The Dessert That Dare Not Speak Its Name

IMG_4129The dessert in question is called Galaktoboureko and, to be more precise in my titles, it isn’t so much that it dare not but rather cannot speak its name because it is a pastry and therefore does not possess the capability of speech.

Galaktoboureko” also happens to be one of the most challenging words for my restaurant guests to pronounce and the one I love to watch them struggle with the most. Some people call it “galactic burrito” because of its shape and the basic sound of the word. Others more cheekily ask for a “galactic booty call” for reasons I imagine are too personal to ask. But most people just point at the menu and ask for “the custard one with the really long name.”

Galaktoboureko also happens to be my favorite item on our dessert menu. As something which must be eaten on the day it is made, any remaining pieces of this custardy pastry are left out at the end of the night for the staff to devour– usually cold and sometimes beginning to limp and seep. I’ll gladly eat them at any temperature or state of turgidity.

For our guests, galaktoboureko is formed into what is essentially the shape of an egg roll, served warm, two on a plate, with crème fraîche ice cream and a seasonal spoon sweet.  It is a remarkable combination but over the years I’ve become so accustomed to shoveling them into my mouth unadorned that it’s hard for me to think of them served any other way but plain.

I have no idea why I decided to make galaktoboureko at home, given the fact it’s always available to me at work and prepared by people who make them on a daily basis and therefore much better than I do. But the more I thought about making them over the weekend, the more I realized how much I have taken them for granted. They have been an accepted part of my life for longer than I care to remember, but know that one day they won’t be. And that thought made me take pause and consider the other things in my life I might assume would always be there.

I talked to both of my parents over the weekend and found myself missing more than I normally do. Each conversation was longer than usual, which made me happy, but I couldn’t help prevent an acute sadness from seeping in. They’re both essentially fine, but they’re also both in their 80s. I couldn’t help but ask myself if, like the galaktoboureko, I’ve taken them for granted, too.

And the answer was: of course I have. What child hasn’t? I have the bad habit of wanting to believe that all the important things which have been with me since the beginning will be with me forever. But all good things eventually come to an end: relationships, The Dick Cavett Show, decent airline customer service, careers. If you can think of it, it will more than likely disappear sooner or later, whether you want it to or not.

If someone you love, whether it be a grandmother or father or spouse– anyone really– has a recipe they are famous for, or at the very least, one you strongly associate with them, learn it from them now if they’ll let you. Find an excuse to get together and cook. When they are no longer in your life, you can make these things for yourself and feel their presence.

You may find it strange that my premature nostalgia has found me making something from my workplace, but I don’t. After the many years I’ve spent there, it’s become something like a home to me, inhabited by something very much like a family. Dysfunctional at times like any family, but a family just the same. And like any home and family, child that I am, I will leave it someday.

So I figure I’d better start learning to prepare some of these things on my own because I won’t have mommy or daddy or a team of pastry cooks to make them for me forever. And, for lack of a better idea, learning to make galaktoboureko seems like as good a place as any to start. It’s a word I’m much more comfortable pronouncing than the word “goodbye.”

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Galaktoboureko

Traditionally, you would find this dessert prepared deep-dish style, with layers of phyllo on the bottom and top and as much semolina custard as you can cram between. But I happen to like the elegance and portability of the rolled version. It is the way I was introduced to the dessert and it’s one thing I prefer not to change.

I also respect galaktoboureko‘s ephemeral qualities. Phyllo dough envelops and protects the custard during baking, but it is fragile. It tears and shatters easily and loses its crispness within hours. It must be eaten the day it is made.

Makes 12 to 16 “galactic burritos”, depending upon how much custard you decide to cram into them. 

Ingredients:

For the custard:

• 1 cup whole milk
• 1 cup half and half (you may also use heavy cream, if you like)
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract (or 1 eviscerated vanilla bean)
• 1/4 cup semolina flour*
• 1 large egg
• A heavy pinch of salt

For the pastry:

• 12 sheets of frozen phyllo dough, thawed
• 1/2 cup clarified butter
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon grated orange zest
• 1/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon orange flower water

Preparation:

1. Thaw your phyllo in your refrigerator overnight

2.  In a small saucepan, combine milk, half and half,  1/4 cup of sugar, and if you’re using vanilla bean, add it now, scraping the seeds into the milk. Bring to a simmer and make certain the sugar is dissolved.

3. Meanwhile, whisk together the other 1/4 cup of sugar, semolina flours, egg, and salt until it is a uniform mush. Whisk about half of the hot milk into the semolina mixture to temper it, making certain to keep up the motion to prevent curdling. Return this mixture to the milk remaining in the pan, bring to a boil and whisk constantly until the custard is smooth and thick and therefore custardy. When it bubbles like molten lava or those delightful mud pots at Yellowstone National Park, remove it from the heat, place into an awaiting bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap to avoid the creation of a top skin, and let cool.

IMG_41264. To assemble the galaktoboureko, place 1 sheet of phyllo on a large clean work surface with the short side facing your (hopefully) apron-covered crotch. keep the remaining phyllo under plastic wrap covered with a lightly dampened towel to prevent them from drying out. Brush the phyllo with the clarified butter (which I assume you have melted and are not attempting to brush said phyllo with hardened, cold clarified butter), brushing from the center of the sheet toward the edges. Top with two more sheets, brushing each with butter in exactly the same way. Cut the layers of phyllo in half vertically and horizontally to make 4 rectangles.

5. Place the cooled custard into a pastry bag fitted with a plain 1/2-inch tip (or simply dump it into a large freezer bag and cut the correct amount off one of the corners to improvise– it works like a charm). Pipe at least 2 tablespoons of the delicious goo in a more or less straight line parallel to the short side near your nether-regions, leaving a 1 inch border along the sides and top of the phyllo. Fold the short side of the phyllo over the filling, tucking it under the filling, then fold in about 1 inch along each side of the longer sides. In other words, pretend you are making a burrito. Continue rolling until you have a log that is about 4 1/2 inches long. Repeat with the other three awaiting phyllo rectangles. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and repeat until you have used up all of your custard. Or all of your phyllo. Or until you get tired of doing this. Whichever comes first. Cover the baking sheet and refrigerate until well chilled.

6. To make the syrup, unceremoniously dump the 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon of water, the lemon juice, and orange zest into a small saucepan. Swirl over medium heat until it seems appropriately glaze-like. Let cool and add orange flower water.

7. Pre-heat your oven to 500° F. Pierce each log with the tip of a paring knife in 4 strategic places to allow steam to vent during baking. Otherwise, you will experience undramatic but rather upsetting galactic explosions inside your oven. Bake until golden brown. Start watching them like a hawk after 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately glaze they pastries with syrup while they’re hot.

8. Serve them warm to people you’d prefer not to take for granted, or learn nothing from this exercise and let them stay out all night untouched. Just don’t expect someone else to make them for you the next day.

*Thank you Tony, Memo, and Harry for your kind donations of semolina and orange flower water.

Posted in Sweets and the Like | 18 Comments

Ensuring A Better New Year.

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 11.32.56 AMRather than toss confetti with friends at the end of 2013, I found myself alone in my bathroom, tossing up the contents of my stomach.

When I’d finished this involuntary abdominal exercise at a quarter to midnight, I found myself in a kneeling position on the cool tile, examining the contents of a white porcelain toilet bowl as a Greek might examine his coffee grounds in a white porcelain cup. Was vomit a viable medium for fortune-telling ? I turned on the light to have a better look. There wasn’t much to see. I’d had this bloody stomach virus for nearly three days and had eaten very little.

So much for my future, I thought. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and went to go sit down in the living room.

I reflexively poured myself a finger or two of bourbon to drink at midnight but immediately thought better of it. I set the tumbler on the table beside me, but the vapors rising from the glass were too tempting. I poured the whiskey back into the bottle. Feeling depleted, I found myself in the kitchen reaching for a small container of Ensure nutrition shake instead. Too tired to agitate it properly,  I just poured it into a champagne flute to be mockingly festive. I toasted the New Year by myself with eight ounces of viscous dark chocolate liquid which promised me nine grams of protein.

“Another year down the toilet”, I said to myself as I raised my glass to bid the year adieu. “And good riddance to a shitty 2013.” But as soon as I said it, I realized how absolutely wrong I was.

2013 was a great year, wasn’t it? Yes it was. Or rather, it was a mixed bag of good and bad, but all years are like that. For me, it was the year of being careful what I wished for.

For example, I had wanted to lose a few pounds over the Holidays and my wish was immediately granted. Upon reflection, I should have been more specific as to how I planned to go about it. But the wish fairy gave me a three-day stomach virus and presto! I can now fit into most of my pants again.

And my wishes were granted for this little blog, too. It could not have been more successful, critically speaking, than it was in 2013. In food writing terms, I hit the triple crown– an IACP nomination for Best Culinary Blog, a James Beard Award nomination for Humor, and a second, unsolicited entry into the Best Food Writing anthology. The fact that I didn’t win either award turned out to be a blessing– the experience taught me how to be a good loser (something I needed to learn) and the sheer volume of love and support I received from friends and colleagues was overwhelming and much more gratifying than any medal or certificate or blog badge ever could be. And I say that honestly.

But again, I should have been careful what I wished for. All those lovely, shiny honors have their dark side, too. To be fêted and congratulated is wonderful, but when the party was over and I saw that my life didn’t magically change, I felt ridiculous for thinking it would, and depressed because it didn’t. For a while, all I heard was “book, book, you must write a book and you must write it now.” I dragged my heels. The joy of writing diminished. I stopped doing it for myself and worried that I needed to cater to some imaginary, larger audience. I resisted the advice of more than one literary agent. I managed to talk myself out of writing the books I really wanted to write, convincing myself that they were too “out there” and would never sell.

My depression deepened; I wrote even less. I felt as if I had no real future in writing. For a while, I contemplated not doing it at all. But I forced myself to write something once a month out of fear of disappearing altogether.

But I am grateful that I have not disappeared and amused at the fact that it took me being hunched over a toilet to help me realized that. When I saw next to nothing in the bowl, my first thought was “no future”. Upon reflection, however, I think it shows that my future simply hasn’t been written. In the stars or in vomit or otherwise.

It was an appropriately cathartic ending to a roller coaster year.

I spent New Year’s Day feeling happier and much lighter and sought out the company of friends to spend the afternoon with. The afternoon with them turned into evening and all the while my head filled with new ideas, new plans, new goals. It was time very well spent. I promised myself I will write more in 2014. Not exclusively for the blog, but I will write regularly– on projects I want to do. To please myself and to help me make more sense of the world. If it pleases others, that will be an added bonus.

I’ve come out of 2013 a smidgen wiser, a little more experienced, and even a tad thinner. And I somehow managed to leave the depression of last year where it belonged– flushed down the toilet.

I can’t wish you nothing but success and happiness in 2014. That’s far too unrealistic. Instead, I wish you an interesting year. One complete with wish-fulfillment and the wisdom to successfully navigate the sometimes dangerous rapids of those wishes fulfilled.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 24 Comments

Christmas is Coming.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 11.08.19 AMGirlfriend out of town for Christmas? No family to go home to for the holidays? Wife leave you for someone with a more promising Advent calendar right after Thanksgiving?

Are you still somehow bursting with the Spirit of the Season? Well I’ve got just the thing to help you release your unspent Holiday energies.

When the candy cane of Life has been sucked to a sharp point and aimed at your pupil, my advice is to grab it firmly by the handle, turn it around and poke it before it pokes you. And I find that the very best poking can be done in the privacy of your own home. With your friends.

You owe it to yourself to throw a Stag Holiday Cookie Party.

That’s right. Men only. No girlfriends to criticize your frosting technique. No wives to accuse you of making a mess on the living room carpet. No Stag Hags with their fancy nonpareils and piping tips to complicate things. Just good, old fashioned male bonding with a bunch of guys standing around a cookie and drinking. A lot.

“But so many of my friends are out of town”, you might complain. That’s nonsense, I say. There are plenty of guys in your life who would love to come to your party, if you’d only ask. Your co-worker who had to cancel his trip to Palm Springs at the last minute because  of some unnamed “roommate drama”? Ask him. That nice, well put together older gentleman at the gym who always offers to spot you when you do your squats? What better way to show your appreciation than by finally inviting him into your inner sanctum? Your downstairs neighbor with all those cats? You know he’ll be available. And what about your poker buddy whose always telling you his wife just doesn’t understand his needs? Definitely ask him.

How to throw a Stag Holiday Cookie Party

There are four primary requirements to throwing a successful party:

  1. Cookies
  2. Frosting
  3. An inexhaustible supply of alcohol
  4. An exhaustible supply of male guests

There are four secondary items which are not required, but are very helpful to have on-hand:

  1.  A plastic tarp. (If your flooring is of the hardwood variety, bravo, but still put something down for easy clean up.)
  2. Plenty of fresh towels, one for each guest.
  3. An appropriate selection of music, such as Queen’s “Thank God, It’s Christmas”, or anything by Barry White.
  4. Poppers. Or, as they call them in the UK, Christmas crackers.

You are welcome to use store-bought cookies, but it is often difficult to find them unfrosted. But making your own is marvelously easy and is a great way to show the male members of your party that you’re willing to make an effort on their behalf.

How To Make Holiday Cookies

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First, you’ll need the appropriate ingredients, most of which you may already have in your kitchen:

• 2 cups of all-purpose flour, plus a little more for rolling.
• 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon of salt
• 1 stick ( 1/2 cup) of room temperature butter
• 1 cup of granulated sugar
• 1 large egg
• 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Second, you’ll need to turn on your oven (to 325°F). Sorry, these cookies cannot be microwaved.

To make the cookies:

1. Cream together the sugar and butter in a standard mixer. A stand mixer is a big machine that lives in the back of your cupboard which probably says KitchenAid on it your parents gave you for your graduation/1st wedding. Use the paddle attachment to cream these ingredients. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt.

2. When the butter and sugar are creamed, add the whole egg (minus the shell) and vanilla, then slowly add the dry ingredients to this until it all has been incorporated and looks very much like dough, which is what it is.

3. Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured (but otherwise clean) surface and roll it out into the shape of a soft pole until you achieve what you consider a pleasing length and thickness. Sheath the dough in plastic and place it in the freezer for about 10 minutes to harden.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 2.30.22 PM4. Remove dough from the freezer, place it back onto the floured work surface and, with a sharp knife, attempt to slice the dough into 1/8″ to 1/4″ slices. Next, become haunted by the memory of your childhood emasculation nightmares, put knife back in its drawer and pour yourself a drink. By the time you have recovered, the dough should have warmed up enough to now be reformed and rolled into two unoffending discs, re-chilled, and then cut with round cookie cutters. If you lack such cutters, you may use the (cleaned) open end of a soup or pork-n-bean can found at the bottom of your recycling bin to make your doughy circles. Place them on a baking sheet, place back into the freezer for another ten minutes, and then pop the sheet into your oven to bake for about 15 minutes or until done. Do not let them brown. Remove from the oven and let cool. (You really only need to make one cookie, but it’s nice to have back ups.)

To Make The Icing:

Mix 2 cups of sifted powdered sugar with 4 tablespoons of whole milk and stir until smooth. Next add roughly 1 tablespoon of light corn syrup and whisk until all is incorporated. Too thick? Add a little more milk. And what a great reminder to rehydrate your own self.

Many people do not like the taste of cookie frosting, which is why I now suggest you flavor it almond extract or more vanilla. Add whatever scenting you like. Some folks enjoy a whiff of papaya or mango, though I don’t know where you’d find such essences. I do not recommend asparagus extract. For an added touch, sneak in a tablespoon of protein powder, for nutritional purposes. You’ll be certain to get a rise out of your friend from the gym when you tell him!

Place 3 to 5 millilitres of frosting in several small, plastic baggies (at least two per guest), close and set aside. Make certain to have plenty of frosting left over to decorate one, special cookie with a bull’s-eye motif to be placed in the center of your party room.

It will make for an excellent conversation piece. In fact, it will soon become the focus of all your Holiday fun.

It’s Time To Party

When your guests arrive, offer to take their coats, hats, and any other article of clothing they might care to give you. Next, offer them a double shot of Holiday Cheer. Wait exactly five minutes and then give them at least two more. Make certain that there is no food available other than the bull’s-eye cookie. 

If the conversation begins to wane, it is always a good idea to bemoan the fact that the weather outside is frightful and how disappointed you are that it’s too cold to play a little  basketball, but how much fun it would be to play a similar sort of game indoors. If one or more of your guests agree with your sentiment, suggest that said indoor game be played “shirts-and-skins”. Re-apply beer and liquor until all of your guests agree.

Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 2.31.06 PMOnce you have selected teams and are all dressed or undressed accordingly, point to the bull’s eye-themed cookie and comment on how perfect it would be for a round or two of target practice. Hand each guest a bag of frosting, instructing them to tear a tiny hole in one end or, if you are a truly excellent host, offer to do it for them.

Each team will take turns aiming their icing at the bull’s eye cookie. Imagine the fun of discovering who among your friends can shoot the farthest and who can shoot most accurately. And who simply prefers to dribble.

Should at any point during the excitement, any the members of the Shirts team find that he has been squirted with a Skin’s sugary goo, insist that it is probably for the best that everyone play skins. Immediately offer everyone another drink and offer those who have been unintentionally iced a rub-off with a fresh towel. This is a nice, personal touch.

Continue the game until everyone’s icing has been spent. By this time, every one of your guests is likely to be:

a) fairly cold from lack of sufficient clothing.
b) extremely intoxicated  and
c) understandably hungry.

At this point you may wish to:
a) offer the cookie to the guest who hit the center of the bull’s eye first.
b) offer the cookie to your drunkest guest (who is most likely to
to be the friend whose wife doesn’t understand him).
c) eat the cookie in front of your guests (which, as a host, is in very
poor taste.
d) offer to let everyone take a hot shower (see: clean towels), order
several pizzas (with a gluten-free option for your gym buddy), and
spend the rest of the evening all curled up on the couch together
watching Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer by Rank & Bass.

Letter “d” is generally the best option because no one really likes the taste of Christmas cookies, however you try to frost them. And honestly, you’d be surprised how many of your male friends might go for that because, to paraphrase my friend Christian’s sage words, “Most guys are just a six-pack away from being Merry.”

And it’s so, so true.

Here’s hoping you’re Merry, too.

Happy Holidays.

Posted in Holidays, Sweets and the Like | Tagged , , | 26 Comments

A La Recherche du Pain Perdu.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 3.59.18 PMOn the last day of our week in Paris, I ate pain perdu for breakfast. I ordered it not because I had a craving for French toast, but simply because I liked the name. I understood enough of the language to know that I was ordering griddled bread “lost” in a goo of egg and milk, but my American brain couldn’t help but see the French word for bread in fully English terms: “pain perdu” in my mind translated to “lost pain”.

Which was precisely what I had come to that city to lose.

When, a month earlier, my friend Thrasso mentioned he was spending a week in Paris after attending a conference in Germany, he suggested I join him there. I immediately thought of all the reasons I shouldn’t go: I was broke. It was madly impulsive. I’d made a stupid promise to myself that I wouldn’t go back to Paris unless I was in love. And I doubted I would be in love again for a very long time.

It had been three-quarters of a year since the person I was convinced I would spend forever with turned out not to be. A man who one week talks of setting up house and growing old together and the next leaves for someone younger, wealthier, more attractive, and geographically remote.

I like to think of that time as my semi-hysterical pregnancy. I no longer crumbled to the floor in fits of convulsive sobbing, but after nine months, I’d managed to carry an alarming amount of pain, confusion, and anger to full term. It needed to be delivered and left on a rock somewhere to die of exposure. Montmartre, I thought, seemed just as good a place as any.

I then began to think of all the reasons I should go: I was broke, it was madly impulsive, I turning forty, and had a phantom baby inside of me that was eating me alive.  The invitation to Paris suddenly sounded like lifeline, but one totally beyond my grasp. I’d send off an email to Thrasso to politely and regretfully decline.

And then, in a stroke of brilliant timing on his part, my father called. I mentioned Thrasso’s offer with an audible shrug. He casually asked when my friend was going to be there. It was a short conversation. Thirty minutes later, however, he called back.

“Happy early birthday, kid.” He knew I’d had a shitty year and has a deep understanding of midlife crises. In the space of half an hour, he’d cashed in airline miles and made my reservation for me.  And then he added, “I love you,” and signed off.

I think Thrasso was shocked when I told him I was coming, but not more so than I.

I was overwhelmed by what my father had just done for me. Later that afternoon, I shared the news with co-workers, joking that I had the plane tickets, but no place to stay and no money to spend while I was there. Small details.

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 9.39.28 AMThe next morning at work, my friend Lillith asked if I still needed a place to stay. Her friend Julie was planning to sublet her apartment in The Marais for the summer, but the people who were to take it backed out at the last minute. Her friend was now scrambling to get people to stay there for any length of time. Even a week’s rent would help out. I emailed Julie as soon as I got home. She asked me if $200 for the week was fair. I told her it wasn’t, but that I would pay her $250 instead. Within 24 hours of Thrasso’s email, I had airfare and lodging secured.

Word spread at the restaurant about my sudden trip. A regular guest handed me an envelope with euros “she wasn’t using”. My mother sent a small check. I picked up extra shifts. Within two weeks, I had everything I needed. Within four, I was in Paris.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 4.02.15 PMWhen we met at our little student apartment, Thrasso handed me a book by Edmund White, entitled The Flâneur. I devoured it and we both embraced the concept of flânerie– spending our days together strolling the streets of the city with no goal more pressing than seeking the random pleasures of whatever lay before us on our walks. We  lived on a steady diet of tartines, beer, and Berthillon ice cream. I did my best to simply live in the moment. In Paris. With my friend.

But there were several times my mind would travel back 10 months and 5,560 miles to San Francisco and wonder what I did wrong and what life would have been like if I were richer, handsomer, more exciting, and my boyfriend hadn’t left me. If I had been able to bring him to Paris instead. It was a pathetic thought. But then I’d look across a café table and see Thrasso scribbling in his journal, or he’d make an odd observation that required no response and I would return just as quickly. A human yoyo who would periodically fling myself down onto the pavement, but by a thin piece of string, find myself snapped back into the capable hands of my companion. And so it would continue until our last day– the day I ordered pain perdu.

We reserved our final day in Paris for doing all the touristy things we swore we weren’t going to let sully the rest of our week. We found an outdoor café table in Place Beaubourg, ordered our respective breakfasts, and made our plans for the day.

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 9.47.06 AMWhen my pain perdu was placed in front of me, I was faced with a slab of brioche pock-marked with currants and mounted with a  scoop of vanilla ice cream. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I picked up my fork, took a bite of the pain, and swallowed it. There was nothing especially sweet about it, but then I thought, there rarely is with pain, whether it’s of the French or English variety. I pushed it aside, concentrating on our day’s battle plan and my disappointing café noisette instead.

By the time I had returned to my breakfast, what was once very cold French ice cream had melted into an impromptu crème anglaise, which gave the brioche the impression of being not only truly lost, but drowning. I took another bite. The bread was sodden, making it softer and sweeter. I found the soggy mess on my plate satisfying, but I didn’t give it any further thought. We had sightseeing to do.

We made a surgical strike on the Louvre, attacking only the Nike of Samothrace and a few innocent bystanders as I lost my personal battle to stifle the urge to channel Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face as Thrasso struggled to take pictures of the winged, armless statue with as few Japanese tourists in them as possible.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 3.59.48 PMMaking our escape from the museum, we found ourselves in the Jardin des Tuilleries among the female statuary. Thrasso noticed that the figure closest to us was that of Medea and made a casual reference to a scene in the 1960 film Never on Sunday in which Melina Mercouri plays Ilia, a whore from Piraeus, who has the charming inability to see any evil in Greek tragic theater. I confessed that I knew the story of Medea, the demigoddess who avenges herself on her husband Jason after he abandons her for another woman by sending his new wife a poisoned gown and murdering her own children, but did not know the scene in which Mercouri’s character retells Medea’s tale in her own way to a humorless American philosopher.

Disgusted, Thrasso decided this was something I needed to understand sooner than later and so began to re-enact the scene as only a professional actor of Greek heritage could. He took on the role of the happy-go-lucky whore. As he began, I could feel a light sprinkling of rain on my face.

“The play is about what a woman suffers for a man,” he began as he moved slowly in front of the statue.

“Once upon a time, there was a princess from faaaaar away. Her name is Medea…” he said, affecting a smoky Greek accent. “Medea was very sweet, but sometimes she had a bad temper…She goes to Greece to marry this man. He is a prince, his name is Jason…She is good to him. She gives him two beauuuuutiful children…But he, right away with a blond princess in Athens…”

It began to rain a bit harder. We were getting soaked through, but Thrasso was so wrapped up in his performance, he didn’t seem to care, so I didn’t, either. “Everything she does for Jason. She even gives presents to the blonde…Everybody says bad things about her. There are 12 rich ladies in beautiful dresses, but they say bad things about her too…And Medea cries. I tell you she breaks your heart…”

He pulled off his scarf for better gesticulation. “She’s afraid. She takes the children and she hides them,” he says, crouching in front of the statue,”But in the end, Jason sees how much Medea loves him and they get a wonderful chariot and she gets the children…”

He leapt up, flinging his scarf into the wind for the final line, “…and they all go to the seashore!”

I clapped because I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t his interpretation, it was me. Between the start of his performance and the finish, my life had changed and I knew it. It was one of the most intense, surreal moments I have ever experienced. As Thrasso pranced and emoted around the statue, I couldn’t help but think of all the people who helped to get me to Paris in the first place. People who enabled me to be here in this particular park at this exact moment in time to have this specific man show me that life is simply a matter of perspective by dint of channeling a fictional Greek hooker.

At that moment, I felt as though I had never loved anyone more in my life than I did Thrasso. I also understood it was precisely that– a moment. But it didn’t matter. Because I’ve also never felt more loved. Not just by him, but by everyone in my life who mattered. And that those who didn’t matter were not as important as I once thought they were.

So I just stood there clapping. Dumbfounded, grateful, and soaking wet in the Parisian rain. The dull, dead slab of human brioche I’d been not five minutes earlier finally softened and was penetrated by the sweetness that had always surrounded me. I’d just been a fool not to know it. I was alive again, revitalized. My pain, one might say, was truly and finally perdu.

Posted in Breakfast Time, Holidays, Rants and Stories, Stage, Film, and Television, Sweets and the Like | Tagged , , , , , | 26 Comments

Holiday Spirit: The Coping Mechanism

Coping MechanismIt’s that special Holiday time of the year, which can only mean one thing: like many Americans, I need a drink.

I’ve seen Halloween candy on store shelves as early as August. Department stores piping Christmas music in September. If companies start merchandising Veteran’s Day, I may begin to foam at the mouth.

By Thanksgiving, I’ve just about had it, which is a pity since it happens to be one of my favorite holidays of the year. But now that it’s riding tandem with Hanukkah, I very well may have to lock myself in the bathroom to have my quiet Holiday breakdown.

And I’ve found the ideal cocktail to take in there with me– it’s a take on The Filibuster cocktail by Erik Adkins of Oakland’s Flora restaurant, but altered just enough to help me cope while appearing festive enough to look as though my Holiday spirits are high.

Which they will be, thanks to the three ounces of booze per cocktail.

The Coping Mechanism

Short of a magic wand to transport you elsewhere, this cocktail has everything you need to help cope with Holiday get-togethers: plenty of liquor to take the edge off; maple syrup, which acts as a mild anti-depressant; egg white, which provides enough protein to help you forgo a plate of dry turducken; and lemon juice, which is excellent for softening dry elbows. And that little hint of nutmeg screams “Thanksgiving” just loud enough so you don’t have to.

But the most satisfying part of this cocktail is in the making of it. It must be shaken to achieve its eggnog-ish foam. And quite vigorously. It’s a marvelous way to vent one’s aggression, seasonal or otherwise.

Ingredients

• 3 ounces of bourbon. Use a decent one. Especially if someone else is paying for it.
• 1 ounce dark amber maple syrup. I like using Canadian because they seem as baffled over what to do with Thanksgiving as I do.
• The juice of half a lemon. Either Eureka or Meyer will do just fine.
• The white of one egg freshly liberated from a moderately healthy chicken. Turkey eggs are to be avoided. As are turkeys in general.
• Freshly grated nutmeg
• Plenty of ice

Preparation

1. Into a large cocktail shaker, drop the ice. Pour over bourbon, maple syrup, lemon juice, and egg white. Close lid firmly.

2. Wrap a clean kitchen towel around the shaker to protect your hands from the cold. The wearing of mittens for this exercise is not recommended. Begin to agitate the contents of your shaker. Step One: Start the exercise as a pleasant dance routine– a conga tempo works very nicely in this case. Step Two: Increase the vigor of your shake, imagining that what you hold in your hands is not a mixology vessel, but rather the neck of your least favorite person in the room. Step Three: Feel incredible remorse at your formerly violent thoughts towards said person, crumble to the floor in a fit of tears. Your body’s own shaking will do the rest of the work for you.

3. Remove the lid of your shaker, strain the frothy contents into a cocktail glass, garnish with a pinch of nutmeg, consume the drink in one or two large gulps, and tell everyone who’s been staring at you for the past three minutes that you’re just fine.

Repeat as often as necessary.

 

Posted in Holidays, Liquids | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Eating Their Cupcakes, Eating My Words.

Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 3.28.31 PMAnyone who knows me can tell you that I’ve never harbored much love for cupcakes.

At best, I’ve regarded them as a symptom of a tragic disease which strikes thousands of American women in their early 30s, causing them to put on yoga pants and congregate in the produce aisles of Whole Foods Markets to discuss their toddlers’ athletic achievements.

I’ve devoted a lot of energy to the avoidance of these insidious pieces of fluff, going so far as to block the word “cupcake” from appearing in my social media streams to protect myself from infection.

But then, at a bourbon-soaked Kentucky Derby party in Brooklyn not so very long ago, I met a young married couple who would cause me to change my attitude towards these hand-held pastries. To look at them, you’d never guess that these two people would have anything to do with cupcakes: he was a great, bearded bear of a man; she, a woman who spoke in four-letter words and owned a purse in the shape of a boom box that played actual music. I liked them. And the fact that the word “cupcake” was not mentioned at all made me like them all the more.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered a short time later that this couple, Matt and Allison Robicelli, were two of the most famous cupcake makers in the universe. And that they wrote a cupcake cookbook. Which was immediately sent to me.

Imagine my shock when I opened the book and realized that it was one of the cleverest, most deeply entertaining cookbooks I’ve read in a very long time.

Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 10.56.06 AMRobicelli’s: A Love Story, With Cupcakes is exactly that– a love story told in cupcake form. Many of the recipes expand upon Allison’s essays and somehow manage to distill the joy, frustration and tears involved in the building and sustaining of a relationship into well-balanced, edible fare. (“A Love Letter To Compromise” p.191 and the resulting recipe for Buffalo Chicken cupcakes on p. 199 are a prime example.)

The book’s often serious essays carry us from the initial meeting of Allison and Matt, up to the present day (or at least up to the time of printing), but the recipes carry us through some delightful (and sometimes surreal) flights of pop cultural fancy. Some examples include:

Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 3.27.58 PM* A cannoli-themed cupcake dedicated to Dom Deluise (p. 43)
* A cupcake inspired by an Irish Pub drink which in turn was inspired by a favorite IRA terrorist activity (p. 51)
* A series of desserts created in honor the entire cast of The Golden Girls (p.175-189)
* A cartoon Gallic mime who walks the reader through the technique of making French buttercream.

I could go on, but I don’t want to give everything away.

I found myself so enchanted by this book– the refreshingly frank essays, the ingeniously off-beat recipes, the delightful stream of four-letter words– that I wound up doing what I had previously considered the unthinkable. I broke down and made cupcakes (Pecan-Potato Chip p.145 and pictured above) which I then proceeded to share with my co-workers.

When my Robicelli-inspired handiwork had disappeared, I thought to myself, “I don’t know who the hell I am anymore.” And then I realized that I was oddly fine with that. I didn’t die. I made 12 people happy. And I caused another 12 to be upset that they didn’t get any. In all, it was a very good work day.

When it was over,  I thought for a moment about what Allison wrote in her previously-mentioned love letter to compromise:

“[I]t isn’t just ceding ground and giving in. Compromise is pulling yourself out of your comfort zone, seeing something from another perspective, thinking differently. Compromise, as hard as it is, helps you to grow…”

And you know what? Allison was right. Because of this book, I somehow managed to pull myself out of my comfort zone of zero cupcake tolerance, allowed myself to see these once-reviled, calorie-bombs of cute from the perspective of two people who have a deeper understanding of them than I probably ever will, and found myself thinking differently about them. All with a shocking lack of resistance on my part.

And the best thing of all? I finally– finally– found myself able to sit back, relax, and enjoy a fucking cupcake.

Posted in Books I Love and Loathe. | Tagged , , , | 29 Comments

Sunday Chicken Dinner Salad

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 12.36.44 PMIf there was one thing I could count on as a kid, it was that I would be fed chicken on Sundays. Slow roasted, whole chicken slathered in margarine and liberally sprinkled with iodized salt. I don’t fault my mother for her style of preparation– butter was bad for you in the 70s, we’d never heard of Kosher salt because we were Catholics and sea salt was merely something to be washed off of one’s self before leaving the beach.

The accoutrements of Sunday dinner were always the same: severed chunks of Russet potatoes which roasted alongside the bird, yellow corn liberated from a can, iceberg lettuce salad tarted up with Good Seasons® Salad Dressing and croutons furnished by Marie Callender, and all washed down with a glass of sweet acidolphilus milk to combat canker sores. It was my second-favorite meal of the week.

My mother, brother, sister, and I would sit down to dinner and pause to say Grace. If it were my turn to perform the blessing, I found it easier to recite if I rushed through the words and clenched my buttock muscles into a subtle bounce on all the odd syllables.

Blessus our Lord/
For the-ese thy gifts/
Which weareabouttoreceive/
From thy bounty through Chri-ist our Lo-ord/
Amen.

Because dinner is all about rhythm.

And we all had our own distinct versions of dining rhythm. My sister would pick at her food, performing sharp, staccato jabs at the odd potato or crouton and stare at our brother, whose own movements were decidedly grave as he set to work keeping each edible component on his plate isolated from the other, consuming them one by one in a performance so adagissimo, the chicken on his plate would have died of old age, had it not been sacrificed for our dinner.

My own eating style could best be described as an ongoing experiment in polytonality. I’d lift my salad bowl and dump its contents into the center of my plate; pile on the chicken, potatoes, and corn; drown everything in Zesty Italian and garnish with a child-sized fistful croutons. I wouldn’t have dreamed of eating my dinner any other way. And neither could my brother or sister in regard to their respective methods.

And my poor mother would sit there every single Sunday evening, trying to carry on meaningful conversation with her three growing children as she struggled to ignore their dissonant eating habits all for the sake of harmony.

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Sunday Chicken Dinner Salad

To this day, my mother asks me if I’m going to make a “mish mosh” of my food whenever we dine together. I can’t blame her for doing so. I happen to like multiple flavors and textures in my mouth at the same time. And I mean that in the cleanest way possible.

Although my palate and style of preparing dinner are (hopefully) much more sophisticated than when I was a child, I do maintain the habit of piling everything together when eating at home alone. In public, I am a little more discreet– creating my mish mosh one mouthful at a time, leaving what’s on the plate in its original (although rapidly diminishing) organization. I love slicing off a small piece of steak and pushing it through my mashed potatoes with my fork until it comes across a little clump of hitchhiking spinach, which it always obliges with a pickup. I  enjoy soaking up warm egg yolks and bacon grease with a piece of toast as if I were patting out a wine stain on the sofa with an old sponge. I prefer it when the ice cream sitting next to my cake begins to melt, hardening the frosting and weakening the crumbs. One component compliments the other, or contrasts. And I like it both ways.

I also mean that in the cleanest way possible.

Just like people who need people, I am a firm believer that foods which needs other foods are the luckiest foods in the world. Or, more correctly, that people who need foods which need other foods are the luckiest people.

There is no recipe for this salad, because that would be a ridiculous waste of time for me to attempt, and a tedious exercise for you to read (thank you, by the way, for making it this far).

Just make your favorite Sunday chicken dinner and eat as you prefer, making sure you save plenty of leftovers. When you feel ready, warm said leftovers, chop into manageable pieces, pile them on top of your favorite greens, and drizzle with your favorite vinaigrette. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love it.

Or, if you’re anything like my brother, you’ll think this is the stupidest way to each chicken in the universe.

Posted in Meatness, Rants and Stories, Salad | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments

When Life Gives You Melons…

melonadeI am a highly selective reader. And listener. By this, I don’t mean to imply that I have discerning taste in literature and music.

Instead, I mean that my brain often prefers to process visual and aural information in ways it thinks I may find either more palatable or more entertaining than the original.

I once wondered aloud to a date about a billboard exhorting women to get Mmmmograms. He then proceeded to wonder aloud as to what in God’s name I was talking about. I pointed to the sign. “It says mammograms. Maaaa-moh-grams” he mouthed slowly and piteously. I looked again at the sign. He was right, of course and I knew that my lexical mirage was due in part to the fact that I was hungry.  But still I much preferred my version of the message, which implied that women might visit their doctor for a necessary prescription of chocolate or caviar, rather than to have their breasts smashed and biopsied.

I’m fairly certain that was our last date, but I couldn’t tell you the fellow’s name if my life depended on it because my brain has apparently found that particular bit of information too unpleasant to process.

In terms of mishearing things, I can tell you I’m extremely grateful that, as a child, I was never singled out to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” in front of a large stadium crowd because I am almost certain most Americans would be distressed to hear how their flag survived a cannonade of “tampons bursting in air” above it.

I’ve since learned the proper lyrics, but the original imagery will never, ever go away. And that’s fine by me, because I happen to think my version much more dramatic than the original. And so much more colorful.

At work the other evening, one of our sous chefs engaged in a bit of verbal dyslexia as he was telling the waitstaff about dessert specials– announcing that we had a trio of chilled lemons available, should any of our guests feel like having a bit of fruit. By the time he corrected himself, the mouths of everyone in the room had already puckered at the thought of eating slices of cold Eurekas and Meyers. He’d meant to say melons: Sharlyn, Crenshaw, and one with a Spanish name I’d never come across before– Piel de Sapo. My not-at-all-fluent-in-Spanish brain translated it into something I could understand.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 9.57.31 AM“Piel de Sappho?” I asked, wanting to be certain I’d heard correctly.

“No. Sapo. Sah-poh,” he pronounced. “It means toad skin.”

One minute, I find out we have no cold lemons to sell to our guests and the next I’m told we’re offering them fruit suffering from phrynoderma instead.

How much lovelier– and more appropriate– it would have been to serve up melon named for a Lesbian poet in an upscale Greek restaurant? Instead, we had nothing but cold-blooded amphibian. Knowing that the likelihood of horticulturists developing, growing, harvesting, and delivering the melon I wanted before service was minimal, I swallowed my disappointment and swore I’d turn this personal misfortune into something positive.

Because as the old adage says, “When life gives you melons, make melonade.”

Or something like that.

Melonade

piel de sapo innards

There are so many melons one could possibly squeeze for juice, but I am currently loving Piel de Sapo. We sometimes eat it like candy at the end of our work shift when it’s in season. It’s flavor is sweet and subtle and vaguely cantaloupe-like. Apparently, it is also referred to as Santa Claus melon, because it can be stored for so long that it can sometimes keep until Christmas.

But I still prefer to call it Piel de Sappho because melons are so ripe for female anatomical comparison– undeniably mammarial when whole, unspeakably vaginal when pried open. The only thing I have trouble reconciling is the fact that this melon has a thick skin, which doesn’t quite jibe with the legend of this famed Lesbian* poet of antiquity hurling herself off a cliff when she found her love unrequited.

But at least it does imply a sweet and tender soul, which Piel de Sappho has in spades.

Ingredients:

• 2 Piel de Sapo (call it whatever you wish. I do) melons. Very ripe and heavy in the hand.
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 cup water
• A handful of fresh mint, washed

Preparation:

1. Cleave your melons, scoop out the seeds with a spoon, remove the skins with a sharp knife, and save only the flesh, which you will then slice into pieces small enough to be shoved into the feed tube of your juicer (You really should have a juicer if you want to do this).

2. Pour the juice into a large container– you may get up to 3 pints of liquid from two melons. Cover and place in your refrigerator to chill and allow for the remaining melon solids to separate from the juice.

3. In the meantime, place 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar into a saucepan and heat over medium flame until the sugar is dissolved. Now take your clean mint, abuse it, and tear it to pieces, letting them fall as they may (somewhat carefully) into the sugar syrup. Stir and mash the mint all you like, cover and set aside to cool.

4. Remove the juice from the refrigerator and strain it either through a fine-meshed sieve, cheese cloth, or both.

5. To serve, pour the juice into a large glass and taste. Is it sweet enough? Possibly, but add a teaspoon or two of the subtly-minted syrup and give it a stir. If you want to keep things simpler and do not want any extra sweetness, crumple up a few fresh leaves of mint and toss them into the juice, giving it all a good, hearty stir. If you want your beverage even more straightforward, do nothing and just drink the damned juice.

Or send a batch to a friend– it will make for one delightful mmmm-o-gram indeed.

If you add lemon juice (or lime, for that matter) you will end up with a jumble of letters which will taste of little more than acid and murky water. If you add gin, it will taste terrible. The flavor of the juice is so subtle that one should do as little as possible to it. If your melons are hard and flavorless, the best thing to do with them is hurl them from the nearest cliff. And then learn how to properly select a ripe melon.

* There is no known proof that Sappho a) was homosexual or b) that she ever hurled herself off a cliff. Very little about her is known beyond the fact that she was from the island of Lesbos, and was considered one of the greatest of the ancient Greek poets– no small feat in a time when women of good families were pretty much never allowed to leave the house.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Liquids | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

The Amateur Gorme

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 1.31.37 PMEydie Gorme died this week and the news has made me rather wistful. Her music didn’t play an enormous role in my development and I would have to consider myself a rank amateur in terms of assessing her career, but she had a way of popping in an out of my life which always made me happy. And that is always something to appreciate.

Her voice featured annually in the Holiday soundtrack of my childhood when The Goodyear Tires Great Songs of Christmas album would get dusted off, placed on the hi-fi, and I would listen to her giggle through the lyrics of “Sleigh Ride” with her husband Steve Lawrence. It was my second favorite song on the album, right behind Maurice Chevalier’s Gallic-scented version of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas“.

From time to time, I’d see her on television singing some perky song or other with her husband, but I never paid much attention. Most likely because I had no interest in relationship-themed tunes. But they always seemed to me a very happy couple– playfully combative, but always very loving, which in my experience seemed an utterly alien concept.

On her own, Eydie Gorme scored hits with her Spanish language albums featuring Trio Los Panchos and a song in which she takes no personal responsibility for her marriage and inevitable multiple pregnancies, crediting instead an early 1960′s Brazilian dance craze. But she was never more famous than when she teamed with Steve Lawrence, nor was he ever as famous than when teamed with her. After awhile, they seemed to fuse together in the public mind as Steve & Eydie. No last names required.

And nowhere did their fusing ignite more sparks than in Las Vegas, where the were married, lived, raised children, and performed for more than 50 years. They were the uncrowned King and Queen of Vegas and it was there that I shared my most intimate moment with The Queen.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 4.05.33 PMWanting to visit The Desert Inn one last time before it was blown to bits, my father took me to see a show in the hotel’s theater. It was a nostalgic  gesture– my parents lived in Las Vegas from 1957 to 1960, during what is often called the city’s Golden Age. The musical performed that evening was Guys and Dolls and starring such equally nostalgic performers such as Maureen McGovern (the voice of Oscar-wining disaster film themes songs of the 1970s), Jack Jones (A famous singer of the 1960s who was born on the same evening his even-more-famous father recorded one of my favorite songs ever), and Frank Gorshin (The Riddler from the original Batman series). It was going to be a night of high-kitsch Vegas entertainment and, thanks to my father slipping the maître ‘d a bill of an undisclosed denomination, it was going to be a night of high-kitsch Vegas entertainment with an excellent view.

And then something happened which made me doubt my own vision:

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 4.11.35 PMOne martini into my two-drink minimum, the orchestra burst out in one staccato and one long note in an unmistakable “ta-da!”. A spotlight hit the lobby door. And there– temporarily blinded and slightly embarrassed– stood Steve & Eydie.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I said to my father, wiping off the gin that had splashed onto my sport coat because the music had startled me mid-sip. But no one was kidding anyone. Mr. Lawrence and Ms. Gorme were led to their table by the maître ‘d amid geriatric applause– a cozy banquette located directly behind ours. We were roughly less than a Vegas showgirl’s-length (without headdress) from the King and Queen of Old Las Vegas. The cocktail waitress brought our second drinks, I swiveled in my seat to look at Eydie and smiled. She returned my greeting and then the room seemed to go dark.

The room went dark, of course, because the performance was about to begin. But I’d forgotten all about it because, as far as I was concerned, the show was already happening behind me and I momentarily thought my vision had simply dimmed for dramatic effect.

It is still how I choose to remember it, which is just as well because what was happening onstage was only slightly less entertaining than watching an amateur production of Paint Your Wagon performed by asthmatics. Except for Frank Gorshin. He was charming. Half way through the poorly choreographed “If I Were A Bell” number, I could hear a dental click of disapproval behind me and quietly turned around to hear Eydie Gorme sigh, “Oh, Maureen…” I locked eyes with her in the dim faux-candlelight and she seemed embarrassed that anyone other than her husband had heard her. But I responded with pained look, slow nod, and dramatically-mouthed-but-entirely-silent “Oh, I know…”

I had hoped the subtext of my gesture expressed the message “I now know your secret and will carry it to my grave”, but such things are extremely difficult to convey in low light with a mediocre musical number performed by under-rehearsed former celebrities happening behind you, so I doubt very much it was taken that way. Instead, she just looked at me for a moment and heaved a visible sigh. I turned myself around again and that was that.

I finished watching the show, but realized that what was left of my hour-old martini was now warmer than my enthusiasm for what was happening onstage. My father, however, seemed to be enjoying himself. I gulped down the rest of my drink and took solace in the knowledge that I wasn’t alone in my lack of dramaturgic joy. I had formed a strong but temporary bond of mutual disappointment with another member of the audience. And not just any member, of course, but with the Queen of Las Vegas herself.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 1.26.37 PM

Albondigas

Because, as she clearly states on her album cover, “(She) Feel(s) So Spanish“.

Eydie Gorme was quite an interesting lady. A Bronx girl of Italian and Turkish Sephardic stock; fluent in Spanish and Judeo-Spanish Landino. She worked as an interpreter at the UN. She won a Grammy Award. She had a marriage which lasted for 55 years. And now she’s gone.

And now there’s no more “Steve & Eydie”. Now it’s just “Steve”, which makes me unbearably sad.

I will more than likely never know what it’s like to be with someone for more than half a century, but if I were, I imagine I’d like for us to go at the same time. A home gas leak in the winter time might be lovely because then we would both die in bed in our sleep and keep fresh until our intertwined bodies were discovered. A plane crash might be lovely, too, because it would give us a couple of minutes to say goodbye before dying on impact. But I think my favorite way to go might be Thelma & Louise-style– either by our own choosing or by way of inaccurate satellite navigation, which would send us off a cliff edge together, holding hands until we reached the bottom and our mutual end.

The following recipe is not what I would call “precise”, except perhaps for the meatballs, which are inspired by Joan Nathan’s New York Times recipe. I thought it more appropriate, Steve & Eydie-wise, to blend two separate meats so as to make them ultimately inseparable. The addition of currants makes them sweeter, which is also appropriate.

Makes about 24 Turko-Italo-Judeo-Iberian meatballs and serves about 4.

Ingredients:

For the albondigas:

• 1/2 pound ground lamb
• 1/2 pound ground beef
• 3 tablespoons matzoh meal
• 2 cloves of garlic, minced
• 1 heaping tablespoon pine nuts
• 1 heaping tablespoon dried currants, soaked in warm water and drained
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 2 tablespoons of olive oil for frying

For the soup:

• 1/2 small yellow onion, finely diced
• 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
• 1 small carrot, finely diced
• 2 tablespoons of olive oil
• 1 quart plus 1 cup of chicken stock
• 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
• 1 cup of diced, seeded tomatoes
• 1/2 cup zucchini, finely diced
• A dash of ground cumin
• 2 dashes of ground cinnamon
• As much salt and pepper as you like

For the pesto-like condiment to serve on top for a hint of added glamor:

• 1 cup gently packed parsley leaves
• 1 cup mint leaves, treated with as much respect as you have your parsley
• 1 clove of finely chopped/smashed/puréed garlic
• 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
• 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil

Preparation:

1. In a medium-sized bowl, gently combine the lamb, beef, egg, matzoh meal, garlic, pine nuts,  currants, cumin, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. Let it ooze through your clean fingers like warm Play-Doh. Form into walnut-sized balls. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and, in 2 batches of 12, brown the meatballs, top and bottom, but do not cook them through. About 3 minutes per batch. Drain the meatballs on a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.

2. To make the soup, drizzle the bottom of your soup-making vessel with olive oil and turn and heat over a medium flame. Add the onions and carrots, and sauté them until the onions are translucent (about 5 minutes). Do not brown your vegetables, please. Add the garlic and cook for another minute longer.

3. Pour chicken stock over the sautéed root items, stir in tomato paste (thoroughly incorporating it into the liquid), and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover and let it do its thing for about 30 to 40 minutes or so until the broth has reduced by about 1/4. If you choose to use your time wisely, you could be making your cheese-less pesto (we’re keeping this meal more or less kosher. And I do stress “more or less”.)

4. On a large cutting board, mince the hell out of one rather large clove of garlic. Add a pinch of salt to it and smash & smear it with the flat end of your knife. Next, roll your parsley and mint leaves into little, herby cigars and give them a right stiff chiffonading directly on top of the devastated garlic. Then add the toasted pine nuts and be merciless with them. When all of these ingredients have been savaged to your liking, scoop them into a bowl , drizzle with olive oil and stir. Taste and adjust salt for seasoning, if desired. You could, of course also shove all of these ingredients into a food processor and let that machine have a go at it, but you’d be missing out on a most excellent texture and you will be pitied the world over. Or at the very least by the entire Mediterranean region.

Cover and set aside.

5. Returning to the soup, add the ground cumin and cinnamon and give them a good stir into the liquid. Now add your tomato, zucchini, and meatballs. Let the whole thing continue to simmer for another 15 minutes, covered. You could be using this time either setting the dinner table yourself or convincing someone else to do it for you.

6. Taste the soup. What do you think it needs? More than likely, it will need a decent amount of salt and pepper. Would you like it more cinnamon-y? Cumin-laced? Now is the time to do this. Pull out a meatball. Cut it open and test for doneness. If it meets your satisfaction, it is time to eat.

7. To serve, ladle as many meatballs as your guest would like into the bowl first, then cover the balls with the soup. Doing it the other way around may lead to splashing, staining, and potential physical distress. Offer your guest the pesto-like condiment, which they will either welcome or refuse. If they refuse, gently remind them that you will have no choice but to refuse their welcome the next time they ask to come to dinner.

8. Enjoy this meal with a glass of wine drunk to the music of Miss Gorme. Namely with this song– Sabor A Mi:

 

Posted in Celebrities, Meatness, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

Horta Culture.

Horta in VaseThere’s an unassuming little dish we serve at our restaurant. It isn’t offered on our menu and yet everyone seems to know it’s there for them, should they need it.

The Greeks ask for it by its name: horta. Non-Greeks ask for “a side of braised greens” because they either don’t know the proper term for it or do know but are afraid to sound out the first, faintly phlegmy syllable in public.

Calling horta “braised greens” is an act of descriptive kindness and far more appetizing than calling them what they essentially are, which is boiled weeds. At our place of business, however, the dish is made from ingredients which are anything but weeds: the chard and mustard greens we use are deliberately cultivated and harvested by organic farmers. More esoteric greens like lamb’s ear and amaranth are added when the season allows, but they are grown from seed and carefully nurtured. There is nothing remotely wild about our bowls of horta, but there are people who are clearly wild about them.

Horta fleshes out the plates of rib eye steak and Greek potatoes we serve; it pillows the heads of whole grilled fish; it nests under lamb shanks ordered by the orzo-averse. It is piled into bowls, hot and limp, with a bit of its cooking liquid and a little olive oil, then brought out to guests with half of a lemon tied up in cheese cloth and green ribbon like a  church bonnet. It’s never the star of the meal, but it has a way of making its presence felt.

Non-Greeks often order it because it sounds like a healthy addition to their meal. Young and middle-aged Greeks might order it out of habit, because it’s more or less always been a part of their dinners or, in some cases as one friend confided, “because it reminds me of my parents, who always kept an empty bag in the trunk of the car in case they saw greens growing by the side of the road. They’d kick us kids out of the car and make us pick f***ing weeds until the bag was full because they could never pass up free food.”  I’d always thought his remark some sort of loving, familial joke about perceived Greek cheapness, which it was, but it was also a sort of testament to Greek resourcefulness.

Because there was a time when, if they did pass up a free meal, they might have died of starvation.

Whenever I bring a bowl of greens to older Greeks– the ones from the Old Country who survived the war– I always wonder if its presence at their table is practical or symbolic or both. Did they order horta because they simply need the roughage at their age, or are they paying homage to the very thing that may have helped them beat hunger– and the Nazis– and come out of World War II alive? I’ve never dared to ask.

In April of 1941, Greece fell to the Axis armies of Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. What followed was three and a half years of harsh occupation, economic destruction, murder, and starvation. The occupying forces requisitioned most of the available food stuffs for their armies, leaving the Greeks with very little upon which to survive. Livestock was slaughtered, farms placed under guard, transport trucks commandeered. The cities and  islands like Mykonos and Chios, which depended upon shipments of food from the mainland in peaceful times, suffered the worst. During the winter of 1941-42, as many as 1,000 people a day were dying from hunger in Athens. It is estimated that more than 300,000 civilians died from malnutrition and starvation during the war.

Lemons squeezedThose fortunate enough to live in the countryside foraged for survival. Wild greens such as dandelions, wild sorrel, mustard, fennel, sow-thistle, sea-beans– anything non-poisonous and edible– were gathered, boiled, and eaten. Olive oil was unavailable to many, and lemons were often difficult to come by. Another friend recently recounted the story of how his father would sometimes rummage through garbage cans for spent lemon halves to help make the weeds more palatable. Horta was often eaten alone, leaving nothing but the acrid taste of the greens on the tongue. Resistance fighters survived on little more than nettles and other wild herbs in the mountains of Northern Greece; their diet almost as bitter as the fight they waged against their occupiers– a fight they eventually won.

I sometimes wonder how many people survived the Occupation (and the ensuing civil war) thanks to piles of boiled weeds. I don’t think there’s any accurate way to measure. What I do know is that my respect for them has grown over time, thanks to a better understanding of their special Greek culture or, as I like to think of it, horta culture.

In 1943 Greece, a bowl of greens might have sat alone on the dinner table. In the 2013, it’s a struggle to find a spot for them on a table already crowded with more food than anyone could possibly consume, but they always make a place for it. With all the other, more lively dishes to compete with, no one may actually eat the horta, but it’s always comforting to know that it’s there, should anyone truly need it again.

Horta cooked

Horta

You can use any type of greens you like to make horta. Feel free to get creative, but don’t give it too much thought. Use what you have on hand. I prefer mine faintly bitter, which no one who knows me would find the least bit surprising.

The following recipe is just a guideline, since amounts are elastic and easily adjustable, just like the pants one should wear if one were having dinner at a Greek family’s house in non-famine times.

Serves two. Or one, if it is all one is eating.

Ingredients:

• 1 bunch of dandelion greens
• 1 bunch of beet greens
• About 4 cups of water
• Plenty of kosher salt
• 1 lemon, halved
• Olive oil

Preparation:

1. Add water to a large, deep pot. Toss a scant handful of salt into the water and bring to a simmer.

2. Wash the greens until they are clean enough that you would wish to stick them in your mouth uncooked. Tear the leaf stalks in half, stalks and all (unless you’re using something with a particularly thick stem like kale) and drop them into the gently bubbling water. Stir the greens down until they are wilted and submerged. Cover and let simmer for about 10 minutes. Check for tenderness, paying attention to the doneness of the stalks. When they are properly supple, remove the greens from the water. Strain gently in a colander. Do not press excess moisture from them.

3. To serve, place the horta in a serving bowl, squeeze a lemon half over them, drizzle with olive oil and taste. If needed, sprinkle with a little more salt. Place the second half of lemon in the bowl, off to the side. Wrapping them in cheese cloth and ribbon is a lovely touch, but wholly unnecessary.

4. Eat and be grateful that you have more food available to you in your refrigerator, should you need it.

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