I recently spent a few days at a conference in Seattle, and when I could, I escaped to enjoy the incredible food the city has to offer. Whenever I ran into someone and our conversation turned to eating, I was inevitably asked, Have you had oysters? I did. And they were great. And of the varieties I had, each had its own unique character, from sweet to buttery to briny to pleasantly metallic. Oysters, the terroir of the sea, as Jessica Simpson might say. Their different sizes and unique shells also contributed to the aesthetics of the experience, as did the place I was tasting this bounty of oysters, a no pretense shop with tanks in the center of the room and faucets pouring water constantly over the pools of oysters and mussels and scallops and geoducks. Oh, the geoduck chowder I had there was delicious. I devoured it at one of the few high top tables in the place that only had counter space along two walls for additional seating. Like I said, no pretense. When I was in Seattle, I could never remember the place’s name, but I would recommend to hungry people that they walk up the hill from the convention center and that when they hit a triangle of streets to look for a place with a heron on its sign. “The place with a heron on its sign” is Taylor Shellfish Farms. This experience might make me more adventurous with oysters from the gulf here in Texas. I have been enjoying them this past year, but almost exclusively fried. Still, oysters were not the immediate inspiration on my cooking from this Seattle trip. That title goes to a wonderful meal I had at La Bête.
Once again, I owe Eater and the Eater App a big thanks for being clutch when I find myself visiting a city and in a sudden and immediate need of a good place to eat. That’s how a friend and I discovered La Bête. The space is intimate yet energetic, and it’s a great place to eat at the bar and not feel exiled from the overall experience of the place. The wines are smartly curated, and the well provisioned menu appears stocked with flavor. I had a great meal that started with roasted cauliflower, followed by celery root soup with vegetable fritters, and ending with braised venison served over spaetzle. That entrée was not messing around; it was unambiguously tasty. And it made me think that I’ve been missing out by making so much pasta and never spaetzle. When I got home, I decided to remedy that.
My initial plan was to braise pork shoulder steaks and serve them sliced over a plate of spaetzle. This idea came from a desire to continue experimenting with that cut of pork, which I recently did for a meal of glazed pork shoulder steaks and celery root and blood orange salad.
Unfortunately, my local market didn’t have boneless pork shoulders the day I went; they did, however, have some lamb tenderloins. I decided to make spice-crusted lamb tenderloin with homemade herb spaetzle and radishes. The spice mixture consists of juniper berries, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, kosher salt, and fresh rosemary. The spaetzle has Italian parsley in it, and it was quickly tossed with the radishes sautéed in butter and chopped fresh sage. There are fresh peas and watercress as well. A quick pan sauce was made with sherry vinegar, dry vermouth, whole-grain Dijon mustard, and butter.
Spice Rub for Lamb Tenderloin:
1/2 tsp juniper berries
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp, densely packed, fresh rosemary leaves
2 tsp kosher salt
Herb Spaetzle (4 Dinner Servings):
1 cup all purpose flour
2 large eggs
1/3 cup whole milk
2 tsp kosher salt
3 tbsp grated fresh Parmesan
cracked black pepper
2 tbsp fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped
2 lb lamb tenderloin, so about six tenderloins for four people
1 dozen radishes, trimmed, cleaned, and quartered vertically
1/2 cup shelled peas
2 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
1/2 cup watercress leaves, trimmed and washed
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
2 oz dry vermouth
1 tbsp whole grain Dijon mustard
3 tbsp unsalted butter
In a large mixing bowl, place the flour, salt, and Parmesan for the spaetzle. Add a few turns from a pepper grinder. Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the two eggs to the center. With a wooden spoon, begin mixing in the eggs and slowly add the milk as you do this. Continue stirring until the doughy batter is smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest in the refrigerator for an hour. Set up a large pot of boiling, salted water to cook the spaetzle. When ready, mix in the parsley to the batter. Using a spaetzle maker, ricer, or a colander with large holes and a spatula (I used the colander insert for my stock pot), press the batter through in batches, so as not to crowd the dumplings, into the boiling water. Cook the spaetzle for about 3-4 minutes, or until the dumplings begin to float. Drain and use immediately, or set aside in the fridge until ready to use.
For the tenderloins, make sure they are properly trimmed and cleaned. Preheat an oven to 400 °F. Place all of the rub ingredients, except the salt, into a grinder or food processor and combined thoroughly. Mix in the salt and rub over the tenderloins. Let rest on the counter for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, have a large cast iron skillet heating over high heat. You want the pan hot enough that when you add one or two tablespoons of grape seed oil to it that it will smoke a little. This will get you a good sear on the outside. Cook the tenderloins in the pan for about 30 seconds to a minute for each side, and then place the skillet into the preheated oven and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes. Remove the tenderloins and let them rest on a carving board. Return the skillet to the stovetop, and over high heat, deglaze the pan with sherry vinegar and the dry vermouth, scraping up the bottom with a wooden spoon. Reduce by half and then add the mustard and butter. Pour into a bowl and set aside.
While the tenderloins are resting, heat 1 tbsp of butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the radishes for about 5-6 minutes, until just browning. Add the sage, the additional tbsp of butter, and the spaetzle to the pan and stir constantly so as not to burn the spaetzle. Add the peas for the last minute of cooking. The spaetzle will be heated in only a couple minutes. Serve the spaetzle with the tenderloin, spooning over the sauce, and the watercress.
While in Piedmont last year, some people on our bike tour talked up an addictive hand-rolled pasta they ate in Tuscany. What the rustic, hand-cut tajarin was to the area we were in, they said, pici was to the region around Montalcino. I had forgotten this conversation until recently when I saw a recipe for pici posted over at Jamie Oliver’s website. With a freak winter chill that descended on Houston this week, keeping us mostly indoors and so not going to the grocery store, I decided to make a hearty, fortifying pasta with what I had around the house and recalled the Oliver recipe. Pastas, like soups, have really become versatile saviors for me when ingredients are slim.
Unlike the egg-rich tajarin, pici is mostly flour and water. Still, its thicker shape gives is it a nice substantial texture, and the channel that forms along the length of the rolled pasta makes a great mechanism for gathering in sauce. I can see why pici is a good pasta for ragù. As a rough guide, I used the recipe from Oliver’s site for making the pasta, a mix of 00 flour and semolina, with water and the addition of an egg, which I read is a common regional variation. The dough is a bit difficult at first when trying to get it to hold together for kneading, feeling like wet sand, and the actual cutting and rolling are time-consuming, but the results are worth it. I didn’t have much to add to the pasta, yet an inexpensive bottle of sparkling wine (left over from the holidays) and a pound of crimini mushrooms were solid lead actors. Bacon, San Marzano tomatoes, and some fresh herbs made a fine supporting cast. I have begun to think of bacon and canned San Marzano tomatoes as essentials in the kitchen, always good to have on hand like a carton of chicken stock.
350 g 00 flour, or unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
150 g semolina flour, plus more for dusting
200 ml cold water
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt
1 lb crimini mushrooms, washed, stems trimmed, and sliced
5 peeled, canned whole San Marzano tomatoes and their sauce
4 thick slices of bacon
1 1/2 cups sparkling wine
1 large shallot, minced
4 garlic gloves, minced
Leaves from 2 rosemary stems, chopped
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage
1 tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley, plus more for garnish
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1/4 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for garnish
1 cup pasta water
season with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
garnish with flake sea salt
For the pici: To make the pici pasta, combine the flour, semolina, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle and add the egg and olive oil. Mix continuously while adding the cold water. Oliver’s recipe called for 150 ml, but I found I needed 200 ml of water in order to achieve a firm dough I could knead. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes on a lightly floured surface until the dough is smooth and elastic. Cover with plastic wrap and set in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes. Once rested, cut the dough into 5 or 6 equal pieces and cover the ones you are not working with in plastic wrap to keep from drying out. Roll a single piece into a rectangle between 1/4-1/8 cm thick. The rustic nature of this pasta means you don’t need to be worried about being so precise with the shape. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into about 1/2 cm strips. Then, starting at the middle, gently roll each strip into a long tube. I found it easier to roll if I lightly pinched along the length of the strip of dough first. I also covered the unrolled strips with a sheet of plastic wrap gently draped over them to keep them from drying out too quickly. When rolled, place the uncooked pici on a semolina-dusted tray or parchment-lined sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.
For the sauce: The sauce can be started after you’ve rolled out all of the pasta, or you can make the sauce up to the addition of the cheese and pasta water, keeping it warm and covered on the stove or refrigerated, then reheating when ready for use. In a dutch oven or large sauté pan or braising pan, cook the bacon. When cooked, remove, chop, and set aside the bacon. Add the sliced mushrooms to pan with the rendered bacon fat, and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the shallots, and cook until the shallots are softened. Add the red pepper flakes and garlic, stirring until the garlic becomes fragrant. Add the sparkling wine and reduce, scrapping up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan, until the liquid is about a scant 1/2 cup. Add the tomatoes in their sauce, crushing them and breaking them up in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. Add the herbs. Cook until the flavors have combined and some of the liquid reduced, about 10-15 minutes. At this point, you can start cooking the pasta in boiling, salted water. While the pasta is cooking, stir in the cheese to the sauce. When the pasta starts to float, cook for another 3-4 minutes, then strain, reserving the pasta water you need for the sauce. Add the water to the sauce, reduce, and check the seasoning, adding kosher salt and cracked pepper as needed. Add the pasta, stirring until the pici is well coated and more of the liquid has reduced. Serve the pasta with chopped parsley, fresh grated Parmesan, and flake sea salt. This makes six dinner servings.
I’ve been wanting to expand my repertoire of homemade breads, and the recent experiments in smørrebrød had me thinking of rye. I found a helpful recipe over at Smitten Kitchen, and the results were great. Needing something to eat with the bread, and with the first days approximating fall weather here in Houston, I decided to make soup. This carrot and parsnip soup proved to be a great dish for the rye bread to accompany.
1 tbsp canola oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 Granny Smith apple; peeled, cored, and diced
1 lb carrots; peeled and diced
1 lb parsnips; peeled and diced
8 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
8 sprigs of fresh thyme, tied
2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
juice from half of a lemon
1 tbsp heavy whipping cream
1/2 tsp honey
sea salt, to taste
fresh dill oil
smoked paprika seasoned crushed pine nuts
For the soup, heat the oil and butter over medium heat, and then add the diced onion. Sauté for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then add the diced carrots and parsnips. Continue cooking for 4 more minutes, stirring occasionally, and then add the apple and garlic. Once the garlic becomes fragrant (not burnt), add the cider vinegar and reduce. Add the seasonings and herbs. Mix. Add the stock. Bring to boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook covered until the vegetables become tender (about 30 minutes). When the vegetables are soft, remove the tied bunch of thyme stems and blend the soup thoroughly. As I do when making soup, I prefer to use a hand blender.
For the condiment, mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl. For the dill oil, chop the dill leaves, combine with enough of a 50/50 mix of grape seed oil and olive oil to cover the herbs, and season with sea salt to taste. For the pine nuts, toast 2 tbsp of pine nuts and cool. Once cool, crush the pine nuts with 1/2 tsp of smoked paprika. I use a mortar and pestle.
Copenhagen is an eye-opening city for food, and no small part of that is smørrebrød, those eye-catching open-faced sandwiches I saw all over the city. Elevated and elegant, they still retained their utility: slices of bread to convey smoked, cured, and roasted fish and meats. When in display cases, they had all of the decadent appeal of pastries, crowned with inviting textures and colors. Smørrebrød offered smart, small pleasures. Their accouterments could be composed as if for a much more complex dish, instead of burying it all beneath another slab of bread.
Although café and street food was not what brought me to Copenhagen, it has had the most immediate effect on me. Holly was going to Copenhagen for work; I was going for dinner. It was an amazing dinner. A singular experience. Noma was as innovative and crazy good as it is known to be, but my reactions to the meal we had there definitely need time to process. And that makes sense for Noma, which seems to be all about time, with its attention to foraging, and fermenting, and pickling, and slow roasting, and the ecological and culinary history of a region, and the ecological, economic, and political histories—which is to say stories—of all of the producers from whom Noma sources ingredients, including the wines and coffee. My thinking about food has been transformed by Noma, but what form that transformation will manifest as has yet to show itself (although a start may be the jar of pickled Texas quail eggs that I have seasoning in the refrigerator right now). No, the immediate effect of Copenhagen has been on using condiments and garnishes not as afterthoughts but as part of the pleasure of the dish. Smørrebrød embodied that ethos most visibly, but I also ate many smartly composed sausages, which were enhanced by quality bread and additions like fresh herb oils and various pickles.
The flavor combinations for my foray into smørrebrød were inspired by a lunch I had at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. The addition of basil pesto to a dish that already had a beet relish seemed unnecessary at first, more visually stunning than functioning for flavor, but once tasted, the combination of the oil with the vinegar and the complimentary earthiness and sweetness of the basil and the beets were revelatory. I also came across this nice, brief article by Lynda Balslev over at NPR on the history of smørrebrød from an American perspective, with included recipes, found here.
The spice rub for the pork is a combination of red chilies, paprika, onion, garlic, oregano, thyme, black pepper, and salt. The pesto is a traditional basil pesto with pine nuts and Parmesan. The beet condiment is made by puréeing homemade pickled beets and adding homemade pickled mustard seeds to that.
It was just a coincidence that on Monday I made a meatless meal. I have reached a non-critical but still punishing level of pork-fatigue, and this happens to be coinciding with the exhaustion from thinking up ways to utilize the weekly share of vegetables as we enter the waning dog days of our summer CSA program. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been receiving butternut squash, red bell peppers, and eggplant in our box, which recently led to roasted butternut squash, roasted eggplant, and glazed home-cured Guanciale served over a Lebanese dish of green lentils, the recipe for which I found in Saveur. This week, however, I wanted something a little easier, a one-pot kind of a meal. Although I traditionally reserve making butternut squash soup for the fall (since it tends to be a heartier dish), the addition of Granny Smith apple, fresh ginger, and red bell peppers lightened up a version of a Moroccan influenced soup I’ve been making for years. Typically, this soup has russet potatoes, acorn squash, and chickpeas. Also, it is usually only partially blended. This summery incarnation was further brightened by a condiment of sour cream, Greek yogurt, fresh lime juice, and whole whipping cream, seasoned with fresh thyme and kosher salt. To add texture and more depth to the pepper flavors of the soup, I used pepitas and shichimi tōgarashi as additional garnishes. The bread is Marc Vetri’s recipe for Rustic Italian loaf.
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 red bell peppers, seeded and diced
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 Granny Smith apple; peeled, cored, and diced
1 butternut squash; peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
16 oz can of diced tomatoes
6 cups vegetable stock
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/8 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1 tbsp dried oregano
8 sprigs of fresh thyme, tied
2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
juice from half of a lime
1 tbsp heavy whipping cream
1/2 tsp honey
kosher salt, to taste
fresh thyme leaves, to taste
For the soup, heat the oil and butter over medium heat, and then add the diced onion. Sauté for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then add the diced bell peppers. Continue cooking for 4 more minutes and then add the apple, ginger, and garlic. Once the garlic becomes fragrant (not burnt), add the can of tomatoes and the spices and herbs. Mix. Add the butternut squash and stock. Bring to boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook covered until the squash becomes tender (about 30 minutes). When the squash is cooked, remove the tied bunch of thyme stems and blend the soup thoroughly. I prefer to use a hand blender.
For the condiment, mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl.
Below is a picture of the lentil dish mentioned earlier.
The recipe for these Lebanese lentils comes from Saveur, Issue #132, and it was submitted to them by the poet Carolyn Forché. It can be found here. I adapted the recipe a bit, using a mix of Italian and purple basil instead of mint and substituting roasted for sautéed garlic. I used the lentils as a base for roasted butternut squash, roasted eggplant, and glazed home-cured shortcut Guanciale à la Marc Vetri. The glaze is reduced red wine and honey in the Guanciale roasting pan, along with dried oregano and crushed garlic.
So my affair with agnolotti is apparently not over. A few beets and the remainder of the zucchini from my recent co-op box left me thinking of a way to use them up and use them together, and a ravioli seemed the natural solution. A quick search on Google confirmed that, as multiple hits for beet ravioli came back. While at first I thought I would just slice the zucchini to serve with the agnolotti, I soon remembered Marc Vetri mentioning zucchini as a substitute for the corn in the crema recipe I used for my steelhead trout. It was the perfect sauce for a beet ravioli with poppy seeds that I found on the Food Republic website, a recipe that they got from the CIA’s book “Pasta.” I made a few adjustments and used my own egg pasta recipe, and things turned out pretty well. A decent 2011 Pio Cesare Arneis played nice as a companion.
This recipe calls for braising the beets instead of roasting them to get them tender enough to blend. The method is to first sauté a diced medium yellow onion with 4 chopped sage leaves in 2 ounces of unsalted butter. When the onions become tender (about 4 minutes while stirring occasionally), you add 1 1/2 pounds of peeled and diced beets along with 1/2 cup water to the sauté pan, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender. This took longer than the recipe for me, around 40 minutes. But the results were great. I let the vegetables cool a bit before blending, and to prevent having an overly wet pasta filling, I drained the blended mixture in a sieve lined with cheesecloth.
This step also kept me from having to use bread crumbs to potentially thicken the filling, as the recipe suggests. Another ingredient I left out of the filling was the egg yolks. I just went with the 3/4 cup grated Parmesan, 1/2 cup fresh ricotta, 1/2 tsp finely grated orange zest, and kosher salt and white pepper to taste. Those ingredients were added to the beet mixture and combined in a bowl with a wooden spoon.
I made egg pasta sheets, doubling my recipe. With a batch this size, I used my stand mixer with a paddle and then the dough hook before finishing the kneading by hand. Folding the agnolotti is getting a little easier with practice, but it is still a time consuming process. I set the cut agnolotti on lined baking pans, sprinkle with semolina, and put in the freezer to harden before transferring to ziplock bags to be stored in the freezer for later use.
For the sauce, I used 3 cups peeled and diced zucchini sautéed with half of a diced onion in 2 tbsp olive oil, stirring often until tender. Next, I added 1 cup water and 1 cup heavy cream to the pan, brought the mixture to a simmer, and cooked covered for 10 minutes. The mixture is blended with a tbsp olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and white pepper. I also prepared asparagus by trimming and blanching it. All of these can be made in advance, storing the sauce and asparagus in the fridge and the agnolotti in the freezer. When ready to cook, get a pot of salted boiling water going for the agnolotti, and put about 1/2 cup (or more if you like) of the sauce per serving in a sauté pan over medium-low heat with asparagus tips (again, use an amount to your liking). Cook the agnolotti until they float, drain, and then add them to the sauce and asparagus, carefully coating them. You don’t want the delicate pasta to tear. I served the agnolotti sprinkled with poppy seeds, and a little remainder of the pasta filling and freshly chopped sage in olive oil and freshly cracked black pepper as a garnish on the side of the dish with flake sea salt. The addition of the sage oil as a garnish helped to add a little more herbaceousness to this sweet-tending ravioli.
Biking from Acqui Terme to Monforte d’Alba across the Monferrato and Langhe hills, I experienced subtle shifts in the landscape, the transforming hunks and shades of the vineyards and valleys, which reflected the variations in the Piedmontese wines and cuisine. For instance, how stretching west from Acqui, the soil great for Muscato and Barbera gives way to Barbera and Nebbiolo. How the higher in elevation the hills raised, the more hazelnut groves are passed. I mentioned in my previous post that each place we stopped at had their own salumi and cheese to go with their wines, but there were some constants, each given local and personal flair.
Beyond tajarin, Piedmont is known for its gnocchi, risotto, and agnolotti (or a folded ravioli). As with the tajarin, most preparations of these other pastas were simple but full of flavor. A big takeaway from all of the rustic Piedmontese cuisine I ate was that you shouldn’t mistake complexity with complicated. The dishes were complex in flavor without being unnecessarily complicated. The most involved primo piatto I had was a tajarin with a Bolognese. One of the best dishes I ate was in Turin at a restaurant called Agnolotti & Friends. I tried agnolotti stuffed with potato, mint, and ricotta that melted on the tongue. Seriously. The pasta had almost the same silky texture as the beef Carpaccio I had for an antipasto. The agnolotti was simply prepared with capers, lemon, butter, and Parmesan, and was ridiculously good. I had to try to recreate it when I got home, and so I did.
In addition to the braised meats and salumi, we were served generous amounts of beef Carpaccio and dishes of thinly sliced or pounded cutlets of pork or veal that came topped with a mustard sauce, sometimes loaded with tuna brought over the hills from Genoa. Those dishes looked something like this link here to Gianni and Mina’s restaurant. Those meat and mustard-sauce dishes came as an antipasto. Another antipasto constant was a savory flan with a cheese sauce. We usually had either spinach or asparagus flan with a creamy and rich Fontina sauce. These savory flans were such a novelty I wanted to see if I could recreate one. I found a recipe at Epicurious that is adapted from a dish served at a hotel in Turin. It turned out great. Since even halving the recipe made more flan than we could consume in one go, I used it as a side for a grilled pork collar with a cherry gastrique.
“Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” That nice morsel of a statement—attributed to T.S. Eliot and continually reanimated by creative writing workshops—has all the roundness of an aphorism that makes it just sound like wisdom. It’s a piece of advice I’ve enlisted on more than one occasion when trying to impress upon my students that it’s okay to have influences; it’s okay to be inspired. And I have to admit that the rhetoric of unapologetic thievery usually has enough rebellion in it to start shifting those self-identified individual geniuses over to the position that our art doesn’t come from some pure internal wellspring. When it comes to art, you get the ideas for your ideas somewhere.
Cooking, for me, is an art like any other. It is one for which I am an amateur, although enthusiastic, practitioner. I am always looking for inspiration, searching for what flavor combination, texture, or technique I can steal. The challenge for home cooks is how to incorporate inspiration into meals that feel natural and effortless for our limitations in skill, ingredients, and equipment. I don’t need to try to recreate the dish coyly but aptly called English Peas I had at Alinea, which was an absolute orgy of textures, temperatures, and techniques. (I found some pictures of what I ate here, and here, and here; it was a three-part dish.) I only have to take what I need, which in the case of English Peas was a lesson in using an ingredient in different ways on the same plate, highlighting various pleasures in mouthfeel.
What T.S. Eliot actually said was this: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” For the amateur, this is all relative. When I make a meal, my only hope is to be inspired enough to challenge myself, to make my cooking exciting to me and those I cook for, and hopefully tastier. I don’t need to take on the whole history of the art. That, unfortunately, is the kind of hubris I reserve for poetry.
This long preamble is all to say Holly and I went to Italy. We went to bike and eat and drink our way through Piedmont. The whole time, I was taking note of what I could steal for my own cooking. That contraband became this meal shown here in the spirit of Piedmont I made when we returned, a meal that was as much a celebration as it was a lament for the fact we were no longer sitting in village restaurants, drinking local Barberas and Barolos, while eating local cheeses and house-made pastas and salumi.
“Local” really was the theme of our gustatory pilgrimage. Many of the incredible wines we drank came from vines we could see out the windows of where we were imbibing them or had only recently passed on our bikes. The food was no different. When we turned down a steep road in the Langhe hills, following our guides to the beautiful and rustic restaurant, La Casa Nel Bosco, ristorante in famiglia of the gracious Gianni and Mina (Gianni serves the wine and food that Mina skillfully prepares) surrounded by gardens and tucked into a forest containing chestnuts, it was no shock to find asparagus and spinach from the garden incorporated into dishes and chestnuts poached in honey smartly garnishing a plate of beef carpaccio that opened the meal. Piedmont, after all, is the epicenter and origin of the Slow Food movement with its locavore ethos. Our guide Arien mischievously joked that to call it a “movement” there is kind of inaccurate, since local is just how things are done. I should add that Arien and our other guide Jimi were incredible, and the cycling trip the DuVine company created for Piedmont is spectacular. I can’t say enough wonderful things about DuVine. We were in excellent hands.
Yesterday, Slow Food USA shared a link on its Twitter feed to an article about Slow Food Italy’s creative response to the recent scandal of horsemeat-tainted prepared foods across Europe. Their idea: stuff your own pastas and make your own meat-based sauces in protest. Or in other words, know where your ingredients are coming from and what they are. In my own—not exactly selfless—gesture of solidarity, I made Pappardelle Ragù alla Bolognese. My dish was not traditional. First of all, I used lamb. I also added a mix of herbs with my dry bay leaf: thyme, rosemary, oregano, and parsley. I filled out the conventional Bolognese soffritto (onion, carrot, celery) with diced calabacita italiana, or Italian zucchini. The pappardelle is also a variation: I made it with black garlic. I love the Slow Food attitude that politics can perhaps be palatable.
In cooking, I often take inspiration from failure. This was the case for a recent dinner I made in celebration and thanks for my brother being in town to show his documentary film and to meet with my students. The menu that I composed arose from my love of reacting to what looks fresh at the market and also my obsession with transforming previous debacles into successes. The culprit this time was a terrible dish of pan-seared sea scallops with a lifeless rutabaga purée that I cooked for Holly and myself a few weeks ago. Why rutabagas? It was a whim. Unfortunately, the purée was seriously lacking in flavor and its texture was off. The scallops were prepared fine, but I realized that I only ever seem to pan-sear them and line them up on a plate with some sauce. The way I used them was a failure of imagination. Deciding to cook a meal for my brother gave me the opportunity to get revenge on those culinary flops.
I have a friend who gives a kind of motivational lecture about writing poetry in which he insists that you have to permit yourself to fail spectacularly in order to create poems that have vitality and urgency. Of course this is for the drafting process, where you perform the work of risk and error that will eventually lead to the finished poem. It’s a hard analogy to make with cooking if we take a single meal as the comparison. When I screw up a meal, I may be able to adjust and salvage as I go along, but if not, the meal’s a bust. The “drafts” I create in cooking are those previous meals with all their successes and disasters that eventually inform new dishes, new menus. It’s important for me to have these trials and errors, and not only because repetition helps in training for technique. They are also essential to developing your palate and culinary repertoire.
Maybe the analogy here is closer to what I heard another poet say recently about his creative process. He said that he likes to think of writing poems as something similar to the “Danger Room” of the X-Men comics. You’ve got to treat a draft as a place where you can safely practice your powers without the fear that you’ll irrevocably ruin the world around you. I wouldn’t recommend approaching every meal in this way, but it is important for me to have those in-between meals, those experiments and spectacular failures that end in exciting transformations.
My desire for a new way of preparing scallops led to poaching, although I have to admit that a crudo crossed my mind first. The rutabaga purée became a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée. Definitely an improvement.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo just left town, and in honor of its exodus, I cooked a batch of chili. It’s a version I’ve been making that is inspired by living in Texas, but it is definitely not “Texas chili” by any purist’s standards. In a roundabout way, it was Texas barbecue that opened my mind to the possibilities for chili, more specifically the benefits of slow-cooked beef. I’m a Midwesterner, so I have some experience with the provincial oddities and kitsch that accompany state fairs. Even so, I was still surprised at the spectacles and excesses of the rodeo. My initiation to the rodeo actually happened with a surprise. Years ago, on a Saturday morning, I woke to what I thought was a maniac loose on the street, screaming beneath my window. However, when I pulled up the blinds, I saw a stream of riders on horses and wagons, while an emcee in cowboy gear announced their names through a microphone. It was then I discovered I was living at the epicenter of the rodeo parade route.
The biggest surprises were still in store for me when I actually attended the rodeo. The runner-up has to be the chicken fried bacon, a delicacy out of Yoakum and Snook, Texas. Yes, I did eat it gratefully. But the blue-ribbon surprise goes to mutton bustin, an honorable tradition of putting toddlers in hockey helmets and life jackets and then placing them on sheep to see how long the kids can hold on while the sheep run. I remember a lot of tears and a lot of bewildered joy.
Moving to Texas was full of cultural discoveries like these, many of them inspiring ambivalence like my rodeo experiences did, yet, there were some unequivocally enjoyable surprises, like breakfast tacos and Texas barbecue. In Minnesota, if Mexican food was served for breakfast, it was usually some version of a bland flour tortilla rolled around eggs and cheese, dolloped with store bought salsa. Barbecue meant bratwurst and hamburgers if you were at home or the cabin. If you went out to eat, you might get pork ribs or chicken. I didn’t even know what beef brisket was before moving to Houston, and I regret all of those lost years. Same goes for real tortillas, flour or corn, and the genius of mixing eggs, salty meats, and cheese together to serve with those tortillas for breakfast.
Searching around for chili recipes a few years ago, I landed on the controversy over Texas chili, which some aficionados claim must be chunks of beef with chili paste made from dried chilies. Tomatoes usually aren’t welcome; beans, never. Looking at pictures made me think of chopped brisket, or my other favorite slow-cooked cut, the short rib. Since I’m an outsider and don’t need to be a Texas chili zealot, I could experiment. Giada De Laurentiis has a recipe for short rib chili that appealed to me, and it suggested serving it with polenta, which just made me think of Frito chili pie, so I had to try her version. I’ve since tweaked the recipe, substituting Young’s Double Chocolate Stout for the instant espresso coffee and dried chipoltes for canned, plus skipping her use of chocolate and adding tomato purée. I serve the chili with regular creamy polenta and spicy coleslaw.
“‘Yes…’ that peculiar / affirmative. ‘Yes…’ / A sharp, indrawn breath, / half groan, half acceptance, / that means ‘Life’s like that.…’” So Elizabeth Bishop describes a habit of speech from Nova Scotia in her poem “The Moose,” and it’s true. This particular verbal gesture, this custom of saying “yes” as if swallowing it, or it’s consuming you, and not necessarily a response to any question, but simply a way to let the person you are speaking with know that you’re listening, that you’re with them, you’re there, this peculiar “yes” was one of the surprises for me when I visited the province. I was also surprised to see a moose, multiple moose, in fact, but unlike Bishop’s moose, the ones I saw were on Cape Breton. The biggest shock was not the discovery of a “sweet / sensation of joy” at the encounter with the “grand, otherworldly,” and curious creatures. No, it was the herd of not-so-brilliant humans getting out of their cars and playing paparazzi, and being just as reckless to everyone involved, beasts and bystanders included. We had come to Nova Scotia to visit Holly’s relatives, but with the additional intentions of seeing the place Bishop had mapped so descriptively in her many Nova Scotian poems and to learn to like eating fish. More precisely, cooked fish. To help with that, we booked a few days at the end of our trip in the south end of Nova Scotia at the Trout Point Lodge. This idyllic, luxury hotel specializes in local seafood, with preparations paying homage to the Acadian history of the province. It’s a beautiful retreat, perched along a river surrounded by woods, and the wonderful flowers and vegetables from the gardens will end up on your table.
“From narrow provinces / of fish and bread and tea, / home of the long tides” is how Bishop opens “The Moose,” with that generative, propagating, localizing preposition, “From,” and the poem begins its cinematic sweep. Like a tracking shot in a movie, a single sentence carries us across a landscape over six stanzas, telescoping down from a bird’s-eye view to join a journey in progress, where “a bus journeys west,” the main clause of the sentence that finally arrives after we’ve been held in suspension for twenty-five lines. It’s a breathtaking sentence, and though Bishop travels west, presumably from her childhood home of Great Village, following along an inlet of the Bay of Fundy and tributaries, “where if the river / enters or retreats / in a wall of brown foam / depends on if it meets / the bay coming in / the bay not at home,” before she turns north to New Brunswick and her moose, Holly and I travelled west, too, but then south, on the North Atlantic Ocean side. While the Trout Point Lodge fish-fest didn’t quite take, I did learn a little something about the Acadian style of cooking, particularly some techniques for incorporating the holy trinity of onion-celery-green pepper with your roux in making gumbo. Yet the biggest culinary surprise on that trip to the province “of fish and bread and tea” was the Cape Breton tea biscuit. Every home we stayed at had their own version of this tasty cross between a flaky, buttery biscuit and a scone. The relatives who graciously opened their doors and guest-rooms to us also generously made Cape Breton tea biscuits to have in the morning with jam and butter and coffee. I devoured them gratefully over our conversations around the table. Morning can have its own form of “dreamy divagation,” and the scene on Bishop’s bus is a social one not distant from the hearth or family table, hosting its talk of “names being mentioned, / things cleared up finally; / what he said, what she said, who got pensioned; // deaths, deaths and sicknesses; / the year he remarried; / the year (something) happened.” When I discovered the biscuits at the ubiquitous Tim Hortons as we drove across Nova Scotia, I couldn’t resist them.
The first thing we did once getting back on the main road to Halifax after our stay at the Trout Point Lodge was to stop at Tim Hortons where I purchased a few of their ham and cheese variety. When we returned home, I decided to test my ineptitude with baking by making these biscuits for myself. I was craving them. I was able to get some help from the family, fitting for the spirit of these biscuits. I’ve been making these biscuits ever since. Modified a little from the family secrets, here is the recipe.
Cape Breton Tea Biscuits:
2 cups flour
2 1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup cold, unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk, or substituted with 1 cup skim and a tbsp. cider vinegar
Sift the dry ingredients together and place in food processor. Add chilled butter (I place mine in the freezer for about 30 minutes), and pulse 8-10 times to combine. Remove mixture to large bowl and add the milk. Combine, but don’t over-mix. Roll out on a floured surface, and cut out biscuits with a round cookie cutter. Bake on a lined, rimmed sheet at 425 °F for 10-12 minutes. Cool on rack. This makes about a dozen biscuits.
This blog is not very linear, and it doesn’t have a cohesive pattern, which I guess I could just claim as contemporary from a literary standpoint and be fine with it. So, here is a meal I made a few weeks ago, and I have (almost) nothing to say about poetry in this post.
It turns out Holly and I have a FoodSaver vacuum sealer. Well, I knew we had it, but I’d just forgotten about it. It’s been hanging out with the rest of the gadgets in the museum of good intentions that occupies the backs of our cupboards. What got me thinking about it was all of the bacon dashi I’ve been making and all the bacon dashi going to waste because I’m not using it every day in order to not waste it. I occasionally buy vacuum sealed ice cubes of demi-glace from a local market (the ever-incredible Revival Market), and I was thinking I wish I could do that. Then, I remembered I could.
Messing around with the FoodSaver led me back to David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook and a recipe I’d seen in there for what he called a “ghetto sous vide” method of cooking marinated hanger steak. I didn’t want to ruin an expensive cut of meat for my experiment or go track down hanger steak, so I settled on a flank steak, a cut that can benefit from a little marinating. I did stick to Chang’s marinade recipe, though. The Momofuku cookbook recommends using a high-quality plastic bag and straw to remove the excess air. I used the vacuum sealer, precariously removing the air while not letting the liquid get out. It was a messy, frustrating, and time-consuming process, even if eventually successful. I’m thinking a straw and a Ziploc bag would have been the way to go. Here’s how it went down:
When I was over halfway through writing the poems for my first book, I had the opportunity to participate in a reading, and I chose a selection of what I considered at the time to be my best—or at least favorite—work. A mentor of mine was in the crowd, and afterwards when everyone was hanging out and complimenting the readers, as happens at those things, he had some nice words to say to me, and then mischievously added, “a very avian reading.” Um, so it turns out I wrote a lot about birds.
I’m sure on some level I was aware of it, but I wasn’t painfully aware of it until that moment. I didn’t—and don’t—regret the flocks, the bevies, the congresses and murders and murmurations of birds populating those poems. I needed them at the time. Which is another way of saying they were an obsession. They had become for me a way of talking about some of the themes of that book. Birds were a vocabulary I adopted (and, yes, perhaps a rather conventional or at least traditional one) to express the transactions between an interior life and the external world, for the challenge of trying to capture a present tense that is always winging into the next present moment, for the anxiety over this here mortal coil, and the nostalgia for something transcendent. And in my aesthetics at the time—a kind of meditative poem that makes excursions into a representational report of the world around its lyric speakers—those birds made perfect sense. Yet, once I was aware of that reliance, I had to make the decision to keep trying to perfect and rejuvenate that vocabulary or to move on if I felt it was merely habit at that point. I moved on.
To put things into perspective, here’s a little obsessive inventory. In The Currency, the word “bird” or bird-related terms, including species names and words like “feather” and “wing,” appear twenty-eight times. In my new manuscript, which is nearing its final stages before publication, such words only appear fifteen times, and eight of those occur in a single poem, the most recent one I’ve written for the book. The words “bird” and “birds” were used thirteen times in writing The Currency, but in the five years since I finished it, I’ve called on those words only four times for Pax Americana. Part of this shift was a conscious reaction against complacency, but it’s more complicated than that. With new obsessions, I needed to find new symbols in order to communicate.
Here’s some additional counting: in The Currency, there are eighteen references to visual art. In Pax Americana, there are four. The Currency alludes to three films (and I mean “films” with all its pretentious baggage). Pax Americana alludes to or directly names seven “movies,” seven television shows (with multiple nods to Joss Whedon, Alias, and HBO series), news casts, and a YouTube video. Writing (in the form of poems, letters, philosophical and biographical texts, etc.) comes up sixteen times in The Currency, but there are forty-four references in Pax Americana (including a Wikipedia entry). It appears that I’m still using poetry as an interpretive act, but I seem more interested in how we organize our lives into language than I am in finding those meanings in the tableaux of paintings. I also find I’m reaching towards a larger range of experience.
Obsessions are often the working out of an idea, and they last until the vitality of that search settles into habit. An obsession in a poem can also be the way a poem is made. Every poem is an expression of what a poem can be. Eventually, you might just be writing a poem because, well, that is how you know a poem is made. If you’re honest with yourself as a poet, you’ll ask why you’re making a poem the way you are. When you stop being able to answer that question compellingly, it is probably time to look elsewhere for a new set of images, symbols, and structures, so a new vocabulary.
I’ve been thinking about cooking lately in these same terms. It’s as if the dishes I’m cooking and the ingredients and methods I’m using are a vocabulary for me to express what a dish can and should be. The notion of “should be” is an ever-evolving one. What seems necessary today won’t necessarily be so tomorrow. Sometimes I land on a preparation or flavor that I enjoy so much or that has a potential that has eluded me, and so I obsessively use it. Experimenting. Tweaking. Until it becomes a routine. Just a tired iteration. There was a time when what signified a side dish was a pile of roasted carrots and parsnips. Then, there was the age of the Brussels sprouts. For a while, purées of English peas cropped up regularly. For the past three weeks, I can’t stop making ginger scallion noodles. Besides, it would be a shame to let these leftover ingredients in the fridge go to waste.
Obsessions in cooking, along with their leftovers, can attract new discoveries, like a planet accruing satellites. The vegetables remaining from Valentine’s dinner sent me off to Nippan Daido Japanese Market in west Houston. They also encouraged me to try my hand at making a dessert. Thanks to the Eggs on Sunday blog, that dessert attempt was a success, and I now have something in my repertoire to complete an entire meal, from first course to last.
For Christmas, I received David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook. It’s a beautiful object in its own right, with its clean cover and nice heft, its great photos, and the book’s packed with incredible and inventive recipes and cooking tips. It also contains a compelling narrative, a memoir-ish, manifesto-esque meditation on craft and ambition, on tradition and innovation, and David Chang projects an ethos of unpretentious dedication to making relentlessly tasty food. What he says about his take on ramen could be a mantra for the book: “the most important thing is that you make it delicious, not that you make it exact.”
I could transpose William Carlos Williams’s dictum—“If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem”—into the question: “If it ain’t delicious, why are you making it?” What connects the best crepe I ever ate, the savory Cuban at the Flip Happy Crepes Airstream trailer in Austin, and the best meal I ever ate, one at Grant Achatz’s Alinea? They were both ridiculously delicious. I rarely visit New York, but last year on a brief trip (like 36-hours brief), I ate at David Chang’s Má Pêche, and the food didn’t have to sacrifice tastiness to be inventive. I’ve spent the last month hoping I’ll be infused with some of that inspired cooking by experimenting with the Momofuku cookbook.
I can’t claim to have the attention span to work from cookbooks or to strictly follow recipes. Usually, I just use them for hints about technique and handling ingredients or for flavor combinations, but I don’t go off script because I think I’m exercising my right to be creative, à la Billy Madison drawing a blue duck because he’s never seen a blue duck. There are the more practical impediments of not having all of the necessary equipment or ingredients that come with the amateur home-cook’s kitchen and pantry. To get anything done, you’ve got to adjust. You’ve got to react to what you have. Or as David Chang reminds us, “Be resourceful.”
There’s a challenge in that, and that challenge is actually the source of innovation and creativity for me. This is much the same for poems as it is for cooking. The challenge can be local to the circumstances of preparing a specific meal or working with a particular bit of language; however, it may be more global, such as the tension between the new and the old, innovation and tradition.
Of course, a very immediate reason for innovation is novelty. We hate being bored. Surprise and whimsy are valuable for enjoyment, for being reawakened to the substance, the fact of something, whether it’s food or language. Roman Jakobson said of literary language that it is “organized violence committed on ordinary speech,” which is not because poets are sadists. Rather, literary uses of language can rejuvenate language’s meaning-making potential. To arrive at that requires that you challenge your and your readers’ assumptions.
David Chang is not afraid to question his assumptions. I love what he says about his transformation of traditional dashi—a broth infused with katsuo-bushi (dried fish flakes) and konbu (kelp)—into bacon dashi, which substitutes smokey bacon for the smokey fish flakes. Chang writes, “We respect tradition and we revere many traditional flavor profiles, but we do not subscribe to the idea that there’s one set of blueprints and everyone should follow. I think that in the questioning of basic assumptions—about how we cook and why we cook with what we do—is when a lot of the coolest cooking happens.” He didn’t have to completely reinvent the notion of dashi, but he did question the purpose and composition of it. The result of that willingness to question himself is this versatile and flavorful iteration of dashi. According to Chang’s narrative, it was a lack of available katsuo-bushi that led him to his innovation, but the solution is one that makes sense not only for him but for the American kitchen where bacon holds a consistent if not fanatical place. Bacon dashi seems so spontaneous but inevitable.
This kind of innovation holds sympathies with my thinking about the creative process in general. The appearance of something new and exciting in poetry doesn’t appear from nothing and doesn’t have to be completely unrecognizable when it arrives. I wouldn’t question my assumptions about what makes a poem a poem by presenting you with a toaster. The following Kenneth Burke quote has been helpful to me in thinking about innovation. He had this to say about John Dewey’s ideas on novelty in art and philosophical pragmatism: “The artist says, in substance: ‘I make the exhortation in the terms of what has already been accepted. Once these terms are accepted, I can go a little beyond them. But I shall argue only for my addition, and assume the rest. If people believe eight, I can recommend nine; I can do so by the manipulation of their eightish assumptions; I need not justify my nine by arguing for one.’” David Chang’s bacon dashi seems to me like a good example of manipulating some eightish assumptions.
Yet, when innovating, food still needs to be delicious, and a poem still needs to move you.
I like the challenge of letting a meal develop around a few random ingredients or even a single one. Call it the Chopped compulsion. Most times, though, it’s not about competitiveness, which is really just a competitiveness with myself, as much as it is about economics and circumstances: I don’t want to waste what I have in the fridge or I don’t have time for the grocery store. Other times it is the joy of novelty. Perhaps someone has given me an ingredient, or I walk the aisles of the grocery store waiting to be drawn in by what looks good or interesting. These ingredients are generative constraints; the places from which to leap towards innovation and surprise. As with the composition of a poem, I love discovering what I wasn’t looking for but what seems so inevitable and right when it arrives. In teaching poetry, I regularly tell my students, and remind myself, that you don’t need an idea to write a poem; you just need a little language or a little bit of structure to work against. An ingredient can work the same way.
This time it started with a gift. Holly brought me a beautiful pumpkin seed oil purchased at Zingerman’s on a recent trip to Michigan. Richly viscous and nutty, this oil has a color that appears to go from tar to amber to a corona of chartreuse. I wanted to use it in a way where it wouldn’t be completely lost in the background or as an undercurrent (like in a dressing), both visually and in its taste. I decided to keep the oil’s autonomy by using it in a soup, one that would let the oil shine on its own while still giving it the chance to be incorporated into the whole. In my carnivore-dominant culinary repertoire, I have few vegetarian recipes, but in the fall and winter, I have one for a Moroccan spiced squash soup that is a welcomed regular. When making the soup, I usually blend it partially, leaving chunks of squash and potato before I finish the soup with chickpeas. For this recent meal, I wanted the soup thicker to let the oil rest on top, so it was going to be completely blended. The chickpeas didn’t seem right, but to maintain texture, I purchased some toasted, salted pumpkin seeds. For further texture and earthy flavor, I crisped sage leaves in the oven for a garnish (first coating them in olive oil, then baking them at 325 degrees for about 16 minutes). I also wanted to balance out the oil by increasing the brightness of the soup, so I chose to add cider vinegar.
For the soup, I started with mirepoix, then added garlic, the cider vinegar, a can of crushed tomatoes, and a spice mixture of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, salt, white pepper, ginger, paprika, cayenne pepper, and oregano. Then I added butternut and acorn squash, russet potatoes, and vegetable stock. When finished, the soup was blended, and I stirred in heavy cream and a little whole milk. I served the soup with a drizzle of the pumpkin seed oil, the pumpkin seeds, and the crispy sage.