Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cupcakes: A Little Bit of Naughtiness

Can cupcakes possibly be healthy? I think this question is important. To me, this question strikes at the very root of our food culture.

I think cupcakes are adorable little confections. A New York Times article calls them "happy-food." I think of a cupcake and I envision the joy of frosting, the pleasure of licking something sweet, the smile on my little niece's face when I hand her a mini-cupcake.

Of course, I do not eat cupcakes. I am much too fanatical, too wildly opposed to eating a food that lacks any nutritional value whatsoever. And cupcakes, decidedly and obviously, lack nutrition.

Perhaps this is why, as the Times article suggests, cupcakes get such a bad rap.

"Cupcakes," the article states, "have recently been marched to the front lines of the fat wars, banned from a growing number of classroom birthday parties because of their sugar, fat and empty calories, a poster food of the child obesity crisis."

And yet, I have to admit, this trend disturbs me. Have we lost all sense of perspective? Have we so messed up our relationship with food that we now consider even cupcakes utterly unhealthy?

What makes a food healthy after all? Isn't this question at least as much psychological as physiological? When we eat, do we not nourish body and soul?

A cupcake is a small indiscretion. (I love how cupcakes have become sex-symbols for some bakers, how the idea of eating a cupcake in the middle of the afternoon equates so perfectly to the idea of a mid-afternoon quickie...a little bit of naughtiness!)

A little bit of naughtiness...


So is it really so bad to eat a cupcake? (A cupcake, after all, lovingly prepared, is not FoodCrack.)

The time article states the question this way: "can emotional value, on occasion, legitimately outweigh nutritional value?"

I think so, on occasion. (I'm not writing an article in defense of cupcake gluttony. I'm merely saying, Hey a cupcake ain't so bad!) I take my cue from an unlikely source, Paul Pritchford, the author of Healing with Whole Foods.

Pritchford writes:

"Do not be so rigid or self-righteous about your diet as to annoy anyone. A bad relationship is more poisonous than one of Grandma's sugar cookies. If you desire such a treat, it is better to have it than stuff yourself with rice to suppress the desire. This causes mental anguish and arrogance."

This, coming form a guy who suggests, as an optimum practice, eating a small dessert only after a "meal" of a "celery and lettuce-based salad."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere

We recently celebrated our youngest child’s first birthday. Like all of our children, he was born by Cesarean section. Trying to remember images from his morning of birth, I envision the sound of liquid falling on a cold tile floor: the doctor breaking my wife’s water. I recall thinking that, at whatever stage, life is messy, usually oozing some sort of fluid.

It may sound strange, but I think about the symbolism of water, about how life originates in water on almost every level of existence. I write this in the waning weeks of Summer, our season of beaches and pools, of pilgrimages to various sources of water.

This summer seems tame compared to the last one, when skyrocketing oil costs, food shortages, and commodity price gouging grabbed daily headlines. Few saw these things as harbingers of doom. Although the world has had a big-time consciousness-raising as a result of the economic ruin that followed, we're still left asking ourselves how to best deal with the problem.

So far, I find the reaction of our world leaders disheartening, generally falling into two main categories: 1) those who do not understand the situation and are therefore unable to do anything about it; and 2) those who understand the situation but, for political reasons, are unwilling to make the necessary hard sacrifices surrounding issues of scale and sustainability.

Few seem to realize: it’s impossible to solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place, that a psychic shift must occur before any real change can happen.

Meanwhile the cost of maintaining world civilization continues to spiral kaleidoscopically out of control.

Times like this I think about water: the planet's most precious commodity and natural resource. Because here's the thing: this current financial panic will pale in comparison to the bedlam set off by the crisis of a global water shortage. It'll be horrific, like something out of The Stand. I picture mass riots, looting, dead bodies hanging wreath-like from the light posts in major cities. I think of of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune.

More than anything else in the world, we are dependent on water.

Because it has the perfect combination of atmosphere and distance from the Sun, Earth is the only body in our solar system known to have water, although there's plenty of theories about Mars and Europa.

More importantly, Earth has an abundance of liquid water--life's crucial ingredient. Any closer to the sun and Earth would be a fried, scalded piece of rock like Mercury or Venus. Any further and it would be a frozen wasteland like Mars or the Gas Giants. As Nature's womb, all biotic life either originates or is somehow incubated in water. Whether a placenta, an egg, a seed, or an ocean, life usually begins in some type of warm, water-filled space. Cells, the building blocks of life, are self-contained universes of water. Even our brains, the physical hosts to our metaphysical faculties of mind and consciousness, float in the cerebrospinal fluid—a sort of protective brine that also serves as a liquid semi-conductor for the brain’s electro-chemical pathways.

Many spiritual systems capture this idea in the symbolism of water ceremonies, which are often rites of passage. In them, the person emerges from the water in a new state of being, similar to being reborn or renewed. In Judaism, there is the idea of mikvah, which is the epitome of this concept. After years of study, I had to immerse in a mikvah as the final stage of my Jewish conversion process. Christian baptism is a distant an echo of the same idea. During last month’s solar eclipse over Asia, thousands of Hindu pilgrims in India submerged themselves in the Ganges river in an act of ritual purification.

Then there is the mysticism of water, which is bound up in the idea of "triad" or "three". In mysticism, numbers are more than simply numbers—they are representative concepts. The idea or concept behind “three” is that it is a blending of the previous two elements into a unique new entity. Like a child formed from the union of two parents, “three” represents harmony and balance, the reconciliation of the disparate “one” and “two” into the new transcendent “three”. Three is always the magic number.

This idea is reflected in the physical form of the water molecule itself, as it is composed of three molecules and has certain qualities that other liquids don’t.

Earth, the water planet, is also third from the sun.

Also, in a mind-blowing blend of kabbalah and science, the atomic weight of the water molecule is 18--gematria, the Hebrew word meaning "life".

But in my opinion water’s ultimate role on our destiny is yet unrealized. Recent events have brought the issue of energy and its availability to the forefront of global consciousness. Unless we are able to discover and use alternative energy sources, our petroleum-fueled civilization seems destined for obsolescence.

It makes sense to me that, as our planet's most abundant resource, water has a clear potential to become the clean, cheap, and ubiquitous energy source to fuel us far into the future. Perhaps the answer to this lies in cold fusion or some other type of as-yet-to-be discovered technology.

But it is Summer again, and you take your first dive in the ocean, plunging through a wave as it crests over you. Come back up and push the hair away from your forehead with a sweep of both hands. Slowly bring your tongue to your lips. You know this taste--sodium and silica. In an instant, cellular memory kicks alive and takes you back to those first sentient moments when you came out of the Water. You've never forgotten.

Turn around, see the people on the beach, the children sitting in the sand. Tilt your head upwards, squint into the solar disc high above. Your ears now form an obtuse angle to the flatness of the water's surface, allowing you to hear the ambient rush of waves both in front and behind you like the sound of something large moving through a narrow tunnel. Your stare follows the invisible arc formed from the waters edge, to the sun, then back down the the horizon, and even though you live far away from here, in an inland city or town, you identify with this place. If only for this moment, you see yourself, here, in the same way a cloud overhead sees its own shadow passing over the water. A gull screams. You turn around again. Head back for the beach. Even the ocean still knows how to call you by name.

Green Tea Poached Wild Salmon

In this recipe, water becomes the cooking medium, adding a subtle nuance of taste to fresh salmon. Use the poaching liquid to make a delicately flavored sauce to complement the richness of this fish. Serve with rice and Swiss chard.

4 bags green tea
4 cloves garlic, crushed
4 (1/2-inch-thick) slices ginger
4 thin slices lemon
2 tablespoons tamari
1 tablespoon mirin
1 teaspoon arrowroot powder
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 (6-ounce) skinless wild salmon fillets
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/4 cup chopped green onions
Method

Place tea bags in a teapot or glass container. Bring 2 cups water to a boil. Remove from heat and let cool for one minute. Pour hot water over tea bags, cover and steep tea for 3 minutes. Remove tea bags from water. Add garlic, ginger, lemon, tamari and mirin to tea and set aside. In a small bowl, dissolve arrowroot powder in 2 tablespoons water. Set aside.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add salmon and sear for 2 minutes, or until browned. Flip salmon and add tea mixture to skillet. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently for 8 to 10 minutes, or until center of salmon is opaque and flakes easily. Remove salmon to a plate, season lightly with salt and pepper and tent with foil to keep warm. Add dissolved arrowroot to poaching liquid and bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Strain liquid into a small bowl. Drizzle strained liquid and sesame oil over salmon and garnish with green onions.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Early Inspirations; Cooking as Love Poetry

My life as a cook commenced at the age of twenty-one, on a curb in Florence. It was a warm afternoon in early April and I had just discovered an open-air creperie on one of the hidden streets around the San Lorenzo market. Poking my head under the blue awning, I ordered a crepe with Belgian chocolate. A greasy, good-looking woman with a full mouth poured the batter onto a cooking stone, spread the batter thin with her spatula, and flipped the crepe onto another stone. Fluid in her movements, she barely paid attention as she spread the chocolate on the crepe, as the butter sizzled and melted on the stone.

I paid for the crepe and sat on the curb where a line of students were laughing and waiting. I took a bite. Suddenly, powerfully, I was stirred. I took another bite, a wide mouthed chomp of pure boldness. Chocolate oozed onto my lips. The crepe was delicious, perhaps the most delicious crepe in Florence—no, in the world! I looked at the greasy crepe lady. She certainly was good-looking. Suddenly, I felt an inexplicable urge: I wanted to make my own crepe. And I knew only this: it must be the most delicious crepe in the world.

I'm still working on it. Ten years later, I have yet to reproduce the most delicious crepe in the world. But the pursuit has inspired me. I just can't shake the indomitable bug that bit me that afternoon: the desire to create food.

That afternoon, I walked back to my pensioni, burdened with flour, fresh eggs, and a handful of chocolate chips. I spent several hours in the kitchen, trying to create, or rather re-create, the perfect crepe. Of course, I failed. And yet I did not suffer the sorrow of my failure. Later, lying in my bed, stuffed with batter and chocolate, I felt absolutely happy: I had spent the afternoon immersed in a creative venture, and the experience had vivified me.

This is the joy of cooking: the creative venture. I'm a writer. I'm also a cook. Both are forms of creative expression. Often, to me, cooking is the most powerful form of creative expression—an expression of love for those you cook for. When you mix the batter for a crepe, you are really writing a love poem.

***

You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

~Pablo Neruda, on onions

***

Naturally, I spent the rest of my days in Florence exploring my new passion. In the morning, I walked to the Mercato Centrale, bought fresh produce from the Tuscan countryside. Later, I made my back to the pensioni, stopping at the local market for flour, olive oil, eggs. I was learning to make fresh pasta and other Tuscan specialties: minestrone di fagioli, ribollita, fresh pasta. I shared the food with the people at the pensioni, mostly students from Europe and South America. Everyone seemed to love the food, but more than once someone asked: What is this?

The question was valid. I was making traditional Tuscan recipes, but I was not making them traditionally. In place of semolina flour in the pasta dough I was using whole wheat; and yes, that was tempeh in the marinara sauce, not beef.

It’s a habit from my early childhood days that’s still with me. I’m staunch health-food enthusiast. By the time I had gone to Italy I had already experienced a lifetime of brown rice, of Moosewood recipes, of organic broccoli and honey-flavored sweets. My mother raised me with a special attention to my diet; she also sent me to a school that favored whole food cooking, the Waldorf School. I lost touch with this impulse throughout my teenage years. But when I was twenty, in college, and in the midst a dismal semester eating in the student cafeteria, I came across a surprising fact in the cafeteria kitchen: a box of hamburger patties stamped with the following label, Grade F, But Edible.

I soon discovered a desire for healthy cooking.

And so when I cooked in Italy they asked: What is this?

And yes, the question has followed me, from Florence to Philadelphia, from Philadelphia to Paris, from Paris to Barcelona, from Barcelona back to Philadelphia: What is this?

Variously, I answer: chickpea flour; spelt berries; risotto with lima beans; brown rice paella; tempeh Rueben sandwiches. The names spill out of my mouth like a foreign language, and yet the food always receives raves reviews. And this is what I have learned: people love good-tasting food, period—no matter what the ingredients. My philosophy then is simple. Why not make the ingredients as fresh, as uncomplicated and as healthy as possible?

This philosophy dominates my cooking style to this very day. What I have learned traveling across Europe, cooking abroad and at home, is that almost all traditional cuisines share this fundamental goal: to nurture the body and soul, simply.

In America, this lesson seems to have been lost. And yet, it only takes one tasty, nourishing meal to remind us that food is integral to our existence, in the most profound ways. A knowledge and respect of healthful ingredients seems essential for the modern cook. Since leaving Florence, nearly seven years ago my cooking style and diet has often veered into disparate territories—macrobiotics, veganism, an entire summer devoted to fish, a winter devoted to goat cheese—in pursuit of the perfect way to eat. But I have learned that there is no perfect way to eat, just as there is no perfect crepe. What is important is the joy of eating, the love of good food.

Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Hummus

This is a typical, What is this? sort of dish. I originally developed it for Whole Foods Market. If you make it, you can rate the recipe here.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion chopped
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
3 ½ cups water
1 ½ cup lentils
¼ cup white miso
¼ cup lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

For garnish:

Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly chopped cilantro

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat warm the oil. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until onion softens 5-7 minutes.

Add the garlic, sweet potato, cumin and paprika and sauté 1-2 minutes. Add water and lentils, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until lentils and sweet potatoes are soft, 16-18 minutes. Let cool.

In a blender or food processor, puree red lentil-sweet potato mixture with white miso, lemon juice and 1 teaspoon salt. Season to taste with additional salt and freshly ground pepper.

Serve, in a bowl, with Pita bread, for dipping, drizzled with additional olive oil and, if desired, chopped cilantro.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Second(s) coming

The clivia is a plant whose bloom comes early. Around mid-February a crown of bright orange flowers shoots up from amidst its long, dark green leaves. It’s the perfect plant to have around the house. It’s easy to care for and its early blossom is a reminder that spring, no matter how bleak the February afternoons may seem, is coming.

Spring is always coming. It’s just a question of when.

And so we patiently wait for spring. And we wait. And the weather warms up and trees start to green. And then it goes cold again. A blizzard on April Fool’s Day! Spring proves more elusive than that first blooming promise would have had us believe.

But in order to reach spring, we first have to make it through Easter. Next Sunday is Easter and we are nearing the middle of Holy Week. Here in Spain, Semana Santa is often a veritable Second Coming. The skies darken and rumble. Rivers run over their banks. Mountain passes are cut off with snow. Bridges freeze and seas rage. More people die on the road during that week than all the rest of year.

Many compare it to the apocalypse. Which is strange. After all, Easter is supposed to be about the celebration of life. It is the mother of all Christian holy days. Everyone knows how the story goes: Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. His death helped to establish Christianity as a religion based on deity sacrifice and symbolic cannibalism. His resurrection is a promise of everlasting life and is a key belief of Christians all over the world, as is the belief that he will one day return to judge the living and the dead and establish the Kingdom of God on Earth.

Maybe the Second Coming is at hand afterall.

Sadly for those who are still waiting for the return of Christ, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Easter is what is known as a moveable feast – a holiday that is not set to a certain date, but that changes from year to year. The date is determined on a lunisolar calendar. The basic rule of thumb is that ‘Easter is observed on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox.’ It is said here that this relation between Easter and the lunar cycle is responsible for the apocalyptic weather conditions around Europe each Easter. One full moon past the first day of spring, winter celebrates its last hurrah before it finally yields to swim club memberships and barbeques.

These last few days of rain and wind that seem to point to the Second Coming are merely the last vestiges of winter, the final days of dreariness that will have us welcoming spring with open arms. And they are the final days before warm stews and roasted winter veggies make room for fresh salsas and potato salads. The following Second Coming recipes will have those celebrating with you coming for seconds.

Second(s) Coming Lamb Stew

This recipe, adapted from Cook's Illustrated, is a perfect bridge from winter to spring. Here fennel seeds add a delightful kick to the otherwise humble stew...

4 ½ pounds shoulder lamb chops
Salt and fresh ground pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 medium large onions, thinly sliced
¼ cup unbleached white spelt flour
2 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
4 cups water
6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
¼ cup minced fresh parsley

Trim and reserve fat and bones from lamb. Cut meat into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Season lamb with salt and pepper.

Warm 1 tablespoon oil in a large Dutch-oven over medium high heat. Working in batches, add lamb to pot; sauté until brown on all sides, about 6 minutes per batch. Using slotted spoon, transfer lamb to plate. Use additional oil, if needed

Add bones to pot; cook until brown, about 5 minutes.

Using tongs, transfer bones to plate.

Add onions to pot; stir to coat with drippings, and sauté for five minutes. Add the flour and fennel seeds, and stir until the onions are evenly coated. Return meat and bones to the pot. Add 4 cups water and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover pot tightly; simmer until lamb is tender and vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally, about 1 1/2 hours.

Add potatoes to the top of the pot, cover pot tightly, and simmer until lamb is tender and vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally, about 1 1/2 hours.

Discard bones. And serve.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

God is a Big Happy Chicken

In Shalom Auslander's story "God Is a Big Happy Chicken" God shows up as a chicken. A big happy one. A character protests: "But the bible..."

The Archangel Gabriel (Gabe) answers: "Don't worry about the bible. We've got the joker who wrote that thing down in hell."

Auslander's story makes perfect sense to me. It also feels perfectly Jewish to me, not because Auslander was raised as an Orthodox Jew, but because god shows up as a chicken. To me, being Jewish is loving chicken.

I think about my Jewish family. I think about my father's mother, Francis, gnawing on a chicken bone. I think about the chicken schmaltz she used to flavor her white rice. I recall only a few meals from my childhood and my favorite is this: roasted chicken and white rice with schmaltz.

I ate this meal about once a year, every year, on the very first night of my visit to my grandparent's house in Sherman Oaks, CA. I'd sit down, eat, gnaw on the bones, and for a very, very brief moment feel utterly Jewish.

My Jewish ancestry did not bequeath me religion. Instead, it gave me chicken.

When I gnaw on a chicken bone, when I revel in the darker parts of the bird, the skin, the wings, the weird little bits of spectacularly flavorful meat surrounding the back bone, I feel my Jewish heritage. I gnaw and I'm with my grandmother, in Sherman Oaks, and then something weird happens--this Jewish thing, this blood I have coursing through me: it speaks to me, in chicken. Suddenly, I'm an immigrant, I'm my Aunt Pauline (she lived to 103) walking with her mother and older brother, from Novgorod through Moscow to Odessa and the Black Sea and, ultimately, to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.

This excursion, undertaken on foot before the first World War, during the summer of 1913, brought the Polansky's to America. My grandfather, the first Polansky born in America, was called Moisha. Later, he changed his name to Maury Pollins.

Around the time I got married, I called my grandfather up and told him I wanted to change my name back to Polansky.

"No, please no," he said.

He assumed, with a name like that, that I would be barred from jobs, from opportunities. Polansky, I suppose, is too ethnic.

So I'm still Seth Pollins, feeling remotely weird about my name, feeling a little lost. And it's weird to say, even ridiculous, but I actually find a bit of myself in chicken.

Perhaps this is why I love sharing chicken so much, why I love cooking it for my Jewish father, and why I love watching him attack it like a madman. I take after him: we do not eat chicken, we brutalize it. This brutality is not an act of violence; it's an act of love: for flavor, for our blood.

With my grandmother I share this: a taste for dangerous, undercooked chicken; we know that chicken is most tasty when it perilously close to killing you.

(Actually, I probably just picked this up from eating my grandmother's unintentionally undercooked chicken. She probably prefers fully-cooked chicken. Whatever, I shape my own memory.)

Recently, I've been sharing whole roasted chickens with my wife. It's become our Sunday thing. I buy a whole chicken, brine it, brush the skin with olive oil, and roast it. I'm so happy too: Karen's moved from a zone of boneless, skinless breast to chicken wing. She doesn't attack it, just yet, but she does eat it, with gusto. That's good, because she's married to a Jew.

I was never bar-mitzvahed. I don't fast on Yom Kippur. I'm hardly religious. Most importantly, for some I suppose, my mother's not a Jew.

I do have this part of me though, this blood.

Being a Jew, of course, is not just about your relationship with god. Admittedly, I have no relationship with god. I could care less if god is a chicken. In fact, I just might start believing he is. Why not? I appreciate the blasphemous sensibility behind that belief.

To me, and perhaps only to me, being Jewish is eating like a Jew.

I love the famous, almost offensive Jewish eating culture: the loud, hand-waving, argumentative meal, foods flying here and there, across the table and out of our mouths. There's groaning, eye-rolling, and plenty of laughter. There's hot tears, shouts.

Stick a bottle of wine on a table. Stick a whole roasted chicken on a table.

That's it: no cups, no silverware, no plates.

Me and my dad would handle this situation quite easily. We'd sit down and tear that bird apart. We'd eat out of our hands. We'd sip from the bottle. We'd talk, raise our voices, and laugh.

And that's when I'm Jewish.

This is weird, idiosyncratic, but to me it's Jewish.

Seth's Brined & Roasted Chicken


Don't make this recipe unless you're going to brine the bird. Don't come to me and say, "I made that recipe, I didn't brine it, but it was good!" Bullshit. You don't need a recipe to roast a chicken. The brine is the key...There's nothing especially Jewish about this recipe except for the fact that a man with about 50% Jewish blood is writing it.

6 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons pure cane sugar
One 3-4 pound organic or free-range chicken
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon plus two teaspoons olive oil
2 teaspoons dried thyme
fresh ground black pepper

To make the brine: dissolve the kosher salt, sugar, and 4 cups water in a gallon bag. Place the chicken in the bag and brine for 2 hours (can be brined up to 8 hours; for crispier skin, allow the bird to air-dry after brining for at least 4-8 hours and up to two days.)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Take the bird out of the brine, rinse, and pat dry. In a small bowl mix 1 tablespoon olive oil and thyme. Brush the olive oil mixture over the chicken and then season with fresh ground pepper.

Toss the carrots, celery, and onion with remaining olive oil. Place half of this mixture in the cavity of the bird. Scatter the remaining vegetables over a roasting pan.

Place the chicken, wing side up, on a rack over the roasting pan and put the chicken in the oven. Roast for 20 minutes. Take the roasting pan out of the oven and carefully flip the chicken so the other wing side is up. Roast for 20 minutes.

Turn the oven temperature up to 450 degrees. Take the roasting pan out of the oven and carefully place the chicken breast side up. Roast for 25 minutes, until a thermometer inserted in the breast registers 160 degrees.

Let the chicken rest for 5-10 minutes on a cutting board.

Cut it up, into pieces: legs, wings, breasts. Or just put it on the table and rip it apart.

Monday, March 09, 2009

24 Preludes for a Fugue: The Cook as Composer

Arvo Pärt has the face of a saint. If he were not the great composer he is today, he would be Saint Peter, smiling down from the frescos of Russian Orthodox churches, serene. And in his right hand he would have a paperclip, you know, like a metaphorical key or something.


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Arvo Pärt as Saint Peter

Arvo Pärt just may be a saint. After all, he has the power to grant the gift of tongues; a hypnotizing parsimony that makes you believe you understand every word he says, even though you speak no Estonian.

Pärt describes his music as tintinnabuli - like the ringing of bells. It is characterized by simple harmonies, often single notes, or triad chords, reminiscent of ringing bells. In an interview in 24 Preludes for a Fugue, Arvo Pärt explains the philosophy behind his piece Für Alina. The introduction is comprised of two simple triads, each neutral, but which together create something more complicated “like two people whose paths seem to cross and then they don’t.”

He says: “I had a need to concentrate on each sound so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower...a blade of grass has the status of a flower. To see in this tiny phrase, something more than just the black and white key...It’s not the tune that matters so much here. It’s the combination...It makes such a heart-rending union. The soul yearns to sing it endlessly.”
Can the grace and loving simplicity with which Pärt composed Für Alina be brought to my kitchen? Of course! His music shows us that simple need not imply a lack of complexity; accessible is not a synonym for lack of depth. Everything matters! Each ingredient is important; none takes precedence over any other. Every blade of grass has the status of a flower. Timing and rhythm are essential. Mood is important. What you did that day. The music you’re listening to or the TV in the background. The sounds and smells floating in through the window. For the cook is the prism that will create the rainbow on the plates set before those seated round our table.

Kitchen noises make a kind of tintinnabuli. The cook is a composer. There is tempo on the stovetop. Allegrissimo boils. Andante simmers. A percussion section on our cutting boards. Instrumentation in our choice of ingredients.

So, I wonder, what kind of cooks would different composers be?

Mozart writes best-selling cookbooks. He prepares food everyone loves and can even get kids to eat to their vegetables. (In fact, it has recently been shown that kids who eat Mozart are considerably more intelligent than those who don’t.) And he does so with class and grace. He tosses broccoli with butter and fresh lime juice. He glazes carrots and makes sweet tomato jam. Teriyaki salmon and hummus, both made with toasted sesame seeds. He occasionally puts pineapple on pizza. Everyone loves Mozart. We feel at home in his dining room. Every meal we spend at his table we ask ourselves: Who knew genius was so accessible?
John Cage is a vegan chef. His dishes are like a prepared piano, one is never sure what he’s going to get. He serves up chile con carne without the carne (the bulgur wheat gives it texture). He bakes tempeh and molds tofu into bun-sized patties. You'd swear that was chicken in his seitan stir-fries. And his table conversation is impeccable. He radiates a warmth that makes you forgive his playful ernestness. He talks of veganism and organic farming; of a return to the earth and reincarnation. Yet there is always a glint in his eye (was that a wink?) and you often wonder if he's just puttin you on. Sometimes he holds dinner parties in the bedroom, everyone gathered round the bed piled high with plates and glasses. Every person makes a toast, some with tiresome wit, most with passion and life, and the food is served, deconstructed, in the middle of the bed, serving bowls sprawled across the expanse of white sheet. It’s always make-your-own. Sometimes steamed vegetables mixed and piled and drizzled with peanut butter sauce. Or tofu tacos with plenty of toppings. Sundae bars for dessert. There is individual creation and imagination with each bite. The plates are cleared and the wine flows. We all pile into bed, peel off our clothes and make love among the crumbs. Then we go home and we feel different and excited and somehow empty. Because it is hard to love a concept, and sometimes, when you sit down to eat with him, you feel as though that is what is being served.

Miles Davis is the king of improvisation. He has worked with some of the world’s most renowned chefs and it shows. His soufflés rise expertly and his salmon is cooked to perfection. But his real art is that of creating something from what’s there, however frugal the pickings might be. Where another sees an empty pantry, Davis finds magic. He is also the king of recycling. Lunch’s leftovers may appear again at dinner or, even better, at breakfast. But it’s been changed, added to, stripped down, served with something new. He knows that leftovers are not merely re-heating. In fact, Miles never serves the same dish twice, at least not in the same way. And he never disappoints. He moves with such ease and elegance in his domain that he makes it look easy, yet those who truly understand him know that they are witnessing the impossible. With each dish he serves we exchange looks of ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ And we know that its perfection is not meant to be repeated.

Rachmaninoff’s wedding cakes are notorious for their thick layers of buttery icing, the intricacy of the candy roses that adorn them and the sugar high that follows. Though his bakery in Villa Senar is long closed, he still creates elaborate dessert trays for the wedding receptions of Europe’s decaying aristocracy. At its pinnacle his patisserie was reminiscent of Ladurée at Champs-Élysée, down to the chubby cherubs dressed as pastry chefs painted on the ceiling and the matching celadon color on the walls and facade. Everyone remembers his buttery brioche with figs and cherries and lemon-cream tarts topped with rose petals cream puffs; and the dramatically rich éclairs; the cappuccino mouse cake and Chantilly cream horns topped with chocolate lace and burnt sugar. And who can forget the puffs – cream puffs, vanilla puffs, chocolate puffs, cappuccino puffs; the mille-feuilles’ puff pastry with sweet cream and jam, glazed with royal icing or fondant. And, of course, the assortment of petit fours glacés, each adorned with Rococo sugar embellishments. Oh, how we loved the hot chocolate. Yet, something about the pastries always left us hungry for less pomp and more substance.

Pärt will the lead the revolution of simple foods. And I will be there with him. Together we will spread the word. The word being simple, that minimalism is bigger than you think. That fresh, simple ingredients lovingly prepared create a masterpiece of flavor that will leave no one indifferent. We will borrow from Mozart and sway to Miles. People will flock to their farmer’s markets. They will throw out their microwaves. They will invest in a good bottle of olive oil and a quality frying pan and need little else to satiate themselves and their loved ones. They will discover that love is easier to make than Ferran Adriá would have us think.

What kind of composer are you?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How to Have Your Friends Over For Dinner

You'll have to get used to giving everything away: your food, your wine, your time, and your love. Your friends will come over. They'll mill around. They'll bring wine, maybe. They'll stand there waiting. They'll feel anxious. You'll feel anxious. Put out some strawberry avocado salsa.

Give your friends small tasks to perform.

Say to your friends: Fold this napkin exactly like this; pinch this string bean exactly like this; good, now pinch every string bean exactly like that.

Don't be so anal-retentive.

Never, for example, use the word "exactly".

Your friends will get nervous. String beans are a casual affair, after all, and so is your little get-together. On the other hand, positively do not let your friend fuck up your string beans. Choose the right friend for this task. The best is your Mom. If she's not around, try Henry.

Let your other friends perform small tasks. Sure, Cogan's terrible at string beans, but he's a master conversationalist. He's an epic wine-drinker too. Put him on the couch. Set a bottle of wine and two glasses in front of him. He'll fill the first glass. Soon Someone Else will come along. Surely Someone Else will sit down and fill the second glass. The two will get along marvelously, Cogan and this Someone Else. Someday, maybe, they'll get married, and have a beautiful baby girl. They'll always remember that one time, your little get-together, when they met on the couch, over a bottle of wine. To thank you for this memory they'll name the baby girl after you.

They'll say: I'd like you to meet our new baby girl, Seth.

By the way, if you expect this sort of honor, you're going at it all wrong. This night is not about you and your weird, fanatical obsession with having your friends name their babies after you. This night is about your friends. So when you sit down to eat, and everyone's still a little anxious, and that initial great, quiet hum of people eating joyfully is finally interrupted by Jackson, who, it just so happens, loves the string beans, you'll know exactly what to say.

Oh, you'll say, Henry made the string beans.

And everyone will applaud.

But what if the string beans, actually, suck?

Oh, you'll say, My bad.

Next time, you'll do better.

And then give Henry a wink. Make it so the wink says: Good job, man. They'll never know we actually wanted the string beans to suck.

But what if you really didn't want the string beans to suck? What if you really fucked them up, just like you fucked up the chicken that one time, and everyone moaned and complained: This chicken is raw.

Remember: Wine helps.

Say: Fuck, this food sucks! But life is short. Let's toast life!

Order take-out. Promise you'll do better next time. Luckily, happily, there will always be a next time. You'll discover that it's the only way to stay afloat. You must have your friends over. You must continue to give everything. You'll discover that, weirdly, the more you give the more you receive. Sure, you spent three laborious hours in the kitchen, but notice how the next day you wake at 10:00 am only to discover it's 7:00 am. The day spreads out before you like an enormous canvas! Paint it blue, with your hang-over.

Also, random checks will appear in your mailbox. The government will send you an official letter.

Sorry, we forgot, the letter will say, but we owe you $10,000.

If you expect this, though, you're going at it all wrong. This night is not about giving and receiving. It's about your friends. And besides, that massive account-book of give and take between you and your friends will always remain balanced, because Karen was there for you when you almost died, and because Brad tried to fight that entire house of people because they called you that bad name, and because Pyle made you laugh so hard you remembered that you actually did like being alive, and because Charlie offered to help you pick up that log in the middle of that terrible rainstorm, and because Henry always pinches the string-beans just right, and because JJ loves you so much you always feel adored, and because Cogan is some sort of mythical idea of a perfect friend, except for his girlfriends, and because Princey, although he doesn't come over much anymore, would jump off a roof to save your life.

So, really, what's a chicken?

And anyway, soon enough you'll become a Magician at this sort of thing. Your friends will continue to come over and mill around anxiously. But notice how the strawberry avocado salsa calms them. Then, notice, how, at the table, magically, the anxious feeling dissolves. Suddenly, everyone is cozy, the wine bottles are overflowing with air, and the conversation has become one long riff on possibility--the possible excursions you'll share, the possible trips you might take together, the long days at the beach, the possibility of summer cookouts, and the strong, vibrantly drunk possibility that everything will be getting better and better from this moment onward.

Possibility

And it will get better, actually. This meal will heal you, a little. It will bring you closer to the people you love the most in the world, and since those people actually live in your heart, your heart will grow, a little.

Soon, things will start to change for you.

Cleaning-up, you'll realize, is incredibly fun.

You'll put your I-Pod on shuffle. You'll enlist one of the drunker friends to help. You'll get down on your hands and knees and scrub the floor. And while you're down there, you'll thank life for this opportunity you didn't squander, the time you could have spent alone, wallowing in what you've been able to hold onto, but instead you spent with your friends, the time you let everything go: your food, your wine, your time, and your love. And what is all that stuff even good for, if it can't be given away?

Strawberry Avocado Salsa

I've already published this recipe on-line, elsewhere. That recipe is good, but I'm changing it a bit, below, in an attempt to "reclaim" the recipe for FoodVibe. Consider this recipe below the definitive Strawberry Avocado Salsa recipe, straight from the source. This recipe is about gentle, exquisite preparation. I suggest taking your time, following the recipe precisely...

1 pound strawberries (local, of course, is best)
1 jalapeño pepper, minced
1/4 cup scallion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
1 lime, quartered
1/4 teaspoon sugar, optional
sea salt
2 firm-ripe avocados

Remove the green stems from the strawberries. Gently chop the strawberries, using clean, swift knife strokes so that each chopped piece is only touched briefly by the knife. (If you do not have the patience to cleanly chop the strawberries please do not make the recipe.)

In small bowl, gently, very gently, toss the strawberries with the jalapeño, scallion, and cilantro. Squeeze a quarter of lime onto the strawberry salsa and season with sugar, if desired, and sea salt.

Half the avocados, remove the pit and the skin. Finely, and very smoothly and carefully, dice the avocados and place into a small bowl. Squeeze two quarters lime juice onto the avocado and gently toss.

Pour strawberry salsa in the bowl with the avocados. Gently toss. Season with additional salt and lime juice, if desired. Serve...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Breakfast and the Power of Beginnings

A new moon appeared this week. The Jewish calendar calls this day Rosh Chodesh, "the beginning of the month." My thoughts turn female.

The moon's mystic qualities are overtly feminine. Cyclical and gestational, the moon waxes and wanes to be reborn each month. In most times and cultures, women have been associated with the moon through ceremony and ritual. In Judaism, Rosh Chodesh is recognized as a women’s holiday dating back to late antiquity.

The new moon also holds the secret of beginnings—how beginnings contain (yet purposely conceal) the entirety of what lies ahead. Beginnings are microcosms: the seed to a tree, the ember to a fire. In a microcosm, we see the meaning of essence, that the nature of the whole is contained in its parts, infinitesimal in size. Like love.

The Jewish calendar is lunar, assigning unique spiritual qualities to the different moons of the year. Each Rosh Chodesh is a microcosm containing the essence of the month to come. The days emerge from it as a child from a womb. For this reason some are careful about the day, knowing it is a tenuous time, fraught with potentiality. The things we begin on Rosh Chodesh can grow into fixed patterns affecting our lives and psyches for the duration of the moon cycle. Like the moon, they grow in strength and potency until they peak. As the moon wanes, they slowly fade until they are gone. With the next new moon comes renewal—a clean slate and the chance to start again.

The moon, women, and beginnings share a commonality to most men: their ways are concealed, inscrutable, shrouded in secrecy.


On the subject of women and beginnings, my thoughts turn to morning, to breakfast—another beginning, another microcosm. Breakfast can be seen as the womb from which our day emerges. Our thoughts at the time, along with the food we eat and the energy it provides, establish the rhythm and pattern of the day to come.

It is important to start the day off right. It is important to have a good breakfast.

Merri and I eat the same breakfast every day: boiled whole oats with diced Granny Smith apple and cinnamon. Coffee. Later, a handful of almonds on the way out the door. These things are the raw materials of my day.

I wake each day to the voice of children. Akiva, the baby, stirs in his crib. Six-year old Zev tugs my foot.

“I’m hungry,” he says.

My mind snaps alert. A thought rises, fades. A significant part of the day’s pattern is immediately established—I will be surrounded by children in need. I teach in two schools each day.

I fix Zev’s breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs (sometimes waffles). A bowl of fruit, usually frozen grapes. A glass of almond milk. Vitamins: a chewable multi, a probiotic, three capsules of fish oil.

Zev sits to eat. I begin preparing my own breakfast. In doing this, another quality of my day is brought into being. As a parent and teacher, each day depends on how delicately I balance the act of placing others’ needs before my own.

Oats simmer over a medium flame on the stove. Bending over a dish, I slice through the apples. Purposeful, deliberate and slow, my knife is a morning prayer. It seeks to penetrate. Soon the apple collapses into a hundred tiny green cubes. When the oats are done cooking, I turn off the flame, stir in the apple and cinnamon.

The pot sits on the stove, delphic steam still rising from within. Looking inside, I hope to see something I can read, some insight into the day ahead amongst the oats and apples. I imagine seeing slight shadows inside the pot coalesce and shift together into imagery I should recognize. The random scattering of apples is not random at all. I know somewhere inside the pot is the pattern to my life, the secret to my days. I see nothing. The heavy padding of feet comes down the hall. Four-year old Sivan enters the kitchen, rubbing her eyes.

"Abba, I have to pee," she says.

Oat reverts to oat, apple subsides to apple. The pot sits on the stove, the air fragrant with the scent of cinnamon.

"Good morning," I say.

Merri arrives in the kitchen carrying the baby and places him in the high chair. Sivan is finished with her breakfast of yogurt mixed dry cereal and now plays in the living room. The baby sits quiet, content. This moment is ours. She gets the bowls. I get the mugs. We eat. She takes oatmeal, coffee with a bit of milk and agave nectar. I take plain oatmeal, black coffee. Our conversation sifts through the lingering emotions and detritus of yesterday. Together, we move forward.

In this way the last and most important pattern is brought into being. My wife and I meet for our meals together during stolen moments at the poles of the day, always by early morning or late at night. Except weekends, rarely do we meet in between. Our breakfast is like the early morning moon, still visible in the pre-dawn sky. She disappears during the day. We reconvene at night.

A Perfect Pot of Porridge

This recipe takes cues from both Cook's Illustrated, who suggest using longer-cooking steel-cut oats and Peter Berley, who suggests soaking the oats overnight in a souring agent, such as yogurt, to promote lactic-acid formation. This ultimately makes the oats easier to digest. The final dish is delicious and creamy with a slight tang: perfect. Steel cut oats take longer to cook than rolled oats, but much of the cooking time requires minimal attention.

1 cup steel cut oats
3 1/2 cups spring water
1/4 cup plain full-fat yogurt
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh sliced apples, yogurt, or nuts for topping

In heavy saucepan, combine the oats, water, and yogurt. Cover the pan and soak overnight, 8 to 10 hours. This is called FoodVibing the oats.

In the morning, put the saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a lively simmer. Simmer gently for 20 minutes. Add the salt and stir lightly with a wooden spoon. Continue simmering, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until oats have absorbed most of the water and the porrdige is thick and creamy, 5-7 minutes.

Let the oatmeal stand off the heat for 5 minutes. Serve topped with fresh apple slices, yogurt, or crushed nuts.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

More on Coconut Milk and Sex

I condition my hair with extra virgin coconut oil. At the end of summer, I buy coconut Surf Wax and smell it all winter. I eat coconut milk in one form or another with almost every lunch and dinner. It's in my lunchtime butternut squash soup (recipe pending). It's in my dinnertime mashed potatoes and mashed sweet potatoes. Lately, me and my wife eat the exact same vegetable side-dish every single night: Coconut Braised Greens. In this way we go through five or six cans of coconut milk every week.

That's a lot of fat.

For years coconut has been derided as unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content. My coconut milk has 10 grams of saturated fat per serving; that's 50% of the daily fat intake. I probably eat 20 grams of fat from coconut milk every day. Anyway. The coconut: unhealthy theory is bunk. Current research shows the fatty acids in coconut, the medium chain triglycerides, do not raise serum cholesterol or contribute to heart disease. Also, coconut is easily digested; it's not deposited as fat in arteries because it is easily metabolized. If you're skeptical or thinking of becoming a fanatic yourself, I suggest reading this thoroughly documented, well-presented article from Dr. Mercola's site. I offer this instead of boring links to studies.

Lately, as the winter enters its most hateful phase (football is over; baseball is yet to begin) I'm relying on visions of summer. The smell of coconut conjures lotion; skimpy bathing suits; an outdoor shower at a crowded beach house: the perfect little spot to steal away for a quickie.

No doubt, coconut is sexy.

Lately, on Saturday evenings, me and my wife make coconut-infused dishes.

Then, sometime after eating, we flop on the couch. We do not watch television. We do not fall asleep. Our place becomes crowded with all the things we do not do. The dishes in the sink. The laundry on the floor. The cellphones, unanswered. We just stay on the couch and pretend it's summer: We're staying in a crowded beach house; the couch is our outdoor shower.


Chicken and Mushrooms in a Lemon Coconut Broth

I've spent all week developing this recipe at home and at work. Then I made it last night for my brother's 40 birthday party. It's freakin' delicious. Serve it over a Perfect Pot of Rice.

6 tablespoons kosher salt
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, tenderloins removed, fat trimmed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
16 ounces assorted fresh mushrooms--cremini, shitake, or white button--sliced thin
1 15 ounce can full fat coconut milk
1 teaspoon juice and zest from one fresh lemon
1 garlic clove minced
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
Sea salt
Fresh ground pepper

Dissolve the salt with four cups water in a gallon-size zipper lock bag. Add the chicken breasts and seal the bag, pressing out the extra air. Brine in the refrigerator for one hour.

Remove the chicken breasts from the brine and pat dry with a paper towel. Season with fresh ground pepper.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm one tablespoon olive oil. Add chicken to skillet and sauté until almost cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to a cutting board. When cool, slice into thin strips.

Add remaining two tablespoons olive oil to skillet. Add mushrooms and saute. Season lightly with sea salt and fresh ground pepper. Saute, stirring frequently, until mushrooms have released and absorbed excess moisture, about 8 minutes. Add coconut milk, lemon juice, lemon zest, garlic, and reserved chicken. Simmer until chicken is cooked through. Stir in parsley. Season to taste with sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

Serve hot.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Chocolate Alchemy

Women love me: I make chocolate truffles. I know, this declaration is brash and cocky. It is also irrefutable. The evidence is in the woman’s eyes. She pops the truffle into her mouth. She blinks. She smiles. She's in love, briefly.

Incidentally, men love me too: I make chocolate brownie sundaes. This declaration, too, is irrefutable. The evidence is in the man’s fist. Here’s what happens. He takes a bite. He raises his fist in triumph. He is Montezuma, the Aztec king, re-born.

Montezuma reputedly had an absurd affinity for chocolate. According to reports left by the Spanish conquistadors, he drank as many as 50 cups of chocolate a day. Apparently, he needed the chocolate. Montezuma had hundreds of lovers. Chocolate was his Viagra.

Chocolate is the food of the sensual monster....

Picasso, the monster, reputedly fed his children dinners made entirely of chocolate desserts.


Alchemy is remembered as a medieval chemical philosophy having as its asserted aims the transmutation of base metals into gold, the discovery of a panacea, and the preparation of an elixir of longevity.

Carl Jung, among others, saw alchemy as something more: a symbolic system for spiritual transformation. The great alchemists, he noted, were not really working to transforms metals, but to transform their own souls, from a lead-like state of ignorance to one of golden enlightenment.

The preparation of chocolate can be compared to alchemy: the astringent, bitter and otherwise bland seeds of a tropical tree are transformed into a dense, smooth, and somewhat sweet food, with an unrivaled, complex taste—a golden food.

Chocolate is a transformative food, capable of igniting passion and romance and fervor. When we work with chocolate, we embody Jung’s idea of the ancient alchemists. In this case, the asserted aim of our work is too transmute the raw ingredients into food, but the real aim of our work is to inspire romance and bravado.

I first encountered chocolate bravado in Barcelona; now that I am back in the states I find myself dreaming of a return to that city, to the famous pastry shop, Escriba, where, one morning I saw two gorgeous women sharing a chocolate cake with a beast of a man. The beast was clad in black leather from head to toe. The trio looked as if they were on the tail end of a long night, and they smoked while they ate, purposefully, as if they were battling for a last chance at recognition. It was my first day in Barcelona and it was my first sight of a Catalan. I couldn’t explain to myself why I felt so amazed. Nor could I tear my eyes away from the enormity of the piece of chocolate cake the beast was eating.

He stopped and returned my gaze. Then, with the odd braggadocio of someone who is still drunk, he pointed at my plate and laughed.

I was eating a granola bar.

I was not so interested in chocolate back then.

Still, even then, I had the impression, looking upon this monster in leather, that I was witnessing a stellar engagement—the same engagement that hits me now, every evening, after eating my final meal of the day, when I sit down to eat a truffle, lovingly made, and I sense the absurd affinity that humankind has developed for chocolate, a relationship initiated by an Aztec king and propagated ever since, by kings and lovers alike.

Here's a delicious recipe I recently discovered in the Times: Coconut Hot Chocolate.


Coconut Chocolate Truffles

Chocolate truffles are easy to make; they are also shockingly delicious. Here, I replace the traditional heavy cream with coconut cream, a healthy source of fat and another source of sensual allure. You can also roll the truffles in cocoa powder or chopped nuts, like pistachios.

½ c. coconut milk (coconut milk must be full-fat; try Thai Kitchen's)
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (For truffles, I prefer Chocolove Chocolate; or Endangered Species' Supreme Dark Bar)
1/2 cup dried coconut

Place chopped chocolate in a medium-sized bowl. Create a double boiler by placing bowl over a simmering pot of water. Gently melt the chocolate.

Pour coconut milk into a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. Remove from heat, let cool slightly, and pour over chocolate. Gently stir until smooth, chocolate is completely melted, and coconut milk is incorporated.

Rest until firm, 1-3 hours.

Place coconut into a bowl. Using a measuring spoon, scoop up 1 teaspoon of chocolate, and quickly roll into a ball about 3/4 inch across. Drop into coconut; roll each truffle to coat.

Let rest until firm, 30 minutes.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Joy of Dishwashing

Lately, I've been re-reading one of my bibles: Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. This is the fourth or fifth time I've read the book and just like the other times I'm getting myself all up in a tizzy. Suddenly, I'm feeling incredibly nostalgic for my days in the restaurant business.

Just the other day I said to my wife: I want to go back, work in a restaurant.

She then reminded me that I am currently enrolled full-time in graduate school, already have a full-time gig, and that I hardly have time to take a daily shower let alone re-commence my old, doomed career path.

I suppose she's right, but still. I go to bed, dream of fine-dicing carrots. I wake up, immediately think of demi-glace. In the kitchen, at home, I'm getting impatient and joyfully hostile. It's the sort of loving kitchen attitude I cultivated in the restaurants but it doesn't really fly at home, with my wife.

Recently, family came over for dinner. She was in a good mood, laboring over her spectacular risotto and a few composed salads. I was all hopped up on Bourdain and red wine so I walked in the kitchen, looked at her slightly overdressed salads, and said: Mmm, seaweed. She nearly broke down in tears.

Bourdain writes:

"If you are easily offended by direct aspersions to your lineage, the circumstances of your birth, your sexuality, your appearance, the mention of your parents possible commingling with livestock, then...professional cooking is not for you."

My wife is a beautiful home-cook and she makes no pretense to wanting to be a professional cook. I'm just an asshole.

The weirdest recent behavior, though, is my recent craving for dishwashing. I started in the restaurant business, like a lot of people, washing dishes. I was fourteen and I didn't break out until I was nearly eighteen. By then, I had learned to hate dishwashing with an all-abiding passion.

I distinctly recall my final night washing dishes. I walked up to my boss, told him I was finished. He said: Did you hose down the carts? I did not. So I went back and hosed the carts. Midway through, my boss walked up and surveyed my work. I gave him a little squirt. He was shocked. So I said: "You come back here, you're going to get wet."

Then I pointed the hose directly at him and pulled the trigger.

For five tumultuous, roaring seconds, I was King of the World.

I had never felt so liberated. It was the most glorious way to quit a job. And don't think that bastard didn't having it coming. He treated us dishwashers like degenerates (which we were, but still.) Among other things, he refused to give us gloves to handle the piping-hot plates, he paid us next-to-nothing, and he made me stay an hour late on my eighteenth birthday because he was unsatisfied with my mopping work. (I did a stellar job; he was just a mean bastard.)

It was always a sore spot for me that Steve worked at the same place as a waiter. The ethic, promoted by the boss, was that us dishwashers were sub-human and were to be treated as such by the staff. Steve candidly obliged.

So I suppose it's odd that after we finished our recent meal, I joyfully skipped into our kitchen and washed all the plates, all the pots and pans, cleaned the counters, and mopped the floor. I then made a stock for another risotto (my wife was going for a double-shot), melted chocolate for chocolate-fudge brownie sundaes, and brined two chickens, thereby necessitating a whole new round of dishes. Whatever. I didn't care at all. I was in love--with dishwashing!

I love people who don't mind washing dishes. I always think about a great anecdote from Bill Buford's New Yorker article "The Secret of Excess" about Mario Batali:

"One of my last recollections is of Batali around three in the morning—back arched, eyes closed, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, his red Converse high-tops pounding the floor—playing air guitar to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” Batali had recently turned forty, and I remember thinking that it was a long time since I’d seen a grown man playing air guitar. He then found the soundtrack for “Buena Vista Social Club,” tried to salsa with one of the guests (who promptly fell over a sofa), tried to dance with her boyfriend (who was unresponsive), and then put on a Tom Waits CD and sang along as he went into the kitchen, where, with a machine-like speed, he washed the dishes and mopped the floor."

That last simple, elegant sentence pretty much sums it up for me. Nobody really wants to do dishes. Dishwashing is real work. So you just put on a CD and, like a machine, do it. Today, years away from my early dishwashing travails, I love the sense of accomplishment I feel after washing a night's worth of dishes. I love going into the kitchen, sweating about two pounds off, and dropping to my hands and knees to scrub the floor. That's real work, something to be proud of. Perhaps that's why I hated it so much when I did it as a young man for money. I love dishwashing so much that I was corrupted by the cash. The promise of riches took all the joy out of it. Still, if (big if) I do go back to the restaurants, don't think for a second that I think I'm too good to wash dishes. To find no task to low or demeaning--that's the attitude I like.

Roasted Acorn Squash with Squash Risotto

I always get depressed in January because squash season is almost over. So I grasp at the last of season and try to make something immaculate. I originally published this recipe here.

4 acorn squash
3 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
6 cups water or gluten-free vegetable broth
1 cup finely chopped leeks
2 1/2 cups peeled and cubed butternut squash
2 cups uncooked Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped sage, divided
2/3 cup pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
Method

Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut each acorn squash lengthwise in half (from tip to stem) then scoop out and discard any seeds and stringy flesh. Brush insides of acorn squash with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil and season with salt. Place acorn squash, cut side down, in a baking pan and roast until tender but still firm, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, start the risotto by bringing the broth just to a simmer in a small pot over medium high heat. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy 3-quart pot over medium heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add butternut squash and cook for 3 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until grains are fragrant. Add wine and stir constantly until almost completely absorbed, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the hot broth to rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is almost completely absorbed. Continue adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time, making sure that most of the liquid is absorbed before adding more. Continue until rice is almost tender, but still firm to the bite, about 20 to 25 minutes total. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the sage and season with salt.

Meanwhile, put pine nuts into a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground. Stir in thyme, remaining 1/2 teaspoon sage and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Set aside.

When acorn squash is cooked, remove from oven. Reduce heat to 300°F. Carefully turn squash over and fill each cavity with about 1/2 cup of the risotto. Gently press about 2 tablespoons of the pine nut mixture on top of the risotto in each squash half. Return squash to oven and bake until topping begins to brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer to plates and serve.