Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dear readers, thanks so much for checking out my blog.  I will not longer be posting here but skip on over to Grub & Grist for mounds of juicy tidbits, ramblings and recipes.

Happy feasting!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Last Supper, and the first

I arrived hot and sweaty, hair plastered to neck, drowning in a sea of exhaustion. Pushing my key into the unfamiliar lock I wrestled with it for what seemed like hours, growing ever more flustered by the moment. After much trial and error the door gave way and I tumble into my new apartment, suitcases cascading through the entrance as I collapsed in the hallway.

I had arrived. One day after leaving the plush evergreens of the Pacific Northwest I was in London, plunged into the middle of a bustling, monumentally large, noisy, and vibrant city. It was, to say the least, quite a change from sleepy Whidbey Island.

After blearily reading the note left for me in the kitchen, shuffling down the hall to find my room, and collapsing again onto the bed, I shut my eyes against the lurching, plunging world. Five minutes passed and I noticed that my body was still swaying, even with eyes firmly shut. Perhaps it was the combined effect of transatlantic air travel, a serious deficit of sleep, and little food. (Bored and hungry as I'd been, I couldn’t face the rubbery muck that airlines shamelessly call food, and it wasn’t long before I ran out of tamari almonds and black licorice.)

There was only one solution, and I grinned stupidly at the ceiling as I remembered my planned first feast in the motherland. Just the thought of it gave me the strength to stagger upright, splash cold water on my face, and slip on my boots. Within minutes I had marched outside, located a store and seized upon my objective. Paying for the wax-papered bundle, I strode back to my building and dashed up to the kitchen. Not knowing where the plates were I didn’t bother but simply sat down, tore open the paper, and beamed at my prize. It was a small, heavy, pastry-clad round. Taking a knife, I sliced carefully into the center and drew out a wedge. The thick crust encased a thin layer of translucent jelly and within this lay a center of indistinguishable pinkish-gray meat, not altogether appealing to the uninitiated.

I do not remember the first time I ate pork pie. It was one of those childhood memories that subsides into the shadowy depths of the mind. Yet when I bit into this rather unexceptional specimen as a 25 year old girl newly arrived in London, a sea of sense memories flooded my body. Aunt Jojo’s chickens, the smell of her kitchen, picnics, Granny Bun’s pony and cart, cow shit, hay, New Market high street, the clattering motion of a train, the heavy feel of pound coins in the palm of my hand . . .

The power of food to evoke memory is mysterious. Surely everyone has had the experience of biting into a certain food, or simply smelling a specific aroma that sends them back to another time and place: a brand of hot chocolate perhaps, or mom’s recipe for mac and cheese. No matter their source, these memories are incredibly visceral and strangely emotive.

I sat in the kitchen munching on that evocative pork pie and looking out at an unfamiliar jumble of roofs, trees, and snaking streets. And simultaneously a portion of my past surged through my body, carried by that particular configuration of texture and flavor. It was strange moment, quiet whirlpool in which past and present formed, merged, and dissolved leaving a clearing in my mind and body.

In that moment I knew. I found the answer to the question I’d been asking for months. Fifty-Two Feasts is over. This is the last supper. The project that inspired and sustained me for a year on a rainy island near Seattle is not meant for London. It belongs to another nexus of time and place. And this pork pie is like a benediction, blessing and releasing the project for good.

The pork pie is also a beginning, marking my first meal in this country that feels so old and familiar yet so very new—a place brimming with possibilities and kindling other fires within my mind.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Flames and the Charred Remains

As we sped home through the dark, bottles and pots clanking in the back seat of the car, our clothing reeking of smoke, my mother and I sat in silence. It was a silence that can hardly be described as companionable; a menacing, prickly silence threatening eruption. We were both exhausted, drained by the elaborate events of the day and by the frenetic activity of the past week.

Utterly overwrought, I felt my every nerve straining for sleep. After two big feasts in seven days, feverish wrestling with my blog, a phenomenally busy weekend at the coffee shop, a half marathon run earlier that day, and too much sangria at my latest feast—a birthday BBQ on the beach—I was in a sorry state. Mum and I snapped at each other, arguing pointlessly and circuitously over invented disagreements, and then retracted again, mute and wary.

This, I reflected, is the dark side of a feast, the side I rarely write about but that surely everyone who loves to entertain has experienced. You have plotted and planned, you have prepped and cooked and served the food. For a greater or lesser span of time you have poured every ounce of your energy into this event. And then, in one mad delicious dash, it is over. For the most part feasts end blissfully, lingering on and slowly sighing out like a retreating tide. And you are left basking in contentment. Yet sometimes these festive gatherings blow out like a candle, leaving you lost in darkness, stumbling in an unfamiliar chaos.

The beach barbecue had been one of the latter, enjoyable while it lasted yet violent in its death throes. I was drained and depleted. In the retreating wake of food, friends, and the communion of a good meal, it was ironic that I felt starkly, earth shatteringly alone. The words of the poet philosopher John O’ Donahue swam into consciousness complete with his lullaby Irish lilt:

One of the lovely things about longing is the way in which it remains so faithful to us. And when you think of different times in your life; you know really good times when you feel that everything you want is on your table, . . . that everyone that you really want is there in your life right now, and you are really happy that they are. And you feel that your life has kind of come together and that you are at one with the call of your destiny and with the subtle kind of wisdom of your soul. And yet it is precisely at such times that another uneasy voice awakens within us; a voice that whispers to you that there is something missing, or that there is someone still missing in your life. This is an awkward voice and it often awakens and becomes audible at the most inappropriate times, often when everything is completely as it should be. . . .This voice at times can bring you to tears and qualify in a frightening way everything that you believe about yourself; the voice that says there is something missing.

Although I have experienced this voice in many places and at many times, it can sometimes form the gnawing vacancy, the dark underbelly, of a feast. Perhaps I am surrounded by the debris, the chicken carcass and ragged beef bones, onion peel and heap of pans. Perhaps I am with several friends or one in particular, or perhaps it’s just me and the dogs—it makes little difference. This voice catches you off guard and brings you tumbling to your knees in one annihilating instant. Every passion has its fire and, necessarily, its antonymic shadow, the charred remains destroyed in ceaseless search for its untamed and untamable fulfillment.
I do not want to make this sound more dramatic than it truly is. The dark side of a feast, its accompanying voices and the sense of annihilation that it produces, all of this emerges and evaporates within moments. Yet to leave it unacknowledged, or worse to repress it, would be to falsify and perilously ignore an insistent, essential truth.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Once a Chef . . .

Danny hauled up the lid from the barbecue and peered inside. He prodded the coals speculatively, “We’re about there. Whenever you’re ready.”

It was the eleventh hour before my July 4th feast. The guests had arrived, the booze was disappearing at a healthy pace, and I was—as usual—dashing about the kitchen like the proverbial, decapitated chicken. No matter how I strategize, no matter how I meticulously prepare all ingredients, I never manage to evade that frantic 20 minutes before dinner. In a matter of moments the organized calm of the kitchen morphs into a war zone. Everything demands attention; the carrots are in danger of burning and the beets need more heat. The burgers must hit the grill and where is the wretched corn?

Given my state of delirium, Danny’s help was wholly welcome. I forgot to be self conscious around this seasoned chef and instead pointed to a platter. “Corn,” I muttered. He nodded, grabbed the pile of husked ears, and strode out to the grill.

That is the joy of having a chef in your kitchen. Amateurs, bless them, are often helpful, but generally require detailed direction and constant vigilance. Battle worn chefs however, magically find your knives and uncover your roasting pans. They pull your carrots off the heat before the delectably charred exteriors turn to inedible crusts. They monitor the grill and gently remind you when the burgers are hitting that juicy pinnacle of pink-singed perfection. I am jealous of the ease with which they move about the kitchen; their perfectly programmed sense of timing; and their ability to fix what I would consider hopelessly destroyed sauces.

I wondered out to the grill where Danny stood, tongs in one hand, a glass of red in the other. “It’s funny,” he mused, looking down at the grill, “wherever I go I always find myself cooking. . . No matter whose house I’m at, I always end up doing something.”

I nodded comprehendingly, his words confirming my suspicions that love of food, fire, and kitchens is a hard habit to kick. “I suppose it’s a case of once a chef, always a chef.”

“I guess so,” he answered and then prodded a burger with the tip of the tongs. “They’re getting there,” he remarked.

I smiled inwardly. I was good to have a chef in my kitchen. Even if I would always be just a little awestruck, just a little bit jealous of their competence and the grace with which they dance that wild kitchen dance.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sweat and Cherries

On an impulse I swerved to the roadside, crammed on the brakes, and jumped out of the car. “Won’t be a moment,” I called behind me as I dashed across the street. I had spied a small, makeshift kiosk backed up to a pickup truck. Under the awning, in wobbly red capitals, a banner announced the goods for sale: CHERRIES! My stomach was rumbling and dinner was still far off and so, after sampling a couple varieties, I bought a little bagful of Rainiers to ward off the wolf.

Thanking the seller I grabbed my bag and began sprinting back across the street. Then I stopped, and struck by a thought swiveled around. “Do you ever give discounts?” I asked the man, “like if I wanted to buy lots of cherries for jam.”

“Well,” he mused, “I do have boxes of what we call ‘seconds.’ They’re the less than perfect fruit, but fine for jam.” He rummaged in the back of the pickup and hauled out a large cardboard box. I scrutinized the wine-red orbs. They looked perfectly fine, with nothing more serious than a few cosmetic nicks and bruises to mare an otherwise healthy appearance. “And how much would this crate cost?” I asked, bracing myself. “Well, I’d say that’s about 10 pounds or so . . . How about 10 dollars?” I was sold.

Speeding home with the cherries bumping around in the back of the car, I thought about my purchase. It is eminently satisfying to score such a bargain, and it could not have occurred in a supermarket setting. There, the rigid standard for appearance is absurd, placing cosmetic perfection above taste, nutrition, or any other more holistic measure of goodness. Thus, it is rarely possible for the consumer to get affordable deals on good—if slightly tarnished—local produce. It is yet another reason to praise alternative trade. Long live roadside fruit stands, farmers markets, and all other rebellious, gritty, and refreshingly real marketplaces!

The next day was my birthday, and I could think of nothing more lovely to do on such an auspicious morning than swan about drinking coffee and making jam. First, however, I had to tackle the mountainous task of pitting 10 pounds of cherries. I would like to say it was an unadulterated pleasure but that would constitute a wild fabrication. Truth be told it was pleasant for the first ten minutes but from then on descended into a morass of monotonous plucking, slicing, and twisting. Within 15 minutes my hands were stained burgundy and after half an hour the knife slipped and slit my thumb, not badly but enough to require a plaster, making further pitting slow and unwieldy. But I soldiered on and eventually reached the bottom of the crate. Surveying the heaping bowlful of cherry halves and the dark fissures in my fingers, I thought wistfully about investing in one of those nifty cherry pitting gadgets.

Sometimes it takes a day of backbreaking labor in the sun to appreciate the virtues of mechanized farming equipment. Similarly, it is easier for those who have never pitted ten pounds of cherries to romanticize an apron-clad grandma sitting contentedly on her porch for hour upon cherry stained hour. That poor woman!

Yet after this tedious endeavor, the rest of the jam making process was far more entertaining—the slow softening fruit, the mound of dissolving sugar, rapid darkening boil, and the suspense of waiting, stirring, and watching for that perfect gel point. Cook the fruit too long and it will begin to caramelize, losing its brightness and intensity. Remove the fruit from the stove too soon and it will never thicken, yielding a syrupy concoction that dribbles pathetically off the edges of your buttered toast.

Successful jam requires patience, a watchful eye, and one simple test of doneness. When you start boiling the fruit, place a few saucers or other small dishes in the freezer. Then, as you think the jam may be ready, take a saucer out and spoon a small dollop of jam onto it. Return to the freezer and check it after a minute or so. If the mixture wrinkles slightly when you nudge it with a finger the jam has gelled and is ready for canning.

Taking a hint from my favorite cherry tarts, I added a light swirl of almond extract to the fruit and sugar thickening on the stove. There are some flavor pairs that are soul mates—bringing out the best in each other, it seems that they were always and forever destined to marry. Cherries and almonds are one such couple. Worrying that I had overdone the almond however, I dipped a finger into the jam. Au contraire, I swooned. It was a divine fusion of flavors, the round richness of cherry fruit made ever so slightly mysterious when infused with a whisper of almond.

That afternoon I slathered the first of my jam onto a teatime scone. It was still warm from the stove—a potent elixir of cherry sweetness—worth ever moment of sweat, stained skin, and tedium.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Feasting the Fourth

There is a saying in this corner of the world that summer doesn’t truly begin until the 4th of July. Until then, it is assumed by pessimistic islanders, sun and warmth are capricious, and that winter sweaters should not be packed away until fireworks and flags are unpacked. This year however, summer is taking even longer to crawl out of bed and get on with her work.

I arose on the morning of July 4th to chilly air and a fine, gray drizzle. It was an utterly depressing prospect. How can one possibly barbecue under cloudy skies? And what about the sundress I wanted to wear? I stared militantly out at the gloom and almost returned to bed. Yet the day lay before me—crammed with shopping, harvesting, and cooking to do—and curling up under covers was not going to tempt the sunshine. So I braved the cold and donned my sundress despite the damp; it was Independence Day, damn it, and I would celebrate whether nature cooperated or not!
The first order of business was to make baps for the burgers. These milk and butter softened rolls originated in Scotland and make a perfect pocket for a juicy beef burger. The dough is simple and fairly quick to make so they are easy to whip up the morning before a big cook out. After ten minutes kneading, during which I inadvertently powdered my pajamas with flour, I set the round of dough in an oiled bowl, covered it with a damp cloth, and had breakfast.

Next I went to town to search for some last minute ingredients. The local grocery sadly did not stock either padrón or shishito peppers so I had to abandon plans of making pan-fried peppers as an appetizer. File that one away for another day.

Then it was on to the café’s garden where I harvested a massive bag each of beets and peas, as well as a small box of the last, lingering strawberries. Finally I dodged the hungry, as yet un-caffeinated hoard inside the shop, grabbed a large cup of drip, and headed home for the kitchen. There, I spent the rest of the morning readying the vegetables—washing the beets and greens, peeling and chopping carrots, husking corn.

A large part of this time was spent shelling the peas I’d picked earlier. I must say, the laborious process of extricating the sweet, green spheres from their pods gave me a profound appreciation for this diminutive vegetable. It took great effort on my part not to eat every single pea straight from the pod—so bursting with succulent flavor; so utterly and essentially refreshing! Peas are in fact one of those vegetables that freeze so well we rarely bother to buy them fresh. But after gorging myself on this year’s crop, the mere thought of frozen peas is frankly uninspiring. That said, fresh peas take work, and after a good 30 minutes during which both my mom and I sat shelling peas together while watching a 70’s British sit com, our combined efforts only yielded a small bowlful.

The afternoon passed in a flurry of further activity: I made a honeyed butter laced with smoky paprika and chili, finished organizing things, and then abruptly suffered an attack of kitchen fever. This malady is similar to cabin fever, but is caused by too long spent by the stove. It is assails me often when preparing for an elaborate feast. All of a sudden the heat of the oven, the mounds of produce and bowls of concoctions will overwhelm my senses so that I feel as though I am suffocating under their weight.

Over the years I have learned how best to deal with kitchen fever. It used to overtake me and I would find that by mid afternoon I was sweaty, irritable, and heartily sick of cooking. By the time guests were due to arrive I would be positively glowering. Now however, I remedy the situation with a short sharp dose of fresh air. Swapping apron for running shorts, I attacked the street breathing in the warm, humid air with satisfaction. This ritual has become a savior; reviving my spirits and freeing my mind from a culinary fog that can often be sufficient to sour even my voracious passion for cooking.

I jogged up the road a couple miles and then dropped into the woods. The air was cooler there, yet still humid and rich with that potent vegetative smell of soil and growing things. I drank in the aroma, and, as I turned towards home, the air began to tinge smoky with the scent of a hundred barbecues and the stillness rent with the first experimental blasts of exploding fireworks. I felt my fever dissolve to be replaced with a deep sense of satisfaction and anticipation—all the food was ready to roll, and now I had an entire evening of fire, feasting, and friends to look forward to. Perhaps it was merely a case of runner’s high, but as I trotted home I thought to myself, as I so often do before a feast: This is it! Right here, right now.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Strawberries, Memory, and Sweet Summer Tart

I had my eye on them for weeks; inspecting the sprawling tangle of leaves each time I passed by. The fruit grew from tight green-white knobs in May, gradually plumping and softening, flushing red in the June sun, and finally reaching a startling ripe rosiness in the waning weeks of June. Now the strawberries were ready for harvest and I attacked them with gusto, staining my fingers fire engine red as I picked and ate and picked some more. Eventually, despite eating at least half of my pickings, I managed to resist temptation and cart a bagful home. In the kitchen I presented my hoard to Mother who lost no time in appropriating them and adding them to the contents of a bubbling cauldron on the stove.

“Strawberry jam,” Mum muttered as she stirred in a mound of sugar. I peered over the pot and inhaled. Then I reeled.

The steaming contents plastered the back of my hair to an already sweaty neck. A fan whirred monotonously nearby, Crackers the dog continued panting in the darkest corner of the kitchen. The heat and humidity were cloying, invasive, leaving you no choice but to surrender to their lethargic pull. In this weather you couldn’t do anything with speed.  I watched as Mum stirred and stirred, dropping her spoon now and then to minister to an army of jam jars, ferreting in the cupboard for lids, counting them out, muttering to herself, and occasionally tripping over one of the dogs.

From my perch on the stool I stood looking into the pot of ruby colored lava. Gone were the other smells of summer—the dusty dried grasses, the wisteria and clover, the chlorine from the pool still coating my hair, the scent of horses and leather and salty sweat. Instead my nostrils were brimming with nothing but this dancing, heady sweetness of slowly melting berries . . . .

I have always been fascinated by the connection between smell and memory. Who has not been walking absently down the street one moment only to be jolted back in time the next by a distinctive smell? Perhaps it is the perfume your ex wore or the coffee your mom brewed. But whatever it is shoots you right back to another time and place more vividly and emotionally than any sound, sight, or wordy description. Smell is the most cunning and evocative of senses.  

That jam my mum made last week sent me sailing back to the sticky Pennsylvania summers of my childhood. All that messy, chaotic abundance of relived experience assailed my being. And then it passed and I resurfaced in the cool drizzle of a June afternoon in the Northwest.

It was that vivid remembrance that rekindled my current obsession with strawberries. And, for the last week or so, I have had a voracious appetite for these emblems or summer. They are one of those edibles that resist the most zealous efforts of industrial agriculture. Yes, you may be able to buy strawberries in January, but they will be hard and anemic—mere shadows of their summer selves. The best specimens are found locally and for a fleeting season. They do not travel well and tend rather to disintegrate into a juicy mess within mile of the field.  So my advice is to buy locally and gorge yourself silly while they last. Then wait until next year. Anticipation, as everyone knows, is half the fun.

While I love eating strawberries fresh with nothing but the tiniest sprinkle of sugar to coax out every last ounce of their sweetness, there is one recipe to which I return each year. It comes from my absolute favorite cookbook, Anne Willan’s From My Chateau Kitchen. It is a tart with a sweet crust and luscious almond filling that works not only with strawberries but as a canvas for many a summer sweet. Yet, as strawberries are the first berry, it is a special moment when this tart arrives at the table, piled with a glorious jumble of this sumptuous fruit.  
Fresh Fruit Tart
Adapted from Anne Willan

Pâté Sucrée:
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla extract
7 tbsp. butter  

Frangipane filling:
1/4 c. butter
1/3 c. sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. ground almonds

Fruit topping:
3-4 c. sliced strawberries, other berries, or sliced stone fruit such as peaches, plums or a mixture or fruits.

Make the shell: Mix together flour, salt and sugar in a bowl. Make a well in the center. Pour egg yolks and vanilla into the well. Dice the butter into large cubes, place between two large sheets of wax paper and pound to soften a little. Add pounded better to the well and mix with the egg yolks and vanilla to form a paste. Slowly add in surrounding flour until it comes together into a soft dough. Work as quickly as possible and don’t over work the dough. Form into a ball, wrap in wax paper and chill in fridge for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Roll out dough and press into a tart dish.  Poke a few holes in pastry with a fork to prevent air bubbles while cooking. Press wax paper on top of pastry and blind bake for about 12 minutes or until hardened and slightly golden.

Meanwhile make the filling: beat the butter until soft. Add the sugar and beat until creamy. Beat in the eggs, then mix in the vanilla and ground almonds. When tart is blind baked, pour filling into shell and return to the oven for another 12 minutes or so until browned and firmer. Remove from oven and let cool. Top the filling with prepared fruit just before serving.