Tuesday, December 29, 2009

christmas dinner

Christmas, so quickly over after much expectation and preparation,was joyful - family and friends, gathered at a festive table. We had prosecco first, beside the fire, with a platter of lovely cheeses, the pecorino drizzles with a reduced balsamic syrup and the aged cheddar accompanied by a confit of red onion. Then to the table where our first course was a light and refreshing salad of thinly sliced fennel, oranges and fresh lump crab, with a citrusy vinaigrette. Next, duckling in a pear,green peppercorn and brandy sauce. With this, roasted assorted root vegetables and a rice pilaf flavored with cardamom pods, bay leaf and other spices,as well as, added at the last moment, roasted almonds. Dessert was a decadently rich chocolate mousse torte, gorgeous to look at, delicious. Wine throughout the meal and unceasing conversation. Perfect!!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

sunday night supper

My granddaughter requested chicken pot pie for dinner, so that's what I prepared, perhaps a little different from what she expected, but all the family loved it. A typical french bistro version, with cubes of chicken breast,peas, diced carrots, succhini, celery, some garlic, thick-sliced baby cremini mushrooms.and pearl onions. and a good, rich chicken stock, white wine, heavy cream. Everything was sauteed atop the stove, then baked in the oven. Meanwhile, in another oven I baked the puff pastry topping, laid it on the casserole and baked for a few minutes more. It made a pretty picture indeed. We started off with a cheese platter, with which I served little triangles of clementines that had been cooked in acacia honey and warm spices, including cardomom pods, then marinated for a week in the fridge. A lovely counterpoint to the cheeses. At the table, a simple tossed salad of mesclun, belgian endive and radicchio. I served a crisp toss of fingerling potatoes with the pie. Dessert was a platter of cookies I'd baked for the holidays. A nice Sunday evening.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

an informal dinner with good friends

There were for of us for a simple supper last night; easy conversation, robust food and companionship. We started with edamame hummus and a moderately spicy roasted red pepper salsa. I toasted pit chips which I brushed with olive oil and on which I then sprinkled zaatar - crisp and tangy, perfect for scooping up the dips. I planned on our having this in the living room, but everyone was comfortable at the kitchen table with its five glass bowls full of paperwhite narcissi, so fragrant. And behind the table,sitting on a room-separating ledge, gorgeous orchids, in lush bloom for the past six weeks. Next on the menu, a tossed salad of mesclun, roasted and candied walnuts nad sliced red bartlett pairs with a fig vinaigrette. Not a leaf left on the plates and I sent my friends home with a generous bottle of the dressing.On to the main course, stuffed shells, filled with spinach and ricotta. Along with the pasta, roasted broccoli, the florets topped with sliced garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. When finished, I sprinkled on roasted pine nuts, parmesan cheese, a bit of lemon juice and zest and some fresh basil. Mmmm. Dessert was a plum tart, whipped cream on the side. Everyone opted for white wine, a sauvignon/semillon blend, one of my favorites. A good time was had by all.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I’m known to friends and family as a music freak. They call on the phone and don’t know what they’ll hear in the background – anything from Schumann’s Papillons to Tom Waits growling out his dark, often pissed- off visions. Music has such power over me – it ameliorates, annoys, uplifts, dazzles, inspires, energizes and sometimes comes close to bringing me to my knees with some sort of inchoate yearning.
Five in the afternoon, toys strewn around the house, four little boys a year apart, the youngest eighteen months, dinner to prepare and no adult conversation throughout the long day. I put on Ray Charles singing “Busted”, pick up the baby and dance around the room, Ray’s got me going, it’ll be okay.
Bread to bake, but I’m dragging a bit. What cds to stack. I select Ahmad Jamal whose jaunty renditions of Surrey With The Fringe On The Top and Poinciana put me in a good place, then Delbert McClinton shouting out some Texas blues will get the yeast rising. Dr. John’s cynical ramblings and pounding piano next followed by some in your face sexuality courtesy of Ruth Brown and lastly Willie Nelson’s terrific duets on Milk Cow Blues. I’m ready to rock and roll – and knead.
New Orleans Jazz and Blues Fest. It’s over one hundred degrees at the fairgrounds, the only respite to be found is in the gospel tent with a giant cup of iced hibiscus tea,; the tropical blend well-suited to the sultry weather. Fontella Bass belts out “This Little Light Of Mine”, the audience singing and swaying, praise the Lord and hallelujah. On to hear The Neville Brothers, Aaron stone-faced as usual, great performance, the crowd goes wild.
February, the cold grayness of the day a metaphor for my mood. The somber beauty of Brahms Double Concerto, rich and dark as the espresso I’m sipping, and profoundly moving. I wonder, as always, at the genius that creates such magic. Next, I put on a collection of adagios and Albinoni brings my head down on the kitchen table crying tears of release.
Errands to run. I stack the car disc player with “happy music” – uppers. Jerry Jeff Walkers’ infectious good humor, Bobby Enriquez’s pounding piano, Solomon Burkes’ mahogany voice, bluesy and romantic, and Big Joe Turners’ Texaz-style blues. I drive to Home Depot and, parking, see a fellow doing a two-step toward my car. I roll down the window to hear him say “Mama, I ain’t heard Jerry Jeff in a looong time;” I smile and tell him it’s just what I needed today,then he gives me a thumbs- up and dances his way into the store. God, I feel fine. When shopping’s accomplished I head home accompanied by Big Joe’s joyous shouts.
Early on an autumn morning Haydn’s triumphant horn concerto is my caffeine of choice, next will come Berlioz’s Harold In Italy, always nourishment for my soul, and, before starting the work day, the singular pleasure of Murray Perahia’s exquisite interpretation of Chopin sonatas.
I’ve gone through so many musical stages – my teenage infatuation with folk music, an obsession with rock and roll. But today the joys and comforts and exhilarations, the thunderclaps and soul-shattering moments spring from so many sources. Madama Butterfly doubly affecting, triggering memories of my husband, who so loved it. The Five Blind Boys of Alabama sing out with joy and conviction and I’m reminded of a son’s wedding, their songs his chosen recessional. George Jones’s confessionals, the elegance of Tommy Flanagan’s piano, the romance of Johnny Hartman singing with Coltrane, the cerebral performances of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s piano concertos. Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, first heard in a car, returning from New York, and so amazing and thrilling me that I ran out to purchase it the next day and have loved it ever since.
Often I wish I could shout out and be heard – thank you Aretha, Louis, Trane, Bird, Art Tatum, Dave Brubeck, Tony Bennett, Sara Vaughn, Ben Webster, Clark Terry,Dinah Washington. Blessings upon all the great composers of the classics. So many, so gifted and inspiring. The list goes on and I am humbled.
At a lovely country cemetery, surrounded by woods, the dedication of the gravestone. A bagpiper stands at the edge of the tree line playing a mournful “Amazing Grace” and I am brought to my knees with sorrow and longing. It will be a long while before I can hear the joy and redemption in this hymn once again. Memories of my husband, love of my life, wash over me, gorgeous and near-unbearable.
Provence, the Musee’ Vassarelly, a feast for the senses, the artists’ work exhibited in a soaring, glass-walled space with the lagniappe of a soft, jazzy flute in the background. Perfection, never to be forgotten
Chicago, a smoky, raucous club – the drummer recognizes me, swings into “Caravan”, and I’m a nineteen year-old bigshot, part of the in crowd.
In my sunny kitchen, the aroma of bread baking, a wood bowl of Gravenstein apples sitting on the counter, Beethoven’s violin concerto filling the house with glorious sound..
The wonder of music,its unending largesse, variety,sheer magical volume. A song in my heart, a tune in my ear, a yearning in my soul..

Saturday, December 5, 2009

food of the season


Pennsylvania. Autumn approaches with its less languorous days, an intimation of chill at night. I hear conversations at the market or walking in the neighborhood, bemoaning winter’s coming, the cost of heating oil and general misery over summer’s end. Not for me – no, among the many pleasures the cooler months hold for me none surpasses the unalloyed joy of meals I’ll eat and, most often, prepare. At the farmers markets I can barely suppress my near-lust at the sight of voluptuous squashes, ruby-red baby beets to be combined with bitter salad greens and shards of Gorgonzola in a perfect autumn salad. I obsess over the torpedo onions, to be roasted along with imperfectly formed, sugary carrots, hunks of butternut squash and chunks of bitter radicchio that become almost candy-like after caramelization in the roasting pan. There is a hint of wood smoke in the air, prompting thoughts of crisp apples, slow-cooked, bourbon laced beans, a pot of heart-warming minestrone. Time to bake a big round of country bread – it will soothe me, along with a mug of Darjeeling tea, and leftovers will become robust croutons for a late summer panzanella.

An obsession, a love affair, a passion, a metaphor for life. I awaken, at home or away , to think of my next meal. The perfect figs that I’ll have for breakfast and the particular pasta – penne with garlic, red pepper and broccoli rabe- I want for dinner that night, showered with a generous downpour of Pecorino Romano.
It’s early October in Provence – St.Paul de Vence., hotel La Colombe d’Or. There is a faint dustiness to the colors, the blowzyness has abandoned the roses to take residence with lavender turnips. Eggplants appear in myriad shapes and sizes, all seductive. An array of mushrooms, irresistibly arranged next to pencil-thin leeks that in turn lie next to straw baskets of a seemingly unending variety of earth-encrusted potatoes. My sister and I tear ourselves away from the market to return to our hotel for breakfast, taken in the courtyard that faces the square across the road where old men, all dressed in white, play boules and chatter away the morning. We ask each other, over our morning coffee and brioche, is this really happening, are we really here; figs and lemons raining on the ground and , occasionally, on our table – an exquisite array of confitures adding to the near-overwhelming satiety of sensation. Where will we lunch after the museum – where will we have dinner.

New Orleans, before Katrina. September. Steamy. Mardi Gras and the Blues Fest long over, giving easy access to the streets but no diminishment to the wanton sexiness of the city, its unabashed self-indulgence. The insistent, unapologetic, unending talk of food – it’s everywhere. My taxi driver tells me where to go for the very best oyster po boy. Over beignets at Café du Monde I strike up a conversation with a relaxed fellow sporting a panama hat who riffs on a place across the river that dishes up amazing shrimp and crab dishes. That night a friend and I dine in a lovely restaurant on Rampart Street at the seamier end of the quarter. The chef-owner is a young woman from the Midwest, classically trained, who indulges us with molasses-glazed quail, their tiny legs raised toward the pressed tin ceiling. I’m committing infanticide and I don’t care – they’re sublime. The chef comes to our table at the end of dinner and the talk turns to Paris, the perfect apple tart, radishes, remembrances of the little cafés where most dinners began with crocks of supernal French butter accompanied by crusty, yeasty bread and radishes, lovely jewels in shades of garnet, amethyst and opal. We talk of the joys of gardening. The importance of knowing the provenance of our food. She’d been raised on a large working farm and her cooking was profoundly influenced by her background.

At home, in my sun-filled kitchen. Friends are coming to dinner Saturday night. I put Charlie Haden and Cyrus Chestnut on the CD player, awaiting divine inspiration – menu inspiration. Should it be a whole fish lying regally on a bed of braised root vegetables, a fat capon accompanied by a savory bread pudding – no, it is to be duck in licorice and merlot sauce for the main course, the licorice a hinted-at back note, the whole a rich and nuanced bedazzlement. Baby turnips and braised leeks its companion, a salad of frisee, pear and toasted walnuts to begin, garnished with the lovely speckled basil lingering in the garden, and then the dessert. Ah, I think, the perfect choice. There’s still lemon verbena, draping over the little stone wall of the herb garden, so I’ll make a sorbet, and a platter of delicate hazelnut wafers. And really good merlot throughout. I’m revved up, ready to go, suffused with anticipation. The pleasures of the table. The pleasures of touching, feeling, tasting, seeing. The pleasures of loving and living.
Sunday morning. Coffee and thick slices of country bread, grilled and spread with the bitterest orange marmalade. Seated on the deck, the garden it overlooks a blaze of bronze and cinnamon mums, I reminisce about last nights gathering of good friends, good conversation laced with irreverent humor, and abundant food and wine. We’d gathered in the living room for cheese-stuffed figs and a lovely, fresh muscadet. Then, to the table and our autumnal dinner.
I think of a line from Keats ---“Autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Amen.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

speedy supper

yesterday, after raking the last of the fallen leaves, working out, running errands and baking cookies - rich, profoundly chocolate crackles - it was seven in the evening and I'd not planned anything for dinner. I washed some belgian endive and radicchio for a simple salad and started water boiling for pasta. In a saute pan I softened several cloves of garlic, chopped, in olive oil, added a tin of Italian tuna and some onion conserve I had in the fridge. With the pasta ready to go, I ran out to the garden in the dark with a flashlight and cut a generous handful of parsley. The pasta done, I added a bit of the water to the saute pan before draining, combined it with the tuna mixture and lavished on the parsley. So simple, so delicious, the slight sweetness of the onions playing beautifully with the other ingredients. I enjoyed every mouthful!!