Tumult! Chaos! Ham & Swiss on Rye!

Deep into the Billy Connolly bio, written by his wife Pam Stephenson, and moved immensely by his fortitude.  The prose is a smidge dense, but loving, and the insights of Dr. S, a clinical psychologist, compensate for the paucity of lyricism.  I do love Connolly, his high and low wit, and his passion for the imperfections.

Meanwhile: My own bio of sorts, Call-It-A-Memoir, whatever sells, wink, nod, wink, is at the point where race shoves the narrator’s identity into deeper recesses, and where his knowledge of not fitting in no longer becomes something to wrestle with, but rather it is a thing to embrace.  It gives him the perspective to feel and understand.

He cooks, he thinks, he thinks about cooking.

Why, just last night: Fried tofu with plum sauce and chili and toasted sesame seeds, tuna dumplings in black bean sauce atop buckwheat soba, and pea pods with horseradish.

It’s what gives us strengths, these sets of distractions, until surroundings become just that.

I heard a great Billy Connolly joke on You Tube the other day: The Queen Mother was hosting the King of Tonga at a parade in London.  The royal horses trotted by and one let out a loud fart right in front of them.  The Queen Mother turned to the king and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”  The king said, “I thought it was the horse.”


My Life in the Kitchen

It’s Thursday morning, my kind of day, overcast, gray, the threat of rain.  I’m coming along with my book, and am up to being sent to the Voc, summers spent cooking at a German-American place, and am soon to describe a decade behind the stove at three NY restaurants.  The experience of being black is part of the narrative, and slowly the narrator establishes a reliable voice that leads to the work’s second section about the death of a family.

Meanwhile, as ballast, it’s been gazpacho nightly, with sides of raw baby onions, raw radishes, roasted baby peppers, and microwaved corn.  The proteins have varied: Grilled chicken sausages, eggplant parmigiano, fried tofu, tuna meatballs in tomato sauce.

The combination of recalling life in the kitchen and the now of life in the kitchen and the threat of rain create a spell.

NYC Dining

I’d booked a table at Red Rooster, but felt certain that the back story of Chef Marcus Samuelsson was far more interesting than the hagiographic and well-written one he told in his riveting and inspiring memoir, “Yes, Chef.”  Besides, the menu at RR is a hodgepodge, at least as shown at Open Table.  The main reason to go was to see what he was up to.  I can’t say that I enjoyed Aquavit when he was there .  You can see my heart wasn’t in it.

I thought of Tertulia instead; chefs I know in NYC love it.  But I also wanted to return to Il Buco di Alimentari, my new favorite Italian place in town.  And Esca?  Well, that’s like coming home.

I also needed to choose a lunch place near Maison O because I’m meeting the chef there to discuss a book.

Wrench in the works!  The review today in the NYT of Betony.  Wow.  Noting, “flavors clear and pure,” and nodding to Daniel Humm who trained the chef, it sounded like just my kind of place.  Look, ma: No burgers, pork, or offal!  A chef who writes a business plan that includes high-end ingredients:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/28/dining/reviews/restaurant-review-betony-in-midtown.html?ref=dining&_r=0

So there you have it: Il Buco, Betony, and Esca.

Meanwhile back at the ranch: seeing “The Grandmaster” this weekend and eating at home.


Crunch, Crunch, Crunch

This morning was the first of many to follow, no doubt, when stepping on sidewalks under the oaks, or near them, will call to mind what it is like to stroll on a beach with seashells.  The acorns are blanketing the cement, dozens of squirrels are in heated competition.

For the first time in nearly a year: Two trees have light yellow leaves.  Last night? Dark at 7:30.

All this bodes well for those among us who don’t go outdoors much, unless it’s to walk the dogs (thanks to them for bringing nature so close and immediate), go to the gym, or shop for groceries.

Speaking of which, it’s been kind of a Vegan Kingdom here lately.  Well, nearly.  Gazpacho every night, fried tofu every other night, eggplant parmigiano now and then.

I tend to eat high fat foods when experiencing stress: Nothing like a slice with sausage and onion to dispel gravity.  But lately, say about ten months, I might as well open a pizza joint.

Better to eat veg and count acorns.

Time for A Change

A  blue jay screeched territorially about 6:08 A.M. and within minutes I was out with the dogs on the streets for the day’s first walk.  Squirrels, reminding me of monkeys seen in India, were everywhere.  On black telephone wires, roofs, in gardens, and up and down tree trunks.  On Brattle and then Channing street, the oaks kept dropping lots of acorns and that reminded me of hail.

It’s not always good to be reminded of things when reality is present.  That suggests a limited adherence and a preoccupation that curtails observation.

Meanwhile, seen or unseen, summer is ending, and people are returning from trips overseas, trips to big cities, trips to New England, and will soon be back home complaining about a need for more money and a desire for social justice while getting their kids ready for school.

Me, I’m looking for the perfect croissant.  Legend has it that it was invented in 1683 in Vienna to celebrate victory over the Turks who had laid siege to the city.  Who knows?  I started thinking about croissants after reading Marcus Samuelsson’s thoughts on it in his marvelous book.  He describes working in the bakery attached to Georges Blanc.

Blanc’s establishment wowed me completely, back in the day, although his celebrated Bresse chicken in cream sauce was way too rich for my blood.

Anyway, back to croissant.

Boston excels at baked goods: Pizza, bread, etc.  So it’s no surprise that the croissant here are outstanding.  My favorite currently is from the Swiss Bakery–this place is the real thing.  Owner Thomas Stohr’s goods are as good as those from his mother country.  We are talking a fine crust and a moist interior and at $3.00, a breakfast so satisfying you can skip lunch, if you like.

Good food provides focus, it’s fair to say, ballast as things around us change.



What’s Going On Here?

You ever wake up and ask yourself, “What am I doing here?”  Of course you have. Bedsheets knotted at the bottom of the frame, water from the faucet flowing, a loud knock on the door.  I’ll tell you: Some people, and you know who you are, live life every single day like that.  Ironically disengaged, on target with the rapid and not so rapid flow of moods within and in love with whatever you see of yourself in others, but otherwise as dumb as a post.

Hence, the magic of cooking.  I mean: Who doesn’t like a good meal?  And for those of us from cultures where food has cultural implications–Ethiopian born, raised by Italian-Americans–the kitchen as a venue takes on a reality all its own.  Melkam megeb, as my grandmother used to say.

Like last night.

Three baby chickens with Amish butter, salt, and pepper oven roasted for about an hour at 300.  Removed.  To the drippings this was added: Parboiled and tiny pasta, miso broth, a few spoonfuls of Japanese rice wine vinegar and soy, a pinch of Indian curry, and all the kernels from a fresh ear of corn.  Stirred over a low flame.  At the very end, four thinly sliced radishes and some Thai basil were added.  A bed was made of this.  The birds were put on top.

Total prep time was about 10 minutes.  Total cooking time was about 70 minutes.

I mean, seriously?  You can take the private disorientation and put it where the sun don’t shine.  I’m pulling up a chair.  I am digging in.

Life in the Real World

I’ve recently been coming up nose to nose with those for whom reality is an option rather than an obligation and, folks, lemme tell you, it’s not easy.  You try to talk about a real relationship, a situation that requires planning and pragmatism, and what do you get instead?


Ken and Barbie just had their first fight.  Ken wants to go on their honeymoon to the beach because he lives surfing, swimming, and playing sand volleyball.  But Barbie likes to ski, go on hikes, and sit in front of the fire at the lodge while drinking a cup of cocoa.

Telling you.

So where’s the relief?

Right.  Cooking.

I’m reading Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir, “Yes, Chef,” and it’s finally picking up on about page 132.  Race enters, identity is challenged, and he pushes himself harder in the kitchen at a posh hotel in Interlaken, Switzerland.  The cooking provides a refuge.

Of note, too, is that Samuelsson wanted to be a chef from about age fifteen.  I love passion and focus.

Speaking of the refuge of cooking: The baby chickens just arrived.  I’ll roast these babies in a miso-butter broth, remove them from the oven to cool, and cook tiny pasta in the drippings and broth along with corn kernels, Thai basil, and sliced radishes.  The trick here will be the timing, of course: Adding the radishes and Thai basil at the very end.

I have an idea: Why not 1/2 the time at a beach resort and 1/2 the time in the mountains?  Barbie, you good with that?  Oh, honey, don’t pout!

Getting It Right

I heard a comedian on the radio the other day poke fun at a pizza franchise for introducing sandwiches; he noted that the enterprise had not yet nailed the pizza so why was it expanding a repertoire?  That’s such a great point, really, especially when applied to dining out and cooking at home.

Look, so many chefs pride themselves on their creativity, but don’t know how to use salt and pepper properly, source second rate ingredients to cut costs, and come up with slogans like “sustainable,” “heirloom,” “artisanal,” and “organic” rather than identifying what deepens flavors.

And at home there is a desire among some cooks to try new recipes of foods that have not been tasted previously or are not well understood rather than trying to perfect about a dozen dishes, if you’re lucky, that are easy to prepare, relatively healthy, and are versatile enough to satisfy repeatedly.  (Like gazpacho, a couple of good pasta dishes, a roast chicken, two or three fish dishes, etc.)

I’m reading Marcus Samuelsson’s lovely memoir, to inspire me in my latest endeavor to write about what it was to grow up Ethiopian in New Jersey, and I’m struck by his sensitivity to taste and his feel for ingredients.  He doesn’t conjure, he respects.  He doesn’t create, he appreciates.  After all, how much can anyone understand of many ingredients in any situation?


A Calm Before the Storm

I’m not saying I’m Cassandra or anything like her, nor am I one to prognosticate, I’m more of a do the math kind of guy, a Nate Silver-ish person who embraces evidence and numbers.  That said, all kinds of  stuff–bad stuff–is about to happen–really bad stuff–and you know what?

There is nothing anyone can do about.  Not a thing.  Not a damned thing.

So I’m stocking up.

Got my Dutch herring, loin lox, belly lox, horseradish creamed cheese.  Go, Russ & Daughters, go.

This afternoon, or maybe even earlier?  Three Amish chickens, four  Amish poussin, two L.I. duck breasts, and four pounds of “waygu” style ground beef arrive.  Yo, DeBragga!  I’m talking to you.  This is the N.J.-based outfit that supplies to the top tier restaurants in NYC.  You want recipes?  Fuhgedaboutit. Here’s the secret: Buy the best ingredients you can afford, learn how to use salt and pepper, develop knife skills, buy wooden spoons, get old school cast iron pans, and figure out when something is done cooking.

Meanwhile, what’s that I hear?  Is it a low whistle?  The sound of a high wind?  You know it’s true: You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

The Heirloom Tomato Dilemma

I know it’s on all our minds: Do we use heirloom tomatoes for gazpacho or not?  I was thinking about the 525 dead in Egypt, the Syrian civil war, and the announcement today of “a huge explosion” in Beirut, but then I realized: Does anyone care about any of that?

Aren’t we more concerned with heirloom tomatoes?  Never mind that it’s essentially a marketing term–there is no such thing, botanically speaking, as “heirloom” anything, and the term was made up to sell tomatoes that have no evident health benefits or better taste–aren’t we more concerned with what type of tomatoes we eat than the 21st Century Balkans?

I mean, face it: Most of us in the U.S. read about history and some participate in it, but our reading and participation don’t change the course of events for the most part.

Whereas deciding whether to use an heirloom tomato or not?  That is a game changer.

Have a look at what scientists are saying about heirloom tomatoes.

In an article in Scientific American that appeared on 3/30/09, the author notes: “The product of archaic breeding strategies, heirloom tomatoes are hardly diverse and are no more ‘natural’ than grocery-store varieties.”  However, the author notes, help is on the way: Thanks to Monsanto, the company despised by anti-GMO folks (who could not care less if GMOs create higher yield crops needed to feed people in the developing world), research is creating an heirloom, “rainbow-streaked tomato less prone to cracking and also endowed with 12 disease-resistant genes.”

Is that a car bomb I just heard go off?  Don’t be silly!  It’s a truck on the way to the Farmer’s Market with this week’s supply of heirloom tomatoes!