Monthly Archives: April 2011

The True Alchemy

Last week I attended an event that was so unexpected and interesting that I want to tell you all about it.  It started with an email promoting some upcoming Penthouse Symposium events at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle.  One of these was an author event, billed as follows:

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of Harlem is Nowwhere. April 20th. 7pm.

In conversation with Nick Licata, Charles Mudede, and Sandra Jackson-Dumont.

Topic: Sharifa’s new book: Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America.

$40/person, includes a hearty stew and a copy of Harlem is Nowhere.

 Although I wasn’t familiar with the author, it sounded interesting.  So off we went–me and my friend Kay, who is always up for an adventure.  We really didn’t have any clear expectations for this event.  The Sorrento is pleasantly old school, we like book readings–oh, and there would be stew?

After some preparatory cocktails and a cheese plate in the Fireside Room, we made our way up to the penthouse.

Long tables were set for dinner, there was a bar in the corner, and large windows framed sunset city views.

The room filled with an eclectic crowd, and the noise level quickly increased to an astonishing level.  Conversation, laughter, clinking glasses, the space crackled with a contagious electricity.

Finally the chef, Michael Hebb, stepped forward and gave a game plan for the evening.  He talked about bringing people together around the table.  He told us that he had decided at the last minute to change the promised bowl of stew into an entire meal.

Platters of spicy garbanzo beans, an endive salad, matzo bread, and chunks of tender lamb circulated family style.  Conversation crescendoed again over dinner.  We were seated next to a couple who had recently travelled through China, and were planning a trip to Bhutan.  Another tablemate shared anecdotes from her career as a private investigator.  I caught snatches of conversation over my shoulder, from a dapper elderly gentleman who expressed his admiration for Angelina Jolie’s lips.

Fatal Lucciauno, a local Hip Hop artist, got up and gave a quick a cappella performance, full of poetry and shining with simple authenticity.

Then the author, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, read from her book, Harlem is Nowhere.

Her posture as easy and polished as her elegant voice, she read to us and it was lyrical, musical, hypnotic.  When she finished there was a hush, then applause.

As we nibbled on pastries and chocolates, the panel discussion commenced, not the ping-pong of a debate, but a more leisurely game of verbal croquet, each member examining the lay of the conversational ball and taking a swing at it from their own unique angle.

There was a sparkle to the entire evening, a magic created from a diverse crowd, intellectual curiosity, good conversation, and a beautiful setting.  But I think the true alchemy was from bringing people together around a table.  The exquisite comfort of good food and the connection of passing dishes from hand to hand opened and eased and made way for an almost palpable sense of connection in the room.

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We Went Casual

This Easter was a little different than usual.  This year we were on a hiatus from our traditional Easter extravaganza with a group of old friends.  I am the sort of person who enjoys tradition, repetition, routine, predictability.  I like knowing that from year to year, I can count on certain things to remain the same.  But life is about change, and sometimes things do get shaken up a bit.  That’s just how it goes and I learn, little by little, to embrace that.

So this year, we were writing our own script.  It was a family Easter this year.  And I thought that since we usually have a vegetarian Easter, why not make this one a little meatier?  One thing I knew I could not do without was well-paired wine, courtesy of my local wine merchant, Larry.  He put as much care into selecting the two bottles for this year as he does for the case I usually buy for Easter.  Something I decided I could do without was cooking all day, which isn’t my cup of holiday tea, so to speak.

So we went casual.  An extensive tray of charcuterie, a duck and cognac pate, an array of cheeses, olives, cornichons, slices of baguette, mustard, and quince paste for the first course, with a bottle of Malbec.

For the next course, a simple roasted chicken and a chard and onion panade, with a bottle of Pinot Gris.  My nephew loves chard, so this panade was for him.

And Sissy made devil’s food cupcakes with ganache frosting for dessert.

In this meaty feast, this pivot from our usual delightful vegetarian Easter fare, who would have guessed that the vegetables would steal the show?  The chard and onion panade was hot, fragrant, and hearty.  The combination of deeply caramelized onions, broth, bread, and cheese was reminiscent of French onion soup, but much more substantial.  The ribbons of chard were tender, but chewy, adding a bit of texture to the soft tangle of golden onions and pillowy, brothy bread cubes.  The panade could easily stand alone as a main course, needing nothing but a crunchy salad to complete the meal.

This dish did require about an hour of active cooking before slipping it into the oven to bake peacefully beside the chicken.  For a holiday meal, that’s a pretty good time investment.  It’s not too bad for any lazy Sunday afternoon either, when you can enjoy the cooking process, then go curl up on the couch with a book and wait for the rich smell wafting from the kitchen to envelop you like a comfortable afghan.

Chard and Onion Panade

(adapted from the Zuni Café Cookbook)

  • 1 1/2 pounds (about 2 large) thinly sliced yellow onions
  • olive oil
  • 8 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • Salt
  • 1.5 lbs Swiss chard (about 3 bunches), thick ribs removed, cut into 1-inch-wide ribbons
  • 10 ounces day-old hearty bread cut into rough 1-inch cubes
  • 3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for vegetarian version)
  • 8 ounces Gruyère, coarsely grated

In a large sauté pan, drizzle onions with enough olive oil to coat.  Add garlic and a generous pinch of salt.  Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until onions are golden and caramelized, but without any browned edges-about 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place another large sauté pan over medium heat. In three or four batches, drizzle chard with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  If chard is dry, sprinkle on some water.  Steam chard until wilted but still bright green—3 or 4 minutes per batch.

In a large bowl, toss the bread cubes with a few tablespoons of olive oil, about ½ cup of the stock, and salt to taste.

In a flameproof, 3-quart casserole or skillet, assemble the panade in layers: onions, bread cubes, chard, cheese, repeat, topping with a handful of bread cubes.

Bring the remaining stock to a simmer and taste for salt. Add stock slowly around the edge of the dish to about 1 inch below the rim.

Set panade over low heat and bring to a simmer.  Cover loosely with foil, and place in oven with a cookie sheet on the rack below to catch any drips.  Bake for about 1 ½ hours, or until hot and bubbly.  Uncover, increase temperature to 375 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Serves 4 as a main course or 8 as a side dish

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A Little Wacky

There are recipes that transcend the simple sum of their parts.  The pasta that Rob made for the Amazing Race dinner party last week was one such.  All he did—ALL he did! was show up with a big bowl of buttery slurry, studded with bright emerald chips of jalapeno and tender lumps of crabmeat, and a couple of boxes of angel hair pasta.

From the comfort of the couch, I watched as he put a pot of water on for the pasta, then set out some bits of meat and cheese for appetizers, and loaves of freshly made bread.  As the other guests arrived, they were pulled into the inevitable orbit around the kitchen, talking and nibbling and getting drinks.

Within minutes, before I could even bestir myself and offer to lend a hand, the pasta was drained and stirred into the buttery mixture, and dinner was on.

Earlier in the week, Rob had mentioned that he was going to try something a little wacky for dinner on Sunday.  Indeed, who would ever think that you could put jalapenos, mint, and crab together and get a finished pasta dish?

But the smell alone convinced me that he was on to something, and it wasn’t wacky at all.   This dish was almost as much about scent as taste.  The freshness of the mint wafted across my palate like the first sip of an ice-cold mojito, my mind insisting on a hint of lime.  The tiny, crunchy bits of jalapeno didn’t add heat so much as brightness to the dish.  And the angel hair pasta was delicate enough to seem infused with the sweetness of the crab.

Dead simple.  Crazy simple, even.  An unexpected combination that simply danced together.

Capellini with Crab, Jalapenos, and Mint

(adapted from Italian, My Way by Jonathan Waxman)

  • 1 cup butter, cut into small cubes
  • 1 lb crab meat
  • 2 jalapenos, cored, seeded and minced
  • 24 mint leaves, torn
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 lbs angel hair pasta
  • Salt and pepper

Cook pasta in salted water.  Combine crab meat, butter, mint leaves, and garlic in a large bowl.  Strain pasta, and stir into the butter mixture.  Squeeze in juice of one lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.

Serves eight.

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Best Sauce Ever

I don’t know why I am so slow on the uptake sometimes.

Take Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce.  I have read rave reviews of this sauce for years, eons maybe…seen all sorts of variations on it, each promising The. Best. Sauce. Ever.  And still, I hadn’t tried it.  What could be so special about such a simple sauce, anyway?  It has exactly three and a half ingredients, for Pete’s sake!  And besides, I was quite comfortable with the marinara that Michael makes.  It’s classic, delicious, and I don’t have to make it.  Enough said.

I was reading Spoon Fed by Kim Severson, a memoir of her career as a food writer, with stories about cooks that have been significant in her life.  And there it was again, Marcella Hazan’s sauce.

At about the same time, I received a jar of home canned tomatoes from a friend.  I may be slow sometimes, but even I could hear opportunity knocking, loud and clear.

This sauce really is as good as everyone promises, possibly even better.  Of course, how can any recipe with nearly a stick of butter in it go wrong?  The sauce is fresh and tomatoey (if that is a word), but the butter smoothes off all of the edges into something much richer than any ordinary sauce.   We dropped meatballs into it, but it would be just as good without any meat, served over spaghetti with a dusting of parmesan.  (or straight out of the pot in big spoonfuls!)

Using top quality tomatoes is truly non-negotiable in this recipe.  If you have home-grown, home-canned ones, use them.  If not, look for San Marzano plum tomatoes at the store.

Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

(adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan)

  • 28 oz can of good quality whole plum tomatoes (home canned or San Marzano, ideally)
  • 5 tbsp salted butter
  • 1 medium yellow onion, halved and peeled
  • ½ tsp salt

Heat a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add all of the ingredients and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat down to maintain a steady simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free of the tomatoes.  Discard the onion. Serve over cooked pasta.


Fasting has been on my mind lately, for a few reasons.  First of all, we are deep in the middle reaches of Lent, a time of simplification and reflection that is bracketed by the fast days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Then too, I was struck by Mark Bittman’s recent NYT Opinionator article about a multi-day fast that he and 4,000 or so other people had joined to draw attention to a House budget bill, H.R. 1., which proposed cuts to WIC, food stamps, and international food aid.  As I followed Bittman’s progress on his blog, I thought about the appropriateness of fasting in solidarity with the poor and hungry during the Lenten season, and how much I admire him for having the courage of his convictions.

I also kept thinking about how difficult that four days would be for me.  It feels nearly impossible for me to go without eating for more than a few hours.  My concentration becomes focused exclusively on the rumbling in my tummy and the slow movement of the clock.  And yet, for many people this is an all-too-familiar feeling.

Compared to a four-day fast, the Catholic requirement to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent is a breeze.  It is a gentle discipline that prompts me to stop and reflect, a practice that highlights the true abundance I enjoy, a reminder to be satisfied with enough.

This simple meal of beans and rice is ideal for a Friday in Lent or a Meatless Monday any time of year.  But frankly, it is so savory and good that I can happily eat it any day of the week and it doesn’t feel sacrificial or penitent at all.

Start with dried beans if you prefer–they are cheaper and certainly not difficult to soak and cook.  However, with canned beans this is an incredibly quick and easy meal to put together.  Start your brown rice first, and by the time it is done, the beans will be ready to go.  I do believe that there is a time and a place for white rice, but in this dish the pleasant chewiness of the brown rice contrasts nicely with the yielding texture of the beans, soaking up the savory sauce.

Served with a green vegetable, salad, or some roasted cauliflower, you’ve got dinner for tonight, leftovers for lunch tomorrow, and—perhaps best of all—a little spare time on your hands with which to go change the world, should you be so inclined.

Black Beans and Brown Rice

(adapted from Orangette)

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ medium onion, diced
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • ½ tsp. ground (Mexican style) oregano
  • 1 tsp. hot sauce, or to taste
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 2 cups of cooked black beans with cooking liquid or 1-15-ounce can
  • 1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste

To cook two cups of dry black beans: Sort beans and place in a medium saucepan.  Cover by two inches with water.  Soak in refrigerator overnight.  Drain water and cover with fresh water before cooking.  Simmer, covered, for approximately one hour, or until tender.

In a saucepan, warm olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently for 15-20 minutes, until it begins to caramelize. Stir in the ground cumin and oregano, garlic, and hot sauce.  Add the beans with their liquid. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the beans are soft and warmed through. Add salt as needed.

Serve over brown rice.

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