Tag Archives: cooking

Even Cookbooks Tell a Story

I’m a big proponent of the homemade Christmas gift. Especially when it’s for my sister. She’s very specific in her tastes and anything short of a gift card is usually returned within 48 hours of being unwrapped. This makes it nearly impossible to give her something unique and heartfelt and not made of plastic. As a result, she’s turned out to be the perfect candidate for a homemade gift. She likes the thoughtfulness behind it and, even if she doesn’t completely like the gift itself, she’s always touched by the effort (and it can’t be returned!) Because of my sister’s recent burgeoning interest in cooking, I thought it best to make her a cookbook with some of my favorite recipes and some essentials. I pulled recipes from 15 different cookbooks in my collection and wrote a letter of introduction for the book, explaining a side of cookbooks that isn’t always evident to the novice cook. The letter turned out to be an interesting meditation on story and life that I wanted to share with more people than just my sister (though I have no doubt she will appreciate it as well):

Dear Alexandra,

Food tells a story. It tells of cultures and lost civilizations. It reveals mysteries through the ages. We track the lives of the ancients through their food. We can tell their diet, their habits, their nutritional intake, and their physical & environmental landscape. Today, food celebrates the modern equivalent of these cultures. It wasn’t until the middle ages that recipes were written down. Before that, it was merely through story and practice (a sort of pre-historic version of a home economics class) that people learned what to prepare for a meal. Though we have books filled with recipes, mapping out specific guidelines we must follow, it is the ancient people who had it right. The best things we eat are not written down. Recipes, no matter how thorough, can never be duplicated exactly. Grandma knew this intuitively. I think it’s something most Italians know. There is a basic outline for what needs to be achieved (a cooked meal) and a general map that will lead you there. However, in cooking it is the detours that make it the most enjoyable.

This cookbook is filled with my favorite recipes, some essentials, and some passed down from our grandmothers. Use these recipes as your rough outline, but remember to rely on instinct and take detours. The cheese they call for in a recipe may not be the one you think works best. Garlic can be replaced by adding more onion; delete peas and replace them with corn. Whatever you choose, throw yourself into it with abandon. Do not be intimidated. Mark up the recipes with your notes, your grease stains. Give them lives on paper and on a plate. These recipes are pieces of people. Julia Child may be known for her French cuisine, but it is her roast chicken that (to me) stands out the most. Jamie Oliver is a British chef, but his risotto recipe beats an Italian one any day of the week. Nora Ephron is a film director, but she also knows her food. I’ve included her favorite recipe (from the Julie & Julia cast & crew cookbook) here. Mark Bittman is a New York Times writer who was experimenting with using vegetables in place of pasta when he happened upon his simple, easy dish.

In the recipes from our grandmothers, I learned Dad’s mom had over 30 recipes for zucchini. She also had eight recipes for woodchuck (which dad swears he’s never eaten). Our maternal Grandmother’s recipes are like that of an artist or a writer, little notes jotted down on scrap paper, recipes ripped from magazines – like incomplete story arcs or the beginning of an idea. Some of her recipes are exact, but most are vague and leave much to the culinary imagination. In a way, it makes me believe that through her recipes she gave us permission to experiment, to make mistakes and to surprise ourselves. It’s a lesson parents try to teach their children everyday. It’s also why we study the habits of ancient civilizations, to learn from the past and pave our own future. Think of this book as both your past and your future. Approach it with love and passion and without fear. If you can do that, you can conquer anything (including boeuf bourguignon).

Love,

Ashley


My Culinarification

We are in the midst of a culinary orgie, thanks, in part, to the Food NetworkTop Chef, Nora Ephron, and Julie Powell. Even the New York Times got into the act, running pieces by both Michael Pollan and Maureen DowdPollan’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,

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& 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

birds-eye-clafoutisat 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 speak. 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. 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.

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Per Se by Day, Tacos by Night

Bushwick is the new(er) hipster capitol of Brooklyn. Populated by 20-something writers, artists, musicians filmmakers, muses, freePicture 1 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.”

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Almost looks like Cameron's fish taco

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.

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.

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.

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