April 16, 2015
I just dusted off Virginia Cookery, a plastic-spiral-bound cookbook I found at Bonnie Slotnick's antique cookbook shop right before she moved to the East Village. Like many great cookbooks of it's kind, this one is a self-published compilation of recipes from (mostly) church-going women. The recipes in these books often vary in quality, but at the very least they make for fun, voyeuristic reading. What was on the table in 1957 Virginia?
Whipped syllabub, turkey pie for 200, and five different types of chess pie, it would appear. (Maybe not all at the same time.) There's also a recipe for sweet potato souffle with sherry and black walnuts that I'm dying to try.
Think I'll pass on the tips for excelling in housewifery.
But here's one odd find: beaten biscuits. Has anyone ever baked with an axe? Here, Virginia Cookery quotes a 1885 tome on Virginian cooking, also called Virginia Cookery, written by Ms. Mary Stuart Smith.
""In the Virginia of the olden time no breakfast or tea-table was thought to be properly furnished without a plate of these indispensable biscuits… Let one spend the night at some gentleman-farmer's home, and the first sound heard in the morning, after the crowing of the cock, was the heavy, regular fall of the cook's axe, as she beat and beat her biscuit dough…Nowadays beaten biscuits are a rarity, found here and there, but soda and modern institutions have caused them to be sadly out of vogue…There are difficulties in the way," Mrs. Smith then goes on to explain that a biscuit block, the trunk of an oak or chestnut tree, sawed off and planed, must be provided near the kitchen."
Mrs. Smith's Beaten Biscuit
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon lard
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Sift flour with salt and work in lard. Have ready a mug filled with equal parts of sweet milk and water. Add it gradually to the other ingredients, kneading all the while, and stopping as soon as the flour will hold together, for the dough should be very stiff. Beat thirty minutes with an axe kept for the purpose. Prick with a fork and bake until a delicate brown.
April 15, 2015
This was probably my favorite course at Dill. It doesn't look like much – but Icelanders are understated, so that's typical. It tastes like it looks – bland as snow – until you encounter intense little bursts of flavor that are the best version of butter you've ever eaten. And if you admire butter as much as I do, that's saying something.
I loved Dill from the first moment I walked in the door. I loved the quiet look of the place – all wood and stone – and the casual nature of the room. But what I loved most was that the entire restaurant smelled like butter. And – in the course of a meal that lasted four hours – the scent of butter never stopped.
Dill was the restaurant I was most eager to try in Reykjavik. My friend Evan Sung, the photographer who shot the wonderful new cookbook, North (which just won a James Beard award), said I had to try the restaurant while in Iceland. Still, I was skeptical: Iceland is not exactly known as a food paradise. (Although I know now it should be).
The first course, I'll admit, didn't do all that much for me. This seemed tricky, almost silly:
Really? I thought when they set this ridiculous flower pot in front of me with it's little hanging bit of dried salt cod, and it's dried parsnip. And though this dill dipping sauce was delicious:
it all seemed like a stretch. I sat back, thinking, show me more.
Then this arrived:
Okay, nice enough. Carrot with fresh cheese and a LOT of caraway. Tasty. But not exactly mind-altering.
Then the shredded catfish arrived, and I sat up. It was unlike anything I've ever experienced, a kind of magic in the mouth. Think savory cotton candy with bursts of brown butter threaded through it. Hitting that flavor was like a splash of cold water; take that!
Then there was this:
Beet, wrapped around liver. (The leaf is only there so your fingers don't turn red.) And suddenly we were out on the glaciers, wild beasts ripping at dead animals. The liver was intense, the beet like blood, and it was all primitive, elemental, incredibly delicious. All that in a tiny bite. I'm alive now, eager for whatever's coming next.
And it is perfect. I am an animal. I will devour this beef tartare on its bleached white marrow bone. I am out there now, howling with the wolves. It is delicious, but I'm no longer in the restaurant; this food has taken me to another place.
The porridge brings me back. It is as if the chef is trying to remind me that I'm a civilized being, an eater of grain. But of course, on top, there's that egg, cooked until it's nothing but crisp nubbins. As if to say – yes, you may be a grower, a reaper of grains, but you yearn to eat animals.
And then this comes, reminding me of my humanity. If there is any food that makes us civilized creatures, it is bread. And this is bread as I've never quite had it before. Slightly burnt. Still warm. Sourdough. Elemental. It is FANTASTIC bread.
And it is paired with this wonderful butter and gorgeous salt. The chefs take buckets down to the sea, then cook off the water to make the salt. Lovely stuff.
All this is prelude, just the warm up to the meal which now appears in a slow parade of fascinating dishes. It begins with salt cod – soft in the mouth, its deep saline quality tempered by the two purees: celery root and apple. It is the chef whispering in your ear, urging you to think about what happens when sea meets shore.
This pork belly with crisp bits of Jerusalem artichoke, smoked hazelnuts and powdered burnt leeks is a circus in the mouth, different with each bite. It slows you down, makes you stop and really think about what you're eating.
Next comes arctic char, the raw fish silky and almost sweet beneath its fennel and mushroom topping. It is the least exciting dish of the night. Pretty. Flavorful. But not a thrill.
But what is this? Rutabaga nestled into a little puddle of cream cheese, grains of millet dancing across the top, adding texture. I've always thought of rutabaga as a bully, a great ugly brute of a vegetable that forces itself upon you. But this is different: firm, meaty and so satisfying I am forced to reconsider my feelings about this once-despised vegetable.
And finally, the main meat course. Icelandic lamb is wonderful, and this is the best I've had. But the real revelation is that whipped lamb fat. Why haven't I ever had this before?
And finally the surprise of dessert. Chef Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason doesn't take the easy sweet path. He's still playing with flavor, throwing in elements that pop out to startle you. This lovely dish of angelica, caramel and walnuts is bathed in beer.
And this skyr – you're never very far from skyr in Iceland – is paired with celery and roasted oats. Who knew that celery could be so sweet?
The wine pairings were both brilliant and generous, beginning with copious amounts of rich, yeasty Champagne and stretching on through the hours we spent at the restaurant. So thank you Evan; I would have been extremely sorry to have missed this meal.
April 14, 2015
First, a confession. I agreed to teach at The Iceland Writer's Retreat for only one reason: Susan Orlean told me she had so much fun last year that I'd be a fool to turn it down.
Thank you Susan. It was a memorable week; I'm sorry to say I probably learned more from the students I worked with – they were all so emotionally brave – than they did from me. I also had the joy of meeting some really wonderful writers. A few you will know, and those you don't, you'll want to.
Barbara Kingsolver, who must be a hero to everyone who cares deeply about great writing, climate change, and the ethics of eating. I've loved every one of her books, and was delighted to discover that she turns out to be exactly the person you hope she'll be: warm, smart and delightfully no-nonsense. She's down to earth with a very particular view of the world. This is what you think when you first meet her: "This woman knows exactly who she is."
Adam Gopnik, who is much funnier in person than his rigorous writing leads you to believe. He is effortlessly – and constantly – humorous. Also, I think, the most innately polite person I've ever met. I suspect he is incapable of walking into an elevator in front of a woman or cutting into a line. It makes me wonder how he survives in New York.
Taiye Selasi, who is so extremely beautiful you can't believe she's also a writer. If I looked like that I think I'd just stare at myself in the mirror all day. But her books are deep and rich – and she is a rare, warm and extremely generous teacher. Her students emerged from each workshop buzzing with energy.
John Valliant. I didn't know his work before I got to Reykjavik. I'm reading his The Jaguar's Children now. Slowly. It's a novel you want to savor, a book that gives voice to the voiceless- and he's a man you want to know better. Also, I might add, a great dining companion.
Alison Pick. How did I not know this woman before? When she gave me her novel, Far To Go I made the mistake of reading the first page. The next thing I knew it was morning, and I'd been reading all night. It's gorgeous. Poetic. Compelling. Truly one of the finest books I've read in ages. She is a deep soul, and her students emerged from her classes slightly dazed – and then went off to their rooms to write.
Linn Ullman. Again, a writer whose work I should have known and to my shame did not. Linn was the voice of reason on the panels; when everyone else was mystifying the act of writing, she was saying, "You know, it's a job. All great writing does not come from inspiration. Sometimes it just comes from work." Later, thinking about it, I realized that of course the daughter of Ingmar Bergman would take a slightly jaundiced view of "genius." But to read her books is to understand the importance of trusting yourself.
Marcello di Cintio. With a name like that he has to be a dark, handsome Italian with a romantic bent. In reality he's an approachable (handsome) Canadian who seems too sweet to have undertaken the dark subjects he tends to tackle: war, poverty, people who live behind walls. He taught travel writing, and his students said his workshops were wonderful. He too is a great dinner companion.
Sjon – one of Reykjavik's most famous writers (among other things he writes lyrics for Bjork), whose latest book has won dozens of awards. The Blue Fox is about to come out in an English translation. Can't wait.
If you've read this far, you're probably considering signing on for next year. Don't know who'll be teaching, but I'm sure it will another memorable occasion. If you're eager to spend time among writers, this is a fantastic opportunity. The participants are talented, the workshops never larger than 15, and all the writers are pretty much around, and available, for the entire time. Last year Geraldine Brooks, one of my favorite authors, was teaching a workshop and all I can say is I wish I'd been there.
And, of course, you also get access to the strange, stark, beauty of Iceland. And it's fascinating food. My first lunch was at Iceland Fish and Chips. The fish was great – but what I remember best were those onion rings at the top of this post. Breaded in spelt, splashed with spice, they were memorable.
Tomorrow I'll tell you about the most impressive – and longest – meal I had in Reykjavik. Among other things, it included bread and butter so good I literally could not stop eating it.
April 13, 2015
That, my friends, is Iceland on a plate. And delicious it is, this giant codhead, cooked in chicken broth and sugar kelp, the soft, tender tongue breaded and sauteed before being replaced to do rude things on the plate.
To eat a huge codhead like this is to have an extraordinary experience of texture. The bit of filet, at the top of the head, is rather firm. The cheeks are like little scallops. The bit right beneath the eye is pillowy soft. And that tongue…. like eating a gentle cloud.
The codhead is the signature dish at Matur og Drykker, the restaurant in Reykjavik's Saga Museum which is named for the classic Icelandic cookbook of that name. Written in the 1950s, the book is the Icelandic version of The Joy of Cooking; every local person I met told me they'd grown up on those recipes.
At the restaurant they've gone looking for history – and then refined it. So the classic halibut, mussel, whey soup is turned into the loveliest chowder you can imagine.
The mussels are sweet and plump, their flavor underlined by the other notes woven through the soup: cream, dill, the sweetness of apples and then – surprise! – a bit of prune, which lends an almost wine-like quality. I kept eating the soup, entranced by the parade of flavors, and was devastated when I discovered that there was no more.
The other surprises of this meal:
Codliver pate with a berry jam on caraway flatbread. I'll admit I was reluctant to try it – too many bad memories of codliver oil – but how could I resist? The flavor was a total surprise; if you've ever had Japanese ankimo – monkfish liver – you'll instantly recognize the taste. Those berries were a wonderful foil for the fish flavor; think of the sea washing into the forest.
And then there was this, which looked exactly like dried rose petals – and tasted almost entirely of smoke.
Essentially lamb jerky, this was as crisp as a potato chip so the buttermilk smudge on the side made it seem like eating chips and dips. The friend I was eating with said she always takes double smoked lamb along when she goes hiking – but she had never had any half so delicious. Excited, she ordered a second plateful.
Some other wonderful dishes from this restaurant.
"Fish Stew." Only it's not. This is what, in the old days, Icelanders did with leftover fish. It's kind of a smoked fish and potato mush, with dill, with thin bits of rye biscuit, rutabaga and fennel. It's classic nursery food, reimagined for grownups.
And, of course, lamb. You don't get very far in Iceland without eating lamb – and I never met one I didn't like. But this, with gorgeous carrots and some beautifully cooked potatoes – was remarkable for its simple honesty.
And, of course, the classic Iceland dessert: twisted doughnuts. Warm, laced with nutmeg, and barely sweet, these were the most restrained doughnuts I've ever encountered. Doughnuts are usually flashy and brazen, but these little cakes knew how to charm you with subtlety.
And did I mention the weather?
But this is only the beginning. I'm just back from The Iceland Writer's Retreat, and in upcoming posts I'll talk about that (truly memorable), and a few more remarkable meals I ate in the land of light, literature and ice.
April 7, 2015
A taste of kernza: nutty and complex. The biscotti on the bottom is 100 percent kernza, the one above is 50 percent kernza, the muffin is one quarter kernza.
What if the ancient art of annual crop cultivation – perhaps the oldest art there is – has stopped serving us?
The plant engineers at Salina Kansas' Land Institute think it might have.
When wheat was cultivated into an annual crop it probably ushered in civilization as we know it. But 9,500 years later – give or take – we've got a problem: America's plains are blowing away as pesticide-laced eroded soil washes into our rivers. And for what? An increasingly problematic product: according to the Land Institute, modern commercial wheat contains a fraction of the nutrients found in the wheat we ate only two generations ago.
Their solution? Develop a perennial wheat with long roots going deep into the soil.
But domesticating wild plants is tough business, and the Institute's Lee Deehan was prepared to spend a long time developing kernza (their perennial wheat plant). He thought it might take up to a hundred years to produce a satisfying specimen. But swift DNA sequencing changed that, and Deehan and his team think they're only a few years away from a commercial product. At the moment they're tackling the problem of yield per acre (around a third of the industrial wheat), and seed size (too small).
All impressive, but how does kernza taste? Nuttier and more complex than most whole-wheats I’ve tried. Its low gluten content means it won't work as a replacement for all-purpose flour, but it makes a wonderful addition to breads and pastries.
At the moment you won't find kernza on your grocery shelf, but it’s slowly inching into the market. Patagonia food will use it in their new health food line, a few restaurants offer kernza bread, and someone is even making booze from it.
It is definitely in your future.