Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snowy day food

The blizzard came and went and spoiled plans. Christmas was Christmassy, with all of us gathered at Ben’s parents house out in Sag Harbor, the usual happy blur of candles, presents, turkey, and wine. Our collective pack of dogs kept things interesting, all five of them running in and out of the house, alternately sparring with one another and storming the table.
And the next morning, we awoke to a sweet garnish of flurries. Except those flurries began to thicken and whip about in earnest as the wind picked up, and when accumulation became a reality we thought to check the forecast–and the status of our flight to Denver the next day. By noon our flight and all others were nonexistent, with nothing else until the 30th. Nothing. Not even working airports, as it turned out. Our visions of gliding through powder in the Rockies vanished.

Down with an awful cold, I watched the blizzard beat against the window as the day wore on. I watched as Ben made the best of it, rallying the girls to roll a snowman out in the front yard, their heads bowed against the gales howling off the Long Island sound, giggles rising above it all as they poked in walnuts for eyes. From inside, the din from those winds crescendoed to a high whistling whine in the nighttime hours, as though we were holed up inside a medieval fortress.

The snowstorm was shaping up to be the Grinch of Christmas 2010…except, like the Grinch, the snowstorm’s heart grew a few sizes and decided to give something back. Because the next day, when we returned–and oh, what a return–we got to experience New York at its New Yorkiest, New York in the hush and beauty and excitement of a big new snow. There’s really nothing like it. Except we relied too confidently on memories of past snowstorms and swift plowings, and we didn't quite realize there was twice as much snow where we were going than where we had been. Our neighborhood, buried under a 20-inch blanket of white, had become a maze of heaped streets and more than a handful of abandoned vehicles–including multiple ambulances and taxis wedged sideways in the middle of major throughways.

We drove around searching in vain for clear passages, feeling the fools for motoring at all, especially in a car lacking four wheel drive. People were using main streets as sidewalks, as cross-country ski trails, as snowshoe paths; they were the wise ones. Eventually we did find a way to our front door, barreling the wrong direction up our one-way street, which was blocked at the other end by a stranded van. Then, just as we squeezed ourselves out of the car, our friends Lauren and Jon happened along and sprang into action, helping us unload all our luggage and loot while their son distracted our daughters from their catfight of the moment. We didn’t even have to ask–they were just there. That’s our neighborhood for you.

Later, the car safe in a garage (street parking is not happening for anyone, for a while), we went out into the deserted streets, feeling like pioneers in a new landscape. In the yellowy light we walked up Henry, past a paralyzed taxi, past the school, past ghostly Christmas decorations and twinkling strings of lights. The unmanned vehicles, buttressed by wind-chiseled drifts, created a sense of suspended animation that could have been an elaborate art installation. Our daughters dove into the best playscape ever: snow heaps to scale and slide, pristine drifts to destroy, smooth planes offering the perfect canvases for snow angels. My four-year-old reclined blissfully into the banks, experiencing the sensation of simultaneous floating and sinking.  On Amity, an ambulance that had been left for dead attempted to extricate itself from a headlock with a parked SUV, in the process grinding headlights and crunching metal. Further up, a van spun its wheels until some guys with Vermont plates offered to push it out of its rut with their own car.

We tumbled gratefully into our good Japanese restaurant up the street, peeling off layers of ski gear and absorbing the indoor heat, ordering miso soup and hot edamame. Then came eel and yellowtail for the grownups, avocado and cucumber rolls and sticky rice for the little ones. We nearly had the place to ourselves, the moody globe lamps and cheery Japanese waitresses and French chanteuses on the stereo. Chopsticks for all, the children's rigged with beginner hinges. And for dessert: green tea ice cream four ways and cups of roasted barley tea, then back on with the gear and back out into the streets, where the occasional drama of dig-outs continued. And as we fell asleep, our windows admitted that unique glow that happens when millions of icy crystals refract the street lights into our rooms.

What did we miss? Good skiing, Fat Tire, time with my family and with friends I only see out there these days. Colorado and is another home to me. It's where I spent my Christmases ages 14 through 26. But New York truly is home now, in the realest sense, and it took a massive snowstorm to remind me of that. A snowstorm that recalled some of my earliest winter days in the City, during the honeymoon phase, when I was initiated into that sense of benign anarchy only a New York snowstorm can create (we all know, in the end, that the able army of plows will save us, so we enjoy it while we can). It's also when you come face to face with your neighbors, who are grumbling but secretly cheerful as they shovel their sidewalks in their bomber hats. We're all in it together.
The next morning, the spell was broken as more roads got cleared and people took matters in their own hands, digging out portions of streets themselves and carving parking spaces along the sides. Cars moved through. Salt uncovered more of the sidewalks and the less-white blanket began to reveal just how filthy the city really is: soot, garbage, dog pee, and grease streaking from restaurants' back doors stained it as the day went on. Out of the melting piles hidden bikes will emerge and lost mittens will materialize. In our house the cautionary towels and piles of soggy boots will remain by the front door for a while, and hearty, sustaining fare will simmer away on our stove well into March. We will be more carnivorous than in warmer months. 

Yesterday, I hadn't made it to the store since our return, and as it happened I didn't need to: in October I had picked up gorgeous, grass-fed beef shanks from Grazin' Angus Acres, at the tiny but excellent Carroll Street greenmarket. They awaited in the freezer for just such an occasion as being snowbound, and I had the other necessary components as well: root vegetables from our CSA, frozen homemade stocks, frozen tomato puree from our winter CSA, and a splash of leftover wine. I even managed to uncover some chilly but fragrant rosemary from our herb "garden." 
What resulted could barely be called an osso buco, as that traditional Milanese dish is made from veal. Even though I know of sources for humanely-raised veal, I still can't bring myself to eat it (and although we eat more meat in winter, I always source it from responsible farms). But it's the same cut–a shank bone–just a more rustic and improvised preparation: beef stew with the drama of a marrow bone. Since it's a muscular (hence flavorful) cut of meat, a long braising time is needed, and to that I tack on a resting period; overnight is best, but if that's not possible the dish can be cooked in morning, rested for the remainder of the day, then re-heated for dinner. Traditionally the Milanese serve their osso buco with risotto, but since this was a bastardized version of the classic, and I had all those roots on hand, I made Mario Batali's "turnip risotto", from Simple Italian Food. It's a lot of meat, so whatever we can't finish gets thrown back into the braising liquid and saved as a beef stew that's even better the next day.

Beef Shank "Osso Buco" for two
  • 2 beef shanks, cut crosswise about 2 inches thick
  • Kosher salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds
  • 3 celery ribs, chopped 
  • 1 cup (give or take) wine, red or white
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 sprigs rosemary, leaves removed and chopped
  • 2 tsp. thyme leaves, chopped
  • 16 oz. tomato puree, or whole, peeled tomatoes 
Salt and pepper the shanks. Heat a dutch oven (Le Creuset style, with lid) that will comfortably fit shanks, add oil and brown the shanks on all sides. Remove and pour off any excess oil. Add onions to the pan and sauté for a few minutes, then add garlic, carrots, and celery and sauté for a few minutes more. Remove from pan and set aside. 

Deglaze plan with wine, simmer a few minutes, and add shanks back in along with the herbs. Cover with the stock and enough water to submerge completely, bring back up to a simmer and allow to simmer gently for about an hour, uncovered. After an hour, add tomatoes and vegetables and simmer these for 2 more hours, or until meat is falling off the bone and tender. Skim off any grease, and taste and add more salt, if needed. Allow to rest overnight or for a few hours, and serve with gremolata (below) sprinkled on top. Serve with risotto, mashed potatoes, or turnip "risotto" below.

  • 2 tablespoons minced parsley
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced 
Stir ingredients together and sprinkle on top of shanks. All that garlic, I imagine, is good for fighting winter colds.

Turnip "Risotto"
Adapted from Mario Batali, Simple Italian Food
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large shallot, minced fine
2 large turnips, cut as evenly as possible into 1/8-inch dice
2 cups hot chicken stock
salt and pepper
1/3 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

In a large skillet, melt butter and gently sauté shallots until softened. Add turnips and cook a couple minutes, stirring so they cook evenly, without browning. Add chicken stock a ladleful at a time, and stir until stock is absorbed. Repeat with remaining stock until turnips are tender and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and stir in grated cheese (and more butter, if you wish), about 1 minute. Serve immediately.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

London calling

Most people have their family reunions in summer–at least that’s what I’ve always believed, since the ones I attended growing up centered around rivers or feral lawns, and my bare knees always emerged pink and scuffed from the festivities. But the family that Ben and I have created is a little backwards, and we try to get it all in during coat season. Virginia is for Thanksgiving, New York and Colorado are for Christmas, and we’ve taken to visiting England in between, in order to see the brigade of aunties, uncles, cousins–and most importantly Ben’s Granny, who doesn’t travel any more. I suppose we could accomplish this over summer vacation without pulling our kids from school, but then we would miss out on London’s sparkly pre-Christmas vibe, and the fun of taking the girls to see dignified “Father Christmas” instead of the more clownish American Santa (FYI: Father Christmas requests mince pies and sherry for Christmas Eve sustenance). Another reason for enjoying London in December is the typically mild weather, conducive to getting out and strolling the festive streets at night. Except this time around things were a little…backwards.
We arrived to a shell-shocked London, a snowstorm having just whipped through and shut down Gatwick airport for two days. The Brits were complaining bitterly about the minus-two (Celsius) temperatures, newspapers proclaiming things like “England is in the grips of once-in-a-lifetime deep freeze.” Scotland was especially hard hit. There were stories of people falling through ice after attempting to rescue marooned pets (“If your dog falls into freezing water”, one article counseled, “resist the temptation to go after it.”). My amusement over all this panic wore off as soon as I realized that most of the places we went did not have boilers designed to keep up with the sub freezing temps, so even though we like to think we're winter warriors, we found ourselves shivering along with the rest of them. It was an inverted version of the summer we spent in London, in 2003, when I had packed raincoats and sweaters, only to be socked with a record heat wave and no A.C. (meanwhile, a damp, gray, London-like summer was playing out back home in New York, where my sundresses hung).
London is a comfortable city, aside from the over-the-top prices. The first time I visited, I felt like I had lived there in a former life, the buildings and streets and sounds already familiar. It’s not a city that grabs me like Paris can, but it feels happy and genuinely fun. I'm thrilled by its history and eclectic architecture, and tickled by its quirks. Here are a few highlights from the trip:

Winter Wonderland: Who knew that the European, wintertime equivalent of one of our beloved country fairs would be waiting in Hyde Park, just steps from our hotel? A dusting of snow made the whole setting deserve its name and also seemed to scare off the crowds. Bleary from jet lag, we stumbled into a blazing and blipping carnival world of rides, bavarian-themed food booths, and games of skill and chance; archery with real live arrows was one, and I gave it a whirl without any success. 
Top Tea: As we walked out of the park my 6-year-old was silent for a moment then asked “are we going to have top tea now?” It took us a second to realize she meant High Tea, which I don’t know if anyone under the age of 70 takes anymore, so we humored her and went to Ladurée for macarons. It wasn’t very English apart from being adjacent to Harrods, where we had just stood in line waiting to see Father Christmas only to be told he was “all booked up.” The sweets softened the disappointment, and both girls fell asleep on our laps, in a dreamy haze of jet lag and pastries.

Double-Decks: My four-year old, from the moment we landed, demanded we ride on a "double deck" (bus, that is).  She didn't care where we went, she just wanted to climb aboard and look down on London from dizzying heights. Finally, on our last day, her wish was granted and she and her sister snagged the front seat up top.
Plumbing curiosities: I didn't consider waterworks much when I spent time in London before kids, but this time around I couldn't escape them, mainly because of all the questions I had to answer each time we visited a new loo. Traveling with children is funny like that: you're more acutely entertained by things you would have barely noticed before. Like English lavatories, where you never know exactly what you’re going to get. Flushers may need to be held down or may have to be pumped vigorously a couple of times to get things going. Or, there might be a rope dangling from a water tank above the loo. My daughters were endlessly confused and amused. At the sink, you more often than not get separate taps for hot and cold. I’m perplexed by the fact that the British can engineer state-of-the-art green skyscrapers but can’t figure out how to mix hot and cold water together–so you end up freezing one hand and scalding the other. And when you're finished, the now ubiquitous Dyson Airblade awaits. It resembles a modern cross between stocks and a guillotine, and once you work up the courage to insert your hands inside, the blower lets out a deafening, high-pitched roar that never failed to set both my daughters howling.

Those Phone booths: they're so delightfully British and I hope they never get phased out, even in a future where land lines become obsolete. But I've never once seen anyone making a call in them. They seem to function solely as strange, free-standing galleries for X-rated flyers.

Museum of London: Ben's cousins suggested we all meet up there, since it would be deserted on a Saturday (it's in the City, the equivalent of NYC's financial district). We had the whole place to ourselves! The exhibits were perfectly portioned for the kids, who got to learn about Black Death, the Great Fire of 1666, and other things that kept them awake and terrified later that night. 

Family and Friends: Ben's relatives are delightful, and any gathering with them memorable. They really know the art of a good, lingering, chatty meal, and the little cousins always entertain each other, as well. The night before we left London, I also got to see the fantastic Langseth sisters, my dear friends who have lived all over the world but have landed in London for the time being. We hunkered around the back table of a restaurant in Kensington and laughed, drank red wine, laughed some more, and as the place emptied out, contemplated the possibility of getting forgotten and locked in–which would afford us the opportunity for more laughter and wine. Of course, that didn't happen. London shuts early at night.
St. John Restaurant had been on my to-do list for years, and I finally got to drag the whole family there for Sunday lunch. Founder Fergus Henderson was at the forefront of the current nose-to-tail eating movement, and his menus offer innards aplenty (Anthony Bourdain proclaimed it his "favorite restaurant in the world"). His cookbooks, The Whole Beast and Beyond Nose to Tail are little gems, both for their recipes and their pithy descriptions. If you're interested in venturing beyond steak and chicken breasts and delving into the rest of the animal (honoring it, actually, by not wasting anything), I highly recommend these cookbooks–and it's not too late to order them as Christmas gifts. In the back, a recipe for a hair of the dog remedy is called, simply, A Miracle and bears a warning: "Be careful: this is so effective you can find yourself turning to its miraculous powers with increasing regularity. Do not let the cure become the cause."
My in-laws were more than happy to try out a new place, and this was English cooking at its finest. Homely, flavorful, resourceful, and warming. And it wasn't just offal: there were sparkling fresh langoustines and mayonnaise, and Ben and his Dad ordered the smoke haddock and potatoes as their main course. I started with cured beef with beets and pickled walnuts, then Ben's mom and I split a pheasant and trotter pie, which was, with its marrow bone chimney and suet crust, the badass answer to the pot pies of my youth. The Whole Beast contains a recipe for it, with the header "This is a most rich and steadying pie."
The Countryside: We drove out into the country to visit Gran and the other half of Ben's family, in Essex. His aunt and uncle are bakers (literally–they own a bakery), so we enjoyed fresh loaves every morning. They put on an early Christmas dinner for us, complete with crackers and roast chicken with all the trimmings, and homemade Christmas pudding for dessert. Ben's mom and her sister got into an intense discussion about what makes a proper Christmas pudding, and it was settled that Guinness and a very long steaming are the way to pudding heaven. Since it wasn't truly Christmas yet, though, we didn't set it on fire and run around the table. 

Frost: As we explored the countryside, I was captivated by the subtle varieties of frost on everything. Hoar frost, rime frost, feather frost. None of it like the timid Connecticut frost I'm used to, which vanishes as soon as the sun comes up. In damp Britain, it lingers all day, waxing and waning, coating every surface with a silvery sheen and crazy textured patterns.
Peacocks that like sticky cake: Need I say more? The owner of the muddy wellies held a cigarette in one hand, peacock bait in the other, to the delight of my daughters.
So there you have it. I really would like to reprise one of the St. John recipes, preferably the pheasant and trotter pie if one of my hunter friends will send some pheasant my way–but I've been up to my elbows in cookie dough since our return–so it'll have to wait until January or February. Here's the recipe for the "overindulgence" remedy, which I hope none of us will need this holiday season…but just in case: 

A Miracle
Adapted from The Whole Beast
1 part Creme de Menthe
2 parts Fernet Branca (Italian bitters)

Mix together and drink

Happy Holidays!