Saturday, July 25, 2009


One of our rituals, my father's and mine, is to head down to Nishino when he is here. We time our meal early and sit at the sushi bar; he orders a beer or cold saké and shares a little with me. We order slowly, two at a time: Amaebi, hamachi. Escolar, bonito. Uni, and toro. Our non-sushi items arrive: Little smelts in a piercing vinaigrette, grilled hamachi collars, rich and fatty. And one last pair of nigiri: Spanish mackerel, and unagi. The fish is fresh and clean; with the immediacy of eating at a sushi bar I notice for the first time that the rice is slightly warm, and barely holds itself together as you convey each piece of sushi from the plate to your waiting mouth. We pay cash - my mom often looks at the credit card bills after one of my father's trips and exclaims in horror - and drive home in the evening light, full, happy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wednesday Lark.

It was a bit of a shock to realize more than two months had passed since I had dinner at Lark. I'd been busy. Warm weather meant more cooking at home; two theater subscriptions meant more nights out (and less money to spend on food). Still, I missed the warmth of that open dining room with its banquettes on one side, booths on the other, floating curtains drifting down the middle of the room. I changed into slightly less disreputable clothes and ran down the hill for my dinner. K. was busy with two customers - they appeared to be arranging some special occasion, tasting champagnes and discussing table arrangements - so it was J., the chef and one of the owners, who seated me.

It is a warm day, so I order the chilled tomato soup and the steak tartare, and to round out my meal I add one of the specials of the day, soft-shelled crab. Far too hot outside for pasta with truffle-butter; I'll leave that for the fall, or winter. I eavesdrop on the table nearby; they are planning a wedding. Lucky them, to have their wedding dinner here. I turn back to my bread, and the raisin-nut-bread is a bit too squishy and sweet, so I turn my attention to the clean white crusty loaf, spread with butter. The soup arrives, pure tomato, cold, clear, almost floral, with a ribbon of some crisp cookie-cracker, salty-sweet. As always there is just enough, not quite enough, a taste that leaves you wanting more.

Next is the soft-shell crab, which spills its juices into a bed of candy-sweet corn with every stab of my fork, the sweet corn spiked with bacon. It is so good I eat every last kernel of corn, every bit of lardon (and honestly I thought there was a little too much bacon), and every scrap of crab shell, finally wiping the plate with my last piece of bread. Then comes the steak tartare, a tiny quail yolk floating on top of the steak, waiting to be stirred in, spread on fragile onion crackers, with a little curly frisée in one corner. There is not much to say about steak tartare, except it fills some yearning quite nicely.

Finally I order dessert, an ice-cream sandwich as a nod to the summer heat. Two chocolate-chunk cookies sandwich a slab of mint chocolate chunk ice cream, with a little cup of chocolate soda on the side. I love the cookies, but I love the chocolate soda more. I wish I had a tall glass of it, cold and sweaty in my hand. But better to have just a little, enough to leave me wanting more.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Don't be shy.

It was a constant refrain of my childhood. Stand up straight. Comb your hair. Don't be shy. Still, I remained someone who slouched in my chair and wore my hair in a messy ponytail scrunched up at the back of my head. Most of all, I remained shy, blushing when strangers spoke to me, hiding behind potted plants at parties, dry-heaving in the bathroom before class presentations. I elected to study electronic music so I wouldn't have to be in the choir and stagecraft so I wouldn't have to take drama. I was the girl who never raised her hand, who hid behind a curtain of hair, wearing all black, trying to be invisible. I still hate the sound of my own voice, saying my own name aloud.

The year I turned twenty-five changed everything. My parents and I went to Italy; despite my stammers and protestations I was the one dispatched for directions, to order sandwiches and buy mineral water. (Don't be shy, they said, again and again). Somehow I managed to find hotels and navigate menus. Several months later I found myself in Portugal, conversing in French (which, by the way, I don't speak) with a beautiful kind woman at a crossroads and chatting (in Portuguese, which I understand even less than French) with an old man on the flight home, who had recognized me from the flight to Lisbon two weeks before. I came home and starting going to restaurants alone, talking to people at the next table, talking to the servers who went out of their way to make me feel at home.

A lot more changed in the next few years when I started dining at Lark, alone. One night I told K., one of the owners, about the time Thierry Rautereau served us lamb testicles; she suggested that I try their Whole Beast dinner in the spring. I was nervous about dining with strangers - none of my friends wanted to come along - but there was no need; I sat with nine other people, and they were all warm and friendly, sharing wine and stories. I talked all night, until my voice was nearly gone, and it left me wanting more. Months later I was back, for a cookbook dinner for David Tanis (A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes), and this time it was easier, both because I was seated next to a couple I had met at the earlier dinner, and because I was becoming more at ease with the idea of talking to strangers.

When you have a love for something - in my case, food - you find it opens all kinds of doors. I began shopping at farmer's markets, talking to people who were producing all the wonderful things spread before me. People will make time for you, if they sense you are truly interested in what they have to offer. They will welcome you, into their restaurants and homes and lives. They will answer your questions, and encourage you to do things like learn how to butcher a pig or make rillettes or chocolate coconut curry ice cream and apple crisp and suggest that you buy something called a refractometer (in this case, a device that measures the amount of sugar in fruit). Wonderful things can happen. Don't be shy.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

We All Scream for Ice Cream (experimentation edition).

A week or two ago I mentioned on Twitter a chocolate bar I had liked, made by Theo Chocolate under their Phinney 3400 label. It combines milk chocolate, coconut milk, and curry powder, three ingredients (well, the latter two are spectacular together, as any fan of Southeast Asian food will know) that you wouldn't expect to see together. It is warm and spicy and not too sweet, and instantly addictive. Another person Tweeted back at me, demanding a recipe. It's a chocolate bar, I answered, but...ooh! It could work as an ice cream. I agreed to try something, then forget about it. There were other ice creams I wanted to try first, and this would involve making up something as I went along, which often ends badly.

Then T. invited me to a barbecue. T. is a Food Person. The barbecue would involve lots of Food People, none of whom I had met before, and I worried for an entire day about what the hell I could possibly bring. Ice cream would be easy, I thought, but I wondered aloud (that is, on Twitter) about whether I should really experiment on people I never met before. However, the response (on Twitter) was loud and immediate. (BRING. IT. ON). This meant spending a full five minutes in the Asian food section of my supermarket shaking cans of coconut milk and trying to find the least sloshy one, wondering if my curry powder was still edible or if I should buy a new jar, and frantically flipping through the amazing David Lebovitz's seminal ice cream bible, The Perfect Scoop, looking for recipes that I could cannibalize into what I wanted.*

I toasted coconut and steeped it in hot cream, straining it all through a mesh sieve. The result was fragrant, but I thought it would be overwhelmed by the chocolate, and substituted the rest of the cream with the coconut milk. This mixture was heated with cocoa powder until just hot enough to melt a pile of chopped bittersweet chocolate (next time will go with all 56% instead of mix of 56% and 71%, which is all I had on hand), then set aside while I made the custard. I threw in a few peppercorns, some hot red pepper flakes; thinking of R., I toss in a bay leaf. I add curry powder to the chocolate-coconut mixture, and taste. When the custard is done I stir it into the chocolate-coconut-curry, which mellows the flavors, rounds it out into something smooth and warm with just a bit of spice to it. It tastes like the chocolate bar I remember.

In the morning I taste it again, when it has frozen properly, and the flavors have really come together. I feel relieved, but I worry there won't be enough, because I kept...tasting...and the end volume of ice cream was somewhat less than I expected. So I make another ice cream, a sherbet really, from David Lebovitz's website, a chocolate sherbet. Only I will do something different - infuse the hot milk-and-chocolate mixture with lime zest, and use vodka instead of Kahlua so as not to confuse the flavors. It turns into a dark, intense (71% chocolate) vat of chocolate with just a hint of cool lime, something unexpected. It is exactly what I hoped for.

*Ultimately, what worked was David Lebovitz's Chocolate Ice Cream, with thick coconut milk (look for something that does *not* include water in its list of ingredients) replacing most of the heavy cream, then adding curry powder to taste. Next time I will skip the steeping toasted coconut flakes in cream, and just use coconut milk instead of cream, and see if that is just as good. Simpler is usually better.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Things I learned from Encyclopedia Brown.

I was probably in third grade when my mother bought me a copy of Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake! by Donald J. Sobol. I had read the earlier books (boy genius solves mysteries, for 25¢ a day, plus expenses) and was totally hooked, but this one was different. All the mysteries had to do with food (starting with a missing birthday cake and a loaf of garlic bread). To celebrate the successful conclusion of each mystery (for when did Encyclopedia ever fail to catch the culprit?), Encyclopedia and his friends would get together and throw a party, cooking up a feast to match the case. There was a Mexican fiesta (stolen piñata), spaghetti with meatballs to commemorate Christopher Columbus Day (a kidnapped and brutally murdered duck named...Christopher Columbus Day) and french fries (a purloined potato autographed by Yankees pitchers). Best of all, there were recipes and helpful hints after every chapter.

By this time, of course, I had been Chief Vegetable Washer in my mother's kitchen (since the age of three). I had numerous pans of Tunnel of Fudge cakes and Duncan Hines brownies under my belt. But Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake! taught me so much more. Practical things, common-sense things like how to use potholders, asking grownups for help, turning the handle of a pan away from the edge of the stove so you couldn't knock it over. It taught me words like dice, chop, mince. I learned to first slice a thin piece off a round vegetable so it wouldn't roll around when I tried to cut it, to curl my fingers under so I wouldn't stab myself, that a sharp knife was easier and safer to work with than a dull one.

Above all, I learned to chop an onion, and every time I reach for one now (some twenty years later) I think about Encyclopedia Brown and his friends, and what I learned from them. I learned that cooking was fun, that cooking with your friends could be fun, and some years later my middle school slumber parties would involve more than just takeout pizza and soda (although those still made occasional appearances). We would have crêpe parties that covered the kitchen in a light veil of flour (honestly, that still happens whenever I bake today) and make lasagnes that left dribbles of béchamel all over the stove (my poor mother sighed whenever she looked at the state of the kitchen the next morning. We got better at cleaning up after ourselves. Eventually). This continued on in college, and dorm life, when my Hong-Kong-born roomates and I would make fried rice and teriyaki chicken wings, steam bok choy and bake cookies. Cooking continued to be fun, alone, or even more, with friends. It still is.

In middle school I discovered Gourmet Magazine, and Laurie Colwin, who remains one of my greatest influences. Later came the gently acerbic guidance of Elizabeth David, and then Jeffrey Steingarten, who made me laugh until I cried, and Anthony Bourdain, and countless others, too many to name. That is a story for another time. But it all started with Encyclopedia Brown, and the proper way to chop an onion.