Journal entries from January 2010

Bananas with Uni

Madrid Fusion
Last night Paco Roncero cooked dinner at the Casino; we gathered beneath all those romping putti to pick at an elegant, minimal meal.  A smidgen of raw pigeon was encircled by little dark balls.  Some were made of truffles, the other were, according to Grant Achatz, who was sitting next to me, raw apple rolled in dehydrated blueberries. I liked that very much, but it left me hungry.

At one point Ferran came over to talk about why he's decided to close his restaurant.  He said he hadn't made a new dish in two years, and it drove him crazy.  He wants to foster creativity, and he's considering how to do it.  He's been working 15 hour days; he needs time to recharge. At least I think that's what he said; the truth is that I have the hardest time understanding the words that come out of his mouth, no matter which language he is using. And yet he talks so passionately, so forcefully, I feel as if I'm absorbing the meaning through my skin.

Evenings in Madrid do not end early. Afterward a group of us went off to the Urban Hotel, where a baby-faced bartender named Junior invents wild and wonderful cocktails.  And then on to Casa Lucio for the famous huevos estrellados (eggs with potatoes), jamon iberico, cheese and anchovies washed down with copious amounts of red wine.  Around 2 a.m. I looked around the table and realized what a startlingly international group we were.  An Australian journalist who speaks 4 languages; a Belgian photographer who speaks as many.  A sommelier from Delhi, and an American who spends half his time in Spain. 

The people who come to Fusion are a wildly mixed group of chefs, writers and food producers from just about everywhere.  They gave Alain Ducasse (whose session was called, "Dialogue with a Genius"), a huge ovation. But the most fascinating encounter has been Andoni Luis Aduriz, who described his adventures with nixtamalization.  (It's a process the indiginous people of Mexico have been using for thousands of years; soaking corn in limechalk water makes it much more nutritious.)  Andoni calls it the "second skin," and I loved watching him cook.  He soaked peeled salsify in lime water to give it that crisp coat, then roasted it, split it open and served it on a bed of quinoa mixed wtih roe and topped with goosefoot.  The salsify was soft and creamy inside its second skin, and the grain bed looked like a perfect contrast.

Next he nixtamiled beets, cooking each little round until it had the wrinkled appearance of a prune. He served these little surprise packages with plum juice and sancho pepper.  But the tour de force was Jerusalem artichoke; nixtamilized it took on the precise character lump crabmeat.  When he mixed the little white shards with crabmeat there was absolutely no way to tell which was which. I desperately wanted to taste it.

Andoni's final dish was an homage to a Japanese chef.  He peeled tiny bananas and plunked theminto a lime water bath to give them a crusty second skin. He baked them and then topped each one with deep orange oblongs of sea urchin. uni. Trying to imagine the flavor in my mouth, I come up blank. I may have to make the dish myself because, unfortunately, I won't get to Mugaritz on this trip.



The subways were a mess yesterday; on the 1 you you had to go uptown to get down, and the 7 halted before the end of the line, spilling the entire train into overcrowded buses.  It took almost two hours to get to Flushing, but that somehow seemed right. Jostling along in that jerky bus I began to feel that I was in Hong Kong or Macau, and when we finally disembarked it was into streets so choked with people it was impossible to walk at anything faster than a crawl. .

Descending into the Golden Mall, fighting through the powerful funk of fermented tofu, really is like entering another country.  Ordering cold knife-but noodles and lamb burgers, with their intense cumin-tones is as difficult as making yourself understood in some foreign land. "Huh?" the woman behind the counter says, screwing up her face, and you resort to pointing.  In the next booth, where they sell a dozen juicy little pork buns for three bucks, the woman comes out shreiking when yousit down a tone of their grubby little tables with food from another stall. Children cry, people fight, garbage overflows - and absolutely everything you eat tastes wonderful.

Afterward we walked, past all the shops with their electronics, their exotic fruits, their cured meats, to M&K, a tiny little restaurant serving the food of Qindong (where the beer is made).  Too much of what we ordered was beer food - even the fried gingseng root seemed more fried than root- but I can't forget the eel, which delivered sweet, spice and richness with each bite.  I loved the cucumber salad, too, laced with garlic and little strips of pig skin.  And the rainbow fish, velvety little chunks tossed with lamb, was a wonderful, a fish with the texture of clouds and the flavor of air.  In many ways a virtual fish - all texture, no taste.

Leaving, we picked up duck buns at Corner 28. And as we flew through Queens on the 7 train, looking into all those second story windows, we still had the taste of China on our lips.


LA in the Rain

The wind is rattling the palm trees outside my window, and I'm wondering if I'm going to make it out of town before the next storm hits this battered city.  LA in the rain is more likable, somehow, less like Paradise, just another grubby American town. Yesterday, with the rain turning every street into a river we all became comrades.

There have been so many wonderful moments in these past few days.  The high point was Zocolo's celebration of Gourmet (, which felt like both a wake and a love-in.  For me the finest moment was when Laurie said that what distinguished the magazine - in all of its incarnations - was that it never talked down to its readers.  It was something I'd forgotten, but she was absolutely right.  In almost 70 years, Gourmet was a magazine that trusted its readers. Rare.

Afterward a whole group of us went to Jitlada, and that was another major moment.  It was late, and the restaurant was about to close, but Jazz stayed open to feed us dish after wonderful dish with such extraordinary generosity that I was overwhelmed.  It was all flavorful and spicy - little bundles of tea leaves filled with chiles and coconut, a salad of fried morning glory with shrimp and - best of all, enormous crabs in a peppery sauce that had me sucking the shells and licking my fingers.  There was one moment when I looked across the table and consciously thought - I am very happy."



Landing in LA, the plane was so buffeted by wind it felt as if we were being flicked around by angry gods in a celestial game of badminton. Torrential rain pounded the pavement, and every truck spewed an enormous wake on the freeway, making it almost impossible to see. Then the sun came out, bright, shiny, hot, a benediction.

I'd forgotten that LA was like that, forgotten that the winter weather here can be so extreme it makes you feel small, humble, out of control. It's so different than back east, where winter gets you in its grip and keeps you there. At home, when the snows come you hunker down, knowing the there will be little respite until the spring.  Here, you are in a constant state of expectation.

I think the food is driven by the weather. I don't mean it in the usual sense, that food is different here because the growing season is so long. More importantly, the food is different here because there is a constant sense of expectation. You never know what wonder might be lurking around the next corner.  You might drive up an ordinary street and encounter the world's best taco truck. You might  turn into a mini-mall and discover Masa. Anything seems possible - the sun could come out in a storm - and so you open up your mind. There is always hope.


Butterscotch Pudding

Nancy Silverton's Butterscotch Budino

I got this recipe off the Mercury New website, but it's been published many places.  It's truly spectacular - sweet, salty and rich all at the same time. This version is from "Great Gatherings" (Book Kitchen, 270 pp., $29.95) by the Macy'sCulinary Council.  Nancy belongs to the Council, along with  Marcus Samuelsson, Ming Tsai, Cat Cora, Rick Bayless,and Wolfgang Puck.

Butterscotch budino with caramel sauce(serves 10)
3 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 large egg
3 large egg yolks
5 tablespoons cornstarch
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons dark rum

To make budino
 in a large bowl, combine the cream and milk and set aside.In a large, heavy pot, combine brown sugar, water, and salt and place over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally to keep the mixture from scorching, for 10 to 12 minutes,or until the mixture is a deep brown and smells nutty and caramelized.Remove from the heat and immediately whisk the cream mixture into the caramelized sugar to stop the cooking. The mixture will steam vigorously and the sugar will seize. Use caution to keep from getting burned by the bubbling mixture. Whisk until smooth and the caramel is fully incorporated. Return to high heat, bring to a boil, and then turn off the heat

.In a bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolks, and cornstarch. While whisking constantly, add about half of the caramel cream, 1/2 cup at a time, to the egg mixture. Pour the combined mixtures back into the saucepan holding the remaining caramel cream and cook over medium heat,whisking constantly, for about 2 minutes, or until a very thick custard forms.Remove the custard from the heat and whisk in the butter and rum.Pour the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into ten 3/4-cup ramekins or glasses, dividing it evenly and filling to within 1/2 inch of the rim.Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or until well chilled, or for up to 3 days.

Caramel sauce
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/8 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/2 cup granulated sugar
About 1/4 cup water
1/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup crème fraiche
1 1/4 teaspoons Maldon salt

 To make the caramel sauce, pour the cream into a small saucepan.With the tip of a knife, scrape the seeds from the split vanilla bean into the bowl, and then add the pod. Place the pan over medium heat and heat for about 3 minutes, or until the cream comes to a simmer. Add the butter, remove from the heat, and set aside.Have ready a large bowl filled with ice water. In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the corn syrup and sugar. Add enough of the water to make a wet, sandy texture. Place over medium-high heat, bring to a boil, and cook without stirring, occasionally swirling the pan slightly to gauge the caramelization, for about 10 minutes, or until the sugar turns a medium amber.Remove from the heat, add the cream mixture — be careful, as it will steam and bubble vigorously — and whisk to combine. Place the pan in the ice-water bath and let cool.
In a chilled bowl, whip the cream with a whisk until it begins to thicken. Add the crème fraiche and beat until thick and fluffy. This may be done up to 3 hours ahead of time. Cover and refrigerate until serving.

Just before serving, remove ramekins from the refrigerator. Reheat the sauce over medium heat, discard the vanilla pod, and spoon 1 tablespoon of the sauce over each budino. Top each with about 1/8 teaspoon Maldon salt and a dollop of the whipped cream.


Why I Write about Food

     "Given the situation in Haiti," someone wrote me yesterday, "maybe you should stop writing about all the great food you're eating."  I've been thinking about that, a lot.  And it strikes me that it's a spurious argument, as dubious as the one that Flanagan woman is using to excoriate Alice for her Edible Schoolyards. 

The Flanagan argument is absurd on so many levels it's hard to even know where to begin.  But following her logic no one would ever teach children anything but the 3 r's; there would be no art, no music, no physical education. Her idea, that teaching children how to grow food (and in the process allowing them to pick up good eating habits), deprives children of their right to learn literature, mathematics and philosophy is nonsense; learning is not an either/or proposition. It also ignores the reason that Alice decided to set the schools up in the first place: We know that eating is learned behavior, and that allowing young people to experience the joy of fresh produce can change their lives forever. Flanagan likens working in the garden to stoop labor, which is a bit like comparing cooking dinner for your family to working at a fast food stand.  Her article denigrates everyone who works with his hands.  And although she begins by saying that no Latino would want his child working in a garden, she has the audacity to think she knows what people she has never spoken to are thinking.  At the very least, she might have asked.

The man who wants me to stop writing about food until the Haiti crisis is over (and will it ever be over?) is, of course, on much more solid ground. But it reminds me a bit of my grandparents, who stopped celebrating everything when their youngest daughter died. If she couldn't be there to join in the fun, there would be no more fun. That's ridiculous. And the opposite of life-affirming.

We all have a moral obligation to do whatever we can to help the Haitians during this terrible time. But talking about it doesn't help; we need to take concrete action. And once again, it's not an either/or situation. There will always be trouble - war, famine, earthquake, illness - somewhere in the world.  We should not close our eyes or our minds to them. We should help in whatever ways we can. But in times of trouble- especially in times of trouble -  it is important to celebrate life. We need to remind ourselves - and others - that it is good to be alive.  If only as a promise that better times are coming. 


Scrounging for Dinner Again

The snow came down all day, the wind howled, the drifts mounted around the house.  Three weather advisories warned us not to leave unless absolutely necessary. I stayed put.

But a second day of scrounging through the refrigerator found it considerably barer. Happily I came upon a piece of flank steak in the freezer, a jar of kimchee (how old, I wonder?) and a single sad head of butter lettuce. Visions of Bulgogi danced in my head.

It was, perhaps, my favorite meal all week.  And simple!  Here's a kind of recipe, but use your imagination.

Take 1/2 pound beef of some sort - you could use just about anything - slice it across the grain as thinly as you possibly can, and plunk it into the following marinade.

soy sauce  - 2 tablespoons or so
a couple of cloves of smashed garlic
a small knob of ginger, minced
whites of 2 or 3 scallions, minced
a big spoonful of sugar
a splash of sesame oil

Leave it to soak up the flavors for 15 minutes or so while you separate the leaves from their head of lettuce, put a pot of rice on to cook, and rummage through your cupboards to see if there's anything that you would like to add. You're going to wrap the beef and rice into little lettuce packets, and many accompaniments suggest themselves: Kimchee is a good start, Sriracha sauce is imperative in my mind, sliced cloves of raw garlic would be nice, as would shredded carrots or toasted sesame seeds (should you happen to have some lying around).

Cover the bottom of a large skillet with a sheen of oil, wait until it shimmers and then cook the meat, stirring, for about 4 minutes.  Plunk it onto one platter, the lettuce on another and the rice into a bowl. Set them all onto a table, along with whatever else you've found, and let everyone make his own deliciously savory little wraps. No forks necessary.

This is enough to fortify a couple of people on a cold winter night. Eating it before a roaring fire makes it even better.


Charmed Life

On Twitter, someone's just sighed over my "charmed life."  But everyone's life is interesting, and everyone's life is charmed; it's merely a matter of editing.

At 4 on new year's eve the FedEx man called to say that he had a box of perishable goods to deliver, but that he could not get up our road; would I please come meet him? The rendezvous was a 15 minute drive down icy, unplowed, unpaved roads, but the man was waiting with a huge box.  He handed it over with gloved hands, waved a cheery "happy new year," and zoomed off to start celebrating.

At home I discovered that the box was filled with dozens of Kumamoto, Olympia, and Virginica oysters that Jon Rowley had harvested at Totten Inlet the day before. Modern life: oysters cross an entire continent in under a day.

When we set off for our party a few hours later the wind was howling, the snow swirling, but we drove through the woods utterly unconcerned, oysters snugly tucked in the back of the car.  Do we not have snow tires? Even when we turned onto a completely virgin road in the middle of nowhere, we remained confident.

Halfway up this untracked road the car started to slip. And slide. And finally stall. Attempting to back up, we lost all traction and ended up one inch from a tree. Michael went out to investigage and promptly slid down a hill. Attempting to get up, he fell again. And again.  And again. "Stay in the car," he called, from somewhere behind me, "it's a sheer sheet of ice. There's nothing you can do to can't help me."

We were ten minutes from home, and we were in some nightmare version of Milton's hell, stuck in the ice, probably forever.  They'd find us, frozen, in the morning.

Then we remembered that we had a phone, called friends, were rescued.

By the time we got to the party we were thoroughly wet, incredibly cold and extremely chastened.

As for my charmed life?  I wrote about opening the oysters and serving them on snow.


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About this journal
Where am I eating? What's for dinner tonight? And what books have I been reading? For a look at what's going on in my life lately, take a look at this journal, which I try to update on a regular basis.