Sep 29, 2009

Mushrooms and Cream, The Musical

Ever since the early 1980s I have relished every moment spent in Kitchen Kapers, on 17th St. in Philly. Yesterday I was in the city to catch dinner and a show with my friend Liz (pseudonym), and so I wandered in there before our 5:30 dinner at Branzino. (Dream Kitchen has been prancing about the city a lot lately!) I like coffee paraphernalia, and they have everything imaginable. I admired some beautiful retro/funky aprons (my birthday's coming up, ahem!), bamboo cutting boards, and glorious displays of Creuset in every size and color.

Just as I was getting into the stride of my lascivious 15-minute intensive browsing expedition, a store employee asked me if I needed help, where I was from, and whether I missed living in the city. Then he proceeded to opine about the state of the Philadelphia schools, and moved on to the problems with the teachers' union in New Jersey and then PANIC set in, as I realized I had not looked at any baking equipment or cookbooks and my time was running out. I hate to be mean or even standoffish to anyone in that mecca. It's like mouthing off to a minister--can't do it. Finally I said, "Well, I need to meet my friend at Branzino, got to go!" Clever of me, wasn't it? In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't have told the man I was "killing time."

Then, on to Branzino. Dramatic pause. . . .Hello, everyone. I have discovered a quiet restaurant. That serves classic but not tired Italian food. I'm going to take my Dad here someday because he will actually be able to hear me. And I will get to hear his hearing aid hearing me, oh well. If he remembers to wear it. It's not one of the new minimal-chic places. It has ornate frescoes on the walls, but very tasteful, exquisite in fact. We had real waiters wearing those adorable waiter costumes, too. They were very attentive without being obtrusive. The guy clearing dishes was even a real Italian, from Italy, not South Philly.

We sat down and sipped our water and Liz Pseudonym showed me her engagement ring. Wait. WHAT? Her fiance is is in his late fifties and has never been married! She's been married but her husband turned magically into a jerk in his early forties! They're both in for a ride! So we hugged, I teared up, and all that girl stuff. I'm still not convinced they're actually going to do this, but . . . nice ring.

Here's what we ordered, splitting everything. I have copied and pasted this from the menu, leaving their charmingly idiosyncratic capitalization intact.

Carpaccio di Filetto

Thinly sliced raw Filet Mignon topped with capers, Sun Dried Tomatoes,Red Onions, Lemon,Arugula and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano

I love each of these things by themselves and together it was a party in my mouth. Footnote: I borrowed that expression from Ruth Reichl. I think.

Insalata Rraci

Belgian Endive salad with Apples,Toasted Walnuts & crumbled Gorgonzola cheese in a Honey and Red Wine Vinaigrette

Pale, but tasty. The bitter endive was a great foil for the sweet apples and rich gorgonzola. We had actually ordered a different salad, but were too apathetic/easy to please/caught up in the complicated subject of middle-aged love to send it back.

Gnocchi al Funghi

Potato dumplings sauteed with Porcini Mushrooms, fresh Peas in a light Mushroom and cream sauce

Oh my word! Rich and full of flavor. I forgot how amazing porcini and cream can be. And the gnocchi--so light and pillowy.

Since it was a BYO, and we hadn't BYOd, we only had water, so our meal was under fifty bucks total, slightly over including tip. Not bad. Branzino. Take an old person there today. Remember, it's not hip or minimal. It's plush and hushed and classic, but without being stale or fussy. For some reason--I don't know how--we managed to pass on the fig gelato. Next time.

Then we went to see Menopause, The Musical. It was funny, not exactly a work of genius, but funny. Not that witty, either, but funny. Lots of physical humor. Much funnier than menopause itself, which I believe was the point. Now someone has come up with Assisted Living: The Musical. Next? Suicide: The Musical? I'm sorry but I don't think those work so well. The first word needs to start with "M." We in the word biz call that "alliteration." Murder, The Musical. There you go.

Sep 28, 2009

Village Whiskey on a Rainy Evening

It had been months since Mr. Dream Kitchen and I had ventured into Center City, just the two of us. He goes there every weekday for work and so the pull is less for him than for me. Plus we have been cutting corners, and paying babysitters is one of the corners. But the boys really miss their babysitter, and I was needing my city fix, so we went on Saturday night.

We visited Village Whiskey, an American bar owned by the prolific (is that the adjective?) Jose Garces (Amada, Tinto, Distrito,Chifa, Mercat a la Planxa). It's next door to Tinto. VW is just a small bar with expertly crafted cocktails and well-made, fresh bar food.

We had to wait a while to get in. We wandered along the 2000 block of Sansom St., one of my favorite blocks in the city. The Rosin Box, a tiny shop selling ballet paraphernalia, has been there for decades, as has Home Sweet Homebrew, with its brewing supplies. And of course there's the Roxy Screening Room, a small independent movie theater that has been showing indie films way before the term indie came about. The feisty little shops on this block, selling their one thing that they believe in, always make me feel optimistic about Philadelphia. But it was also delightful to discover new places like Noble, an eat-local shrine with simple, clean aesthetics. Or the Adrienne Theater, home of Interact Theatre Company. As we walked past the theater, a young hipster (I hate the word "hipster;" I can't believe I used it) remarked to his young hipster (dang!) friends, "You know what I could really go for right now? Nutmeg. About a teaspoonful." I'm still trying to figure that one out.

Next door to Tinto is a shop of crafts and jewelry made from recycled and salvaged goods. My favorite item was a silvery mannequin with a four-bulb light fixture sprouting athletically out of her head. We started to get really hungry and it began to rain lightly so we returned to Village Whiskey and sat at the bar. The bar of the bar, that is, until they found us a little table by the side window.

John had cask-conditioned Victory Hop Devil and I chose an "Aviation"-- which had gin, crème de violette, maraschino, and lemon. Yes, creme de violette. It was a little like drinking perfume and was even slightly lavender in hue, but I knew I had to try it. How can a girl resist purple liqueur? It was a lovely drink although I may never order it again. Just think, if I had ordered an Old Fashioned, with a plate of Cheese Puffs, it would be like a cocktail party at my Nana's house! (And I mention those cocktail parties, along with recipes, in the amazingly funny, poignant memoir I just wrote!! There's my marketing for the day. Know any agents?) The Maraschino cherry at the bottom of my glass was like no other I've ever had. It was dark red not neon red, and tasted divine. I wonder if it was an actual marasca cherry, but then maybe I was in a swoon at that point. All oddness aside, it was a dreamy drink.

I decided to cut a deal with myself: I would get a veggie burger if I could have gelato afterwards at Capogiro. John ordered the hamburger with smoked blue cheese and Oh! My! Was it ever good! I had several bites of it. I generously offered my veggie burger to him but he was less appreciative. What an ingrate. My veggie burger was great, topped with guacamole and pickled cabbage, but I'm a terrible vegetarian if I'm anywhere near a decent hamburger.

We also shared an order of duck fat fries, very decadent. We also ordered a magnificent little bar snack, pickled cipollino onions with white anchovies, along with a little side cup of olive spread. Thin slices of sourdough accompanied this. Such a bright contrast with the burgers, cool and refreshing, even the anchovies. White anchovies are bigger, more like small herring, and they weren't that salty. Really a great complement to the onions.

Mr. Dream Kitchen and I were very cozy in our little corner, especially as it started to rain harder outside. We decided not to look at the dessert menu, since we had planned to hit Capogiro all along, but now we regret that. It's not on the website so now we have no idea what they have. We ambled across the street to Capogiro, where we split a dish with four scoops of gelato:

Bitter Salted Almond
Mexican Coffee
Dulce de Leche

The Bitter Salted Almond was our favorite. We had a while before the train, so we sat there while several groups of teenage girls came and went. (Do they appreciate gelato adequately? I hope so. I ate at Friendly's when I was that age.) I regaled Mr. Dream Kitchen with plots of the short stories in Olive Kitteridge until he begged for mercy. Which you may be doing now, dear reader. Plus, I need to reheat some meatloaf for dinner. Back to reality. Thud.

Sep 22, 2009

Complex is Good

I finished Lorrie Moore's new novel, The Gate at the Stairs. All of yesterday I spent basking in post-novel bliss. No calories! It is a tragicomic work that will take you to a territory you won't regret visiting. It includes an expose of the hollowest sort of political correctness, a admiring sendup of haute cuisine, a poignant view of young love and the disillusionment that follows, a complicated portrait of motherhood, a celebration of female friendship, and an anatomy of grief.

Somehow, like a really good chili that asks you to use chipotles, cocoa, and beer, along with a dozen other ingredients, these disparate elements create something complex, mysterious, and wonderful.


Sep 18, 2009

On Our Table Next Week Fresh from Lancaster County

Every week we get a "shopping list" from our CSA, Lancaster Farm Fresh. Here is what we'll be eating next week, with my comments.

1 bag red beets – certified organic - Farmdale Organics – 3 lb.
OK, this time I'm making Oonie's grated beet salad. She's told me about this before, but I keep forgetting. The recipe is Mark Bittman's. I'm sure I have it somewhere.

1 bunch lacinato kale – certified organic – Farmdale Organics.
This cooks down a lot and is good on pizza with sausage.

1 head napa cabbage – certified organic – Bellview Organics.
Hmmm. Stir fry?

1 bunch white beets – certified organic – Windy Hollow Organics.
MORE beets? Sheesh. All food is a gift. Gift. Gift. Must remember that.

1 red bell pepper – certified organic – Meadow Valley Organics.
Easiest thing to use. Salad, pizza, anything. Wish it was four and not one.

1 bunch tatsoi – certified organic – Hillside Organics.
An Asian green that I used this past week with rice, red peppers, sausage (beef, grass-fed). What can I say, I counteract bitter greens with sausage. It's a political compromise and a great combo.

2 heads red romaine – certified organic – Life Enhancing Acres.
The tips of the leaves are dark red. Pleasantly assertive. Salad, best used right away, although romaine lasts longer than other lettuces.

1 winter squash (mixed variety) – certified organic – Green Acres Organics.
Risotto with sage and parmesan. That's one of my favorite risottos. Or baked with a little maple syrup? Squash bread? This can sit awhile in my onion/potato/squash basket while I cogitate upon its highest purpose.

1 head green broccoli – certified organic – Pleasant Valley Organics.
Finally! Everyone knows what to do with this. I like to steam it in big stalks for the boys and then call it "trees." They boys are getting so they don't need these games anymore, though. But maybe I do.

2 bunches baby bok choy – certified organic – Scarecrow Hill Organics.
Tatsoi and bok choy? These Asian greens do like to stick together. All greens cook down fast and they're all great with a little garlic and tamari. I'm supposed to write an article about Scarecrow Hill, bok choy folks, for the Summer issue of Edible Chesapeake.

1 bag sweet potatoes – certified organic – Busy Bee Acres – 3 lb.
I love sweet potatoes, while others in this household do not share the sentiment. If I want to go decadent, there's an amazing Spiced Sweet Potato Cake with Brown Sugar Icing that is a rich crowd-pleasing way to celebrate the harvest. No one turns that down. I confess I even add a cup of toasted pecans.

1 bag onions – transitional* – Taste of Nature Farm – 2 lb.
Onions are under-appreciated, the Cinderella of the vegetable world. But you can caramelize them, bake them, roast, or grill them. They can be dressed up and taken out, and make you proud.

Fruit Share

12 gala apples – organically grown – Eden Valley Orchard.
We go through four apples a day, so these won't last long.

And tonight? I'm making Cold Sesame Egg Noodles, with with un-CSA scallions and cilantro, just because we're going to a potluck and Sesame Noodles are a fabulously popular, easy dish.

*"Transitional" means the farm is in the process of going organic, but hasn't met the official standards yet.

Sep 16, 2009

Beaten Up Bread

I made Beet Nut Bread, really. But Will thought I said "Beaten Up Bread." I used sunflower seeds instead of nuts because he doesn't appreciate nuts quite yet. (Next I'm going to try grinding them, but he'll probably still notice.) A very good recipe, and the red beet color makes the batter pink, but not the bread once it is baked. Like those glorious purple beans that end up normal green once you cook them. Only not like purple potatoes, which stay purple.

Beets, beets, beets. What are we to do with beets? They are so stubbornly beet-y and if you need to disguise them, the best way indeed is to "beat them up," to bake them into cakes and breads. I've made a very tasty chocolate beet cake called "Secret Chocolate Cake" in Simply in Season. Disguise is simply the best recourse in our family, as the inherent personality of a beet is not appreciated, even by me, I confess. It took decades for me to admit that they repel me in a mild but persistent way, sort of like the color mauve. I've roasted them and all sorts of things, but they're still beets.

Sep 10, 2009

Chocolate Chips and Lorrie Moore

Some people like to throw chocolate chips into everything. Pumpkin bread? Sure. Banana bread? Well, yeah. Pancakes? Shudder. My boys were at a sleepover this past weekend where the dad made pancakes with chocolate chips in the pattern of a smiley face. At a certain point one thinks that one should put the chips away.

And so it is with the fiction of Lorrie Moore, not with chocolate chips, but with jokes and puns. Many of her female characters make puns and crack jokes, really clever ones. I find it a bit tiresome, although I usually like these neurotic women. I've read Self Help, Birds of America, and People Like That Are the Only People Here. (The title story is amazing.) She has a comic genius, rare for a critically acclaimed woman writer.

But her work isn't comic through and through, just studded with bits of it, so you can be lulled into not expecting the darkness that is coming. One day eight years ago, I was lounging about on my easy chair, seven or eight months pregnant, with my toddler playing at my feet, as I read the short story collection Birds of America. The main character in one of the short stories is at an outdoor party, and she picks up a baby to cuddle. She trips over something and the baby lands on a stone wall and dies. I slammed the book shut, sentenced it to rot next to my old college copy of Joseph Fielding, and didn't look at it again for five years.

Now I've started her new book, A Gate at the Stairs, with more than a little intrepidation. I'm less hormonal--well, no, just differently hormonal. But what intrigues me is that she goes really easy on the chocolate chips and engages life more directly, or at least her characters do. The comic edge is definitely still there, but more deeply embedded in the narrator's sensibility. However, according to reviews in Slate and Harper's, something really bad goes down, in the last third of the book. To a small child.

Meanwhile, I have a bag of chocolate chips in the freezer, ready and waiting.

Sep 8, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Zucchini

The weirdest thing happened. For Labor Day festivities, I made Steve Raichlin's Grilled Zucchini Salad from The Barbecue! Bible. (Yes, the exclamation mark is in the title.) I doubled the recipe, which meant it was supposed to serve eight. Yet, after I had cut up the slabs of zucchini which I had grilled so patiently in two batches, it made a measly little heap in my red serving bowl. You know that nesting Pyrex bowl set from the 1950s that goes blue red green yellow? Yellow being the biggest? The Grilled Zucchini Salad filled up about two thirds of that small red bowl. Not only does it shrink with cooking, but then again with chopping the long slices into quarter-inch strips.

At least the salad was zesty, with lemon juice, cumin, paprika, garlic, and mint that Will picked from the garden. A tiny, spunky salad, like Rhea Perlman, only not funny.

Good thing I had another dish to make,the opposite of small and green. Fresh Gingerbread with Lemon Icing, from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess, is luscious and large. I was too lazy to grate fresh ginger, having just slaved away grilling a mountain of zucchini that had so sadly shrunken to a little molehill, so I used two tablespoons of ground ginger and no harm done. Her icing amount is way off, though. I had to make another batch just to cover the gingerbread, let alone give it the nice blanket of icing in the picture. Fie on those food stylists and their manipulations!

I was beginning to feel like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, what with everything shrinking. Fortunately I am not growing mysteriously huger myself, like Alice did. Wait, that's not true. My fallen arches have just in the last couple of months caused my feet to "grow" a bit past what I consider to be an acceptable woman's shoe size. Would that I still wore a dainty size 9. I laugh to think of when I was in high school and coveted a size 6. Now I'm into the dreaded two digits, which is just weird.

You know what else is weird? Even though the zucchini salad was so small, I still have half of it left over. And even though the gingerbread was so big, it's all gone.

Sep 4, 2009

Black Olives, Anchovies, Tomatoes and Wine

The other day I was browsing through chicken recipes in Epicurious, when I realized with a start that I had every ingredient for William Sertl's Chicken Provencal. Brine-cured black olives? Yes. Anchovies? Yes, and not an unopened can but recent leftover ones from a sauce I had made the other day for pork--yes!! What a rim shot this recipe was.

I doubled the recipe, which led to a lot of sauce, but I rummaged around in my cupboard and found some Israeli couscous, which I have a bit of a thing for. So I browned it in a little olive oil and cooked it in water, and voila, there it was in all its glorious chewy-eyeball texture. Everyone liked it. We had leftovers for lunch yesterday, and I boiled up some orzo because the Israeli couscous was gone (because, ahem, I had eaten it). "Hey, this isn't Israeli couscous!" exclaimed Sherlock.

Speaking of Provence, which I was, because Provencal means "of Provence," did you know I spent spring vacations there in eighth and ninth grades? My father was stationed in Germany and we traveled whenever we could. I don't remember olives, anchovies, tomatoes, or wine but I remember sweets, because that's the wavelength I was on at the time. Fragrant, grainy lavender honey and marrons glaces, and creme de marrons. Marrons is French for chestnuts. I never knew, before that vacation, anything about eating chestnuts, except for that Christmas song about roasting them over an open fire. Ever since the American Chestnut blight in late 19th and early twentieth centuries, we don't really have any chestnut trees to speak of. Not a good time for American Chestnuts or Indians.

About the Israeli couscous, it's not that hard to find. It takes longer to cook than the more usual couscous (Gentile couscous?) because there's that browning step and then a twelve-minute cooking time. But worth it.

The boys and I will make the most of this last gasp of summer by taking the train to the city (That would be Philadelphia.) We'll go to the Reading Terminal Market to eat at the Down Home Diner, and make our ritual pilgrimage to Franklin Square for miniature golf among small replicas of Philadelphia landmarks. And the highlight of the day for Jack and Will? A visit to Daddy's cubicle. We think someone has been reading too much Dilbert.

Sep 3, 2009

On Selling Space and Finding It

Hyperbole Alert Status If You Live in Swarthmore: ORANGE. If You Live Elsewhere: YELLOW

It started out innocently enough. My friend asked me to help her publish the elementary school's student directory. I like my friend, in fact that's why she's my friend, and I said, "OK." We agreed that I would sell advertising space, because I don't mind calling strangers and asking them for things. It's a skill I developed long ago in my college summers, when I did telephone surveys about toothpaste, soap, and the Yellow Pages. The Yellow Pages survey was on the computer, ooooh. We all loved that one. Except when I asked someone if they had used the Yellow Pages to find a funeral home in the past 30 days, and she started crying.

So I pictured myself knocking on the doors of the businesses in my little town for a couple of days. Everyone would be so glad of the opportunity to support the community that they would whip out their checkbooks with a smile. Even the little shop that sells stale nuts and coffee, the one that gets like one customer a day. Gee, maybe they should advertise locally! She would love me for presenting such a great idea. I assumed that the local business folk would know what kind of ad they wanted and be perfectly capable of emailing me a PDF, which I would forward to the printer with no problems. My boys would love perambulating about the town with me and would be ever so cute, proof that the local elementary school is stellar, producing fine young civic-minded children! I even thought that people would return my phone calls. But--not necessarily, forget it, occasionally, sometimes, and not so much.

So. I wanted to find a place where I could take out some frustration. And the best place I could think of was Dream Kitchen, a musty old place where no one ever goes any more. Here I am standing in a dark dusty corner of it, and I'm going to scream right here, where no one can hear or see me. Right now. "AAAAAAAAUUUUUGGGGGHHHHH!"

That felt good. Really good. Hmmm, now that I think about it, the advertising job actually isn't that bad after all. It's kind of fun. The realtors are really nice and take out full page ads. One is not afraid to gossip a little! Love them! And the guys who run that solar energy place are cute as hell. Go suck an egg, little nut shop!

Well, thank you Dream Kitchen, this has been great. I'll have to come back. Don't change the locks.