homewards, encountering such traffic near Sequim that we get off the freeway and find some place for lunch. We wind up at Gwennie's Restaurant, which turns out to be one of those cheerfully non-chain family restaurants with handwritten specials on chalkboards and endless pots of coffee. It is clearly the sort of place where locals bring their aged parents for Sunday lunch. I order the crab melt, sourdough bread stuffed with fresh crab and avocado, topped with some sort of cheese (it might be cheddar, but then it probably isn't) and griddled a golden brown. It is very good, but also probably very bad for me.

Several traffic-clogged hours later and we are back in Seattle, too exhausted to stop somewhere for dinner, too exhausted to try and throw together a meal from the contents of the fridge. I call for pizza from the place downstairs (well, technically, I have to go around the corner to get there) and head out into the rain to pick it up. I can't remember the last time my parents and I ate takeout pizza together. Over ten years, probably. When I get to the pizza place my food isn't quite ready, so it literally comes straight out of the oven and into a box and into my hands and swiftly down the street, around the corner, through the back door of my building, up the elevator, and into my dining room. It is so hot it nearly burns my hands, nearly burns my tongue as I eat it. There is salad for my mother and beer for my father and hot pepperoni pizza. I had forgotten what it tasted like, how good it could be. In forty-eight hours I have ricocheted across the culinary nirvanas of my childhood and adolescence, McMuffins and grilled cheese sandwiches and melts and takeout pizza. I think I am too old for them now, but I am glad that I have had them back, for just a little while.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dinner out. Lark.

My mother has invited two friends to dinner at Lark; as usual, we settle upon an early hour, and as usual, I am sent ahead to secure a table. Also as usual, I come straight from work, at a run. But it is a Thursday night, and while the restaurant is still popular some of the heat has slowed down so that at six o'clock the room is mostly empty. It is only a moment's work to put two tables together for the five of us, and I seat myself at the head of the table, all the better to survey the room before me (and to keep an eye out for my parents and their friends). They arrive, and my mother assigns me the task of ordering our meal. And then the fun begins.

It is all a blur, the yellowtail carpaccio, the slender yellow and green beans, still just crunchy. A creamy chilled corn soup, with the shock of warm corn sautéed with finely diced red peppers. There are veal sweetbreads with bacon and a perfectly fried egg, and veal scallopinni (the special of the evening), both perfectly crisp-tender. Chewy grains of farro with morels and cucumbers. (It is always a bit strange to have cooked cucumbers). Sweet carrots with candied ginger and chervil, sautéed wild mushrooms.

I order the rösti potatoes (which I have always wanted to try), and am assaulted by a stray shard of crunchy potato as I divide it into five pieces (one for each of us). It hits me in the eye, but such suffering is worth each bite of potato, crusty outside and soft within. There is wild striped bass with potatoes and tomatoes and caponata (another special), confit of tuna with a little salad of beans and peppers on the side (probably the least exciting of the night's dishes), and at last, trofie pasta with cuttlefish. I might have missed a dish or two.

Then there is dessert. I have a summer pudding, thick with cherries and berries and crispy bits of bread. There are two blueberry tarts, filled with a tangy mascarpone custard. The lacquered peach is a perfect foil for white sesame ice cream and sesame brittle. And there is a gift from the kitchen, the tarte tatin, this time filled with nectarines, all buttery pastry and warm caramel and melting ice cream. As I leave K. tells me she was impressed by how much we ordered; I kept adding more dishes throughout the meal, egged on by my mother, who while a tiny slip of the thing likes to try everything. And so do I.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dinner for two. Kingfish Café.

Late in the afternoon we walk downtown and wander around, lobbying dinner choices back and forth all the way, all the way through the displays of handbags and shoes at Nordstrom and the aisles of cookware at City Kitchens (where I find four more red Staub ceramic cocottes, just right for individual portions of macaroni and cheese or Shepherd's pie, my fall-through-winter standbys). Italian is out. Sandwiches are too casual. C. does not care for savory crêpes. We could just walk until we find something, but it is really far too hot for that. It is unusual for me to have no ideas at all, but I am too tired to think of anything. Then a possibility strikes me: Kingfish Café. I've always wanted to try it, ever since we passed it on the way to Monsoon several months ago. We head home in the muggy warmth of early evening, and drops of rain begin to fall just as we reach the car (although they stop immediately).

Kingfish Cafe is on one of those leafy Seattle neighborhood streets, clustered with restaurants and cafes and funky little shops. Every neighborhood has one. The restaurant is divided into two long rooms, one with a few tables and a long counter (the open kitchen, I think); the other with more tables and a bar. It has a vintage feel to it, with mis-matched chairs and giant enlargements of old photographs on the wall. (Later I find out that the photographs are of various family members of the owners, two sisters). I waver between the fried chicken, the catfish, the barbecued ribs. Then I see the crab-and-catfish cakes, and my choice is made. We order our dinners and strawberry lemonade, and feel as though we were somewhere far south of here with the muggy heat of the day and the platters of comfort food moving through the room.

My crab-and-fish cakes comes with a sweet potato that seems to have been soaked in butter, and a dish of coleslaw. C. has the fried chicken, which comes with potato salad, and we have also ordered some cornbread, which way better than mine. I suppose I need a couple of decades more of experience, and a cast-iron skillet. And drippings. We eat slowly - it is so good I am already planning our next visit - and try not to eavesdrop on the incredibly strange conversation to our left, difficult given the close proximity of our tables. Then it is time for dessert. Our waiter breaks the shattering news - the next table is busy eating the last slice of red velvet cake. I am momentarily heart-broken, but rally enough to go for the strawberry shortcake.

What arrives is two giant biscuits in a deep bowl full of strawberry sauce, topped with whipped cream. The look of horror on my face when I realized that all that strawberry and biscuit and whipped cream was for us, according to C. (who had her back to the waiter and therefore did not see him approach with our dessert), was indescribable. So must have Ichabod Crane looked when he beheld the Headless Horseman. But like everything that came before it, the strawberry shortcake was incredible, the strawberries intensely sweet, marrying perfectly with the crumbly lightness of the biscuits and the drift of whipped cream that topped it all. I regret that I had eaten a main course at all. But not really.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Saturday Lunch.

In the car we run through our lunch choices, Campagne or Etta's or Matt's In the Market. Last time we went to the Steelhead Diner, but this time we choose our oldest standby, Maxmilien's. When we arrive the market is crowded with visitors, jam-packed with strollers and dogs and camera-wielding tourists. I walk ahead, straight past the vegetable stalls and ice-filled trays of seafood and buckets of flowers, down a narrow corridor towards Maximilien-in-the-Market. They have a view patio now, but I ask for a table in the nearly empty dining room, all dark wood and antique mirrors, a wide expanse of windows looking over the piers along the waterfront, and the water beyond. A cruise ship is moored nearby; ferries make their way towards distant islands.

Now it seems they only serve brunch on Sundays, which is basically their lunch menu with more eggs, as I recall. I know my father will order the moules marinieres, so I have the quiche. It comes with a slightly sad little mixed salad, with chunks of romaine and slightly underripe tomatoes. My father's mussels are not up to his standards; my mother's seafood soup is fine, but not extraordinary. The whole air about the restaurant is of one whose era has passed. Now the diners seem to be mostly tourists, including a long table full of Spanish-speaking visitors fresh off a cruise ship. My quiche is very good, the crust melting like what appears to be pate brisee rather than puff pastry, but something seems lost. I feel sorry for the waiter, who has trouble explaining to other tables what a skate wing is. I wish I had ordered it instead.

We walk around the market for a while, stopping at Le Panier for a cake (my parents are going to a friend's for dinner later). I run outside to search for an earring that my mother lost on the sidewalk, and when I return triumphantly I am rewarded with a chocolate eclair. We buy a fat, juicy melon from a market stall and head home. For dinner my father has left me a glass of wine, a very good one, one of the vintages I am forbidden to touch while he is away. I think of Elizabeth David, and I make myself a plain omelet, swirling butter in a pan, sprinkling a few grains of sea salt over the eggs, some freshly ground pepper. It rolls itself neatly into a fat, cigar-shaped log, soft inside, with the thinnest of golden crusts outside. I eat my omelet and drink my glass of wine, and they are all I need for now.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dinner out. Palace Kitchen.

I am at work when the phone calls begin. M. wants to invite E. out to dinner (an occupational hazard for out-of-town guests; everyone wants to invite you to dinner, so you find yourself dining out every night, nearly always with the same group of people). Unfamiliar with Seattle restaurants, she leaves me in charge of finding somewhere to have dinner. I have to come up with a) a place that is open on Monday, and b) is up to E.'s standards. Ten minutes of frantic Googling brings me to four choices: Nishino, Campagne, Palace Kitchen, and the Harvest Vine. This covers all bases - Japanese, French, Northwest, and Spanish (tapas) - and includes several of my favorite restaurants. Several phone calls (and a few more hours at work) later, M. decides on Palace Kitchen, the best (in my opinion) of Tom Douglas' restaurants.

Palace Kitchen, on the far edge of downtown Seattle, is one of those places that I rarely come to; it is too far to walk, and in a neighborhood with a serious lack of parking. Not to mention that they don't take reservations for less than six people, which I find extremely off-putting. But the food is so damn good that every time I come here I promise I will come back as soon as possible; if I am lucky that averages out to about once a year. But just having tonight will be enough. We walk in to find M. already waiting at one of two large oval tables on either side of the door (a giant rectangular bar fills the center of the room; booths run along one side, and tables are scattered about elsewhere). E. is late, so we begin ordering appetizers and chat away.

First comes a plate of grilled chicken wings, my mother's favorite dish even during the year she was a vegetarian, the skin is crisp and faintly charred, the meat cooked just right, the wings arranged like campfire logs on a pool of some creamy sauce. The pork belly is one small cube of rich meat, yielding a mere bite for each of us, sweet and intense. We order a second round: plin, a sort of ravioli filled with roast pork and chard, a grilled sardine falling apart next to tomato bruschetta, olive poppers stuffed with cream cheese. It is one of those slow, languorous dinners, more conversation than food. Our waiter hovers near the bar, wondering if we are ever going to get around to ordering our main courses. But now I am even more unable to decide what to order.

We continue as we began, sharing entrées as we shared our appetizers, passing around platters of roast chicken and arugula salad tossed with some kind of herbed yogurt dressing. There is pasta tossed with fresh summer vegetables and sweet corn cakes served with tomatoes and a soft corn custard. Being a greedy sort of person I order the gazpacho for myself, three tiny demitasse cups filled with different flavors, watermelon (sweet and tart), cucumber (cool and refreshing), and a more classic tomato (just a little spicy). I take a little more of the chicken, roasted in the applewood-fired grill, and it is gently flavored with woodsmoke, juicy and tender like the wings we had eaten in the first go-around. It is a lazy sort of dinner, tasting and picking from an array of dishes, and it is a pleasant way to enjoy a meal. At last everything is gone, every scrap of arugula and corncake eaten, every strand of house-made pasta twirled around a fork and deposited into the waiting mouth.

And still there is a little room left for dessert, shared and passed around like everything else we ate tonight. I order a chocolate pot de creme, which comes with Bing cherries and a cherry-preserve "pop-tart," which resembles the real thing about as well as the maple éclair I ate last time I was here resembled a maple bar, an everyday item that has been transformed into something else entirely, something extraordinary. My father orders the cornmeal cake, surprisingly light and moist, wrapped around a custard filling and floating in a pool of blueberry sauce. All too soon they are all gone, too, and it is time to go home. Maybe I'll come back soon, again. I hope that this time, I will.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Dinner out. Volterra.

E. is in town. He is one of the great gourmands of my acquaintance, the elder brother of A., the best cook I know. So we take him to Volterra, one of the better Italian restaurants in Seattle. I can live with the fact that Rachael Ray considers this her favorite Seattle restaurant. We sit down in the dining room with its alabaster lamps and black-and-white tiled floor and look up at the photographs of Volterra, the restaurant's namesake town. The owners were married in this town; some of the photographs are of their wedding. I look at the menu and then remember that I always promise myself to eat here more often, yet never do. It has been more than a year since my last meal here, I think. I look up and down the menu and find myself unable to decide, know that there is no way I can have an appetizer and a pasta and a main course and dessert. Perhaps I will just have a pasta, then, or just a main course, but they all look so good that I am paralyzed with indecision. So we order some appetizers to share, as we wait for the others to arrive.

The bread reminds me of Italy, that crusty, dense, somewhat flavorless loaf that soaks up olive oil like a sponge, which we found just about everywhere, across the Abruzzi and throughout Tuscany and down the Cinque Terre. I sprinkle a little fennel salt - it is a signature of the restaurant, available for purchase and somehow included in the gift baskets for last year's Golden Globes, or Emmys, or some awards show I didn't watch - over a pool of olive oil, mop it up with a scrap of bread. There are scallops, just cooked through, in a tangle of pea vines and shaved fennel, fava beans, wild mushrooms, a smear of some green aïoli. There are slices of sweet melon, two different kinds more exotic than the supermarket cantaloupes, draped with rosy scraps of prosciutto as fine as silk. My mother orders a salad of spinach and beets, red and gold. L. has the brilliant idea of sharing a pasta and then ordering a main course, so I eagerly agree and order the stuffed rabbit leg. (I love rabbit, and whenever I see it on the menu I order it immediately).

We all share a pasta, the one I first eyed as soon as I sat down, a tagliolini tossed with bits of guanciale, more fava beans and wild mushrooms, faintly wrapped in the pungent fragrance of white truffles. (As it always happens with things in season, fava beans and wild mushrooms are everywhere, but they are so good that having them in practically every dish is no hardship). There is just enough for us to have a small serving, more than a taste but less than a meal. Our secondi arrive, my leg of rabbit wrapped around some kind of bread stuffing that involves bits of pancetta, on a pool of creamy mustard sauce. There are buttery mashed potatoes, which I take only a few bites of (must save room for dessert) and roasted cauliflower (of which I eat every last floret), but the main thing is the savory richness of the rabbit meat.

I order dessert, an orange-chocolate cake, dense and rich, and six forks, along with coffee for everyone. I need something sweet at the end of the meal, to round it out, make it complete, even if it is only a few bites (well, ok, more than a few) of cake. It is still early, so my mother invites everyone over for tea, which alarms me as my apartment is a bit messy. They head up to the top floor to look at the view while I rush around shoving things into closets and drawers, changing light bulbs and wiping off counters. We settle in with little cups of hot tea and candies brought back from Taiwan and unwind from dinner, watching the Olympics on tv and letting our stomachs digest an extravagant dinner. I wish I had eaten a little more cake.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Monday Quinn's.

My dad is out to dinner with the boys; my mother is off in Mexico City at a conference, and I am off work a little after five. I may as well head down to Quinn's Pub for a little dinner by myself. Only a few tables downstairs are occupied, but I am swept up into the completely empty room upstairs, leaving me wondering if I am just not cool enough to be on the main floor, in front of those endless windows that look out onto the hipster-littered street outside. But more pressing matters are on hand, such as what should I have for dinner. The menu has changed; I haven't been here in a while. Gone are the gnocchi with braised oxtail, and the rabbit pot pie is a distant memory. My server rescues me with a special of the day: shrimp bisque. With the soup and some marrow bones on toast, I should have a very nice dinner indeed, and I settle in with my book (Monica Dickens' One Pair of Hands) to wait for it all to arrive.

First is the shrimp bisque, foamy and pink in a deep white bowl. The bowl has a dramatically flared collar that reminds me a little of those plastic cones vets put around a dog's neck to prevent them licking at a wound. The white funnel of the rim frames the frothing peach-pink soup, sweet with fat kernels of corn and chunks of shrimp and fine shreds of leeks, punctuated with the salty intensity of bacon, tender rounds of potato. It is creamy, but not thick, light and smooth. I wish there was more, but then my marrow bones arrive, swathed in paper napkins and heaped with an onion-pepper relish on a plate stacked with triangles of toast, a little salad of mixed greens, and a spoonful of sea salt. The roasted marrow bones are burning hot, their squidgy insides melting wildly all over the plate, defying my vain attempts to scoop out the marrow with my knife, and I wind up mopping the pools of what is essentially beef fat and onion-pepper relish with the toast. The few bits of soft marrow that I do rescue are spread on the lightly grilled toast and sprinkled with a little bit of the salt, a savory and vastly satisfying snack.

Satisfied as I am, there is still a little corner left for dessert. My server goes over the night's choices, and I spring for the homemade s'more. I love s'mores, and summer is drawing to a close. I don't know when I will have the chance for one again. This s'more has a base of graham cracker crust, a filling of what is pretty much a dense chocolate fudge, and an airy golden pouf of homemade marshmallow topped with crunchy bits of coconut. It is all wrong - s'mores should be eaten outside, at a barbecue, the marshmallow slightly burnt around the edges, melting over a piece of Hershey's chocolate and a piece of graham cracker that is perilously close to cracking and falling all over your lap - and yet all perfect, the rich chocolate and molten marshmallow and crunchy-crumbly crust. I want more, but I have had enough. I will have to come back again.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Dinner for two.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to dine repeatedly at my table knows that my cooking is wildly unpredictable. It is rarely disastrous (and usually the disasters are confined to occasions when I am alone) but often on the wrong side of adequate. Which is why the last time we had guests, my mother wound up doing most of the cooking. Yet once every so not very often, I produce something so wonderful that it astonishes everyone at the table, including me. Like tonight, when I realized that I still had to cook dinner for my father and myself (my mother having decamped to Mexico City for the next five days for some conference) and had no idea what to do. There were vegetables from the farmer's market and a styrofoam tray of pork belly, which I've never cooked before. I guess there's no time like the present. Frantically, I flipped through Chinese Gastronomy, published in the 1970's, which was no help at all, since the recipe involves blanching and steaming and takes about six hours from start to finish. I didn't have that kind of time. I would have to improvise.

The pork belly (labeled "pork stew meat) was already sliced into chunks, about an inch and a half square, more or less, instead of being all in one piece (most recipes for braised pork belly call for one large piece of meat; you slice it after it's been cooked). I browned the cubes of meat on each side in a deep skillet and then transfered them into my smallest Le Creuset pot, skin (and fat) side up; they just fit. Two spoonfuls each of soy sauce (low-sodium) and rice wine went in, and it all was left to simmer slowly on low heat, tightly covered. Some time later I returned to turn the meat over, sprinkle in a little more soy sauce, making sure the pork was evenly seasoned. When I went back even later to check, the melting fat and wine and soy sauce had begun to thicken. I sprinkled it with a little raw sugar - I don't have any yellow rock sugar on hand, which is what you would normally use - and went back to reading Agatha Christie. At last the sauce had turned into a syrupy glaze; it was ready to eat.

For a vegetable I take out the yellow pattypan squashes and the bright zucchini blossoms from the market. The yellow squashes are like fat little flowers, sliced into eighths, sautéed in olive oil. I toss in the carefully washed and dried zucchini blossoms, just in time for my dad to pop in behind me and tell me I should have taken the squash out first and fried the blossoms separately, but it is too late, and anyway, I've gotten the timing just about right. They are tender and clean-tasting, but the pork belly is the real revelation, soft and rich and intensely flavored. The fat melts with every bite, the sauce is perfectly balanced between sweet and salty. I have not gotten everything right - I should have used ginger, and perhaps a little star anise; blanching the meat first would have mellowed the pork flavor, that faint whiff of the barnyard that can be a little overwhelming. If I had cooked it longer, the fat would have melted a bit more, but the meat itself is just right, not too dry or overdone. I am surprised at myself. And I can't wait to do it again.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Dinner for three.

I didn't make it to the farmer's market today due to a sequence of events involving mainly the fact that we got very busy at work and my father has appropriated my car. Since he has the car, he is responsible for purchasing such comestibles as are required for dinner, so I came home to see what he had gotten at the fish market. Sardines. Large ones, about eight inches long, dripping dark blood and shedding iridescent scales across the countertops. It was but the work of a moment to rinse them free of blood and scrape the remaining scales from the skin (I held the fish squeamishly by the tails as I worked), rolling them in a little olive oil and sprinkling over a bit of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. (Have I mentioned how much I love my pepper grinder? It is made by Peugeot, one of the smaller models, curvaceously sculpted in clear Lucite, with some heft to it without being too heavy).

For the rest of the meal I scrabble around in the various shelves and drawers of my fridge, slicing up a Napa cabbage to stir-fry with a little salt and pepper. My father likes those tiny dried shrimp with his cabbage (actually, he likes them on everything) but my mother does not, so I leave them out. There is some cooked ground pork and cold asparagus; perhaps I will just chop up the asparagus and sauté them together. Some diced potatoes and onions lay abandoned in a bowl, left over from another night when I was halfway through cooking dinner and C. called me to go out for burgers and frozen yogurt. I could make a tortilla, that Spanish-style frittata of onions and potatoes bound together with eggs; it will round out our dinner nicely.

Once all the ingredients are ready, it takes no time at all to cook everything - the sardines broiling in the toaster oven, the vegetables quickly stir-fried or sautéed in a deep skillet on the stove, the frittata in a little non-stick skillet I like to use for this sort of thing. I've been making four dishes a night for the three of us, and it's taken about an hour each time to prep everything and cook it all, using the stove and oven and rotating pots as needed, cooking up to three dishes at once. The asparagus-pork dish is unanimously declared a bit weird, but it is quite tasty all the same, I think, one of those last-minute things when you throw together random leftovers in the hope that it will turn out to be something delicious and new. Everything else is something I have cooked time and again, so often that I can do it almost without thinking.

The more I cook for the three of us, the more I find myself falling into a groove, when familiar dishes present themselves as I dig around in the fridge and toss things together in pans. This is the most freeing part of cooking, when you can do it without thinking, almost without even looking at what you're doing. You know to cook the tougher "stems" of the Napa cabbage first, before adding the leaves; you know to season the potatoes and onions before adding the beaten eggs. The timing is all there, the confidence. And it's time to eat.