Friday, March 16, 2018

Inner worlds, outer worlds


A couple of nights ago at the family table, we paid tribute the great Stephen Hawking, who had left this world in the wee hours of the morning, and whose magnitude we wanted to make sure the kids appreciated. We parents and the big girls got appropriately science-nerdy and then a bit existential as the discussion flowed from black holes to cosmic energy, to the notion of a holographic universe, and then on to Elon Musk’s assertion that we are living inside a computer simulation and that A.I. is really in control of us all.

The five-year-old, who would rather be building Legos than pretty much anything else, normally stages a complete shutdown during such discussions; talk about meerkats, dino trucks, and Captain Underpants is more his speed. But on this occasion he got a thoughtful look on his face and waited politely to slip into the next gap in conversation.

“I used to live in the outer world,” he said. “And now I live in the inner world.”

We all fell silent, kind of spooked, waiting for him to throw open some goosebump-raising window onto a previous life—perhaps even provide a clue to an unknown realm. We urged him to dig deeper.

“I was in the outer world and then…and then you bought me from the monkey store and I’m in the inner world now.”

I’m not sure what the takeaway was from the conversation, but we all fell silent and resumed enjoying the no-brainer chicken dish I’d put together on the fly moments before. It's a one-dish meal that will by no means solve the riddles of the universe, but it's kind of everything in our inner world, on a weeknight, when we don't feel like scrubbing more than one pan but we do feel like something warm, tangy, saucy, and restorative. It's amenable to infinite variations and can be prepped ahead, refrigerated in the pan, and pulled out when you're ready to roast. It's genius in its own right.


************

“It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.”
—Stephen Hawking



One Pan Chicken with Lemons, Caperberries, Potatoes
Serves a family of 4-5
Ingredients:
  • 1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 leeks, including whites and all but the very toughest green parts, chopped fine
  • ½ lemon, cut into slices then quarters
  • 1 medium tomato, chopped
  • 8-10 whole giant caperberries, drained (you can substitute green olives)
  • 4-6 medium potatoes, cut into quarters or sixths (leave skins on if organic)
  • Splash of water
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Instructions: 
  1. Preheat oven to 400°. Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. In a baking dish (or huge skillet) large enough to fit the chicken without crowding, spread out the leeks, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, then drizzle with olive oil. Next, add the lemons, potatoes, tomatoes, and caperberries. Splash a small amount of water (a few tablespoons) in the pan. Put the chicken pieces on top of everything so that none of the pieces are touching, and drizzle on some olive oil—a fairly generous amount. 
  2. Bake the chicken, basting every 15 minutes or so with the cooking liquids that are generated, until the pieces are done and the top surfaces are nicely browned—about 40-50 minutes, but everyone's oven is different. (If you're not sure, cut into one of the thighs along the bone; if there's still blood the chicken could use some more time)
  3. Serve hot, with the pan juices and a little of everything else, including the lemons. 


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Seeded Winter Slaw

This is the salad I keep coming back to this winter. It’s like a song stuck in my head, except there’s a bit of a different riff each time, depending on what vegetables happen to be in the fridge that particular day—and we've been wealthy in winter vegetables thanks to our Local Roots CSA share. The basics are the same: celery root, apples, and beets, all julienned matchstick thin. Sometimes I throw in some shredded cabbage, other times fennel bulb, sliced wisp thin. If I’ve come into some sunflower sprouts or lacy micro anything, I’ll throw those in too, to remind myself that Spring is right around the corner. Another punchy addition is quick-pickled shallot, which is easy enough to make if you don’t mind the extra step and just a tiny bit of advance planning. Always, I dress the whole thing up in a tart apple cider vinaigrette and scatter crunchy seeds on top with abandon. This salad—or slaw, or whatever you'd like to call it—is sturdy enough to keep until the next day with minimal change in texture…and the color is undeniably pretty. May I present:

Seeded Winter Slaw

Ingredients:

  • 1 ½ cup shredded raw cabbage (leaves sliced thin)
  • 1 cup finely julienned raw celery root*
  • ½ cup finely julienned raw beetroot*
  • 1 small apple (keep the peel), cored and julienned*
  • 2 TBS sunflower seeds 
  • 2 tsp poppy seeds (more if you'd like)
  • Pinch of flaky sea salt 
*To julienne the vegetables, cut away the outer peel and discard, then either use the thin ⅛" (not super fine) setting on a mandoline**, OR do it by hand: cut vegetables into very thin cross sections, about  " thick, then crossways into matchsticks of about  " thick.  
 
For vinaigrette:
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard 
  • 1 tsp honey 
  • 2 TBS apple cider vinegar 
  • 7-8 TBS extra-virgin olive oil (or sunflower oil) 
  • Hefty pinch of sea salt 
  • A couple cranks of ground black pepper
Instructions:
  1. Mix up the vinaigrette in a small bowl: whisk together mustard, honey, and vinegar. Whisk in oil very gradually so that it does not separate. Taste it as you go, until you achieve just the right tartness. Add salt and pepper to taste. 
  2. In a medium bowl, toss all vegetables and apples, adding the dressing gradually and tasting occasionally, until you've gotten the right amount—you don't want it too heavy or greasy, and you will most likely have some dressing left over. 
  3. Toss with a couple big pinches of flaky sea salt and the seeds, saving a few extra to put on top of the salad when serving. If you're adding sprouts or microgreens, wait until the very end so they're still spritely when served. 
Variation: Quick-Pickled Shallots
To quick-pickle shallots, simply remove the outer layer of skin from the shallot and discard. Slice the shallot very, very thin crosswise. In a small bowl, mix a bit of vinegar (2-3 TBS) with a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt until dissolved. Toss the shallots in this mixture and allow them to stand at room temperature for an hour or two (stir occasionally if they're not covered). 
Variation with pickled shallots and sunflower sprouts

**A note about mandolines: If you're interested in investing in one, the Japanese Benriner is relatively inexpensive on Amazon (I've linked to the older, cheaper version). They're great for slicing things very thinly, making French Fries, and julienning all sorts of stuff. You've been warned, though: they will just as easily remove a chunk of your thumb, as I've done. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Beginnings

Twenty years ago this month, New York City’s January air welcomed me with a fresh slap. I arrived trailing a suitcase and a folder full of resumes on thick paper. I also carried a binder case filled with my CD collection, whose contents hinted at former lives: “le Meilleur de Flashdance et Fame,” purchased in a bout of homesickness and nostalgia from FNAC in Paris during the previous post-college year, huddled reluctantly beside the Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic CDs still hanging around from high school (I was too sentimental to jettison them).

At first, I crashed at the little-used apartment of my godparents, in the East 70’s, where it was easy to pretend I had fast-forwarded over the hard first part of life in New York. I worked my way through the Pellegrino and Sancerre that stocked the fridge, until I was told in polite but unmistakable terms that it was time for me to find somewhere else to freeload. I took a bus crosstown through the park and landed in the living room of Em and Jo, dear hometown friends who told me I could occupy their sofa bed for as long as I needed to, the assumption on both sides being that I was closing in on a job and would soon be able to afford an apartment of my own (ha!).

When I wasn’t interviewing or checking my email at an internet café somewhere, I was getting in touch with anyone at all in the city who would hang out with me during the chilly days; the city has a way of shaming the idle and plus, there was so much to see. A guy I knew who was creatively employed had time during those long weeks to show me the New York sights I should know, like the lobby of the Chrysler building, and Grand Central Oyster bar, which had recently suffered a fire that sent tiles from its vaulted interior raining down like so many fall leaves; the ceiling still had a wounded, blistered look, but waiters bustled about and lunchgoers bent over their chowder as though nothing had happened. It was there that I learned to love raw oysters on the half shell. I checked out every museum I could and followed up nervously, a little desperately, after interviews—most of which yielded something along the lines of “we don’t currently have any paid positions, but if you would be willing to accept an unpaid internship…” I laughed at the thought of living unsalaried in New York City for any length of time, even though I knew I was lucky to be enjoying that life, if guiltily, for an interval.

In the evenings, and the early mornings before work, I looked forward to time with my roommates, because we laughed together non-stop and had known each other as children. In the mornings over coffee we watched Pat Kiernan on New York 1, and when everyone was home from work we drank cheap wine and rehashed the weekend’s escapades. Around that time the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal broke on the living room’s boxy TV, and we howled in disbelief when the grinning, big-haired shot of Monica flashed across the screen, looking like a high school graduation picture of someone we might have known peripherally not too long ago; she was our age. With each new sordid layer exposed we sat more riveted: the stained dress, the outrageous duplicity of Linda Tripp. “What the fuck?” was about all we could say to any of it*.

At night, after everyone had retired to their rooms, I would drift off to the otherworldly sound of steam pipes clanking and groaning, something powerful and mysterious asserting itself
within the walls of the prewar building. Finally, by the next month, my quest for a job panned out and I’d started looking at apartments: dusty, unbelievably expensive little boxes. I ended up taking one in the west 80’s, near my friends: a tiny basement studio I couldn’t afford, but which had a quasi-kitchen with a black and white linoleum floor that was evocative of something, and a Magic Chef stove—potential for me to experiment and create feasts, even if I had nowhere to serve them. As for the job, they wanted me right away. It wasn’t the position in food media I'd sought—it was with a group of shelter magazines—but my rationale was that at least by getting in the kitchen I would be close to food. The title was Administrative Assistant, with the potential for writing opportunities and upward mobility; this much turned out to be true, quickly, even if I never did muster the requisite enthusiasm for faucets and furniture. I worked for Hearst, in a building on West 55th St. whose front door led straight across the street to the original Soup Nazi, lunch lines and all. During that time I ate mostly bagels and lentils and pasta, and occasionally soup.

Those New York beginnings weren’t edgy or cool or opulent as the mythical ones you always hear about; I was no Patti Smith. Late 90’s NYC had already lost its frisson of danger for the most part, the East Village a playground for post-college kids like me. The soundtrack to “Rent” already sounded contrived and outdated. But as with all the best beginnings, mine were built on kindnesses and connections, and the everyday incandescence of a new, big city. When you’ve lived somewhere else, you think you know yourself as an extension of that town, until you move and that layer is ripped away, leaving you open to everything the new place hurls your way. I felt at once exposed and cocooned. And then at some point during that year, without even noticing, I’d grown a shell—thin and fragile at first—that marked me as a New Yorker.

Over the next couple of years, the friends who had made my first days in New York so colorful and warm flew away like butterflies. New York, for them, had been a post-college palate cleanser—something I truly expected it to be for me, too—and other places beckoned them with more permanence. I’d met someone fortuitously at a party (do people even meet this way any more?), and that someone turned out to be my husband, with whom I began a new, big chapter whose roots sank deep into the city’s pavement. His friends became my friends, and eventually many of us ended up in Brooklyn, where we have added a growing family of friends to the bunch, including many children—a whole other wonderful and still bewildering thing.

There were endings among the beginnings. The building where I’d worked my first real job was torn down to make way for a taller, more efficient one, and I don't even recognize that part of town anymore on the rare occasion when I go there. The boy who’d taken me to the Oyster Bar died suddenly, I heard, a few years after I’d lost touch with him. Then there was 9/11. The attacks shattered the city while we were living downtown, within viewing distance of the blazing towers and close enough that our apartment filled with acrid smoke when we fled, leaving a window open. For a time it felt like the world was ending and our neighborhood's fences fluttered with hopeful, awful "missing" pictures until they faded or fell or were taken down, but in spite of the feeling of unbelievable fear and sadness, resilience eventually won out.

As for my old CD collection, those that weren’t sold at a stoop sale are buried in a drawer somewhere, and my children will never know what it’s like to pop in a disc, because any time they want music they just tell a speaker what to play.

Would I live anywhere else? Could I? Of course. Everywhere I visit, it seems, is a reminder that things could be easier, slower, and for better or worse, less full and noisy. I think we’ll stay put for a while.


Caccio e Pepe
Serves 1 (multiply for company)

Ingredients:
  • 4 oz. dried spaghetti noodles 
  • Salt (for the water)
  • 1/2 c. finely grated pecorino Romano cheese
  • Freshly ground pepper (about 1/2 tsp., or to taste)

Instructions: 
  1. Fill a big pot of salted water (should taste like the sea) and put it on to boil. Once it's boiling, add pasta and monitor closely. Have a skillet at the ready alongside the pot.  
  2. Once pasta is almost done, put the skillet over medium heat and ladle about half a ladle full of pasta water to start, then mix in cheese and pepper vigorously with the back of a spoon until cheese is fully dissolved and the mixture is creamy and thick; you may need to play around with the amount of water. Turn down low. As soon as the pasta has reached the al dente stage (only way to know is to keep trying it—should resist slightly between your teeth), scoop it out with tongs and transfer to the skillet, where it will cook for another minute or two. Stir constantly until noodles are coated with the creamy sauce; drizzle in a little more pasta water at a time if it seems to dry. 
  3. Serve immediately, sprinkling with additional grated cheese and pepper. 

I wish I'd had this Roman classic in my back pocket all those years ago—it's frugal, simple, quick, and comes together almost magically.

*I have come to admire the advocacy work Monica has done against cyber-bullying and regret to remember her for that moment in time.