1.22.2011

The flavors did

The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers is a magic hat of a book. Just when I think I’ve emptied it of every last trick, I fish around inside, and pull out something new.



I wasn’t even after a recipe late last Thursday night. Eli and I were traveling home on the T, and a couple of stops out, the conversation turned to chicken. We had two small birds in our fridge that we planned on roasting the following evening, and I casually mentioned – as casually as one can mention a thing like that – that we should rub them down with salt before bed. We knew that we should. We knew it was the right thing to do. But we couldn’t quite remember why. I mumbled something about texture, but the real answer was simple: Because Judy Rodgers told us so.

I didn’t come here today to tell you about chicken. I’m here to talk broccoli, capers, and breadcrumbs in unexpected places. It would be unkind, though, to deprive you of the chance to hear Judy Rodgers tell you so, too. It’s what happens next in this story, in any case.

The Zuni Café Cookbook is as lovely to read as it is to cook from. The only thing lovelier than reading and cooking from it is doing both at the same time, an act that requires two cooks in the kitchen, one on the bird, one on the book. While Eli began plucking, salting, and patting, I turned to a small masterpiece in the opening pages, “The Practice of Salting Early,” and read aloud. Rodgers opens with the story of a Paris restaurant at midnight, the site of her first awakening to the power of this practice. About a page in, she offers the following explanation:

Aside from simply allowing time to diffuse the seasoning throughout the food, which is reason enough to try the technique, early salting also promotes juiciness and improves texture. This is the felicitous result of a few reliable processes. First, salt helps dissolve some of the proteins within and around muscle fibers that would otherwise resist chewing. A second process is more complex. Initially, salt does draw moisture from cells – whence the widely accepted belief that it dries food out. However, the quiet trauma of osmosis is temporary. With time, the cells reabsorb moisture in reverse osmosis. When they do, that moisture is seasoned with salt.

I honestly cannot say whether I find this woman’s food or her words more captivating. With only a couple of raw, salted chickens in the kitchen that night, I decided to fill up on the latter. I toted the volume to bed, and paged through the recipes, past old favorites like panades, crostinis, and mushroom plates, and on-decks like sage grilled cheese and ricotta gnocchi. I was about to switch off the light, when the book fell open to something I hadn’t noticed before, something called “Pasta with Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower.” I saw capers and anchovies, garlic and fennel. I read on, and in the denouement – a word entirely suited to the resolution of Judy Rodgers’s recipes, I promise you – came the following words, “Taste – every flavor should be clamoring for dominance.” I was sold.



Eli and I have fallen into the habit of Sunday supper over the last couple of years. For us, it’s something between a late lunch and an early dinner, usually taken in the 4 or 5 o’ clock hour (hence the fading blue-ish light in these photographs). The fare is always simple: a pot of soup, a loaf of bread, maybe a wedge of cheese. Often, it’s a meal scraped together from the week’s last scraps which, this past Sunday, included two heads of broccoli lurking in the crisper drawer. Perfect. Sunday supper is no time to fuss, so I made Judy Rodgers’s “Pasta with Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower” with what I had on hand. That meant no cauliflower. I also replaced the olives with an extra scoop of capers, since Eli’s not an olive man. (No one’s perfect.) I dropped the broccoli into the oil and left it alone to brown and frizzle around the edges, as Rodgers said it would. I pushed the chopped capers from the cutting board next, and once they had shriveled and crisped, the anchovies, garlic, and fennel seeds. Only then did I give the whole thing a stir, and scatter several three-fingered pinches of dried chili flakes over top. I do as I am told, so then, I tasted. Clamor, the flavors did.

By then, the pasta was ready to drain; the breadcrumbs were toasted and warm. Ah, the breadcrumbs! Rodgers lists them as an optional ingredient, and I almost did without them. Why would I want bread on my pasta? Well. It turns out that these breadcrumbs are about as optional as the pour of milk in my Earl Grey tea, which is to say, not optional at all. Pasta with breadcrumbs, or “pasta con il pangrattato,” is pasta that crunches, people. Pasta that tastes like toast! It’s apparently some kind of Italian culinary institution, an age-old solution to dressing up a bowl of pasta when more expensive ingredients like meat are scarce. I had no idea. Now I know.

I also know something else, courtesy of Tuesday dinner: this broccoli and breadcrumbs is equally delicious over a bowl of brown rice. Just to be certain, on Thursday, I confirmed it.

In case you’re wondering, the chicken was good, too.

Pasta with Spicy Broccoli (and Cauliflower)
Adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

In her exposition, Judy Rodgers encourages us to experiment within the loosely drawn borders of her recipe: “You can try minced fennel bulb in lieu of seeds for a sweeter, more subtle note, or dash both and use freshly chopped mint instead. Substitute pecorino romano if you don’t feel like bread crumbs, trade black olives for green ones, or skip the olives and add more capers or anchovies.” Except for that bit about leaving out the crumbs (heaven forbid!), it all sounds good to me. The following list of ingredients reflects my own take on the recipe. I skipped the 4 to 5 tablespoons of coarsely chopped pitted olives (I upped the capers, instead) and the 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley that Rodgers includes in the original recipe. And I suggest using slightly less pasta than the 1 pound that Rodgers recommends; I prefer a tighter broccoli to pasta ratio.

About 1 cup (about 2 ounces) fresh breadcrumbs made from slightly stale country bread, crusts removed (In a pinch one night, I used panko breadcrumbs from a canister, and I'd do it again.)
¼ cup olive oil, plus an additional 2-3 Tbsps
¾ pound pasta (I used spaghetti)
Two medium-large heads of broccoli with a few inches of stem intact (or one head of broccoli, and one of cauliflower; about 24 ounces, total)
4 heaped Tbsps of capers, drained and dried lightly between towels
6-8 salt-packed anchovy fillets (if you increase the amount of anchovies, remember to adjust the salt in the opposite direction)
6 garlic cloves
½ tsp. fennel seeds
4-8 hefty, three-fingered pinches of dried chili flakes
A splash or two of rice vinegar for deglazing the pan
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Toss the breadcrumbs with 2 tsps. of olive oil, and shake into a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 4-5 minutes, until golden. Keep the crumbs on the stovetop until needed.

Put up a pot of water to boil. When it does, add the pasta, and cook until al dente.

Slice the broccoli lengthwise into 1/8-inch pieces. You’ll have some pieces that are all stalk, some that are all flower, and some that are a little bit of both. If the strips of stalk look too long to you, chop them in half.

Pound the fennel seeds lightly in a mortar, and chop the capers with a single pass of the knife. Then, coarsely chop the anchovies and garlic.

Warm the ¼ cup oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add most of the sliced broccoli. Leave the tiny buds and bits behind for now so that they don’t burn. Salt very lightly (keeping in mind the saltiness of the anchovies), and swirl the pan for a second or two. Then, put it down on the burner and leave it alone. That part is very important. You want to give the broccoli time to brown and frizzle, so don’t touch it for a good 3-5 minutes.

Drizzle with another tablespoonful of olive oil, and scrape the remaining broccoli and capers into the pan. Shake gently so that the tiny buds and capers fall to the bottom of the pan and crisp up. Still do not stir. After another 3 minutes, reduce the heat, scatter the anchovies, garlic, fennel, and chili over the broccoli, and then only then, give it a gentle stir. Cook for another minute or two. If there are a lot of brown bits clinging to the bottom of the pan, splash with rice vinegar, and scrape them up with a wooden spatula.

When the pasta is ready – just a few minutes after you’ve finished the broccoli, hopefully – drain and toss with the broccoli in the pan. Garnish with the warm, toasted breadcrumbs.

Serves 4-6.

1.13.2011

This next part

So.



We’re moving.



But just a little. Same city, same neighborhood, same building, same floor. We’re moving to the unit right next door. Apparently, this brings out the Dr. Seuss in me.

The new place doesn’t feel all that much bigger than our current apartment, but it does have a second bedroom, which means that now, we’ll be able to offer our guests a mattress and a door. We are very grown up. It also has a slightly larger kitchen, eastern-facing windows (good morning!), and a tree outside of one of them that turns bright orange every fall. If you look closely at the top photo, you’ll see it there.

Eli and I call our new apartment “Davis’s apartment,” even though our sweet neighbor Davis moved out last spring. He lived in that apartment for decades, so our building management decided to completely renovate it before renting it again. The key word in that last sentence is “renting.” It’s what makes this next part so unbelievable: When it was more or less settled that Eli and I would be moving in when the unit was done, the building manager asked us if we might have any particular preferences for the renovations. For the apartment that we do not own. And never will. (The units in our building are rental only.) Crazy, right? And incredibly cool. There is no guarantee, of course, that every wish on our list will come true. Why should it? We’re renters! But words like butcher block and soapstone have been tossed around, and they did let Eli get in there before they closed up the ceiling so that he could wire the kitchen for speakers, and – drum roll please – half of the wall between the kitchen and the dining room is now quite gone.



There will be a breakfast bar where that wall used to be. Though I think we’ll use it most often as a visit-the-cook-in-the-kitchen bar. A step up from having to wedge yourself in the doorway, for sure.

Eli and I are fixer-upper kind of people. We’ve loved researching materials and thinking about our new space. It’s the next best thing to getting in there and doing the work ourselves. Thanks to a building manager with a heart of gold, and a contractor who is every bit an artist and a craftsman, we’re having so much fun. I try to sneak over there every now and then with my camera. Are you interested in seeing some photos of the kitchen as it comes along? If so, I think that can be arranged. We don’t have a set move-in date yet, but we’re hoping for sometime next month. We’ll see.



When Davis moved out, his niece came to pack up his belongings. I had just – literally just – gotten back from a week of pastry-making at the CIA, and I hadn’t yet changed out of my chef’s whites when she rang our bell. We got to talking, and I explained that, no, I am not a cook, but that yes (a thousand times yes!) I like to cook, and then she told me to hold on. She’d be right back. A minute later, she was handing me a first-edition copy of Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cook Book with Davis’s full name inscribed on the inside cover. We didn’t yet know that we’d be moving in to Davis’s apartment. Now, I can’t flip through the pages of his book without my heart thumping a little louder in my chest. Soon, I'll be cooking from Davis’s old book in Davis's old kitchen.

Unlike Amanda Hesser’s recent masterpiece, Craig Claiborne’s volume includes recipes from a single decade, only: 1950 to 1960. (In other words, you need both books on your shelf.) I had been eyeing a walnut cake recipe in Davis’s book for a while, and on Sunday, out of the blue, I decided that it was time. The impulse to bake this cake must have been some kind of premonition, because friends, it’s been a long week. I’ve needed this cake. And maybe a few extra hours for sleeping, too. Pass the cake, please.



This recipe is a cross between a quick bread and a pound cake. It’s a bread in the sense that banana bread, or pumpkin bread, or lemon poppy seed bread are breads, and I almost went so far as to change the name of the recipe to “walnut bread.” A few things stopped me. The first is the stick and a half of butter. It’s not so much the quantity of butter in the recipe – though most of the quick breads that I bake call for oil – as the quality of its presence in the finished loaf. I’m afraid that sounds kind of new age-y, but I don’t know how else to put it. The butter is there. Not quite as there as in a full-fledged, classic pound cake, but there, nonetheless. The vanilla is, too, in a way that’s usually reserved for ice creams, custards, and the occasional cookie. This cake is also sturdier than the quick breads I know. Its crumb is tighter, encased in a crisp, golden crust, which makes for a cake that stands up to serious toasting. It’s not every day that you meet a cake like that.

Cheers to the old, and cheers to the new, friends. Speaking of new, after two years, I thought it was about time to push the windows open and shine things up for us here. I hope you like what I've done with the place.

Walnut Cake
Adapted from The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne

A quick note on not toasting the walnuts: The recipe doesn’t say to toast the walnuts, so I didn't. The whole time that the cake was in the oven, I regretted it. Then, I tried a piece, and I felt much better. The walnuts work beautifully just as they are. I noticed that they were more firmly secured inside of the cake than they usually are in my nut-packed cakes and breads. It was as if they were nut-like continuations of the crumb itself. I wonder if this is because you mix them in with the dry ingredients, instead of adding them into the batter at the very end. Thoughts?

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (which means that you sift first, then measure)
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
¾ cup chopped walnuts (again, chop first, then measure)
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
¾ cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
¼ cup whole milk

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Butter a 9½ x 5¼ x 2¾-inch loaf pan, line with parchment paper, and butter the paper.

Combine the sifted flour, baking powder, salt, and chopped walnuts in a bowl, and mix.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the butter until soft. Add the sugar gradually and whip until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, waiting until each egg has fully incorporated before adding the next. Add the vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and the milk alternately to the butter mixture, stirring only until all the flour is dampened.

Turn the batter into the prepared pan and bake about one and one quarter hours, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for ten minutes before turning out onto a rack.

1.07.2011

Two



Sweet Amandine turns two today, so I just had to stop by. I want to thank you for being here, for reading, for cooking along, and for all of your kind words and cheers over the last two years. Without you, this little operation would be nowhere near as much fun. Two years is not a very long time at all. I can’t shake the feeling that we’re still at the beginning, that this is still chapter one. I like that.

In 2007, Joan Didion earned the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award. I listened to her acceptance speech a few months ago, and copied down the following words: “We know how to write when we begin. What we learn from doing it is what writing [is] for.” That has been the story of this little blog, and I hope it always will be.

I shared a lot of special meals at a lot of special tables over this last year. Today, I’ve brought some photos of just a few of them. One of the things that I love about the new year – and a blog birthday that, conveniently, falls within the first week of it – is how it inspires me to look backwards and forwards at the same time. On that note, I should mention that there’s some change afoot around here. I’ll be back soon to tell you – and show you – what’s up.

Happy two, friends. I can’t wait for more and more.

1.05.2011

"its light pretending not to move"





Move along, now. Nothing to see here. Just some Memorial Day sun and backyard barbeque.

I am very cold today.

And now, I want a burger.


[The title of this post is a line from "To This May" by W. S. Merwin. Full poem here.]