Wednesday, August 22, 2007

remembering paris...

We are in the midst of prime harvest season, but soon I return to work and say goodbye to weekday mornings at the Greenmarket. Although I had no pressing need for food today, I decided to take advantage of the final weeks of summer.

I was not disappointed. Peaches were sweet. Keith's Farm's shiny bronze shallots reappeared after I had missed them on Saturday. I sought out a new farm for micro-greens, to replace the ones I had sworn off due to the radish-carrot dispute. I discovered deep purple string beans that bleed into your cooking water until it turns pink. But my favorite find of the day was a simple head of sweet, buttery lettuce labeled "Sucrine: the French kind". I was whisked back to Paris with one nibble.

In April, we discovered "the French kind" of lettuce at the Popincourt open-air market in the 11th arrondissement. Jordan and I met in Paris for 10 days. The exhilaration of our culinary experiences on that trip are the mainspring of my burgeoning food fetish. The first weekend back in New York City, I found myself meandering through the Union Square Greenmarket and down to specialty shops in Greenwich Village recalling the Parisian style of marketing and devouring life's simple pleasures. I saw no reason to return to efficient consumption habits of the American automaton, and I quickly discovered I was not alone. In no time, I became a newbie in the vast world of foodie culture.

With a second bite of sucrine, I decided it was finally time to follow through with the little gift for Jordan I had been planning since April. I was to have our very first food photos printed. I had my fun with iPhoto and gave each image an antique look. I had purchased white square frames that would sharply pop on the pale robin's egg blue walls of his kitchen. All that remained was the trip to a print shop for precision cropping and professional quality printing. Since I'm historically more of a drugstore photo developer, I was pleasantly surprised when the pros took me around back, suggested subtle improvements, and let me have the final say in every decision for the same 29 cents I would've paid in RiteAid. The results were perfect!

(Left to right: Fromages...mmm! Fourme d'Ambert, Selles sur Cher, Crottin de Chavignol, and dates on a branch, all from Popincourt marché. The richest Hot Chocolate in the world, unconfirmed, discovered by my favorite flâneur. Huîtres une douzaine. If you bring a plate to a fish market, they will shuck the oysters for you. They were even placed on a bed of seaweed and garnished with lemon. We brought them up to our apartment and devoured them.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

what's cooking...

There's been too much great food lately to write about properly, so here's a little taste of what's been cooking:

Breakfast: After an unfortunate run in with an overly salted pork breakfast sausage, we've moved on to this chicken one instead. Perfect. I found an organic honeydew at the market and filled it with strawberries and raspberries. This was also the first sampling of a Grade B New York Maple Syrup, as I've heard, Grade A is for tourists.

Lunch: While on a trip upstate this past fall, Jordan and I fell in love with these warm sandwiches: ham, sauteed pears, cheese (we've tried brie and cheddar), on cranberry walnut bread. This cold, wet August weather calls for food that warms the insides.

Dinner: Crab Legs (unfortunately, not local), Pamela Sherrid's Summer Pasta from the New York Times Magazine Recipe Redux 7.29.07, and swiss chard. To make the summer pasta you infuse olive oil with basil and garlic all day, marinate the tomatoes for 2 hours, and add the pasta and fresh mozzarella last. I was doing well until the end, when I marinated the tomatoes 3 hours instead of 2 and reversed the order the pasta and cheese were supposed to be added. Now I will never know what it would've tasted like had it been perfect.

Dessert: Fresh peaches, raspberries, whipped cream and a brownie bite.

At some point, I also baked Grandma Mickey's zucchini bread.

Monday, August 20, 2007

potholes and roadkill...

The road to perfect is paved with the vegetables, artisanal cheeses and meats found at the Union Square Greenmarket on a Saturday. I was geared up for a smooth ride this weekend, only to find my way peppered with potholes and smeared with roadkill.

This Saturday was particularly gorgeous, 70 degrees, sunny and breezy. I had already received an impromptu lesson on grass-fed Buffalo meat, gathered herbs to dry for the winter, and had my first taste of the pineappley "husk tomato", or ground cherry. This could have been another enchanted weekend on the road to culinary enlightenment, but I was thrown off course by a menacing pothole.

Earlier this summer, I chopped up a purple carrot for an Asian chicken salad, and was pleasantly surprised by its radish-like kick. I returned to the same farmer, but all the subsequent plum colored roots have just been carrot-flavored carrots. I finally decided to ask the youthful biodynamic bohemians, "What was up with the radish flavored carrot?" I wanted them to be enthused that I had noticed the subtle difference. Instead, they denied its existence. One said I was probably eating a radish. The other simply snapped, "Maybe you're wrong." "What did you just say?" I had to clarify. Whatever happened to the customer is always right? If I say your carrot tasted like a turkey leg, you say, "Really? That's so interesting." I was enraged by their dismissive tone. I fumed and walked away, swearing off the sweetness of their delicate micro-greens forever. I left a voicemail for Jordan, "You remember that purple carrot. It tasted like a radish, didn't it? It really WAS a purple carrot. I'm not crazy. Call me back." Hmph.

Potholes are sneaky. How often are we walking along in our bliss, when out of nowhere we slam into a comment or a person that abruptly deflates us? All it takes is one crappy encounter, and we are set off our path. Other times the road is littered with misfortune. Bushels of heirloom tomatoes worked their magic, distracting me from grumblings of self-pity, when I turned the corner and walked straight into my ex.

"Oh my. Look who it is. How are you?"
"Pretty well. How about you?"
"Things are alright."
"Good. That's good. I'm happy for you."
"So, yeah. uh...what have you been doing with yourself?"
"Do you want to get a coffee or something?"
"Oh...sorry, I can't right now. I've got perishables."

Then, I showed him my steak. It was a rib eye, or Delmonico steak, a juicy tender cut from the rib of a Bison. I didn't mean to rub it in, but there it was, vacuum-wrapped meat, evidence that I'd moved on. I didn't set out to hurt any feelings. As I walked on, I looked back and waved. He grinned and waved back, a splayed carcass, roadkill.

These are the roads we all travel, hopefully heading in the right direction. Inevitably, we find our journey punctuated by little annoyances and big mistakes. We try to see them for what they are, distractions along the way, and keep moving.

photo credit: Andrea J. Walker "Purple Haze" carrots

Thursday, August 16, 2007

everything in its place...

Four bottles of Cabernet Franc are at my feet, two from the Loire region of France and two from New York State. I bought a bottle a week ago at a small tasting room along RT 28, just south of Cooperstown, NY. The other three are from the wine shop around the corner. Even with bottles lined up on the floor for lack of vacancies in a wine rack and no counter space to speak of , I am fantasizing about more. The only way to do this eating (and drinking) local thing is to get obsessed.

I heard about the cooler climate grape from a friend, who kindly steered me clear of New York Chardonnay. He said if you want local wine, a Cabernet Franc is the best in this region.

At the Bear Pond Winery, I surveyed the tasting card for a handsome stranger. I made my mark beside the dry, full-bodied "father" of Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc had the highest price on the list. I sensed the beginning of a passionate, though short-lived, love affair.

For many, the pleasure of wine goes beyond its complexity and tricks of the taste buds. To stumble upon a great local bottle while en route to a campground, to drink it from a stainless steel goblet beside a campfire, to wash down juicy burgers, grilled peaches and s'mores is a bliss beyond the scope of grape juice. No promises I'll feel the same when I open another bottle, or four, at home.

I want to see how the New York version stacks up against the Old World. If sufficiently intrigued, a foray to the Finger Lakes wine trail will commence Planning Stage One. Heck, who am I kidding? That seed has already been planted.

I don't know the rules of the "locavore" game, but I'm all for it as long as it continues to be such fun. The local food movement is the perfect excuse to take a day and weekend trip, buying from local producers along the way. It's also a great opportunity to taste test. Getting to know your local foods and beverages, and seeing how they stand up to their long-distance counterparts, makes a more informed consumer on either end of the spectrum. While the driving and consumption of shipped-in products may make the low-impact extremists out there cringe, at least it's something more people might be willing to try. All of this, of course, only matters to the environment if one decides on the local products in the end. If a lot of people do a little, it might help that guy who abstained from toilet paper and other "luxuries" for a year believe he did, in fact, make an impact. He deserves that, at least.

For the record, and despite warning, I also bought a buttery chardonnay while upstate. One sip and I was mentally dribbling a wine reduction over seared scallops. Always take time to root for the underdog.

First Round Results: August 17. Two bottles took the trek with us to Brooklyn for dinner with some friends. 3 out of the 4 tasters agreed that while both were quite pleasing, we would drink the New York wine over the French. Of course, we proceeded to drink both, yum!

Next Results are In: August 18. Seared Scallops with New York Chardonnay wine reduction were a success, as were the artichokes, which popped up at today's 97th St Greenmarket, stuffed with bread crumbs, lemon zest and fresh parsley, and simmered in a light wine sauce. I have to mention the mouthwatering heirloom tomatoes that stole the show, drizzled with a Meyer lemon olive oil, a touch of sea salt and a twist of freshly ground pepper. (And yes, those are tiny strawberries lingering around well past their prime season!) Sadly, the good news stops there. The Chardonnay as a drinking wine was unpalatable. In an unusual display of resignation, two glasses were dumped and the remainder will be used for cooking only.

Monday, August 13, 2007

i'll take one in every color...

It's summer in the city, and I don't have an air conditioner. This used to be uncool, and just one of the infinite ways I was far behind my Manhattan neighbors. Now, thanks to Al Gore, I'm super cool. It's an ecological stance rather than a deficiency. Along the Road to Perfect we must strive to turn any shortcoming into an asset.

It is also Monday. Last night I realized I had an empty refrigerator. Empty in the figurative sense. Void of anything that might make a decent meal, but amply supplied with condiments, beverages, and miscellanea. I ate a frozen black bean veggie burger, which I layered with cucumber slices. Later in the evening, insufficiently nourished, I found myself crankily staring at vacant shelves and chewing on turkey jerky. I fell asleep, dreaming up a wish list for today's trip to the market.

Over the past few years, the way I shop for food has gradually changed. Growing up, I ate a lot of sugary breakfast cereals, powdered mac and cheese, and TV dinners. Not that I'm complaining. Even those foods have a nostalgic appeal. As I grew older, I became more interested in balance. Nutritional balance, yes, but I also derived a certain pleasure from the balance of colors and textures on a plate. I began to shop the aisles of a grocery store like an artist surveys her palette.

It wasn't long before I was swept up in the buzz of "artisan", "organic" and "free-roaming". Naturally, I stumbled upon even more, "grass-fed", "raw", "seasonal" and of course "locally grown". There is no shortage of literature available on the benefits of these changes. Farmers, chefs, nutritionists, environmentalists, and even economists are out there arguing a shift from industrialized food production to a more sustainable approach to food. I highly recommend anyone take a look at the hard facts that are out there. For me, the appeal is a visceral one.

The only thing better than heading to a Greenmarket for your veggies, is picking them yourself. Either option appeals to all five senses: aesthetic sense, environmental sense, economic sense, sense of community, and sense of righteousness. It reminds me of my mother's tomato plants and my grandfather's kitchen garden. I recall the anticipation of a ripe tomato and the urgency of filling up on strawberries before they disappear for another year. Eating seasonally and locally, makes life more unpredictable. It breaks the monotony of a weekly trip to the florescent aisles of the supermarket and challenges the home chef to be more flexible. On every trip, I find something perfect...

Today, it was watermelon, the quintessential summer fruit for a hot August day. In the shade of a green tent, there was a table with side by side crates of two distinctively striped football-sized melons. Size is important, because I need to lug this sucker 100 blocks uptown with all my other purchases. I was making my choice, when I asked the producer the difference between the two shades of green. One is yellow. One is red. Whoa! This is the sort of little thing that brings a smile. Something as simple as a bowl of juicy, chilled watermelon is that much more interesting when I buy one of each variety. So, I did just that. Two watermelons. One red, one yellow. Perfect as is. Delightful with a red wine vinaigrette, fresh mint, and feta cheese. (Shown at right with herb-buttered flounder caught off the coast of Long Island and available at select NYC Greenmarkets)

PS. Other watermelon inspired meals that followed...Apartment grilling, a city living compromise. Lamb-Feta Burgers. Breakfast.

a beginning

One must choose a beginning. No story really begins at the beginning. You are invited to join in the middle, somewhere along the road to perfect.