Category: The Pleasures of Cooking For One

THE PLEASURES OF COOKING FOR EIGHTY

What would it be like, I wondered, to cook for eighty hungry people, particularly for someone like me who is used to cooking for one. So I decided to try it and last Saturday I joined forces with the seasoned crew at Holy Trinity Church in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan, who prepare a supper every week for anyone who is in need of a warm, nourishing meal.

Usually between eighty and a hundred people show up and the kitchen crew has to be ready to serve by 5:15 with the tables nicely set. The schedule is tight because the premises are given over to the Trinity Thrift Shop that same day and there are stacks and hangers full of secondhand clothing spread out all over the ample basement with last minute purchases being toted up. Then suddenly it’s time to clean up the clutter and transform the space into an orderly dining hall before the doors open and the hungry, lined up outside, descend. But this moment of tension only lends to the drama. And that’s always part of the fun when you are giving a dinner party.

Meanwhile, we the sous-chefs have been busy doing the prep work, slicing the baguettes and boules from six large sacks of crusty breads (made even crustier because they are yesterday’s loaves) that Eli’s has donated. That’s a lot of bread. But just when I start to ache I remember Julia Child’s characteristic remark when someone complained about beating the egg whites by hand: “Nonsense. It’s good for the upper arm muscles.”

Suddenly as we are finishing up, about a dozen teenagers descend the basement stairs and are introduced by our pastor as new helpers. It seems that they are from a Staten Island high school and that they wanted to do something helpful so they Googled soup kitchens and read about Holy Trinity’s program. They immediately throw themselves into the work, quickly clearing out the dining room, arranging the long tables, covering them in sheets of white paper to simulate linen table cloths, and setting places with real cutlery—no plastic knives and forks for the HTC guests.

As I look around the busy kitchen, I realize that the unassuming Bob Noorsesion, whom I’ve just met, is secretly the maitre de cuisine here, as though he had been born to the task. He doesn’t give orders; he just performs, gracefully and efficiently. It’s as though he had a timer in the back of his head, and we fall into step, taking up the choreography as we fill big baking trays with commercially prepared breaded chicken breasts, which he pops into the hot oven and automatically clocks. At the same time he tends to the frozen vegetable mix that goes into one of the huge pots of boiling water on the large restaurant stove and to the pasta which he shovels into another pot. When his automatic clock goes off, he hoists the pot (which I couldn’t have lifted without a crane) from stove to sink and drains the chunks of pasta, then tends to the veggies.

At last a cook’s task falls to me when the bowl of steaming pasta is put on the table. I get to toss it with butter and season it with salt and pepper until the balance is right. Fortunately as part of our bread service, we had peeled the foil wrappers from masses of those little pats of butter that restaurants serve so there is a huge pile of butter pats waiting to be tossed in and absorbed (Julia would have approved of that!).

Even the dishing up, arranging the food on real plates with a dollop of tomato sauce on top, is done with care. Just before everyone dives in, Lydia Colon gives the guests a touching welcome. As a seasoned hostess of this kind of neighborhood service, she has learned how to handle the sly ones who try to stuff their pockets with sweets. The Two Little Red Hens Bakery on Second Avenue, just below 86th Street, always sends a dazzling array of beautifully wrought cakes to the suppers, and evidently if we’re not careful they’ll disappear before everyone gets a fair share. But Lydia knows how to fox them: she has the cakes artfully cut up in the kitchen, each slice containing one of the enchanting flowers sculpted with the different color icings and these portions are served with the dinner so that no one can say “I didn’t get my piece of cake.”

Anyway, the night that I am here, there is plenty to eat and second helpings to go around. Of course, there are a few complaints from some about what they can and can’t eat but there is a good feeling all around and, as I pour coffee at the tables, I feel the warmth and the appreciation. These people are our guests and they are glad to be at our table. There is even one table made up only of women, who seem to come regularly less out of a need for food than for the company.

A part of me wishes that we had really cooked the food we are offering. But then I thought of what that would entail: probably forty pounds of meat to make enough for a beef stew that would satisfy these appetites, to say nothing of all the prep work and careful tending involved in cooking up a really good boeuf bourguignon. We’d have to chop up enough onions to rival the pile that Meryl Streep produces in Julie and Julia. And think of all the big skillets needed for braising the onions and mushrooms separately to get a good glaze. No, I am enough of a realist to reluctantly bury that fantasy. But I do learn that by early summer the HTC kitchen gets fresh vegetables from the Community Supported Agriculture group that supplies garden produce as it comes into season. So I’ll be back to peel the carrots and wash the greens.

Meanwhile I cherish what one of the old regulars said to me as I poured him a second cup of coffee, and the look on his face as he said it: “Thank you, sweetheart, for bringing the sunshine.”

The Pleasures of a Plate-Licker

There’s nothing like having a dog around when you’re cooking. He (or she) is always there to catch whatever morsels you may drop, to show his appreciation with a lick of the tongue, and to relieve you of the job of scraping and rinsing all the dishes before they go into the dishwasher. That pre-rinse is particularly appreciated when you’ve given a dinner party and had to play chef and chief bottle-washer, to say nothing of hostess, all at the same time.

It’s more than a year now since my Corgle (short for Corgi-Beagle) Prince Madoc died of old age and I still miss him every time I come home. As I headed for the kitchen he would be several steps ahead of me. If I put down a plate that had a mishmash of leavings (never my plate!), he would always maneuver his long tongue around it to separate the meat scraps and juices from the veggies. When he’d consumed the good stuff, he would look up longingly, hoping there was just a little more to come. Then he would return to the plate for a final lick after I’d put it in the dishwasher just to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.

Madoc 

I would often speak French to him because it was a good way to practice my langue de cuisine. I liked the fact that he never talked back, correcting my accent and grammar. And I could tell that he loved the expressive lilt of spoken French.

Some months after Madoc was gone, I tried to get a small dog from a rescue shelter in Long Island and I foolishly picked a very forlorn little creature, naming him Precious as I snuggled him in my arms and took him home. But I should have been suspicious when I gave him his first bowl of food and he hardly touched it. It developed that he had been so abused that he couldn’t trust human beings, and in the ensuing days, though he gingerly ate a little more, nothing really worked, neither love nor good food, and I had to face the painful lesson that he was as unhappy as I was. So Precious had to be returned.

Now I am looking again and I’m a little wiser. I realize that the refusal to eat is a profound sign of distress in a dog. Moreover, it’s a handicap to humane training methods because how can you use a treat to give a command or reward a fellow when the lure isn’t tempting?

I’ve often wished I could take a dog to Paris with me. I love the way the French treat their dogs, taking them everywhere, letting them run free in the parks and treating them to lunch at a neighborhood bistro, where the chef is likely to send out a little bowl of something delicious pour le chien settled under the table. I am told that the French are considerably less indulgent these days than they used to be, but they are still more civilized than we are. You can see it in a dog’s cocky stride as he accompanies his family shopping in the busy outdoor markets of Paris.

When I was about nine years old, my parents agreed to let me have my first dog. I had been begging for one and they finally gave in when they thought I was old enough to take care of the creature myself. That meant not just walking her but cooking for her because in those pre-World War II days canned and dried dog foods couldn’t be found in your local grocery. So when we brought a Scotty named Sally MacGregor back from Vermont, she settled happily into New York life—primarily, I liked to think, because she loved my cooking.

I certainly loved cooking for MacGregor. It was my first experience alone at the stove and I could do what I wanted, cooking up chopped meat with whatever leftover tidbits I could find. She particularly loved liver and bacon (perhaps that’s where I got my early start appreciating organ meats).

Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a delightful piece some years ago for Vogue describing his moment of revelation as he was grilling fat sausages for himself over an oak and mesquite fire, and his companion, Sky King, a young male Golden Retriever, looked on. After he had been given his bowl of dog food, “Sky King’s look was eloquent,” Jeffrey wrote. “‘I know that you are a fair-minded human,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘and that you have only my best interests at heart. But are you absolutely sure that I should be eating this pile of dead and desiccated pellets while you experience the feral delights of flesh? Who’s the carnivore here anyway?’”

It was a turning point and from then on Jeffrey dedicated himself to preparing such delicious and healthful dinners as Roasted Marrow Bones for his canine friend. He talked with French chefs and, of course, got a positive response (and more recipes), but most of the vets and dog food company spokesmen he consulted worried that Sky would not be getting a “complete and balanced” diet.

But Sky is doing well and Jeffrey is doing well and I think I will join them in practicing what’s-good-for-me-must-be-good-for-my-dog as soon as I find the perfect hungry creature, just little enough so I can tuck him or her under the seat when we fly off to Paris.

Do You Really Want to Make French Bread?

I have been asked by someone who stumbled on my most recent blog, To Knead Or Not To Knead, if I would give more specific details about the French bread I make—in other words, a real recipe. That’s not easy with this kind of bread because there are a number of variables, from the climate to the water content of the flour. I am always experimenting, trying to make my loaves just a little better each time. My friend Jason Epstein, whose book Eating we just published this fall, would understand. He claims that he never makes something the same way twice, that he is always improving on it, so why write it down in a rigid formula? He prefers to treat a recipe as a conversation over the stove with a friend.

So I am going to follow Jason’s lead here and ask you just to join me as I describe how I made my baguettes this past weekend. It was a gray, cold day that I baked them, spreading the warmth of the kitchen and the heavenly smell of bread baking throughout the apartment.

First, you’ll need to check your EQUIPMENT. Unless you happen to have a wood-burning oven, you’ll need a baking stone measuring at least 14 x 15 inches that you set on the middle rack of your oven. You’ll also need something to create steam. The simplest method is to squirt some water over the loaves before they go into the hot oven and to toss of few ice cubes onto the oven floor just before you shut the door. I heat up an old flat iron, as described in my last blog entry, picking it up with sturdy tongs and plunging it into a pan of water.

For INGREDIENTS you’ll need 3 3/4 cups or more of white flour. (You can use bread flour, if you have it, but I find Hecker’s or King Arthur’s unbleached, all-purpose flour is excellent); 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast (I use rapid-rise these days); 2 teaspoons kosher salt; and 3/4 cup tap water.

The night before I planned to bake I mixed 2 1/2 cups of the flour, the 1/4 teaspoon yeast, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and all of the water together in the bowl of my standing electric mixer, using the dough hook. You can do the mixing with a big wooden spoon but not your hands—at this stage it’s just too wet and sticky. When the dough is mixed it will still be loose and gloppy but that’s okay; cover the bowl in plastic wrap and drape a towel over it. I’ll give it about 18 hours to do its work, sitting in my kitchen where the temperature is around 60 to 65 degrees at night and 70 during the day;

Two hours before I’m ready to bake I add 1/2 cup more flour and the remaining teaspoon of salt and let the dough hook mix it again. If the dough still looks too soupy, I sprinkle in another 1/2 cup with the dough hook turning slowly. Now I flour my work surface generously (mine is a marble-topped worktable) and scrape the dough out of the bowl onto it, sprinkling more flour on top. Very gently at first I start to knead, using a dough scraper to prevent sticking and folding the dough over onto itself. This is such a delicate, moist dough that I have learned not to push down too hard but to coax the dough gently with the palms of my hands, adding more flour as necessary.

Gradually the dough becomes cohesive, then smooth, and it bounces back at me when I stick a finger into it. The kneading seems to take me about 6 or 7 minutes.

NOTE: I often want to make myself a small pizza*—cook’s treat—so at this stage I will tear off a piece of dough between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball and set it aside, loosely covered with plastic wrap, or I refrigerate it if I’m not using it right away.

To return to the bread dough, I now wash out the bowl and put the dough back in it, letting it rise, covered again, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in volume. Because this bread has less leavening, rising times are slower, which adds flavor to the bread.

Now comes the famous forming of the loaves à la Madame Child. I scrape the dough out of the bowl again onto the floured marble, punch it down gently, and divide it into thirds. I take one third of the dough (leaving the other 2 covered with a towel) and pat it into an oval shape 6 or 7 inches long.

Then I fold the long sides toward the middle, overlapping, and with the side of my hand I press the dough to form a lengthwise trough down the middle. I bring the two long sides up and over the trough and firmly pinch the sides together. Flouring the work surface again, I roll out the dough with the palms of my hands, starting at the center and rolling toward the ends, stretching the dough as I roll it to about 12 inches (or slightly less if I’ve stolen a piece for my pizza).

Now I quickly pick up that first rope of dough, which droops a bit as I transfer it to a kitchen towel that I have laid out, well dusted with flour. After arranging the loaf on the long end of the towel, I make a generous pleat in the towel to keep the first baguette separated from the next one. And now I prepare the remaining pieces of dough in the same way and lay another towel on top.

While the baguettes get their final 30-minute rise , I preheat the oven to 475 degrees with the baking stone on the middle rack. I also heat up my trusty old iron over a gas flame.

The last moment of excitement is at hand. The baguettes have doubled. I take my improvised baking paddle, well dusted at one long end with corn meal, and slip it just a little way under the first baguette; then using the far side of the towel I flip it onto the paddle, seam side down now, and make 3 lengthwise slashes on top with a razor blade held at an angle. I pull out the oven rack and I position the paddle at the far end of the stone, then jerk it so the baguette slips off the paddle and onto the hot surface. I very quickly repeat this maneuver with the two remaining loaves, shutting the oven door in between to keep the heat in. Now I put a pan of water on the oven floor and with my tongs grab the hot iron and plop it into the pan.

The baguettes are done in about 25 minutes, although I always peek 5 minutes sooner to see if they have turned golden brown. When ready I remove the baguettes with tongs and prop them up so the air can circulate as they cool.

Voilà. Try not to eat them until they’ve had at least half an hour to settle.

*To make yourself a small pizza for lunch: Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Flatten your reserved hunk of dough on a well-floured work surface and roll it out to a circle about 6 inches in diameter. Paint the top lightly with olive oil and fill the round with whatever appeals to you. I love eggplant so I grill some fairly thin, lengthwise slices of a small eggplant, brushed with oil, over a gas burner, until lightly roasted. Then I arrang 3 of those slices on top of the circle of dough, interspersed with 6 or 7 cherry tomatoes and topped with a heaping tablespoon of grated parmesan. Using the same jerking motion that I described for sliding the baguette onto the hot baking stone and with the help of a spatula, I slip the pizza into the oven, but if that unnerves you and you feel all the topping will tumble off, bake the pizza for the first 5 minutes on a regular baking sheet and then slide it onto the baking stone when the bottom has firmed up. Bake a total of 12 to 15 minutes, checking to see if the dough is crispy and the filling bubbly.

The possibilities for pizza fillings are endless. See what scraps you may have in your fridge—cooked vegetables, a little sausage or ham, different cheeses, olives, peppers.

MILKWEED, FIDDLEHEADS, AND THE LEMONS OF THE NORTH

Somehow it disturbs me to walk by my neighborhood fruit and vegetable stand, when the wintry winds are blowing, and to see bundles of scrawny asparagus displayed. Who wants to eat asparagus when your fingers freeze as you try to extract the several dollars that the overpriced asparagus will cost?

I was raised to eat everything in season—in fact, that’s all we could get from our local groceries. Even though we moaned about being tired of oversized carrots and turnips, potatoes and rutabagas, to say nothing of large heads of frost-bitten cabbage, the long wait for spring only stirred the appetite for the good things to come and it made biting into the first spring asparagus all the more satisfying. Although my mother was of English background and very particular about table manners, we were taught that it was quite correct to pick up the stalks and eat them one by one down to the coarse end of the stem, even though melted butter or Hollandaise would be dripping from our chins. So I have always felt confident, almost defiant, about eating asparagus with my fingers wherever it is served—in fact, it’s a large part of the fun.

Thirty years ago when my husband Evan and I got our house on Stannard Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, one of the challenges for this city couple (flatlanders, the locals call us) was not only to start a garden but to get to know the land. We wanted to be able to forage for what the woods and meadows had to offer to enjoy every morsel from early summer to fall. Fortunately we met a wonderful woman, Adele Dawson, who used to give workshops on wild edibles and medicinal herbs (she was also a dowser), and she agreed to walk our land with us. As we wandered together over the terrain she would stir up leaves or poke through branches with her stick and point out the hidden treasures of early spring: milkweed shoots, fiddleheads, young dandelion leaves, wild garlic buds. Adele not only guided us in what to look for and where, but how to cook according to the time of year each item was harvested. For instance, the delicate spring milkweed shoots were best simply sautéed in a little butter or light olive oil; then in July, as soon as the milkweed developed purplish blossoms, the tight heads should be plucked and dipped in a beer batter, then fried until lightly browned and eaten with just a squirt of lemon; by late summer, the pods form and they are equally delicious—but different—stuffed and then steamed or deep-fried.

I learned particularly to enjoy sorrel in a rich creamy soup or with eggs or as a tart accent to fish or fowl. I first encountered it as a weed that invaded a patch of heather we were trying to cultivate and I was ruthlessly pulling up the leaves and dumping then on the compost heap—that is, until Adele enlightened us.

I’ve always been drawn to gooseberries, perhaps because they were a mystery fruit whose acquaintance I first made in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I loved the sound of English puddings like Gooseberry Fool and Gooseberry Flummery. But the berries are hard to find these days even in farmers’ markets. We soon found out why. In our search for a couple of bushes to plant, we learned that during the Roosevelt years, it was discovered that gooseberries caused a pine blight so the President ordered his C.C.C. men all over the country to root them out. It has since been proven that the bushes were a threat only to the white pine and that if they were planted a sufficient distance away, there was no problem. But in the meantime America lost all its gooseberries, and we were intent on restoring them, at least on our hilltop.

Our two bushes, along with one rhubarb plant, now give me plenty of delightfully tart accents not only for desserts but also for sauces and preserves. Once on a trip to Wales, stopping at country inns, we sampled for the first time mackerel served with a gooseberry sauce, as well as the more familiar salmon with sorrel sauce. These—gooseberries and sorrel and rhubarb—are the lemons of the north, I thought to myself. I realized that in northern Europe and the British Isles, where lemons were once a rarity, they have long contributed essential acidic flavor to many a savory dish. In fact, it is ingredients like these that give regional character to our cooking—something we don’t want to lose by eating asparagus from South America in the middle of December.

Nova Kim, her granddaughter, and Les Hook
Nova Kim with her granddaughter and Les Hook at Bryn Teg, my house in Vermont

Several years after our introduction to Adele I got to know Nova Kim and Les Hook, naturalists who seemed to be born with the gift of knowing the secrets of the earth. They have now developed a following among food lovers and chefs in Vermont, supplying them with local wild treats from early summer through fall. They bring me generous samples of the wild mushrooms they seek out and gather—morels in late spring, chanterelles all summer long, boletus and hen-of-the-woods in fall, as well as many others. And I’ve learned to recognize one or two species on my own. There is nothing more exhilarating than spotting a patch of chanterelles thrusting their golden heads up through the soil at the edge of our woods and then bringing them home and cooking up a feast.

As I write this I have been snow-bound for several days in northern Vermont where I was scheduled to talk about my new book in a few of the independent bookstores up here. Fortunately my niece Sally and her husband Tony, whose house is not as inaccessible as mine in a blizzard, have given me food and shelter. A little while ago Tony had an inspiration: why not salvage the rest of the lettuce still in cold frames in his vegetable garden? Insulated by the snow, some of the leaves had survived, last time he checked. So we headed out, bundled in down coats and boots and scarves, with a below-zero wind whipping us, and we managed to scoop up the last of the tiny damp leaves—only a handful after they had been cleaned. But they added considerable sparkle to our salad that night and it was a loving way of celebrating the end of late fall, moving into winter.

A RETURN TO HOME COOKING

In early October I was on a panel with a number of writers discussing the future of food writing—from books, magazines, and newspapers to blogs and twitters. It took place at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Mass., and I couldn’t help thinking that just in my lifetime food had come a long way; it was being honored here as a serious topic, launching a series of programs on the written word.

After much talk about current trends in restaurants and how the electronic media is changing the way we get our information, I suggested that what I really felt people were yearning for was a return to good home cooking. And a cheer went up from the audience. The same happened a few weeks later in a church in Norwich, Vermont (we had had to move from the bookstore to the church because so many food-loving people wanted to attend).

So there seems to be a movement afoot to get back into the kitchen and enjoy cooking. Maybe the downturn in the economy is having an effect. I think often of the artist Ed Giobbi, who wrote so affectionately about how, when he was growing up before World War II in a dreary New England industrial town, his family and neighbors would make frequent excursions to the coast to gather mussels (then considered trash fish by the rest of America). He wrote: “I suppose I remember these occasions because they were joyous and I tend to think of the Depression with some nostalgia. The gathering and preparing of food was a group effort and everyone was loving and open. Perhaps that’s why I have a special reverence for food.”

I have been particularly impressed recently by the number of young people—especially those faced with their first kitchen, usually tiny—who really want to cook for themselves. One of the things that inspires them, I believe, is a nostalgia for some of the good ethnic tastes they may have grown up on or were exposed to through travel. And because there is a growing awareness of how food is a means of telling about a culture, there is a new respect for learning about this endlessly fascinating subject. They not only save money but they eat better and enjoy the satisfaction of doing something creative.

Last week I was in New England promoting my new book The Pleasures of Cooking for One and I was asked by Nancy Supporta Sternbach, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies at Smith College, if I would meet with some of her students, who wanted to prepare some dishes for me before my talk at the Odyssey bookstore in South Hadley, Mass. It developed that she was teaching a course called What’s in a Recipeand it attracted students of different nationalities. I met with about ten of them—some with origins in Asia, India, the Middle East, France, and Italy. They delighted in getting together and making some of the dishes that had an interesting past. So they presented me with a sampling to fortify me for my talk. One student had made a tapenade and a spinach-yogurt dip; then there was a delectable rich winter squash soup; and the young lady from France had baked an interesting bergamot-seasoned cake, which was delicious dipped in tea. The elusive flavor of the bergamot led naturally to a discussion of what bergamot was and which countries used it and how.

Then an idea surfaced. Considering the success of reading groups all over the country, why not launch a series of food-and-book clubs? The focus would be on ways in which different authors treated food in their writing and members of the group could make dishes based on these descriptions. For instance, they might try to reproduce the dinner that Anne Tyler describes in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, in which the son in a dysfunctional family, now a chef, makes an eggplant soup with bananas—which, alas, doesn’t exactly succeed in pulling the family together.

Or the reading group might sample different cookbooks and find out which worked for them—which were genuine teaching books and which, through the sensuous description of a creation, inspired the novice cook to try what might have seemed a daunting recipe.

The handicap our young people face today as they start to cook is that most of them haven’t had the privilege of learning by osmosis, watching their mother (or father, or grandparent) cook, and absorbing all the subtle techniques. They are alone in the kitchen and there’s no one to turn to when the sauce curdles. But don’t despair. Help is now at hand. Once again Julia comes to the rescue.

About twenty-five years ago when Julia Child was at the height of her fame, we decided it would be a huge help to the home cook to create a series of tapes devoted to teaching all the basic techniques, from how to make a cream sauce and a hollandaise to cutting up a chicken and forming a tart shell. So I went out to Santa Barbara, where Julia was wintering, and worked with her long-time producer and director Russ Morash to produce a series of six teaching tapes called The Way to Cook. They were, and are, remarkable—the best 6-session cooking class you could ever attend. The only trouble was that the technology then was not up to the task. On those old tapes there was no instant access so you might have to go patiently through hamburgers, Sautéed Veal Scallops, Calf’s Liver, and Pot Roast before you got to the all-important technique of degreasing a sauce. Furthermore, you could only play these tapes on your TV screen, and most of us didn’t have televisions taking up space in the kitchen.

But now with DVDs we can, with our remote at the kitchen counter or stove, order up instantly that degreasing segment. We can take Julia into the kitchen on our desktop computer so it is just like having her standing there beside us when that sauce curdles (and she’ll tell us how to rescue it).

Watching The Way to Cook is mesmerizing and addictive. But you’ll come away a fine and fearless cook, I promise you.

Jason Epstein at Di Palo in New York

Although Judith won’t be there, I’m sure she’d want you to know about her friend, colleague, and author, Jason Epstein, author of Eating: A Memoir, who will be signing copies of his new book on

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21

at the wonderful Di Palo’s Fine Foods in Little Italy in New York. It’s at 200 Grand Street, NY, NY 10013, between Mott and Mulberry, and it’s one of the most fascinating cheese (and assorted other Italian goodies) shops that you’ll find in the city.

Waste Not, Want Not – According to Lidia

So many times when I have been out talking about my new book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, or joining in panel discussions about food, someone in the audience will ask what I think of the current crop of television food shows, and I have to admit that I don’t think much of them. In fact, it irritates me profoundly when the Food Network boasts, “We’re more than about food.” Why should they want to be “more” when food alone is such an endlessly fascinating subject? Why do they have to turn cooking into a competition, with testosterone as the main ingredient? But then I’ll pause: there is one exception, and often before I’ve said her name, someone will cry, “Lidia!” Everyone loves Lidia Bastianich—and with good reason. Lidia loves food with a passion and conveys her pleasure in cooking so persuasively that you can’t wait to get the pasta water boiling and to follow her lead creating yet one more delicious and often unexpected way of dressing it. Furthermore with every show we learn from her invaluable lessons in the finesse of cooking really good Italian food.

Recently I was in Boston with her where both of us were promoting our latest books, and we did a joint appearance at the Brattle Theatre. Talking about the research that she did for her just published, wonderful new book, Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy, she described vividly and lovingly the people she had met in some of the little-known parts of Italy she explored. Because the subject was food and food immediately creates a common denominator, she was able to get to the heart of each recipe, confirming her long-held conviction that what gives a regional dish its special distinction is the terroir, the soil and the environment that produces the fruits and vegetables, the olives and wine and cheeses, that lend a special character. In carefully ferreting out these secrets, she has been able to recreate the genuine flavors and bring them home to our kitchens.

But there was a deeper revelation that emerged in her search for recipes from the heart of Italy. In her introduction to the book, she says: “As overconsumption and greed have come to haunt us, it is now a time for reflection, for looking back at the generations before us, to understand their approach to the table. In my research into the twelve regions of Italy that I explore here, some answers came to light. The recipes I share with you reflect a respect for food—growing it, shepherding the animals, foraging for the gifts of nature in the wild, and hunting respectfully to put meat on the table, not just for sport. Nothing is wasted . . . This kind of respect also leads to a much more sensible and balanced intake of proteins, legumes, vegetables, and so on. In most of the recipes, it is evident that the dish is rooted in the reality of the times, when frugality went along with hard work, and home cooks made do with what was on hand. And of course they wanted dishes that would taste good. So you’ll find these recipes tasty, satisfying, relatively easy to prepare. But, most of all, they are a testimony to the harmony of elements that result in a harmony of taste.”

As we chatted together on the stage of the Brattle Theatre, sparring with one another about whether it’s more fun to cook for oneself or for a tableful of family and friends (both quite different experiences, we agreed) and whether or not almost any recipe can be successfully reduced to serve one (some disagreement there), I realized how much I have learned over the years from this extraordinarily creative, ever curious, and deeply responsible woman. In fact, my own theories about cooking for one took shape as I absorbed some of Lidia’s techniques for recycling leftovers in creative ways.

Several years ago when I was in her kitchen watching her prepare a lasagna with fresh pasta, after the dish had been assembled, there was just one stocking-like strip of pasta left, and I asked her (knowing full well the answer) if she was going to throw it out. “Of course not,” she answered, and promptly picked up the pasta, fit one end into a small baking dish and plopped a bit of yesterday’s bits of cooked meat lurking in her fridge on top. Then she folded and swung another portion of the pasta strip on top and covered that with her own tomato sauce (always on hand), and, of course, there was a layer of cheese. When the baking dish was filled she put it away for tomorrow when it could be quickly baked. Cook’s treat, she declared.

As our onstage conversation continued, Lidia offered a few examples from her book of the inventive ways in which yesterday’s bread can be used. One was a soup for which you first make a pasticciata, or layered casserole, of bread and fontina from Valle d’Aosta as well as Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, all moistened with chicken broth, and when that has baked, portions of it are transferred to bowls and broth is ladled over it. The other treasure she revealed with an enthusiasm that was contagious was of Chocolate Bread Parfait. Here the leftover bread is soaked in chocolate and espresso and then spooned into glass parfait dishes with layers of whipped cream and sliced almonds.

This is the kind of cooking that is so satisfying, particularly in these days of soaring food prices, and we can all say grazie to Lidia for giving such a wealth of recipes to have fun with.

MORE ON THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD—AND EATING

In my last post I explored the language of food, the subject of this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. I had been asked to participate on a panel so I began exploring the subject last summer, but I got sidetracked on the issue that I feel so strongly about—good recipe writing. As it turned out, it was not a subject addressed directly by the panelists and presenters of papers at Oxford, at least as far as I could tell (there was no way I could take in three or four sessions all running at the same time).

I also missed Simon Schama’s opening address, which from all reports was brilliant. I’m particularly sorry I didn’t hear what he had to say about the tongue as the essential organ for communication as well as the transmitter of taste. But the day before the opening session Claudia Roden and I had become hopelessly lost driving to Oxford from her house in Hempstead and we only just made it in time for a fabulous, meaty dinner drawn from Samuel Pepys’ Diaries, which included Venison and Trotter Pie, Roast Quail, A Leg of Mutton, and a Fricassee of Rabbit. This was followed by food-themed poetry readings until we finally tumbled into our beds, sated. No sooner was I soundly asleep than a screeching fire alarm went off, arousing everyone in our dormitory from bed to descend the stairs and stand shivering outside in the cold, most of us dressed only in pajamas, until the all-clear sounded. This happened four more times, leaving me so ragged that I was unable to rouse myself in time for the next morning’s opening ceremony.

When I did catch up, I was confronted with a dazzling menu of subjects to be explored, such as “Toward a Phenomenological Semiotics of Cuisine” and “Reconstructing Food History Through Linguistics” as well as more earthy topics like “Sex, Food, and Valentine’s Day” and “The Nomenclature of the Pig and Its Parts.” The panel I was on was mostly bombarded with questions about the future of food writing in our electronic world.

It was unquestionably the best food conference I have attended, with writers and students from all over. And the food was superb, each meal built on a theme culminating in a Saturday night banquet celebrating “The Language of French Gastronomy from the Raw to the Cooked,” created by Chef Raymond Blanc.

Still, I felt that there was one component missing: the idea of recipes as story-telling. I wish that Jason Epstein, the innovative editor and publisher, whose book, Eating: A Memoir, has just published been by Knopf, had been there to speak in defense of the recipe as story.

In his book he even goes so far as to make the recipe itself a conversation: no extracted ingredients, no numbered steps. He wants us to get the feel of the food with “a hint of” this and “just a little of” that. His theory, based on Heraclitus, is that you never make the same dish twice. And each time you do, you improve it. So why pin it down to a formula?

The people Jason has worked with over the years as editor—from Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Gore Vidal, and E. L. Doctorow to Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and Maida Heatter—are all blended into his culinary journey, as are the haunts of his summers in Maine growing up, his first trip to Europe on the Ile de France, the Manhattan of the fifties and the neighborhood of New York bordering on Chinatown that he lives in today. And as he stir-fries his Eggs Foo Yung, he drops fascinating bits of lore into the mix.

Who knows—maybe Jason has invented a new recipe language. Surely Eating will help to loosen us up and we may become a little wiser each time we make a dish.

Meanwhile, Jason and I will be exchanging stove talk at the Strand this coming Thursday evening at seven. We’ve both been in publishing for over fifty years and we have also served one another as editors. Jason was the editor for the L. L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook by that great huntsman, fisherman, and editor, a true Renaissance man, Angus Cameron, and I played a supporting role in the writing. It was published in 1983 and is still in print. Much more recently as an editor, I encouraged Jason to tell his story through Eating, and now he has given us this delicious book to savor.

THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD

I have been thinking a lot recently about food and language. It all started last summer with the Independence Day Parade in the little village of Greensboro, Vermont, when the former State Poet Laureate, Galway Kinnell, was ceremoniously driven on a float through Main Street and delivered to the library, where he gave a poetry reading to an appreciative audience.

The first poem he read was “Blackberry Eating”—a poem I’ve long cherished because it evokes so sensuously the pleasure of picking the fall blackberries in the woods all around us. But I’d never heard Galway read it aloud and I was once again struck by the power of the language of food. As he mouthed the words strengths, squinched, splurge they became the essence of blackberries and we were pulled into the “silent, startled, icy black language of blackberries in late September,” happily licking our lips.

Then I was asked to be on a panel at the Oxford Symposium, which takes place once a year, gathering food writers from all over, and the subject was to be on Food and Language. How could I resist? So it got me thinking even more about how we use—or don’t use—language to express our feelings about food.

As I looked at the literature, I couldn’t help but agree with the critic Clifton Fadiman who wrote in an introduction to M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating: “We Americans do not take gladly to the literature of gastronomy . . . We must feel there is something licentious or censorable about it.” Certainly I grew up in a household where it was considered impolite to talk about food at the table and we were always being told to shut the kitchen door so the cooking smells wouldn’t escape. Furthermore the food industry ever since the nineteenth century had been telling us that cooking was demeaning and that the poor little housewife shouldn’t have to stoop to such lowly work (so buy our products instead).

What a long way we’ve come in just about fifty years. Finally the veil has been lifted and we’re able to enjoy the art of cooking, to slap the dough around, massage the chicken with butter, and sizzle the garlic until it smells up the whole house. And to write about it with joy. There is also a lot of interesting investigative reporting going on that has alerted us to some of the current practices of the food industry, and we are so much more aware of what we eat thanks to this kind of writing

So good, evocative writing about food has been a part of our culture now for more than half a century, ever since M.F.K. Fisher first wrote ecstatically about picking and eating fresh peas to the sound of a cowbell in the Swiss Alps and, more practically, Julia Child described the signs of doneness in a roast chicken as “a sudden rain of splatters in the oven, a swelling of the breast, and a light puff of the skin, and the drumstick is tender when pressed and can be moved in its socket.”

But at the same time the art of writing a recipe—and it is an art—has not improved; in fact it has deteriorated. In the interest of saving space, magazines, newspapers, even most cookbooks have reduced recipe writing to a formula that isn’t even particularly effective and certainly isn’t sufficiently instructive.

For example, a typical recipe today will tell us, “In a bowl, combine the first mixture with the second mixture.” Why does the bowl have to come first? (That’s not even good English). What exactly is meant by “combine”? Do we stir, fold, toss, mix (aren’t these more accurate terms?)? And what is “the first mixture”? Is it the milk in the first step which was warmed with a little sugar (does that make it a mixture?)? And where is the second mixture? We have to go chasing around for that. Why not say the warmed milk and then refer to the batter or the dough, or whatever the second mixture is? That way we learn accepted culinary terms. Or use old fashioned, serviceable expressions, such as “the dry ingredients” or “the wet ingredients.” I also wonder, if they are trying to economize on space, why the directions constantly tell us to “Set aside.” What are we going to do: throw it out after we’ve done all that combining?

I also find the insistence on telling us the preparation time for a recipe is a joke. Who is doing the prep—Jacques Pépin or you or me? There would certainly be a difference, and anyway who cares! What I miss in these recipes is the voice of the teacher, empowering the home cook, enabling us to make our own judgments, and be creative about correcting, adding, and substituting. It is only through that kind of careful, creative language that we come to understand the heart and soul of good cooking.

LEARN FROM YOUR POTS AND PANS

In writing a story the other day for Saveur, about the evolution of my kitchen, I was made aware once again of how much one’s work space is a reflection of the person whose domain it is. Over the years I’ve not only become attached to my batterie de cuisine but so many of the pots and pans and kitchen implements and memorabilia, even my Garland stove, have taught me valuable lessons in cooking.

When I decided that there was a need for a good book on the strategy of cooking for one, I realized that an important part of reducing recipes and making them work in single portions lay in adjusting the pan size. I had to rethink my cooking habits, and gradually I stashed away the big equipment on top shelves. I hung close to the stove, within easy reach, my 4-cup Le Creuset pot, my trusty 8-inch iron skillet, a small wok, an omelet pan, and my father’s miniature square skillet. They have become my fellow conspirators in conjuring up new dishes.

The wok gave me the idea of sautéing a leafy green vegetable in a little olive oil and a few slivers of garlic until almost tender, then nestling in an egg (or 2) to steam with the greens. The omelet pan always beckons when I’m looking for a quick supper and can put to use some of the tidbits I’ve stored in the fridge to make an omelet or a heartier frittata. The small square frying pan that my father left me inspired me to reduce my Potato Dish for Julia to a potato dish just for me; it was just the right size and shape.

My 6-inch iron skillet is probably the pan I use the most. It is the right vehicle for a dinner-in-one-dish because it lends itself to quick searing and then resting in the oven (just remember to use a sturdy potholder when you take it out). It is the perfect pan for making a dinner such as fried eggplant slices with a thin layer of meaty cutlets; you do the frying and layering on top of the stove, splash in a bit of tomato sauce and broth, top with cheese, and then slip it into the oven for a final 10 minutes. I’ve found that both skirt steaks and fillets of fish are best seared quickly in my iron pan and then left to finish cooking for a few minutes in the oven; when I take them out, the sizzling hot skillet is ideal for making a fast pan sauce. A quick dressing for pasta can also be made in that pan or in the wok while the pasta cooks and then—à la Lidia Bastianich—I fish the strands out of the boiling water with a big mesh spoon and tongs and drop them into the sauce for a final cooking.

Sometimes just seeing a pan in a kitchenware shop can be an inspiration. That’s what happened when I first encountered the relatively new popover pan with its separate cups. I had to have it and went right home to experiment with making just two popovers, which worked (and, of course, you can bake them in Pyrex cups). The individual tart pan with its fluted edge and removable bottom sets off my taste memory and I am thinking of all the possibilities of a little quiche.

I remember that when Evan and I returned in 1951 from three and a half years in Paris I was determined to bring home the cocotte I had bought in the flea market there. I had learned to make in that heavy iron pot reasonably good stews and braises and I suspected that I would never find anything like it in those days in New York, where light aluminum for the frail, beleaguered housewife was still the rage. But there was something deeper here: I knew that that cocotte connected me to the French for whom cooking was a pleasure and sitting down to a meal was to be honored, whether en famille or alone (perhaps even more so if you are alone).

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