Vanishing America

February 1, 2011

Just had breakfast at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles.  With its timbered walls, waterfalls and stuffed fauna, Brookdale was a magical little bit of forest in the middle of the city when it was built in the thirties.  Its founder, Clifford Clinton, was a man who believed in the golden rule, fed people decent homemade food at fair prices, and whose motto was “Pay what you wish.  Pay nothing if not delighted.”  He went on to become, briefly, the mayor of the city.

Today this wonderful old place looks weirdly, kitchily old-fashioned. It is filled with mostly older people who come because the food is still hand-made and decent and the prices are still fair.  Early in the morning wizened old women slide their trays through the cafeteria line, helping themselves to enormous dishes of chicken livers (I suspect this is the most protein for the least money), and big bowls of cream of wheat with raisins and brown sugar. 

The women behind the counter are all kind, and they cook the eggs and pancakes with care.  “You want bacon with that?  No toast?”  And even this early in the day there is a lively business in lunch to go, as enormous men walk off with bulging sacks of food.

As I sat eating my eggs and drinking my coffee (“you want cream in that?”) I listened to three old men arguing politics at the next table. It was an erudite conversation – I had the feeling it has been going on for years – that ranged through the Middle East, to Asia and then settled back at home.  At points it veered into German, at others it settled back into disgruntled English.

It felt comfortable in that room, despite the sign that warned that tables could be occupied for only 45 minutes, and it made me sad to think of all the people who were grabbing something to go at a drive-up window and gobbling it down in their cars. Even in the middle of downtown Los Angeles – which is a fairly sad place early in the morning – this was a restaurant that has true nourishment on offer. Looking around I wondered how long it will last?  It seems like a quickly vanishing part of the American landscape.


Notes from Paradise

January 9, 2011

Too lazy to write much, but we've been laughing, talking, soaking up sunshine, wandering the streets, staring at all the wonderfully shabby chic houses in Key West. Starry nights, rum and pink shrimp, stone crab claws and local lobster tails. Why does anyone ever leave here?

The thought of packing up and heading back to snow makes me very sad.



A Downtown Meal in an Uptown Place

January 3, 2011

Had lunch at Ma Peche today, with Francis Lam, his friend Winnie (such a great name!) and Doc Willoughby.  The place was half-empty, and it certainly didn't deserve to be.  Tien Ho is really hitting his stride, and the 3-course $25 lunch is a very good deal.

Just about everything we ate was intensly flavorful, surprisingly textural, and fresh.  I couldn't stop eating the spicy lamb with crunchy rice sticks or those crisp, sticky, Brussels sprouts.  I loved the freshness of the squid salad and the wonderful crunch in the summer rolls. If you love Momofuku SSam Bar but hate the noise (and the wait), this is a place you'll want to know about.

Meanwhile, Francis was raving about Miles End in Brooklyn; just listening to him talking about the smoked meat made me want to run out the door and hop on the train.



Sour Cherry Crumb Pie to Welcome the New Year

January 1, 2011

Every summer, in sour cherry season, I fill the freezer with as many sour cherries as I have the patience to pit.  I try to make them last through the fall, leaving just enough to make one final sour cherry pie for the first day of the next year. It's a little reminder that summer really will return.

Sometimes I make a crostata.  Sometimes I make a tart.  Yesterday, for some reason, I thought I'd like to start the year with a sour cherry crumb pie. This morning, eating the first piece, the most intense flavor memory came floating back. I was 8 years old, eating dinner with my parents at The Cookery on the corner of University Place and 8th Street, spooning up their sweet, slightly salty cherry crumb tart. The Cookery was owned by my friend Bertha's uncle, who sometimes let us waitress there – just for fun – when we were in junior high. I thought it was enormous fun, and looking back, I realize that was my very first restaurant job. One bite brought it all back: a very fine way to welcome 2011.

Sour Cherry Crumb Pie

I hate blind-baking pie crusts, but in this case it’s worth it; you don’t want to waste your precious sour cherries on a sad, soggy bottom. So make a pie crust and blind bake it. While the crust cools, make the cherry filling by melting about 3 tablespoons of butter in a skillet and adding 4 to 5 cups of frozen cherries (along with their liquid), and 2/3 cups of sugar.  This will thaw with remarkable speed, and as soon as it does, add a squirt of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and stir in a paste made of 3 tablespoons of cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of cold water.  Bring to a boil, stirring gently.  In about 2 minutes, when the filling becomes clear and thick, turn off the heat and allow to cool.

Pour the cherries into the pie shell.

Make a crumble by melting a stick of butter and stirring in ¾ cups of sugar,  ¾ cups of flour and a pinch of salt.  Strew across the cherries and bake in a pre-heated 375 degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until the top is crisp and golden.

It would be wise to bake the pie on a foil-lined baking sheet; sour cherries have a tendency to bubble over the crust, and cleaning the sticky liquid off the bottom of the oven is no way to greet the new year.