Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Happy

The presents are wrapped and my bags are packed...

...and I'm on my way home for the holidays! Hope you all are able to enjoy the time with friends and family as well. See you in a few...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fully Stocked

After a successful purge a few weeks ago of the few freezer and pantry stocks that had overstayed their welcome, I was ready for total replenishment.

My first order of business was a refill of my most reliably vital freezer resident, meat stock. I like to keep both chicken and veal stocks around (oddly I never seem to find a great need for vegetable stock) so after stopping off at my favorite west village butcher for some bags of bones, I was off to the races.

I scrounged around in my freezer and refrigerator for any vegetable scraps that needed to be put out of their misery (I came upon a very sad head of frozen celery and the limpest bunch of parsley I've ever seen in my vegetable drawer) and threw them in my stock pot with the aforementioned bones, a carrot or two, a halved onion pierced with a clove (Patricia Wells suggests this and as it seems to produce good results I see no need to deviate), thyme and some peppercorns.

Covered with cold water, I let the pot boil and toil for a few hours and voila,

quarts of golden hued stock.

I do also think that it is important to keep the makings of a quick, satisfying dinner on hand, and I find that such a dinner often includes some sort of pork product and pasta. So while picking up the soup bones I also requested a few pounds of Italian sausage and some bacon.

I wrapped my porcine goodies in layer upon layer of plastic wrap (and used said wrap to partition the pieces, as a three pound hunk of frozen pork is of absolutely no use when you are looking to make a weeknight dinner for two). They are all happily ensconced in my freezer as we speak, and I draw considerable comfort from that fact.

Frozen meat and meat products now having been addressed, I felt the need to replenish yet another important staple: yogurt.

Now it may seem a bit compulsive to make yogurt at home, but I assure you that it could not be simpler and the results are delicious. Simply heat a quart of milk (not to be overly righteous but I do find that fancy organic milk tends to produce the best results) until it is just under the boiling point and let it cool to lukewarm (about 110 degrees if you're counting). Add two tablespoons of yogurt or the directed amount of yogurt starter to the warm milk and decant it into a container (preferably fresh from the dishwasher) of your choice. Put it in an oven with the light on overnight (or for 6-8 hours during the day) and you shall awake to a luscious pot of acidophilus.

And now, continuing in the somewhat breakfasty direction that the yogurt sent me, I felt the need to replenish my stash of muesli

(now this really is idiotically easy to make, there is no excuse not to...the taste is so superior to bought muesli I think). And then granola.

This poor container has been sitting empty on my counter for months now...it is so heartening to see it full once again.

And last but not least I like to have a few teacake-ish bread-like items stashed in the freezer. Not that I have all that many guests popping by for tea, but someone might and I can't very well let them go hungry now can I?

I gave Terry at Blue Kitchen's recipe for Cherry Orange Loaf Cake a try and was mightily impressed.

It was moist, tasty, not too sweet and with all that flax seed and the relatively low oil/butter content I think the loaf is actually fairly healthy as well. And if that is not the case please do not enlighten me. As you can see only a portion of the final product made it to my freezer.

I followed this first success with another...Bea from La Tartine Gourmand's Quinoa Banana Bread.

It was delightful, and is even gluten free (I feel that everyone seems to be gluten intolerant these days so it is not a bad move to have something for the poor souls to eat). Although I'll admit that I didn't have any rice flour sitting around (I'm not sure I ever have) so I substituted the evil wheat flour. Still delicious although not completely devoid of gluten. And it joined the cherry orange loaf in the freezer for some teatime in the future.

Now I'm fully stocked once again...just in time for me to go away for the holidays! Oh well, at least I will be starting the new year off on a steady footing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Bit of Kitsch

It's a very poorly kept secret that I enjoy a good meal. And a good snack, hors d'oeuvre, what have you. Edible items if you will. But I have to admit that, despite the excellent restaurant options in New York, I do occasionally find myself feeling like I'm having the same meal over and over again, just at different locations.

Pioneered by the indominable Mr. Batali, there is a significant contingent of restaurants that serve rustic Italian food (not to be confused with American Italian of course). They insist on making their own pasta, always have an excellent meat ragu on the menu, and love their $9 contorni (i.e. vegetables which you used to get free with your dinner). Don't get me wrong, I can eat this food all day long, but not all day every day. And at a certain point I start to resent the $24 ravioli.

And there are the locavores. A noble ethos indeed, I can't say I don't indulge in it myself occasionally. But this whole "it's cooked simply, letting the ingredients shine" thing does get on my nerves. I can do that at home! I want complexity, I want fat, I want something I can't figure out how to do at home.

And then there are the pork enthusiasts. Now I was with them in the beginning...pigs are really wonderfully diverse animals from a gustatory standpoint. They're delicious! Thanks for pointing that out, but we all know about it now, we don't need any more lectures on the wonders of the pork shoulder, OK?

Just for full disclosure, although it is getting terribly overplayed, I will love the ramen trend forever. Not the $20 ramen trend, but the $12 one. Ippudo, Rai Rai Ken, I heart you. And will even more now that the weather is cold.

But when I come across something that is distinctly retro, that doesn't even know these trends exist, I rejoice. Fanelli's for instance. A weathered bar and restaurant with chintzy red checkered tableclothes, it unabashedly serves cheap drinks and red sauce on spaghetti. Perfect for those nights when you're in the mood for vaguely mediocre pasta (and oddly I sometimes really am). And it caters to all kinds...to long-time neighborhood residents, new residents, the celebs who stay at the Mercer across the street...everyone responds to it.

The other night via a holiday gathering I was introduced to another one of these gems that I had been walking by for years, always curious about, but never curious enough to go in. And it has been my loss. El Quijote is officially my new obsession.

Photo credit: CityEntree.com

Housed in the Chelsea Hotel,

long a refuge for artistic miscreants, and more recently Ethan Hawke after he and Uma split, El Quijote harkens from the 70s in the best way possible. The decor is kitschy, the prices are low and the drinks are stiff (or as a stiff as a margarita can be).

The staff easily accomodated our group of twelve, the noise level was festive but I had no trouble hearing my dining companions and the food was good. Not great, but definitely good. I had to get the paella, and yes I got it with lobster. The seafood was all surprisingly fresh tasting, particularly the shrimp and the clams, and after I had eaten my fill, and I do mean that I was FULL, I was still left with two takeout containers full of what was to be my next three meals.

We all indulged in one too many margaritas and perhaps more than one too many glasses of sangria, and somehow the bill came to $36 per person. Including tip. I have no idea how this is possible but I'm telling you it happened.

The genius who suggested the location, one of those fabulous New Yorkers who has been paying $50 a month for a two bedroom apartment near Lincoln Center for the past thirty years and knows every hidden gem in the city, clued me into the lobster specials on Monday nights. She tells me you get two lobsters "for like no money". You'll know where to find me any lobster loving dining companions on Monday nights now!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Perfect Sorrow

At its best art arouses in us emotions that remain, in the normal course of life, latent. Wonderful novels or films or paintings incite these emotions to rise to the surface, insisting that we experience them, reminding us of the full scope of our humanity.

I recall that the classic young adult book Where the Red Fern Grows was the first work to arouse such a response in me. I must have been about nine years old at the time, and I remember reading the tragic end of the book late at night in bed, weeping uncontrollably at the loss of a loyal pet. Ponette, a French movie about a five year old girl's efforts to understand her mother's death, had my seventeen year old heart breaking at her insistence on waiting for her mother's return.

Bernini's gentle terra cotta likeness of a man who looked uncannily like my father on display in the National Gallery in Washington took the breath from my twenty year old chest. Fiona Shaw as Medea had my twenty-two year old body quaking in the face of her raw, unchecked insanity. And Ernest Borgnine's profound love for and devotion to his dead wife in a short vignette in the movie 11'09"01 had my newly in love twenty-three year old heart trembling and my tear ducts working overtime.

But I'll admit, since then it's been a bit of a drought. I've seen some wonderful concerts, movies and plays over the past few years, but none have touched me thoroughly enough to recall them easily as I write this.

But this past weekend, after reading Rafael Yglesias's sublime novel A Happy Marriage, the drought is officially over.

The novel (I say a novel but it feels incredibly autobiographical) is an unwavering look at a 30 year marriage, its awkward beginnings, blissful and passionate early years, and then the highs and lows of the relationship as it progresses, as husband and wife delve deeper into one another, eventually understanding and accepting those qualities in one another that had blocked and frustrated the relationship over time.

The story alternates between today, when Margaret, the wife, is in the last few weeks of her losing battle with cancer, and earlier episodes of the marriage, from courtship to child rearing, to adultery to comfortable middle age. The deft architecture of the novel allows a stunningly beautiful story to be told, commanding only total immersion by the reader.

I spent nearly four hours on Saturday morning finishing the novel, and spent nearly as long sobbing as I made my way through the story. Not delicate tears, but full bodied abject sorrow. And after I had finished reading the last scene, which is as touching an ending to any story as one will find, my sorrow did not abate. A stroll through my favorite neighborhoods did not lift my spirits. Another book, which I have since decided is utterly charming, only felt hollow and pathetic in the wake of Mr. Yglesias's tour de force. In fact, it took a full 24 hours for me to feel myself again.

So why put oneself through such trauma? All I can tell you is that I am still thinking of the book days later, marveling at the ability of words on a page to make me feel so intensely.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Home Fries

The "silly season" seems to have materialized this year suddenly and with a vengeance. I had nary a moment at home last week which, for one who appreciates the draw of the hearth as much as I do, was a bit discombobulating. Now don't get me wrong, I love a good party just as much as the next girl, but to go an entire week without eating at home is rare for me indeed.

Last Monday Paul and I attended, along with a couple of friends, a dress rehearsal of Sting's concert at St. John the Divine (the cathedral, which embarrassingly I had never set foot in before, was indeed divine). Our host had warned us ahead of time that there would be no hits played, and a sneak peek at the set list revealed that not only would there be no hits, but there would not be one song any of us recognized played that evening. I won't lie, I was nervous.

It turned out to be a delightful evening of wintry folkish songs in the end. Some sort of baby bagpipes were played by a fetching young woman who doubled as a extremely able fiddler, a lute made more than one appearance, and we were even serenaded by an adorable boy's choir from Newark. And Sting, decked out in a sexy version of Victorian men's garb, conversed with the audience. A very different vibe than I recalled from the Police tour a year or two ago.

Anyway, in his introduction, which the New York Times appropriately dubbed PBS-like, he described the draw of winter as being the idea of a cozy home serving as a oasis amidst the inclimate winter weather. Now when I think of cozy I think of fires in fireplaces. Tragically I do not have a fireplace. So my thoughts meandered to the warm spot in my apartment...the oven, which is quite heavily used in the winter months, and by extension the kitchen. And then obviously, my train of thought, as it so often does, settled on food as an endpoint.

As were were uptown, quite far from home, our need for food ended up being satisfied with some of Charles Gabriel's fabulous fried chicken even farther uptown. Mr. Gabriel's talent with a fry pan and extraordinary hospitality went quite a long way towards replicating the pleasures of home, but I was still craving something from my own stove.

So in a brief stolen moment at home I, thinking back to Sting's wise words, opted for something warm, unchallenging and fortifying. Potatoes are by far the most inspiring item at the farmer's market at the moment (I am not being sarcastic here, the varieties that Paffenroth brings week after week boggle the mind) so I had (and actually, still have) massive quantities of them on the kitchen counter. Home fries seemed the obvious choice. With such fabulous potato specimens why not let them shine, relatively unobscured?

I started with an onion sliced in half moons, and fried it slowly in olive oil until the pieces were meltingly tender. Next, after a bit more olive oil, I threw in some boiled potatoes, cut into healthy sized pieces, to fry away. After a few crusts began to form, I sprinkled over half teaspoon or so of smoked paprika...a spice I have to admit I still haven't gotten all that into but which I love with potatoes...and tossed in some chopped parsley for freshness.

And then I defiled the whole carefully calibrated endeavor with ketchup. It was perfection.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Great Indeed

Assuming you actually read my righthand sidebar, you may have noticed that I have been reading Daniel Okrent's Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center for a long time. And you may, incorrectly, assume that it a book that requires slogging, that I was reading it out of some sort of imagined obligation rather than out of any real interest. But rather, my time with Great Fortune was interrupted by a book club selection, so you see the extended timeline was most certainly not the fault of Mr. Okrent.

This weekend, after some not so subtle prodding from the very patient librarians from the New York Public Library, I finally completed the tome.

And, for the record, loved it.

I'm not exactly a history buff, but I find the history of places that I know to be fascinating. It's just much more relevant for me to know that a train once hit a cow on 58th Street before Park Avenue was built than to know that Magellan sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. I suppose that in the same way I find my family history to be interesting...because I like to know who and what came before me...I like to know the ancestry of the places I have lived and those that I now reside in.

And so I loved the stories of the obstinate land owners, the self important heads of cultural and educational institutions, the ego-centric but brilliant entertainers and artists, the brave and original architects and most of all, the courage and civic-mindedness of the second and third generation Rockefellers, who conceived of and completed, respectively, what is still the most complex, imaginative and well-designed real estate development in New York's history.

It got me to thinking...where are all of the scions of great fortunes these days? It seems they are particularly positioned to add to society...the first generation spends all of its time making the money, and the next generations can spend time thinking of creative and powerful ways to spend it. So who's it going to be?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cleaning House

Spring cleaning seems to get all of the attention but I have an equally strong desire to clean house just as winter is falling as well. Last weekend, fueled by leeks, I went on a deep cleaning rampage. Rummaging through my cabinets and freezer only served to remind me of how sad a state my kitchen is in. Supplies (although now very well organized) are running low, and any impromptu guests who might stop by would be distinctly out of luck in the food and drink department. During the holidays this just seems pathetic.

Exhibit 1, my usually stuffed but now terribly vacant freezer:

Before replenishing my stocks I feel a burning desire to purge myself of the old foodstuffs. I want a blank slate for the new arrivals, so I'm on a mission to devise ways to use up the motley crew of edibles I've collected over the past few months.

Odd edible #1: fava bean cream. I was getting a massive amount of fava beans in my CSA box in the spring and early summer and as much as I love them mashed with olive oil and mint and spread on toast, even the best of dishes can become a tad old after the twentieth tasting in a month. So I turned to Eugenia Bone's excellent book Well Preserved for advice. And she advised fava bean cream. Pureed favas with stock, pine nuts, garlic, salt...and frozen for future use. And of course I forgot to use it. Until now.

I went back to Ms. Bone and she suggested fava bean cream risotto. I do as I'm told.

I liberated the fava cream from the freezer and set it on the counter to defrost.

And I dug into the freezer for a container of shrimp stock I had made ages ago from some shrimp shells and the remnants of a fennel bulb. Again, totally forgot about it. I mean, what does one use shrimp stock for anyway? Risotto, that's what. Into a pot to warm it went.

I gently sauteed an onion in olive oil, threw in some arborio rice (which I'm also trying to use up as I'm told that carnaroli rice is the risotto rice to use...I wonder if I'll be able to tell the difference?), tossed in the last bit of a bottle of sake in place of white wine (one random container of consumables down!), and let it bubble away.

Then I did the whole add a little stock, stir, let it evaporate, repeat thing a few times until I had a lovely creamy mass. Handfuls of parmesan were added (the parmesan is now gone as well!), salt and pepper and a bit of chopped parsley and then, after a copious drizzle of delicious olive oil dinner was served. On the couch. With a glass of wine. In front of 30 Rock.

Bliss defined.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Life has been frenetic lately, and there has been precious little time and space for my mind to wander. No surfing the internet, no wandering the streets of the city aimlessly, no languorous, involved cooking...a dearth of inspiration has been the result, and my apartment has begun to feel a bit cold and lifeless as well. I suppose that is what time crunch weeknight cooking and a lack of visitors will do to a place.

So I was pleasantly surprised to come across a few bookmarks I had set aside back when I had expanses of free time available...all visions of warm, well lived in homes.

Without fail my coziest times of day is breakfast. The city still feels soft in the early light, the quiet suggests the promise of the day ahead, and I get to stand, warm mug of tea in hand, alone with my thoughts or newspapers, depending on my mood. Jen Causey must be a kindred spirit, as she captures this calm, content moment every morning at her blog Simply Breakfast. I'm consistently tempted by the meals themselves (she's got me convinced that I should start eating greens in the morning after a few particularly appetizing photos), as well as the beautiful dishes the food is served on (I am seriously coveting the mug from November 16th and 17th) and the linens that accompany each meal. Each photo is the definition of a life well lived.

And given my distinctly domestic bent, it baffles me that I've gotten along so long without Remodelista, but it wasn't until relatively recently that it became a must-visit site for me. I am always swept away by their backstage tours of various hotels, inns and pensiones...you cannot tell me that you can resist the charms of the Cotswald home Temple Guiting Manor, now can you?

I do believe that, despite the twin beds, I would have one of the best night's sleeps of my life in this room:

I simply must find a gabled apartment with timber beams to live in at some point in my life.

Or perhaps you would prefer the Italian Alps at the Pension Briol? I adore the vaguely ramshackle but well maintained vibe of the exterior.

And the wood and the white just makes it all feel so soft and easy and clean...exactly as an ideal room should be. Or at least my ideal room.

As winter approaches I've been considering the possibility of a new rug for the living room...somehow my sisal rug does not provide much warmth or comfort once the weather turns cold. I have turned to Woven Accents for my rug fantasies and find myself quite taken with the bird in flight.

But my odd hide obsession continues...perhaps a cowhide carpet from the fabulous Horne would be the more satisfying option? I do love their linens and textiles...why not their floor coverings?

And lastly, for my poor neglected kitchen, the always fascinating site Put Up Or Shut Up, a blog devoted to the art of canning, provides a myriad of ideas, even at this time of year when fresh produce is scarce. I now have two excuses to buy those intensely fragrant and floral quinces that I've had my eye on at the Union Square Market. Paradise Jelly and quince paste? It's all too wonderful. I'm clearing time on the schedule and space on my stovetop immediately.
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