Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Saturday Date Night: Roman Arti-CHOKE

Artichoke before...
It was bound to happen.  When encountering oft-eaten but never-prepared items, one is venturing onto thin ice, from where the cracks and melting can cause one to fall in.  Or something like that.

This Saturday was meant to be an evening in Roma, one of my all-time favorite cities in the world.  I spent quite a few lovely days there in my youth and cemented my crush on Audrey Hepburn by lilting through the 1954 film Roman Holiday (don't worry, my wife approves), so I thought what better way to celebrate an early-returning spring than to hearken back to the eternal city.  We were going to do so by starting with the proverbial Jewish Artichokes, a great antipasto that takes young artichokes and basically fries them in olive oil, leaving crispy leaves to peel off and nibble the edges.  The sort of young artichoke required is a common ingredient in the food stalls of Roman markets but not in the produce section of my local grocery.  So we settled for large, not-quite-right-for-the-job globe artichokes.  This led to a recipe improvisation towards Roman artichokes, another simple preparation that uses olive oil with garlic and parsley to create a different but quite-decent affect.

...Arti-CHOKE after
Trouble was that I could not quite get past the first step of preparation, which involved trimming the artichoke.  Now, this can be an intimidating step for aspiring chefs, and I mulled over this one for some time before I jumped in.  Peeling away leaves, cutting off artichoke tops, cutting off the base, something did not quite add up.  I was not sure what I was looking for as a result, and then before I knew it, the artichokes were chopped to shreds without harvesting the hearts intact with the base that was where the recipe was meant to start.  I thought I followed instructions decently from what information I found online to describe artichoke trimming, but it was a fruitless (quite literally) endeavor.  For those keeping score, it turned out to be: Arti-CHOKES 4, actually trimmed artichokes 0.  (And to add insult to injury, I finally found a decent video on YouTube from the Gourmet Magazine test kitchen that better illustrated what steps to take - oh bother...)

Now at this point, I was feeling quite glum.  An immovable object, my wife might say.  It took me a good 10 minutes to break my feelings of failure and inadequacy - and to remind myself that our little culinary experiment was bound to encounter such hiccups along the way.  I will get this artichoke thing right and prove myself a worthy honorary Roman at some point, but not tonight - and it was time to stop languishing on the lost appetizer and move on to the main course.

All's well that ends well - Saltimbocca on an evening in Roma...
It was good that I chose something much easier as salvation, the old Roman standby Saltimbocca, which literally translates to "jump in the mouth".  It's easy to achieve such results when you focus on quality ingredients and let their flavors shine through the dish.  A little melted butter, some veal scallopini, sage leaves pinned with prosciutto on top, then a pan fry followed by the addition of cooking white wine to intensity the taste of the golden brown veal; by this time, my recollection of Roman artichokes was long forgotten, and I looked forward to this little slice of heaven as substitute.  Combine that with Brussels sprouts with almonds that we stumbled upon through planning our first Saturday Date Night, and we were able to redeem the evening's efforts.  Paired nicely with a fruit-forward but smooth Banfi Rosso di Montalcino, a bolder Sangiovese wine from the Tuscan region, and I was quite sated.  I suppose the net-balance of the night's efforts was positive, and I look forward to successfully taming the grand artichoke at some point; in the meantime, we are already contemplating what next week's Saturday Date Night will bring.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

10 Entries

Nothing like polishing off a brownie with ice cream
Just as Wendy and I polished off our final dessert before Lent kicked in (ok - a few days late, but it really starts now!), I have polished off 10 entries along the journey to create 100 entries for the year.  Of course, I'm a bit behind if I allocate evenly across the calendar - I should have roughly 16-17 by now - but I'm making progress.  Step-by-step, as I tell my team when working a tough challenge - the incremental efforts add up to something meaningful.  So I guess I can take my own advice and log this entry for posterity, catching up to where I should be and enjoying the pursuit along the way.

From a dog's eye

Ruby on the move
It's been over a year since we rescued Ruby from a woman who took her in from a high-kill shelter.  This one-eyed Pomeranian has become ingrained in our life and has increasingly burrowed into the daily fabric of our household, so much so that our departures from the house now incite pure wailing from this small pup (no more than 5 pounds or 2.2 kilos!) in such a way as to create the impression that she is grappling with threats to her very existence.

But we know better.  For all the trauma she suggests she is encountering, it has become apparent that this wailing is used as a ploy to regain our attention, in the hopes that she could take the same travels as us and not stay "cooped up" in the powder room that acts as her open-air cage when we are out on extended jaunts.  When we come back, we find the house expectantly quiet, expectantly because we know it is only a matter of delayed seconds before she starts crying again.  Which does not stop, of course, until she is back in the warm embrace of her owners.

I sometimes imagine what life might be like from her viewpoint and what anxiety she must face when her care is in the hands of animals who are much bigger than she could ever grow (although her grandma tries very hard to fatten her up!); in this daydream, I lose sight of the fact that her contentment probably does not take this notion very far, as she ultimately falls fast asleep when we are around, secure in the knowledge that she is loved and will get the attention that presumably sustains her.

Of course, this is all random pondering.  From a dog's eye, it might be much simpler - the dreams of cold pavement beneath paws and a curious world awaiting discovery, with an occasional meal thrown in.  All it takes is a lot of love and a little food, and life is good.  Should that not be enough for all of us?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

New York Pause

Heading to the Helmsley
Sometimes I work in NYC, and this is my office.  More precisely, there is a desk in the upper floors of this distinctive building that has a major thoroughfare running through it that I inhabit while typing up documents and conducting meetings in the city.  It is nothing exceptional, usually the work and sometimes the desk at which I sit, but the surrounding city is commanding, ever-thriving, and never-still.

If I pay close enough attention, I am reminded of the countless things that make this city unique among the many cities I have had the pleasure to live in and visit.  But on this brisk morning, when winter gusts barrel down Park Avenue as I hustle the blocks from Lex to the building entrance security guards, I pause long enough to snap this picture.  That pause is enough reminder that I am lucky to be here, and New York City is ready to give me its best shot (I'm still not sure if the city is better personified male or female).  But that is all the time I have for revelry, as it's cold outside, I have business to pursue, and the day is ready to begin.  Quickly now, I'm off to work.

Views from a Hotel Room

Nighttime over Lex
Once upon a time, I looked out similar windows to discover the end of a brief relationship.  Once upon a time, I looked out similar windows to fret over the first date that would change everything.  It was only a few months between those vistas, and when I come back to look down on the same Lexington Avenue nearly seven years later, I am enchanted.

Life has a way of winding past the same curves in the road but taking those turns at different speeds, catching familiar bends and traversing them differently than we remembered.  I catch myself in a moment, pausing to contemplate what meaning there might be in returning to this same hotel, with the same view, with the same longing for something else than sitting this night in a hotel room.

Ah, but the circumstances are quite different.  My first once upon a time was a dud, made crueler by the "Xanadu" moment of crafting one of my more brilliant poems (if I say so myself) in anguish to a lost relationship, which somehow was wiped from my hard drive before I could recover (literally and figuratively).  My second once upon a time led to the fateful first date with my future wife, a date so poorly executed as to cause her more intrigue for a second date to discover how and why I could be so inept on my first.  On this night, I remember yet another night where the pipes froze in this hotel, and I lost heat, which was deep in the winter of my discontent before New York City enthralled me and captured the zenith of my single days.  And all together, these memories have threaded through the various rooms of this hotel, where I carried the same solitary view to resounding success.

Perhaps this is what I am capturing in a moment of solitude, a connection to a vibrant life that often lurks right beneath the veneer of comfort, routine, and familiarity.  I am a married guy who has since closed the door on beckoning opportunity at every turn, and I am happy and contented with my decisions.  Perhaps what I really sense is the same sense of wonder and opportunity from the same vista, but this time colored with the depth of experiences that has brought me to this point.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Saturday Date Night: Some Lemons in Provence

Scallops Provencal, prepared lovingly by my beautiful wife
For our second weekend of culinary experimentation, we journeyed along the coast from Italy into France, visiting the Mediterranean cuisine of Provence, famous for more simple, fresh ingredients - and seafood.  Provence was a favorite stomping grounds of the Romans, being one of the first lands outside of "the boot" that came under Roman rule, and they found its warm climate and beautiful landscape a nice place to repose.

For this week's meal, we went for dishes that were light and centered on different types of seafood.  First, it was lemon shrimp with garlic linguine, a refreshing preparation that married the lemon zest with a bit of garlic spice on thin pasta, with the shrimp soaking up the remains deliciously.  Then, we went on to Scallops Provencal, slightly dusted, fried in butter, and combined with a luscious concoction of onions, parsley, shallots, olive oil, spices, more lemon, and white wine.  Combined as the main course, it was decadent and still lingers on my lips as I ready for bed.  Instead of going for wine of the region, we polished off the other half of the varietal we had opened the night before, a Blind Dog cuvee that held up quite well to the scallops.  It ended up being as dramatic as the last Harry Potter film that we used as nightcap.

Another Saturday, another success.  We have not started planning yet for next weekend, but we are both excited about the possibilities of discovering some more fantastic food, right here at home.  After all, there is no place like it...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Saturday Date Night: Winter Tuscan Heartiness

A new tradition, inspired by our recent trip to New Orleans.  After experiencing the distinctive flavors of Cajun cuisine, we decided to make Saturdays a date night where we shop and cook together for a different set of new dishes and new flavors that we have not tried before.  First up was cucina toscana, a taste and a place that I look forward to revisiting soon.  But on this blustery winter night, we settled for a big pot and an indoor grill at home.

The Tuscan region of Italy is known for rustic foods, earthy ingredients, and flavorful combinations simply prepared.  For our first effort, we decided on a winter minestrone with the classic florentine steak.  It would have included a preparation of Brussels sprouts, but halfway through our preparation of the minestrone, we realized that it would be more than we would be able to eat.

The minestrone d'inverno, or winter minestrone, is a typical sort of Italian dish, which relies on seasonal, fresh ingredients, where preparation starts with selecting the right ingredients.  In the case of winter minestrone, it is a combination of potatoes, carrots, leeks, turnips, Swiss chard, and savoy cabbage, the cabbages being in prime season during the winter months.  Particularly for the cabbage varieties, we canvassed the entire fresh produce section of Harris Teeter (our local grocer) and little-by-little found their location, since we have not tried to find them before.  We had an interesting experience shopping for turnips, leeks, Swiss chard, and savoy cabbage in assessing their quality and suitability for the dish.  This step, however simple, would make the dish, as the preparation later that evening consisted of washing and chopping the combination of ingredients, putting them in a big pot with a some water, bringing the mix to a boil, and then simmering for an hour.  The transformation was extraordinary, from an overflowing pot of greens and vegetables where we were concerned there was too little water, to a reducing base of greens swamping the mix, requiring us to take away some of the water that we had originally added beyond the recipe.  Then, with further reduction, the mixture became quite green, making us wary of what the outcome might actually produce.  Fingers crossed, we got to the end of the simmering period and pureed 3 ladlefuls of the soup, mixed that puree back into the soup, and had our first dish.

The bistecca fiorentina, or florentine steak, was easier and more straightforward.  Again, it was a focus on ingredients.  We talked to the butcher at the grocery store to cut from a dry-aged t-bone steak, a 1 1/4 inch cut, for the base of the recipe.  A true bistecca fiorentina can only come from specific cows in the local region (Chianina cows, to be exact), so we approximated that with the best cut that our local grocer could provide.  On our indoor grill, we basically peppered and lightly salted the cut and put it on the grill for 5-6 minutes a side, and placed it on an olive-oil drizzled plate to serve

In the end, the results were in the taste - and it turned out that we made it work.  The minestrone was very healthy (basically vegetables, olive oil, salt, and pepper) and surprisingly tasty; the steak was basically meaty goodness, being one of the better quality cuts of beef.  Accompanied with a young but sturdy 2005 Brunello di Montalcino, one of the classic bold Tuscan red wines, we were feeling great.  It looks like our idea of Saturday date nights was a good one, and I look forward to what new cuisines we will explore this year.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The carnival of it all

I just returned from New Orleans.  Interesting city, which got me thinking - what has become of the cities of our grandparents and great-grandparents?  Would they recognize the world in which we live every day?  What would they think of it and why?

I ponder these thoughts in relation to wandering Vieux Carre', or the French Quarter, over the course of several days.  My first reaction was some level of disappointment.  My second reaction was some level of intrigue.  My third reaction was some level of comfort in the waves of humanity that have washed over the quarter.  My fourth reaction was some feeling of blankness for what the quarter has now become.  It led me to read a book on the quarter called Madame Vieux Carre': The French Quarter in the Twentieth Century.  I was curious as to what the twentieth century had brought to that part of the city and what life after Hurricane Katrina looked like.  In short, fullness to emptiness.  Today's quarter is effectively a shell of the past, from 5,000 residents now down to 1,200.  From middle-class and working-class "full-timers" to upper-class "part-timers" who come in and out of condos a few times a year.  From "sporting people" who mixed discretely with madams and their women in the quarter, to rites of passage for college kids with beads, boobs, and booze.  Somehow, the quarter has maintained a certain joie de vivre, which still attracts the same sorts today as it did yesteryear, those who let lascivious pursuits carry them to points of oblivion.

We stayed for the first weekend of Mardi Gras, witnessing the Krewe du Vieux and its "naughty satire" parade by on Royal Street.  For a moment, with our masks on, we connected with that feeling, and surrendered for the moment, to something that I'm sure grandparents and great-grandparents would have understood - that feeling of being alive.