Thursday, September 29, 2011

UNDER THE INFLUENCE

Ah. The Solanaceae family. The alkaloids present in this tribe can bring about good, bad, and ugly effects.

Toxic: form of green potatoes or night berries.
Stress-inducing: form of herpes outbreaks or swollen joints.
Intoxicating: form of wild tobacco.
Curative: form of  Homeopathic Belladona.

My three favorite Solanums (in no particular order) are melongena, lycopersicum, and tuberosum. Eggplant, tomatoes, and potatoes. I often douse them with some combination of lemon zest, garlic, pepper, heavy salt, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. Different temperatures and cooking times produce surprisingly diverse results.

Here's what I joyously slammed out one day while Dash and Bella hung out at school. I had a lot to do. And as lovely as my children are, I didn't want them in the way.
Dash and Bella contributed when they came home from school. With chalk. With drama. With excitement. With a punch to the chest (Dash to Bella). With a wow (Dash). A yummy (Bella!). An onslaught of blechs and yucks (from both). And a hella loud and teary I-won't-eat-that-eggplant-for-dinner-no-way-that's-disgusting (Bella to me with hands firmly planted on hips). A balls-out confirmation that I'm not doing this cooking thing in a vacuum. I'm living it with two little explorers who will forever keep me on my toes. Even if I send them away for a few hours during the day, they will come back and get their fingers, and opinions, and creativity into everything. Lucky me.
No recipe links in this post. Just a smattering of thoughts about each dish. There are no right ways to cook nightshades. Play around if you can. That's all I did. Taste, touch, see, sense, hear, smell, lick, feed, slurp, share, freeze.

QUICK TOMATO SAUCE (LEMON + GARLIC): Preheat oven to 325°F. Season cored whole tomatoes with salt, pepper, and minimal olive oil. Tuck unpeeled garlic cloves into tomatoes bodies. Bake until the tomatoes are softened, blackened, and swimming in their own juices. I threw the results into a Ziploc bag along with the contents of each garlic clove (squirted out) and roasted eggplant (see below). Bella enthusiastically pounded and mushed it all together in the bag. It's in the freezer for December. 

LEMON, GARLIC, AND ANCHOVY POTATOES: I did a lime variation of this last month. This time I used lemon. Preheat oven to 350°F. Peel and slice the yukon gold potatoes (1/2" wide) and place them in a baking dish. Coat them with lots of salt, pepper, and olive oil. Toss in a few rosemary branches and a lemon (or two) cut into eighths (remove as many seeds as you can). In a small pot, boil 10 unpeeled cloves of garlic and a tin of anchovy fillets (plus their oil) for 2 minutes. The mixture will start to snap, crackle, and pop, so stand back. Pour this oily fishy deliciousness over the potatoes. Toss with a spoon until evenly coated. Cover tightly with a lid or tin foil. Cook until potatoes are tender. 45 minutes or so. You can leave them pale and tender. Or you can broil them up for a few minutes until crispy. Eat right away. Or make a tart with puff pastry + sweet red pepper puree + roasted garlic + potato slices.
ROASTED EGGPLANT: Eggplant takes time. Don't compromise and eat spongy eggplant because it's nasty and depressing. Preheat oven to 350°F. Trim off the stems and then cut the eggplants into lengthwise sticks (about 1" or so wide). Lightly coat with salt, pepper, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Add a thinly sliced onion and a handful of unpeeled garlic cloves.  Turn the heat down if it starts to burn. Add more oil as needed. Roast until eggplant is gooey and sweet (at least an hour, maybe more). You can chop this up and add it to your quick tomato sauce (above). Or serve it over lamb chops with some crumbled goat cheese and chopped parsley. It's also lovely folded into couscous.
3-HOUR TOMATOES:  Preheat oven to 225°F. Core and halve a mess of (smaller) tomatoes. Coat with salt, pepper, lemon zest, microplane-grated garlic, and olive oil. After 3 hours in the oven, these tomatoes turn into crispy candy cups filled with caramelized tomato pulp reduction. Tart and sweet at the same time.They keep for a few days in the fridge. Or a bit longer packed in olive oil. Or you can freeze them for months. Or, once again, make a tart! Puff pastry (or shortcrust pastry) + a goat cheese base (1 cup goat cheese, 1 egg, 2 tablespoons heavy cream, salt, pepper) + 3-hour tomatoes.
10-HOUR TOMATOES: Yes, they're oven-dried, but they look, feel, and taste just like sun-dried tomatoes. 200°F. Salt, pepper, olive oil. Check them after 8 hours. Drench them in olive oil immediately. You can season the oil with a few peeled whole garlic cloves and thyme branches. Freeze if you don't use it within about 5 days.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

TOXICITY

The presence of concord grapes ANYWHERE in the house causes my mom, dad, and grandmother to moan and groan and gripe about the nastiness of Welch's Grape Jelly and purple-barfy-cafeteria juice. 

The ingestion of too many grapes can cause kidney failure in dogs. 
Handfuls of these seedy cultivars give Dash a tummy ache and bring about endless requests for television.
But last Sunday, I said screw them all and made concord grape sauce.

As I plucked, rinsed, and sizzled the grapes in burning sugar, I thought about Heather Ho. Ten years ago, she was the executive pastry chef at Windows on the World.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, as I looked straight down Greenwich Street at the flames pouring out of the North Tower, I didn't know that Heather was back in New York City. I thought she was in San Francisco.

Boom. A plane flew into the South Tower.

I worked with Heather in pastry at Bouley Restaurant. When I saw the strength, speed, and elegance with which she cut through the space, lugging bain maries and passing purées through China caps, I knew I wasn't cut out for restaurant work. At least not at this level. With people like Heather. She kicked some serious butt.

I watched the South Tower fall right out of the sky.

Month after month, I was awed by Heather's ice cream-making skills; she pounded out endless batches of vanilla, chocolate, salty caramel and prune Armagnac. I swear she got faster and faster with every passing day.
29 minutes later, the North Tower slid down. Such a big building. So much to crumble. It looked like a slow motion movie. Windows on the World occupied the top two floors. Pastry chefs go to work early.

"Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god," I ran down Bethune Street screaming. "Those people. All of those people." My husband of three weeks pulled my body into his and held me like I might capture a thrashing and tantrumy Dash or Bella. From the back, arms pinned to my chest.

My best friend, Marianne, was walking around the World Trade Center rubble. I yelled through the phone at her boyfriend, Simon, to get her the fuck out of there.

"She has to be there. It's her job," Simon said. Marianne is a reporter for WNYC. Turns out he was as angry as I was. But someone had to sound strong.

Heather's apron was often covered with concord grape purée. I would wipe the purple splats off her eyebrows. Or pull the dark skins out of her hair. She made delicious concord grape sorbet that I would sample late at night as we finished off deserted bottles of Pétrus (if we were lucky) or Gigondas.

I walked south, tried to help, and was turned away by the cops. A few people busted through the barricades and ran into the eerily calm Ground Zero. I wasn't that brave.

I had coffee with Heather right before she moved to San Francisco to work at Boulevard. We talked about the Bay Area and her excitement about the change.

A silent crowd of onlookers hung out across the street from St. Vincent's Hospital waiting for the ambulances to arrive. We waited. And waited. There was no one to save. Within hours, photocopies of missing people were plastered all over the bus stops and storefronts.
There is a parking lot behind Peet's Coffee in Santa Monica that smells just like the burning World Trade Center. Hot rubber. Acrid. Throat-burning.

The week of 9/11, Marianne and Simon stayed with us every night. Lower Manhattan was closed off from the rest of the city. We were in a bubble of helplessness. At odd hours, I would wrap Marianne in my grey raincoat and send her back down into the ashen sadness.

Unbeknownst to me, Heather had moved back to New York City to work at Windows on the World. She had given her notice before September 11th. Her dream was to open her own pastry shop. But she was sticking around until they found a replacement.

I fed Marianne a pesto lasagna. I made Simon a birthday dinner on September 13th. I tucked them into bed on our living room floor.

We anguished about the missing people, the abandoned dogs, the fumes.

The sound of the sirens from the West Side Highway went all day and all night for weeks.

Three weeks after 9/11, my husband and I moved to Los Angeles. I'll never forget that cold October evening, telling Marianne that I loved her through the Bethune Street gate. I'll never forgive myself for leaving when I did.

I had the grey raincoat dry cleaned but I never wore it again.

If I hear sirens for more than 5 minutes, my brain jumps to planes crashing into Berkeley. I check the online news and then I go up to my attic to look out over the hills for destruction.

I still have nightmares about planes crashing into my parents' house. Into my house.

Marianne spent the past four months working on a radio documentary for WNYC (distributed by PRX) called Living 9/11. In it you will hear stories from then, now, and the ten years in between. Marianne interviews those trying to make sense of what happened, those living with PTSD, and those barely functioning at all. Some have found closure while others don't believe closure is even possible. And a few have a newfound appreciation for every backyard BBQ and every breath. I am so proud of this hour of radio I can hardly stand it.

Here's to Heather and Marianne. One for teaching me to cook my ass off and the other for teaching me how to tell stories. I will never even approach what they've accomplished, but I will continue to try.

And here's my recipe for Concord Grape Sauce.

(And for all you Welch's Grape Juice haters, I've added an alternate sauce made with peaches and vanilla bean.)


CONCORD GRAPE SAUCE
(You can replace the grapes with 10 peeled and pitted white peaches. Throw in some vanilla bean as you simmer the peaches.)
ingredients:
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
4 cups concord grapes, rinsed, stemmed, and dried
1/2 lemon
pinch of salt
directions:
Place sugar and water in a medium-sized saucepan. Cook over medium heat. Swirl it around by the pot handle to keep it cooking evenly. When it starts to smoke and turn light brown, toss in the grapes. Careful. It might spatter. Don't worry if the sugar seizes up and hardens. It will melt back down into the sauce. Stir on medium heat until grapes have softened and released their juices (about 10 minutes). Take off the heat and pour through a medium or fine strainer. Use the back of a wooden spoon to press through as much of the fruit as possible. Discard pulp and skins. Stir in the salt and a bit of lemon juice. Taste. Adjust if needed. Serve hot over ice cream. Or cool completely and drizzle over yoghurt. It keeps in the fridge for a few days (it will mold quickly because there's not much sugar in it). It will keep for a few months in the freezer.