First (real) Supper in the New Digs

I’m feeling like a bona fide adult today… well, except for the fact that I am, at present– 5:26 pm, that is– , eating a generous slice of lemon chess pie (see, the glorious thing’s almost gone!) at my friends’ shop (and my former workplace), Four and Twenty Blackbirds.  But aside from the fact that I am almost certainly spoiling my dinner, I’m feeling grown up. My woodworker-cum-contractor finally finished up installing my new shelves and furniture while I was up in MA last week, and so Trouble and I drove down to Brooklyn together on Sunday to take care of some home improvements and finally unpack.

I won’t bore you with the details. They involve a lot of sawdust, styrofoam padding (the only reason that’s any fun to talk about is in order to mention that I got to unwrap the buttercup colored Kitchen Aid Pro mixer that my brother sent me as a housewarming present– he definitely inherited my mom’s prescient and overly decadent gift giving gene), lots of banged elbows and box-induced paper cuts, trips to Ikea and Target and a very weary credit card.

The grown up-hood, certainly, stems partly from unpacking all of my things into my apartment. No roommate, no hand me down mattress from a previous tenant, no attempting to come up with a formula to measure the degree of reasonableness of bringing my entire cookbook collection with me in relation to how long the sublet is for. No subletting, no lease. My apartment.

But what really felt nest-y was more about the quiet moments, what actually happened in my apartment in the short 36 hours Trouble was here with me. On Sunday night, we ate out at a great new neighborhood joint called Bar Corvo (courtesy of the folks who’ve been running the wildly successful Al di La in Park Slope for many years now), sharing first aperitifs, and then splitting a bottle of Moltepulciano. We walked the two blocks home, a little stumbly but perfectly functional, then changed into sweatpants and headed up to my roof with nips of Whitle Pig Rye (another gift from my excessively generous brother, this one for Christmas– it is sooo good). We only lasted a little while in the chilly evening, lazing on lounge chairs and gazing off at the Manhattan skyline. Back downstairs, with the clock nearing midnight, Trouble pulled a book of Neruda from my shelf and we began to read– first I would read a poem in English from the downy surroundings of the bed, then he would take the book, stand, and animately recite the same poem in Spanish, his native tongue.

We passed the book back and forth until my eyes wouldn’t stay open any longer, then nodded off to bed.

The next night, Monday, after 13 hours of unpacking, cleaning, drilling, shopping, organizing and repeated runs to the hardware store across the street, I decided to cook. The apartment was still a mess, and my compulsive side said to clean, clean, clean until everything was done. But Trouble was sleepy, and he had been working his tail off all day to help me without complaint. The kitchen, at least, was in workable shape (that’s it, to the right there). So I pulled a pound of shrimp I had bought at Fairway when we were in Red Hook to make an Ikea run earlier in the day, and set to making Mexican shrimp in garlic and chipotle sauce, a blissfully simple and deeply satisfying meal consisting of a sauce made up of 2 heads of sliced garlic, half a can of chipotle peppers, some fresh tomatoes, lime juice and salt all pureed together, served with sautéed shrimp and white rice. We whipped up a quick salad of jicama, avocado, red onion and lime juice and opened a bottle of wine. It was red, and didn’t pair very well. It didn’t matter, though.

We peeled the shrimp with our fingers, tossing the shells into a metal mixing bowl I don’t think I’ve laid eyes on since I packed up at my first (and longest) Brooklyn address two and a half years ago. We brought the rice to our mouths with the forks from the gaggle of silverware my mom and dad were given as wedding presents (long before their divorce and each of their subsequent cancers and deaths were visible through even the most powerful of crystal balls). The placemats and napkins were deep red and burnt orange, a set I picked up in the early days of my domestic leanings.

After licking the plates clean, we washed up together, talking about love and radio as we went. Then we shared a bowl of caramel ice cream and sipped whiskey in bed while I read a magazine article aloud to Trouble.

I woke beside my love this morning, rested and with a sense of settledness in my belly that’s been gone so long it was almost startling to notice it hanging out there. After a stretch of time in my life that’s been marked by all too many lasts– last words, last breaths, last meals, last good-byes– it seems a terrific act of defiance to be marking new beginnings. No more nomadic living– begging couch space from friends for weeks a time, constantly packing and unpacking. No more big “what’s” or “where’s nexts”. At least not anytime soon. For the first time in a very long time, I know right where I am and the building blocks of the next few months. And with a little more stability beneath me– and a careful, if humorous eye on the god of surprises that can always upset our best laid plans–  my goal is to spend more time both pondering and reveling in the little things for a while. To focus on making smaller decisions… like what to do with the two dozen eggs in my fridge from our chickens up north or the first Jersey strawberries of the season, sitting, sassy in their spring blush, on my new kitchen counter.

I guess this needs a title…? How about (the wildly uncreative): List #1

Listen, I know I already posted earlier today, but, seeing as I’m up in the country, in between deadlines, it’s in the 40s outside (the 40s! It was 90 here two weeks ago!), Trouble is off at work (and, honestly, I don’t quite have enough to do with myself these days. I can only check on the chicks so many times before they start following me around and getting underfoot). So I thought I’d take a few minutes to write a list. A list, that is, of the fabulous springy things I’ve been eating recently. I mean, allegedly, this is something of a food blog. At least I think it should be, given that food– reading about it, writing about it, studying it, thinking about it, interviewing people around it, cooking it, selling it, eating it– takes up the vast majority of my waking hours.

Ramps got their own shout out, but other than that, I’ve been sorely neglecting the early bounty of the Northeast. So, in no particular order, a list of 10 memorable eats of late (some local, some not so much so).

  1. The ramps. Oh, the ramps. First, I had them up here at our friends’ house (see the ramps post). Then there was a simple dinner at my friend’s house in Millerton, New York, for which I made a lovely side of simple Asian mushrooms (I didn’t think to look at the name on the packages, but they’re the kind that are sold in clumps, the ones that look like, excuse me but it can’t be helped, tiny penises) sautéed over high heat, with a handful of ramp leaves thrown in at the last minute and a few drops of tamari. Yum!
  2. Maybe it doesn’t count as a gourmet meal, but I’ve been making green smoothies with early spring kale, yogurt, fruit and honey every morning. Kale is soooo sweet this time of year, especially if you buy it when the leaves are still small and tender.
  3. We had a beautiful meal with our friends Tim and Caroline of The Kitchen Garden Farm, along with a few other food and farm pals. Tim, a pretty extraordinary self-trained cook, made a riff on green papaya salad by subbing green cabbage for the papaya, and grilled up perfectly spicy chicken thighs. I remember chiles and lemongrass and fish sauce… the rest is lost with the rest of the rosé-blurred memories. 
  4. I’ve been consuming insane quantities of a particularly beautiful red-veined spinach that our friend Kristin grows up here in Western MA. Simply wilted down over a pan full of garlic lightly browned in a few glugs of olive oil– yum!
  5. Tons of granola from Trouble’s bakery, El Jardin, in South Deerfield. I keep a bag in the car for the schlep between Brooklyn and The Valley
  6. When the weather turned cold again this week, I started craving heartier fare rather than light salads and slaws. Like Trouble’s frijoles magicos (well, that’s what I dubbed them). They’re simple– black beans that have been pureed, cooked down with a bit of manteca (that’s lard for you vegetarians and vegans– BEWARE!… that you’re missing out on something really, really delicious), lots of garlic, a whole chili or two and (the secret ingredient) singed avocado leaves. They changed my world the first time he served them to me. They have, since, become my happy food.
  7. Asparagus. Need I say more? Grilled, roasted, steamed, eaten raw right off the stalk… I mean, come on.
  8. Red ale (do I get to count beer?). The medium body and only so-so hoppiness seems just right for this mercurial weather– big enough for chilly evenings, but refreshing enough to take edge off after a hot early spring afternoon of gardening.
  9. This morning, when hunger struck before the lunch hour, I used a few tender young hakurei turnips to scoop up garlicky homemade hummus from…
  10. … another amazing meal with the Kitchen Garden folks– their spring lamb roast farm dinner. Oh god, it was so good. A spread of olives (that I toted up from Titan Foods in Astoria– another “falling back in love with New York” experience early this past Saturday morning), Greek spreads, hard boiled eggs, wild greens dandelions and ramps, spanikopita made with a whole mess of greens  (my favorite of which was the stinging nettles), and a delectable spit-roasted whole lamb. Tons of crisp white and mellow red added a warm continuity to the evening, and we capped it all off with a delicious baklava made by my enormously talented best friend/college housemate, Anna Feldman (who I desperately wish had a website so I could link it here!)
When I think about the fact that it’s only the second day of May, and the eating’s already this good, I shudder with pleasure thinking about May, June and July. The glory of Indian summer and October (my favorite eating month)? Don’t even get me started!

New York, a Love I Just Can’t Shake

I admit, I’ve been a little cranky with New York lately. Well, okay, these past few years. As anyone who has ever lived in New York knows, she can mess you around. She always has a way of kicking you when you’re down. But when you’re riding high, she can make you feel, oh… I don’t really have the words. I could quote writers and poets past and present, from E.B. White’s “Here is New York” to Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind” to all the fabulous nuggets that came out of the (at times, admittedly, quite dark) documentary film, “The Cruise“.  But nothing seems to do justice to the incredible sensation of feeling like you’re in lockstep with this enormous breathing, writhing metropolis. It’s like she’s courting you, putting you in the limelight, and sending a lot of luck your way.

But the roller coaster of highs and lows has gotten to me over the years. And they say if you love something you should let it go… So I’ve taken a few long breaks from New York over the past couple of years. But this most recent one was by far the longest. For over nine months, I was without an address of my own in Brooklyn. And man, did I miss it. Waaaaay more than I expected to. It was like that lover you think you’re so over… until you say goodbye. And realize that, despite all the torment and bickering, you’ve built something, and you just can’t shake the damn thing. For me, New York has always been like that.

So, after a stint living and studying in Portland, Maine last fall (a lovely town, but not quite gritty enough for my liking), I bit the bullet and decided to take New York– flaws, frustrations and all — and really make her my own. That is, I bought an apartment.

It’s been an experience so far. Mostly great– I have a simple, bright little place of my own. I’ve even got high ceilings replete with skylights, a washing machine (if it ever gets off backorder at Lowe’s), and a gorgeous view from my amazing roof deck. But there have also been the inherent move-in headaches– contractors, movers, thin walls (luckily all of my neighbors have, thus far at least, been pretty forgiving of my novice blunders like setting the fire alarm off with steak smoke the first night I lived in my new place!). And alway, ALWAYS, factoring in the four flights of stairs.

The other day, sick and tired of trying to get any work done in a room filled with sawdust (my contractor has been taking his sweet ass time getting his work on my apartment done), chunks of drywall and unpacked boxes, I headed out in the late April drizzle for my brand of New York therapy– a long walk and an afternoon spent with a book, a journal and my computer in a cozy cafe. I needed to remember how, just when you feel like New York is causing you tear your hair out, just when you’re ready to leave her (yet again), you just need to take her out on a date. Break out of the rut. For me, that means heading– ALONE– to a neighborhood with which I’m not too familiar. It’s like magic every time– suddenly, I’m seeing the City with fresh eyes, appreciating her beauty, her quirks, her vulnerable soft spots and, of course, her sass.

I rode the G train up to Greenpoint. On McGuinness Boulevard,  I passed open garage doors, revealing ironworkers hidden behind safety glasses. Polish grandmothers walked the avenue, cloth shopping bags in hand, doing their daily marketing. Dusty old record stores beckoned me. But the weather was too dreary for window-shopping, so I continued north toward Queens. Somewhere about halfway across the Pulaski Bridge, red umbrella huddled close in a futile attempt to keep the raw wind and damp off my cotton sweatshirt (poor choice of outerwear, Sara), something caught my eye. I looked down off the bridge. There, parked alongside a nondescript brick hotel, was an antique yellow cab! Honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen one of them since I was a kid, desperately trying to keep up with my dad as he tugged me through Times Square for our annual theater date. But there it was, just waiting to be spotted. Elegant, classy, and all too forgotten.

A huge, goofy grin spread across my face. And, just at that moment, as I was looking down through the chain-link fence, a 30-something man walking in the other direction passed by, turned his head toward me, and said rather emphatically, “Beautiful!”. (Some of you may find that skeevy, sexist even. I’m not going to get into the politics and nuances of when I like a random compliment on the street and when it falls into the ick category of dirty catcall. Suffice it to say, this time– when I hadn’t showered in a day and I was dressed in a gray hoodie, rolled up consignment jeans and decidedly unsexy but oh so happy making yellow clogs– it was the best. The absolute best).

I hurried on down the bridge to the Queens side where, just at the bottom of the ramp sits one of the best cafes in all of the five boroughs, Sweetleaf on Jackson Avenue in Long Island City (a favorite neighborhood of mine, one I secretly hope to live, or at least have an extended stay, in someday. Don’t tell Brooklyn). I settled in with a mug of spicy ginger tea and a decadent hunk of their dangerously rich carrot cake, and whiled away the afternoon. Beside me, artists, retirees and techies sat reading, chatting and working. Folks came in to order with their dogs happily panting beside them. A local construction worker came in to do his daily 20-drink order for his entire team. Unfairly chic baristas steamed milk and pulled espresso.

I sighed, sunk deeper into my leather club chair, and tucked my socked feet underneath me. New York and I were back together again. And though I still think her venom is some of the deadliest in the world, when we’ve just made up, it’s pure bliss.

A string of haikus from the day:

G train in the rain
Only time I like to ride
It’s cozier when it’s wet.

From Pulaski Bridge
saw an antique yellow cab
in the Thursday rain

We’ve been on bad terms–
Stranger called me beautiful–
Forgave New York, again.

Cities are like girls
Lovely and vicious at once
But still you swoon anew.

Spring Delights: Ramps, good friends, and a boy called Trouble

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that an unusually warm spring will follow an unusually warm winter. And yet, these past couple of weeks, as the Northeast has been softened by temperatures in the mid-70s, I still wake dumfounded to find the ground warming and the leaves peering out from their buds.

After two weeks straight of non-stop IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) conference attendance, writing, and schlepping back and forth to Midtown for meetings, I finally hopped in the car last Wednesday and headed up to the Valley to see the guy who got me into this city/country split, so entrancing me with his boyish, playful, troublemaker charm that I began living with each foot in a different place (as I’m sure you can already tell, though, he didn’t have to pull my leg particularly hard).

Since arriving last week, the weather has been perfect– warm, breezy, sunny. And so, we’ve been cramming in the spring activities as fast as we can– beers on our friends’ farm porch at sunset, walking in the woods, hikes, runs and being barefoot on the lawn.

On Sunday, intent on enjoying an off-the-grid day, we headed southwest for the Berkshires. We planned on summiting Mt. Greylock, the tallest peak in Massachusetts (at only 3,491 ft. at its highest point, MA is a pretty pathetically low-lying state). Alas, the park wasn’t officially open yet, and so we had to start from the very base rather than the summit trail, halfway up the mountain.

We had gone maybe four miles or so, and had just started back downhill through the woods when a patch of green spears caught my eye amid the browns of dead leaves and tree trunks in the not-yet-awakened woods.

“Those are…” I exclaimed excitedly, crouching down to be sure I was seeing what I hoped I was seeing. The thin purplish vein up the back of the elegant oval leaves confirmed my suspicions.
“Ramps!” I said.
Trouble (as we shall call him– due to his wily nature and the fact that, at the beginning, I would say to him, “I’m in trouble” every time I felt myself swooning– until/unless I come up with a better name) didn’t seem particularly thrilled. “I know, I spotted them earlier,” he said flatly.
“Why didn’t you say something?” I asked, tugging one of the leaves gently between two fingers to ensure that what I had found was the allium relative and not an imposter.
One whiff of that earthy oniony verdant scent on my fingers, and I was down on my hands and knees, brushing aside dead leaves in search of the bulbs.

Trouble followed quickly, finding a stick to dig with. While he pulled clumps of the beautiful ramps from the vast patch (I’ve never seen anything like this– there were thousands of them), I sat on an overgrown stone wall, peeling off the outermost layer from around the slender stalks and bulbs to remove some of the damp spring earth.

It’s an amazing sensation, to be in cool of the woods with the heady scent of soil and leaf litter underfoot, becoming more pungent with each ramp you rustle up from the undisturbed ground. We stumbled upon these wild, beautiful things offering themselves up for human enjoyment. Their season is so brief, their whereabouts so quietly guarded, I felt almost guilty having spotted a field with so many. But guilt didn’t phase me from wrapping them up and bringing them home for dinner by the fistful.

I was giddy, and dinner plans had begun percolating. So we headed down the rest of the way, I with a spring in my my hiking booted-step.

Our Plan A for dinner failed (our friend Anna had a babysitting obligation), but luckily, our wonderful and enormously talented friends Jonathan and Cheryl of Hungry Ghost Bread have a standing Sunday supper invitation open to their friends. We stopped briefly at home after driving back East on Route 2 (as we were feeling especially jazzed about the food world from having seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi the night before, I read to Trouble from The Story of Sushi as we wound through farms, wetlands and old country towns), grabbed a few half-finished bottles of wine, rinsed off the ramps, and headed to our friends’ house.

A perfect spring evening ensued. Jonathan, excited to have me at their home for the first time, gave me the full tour, replete with the outdoor reading futon facing the Holyoke range, the treehouse he built that serves as the summer sleeping spot/saxophone playing room/Cheryl’s art studio/yoga porch, the sauna, and the new greenhouse. All pretty ingenious, if you ask me. We sat and enjoyed the view for a bit, then set to the task of dinner.

Jonathan opened some red, and we gathered in the kitchen. Cheryl, an Italian-American cook with incredible ease in the kitchen, whipped up a pot of lentils, then topped them with a dozen raw eggs and a layer of cheese and breadcrumbs, then set it all under the broiler to brown.

I washed and peeled the ramps a second time, then dressed them lightly with olive oil and a healthy sprinkling of coarse sea salt.

Trouble manned the grill, throwing on a few steaks he brought and charring the ramps.

Seven of us sat to table in the yard with a basket of Jonathan and Cheryl’s bread and a ramekin of softened butter. The wine flowed freely, and talk ranged from a hysterical marital error recounted on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” to the Stein family exhibit at the Met. The sun set over the mountains, with even the mosquitoes– still mostly dormant– leaving us to our hedonistic feast.

We came home full, rosy-cheeked and happy.  The next morning, Trouble and I woke rested and jonesing for more. The weatherman was calling for 90 degree (!) temperatures that afternoon, and there were spring chores abounding. We set to tilling the garden in shorts and boots, grinning goofily at each other with the sensation of fresh air on our bare legs. In the afternoon, we made a run to Home Depot for plywood and hinges for our chicken coop, and picked up 50 meat bird chicks from a friend in the hill towns

(the little ones are out back now, peeping up a storm and nibbling at stale leftover bread from Trouble’s bakery as I write this. But that’s more for another time).

We’ve been falling asleep physically exhausted and exhilarated by fresh air and sunshine. It’s plain as the nose on your face– spring has sprung. And I couldn’t be more pleased.

Longings for a Land Where Grilled Cheese is Just Grilled Cheese

I woke up this morning staring at a brick wall. It took me a few minutes to acclimate, as the birds have found their way back to the scraggly courtyard behind my Prospect Heights apartment. But the sound of them always makes me think I’m in Western Massachusetts or, even stranger, there are mornings where I wake up convinced I’m in my childhood bedroom in suburban New York, with the green green lawn and the white snowdrops in bloom in the backyard on those early earth-smellling days of spring. But no, I’m in Brooklyn, tucked into my bright (albeit internally facing”) apartment, alone, just wishing I was in the country.
I’m in a  particularly city-grouchy mood today. Spring is springing everywhere, and I feel like I’m missing it! There is a garden, and a chicken coop too, that need my tending in Western Massachusetts. I’ve just come off a five day whirlwind of a conference called the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professional) that happened to be held smack dab in the middle of Times Square, a blaring, unholy, practically seizure inducing mix of lights, tourists, traffic, litter and noise. 
I’ve never been a fan of Times Square. As a kid, I remember my dad, a city boy by birth, squeezing my hand tight while he pulled me through the crowd as we walked to a Broadway show once or twice a year. And when I moved to Brooklyn in my early twenties, despite having landed an office job in the (almost) equally awful land of the West 30s, I avoided walking north through Times Square as if it was a room full of kids with whooping cough. I don’t use the word hate lightly, but I vehemently hate Times Square.
I’m pretty sure I spent more time in Times Square over the past week than I have in my past three years spend (mostly) in New York altogether. And I’m not happy about it. I feel ragged and edgy, exhausted just from playing the “dodge the tourist” game. 
But more than anything, I’ve been thinking about something else these past few days. The theme of IACP this year was “The Fashion of Food”, something I find rather irritating, given that my personal interest in food is more about history and legacy (thus the book I’m working on at the moment, along with the extraordinary Rio de Janeiro-based chef and activist, Teresa Corção, who owns the renowned downtown restaurant, O Navegador ). In particular, there was an opening panel session that included the editor  editor in chief of a certain food magazine (which I’ll refrain from naming here) that talked about the real importance of trends in food today and blah blah blah. And then, when the who’s who in the food writing world got up for Q&A and asked him where the space is for enduring food stories– ones with history, identity and place– he brushed aside the question, telling them there is plenty of room for long-form writing on the subject (not true) and that, bottom line is, he has to sell his magazine, and trends–face bacon, kale, Nashville hipsters– equal dollar signs. Okay, I’ll hand it to him. That’s true. But I don’t have to like it. And I don’t have to agree with it being all that sells, either. Not when the grand dame of African American southern food, Edna Lewis, and classicist Jacques Pepin, are still among the best-selling food authors in America. 
This morning, lying in bed (where I still currently am), staring out at my brick wall, listening to the confused birds chirp out back, I was pushed over the edge by an article in today’s Times whose headline read: “Rethinking Grilled Cheese: A tour of artisanal grilled-cheese shops, a culinary sub genre that has boomed in New York in the last year.”  Now, I’m sorry, but no. This is not okay. The best reputed newspaper in America, and indeed in the world is paying a freelancer to go out and tour food trucks to eat cheese pressed between two pieces of bread? I mean, come on. You can (and should) make the stuff at home. It’s not rocket science, especially now that you can buy whatever manner of artisanally, humanely, and (admittedly) deliciously crafted ingredients you like for your homemade grilled cheese sandwich. You can even find pretty good bread in most places these days (though I’m partial to the wood-fired sourdoughs my boyfriend– for whom I haven’t yet figured out a clever name for this blog’s purposes, and the only fish in my seas of both bread and men–bakes out of his shop in Western MA). So come on, do we really have to get all Twitter-y about this? Is this really what sells these newspapers? Because I’m having a hard time believing anyone is getting all that jazzed about artisanal grilled cheese. Well, maybe in Williamsburg, but they’re automatically counted as outliers in my book.

After seeing that headline (no, I did not read the article all the way through), all I want to do is hop in the car, roll down the windows, and head up to my other home in Western Massachusetts– the one that trends barely touch, where making an “artisanal” grilled cheese involves my boyfriend’s perfect rosemary or 8-grain bread, a couple thick slabs of bacon, lots of butter, and our everyday (and plenty good, may I add) Cabot cheddar.  Up there, it doesn’t have to be in fashion to be good. It’s just lunch.