Wednesday, November 23, 2005

pecan pie thoughts

What no one needs to put on the cover of their newspaper/magazine: raw turkey. Both the NYT and NY mag both produced spectacularly unappetizing holiday spreads last week, more redolent of that disturbing John Currin painting Thanksgiving--which is at least sardonic and touched with some acid social commentary--than a celebration of good cheer and good cooking. Although I did love the picture of the Haitian turkey, just because it looked so awful--as if a turkey had somehow gone through a very bad Harry Potter spell turning it into--a giant scorched olive loaf!

But now it's pie time, pie time at last! I'm off to the Greenmarket this morning for apples, apples, apples, Ronnybrook cream, cider, lettuce for the salad and cinnamon doughnuts to keep me happy. Because K. is a Southerner, she's hinted that a little pecan pie wouldn't be amiss on Saturday's table, so this might be the time that I finally try out John Thorne's very simple, very tasty-sounding pecan pie. Yankee that I am, I am wondering if maple syrup could be subbed for the golden syrup. Or if I can find some Steen's Cane Syrup, I'll use that, maybe half-and-half with maple syrup, and bourbon--just to be all-American--instead of the rum.

John Thorne’s Pecan Pie

1 cup muscovado or Sucanat brown sugar
2/3 cup (scant) Lyle’s Golden Syrup or cane syrup
2 TB dark rum or bourbon
4 TB butter
3 eggs
1/4 tsp. salt
2 cups pecans
single crust pie shell, partially prebaked blind

Preheat oven 350 degrees. Boil sugar, syrup, rum, and butter for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Let cool. Stir in salt, eggs, and pecans. Pour into pie shell and bake 50 minutes.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Salad You Need to Know

Mostly, I’m on pie duty this holiday—apple and pumpkin for Amy’s on Thursday, apple, cranberry and pecan for the T-day redux with my family on Saturday. But for Thursday’s dinner I’ll also be bringing the salad, if only because I have become a fierce champion of this recipe and feel strongly that no Thanksgiving table is complete without it.

I first had this salad at a dinner at Bay Wolf, a lovely French/Italian/California-cuisine fixture in Oakland, possibly at the same dinner where I was served what remains one of the best pasta dishes of my life-- buckwheat ravioli stuffed with goat cheese, tossed with beets and walnuts—along with their dreamy duck-liver mousse, which practically floats off the toast. When Bay Wolf finally came out with their cookbook, I bought it immediately, just in hopes of finding this salad and that pasta. (As for the duck, it turns out to be more mousseline than mousse, equal parts liver and whipped cream). The pasta was there, albeit in two separate recipes--one for goat-cheese ravioli, the other for buckwheat noodles in a beet-and-walnut pasta sauce. (I have not yet united the two, but I sleep better knowing that I could.) But the salad was right there, tasting just like it did in Oakland.

As an autumn charmer, this beautiful salad makes slightly more sense in California, where pomegranates and persimmons are grown locally and show up in the farmers’ markets in October and November. But I've made it all over the place and it's a hit every time--a little sweet, soft and slippery, then crunchy, toasty from the nuts and creamy with the goat cheese. And the colors are very much like a frolic in the woods—glowing drops of red, wedges of deep orange, shiny brown nuts and deep green lettuces.

Bay Wolf’s Autumn Salad

This salad calls for Fuyu persimmons, which are the round, firm, flattish ones, not the deep-orange, pyramid-shaped ones. If you can’t find persimmons, substitute sliced Bosc or Asian pears.

1 cup pecans
2 tablespoons sugar
cayenne pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350F. Fill a medium pot with water and bring to a boil. Drop in pecans and blanch for a couple minutes. Drain. Toss pecans with sugar and cayenne. Spread on a baking sheet and bake, stirring frequently, until crisp and toasty. Be careful; because of the sugar, they can burn easily. Let cool, then break up into smallish pieces.

1 shallot, minced
1 sprig of fresh thyme
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
salt and pepper
1/2 cup olive oil

Let shallot and thyme soak in vinegar for 30 minutes. Strip the thyme leaves off the sprig. Add salt and pepper and whisk in olive oil.

A couple handfuls of arugula
A small head of red-leaf or oak-leaf lettuce
Seeds of 1 pomegranate
3 Fuyu (flat) persimmons, peeled and sliced
4 ounces soft, fresh goat cheese (chevre), crumbled

Toss lettuce, persimmons, and pomegranate seeds with half the dressing. Add more dressing if needed. Top with pecans and goat cheese.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Pumpkin Pie!

Oh, where has the Pie Queen been? Spirited back to the South? Whisked up to a wood-stove cabin on the Canadian border? Or, more prosaically, trapped in Brooklyn under a mountain of deadlines? Well, the last 2 are true, at least, although I will be heading back across the Mason-Dixon Line come December, on the Civil War Isn't Over Yet tour of Virginia, South Carolina, and Florida come December, followed by a quickie breeze through San Francisco (o bliss! o Tartine!) in early January.

But right now I'm in Tazza, the month-and-a-week new cafe/bakery/enoteca at the corner of Henry and Atlantic (just north of Atlantic, on the B'klyn Heights side). Such a lovely place, spacious and pleasant, with coffee served in real cups on little round orange trays, with your own beaker of milk on the side, and a tasty selection of cakes and sandwiches, even a wine bar for lingering once the typing's done. Open at 7am, closes at 10pm. It's like being at home, only much tidier--they even play all my CDs, from Satie and Kiri Te Kanawa to Paris Combo. These days, it's all about staying local--last night, my downstairs neighbor Amy and I ran through the rain to get to the cozy, David-Bowie-soundtracked environs of Chip Shop--a lady's half-pint of Old Speckled Hen for me, a Guinness, a plate of baked beans on toast and a pair of deep-fried Reese's PB cups for her.

[Long silence. Chirp. Chirp.]

So, Thanksgiving. Did anyone find Kim S's long turkey-roasting piece in the Times to be well, kinda pointless? At last, after all those dopey, fussy articles (put an ice pack on the breast! brine, brine, brine!) the Times is now paying their writers to talk to their moms and make turkey the way everyone actually does it: just put on some salt and pepper, maybe a little butter, a few veg inside, tent it with foil and stick in the oven til it's done. Honestly, there's no great mystery. Just roast the damn thing and stop talking about it.

Pie, now, I could talk to you all day about pie. And if you're making pumpkin pie this year--which you should, otherwise you'll end up with something like that scene in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, where Peppermint Patty, confronted with Snoopy's turkeyless offerings of popcorn and toast, flips out and demands, "Where's the cranberry sauce, Chuck? Where's the PUMPKIN PIE???" Trust me, I made ginger-pumpkin mousse one year, for a group of about 30, and it's not a mistake I'll make again.

So, pumpkin pie. Two things you want to do: pre-bake your pie crust, and use roasted fresh butternut squash. Pre-baking (aka blind-baking) the crust until it is lightly golden solves the whole soggy-bottom-crust thing that bedevils most custard pies. To blind-bake, make your crust, tuck it into your pie pan, and refrigerate the whole thing for an hour or so. Then line the pan with foil or parchment paper, and fill with a handful of pie weights (those little silvery drops sold in fancy cooking shops) or old dried beans (note that once a pie weight, always a pie weight--you can't eat those beans once they're baked, but you can use them as pie weights again and again). Let crust bake at 400-425F (depending on your oven) until pale golden. Then take out the foil etc. and let bake a few minutes more, until golden brown.

And as for the filling,butternut squash has vast flavor reserves that pumpkin can't even dream of. Using fresh squash will give your filling a lovely, fluffy texture that's very different from the usual heavy, stodgy wedge. Just slice your butternut--no mean feat, so be careful and don't slice your hand up--in half lengthwise, put it face down on a baking sheet and roast until squishy. Flip it over, scrape out the seeds and goo, and scoop flesh into a colander. Mash throughly--I like to pass it through a food mill to get really smooth, but you can buzz it in the processor, beat it with a spoon, or be totally insane and push it through a fine-mesh strainer with a wooden spoon, which is probably the fastest route to just scrapping the whole deal and opening a can of Libby's. But you do need to do something to get rid of the stringiness. I just cranked a bunch of stringy chunks through the fine disk of my cheapie plastic food mill, and was amazed at the lovely velvety puree that resulted. Heave the puree into a strainer and let drain for a hour or so.

Then just find a nice recipe--most people I know have bailed on the old evaporated-milk deal and use heavy cream now instead, but I stick by my little can, mixed with eggs, brown sugar, and spices. Shuna over at Eggbeater likes to add slivered sage; the lovely Bakerina swears by Rose Levy Bernbaum's double-cooking technique, in which one sautes the pumpkin, sugar, and spices for a few minutes before mixing in the eggs and milk--a technique I think I'll try, because why NOT make life a little more complicated?

Remember that the pie will continue to cook a bit as it cools, so leave the center a little jiggly, to avoid giant fault-like cracks cratering through the custard.

Pie Queen's Pumpkin Pie
Essentially the exact same recipe as published in the 1939 Yankee Cookbook, just with more squash and with the addition of a quick pre-cooking of the filling.

15 ounces roasted, mashed butternut squash or pumpkin (approx. 1 1/2 cups)
2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups evaporated milk, or a combo of milk, half and half, or heavy cream
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
single-crust pie shell, baked blind to a pale golden

Preheat oven to 350F. Mix squash, sugar, spices, and salt in a heavy pot. Bring to a sputtering simmer and cook, stirring, for 3 or 4 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes, then add milk, stirring until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in vanilla. Pour into pie shell and bake until slightly puffed and set, with the center still a little jiggly. Let cool on a rack. Serve with whipped cream.

Now, the Harry Potter movie, opening tomorrow! I can't wait!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Down South!

Just a quick note, since it's 1AM and I'm wiped out--but I'm in the South, for the very first time, at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, all about sugar and sweet things. Driving from Memphis to Greenwood, seeing fields of cotton for the first time, listening to pop country and then in the surprise of the chic Alluvian Hotel, eating pig candy (sugar-rubbed bacon with pecans) and getting a taste of that sweet southern hospitality. More on brandy milk punch, Julia Reed, and Doe's Eat Place to bed.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Come on in, the water's fine

"These people have a lot of parties," Teddy said sleepily.
"These people have a lot of money," Jane Louise said. "Maybe we should give a lot of parties. It feels just like family life, but everyone goes home afterwards."

-Laurie Colwin, A Big Storm Knocked It Over

Well, there's no getting around it. My birthday is making its annual appearance this weekend. Apart of the whole getting-older thing (note to self: hair dye), I'm actually fond of birthdays. Cards, cake, funny presents (goofy socks! fridge magnets!)--what's not to like? Given that there's only one day of the year when you can get total strangers to be nice to you for no reason, I don't understand those sour don't-make-a-fuss types hating on their birthdays every year.

But then again, Libras love a party. And we especially love a party together, preferably one with lots of little tea sandwiches and an endless assortment of nibbles at which to pick. No decisions, lots of little sweet and salty things, champagne: that's paradise, when you're born in October. And that's what my tiny birthday party is going to be: not dinner, but just nibbles, and chocolate (especially since K. mailed me a whole stack of Gianduja bars, sweet thing that she is), and of course, cake. Since it's autumn, finally, I'm going to skip the usual layer-cake-n'-icing thing and make the awesome gingerbread-apple-upside-down cake. The recipe's on here already somewhere; I'll link to it if I can find it.

Until then, the fire-escape garden has produced its last handful of tomatoes, ripening on a pie plate in the kitchen. The morning glories have been replaced with yellow-and-bronze chrysanthemums, and ivy is twining up where the petunias once flowered and fretted. The heavy seed heads on the sunflowers are slowly being emptied by the birds, and there's a bagful of crab apples and quinces sitting in my hallway, waiting to be turned into paradise jelly, using the lovelyBakerina's recipe, which is the same as the one in my 1940s edition of the Joy of Cooking, back when the Joy still had a full chapter of preserving and canning recipes. (The recent, much-vaunted redo of the book left jams and jellies out completely, thanks to a bunch of snitty NYC editors who live on soy lattes and Thai takeout and DO NOT CAN.)

So happy birthday to all you Libras and Scorpios out there, and now, go make a wish.

Songs for a Birthday

1. Beautiful Child (Rufus Wainwright)
2. I Was Born (Natalie Merchant)
3. You've Got What It Takes (Brooke Benton and Dinah Washington)
4. That Was Your Mother (Paul Simon)
5. Really Rosie (Carole King)

Monday, October 17, 2005

Pudding in Paradise

A bunch of years ago, when I was writing a dessert-and-pastry column called Queen of Tarts for the San Francisco Bay Guardian (yes, this Pie Queen concept has been going on for quite a while), I got an invitation to go down to a warehouse in South San Francisco. South San Francisco is what you first see from the airport, its claim to fame laid out in huge white Hollywood-sign letters: "South San Francisco: The Industrial City," framed by identical rows of boxy pastel houses, And the garage-like space I'd come to find was identical to every other locked box in a long row of corrugated metal and concrete.

Except for the smell. It was like all the brownies on earth baking together, tantalizing and warm and unbearably seductive. "I don't even smell it anymore," confessed Robert Steinberg, one of the founders of the then-nascent Scharffen Berger Chocolate company. A doctor turned self-taught chocolate maven, Steinberg was overseeing the company's tiny chocolate-making operation in tandem with co-owner John Scharffenberger, who'd recently left his family's successful sparkling-wine business in the Anderson Valley. Together, they were doing what no one else in America was doing on such a small scale: making bean-to-bar chocolate. (As far as I know, Jacques Torres's new Hudson Street operation is the only other small-scale chocolate-making operation in the States.)

In the land of home-grown behemoths like Hershey's, they had to import their fire engine red, Willie-Wonka-ish machinery from Germany, where family-run chocolate companies still had old, small machines to sell. The beans came in rough burlap sacks, stamped with their country of origin--Venezuela, Cote d'Ivoire, Ecuador. We toured the room, pausing at each machine as the beans went from roaster to concher to tempering vat. The chocolate itself was startling: intensely flavored, with a vivid smokiness balanced by fruitiness.

Professional pastry chefs were Scharffen Berger's target market, and soon, in San Francisco, menus were touting Scharffen Berger chocolate the same way they bragged of Frog Hollow peaches and Acme bread. But Steinberg and Scharffenberger were caught off guard by the public's clamour for their chunky slabs of baking chocolate.

Now, Scharffen Berger has a sleek new home in a rehabbed brick warehouse in south Berkeley (where you can take a fragrant tour of the whole chocolate-dusted works, then taste their wares in the adjoining Cafe Cacao). The product line includes both the original big baking blocks and a whole wide range for straight-up chocolate eaters: smooth, slender 3-oz bars of various cocoa-bean percentages (the higher the percent, the darker and stronger the chocolate), cute chunky two-bite bars, cocoa powder, cocoa nibs (tiny bitter tidbits of the roasted bean itself), even milk chocolate (something Steinberg swore, in the beginning, that he’d never do). And the company has a corporate parent: the original rubber-candy-bar company itself, Hershey's.

But so far, Scharffen Berger's still doing what it does best. And their brand new Gianduja bar--ahhh, my sweet, I insist! Dark chocolate mixed with pure hazelnut paste into a silky toffee-colored bar, it's like Nutella for grownups, not too sweet, with that special smoky edge roughing up the smooth suaveness of the hazelnut. Melt this onto a baguette, or some toasted brioche, and you will have died and gone to breakfast in heaven’s youth hostel.

On the Scharffen Berger website is a recipe for a chocolate pudding made with this. Fair warning: anyone making this for me better show up with a ring.

And elsewhere in the news, Cafe du Monde is back! They're up and frying down by the French Market, bringing the sweet smell of sugar-dusted beignets and chicory coffee back to the French Quarter. When times are tough, the tough start frying.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Rained out, but apple pie prevails

Good morning from rainy, rainy NYC. I had high hopes of showing K. the glories of an East Coast autumn over this long weekend--all the tasty treats they don't have in warm states, like hot apple cider, pumpkin patches, and apple-cider doughnuts made in goofy Rube Goldberg machines right before your eyes. Every orchard in the Hudson River Valley was having a hayride-and-apple-picking extravaganza for the weekend, it seemed. There would be cider-pressing and performances by the Magical Puppet Theater at the nifty biodynamic Hawthorne Valley Farm, even a Civil War re-enactment in Montgomery, just in case K. needed a little taste of home, albeit with a Union slant. She packed up her tent--how cold could it be?--I made a reservation at the sweet-sounding Milk & Honey b&b for the first night, and we synchronized our watches to meet in Albany.

Well, you already know how this goes, right? The b&b was homey and laid-back and fun. We learned that Chatham, NY is not on big-city time, which means the Blue Plate restaurant closes its doors at 8:45pm (and meaning, of course, that we didn't get to try it, since we didn't actually get it together to leave our room seeking dinner until 9pm). And that the Greig Farm orchard, on a cloudy Friday, was virtually empty, save for us and a whole bunch of little trees laden with dozens of kinds of apples and acres of pumpkins scattered in the most unlikely of places.

But then the rain started to fall. And fall, and fall, and fall. Unlike the few other hardy campers in the park, we didn't have tarps and canopies rigged up over our tiny tent. At 2:30am, one of the tent poles collapsed. By 6:30am, the nylon walls were running with water, the roof of the tent was bowed down to within 2 inches of our heads and we were caught like a couple of almost-drowned cats in a sack. We spent the morning thawing out over coffee and sausage at the diner in Red Hook (a very classic 1920s Silk Cut model, for you vintage-diner fans), then another hour reading the New Republic at the laundromat as our muddy socks and sodden sleeping bags churned around in the industrial-sized washers. And by the afternoon, we were on the thruway, heading back to the one warm place we knew--my apartment in Brooklyn.

Which was, by contrast, a blissful oasis of hot showers & clean flowery sheets. With the car parked, we stayed in the neighborhood, walking to Prospect Park (trees! waterfalls! squirrels! who needs the country?), eating curried salmon with pineapple at Blue Star, catching a movie at the Cobble Hill cinema (Tim Burton's Corpse Bride--ehhh. Not original, not funny, in fact lame all around. Skip it. The preview for the Johnny Cash movie, however, looked hot), shooting free pool at b61, and drinking hot mulled cider all day long.

And since we did come home with two big bags of hand-picked apples, I scooted out of bed early on Monday morning and whipped up a homemade apple pie. It looks squashed in this picture, but actually it was very pretty (and tasty!), with squirrel and leaf cutouts on top. And while the pie baked, K. made apple-orchard scrambled eggs, with sauteed onions, apples, and chunks of pork sausage. You could throw in a little thyme, too, and maybe some sharp cheddar cheese. Serve with some hot cider, toast and apple butter, and be happy for flannel pajamas and a roof over your head.

Apple Pie to Save the Day

2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 TB sugar
1 1/2 to 2 sticks butter (3/4 - 1 cup), depending on how buttery you want your crust
6 TB ice water

Mix dry ingredients, cut in butter (leave it chunkier than you think!), and toss in ice water. Flatten into two rounds, wrap in plastic or stick in a zip-loc bag, and chill. After at least an hour or so of chilling, roll out the crusts between sheets of wax paper.

Meanwhile, peel, core, and cut up a bunch of apples. Since I already had way more apples on hand than I knew I'd need, I just kept peeling and slicing until I had enough to fill my pie pan in a nice heap. But buy at least three or four pounds of apples; having too many apples is always a good thing. Toss apples with about 3/4 cup of sugar (more or less, depending on your taste), 1 tsp cinnamon, a handful of raisins (optional), a scant tablespoon of flour, and a pinch of salt. You can throw in a little nutmeg, cloves, allspice, or ginger, too, but be gentle--you want the mellow apple taste to prevail.

Line the pie pan with the bottom crust, heap in your apples, and top with top crust. Press edges together and crimp the crust edge. If you want, you can brush the top with an egg wash (1 egg yolk beaten with 1-2 tb water), and top it with little cutouts of leaves or apples or squirrels, if you're like me and collect goofy cookie cutters for just this purpose.

Bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour. You may need to cover the edges with foil for the last 20 minutes or so to prevent them from burning. Crust should be well browned and filling bubbling. Let cool to warm, then serve with vanilla ice cream or sharp cheddar cheese. After all, as the New Englanders say, Apple pie without the cheese/Is like a hug without the squeeze.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

A Sweet Year

Come sundown on Monday, it will be Rosh Hashanah, the start of the two-day celebration of the Jewish New Year, and of the two-week-long stretch known as the High Holy Days, which ends with Yom Kippur. Me, I'm mostly a baking Jew. I do challah for Friday nights, hamentaschen for Purim, latkes for Chanukkah, flourless chocolate cake and matzoh-meal muffins for Passover. But Rosh Hashanah is a lovely holiday, and it even gets me back to temple, sometimes. Determined by the lunar calendar, Rosh Hashanah floats around, cropping up anytime from early September to early October. In 2001, it fell just a few days after Sept. 11, and I was definitely not the only sloppily observant Jew who suddenly needed to hear the familiar liturgy. What I realized at the end, though, was that I was really there for the headliner: the blowing of the shofar, the long ram's horn that drones like a wild, Biblical bagpipe at the close of the day's services.

The sound of the shofar is a wake-up call, blowing all the past year's dust out of your head. At the same time, you don't get off scot-free. The two weeks of the High Holy Days are a time to clear debts, to make amends, to call anyone you've been behaving badly to and rub the slate clean. No Hail Marys, no priestly intercession; you have to go out and do it yourself.

But back to the baking side of things: every culture has its symbolic New Year's foods--lentils with a stuffed pig's foot in Bologna; noodles in China; hoppin' john (black-eyed or field peas with rice) down South. And where most traditions take long life and prosperity as their metaphors, the dishes of Rosh Hashanah are all about sweetness. Nothing sour, nothing bitter: New Year's foods are honey-sweet, full of fruit and warm spice. This is the year still perfect, a full glass of health and happiness. It's a rare moment of bubbly hope for a religion and culture more used to looking over its shoulder for the Cossacks coming round the corner.

New fruits--something freshly harvested in the fall, something still yet new for the season--get pride of place on the table. Here on the East Coast this means apples, just coming into season now. But I like to add pomegranates, Concord grapes, and fresh figs, a mix of autumn bounty both local and Biblical. Slices of apples are dipped in honey and eaten to ensure a sweet year, followed by chunks of round, raisin-studded challah, spread with yet more honey. I love to make a huge challah at this time of year, studded with golden raisins, with extra honey and extra eggs. The next morning, it makes the best French toast ever, French toast that will spoil you from making it with any other bread.

Last year, on a freakishly hot night in mid-September, a dozen friends sweltered in my living room, rubbing ice cubes over their necks and arms, drinking everything cold in the house and tearing a challah the size of a Thanksgiving turkey apart with their hands. Sugarkill's Moroccan chicken tagine, a bowl of couscous, a salad with roasted figs, a gingerbread-apple cake--they all got eaten. But a year later, what everyone remembers is the bread.

Honey-Glazed Challah for Rosh Hashanah

2 tsp yeast
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
1/2 cup honey
1 TB salt
7-8 cups flour
1 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup honey, for glaze

Sprinkle yeast over water and let dissolve for a few minutes. Beat in eggs, yolks, honey, oil, and salt. Stir in several cups of flour and beat to a thick batter. Add more flour, a cup at a time, to make a medium-soft but not sticky dough.

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and let rest 10 minutes. Knead for 8-10 minutes, until dough is smooth and stretchy. It should feel warm and pliable, like a soft stomach or a relaxed inner thigh. Turn dough back into mixing bowl, cover with a damp towel or plastic bag, and let rise for 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in bulk. Punch down and knead again for another couple minutes. At this point, depending on your schedule, you can let it rise again or go straight to shaping the loaves.

Divide dough into two lumps (or you can, if so inclined, use all the dough in one massive loaf). Stretch the lumps into flattish rectangles, and sprinkle with golden raisins. Roll up into a log, and generally push and pull the dough around so the raisins get distributed. You can, of course, add the raisins back when you're putting in the flour, but kneading dough with raisins in it is a pain, as the raisins are continually popping out and needing to be shoved back in. It's like raisin whack-a-mole.

Anyway, pull the lumps or logs or whatever into two long ropes of dough. The best directions for making a round loaf that doesn't list and collapse in the oven comes from Marcy Goldman's excellent cookbook, A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking. "Form a rope of 18 to 24 inches, thicker at one end, tapered at the other. Take the rope of dough and with one hand, lift the narrowed end and wind the entire length around the thicker end of the strand so that the thick part becomes the middle of the challah. Tuck the tip under the coil and press it down to seal it closed." You can also cheat and form your loaf in a big round cake pan, which will help keep the shape.

Otherwise, place the loaf/loaves on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet. Drizzle with honey. Let rise again for 30 minutes. then bake in a preheated 350 oven until well-browned and hollow-sounding when you thump it. Let cool on a rack.

And you know, if you want this recipe and more for your very own, you can search out my lovely little book all about honey, available on Amazon and, if you're very lucky, in the occasional nifty gift shop or bookstore. It's called Honey: From Flower to Table, and it's full of weird bee facts and beautiful flower-and-honeybee pinup photos, not to mention the ultimate non-sucky bran muffin recipe and a cool DIY beeswax-honey lip balm.

And speaking of Jewish food, NOSH is finally open. It's run by Marc Elliot, of seafood hangout Blue Star, and promises all things deli, from pastrami and brisket to matzoh ball soup and blintzes. 214 Atlantic Ave, between Court and Smith Sts., Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Breakfast with the Pie Queen

I'm a sucker for sassy writing, wherever it crops up--like in the Fatted Calf newsletter, a snappy bit of meaty goodness that pops up in my inbox every week. Not being within shopping distance of the Berkeley Farmers Market anymore, I live deprived of such treats as their fig-stuffed quails and lamb crepinettes, but their newsletter almost makes up for this. Today, it was all about breakfast--along with teatime, my favorite meal of the day:

Lemon and Herb Links caught our eye right away-picture those babies alongside some buttery scrambled eggs-mmm. And then, my friend, there is Chorizo-which loves to roll around with potatoes and eggs in a burrito as much as you love eating it. And, finally, what is an ode to breakfast without mentioning that queen of the breakfast meats, her highness Bacon? We know that you know that our bacon has been lauded in the most exclusive and the most down-home of meat-loving circles, so, see for yourself. Waking up never sounded so good.

Having grown up in a pork-less household, I didn't taste bacon until I got to slip the leash and go to Canada one summer. Such were my tiny, tame teenage rebellions--piercing my ears (which earned me a 3-hour lecture about "mutilating my body"--on my birthday, no less), putting drugstore hydrogen peroxide on my hair to turn it red, and ordering bacon for breakfast when I was safely out of the country. Alas, bacon, like Coca Cola, is one of those foods on which you have to be imprinted early in life. Forbidden, yes, but was this the big deal, the holy grail of verboten pork products? Sure, I'll snag a piece if it's in front of me, but overall, give me sausage any day. In fact, give me some sausage right now, so I can swab it around in maple syrup and eat it with these fluffy squash-cornmeal pancakes I'm having for breakfast. A little bit of mashed, roasted butternut squash was languishing in my fridge this morning, longing to be turned into squash pancakes. Chopped apples and pecans would have been a nice addition, or maybe some sauteed apple slices. But just maple syrup and a pot of hot tea was enough to cheer up this cool and windy day.

And speaking of breakfast, if I weren't on deadline this week, I'd be back every morning to EGG, the little Southern breakfast kitchen that's moved into Sparky's from 7am-noon, replacing Sparky's organic hotdogs with country ham and scrambled eggs. And stoneground Anson Mills grits, sorghum granola, and biscuits and gravy. Coffee comes in French press pots, there are crayons and paper on the table so you can draw pictures of your breakfast, and the country ham biscuit--a big lofty toasted biscuit smeared with homemade fig jam, salty real country ham, and a glob of melted Grafton cheddar--is waiting to be your new best breakfast friend.

Egg, 135 N. 5th at Bedford, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 718-302-5151. 7am-noon, M-F; 8am-noon S-S.

Pumpkin (or Squash) Pancakes, Chez PQ

Note: I like a healthy, sturdy morning flapjack. By all means, add melted butter and/or sugar if you want.

1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt (opt)
a few hefty shakes of cinnamon or mixed pumpkin/apple pie spice
1 TB maple syrup or honey
1 egg
3/4 - 1 cup milk
1/4 cup cooked, mashed pumpkin or squash
(a couple TB of melted butter or oil, if you want)
Chopped apples or pecans

Very lightly grease a griddle or frying pan. Mix dry ingredients in one bowl; beat egg, milk, pumpkin, maple syrup and butter in another. Mix together until just combined, and add more milk or water if batter seems too thick. Add apples and/or nuts. Pour onto griddle and cook until browned on both sides.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Down on the Apple Farm

It's Fall!! Finally, the 80-degree days of this past September are easing into crisp mornings and brisk blue skies. Concord grapes and shiny gourds are at the farmers' market, and peaches are giving way to mountains of apples and pears. Had the first hot cider of the season last week, and next week, I'll be heading up to the Hudson Valley for a weekend of cider-doughnut munching and apple-picking. So lots of apple posts this week, starting with a memory of autumn in California--an elusive season, since October is much more Indian summer than sweater weather, but with its own charms nonetheless.

One of my best Bay Area autumn memories revolves around apples, or more specifically, the Apple Farm, up in the Anderson Valley. Located down a skinny little side road off Highway 128 in Philo, near the beautiful Hendy Woods redwood grove, this organic apple orchard is a meandering bucolic dream. Ducks and bunnies wander through the herb garden. Tall sheds, open to the still, sweet-scented afternoon air, are filled with heavy wooden boxes packed with gleaming Golden Delicious fruit (which, when freshly picked, is miles away from the usual bland, rubbery corner-store fruit). At the self-service table near the tiny gravel parking lot, crates of juicy, deeply flavored heirloom apples perched next to heavy glass bottles of hard cider and quarts of sweet, cloudy amber apple juice.

On that October weekend a few years ago, Apple Farm co-owner Sally Schmitt taught a group of us just what to do with her apples. (These cooking weekends are really enjoyable, and well worth signing up way in advance for, since they book up very quickly. Check out their website, above, for details). Sausages braised in cider, curried duck breast with apple salsa, and best of all, an upside-down gingerbread cake topped with apples drenched in a buttery brown-sugar caramel. Over time, I've tinkered with the original recipe, substituting different gingerbread recipes for the cake and pears or poached quinces for the apples. A friend from New Orleans always adds a slug of rum to the butter-sugar topping, making it into a kind of apples Foster, while a long, leisurely quest through the world of gingerbread commentary led to this triple slam of powdered ginger, fresh ginger root, and candied ginger in the cake. (Also called crystallized ginger, it's readily available in Asian markets and specialty food shops.) The fresh and candied ginger aren't crucial, but they add an irresistible depth of flavor not found in powdered ginger alone. The apples cook down quite a bit, so squeeze in as many slices as possible, even layering them two deep in places if you can.

Another trick for this cake is to try baking it in a cast-iron skillet instead of a cake pan. Cheap, endlessly useful and nearly indestructible, a cast-iron skillet is equally perfect for roasting a chicken, making a batch of corn bread, and baking a deep-dish blueberry pie and a lovely gingerbread cake.

If you have a favorite gingerbread recipe, by all means use it here, although this version has a particularly alluring balance between springy, delicate texture and forthright spicy flavor. One thing about the recipe: out of habit, you may find yourself reaching to beat in the eggs directly after creaming the butter and brown sugar. Makes sense, doesn't it? Well, not here. You MUST mix everything else into the batter before you add the eggs. The eggs go in LAST, weird as it seems. Trust me, I've done the other way, and I've ended up with a dry, lumpy, weird mess instead of a nice thick batter. And don't use ancient spices--if you have a dusty jar of ginger that's been sitting over the stove for the past 3 years, it's going to have as much flavor as lint. Chuck it and replace, or better yet, dump out all your old spices but rinse out and save the jars. Go to a health-food, Middle Eastern or Indian shop that sells spices in bulk, and stock up on small batches of spices you use a lot, then decant them into the jars when you get home. They will cost mere pennies per bag and will be loads fresher than supermarket spices. And don't store your spices over the stove--the heat dries all the flavor out of them. They really do need the requisite cool dry place.

If you've been to the Apple Farm (or to their stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market) and bought a jug of their lovely apple-cider syrup, it makes a great substitute for the molasses. Or try a mix of half cider syrup and half dark (grade B) maple syrup. This has become my standard Rosh Hashanah dessert, much better than the usual heavy honey cake. And baking it will make your house smell like autumn in heaven.

Gingerbread Apple Upside-down Cake

1/2 stick (4 tb/2 oz) butter
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
3 or 4 apples, peeled, cored, and sliced


1 cup boiling water
2 tsp baking soda

2 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder

1 stick (8 TB/4 oz) butter
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
2/3 cup molasses or apple-cider syrup
1 Tbs grated fresh ginger
1 Tbs chopped candied ginger
2 eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt 1/2 stick of butter in a large, deep cast-iron skillet. Swirl butter around to coat sides, then sprinkle 2/3 cup of brown sugar over bottom of pan. Cook over low heat for a few minutes, until sugar no longer looks grainy. Remove from heat and arrange apple slices in a decorative pattern. (Or, grease a deep cake pan. Melt the 1/2 stick butter and pour into pan. Sprinkle the sugar over the butter, and mix together. Top with apple slices.) Set aside.

Mix boiling water and baking soda, and set aside. Sift together dry ingredients. Cream whole stick of butter and 2/3 cup brown sugar, then beat in molasses, fresh ginger, and baking soda-water mixture. Add dry ingredients and candied ginger, stirring gently until batter is smooth. Stir in eggs. Pour batter over apple slices – batter should fill the pan no more than halfway, to allow for rising. If you have extra batter, bake in a separate pan. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool, then carefully invert on a plate large enough to catch any stray drips of caramel topping. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Say You Ate It at the Antic (and gay penguins!)

Unlike most NYC street fairs, which are dispiriting, interchangeable body-jams of tube-sock sellers and mozzarepa stands, Brooklyn's late-September Atlantic Antic is an actual neighborhood celebration, stretching from Hicks nearly all the way down to Flatbush in a cross-cultural mix buoyant with bouncy castles and canine massage, shea butter and henna tatttoos, blintzes from the Belorussian church and pasteles from the Spanish-speaking one, jerk chicken and rice and peas and falafel and jambalaya and paella and beef brisket with horseradish on a challah bun (this last from Nosh, a new Jewish deli opening this week on the south side of Atlantic near Court St, run by Mark of Blue Star).

Nearly every restaurant, food shop, and church along Atlantic Avenue was dishing out something tasty last Sunday. West of Clinton St, tapas joint La Mancha sent up an irresistable smoke from its curbside grills, where fresh whole sardines were turning golden over the coals , along with huge pots of shellfish-topped paella and chubby lengths of paprika-red chorizo sausage. If your only experience with sardines had been the shiny headless critters revealed as you peel back the flat top of a sardine can--or merely as a metaphor for the 6 train at rush hour--these fat, crispy-skinned fish were a sublime revelation. These were big guys, about the span of your hand, fat and meaty, dark and oil-rich like bluefish or mackerel, spritzed with lemon and scattered with crunchy sea salt.

Next door, Floyd had set up shop on the street, reproducing their bar--complete with a fake fireplace and mantle, comfy couches, rugs, and mismatched coffee tables, and of course, beer taps--out on the curb. (You did have to go inside for bocce, though). Last Exit had its usual hay bales and country swingers; over at Magnetic Fields, thrash-and-burn boy bands. Outside the Atlantic Chip Shop, pans of shepherd's pie languished in favor of misshapen golden lumps of deep-fried Twinkies--Anglo-American cooperation at its queasy best. Not to be outdone, one of the many Italian-sausage trucks (obviously enjoying being MIA from the insanity of the San Gennaro fest across the river) was pitching deep-fried Oreos. Steve and his key-lime pie truck were selling, naturally, key-lime pies, which gave me a pang of missing K., of course, and our key-lime adventures at last Saturday's social.

What else? Belly dancing and Arabic music; cheery zydeco, gumbo and jambalaya outside Stan's New Orleans restaurant; the very serious, all-chick horn section of the funk band outside Downtown Atlantic's bbq-and-beer garden (women who spent their teen years at band camp, no question about it); Brooklyn pride T shirts of all kinds, from 718 thongs to B'klyn Baby onesies and Gowanus Yacht Club baseball tees. Sweet potato pie from the sugar-seeking crush around the Baptist church ladies. And finally, far from the madding crowd, a cool lady's half-pint of Brooklyn lager in the pleasant late-afternoon gloom of the Brooklyn Inn.


Now, as promised, pie-social recipes!

Key Lime Pie (adapted from MIAMI SPICE by Stephen Raichlen)

Graham cracker crust

If you're really pining to make extra work for yourself, you can make your own graham crackers from Nancy Silverton's recipe, here. I didn't love these crackers on their own, but they did make a nice crust, although not monumentally different than one made from a box of teddy grahams from the corner store. Whatever you do, put a whole bunch of crackers into a big zip-lock bag and roll them into crumbs, or break them up and spin them in the food processor until buzzed to fine crumbs. Mix 1 1/4 cups crumbs with 4 TB melted butter and press into a pie pan. Bake at 350 F for 5-6 minutes, until lightly browned and firm.


1 lb key limes*
1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks

Zest off enough rind to make 1 teaspoon. Set aside. Juice the rest of the limes, give or take a few, to make 1/2 cup juice. Using a hand-held or stand-up mixer, beat eggs and milk for at least 5 minutes, until light-colored and thick. Add juice and rind and continue beating. The mixture should be creamy and very thick. Pour into pie shell and bake for 6-8 minutes, until set but not browned. Let cool to room temp, then refrigerate for several hours. Top each slice with a key-lime twist (a thin slice of lime cut down the middle and twisted in opposite directions) and whipped cream, if desired.

*Key limes are very small, yellowish-green limes, often called Mexican limes. They are small enough that you can juice them by twiddling each half between your thumb and forefinger. You can find them, with some searching, in Latin produce markets or specialty produce stores. If you can't find them, Raichlen suggests a mixture of 5 TB lemon juice and 5 TB regular lime juice.

Enough with the pies and sardines, already: we want to know about the GAY PENGUINS!!!!

Well, since the issue of penguin anthropomorphism has been a big topic in the news lately (thanks to March of the Penguins and its tales of heroic ice-bound monogamy--hey, it was a long, hot summer), the Times devoted a detailed update to the trials and tribulations of the Gay Penguins of Central Park today. On the happy rainbow side: Tango, the girl penguin the penguin dads raised from an egg, now has a girlfriend. Go Tango!! Wanna come camping? On the sad rainbow side, her dads Silo and Roy got pushed out of their nest by two" aggressive penguins" (bastards!), and in despair over the NY real estate market, pressured by the demands of celebrity gay couplehood, Silo jumped the fence and started macking on a tattooed lady-penguin barmaid named Scrappy--an import from, of course, that polyamorous paradise, Sea World. All this, reported in page-six detail. First Gay Weddings, now Gay Penguin Gossip.
(And now I'm going over to Sitemeter to see how many people ended up on this blog because they googled "gay penguins." Just as a change from "dirt cake," which is, hands down, the top search that sends random strangers here.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Red Beans and Ricely Yours

From Wednesday's New York Times:

Monday isn't Monday in New Orleans without red beans and rice. That's because back when laundry was done by hand, Monday was the day for doing it. A dish that could simmer all day was called for. People throw their laundry into washing machines any day of the week now, but red beans and rice is still the dish you eat on Monday in New Orleans.

On this Monday, two big pots were cooking on propane stoves on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant Alex Patout's, just across the narrow street from Antoine's.

The building's owner, Finis Shelnutt, was manning the pots, despite the neighborhood's stench, the approaching darkness and the near-barren streets.


"It's Monday, darlin'," he said.

Pie PIx

Well, the Pie Social was a big hit. The only problem was a good one--almost more pie bakers than pie eaters! there were dozens and dozens of pies laid out in the midday sun, from the freaky caramel-pecan cricket (yep, real insects) pie to the wild-apple pies (from 7 wild apple trees in upstate NY) and the goofy worm and fish pies (cream pies decorated with gummy fish and worms). Recipes for my key-lime and plum tart to follow....but here I am, wearing my blue ribbon. Everyone got one, reading "I baked a pie for the Brooklyn Pie Social." Bake, and you're a winner.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Pie Time

Butter. I need butter. A lot of butter. And a five-pound bag of flour, and another big bag of sugar. Yep, it's almost time for the fabulous Brooklyn Pie Social (Sat., 9/17, 12-4pm) and soupy heat wave or no, it will soon be necessary to brave my AC-less kitchen and get baking. That is, if the nice folks from Keyspan ever show up to reconnect the gas on my stove, which was cut off yesterday for reasons unbeknownst to me.

This weather, though. Are you a tad anxious about the fate of your pies? Showers are predicted for Saturday, which is a bummer, given how utterly autumn-y and gorgeous the day was last year. Granted, we're not having hurricanes, and there is a raindate--Sunday Sept. 18th, instead of Sat. But be that as it may, I'm still pressing the gingham and rolling the dough.

It being the moment for Italian prune plums--those narrow, oblong purple fruits with sticky yellow flesh, on the boring side to eat raw but deliciously tangy-sweet when baked--I'm planning a plum tart redux. I don't really have a recipe for this one; plums and sugar are really all you need, although I might get a little fancy and put down a thin sandy layer of pulverized pistachios, lemon rind, nutmeg and cinnamon--a strange but alluring blend that B. bequeathed to me in a large bag, after having invented it and eaten himself silly on it mixed with honey and spread over toasted pita breads. There's also the "fairy dust" mix from an old Chez Panisse apricot galette recipe, which mixed ground almonds, amaretti, flour and sugar--always a good thing. I usually swear by the pie-crust and tart-shell recipes in David Lebovitz's Room for Dessert, but after a trip to the library yesterday, I've got Maury Rubin's uber-chic Book of Tarts from City Bakery, with what the ever-dogmatic Jeffrey Steingarten insists is the perfect tart crust recipe. Rich, though--damn. 13 TB butter to a mere 1 1/2 cups flour, plus powdered sugar and an egg yolk. This sounds like a seriously short (and thus crumbly) dough, and may not work in a big tart (this may be the reason all Rubin's recipes are for making individual small-sized tarts). Hmmm.

Once I was in the pie section, of course, I had to come home with Tamasin Day-Lewis's sexy Art of the Tart, which pours a couple of eggs and a cup and a quarter of cream into almost every recipe. The way she writes, though, you can imagine all her tasty Irish-brogued friends (including, of course, her bro Daniel) coming up behind you and licking the crumbs--and the cream--right off your fingers as you whisk.

But what about the other pie? Well, much as I like to be all seasonal and local, I also love a challenge, and so when the Florida-born K. (who's still a little stunned at being hauled up above the Mason-Dixon line among all these strange Yankees) expressed a wistful fondness for her native key-lime pie, I started scouting around for real key limes. Half the size of the usual Persian lime golfballs, with thin, spotty yellowish-green skins and lots of seeds, these used to be readily available in SF, 12 for a dollar, at the Latino produce markets on Mission Street, where they were labeled Mexican limes. Out East though, it's trickier. I sent a pleading email to Steve of Steve's Key Lime Pies in Red Hook, asking for sources--no dice. Rather than head all the way uptown to the Dominician markets of Washington Heights, I hit Whole Foods (no), Citarella (no), and finally, the Garden of Eden in downtown Brooklyn (yes). I've now got two little one-pound net bags, imported from Mexico, sitting on my table, waiting to be zested, juiced, and whipped up with eggs and sweetened condensed milk, using the excellently easy recipe from Steve Raichlan's very entertaining Miami Spice cookbook, worth buying for the "mangozpacho" (mango gazpacho) recipe alone. And because I am also an insane person, I have grand plans to make my own graham crackers for the crust, using the Nancy Silverton recipe so kindly posted on 101 Cookbooks. I had restaurant-made grahams once, as part of do-it-yourself s'mores at SF's Luna Park (which has recently expanded, under the name Kitchen and Cocktails, to the East Village), and they were huge leaps above your average teddy graham. Weirdly enough, though, Silverton's recipe calls for white flour, not graham flour, which is the whole raison d'etre for these cookies, so I'm going to slip a little whole-wheat in, just for my own conscience.

Hope to see you at the Social--come find me and say hello! All the info (and a picture of me at last year's Social) at Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Dark as the night, blue as the day

The days have been blue as heaven this week, the sky clear and high domed with an unmistakable shift into autumn in the air. The sun has dropped in its orbit, crossing the sky just a little lower than it did a few weeks ago, just enough to prove that summer has said its farewells. Apples--the small, tart early varieties, Tydeman Reds and Gingergolds--are showing up at the farmers market, next to the piles of peaches and corn, melons and tomatoes. These are the last few weeks to sit in the back gardens of restaurants all around the city, drink rose and wave off the wasps and pigeons. At Sweet Melissa's this afternoon, my mother and I got hustled by a couple of very aggressive birds acting like they owned the joint, ready to shake us down for chilled beet-raspberry soup, a slice of baguette or a stray bit of goat cheese and apple salad.

Sitting at Bellavitae (on Minetta Lane, in the Village) on Saturday night, after listening to open-air bluegrass at the Damrosch Park bandshell, K. and I got a plate of figs and proscuitto--which was just that and nothing more, little slices of fig and a few sheets of sheer proscuitto. Pleasant enough, although the figs weren't yet bursting-sweet enough to make such simple treatment perfect. Unless you know one of the lucky people in Carroll Gardens who still have a fig tree growing in their backyard (planted decades ago by the neighborhood's Southern Italian immigrants), most figs in the market need a little help along. So Sunday night, feeling peckish, the figs in my fridge got run under the broiler until they were jammy within and slightly caramelized without, stuffed with a nubble of goat cheese and a few leaves of fresh thyme from the windowbox, then swaddled in strips of proscuitto. Then they were drizzled with a quickly boiled-down syrup of balsamic vinegar and pomegranate molasses. Voila, Figs and Pigs, Chez PQ. We ate the whole plateful, swiping the plate with our fingers for every streak of thick, fruit-tart syrup, and then wandered off to read the Walt Whitman poetry inscribed around the floating deck down the base of the Brooklyn Promenade and eat basil-leafed, fresh-mozzarella'd pizza at Grimaldi's.

This is the month of the corn moon, of harvest time and reaping what you've sown. B., busy doing manly nautical things to his new boat (mostly involving paint and taking the skin off his thumbs with various toxic chemicals), has been letting his fire escape garden run rampant. So after a lazy lunch at Frankie's (and that's the time to go, late on a weekday afternoon when no one's there)--tomato-and-mozzarella sandwiches on Sullivan St Bakery's irresistably oil-sopped pizza bianca; crunchy skinny green beans with roasted garlic, buttery polenta, thick slices of inexplicably good cold roasted sweet potato--I headed out with three plastic bags and a big pair of scissors. Singing Bill Monroe songs to the plants, I snipped and snipped, cutting foot-long swaths off the basil and mint, stuffing velvety, triangular leaves of catnip into my bag, nipping off spikes of rosemary and rumpled stalks of lemon balm, picking cherry tomatoes and 6 long red peppers off the now-huge plants I'd planted back in June. Then I went to pick up golden peppers, red-leaf lettuce, yellow and red tomatoes, lilac-streaked eggplants and green beans at the Cobble Hill CSA dropoff, to go with even more tomatoes that my mom had picked herself at a farm near her house upstate, the corn I'd bought on Saturday thinking to make corn pudding, the bowl of peaches and plums in the fridge.

So it's been salads with everything, peach cornmeal pancakes topped with poached peach slices, panfuls of habanero-green chile turkey sausage sauteed with red peppers and onions. Tomorrow, I'm going to go get even more tomatoes and make Susie Bright's Best Spaghetti Sauce Ever. I love reading Susie on food, because she makes every recipe she passes along sound like the best thing you'll put in your mouth, ever. Check out her cherry pie recipe in Mommy's Little Girl and see if you don't drop everything to start rolling pie crust and pitting cherries, the book still in one hand. So read her recipe, and then read the rest of her blog, for the well-directed outrage and grief at what's going on down South in Louisiana these days, and many, many links to alternative news sources and insightful commentary.

This Saturday, Lillie's in Red Hook is doing a Katrina fundraiser and donation collection--they'll be barbecuing, playing music, and collecting all kinds of stuff--toiletries, clothing, food, bottled water, baby items, and more. Starts at 10pm. Before you go down to Lillie's, stop in at Freebird, the little second-hand bookstore that's hanging on by a thread over on Columbia Street. 4 - 10pm, readings by Jonathan Ames and others, free food, lotsa cool books to buy.

Music for Figs & Tomatoes

1. Dark as the Night, Blue as the Day (Bill Monroe)
2. Pure (Lightening Seeds)
3. I Hope There's Someone (Antony and the Johnsons, channeling Nina Simone)
4. Acadian One-Step (Joseph Falcon, from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Music)
5. This Little LIght of Mine (Louvin Bros)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Down South

Here's hoping that all your loved ones in New Orleans and Mississippi are safe and sound. If you've ever wanted to make a donation to the Red Cross, or donate blood, now might be a very good time to do it. I've only been lucky enough to go to New Orleans once, on a much-too-brief business trip, but it's a place that lives in the imaginations of writers, dreamers and cooks everywhere. Here, a reprint and a recipe, originally written when a sudden spate of warm spring weather got everyone thinking sultry thoughts of Spanish moss and wrought-iron balconies, tarot card readings in Jackson Square and beignets and coffee at 3 am.

This is one of the best ways I know to eat shrimp, marinated and smothered in a fiery, sweet-spicy sauce that begs to be sopped up with a big loaf of hot French bread. My mother, who got this recipe from a little spiral-bound cookbook bought in New Orleans, used to make it with unpeeled shrimp, thinking (rightly) that the shells added additional flavor to the sauce. However, this meant each person had to peel his or her boiling-hot, immersed-in-sauce shrimp one by one at the table, which was a wildly sloppy (and finger-burning) business. Thus I would recommend peeling your shrimp at the beginning, unless you really want to end up with sauce up to your elbows. Even with the shrimp already peeled, this is a dish that will get you good and messy, what with tearing off hunks of bread to swipe through the sauce and the inevitable orange spatters on the tablecloth.

Now, I know this isn't what a real New Orleans resident would know as barbecued shrimp. I've had locals make me real bbq shrimp, and it's nothing like this. Instead, it's shrimp cooked in a whole lot of incredibly delicious, garlicky-spicy butter, and eating it, like eating snails, is a reason to kiss the ground and thank god for butter. This is different--not authentic, but good.

For dessert, peach pie, figs roasted until just plump and bursting, or a last box of tiny Tristar strawberries. Nip the hulls off, then toss the fruit with a little sugar and an almond-fragrant splash of amaretto, and let them stand for a few minutes while you clear the dinner plates. The sugar will dissolve into the berry juice, surrounding the berries with a puddle of brilliant red liquid that tastes like the essence of strawberry jam. Plain heavy cream, whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream would be good on top, or you can just enjoy them straight up, flush with the flavor of warmer seasons to come. Or you can save a final box of berries until all the guests save one have packed up their mandolins and harmonicas and gone home. Run a bath, light some candles, sprinkle in rose petals and eucalyptus bath salts, and serve that lucky person a bowl of chocolate pudding for two sprinkled with almonds and topped with strawberries. Sit on the edge of the tub, sink your feet in the scented water, and eat your chocolatey strawberries. Seek, kiss, eat, breathe.

Barbecued shrimp, New Orleans style

1 12-ounce bottle chili sauce, such as Heinz's
2 lemons, sliced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
4 Tbs butter
2 tsp each oregano, paprika, and cayenne pepper
3 Tbs lemon juice
3 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp hot sauce, or to taste
2 lb raw shrimp, peeled but tails left on
2 Tbs chopped parsley
Sweet baguettes, warmed

Mix all sauce ingredients in a deep saucepan. Over low heat, warm until the butter is melted and the mixture is just beginning to simmer. Let cool, then pour over peeled shrimp in a deep bowl. Cover and refrigerate for several hours. Pour back in a wide saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring, until shrimp are just pink and opaque. Remove from heat and sprinkle with parsley. Serve in wide bowls with bread on the side.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

tomato wonderland

Today it was all about the tomatoes. Went over to J.'s house down the street for an impromptu dinner...when I arrived, A. was dusting three big butterflied trout with flour mixed with a little tarragon and some of Eatwell Farms' excellent lavender salt. I brought out my bag of squishy-ripe tomatoes from all over--two from last weekend's trip to the farmstands of Rt. 14, red as a happy heart, a rainbow of golden-red marvel striped from the CSA box, brandywines, black prince, and green zebra from the Tuesday farmers market at Borough Hall. And, of course, a dainty handful of grape tomatoes from my very own fire-escape plant. Too ripe to slice, they all got chunked up in a big yellow bowl and sprinkled with lavender salt, olive oil, white balsamic vinegar, and lots and lots of purple basil (from the new garden plot!) and green basil from the CSA. It was summer on a plate, and I was humble and full of gratitude every time I came across one of my resilent but sweet little home-grown babies.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Summer Sweet

Coming home with the aforementioned local cantaloupe, I had a sudden craving for this salad as I walked down the hot pavement of Court Street on my way to water the garden (and pluck a little harvest of purple basil and lemon balm). I have to admit, I've never made it at home--yet!--but here is the recipe, begged from the chef, plus some other late-August musings.

Late summer, bountiful time, and I'm been dreaming about ravishingly multihued tomatoes, swinging from suave to acid and back again. Intensely perfumed melons, deep orange and yellow, begging for lime. The swift crunch of a knife going through the green skin of the coldest, ruby-hearted watermelon. A watermelon (sandia) agua fresca at La Taqueria at 25th and Mission (in San Francisco), pulling the sandy bits of melon up through a straw in between bites of a veggie taco with extra tomatillo sauce and a hefty slather of avocado. Melons are the true beauties of late summer, holding all the season's musky heat in their sunset-colored, dripping flesh.

Everyone goes on and on about the beauty of figs (even me--see below to "Figs Are Sexy"), their sexy plumpness, their sticky, seed-crunched pulp. And yes, they're nice. But there's no tang to a fig, no snap of acid to pique your appetite. It's the same with white peaches: delectable, but not piquant. And in summer, piquant is what you need, something that rolls like a breeze over your tongue. Ceviche, gazpacho, lemonade, the tangy brine of seafood. I'm still charmed by a salad I had at the now-closed Chickenbone Cafe, on a hot July night during one of my first weeks in Williamsburg. The chef, Zak Pelaccio, who'd trained at the French Laundry (and now runs the kitchen at 5 Ninth), built a crisscross stack of watermelon batons topped with whorls of grilled squid. Interspersed were frilled shreds of mint and cilantro, salty bits of feta, and down at the bottom, tiny, tiny sweet-sour cubes of pickled watermelon rind. It was delicious, and also witty: watermelon two ways, both of them unexpected.

Melon – watermelon especially – goes better with salt and savory than you might expect. With something salty, and something hot, and something savory (what the flavor experts call umami, the Japanese term for the sort of savoriness you find in soy sauce or Parmesan cheese), you can fill out almost the whole flavor pantheon in one dish. And the heat doesn't have to come from pepper: the bite of a red onion will work, in a Greek-style salad of watermelon, onion, and feta drizzled with olive oil and showered with mint. Or the classic, unbeatable combination of ripe cantaloupe and sheer slices of prosciutto. Grilled or boiled shrimp on skewers with cubes of pale green honeydew, dunked in lime juice and sprinkled with red pepper.

But my favorite melon salad ever comes from a dish I've had – and had again, whenever I could – at Ponzu in SF. Asian fusion is a tricky genre; go too authentic and you'll leave your clientele wondering why they didn't just keep walking up Eddy Street for the same thing at a Formica table for half the price; go too Western and you miss the point. At Ponzu, though, the Bangkok melon salad (originated by former executive chef John Beardsley, now at Le Colonial) is something I'd eat all summer long. At a dinner with a friend a couple of years ago, we ordered one as an appetizer, and then, at the end of the meal, another one as dessert: full circle, as round as a melon, and both times we ate the whole thing.

Bangkok Melon Salad

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup sugar

2 tsp grated fresh ginger

1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped

2 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced (or grated zest of 1 lime)

1/2 cup each lemon juice, lime juice, and Vietnamese fish sauce

1 fresh red chile, minced

1 lb each cantaloupe and honeydew, peeled and cubed

1/2 a small watermelon, peeled and diced

1/2 bunch Thai basil leaves

grated zest of 1 lemon

1/2 cup toasted, chopped peanuts

Combine water, sugar, ginger, lemongrass, and lime leaves or zest in a medium pot and bring to a simmer. Turn off heat and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain, discarding solids. Add juices, fish sauce, and chile and chill. Toss cubed melons with basil leaves and lemon zest. Add dressing to taste*. Sprinkle with chopped peanuts just before serving. You could also add mint and cilantro just before serving, too.

*This recipe sounds like it will make a whole lot of dressing. Not that this should be a problem--it sounds like something you could pour over anything--cold noodles, salad, your bare hands--and be thrilled with.

under the waterfalls

Far from Brooklyn, in lovely Watkins Glen, NY. Waterfalls galore...and farm stands everywhere along the shores of Seneca Lake, with little slots for the money and coffee cans full of DIY change. Came home with a quart of fat ripe tomatoes and a canteloupe whose insistent sweetness perfumed the whole bus. Walking along the water in Sacketts Harbor on a wind-whipped morning, I kept pointing out all the fruit growing in tangles alongside the old battlefields--tiny gnarled apples, shiny bitter crabapples, wild Concord grapes.

And speaking of harvests, Thanksgiving may be months away, but the birds are fattening up at Stone Barns. Put your order in now for one of their farm-raised, heritage-breed turkeys, who will have had a short but happy life scratching around in the dirt eating bugs and enjoying nature the Rockefeller way up in the Hudson River valley. They're also having a big Harvest Festival, with the requisite bluegrass band and hayrides, on Sat., Oct. 1st. Best of all, there's a pie baking contest! Sweet or savory, local fruit & veggies only, please.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Brooklyn Pie Socialists, Unite!

If you've hung around my kitchen for any length of time, you've probably heard about the mad fun that was last year's Brooklyn Pie Social. Well, now you too can be a Pie Socialist, feeding the multitudes, garnering kudos, and baking for a good cause! Last year's social raised four grand for the lovely Brooklyn Bridge Park (home of mulberry trees, double-bridge views, and outdoor movies) and the nice folks at Bubby's and the B-B Park Conservancy have high hopes of hauling in even more dough this time around.

Personally, I love the chance to check out how other people bake pies. My pies will always look like me; they're as easy for me to pick out in a crowd as my own shoes. But how do you make your pies? It's like finding out how a stranger kisses.

And little did I know until today that I am, indeed, the BROOKLYN PIE SOCIAL POSTER GIRL! Must have been the gingham can check out what I did for the Pie Effort here.

Here's how it works: You bake a pie (or two). You put on a cute outfit and a big smile and bring your pies down to the cobblestone streets in front of the park (Main and Plymouth Sts). Then you stand there for a couple of hours and hand out slices of your pie to the hungry hordes. In return, you get a handful of tickets enabling you to wander round and taste the pies of your friends and neighbors. No restaurant or bakery pies--this is strictly a home-kitchen operation, which makes it really sweet and bizarrely down-home for the big city. There will be live music, balloons and face-painting for the kiddies, coffee and lemonade, gorgeous views, and LOTS OF PIE!!!

Just want to EAT PIE? Then come on down that afternoon (earlier is better, before the good pies all get eaten) and buy your pie-eating tickets--one ticket, one slice.

Here's all the info, courtesy of Bubby's:

Date: September 17, 2005

Your entry fee and homemade pie entitle you to 5 free tasting tickets (you can share them) and a big blue ribbon.

Entry fees: One pie, $10; two pies, $5 (if you register by 9/10--after that, the fees go up)

Bakers report at 10:30 for check-in and free coffee. We recommend bringing pies that do not need refrigeration (no cream, ice cream, or custard pies, since they're likely to melt and/or spoil sitting out in the sun for several hours).

We are encouraging savory pies as a good counterpoint to all of the dessert pies. We are also encouraging a strong turnout from our youngest bakers.

To get an application for the 2005 pie social stop by Bubby's in dumbo or tribeca, or go to bubby's website or the brooklyn bridge park conservancy's website.

Of course, as the Pie Queen, I will be there, tiara, big blue ribbon and gingham apron at the ready (and, of course, last year's nifty "Pie Socialists" red T-shirt...) Learning from last year, I'm going to make something bright and shiny with visible (and summery) fruit, like an open-faced tart. (Faced with much competition, people do not want a beige dessert. I had to hustle hard to sell off my apple pie last year. Here in NYC, people want glamour, baby. If you could eat glitter, it would sell.) And then perhaps something NOT sweet, since people get a little sugar crazy and start licking their own arms for salt about an hour into the deal. Suggestions? Bring the kids and hope to see you there! Bake pies!

And while we're talking about baking, a big shout-out to Chestnut on Smith St again, this time for their so-fab chocolate-chunk scones and plump popovers. We were the first ones in the door at 11am for Sunday brunch, so we won the pastry prize--a free plate of Matt's hot-from-the-oven goodies, including those scones, those popovers, and two bite-sized little biscuits. And the heirloom-tomato frittata was big as a plate and enough for brunch and lunch the next day. They'll be closed for a couple of weeks of vacation starting soon, so be sure to call before you go, or just wait til Sept.

Best things, Sunday night:
Getting caught--twice!--in the warm rain without an umbrella, listening to the thunder and taking cover under the awnings of all the Italian restaurants on Bleeker Street after a 6pm showing of Junebug at the Angelika, swiping a chocolate-chip cookie from the thank-you plate by the door of Home restaurant on Cornelia St, waiting for a bubbling-hot slice from Joe's Pizza, and getting caught in a torrential downpour yet again, just outside my house.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Figs are sexy

...and here's the photo to prove it. Click on the pic to get the really juicy up-close-and-personal view...Thanks to James Ormsby, chef at Plumpjack Cafe in SF, for this lickworthy picture.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Can't see the meteor shower but the tomatoes look good

Last night....

Tiny spatters of rain on my shoulders...not enough to cool off, but better than air-conditioner drips from above...

Sitting at the bar at Chestnut, drinking French rose and eating their fab "BLT" tomato salad--a steak-sized slab of lime-colored evergreen tomato, surrounded by cubes of heirloom tomatoes and smoky-chewy slab bacon, all drizzled with buttermilk dressing and a tumble of lettuces.

The Philomel Project, a stunning opener to downtown's Fringe Festival. Miss it at your peril.

Holding up the broken strap of my dress all the way home, to avoid having a Tara Reid moment on the midnight F train.

And back home, lying naked in front of both fans with a glass of ice water on my stomach...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

brownies and movies

Hot, hot, hot, and now it's hotter because I just made Bakerina's brownies to take over to Brooklyn Bridge Park for the outdoor movie (tonight they're showing Chinatown). As I've stated here before, normally I can't make brownies for love or money*, but Bakerina's charm convinced me to try her recipe, starting with two trips to the store--first for butter and chocolate, then for vanilla and more sugar. As I was reluctantly leaving the very cold aisles, an old guy, seeing me clutching a box of sugar and a bottle of vanilla, said, "Oh, making cookies this afternoon?" He was just happy, it seemed, happy to think of someone baking, even on such a steamy afternoon. I could have said, "No, I make good cookies, but this time I'm going to make, yet again, something that never comes out the way I want it to, ever," but I didn't. I just said "No, brownies!" and walked out smiling.

Picnic Brownies

1 stick (4 oz/8TB) butter
4 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 eggs
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 TB strong coffee (i.e. that little bit of cold coffee sludge left in your cup from breakfast)
1 cup flour

Preheat oven to 375. In a double boiler, melt butter and chocolate together. Remove from heat and let cool to room temp (very important!). Beat eggs, sugar, salt, vanilla and coffee together. Stir in cooled chocolate mixture. Add flour and stir gently until just mixed. Pour into a greased 9 x 13 pan and bake for 20 minutes. Makes a lot, and they taste like mix brownies, only without that too-sweet metallic edge.

I remember one brownie recipe where the brownies were sent straight from the oven into the freezer, which condensed them down and made them super-fudgy. I think I'd let the pan cool for at least 5 or 10 minutes on the counter first though, just to keep the ice cream from turning to soup next to the hot pan.

OK, see you in the park! I'll be the one hovering over the brownie plate, sure that everyone who takes one is just being polite.

*Actually, the one brownie recipe that never failed me was the one on the back of the Droste cocoa box, circa 1982 or so. The only thing was that the brownies turned into concrete if you left them in the pan, so you had to spatula them out as soon as they were cool enough to hold together. Alas, this recipe is now lost in the mists of time. I know cocoa, eggs, and melted butter were involved--anyone else remember that recipe?

Cold comfort

Another revival, to inspire you to actually cook. Me, I'm eating melon and Grape Nuts. But you should be grilling.

IS THERE ANYTHING more domestically satisfying than cold steak in the fridge? Sizzling, just-grilled meat is a wonderful thing, the pinnacle of the summer cookout, needing only a plate of sliced ripe tomatoes and a stack of butter-dripping corn on the cob. But the true pleasure comes from peeling back the foil over the plates as you lean down into the refrigerator the next day. It's better than money in the bank: it's like free money in the bank. If you've ever wanted to feel like a rock star with a personal chef, cold steak will do it for you.

And few things are as succulent and appetite-gripping as cold steak. There's a certain grandeur to cooking meat at home. I like tofu skewersand puttanesca sauce just fine, but after a while, even the most scintillating conversation pales over the same old plate of pasta and salad. The first batch of fresh summer pesto is thrilling. By now, we're taking those huge floppy bunches of basil for granted. Familiarity, in this case, breeds not contempt – who can be contemptuous of such a charmer? – but a certain amount of ennui. By mid August, there's no drama to pesto.

Meat, which used to be the default entrée for every celebration, now evokes something close to a double take. Determined to add a grown-up note to a dinner party back in school, I brought out a platter of two massive roasted chickens, to the visible surprise of the guests. It was like uncorking a bottle of champagne for no reason, or serving a massive layer cake instead the usual Häagen-Dazs.

"It's so nice to have a roast," Alistair from Sydney said, giving the term its full Anglo-Australian, Sunday-lunch emphasis. And even with a table full of hungry grad students, we had enough leftovers for at least three meals. Cold chicken sandwiches, curried chicken salad, hot chicken cacciatore: every time I opened the fridge, there was something to pick at.

But for sheer glamour and chewing satisfaction, nothing beats meat. Flank steak, skirt steak, hanger steak, London broil: Straightforward meat like this doesn't need a lot of marinating or fussing around; the most important addition is a liberal scatter of crunchy, grainy sea salt and a good grinding of fresh black pepper at the table. About 10 to 12 minutes, turning once, will cook your steak, whether you're using a grill, broiler, or grill pan. After cooking, let the steak rest, uncut, on a platter for five minutes or so. This will relax it and let the juices sink from the hot surface of the meat back into its fibers.

If you're grilling, throw a few red onions cut in half crosswise onto the grill. They'll char and sweeten as the meat cooks. While the meat's resting, peel and slice the onions into chunks and serve alongside. Or grill some olive-oiled red peppers, zucchini, and tomatoes too, and make escalivada, the slippery, luscious Spanish salad of grilled vegetables. Separated from their blackened skins, tossed with a handful of chopped parsley, and drizzled with a vinaigrette of mashed garlic, sherry vinegar, and olive oil, the vegetables are delicious warm and almost better cold the next day.

One of my favorite ways to eat cold beef doesn't even need leftovers. You can make it with deli roast beef cut a little thicker than usual. During our last week in Bologna in mid June, the heat wave that has been baking Europe all summer was just settling in. The city was nearly deserted during the day, the shaded porticoes over the sidewalks the only respite from the relentless heat.

We couldn't even think of eating anything more than gelato until the sun faded into a warm indigo twilight around 9 p.m. The trattorias kept to their weighty, traditional tortellini and ragus, with one grateful exception: a cold salad of beef sliced like proscuitto, banked in gorgeous pink sheets over pungent arugula, glossed with olive oil, spritzed with lemon juice, and showered with long salt-grained shards of parmesan cheese, flaked off a huge wheel on the counter. This, followed by runny cups of puckery, almost-melted lemon granita, sustained us and made those summer evenings seem, for the moment, just about perfect.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby

Sometimes we're baking pies here over in PQ Castle, sometimes we're fleeing into the city for strong drink and pulp fiction.

Bucky and I were on our way out for AC, bocce, and beer at Floyd a few nights ago when, a black dress and an ironed shirt later, we were leaning back in the November-chilled swank of Tribeca's Brandy Library. True to its name, the decor is head-to-toe in whiskey-and-cognac tones, from the square rum-colored leather chairs to the slinky Calvados satin dresses on the cocktail waitresses. Having bicycled all over Scotland in search of a wee dram, my old pal was in peat-smoke heaven. A 20 year Port Ellen? A 15-year Talisker? Nope, a 12 year Caol Ila, from Islay: a nose like seaweed-damp wool drying by a peat fire, and a richness on the tongue like being inside a hissing coal of that very fire. For me, the concentrated silky sunshine of Germain-Robin'sXO brandy, made in Ukiah, of all places. To snack on: the fabulously named Figs & Pigs, aka quarters of fresh fig wrapped in strips of serrano ham and scattered with slivers of fresh mint and dribbled with a port reduction. All it needed was for the figs to be lightly broiled first, so they'd be sweet and sticky and yielding under your tongue.

This morning: the first tomato harvest!

And while we're thinking of drinking, let's go hear the hard-luck stories spread around by the boys (and girl) of Contemporary Press, the tough-talking, two-fisted nice guys of the indies. Here's what they have to say for themselves:

McNally Robinson Bookstore
50 Prince St. (between Lafayette and Mulberry)
Wednesday, August 10
7:00 sharp

Jeffrey Dinsmore will be reading from his October release I, An Actress, a Sunset-Boulevard-meets-Spinal-Tap-except-it's-a-book autobiography of Karen Jamey, Hollywood's Original Forgotten Golden Age diva. Mike Segretto will be reading from HIS upcoming release The Bride of Trash a twisted book of terror that makes Tales from the Crypt look like Tuesdays with Morrie. And finally, Jess Dukes, famed recluse Roman Bojanski and gentleman-about-town Todd Robinson will be reading from CP's latest release, Danger City (buy it here), a old-school compilation of new wave pulp fiction.

And if you're bicoastal, or West Coastal, see them in LA...

Saturday, August 27 7 - 9
Boardners of Hollywood
1652 N. Cherokee Ave
FREE (until 8. If you want to stay after the reading then it's $10 in leather/fetish gear, $15 without)

It's not only the World Premiere of Dinsmore's I, An Actress (well, if you didn't hear him read from it previously), it's also the Bar Sinister party immediately following. So, come for the satirical look at the classic Hollywood of the 30's and 40's at this great bar and stay for the Mistresses of the Night.

Aug 28th:
The gracious people at LA's 826LA Writing Lab are laying down their high-minded decency for the evening to host a discussion between publishers, writers and their groupies to talk about the glamourous, lucrative world of independent publishing � and how you too could benefit from starting your own press!

826LA Writing Lab
685 Venice Blvd
Venice, CA
6-9 PM

PQ question of the day: Who first said today's title, and why's it famous?

al di ooh la la

My old friend Bucky (to use his old SFBG restaurant-review-pal name, just for you fans) arrived from SF, ready to eat real bagels, crash on the Aerobed in the living room ( the poor girl's guest room!) and wallow in the summer humidity. Best of all, he came in hungry, so we whisked over to Park Slope's al di la, which matches Delfina in my East Coast/West Coast Italian-restaurant pantheon. Oh, al di la! Kisses all over them. Since it was late when we got there, we breezed in and got a table right away. Heaven-puffed sheep's milk ricotta and lemon ravioli with chopped fresh tomato and a (slightly oversalted) green salad, fantastic, charred-and-pink hanger steak with arugula, moist grilled whole orata with olives and oregano, and of course, the irresistable pear-chocolate cake. Mmmmmm.

If I can bear to turn on my oven (still no AC!), a fresh peach cake might happen tomorrow morning. Otherwise, it's just a countdown til the rain comes down, hopefully sooner than later. Rain rain rain...and thunder!

Al di la, 5th Ave and Carroll St, Park Slope. No reservations, so just show up.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Stars Come Out and Fall Down

Too hot to breathe, almost. Got a lemon ice from the Court Pastry shop and it was melting into sticky water almost faster than I could slurp it down. The tomatoes are finally starting to redden, the morning glory vine has greeted each morning with a new purple flower, and there's basil, basil everywhere. Good things to look forward to:

The Perseid meteor shower, next Friday. I want to go back to Lillie's and stay out late and then sit out by the piers and watch the little splashes of light plummeting down from the dark sky. I mean, it would be nice to be out on the beach, too, but I'd settle for Red Hook. Chipper explanation from your friends at NASA, here.

Chinatown showing at the outdoor movie series in Brooklyn Bridge Park, next Thursday. Rounding up a posse to lie out on blankets and eat popcorn and watch bad, bad things happen to Faye Dunaway and the Owens River Valley. come and join us! Where and when, here.

More late-night Mostly Mozart concerts, this week and next. Couldn't stand being in my soggy bowl-of-soup house one more minute, so I fled to the icy subway (OK, the platform was hellish, but the train was meat-locker-cold) to wheedle a ticket to the sold-out show. Emmanuel Ax, the listed pianist, was out with a broken rib (which begs the question--what was he doing? Bungee jumping? Pole dancing?) so the young Jeremy Denk took his place. But the star was saucy Brit soprano Emma Bell, who made the whole audience melt to Debussy's En Sourtine. The singing thrilled me much more than the solo Bach piano, which was fine, except that I have to agree with Cassandra, the narrator of Dodie Smith's novel I Capture the Castle when she admits "The only Bach I've heard made me feel like I was being hit repeatedly on the head with a teaspoon." A genius and all that, I know, especially if you're mathmatically inclined, but give me a little Romantic swoon or spiky Russian modernism any day. But the concert was fun, up in the sparkly 10th floor penthouse, with free little plastic glasses of wine and cocktail-table seating.

Now, packing up the caponata and the peaches to go see Rufus Wainwright in Prospect Park. We may be sweaty, but we're cultured.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Sex and food--what else is there to think about in the summer? Eggplant slices are sweating on my kitchen table, in preparation for being turning into caponata, with onions, garlic, peppers, celery, and three kinds of salty: capers, olives, and anchovies, plus sherry vinegar and plumped-up currants. The sweet-salty-tart-savory combo is very Sicilian, and perfect in so many ways--mixed with parsley and feta in a pita sandwich, tossed with hot fusilli and ricotta salata, eaten cold standing naked in front of the fridge. Dill is drying for making pickled green beans (those bloody-mary-ready 'dilly beans'), mint is drying for tea, and three jars of apricot jam just went into the jam cupboard.

But what I'm really doing is watching Phyllis Christopher's amazing DVD Sextrospective, a 300+ photo retrospective though Christopher's nearly 2 decades behind the camera in SF. Since 1988, she's transformed so many different scenes into spectacles of glamour and passion, raw heat and humour. Posing for Phyllis is a ridiculous amount of fun, and I've been lucky enough to model for her a bunch of times over the years--in plaid flannel, in red lace and gingham on her stove, in a bikini and a rabbit-fur coat on chilly autumn beach, in a piled-high beehive wig and pearls and a bathtub full of bubbles... Fire-eating strippers, activists in bustiers, butch, boi,drag king, top, bottom, high femme and everything in between. You can get your own copy, and see some of her images, at The Sexy Stuff. And if you're in publishing, you should jump at the chance to make this into a book.

OK, now back to the eggplant....

Sunday, July 31, 2005

On the hook

Another warm dreamy day, even as the thermometer crawls upwards again this week. Swung by the farmers market for fuzz-rasped, sweet juice-dripping peaches and more tomatoes, and then another long walk to the garden to gaze contemplatively at the salvia and the purple basil. The people walking by on the other side of the fence must think I’m a little, well, strange, since mostly what I do in the garden is roll back on my heels and simply stare at my little plants. With a box that’s maybe 2 feet square, once you turn the hose on for a few minutes, there’s not much to do, really. Pinch up the odd teeny weed, fret over the browning nasturtiums (which actually produced one blazing orange flower, even as the rest of the plants, all pale and feeble, looked like rapidly sinking sanatorium inmates from The Magic Mountain), will encouragement to the stumpy pepper's fistfuls of tightly clenched flower buds. After that, I just ogle and bask.

But not for too long, because it was time to slide into one of those hot-weather H&M dresses (this one the sweet but slinky black chiffon number with skinny ribbon edging) and head down to Red Hook for Amy’s birthday dinner at 360. The place was sunny and empty when we arrived for our 15-person, 6pm reservation—narrow banquettes, wood-paneled walls, French dishtowels for napkins, a small sign reading "life is just a bowl of pork chops" next to some anti-Bush stickers. Orange chairs? Maybe, or I could be making that up. The menu is short and yep, seasonal, with three choices in each category on the $25 prix fixe menu, plus a bunch of a la carte options, including a green salad from the very local Added Value city farm, a Red Hook greens-growing operation that uses youth from the neighborhood to grow and sell mixed lettuces at Brooklyn farmers markets.

The food reminded me very much of San Francisco—lovely ingredients unfussed-with, with the results pristine if a smidge underseasoned. As with a dinner at Fort Greene’s Ici last year, 360’s offerings were lovely, but a little more recklessness—and quirky genius-- in the kitchen could lift it from good to partytime in your mouth. Carrot and radish soup was a gorgeously bright orange but tasted more of radish than sweet carrot, with an overwhelmingly rooty radish bouquet that gave a certain, less than appealing eau-de-vegetable-drawer to the cool liquid. A chunk of wild sea bass had a fantastic crunchy browned skin and a pleasant-enough light broth around it, dotted with green and Romano beans and slivers of artichoke and fresh basil. Nice, but white food compared to the beefy, salty, excellent onglet steak. Slightly dry-looking slices of pork loin came with tangy plum chutney and a tangle of shiny but completely unseasoned collard greens. But the wines are excellent—a short but really cool list of mostly French, organic and biodynamic small producers for prices that rarely exceed $20-$35 a bottle. Service --unsmiling and perfunctory from one slightly scruffy guy in an orange T-shirt, and pleasant and almost friendly from the big bearded guy.

Then we strolled through the very quiet cobblestoned streets to Lillie’s to sit outside in the funky back garden (a lot like an East Coast version of SF’s El Rio, only with a tiny pond and tiki bar and without a lemon tree). Across the street was a tall brick warehouse wall decorated with what looked like graffiti but were actually delicate, lacy paper cutouts of the flora and fauna of spring put up by local artists on the first warm day earlier this year, when an impromptu vernal parade wound through the streets. “That’s where the Ikea’s going to be,” a guy outside the bar told us as we gazed at the flock of hawks and bees and dragonflies flitting across the brick. “Right there.” Wandering through the streets on an impromptu tour of the waterfront later that night with warm arms of silence wrapped around us...into the warm summer darkness, with a dusky gold curve of moon hanging low over the silhouette of an abandoned sugar factory, we could hear nothing but crickets. On the other side of a flaking, vine-twined fence drifted the faint clank and chime of the buoys rolling in the shimmering flat river.

Now, the girls up at cripple creek 'bout half-grown, jump on a boy like a dog on a bone...
Roll my britches up to my knees, wade old cripple creek whenever I please...

360, 360 Van Brunt at Sullivan St, Bklyn. 718.246.0360
Lillie's, 46 Beard St at Dwight, 718. 858.9822

Friday, July 29, 2005


Ahhhhhh...the heat has finally broken, and sleep has returned. Went down to the garden to find half of the new nasturtiums I'd just planted looking crappy and half-dead. What's up with that? I know the soil in the box isn't so great--this heavy, clay-ish cheap top soil that the garden got for free, but I did mix in lots of perlite and a few bags of humus/manure, so it shouldn't be all bad. Oh well, if they die, they die...more room for something else.

Went to see "Dr. No" last night at Brooklyn Bridge Park and it was a lovely, lovely night--perfect weather, a stunning orange-and-pink sunset behind the bridge, popcorn, a mellow crowd and actual room to put down a blanket, and once it got dark, sparkly bridges and a ravishing skyline view.Everyone cheered the first time the deeply foxy Sean Connery looked up from the chemin-de-fer table and burred "Bond...James Bond." The Dumbo restaurant Rice had a stand set up selling snacks, although it seemed like most people brought along a pie from Grimaldi's around the corner. With a fridge full of farmers market/CSA veg, though, I made a salad instead--blanched green beans,roasted beets, potatoes,fresh radishes, tomatoes, and corn, all tossed with olive oil and the pink chive-blossom vinegar I made a few weeks ago, plus lots of basil on top, thanks to another mint-and-basil haul from B.'s thriving fire-escape garden. Packed in a tupperware box, this made too much even for me to eat, so now there's a nice veggie salad in the fridge for dinner, along with a giant, incredibly attractive eggplant just daring me to turn her into a batch of caponata. Don't tempt me, baby.

More thursday night movies all summer... info at Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy site.
See you there!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Too Darn Hot cook anything, although I answered the call of the Jam Goddess this morning and made four jars of blackberry jam and two of Hedgerow Bramble Jam (so Beatrix Potter!), a mix of red currants, raspberries, black currants, and more blackberries, all picked during last weekend's outing to the pick-your-own fruit farms of Bucks County, PA. The heavenly winey smell was well worth the steamy heat...

But now all I want is a blenderful of Ladybugs, from the recipe kindly sent by Susie.

Ladybug Cocktail

1 lime
1/4 cup sugar
4 cups watermelon, cut into 1-inch chunks and frozen
1/4 cup vodka

Remove zest (just the green part) from lime with a vegetable peeler, grater or microplane (the best, super easy and no nasty bitter white pith to contend with). Throw zest and sugar into a food processor or blender and buzz until mix is pale green with bits of zest still visible. Squeeze the lime juice into the blender and add watermelon chunks and vodka. Blend until smooth and slushy. Taste, add more lime juice if necessary, and serve.

Makes 5 drinks, unless it’s as hot as it is today, in which case, pour the whole thing into a pint glass and call it dinner (or breakfast).

And over on Gawker (you'll have to scroll down a ways, past the usual celebrity trash), a brief heat-addled snark break for a wistful gaze at two happy guys chiling out in their driveway "pool"--who knew the back of a pickup was watertight?