Tag Archives: cooking

Murder and Mealtime in the Mountains

dinning_room_img1“Hot Springs, Virginia is an extraordinary place – disarmingly rural, it is also the setting of one of America’s great resorts. Like the legendary French chateaux, The Homestead holds dominion over the striking Warm Springs Valley.” – Dining at The Homestead by Albert Schnarwyler, Eleanor and James Ferguson, 1989.

But in March of this year, a gunman entered the kitchen of the exclusive resort, fired his semi-automatic handgun and killed two of his co-workers. The murder suspect was never captured and is thought to be on the loose (or more likely, he is hiding in the lush forests of the region). 0323_homesteadpicAccording to The Roanoke Times, Beacher F. “Hackney is a 5-foot-6-inch, 145-pound, balding white male. He wears glasses and was last seen wearing a light blue shirt, dark blue pants and jacket and black shoes. He is considered armed and dangerous.Anyone with information about Hackney’s whereabouts should call the Bath County Sheriff’s Office at 839-5300.”

Life in the hills is truly other worldly.

In addition to speaking with a Southern accent among the locals and many of their guests, some of the vocabulary never fails to affect me.

“Where are your people from?” said one woman to another as they sat by the outdoor pool.

“Mostly Roanoke,” said the other. “But some of my people live in Charlottesville.” As in VuhginYuh.

Uh, People?

And then there’s the food. Out of this world in terms of richness and times past when TOP CHEF meant French chefs like Georges Auguste Escoffier.

The Homestead’s dedication to traditional cuisine is unlike most places I’ve been.

Whereas my family and I tend to stick to the no-carb, high protein diet, the Homestead is anything but that. Think eggs, butter, cream, veal, sauces (Béarnaise, Hollandaise, May-O-nnaise) made from stock that is made from scratch. There are cold soups (Vichyssoise or watercress) and hot soups (lobster or shrimp bisque, cream of asparagus). Coquilles St. Jacques au beurre blanc, baked oysters with crabmeat gratinée, Pompano in papillote, consummé. Any mention of the word vegetable equals beaucoup de butter and potatoes, maybe a pea or julienned carrot. The multitude of heavy items on offer all of the time strikes me as a real blast from the past. Julia Child would be in her element. Bear in mind that until the 1970s or somewhere not quite a lifetime ago (mine, at least), men and women dressed for dinner when the headed to the Dining Room. In these parts, that means black-tie and long dresses. Everynight.

Menus for the ladies (or whomever it is that won’t be picking up the tab) are printed without prices. Only the table host knows. That, too, is of another era.

For dessert, the operating word is flambé . Cherries Jubilee with kirsch, Crepes Suzette with Grand Marnier and brandy or Bananas Foster with Meyers rum, Cointreau and banana liqueur are prepared and flamed tableside, something my children have never seen before and most likely won’t again. They didn’t like the liqueur flavorings (and neither do I). The theatrics, on the other hand, are something to write blog about. Dessert.

tomatoIn the early 1900s, guests of the homestead traveled on horseback or in buggies to the Fassifern Tavern in Warm Springs. There, they enjoyed a luncheon menu that included southern fried chicken, corn pudding and fassifern tomatoes. Have you ever heard of such a thing? DEE-lish.

In case you feel like cooking, dt, I LOVE these toms.

The Homestead’s Fassifern Tomatoes

Yields 10 Servings

1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
½ cup sugar
freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon corn starch
¼ cup cold water
2 cups toasted bread cubes
(4 pieces, edges cut off)
1/3 cup melted butter

Recommended equipment!

A 3-quart saucepan
wooden spoon
small bowl
baking dish 8 x8 x 2 inches
baking sheet
small saucepan for melting butter!

Preheat oven to 300F
Put the toms with their juice into the saucepan, add sugar, salt and pepper and bring to boil over medium heat. While the toms are coming to a boil, mix the cornstarch with the cold water in the small bowl and set aside. When the toms are boiling, remove the saucepan from heat and slowly pour the cornstarch mixture into the toms, stirring constantly with the wooden spoon. When well blended, set the saucepan back over medium heat and bring the tomatoes to a simmer. Adjust heat so that the toms will cook gently for 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.

While the tomatoes are simmering, cut the bread into ½ inch cubes, set them on the baking sheet, and bake for 5 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned. When done, remove from oven and “reserve.” (!!!!)

Put the butter in the small saucepan and set it over low heat.

When the tomatoes have finished simmering, pout them into the baking dish, arrange the toasted bread cubes over the top, drizzle on the melted butter, and put the baking dish into the middle level of the oven to bake for 20 minutes.

The tomatoes can be simmered several hours ahead of time and wait in the baking dish for their final cooking. Top with bread cubes and butter just before baking.

Beware and bon appétit.

My Culinarification

We are in the midst of a culinary orgie, thanks, in part, to the Food Network, Top Chef, Nora Ephron, and Julie Powell. Even the New York Times got into the act, running pieces by both Michael Pollan and Maureen Dowd. Pollan’s article starts off as more reflective. He recalls watching Julia Child on TV and how it changed the cuisine in his childhood home (for the better) and the types of dishes his mother would make thanks to JC’s show.

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Pollan’s piece got me thinking about my own food memories. Julia Child was not a figure that loomed large in the culinary landscape of my childhood. I remember catching bits of her show on PBS and thinking she sounded a lot like the Chef from the Muppets, but apart from that I can’t say she had any sort of impact on me, let alone on my mother or even my grandmother’s cooking. The women [and man] in my family have had a love/hate relationship with cooking that can be traced back mainly on the maternal side of the family, starting with my grandmother.

In the 1970’s, my grandmother owned an Italian restaurant in a little town in upstate New York (now, it’s a fashionable “weekend getaway” neighborhood, back then it was a hick town). She was the only [Italian] restaurant in the area, and the place was a family affair with my grandfather hosting and running the front of the house, my mom waitressing and my dad helping out in the kitchen. My grandmother introduced the neighbors to eggplant, broccoli rabe, homemade ravioli, soft, pillow-like gnocchi, and fresh basil. On Sundays, she sold plates of pasta and meatballs for $1.50 She was living her dream. Then, the first Domino’s Pizza moved in and shortly after, my grandmother’s culinary dream went up in smoke.

My mother, having spent a good part of her childhood and young adulthood cleaning up after my grandmother’s culinary adventures in the kitchen, hated cooking. She grew up eating the freshest food available, grown in small, but lush backyard gardens in the Bronx and cooked by my grandmother and great grandmother, who argued (in Italian) about which olive oil to use for a particular dish (the virgin or the extra virgin). Sunday dinners in that house were an event that all of the relatives would partake in, showing up with Corningware dishes filled with garlicky aromas and the scent of fresh basil or stewed tomatoes. The inevitable bottle of homemade wine would be cracked open and each child would be given a peach pit, drenched in wine, to suck on while the adults drank glasses of wine or demitasse cups of espresso with a slice of lemon.

When my mom grew up, she never cooked. Instead, she married my father, who (as luck would have it) learned to cook from his mother. He and his brothers (my uncles) were required to make dinner as part of their daily chores since both parents worked. My dad, being the youngest, always got stuck with dinner duty. The first (and only) meal my mom tried to cook for my dad involved Salisbury steak, and, due to the absence of oil to coat the pan, my mom thought karo syrup would be an appropriate substitute. Much to her dismay, not only did theBurgerSteak sirloin patties have to be thrown out but the pan as well, since the patties were glued to the pan thanks to the karo syrup. That night they ordered out and did so nearly every night until my sister was born.

In 1985, my dad was working in the meatpacking district (again, before it was fashionable and when Stella McCartney was a place called “Quality Meats” a fact my dad likes to dwell on when we walk past there today). My father started as a meat inspector for the government, which pretty much entailed him threatening to shut every place down (from what is now La Perla all the way to Diane Furstenberg) that was in violation of the health code, or, conversely, the macho mafia-type meat men threatening to shut my father down with a gun. He then moved on to a safer career, as a meat purveyor to restaurants around New York including the Carnegie Deli and Windows on the World. The irony at this point was that my dad (and the rest of our family) never ate meat.

Long before Gwenyth Paltrow even knew what tempeh was, my family was macrobiotic. My breakfasts consisted of millet and miso soup. My sister snacked on nori (seaweed) and raw kale. When we went to birthday parties, we arrived armed with our own soy pizza (organic, whole wheat crust, tomatoes and soy cheese) and something called a magic brownie, (not what you’d think) a chocolate-less, dairy-less, sugar-less,

tofupups

& flour-less square of carob with walnuts. If we went to a 4th of July BBQ, we brought our own tofu pups (tofu hot dogs) and potato salad made with Nasoyaise (tofu mayonnaise, which I still prefer to this day). My sister and I didn’t eat red meat until we were ages seven and 11, respectively. We had the occasional bit of chicken or fish, but I don’t really remember it. Our grains and veggies were eaten when in season, we never drank with meals (and when we did drink, it was water or a natural black cherry spritzer) and French cooking was the farthest thing away from seared tofu and arugala sandwiches that you could get. I don’t even remember ever having butter in our house (quelle horreur!) After eight years of eating Amy’s soy pizzas, tofu, miso, veggies, and bulgar burgers and whatever food the local health food store cooked up that day, my parents saw that macro was still too micro in the mainstream food world for us to continue to function without them attempting to cook on daily basis. Little by little, skim milk began to replace soy milk, turkey replaced tempeh, and cheese, the chard. I also ate my first hot dog (and promptly threw it up). Things only got worse from there.

Take out menus replaced the Moosewood cook book and candy suddenly appeared — the first time my parents gave my sister a chocolate bunny for Easter, she played with it, not knowing it was edible. Our waistlines also grew and so did the battle to keep them down without having to resort back to the granola crunching lifestyle. Cooking a meal was only something we did when company came. Any other time, we went out to eat or ordered take out. We had a tab at the local Italian restaurant. When I went off to college (ironically situated in the same town as the famed Moosewood restaurant) I thought such things were normal, only to discover in my first month away that people would reminisce about what foods their parents (mainly their moms) cooked. “Her tuna casserole,” “My dad’s fish tacos,” “My mother’s steak and pomme frites.” They turned to me. “My mom’s take out menus,” I said, only half kidding.

My junior year of college, my roommate with an aspiring Stepford wife. She made everything from scratch. One day she told me she was going to make a chocolate cake. “But we don’t have cake mix,” I informed her. She looked at me like I was crazy. “I don’t need cake mix,” she said. I quietly wondered just how she was going to accomplish this without a mix. It never occurred to me that one could make a cake with flour, sugar, milk and eggs. I (sheepishly) watched her measure, pour, whisk, bake and create. All she had to do was follow the recipe and liquids became solids (and vise versa). It felt a bit like watching a magician perform an illusion that you know has a logical answer, but you just can’t wrap your mind around it.

During my senior year of college, I discovered the Style Network and their one cooking show, and import from the BBC, Nigella Bites. A dark-haired, British woman who clearly loved to eat (as illustrated by her curvy figure) and with a penchant for chocolate, Nigella Lawson taught me that  preparing food is a form of entertainment and almost as fun as, well, sex. The camera work was borderline pornographic, with shots of Lawson sucking up oil-soaked spaghetti, naked chickens being rubbed down with butter, the pop and sizzle sounds of a ham as it developed its brown sugar crackling. But most impressive to me was the chopping. Nigella’s Global knife glinted and flashed as she quickly diced an onion (“it need not be cut perfectly,” she would say), chopped carrots or deboned a duck. Until then, I never realized that the act of cooking itself could be so full of pleasure. A type of creation, but

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better yet, a creation that can be celebrated and nourish family & friends (as was always exhibited by the merry house-full of guests that Nigella had share the fruits of her labor at the close of an episode). That same day, I purchased my very first cook book, Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess (Yes, the title is unfortunate, especially if you consider yourself a feminist). At the time, I heard baking was even harder to learn than cooking savory dishes because of the accuracy you need with ingredients and chemistry (I now know this to be half true). I knew introducing myself to the harder of the two would make anything else seem like … a cakewalk.

I proved to be a natural baker from charlottes to pavlovas, biscottis to pies. It’s all about measuring, following directions and maintaining as much control over your environment (temperature, humidity, sound, work space, etc) as possible. Around the same time, I stumbled onto Julie Powell’s blog. Julie was way more of a cook than I was when she started the Julie/Julia Project, but I thoroughly enjoyed following her exploits, tortures and cheering on her successes. Both Julie Powell and Julia Child’s fearlessness encouraged me to branch out from the Brits (at this point, I had also included Jamie Oliver, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers into my culinary fold) and turn to the Italians (with The Silver Spoon cook book), the food scientists (with Hervé This and Molecular Gastronomy) and even back to my old organic roots and on American soil (with Alice Waters). I read cook books like they were novels, until I realized there was a whole genre of books about food and cooking like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

In 2004, however, I caught the Julia Child fever when My Life in France was published. I read about Child’s life even before I tried any of her recipes. I got caught up in her spirit, her humor and the voice –which by now I was googling online for video clips just so I could hear it. One of the most defining quotes from My Life in France is actually attributed to Paul Child, Julia’s husband:  “If variety is the spice of life, my life must be one of the spiciest you ever heard of. A curry of a life.” It is the Childs’ zest for life and how they embrace the journey, even the unknown, that made me approach my own “unknown” challenges with more enjoyment and less fear.

I only recently started cooking from Mastering the Art of French Cooking vol. 1, when a copy of the book was given to me at the Julie & Julia set sale (it was one of five used in the film). I perused the book, afraid the Julia Child I had gotten to know through My Life in France and her biography wouldn’t be as evident in cook book

birds-eye-clafoutisspeak. But, I began to finding familiar phrases and Julia’s same authoritative, exacting voice, still with that hint of humor and mischief. Ah, there was the Julia I knew. The first recipe I tried was simple. The name, cherry clafoutis, caught my eye because it happened to be the start of cherry season and, since I had also just seen the play God of Carnage, in which, James Gandolfini talks about an apple and pear clafouti (I initially misunderstood him and thought he as saying Tofutti, as in the tofu ice cream I used to eat growing up). The resulting clafoutis was sweet, but slightly tart, and a little custardy. Like a more dense version of a crepe. It was delicious.

I might not yet be ready to master Julia’s omelette or French bread recipes, but my culinary mentors have taught me to embrace cooking and food in a way I never witnessed growing up: with conviction, love, joy, and absolute fearlessness.
–Downtown

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Per Se by Day, Tacos by Night

Picture 1

Bushwick, translated to mean "heavy woods," "town of the woods" or "town in woods."

Bushwick is the new(er) hipster capitol of Brooklyn. Populated by 20-something writers, artists, musicians filmmakers, muses, free spirits, and, until recently, a hipster grifter or two. As yet ungentrified, this neighborhood provides the perfect juxtaposition of irony and a laid back blase attitude common among the suburban-raised, middle-upper middle class Net Generation. They might wear thrift store skinny jeans and old Chuck Taylors, but they accessorize with the latest iPhone and the perfect pair of Ray-Bans or Moscot glasses.

Bushwick and its close brother, Williamsburg, are places I’ve been finding my un-ironic, un-hipster self in more frequently due to my job locale and my group of friends. This is where I also found myself dining one night at the apartment of a friend of a friend. I was told it was a “taco night,” but that the invite was a much coveted one, given the chef and the crowd. The chef is Cameron Wallace, a fellow 20-something who also happens to be the bread baker at the gastronomic heaven, Per Se.

Entrance of Per Se

Entrance to Per Se

 

The day of Taco Night, I was sent a text message with an address. I arrived promptly at 7p, my requested $10 in hand to “tip the chef,” and pushed through the apartment building’s blue door (also the same color as the doors at Per Se) spray painted with the number 855 (a decidedly un-Per Se detail). Our chef de cuisine was en-route, so we sat around drinking PBR or Corona (it was BYOB, can you guess which one I brought?) Chef Cameron arrived shortly after, armed with bags from Whole Foods and a box shipped all the way from San Diego (where Cameron was raised) containing flour tortillas and fire-roasted peppers in olive oil. “I’m taking a short cut today,” Cameron confessed to me, “I’m using store bought flour tortillas. Normally, I make my own, but there wasn’t time.” He continued to explain as he unpacked tins and Tupperware full of half-fried fish and marinated pork, a head of cabbage, and various & sundry spicy sauces and homemade crema. “But, these tortillas are fresh from California, my mom shipped them to me just yesterday.”  

In no more than a 35 sq. foot kitchen, Cameron got to work, frying the fish up again in pots. “I half-fry them in advance,” he explained. “I don’t want them soggy and they need to be eaten hot. But I like to do my prep work.” Cabbage was shredded by our hostess, Mariah, who is a caterer, while Mariah’s sister, Ariana, took out plates and utensils for the twenty guests that packed into the apartment. Everyone taking up the small square footage in the kitchen served a purpose. Mariah as sous chef, Ariana calling in the orders, Cameron cooking and plating, and I, serving. Watching Cameron cook and prep masterfully in such a small space brought to mind the word that hangs over the door in Per Se’s kitchen, “Finesse.” Chef Cameron illustrated every aspect of finesse, with his “refinement and delicacy of performance,” execution and artisanship. Each taco was hand-crafted and made in small batches. The pork had been marinating since early morning. No detail was left untended. 

fist_taco

Almost looks like Cameron's fish taco

After serving a few tacos, I finally got to taste my own. First, the fish taco. Perfectly fried, but not greasy, you could still taste the fish and how deftly it blended with the cardamom flavor of the lightly drizzled sauce. The cabbage added an extra crunch while the squirt of lime gave the fish a little zing and some chopped cilantro cleansed the palate. It was more than a taco, it was an experience. As I savored the first (and then second) fish taco, I asked Cameron what brought him from bread baking to taco making. “Actually, it’s because I couldn’t find a decent taco in New York. Believe me, I tried. I’ve gone everywhere, but nothing like the ones I grew up with in California.”

Even still, other San Diego and California natives at Taco Night felt Cameron’s tacos take it to a whole new level. After some coaxing, I got the full story out of Cameron. “After I quit my job at different restaurant in New York, I went back to California for six months and studied the tacos I liked,” he told me. “I traveled up and down the coast and as far down as parts of Mexico, just to see how they did it there and where our tacos evolved from, what worked and what was unique to each area.” Just like the discipline at Per Se, there is discipline to Cameron’s tacos. “I combined the best of what I liked,” he said. “What was essentially pleasing to the palate, what textures worked, ingredients, preparation in advance, last minute. Sometimes I have to take out what I love if it doesn’t work within the combination. But I still continue to experiment. That’s why we have taco night.”

There is another method to the Taco Night madness, as I soon learned, between bites of the juicy, spicy pork taco with crema and bits of diced, raw onion. Cameron, as modest as he is about admitting it, also desires to have his own taco stand. “He wants a little place in the East Village, somewhere downtown or in Brooklyn,” Ariana (Cameron’s biggest supporter/Taco Night waitress) told me. “By opening up Taco Night and spreading the word, we’re hoping it will lead to investors for Cameron. It boils down to word of mouth in the end.”  Abra la boca. Spread the word.
–Downtown

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