Flushing

January 24, 2010

The subways were a mess yesterday; on the 1 you you had to go uptown to get down, and the 7 halted before the end of the line, spilling the entire train into overcrowded buses.  It took almost two hours to get to Flushing, but that somehow seemed right. Jostling along in that jerky bus I began to feel that I was in Hong Kong or Macau, and when we finally disembarked it was into streets so choked with people it was impossible to walk at anything faster than a crawl. .

Descending into the Golden Mall, fighting through the powerful funk of fermented tofu, really is like entering another country.  Ordering cold knife-but noodles and lamb burgers, with their intense cumin-tones is as difficult as making yourself understood in some foreign land. "Huh?" the woman behind the counter says, screwing up her face, and you resort to pointing.  In the next booth, where they sell a dozen juicy little pork buns for three bucks, the woman comes out shreiking when yousit down a tone of their grubby little tables with food from another stall. Children cry, people fight, garbage overflows – and absolutely everything you eat tastes wonderful.

Afterward we walked, past all the shops with their electronics, their exotic fruits, their cured meats, to M&K, a tiny little restaurant serving the food of Qindong (where the beer is made).  Too much of what we ordered was beer food – even the fried gingseng root seemed more fried than root- but I can't forget the eel, which delivered sweet, spice and richness with each bite.  I loved the cucumber salad, too, laced with garlic and little strips of pig skin.  And the rainbow fish, velvety little chunks tossed with lamb, was a wonderful, a fish with the texture of clouds and the flavor of air.  In many ways a virtual fish – all texture, no taste.

Leaving, we picked up duck buns at Corner 28. And as we flew through Queens on the 7 train, looking into all those second story windows, we still had the taste of China on our lips.

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LA in the Rain

January 21, 2010

The wind is rattling the palm trees outside my window, and I'm wondering if I'm going to make it out of town before the next storm hits this battered city.  LA in the rain is more likable, somehow, less like Paradise, just another grubby American town. Yesterday, with the rain turning every street into a river we all became comrades.

There have been so many wonderful moments in these past few days.  The high point was Zocolo's celebration of Gourmet (http://tinyurl.com/yd922cn), which felt like both a wake and a love-in.  For me the finest moment was when Laurie said that what distinguished the magazine – in all of its incarnations – was that it never talked down to its readers.  It was something I'd forgotten, but she was absolutely right.  In almost 70 years, Gourmet was a magazine that trusted its readers. Rare.

Afterward a whole group of us went to Jitlada, and that was another major moment.  It was late, and the restaurant was about to close, but Jazz stayed open to feed us dish after wonderful dish with such extraordinary generosity that I was overwhelmed.  It was all flavorful and spicy – little bundles of tea leaves filled with chiles and coconut, a salad of fried morning glory with shrimp and – best of all, enormous crabs in a peppery sauce that had me sucking the shells and licking my fingers.  There was one moment when I looked across the table and consciously thought – I am very happy."

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Weather

January 19, 2010

Landing in LA, the plane was so buffeted by wind it felt as if we were being flicked around by angry gods in a celestial game of badminton. Torrential rain pounded the pavement, and every truck spewed an enormous wake on the freeway, making it almost impossible to see. Then the sun came out, bright, shiny, hot, a benediction.

I'd forgotten that LA was like that, forgotten that the winter weather here can be so extreme it makes you feel small, humble, out of control. It's so different than back east, where winter gets you in its grip and keeps you there. At home, when the snows come you hunker down, knowing the there will be little respite until the spring.  Here, you are in a constant state of expectation.

I think the food is driven by the weather. I don't mean it in the usual sense, that food is different here because the growing season is so long. More importantly, the food is different here because there is a constant sense of expectation. You never know what wonder might be lurking around the next corner.  You might drive up an ordinary street and encounter the world's best taco truck. You might  turn into a mini-mall and discover Masa. Anything seems possible – the sun could come out in a storm – and so you open up your mind. There is always hope.

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Butterscotch Pudding

January 17, 2010

Nancy Silverton's Butterscotch Budino

I got this recipe off the Mercury New website, but it's been published many places.  It's truly spectacular – sweet, salty and rich all at the same time. This version is from "Great Gatherings" (Book Kitchen, 270 pp., $29.95) by the Macy'sCulinary Council.  Nancy belongs to the Council, along with  Marcus Samuelsson, Ming Tsai, Cat Cora, Rick Bayless,and Wolfgang Puck.

Butterscotch budino with caramel sauce(serves 10)
3 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 large egg
3 large egg yolks
5 tablespoons cornstarch
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons dark rum

To make budino
 in a large bowl, combine the cream and milk and set aside.In a large, heavy pot, combine brown sugar, water, and salt and place over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally to keep the mixture from scorching, for 10 to 12 minutes,or until the mixture is a deep brown and smells nutty and caramelized.Remove from the heat and immediately whisk the cream mixture into the caramelized sugar to stop the cooking. The mixture will steam vigorously and the sugar will seize. Use caution to keep from getting burned by the bubbling mixture. Whisk until smooth and the caramel is fully incorporated. Return to high heat, bring to a boil, and then turn off the heat

.In a bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolks, and cornstarch. While whisking constantly, add about half of the caramel cream, 1/2 cup at a time, to the egg mixture. Pour the combined mixtures back into the saucepan holding the remaining caramel cream and cook over medium heat,whisking constantly, for about 2 minutes, or until a very thick custard forms.Remove the custard from the heat and whisk in the butter and rum.Pour the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into ten 3/4-cup ramekins or glasses, dividing it evenly and filling to within 1/2 inch of the rim.Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or until well chilled, or for up to 3 days.

Caramel sauce
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/8 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/2 cup granulated sugar
About 1/4 cup water
1/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup crème fraiche
1 1/4 teaspoons Maldon salt

 To make the caramel sauce, pour the cream into a small saucepan.With the tip of a knife, scrape the seeds from the split vanilla bean into the bowl, and then add the pod. Place the pan over medium heat and heat for about 3 minutes, or until the cream comes to a simmer. Add the butter, remove from the heat, and set aside.Have ready a large bowl filled with ice water. In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the corn syrup and sugar. Add enough of the water to make a wet, sandy texture. Place over medium-high heat, bring to a boil, and cook without stirring, occasionally swirling the pan slightly to gauge the caramelization, for about 10 minutes, or until the sugar turns a medium amber.Remove from the heat, add the cream mixture — be careful, as it will steam and bubble vigorously — and whisk to combine. Place the pan in the ice-water bath and let cool.
In a chilled bowl, whip the cream with a whisk until it begins to thicken. Add the crème fraiche and beat until thick and fluffy. This may be done up to 3 hours ahead of time. Cover and refrigerate until serving.

Just before serving, remove ramekins from the refrigerator. Reheat the sauce over medium heat, discard the vanilla pod, and spoon 1 tablespoon of the sauce over each budino. Top each with about 1/8 teaspoon Maldon salt and a dollop of the whipped cream.

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Why I Write about Food

January 16, 2010

     “Given the situation in Haiti,” someone wrote me yesterday, “maybe you should stop writing about all the great food you’re eating.”  I’ve been thinking about that, a lot.  And it strikes me that it’s a spurious argument, as dubious as the one that Flanagan woman is using to excoriate Alice for her Edible Schoolyards. 

The Flanagan argument is absurd on so many levels it’s hard to even know where to begin.  But following her logic no one would ever teach children anything but the 3 r’s; there would be no art, no music, no physical education. Her idea, that teaching children how to grow food (and in the process allowing them to pick up good eating habits), deprives children of their right to learn literature, mathematics and philosophy is nonsense; learning is not an either/or proposition. It also ignores the reason that Alice decided to set the schools up in the first place: We know that eating is learned behavior, and that allowing young people to experience the joy of fresh produce can change their lives forever. Flanagan likens working in the garden to stoop labor, which is a bit like comparing cooking dinner for your family to working at a fast food stand.  Her article denigrates everyone who works with his hands.  And although she begins by saying that no Latino would want his child working in a garden, she has the audacity to think she knows what people she has never spoken to are thinking.  At the very least, she might have asked.

The man who wants me to stop writing about food until the Haiti crisis is over (and will it ever be over?) is, of course, on much more solid ground. But it reminds me a bit of my grandparents, who stopped celebrating everything when their youngest daughter died. If she couldn’t be there to join in the fun, there would be no more fun. That’s ridiculous. And the opposite of life-affirming.

We all have a moral obligation to do whatever we can to help the Haitians during this terrible time. But talking about it doesn’t help; we need to take concrete action. And once again, it’s not an either/or situation. There will always be trouble – war, famine, earthquake, illness – somewhere in the world.  We should not close our eyes or our minds to them. We should help in whatever ways we can. But in times of trouble- especially in times of trouble –  it is important to celebrate life. We need to remind ourselves – and others – that it is good to be alive.  If only as a promise that better times are coming. 

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