Competition

So this is a story about my phenomenal cousins, and by far, my rawest, roughest writing ever. Having said that, I hope it provides a snapshot of some of my favorite people in all their glory, and explains why I love them as much as I do.

For this piece, I have to thank Ben Hsieh and Morgan Fahey for egging me on in a Facebook conversation. Below is my rant, slightly edited, that followed. Also recipe for fucked up, green Vermont casserole, is the responsibility and the trademark of Gia, Yar, and little Mei. They can post at their discretion.

Photographs are courtesy of Poole Chan.

 Once a year, my extended family get together in Vermont. It’s a beautiful spot. We’ve been coming here since I was seven years old. We are next to a lake called Willoughby and it shines like crystal. We dive into its clear waters and feel our blood turn to icicles because in Vermont it doesn’t get much hotter than 60 degrees, even in August. I dream of my Vermont summer week; it smells of honeysuckle and manure, apples and maple syrup.

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Also, our little corner of Vermont isn’t Middlebury, well-to-do hippie Vermont. It is far North, bum-fuck, home-schooling, Bible-thumping, gun-toting Vermont. About five miles away, there is a general supply slash hunting store, where taxidermied baby bears frolic over the deli counter, and a dead lynx cradles the CoffeeMate. My aunt Sho, who loves adventure and kookiness, first discovered this place years ago, and bought a farm ten years ago. Everyone knows us. We will be two hours of Lake Willoughby and people are like, “Oh, you bought the Lake View farm!” It is because we are the only yellow faces within a fifty-mile radius. It’s fun. We go hiking, elk watching, go-carting, or hit golf balls at the local driving range, which doubles as a cow pasture, and where the golf balls are stored in a rusty bathtub. We eat well, on picnic tables behind the house, by candlelight.

Recently, the cousins thought it would be neat to do a cooking competition. Divide into teams, shop for ingredients at the local market. Budget was 40 dollars, shopping time was half an hour, time to prep, cook, and plate was an hour. The older generation – whom, even though some of us are pushing middle age, we call the grownups, would be the judges.  Basically, it was Top Chef meets a fish-out-of-water comedy. It will be a memorable event, frequently referred to in future conversations as Cousin Top Chef Day, Lunatic Vermont Casserole day, and perhaps, most fondly, The Day Jay Almost Made Little Anna Cry.
The cousins ranged from eleven to 40 in age. Including in-laws, we were 12 altogether, so were divided into four teams of three. The teams were selected by the youngest cousins – Anna, who was eleven years old at the time and her sister Kellie, who was thirteen. I was teamed with my oldest cousin, Jay, who is not so much a foodie as he is a food fascist, and also Anna. Anna and her sister Kellie decided that Jay and I, while arguably having the most collective experience might also kill each other given our volatile personalities. Plus, Anna, of all the cousins, had no kitchen experience whatsoever, so she could be fairly considered a handicap. All the rest of the cousins were either formidable cooks or at least excellent with kitchen prep. Also, they had calm, bonhomie, and organization, qualities that Jay and I lacked. All in all, in my opinion, it was a pretty well matched competition. There were a couple of mutters from people who disagreed.

Finally, kitchens are assigned by pulling out of a hat. In addition to my aunt Sho’s summer house, we have access to three rather shabby cabins about a mile down the road. Sho’s kitchen has santoku knives, cast iron pans, sea salt and dashi powder. The kitchens in the cabins have leaky gas, an oven/range not much wider than a computer console, and aluminum pots and pans that have been there since the 1970s.

I reach into the hat and pull out the slip that says main house.

My cousin Ben goes red. “What the FUCK?” Thirteen year old Kellie pats his hand, assuring him, “It’s okay Ben. Jay and Mei will still kill each other. Let’s hold on to that hope.” Jan, my sister-in-law, says, “Okay guys, when we get back to the main house tomorrow, we grab everything in the kitchen. Knives, spices, salt, pans. We raid that kitchen, do you understand? We’re gonna strip it bare.”

Jay and I high-five. Anna, our third teammate and the baby of the family, is an entrancing child. She speaks in a fluting voice, has doe eyes and long wavy hair, makes up nonsense fairy tales, and generally belongs in an Edwardian novel. When I get the MAIN HOUSE slip, Anna punches her fist in the air and says “YES!”

The next morning, we hit the supermarket. We do not, as it has been suggested, go to what we cousins fondly refer to as the taxidermy grocery. Mostly it is because Anna is still afraid of dead animals. Our local supermarket is called the C & C. It has an abundance of wilted lettuce, Millers Lite beer, and also R&C cream soda, which I’ve been unable to buy anywhere else, and also things smoked on corn cobs (cheddar cheese, bacon, and pork chops, all of them quite tasty). On a Sunday morning, it is crowded with size 22 women in denim cut-offs lining up to buy Snapple. Also, We are also chaperoned by two “adults;” my mother and my Aunt Kate stand, firmly rooted by the newspapers, in the corner with a stopwatch.

“Make sure that Jay and Mei don’t break any rules! NONE.” At least two cousins shout as we dash into the aisles. “Don’t worry,” they say, “we will.”

It is the invasion of the obnoxious Asian yuppies. Someone yells, “Where the fuck are the sun-dried tomatoes?” Another, “Oh my god, there’s pate. I wonder if it’s been here since 1999.” Jay and I are by far the worse, screaming at each other from separate aisles. “SCREW the curry powder,” I shout from the meat section. Jay is in the spices. “I don’t care if we have currants back at the house, we are not making buffalo currant curry meatballs.” “We’re doing the curry meatballs. You know that they will make us win.” “No. Also no Welsh’s grape jelly in the goddam chicken wings.” Actually these quotes are from when Jay and I are warming up and being playful. It gets truly uh-oh ugly, and it pains me too much to quote what followed. At some point, we both bring up dishes that the other has made that in the past, we have said we’ve loved, but we now say are shit. It gets that nasty. Little Anna thinks it would be a good idea to act as peacemaker. She trots up to us as we stand in a grocery aisle with our fists clenched, glaring, and says, in her delicate, Anna sing-song, “Guys, maybe if we just calmed down…”

Jay snaps, “Anna, if you have nothing meaningful to contribute, then shut up.”

Then it is back to our separate kitchens to do the cooking. All the “adults” remain behind in the main house, to make sure that Jay and I stay within the time limit. Specifically, it is my mother and Aunt Kate (Anna’s mother) who lean against the kitchen counter, watching the clock.

I have to say, once Jay and I get going, it’s a joy. Jay has been my big brother; he has known me since I was born; he is also, in my opinion, the person who has really taught me culinary daring. Over the years, we have cooked together a lot. So once we get the hang of it, we are communicating to each other in cryptic half sentences, dancing amongst the flames and the flashing knives, weaving around pans of spitting hot oil. Bottles of fish sauce and sesame oil go sliding across the countertop, with dried prunes and smoked trout, jars of peanut butter and cornflakes. Jay’s in charge and even though I generally a bit of a control nut in the kitchen, today I’m happy to be his sous. It’s the high that I think that one can only experience when cooking, competition, and kin unite.

Then there was Anna. “Um, guys, is there anything I can do?” She adds, “Um, I’ve never really used a knife before, or touched raw meat.” Jay rolls his eyes.

“Okay,” I say, and hand her a Sabbatier paring knife, child-sized but wickedly sharp. “You’ve got to start with knives somehow, so you can section the grapefruit.” I show her, with a couple of slashing motions, how. She takes up the knife and the grapefruit and goes, “Ummm.” Five minutes later, I see that she has done one section. “Anna,” I say, “can you pick up the pace?” Not long after, she says, “Um, guys, I’ve cut myself.”

Now grapefruit juice, like salt, on a cut, stings. I say, “I’m sorry Anna, but we don’t have time to get you a bandage.”

Afterwards, I have her stirring up pancakes and finally, I hand her a jar of honey and a bottle of Bullitt bourbon. “Okay,” I say, “mix the bourbon into the honey, and taste it as you go along. We want the honey pretty boozy, but not over-poweringly so.”

Anna looks at her mother, Aunt Kate, who has been keeping us company since the competition began. “Mom?”

Aunt Kate says, her eyes never wavering from the clock, “You heard your cousin.”

Jay and I make the time limit, but the kitchen is decked with grease and handprints of flour, which doesn’t exactly please Sho. We collapse into chairs and wait for everyone else – who waltz in about an hour and a half later. (Excuses were made: one team was locked out of their cabin, and then one of their ovens wasn’t working. To this day, I still don’t buy it.) Ben’s OCD Procter and Gamble mother, who has spent much of her life with focus groups, printed out scoring sheets for all the grownups/judges. There are moments when you thank God for having Asian American parents and this was one. They had all forced us into piano competitions, and even when we were small, there was no adult who would let you win at checkers. So in scoring from the grownup judges, there was no sugar-coated, everyone-is-a-winner attitude.

Jay and my dishes were far from perfect. For one thing, our chicken wings were supposed to be fried twice, and we couldn’t do it in the time allowed, so some of them were raw in the middle. Also, they were cold, due to the fact that the other teams were delayed. Plus, we got docked 17 points for, and I quote, “WHO THE FUCK THOUGHT THAT TEAMING THESE TWO GUYS WAS A GOOD IDEA?”

I love an underdog story. The little guys rallying, against all odds, to take over the big moneyed corporation with all the power. But I have to say that Jay, Anna, and I won, and we were not, as everyone continues to point out, the underdogs. It did, however, feel spectacular. Anna – cut, bruised, covered with oil, and smelling faintly of bourbon – was radiant. “Guys, we have to do this next year,” she says. “Same teams.” Kellie, her older sister, whom I can only describe as thoughtful, wry, and like the rest of us, both competitive and good-natured, replies, “Anna, yes, we should do this next year, but perhaps we want to re-think the teams.”

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me, jay, and anna

All the food was pretty good — we had bahn mi, potatoes Anna (not little Anna, but probably named after some 19th century chick whom Auguste Escoffier fancied) with caramelized bacon. Jay and I did a couple riffs on chicken — Vietnamese chicken wings with a glass of pinot (peanut butter and jelly chicken — jelly was the wine, I put my foot down on Jay wanting to incorporate Welsh’s into the chicken itself)), cornflake fried chicken with bourbon honey, and a smoked trout and grapefruit salad.

However, the one dish worth mentioning was the dish that won “most creative.” That team was Gia (Jay’s sister), Yar (my brother) and little Mei-mei (Yes, there are two of us. Mei is the most common nickname in Chinese. As Jay says, “If you walk into any Chinese daycare and say Mei, all the little girls look up.”). They decided that, from the beginning, they weren’t going to win – even though Gia, arguably, is a better cook than either myself or Jay — so they’d go for most creative. Gia and Mei-mei are designers, and Yar is a champion of the brilliant piss-take.

For the judges, they presented a casserole of smoked pork topped with mashed potatoes. Half the mashed potatoes were dyed a vivid green and shaped like Vermont. Originally, they had tried to color it with coriander and parsley, but then, in the end only half a bottle of food coloring would do. Upon Vermont was perched the red barn that’s on Sho’s property, made with red peppers and toothpicks. There were cows grazing, made of tinned olives and mushrooms. And there was a lake dug into the mashed potatoes, to represent our very own Lake Willoughby, and as a final flourish, they poured maple syrup into it and then let it flow between VT and NH to be the Connecticut River.

It was fucking genius.

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vermont casserole

Cornflake chicken with bourbon honey

Yar (my brother) said this was one of the best fried chickens that he had ever tasted. I don’t know, I think we are all really tired at that point so our palates were screwed. At first  I objected to the cornflakes, but Jay told me that this was Colonel Saunders’ secret ingredient in his crunchy chicken, and as we both have a healthy respect for fast food, I let him have his way.

We paired this with pancakes made of Bisquick, smoked cheddar cheese, and fresh corn. For good reasons, there’s no recipe for them.

Also for the chicken, I did repeat it the other night, making a couple of revisions, but tried to make it in less than half an hour, in the slapdash method we employed. Really, though, with the seasoning of the chicken, we used everything on hand.

Chicken:

6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1 pint buttermilk

healthy dash of paprika

healthy dash of cayenne

healthy dash of hon-dashi (in Vermont there was some Vietnamese seasoning powder, lacking this, hondashi – the Japanese miracle umami powder — works.)

two cloves of garlic, well minced.

salt and pepper

1 cup of cornflakes, well crushed.

  1. ½ cup of flour

2 eggs, beaten

Oil

Season chicken well with salt and pepper and then marinate in the buttermilk and spices and the garlic. In the competition, this meant that the chicken sat for twenty minutes, I found that it tastes even better if you let it sit longer, even over night.

Then dust the chicken with flour, dip it into the egg, coat in the cornflakes, and in a pan over medium heat with about ¼ inch of oil, cook the chicken until done. It’s about seven minutes per side.

Serve with a drizzle of honey tempered with a dash of bourbon. (Optional.)

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Disasters

My cooking disasters began when I was eight years old. I made raisin-oatmeal cookies for the bake sale from my mother’s Maida Heatter book. My mother told me that, in her opinion, cookbooks always made desserts too sweet, and so to reduce the amount of sugar. I reduced the sugar to a quarter of a cup. My fifth grade teacher, feeling sorry for me, ate four cookies with a grimace and said they tasted “healthy.” For years, risotto was my albatross – cook it over a heat that is too high, and the rice is raw, cook it at low heat, and it becomes glue. It was even more painful because my mother was a risotto expert. Eggs were worse. My hard boiled would come out with so many green rings it looked like a slice of a petrified tree. My soft boiled would collapse into liquid because I hadn’t boiled them long enough. Don’t get me started on the subject of poached eggs. Also, I can count three times when I have set the kitchen on fire. The most recent time was when I made a Morton Thompson turkey. I was at my brother Yar’s house, and my niece had just been born, and Yar and I watched helplessly as flames leaped about. “Come see!” his wife cooed, “Charlie just made her first smile.” “I’m sorry,” said Yar, “but the house might burn down.”

Yesterday, I mistook a bitter melon for a silk squash. Okay, it is an esoteric mistake I grant you. Bitter melon and silk squash are both pillars of Chinese cuisine and one buys them both in an Asian market where there are very few labels, and the ones that exist are in Chinese. Both are elongated, pale green, and covered with horns. They both look a bit like the snozzcumber in Roald Dahl’s BFG. Bitter melon, however, is known for its mouth puckering astringency. Silk squash is soft, melting and delicate. With bitter melon, you are supposed to scoop out the flesh and the seeds and cook the rind. With silk squash, you are supposed to peel the rind and cook the soft pulp and seeds. I felt, glumly poking my silk squash rinds, alone in the world.

bitter melon

bitter melon

I ate the whole thing, just as I did in years past — the unsweetened cookies, the charred Thompson turkey, and all the risottos. Because that is what one does with a cooking disaster, isn’t it? You sit and grimly munch away at the whole thing. No one talks about that either. Over the years, I have eaten my way through bowls of buttercream that would not set. I have devoured batches of fried chicken, lovingly marinated in the pain-in-the-ass Thomas Keller brine, that is raw inside.

silk squash

silk squash

Why doesn’t anyone talk about their cooking disasters any more? Everyone, it seems, want to coo about their success. I made this brisket! and it was beautiful! Here are the pictures to prove it! I made this soufflé, for the very first time in my life, and it rose like an angel ascending to heaven! But I find stories about culinary catastrophe  more humane, and frequently more instructive.

Supposedly, I am currently a good cook but if I am, it is only because I have cooked since an early age, and messed up a lot. And I continue to fail. The silk squash debacle rates about a 3.5 in the 1-10 scale of my cooking messes. The Thompson Turkey rates about a six. Nothing can quite match the humiliation of a meal ill-prepared, the people eating their food politely without comment, or grabbing the salt shaker and sprinkling salt with a wistful expression, hoping that the salt will act like a fairy dust and transform what they are eating. Every time someone folds their napkin well before they are finished with their plate – that is another wound upon my soul. I just wish that I didn’t feel like I am the only person in the world who suffers.

Certain cooking disasters are a result of  bad timing, and too much of one ingredient. (In my case, it’s salt and sometimes heat, which I then try to correct with butter and/or sugar, always tragic.) Occasionally they are a result of miscommunication; I ask someone to braise and they misheard me and thought I meant broil. There is ingredient confusion, when one mistakes a Serrano for a long red pepper, or a silk squash for a bitter melon. There is also the cooking disaster that results in being too thrifty. Some bananas are going rotten, so cleverly, you mash them, combine them with flour and vanilla and egg to make banana cookies; when the banana cookies are awful, so you whip some cream and turn it into trifle. (I know lots of people who do this, and some of them are not even in their twenties.) Impatience is always the thing that fells me; not soaking your baccalao enough days and changing the water regularly; not thoroughly washing and drying your greens; removing a fried chicken from the oil because the outside is crisp and you are sick of standing over a pan of splattering oil – these things, I know, from experience, will bite you in the ass. Then there’s grit. A clam or a stalk of parsley with sand can ruin the most beautifully composed dish. People will praise it, but everyone knows that it tastes like a flip flop after a day at the beach.

what happens when you treat a silk squash like a bitter melon. pretty right?

There are the cooking disasters that, to quote dessert doyenne Maida Heatter quoting the writer Issac Singer, are the result of “demons.” You know what I’m talking about – when, in the kitchen, the forces are simply aligned against you. Your oil will not come up to temperature, your oven will not get hot, your knife slips, or the shaking-lid on your cayenne falls off, meaning that you have just dumped ¼ cup of heat into your main course. Sometimes, cooking curses are personal. For example, recipes hate me. If I follow something step by step, everyone that evening is ordering for Dominos. Then there’s Chinese food; people expect me to be able to make it because I am Chinese in origin, but Chinese night, in my experience, is another Dominos day. If I am cooking to impress someone, the evening is bound to tank. Also, I will never be able to bake my mother (who, apart from her risotto, is an excellent dessert chef) a birthday cake. On this hallowed occasion, I have burnt and sunk and at one point, when the cake layers were rising and golden in the oven, I realized I had forgotten to add sugar. The last cake I made my mother tasted vaguely of lemon, and looked like Java the Hut; I had to prop it up with toothpicks just to get it to stay on the plate while we sang the song.

Every successful dish I’ve made has left a trail of corpses in its wake. That crisp pork skin on a pork belly? Seven times out of ten, it’s been shoe leather. Crab and lobster I find prone to over or undercooking, and that shit is neither cheap nor low maintenance. Then the more expensive ingredients that you end up defaming because you are in a romantic Babette’s feast type of mood. I’ve melted a torchon of foie just by looking the other way. One friend tried to replicate the quail with rose petals from Like Water for Chocolate, just to get the mood steamy. Don’t, she told me, I don’t think that Laura Esquivel had a test kitchen.

My granddad was my familiy’s first kitchen iconoclast. An architect by trade, he was a marvelous chef, but things had to be done with his own flair and his own technique. He was also a perfectionist, which meant many of his kitchen meddlings went into the bin. By the age of eleven, my older cousin Jay was microwaving Betty Crocker brownies, pureeing potatoes and olive oil in the blender, and making a risotto in a steamer with beans and his mother’s secret truffle stash. (Only the brownies were successful.) As my granddad and Jay have shown me, one cannot be both experimental and a perfectionist without generating a lot of waste. I am lucky. I don’t have a family or a clientele to feed every night, and most of my expenses – instead of gas or heating or books or clothing — go towards the meals that I make, that often disappoint me, and that rarely see the light of day. These days, it’s more morally difficult to swallow with meat; over the years, I’ve become more soft-hearted. I’m conscious that for every piece of flesh I ruin, it’s a being that gave up its life just to go into the trash. I still do it though. Last year, I massacred 10 pounds of beef in a week, to come up with the perfect roast.

I get why people don’t want to share their failures. Cooking is like every performance, it is an illusion. A piano teacher of mine was giving a dinner party. Because she didn’t cook, she taught herself veal marsala, and then cooked it every day for two weeks so she could make it perfectly, on the day of the dinner party, with a flourish. Perhaps it’s the years of piano I had, but I realize that life is about constant practice behind closed doors; how after weeks of struggle one then produces (hopefully) something that resembles spontaneous perfection. These days, I am okay with dinner parties because I know to steer away from the things that I regularly fuck up. There will be no poached eggs, fried chicken, or Chinese food at my dinner parties. Nor will there be birthday cake. Still, like anyone who cooks regularly, I am still dreading that telephone call: “We’re afraid there was nothing we could do to save her. No, she was perfectly healthy. The last time we talked, she said she was going jogging and then going to have dinner at your house.”

I understand why a kitchen failure is a touchy subject, and how for many people, kitchen disasters, like most muck-ups, are a private thing. But maybe I am an Asian-American, Gen-X puritan. I believe the only way one learns is through failure. Cooking well is frequently not about immediate success, so much about it is the set-backs, and one learns from one’s mistakes and those of others. So why not share? In the end, it is only cooking, after all. This is from me, the queen of the teary kitchen meltdown. (“Someone get her a cigarette and a drink,” is what people normally say to me at least once during a dinner party.) Yes, from time to time, a kitchen meltdown is fueled by a more private despair, like when I over-salted the crab cakes at my father’s funeral. Still, a kitchen disaster isn’t a marriage or a substance abuse problem or a childhood gone astray; and in all the ways in which life derails us, surely, the times in the kitchen are the ones that we can afford to chuckle over and share.

I’m just going to revisit the last time I set a kitchen on fire. It was Thanksgiving Day, and a Morton Thompson turkey – a turkey from the 1930s that is legendary for the number of ingredients involved. It weighed about thirty pounds, and while trussing it, I gashed myself deeply on the arm with a skewer. Also, my boyfriend was breaking up with me while I was doing it. In any case, because we had no proper roasting pans, we used one made of foil, which cracked under the weight of the turkey, and then the ten pounds of butter that I had put into the turkey began to melt and drip into the flames below. Lessons learned so far: Do not use an aluminum foil pan for a Morton Thompson turkey. Also, do not, as Morton Thompson himself suggests, start pouring yourself your first cocktail the moment you begin.

My niece was cracking her first smile. My brother, who is preternaturally calm, looked a little tense. We watched the flames for a while, and then Yar said to me, “What should we do? Should we throw water on it?”

It is generally accepted that my brother is the genius of the family. I am at peace with this fact, as is everyone else. However, water, as most people know, can splatter the droplets of oil and cause a fire to spread, turning a cozy oven blaze into a kitchen inferno.

I turned the oven off and said, “Yar, sometimes, it’s good to know that every now and then, you are a moron.”

When the fire finally subsided, we surveyed the remains. My sister-in-law, also a genius, said, “I think we should chop it up.”

I stuck firm. Maybe it was the fire, maybe it was the slash on my arm, maybe it was the breakup or the stupid futile thing that was the Morton Thompson Turkey itself, but I said, “Let’s get another pan and keep cooking it.”

In the end? It was delicious. Okay, the outside tasted like ashes but the inside was quite tasty, and for some reason, my brother and sister-in-law have insisted on only making Morton Thompson turkey since.

I’ll post the recipes for silk squash and bitter melon soon; really, they’re very nice, and I feel like I am only five or six squashes away from perfection. In the meanwhile, have you any kitchen disasters to share? Please do. Keep in mind, I don’t want the perfect popover, I want to know about the one that sunk and why. And while I read them, I will nibble on my squash rinds.

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Marrowbones 3

When I was younger and had more energy, my cousin Jay (who also took me to eat ossobucco) and I would go to the Bromberg brothers’ Blue Ribbon at the end of a long night and eat their marrowbones. This was before marrow was really hot in New York, and so it was a revelation. Three pale, ivory bones on a plate – because Bruce and Eric Bromberg poach their bone, rather than roast it, as most people do nowadays  – served with challah toast and an oxtail marmalade. The oxtail marmalade was the kicker, slippery, unctuous, sweet, and sour.

Blue Ribbon’s marrow was three o’clock in the morning nursery food; it is bread and jam, only extremely wicked, not only bad for you, and also rife with the fact that something has had to die in order for the plate to happen. Saveur has published Eric Bromberg’s technique on how to poach the marrowbones, in Hilary Merzbacher’s article “Bare Bones.” While I love bones roasted, poached they are soft and pure, carnivore butter. http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Beef-Marrow-Bones-with-Fried-Parsley.

The recipe for the marmalade, you can find here, from seriouseats.com, from Bruce and Eric Brombergs’ The Bromberg Brothers’ Blue Ribbon Cookbook. http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2010/04/beef-marrow-bones-with-oxtail-marmalade-recipe.html. It is painstaking and you will use so much booze that – if you are on a budget — it might make you cry. I have since halved the recipe, with success. It is so, so worth it, I cannot stress this enough, especially if you cannot wander into Blue Ribbon right before dawn. My mother said that the marmalade was one of the best things that I had ever made, and I have been cooking, with some success, since I was seven years old. Still, a little goes a long way. If you eat too much, you begin to feel like Caligula. Even half the recipe leaves you with enough marmalade to freeze for your next marrow bender.

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Marrowbones 2

I enjoy eating marrowbones in restaurants.  There’s something sensual about dipping your spoon in your bone, spreading it on toast, with a bit of Chablis. Also, hopefully you are surrounded by good looking people, preferably slim, dressed in dark colors.

Honestly, I love them less when I don’t have an audience, but I believe the same rule applies to any indulgent food that requires ritual and the use of one’s fingers. You like having other people watch you eat.

Still, marrowbones are surprisingly easy to make, and sometimes a butcher will give them to you for free. (If not, they are still $2.99 a pound at Stop & Shop.) They are impressive fare at a dinner party and still satisfyingly sinful – even without an audience – when you eat them late at night tucked in your bed. (I have done this.)

MARROW BONES

Douse four to eight marrowbones (ask your butcher) liberally with olive oil (about ¼ of a cup), and caramelize in a pan over high heat until well browned – about ten minutes. Douse with sherry and wrap each bone tightly in foil, and roast at 400 degrees for approximately thirty minutes. Sprinkle with sea salt, freshly cracked black pepper, and crusty bread.

As my brother would say, the parsley is very optional, but it does help cut the richness. Toss together one bunch of parsley, coarsely chopped, the zest of one lemon, two finely minced shallots, two finely minced anchovies, and the juice of two lemons, and a ¼ cup of olive oil. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and serve.

If you have implements small enough to stick in the center of your bone, by all means use them; I do not have a “marrow spoon” but I find lobster forks handy, as I do those two tined prongs that were so popular fifteen years ago to serve corn in the cob. I have never seen the point of those prongs vis-à-vis corn, but for getting the meat out of lobster claws or the marrow out of a marrow bone, they are genius.

STUFFED MARROW

As a child I loved watching zucchini grow, because they would burgeon to such an unbelievable size well after the end of summer. They were for novelty only, because their flesh was woody and unappetizing.

The marrow squash is a feature in the Paddington Bear stories – and because of its name, I had pictured it soft, buttery, and the opposite of green. Imagine my disappointment when I realized it was just an overgrown zucchini.

It was when my young cousin Kelley presented me two marrows the length of my arm, that I decided to try to cook them in earnest. And when stuffed with veal, lavished with wine, and hacked to fit inside my New York City oven, a marrow squash can live up to its name.   Kelley, a vegetarian, would probably be horrified.

Combine 1 pound of veal, 1 grated onion, three cloves of garlic finely chopped, ½ cup of Parmagiano Reggiano, ½ a cup of finely chopped parsley, the grated rind of one lemon, and 1 cup of slightly stale white bread that has been soaked in a cup of milk for one half an hour and wrung dry. Season well with salt and pepper.

Split lengthwise and scoop out the seeds of one marrow squash, at least 18 inches long and weighing two pounds.

Stuff the meat mixture into the two squash halves. You may have some meat stuffing leftover, in which case you can shape them into meatballs, brown them, and braise them in a bit of tomato and white wine.

Set into a well oiled baking pan. My brother Yar would probably drape two slices of bacon, lengthwise, over the top of each of the halves. Drizzle a generous ¼ cup of olive oil over the top, and also ½ a cup of white wine, and bake covered in a 400 degree oven for 40 minutes. Uncover, and test for tenderness – your fork should slide in. Continue baking until the top of the marrows begin to sizzle.

 

I will often throw a marrowbone into my stews. Apparently, the French do this all the time, with their pot-au-feu. It was what inspired Eric Bromberg to start serving marrow bones in New York in the first place. But more about this later.

BEEF SHORTRIBS WITH OPTIONAL MARROW BONE

In a large Dutch oven or heavy casserole with a tight fitting lid, brown well 6-8 pounds of beef shortribs, also known as beef shanks, until caramelized. Do not stint on cooking time – it takes usually about fifteen minutes, and you want the meat to yield when you go to turn it over. At the same time, brown four-six marrowbones. You can brown the meat and bones in two to three batches. Season both the meat and the marrowbones generously with salt and pepper.

Remove meat.

In the same pan, brown one onion finely chopped, five stalks of celery, and four carrots. Add thin slices of garlic, reduce the heat to medium high, add salt, and let the vegetables perspire (approx five minutes.)

Add the meat back into the pan, and add one handful of chopped rosemary, chopped parsley, and a couple of sprigs of thyme. Add one cup of water, and a half a bottle of red wine, taste for seasoning, and if it doesn’t taste like anything to you, add salt. Bring to a bubble, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for an hour and a half, at the very least, until the meat is falling off the bone.

I love vegetables cooked in meat juice for hours, but if you don’t, remove the meat and bones, and strain the sauce. Re-introduce the meat and the sauce, and sprinkle with fresh parsley and cracked pepper. Before you serve, of course, taste for seasoning.

Often I serve this as two different courses. The marrow bone, which I flash briefly under the broiler, goes with toast and fresh parsley for an appetizer. Meanwhile, I take the strained sauce, reduce it to about two thirds, and then add half a stick of butter until it is slick and smooth. As my father did before me, I slather the shortribs in coarse, French mustard, the kind where you can see the seeds, and then roll them around in fresh breadcrumbs, grated lemon rind, and chopped parsley, dot them with a pat of butter, and slip them underneath the broiler for about ten minutes, until the crust crackles. This I serve with the strained sauce and baby vegetables (carrots, pearl onions, baby squash, asparagus), that I have blanched individually for a minute in heavily salted boiling water (one tablespoon per two cups), and then sautéed in a combination of butter and olive oil for five minutes until tender, and then splashed white wine on top, and let reduce over high heat. Then I turn off the heat, and swirl cold butter in. (NOTE: When I was a university student, I cooked the same recipe, substituting the red wine with dark beer – I called it carbonnade, which is a Belgian beef stew.)

Sometimes I also add to the mixture three heads of star anise, crushed, – and a splash of maple syrup – it gives the dish an intriguing, Asian aroma, something that would be at home on a bowl of noodles.

Pure marrowbone soup – so beloved of starving maidens and monks in fairy tales – is more difficult to make truly tasty. The Koreans have a version in which they boil the marrowbone without any browning – the result is milky fluid that tastes unpleasantly like a skeleton. I prefer my version, which I made up when I was recovering from my wisdom tooth operation. Granted, it does rather go against the ethos of marrowbones – namely, that marrowbones are cheap.

This recipe, although simple, is both expensive and time consuming, but very relaxing when you are recovering from minor surgery, have someone else do your shopping, and have just enough energy to watch a pot and read a mystery novel.

REALLY, REALLY DECADENT MARROWBONE SOUP

Brown together in a 450 degree oven:

4 pounds of marrow bones with meat attached

1 veal shoulder and or neck (about three pounds) chopped into large pieces

4 carrots

2 onions

¼ cup of olive oil

a few sprigs of thyme

Toss until brown and caramel, and it perfumes the kitchen with the smell of roasting meat, about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, mince the bodies of 4 partially deboned quail. I have done this in my mother’s food processor, but it may have explained why the Cuisinart expired a week later. Alternatively, roughly chop the bodies of the quail with a cleaver and a steady hand – a fine mince is not necessary. (One poussin or game hen can be substituted. Remove the backbone and the neck of the larger birds and roast them in the oven with the meat. Chop up the rest of the meat and brown like the quail.) Also finely chop three onions, three carrots, and four stalks of celery, which you can do by hand, but also in the Cuisinart, if you haven’t ruined it by grinding up the quail.

In a heavy 8 quart stockpot, brown the quail meat (with bones) and the vegetables with a generous pinch of sea salt. (1 tbsp). Add the browned bones and the meat, which you have also coarsely chopped, and fill the pot with water. Ideally you do not want to bring the mixture to a boil, but you can let it go on high to medium high heat until you see the first bubble rise to the surface (this usually takes about fifteen minutes.) At which point, reduce the heat to simmer, and let simmer for about five hours, skimming the fat every half an hour.

Taste at the end of five hours, it should taste light, but with definite body. Then add the shells of four eggs, crushed, into the soup, turn off the heat, and let sit for ten minutes, before straining through a sieve. If you are feeling particularly bored (because of surgery, sickness, unemployment, etc.) you can also line the sieve with cheesecloth. The eggshells however, should cling to the undesirable bits and scum. Remove the marrowbones from the sieve and reserve. You should discard the rest of the meat – it seems like a waste, but if you have done the stock properly, the veal and quail will taste like wet cardboard because they have been totally leeched of flavor.

At this point, I add a good slug of port (at least 1/2 a cup) to the stock, which I have returned to the pot, and let bubble until reduced to at least 2/3 of its original volume. I season it generously with salt and pepper, and sip it out of a white ceramic mug while sitting tucked with a feather quilt wrapped around my knees.

My cousin Jay, usually the antithesis of a sentimental man, still revisits the time when we were at the dingy London café, eating ossobucco, risotto Milanese, and fresh grilled sardines, eaten with the fingers burning hot. Combine the following meal with cheap red wine and a scarred table covered in a plastic red and white check, and you will have brought the fumes and bustle of the Russell Square Tube stop into your home, a prospect more romantic than it sounds.

But most importantly, you must begin with sardines, for they are what elevate the experience. I have eaten ossobucco many times, but only once have I prefaced it with sardines. If you begin with something like a mozzarella and tomato salad, your meal might be tasty, but it will be commonplace. You must eat the sardines with your fingers, which they will turn hot and sticky, and wash them down with cheap red wine. Ideally there should be an underground train rumbling intermittently under your feet, and there should be Puccini on the stereo..

Living in New York City, I rarely ever use a grill. Having said that, if I lived in Brattleboro Vermont, I would probably use a grill just as often. I’m simply not as infatuated with the charcoal or hickory kick as other people. Very rarely do I see the point, especially if you are just going to be grilling a dozen tiny fish. I find that a grill or cast iron pan over a gas flame works fine, as does slipping the fish under the broiler.

 

GRILLED SARDINES

If your sardines aren’t cleaned, just scrape the scales off with the blade of a knife, moving the knife from tail to head. Then slit open the fish’s belly (I find sewing scissors very efficient, you start at the mouth and snip about half way down the fish), remove the guts, and then rinse the cavity quickly under water to get rid of anything your fingers might have missed.

Line the bottom of a dish or baking pan large enough to hold a dozen sardines with ½ cup coarse sea salt. Place the sardines on top, cover with another ½ cup of salt, and then cover and refrigerate for an hour. Curing the sardines with salt gives them a firmer texture.

In a heavy pan, heat ¼ cup of olive oil over high heat. Remove sardines from their salt blanket, and dust off the excess salt. Cook the sardines no more than two minutes a side, until the flesh begins to flake. Alternatively you can do this under the broiler for about 3-4 minutes. Serve with a sprinkling of lemon juice, fresh cracked pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, and no silverware.

OSSOBUCCO

I have made ossobucco in numerous ways – browning it with a soubise of a myriad of vegetables; braising it in a variety of liquids; eschewing the browning and poaching it; serving it with roasted vegetables; serving it with vegetables that have been blanched and cooked quickly in the sauce; straining the sauce; food milling the vegetables into the sauce. I’ve flavored it with veal stock, chicken stock, Evian water, sherry, and many different varieties of dried wild mushrooms. I’ve done it with and without flour. I’ve even thickened the sauce with toasted ground almonds, in the Spanish style.  But my greatest triumph was when I simmered the veal shanks with carrots, garlic, and what turned out to be quite an expensive Chablis.

Nevertheless, I’ve tried it with wine that was less dear, on one occasion, Yellowtail Chardonnay, and the results are just as delicious. I do not subscribe to the theory that you should only cook with wine that you would deign to drink. If you have so many four hundred dollar Barolos that you have already used Barolo to fill your swimming pool, then by all means, cook with it. I myself am in the unenviable, and perhaps not uncommon position of not being inundated by more great vintages than I can drink. Therefore, if I spend more than twenty dollars on a bottle, it goes into my glass. I do cook a lot with wine – because I enjoy the aroma and the sugars – but most of the wine in my food costs around 6.99, and sometimes, when I am very strapped, it has come from a jug that I hide from my guests.

I love this recipe. Maybe it’s because I’m so dazzled by its simplicity. Also one often doesn’t get served the vegetables that have been long simmered with meat because they are not lovely on the eye. But I happen to adore the flavor, especially in this dish, when the baby carrots are so laden with the sauce they are butter soft and on the point of dissolution. You can add the traditional mirepoix – minced carrot, celery and onion sweated with oil and a pinch of salt  – at the beginning after you have browned the meat. However, as I have said before, my favorite element of this ossobucco is its ease.

 Recipe:

Season four to six veal shanks (cut about 1 ½ inches thick, but  four pounds in total) generously on both sides with salt and fresh pepper. Dust the veal shanks with flour.

In a Dutch oven, or a heavy bottomed casserole with a tight fitting lid, heat ¼ cup of olive oil over medium high heat until rippling. Then brown the veal shanks well over medium high heat – a process that takes longer than you think – approximately five minutes on each side. You want your meat well browned on both sides, gold in some patches, practically burnt in others, with a hefty crust. Add four cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with the flat of a knife, and then add one full bottle of white wine. It doesn’t have to be too dry, but try to refrain from using something as sweet as a Gerwurtzheimmer. A Yellowtail Chardonnay will do. Bring the wine to gentle boil, season well with salt and pepper, add three sprigs of rosemary, chopped. There should be enough wine to cover the veal shanks with at least an inch of liquid on top. If there isn’t, add more wine. By the end of the recipe, you should have used at least a bottle and a half of wine. If you don’t feel like you have enough wine to spare, you can always substitute a bit of the wine with veal stock, chicken stock, or water.

Season with another generous pinch of salt and pepper, and cover and simmer for half an hour over low heat. Add one pound of peeled baby carrots and two strips of lemon peel, recover and continue to simmer for at least one and a half hours, checking occasionally to see whether there is enough liquid. When the veal is done, the meat should be falling off the bone, and a fork should slide into it without compunction. Season to taste with freshly ground pepper and salt, if necessary.

Serve with a garnish of fresh chopped parsley tossed with several tablespoons of lemon juice, coarse salt, the zest of two lemons and enough olive oil to coat. This is gremolata, the age-old osso bucco garnish and it bears quite a lot of resemblance to the parsley salad one so often eats with marrowbone.

I also like to add the fillets of two anchovies, coarsely chopped, but that is because I love anchovies in everything. You can top the ossobucco with the gremolata before you serve it, but I prefer to pass it around at the table and let people help themselves. This is a dish with a lot of sauce, which is fine with me. At heart, I am a crass, rustic eater, and I like my dishes drowned, with plenty left over for bread for mopping. One too many plates with dime sized, artfully positioned spoonfuls of reduction is enough to drive me into the kitchen and demand a staff meal.

Whatever you do, don’t forget about your marrow. Dip it out with a shrimp fork or corncob skewer or what have you. I try to save it for last, but frequently find that I lack the patience.

RISOTTO MILANESE

This is the traditional accompaniment to ossobucco and it is one of which I heartily approve. A marrowbone unadorned is one of the purest forms of pleasure. But if you must have meat with your marrow, then I believe you should also eat the meat with forkfuls of this rice that is colored bright gold like money.

Trying to master risotto was one of the plagues of my teenage and college years. My mother was a genius at it, but it was something that I could not do – it would be gluey one day, over-salted and undercooked the next. In cookbooks and on television, people purred about the dish’s simplicity – “One of the simplest, and fastest things you can do,” and I felt as though they mocked me.

I gave up after I made risotto for a date, the disaster of which I attributed to the dish. Years later, I was stranded alone in my parents’ Connecticut home, without a driver’s license or any provisions, save for a frozen solid duck and a quantity of Arborio rice. So, gamely, I tried again. It was not marvelous risotto, but it was perfectly fine. It was like the time when I finally dusted off the Chopin Ballade in G minor. For a full year, I had struggled with and was finally vanquished by its treacherous coda, this tricksy thing that looks easy on paper, and which a pianist like Maurizio Pollini made sound like child’s play. Then sitting down after six months of no practice at all, I found the coda had settled into my fingertips. To be honest, my coda still sucks, but at least I can get through it, and people can figure out that it’s Chopin as opposed to Schoenberg. Right now, my risotto is slightly better — but that is with many more years of practice.

Risotto is not simple. While risotto is far from impossible, it, like the Ballade coda, is not as effortless as Pollini (Chopin) or Marcella Hazan (risotto) might make you believe. There is a certain amount of magic involved in its mastery, and sometimes a spate of non-practice can take you far. There is little or no relation between risotto and culinary talent. You will get the hang of risotto when the risotto itself believes that you are ready. In my mother’s case, it took one try. In mine, it took ten years.

In risotto, there are no shortcuts. Even risotto from a box requires that you do the difficult part – twenty-five minutes of stirring and the patient adding of liquid. Adding the stock in two additions for a risotto that serves two works fine – you add half the hot stock and let it merrily simmer without touching it, and then you add the rest in ladlefuls. Having said that, it does not really make things that much easier; being forbidden to stir the rice in the first half makes you, if anything, more neurotic as you hang about the stove, helpless, waiting for something to go wrong. Also the idea of cooking exactly enough for two people with nothing leftover is a territory best reserved for 19th century German scientists and martini-swilling WASPs.

Use unsalted, or lightly salted stock, whenever possible. The stock concentrates and if you do not watch what you are doing, the result can taste like licking the inside of an iodine mine.

Ideally you should use homemade stock, but just as I am at home with using $7.99 wine, I believe in the stock that comes in a box. I recently saw one of the chefs that I had admired most since adolescence – make a black truffle risotto with quantities of Imagine brand chicken broth.

You should watch your heat. Even now, I am confounded by the idea of making risotto on an electric cook-top. I need to be able to regulate my flame constantly, turn it down and turn it up and have the heat respond as soon as I twist the dial. The heat that I have found best is a solid medium – with brief forays into medium high and medium low. I was so shaken by my first risotto, which I cooked on high heat and that ended up crunchy on the inside, and salty on the out; that I went in the opposite direction – to a flame so reduced that it was a dot – and perversely I stayed there, even though what I got was glue. You want to keep your risotto liquid quietly burbling, occasional bubbles on the surface. If it is frisky, turn the heat down, but if the liquid just lies there, do not be afraid to urge the flame a little higher.

Stir perpetually but with languid strokes, and do not afraid to leave it alone if the telephone rings.

Perhaps even more essential than heat is the fact that risotto, like piano practice, is best done in solitude. This, I realize, is near impossible, but whenever you make it for others, try to surround yourself with an easygoing crowd, of people that can entertain themselves, and do nothing more than refill your wine glass. Risotto takes concentration and calm. I will make risotto for my stepfather Jonathan (who chops the parsley and refills my wine), my brother Yar, (who grates the cheese), my best friend Yeewan, (who like my stepfather, chops parsley, refills wine, and does the dishes), my mother (who makes a concerted effort to stay in her seat), and a select handful of others. I will never cook risotto for my lovable, noisy extended family, whose kitchen manners include hovering, joking asides, frequent questions, and pouring two cups of stock into a pan without permission. Similarly, while my immediate family slips silently around the house during piano practice, my extended family throws a ruckus. “I don’t want to hear that!” someone exclaims, “Can’t you play something else? God we must have heard this goddam measure forty-five times. I want Cole Porter!” Another person flips the page, while my cousin Jay seats himself uninvited on the bench, idly improvising an independent tune. Like a taxing coda, risotto needs focus, and sadly, is not raucous party fare.

RISOTTO

In a pot, bring four cups of veal or chicken stock to a boil and then lower heat and keep at a simmer. Dissolve a generous pinch of saffron threads (half an ounce) in 2 tbsp of hot water and set aside.

Sweat one onion, finely minced with a pinch of salt, in 2 tbsp of butter and 2 tbsp of olive oil, in a shallow 12- inch saucepan over medium high heat. Add one cup of rice and sauté until the rice is translucent, about two to three minutes. Add ½ cup of white wine, and stir until the wine has absorbed into the rice. Add a ladleful of the stock and stir until the stock is absorbed. You will probably want to lower the heat to medium at this point – remember, you want it to simmer with the occasional bubble, but never to boil.

The stock should take about four to five minutes to absorb. Continue to add the stock. As the rice continues to cook, the stock will absorb more slowly, until you are finally adding the stock in 1/3 to ¼ cup measures. After approximately fifteen minutes, when the rice is cooked on the outside but still crunchy in the middle – that point where it has not yet become al dente, add the saffron that you have dissolved in the hot water. Continue to add stock until the rice is ready – cooked on the outside, but still firm in the center. Many recipes place this at around 18 to 20 minutes, I find that it can take as long as 25 minutes.

Taste for seasoning – if you are using unsalted stock, you’ll need salt. Then remove the rice and stir in one last ½ cup ladleful of hot stock plus four tablespoons of butter. Stir in 1/3 cup of freshly grated Parmagiano Reggiano, douse with freshly cracked pepper, and serve.

Montepulciano D’Abruzzo sardines, Osso Bucco, Risotto Milanese, no dessert, but a double espresso and a Sambuca: In my mind it is one of the perfect meals. My cousin Jay, who enjoyed it with me in London – would probably be torn between nostalgia and his ceaseless desire for variety. “It’s not as good as I remembered,” he’d say. “Are you sure it doesn’t need another fourteen dishes?” If I make it right then my best friend Yeewan will eat silently, asking to be left out of any conversation until she is finished; my stepfather will consume what is on his plate, and then dollop one more spoonful of risotto and sauce, getting up for each additional dollop, for he is not a greedy man. Many of the men in my life would praise the meal to the skies but not care all that much in the end; should I feel romantically inclined, I would say that they cared more about me than the food that I produced. The father of my childhood would scrutinize the supermarket receipts, the father that I remember as an adult would be both appreciative and bemused, even though veal and sardines are not his favorite foods. My mother would love the sardines, but worry that we should have a vegetable, to which my brother Yar, who would have already chastised me on my stingy use of Parmagiano in the risotto, would reply, “Why ruin it with vegetables?” And even though I am not adverse to a salad, I would echo, why indeed? All meals are delicate, but the ones that are most easily spoiled are the meals that exist in the mind. If you try to recreate them, then something as simple as an unneeded lettuce leaf, too much salt, grit in the parsley, or one too many glasses of wine, can sour it beyond saving.

Posted in Essays | Leave a comment

Marrowbones 1

Call me lazy, but I could not resist posting this old essay. This actually engendered my article in Saveur magazine, “Bone Gatherer,” which you can read here: http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Bone-Gatherer.

It is, perhaps, a little angrier, and I wrote it before I went to Suriname, and before I broke my hip. Saveur wisely decided that a broken femur and the jungle are far less scary than an actual break up.

Here’s the essay. There are plenty of bone recipes to follow.

Boy is beheaded, butchered, and made into soup, which is devoured to the last bone. The bone is buried in the garden and eventually exacts its revenge.

 

This is my favorite bone-and-boy tale. You probably know this story; the Brothers Grimm version is enamored by sinister German language teachers everywhere. The little boy comes home from school, fetches an apple from the apple trunk, and is decapitated when his stepmother sends the lid of the trunk flying down upon his neck. In a sadistic twist, the stepmother balances the dead boy’s head on top of his neck, secures it with a scarf, props the body up by the door for her own daughter to find. “What do you mean, he didn’t bother to say hello,” the stepmother tells the girl, “Box his ears.” The little girl slaps the boy and his head tumbles off, and she cries for the rest of the day.

“Oh mommy, I’ve boxed my brother’s head off.”

“Oh you stupid girl,” the cruel woman says.

The stepmother butchers the boy and turns him into stew, which is seasoned by the tears his sister sheds into the pot, where also, presumably, the richness of the meat is balanced by adding a few of the apples from the trunk, cut up and peeled. The father devours the brother, and the sister buries the bones in the garden. And in the Haitian version of the story, the stepmother herself is cooked, where, because she is so fat, she renders down nicely into dripping, which then, applied to the boy’s bone, makes him whole again. Delicious.

Bones are magical. In fairy tales, they can sing, turn into birds, avenge themselves on evil stepmothers, and be your brother or your lover in disguise. Maidens feed villages with a bone, a stone, and water, and giants can grind bones to make bread. The search for a bone (together with a leopard and a terrier) brings Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant together in the comedy Bringing Up Baby. In real life, bones can turn water into soup, and then turn that soup into aspic if you let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. In my opinion, the meat cooked closest to the bone is the most intense. I love the smell of a ham hock turning into caramel in the oven, and the aroma of a chicken carcass simmering in a pot overnight. In short, bones are clever and dynamic; and frankly, I’d rather kiss a bone than a frog. Besides, bones are sexy – they make whatever it is in between look so much more appetizing. The last time I looked in the mirror, I mourned the fact that I had no shoulder blades to bite.

 

I am not a frugal person – ringing up two hundred dollars at your local New York market for a handful of haricot verts is my style. Still, there’s a delight you get from getting bones from a butcher, when he wraps them for you in twine, and hands them over to you for free. It puts you in the secret society of the bone elite. It demonstrates that you have a healthy respect for an entire animal; furthermore, it proves that you have the culinary gumption to be able to coax flavor out of nothing. Just witness the twinkle from your butcher when you ask him, (for inevitably, butchers, like sommeliers, are still overwhelmingly male) “Oh, can I just have that neck that you’re not going to use, that tail, that hoof, that still very succulent shin from the same animal whose meat you just sold to the lovely lady in the chinchilla for twenty-three dollars a pound?”

Let the poor plebs have their filet mignon; I’ll take the knuckle. Most butchers hate to see a good thing go to waste.

Believe me, once you’ve established yourself as a bone lover, you will also find yourself getting the best cuts of meat. Butchers will save for you the best chop, will tell you on the sly what has been sitting out for the most of the week. They’ll use the meat slicer for your carpaccio and grind everything for you fresh, and, if you waltz in there determined to spend your month’s earnings on a crown roast for twenty, they’ll bully you into getting the 4.99 a pound shoulder because it is the best thing that they have. Butchers, like most self-respecting individuals, have a healthy disdain for people who don’t like bones.

Bone-haters: you know the type I am talking about. They will happily guzzle their chicken tender cutlets and water-packed processed ham, but a roast chicken will send them into paroxysms, a rack of lamb will induce shock, and a suckling pig will put them in danger of a coma. These individuals are the ones I like calling the boneless, skinless types. Even when I was a vegetarian, they would make me furious. Often, I forget their no-bone preferences; eschewing pork tenderloin for a duck roasted with the head still attached. I while away the rest of the dinner party sucking on the beak with a dreamy look. Then I’ll follow up by putting on a puppet show with lobsters who believe that they are in a sauna for a spa weekend.

The boneless, skinless contingent can’t bear bones because they don’t want to be reminded that something had to die before making it onto the plate. In my mind, this shows the grossest disrespect for the animal that was executed to feed them in the first place. These people who like their all of their food to be the same texture, peas indistinguishable from the meat, which is indistinguishable from the mashed potatoes; they inhabit a world that is beige, blonde and bland; a world that I would like to call Betty Crocker in a box, who believe in happy endings without the mayhem and horror that so often leads up to it. They believe that Bambi’s mother was saved by the ASPCA, and now lives in a condominium in Menlo Park. One such person – a dear friend – allowed her boyfriends to take her to movies and buy her chocolates, as long as they didn’t try to take off her flannel pajamas at the end of the night. It goes without saying that boneless men are almost as desirable as vegetarians, as substantial as paper, who faint at the sight of blood. Since girlhood I have always preferred men with more spine; Edward Rochester was my girlhood ideal, full of conflict and thunderstorms. Then there was Orson Welles who played him in the movie of Jane Eyre – well fed, an eloquent voice full of cholesterol, and like the best pieces of meat, not immediately the most pleasing on the eye.

I first fell in love with a bone in a picture – a photograph in the 1970s edition of Julia Child and Company of a pan of veal bones for onion soup that glistened in their carrot bed. My second love was for the pig knuckles that my grandfather would stew. These I would pick through, carefully discarding the meat for the skin and bone. My third love was for a marrow bone. It was one of those cafés next to London’s Russell Square Tube station, where the waiters had grubby shirt fronts, spoke with dubious “Italian accents.” That evening I ate fresh sardines with my hands, grilled until crisp and sprinkled with lemon. Then came my bone, perched on a hill of sunshine colored rice, which was surrounded by an unimportant moat of veal and sauce. I had had ossobuco a number of times, but never my own bone, which was capped with its own silver spoon.

 

The man with whom I fell in love loved bones and skin and everything in-between. He was, in short, a bone-in man, as teeming with blood cells as Edward Rochester. He was big, broad across the chest and the shoulders, with a voice like a thunderstorm and dark, curling, overlong hair like a pirate’s, and I fell in love with him one autumn night after everyone else in the house had gone to bed, when he helped me strip the two chickens that I had roasted earlier. We nibbled at the crisp wing tips, and let them simmer with the remnants of Chablis and champagne while we sipped scotch and watched Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man. With a rolling pin, he did what I had never done – he crushed the chicken bones until they were paste and wrung out the juices through a sieve. The memory of him is forever entangled by that apricot aroma, which seduced us and made us hungry again by the time the stock had reduced. We brought it up in bowls without spoons, dipping and stirring stale bread until it was dripping; then we fed each other until dawn, as we slowly undressed and became acquainted with each other, ribcages and all. When I think of him, I swallow, and the flavor of long simmered stock rises to my mouth, savory as money and almost as enticing. He was my chicken soup man, but of a chicken soup that was made from pulverizing flesh and bone – far removed from anything that your grandmother might serve you.

Several years passed, and I decided to take him to one of my favorite restaurants. I loved the place with my heart, and wanted to have dinner with the man that I loved just as much, if not more, because he had crushed my chicken bones and turned them into stock. You probably know the place – it is a restaurant in the East Village, which for me is the quintessence of New York winter nights – a space the size of a typical Manhattan apartment, where everyone huddles around an open kitchen and drinks red wine while their elbows battle for room. The menu is comfort food to everyone who loves to eat – Triscuits and sardines, radishes with butter, sausages. But I go there for the marrow, slightly blackened from the oven, and served with toast and parsley salad.

The marrow is why you come to this place; to be relished with a glass of Syrah and a good friend, or sometimes alone with a book. They are sprinkled with coarse salt and roasted. Rap the bone sharply with the side of your knife and the marrow slips out, then spread it on burnt toast and crunch. Garnishing it is parsley, tossed with lemon juice, and astringent shavings of raw onion. Plenty of women have craved this prickly herb and got in trouble: Rapunzel’s mother ate a garden full of it and had to give up her daughter to a witch. Green leaves paired with charcoaled bone and cooked blood – it is a bit of fresh earth in Manhattan.

Despite the winter weather and my usual penniless state, I was feeling rich and dazzling – dressed in skimpy gold Prada shorts with a wallet was crammed with twenties. I was with a good girlfriend whom I was going to buy dinner because she had bought me the shorts. We were both waiting for my man.

Unfortunately, he had been drinking all afternoon and his hand shook and his forehead was gray and dotted with perspiration. The first thing he said when he opened the menu is “Ha, well, this is a bit dear.” Since he regularly paid twenty dollars for a martini, I ignored him.

He glared around at his surroundings, and  at his lamb shank, when it came.

“This lamb shank,” he announced, “is absolute shit.”

He was a bone-in man from the Upper East Side, and he wore a cravat around his neck. He liked the smell of dollar bills and whiskey, his men in neckties and his women in dresses and thigh-high stockings. (I was not allowed to wear tights in the winter.) He expected people to fawn on him; he had an expatriate English man’s assumption that his accent made him a celebrity. My restaurant was a downtown joint where smocks and jeans were favored, and where women who didn’t look excessively interested in the male sex. In after thought it was cruel for me to bring him here. I was taking him away to a place so far from his natural home – it was like taking a toddler to Mars. Correction: it was like taking a 42 year old Englishman who lived on Madison Avenue to a Mars that was populated by anti-establishment lesbians who really could not give a hoot about how many double-barreled names he knew and whether or not he had ever met the Queen.

“It’s absolute shit,” he repeated.

His comments were favored by cool glances.

“Well don’t eat the shank then,” I responded, and applied myself to my marrow.

Unfortunately, my marrow, though thick and juicy looking, was empty. I tried to tease every last molecule on my plate, thinking to myself that one bone does not a meal make.

Suddenly, my man sprung up. “Goddam it,” he shouted, and summoned the hostess. “We have been trying to be polite, and this woman behind us has been edging her chair into this young lady’s back.” He gestured to our friend. “And now,” he yelled, “we have no room.”

The hostess apologized. I focused on my parsley. Despite his complaints, my lover shoveled the last of his lamb shank down his throat. “This,” he observed, “was not worth twenty-three dollars.” The waitress meanwhile observed me contemplating sorrowfully the little bit of marrow on the plate.

“That’s the problem,” she assured me, “You never know with bones. Some bones are generous, others not so much – they all look good, but you never know what you’re going to get until it comes out of the oven.” She pauses. “I’ll get you another.”

My man was stood up again to cross the room and confront a woman at the bar. The hostess pleaded with him to sit down. My girlfriend ushered him by the arm outside for a cigarette. When the door shut behind him, the room stirred and became warm again.

The woman at the bar gave me a hug. The man next to me said loudly to his companion, “Darling, this is the best merguez I have ever tasted. Isn’t it just simply the best?” He tapped me on the shoulder, and pushed the plate in front of my nose. “Honey, you have to try this. It is out of this world.” I shook my head. “Eat,” he said, flourishing his fork.

Then my waitress came out with another marrow. It was the largest bone I had ever seen, as festive as a cake, with the spoon springing upright in the center like a candle.

“Oh you didn’t have to,” I told her.

“Oh yes I did,” she replied.

I banged my knife sharply against the bone’s edge and the marrow spilled out, gold and quivering, so much more than I could handle. The aroma was overwhelming. I mopped a piece of toast around the edges of my plate and bit, relishing the richness and the char as it scraped against my gums. I ate and ate and the marrow did not diminish. Outside, I saw my lover standing on the street wreathed in plumes of smoke. I turned to my two new friends, and shared my bones and bread with them.

 

I still love bones. Every January, I duplicate Child’s soup and end up sucking on the bones as soon as they emerge from the oven; wasting, in the process, the seven pounds of onions that I have thinly sliced, and ending up with a soup that tastes of water and cheese. I make osso buco at least three times a month but only have an appetite for the soft center. When I had my wisdom teeth pulled, I used it as an excuse to wander my parents’ Connecticut kitchen in socks and sweatpants, sublimely dopey with painkillers; and also to duplicate Brillat Savarin’s broth for invalids with a veal knuckle, spring water, and the pulverized carcasses of elderly pigeons. Lacking pigeons, I substituted several quails, and fortified the entire thing with port, which resulted in a hundred dollar broth which I sipped at leisure. Bones are strange things – even though the bones themselves are free, the effort you must put into them makes them very, very dear. Just the bone is not enough. It needs onions, spring water, the meat of wild birds, and port to be nourishing.

Marrow is our center – it is blood and core. Sometimes the brain is too cerebral and the heart is too sentimental, whereas bones are our structure, our fabric, the most concrete element of our identity, the thing itself. Moreover they protect our more sensitive organs – heart, liver, lungs, stomach, and brain. And apparently marrow is high in monounsaturated fats – which is crucial to preventing cardiovascular disease, so while decadent on the tongue and the waist, eating marrow prevents our hearts from stopping.

But too much marrow, as we know, can make you sick, and insane – especially if you eat it from a diseased steer. Spend a couple of years with a bone-in man, and slightly more spineless men begin to have their charm – like Bertie Wooster, for example, who spends his time running away from firm ladies. While a bone-in man would be the first to save you from a fire, he’d be just as likely to yank you out by the hair of an innocuous negotiation with your accountant. Or, in some cases, from a meal of marrow and toast points in a neighborhood restaurant. Like bones themselves, some bone-in men may look substantial, but after a while in the oven, yield a stingy center. Sometimes, a good bone is just preferable to the man himself.

My man refused to pay for his meal, and I was embarrassed, because I did not have enough cash to pay for my girlfriend’s dinner, as I had so extravagantly promised. Later that night, after she and I had paid the bill, my lover pocketed the tip.

Women betray men for kingdoms and family and God; me, I betrayed him for a bone. I am not a fairy tale woman; I do not believe in weeping seven bottles of tears and staying silent for seven years and wearing out seven pairs of iron shoes. So once upon a time, I had a man. I swapped him for a bone, and came to a happy end.

Once upon a time a girl and a boy fell in love. One day a witch turned the boy into a marrow-bone. She brought the bone to the table and said, “Here is your beloved, you must perform these tasks if you want him back.” The girl wept and seasoned the bone with her tears. But the tasks were so difficult, and the aroma of marrow was so appetizing, and so finally, the girl took her spoon and scraped off a little from the center, thinking that her beloved would forgive her. Time passed, the greedy girl helped herself to more, saying to herself that it would give her energy for the things that lay ahead. Before she knew it, she had finished the bone and sat licking her spoon. She had no beloved but no more tasks either.

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Charlotte’s Web and pork chops

 

“Breakfast at six-thirty. Skim milk, crusts, middlings, bits of doughnuts, wheat cakes with drops of maple syrup sticking to them, potato skins, leftover custard pudding with raisins, and bits of shredded wheat…

“Twelve o’clock – lunchtime. Middlings, warm water, apple parings, meat gravy, carrot scrapings, meat scraps, stale hominy, and the wrapper off a package of cheese…

“At four would come supper. Skim milk, provender, leftover sandwich from Lurvy’s lunchbox, prune skins, a morsel of this, a bit of that, fried potatoes, marmalade drippings, a little more of this, a little more of that, a piece of baked apple, a scrap of upsidedown cake.”

 

– E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

 

In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur the pig eludes death, not once, but twice – first, when a little girl named Fern prevents her father from killing him because he is the runt of the litter; then again when, like most spring pigs, he is slated to be killed in time to be the Christmas crown roast. There is always an inevitable thrill when you realize that your protagonist is put in real danger, which is only heightened if you think he might be eaten besides.

Pigs are wonderful;they furnish us with pork chops, crispy belly, and sausage. They are also noble creatures who are more intelligent, affectionate, and responsive than most dogs and three year old children. Most pigs, however, are rarely brought into the household. Wilbur’s misfortune is that he is pampered by the Averys from the start – nursed from a bottle, pushed in a doll carriage, and given a name. So what he hears about his fate taps into a fear that we have all had. Simply put, Wilbur has found out his own loving family have been conspiring to eat him, and his reaction is not unlike what it would be if you and I had found out the same thing.

E.B. White wrote Charlotte’s Web when he had a farm and had himself slaughtered quite a few animals; and Charlotte’s Web is the rarest of novels – an animal story written by a carnivore. From the very beginning, when he is brought into a kitchen that smells invitingly of coffee and bacon and wood smoke, Wilbur is both a hero and a BLT. And Wilbur is no vegetarian – he munches happily on the chicken noodle soup and meat scraps and meat gravy that furnishes his trough. Morbid child that I was, I scoured Wilbur’s slop trough for some evidence that he was a cannibal – but in this White anticipated me. There is no evidence in Charlotte’s Web of Wilbur ever chowing down on a ham sandwich.

Charlotte adores Wilbur but is unafraid to describe him as “crisp crunchy bacon, and tasty ham.” Charlotte successfully saves her friend Wilbur because she is a hunter who must kill in order to eat. Wilbur’s life could not have been rescued by a vegan. Wheat germ and lettuce doesn’t give you the guts, wit, and nerve that a life-long diet of blood provides.

White also resonates because his characters are so familiar, especially to a baby boomer child like me who grew up in Morningside Heights and Connecticut. Consider other books in which the hero is also a protein source – Beatrix Potter’s bunnies, for example, who bake pies, wear aprons, and clad their children in hand-sewn gingham pinafores. White’s characters are the kind you see giving seminars and driving Saabs to the supermarket – insecure intellectuals who concern themselves with love, money, marriage troubles, and a fear of death. Among them are the idealists (Wilbur), the stuffed shirts (the gander), the fools (the gander and Wilbur), the snobs (the lambs), and realist-cynics who are usually content to comment on the cruelty of the world but are rarely stirred to do anything about it (the old sheep and Templeton the rat.) In fact, in many ways the goings-on at Zuckerman’s farm remind me of staff meetings at a magazine. (White, of course, when he wasn’t fattening and slaughtering Wilburs in Maine, was a fixture at The New Yorker.) There are the self-important characters that pitch because they like to hear the sound of their own voice. The old sheep is a fine managing editor – seasoned, practical, middle aged, and a bit of a bully. “If Wilbur is killed,” she says, in an effort to enlist the rat’s Templeton’s help, “and his trough stands empty day after day, you’ll grow so thin we can look right through your stomach and see objects on the other side.” Templeton is the stringer – unapologetically greedy, yet resourceful and central to the operation. It is his duty to unearth ideas – albeit from the garbage; and he bites Wilbur on the tail when Wilbur faints away in front of a crowd. Without Templeton and his conniving – there is no story, and there is no success. Templeton is the quintessence of a reporter – clever, mobile, self-serving, and like much of the media, he is a rat. Yet he never gets credit. “I notice,” he says, “that’s it’s always me you come to when you’re in trouble. But I’ve never heard of anyone’s heart breaking on my account.” Poor Templeton. But the arrangements work out satisfactorily in the end, when Wilbur rewards him by letting him eat out of his trough first. In short, he gets no byline but a fat payoff.

While Wilbur may be a soulful little pork chop, if truth be told, he is a little annoying. He talks too much, shows off, throws tantrums and faints – in short, he behaves like an ordinary little boy whose brush with celebrity has invested him with a touch of Maria Callas. He is horrifically self-centered – although concerned about his own welfare, he seems pretty well inclined to shrug off the fate of his brothers and sisters. A schoolyard existentialist, he sighs, “I’m two months old and I’m already tired of living.” Wilbur is a child; and White – like many intelligent children’s book writers – doesn’t really like children. He prefers old souls. The qualities that White prizes above everything else are compassion, intelligence, responsibility, and literacy. And while Wilbur the pig can string together a sentence, do a back-flip, and question the logic of a lamb, the real brains behind this operation are a spider and a rat. In White’s stories, find the writer, and you’ll have your hero. Charlotte the spider comes into the world well after Wilbur the pig was born, but when they meet – Wilbur several months old to Charlotte’s few days, Wilbur is still a confused child, and Charlotte is already an adult.

 

******

 

It may be distasteful of me to devote so much time to pork after Charlotte’s Web, but I do have a fondness for all things pork, and as soon as I finished re-reading the book, I made a large pot of spaghetti alla carbonara, and then read Charlotte again sitting in bed while slurping on the eggy, smoky strands. I maintain that it is not impossible to love both Wilbur and bacon. I believe that both Fern Avery and Mr. White would agree.

 

 

 

 

HAM

“…crunchy bacon and tasty ham”

Charlotte’s Web

 

My mother and her siblings grew up in Richmond Virginia, and at Christmas, their neighbor Mrs. Jenkins would present them with a large ham that her cousins in the mountains had cured and smoked from the spring pigs they had raised and killed themselves in winter. A Christmas ham was therefore not simply something that was purchased from the supermarket, but a product of a long-respected, annual ritual. As a result, the Christmases of my childhood also revolved around ham, which, although not from any pig slaughtered by a family member, still triggered an enzyme in my mother’s generation, causing them to drawl. For about ten years on the 25th of December, we were force-fed Smithfield ham that was mail-ordered at great expense.

“Dee-licious,” my mother and aunts would say.

“Yes,” we would echo dutifully, our teeth hacking away at the tough fibers. “It’s delicious.” Pause, as we would choke back a cough. “Maybe it’s a little salty?”

“You hush,” my oldest aunt would say, and then my mother and her sisters would chorus, “Yes, you hush. This is proper Virginia ham.”  An expression of superiority would flit across their face. “What do you Yankee kids know? It’s just like the old days.”

 

HAM IN THE STYLE OF THE “OLD DAYS” (VERSION ONE)

 

• 1 Smithfield Farms catalogue

• 1 credit card

 

Order one ham, charge to credit card, and wait a week. When the ham comes, open box, peel back plastic wrap, butcher into shreds, and serve with a lot of water.

 

When I was about eleven years old the recipe changed. My oldest aunt Sha, who started the unfortunate Smithfield craze, can also be credited for this particular recipe, which incorporates Southern past, Yankee present, and Chinese heritage in its marinade of bourbon, apricot preserve, Vermont maple syrup, soy sauce, cloves, and ginger. There is also a nod to current supermarket convenience, namely a Reynolds oven bag. The recipe was also more economical than the Smithfield, because, in Sha’s words, you used “the absolute cheapest goddam water-packed ham you can find in the supermarket. Usually A & P gives me one for free.” Thanks to the new ham, I found myself no longer dreading the pink stuff. The skin and fat were my favorite part – drenched in the glaze and crisped in the oven – I tore it off and left the meat for everyone else. Nevertheless, the older generation reacted just the same as always to the new ham – and with the same freakish drawl.

“Maybe tomorrow we’ll make ham salad sandwiches,” they would say. “With Dukes. Does anyone have Duke’s mayonnaise? Remember how we’d have ham salad sandwiches wrapped up in parchment papers?”

Incidentally, my young cousin Kelley, who at nine had established herself as the family’s dreamy eyed aesthete, had resolved – in part because of Charlotte’s Web – to eat nothing that walked on four legs. Had she been subject to the Smithfield ham of time past, she might have kept her resolve. However, a couple of days whiffing the new ham was enough to make her realize that a pig – no matter how wise or sweet tempered – is simply irresistible when bathed in bourbon.

 

“MODERN DAY” HAM

 

Combine 3/4 cup bourbon, 1 cup of apricot preserve, ½ cup of maple syrup, ¼ cup soy sauce, and one two inch piece of ginger, finely grated, and stir until smooth. It should taste sweet, boozy, and a little spicy – like the ideal girl to bring home after a late night in a bar. Score the surface of a 6-8 pound ham (water-packed, preferably a complimentary holiday gift after you have spent more than 200 dollars at the A&P) in a diamond pattern, stud with cloves where the lines intersect, and then put the ham in a Reynolds Oven Bag, pour the bourbon apricot mixture over, and rub the mixture into the ham through the bag until it’s incorporated. Tie the bag, and set out in the garage or basement – since it is Christmas, it should be cool enough, although you should check for rodents and raccoons. Let marinate for at least two days and no longer than four, and then bake, bag and all, in a 375 degree oven for two hours. At this point, remove the ham from the oven, slash open the oven bag while shielding your eyes to protect them from the steam, and cover the ham in a glaze made from ½ cup bourbon, ¾ cup apricot preserve, 1/3 cup maple syrup, and ¼ cup of soy sauce. Raise the temperature in the oven to 425, and continue to bake for ½ hour-45 minutes, until the surface of the ham is crisp, shiny, and slightly burnt in parts.

 

While delicious cold, this ham is at its peak when served piping from the oven, when the clove and bourbon-perfumed fat is unctuous and translucent and can be spread on a piece of toast. I have also done this with a fresh picnic ham shoulder, adding salt and increasing the amount of soy sauce to a ½ cup, with very delicious results indeed.

 

A couple of years ago, I traveled down to Richmond and visited my family’s old neighbor Mrs. – pronounced “Miz” – Jenkins, and she made me her ham, which was nothing like the hundred dollar Smithfield hams of my Christmases yore. Miz Jenkins soaked her ham – which she still procured from her family in rural Halifax – in apple cider for four days and then literally sweated it for another day in a 200 degree oven. It was moist and slightly sweet. Miz Jenkins packed five pounds of it for me to take back to the rest of the family, and you can probably predict the reaction.

“Just like…”

“Well,” I countered, “it’s actually what you had in the old days. And it’s nothing like that Smithfield stuff you used to make us eat.”

My aunts and mother looked bewildered. Sha said, “We always hated that Smithfield shit.”

 

HAM IN THE STYLE OF THE OLD DAYS (AUTHENTIC)

 

• One 6-8 pound ham, smoked by nephews and cousins in the mountains of Halifax Virginia

• 5-7 gallons of apple cider

For a minimum of four days, soak the ham in a gallon or so of cider, turning the ham at three hour intervals, and changing the cider at least once a day. Place ham in a 200 degree oven and bake for 24 hours, switching the oven on and off at one hour intervals.

 

Note: this is not a recipe for those who are shy of salmonella. 

 

When eating ham, the conversation turns naturally to biscuits, and to Miz Jenkins’s biscuits in particular. She used to show up year round and leave a tray of ham and biscuits on the doorstep.

“Oh my god,” an aunt will say, “Miz Jenkins’ ham and biscuits.”

The rest of the siblings chorus, “Miz Jenkins’s biscuits.”

My mother adds, her voice slightly more aristocratic than the rest. “You know, I know the trick about getting Miz Jenkins’ biscuits. You must use White Lilly Flour, and you must use butter and shortening, otherwise they simply aren’t flaky the way we remember.”

Incidentally, Miz Jenkins uses all butter in her biscuits, so the biscuits that my mother cherishes so fondly in her memory crumble on the tongue rather than flake as she so steadfastly recalls. They taste nothing like my mother’s biscuits. I have to say that though both are delicious, I prefer my mother’s more because they are high and airy and delicate. I think they appeal to my Northern palate.

 

MIZ JENKINS’ BISCUITS

 

Combine two heaping cups of flour, one tsp of salt, and 1 ½ tsp of baking powder. Cut into the flour mixture one and a half sticks of softened butter. Mix in one cup of buttermilk until the it holds together, and then knead gently for two minutes, roll the dough out until is a ½ an inch thick, and cut with a cookie cutter, shot glass, or whatever else you have handy. Bake in a 450 degree oven for 12 minutes until golden brown.

 

These biscuits will be crumbly, buttery, and tend to fall apart when halved.

 

 

MY MOTHER’S BISCUITS:

 

Sift 3 cups white Lilly flour, ¾ tsp salt, 1/2 tsp of baking soda, and one tablespoon baking powder together and cut in the ½ cup of shortening and the ¼ cup butter, which, unlike Miz Jenkins’ recipe, should be extremely cold. Stir 1 1/4 cups of buttermilk into the flour and shortening vigorously,  form into a dough ball, upend the dough onto a pastry board and knead the dough gently ten times. Roll the dough to 1/2 inch, prick the surface with a fork and cut them  – I use shot glasses and my mother has special biscuit cutters that measure three inches across. Bake on a greased metal baking sheet for 10-12 minutes at 450 degrees. These are pale and flaky biscuits that render themselves into halves beautifully.

 

 

Every year after Christmas, every child in the family gets leftover ham wrapped in a twist of tin foil to take home. (The average age of our family’s “children” is now 26.) However, the part of the ham that we eyed most lasciviously is the ham bone with the scraps attached. The bone is first offered to the oldest child, Jay, who, since he is now watching his cholesterol, usually refuses and passes it down the line to the second oldest, his sister Gia. Gia almost always takes it, and then, because she is soft hearted and prone to pangs of guilt, drives to my place and offers me half. Since I am less munificent than my dear cousin Gia, the bone has always stopped with me.

We use the ham bone to make split pea soup, that staple which sustains our souls through the bluster of Northeastern Januarys. I’ve noticed that split pea soup is pretty much part of the diet in cold places – Germany, the UK, Canada, Scandanavia. In this country, it’s drafty, Ethan Frome/Nathaniel Hawthorne/Union soldier food; you can’t exactly imagine Scarlett tucking into a bowl under the magnolia trees. Split pea soup is also a thrifty soup. Should you find yourself with only ten dollars in the bank, it’s how you feed yourself for a week. It is yet another reason why January is split pea soup month for me, as I find myself often in that situation after Christmas shopping. For two more dollars you can throw in spinach for vitamins, or a couple of potatoes for heft. It is savory, filling, packed with protein and nutrition, keeps your intestines in working order, for some reason, makes your skin glow, and is one of the tastiest ways of losing weight. It is for this reason all of the children of our family make this soup, even though those younger than me have to resort to supermarket ham hocks. The following is the Chin children’s version of this Yankee concoction.

 

NEW YEARS SPLIT PEA SOUP

 

Chop and sauté one onion with 3 cloves of garlic, smashed, four stalks of celery, and three diced potatoes and four carrots, chopped, optional. Let the vegetables simmer until they are translucent. Add the ham hock from Christmas, plus leftover ham salvaged from the bone. Then add a pound of split peas that you have picked over and rinsed, eight cups of chicken stock, a couple sprigs of thyme, chopped, and simmer for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the peas fall apart.  Season generously with salt, fresh pepper, and a slug of sherry.

 

Note: my brother always sautées the vegetables with bacon and bacon fat. If you are feeling very tight, you can substitute water for some or all of the chicken soup. I do not add salt until the end because every time I have seasoned it from the beginning, my split peas have turned crunchy.

 

 

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French onion soup

My youngest aunt Shoping and her husband David were the sophisticated ones. They were adventurously traveled, made witty remarks and were always up on the latest books and movies. They lived in a large Tudor house outside of Boston, which my aunt, who was an architect, had decorated herself very simply in pale mauves and frosted glass. When I stayed with them they would take me out to restaurants at least twice a week – usually something easy like local fish restaurant, which was called Captains Wharf. I would get the trout almondine and we would stroll there and back past the brick buildings and the well dressed people drinking in the summer air. It was only later that I appreciated them for their more profound qualities. But since I was a child at the time, and materialistic, what mattered then was that they were such a modern, pretty pair, clean and sharp and smart.
So it was only natural that it was Shoping and David who suggested, one rainy afternoon, to drive into Canada to have lunch. We were staying in a cabin in northern Vermont by a lake that Shoping had adopted for summer holidays.
The day was gray and cool and the café was probably nothing special but I reveled in the dark space, the mysterious, inviting smell, the red and white checked tablecloths, and the candles stuck in wine bottles. I had been to Paris, but with my family, which meant museums and eating dinner at bargain-priced restaurants at five PM in the dead month of August, so in my mind, the café just five minutes away from the immigration patrol between Canada and America, was more Parisian than Paris itself. It occurred to me that this was exactly the kind of place that couples would put on trench coats and have affairs, which in my mind at the time involved drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and holding hands.

I snuck a glance at my father, because I knew that he was studying the menu to see whether there was a kid’s menu. Every time we went out he would insist on me ordering from the kid’s menu, even if it meant that we would swap plates after, because the children’s menu was cheaper. I was already an awkward child, and I hated him for humiliating me. This was the other thing about Shoping and David. When we were out they never made me order from a children’s menu.
There was no kid’s menu and then, in stumbling French, Shoping ordered a bottle of white wine for the adults. I don’t know why the Soupe a L’oignon gratinee caught my fancy. Maybe it was because it sounded the most exotic, or because it cost quite a lot for soup. I asked Shoping what it was and she squinted and said in her offhand way,
“Onion soup? I have no idea. Maybe it’s good. Get it if you want it.”
I asked her to ask the waiter what it was, and he explained but her French was not good enough to understand him. I think it was his hesitation when it became clear that it was I who wanted the onion soup that decided me. Bring it on, I thought. I had Shoping order it in French.

It was brought to me in a crock, spitting underneath a crust that was golden brown and blistered in spots. My first thought was that it looked nothing like soup. My second thought was that my heart felt heavy.
Shoping said, “Oh right, that’s what the gratinee is. It’s cheese. Very cool.”
Cool was something that Shoping said a lot. Pet Shop Boys were cool. As was Mies Van der Rohe and early Beach Boys and morels in Provence and Mel Gibson in Road Warrior. She drawled “cool” in an offhand way. I, her niece, wore glasses and laughed at the wrong times.

I had never seen soup and cheese together before. Also the fact that the cheese was being held up was disconcerting. If you took a can of Campbell’s, put in a bowl, and sprinkled cheese on top, surely the cheese would sink to the bottom, right?
“What kind of cheese is it?” I said. Cheese made me nervous. I loved it passionately but only certain kinds. “What kind of cheese is this?” My napkin was still on the table and I was yet to pick up my spoon.
“I have no idea, okay?” said my uncle David impatiently.
“Is it American cheese?” I asked.
I really didn’t like American cheese, and it seemed that everywhere in my life there were people trying to sneak it in.
David snorted. “I have no idea. It’s Canadian cheese.”
I toyed with my spoon.
“Hey,” said my Aunt Shoping, “it’s okay, you know? Do you want some of my omelet?”
“Absolutely not,” said Uncle David. “She ordered it, and she’s going to try it.” Absolutely not was one of David’s favorite phrases. Whenever he said it, he’d wave his hands in the air, bob his head and usually the effect was comic. This time, however, he looked forbidding. Uncle David was, like my father, Cantonese, and for a moment, he reminded me of a Hong Kong shopkeeper, or a Triad member, standing in front of a sign YOU BREAK YOU BUY. The difference between Uncle David and my father was that my father would not have let me order the soup in the first place, because it was too expensive.

In order to eat French onion soup, you have to take a literal plunge. Which means you have to take your spoon, stab through the cheese and then make a sawing motion. I was not a graceful child and a lot of the broth ended up on the red and white tablecloth. Underneath the soup there was bread, which having been soaked with the broth, had turned into a kind of pudding, with large, porous holes.
I ate my first bites slowly as the broth made an indelicate dribble down my jaw. The cheese was not American cheese. It was astringent and smoky. Many years later I would find out that it was most likely Gruyere, but Canadian cheese was how I had filed it away in my mind. My first impression of the soup that it was so salty it made my eyes water, and when the broth splashed on my face, it prickled the way that seawater does when you have a cut on your knee and you go into the ocean. By the third bite I had grown enamored– it was like a witches brew. It made me feel quite heady eating this French onion soup in a dark café on the Canadian border while outside the rain threatened to unleash. I reached for a glass of water, feeling the soup scratch deep down inside my throat. After lunch, we piled into the car and spent the rest of the day inside the Vermont cabin, playing poker with my best friend Jeannie, who was there, and with whose older brother Jim I was mildly in love. Even the next morning when I swallowed I could taste it still. It probably meant that I had terrible breath and had not brushed my teeth properly.

For the next nine months, I made French onion soup. I made it for what was always my favorite meal of the day – what my brother Yar and I called after-school snack. It was our favorite because we made it ourselves. For French onion soup, I used Campbells condensed French onion soup from the can, and in lieu of French bread, I tore up Kaiser rolls and browned them in the toaster oven. I searched for Canadian cheese but couldn’t find it and my mother’s Joy of Cooking told me to use Swiss, which my parents obtained at the deli counter. I layered everything in ceramic, ovenproof bowls, decorated with line drawings of vegetables, and with their own handles, which my mother had acquired a long time ago. These were bowls that spoke of individual cassoulets, pot-pies, and onion soups gratinee, and were incongruous to our lifestyle, which my father dominated, and which centered around the wok, the rice-cooker, and deep fryer. I think that when she bought them, she was dreaming that she lived a different life. As far as I could tell, she had never used them.

I would use half a can of Campbell’s (which has in its ingredients tomato paste and caramel coloring), half a roll, two slices of cheese; and when I was finished, and even though I was full, I would scrape the soup bowl clean under the faucet and begin the onion soup again. Yar tasted it, but he hated onions with a passion, so whenever I made French onion soup, I would microwave him a few tater tots. Bread and cheese was Yar and my favorite comfort food, and there was plenty in onion soup– the crusty, blistered outside giving way to a pliant middle. Then there is the soup itself– onions browned and cooked for so long they have almost turned to sugar, the whiff of wine, and above all the saline flavor that is the stuff of tears. Julia Child and Company has you cooking the bones for half a day before adding it to twelve thinly sliced onions that are then reduced for another couple of hours until they are a brown slush at the bottom of the pot. There is not a lot of soup in French onion soup, but what there is, is intense, like a marriage that has lived long and hard. You start with the fresh ingredients, bloody bones and white onions with a sting, cook them until they are charred, add a slug of booze and then continue to force them together until finally they have succumbed to a sweet collapse.

I have not made onion soup in a long time. I have collected recipes– there is one that stands out in my mind that involves champagne and Camembert and cooked in a flash, which for me is, with its freshness and piquancy, like a wild evening out. I am in the middle of my life as I write this, and while I like the sound of this version, the standard version I find increasingly more reassuring. These days, I think onion soup is best eaten out. For four months in Paris, perhaps all to happy to indulge in a cliché, every time I went to a restaurant I would order it. Generally I do not like onion soups in fancy restaurants. I do not want my Gruyere – or Canadian cheese, as I will always think of it – adulterated with superior cheeses. I want a lot of bread at the bottom, and not some thinly curled crouton floating on a surface of clear amber. With my fingernails, I peel the bits of burnt cheese from where it has congealed, during baking, to the rim of the bowl. I siphon the broth off with a spoon. It is still a sloppy food that leaves trails as it courses down my face. I only need a few nibbles of the bread these days because when I eat onion soup these days, I am not actually hungry. This is the thing about adventure, which Uncle David taught me long ago. Adventure is what you do when your needs are already met, but should you decide to order your damned soup, you have to at least take a bite. The last time I had it I was with a friend, and we had been walking for quite some time. We curled up on a banquette, and talked about love and our fathers, who were both dead. My legs were tucked up, in the W position. We ate the soup, shared a glass of champagne and I felt very young. Outside, it was raining.

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