Thursday, March 30, 2006

how to be a foodie without being a fatty?

if i make that chevre cheesecake that i tore out the recipe for, it's going to be in my house, and it will need to be eaten. for this reason, i have not yet made it, and consequently, not yet blogged about it. the only thing keeping me from going to the dumpling house on eldridge street three times a week, is my desire to stay thin. for this reason, i have not yet written about their peerless dumplings, and the amazing scallion pancake stuffed with mystery meat.

i eat clif bars and healthy choice ice cream-- both of which i've convinced myself taste great, but in reality cannot compare to a five-star bar and a bowl of ben and jerry's-- to make space for more calorically intensive and more sporadic food forays. if my career is a mess (it is), if my love life's a muddle (i think it might be), at least i'm thin! thank goodness for my rock-hard abs, i think to myself, when times get tough.

inspired by this week's beautiful new yorker piece by calvin trillin, i went out and finally bought myself his "tummy trilogy." trillin, like myself, is a completer. "the last piece of food i left on my plate," he recalls, " that was in the fall of 1958, as i remember-- had a bug on it." trillin celebrates his own belly and also the corpulence of others. in particular, he talks about his buddy fats goldberg, a formerly fat pizza man who got down to half his size by maintaining an extremely restrictive diet. several times a year, however, he heads to his hometown of kansas city and for a week will let himself go wild. he once gained 17 POUNDS IN A WEEK. this man sort of disgusts me but also he's sort of my hero.

i guess this entry is an apology, to you my loyal small readership, for not eating more, and therefore writing more. if given my druthers, i suspect i would, like a cow who needs to be brought back to the barn, go out to pasture and not know when to stop. i, too, might gain 17 pounds in a week, and so, you see, you have to forgive me. being a foodie without being a fatty is a very difficult thing, and often it entails just saying "no."

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

tramps like us

5 days in missouri, oklahoma, texas and kansas; this is what i learned.

1. chicken fried steak is neither chicken nor steak. talk amongst yourselves.

2. i have always thought i didn't like beer. i had my first taste at a teenage house party in milton keynes, england. it was from a one liter screwtop plastic bottle, and was sipped tentatively out of a porcelain teacup. it was flat and acrid; i was 14 and it was a bad beginning for me and beer. i spent the next 16 years or so avoiding it altogether, making rare exceptions for a stella artois on a hot summer night. st. louis' microbrew, schlafly, tasted surprisingly good to me. it turns out i like hefeweisen (and also their pale ale).

3. this does not sound like a recipe for success: take some meat, dry it out until it looks like a piece of leather. cure it in 3 kinds of sugar and a pint of jim beam. and yet! driving through oklahoma, a piece of jerky is just the thing to keep your mouth company as you gaze at the farmland.

4. the back of a pick-up truck is a great place to eat lunch. better if the car is not moving.

5. when southerners get their panties in a twist about barbecue, it is hard for a northern girl to relate. i'll wax rhapsodic about pizza or bagels but i've never had barbecue that helped me understand what all the fuss is about. in kansas city-- on what i imagine was the "wrong side of the tracks" in kansas city, at LC's, i was shown the light.

the smoker doors were black and greasy and every time they were opened a giant waft of smoke and bbq flavor engulfed the place. j and i giggled with anticipation at the sight of the giant hunks of meat smoking away on the stacked racks. when j picked up his "mixed plate" and my "short end," piled high on slices of wonder bread, a jolly woman beside us laughed and said "my boy is the same way: skinny as a rail but he sure can pack it away."

to the background sounds of "wheel of fortune" we slobbered and smacked and groaned and moaned. i swear i have never tasted baked beans before that night, (they may have been called "baked beans," but they were a sham) and i was grateful for a travel mate who understood the need for a journey to find a dinner like that. NOW i have had bbq, and i'll happily reciprocate if any of those kansans want to come to town and have, say, an H and H bagel.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

say cheese

an unseasonably warm day, a long walk across the gowanus, from park slope to carroll gardens. a chance to check out caputo's on court street and 3rd place. inside i find one of the remaining italian food purveyors that still line court street as you head down from atlantic on court. pastry shops, green grocers, pizzerias, and butchers. caputo's reminds me of the places i frequented in downtown manhattan with my mother when i was a child (russo's, raffetto's). they have freezers full of ravioli, gnocchi, and tortelloni. shelves of capers, and tapenades. refrigerated display cases full of cheeses and salamis. and on an open table, along with the olives, bowls full of fresh mozzarella, sitting in vats of water.

i bought a small ball of cheese. "salty?" the guy asks. when i nod yes, he picks up the cheese with silver tongs and swirls it in a vat of cloudy salt water. i ogle everything, but try to keep in mind that i am leaving in a few days for a trip. i restrain myself by buying only a bag of pumpkin tortelloni, a bag of pumpkin gnocchi, the cheese, and a fine looking crusty italian bread.

the pumpkin gnocchi i ate tonight as i watched "sopranos." as i emptied them into the boiling water, i read the list of ingredients and was confused to see "amaretto cookies" listed as part of the filling. sure enough they were almost cloyingly sweet--potato pockets filled with cheese and...cookies? but cut with the acidic tomato sauce and topped with peas and pine nuts, they were pretty tasty.

best of all, though, was the sandwich i made upon my return from caputo's yesterday:

1 hunk of crusty italian bread
1/2 ripe avocado
2 thick slices of creamy fresh caputo's mozzarella

break bread open, split into 2 halves
spoon soft avocado onto each piece and mash into the bread
top with a slice of cheese

savor. devour.
if necessary, repeat.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

despana

my most recent trip to spain, about two years ago, was primarily a gastronomic tour. if forced to get more specific, it was primarily "un viaje de jamon" which for you non spanish speakers translates roughly as "vacation of ham." i had chorizo, serrano, butifarra, etc.

when i arrived there, i was a struggling vegetarian, but after worshipping at the tapas altar (a pilgrim on a journey seeking taste), i left as a meat sinner, a fallen vegetarian, having taken a bite not of an apple, but of the pig, roasting slowly, with an apple in its mouth. for me, spain is synonymous with sausage, and god bless.

this past weekend i popped into despana, a small gourmet spanish food shop, newly opened at broome between lafayette and centre street. the first thing to mention is the abundance of samples. small spanish clay dishes proffer sausage bites, olives, tapenades, excellent cheeses, sauteed marcona almonds (flat and soft), and various olive oils. a girl could fill up on these alone and there seems to be no taboo against rolling up sleeves and digging in.

if you still have room after all that madness, order a bocadillo at the back counter. for $8, four of us shared a chorizo, manchego, and honey sandwich, while standing at the marble slabbed free-standing counter. the guy even cut it into quarters for us, and it was excellent.

unexpectedly, the highlight for me was a fried morsel of morcilla. it was a dark, rich purple which i suspected signalled "blood sausage." blood sausage is made by boiling blood until it gelatinizes, then mixing it with ground pork parts, cereal of some kind, and spices. i knew i would not try it if i was certain of its identity, so i popped it blindly in my mouth and was pleased by its mellow, deep richness. "is that blood sausage?" i asked tentatively, as i licked my lips. the counter guy smiled slyly and nodded, pleased with making yet another new convert.

Friday, March 03, 2006

rise

cooking is for sloppy improvisors; baking is for precise chemists; bread making is for patient, precise nurturers. i am not particularly patient. i am not at all precise, and i not really a nurturer, though it is a quality i really do admire. encouraging a yeast-based product to rise is a gentle, intuitive process that i have never mastered. i baked challah a few times, and although it was delicious in its own way, it never really rose properly, and was oddly flat and dense. i inherited from katie, who got it from emily's mom, a fantastic cinnamon raisin swirl bread recipe that is oddly foolproof. and there end my forays into baking.

mostly i suffer from a failure to rise (i am only 5 foot 2. sometimes i wonder if my mother looks at me, and thinks: i am no baker. my daughter has had a failure to rise. they said she would double in size, but...). recipes say that the dough will double in size and mine barely change at all. until i take that bread baking course in france that i have been eyeing, i won't know what exactly i am doing wrong, but i wonder if it is about how i am storing my little yeats packets.

this morning i made a focaccia, because the instructions on my baking cookbook (how to bake, by nick malgieri) called it "easy." even if you are half-distracted by an overly-affectionate cat, and email and a ringing phone? apparently, yes! i did almost nothing right: it calls for water of a certain temperature, and i did not use a thermometer. it calls for 2 tsp of salt in the dough and i absentmindedly only put in one, realizing only when it was too late.

i topped it with a few food gifts i had lying around.

1. sel gris. a holiday gift from my friend, it is from a compnay called le tresor, and it is "hand raked from the celtic sea in france." if that is actually true, then i marvel at the strangeness of it being here, in my apartment in brooklyn, being used to top an italian bread.

2. white truffle oil. there has been much talk lately of this stuff being ridiculous and fake, using artificial truffle flavoring instead of the essence of real truffles. this much is true--it said so on the label. but it has that familiar smoky earthiness and a family i work for gave it to me one night as we talked about food over their kitchen table.

i just ate a piece, fresh out of the oven, and it is excellent. fortunately quite unlike the extremely thick, doughy stuff that has come to be thought of as focaccia in the states, of late. it is fairly thin (what with my rising problems and all), crunchy on the outside, but soft right in the center, and excellently flavored by the french sea salt, fresh rosemary sprigs and drizzle of white truffle oil.

easy italian focaccia

1 1/3 cups warm tap water (about 110 degrees)
2 1/2 tsp (1 envelope) dry active yeast
6 tbsp oilve oil
3 1/4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
2 tsp salt
my toppings:
2 tsp sel gris
2 tsp white truffle oil
1 branch of fresh rosemary

measure water into a bowl and whisk in yeast and 3 tbsp of olive oil
combine flour and salt in a separate bowl
with a rubber spatula, combine the yeast mixture with the flour mixture, until all flour is evenly moistened
it then says to "beat it vigorously" but i have no idea what this means.
i just kept turning it over with the spatula until it looked like dough

cover bowl with plastic wrap and let if rise for 1 hour, until it "doubles in size."

spread 1 1/2 tbsp of remaining olive oil onto a jelly roll pan
dump dough onto it and press it out , trying to get it to reach the corners of the pan. mine didn't.
cover with oiled saran wrap pieces (i sprayed mine with pam)
let rise for another hour

preheat oven to 450 degrees and set your rack to the bottom third of the oven

when focaccia is done rising, use finger to make dimples every two inches
pur a drop of truffle oil into each dimple
sprinkle entire bread with sel gris (or whatever kind of sea salt you have)
stick a rosemary sprig into every dimple

bake for 25 minutes until golden brown on top

Thursday, March 02, 2006

i saw the baby jesus

by way of an update:

first instincts are to be respected. this is a lesson i must learn again and again. the other week, i grabbed first the peanut five star bar, and after switching for a second choice (fruit and nut), i suffered the consequences. i was, you may recall, uninspired.

the peanut version is remarkable, transcendant, divine. inspired. it has a texture i have never encountered before--smooth, with flecks of crispness. creamy, god, i couldn't eat it all at once, and there is almost nothing i do not eat all at once (i am a completer). i knew that if i ate it all at once, that would mean there was none for later, nothing to look forward to. there are people, apparently, who save food all the time; i am not one of them.

as i tutored an 8th grader the other night, the conversation turned to candy. do you like peanut butter? i asked. her face lit up, as it never does when we talk about convection and conduction. i told her about the five star peanut bar and she told me about her obsession: a peanut butter chocolate confection she and her mom had spotted on the food network's "food finds." they were out of their number 1 favorite, "colt's bolts," but my 8th grader's mom (skinny as a rail--she has a chocolate addiction that rivals mine? impossible) shared with me a "truffle baby," made by this same company colts chocolates in nashville.

it was good. quite good, with a whole almond buried in the center. but it was no five star bar. i give it 3 out of 5, but that's it.

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