Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Pickup Artist

Again, duty and deadlines call. It's not really quite tomato season yet (although my much-maligned fire-escape tomato plant now has at least twenty tiny green marbles hanging from its skinny branches, hurrah) but this column, originally from the Bay Guardian, seems ripe for an airing at this moment of picnics and potlucks. Enjoy!

When it comes to literature and recipes, I'm a slut. I'll pick up cooking advice, suggested combinations, and the names of favorite authors from just about anyone, anywhere. My favorites are scrawled on wrinkled-up scraps of paper stuffed into a grubby turquoise binder. That's where you'll find my grandmother's carrot cake recipe (itself copied off a recipe scribbled on the endpapers of one of her own cookbooks, and available, slighting adapted, in the posting "San Fran Smackdown"), my mother's barbecued shrimp recipe and my own reconstruction of same, created as my mother was en route to London and a sudden craving hit before I could track her (and her New Orleans cookbook) down. There's the penciled scribble that brings back memories of the gooiest, most wonderful cinnamon sticky buns I've ever had, courtesy of a long-distance call my best friend made back to her own mother in Minneapolis the day before we hosted a lavish birthday brunch.

That's the joy of recipe sluthood: instead of glossy pictures and perky marketing copy, recipes collected like this come tried and true. Never would I have tried a printed recipe calling for Karo syrup, instant vanilla pudding mix, and frozen bread dough. But when my friend brought out those cinnamon buns, every other tasteful-organic-seasonal brunch item was practically kicked under the table in the guests' mad rush to devour them hot from the oven. And if I could decipher her scrawled shorthand of that recipe, I'd make them again in a minute. Give the people what they want, I say.

This is particularly true at potlucks and picnics. There's no point in knocking yourself out when you're just one among many. And when Saturday afternoon follows Friday night, just ungluing your eyelashes from the pillow might take most of the morning. Your saving grace? What one party-girl pal calls Hangover Salad. "You were on a table singing 'Volare' at four a.m., and now it's time to pay," says my Anti-Bride Guide co-author Caroline. "Your best friend's bbq is in three hours, and you're still in bed groaning. But you can't show up with another bottle of corner-store merlot. You're family, and you're expected to cook. Have no fear: faster than you can say 'Cala Foods' you can whip up a Martha-impressing salad with just one quick trip to the nearest fruit and vegetable stand."

Get a big bag of Roma tomatoes, she advises, two balls of mozzarella (the shrink-wrapped kind is fine), a bunch of fresh basil, a big jar of marinated artichoke hearts, a head of garlic and two small red onions. Chop the tomatoes and mozzarella into chunks, mince the onions and garlic, rip up the basil ("use a lot!") and toss it all together with the artichoke hearts into a big Tupperware bowl. Coat it all with red wine vinegar and olive oil, add a few pinches of oregano, salt, and pepper. Then "stick the lid on and shake the whole mess up. Put it in the fridge for 20 minutes. Have a Bloody Mary while you're sitting in a hot bath. Strap on your platforms, apply your lipstick and go!" Of course, if you have ripe juicy fabulous tomatoes and milky-fresh mozzarella, it will be even better.

Or, if you have a stale (but not yet rock-hard) loaf of Italian bread lying around, you can use almost the same ingredients to make panzanella. This is another recipe that reappears every summer from the stained pages of that turquoise binder, courtesy of a farmers' market demonstration done by former Vivande chef Carlo Middione ages ago. In most restaurants, this Italian bread salad is made like bite-sized bruschetta, cubes of toasted, crouton-like bread sitting next to cubes of cucumber and tomatoes, the bread distinct from the vegetables, all there in separate pieces on the cold plate like the husbands and wives in a John Cheever story.

Middione did it differently. Using his hands, he tore six thick slices of dry (but untoasted) white Italian bread (not sourdough!) into bite-sized chunks in a big bowl. Then, the bread was drizzled with cold water and tossed until lightly but thoroughly moistened. Two large, ripe diced tomatoes, a little minced red onion, a small handful of chopped fresh basil leaves, two tablespoons of red wine vinegar, and a third of a cup of olive oil were mixed in, plus plenty of sea salt and fresh ground pepper. A plate was put over the top of the bowl, and the whole was set aside for an hour so the tomato juices could soak into the bread.

It takes some faith to make this salad. Although the ingredients should convince you that it will taste good in the end (tomatoes, basil, olive oil: what's not to like?), the first sight of the soaked salad will not be encouraging. Soggy and pink, it will look more like a bowl of pasta left out in the rain. But the bread grabs and expands all the flavors of the tomato and basil, and transforms its texture into a pillowy, fluffy mass. I don't know that I'd be able to resist this salad long enough to share it with a whole picnic; as it is, I have to take myself out of the house just get through the hour-long soaking stage. But it's worth it. Once you serve this, you can pass the recipe around yourself, just like a truly generous recipe slut should.


From today's NYT review of Alto, in midtown:
"...Italian staples and notions inform fanciful constructions like squid ink cappuccino, a kind of warm, frothy, petroleum-black soup, which is paired with ribbons of lobster."

Blurgh. I can't think of any description that would make me LESS likely to want to eat something. Unless it was "pickled tongue with cubes of fried mayonnaise" --a snappy menu item from the Lower East Side's wd-50. Yuck, yuck, yuck. I'd rather drink the blue liquid inside a Magic8 ball, like these nice boys here.

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