Journal entries from September 2013

The First Time I Met Marcella

All the obituaries seem to mention how prickly and uncompromising Marcella Hazan could be - and I later learned how true that was - but the first time I met her she was incredibly kind.

It was 1998, and I’d just published my first memoir, Tender at the Bone.  We’d both been invited to participate in a large cookbook signing event, and we’d been set up at the same table. Beneath the table was one carton of my book, and dozens of hers. My box remained full while hers quickly ran out. But still her fans arrived, carrying armloads of sauce-stained books, eager to see her, touch her, just bask in her presence.

Who could blame them?  This was a woman who was as important to American cooks as Julia Child, offering us an alternative to the red sauce Italian food we’d come to consider authentic.  Marcella’s food was superbly spare and completely delicious; it you followed her recipes you ended up with food that was truly Italian. And unlike Julia’s often complicated recipes, Marcella’s are simple to make and unfailingly reliable. To this day if I could have only one cookbook for the rest of my life, it would be one of hers.

But back then, sitting miserably at that table, engulfed by Marcella fans I could only think how humiliating the situation was. Engrossed in signing and talking, Marcella didn’t notice that I had no line;  hers stretched out the door. Then she looked up, and a frown crossed her face. “Go buy her book,” she ordered the woman standing in front of her. Marcella could be imperious. 

Marcella’s fans were loath to disobey her, and by the end of the evening I’d sold all my books. When the last one was gone Marcella rose and put on her coat. “You’ll see,” she said kindly, patting my arm in a farewell gesture, “it will get better.”

I think about that every time I make her famous tomato sauce. It’s the epitome of Marcella: three ingredients, 45 minutes, and a recipe for total happiness. Nothing smells better as it cooks, and no food is more comforting.

Thank you Marcella, for everything. 


Things I Love

Photo (69)
Have any idea what this is?

It's a faffer.  At least that's what Richard Bertinet calls this indispensable tool. Longer and narrower than a wooden spatula, it started life as a crepe spatula. But in my house it stirs the pasta when it's deep in the pot, tosses the spinach, flips the pancakes in a pinch. I lke the way it feels in my hand, and I find myself reaching for it almost every time I cook. 

I got mine in France, and they're not easy to find on this side of the Atlantic.  But here's one source.




Today's Surprising Find

Photo (74)
The last thing I expected to find in a Columbia County market was fresh local ginger. But there it was, sitting in the produce section, demanding that I take it home.
What will I do with it?  
Everybody around me seems to be getting colds, so I'll make a tisane by chopping the ginger, and steeping it in boiling water for twenty minutes. Strained and sweetened with a bit of brown sugar, it is said to make an extremely potent cure for the common cold.  It's also soothing to sore stomachs, warming when you're feeling chilly - and extrmely delicious. 


One Amazing Thing

Photo (71)
This is Amazonian vanilla, which Alex Atala brought to yesterday's conference on "Seeds: Cultivating the Future of Flavor."

The conference, at Stone Barns, brought together many of the world's greatest chefs and was astonishingly instructive. As soon as I've had a moment to go through all my notes, I'll post about it.  

But here's a small taste. Alex Atala brought these extraordinary vanilla pods along, as an example of the sort of diversity found in Brazil. I put the peach there for a size comparison; they're the most enormous pods I've ever seen. The fragrance was intense - a bit of cinnamon, a bit floral, very vanilla - and I think every chef in the room wished he could get his hands on some.


Forty Hours in Manhattan

Where should Cayla eat on her 40th birthday?  She has 40 hours in New York.  Here’s my answer.

Start with breakfast at Buvette in Greenwich Village, a tiny shoebox of a place that serves very satisfying bistro food. As the day wears on the cozy room becomes very crowded, with people piling in for the fine food and great wine. But I love it best in the morning, when it’s truly a neighborhood place.

Afterward, wander over to the Lower East Side and stop in at Russ and Daughters for the city’s finest smoked salmon and fantastic bagels. Turn right as you leave and go down the street to Katz’s Delicatessen. Take a ticket and examine the generous display of meats; if you can resist a pastrami sandwich you’re a stronger person than I am. (Be sure to tip the carver and tell him you don’t like lean meat.)

Turn right again, as you’re leaving, and wander down Orchard street to Mission Chinese, for an entirely different way to experience pastrami. They turn it into a searingly hot version of a kung pao dish. (The salt cod fried rice will put the fire out.)  At dinner the line here often stretches to three hours, but lunchtime is a different story. 

If it were me I’d spend the next few hours at the Tenement Museum, restoring my appetite.  Or wandering around Little Italy, stopping in at Di Palo’s to buy a hunk of their impeccable Parmigiano. Then I’d go to Chinatown, stopping in for dumplings at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest dim sum purveyor in the city.

Dinner?  For me it would be Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria; I love their food. Some homemade salume to start, then a salad (somehow theirs always tastes better than anyone else’s), a plate of spaghetti cacio e pepe and finally the spectacularly rich rib eye.

The next day you might want to stay above 14th Street. If that’s the case, I’d suggest, breakfast at Maialino (porchetta and fried egg sandwich), then a wander through Eataly.  I’d stare at the gorgeous display of meat at the butcher, appreciate the produce, and perhaps have a tiny bite at Il Pesce, the wonderful fish bar. For lunch I’d opt for the prix fixe lunch at either Nougatine at Jean Georges or Del Posto; they’re the two best deals in New York. Fabulous food in fantastic settings - for under $40. Finally, I’d have a farewell drink at Michael Lomonaco’s Center Bar, look out at the view and toast the city. 

One more thing.  If you’re not a plan-ahead person: many of the best restaurants in New York offer no-reservations bar menus, which are the best way to get a taste of greatness at a reasonable price. The Salon at Per Se offers a wonderful a la carete menu, as does the bar at Eleven Madison Park. The new bar at Le Bernardin is also a no-reservations opportunity to experience truly superb food. For something less formal (and much less expensive), consider the bar at Gramercy Tavern; you can simply walk in and share a meal with someone you love in one of the most appealing rooms in Manhattan.



The Best Use for Prune Plums

Prune plums are a rather dull fruit, but they're the last gasp of summer.  This classic cake, which has been published in many places, is the best use for the fruit that I've ever found. It's best served warm, although it's  delicious at any temperature.

Photo (66)
Plum Torte

1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

3/4 cup well-shaken buttermilk or plain yogurt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

zest of one lemon

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

12 large or 20 small prune plums, pits removed, halved the long way

4 tablespoons brown sugar, divided


1. Heat an oven to 350 degrees 

2. Prepare a 9” round cake pan. Butter the bottom and sides of the pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper.  Butter the parchment paper and dust the whole pan with flour.

3. Cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy in a standing mixer for about 5 minutes. 

4. Add the eggs one at a time and thoroughly combine after each addition. If the batter appears curdled, do not worry, it is because the eggs may be cooler than the rest of the mixture, and the butter hardened when the eggs were added. The batter will become smooth with the addition of the flour..

5. Beat in the the buttermilk or yogurt and add the vanilla and lemon zest.

6.  Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt, and add to the butter mixture, at low speed, until just combined.

 7. Separate the halved plums into two equal piles.

 8. Spoon half the batter into the pan and level the top with a small offset spatula. 

9. Place the plums, cut side down on the batter, and sprinkle with two tablespoons brown sugar.

10. Spoon the rest of the mixture over the plums, and place the rest of the plums on top cut side up. Sprinkle with the remaining brown sugar.

 11. Bake for about an hour, until golden.

12. Cool the cake on a rack for 10 minutes. The cake will pull away from the sides of the pan.

13. Run a knife around the edge of the cake. Invert onto a plate, peel away the paper, and invert again onto a serving plate.






Heat's Gone: Time for Bacon

Even though the leaves haven't started changing, on this cool gray day it's starting to feel like fall. 
Just back from the market, I look down at the bacon I've just bought, and the block of righteous Cheddar cheese, and know exactly what I'm going to serve my guests tonight with their cocktails.
There's nothing elegant about this dish, but at Gourmet it was a staff favorite.  It's pure Americana - and completely irresistible. Really.
Deliriously Delicious Bacon Cheese Toasts 

Chop a half pound of cold bacon very finely.  (I like a sweet maple-cured bacon, but the brand is up to you.)

Dice an onion very finely and add it to the bacon.  Grate a half pound of the sharpest Cheddar you can find, and mix it into the bacon and onion.   Stir in two tablespoons of bottled horseradish, some salt and a few swift  grinds of pepper.

Smoosh this mixture onto slices of firm supermarket white bread (I  use Pepperridge Farm Sandwich White), set them on a baking sheet and bake in a hot oven ( 400 degrees) for about 20 minutes. You should have  a glorious melted sheen on each toast.  

Remove the toasts from the oven, cut off the crusts and slice into finger-size tidbits. You will think this makes too much for 6 people– but you will be wrong. 



Saturday in Toronto

 I’ve spent the last 3 days in Toronto, working on a television show.  And this is what I’ve learned: Canadians really ARE nicer.  There’s a palpable lack of tension. Everything here feels more relaxed.

And Toronto is a wonderful food town. I spent yesterday morning wandering around the St. Lawrence market.  Bustling. Aromatic. And every time I saw a line, I went and stood in it.  The longest one was for the famous pea meal bacon on a bun at Carousel Bakery,  It is, apparently, a de rigueur stop on the chef’s tour, and the place roars with encomiums from Tony Bourdain, et al.  It was delicious- soft bun, lean, mild, slices of pork loin - but it’s never going to figure in my dreams. I prefer the sassy fatness of belly bacon.

The other long line was at the Kozlik’s mustard stand, and I have to admit that I stood there eating pretzel after pretzel of their crunchy triple C mustard. Irresistible.

There are a couple of wonderful cheese vendors, but my favorite stand had to be Whitehouse Meats, which specializes in game of all kinds.  They had fresh pheasants - not to mention sliders made of kangaroo and camel.  I asked the man behind the counter if they actually sell, and he insisted that they’re extremely popular.

I had lunch with Chris Nuttall-Smith, restaurant critic at the Globe and Mail. I love reading his stuff - he has the mix of enthusiasm, knowledge, talent and fairness that makes a really good restaurant critic. I love the fact that of all the restaurants in Toronto, he chose a wonderful little Persian place called Tavoos.  “You can’t get this kind of home-cooking in New York,” he explained. (Read his review here.

 Lunch was wonderful; I practically inhaled the dish of green olives tossed with chopped walnuts, mint and pomegranate molasses topped with barberries- an extraordinary plate of salt, savory and sweet whose flavor resonated in my mouth like a musical instrument, still thrumming long after I’d taken the last bite.  I loved kashk-e bademjan, smashed eggplant, with mint and shards of fried onions, with a splash of whey across the top that accentuated all the flavors. Still, I have to admit that I was wary of the scary sounding  kaleh pacheh, a classic Iranian breakfast.  “Each portion comes with 2 hooves and a tongue,” the waitress explained, and then circled back to correct herself.  “I meant,” she said, “that you get one hoof and 2 tongues in each bowl.”  Oh, right. You also get a side dish of pickled garlic, chiles, lemons and basil to mix into the broth.

 When the soup arrives, it’s exactly as promised _ a tiny, but very identifiable lamb’s hoof and two small lamb’s tongues in a greyish broth. Definitely not pretty.  But I pick up the delicate little hoof and start gnawing at it, and it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tried: subtle, chewy, fun to eat.  I squeeze in some of the lemon, tear off some basil, stir that into the soup. The flavor is transformed.  Then I add one of the soft, robust cloves of pickled garlic, and the flavor is rounded out, smoothed.  I slice off a bit of tongue and it’s soft and pliant, the way tongue is, the most delicious meat.  I squeeze in more lemon, have a spoonful of beets in yogurt, a bite of the home-made bread.  What a way to start the day!  I kind of float out of that restaurant, so satisfied.

But the day is young, and there’s so much more to eat.  I’m having dinner with an old friend.  No, I mean a really old friend - a man I knew and loved in college, but last saw in 1973.  (It’s Mac, if you’ve read Tender at the Bone.) He walks into the hotel and forty years fall away; we can’t stop hugging each other.  And then we start to talk. And talk. As if all those years have not gone by, and we’re just picking up a conversation where it left off.  

I’d asked friends where to take Mac to dinner.  I wanted good food, but not some celebrity-studded place where everyone would dance around and demand that we pay attention to what we were eating.  “Edulis,” four people said, “Edulis is where you want to be.”

And I think Edulis might be where one always wants to be.  It’s cozy. Tobey may be the best front person I’ve ever met - the perfect hostess. Loving. Proud of her restaurant. And utterly restrained.  She made me feel so safe.

They fed us wonderful food. Herring, in a big pot, with onions, carrots and a salad of tiny fingerling potatoes.  The heartiest, most satisfying bread, with great butter and a little pot of tomato.  On the meal went, through the most extraordinary wild Nunavut Arctic char - a revelation to me, who has never had anything but farmed char before. So delicate. So delicious. We ate in a kind of dream; here a bit of sausage, there the softest slice of lobster mushroom.  A tomato consomme so delicious we were scraping the bottom of the bowl. A pungent little square of sausage. And in the end, a plate of perfect raspberries. When those berries arrived I was stunned to discover we’d been there, at that table, eating and talking for four hours.  It had seemed like four minutes.  

It was the company of course. But the food too. We’d been lucky enough to put ourselves in the hands of restaurateurs who understand that there are times when the role of food is to make a good situation better.  It would have been so easy to get that wrong.  But Tobey and Michael - and the entire staff - get it completely. 

So many restaurants insist that the experience is about them: their food, their ambiance, their wine.  At Edulis, it’s all about you. They feed you wonderful food - but they understand that a great meal transcends what’s on the table. 

Mac and I were there to get to know each other all over again.  Edulis - the food, the wine, the ambience - was the perfect place to do that. I am very grateful. And I can’t wait to go back. 



Today's Farmers' Market Find

Photo (64)

I've always loved Cape Gooseberries.  Nestled into their papery husks, they look like tiny yellow tomatillos. When you peel off the husk and pop the fruit into your mouth you get a quick impression of juiciness, then the crunch of the seeds, and finally a rush of sweet tartness.

I like cape gooseberries best eaten out of hand, but they're also great thrown into pie where they add a touch of tartness to sweet fruits. I also admire the way many restaurants serve these fruits: dipped into caramel to give each one a crackling coat.

It's easy to do: make caramel by melting a cup of sugar with three tablespoons of water, put the pot into hot water to keep the caramel molten, then carefully peel back the husks and dip each fruit into the hot caramel. Set them onto an oiled baking sheet or Silpat to harden.  

Photo (65)



« August 2013 | October 2013 »

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.