November 1, 2011

My plane did not land until nine at night, and I was expecting a hungry evening. What a surprise, then, to walk out of my hotel, near ten o’clock, and find East Fourth Street packed with people, the restaurants jammed, the air alive with excitement.  This was not the vision I’d had. 

I turned into Lola, a dark, sexy little place, for a perfectly lovely dinner. Crisp oysters.  Plump pirogi filled with beef cheeks.  Tender slices of tongue on suave slices of mushroom. A rare ribeye ringed with smoked onions and accented with blue cheese. Hearty fare – but wonderful – and served with one terrific wine after another. 

But it was the Greenhouse Tavern, the following day, that really blew me away. Jonathon Sawyer has created a fascinating menu, totally his own, and three days later I’m still thinking about some of his dishes.  He steams clams in butter and foie gras, then tosses in a hit of vinegar. The result is an entirely original version of surf and turf, clams in a velvet sauce that will haunt my dreams until the next time that I have it. 

He serves pasta in softly melted squash with crisp little bits of duck skin skittering across the top.  He offers up a pouch of paper and then stabs it with a knife until fragrant steam comes pouring out. Inside: plump chunks of porcini and silken slices of matsutake tangled into fregola with lots of butter.

His hominy is fried into crisp little bits and mixed with pickled red onion and lime juice; it’s a kind of magic trick, turning a drab vegetable into spicy stoner food.  Jonathan’s pork chop is fantastic, and he’s got a way with beets. The food went on and on, ending with a  deconstructed caramel apple that turned a sad American classic into a delicately delicious dessert. 

Afterward I wandered through the West Side Market a Guastavino-tiled hall that has been serving Cleveland for 99 years.  It’s a vibrant place that reminded me more of the great markets of Europe than anyplace I’ve seen in America. Some of the purveyors have been there since the start, and they’re still turning out old-time, hand-made smoked meats and charcuterie that’s hard to find anywhere else. I arrived home with a suitcase filled with obscure German and Hungarian sausages – a fine way to remember Cleveland. 




Chez Panisse: Forty Years Later

August 30, 2011

The museum in Berkeley has a particular smell, a combination of cool concrete and dry oil paint that always sends me right back to the seventies.  On Friday night it was also filled with food, and for a moment I was back at The Swallow, the restaurant a group of us once ran downstairs, right by the Pacific Film Archive. Making my way through the crowd that had gathered to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Chez Panisse, I kept running into fellow members of The Swallow, and before long I was in tears.

It was that kind of night, and then that kind of weekend: emotions were never far from the surface. There were speeches – by the Governor, the Mayor, and assorted dignitaries.  There was drinking and dancing, too much food and too little sleep. But more than anything, there was the recognition of how much this restaurant has meant to those of us who care about the way we eat.

 The feasts went on for days. The major meals began with Scott Peacock’s shrimp boil at Alice’s house on Thursday night – lights in the garden, peach cobbler for dessert – and ended with an invitation only staff party on Sunday night. In between so many people fanned out into so many places that you kept missing your friends. Michael Pollan had a pig roast, Joan Nathan concocted a Roman Jewish dinner, Angelo Garro roasted a wild boar at his forge…. I was at Cecilia’s Chiang’s banquet, some 20 courses cooked by an astonishing woman who seems to laugh at time. With the help of chefs Henry He and Alex Ong this 93 year old woman created a feast – in a tiny kitchen that has no gas.

We ate with sterling-tipped ivory chopsticks. “These,” said Cecilia, “were part of my mother’s dowery.”  Abalone was astonishing, so tender you could inhale each delicate white slice.  Ethereal kidneys were like spicy clouds, numbing your tongue with the tingle of Sichuan peppercorns. Beggar’s chicken was stuffed with sticky rice, wrapped in lotus leaves and then coated with clay.  I hit it with a hammer, and as it fractured, a burst of scent leapt into the air and filled the dining room.  As one dreamlike dish followed another director Wayne Want, quietly elegant, documented each bite.  “I wanted," he said, "to do something for Alice. In the early days,  when I had no money, she always fed me.”

She fed us all. And she's still doing it. When the feasts – all of them – had ended, we gathered in the street in front of the restaurant, reluctant to let the party end.  At some point Alice came over and put a grape into my mouth.  “Taste this,” she said. 

 Sweet, intense, slightly perfumed, the flavor resonated in my mouth for a good hour. It was just a grape.  It was one of the best things I have ever eaten.  Even after a week of extraordinary food, Alice Waters can offer you one single bite that blows you right away. 



Think Pink: Strawberry Ice Cream

August 1, 2011

I found an old recipe for "Strawberry Cream Ice" in a Victorian cookbook, and I was fascinated by its sheer simplicity: “2 pints of strawberry juice, 3 pints of cream and 4 ounces of sugar to every pint of the composition.”

It really is that simple.  I swooshed 2 pints of strawberries in a blender and then put them through a sieve; it made about a cup of strawberry juice.  In place of ordinary granulated sugar, I used confectioner’s sugar, which dissolves more easily.  It also throws the weight off;  you won’t need more than a quarter cup or so for the cup of strawberry juice.  Stir the sugar in, and then swirl in a pint of good cream. Now taste it to make sure it's sweet enough for you. Cut up up another handful of strawberries and add them to the mixture before starting to churn the ice cream.  It should not take very long to freeze; about 15 minutes.  Leave it on the slightly soft side.

 The flavor is so pure and lovely – just strawberries and cream – the essence of pink. I can't think of anything nicer on a hot summer day.  



Sour Cherry Lemonade

July 6, 2011

It's no secret that I'm a fool for sour cherries.  I love their flavor, – nothing makes a better pie – and I also love the fact that their season is so fleeting. Pick them, pit them and put them in your freezer and you can have instant summer in the middle of winter.

But pitting them is – well, the pits.  The easiest way to do that is with a paper clip; if you open one up, you'll have the perfect tool to just flip the pits right out. Still, it's a process.

That's what I love about this recipe; this lemonade not only tastes great, but you can make it without removing the pits. You do, however, need to remove the stems.

Start with a quart (about 2 pounds) of sour cherries, and, without removing the pits, dump the cherries into a blender. Whiz them about until they’re all smooshed and some of the pits are coarsely chopped, then put them into a strainer or a sieve and press hard, extracting as much puree as you can.  Discard the solids.

Put the cherry puree into a pitcher and stir in the juice of four lemons, and about a cup of sugar.  (If you like things really sour, you might want less; if you’ve got a sweettooth, you’ll want more.)

This will keep for a day or two in the refrigerator. When you’re ready to drink the lemonade, pour into glasses and add water (or sparkling water) to taste. 

Want to turn this into cocktails?  Add a few splashes of vodka or gin, and garnish with a sprig of mint.  


World’s Easiest Pie

June 22, 2011

This is not only the fastest pie I know how to put together (it's even faster if you use a frozen pie shell), it is also the most satisfying.  Served with a little whipped cream, or some vanilla ice cream, it is summer on a plate. The recipe is from Comfort Me With Apples.

Apricot Pie

1 recipe pie dough (for a single crust pie)

2 pounds apricots

1 stick butter, melted

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup flour

fresh nutmeg

Roll out the pie dough, fit it into a 9 inch pie pan, crimp the edges and put it into the freezer for 15 minutes while you preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Break the apricots apart with your fingers; do not peel them, but remove the pits.

Melt the butter.  Stir in the sugar (brown sugar is fine), then the flour.  Grate in a bit of nutmeg.

Put the apricots into the unbaked shell.  Cover them with the sugar mixture and put the pie on the bottom rack of your oven. After ten minutes turn the heat down to 375 and bake for 35 or 40 minutes more, until the top is crusty and golden. Transfer to a cake rack and cool before serving.