Sunday, April 30, 2006

Cherries and Kitchens

So, the cherry trees were total rock stars this weekend at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.
(This is the view from where I was sitting on the grass, sipping tea from the green-tea-and-blackout-cake stall and talking on my cell to K., who had just rung up for a chat from Afghanistan. Modern technology never ceases to amaze me.)

The number 2 train over there was jammed--I was crammed in next to a teenage girl wearing a kimono and obi over jeans and flip-flops. Inside the park, it was Woodstock for cherry blossoms.

There were lolling picknickers everywhere, with hotdogs and $8 bento boxes of teriyaki chicken and saifun noodles. And the trees were in full, exploding pink blossom, surrounded by every color of lilac. It was fun and then it was just too insanely crowded and I had to leave. But go soon; it's $5 to get into the garden, or free all day on Tuesday.


Want to cook in the Pie Queen's kitchen? Lots of cookbooks and all the tart pans you could want! My perfect Australian subletters just bailed on me, and now I've got a real nice 1 BR in Brooklyn available for the month of June. Email me for more info and pix if you're interested.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

on the road and back again

Oh, where has the Pie Queen been?

Out in Bucks County in knee-high wellies, busting sod and digging up bleeding hearts by the roadside. (The plants, that is, tiny wild plants that thrive in damp shady spots surrounded by moss and ferns and water trickling down the rocks).

Up in Warwick, NY with the Pie Queen Mother, making mint sauce for the lamb chops and having Almondine's croissants for Easter breakfast. (Yes, I know it was Passover. I'm a BAD Jew. But my religious family history is a little, well, complicated, and more truthfully, I just hate to pass up any holiday, especially one that involves brunch and marshmallow chicks).

In the downstairs cave at Vintage New York, eating chunklets of cheese, drinking Long Island Syrah (and very good it was too, much to my admittedly California-shaped surprise), and swapping cheesemaker stories with Sasha & Michael, two lovely people who are about to go on a cross-country odessey (Alaska included) to talk to small-scale American cheesemakers. They're calling their project Cheese By Hand and they have just about the cutest website and t-shirts around, so check 'em out, and tune in while they're on the road to hear what's going on in the pastures of this country, and how small artisans--and their fine cud-chewing friends--are surviving in the face of mega-agribusiness. Restaurants Mas and Blue Hill provided some tiny, tasty little spring snacks, including what looked like spinach dip but turned out to be fresh ricotta blended with chopped dandelion greens and ramps with a splash of buttermilk, and my goodness it was tasty.

And speaking of ramps, just why did the NYT give Kim Severson a whole spread to bitch and moan about her distaste for spring greens? OK, lady, you think fiddleheads and ramps are overrated. Fine; don't eat 'em. But don't whine and rant and try to convince everyone else that they blow, just because you'd rather go eat another storage potato or Israeli tomato. (Although I was amused by the snark of describing fiddleheads, etc. as "promising dates that end up making your ex look terrific.") Anyone that thinks nettles can only be boiled "to a soggy mess" has not had the sublime, astroturf-green nettle pasta and nettle soup at San Francisco's Delfina, and since Kim S. did a number of years writing for the SF Chronicle, she's got no excuse. I'm starting to think that she's just a sucky cook. But this does mean more fiddleheads and ramps for the rest of us, yippee, although I do yearn, gently, for the un-weedy California harbingers of spring: asparagus, favas, and baby artichokes. Sigh.

And, of course, I've been in the garden,

aka the square foot of planter space that I have in the new Transit Garden, at 2nd Place and Smith St. I go here daily to pray over the lemon balm and the still stubbornly micro-mini lettuce spriglets. (The radishes, however, are looking quite robust). Back in March, I promised K. a homegrown salad when she came back for leave in May, and now, with the start of her leave just 2 weeks away (yippee!), I'm wondering just how baby a baby-greens salad I can serve.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Matzoh Meal

Not having a Seder to go to this year, I'm throwing my own again, for the first time since I left San Francisco. So today I'm frantically trying to unearth my Seder plate and handwritten Hagaddah (both mysteriously AWOL) as well as hitting the Streit's factory on the Lower East Side for matzoh fresh off the conveyor belt. Recipes to follow, but for now, a reprint of an old Bay Guardian column about Passover. Enjoy!

Ride a bike instead of going to Hebrew school, eat bacon, have a Christmas tree: when I was younger, being Jewish was all about restriction, rule after rule about what you couldn't do. Most difficult of all was Passover: first, the two Seders, during which my sisters and I covertly thumbed ahead in our Hagaddahs to see how many more pages of Hebrew had to elapse before the "festive meal" could be served; then, the week-long prohibition on bread, cookies, pasta -- anything made with grain or even corn syrup—which meant a week of messy sandwiches, chunks of tuna salad falling out from between two crumbling, uneven slabs of matzoh, along with weird candy like Bartons' Almond Kisses (wads of chocolate taffy studded with nuts) and chocolate-covered matzoh (good) and chocolate-covered jelly rings and coconut-covered marshmallows (revolting). By the third day of Passover, all the Jewish kids were veering away from the matzoh boxes stacked up in a corner of the cafeteria, while the non-Jewish kids piled up their trays with them as if they were some kind of exotic saltine.

And just to complicate things, the family on my mother's side wasn't Jewish, so we always got to celebrate a secular Easter up at my grandmother's, dyeing eggs and hunting for chocolate bunnies all around her house. But while there may be kosher-for-passover Pepsi, there will never be kosher-for-Passover Easter candy. If Easter fell during Passover, as it usually did, our jelly beans and Cadbury's creme eggs were off limits. So we'd take them home, watching the yellow marshmallow Peeps slowly hardening until the eight days were up. Oddly enough, after all that anticipation, I don't remember now what it was like to finally peel back those shimmering bits of foil. Instead, when the sun went down on the last day and Passover was over, I remember how the plainest slice of crusty white Italian bread tasted just like heaven.

Now, some twenty years later, much to my own surprise, certain rituals have seeped back into my life. "Why do you call it rigidity?" writes poet Louise Gluck in one of the last poems in her book The Meadowlands. "Can't you call it a taste for ceremony?" The flip side of restriction is tradition, a sense of continuity that pushes the future up from the deep roots of the past. These days, for me, the holidays on the Jewish calendar inspire both a reaching out and a gathering in, collecting scattered friends into a chosen family grouped around a table, sharing a heritage, a history, and a meal.

Although most traditional Seders have some kind of meat at the center--braised lamb, stuffed breast of veal, brisket, roast chicken--it seems particularly appropriate to celebrate this spring festival with a vegetarian meal. Plus, vegetarian food is every anxious host's best friend, because it's a rare guest who'll take a strong moral stance against asparagus. And anyone with a tiny speck of cooking ability can steam some asparagus and bring it along to save you the trouble. Always, there's a tumbled salad full of herbs and small leaves, the karpas or spring greens that fulfill the promise of the earth's rebirth, the weird but inevitable hard-boiled eggs in salt water (basically horrible, but extremely evocative, since they're never eaten at any other time), followed by matzoh balls bobbing in a dill-and-garlic perfumed vegetable broth. Add enough salt, onion, and garlic to the broth as it cooks, and any deprivation felt by the chicken-soup-inclined will be outweighed by the gratitude of the vegetarians finally allowed to enjoy a matzoh ball in a reasonable facsimile of its true habitat.

Last year's sleeper was a wine-dark, blood-red beet salad. Inspired by a pile of vigorous, beautiful beets at that morning's farmers' market, I bought two bunches, boiled them until they were tender and ready to slip shining out of their dull magenta skins. Then, they were hurriedly pushed them aside until I spied a long-ignored bottle of Lebanese pomegranate molasses in the fridge. Made into a quick dressing with olive oil, salt, pepper, and a fast grating of orange rind and a squeeze of orange juice, the intensely tart syryp (made from boiled-down fresh pomegranate juice) turned out to be the perfect foil for the beets' earthy sweetness. (Mediterranean food expert Joyce Goldstein prefers the Cortas brand, which is imported from Lebanon; I found mine at Haig's, on Clement Street in SF; you can find it in Brooklyn at Sahadi's or any of the other Middle Eastern grocery stores along Atlantic Avenue).

Beside the beets goes a huge bowl of charoseth, the sweet, chunky mix of apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and sweet kosher wine. This is the first dish that every kid learns to make in her grandmother's kitchen. By the way, you must use that digusting Concord-grape kosher wine. Nothing else will do, not grape juice, not Baron Herzog cabaret. Two years ago, I went to a Seder where the charoseth--two kinds, both the familar apple-and-walnut mix and a sticky Sephardic one made with dates-- was made by the family's Swedish au pair, and it was still great. (Actually, all the food was made by the au pair, proving that kugel-makers are made, not born).

Last year, a friend called mid-afternoon, just as my pre-dinner jitters--and the stack of dirty bowls in the sink--were rising. I'm having doubts about my kugel, she admitted. I'm sitting shiva for my spongecake, I replied, eyeing the gummy hunks that had hit the table the minute I'd flipped the pan over to cool. It wasn't a conversation I'd ever imagined having, so far from the worn pink Formica of my grandmother's brisket-scented kitchen. But just for a moment, I was back home.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

April Snow

It's SNOWING. Right here, right now, puffy fat cottontail-sized flakes, coming down on the daffodils and the Easter bunny displays, floating down past the magnolia blossoms and the frothy, bridal-veil archways of the blooming Bradford pear trees.


But, of course, this means one more snowtime hot chocolate at Cafe Nova. Mmmm. And an excuse to hole up inside with yesterday's leftover chocolate chip-walnut cookies instead of going down to the garden to plant more radish seeds.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

BrookLime Pie

From Friday's Escapes section, in the NYTimes:

"TRAVELERS come to the Florida Keys for the sun, the sand and the scenery of America gone Caribbean. They come for bone-fishing in the morning, margaritas at midday and sunset celebrations at dusk. And before it's time to depart, everybody wants a piece of Key lime pie.

Never mind that most Key limes — golf-ball-size and yellowish, in contrast to the larger, greener Persian lime — are grown these days in Mexico. Or that first-rate Key lime pie can now be had in places like Brooklyn."

Clearly, journalist Charles Passy must have been one of the many lining up at the Pie Queen's table during last year's 2nd Annual Brooklyn PIe Social.

Dumbo's no Key West, but the pies are sure tasty:

Notice the little green fruit next to the pie, smaller than golf balls but bigger than marbles--those are real key (aka Mexican) limes. No bottled juice here!

(Not that I'm trying to make K., a true Florida girl, homesick; I'm just counting down the days til she comes back to Brooklyn for her 2-week leave, in less than 6 weeks now. I miss my girl.)

And for you locals this evening, it's a 3 dog night at the Brooklyn Museum's free First Saturday program, in honor of the museum's new William Wegman exhibit Funney/Strange.

Don't forget, American readers: daylight savings time starts tonight. Set your clocks forward 1 hour before you go to bed. It's your ready-made excuse to skip whatever early-morning activity you'd rather avoid!