Geniuses in the Kitchen

I started reading, “10:04,” the new novel by Ben Lerner, which opens in Chelsea, NYC, and describes with poignant vivacity a meal he had of a whole baby octopus, and the intensity of the writing vacillates between his preoccupation with the writing itself and the real effort to describe with pith his observations. I’m not sure he succeeds, but the work is unlike most other writing these days, except for Dyer and Ferrante and Knausgaard, and for that it’s instructive and worthwhile.

Nowadays, the celebration of cuisine is bigger than ever in the States, and this Fall alone literally six dozen or more new restaurants have opened in NYC.  How does one keep up?

I am finding that my favorites in town are few, and that the list of regular places is small.  I keep adding names, taking away a few, but in sum, as with books, not many make a lasting impression or are worth a return visit.

I think that’s because what’s attempted is so very difficult, and that chefs add more rather than take away. The French way of layering ingredients ultimately convinces chefs that their interpretation matters more than their observations.  It’s the same tension that Lerner writes about: His internal view, and the view of things around him.  It’s true genius to reconcile those two seemingly disparate experiences, but, let’s face it, percentage-wise it’s just impossible for more than about 5%, and that’s generous.

Seasonal Mix-Ups

Normally, it’s spring with its range of greens that inspires in me a concatenation of work and thoughts, but somehow and for reasons known and unknown the past eleven weeks have spurred.

Here’s the latest piece:

On Sunday I’ve a piece in the Sunday Boston Globe on Switzerland.  This past week: Gastronomica reviewed rather favorably my book, “Back of the House.”  The reviewer, a professor of social psychology at Princeton, noted at one point a comparison between the book and the writing of Orwell on restaurants.

Keeping up with a very pleasant regimen of reading two books each week, no matter how many pages, I’ve enjoyed seventeen.  Currently, I’m reading, “The Polyglots,” by William Gerhardie; I hadn’t known about this classic, which is said to have influenced Waugh and all the other English greats.  Following that it’s the new Eichmann book by Bettina Stangneth; I love the articles I’ve read about this philosophical work that peels away the rubbish laid down thick by Arendt who seems, in retrospect, to have been either listening to the music in her head during the infamous trial or gullible, which seems unlikely.

Meanwhile: Last night went to Legal Osteria, in Charlestown, with someone and his wife who of course know the place, and I’m here to tell you: It was top tier Italian.

The Strike That Will Come in 48 Hours

Labor Day ended, and this Thursday labor will be part of the news when fast food workers strike to demand an increase nationally of wages to create a minimum of $15 per hour.

In unrelated news, the Science section of today’s NYT makes note of a groundbreaking study that for the first time shows a loss of body fat and a decrease in cardiovascular problems from a non-caloric restrictive diet based on lower carbohydrate intake and more fat in proteins.

Those are the two First World food stories of the week.

Summer, 2014, Good Riddance!

Lots of highs and one low this summer, and the low was very low so with that in mind it is definitely time for this one to move on.  Or, as the wise turtle in Crusader Rabbit used to say, “Time for this one to come home.”

The past few days, fine, yes, it’s been a celebration of summer’s bounty: Cold tomato soup made to perfection and so fresh tasting you feel as if the tomato has just been picked–garnish with any herb, from chive to basil, drizzle with good olive oil and sprinkle with a smidge of salt, and you might as well be a ladybug feasting in the garden.

Or jerked chicken in a homemade marinade culled from Vernor, the king of jerk in NYC: Equal amounts of soy and white vinegar, fresh thyme, ginger, and onion and dried allspice and a few pods of dried red pepper and some cracked black pepper.

Or grilled swordfish with a bit of lime juice and salt.

Still, what’s left is a desire for absence, and the spool of “U Got the Look,” which keeps playing between my ears.

Dining In, Thanks To Purveyors

I spent $12 at EATALY a short while ago.  Three types of fresh pasta, three dinners, two people, do the math, that’s $2 p.p. per dinner.  OK, fine, add in the tomato sauce with butter and onion; the dried porcini and tomato sauce; and, the 1/2 pound of ground veal, and you get another $8.

Let’s face it: The history of poverty in Italy led to great resourcefulness in cooking.

I just read “Al Dente,” which is a fascinating history of food in Italy from long ago until today.  Briefly: Many sources of gastronomy from as far north as Germany and as far south as Africa.  The 20th century military created a national cuisine.  Vegetables and fruits figure prominently.  Basta.


The Last Week of Summer

I can’t say that the past eighteen months have exactly been a bonanza, but for sure we are talking memorable times, which amounts to something as stories only happen to people who can tell them.  Speaking of which, just yesterday a naked man entered a shower in the locker room at the gym where I go daily.  (Yes, of course, he was naked.  But it is important to be clear.  Imagine if I had left that word “naked” out.  Then you might think he had clothing on, which would be confusing, wouldn’t it?)

He had a copy of the third volume of Knausgaard in front of his locker, and when he emerged wet and energetic, moving like a white lab transformed into a person, we talked for a good five minutes about the book.  He is writing a long essay about it for a well known national publication.  He talked about its importance in changing what a novel or memoir can be.

Turned out, of course, that he is a writer.  We shook hands hastily after we had concluded our talk and I moved quickly to exit.  The guy turned out to be the very well known editor of a very well known magazine. Someone whose name I knew.

Somehow this was reassuring.  It’s been a rough week; I’ll take a good conversation any time–not a distraction, but rather the type of rich contact that makes me glad to be human.

Later that same day I returned home to enjoy a very tomato based gazpacho followed by a slow roasted Amish chicken (shipped up by DeBragga; you buy local, I’ll buy quality) with a salad of raw fennel.

Tonight it’s plin from Eataly.

Coincidence?  I think not.

What Food Is, What Food Isn’t

Chiefly, food can distract us from more pressing, submerged experiences.  Standing over a stove or dining out, the aromas, textures, and flavors require focus.  That focus might go elsewhere.

Take last night.  Please.  We’re talking a gazpacho.  Could anything be easier to prepare, tastier, seasonal, or economical?  Followed by a few strands of bigoli in a guanciale sauce.  Piquant.  Finally, pan seared big-eye tuna tossed with Chinese chives, bean sprouts, and a light sauce of hoisin, soy, and ground cayenne pepper.

The entire prep took about 18 minutes.

Throughout it, I could forget a few key things in my life.

The “trick” is to limit the amount of time spent cooking, and use that cooking time in a restorative way.  Like a vacation from the mind–few things are as mindless as cooking.

As Summer Goes On

There’s a lot of loose talk about summer coming to close, and there are signs, too, but really?  No haste.  I will say that seeing Halloween decorations in a store yesterday unhinged me.

No, I’d rather acknowledge the daily, ever changing trees in this neighborhood, and how each day on walks one can see subtle and not so subtle evidence of lush, green renewal.

It’s a productive time for me, unusually, and I’ve been maintaining a steady diet of reading two good books each week, writing a few articles for national publications, and I’ve even written 32 pages of my new book that I can stand to look at.

I’m not sure why it is that I’ve been so focused.  Less gin?  Less drama in my personal life?  A sense, finally, of personal authority?

Even in the kitchen, focus is greater.  Alacrity of prep, etc.  Why, just last night in 20 minutes of prep there was a dry rubbed rack of pork ribs, gazpacho, homemade baked beans, and a salad of cherry tomatoes and fennel.

Meanwhile as Rilke, whose poems I translated ages ago for an undergraduate thesis, wrote:

My eyes rest upon your face wide-open;

and they hold you gently, letting you go

when something in the dark begins to move.

Where to Eat in NYC

Now that’s apparent that I’ll be in NYC more often than I’ve been since I was in high school, and having enough wherewithal to eat food other than falafel and pizza, it has become clear that I have to decide where to eat with more time on my hands than the usual three day weekend of five meals.

I’m enamored completely with il Buco di Alimentari.  That stays on the list.  So does Esca.  So does Rotisserie Georgette.  And there are others I enjoy very much, but when I look at menus online and think of meals in town, the list narrows.

Time to try new places.

I’m looking forward to checking out Black Seed and the new cafe @ Russ & Daughters.  Curious, too, about Barchetta (despite the strange menu of entrees).  Eager to go to Bar Primi.  Want to check out Heartwood, my friend Mark Fiorentino’s new place.  Kajitsu, new location, worth a visit.  Motorino, on the list.

Meanwhile, closer to home, it’s a big order from Browne Trading: Get cooking.

Time Is on My Side

It’s only 142 shopping days left until Christmas, last week I saw small acorns scattered on the sidewalk, and today bark of sycamore trees had peeled and fallen to the ground.  Yesterday evening it was dark at 7:30 P.M. when I returned from the fifth walk of the day with the dogs.

I’ve been keeping up with my regimen of reading two books a week, which started six weeks ago, and having finished with the very good novels, “The Last of the Vostyachs,” (Diego Marani), “Never Any End to Paris,” (Enrique Viula-Matas), and “Running in the Family,” (Michael Ondaatje), it’s on to, “The Lover” (Marguerite Duras), ” and “I am Zlatan” (Zlatan Ibrahimovic), and “Shire” (Ali Smith).

I don’t get out much.

That’s good news for a couple of reasons.

First, there are the eight good pages of my new book.  Eight pages I can stand to look at.

Then, too, it’s the cooking, which is mostly vegetarian, due to the bounty, such as the fried zucchini blossoms I made last night, but also includes tonight’s ground turkey with Chinese chives, fried tofu in hoisin, and hot sesame and black vinegar noodles.