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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Scrounging for Dinner Again

January 4, 2010

The snow came down all day, the wind howled, the drifts mounted around the house.  Three weather advisories warned us not to leave unless absolutely necessary. I stayed put.

But a second day of scrounging through the refrigerator found it considerably barer. Happily I came upon a piece of flank steak in the freezer, a jar of kimchee (how old, I wonder?) and a single sad head of butter lettuce. Visions of Bulgogi danced in my head.

It was, perhaps, my favorite meal all week.  And simple!  Here's a kind of recipe, but use your imagination.

Take 1/2 pound beef of some sort – you could use just about anything – slice it across the grain as thinly as you possibly can, and plunk it into the following marinade.

soy sauce  – 2 tablespoons or so
a couple of cloves of smashed garlic
a small knob of ginger, minced
whites of 2 or 3 scallions, minced
a big spoonful of sugar
a splash of sesame oil

Leave it to soak up the flavors for 15 minutes or so while you separate the leaves from their head of lettuce, put a pot of rice on to cook, and rummage through your cupboards to see if there's anything that you would like to add. You're going to wrap the beef and rice into little lettuce packets, and many accompaniments suggest themselves: Kimchee is a good start, Sriracha sauce is imperative in my mind, sliced cloves of raw garlic would be nice, as would shredded carrots or toasted sesame seeds (should you happen to have some lying around).

Cover the bottom of a large skillet with a sheen of oil, wait until it shimmers and then cook the meat, stirring, for about 4 minutes.  Plunk it onto one platter, the lettuce on another and the rice into a bowl. Set them all onto a table, along with whatever else you've found, and let everyone make his own deliciously savory little wraps. No forks necessary.

This is enough to fortify a couple of people on a cold winter night. Eating it before a roaring fire makes it even better.

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Charmed Life

January 3, 2010

On Twitter, someone’s just sighed over my “charmed life.”  But everyone’s life is interesting, and everyone’s life is charmed; it’s merely a matter of editing.

At 4 on new year’s eve the FedEx man called to say that he had a box of perishable goods to deliver, but that he could not get up our road; would I please come meet him? The rendezvous was a 15 minute drive down icy, unplowed, unpaved roads, but the man was waiting with a huge box.  He handed it over with gloved hands, waved a cheery “happy new year,” and zoomed off to start celebrating.

At home I discovered that the box was filled with dozens of Kumamoto, Olympia, and Virginica oysters that Jon Rowley had harvested at Totten Inlet the day before. Modern life: oysters cross an entire continent in under a day.

When we set off for our party a few hours later the wind was howling, the snow swirling, but we drove through the woods utterly unconcerned, oysters snugly tucked in the back of the car.  Do we not have snow tires? Even when we turned onto a completely virgin road in the middle of nowhere, we remained confident.

Halfway up this untracked road the car started to slip. And slide. And finally stall. Attempting to back up, we lost all traction and ended up one inch from a tree. Michael went out to investigage and promptly slid down a hill. Attempting to get up, he fell again. And again.  And again. “Stay in the car,” he called, from somewhere behind me, “it’s a sheer sheet of ice. There’s nothing you can do to can’t help me.”

We were ten minutes from home, and we were in some nightmare version of Milton’s hell, stuck in the ice, probably forever.  They’d find us, frozen, in the morning.

Then we remembered that we had a phone, called friends, were rescued.

By the time we got to the party we were thoroughly wet, incredibly cold and extremely chastened.

As for my charmed life?  I wrote about opening the oysters and serving them on snow.

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Red Salad from Fergus

December 31, 2009

Most people think of Fergus Henderson as a man who mainly cooks meat. His best-known book is Nose to Tail Cooking, in which he successfully uses all parts of the pig. In the first season of Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie we watched Fergus lovingly place half of a pig's head on a plate.  But the first time I ate at his London restaurant, St.John, the dish that blew me away was not his famous marrow bones, but a simple plate of asparagus. Plump spears, each one still taut and dripping with flavor. I ate them with my fingers, licking up every morsel.

Last night a friend cooked an entire dinner from Fergus' newest book, Beyond Nose to Tail. The most memorable dish was this gorgeously simple salad. Think of it as a deconstructed borscht, the way you wish borscht would taste except it doesn't. It glows with color – the perfect winter vegetable. And I love the way Fergus writes; who could resist "nustle your blob"?

Serves 6

2 raw beetroot, peeled and finely grated
¼ raw red cabbage with its core cut out, very finely sliced
1 small red onion, peeled, cut in half from top to bottom and finely sliced
6 healthy dollops of crème fraîche
2 healthy bunches of chervil, picked

For the Dressing

Healthy splashes of extra virgin olive oil
A little gesture of balsamic vinegar
A small handful of extra-fine capers
Sea salt and black pepper

Mix everything together for the dressing. Toss all your raw red vegetables in the dressing, then on six plates place a bushel of this red mixture.Next to this, nustle your blob of crème fraîche as if the two ingredients were good friends, not on top of each other as if they were lovers. Finally a clump of the chervil rested next to the other ingredients in the friendly fashion. A very striking salad ready for the eater to mess up.

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More Favorite Flavors of 2009

December 30, 2009

    As the year comes to a close I find myself indulging in taste memories, flipping through the card file in my mind, calling up my favorite flavors.  It's an extremely satisfying way to remember the year.
    First up, the glorious smush of chicken liver on toast that begins every smart meal at The Spotted Pig, Disgustingly ugly, insanely decadent, and a fine reminder of how good it is to be alive.
     The kale salad at Osteria Mercato in Red Hook, perfect proof that not everything that tastes good is bad for you.
      Enrica Rocca's seafood pasta.  The secret is that the spaghetti is cooked right in among the seafood, absorbing the stock until the pasta itself becomes one with the shrimp, squid and clams. (This recipe, from Adventures with Ruth, is at gourmet.com.)
      Peking Duck buns at Corner 28 in Flushing.  Is there a better $1 snack anywhere in the world?  I doubt it.
      Fish and Chips at the King's Arms in Bath, England.  The perfect collision of crackling crunch and smooth silky fish.  Eating it with Dianne Wiest, who likes it even better than I do, doesn't hurt.
      Nancy Silverton's hamburgers.  Everything Nancy makes is wonderful, but her burgers are the best. Her secret? She grinds in extra beef fat so that they are juicy and filled with flavor.
       The uni sandwich at El Quinto Pinto on 24th St.  Crisp, buttered ficelle stuffed with the soft roe of sea urchins; need I say more?
       Tuna with foie gras at Le Bernardin. When Eric Ripert hides a nugget of foie gras perched on a crisp slice of toast beneath a sheer sheet of bright raw tuna, the clash of textures and flavors is so intense that I gasp every time I encounter it.
        The one tomato that survived this rainy summer in my garden. It may have been the most expensive tomato on earth, but it was worth it.  The promise of a sunnier summer in every bite.
        More later.  Maybe.  I am making myself very hungry…..

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