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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Narnia, Turkish Delight, and mochi

The first time I felt really, truly betrayed was not when I discovered that that my parents were not always right, or that the fact that my cat had been put to sleep did not mean that she had gone to take an extended nap; it was when I read The Chronicles of Narnia. I actually read Narnia in a wardrobe. It was Thanksgiving at my (paternal) grandmother’s house, and my brother and I were hiding. I was scared of my paternal grandmother. She was hunched over, very thin, and spoke Mandarin with a sinister lisp, and she fought with my father, my uncle, and my grandfather constantly. Because she was also diabetic, she was on dialysis, and while I realize that this is going to sound extremely intolerant, it was very frightening for me, as a small child, to go to my lisping, wizened grandmother and chat with her in her bedroom that smelled slightly strange, while she pumped a plastic bag full of fluid through her body.

My paternal grandmother lived in California. The sun was shining, the citrus fruits were ripening on the trees, the swimming pool was beckoning, and my brother and I were clamped down in the closet in the spare bedroom, reading from a box of books. My father was furious. But Narnia got me through that holiday, and it helped that I believed firmly that my paternal grandmother was an evil dwarf. Then, after reading seven rip-roaring adventures, I discovered that Narnia was all about God. In fact, I read The Last Battle over again, just to make sure I had understood the message. Also, Aslan the lion was not a very nice God, either. He was going to send Susan to hell because she was interested in lipstick and boys.

I got over the God thing, eventually. What I never got over was Turkish Delight.

***

In the first book of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children go into a closet and find themselves in an enchanted snowy land. Only one of the boys, Edmund, is waylaid by a character called the White Witch, who feeds him a candy called Turkish Delight, and Edmund falls under her spell.

At this point, I will add that Narnia is a very appetizing read, and in aforethought, Lewis was probably very clever because some of his descriptions have gotten his readers (myself included) to try good-for-you dishes that they would have never under other circumstances. Specifically, the first meal that he describes involves sardines on toast and a boiled egg. Sardines on toast is rapidly followed by trout pan-fried in butter, and while my mouth can still water over that description, I remain, firmly, not a trout fan, although I resolutely munched my way through several, especially when pulled fresh from a stream.

But back to Turkish Delight. Turkish Delight, per Lewis, is, quite simply, the best candy in the world. Even as a child, I did not have much of a sweet tooth, and I read my way through many books stuffed with chocolates and caramels without batting an eyelash. However, there was something about Turkish Delight that mesmerized me.
It starts simply enough:

“…there appeared a round box, tied with green, silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious.”

The candy turns Edmund, who was always my favorite character, into a salivating pawn, giving a whole new meaning to how one should worm a way into a boy’s heart. Until finally:

“At last, the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the Queen [Witch] knew quite well what he was thinking for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.”

Uh-oh.

I spent a lot of time imagining what it must taste like – this food that you would cram down your throat until you died. Later I would find out that there were other things in life that could produce a very similar effect, but I was an innocent eight years old, and gluttony was the only sin of which I had knowledge. However, it was something I knew very intimately indeed. I had come close to killing myself from over-eating when I was a child; once it was with meat pie, another time with a chicken that had been gratineed with mushrooms and Swiss cheese, and the agony, post-gratineed chicken, was so terrible that I could not face Swiss cheese for another ten years. But they were both savory dishes. Turkish Delight was different. It was magic, granted bad magic, but cerebral all the same. There is something pure about candy (this coming from someone who didn’t like sweets); you might die from it, but you would never get anything so banal as a stomachache. I lived in Connecticut in the 1980s where Turkish Delight was hard to come by, so for years I carried around, in the back of my mouth, this tantalizing notion of this one perfect sweet. Anything, after that, would be a letdown.

There are many people in the world who love Turkish Delight. Presumably they all grew up in the Middle East or 1940s England, and when they read that chapter, they imagine that insipid soapy flavor, and close their eyes in delight. Me, I am not a Turkish Delight lover – otherwise I would be going next door to the Fallon & Byrne right now, where they carry a very good version (so I am told) that is flavored with rose-water and pistachio. Turkish Delight is not the most horrible thing that I have ever tasted, but maybe, for me, the insipidness of the stuff makes it even worse. In any case, I cannot communicate the disappointment that I felt when I, at twelve, tasted my first piece – I don’t even remember how I got my hands on it, I just recall the sinking sensation that followed – except to say that the experience of eating Turkish Delight helped me get over the my shock at discovering Narnia’s Christian message, because it made me realize that anyone who could concoct such a lie about a piece of candy could never, ever be trusted. In other words, C.S. Lewis basically tells us that he’s a big fat liar at the very beginning of Narnia, so I couldn’t blame him for the God thing at the end.

**

It’s a good conversation starter. Walk up to a stranger, bring up Narnia, and then ask them about Turkish Delight. You will get a number of impassioned responses. Turkish Delight is like an Achilles heel or a White Whale, different for every individual, the thing that makes them go watery at the knees, and therefore a revealing glimpse into a person’s soul.

Turkish Delight has been described to me as chocolate, fudgy, cakey, like a Madeline, crumbly, like caramel, like a Sour Baby but better, like marzipan. My personal Turkish Delight is sticky and as white as snow. Visually, I picture the spun sugar confections that I see old men make outside, from carts, in Chinatown. For some reason my memory of watching them make this is always in the wintertime, when the steam of the boiling sugar combines with their exhalations to form warm white plumes. However, my Turkish Delight tastes, very definitely, like peanut mochi rolled in coconut.

Mochi is a Japanese cake made of glutinous rice. I don’t know a single non-Asian person who likes glutinous rice. I love it. I love the floppy squares of glutinous steamed rice (tian gao), sticky rice balls rolled in sesame and deep fried, or slabs of the New Years rice cake, dipped into egg, and pan seared on either side. I even love the Chinese word for sweet-and-sticky that comes from rice, nian, a wonderful word because the syllable feels like glue in the top of your mouth. But my favorite of all these is mochi.

My friend Masato brings me mochi that his uncle makes by hand from his little shop at the foot of Mount Fuji delicately flavored with orange blossoms, rose water, and green tea. My current favorite mochi are the ones at the Japonais bakery in Brookline, Massachusetts — fresh and plump like pillows, and when you bite into them, they spill forth with strawberries, and if you buy them at the right time in the morning, they are still warm. But let’s face it, the flavor of my Turkish Delight mochi are the mochi from my childhood, that we would buy in plastic packages in New York’s Chinatown. Oddly, Chinatown mochi are somewhat akin to Lewis’s Turkish Delight, for while Chinese sweets are not magic, per se, they’re certainly not natural. My next-door Asian market on Drury Street, which has an eye-opening array of mochi, even then peanut kind, which I prefer to the ones with red bean paste. There are individually wrapped ones for three Euros coated in black sesame, (these I’m guessing may actually be made by Japanese people), and a shelf devoted to pretty prepackaged ones from Taiwan in wooden boxes. Finally I find what I am looking for, and they are exactly how I remember them, next to the Chinese swiss rolls and egg tarts; little dimpled soft pinches, surfaces feathery with coconut, nestled snug in a plastic tray, with a pink and pale green wrapping printed with cherry trees and a pagoda. Their whiteness is dazzling and when I put it on my tongue, it melts – part cake, part candy, part jelly. It tastes like snow, sugar, a little like whipped cream, with a whiff of lychee, and for the first time in years, I am channeling Edmund on that freezing day. On the label, my mochi reads, “May have an adverse effect on the attention and activity of children.”

Recipe: Peanut Mochi

https://bastethebook.com/2011/08/24/peanut-mochi/

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Peanut Mochi

It has never occurred to me to ever look up a recipe for mochi, because up until now, it has never occurred to me that I would ever make it. When I was growing up, there was an old Japanese folk tale, where an old man and an old woman give their New Year’s mochi to the statues of the forest – a lovely story, but what struck me was not the poverty of the main characters, or that the statues come alive and bring the old couple mochi, but it was that making mochi involved both people, and a half a day with a mortar. I also have a distinct memory of asking my mother, “Can we make mochi?” and her replying, “Too difficult.”

All of this makes sense. Mochi is not only Japanese, it is also a dessert, which, in my mind, is just a translation for twice a pain in the ass. Further investigation reveals that mochitsuki, the process of making mochi, is, indeed, a pain in the ass, or as Wikipedia more tactfully puts it, “labor intensive.” To quote Wikipedia:

  1.  Polished glutinous rice is soaked overnight and cooked.
  2. The cooked rice is pounded with wooden mallets (kine) in a traditional mortar (usu). Two people will alternate the work, one pounding and the other turning and wetting the mochi. They must keep a steady rhythm or they may accidentally injure one another with the heavy kine.
  3. The sticky mass is then formed into various shapes (usually a sphere or cube).

The “accidentally injure” part gets me every time, maybe because I am nearsighted and have poor motor skills.

However, after an Internet search, it appears you not only can make mochi from rice flour (as opposed to rice), you can do it in moments, in the microwave. I thought, okay, what the hell, I can spring for a bag of sweet rice flour because let’s face it, I’m curious. It was like when I came across Maida Heatter’s quick puff pastry in which one just threw together butter, flour, and sour cream in an electric mixer. It’s too good to pass up, right?

Actually, there is something about a microwave and mochi that does make a twisted sort of sense. Mochi’s soft, jelly-like texture and its pure white hue, suggest that it is concocted not by ordinary kitchen methods, but by alchemy. What better place to do alchemy than in a microwave, a weird machine that cooks without heat. Also, a nice electrician had come by earlier, and my microwave was working for the first time in six days. At eleven PM, I stirred together a paste of rice flour, water, sugar, put it in a bowl, covered it with plastic wrap, and then, minutes later, it was mochi – translucent, sticky, with that elusive, nutty, vanilla floral scent. It worked. I danced, whooped, and felt like Dr. Frankenstein.

I did another batch the next day, tweaking the recipe slightly. It worked again. It also tasted pretty good, and it took me less than twenty minutes. Mochi is pliable and forgiving, so filling the mochi is easier than any dumplings or stuffed pasta. Also, while making the mochi, I suddenly remembered that I had gone through a phase of making tangyuan as a child – the Chinese soup dumplings that are made out of uncooked glutinous flour that are then boiled. It is also a little like truffles (the balls of chocolate ganache as opposed to the fungi that pigs root out of the ground). Mochi is simpler than tangyuan and less messy than truffles. My total clean up time was five minutes, and I don’t have a dishwasher.

My version uses non-stick cooking spray. I know, I sound like Sandra Lee. The fist time around, I used cornstarch to combat the stickiness, but the resulting mochi were a little too stiff for my taste; and the final product bore an uncanny resemblance to raw gnocchi. For the filling, I use a combination of crushed cocktail peanuts, sugar, and peanut butter – it’s grainy, slightly sticky, not-too-sweet, with a hint of salt. You can also use sweet bean paste, which I don’t like, or fresh strawberries with a dab of bean paste molded around the stem end, or sliced, fresh strawberries cooked with a dash of cornstarch and sugar, which is the way they make it at the Japonais bakery in Brookline, Massachusetts.

It goes without saying that this is not the most exquisite mochi, nor is this by any means authentic. This is ghetto mochi created by a Chinese American in her 5 x 4 kitchen in Dublin, Ireland. Moreover, twenty-minute mochi is never going to be as satisfying as the mochi you slaved over half a day with a heavy wooden mallet. Having said that, mochi, when it is warm, soft, and fresh, is delectable, even from a microwave, and if you were like me, once upon a time, and wished you could have mochi morning, noon, and night and all the hours in between, now is your chance. So, while I sound like Sandra, if you have access to sweet rice flour, half an hour, and a microwave, you should really, really try this.  Even, in fact, if you can’t stand mochi, because the magic that occurs is just so cool.

Peanut Mochi

I prefer to make this in small batches, because the mochi tastes better when very fresh, and really, it takes no time at all to make another.

(Makes ten small mochi)

1/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup Mochiko flour (or any sweet glutinous rice flour, the important thing is that you use sweet, glutinous rice flour)

1/2 tsp cornstarch

½ cup water

Non-stick cooking spray, or cooking oil

1/3 cup skinned, roasted, salted peanuts, crushed with 2 tbsp sugar (You can do this in a food processor. I don’t have one in Dublin, so I put everything in a Ziploc bag and pound it with a bottle of Pinot Noir.)

2 tbsp chunky peanut butter

1/3 cup shredded, dessicated coconut.

Mix together the sugar, cornstarch, and the glutinous rice flour. Add the water, gradually, stirring until there are no lumps. (It will be more liquid than a paste – this is ideal.) Spray/grease a microwave safe bowl, and pour the batter in. Cover the bowl with Saran wrap and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Uncover the saran wrap, the mixture should be soft and translucent and have cohered into a mass that is springy to touch. It should be slightly sticky, but it should not stick to your fingertips or a spoon when lightly touched. If this is the case, return to the microwave and continue to microwave for another thirty seconds.

This is mochi.

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl combine the crushed peanuts and the peanut butter. Prepare two plates, one spread with coconut, the other lightly greased with vegetable oil or sprayed with cooking spray.

Mochi mise en place. Mochi is to the far left.

Mochi with fillin

Folded mochi

Slide the mixture out onto the plate that you have greased/sprayed with nonstick cooking spray and let cool briefly. With lightly oiled hands, roll the hot mixture into a cylinder and, by pinching or with a wet knife, divide the mixture into ten portions.

(The mixture will still be very hot at this point. I don’t mind it, but you can let it cool somewhat. However, the colder the mochi, the less pliable.) Roll one of the portions into a ball, and flatten it into a disk. Mound a teaspoon of the filling in the center, and then fold it in half, into a half-moon shape, like you were making dumplings or angolotti. Pinch to seal, and then roll it in your hands until it becomes a ball again.  Roll the mochi in the plate spread with coconut, and repeat.

Note: I made mochi with strawberries cooked briefly with a pinch of cornstarch and two tablespoons of sugar until they were thick. They were considerably sloppier to handle. I found it easier to mound the strawberries (drained of liquid) in the middle of one of the mochi disks, then covering it with another, pinching it to seal, and then rolling into a ball. This makes a larger mochi, and, as you can see from the picture, they just look more of a mess. They’re worth it though, as they taste incredible, especially in this country. Irish strawberries, are small, slightly tart, and tight skinned.

Finished mochi. The strawberry mochi are pink, but not intentionally.
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London, August 2, 2011

On Tuesday, the second of August, Marlene and I were doing the dullest thing, sitting outside a Pret-a-Manger in Saint Christopher’s Place, eating potato chips and drinking diet coke. Marlene was visiting London, having recently moved back to Pakistan where she goes to work in a bulletproof car. We were having a wonderful time.
Marlene is a dramatic person to know — rash, brilliant, beautiful, patriotic (which is why she is back in Pakistan), and uncompromising and constantly conflicted at the same time. Since I believe that all you really need to know about a person is what they read and what they eat, Marlene’s favorite authors are Dostoevsky, Cortobar, and Sebald. She is the only person that I know who has tried to read Thus Spake Zarathustra on a Kindle. (She confessed she didn’t get very far.) She also likes Agatha Christie and Haruki Murakami and PG Wodehouse, which is the only reason why we get along. Incidentally, Marlene is a very good cook who doesn’t enjoy cooking. This, I think, befits a Sebald fan. Instead of braising a rump roast, she’d rather be doing something either more elevated or perverse.

Also, I call her Marlene because she reminds me of Dietrich. Most of the time she stomps around with her long legs, looking sultry.

“You know,” Marlene said, “It’s so nice to be able to sit outside without the sound of guns.”
I replied, “The minute you said that, I expected a gun to go off. Perhaps it is not your country, it’s you.”
We laughed.
“That’s exactly what it is, isn’t it? Disaster just follows me. Like a…puppy.”

Sometimes when Marlene and I are together, our humor is inappropriate. Occasionally it is badly timed.

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Cannibalism and Angelina Jolie

Photo by Francois Duhamel – © 2003 MP Film Mgmt. UNLS Prods.

Breakfast?

A question that’s been haunting me since I left Edinburgh. If you were a cannibal, would you rather eat an attractive person or an unattractive one? Mo argued that it was better to keep the attractive people alive, but for me, the cannibalism and sex are inexorably entwined. In the end, whom would you rather put in your mouth?
Mo and I were eating breakfast as we had this discussion – one of those full Scottish breakfasts that is the only antidote for the bone chilling weather.
Mo put a piece of bacon in his mouth and chewed.
“Hm,” he said, “Angelina Jolie bacon.”
I countered, “What about Kate Winslet bacon?”
“Mmm.” He chewed. “Kate Winslet bacon. Mmm. Okay, maybe you win.”

Now, after more thought than is healthy or appropriate, I realize that the issue is more complicated than it had first appeared. If I were a heterosexual man or a lesbian, I too would feel the conflict that Mo feels. The women that I find most attractive are slender, somewhat fucked up, but who still have complexions that suggest that they eat a lot of kale and omega-3 fish. In other words: edible.
However, I am a woman who finds herself attracted to very fucked up, hard-living men (Joseph Cotten, Keith Richards, Gary Oldman, Anthony Bourdain) While I would happily put their body parts in my mouth in a romantic context, I am not so sure I would want to eat someone that has subsisted on heroin, potato chips, and GPCs. Maybe I could contemplate eating an in-his-prime Hemingway. However, I would prefer to chomp on the healthy, pretty boys.

This means, that in the post-apocalyptic cannibalizing world, I can munch Orlando Bloom while still being able to fuck Oldman and Bourdain. Really, life would be okay.

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Introduction

So I am standing in an Edinburgh bus stop explaining my idea to my friend Mo. I have known Mo since I was seventeen, and I love him dearly, probably more than 99.9 percent of the world, and one of the reasons I do, to paraphrase the old childhood verse, is because his name begins with an M (just like mine) and just like me he is as malleable as moonlight, with a mercurial personality that is capable of metamorphosis at any moment. Also, he, like me, has more than one name. Most of the world calls Mo Mike, because his real name is Michael. (Mo was short for Morris, the cat from the old Nine-Lives commercials.) Mo’s Chinese name is Ming. Meanwhile, most of the world calls me Mei, except for credit card agencies and the government, which knows me as Yuching. My mother’s family calls me Ching, my little brother calls me Jie. To Mo, who is from time to time my older brother, I am Sister, Mei, Mei-mei (the Chinese word for little sister), Short Person, and Brat.

Mo knows my habits better than my mother. He knows that if I do shots of cheap whiskey in a pub at one o’clock in the morning with a bunch of sexually ambivalent actors, then fun will ensue. But he also is privy to the subtler machinations of my make-up; that, for example, the only way to wake me up is to let me sleep for thirty-five minutes longer than the time I’ve requested to be woken. Since we have known each other, Mo has been my third cousin, first cousin, my brother, and my best friend, depending on who we are introducing each other to, and our moods. 99.9 percent of people who know us both believe that we are related by blood. They are wrong.

In any case we are standing in the midst of the ice-cold pelting rain that makes Edinburgh in August the special place that it is. “It’s cooking the book. Literally,” I say, my teeth chattering. “I mean, there are plenty of blogs out there where people cook their way through recipe books, Julie and Julia, etc. But while I read recipe books, I don’t cook from recipes. What I do, often, is cook something that’s inspired by whatever novel I’m reading.”

“Hm,” says Mo. He lights a cigarette, offers me one and lights mine. Mo remains the one person in my life with whom I smoke even though, as the years have gone by, we do it less frequently. “Okay.”

“Like when I was reading the Wind Up Bird Chronicle, I made a lot of spaghetti. And I was sort of off meat after the flaying scene. Or after Brideshead, I was really into caviar.”

“Yeah,” he says, “that was unfortunate for everyone.”

I am here in Edinburgh only for a day and a night. We have not seen each other for six years. He lives in China and I am based in New York. It is a little “wack,” to borrow Mo’s word. The bus comes and like the tourists we are, we scramble to the top of the double decker bus and sit up front as the rain sluices the windows and the shops wind underneath us.

“God, I love this city,” says Mo. “Everything’s so old. In China, nothing’s old, which of course is ironic.”

There is the pewter sky, and the Gothic stone facades, and just yesterday, we took a cab and our driver was a skin and bones crone who literally croaked when she called us luv. In my mind, she was Miss Havisham with a heroin habit, but Mo is taken with the whole Scottish thing, and thinks that she was reading newt innards in the front seat. We just couldn’t see it.

“What would you cook after reading Trainspotting?” he asks me after a long pause.

“Actually, I haven’t read it,” I admit, and pause. “And I haven’t seen the movie.”

“Sister, that’s just wrong.” Mo believes that my culture is sorely deficient in gaps. I have not seen Tropic Thunder, and I couldn’t read later Phillip K. Dick.

“I know.” I read The Acid House and Ecstasy when I was a teenager and decided Irvine Welsh was not for me. Irvine Welsh writes in what my (actual) brother Yar calls “retard-speak” which he defines as “anything written in vernacular or a made-up language, with no quotation marks.” Retard-speak books include A Clockwork Orange, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and Real History of Tristan Smith, and the complete works of Cormac McCarthy. Mo likes retard-speak books. I do not, because I am too dumb. I was really, really proud of myself when I got through A Clockwork Orange.

I say, “But I know what Trainspotting is about, and I’d imagine that it doesn’t exactly stimulate the appetite.”

Mo says, “Actually, I think there’s quite a lot of sausage and chips.”

I say, “But probably not in a good way. Actually, if I read Trainspotting, I’d probably make a salad. Which, in the context of my idea,” I add brightly after some thinking, “is completely valid.”

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Seabass and Barnes

I enter the Italian restaurant with trepidation. I’m not really in the mood. In fact my friend Marlene and I had spent the last couple of days talking about how much we crave a good bowl of French onion soup. However, it was beginning to drizzle, it was past two o’clock, and I hadn’t eaten anything that day.

Plus, I have a toxic romance with the cheap Italian restaurant in London. You know the place I am talking about – where the waiters’ shirts are not very clean, the tablecloth is flimsy, and the wine comes only in carafes of Pinot Grigio and Chianti, and the awning is either yellow, green, or blue. Verdi or Britney Spears is on the stereo, and the menu assures you of arrabiata and bolognese.

I say toxic because recently, every time I go, it’s disappointing…in a soul destroying way. Violently pink pastas, frozen pea garnishes. Just the other night, I had a garganelli — heavy, pale, soft — with porcini and cream sauce that tasted of glue. The owner served us was quite a mysterious figure, thin, with melancholy eyes. “I don’t see his partner,” Marlene’s husband remarked in a worried voice. Her husband used to be a regular. “Perhaps the partner’s dead,” Marlene whispered. (Marlene has romantically morbid inclinations, part of why I like her.) When I didn’t finish my garganelli, the owner insisted on giving me free dessert – pannacotta with strawberry jam. I don’t like Italian desserts. “I think he may kill himself,” Marlene said sadly. I had nodded.

I look around. Cheap tablecloth – check. Blue awning – check. It is two thirty in the afternoon, which is, in my opinion, the perfect time for such a place. There are two or three other slightly shabby customers, the kind you find in Barbara Pym novels, penny-wise types indulging in a splurge. The only other table is a group of elderly men who have just ordered dessert and also another bottle of wine. I’m starving, so when a waitress comes by with a plate of olives, I devour them, even though they are from a jar, pitted, soft, and salty. I look around hopefully for at least a glass of water, which doesn’t appear. Sighing, I turn on my Kindle, that slab of plastic that I adore beyond reason. (It used to be that I bought used books for 30 cents. Now I spend 10.99 on a download.) I’m reading Julian Barnes’ Pulse, his collection of short stories.

I love Barnes. Also, I love the Julian Barnes that clever people don’t enjoy. I have a fondness for the blokey, bourgeois, suburban Barnes. I prefer Talking It Over and Before She Met Me to Flaubert’s Parrot. I loved Lemon Table and Nothing to be Frightened ofNTBFO is a lovely, smart rap on the head after your own father has kicked the bucket; Lemon Table just took my breath away. Barnes, as I’ve explained to a few men, is the macho writer for women – he provides us insight into the male psyche without being relentlessly intellectual the way that men tend to like.

Have you read Pulse? The stories traverse the same themes as Lemon Table and NTBFO (aging, memory, death, love and its absence, with lots of breaks for meals in between). They are intimate, natural, and a bit rude. They are about characters (often suburban and middle-class) in long-term relationships, facing mortality and frequently disconnecting. The stories are sometimes comic, at times harrowing, and if this sounds familiar, it should. The dialogue is expertly done, because this is Barnes, and dialogue is something that Barnes does incredibly well. Sometimes he has nothing but, like in Talking it Over and Love Etc. and currently, in the recurring story, “At Phil & Joanna’s.”  Of course, I am harder on writers/artists that I like. For instance, I would have minded Midnight In Paris less had Woody Allen not directed it. I enjoyed Pulse a lot more than Midnight in Paris. With Pulse, I’m just mildly disappointed. But this is unfair. I am reading Pulse hoping to get that same rush that I did when I first picked up Talking It Over all those years ago.

No one has been by. The elderly men have monopolized the waitress and the man who seems to be the owner, all over a bottle of vin santo and tiramisu. I contemplate maybe grabbing a sandwich across the road. Finally a waitress puts a menu in front of me.

I ask, somewhat testy. “Can I have a Diet Coke?  And maybe a glass of wine?”

“Em,” says the waitress. She is very beautiful, and looks like a young Linda Evangelista. I am from New York, and where I come from, young Linda Evangelista waitresses can’t wait tables and have a haughty attitude. “What wine?”

“Can I have a glass of white wine?”

“Em… What white wine?”

“Do you have a wine list?”

“Em…”

“A wine list?”

“Em.” She scurries away.

I call after her. “And can I have a Diet Coke?”

I know, wearily, what I am going to get. It’s a toss-up between mozzarella and tomato and prosciutto e melone for a starter; for a main course, either the penne alla nonna (eggplant and more mozzarella, melted) or the spinach cannelloni. I will decide at the last minute. Either way it will taste the same. The diet coke has no ice, is warm, and has a lemon quarter crammed into the narrow glass. The house white wine is a pinot grigio from Umbria.

I turn to the story “Gardner’s World,” and I have to confess it makes me smile. It reminds me of my parents, who really love to garden. It also reminds me of myself, because the main character is a reluctant gardener and shuffles, wearily, with his wife to all the nurseries, waiting in the car if possible. The main character has grown up with two gardening parents.

“Are you ready to order now?”

I look up. Linda has been joined by a small and bony female, with an attractive monkey face. Agatha Christie used that phrase to describe a character – some young heiress expensively and exotically dressed — and it’s stuck in my head ever since. I’ve decided on prosciutto and melon and penne alla nonna.

I open my mouth. I hear myself say, “I’ll have the grilled calamari.”

My mind is screaming in protest. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” In my life, at home, I am surrounded by calamari lovers. My mother, especially, is a calamari pusher; she will get the calamari even if we’re at a sports bar in Cincinnati Ohio. I’m always the one who says, “Can we please not get the calamari?” Once, when I was seven years old on a beach in Barcelona, I had the perfect calamari, pulled out of the ocean and seared on an outside grill until the surface crackled. It is unfortunate for the other calamari in my life, as nothing can ever compete with a memory.

“And then… “ Now my heart is pounding; it is dangerous, when I am like this. My eyes go to the most esoteric thing on the menu. “Linguine with sea bass. And a side of the zucchini.” Monkey face gesticulates wildly to Linda. She is saying “Linguine alla spigola” and saying wild, frantic Italian things. My heart sinks. I have made a mistake. One woman once told me that her therapist used to put a menu in front of her and force her to pick out an appetizer, main course, and dessert, in under a minute. I frequently think of this story. I’m not even all that crazy about fish. I believe that people order it in restaurants because they want to be healthy.

The owner joins the two waitresses – who are still hovering. It has become quite a party. We contemplate each other. They are grinning, so I grin back. Finally, the owner says, “You have to excuse… she is,” he points to Linda, “How do you say? We are trying her out.”

I nod. “Of course, I understand. We have all been there,” I add. “I know how you feel,” I say. “I have been in your shoes. Si.As I don’t speak Italian, I’m trying very hard not to do the American tourist thing of speaking English in a foreign accent, loudly, and slowly. I am failing. Also the last statement is kind of a lie. I worked in the food service industry for two and a half weeks at my college café, making hummus sandwiches.

They’re still standing. “Um,” I say, “also, can I get some water?”

They are stung to life. The three of them vanish, and immediately my water is produced. It is not just a glass of water, but a tall pitcher with three lemon halves bobbing on its surface. Within minutes, the calamari is set before me.

“Pepper?” says Linda.

“Yes,”

There’s a light, timid dusting.

“Can I have some more please? Some more? Plenty of pepper? A lot?”

“Good, good,” says Linda, as she cranks. “You like a lot on this. I too.”

She glows when she says this, and gives me a lovely, nervous smile. Oh bless you, I think. If we were in New York, you would be such a bitch.

The calamari is no Barcelona calamari, but it is decent. It is slightly bitter from the char of the grill, astoundingly fresh, and I like the chili. I ask for lemon, which appears with alacrity and a smile, eight lemon quarters on a saucer; (There seems to be a lot of lemon in the kitchen today). I eat three pieces, place my knife and fork to one side, and my plate is immediately whisked off. (The first book I read when I arrived in Dublin was Darina Allen’s Ballymalloe Cooking, over a bacon sandwich at a coffee shop that had low wooden tables, stacks of well-thumbed cookbooks, and excellent cappuccino. For some reason, I perused, very carefully, the chapter on etiquette. According to Allen, if you are just taking a break from your food, leave your utensils crossed. If you are finished, align them and put them to the side. After all these years, I had no idea, and now I’ve been doing it with the mania of the newly converted. It really works.)

The linguine spigola appears. No frills, just pasta heaped on a plate, and quite a lot of it. Someone is behind my shoulder – it is the man, this time – grinding pepper with vigor.

“This,” he says, “is my favorite.”

The pasta, when I put it in my mouth, is incredible. It makes me want to hum. I feel a little dizzy and close my eyes.

“You like it?” the man says.

I smile and he leaves me alone.

I discovered the London Italian trattoria when I was eighteen, when life is delicious and you are hungry for it. I remember, in particular, a restaurant around the corner where I lived. I would try to go once every other week, when I could afford it. I had three tables – one by the window facing the street, one in the corner where I first ate grilled sardines and veal ossobucco, and a larger table which was located in the back room, down a flight of stairs, where I ate a real Dover sole on Thanksgiving Day (as opposed to the sole in the States, which is still very nice) and it was filleted for me tableside. (Come to think of it, I ate a lot of fish in those days.) The fact that the restaurant was mostly empty did not mean that the staff were surly and waiting to push you out the door because they wanted to talk on the telephone or go out drinking; rather, being one of the only customers meant that your dish was lavished with attention – by three or four people up front and at least two people in the back.

My linguine is simple – the menu states that it is tomatoes, onion, white wine, fish, parsley. There is nothing unexpected, except for how much pleasure it gives me; after all, I have had pasta with fish before. Yet it takes away that bit of chill that has been nestled inside of me all day, perhaps all week. There is the clean crunch of parsley, and the faintest reverberation of chili, a heat in the back of my mouth. The pasta is very thin linguine, almost the width of spaghetti but flat, but cooked so my teeth can feel each strand. There is a verdant, flowery, exuberant burst of olive oil, and plenty of slippery, sweet butter. I can taste citrus – I think that the owner remembered that I liked lemon. The bass is just a bit of brine and texture, but like the calamari, it is sweet and fresh. I would imagine that this dish isn’t ordered very often, but is an impractical offering that is on the menu because it is close to the owners’ heart. I flash back to the night before with Marlene. There had been a special chalked up on the blackboard, fazzoletti — handmade semolina pasta torn into handkerchief shapes, with salt cod. It had caught my attention because it was so incongruous to the rest of the pizzas and pastas on offer. I had dismissed it as being too cerebral for that time of night. In retrospect, I made a mistake, and I suddenly have a desire to find that sad-eyed owner, beg his forgiveness by ordering his fazzoletti.

With my next mouthful, an eerie thing occurs. Suddenly, I can hear all the conversations around me, as if a switch has been turned on. It is like in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “Faithful John”. Faithful John eats an apple, and suddenly he hears the chatter of the ravens and the ants. The table of elderly men have been talking at the same volume all this time, but now I am privy to what they are saying. Overlapping voices, six of them, tipsy, older, male. In fact, they sound quite a bit like Barnes could have written them. I stare at the Kindle, no longer really reading, and otherwise absorbed.

“…The thing about Ian, is that I never got a sense of what, in those last days he had, of what he was living for.”

“You don’t understand,” his friend counters. “Ian was my best mate. He had my back, always. Ian always had your back. When I came back from Clevedon that time…

Another man chips in. “I’ll tell you, when Ian went to Spain, he had half a million pounds. He came back five years later with absolutely nothing. They must have spent 150 thousand a year. And that was back in the eighties. A hundred and fifty grand.”

“Was that with the first wife?”

“No, that was with the second.”

There is a pause.

“It’s not a bad place, this.”

“… I remember I brought vodka and she looked at me and said, could you have brought anything cheaper?”

“We can’t drink vodka, nowadays, can we? God I miss vodka. Do you remember – what was that drink? What was it called? Light and light?”

“That’s it. Light and light.“

“I was at the fairground with my granddaughter the other day. Do you remember when we were young, when fairgrounds had real dwarves?”

A chair scrapes, an older man crosses my vision and disappears down the stairs. The voices go quiet, wait for him to vanish completely, and then come back again, more serious.

“He’s alright, isn’t he?”

“Well I think it’s a progressive thing.”

“At least he didn’t collapse under the table. Like he did that time at the chip shop.”

There is another silence. Their friend reemerges from downstairs. I try to study him from the corner of my eye. He doesn’t look all that bad, although he drags one foot behind him. Still, he doesn’t look on the verge of collapse. I would say that some of his friends look rougher. I wind another strand of linguine against my spoon. You don’t get spoons in proper Italian restaurants in New York, because it isn’t authentic. Still a boy taught me how to do it when I was twenty, and I have done it ever since. I enjoy the lazy deliberateness of the ritual.

I once discussed with someone how everyone has a sappily fond recollection of the place you were when you realized, “this is who I am going to be, for the rest of my life.” Parts of you will shift, soften, and grow hopefully wiser, but all the parts are present. London, for me, was that place. Later I will walk back to my old neighborhood and find out that my trattoria is still there, with its battered yellow awning and its sandwich shop next door. All these years, I had been writing and talking about this place, and referring to it in the past tense. It is similar to discovering that someone has not, in fact, died. Although it is closed until five PM, I peek through the windows and see that there is still the same back room, with the steps that lead down.

It is with great reluctance when I finally align my fork and spoon and put them to the side of my plate. When I stand up, the old men are still there.

One of them has a train to catch. He has been talking about his train all through my linguine, but he hasn’t moved.

As I pass their table, he says, “I’ll tell you what it is about a three hour train ride. The first part, you feel great, it’s like a dream. The second part is normal, and the third part is bloody awful. And all those people are looking at me and they’re praying that I make it.”

On the sidewalk, I open my purse just to reassure myself that my telephone, my Kindle, my keys, and my credit card are still there. This is one of the things that I have noticed about getting older, that I leave more objects behind. I must be light-headed from the Pinot Grigio, because I find myself telling myself that in fifteen years time, I will wander back into this restaurant on exactly this sort of gray, thin day. Monkey Face and Linda Evangelista will not have aged, and the old men will be in their corner, draining the last of the vin santo. I know that will recognize them from their voices.

***

Linguine alla spigola

(Linguine with seabass)

LINGUINE ALLA SPIGOLA

4 oz bronzino fillet, skin on. ** see note, above.

3 tbsp olive oil

½ onion, diced fine

½ fresh red chili, minced

1 anchovy, finely minced.

1 garlic, minced

Two handfuls of parsley, chopped, stems reserved and chopped.

3 tbsp tomato paste

4 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled and diced; or 3 tomatoes, or 4 tinned plum tomatoes

½ cup white wine

6 oz linguine fini

4 tbsp of cold butter, cubed

zest of one lemon

Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil over medium high in a heavy bottomed pan until smoking. Season the bronzino generously with salt and sear it for two minutes per side. Remove the fish to a plate and remove the pan from the heat. Add onion, chili, anchovy, garlic, pinch of salt, and parsley stems to the oil, and let it wilt slightly in the residual heat. Add one more tbsp of oil, add pan back to heat, and reduce heat to medium. Cook until the vegetables are translucent, and then add tomato paste, and cook until you can smell the tomatoes cooking. (about 1 ½ minutes). Add fresh tomatoes, turn heat back up to medium high, and cook for another minute. Add white wine, and reduce for two minutes.

Remove the meat off of the bronzino, flake and add to pan. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer for two minutes, just until the flavors mingle.

While the sauce is cooking, heat 2 1/2 quarts of water until boiling, salt generously, and then add the linguine fini. Cook for eight minutes, but start tasting after six. You want the linguine to have quite a bite.

If you have removed the sauce from heat, return to heat, and put on medium-high/high heat.

Remove two ladles of cooking water and reserve. Drain pasta and add to pan, tossing. Add one ladle of cooking water, toss to coat. Continue to cook (the sauce should be quite watery, if not, add more cooking water), shaking the pan, until the pasta is firm but tender to bite. This should take 2-3 minutes.

Remove pan from heat, stir in cold butter, then chopped parsley and the finely grated rind of one lemon. Grind pepper to taste.

NOTES:

The combination of pasta and fish is certainly not a new one. The recipe I remember was from Marcella Hazan, when she cooks fish heads in the sauce, removes the meat from the cheeks, and then passes the rest of it through a sieve. This is an intensely savory sauce, well worth the effort. I found it online, here. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/06/dining/06codrex.html

Along the same lines, you can, for this recipe, buy an entire seabass, cook it slowly with the tomatoes, thereby extracting as much gelatin from the bones and the skin. Then remove the meat and add back to the sauce, and pound the bones and skin through a sieve.

However, the owner of the restaurant (Melodia) said that the chef used fillets. It is a lot quicker, fresh tasting, and very nice. It is more practical and also more appropriate for a summer afternoon, because as much as I am coming around to fish, I am not sure I want to taste it in the back of my throat for the rest of the day.

The menu had said fresh tomatoes, but the pasta that I had, had a rich mouth feel that I associate with canned. I use a combination of tomato paste and fresh tomatoes, which I don’t blanch to remove the skins, but simply peel with a knife. It is summer and the tomatoes are sumptuous. My version is lighter tasting than the original because of the fresh tomatoes. Should you want that warming, rich flavor, use canned tomatoes. Use canned tomatoes in the winter anyway.

The restaurant used linguine fini, which in my mind is the perfect noodle. It is thinner than ordinary linguine, but flat so that it better absorbs the sauce.

Also, I am on a recent kick of cooking pasta in smaller quantities. I like how the noodles absorb the sauce, and the general ungainliness involved in the final assembly. The recipe will make enough to serve 2 people generously, or 4 people for an appetizer. You can double it.

Most importantly, I had the linguine alla spigola in London, and duplicated it in my kitchen in Dublin. In England, Ireland, and most of Europe, seabass is European seabass, sometimes known by its Italian name bronzino, and it looks like this:

 

European seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax)

Sea bass in the United States is black or large mouthed bass. (At least where I am from, I grew up on the East Coast of the United States.)

Black/Large mouthed bass looks like this:

Black or large mouthed bass (Centropristis striata)

They are different fish.

On cooking the linguine:

— My dried pasta technique has remained largely unchanged for the past several years, for which I mostly credit Bill Buford’s Heat.

1.  For the sauce, I start the aromatics (i.e. chili and onions and garlic) in cold oil, which I gradually bring up to temperature with a pinch of salt. In this way, they have time to mingle, sweat, and otherwise get to know each other. Also they do not color too fast.

2. I go a bit lighter on the water – the recommended amount is 4-6 quarts per pound of pasta. I use four quarts for a pound of pasta, but two quarts for ¼ pound; 3 quarts for ½ a pound. In a pot measuring eight inches across, the water should come up to 2/3 the height of the pasta. Then you swirl the pasta around until it succumbs.

Also I generously salt my water. Two or three hefty pinches should do it, or two teaspoons per 4 quarts.

3. I cook my pasta quite al-dente, start testing after eight minutes for dried spaghetti and linguine. You want the pasta to be firmer than firm, so you can bite through it without any problems, but it is chewier than you would like. Then, I add the pasta to the sauce, reserving a couple of ladlefuls of pasta water.

(If one remembers anything about Heat, it is Buford and his pasta water. He asserts that it is because of pasta water that even the simplest pasta (like bavette alla cacio e pepe) will never taste as good at home as it does at a restaurant like Lupa. The pasta water at restaurants like Babbo and Lupa is never changed, so goes from being clear to gloppy during the course of the night. It is in Buford’s words, “yucky-sounding but wonderful.” And while one cannot replicate this pasta water without cooking forty orders of pasta, the salt and starch in the pasta water you get at home is, once you use it, still a revelation.)

When dealing with small quantities of pasta, you can easily scoop up the pasta and add it into the sauce. With larger quantities, you have to drain the pasta, so don’t forget to remove your pasta water before.

Your sauce should be simmering. Then add the pasta, toss. The sauce should still be quite wet, so usually you will want to add a ladleful (or two) of pasta water. Continue to let the pasta simmer in the sauce until it is cooked through.

Then I almost always add butter – and a good heaping amount of it. I know this can be unconventional, but I like the sweetness and slippery mouth feel that butter endows.

At this point, you may want to add even more pasta water. You’ll be amazed by how thirsty the pasta is. The starch from the pasta water will give the sauce a creaminess, and allow it to adhere to the noodle. Once you start putting it in, you will wonder what you ever did without it.

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