Thursday, October 07, 2010

The pasta pot

Today is the sixth anniversary of my mom's death, which is hard to believe. The cosmic confusion of the passing of time, the way her loss feels immediate and recent yet so very far away. I'm not doing anything special today in her honor; there is no grave to visit so that takes away that ritual, and I'm not religious in any way so there's no service to attend. But what I did last night was cook pasta in the pot that my mother used to make pasta my whole life. I imagine she acquired the pot in the late '50s, maybe early '60s—all I know is that every single time she cooked pasta for dinner, the water went right into that pot and got generously salted right away. The pot remains in pretty good shape.

My mom was not a particularly passionate or enthusiastic cook, nor was she any kind of foodie. She and my dad would make fun of the family friends who insisted on ordering sushi in Japanese ("uuuuuniiii," she would drawl, as if just saying the word was the height of pretension. Though to be fair, using the word "uni" was probably more pretentious in 1983 than it would be today). My mom didn't like Gourmet magazine, and insisted that every recipe began with the words, "Take a pint of heavy cream." Our cookbook shelf was slim, and the volumes were rarely consulted. I wonder sometimes what my mom would make of my food obsessions.

As an opera singer who studied in Rome in the mid-1950s, my mom did learn a thing or two about Italian food, and she made a mean meat sauce. I used to love her eggy, bacony version of spaghetti carbonara, a dish I continue to attempt to perfect, without much success. I think my parents even made basil pesto at some point in the '80s (gazpacho and hummus were big experiments then too, back when they seemed so exotic and weird!).

When my mom passed away, my sister and I had to sort out all of her things, the accumulations of a relatively long life—she died the day after her 70th birthday after a three-year struggle with lung cancer. I took the pasta pot right away, along with the mezzaluna curved knife she used to chop garlic and onions super fine. That mezzaluna is so worn-out that its wooden handles give me splinters. I took the cast iron pans, the ones with white enamel on the exterior, all mottled and chipping away but that still make an excellent burger on the stovetop. I took a few of her mugs, most of the mid-century modern Rosenthal china that my parents bought in Europe after they were married, and the groovy bright-orange colander (which has now turned into a crayon container for my nieces).

So in honor of my mom I continue to use this metal pot with all its scratches and a plastic handle that's loose and gets too hot to touch. This pot has boiled enough pounds of spaghetti to climb me back like Rapunzel to my childhood of family dinners. That pot has produced hundreds, thousands, of batches of noodles and cottage cheese, a Susie Lerner specialty made with Manischevitz egg noodles, Breakstone cottage cheese and generous amounts of butter and black pepper. My sister makes that for her kids now, which makes me really happy.

Last night I made linguini with zucchini and brown butter–poppy seed sauce, a weird combination inspired by a recipe from the Sfoglia cookbook. It was way decadent and rich, and is nothing my mother ever would have cooked in a million years. It's amazing to think this one pot has fed me my whole life, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Rainy Sunday food swap

I just got back from a great food swap event, put together by a woman I met on twitter. Twitter is now officially my favorite thing online—I've created genuine relationships through these little blurbs, 140 characters at a time. And it all got me an invitation to a party this afternoon, where 25 cool NYC food folks got together and swapped their homemade jams, butters, pickles, chocolates, breads, candies, cookies, eggs, oils, sourdough starters and more. It was a great group of people and it was a treat to meet in real life the people I've been chatting with online.

I brought to the party this surefire hit: lemon-marinated shrimp. A few party-goers asked for the recipe, but when I went to look for it on epicurious, the recipe was scaled to a yield of 50 (!!!) and called for 10 lbs. of shrimp. Here's an easier version, a variation on the one in the Gourmet cookbook, which is where I discovered it in the first place.

Three cheers to twitter and to Kate and the joy of the rainy Sunday food swap.

Lemon-Marinated Shrimp

1 large lemon
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds (toasted and then ground)
3 T white-wine vinegar
1 T olive oil
1 T water
1 T sugar
2 t dried red chili flakes
1 T plus 2 1/2 t kosher salt
2 T pickling spices (bay leaf, celery seed, mustard seed, clove, etc.)
1 lb. large shrimp, shelled and deveined (tail can be left on, if you like)

Zest and juice the lemon. Whisk together zest, juice, coriander, vinegar, oil, water, sugar, chile flakes, and 1 T kosher salt in a large bowl until sugar and salt are dissolved.

Bring a pot of water to a boil with pickling spices and remaining salt, and cook shrimp 60-90 seconds, or until just cooked through. Drain. Add warm shrimp to marinade, tossing to coat.

Cool shrimp slightly and put in large sealable plastic bag with marinade. Marinate, chilled, turning bag occasionally, at least 8 and up to 24 hours.

Friday, February 26, 2010


I have a favorite chocolate cake that I've made probably 100 times. People go crazy for it. The recipe is not an heirloom family creation or of my own invention; it's from the insert that used to come in Scharffenberger's 62% chocolate bar (in its pre-Hershey's incarnation). I believe it is an adaptation of the chocolate orbit cake from David Lebovitz's fantastic cookbook, Room for Dessert. It's a rich and super dense flourless number that always comes out great.

I'm fascinated by issues of originality and ownership in cooking. A friend's mother once requested the recipe after I brought the cake to a party, quickly adding, "Only if you're willing to give out the recipe, that is." I can't imagine not sharing the recipe, especially because the recipe isn't even my creation to begin with! I forwarded her the recipe, but started thinking more about cooks who are proprietary about their specialty dishes. I know another woman who is famous for her English toffee. And hot damn, if that isn't the best English toffee in the entire universe, for reals. But as far as I know, she has never divulged that recipe to anyone.

So who owns a recipe? How does one claim authorship of this roast chicken or that chocolate cake? Because unless you're working at El Bulli, Alinea or WD-50, it's doubtful you're doing anything new. Very few preparations or flavor combinations are happening on my kitchen counter that have never been tried before.

I think the core of this conversation is acknowledgment and credit, and how complicated it is in this media landscape. There are so many recipe blogs out there, many by genuinely accomplished chefs and home cooks. But the lack of crediting sources is troubling. I saw a recipe on a blog recently that was an obvious rehash of a dish from famous restaurant cookbook. Just because this chef replaced mint with parsley and cooked it for 15 minutes longer, does she get to say it is an entirely new and original recipe and get away without even mentioning its inspiration?

Now, to come clean. In my last post I added in a few recipes. Let me credit those properly.

The potato gratin comes from a very classy vegetarian cookbook my sister gave me a million years ago, called The Complete Vegetarian Cuisine. It's got beautiful photographs and relatively upscale food. (Though who's to say that this cookbook's gratin is an original recipe anyways? It's only a variation of a traditional French preparation that's been made a zillion times over a few hundred years. Nonetheless, it's a great book that was very formative in my early years of cooking.)

The kale-chip technique was taught to me by my friend Remy's brother, at a dinner party a few months ago. Now I can't stop making them myself.

The fruit crisp is technically called Willie's Crisp, and my introduction to it was through a little promotional pamphlet from Saveur, well over 15 years ago. Again, this recipe is a classic one—in the recipe's headnotes, it is credited to Marion Cunningham, who in turn credits a kid named Willie. It is always wonderful.

Monday, February 22, 2010

All bad things

Things must be back to normal—I'm putting heavy cream in my coffee again.

Last summer I was diagnosed with thyroid disease and had to change my wicked ways. Thyroid issues deeply affect the way the body processes, well, everything. Its function in the body is primarily hormonal and metabolic, and problems in the thyroid can make the entire physical system completely break down on a number of levels. I was exhausted and miserable for many months there, and while I will spare you list of symptoms I experienced for a few months before my doctor figured it out and got me on the right medication, it was my crazy cholesterol count that really shocked me.

Here is how I changed: I started putting nonfat milk in my coffee instead of my beloved half and half. When I work in midtown I buy oatmeal (made with water) for breakfast instead of the amazing tomato-ham croissants I used to get from Pret a Manger. I only ate at the Shake Shack once in the latter half of 2009 (the travesty!). I bought less bacon, baked fewer cakes, tried to skip dessert and started taking pilates classes. Who am I?

Food and eating is such a defining aspect of my identity and personality that this forced change in my diet has been very challenging. My instinct is to lop off tablespoons of butter for my cooking at home and order the most outrageous dishes on the menu: foie gras, bone marrow, pig parts and deep fried things always.

My palate does not agree with these dietary shifts. My cravings are all salty-fatty-fried (not sweet and chocolate, like the girly clich├ęs of a Cathy cartoon). Sometimes all I want is a salad or some steamed vegetables, but then the salad I get is the one with fried shallots, poached egg and lardons, and I have to remind myself that just because I ordered the eggs Florentine and not the Benedict, the spinach smothered in Hollandaise is not much healthier than the ham.

But wait—it gets more complicated! Though I am on big-pharma pills on a daily basis to regulate my thyroid function, there are a lot of people out there who believe that thyroid issues are resolvable through diet alone. And the worst news there is that many of the so-called healthy foods I love are forbidden, primarily cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, kale and brussels sprouts. How terribly disappointing. I guess the kale chips I love aren't as good for me as I thought.

But overall, I'm improving. I've lost a bit of weight, my doctor is pleased with my current state of health (well, okay, after my last check up last week he mentioned that I still should watch the high-cholesterol foods), and I feel like I can allow myself the occasional treat. Like today, where I put a splash of heavy cream in my coffee (left over from a Valentine's dinner where I made one of my favorite dishes, Gratin Dauphinois), and will probably eat the amazing grapefruit cake (thanks Thomas Keller, what a recipe!) I made yesterday for breakfast. And lunch. (Hey, it was even dinner last night.)

In celebration of my relative good health (and with a nod to service journalism and this post actually having a point), here are a few recipes. All bad! One involves pouring an entire container of heavy cream over a pan of potatoes. The other involves pouring an entire stick of butter over a fruit crisp. And the third is very very good for you (except if you're me). Enjoy.

Gratin Dauphinois
Preheat oven to 350.
Thinly slice 4 russet or Yukon gold potatoes (this is where a mandoline is your best friend—a utensil that changed my life! You want the slices so thin you can almost see through them.)
Layer potatoes in a medium baking dish. In between each layer, dot with butter, add a little bit of crushed garlic and a few gratings of fresh nutmeg, plus salt and pepper. When you've used up all the potatoes, pour a half-pint of heavy cream over the top of the entire dish.
Bake for at least 90 minutes.
This dish is so ridiculously good that it really only serves 2 or 3. Double it up if you've got more than 3 at the table.

Kale Chips
Preheat oven to 250.
Wash one bunch of kale and pat dry.
Cut leaves crosswise into thirds. Toss with a very small amount of olive oil, a few tablespoons of soy sauce and salt & pepper to taste.
Array kale leaves in one layer on baking sheet.
Bake for at least 30 mins, stirring leaves around once or twice.
When all the water has cooked away and leaves are crispy, remove from oven and serve.

Fruit Crisp
1 c flour
1 c sugar
1 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1 egg, beaten
5-6 cups fruit
1/2 cup sugar
2 T flour
1 stick butter, melted
Preheat oven to 375.
Mix together the first 4 dry ingredients, set aside.
Slice fruit (berries, apples, pears, any kind of stone fruit all work well. Anything really, it's super versatile) and mix fruit with 1/2 c sugar and 2 tablespoons flour (cornstarch works here too).
Pile fruit into baking dish.
For the topping, take dry ingredients, and slowly add the beaten egg. Mix until combined, so that it is crumby and sandy. If too dry, add a little bit more egg.
Sprinkle topping all over fruit to evenly cover. Pour the melted butter all over the top of the dish. Bake for 45 minutes or until browned.