Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Back from the Land of the Blue-footed Boobies

Despite lost luggage, a touch of turista, some seasickness and a painful encounter with jellyfish while snorkeling, the Galapagos trip was pretty damned fabulous. From our arrival at the ship's dock -- where we had to step over sea lions sunning themselves on the gangplank -- to the final day of swimming with adorable small penguins, we hiked and kayaked and snorkeled amongst fascinating wildlife -- wildlife that found us neither fascinating nor frightening.

Highlights for me were the famous blue-footed boobies and their fluffy white chicks and the magnificent red and green Christmas iguanas, but I also loved the bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs skittering across the black volcanic rocks, the flamingos bobbing for krill and the giant tortoises lumbering beneath the mangrove trees.

The food? Nowhere near as notable. We did have a first-rate fish dinner in Guayaquil, some very tasty roast pork from a whole piglet on our ship and some good ceviche at a hotel on Santa Cruz Island.

With the ceviche they served popcorn -- to be stirred into the ceviche to provide crunch. Sometimes it was typical movie-theater popcorn and at other times the kernels had been deep fried to a golden brown. Sounds weird but it was strangely addicting.

Lots of mousses, flans and platters of fresh fruit served at dessert time, but my favorite sweet treats were the fabulously tender shortbread cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche. Good enough to make one boogie like a blue-footed booby.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Mmmm, butter.

A bit of butter inserted under a chicken's skin before roasting is a good thing; a whole lot of herb butter: even better. Uber-chef Alain Ducasse has a nifty method for placing an impressive amount between the bird's flesh and skin without leaving half the mixture on your hands.
Here's the Cliff Notes: mix plenty of chopped fresh herbs into softened butter; roll out between 2 pieces of waxed paper; chill for a bit in the fridge and then insert pieces of the butter slab under the chicken skin.
And the official version, from "The Good Cuisine" by Alain Ducasse & Francoise Bernard:

Mix 11 tablespoons of butter with 1 cup parsley, chopped, 1 cup chervil, chopped, 1 cup chives, snipped and 1 teaspoon tarragon plus sea salt and ground pepper. Spread a very thin layer of this herb butter between 2 sheets of wax paper. Refrigerate for 20 minutes. Make slits under the skin of the chicken. Insert small slices of the chilled herb butter between the meat and the skin.

This little herb butter truc from M. Ducasse not only produces succulent meat but also superb pan juices. I usually save part of the butter mixture to toss with the vegetables I roast alongside; fingerling potato halves, parsnip chunks and whole shallots were last night's trio. Ducasse suggests stuffing the chicken with a bread cubes, chicken liver, duck foie gras and bacon mixture. This is unlikely to happen chez moi. Last night's sacrificial chick had only a big handful of fresh tarragon in its belly.
Ducasse has produced an array of gorgeous big cookbooks, but this little volume -- a collaboration with Francoise Bernard (who describes herself as "the apostle of easy cusine") is a quirky delight. The book alternates their recipes and includes wonderful little bottom-of-the-page comments on each other's writings. Bernard gives a recipe for Sauteed Rabbit with Prunes that lists a tablespoon of red currant jelly to thicken the sauce. Ducasse notes: "Instead of red currant jelly, I suggest binding the sauce with a fine prune puree. Soften some prunes in warm tea, pit them and blend in a food processor."

In turn, after Ducasse's recipe for Oyster Casserole with Shallots, Bernard comments: "Combining two types of shallots adds a particular refinement to this dish, but I don't believe that it is absolutely ncessary. To reduce the cost, I would suggest replacing the champagne with a good dry sparkling wine."
Three hundred pages of this very opinionated, very French exchange: Mmmmm, delightful.

POSTSCRIPT: I am off to the Galapagos Islands for 10 days of traipsing through the tortoises and other adventures. New posts should resume at month's end

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Valentine for my Grandmother

Although I was named for her, I have only a few items that belonged to my paternal grandmother: a tiny snapshot of her in a tennis outfit (complete with long skirt and hat), some pieces of her good china and a very worn and stained little leather notebook that held her recipes.
I'm guessing the entries date from a relatively short period; she married in 1912, had three sons by 1918 and fell ill shortly thereafter. Although she lived another 12 years, she was, for most of those, too ill to cook. But when she was a young housewife, raising a family in a tiny Pennsylvania town near Reading, she apparently cooked and baked and preserved with enthusiasm.
When I was given this little book a few years ago I had to gently separate the first page from the inside cover and what I found flooded me with pleasure: Her handwriting on that particular page looked exactly like my father's. The ink is too faded to be fully legible in the photograph but says:
Receipt Book
Mary Ellis Jones
"Every receipt in this book has been tried and proven to be good."
There's something about the emphasis of those quotation marks that just melts my heart.

The book has tiny alpahabetical tabs and, by far, the thickest section follows C. For my grandmother, C stood mostly for Cake: Chocolate Cake, Nut Cake, Marble Cake and Fruit Cake. Dandy Cake, Coconut Cake, Date Cake and Pound Cake. Cakes from Helen Epright and Maybelle Mowrey and Annie McCornwell and Lou Linter -- the last being the only cake recipe with the added note: "Very good."
It wasn't all cake, all the time, of course. Even the C portion also has recipes for clam chowder, chili sauce, homemade catsup and two ways to can corn: hot pack and cold pack.
I've yet to cook anything from this little book but I love reading the recipes.

Make Corn Beef
Soak beef in strong salt water overnight, in morning drain
In morning put in crock containing salt water strong enough to float
an egg, 1 cup brown sugar and a little salt peter. Let stand 10 days before

or, to celebrate early Spring:

Dandelion Wine
use 2 qts. of water to 1 qt. of flowers
scald flowers
let stand 1 hour then add 2 oranges and 2 lemons for each gallon
let stand 48 hours
than add 3 lbs. sugar to each gallon and let work

(how I LOVE "let work")

There was a large grape arbor behind the house, and apparently the grapes were very sweet, because her jam recipe is merely:

Grape Jam
1 pint grapes
1 pint vinegar
2 TB water
cook 20 minutes, put thru sieve
cook until thick

An odd-sounding dessert called a Marlow must have been *the* trendy dessert for a while as there are recipes for:

Chocolate Marlow
Strawberry Marlow
Grape Marlow
Lemon Marlow
Banana Marlow
Pineapple Marlow
Vanilla Marlow
Peach Marlow

The Coffee Marlow recipe is typical of the genre:

20 marshmallows
1 cup strong coffee infusion
pinch salt
1/2 pint whipping cream
Melt marshmallows in coffee over hot water, stirring to produce smooth
mixture, add salt.
When cold and slightly thick, add stiffly beaten cream.

How I'd love to time-travel back to Spring City on a long-ago Valentine's Day --before Cancer took my beautiful young grandmother from the kitchen and the gathering of dandelions and the picking of grapes -- and watch my father and uncles as little boys sitting around the table waiting for dessert. I like to think it would have been cake--chocolate cake. Undoubtedly Lou Linter's Chocolate Cake, because it was, my grandmother noted, "Very good."

Thursday, February 7, 2008

4 Questions 4 Dorie Greenspan

Passion fascinates me. Lead me to books or blogs written by people passionate about any subject from art to zebra-stalking and I'm interested. Of course, if the passion involves food, I'm very interested. And if the writing is first-rate, I'm a fan forever.
Dorie Greenspan's passion for baking has fueled an outstanding collection of award-winning cookbooks and her passion for the-life-well-lived (and well-fed) makes her blog one of my favorites. Somewhere between her homes in Manhattan, Connecticut and Paris, she took time to indulge my nosiness.

[photo by another passionate cookbook author, Paris resident and prolific blogger on all-things gastronomic: David Lebovitz.]

1. If you had a very generous – but not unlimited – remodeling budget, what would you change in each of your three kitchens?

My three kitchens are each different from one another, but they all lack one thing in common: enough storage! Actually, that’s not really true, because I have tons of storage in my New York kitchen, a fair amount in Connecticut and a surprising amount in my smallish Paris kitchen, but what I can’t seem to figure out in any of these places is where to put stuff like tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, oranges, apples, big, funny-shaped squash and bulky bunches of bananas, the stuff that doesn’t go into the fridge and needs some air. I’ve bought bins, baskets and bowls, but still this produce seems to take up more than its fair share of countertop real estate. Aarrrgh.

Once my storage issues are solved, I’d use some of my very generous budget to buy second ovens for each of my kitchens. I’ve got fine ovens in each place (although, if the budget is generous enough, maybe I could squeeze a La Cornue in somewhere), but a second oven … ahhh … that would be both practical and luxurious. Oh, and while I’m at it, maybe second refrigerators and freezers, too, especially in Paris, where I’d like to have the fun of doing what every French homemaker does, i.e., shopping in Picard, the frozen-food supermarket, and having a steady stash of their salted-butter caramel ice cream, shelled fava beans and red-fruit coulis.

It’s funny, but while each of my kitchens has its limitations, I’ve learned to work within them and never really think about changing them. The Connecticut kitchen is airy and spacious and part of a big room that includes my desk and the dining area (it’s the only one of my three kitchens that I was actually able to plan because we renovated the house a few years ago); New York is a classic galley kitchen – I can stand in the center of it, stretch out my arms and touch both walls – and in some ways, it’s the most efficient, in the way that I imagine a submarine is efficient; and Paris is a square with great light and a huge window, but not enough room for anything we Americans would consider full-size (my refrigerator, although new, has a kind of “vintage” look, ditto my brand new oven, the interior of which is just 24 inches) – okay, the truth is, my husband and I have talked about changing this kitchen, but every time we get ready to spiff it up and get it more organized, we think, “Gee, it’s kind of charming just the way it is,” and we don’t do a thing. Each of the kitchens has its own style and I love moving from one to the other and adapting to each.

2. What was one of the most memorable moments of working with Julia Child on her baking book?

Of course, it’s almost impossible to pick just one moment, but … I lived in Cambridge for two months while we shot the Baking with Julia television series (it was shot in Julia’s wonderful Victorian house in Cambridge) and I used to love when we’d wrap for the day and Julia would ask me to stay and have a glass of wine with her. We’d sit at the high counter, which had been built for the set, and just gab – naturally, we’d talk about work, but we’d also talk about food and friends and France, which Julia loved so profoundly – and we’d usually nibble on whatever was left from the day’s shoot. One Friday night, after the crew had left and my husband had just arrived from New York to spend the weekend with me, Julia invited us to stay and her friend John joined us. We were sitting at the counter eating the leftovers from Lauren Groveman’s shoot – matzo, rye bread and chopped liver – and Julia’s favorite nibble, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish! (She’d buy them in great big boxes.) Julia would spill some of the Goldfish out onto the counter and every once in a while she’d scoot a couple over to Michael, my husband, and give him a sly little complicitous smile. She could tell she had a fellow salty-snack lover in the house.

There were so many great moments with Julia and all of them involve her warmth, intelligence and great good humor. Although, I did get a glimpse of her competitive side too. I won both James Beard and IACP awards for "Baking with Julia" and was thrilled, but the evening that the IACP awards were given out, I came down from the podium (having won both the judges’ and the people’s choice awards) and went to give Julia a hug only to find her agitated – she was outraged that I hadn’t gotten Cookbook of the Year as well!

3. If someone in love with food were visiting Paris for just three days, what should they do on day #2, after hitting the best known places the first day?

This is such a great question. Okay, having stocked up on pastries from Pierre Herme, having had lunch at Le Comptoir, tea at the George Cinq (with a little walk around the lobby to see the fabulous flowers), dinner at l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and late-night drinks at the bar at Le Plaza Athenee, you’ve got your base and you’re ready for day #2.

You should start with the soft boiled eggs at the CafĂ© de Flore, one of the great literary cafes in Saint-Germain-des-Pres (my neighborhood). The eggs come with strips of baguette and a little pot of Echire butter and dunking is a must. Then go to one of the outdoor markets – depending on the day you’re there, I’d say go to the Sunday organic market on the Boulevard Raspail, the Saturday market on the Avenue Saxe where you have to stop at Joel Thiebaut’s vegetable stand) right near the Galliera fashion museum, or the bustling Marche Aligre any day.

Whether or not you still have room in your shopping bag, you have to go on a pastry tour, stopping at Pain de Sucre in the Marais, Arnaud Lahrer in Montmartre and Des Gateaux et du Pain in the fifteenth arrondissement. And get chocolates from Patrick Roger (on the Blvd. Saint Germain) and Pierre Marcolini (on rue de Seine). Oh, and take a little side-trip to Giles Verot (in the seventh and the fifteenth) for charcuterie (his terrines are fabulous) and stop for wine at La Derniere Goutte (again in my ‘hood), where the owner, Juan Sanchez, has a remarkable selection of wines from small producers, all of whom he knows. Wait, while you’re there, you should walk around the corner to the rue Jacob and Huilerie Leblanc and buy some of their pistachio oil – it’s sooooooo good.

At this point, you’ll have earned lunch and I’d suggest you have it at a great little wine bar, maybe le Verre Vole, near the Canal St. Martin, a kind of trendy neighborhood, the new (even if it looks ancient) Les Racines in the second arrondissement, or the quite elegant Legrand et filles, in the beautiful Galerie Vivienne behind the Palais Royale.

If you haven’t whiled away the entire afternoon at your chosen wine bar, you might be able to take a cooking or baking class at Pavillon Elysee Lenotre (on the Champs Elysee) or, for a more casual option, L’Atelier des Chefs. And you might have time for another tea stop, this time I’d suggest Mariage Freres, serving the most extraordinary teas in the most charming salons. (I dare you to leave without buying something – if not tea, then some gorgeous tea-related something.)

Now would also be a good time to take a walk in the Luxembourg Gardens or along the Seine or through the Tuileries because you’ll need an appetite for dinner. I think the best way to end this terrific day would be a late dinner at one of the city’s neo- or gastro-bistros. These are places opened by chefs who’ve worked at great Michelin-starred restaurants, but opted out for their own very casual, very reasonably priced bistros. There are lots of them in the city (Le Comptoir is one, and probably the most famous because the chef, Yves Camdeborde, was the first “renegade” chef and, as such, he’s the papa of this revolution) and among my favorites are: L’Ami Jean (in the seventh), Chez Michel (in the tenth), Les Papilles, which serves just one three-course menu every night and is also a wine shop (in the fifth), L’Orcine (in the thirteenth) and Les Cocottes de Christian Constant (in the seventh), which is counter-service only, but lots of fun.

Because this day is so full and because you’ll finish dinner so late, maybe you should skip your nightcap and just go back to the hotel and have one of your wonderful chocolates.

4. Actress Stephanie March confessed to eating some Tex-Mex specialties of which her chef husband strongly disapproved. What is your secret shame fare?

M&Ms. I never leave home without them.

Friday, February 1, 2008

A Valentine for Food-lovers

I've collected Tamasin Day-Lewis's books ever since 1983 when I found "The Englishwoman's Kitchen" -- a slim little volume filled with extremely non-glitzy photographs of decidedly eclectic cooking spaces. I particularly love "The Art of the Tart" and "Tarts with Tops On" but treasure all her books -- not only for their splendid recipes but also for her impassioned and eloquent writing style. And then I got my hands on her latest.

Every once in a while I start to read a book and quickly realize it's a soup-for-dinner situation. Not because I discover a great soup recipe -- soup-for-dinner books usually aren't even cookbooks -- but because I am so engrossed in the reading that I abandon all possible household chores. Laundry remains unfolded, bills unpaid and the simplest possible dinner gets served. ("There has to be a container of soup somewhere in this freezer.")
"A Food Romance" chronicles the adventures of Day-Lewis and her American boyfriend as they pursue great food from Somerset to San Francisco, Puglia to the Pyrenees. She writes of her detemination not to let the tourist throngs spoil her time in Venice:
one has to consciously ignore and not be annoyed by the crowds as thick as they are down Oxford Street; likewise by the gawping and clicking, the bumping and jostling, the fact that even the hidden corners, the back-street restaurants, are full of people just like us also trying to avoid people just like us.

and of curing jetlag with fried chicken at Blue Ribbon on New York's Sullivan Street
maize-coloured parcels of insanely crisp, hot, spicy, battered chicken with buttery mash, collard greens and the infamous bowl of runny honey to dip your chicken into. Strange, but it's just the thing to order hot off the plane from England when the time clock is playing havoc and you need pots of comfort food and sleep.

She writes of brunch with Julia Roberts and school holidays with her brother Daniel (yes, that Daniel Day-Lewis), of her father, poet-laureate Cecil Day-Lewis and his great friend Kingsley Amis, of famous chefs and noted restaurateurs. But she also writes of people whose names you wouldn't recognize-- like Lidia, who had been making agnolotti for nearly 50 years for a tiny restaurant in the village of Valdivilla or Guiseppe del Console who makes an intensely fruity olive oil with the "aroma of artichoke and bitter almonds and olive leaves" in Corato, Puglia.
For a year, she traveled and ate and cooked and questioned and reflected and then she wrote about it all. I loved every page. Consider giving it as a Valentine's Day gift -- with love from you to you.