Wednesday, July 3, 2013

In Time

The first time I tried to make Bolognese I nearly broke into tears. I was cooking for six: a few of them I knew well but the others weren't close friends of mine and the whole day at work I was going through ideas of what to cook in my head. By the time I left work I had gone through at least ten ideas in my mind, ruling out each for a different reason: this one would take too long, that one would make the whole apartment smell like fish, another needed so much cooling and assembling, and what if they didn't like sharp cheese? Then I got this lovely image in my head of serving a beautiful fresh pasta with one simple and gorgeous sauce, a bowl of arugula and crusty bread. Everyone would drink lots of red wine and we'd have cheese for dessert and it would be like one of those underexposed rustic Bon Appetit editorial spreads called Rustico Italiano. Two hours later, my whole life covered in flour, I realized I had no wine at home. My Bolognese, which I started making way too late, because I was compulsively changing outfits for a half hour while everything sat in grocery bags on my kitchen table, was runny and not deep red and fragrant and effortlessly brilliant like I had  imagined. to say I was flustered would be an understatement. I turned the burner way down and jumped in my car to go to the liquor store and when I got back I smelled the gas and realized that the wind had blown the flame out; ergo, sauce was soupy and apartment smelled like... gas. I frantically tried to get the gas smell out and i turned up the burner to help my godforsaken sauce along and while I emptied the dishwasher and tried to think of a record to put on, there was another smell: Burnt sauce.
This happened years ago.

Now I know that when sauce starts to burn you turn off the heat and transfer the sauce as swiftly as you can, and whatever you do, you do not stir the pot. Now I also know not to entertain people I don't really like. That night when I smelled the burning meat i quickly stirred, in disbelief, and mixed the black burnt meat into the sauce rendering it completely unsalvageable. I also overcooked my pasta and broke two wine glasses.

I didn't give up on bolognese, though. I tried again and again and I'm not exactly sure at what point over the years this happened, but I can do it now. Here is the thing with repetition: while you repeat that dish, time passes, and as time passes you learn so many things. I now know how to tell good meat from bad, I prefer smaller onions, I know when meat has browned enough, and I know exactly who to share my food with. These days I don't try to stage romantic magazine dinners anymore, but I do make big bowls of pasta and pots of Bolognese that I eat with my favorite person and we soak up the extra sauce with chunks of bread and do the crossword at the dinner table. We even dip right into the pot sometimes. I don't know if you have a Bolognese recipe that you like, I hope you do and I hope it took you many years to get to it, but if you need a little help along the way, here is mine. 

Bolognese Sauce

1 Pound ground beef (my butcher gives me what he calls lean but he winks when he says lean so It's probably medium)
2 smallish medium onions- chopped finely or grated 
2 cloves garlic (minced)
1 can best tomatoes (pulverized)
1/3 c tomato paste 
1/3 c red wine
1 c stock
dry basil and oregano
salt and pepper

Brown the meat in a few tablespoons of oil and season with salt, pepper, and herbs. Add onion and cook together until onion is translucent and everything is mixing up. Add tomato paste and cook for another few minutes. In go tomatoes with juice, garlic and wine.

Finally, add a cup of stock and one cup water and simmer covered for one hour. Taste and season as you go. Uncover and cook on low until you like the consistency. Serve to your favorite person, with your favorite pasta and grated parmigiana, and if it's terrible... try again.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

At this Very Moment

I work on the upper floor of the library by the windows facing south east. There have been days when I've been there from early morning until after sunset: reading, writing, or failing to do either. From up there I see the rooftops of so many houses and buildings. Some are arched, some pointed, some flat. I see churches, schools, chimneys, and far in the horizon even the lake. Working at the library isn't easy. It's a public place and the fluorescent stale feel of it can be alienating. Sometimes when I feel fear and doubt creeping in I look away from the blinking curser on the screen and out of the window and imagine that it is a different city I'm looking at. 

On clear sunny days I focus on the churches and look at the blue line of the lake and imagine that this is somewhere in Italy. I look at people on bicycles and give them names like Francesca and Luigi. On rainy days I let my eyes hover unfocused in the few inches of fog that blur the tree tops and the pointed tips of some of the Tudor and Victorian buildings. This is London. The tops of the umbrellas move in small congregations of bright coloured circles and headlights double in puddles. When it snows and everyone down below has to deal with dirty slush on streets I am the lucky birds-eye daydreamer thinking of St Petersbourg. I listen at the tip of the hour for the University bell tower and imagine the snow covered domes of the church of Isidor and Nicholas: Ladies with fur collars and sun blocked by the snow clouds.

I don't seek escape in this. It is not a lack of love for my city or my life in its present place and time that I let my mind wander to places far away. It's something else. I think I find a humbling comfort in imagining so many lives in so many other places simultaneously existing and unfolding, each with its own sorrows and joys, hopes and desires, secrets and woes. When my sister was a child, my Dad would drive her crazy with a phrase he always offered when she was unhappy with something. Her tooth would be aching and he would say "do you know at this very moment how many children in how many different places in the world have toothaches?" Maybe back then her four-year-old heart found no comfort in that thought, but here I am, years later finding some relief in all the singularly significant features of all of those lives that my imaginary landscapes allow me even for just a moment to think about.

The recipe that follows is for a dish whose playful name will surely invoke the exotic for some, while it's humble origins and ingredients have for years brought simple comfort to many others. It takes some time to prepare but the depth of flavour achieved from layering all of these wonderful vegetables will add up to something bigger than their sum. You have my word. Just do me a favour: while you make it imagine how many people around the world are making ratatouille...


2 stalks of Celery 
2 small carrots
1 onion
2 red bell peppers (roasted, deseeded, skinned, and chopped)
1 can Crushed tomatoes
1 clove Garlic
2 aubergines 
1 green zucchini
1 yellow zucchini
2 firm roma tomatoes
salt to taste
pepper to taste
herbs de Provence to taste (savory, fennel, basil, thyme, and lavender)

Finely dice celery, carrot, and onion and saute until soft and coloured. Add finely chopped garlic and cook another minute. Add the chopped red pepper that you have roasted (on flame or in oven), deseeded, and skinned. Add the can of crushed tomatoes, season to taste, and bring everything to a boil. Simmer some of the liquid off and process using a hand blender or potato masher to get an even and slightly bumpy red sauce. 

In the mean time slice the chinese eggplant (aubergine), zucchini, and tomato into thin rounds (as thin as you can mange without cutting yourself- or use a mandoline if you have one). If you have a sister around tell (or ask) her to do this part. 

In a cast iron pan or baking dish a few inches deep, spread a healthy layer of red sauce and begin arranging the vegetables in concentric circles starting from the outside. Alternate between the vegetables, though not obsessively because that would take ages. Try to pack them in really tightly and only slightly tilted (almost standing right up in the sauce) because they will shrink as the liquids in them cook out. Season with salt and pepper as you go. Fill any gaps with extra vegetable rounds or red sauce.

Mix some Herbs de Provence with a few tablespoons of olive oil and pour over the top when you're done.

Cover with foil and cook in a 300 degree oven for 2 hours. Uncover and cook for another half hour in a slightly hotter oven and you're good to go. It makes a good vegetarian dish with bread or potato, but we love it most as a steaming side scoop to a roasted chicken. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Winter Mornings, Subtle Distinctions, Soufflé.

"Delight in diligence / Watch over your mind"
I come to write here for a number of reasons today. The first few are predictable. They have to do with my love of words, my passion for feeding myself and others, my fascination with the science and mystery of food, and the joy in feeling  -even if briefly- connected to like-hearted wanderers in the vast unknown freeways of this virtual world. But a little further down the list, hiding timidly behind other reasons, is an equally important one that I feel I should explore: put simply, it is a need to get my hands back into something I know I have done successfully in the past. I wrote that last sentence and paused to look at it. My mind wanders.

Another writing project has been weighing somewhat heavily on my heart and mind for some time now, it is no secret. My master's thesis has been testing my strength and ability and passion; it's true. But for a moment last night while I lay in bed, in that gentle and brief time between thought and sleep, I wondered if I have let the insecurities and doubts of my academic self penetrate the rest of me. The mind needs attention -as strange as that sounds- not to let one thing bleed into another.

I feel a bit more tentative, a bit more apologetic these days and I don't like it. This morning while I was drinking my coffee and looking out at the muffled, snow covered street, I thought about these fine and delicate separations: between prudent and afraid, pensive and withdrawn, ambitious and self-deprecating. I've decided to to pay more attention to these subtle distinctions, as they almost seem to prevail much more in my life than those stark dichotomies that are easier to notice. They seem just as important, if not more. After all, the difference between luscious whipped cream and butter lies in only a few extra shakes.

The recipe I am attaching to this post is here because it is the breakfast I make myself on such slow and introspective mornings when I have the luxury to spend time in my favorite room in the house and cook and eat and think in the blue light. Also because anyone who has tried to make a good soufflé appreciates the importance of recognizing the fine line between perfectly enough, and too much. The same action that assures the airy height of a soufflé, in excess, can cause it's downfall. The cook needs no special skill or equipment, but only to pay close and loving attention.

Pineapple Soufflé
(for two)

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
100g pineapple juice
50g finely chopped pineapple flesh
4 eggs (separated)
2tsp caster sugar
butter and sugar for ramekins
icing sugar for garnish

Preheat the oven to 175/350 degrees

Prepare two medium ramekins by spreading butter and sprinkling sugar on the insides.

Melt butter over medium heat and add flour and stir for a minute. Do not brown the flour. Add juice and pineapple flesh and stir for a few minutes letting small bubbles form. Remove from heat and add egg yolks, whisking them in one by one. Add sugar and whisk until smooth. Leave off heat to cool for a few minutes.

Meanwhile beat egg whites with a dash of caster sugar until stiff peaks form but not more. Over-beating the egg whites will reduce their ability to lift the soufflé.

Fold egg whites into the pineapple mixture in three additions. Make sure to do this in a large enough bowl. The first addition should be mixed thoroughly to lighten the colour and consistency of the batter. The next two additions should be gently folded to leave white streaks, using a spatula. Over-mixing at this stage will be to your detriment. Trust yourself to do it in a few strokes and resist over-doing.      

Fill ramekins almost to the rim, but not quite.

Bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until the soufflé has doubled in height and is beginning to gain some colour on the edges.

Dust with powdered sugar and serve immediately.