Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Perfectly bent

English muffins spread with parsley butter await big, fat, grilled Prune burgers. 
Ok, Prune. Ouf. I have really dug myself into a hole with this one because instead of writing about it piecemeal the way I’ve written about other cookbooks, I got to know Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune on the sly, cheating on whatever I was doing with the blog to cook a dish from Prune every now and then. I did a lot of this over the last year and in the process all my feelings about the book changed dramatically. When I first got my copy of the cookbook I hated it with the fiery passion of the disappointed fan. Now I think it’s a masterpiece. And now I have to explain why all at once. Ouch.

Prune is not easy to love and not easy to cook from. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, Prune is a cookbook by Gabrielle Hamilton, a famous badass New York chef who runs a tiny, fetishized downtown restaurant. The book has no index, no introduction, and no headnotes. It is modeled on the massive recipe binder used at the restaurant and contains a multitude of scrawled, scolding notes from Hamilton as well as underlinings and fake stains.
The burgers -- made with beef and lamb -- were delicious. It looks like I didn't quite get that cheese melted.
The book isn't warm and friendly. It isn't charming. That's the point. You might well hate Prune, but the things you most hate about it are the very things that make it great.  It’s as if Hamilton looked at a sweet, pretty, puffy contemporary cookbook, read a few cloying headnotes, and said: No fucking way. Her book is tart, precise, bitchy, opinionated, uncompromising, personal, tight, and totally original. In my view, it was the best cookbook of 2014.

I love reading the recipes in Prune. They have a real voice and rhythm. (They also work, but more on that next time.) They can be funny. They can be sensual. Sometimes both in a very short space. Here's a segment from the recipe for sweetbreads (which I will never make):

"Thoroughly and neatly peel the membrane -- the thin, slippery, translucent 'skin' that encases the gland -- which will come off in a rather neat sheet. Trim off any waxy fat clusters which tend to cling to the underside of the gland, and gently tug out any egregious muddy brown veins. Try to pull out the tubular looking arteries as well. If you've made it this far and are not retching into a garbage can, leave the minor little capillaries intact in order not to have the lobe fall apart into nuggets. Portion into 4-ounce pieces, as possible.

Hamilton is wonderfully acerbic on the subject of organic produce, farmers' markets, and the like. From her Bloody Mary mix recipe:

"Be sure to inventory properly midweek to keep the house fully stocked so that we are not having to make Bloody Mary mix over the weekend with some crappy organic tomato juice or 'artisanal' 'small-batch' Worcestershire handshopped in an emergency at Whole Foods."

God forbid.

And here's a favorite passage of mine from the spaghetti carbonara recipe (which I have made and which is very good):

“Pay attention to the toothsomeness of the pasta -- don’t get lost in your timing and let this just boil away in the pickup until it is flabby and bloated and disgusting. . . . Ideally we want the strands slick with yellow, eggy egg yolk and smoky, salty, uriney pancetta fat, with all the granules of sweet, nutty grated parm clinging to the strands. You want to see the black pepper, taste the floralness of it, and feel the warm heat of it in the dish -- but don’t obliterate.” 

It looks tossed off and maybe even sloppy, but it's not. It's vivid. It's loose. It's great.

In the first episode of her run on the PBS series Mind of a Chef, Hamilton says that she’s a perfectionist, but that her idea of perfection is is different from others people’s. She says that she likes things “perfectly bent.” 

Prune is perfectly bent. 

Tomorrow: some food.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Eat, eat, read

Maui is pretty.
I’ve been having fun. Last week I went to Upcountry Maui on a magazine assignment and ran around looking for cool things to do and eat and found them in abundance. Meanwhile, I was also reading and reviewing two new self-helpy books by Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic) and Cheryl Strayed (Brave Enough), so all these inspirational lines about being generous and bold and receptive to inspiration and grateful and tackling life like a motherfucker* were floating through my head as I toured pineapple vodka distilleries and ate Spam musubi on the lush slopes of a tropical volcano. It was basically the ultimate high. I felt so energetic I started wondering if I was bipolar and having a manic episode.

Then I came home. It wasn’t a manic episode. I was just happy. Now that the homemaking/parenting years are drawing to a close, I wonder whether by embracing domesticity with such ardor I was simply making a virtue of necessity. I think I love my cozy nest of a home with the high-maintenance farm animals and 1000+ cookbooks, but I feel so much more alive when I’m racing around with my notebook trying to find the best bento box in Upcountry Maui and sleeping in a room I do not have to clean.
This was my only glimpse of beach. I was supposed to stick to inland Maui and dutifully did so. 
There are two categories of Hawaiian food and they could not be more different.  First, there is the slab of $42 macadamia-crusted ahi that you get at tourist restaurants. It is fresh, local, and good, though I always find myself struggling to finish fish like this because after few bites it becomes monotonous. The crust is delicious, but the inside of the fish is fish, bland fish. I finish, though, because it is so expensive I can't bear to waste it. Also, an ahi or an opah or a mahi mahi gave its precious life for me and I'm going to leave it on the plate? 

Then, there is the food that local people eat. For the most part, it isn't very fresh or local, not by Alice Waters standards. The plate lunch, the shave ice, the manapua, the warm $2.19 Spam musubi that you find under a heat lamp at Foodland. I was revolted by the idea of Spam musubi until last week when I finally tried it. I sat there in the supermarket parking lot eating Spam musubi and wondering what I was going to do when I got back to the Mainland and had to live without Spam musubi. Are you familiar with Spam musubi? Imagine a piece of nigiri sushi the size of a Twinkie, but warm, and instead of fish, it's topped with a slice of salty, delectably fatty, sausage-like meat. It is the best thing I ate in Upcountry Maui and I ate a lot of great stuff.

The second best thing I ate was the loco moco at a divey restaurant located in a trailer. Loco moco is a hamburger topped with fried egg and smothered in gravy, served over sticky white rice. The huge serving of loco moco I got at this dive also came with some macaroni salad and when you mixed that creamy macaroni salad with the rice and the salty brown gravy? I know how déclassé and gross that sounds, particularly when you consider that the gravy likely came from a can, but it was heaven. I had to physically push the plate away and ask for the check in order to stop myself from finishing every last bite. I needed to be able to wear my clothes home.

The red thing is a Surinam cherry from the Kula farmers' market. It was the fourth or fifth best thing I ate on Maui. It's got a super thin skin, sweet-tart juicy flesh, and a pit like a standard cherry. I couldn't figure out how to photograph it to best advantage, as you can see. If you ever have the chance to eat a Surinam cherry, do, but be sure it is really soft and ripe. 
Anyway, if you go to Hawaii, be sure you get out of the tourist restaurants and give that local food a chance. It may not be your thing, but I personally would always choose the $12 loco moco over the $42 macadamia-crusted ahi.

About those two books I reviewed. Strayed’s Brave Enough (it comes out later this fall) is a short collection of quotations from her previous work that apply to all kinds of profound life quandaries, like losing your mother or ending a romantic relationship. I’m not currently facing a profound life quandary but I still find myself flashing on her counsel ten or twenty times a day to solve the most trivial problems. Two I like especially:

"You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself not to feel jealous. I shut down the Why not me? voice and replace it with one that says Don't be silly instead. It really is that easy. You actually do stop being an awful jealous person by stopping being an awful jealous person."

Don't do what you know on a gut level to be the wrong thing to do . . . It's hard to know what to do when you have a conflicting set of emotions and desires, but it's not as hard as we pretend it is. Saying it's hard is ultimately a justification to do whatever seems like the easiest thing to do -- have the affair, stay at that horrible job, end a friendship over a slight, keep tolerating someone who treats you terribly. There isn't a single dumbass thing I've done in my adult life that I didn't know was a dumbass thing to do while I was doing it."
The incredibly sweet pineapple in Hawaii might have been the third best thing I ate. 
As to Big Magic, it's imperfect, but warm and inspiring. I love Elizabeth Gilbert. You may feel differently; we can still be friends. I think she’s open-hearted, smart, and a force for good in the world. She helps me shut down the mean drill sergeant in my head who constantly yells at me for not keeping my boots spit-polished. 

I liked both the books a lot and my review is here

Speaking of drill sergeants, I’m going to cook from Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune for the next week or so. I was just flipping through the book trying to figure out what to make for Sunday dinner, resenting yet again the lack of an index. Gabrielle Hamilton is such a jerk. I wish her recipes weren't quite so good.

*Update: Cheryl Strayed word. Allusion. My father emailed me about it within 2 hours. 

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

We didn't inhale

Isabel's new home
Boy, is it hot out here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hot and dry. Did I ever mention that our mulch caught fire last month on a day just like today? A day just like today except about 20 degrees cooler. A workman was reinforcing some concrete near the road and a warm piece of rebar he’d just sawed through fell into the fluffy, dry, redwood mulch. Whoosh! Instant fire covering about 20 square feet of the front yard. The workman came and banged on the door and I ran out barefoot and we extinguished the blaze, but it took 10 minutes or so of me spraying with a hose and him beating down flames with his shovel. We killed a lot of plants and broke some of the watering spigots. No point to this story, except: mulch? And: lucky.

California is ready for you, rain. 

I’m really betwixt and between right now, hence the lack of much interesting cooking or any posting at all. Life should straighten out next week. For real.

Here’s what’s been happening in the kitchen and out:

I've served several batches of the easy, delicious bread-and-tomato soup from Viana La Place's Verdura. According to my margin notes, I've been making this since August 1999, a year before Owen was born. That's the definition of a keeper. The recipe is at the end of the post and you should try it before the sweet summer tomatoes disappear.
almost effortless
I baked yet another kouign-amann from Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune. I love this cake madly, despite the fact that it always comes out looking burnt. 

it's all about the French butter and orange flower water
I think next week I have to write about my extensive and rewarding experiences with Hamilton's cantankerous cookbook. I've been putting this off.

One night for dinner I made the hearty riso al forno  (Arborio rice, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, olives, capers, provolone) from a recipe posted by The Wednesday Chef and it was really good. Recommend.
the kind of dish that is sometimes called "lusty"

That's about it for food.

At the very end of August, we went up to Washington and installed Isabel in her dorm at Whitman. Mark and I spent a few days observing the other kids (Birkenstocks, more bros than I’d expected at a little liberal arts school), listening to uplifting faculty speeches, traipsing from Home Depot to Walmart to Macy’s to Walgreens, buying fans, towels, sheets, et cetera. All is good. 

No. All is great. I'm not sad anymore. Not even a little. There’s a certain lightness you feel watching a very competent, composed child venture out into the world where she can grow in ways she no longer could in your care. I’ve been trying to explain it to people and this is the best I can do: Imagine you’ve spent 18 years teaching a kid to ride a bike, running alongside, encouraging, looking out for potholes, worrying she's going to fall and break her collarbone or get hit by a car.  You've really given it your all and she's gotten better and better and needed less and less help and finally you let go and now she’s disappeared to ride around the block, pedaling like a pro.

How do you feel? You feel lost for a few minutes, but then you sit down on a bench. You look around. It's a beautiful day. You gradually notice there are birds singing and there's a pleasant breeze and maybe you should wander over to that cafe and have a celebratory affogato while you wait for her to return some months from now. (It's a really big block.) You have that affogato. It is delicious. Where should you go next? So many options. Hmmm. Strange. What is the word for this bizarre feeling? Is it freedom? 

Suddenly you and your spouse start going out more, doing silly stuff you haven't done since you brought that first baby home from the hospital. You can't wait to hear what the girl has to tell you when she gets back from her ride and it dawns on you that you might have some new stories yourself.

I don't actually say all that to people. It's what I would like to convey without having to resort to a dumb bike metaphor.

Ok, speaking of silly stuff you might do with a spouse as your kids grow up, Mark and I went to a legal recreational marijuana shop while we were in Washington.  Is that what you call them? Marijuana shops? We were curious to see what it's like to buy cannabis in a store. In case you didn't already know, this is what it's like to buy cannabis in a store: You pull up in front of a nondescript building just off the freeway near a McDonald’s. You walk in and read signs telling you to put away any cameras. At a pharmacy window you show someone an ID. They admit you to a bland-looking back room with glass display cases that contain, among other things, cool little pipes. Other than the wares, it resembles a room where you might buy a cell phone. There is a United States map into which customers stick pins to show where they're from, and the whole country is dotted with pins. You somehow manage to squeeze another pin into the dense blob of pins on the San Francisco Bay Area. A friendly clerk hands you a menu with lists of marijuana products (cookies, joints, candies) and asks surreal questions like:  “Are you looking for something exhilarating? Or more relaxing? ”

I can’t remember what we said. We bought a caramel. Why not? 

surprisingly creamy and yummy
Anyway. Legal, guys! It was 100% legal. As legal as a bottle of Snapple. As legal as a Starbucks scone. And yet. I went to lunch with some casual friends the other day. I’m very fond of these two friends and we meet every few months for lunch, but I don’t know them that well -- which is a nice category of friend, the people you don’t know that well and may never, but are always pleased to see. I told them of my field trip to the marijuana shop because it seemed like a moderately interesting story. Not one of those great, urgent stories you tell when you first get together with casual friends, but the fourth or fifth story you bring out, when there’s a lull in conversation. I thought there was a lot to discuss, but my friends basically fell silent. One of them politely asked if I had a prescription for the pot and I explained that recreational pot is legal in Washington. Then there was silence again. I felt mildly embarrassed and wished I hadn't said anything. It occurred to me that some people probably still think marijuana is wrong, even if it's legal. Like abortion or gay marriage, I guess. On some level, I must think that too, given that my kids have seen me drink, but I would never smoke a joint in front of them.

Then again, I'm completely ok with them reading this post. The mental image of Mom and Dad buying a pot caramel is probably enough to turn them off drugs forever.  

Here's the soup recipe from Viana La Place. I feel like I've posted it before, but no. It's fantastic.

1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, chopped
a few basil leaves, coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves
kosher salt and pepper
pinch sugar, if needed
2 heaping cups crusty bread, cut into chunks or torn. (A stale baguette works great. Even if you have to break it with a hammer, it will come straight back to life in the soup.)
shredded sharp cheese (Parmesan, Pecorino)

1. Combine olive oil and onion in a soup pot and cook over low heat until onion is softened. 

2. Add the tomatoes, basil, and bay leaves and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes over medium-low heat. 

3. Add 2 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Add the bread, stir, and turn off the heat. Taste. It might need a pinch of sugar. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Serve with cheese. Serves 4.