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Cooking Without the Gloss, Post-Sandy, and In Rome
It seems like we have taken many steps but not gotten very far.
When I started The City Cook nearly six years ago, home cooking was poised for change. Food blogs were still new. Julie was still cooking her way through Julia. Brooklyn hadn't yet become the food capital of DIY (butchering, chocolate-making, pickling, rear-yard chicken-raising). There were only one Whole Foods and two Fairways in NYC. We were still learning about grass-versus-grain fed, levain starters, and community-supported agriculture. Pork belly was still exotic.
Six years later we know so much more and an urban ingredient infrastructure has developed with more markets, more bee keepers, more butchers, more artisans. But what has really changed in our kitchens?
The other day I heard someone on the radio say that cookbooks are the new coffee table book. Instead of displaying big volumes about big artists, it seems that we'll pay lots of money ($60 or more is best, he said) for cookbooks full of food porn photos that we ogle but don't cook from. Television cooking programs don't even pretend any more to be about making real meals; most are either an extreme cooking competition or else a narrative so you can live someone else's life, maybe on a ranch. Our cooking magazines, blogs, and books present a world of home cooking that is so art directed and perfect -- all free-range, all organic, all local, all the time -- that it sets a bar impossibly high to reach. I increasingly talk with home cooks who confess their insecurities despite the wonderful meals that they make. Speaking of bars, even a plain martini isn't good enough; you must use small batch vodka, home-brined olives, and some arcane free-trade syrup.
And then I read Jennifer Hess's candid, raw post at Last Night's Dinner (see our link). Finally, a little reality from a wonderful home cook and passionate writer.
So for those of you who feel the pressure from all those perfect food photos and happy stories and think you're the only one whose results and experiences have no resemblance to the echo chamber we cook in today, here's a reminder about the realities of home cooking:
- Good ingredients are expensive. Maybe Martha Stewart, food stylists, and those among us who can't yet trust their own palates buy all-organic-all-the-time, exclusively roast heritage turkeys, and are on a first name basis with the head cheesemonger at Bedford Cheese. The rest of us shop sales, limit our organic food spending to maybe dairy products and our greenmarket purchases to eggs and perhaps an occasional package of Flying Pigs Farm bacon, and happily buy store brands. Food prices have risen and it's costly enough to feed one person, let alone a family, and few among us can shop based on pedigree without regard for the price tag. Like life, grocery shopping is about making choices.
- Cooking takes time. Don't let anyone tell you that taking shortcuts is a bad idea. A couple of years ago I had the wonderful experience of being a guest on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show. The other guest was a food blogger and Brian was asking us about ways to save money by bringing your lunch to work. One of my suggestions was to buy a store-bought rotisserie chicken and turn it into one dinner and two lunches. The other guest's writing partner mocked me on Brian's comments page that I was an idiot for not foraging for an organic chicken and roasting it myself. To my calculation, paying $2.00 more for a chicken that my grocer cooked saved me more than an hour of cooking which let me enjoy three homemade (okay, assembled) meals instead of resorting to one take-out dinner and two deli lunches. So who's the idiot? Don't let the bullies keep you from making practical choices.
- Beware the zealot. I believe this about most things in life, but it certainly applies to food. There is nothing wrong with using garbanzo beans from a can, ground instead of whole spices, Skippy peanut butter, or a pre-made frozen piecrust. And anyone who tries to make you feel like you're a substandard cook for doing so isn't paying your bills or running your kitchen.
- Home cooking is a commitment. You have to be suited up to do it right, including a stocked pantry, functional equipment, and a sharp knife. Buying the core stuff you need to make a meal, things like olive oil, black pepper, and a cast iron frying pan, will cost a bit but you only have to do it once and then maintain it. But you want to do it right which is why you need to know what you want to eat and how you want to cook. Once you do, it's easy to do a set-up that will work for you everyday. If you instead treat it like a hobby it will be costly and exhausting.
- Being a home cook is a marathon, not a sprint. I make dinner almost every night. About once a month my husband and I will order in Japanese food. About every two months or so we go to a favorite little French place on the Upper East Side. The rest of the time I cook. But what does that mean? I strive to make healthy, flavorful food and so most nights, it's a simple piece of protein with two sides (usually a salad and a vegetable). Occasionally I've got the time to try a new recipe or make an old favorite that can take a few hours. And I'm always happy to make something elaborate for company. But other nights it's a scrambled egg or reheated leftovers or a bag of pre-washed salad dressed with oil and vinegar and eaten with an English muffin and cheese. For me, cooking is part of life and so it's real.
Since I love to cook, most days I'm happy to end my day in the kitchen. Some days I'm not. But I've learned that home cooking isn't show business. Nor is it a political or lifestyle declaration. And if it doesn't end up looking like those glossy cookbook photos, remember that how it tastes and how you feel about putting food before your friends and family is what really matters.
When Sandy arrived I was one of the lucky New Yorkers. First, I was on vacation in Italy when the storm hit and we were stranded for five days before our airline could get us home. This is why there was no newsletter last month.
I am not complaining about being stuck in Rome. Fiumincino, actually. We relocated to this seaside town where Rome's main airport is located thinking it would somehow get us home faster. It didn't. But what it did do was give us the unexpected pleasure of staying in what turned out to be a charming fishing and beach community that was delighted to have several hundred stranded Americans camped out in beachside hotels that this being off-season, were otherwise almost empty.
Second, when we finally did get home, our Manhattan neighborhood was untouched by the storm. No broken construction cranes dangling. Not even a power outage or a downed tree. But oh, it was a heartache to see what happened to so many in our city, making us all responsible for helping those that were whacked. I keep thinking about the fried fish shacks along Rockaway Beach and wonder if they will be able to return by next summer. I so hope they will.
For many of us, Sandy made Thanksgiving not the same festive feast, although it made the meaning of the day ever so easy to reckon.
Cooking In Italy
A few comments about eating and cooking in Italy. Our trip began in the north, in Alba, a small city about an hour and a half drive from Milan, in the heart of Piedmonte. This northern region prides itself as the country's gastronomical center and while others may dispute this (I'm talking about you, Bologna), Piedmonte claims such bragging rights as being home to Italy's main truffle market, wines with names like Barolo and Barbaresco, and the town of Bra where the Slow Food movement began.
Over the course of our Alba visit I splurged on a plate of tagliatelle with shaved white truffles, compared three restaurant versions of an unusual local dish called vitello tonnato which is thin slices of rare, poached veal served with a mayonnaise-like sauce flavored with canned tuna (in fact a fabulous flavor combo of musky, salty, and fishy), and drank some of the best wines I'd had in a long time.
From Piedmonte we headed south by train to Rome where we had rented a tiny apartment near the Campo de Fiori. The apartment had a kitchen that was adequate but not great, mostly because short-term apartments tend not to be well equipped. I knew enough to bring my own chef's knife (packed in my checked luggage), a length of butcher's twine to tie the legs of a chicken, a tiny bag of red pepper flakes, and an instant thermometer. But I wasn't prepared for the badly scarred Teflon frying pans and finding no pot big enough to cook spaghetti. But I made coping part of the adventure, including buying my own new frying pan that at 14 Euros was good enough to last our 9-day stay.
I took advantage of what was best at the Campo, one of Rome's outdoor flower and vegetable markets. Located not far from the Piazza Navona and its three glorious Bernini fountains, the centuries-old Campo is named not for the flowers now sold there but instead the meadow that it replaced in the Middle Ages. It's also where in 1600 the philosopher Giordano Bruno was executed, martyred for the cause of free speech. A monument to him now stands in the square, ignored by the merchants and tourists that swarm the space.
Surrounding this rectangular square are restaurants and food shops, including a decent butcher, an outstanding bread and pizza bakery, called a "forno," and Antica Norcineria Vilola, a salumaria founded in 1890 that sells a superb selection of prosciuttos, salamis, and something I got hooked on after one bite -- an air-dried pork jerky that resembled red licorice Twizzlers but were salty, meaty, and chewy.
Facing a sparsely equipped kitchen, my husband reminded me of the quip about Italian food that much of it is "made with only three ingredients and two of those are salt and water." So I made simple meals -- pasta sauces from sautéed zucchini and mushrooms, sausages paired with local chicory, and tiny roasted chickens. We also made entire meals from platters of cured meats, milky fresh mozzarella called fior di latte, paper thin slices of smoked swordfish draped over peppery arugula, and lots of salads dressed only with a drizzle of excellent olive oil and a pinch of Sicilian sea salt.
I didn't cook every day since this was a chance to not only explore Roman ingredients but also its cuisine, one that is unlike that elsewhere in Italy. I love Rome's Jewish style deep-fried artichokes, salads made with a local crispy celery-like green called puntarelle which is dressed with a robust anchovy and olive oil dressing, and pastas dusted with grated Pecorino Romano, Rome's ubiquitous big-flavored sheep's milk cheese. Our best meal was at Il Drappo, a restaurant that specializes in the food of Sardinia. We ate pasta with grated bottarga, roasted cheese drizzled with honey (as a main course), small toasted pasta pearls called fregola cooked with clams, and roast suckling pig.
Although I am not a restaurant goer at home, vacation eating always inspires and from this trip, I came home promising to broaden my exploration of the many regions of Italian food. Time to get out of my Italian rut. And I wish I could figure out how to make that pork jerky….
Besides travel, another way to get out of a rut is to get a new cookbook and this is a good time of year to shop with so many new releases out for holiday gift giving. One that I think is very appealing and would be a good choice for you or the baker on your gift list is Pure Vanilla: Irresistible Recipes and Essential Techniques by Shauna Sever (Quirk Books, hardcover with color photographs, 160 pages, $22.95).
I've done a review of the book plus we've been given permission to publish one of its 80 recipes, Vanilla Sugar Puffs (see our links to both). These light, sweet treats might be a perfect addition to your holiday baking and they'd make a wonderful sweet end to a big holiday meal. And don't be afraid of its twice-cooked dough called pâte à choix -- the same dough used for gougeres, cream puffs, and éclairs -- because it is actually very sturdy.
Sometimes it seems that chocolate rules the flavor world, but did you know that vanilla ice cream outsells chocolate four to one? It's another example how when it comes to food and cooking, if you make your own choices and follow your own way, you may be surprised to find that you're not the only one.