My Pandemic Diary, Entry #39
Hello Fellow City Cooks,
It’s Friday, May 1st and it’s May Day. For centuries, May Day was a spring festival first meant to ask the gods for better crop growth and livestock offspring, but that evolved into just a spring day of fun with Maypoles and May Queens. At some point it both went global and got localized, as with Hawaii’s May 1st “Lei Day,” and in the late 1800’s the day was declared by the Socialist and Communist parties as International Workers Day to honor workers’ rights and to demand shorter workdays. The Kentucky Derby sets its calendar by May Day because each year the the race is held on the first Saturday in May. This year it’s been rescheduled to September but tomorrow you can put on a bonnet, mix a mint julep, and watch a virtual event at Churchill Downs that will raise money for Covid-19 relief efforts. Here’s more information.
I often confuse May Day with the military celebrations that also take place early this month, like Moscow’s May 9 Victory Day Parade with the missiles driven around Red Square or the antics of Cinco de Mayo, May 5th, to commemorate the Mexican army’s 1862 battle victory over France, also known as the Battle of Puebla Day. Or as I like to think of it, Mark’s birthday.
I’m trying to come up with a way to celebrate it this year. He never wants gifts or stuff and I can’t do what I usually do, which is to have a dinner party for him and his best friends. Two years ago he had one of those birthdays ending with a zero and I surprised him and our guests with an at-home concert. Mark adores opera and classical vocal music so I engaged a young soprano who had just graduated from her conservatory, plus an accompianist (we have a piano) and she sang a program of songs by Schubert, Wagner, and Richard Strauss with everyone crowded in our living room. It was simply sublime. In case you’re curious about what it was like acoustically to have a big-voiced soprano singing for forty minutes in a small New York City apartment, I also invited our neighbors (up, down, and next door) for the music part of the evening and a glass of Champagne.
I don’t expect to even get close to topping that this year. I’m not sure I can make him a proper birthday special meal since I’m limited on any luxury-like ingredients I might otherwise use, like short ribs or a goose. I can use Zoom for a faux candle-blowing gathering but he doesn’t eat cake. We do, however, have a case of prosecco in the closet so at least we’re ready for a toast or two. I’ll figure something out.
Cooking and Groceries
Last night’s dinner was veal burgers and blistered green beans to which I added some cherry tomatoes. For the veal burgers, I had found two recipes at The Times’ cooking section, each by one of the greats, that used ground veal with some of the flavors of old fashioned and rather fussy European veal dishes. First from Pierre Franey, for Veal Patties Pojarski and then by Craig Claiborne for Veal Burger à la Russe. The two recipes were essentially identical.
Both incorporated a lot of breadcrumbs and a cup of heavy cream into a pound of ground veal and I thought that would turn the veal into more of a pate-like texture than a burger. But I basically followed their method, reducing the quantities of the cream and breadcrumbs and leaving out the nutmeg because it’s my least favorite spice. I liked that Claiborne’s recipe had been a part of a 1985 Times article about cooking for one, which is linked at the recipe page. Claiborne, despite his grand talents, had a very practical side; I still have and occasionally refer to his classic cookbook, The New York Times Cookbook, originally published in 1961.
I was really happy with the result, although the next time I make veal burgers, instead of coating them with more of the fresh breadcrumbs, I will use dry, fine crumbs so that the surface gets a crispier finish. And it’s good to remember that veal has a far paler flavor than beef or pork so if you like your meat more flavorful, you could add more seasonings or fresh herbs, although go light-handed so to not overwhelm the veal.
As for the blistered beans, once you learn the cooking method, you scarcely need a recipe. But here’s one from Bon Appétit that can get you started. A few tips: One, you don’t need a lot of oil; I cooked my two pounds of beans with one and a half tablespoons of grapeseed oil. Two, it’s better to use an oil with a high burn temperature, such as grapeseed or peanut oil, so that you can use high heat. Three, be prepared with a cover at hand because when you add the beans, they will splatter like a 12 year-old doing a cannonball into a pool. And even though they’ll make as much noise as popcorn popping in a metal pot, just leave them be and let them char. As the beans begin to cook, the noise and spattering will subside. Four, if you want to add garlic or cherry tomatoes, add them toward the end of the cooking; if you add them too soon while you’re still browning the beans, they’ll burn. Five, while the beans may look messy, they are delicious and it’s a great way to use either fresh beans or ones that may be past their prime.
One final piece of May Day trivia: the military call for help -- “mayday” -- has absolutely nothing to do with May 1st. Instead its origin is the French “m’aidez,” which means "help me." I can make almost anything have a French connection.
Stay safe and have a nice dinner.