Archive for the ‘Food Obsessions’ Category
Spring is here! Or, rather, it’s supposed to be — the time changed a few weeks ago, meaning longer days, the equinox occurred last week, and the stores are all full of flowery frocks and open-toed sandals. The only thing missing is actual warmth, which has been elusive, and sun.
Folks around here have a bit of Spring fever. I suppose they’re entitled. For the first time in recent memory, we had a real winter here in Alabama, complete with several cold weeks in a row, a bit of snowfall, and lots of rain. Having hit its stride back in January, winter seems disinclined to leave. My fellow citizens are generally grumpy about it, being used to mild winters, but I’ve been pretty happy about it. I like the cold and rain. Still, as much as I enjoy cold weather, I’ll be happy to see it leave this year. I’m tired of my winter clothes and shoes and, surprisingly, I’m even becoming weary of grapefruit and fennel, my two favorite wintertime foods. It’s time to move on, I say.
So, seeking out a little bit of cheery Spring, I decided to make pesto. It’s not basil season (not even close), so I went with another green wonder: pistachios. For a bit of tang, I threw in a jar of marinated artichokes;we can pretend that it’s really spring and that they are in season. Lemon juice beckons to the sun, which will hopefully join us in the coming days. It will be most welcome.
Rigatoni with Pistachio Pesto & Artichokes
1/2 cup of shelled pistachios that are unsalted and roasted**
4 cloves garlic, minced and divided
1/2 cup & 2 tbs. of olive oil, divided
1 lb. hot, cooked rigatoni with 1/2 cup of the boiling water reserved
1 8 oz. jar of marinated artichokes, drained
2 tbs. fresh basil, chopped or 1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. lemon zest
The juice of one lemon
1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup chopped pistachios for garnishing
Salt and Pepper to taste
Blitz pistachios and 2 cloves of garlic in a food processor. You want the nuts to resemble coarse sand. Add salt and pepper. Turn on motor and add olive oil in a steady drizzle until a smooth paste forms. Adjust seasonings. You will wind up with about 1 cup’s worth of pesto, enough for 2 recipes. Set aside 1/2 cup — you won’t need that much — and refrigerate or freeze the rest.
Pasta & Artichokes:
Sauté the remaining garlic, Aleppo pepper, and artichokes in 2tbs. oil over medium-high heat for 3 minutes, or until garlic is fragrant. Be careful not to burn it. Add the drained pasta and dried basil, if using and lemon zest. Gently toss around in the pan to coat. Remove pan from heat. Add pesto in 2 tbs. increments until the pesto sufficiently coats the pasta along with a bit of the reserved pasta water and the lemon juice. Coat pasta and artichokes thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add a bit of olive oil if the mixture seems dry. Spoon into bowls and top with parmesan, fresh basil, if using, and chopped pistachios. Serve immediately.
**Pistachios are crazily expensive in the grocery store — about $6 per cup — but they’re much more reasonably priced on-line, even if you account for shipping costs. Even better, they’re fresher– much fresher. Nutsonline is a great source for pistachios and other nuts. If you’re feeling flush, you could purchase some Bronte pistachios online from Kalyustan’s but that will set you back $65 per pound (without shipping). Finally, Zingerman’s carries some prepared pistachio pesto made with Sicilian pistachios from Agrigento, but it’s also bit pricey at $30 per 8 oz. jar.
When I was an undergraduate, I took a class in European geography that was interesting in many ways, but frustrating because one of the students, a guy from Greece named Stavros, anointed himself the resident expert in all things European and assumed a kind of guest-lecturer position in the class. He was tolerable at first, but quickly grew tiresome for his overly loud, opinionated, and inconsiderate ways. Worse, he never missed an opportunity to remind the class that his family owned an island in Greece. “Do you understand that we own it ourselves?” he once asked, rhetorically. Day in, day out, this guy held forth. Why the professor, didn’t stop him, I’ll never know. It was excruciating.
But some good did come of this situation. Near the end of the semester, Stavros found himself in a tense discussion with a group of fed-up classmates over the issue of, of all things, baklava. The Greek all but claimed that his own grandmother had invented the pastry, so some clever person challenged Stavros to reproduce his Granny’s masterpiece for the class, which, surprisingly, he agreed to do. It seemed unlikely that he would follow through, but on the evening of the final exam, Stavros produced not one, but two, huge pans full of obviously homemade baklava.
I turned in my exam, took a piece of it, and walked out into the night. Without expecting too much, I bit into the baklava. And then, stunned, I came to a complete stop. I’ve been stalled in that spot ever since.
Oh, Stavros, exactly where is that island of yours?
His baklava was incredible, one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. Distinctive layers of filo dough filled with a combination of crushed and whole pistachio nuts, cinnamon,and orange flower water. It was buttery without being greasy. The sugar syrup was thick and deeply caramel-colored, somehow not as relentlessly sweet as you’d expect but totally luscious. I had only one piece of it, but twenty years later, I still lie awake at night, thinking of that miraculous baklava, the unexpected crunch of it, its buttery flavor, its deep, complex sweetness.
Exactly what made Stavros’s baklava so incredible? It seemed much more than just the sum of its parts. Was it the surprise that he rose to the challenge in the first place? That such a person could be so generous? That someone so utterly objectionable could cook something that so absolutely wasn’t? That he toasted the pistachios?
Eating is such an intimate act. Nothing that we do is so intimate, in some ways, not even sex. Bite; Chew; Swallow; Digest: one must be brave to eat. Few of our activities have such unreflected upon consequences. We ingest and we become what we ingest both literally and figuratively. The literal becoming is acknowledged in the old cliché: “You are what you eat,” but I can’t think of a phrase that captures that figurative becoming. Maybe because it’s more complicated to understand.
Stavros’s baklava is a part of me now, a mental measuring tool. In bakeries and restaurants, I figuratively take out this device and measure a piece of baklava against this gold standard. And Stavros, a person I wanted only to forget, has, through cooking, become part of the landscape of my mind. It suggests something about the power of those who cook. I’m aware of that as I cook for Mimi now. What flavors will become part of her own mental landscape? What foods will she reflect upon as standards of perfection? What other factors will season the meals of her memory?
I’ve been thinking about such questions lately because I’m still suffering from the aftereffects of a cold and cannot taste very well. Oh, how I miss flavor. I miss fully participating in the intimate act of eating. I miss the satisfaction, the pleasure.
But I did have a small breakthrough recently, when Jim’s mom brought me a piece of baklava made by her hair dresser. Somehow, the taste of this little pastry penetrated through my deadened senses. It brought back the memory of the uber-baklava and then promptly sent me to the cookbook archive that I was travelling with, in search of a recipe. And, yes, there was one that looked promising, in Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. I’ll try it in a few days, when I’ve finished unpacking and when my sense of taste returns. Until then, I’ll fantasize about warm Greek islands and Stavros’s baklava, if not Stavros himself.
I grew up eating cranberry sauce only once or twice a year. In fact, I thought it was available in stores only during the holidays so when I discovered that it could be purchased and eaten year-round, I became a bit of a cranberry sauce fanatic, eating it nearly every day for a couple of years. Ocean Spray, of course.
But then I encountered the cheery little berries in their pre-gelled state and tried out the extremely simple recipe on the side of the bag. There was no going back. Over the years, I’ve adapted the recipe a bit, but the sauce is still ridiculously easy to make and truly festive. It’s the perfect astringent accompaniment to the carb-fest that is the traditional Thanksgiving meal. It also provides a bit of a color on the plate, a small jewel among all that beige food.
This cranberry sauce is highly addictive, if I may say so myself. It’s my favorite part of the holiday meal, the only part of it that I cannot imagine changing or leaving off of the menu.
I’m not sure how much of the alcohol cooks out of the sauce, so I try to limit Mimi’s consumption, for obvious reasons. She’s none too happy about it and who can blame her? Still, a little bit is better than none.
1 scant cup sugar
3/4 cup orange juice
1 cinnamon stick
a pinch of salt
1 12 oz. bag of fresh cranberries
1 tsp. orange peel
2 tbs. Grand Marnier
Bring the orange juice, sugar, cinnamon stick, and salt to a boil in a large, heavy sauce pan. Add the cranberries and simmer on medium heat for five minutes, stirring occasionally. The cranberries will pop and thicken the sauce. Test for thickness. If you prefer a thicker sauce, let it simmer for an additional five minutes or so. Remove from heat. Add the orange peel and Grand Marnier. Stir and allow to cool. Transfer to a covered class container and continue to cool. Refrigerate for up to three days.
On Monday, Mimi was suffering from the remnants from a cold and was feeling too miserable to do much of anything. Housebound, I realized it was the perfect day to deal with the mountain of chestnuts that we had and decided to spend the morning with Mimi, making marrons glacés, candied chestnuts.
The morning sun filtered through the kitchen window and seemed to offer some kind of solar blessing to our project. We proceeded with great enthusiasm. At first.
To prepare chestnuts for cooking, (1) split them into two halves and boil for 7.5 minutes. Transfer immediately to a bowl of ice water. (2) The shell will slip off easily, (3) leaving behind only the brown skins to remove.
These are the instructions for blanching chestnuts that I found on-line. I’ve delineated the steps for a reason.
The first step, cutting the chestnuts in half, was challenging in its way, though not impossible. I blanched them as directed and then peeled off the outer shells, no problem. Notice, however, that these instructions do not offer a handy adjective to provide an idea about the degree of difficulty for the third step, removing those brown skins. There’s a reason for that.
That brown skin was something else again. Sometimes, I could get my paring knife underneath the skin and it would slip right off. When that happened, I felt in sync with the ancient rhythms of my ancestors, who undoubtedly performed this task back in the boonies of France.
Then there were the “rogue” chestnuts, whose skins simply would not come off without a lot of effort. Those were roughly treated, the skin peeled away as inefficiently as necessary by a cook whose small, sick child was growing increasingly tired of the chestnut project. Nearly two hours into the job, I finally had one quart’s worth of peeled chestnuts. Witness:
Yes, that is all there is. Luckily, it was enough.
To preserve chestnuts: simmer chestnuts, along with a split vanilla bean, in a small sauce pan at a low temperature until fork tender. This may take as long as two hours. Before cooking, weigh the chestnuts and prepare a sugar and water solution of equal weight. Simmer the sugar syrup over low heat until it thickens. This may take as long as two hours. When both the chestnuts and the syrup finish, drain the chestnuts, return them to the saucepan, submerge in the sugar syrup, add a slug of vanilla, and simmer at a low temperature until the chestnuts candy. This may take as long as an hour and a half.
It was slow going, but didn’t require much work on my part. Here are some blurry photographs of the results:
Am I happy with preserved chestnuts?
Well…I’m not one to complain about the workload, but really, this was too much for me. The tips of my fingers are shredded. It’s definitely not a job to do with a small child, especially not one who is already fractious.
The candied chestnuts and their syrup are, however, really fabulous over brown sugar ice cream.
Consider the chestnut. I’ve been considering chestnuts a lot lately, maybe even obsessively.
Because I live in Alabama, a mostly chestnut-free-state, I had to order chestnuts online in order to consider them up close. Turns out, you can get them from many sources on the net, but I chose Allen Creek Farm. Their chesnuts are gorgeous: large, shiny, and practically shouting, they’re so fresh.
The company’s website explains that the chestnut trees on Allen Creek Farm are pesticide-free. I had to order from them, in spite of the issue of the minimum order.
Four-pounds — there are now four-pounds-worth of chestnuts in my refrigerator. I also have a jar of chestnut honey, a package of chestnut flour, this book about the tragic history of the American chestnut tree, oh, and,
A Chestnut Knife
Hmmm… Did I mention that I have no idea how to prepare chestnuts? That I’ve eaten chestnuts exactly once? That I discovered only recently that the word “chestnut” contains a “t?”
What was I thinking?
Someone has a lot of chestnuts to eat.