Where Real, Practical Work is Done

Zeke lies on the floor next to me, drifting in and out of sleep. He looks up when my chair slightly rolls to the left or I reach for coffee. Whenever the pets are around, I’m always reminded of the great W.S Merwin line “the eyes of animals are upon us.” There’s no other feeling. In Maine, I would fall asleep between dogs, feeling safe and at ease with the world under me.

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I looked up “ground” in the dictionary and found all these great, simple phrases with the word. The phrase “on the ground” particularly stood out. “On the ground” refers to a “place where real, practical work is done.” What real, practical work did I achieve as a child on the floor with dogs? Did I feel the ground soften as I do now? When Zeke rests his heavy head on my neck and I look up at the ceiling or sky, I feel more solid. The work is done.

Sunday night meals prepare the ground for the coming week. I really love this tradition, especially when it involves a nice bottle of wine. Last sunday I made my famous crab cakes. I always turn to this recipe when I want something fresh and special. When Philip Levine came over for lunch a couple of years ago, I made these crab cakes. I’ve always wanted to write a poem about it and title it “Crab Cakes for Philip Levine.” I’m not sure if he would be too amused though. For my dad’s opening reception party, I made 50 miniature crab cakes. This recipe is a parent, party and partner pleaser. Triple threat.

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Unlike most prepared crab cakes, this recipe barely has any breadcrumbs. I bind my crab cakes loosely, which I think makes them taste more fresh. One pound of crab meat makes four generous cakes. Two pounds of crab meat makes fifty delectable ones.

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I serve them over salad with a shallot-lemon zest vinaigrette. I like a crusty baguette and bright green asparagus on the side.

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Most Amazing Crab Cakes Ever

(serves a hungry four)

  • 1 pound crab meat
  • 1 lemon, 3 tbs fresh lemon zest
  • 1 shallot, diced
  • 2 tbs mayo
  • 2 tbs dijon mustard
  • cracked pepper
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tbs parsley
  • 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
  • 1 egg

For vinaigrette to pour over crab cakes and salad

  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • cracked pepper
  • 2 tbs lemon zest
  • 1 small shallot, finely diced

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Directions

  1. Combine crab, mayo, mustard, 2 tbs lemon zest, garlic clove, cracked pepper, egg, parsley and bread crumbs.
  2. Lightly form into balls. Optional: pat with dried bread crumbs.
  3. Over a medium-heat, melt 2 tbs butter or oil in pan. Once pan’s warm, slide crab cakes in. Allow 5-6 minutes per side. These crab cakes do have the tendency to break so make sure you keep binding them back together with your hand or spatula.
  4. Serve over mixed greens with the special vinaigrette poured over each cake.
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And by all means, do not forget to kiss the cat!

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Running a Tab of Tiramisu

I remember the cats and small dark bar that sold frozen tiramisu. When my dad was teaching in Monte Castello, he kept a running tab there. I felt like I was an old movie star when I placed my dessert on the glass counter and said can you put it on my tab, please? The “tab” felt so important and special. I imagined a long scroll that unrolled behind the cash register and reached a back room where the bartender watched a fuzzy television when no one was around. I thought the tab could on and on. Endless tiramisu. Every time I reached for its dish in the freezer, a phantom glove appeared and immediately replaced it. My dad never drank in the bar though. Outside the light lit up our faces like stones in water. He drank small glasses of grappa in the sun. I chewed bubble gum. My mom was beautiful.

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Like most young children, I loved climbing stairs. I liked to move and feel my surroundings change with each new imaginary game. I wandered for hours while my dad painted and my mom let me loose. Sometimes we visited an old woman in town. We could barely speak to each other but my mom liked to drink coffee with her and communicate through hands, cheeks and the gentle tug of sleeves.

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When my dad and I went back recently, we didn’t bicker once. At home we can sound like an old married couple that’s hard of hearing. He couldn’t complain about not finding the herring or mayonnaise in the refrigerator. There were resident doves and tiny lizards that hushed conversations with the flick of their tails. I ordered Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking while in Italy so it would arrive on my doorstep when I got home. Last night I made one of my favorite recipes from it, Pink Shrimp Sauce with Cream. The meal takes less than 20 minutes to make. I love it with fresh pasta.

Pink Shrimp with Cream

  • 1/2 pound medium shrimp, unshelled weight
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped fine
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste dissolved in 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • Salt
  • Black pepper, ground fresh
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley
  • 1 pound fresh fettuccine

Directions

  1. Put the olive oil and the chopped garlic in a saucepan, and turn on the heat on medium. Cook the garlic, stirring it, until it becomes colored a pale gold, then add the tomato paste and wine solution. Pour it in all at once. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time.
  2. Add the shrimp, salt and liberal grindings of pepper and turn up the heat to medium high. Cook for 2 minutes or so, turning the shrimp over frequently to coat well. Remove the pan from heat.
  3. With a slotted spoon, retrieve shrimp and puree them.
  4. Return pureed shrimp to the pan, turn on the head to medium and add the cream. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly, until the cream thickens.
  5. Toss the sauce with cooked drained pasta. Add the chopped parsley and serve at once!
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I’d love to go back soon. I wouldn’t say a thing.

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Faster than Take Out

My desk is a bit of a wreck right now. There are old calendars, stacks of cd’s, two japanese fans and this morning’s coffee mug all competing for precious real estate. I pile books on top of books. I need more shelves. I have the terrible habit of starting as many new novels as fresh wine glasses I lose during parties. I keep a clean kitchen though. I hang my apron up with a deep sense of satisfaction when I leave the room.

Tonight I baked a salmon fillet with mustard, fresh bread crumbs and capers. It was delicious with a glass of white wine. It’s perfect for a midweek meal because it’s fast and simple to clean up. I even roasted my brussel sprouts in the same pan as the fish.

Baked Salmon with Dijon Mustard & Capers

Ingredients

  • 1 pound salmon fillet
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • 2 tbs dijon mustard
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 tsp capers
  • 1 slice of bread for fresh bread crumbs

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400
  2. Brush salmon fillet with olive oil, cracked pepper and salt. Position thinly sliced garlic inside fish.
  3. Brush salmon with mustard and squeeze the juice of half a lemon on top of the fish.
  4. Cover with fresh bread crumbs and capers.
  5. Bake for 12 minutes.

Mr. Wonton, eat your heart out.

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Some Women Marry Houses

A couple of years ago, I picked up a first edition Good Housekeeping Cookbook from 1963 at a Brooklyn Heights book sale.

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The Good Housekeeping Cookbook is impressive for its sheer density. Instead of just setting a table, it sets a world. The book does not rest on one good meal, party or wife. The book encompasses a whole sphere, the house’s life and heart. It is a holy domestic bible, a testament to both distraction and precision. Despite knowing that this kind of housekeeping stifled most women, the book still charms me.  Anne Sexton’s “Housewife” echoes in the background.

Some women marry houses.
It's another kind of skin; it has a heart,
a mouth, a liver and bowel movements.
The walls are permanent and pink.
See how she sits on her knees all day,
faithfully washing herself down.
Men enter by force, drawn back like Jonah
into their fleshy mothers.
A woman is her mother.
That's the main thing

I take the book with an actual grain of salt. I like following the recipes and quirky tips. I always pull it out when I’m planning a large dinner party. Among great recipes and cooking suggestions (index your recipes, write your magazine editor for new inspiration, try one new dish a week), the book is also downright hilarious to read. Some of the cooking suggestions read like answers to excite your sex life (create and share a personal fantasy rolodex, whip cream to stiff peaks, try one new dress a week). The book devotes an entire section to “When He Carves.”

Drawings with clear manly cuffs cut into a rib roast, tongue and leg of lamb with ghostly ease. The author, Dorothy B. Marsh, titles some of her dinner menus “This is Nice,” “The Latch is Off, ” “Homey Goodness,” and “Give Him Steak.” I like my steak rare but I don’t actually like to carve at the head of the table. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large. I contain multitudes).

Tonight’s meal is a new favorite. It’s fast, simple and delicious. Although this is not from The Good Housekeeping Cookbook, it’s perfect for a weeknight meal. Orecchiette is a wonderful pasta that means “little ears.” I made this dish with organic sausage that I picked up from Farmer’s Market  on Saturday. Although it’s good with already cooked sausage, I like to start fresh when I can. It also has feta cheese, olive oil, tomatoes, basil and parsley. And lots of cracked pepper.

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Orecchiette with Sausage, Feta Cheese & Tomatoes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound uncooked sausage
  • 2 oz feta cheese, crumbled
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
  • torn basil leaves
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1/2-3/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 28 oz can diced organic tomatoes
  • cracked pepper
  • 1 pound orecchiette
Directions
  1. Bring salted water to a boil.
  2. In a frying pan, cook sausages. Once cooked, cut into discs and set aside for a moment.
  3. Cook pasta until al dente.
  4. Crush (uncooked) garlic and combine with olive oil to pour over pasta. Stir until flagrant and combine with cracked pepper, tomatoes, parsley, basil, sausage and feta cheese.
  5. Serve with white wine and salad.
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I grabbed a sweater and bouquet garni instead

Every week, show announcements pour over the dining room table. There is always something opening and closing in the city. In a few weeks, my dad will have his show at Leigh Morse Fine Arts. He moves between the kitchen, studio and framer now. I find him staining his frames with care in the late afternoon.

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Whenever I see young children at art openings, I can’t help but think of myself and how I liked to wrap my arm around my mother’s leg when I was getting tired and wanted to go home. She liked to wear her silk blouses slightly unbuttoned, partly out of haste and partly out of something I didn’t know about then. After she ignored my tugs, I went back to weaving through the crowd. I tried to catch peeks of paintings over shoulders, between knees and behind ears. When I was more curious than restless, I hunted for fire escapes and smelled the exposed brick in gallery hallways. Sometimes people would stop me and steady their hand in the air to show me how much I’ve grown since the last time they saw me. I began to see getting in and out of the room as a game of elegant escape. I occupied myself with club soda. Now, it’s a little different. For one, I’m taller. But I still can’t see very well.

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Last Sunday I made a fish stew with tomatoes, capers, carrots and potatoes. I unfroze a chicken stock that I simmered a few weeks back. I also added some great kale. The meal was perfect for the sudden cold New York weather we got over the weekend. My dresses never left my suitcase. I grabbed a sweater and bouquet garni instead.

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Like most meals, the stew is great with a crusty baguette and white wine. Tilapia was great to use for this recipe because it was firm and held together well. It’s important that you don’t add the fish until the very last 3-4 minutes. There’s no reason to cook the fish longer than that before serving it. Remember that the fish cooks in your bowl!

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My dad especially likes this type of meal. He reminisced about his finest meal being a bouillabaisse in Paris. Now, this stew is no bouillabaisse but it’s still delicious. I like it with a lot of cracked pepper and even some red chili flakes.

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Fish Stew with Capers, Thyme, Basil & Orange Peel

Ingredients

  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, diced
  • 1 pound fingerling potatoes, peeled and halved
  • 1 28 oz can organic whole tomatoes with their juice
  • 3 gloves garlic, sliced
  • 3 tablespoons capers
  • 1 teaspoon red chili flakes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil for sautéing, coating and drizzling in soup.
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • 1 quart homemade chicken stock
  • bunch of fresh kale
  • 1 1/2 pound of tilapia
  • 1 bouquet garni: three sprigs of thyme, 2 bay leaves and 1 orange peel wrapped together with kitchen string

Directions

  1. Heat the olive oil and garlic in a dutch oven and add the onions, carrots and celery. Cook, stirring. Sprinkle chili flakes (optional) and salt while cooking. When the onions and carrots are soft, pour 1/4 cup white wine and 3 tablespoons capers into pot. Cook, stirring until flagrant.
  2. Add potatoes and stir.
  3. Add tomatoes with juice and cook, stirring.
  4. Pour stock into pot, add bouquet garni, kale leaves and stir.
  5. Bring to a simmer and cook for 45-50 minutes.
  6. Coat fish with olive oil and cracked pepper.
  7. Once potatoes are soft, add fish to the pot and stir.
  8. Remove garni and serve with crusty bread, wine and a good story.
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Crisp, chilled whites till then

Every Fall I pack away my spring and summer dresses in a tan suitcase and stuff it in the back of my closet. I don’t look at it until the warmer weather comes. This weekend I’ll pop the metal clasp and replace the dresses with sweaters. Now the magnolia trees bloom in the park, turtles rest on rocks and the cherry blossom seeds grow round and fat. I sit on the stoop with my pets and watch people pass by with cool bare shoulders. Another spring. Life is good.

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With the changing season comes changing meals. Soon I won’t crave the heavy stews and chicken roasts. I won’t nest in the kitchen, planning out meals that take hours to simmer. I’ll toss together more salads and cold meals. I’ll cook early or late in the night so I don’t heat up the house. I won’t drink a glass of red wine until late September. I’ll have crisp, chilled whites till then.

Last night I made pork chops with brussel sprouts and a tossed mixed green salad with cherry tomatoes and avocado. Pork chops survive warmer weather because they’re fast to cook. Recently I’ve been experimenting with my pork chops. I like them with butter, shallots, lemon zest, thyme and heavy cream (see photo & recipe below). The only thing I have to be careful about is adding too much lemon. The cream and lemon should be sweet together. For a different recipe, I love drizzling and criss crossing balsamic glaze over pork chops. Balsamic glaze is an understated but great pantry staple. Anyway, I digress. Mmm, cream.

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Pork Chops with Lemon, Thyme and Cream

Ingredients

  • 3-4 Pork Chops, Bone in
  • 1 Lemon
  • 3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 2 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1/2 small shallot, diced
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • salt, pepper

Directions

  1. In a large pan, melt butter and oil over a medium heat. Once butter is melted, add garlic, thyme & shallots.
  2. Salt & pepper pork chops and place in pan.
  3. Grate some fresh lemon zest over pork chops (less than a tablespoon all together).
  4. Flip over the chops and squeeze lemon juice on top. Salt and pepper.
  5. Pour heavy cream over pork chops. Flip again.
  6. Cover pan and cook for 9 minutes or so, depending on how well done you like it.
  7. When serving on plates, be sure to spoon over the pan’s juices!
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No Sleep in the Sugar House

It’s early March, I’m 23 now and the ground is soft. The bears are still asleep. I sink into the mulch around my sister’s house and hear twigs crack. I think of long pieces of bark curling back in a fire. My sister tells me that mud season is fast approaching. Soon the roads will be impossible, the dogs impossible and then unimaginably, everything changes. Spring comes and no one says anything about the roads, the dogs and the earthy streaks under the couch. We take the syrup out of the fridge and eat.

Last night I watched as sap boiled on the stove for hours. Kim told me that no one sleeps in a sugar house.  The weather’s been so warm that they only tapped their trees last week.

One bucket of sap returns about 2 inches of syrup. Now I know why maple syrup is so expensive. The buckets hang off the trunks like fat, tin bellies.

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The neighbors are coming over to make maple syrup martinis. My sister grimaced at the idea while my face flushed with glee.

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