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.

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.


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...