My Pandemic Diary, Entry #78
Hello Fellow City Cooks,
Greetings from Manhattan on this warm and humid Monday. I had to check my phone to be sure that it was, in fact, Monday because the days drift into one another and now that I don’t write this diary daily, it’s easier for me to lose track. But yes, it is Monday, the last one in June.
Since my last diary entry, Governor Cuomo has cleared New York City for Phase Two of the City's reopening plan. This primarily means more people have gone back to work, hair salons and barber shops are open, and outdoor restaurant dining is allowed. There are more folks on the subway and buses, and you can now rent a car. All are cautious baby steps in a long, slow journey toward our new normal. At this point New York feels like we’re wearing a combination of scar tissue, patience, and resolve, but I am so deeply sorry that premature openings elsewhere are delivering terrible results. I suffer for Texas, Florida, and Arizona because we know what they are going through. How I wish they had learned from us and I pray that the rough forecasts are wrong.
I haven’t left our neighborhood since early March so I can’t speak to what’s going on elsewhere in the City, but here in my hood, people are being mostly kind and almost entirely compliant with distancing and masks. People, including me, can sometimes be jumpy, but I think that’s rather human and we’ll eventually get back to our usual New York selves, meaning maybe sometimes abrasive, but never jumpy.
Now that we're in Phase Two, the biggest change I’ve noticed is that the quiet is gone. It’s not that it’s a racket, but that notable noiselessness that surrounded us for so many weeks has vaporized. Usually in NYC, regardless of the neighborhood, there is, at the very least, a constant white noise of activity. Cars, dogs, horns, sirens, arguments, laughter, music, humanity. It’s amazing what you sometimes hear. A previous apartment of ours was on the 28th floor in a building near the south end of Central Park and when the wind would blow just right, you could hear from our high open windows the whinny of the carriage horses on Central Park South. Sound is part of the New York experience. But for those ten or so weeks we just lived through, all but the birds – and the sirens – were silenced. I am going to miss that.
Otherwise things are mostly the same. Work, housekeeping, staying in touch, making dinner, and various miscellanea of life. One task I finally took care of last week was to close my two Facebook accounts. I was never much of a user and I really rather talk with friends than see their posts, but I had to have a personal account in order to open a business page for The City Cook and so I did. But I always disliked Facebook’s (Mark Zuckerberg’s and Sheryl Sandberg’s) business philosophy and ethical practices and I finally decided to act on principle. They don’t make it easy to close an account; the links to do so are well hidden and even when you find them, they delay the actual closing for thirty days – as if you don’t mean it when you click on “delete.” I had been thinking of closing the accounts for a long time and it felt good to get it done.
Also last week, our superintendent came to install our window air conditioners. We take our A/Cs out of their windows every fall and stash them in our basement storage cage, trading the annoying tasks of removal and re-install for the extra sunlight nine months of the year. Wearing his mask and keeping his distance, our super was the first person Mark and I allowed to step into our apartment since early March. I, too, was masked as I told our very wonderful and talented super that he was our first post-stay-home guest. Given all he has done to keep our building a secure and pristine refuge, checking on the elderly, taking care of the staff, I couldn’t have chosen anyone better.
I had just made a batch of fresh ricotta when he arrived (an ingredient in a Calabrian charred red pepper/almond/chili/ricotta pesto that I was making for that night’s pasta and roast chicken dinner) and while he installed the A/Cs, we got to talking about cooking. He told me that his wife makes yogurt every week using a starter that was given to her when she and he, just married, left their eastern European home still ravaged by a civil war, and came to New York to begin a family and a new life. While securing the air conditioner in the kitchen window, he laughed as he said the starter was “thousands of years old,” only to become serious when he spoke of how “more generations than we know have shared this yogurt that I now have for breakfast. It helps us remember who we are.” I can’t think of a better reason to cook.
Cooking and Groceries
Since it’s been so hot these past two weeks, my cooking has adjusted. Unlike folks who have a yard or a deck and can grill, I still do all my cooking indoors so I’ve switched over to mostly cooktop meals instead of ones made in the oven, plus we’re having more salads and things that are cooked quickly. No more roasted vegetables or long braises until October.
Except one day, I simply ignored the heat and decided it was time to use up a four-pound piece of beef chuck that had been in my freezer for five months. I bought it on sale at Whole Foods in anticipation of a dinner I was supposed to give in March for a dear friend who asked that I make something “homey and not fancy.” Knowing I had this dinner to make, I was in Whole Foods in February when I saw a great sale on chuck and on the spot, I decided to make beef stew for my friend’s upcoming dinner. Of course, Covid messed up those plans but I still had this huge piece of beef in my freezer. I suppose I could have kept it there until that dinner gets rescheduled, but I doubt that will be soon enough to prevent freezer burn. Plus, I needed the space.
So I defrosted it and made my favorite beef stew using a recipe I originally found years ago in a cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen. It’s very classic with lots of carrots, potatoes and peas, plus some red wine but not enough to make it seem like a faux beef bourguignon. My kitchen was steamy and hot all that afternoon but the stew was delicious and with all that chuck, it made enough for two generous dinners for Mark and me.
Other things I’ve made over these past couple of weeks included a goat cheese soufflé (yes, with the oven on again) served with a salad that made a nice supper on a hot night, cod teriyaki served with steamed spinach and lemon, burgers topped with Roquefort that was more than ready but not too ripe to make great cheeseburgers, a new Milk Street recipe for that superb Calabrian spicy red pepper and almond pesto I mentioned earlier, pan-grilled sausages from Esposito served with broccoli crowns that I over-cooked, and my favorite farro and arugula salad with sliced sirloin (I cooked the steak on the stove top in a cast iron pan).
I also bought some gorgeous line-caught wild Canadian swordfish that I cooked in my favorite and always-perfect way (a method from Fish Without A Doubt that is also exactly as my mother always cooked it), which is to pre-heat a cast iron grill pan under the broiler for about 15 minutes until it’s blazing hot. Leaving the skin on for the cooking, salt the fish on both sides, add a sprinkle of paprika on one surface as well as a scattering of chips of one tablespoon of cold unsalted butter. Place the fish butter-and-paprika-side up into the blazing grill pan and broil it for about 5 1/2 minutes (for a one-inch-thick piece of fish; a bit more if it’s thicker, a bit less if it’s thinner). Don’t turn it over; the blazing hot pan will cook the underside. The result is always perfect and never dry. I served it with cold coleslaw.
One of the many wisdoms from Mark is that in life – always, and not only at hard times like now – we need to have celebrations. He doesn’t mean big and flashy events; he means small acknowledgements of every day triumphs and joys. Celebrate your cat’s birthday. Celebrate a full night’s sleep. Celebrate telling a joke well. So this past weekend we decided to celebrate how well I make a Bloody Mary.
I make mine in a big Pyrex measuring cup, starting with the tomato juice and adding the other ingredients, because then it’s easy to pour the mixture into two ice-filled glasses.
Here’s my recipe, for two tall glasses, about 15 oz. each:
- 10 oz. Sacramento tomato juice, chilled
- 1 heaping tablespoon horseradish without any of its juice (Gold’s is very good; look for it in a store’s refrigerated case)
- 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (don’t skip this step; it makes all the difference)
- 4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce (I use my homemade Worcestershire which can make a very big flavor difference but if you’re not up for making your own, buy a good one)
- 1/4 heaping teaspoon kosher salt (use a bit less if using fine sea salt)
- A little less than 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon Tabasco, or to taste but resist making it too hot until you taste the finished drink
- Several shakes or a big pinch of celery salt
- 2 to 3 shots of vodka (optional)
- Garnishes: your choice of a stalk of celery, lemon quarters, or olives. I like to line up a row of small martini olives (green olives stuffed with pimentos) on a toothpick and rest that on the rim of the glass.
Combine everything but the ice in a big measuring cup or pitcher and give it a stir. I use the same fork I used to dig the horseradish out of its jar. Fill two tall, 15-oz.-ish glasses with ice. Pour the mixture over the ice to fill the two glasses and stir. If you need more liquid, top the glasses off with a little more tomato juice and give it a stir (I know that may seem like it dilutes the whole recipe but trust me, it works). Add your choice of garnish and serve immediately before the ice melts too much and dilutes the drink’s flavor.
Here are a few things that have passed across my desk and computer screen that I thought were worth sharing.
The first is an article from Epicurious about buying extra virgin olive oil. The world of olive oil is vast and reportedly murky and it’s daunting to stand before the shelves filled with all their pretty labels and decide what’s worth your money and what’s worth exposing your food and health to.
I give some trust to this article because two of the oils cited are from my friend Steve Jenkins of Olive Oil Jones who is an olive oil savant and a principled man, and if Epicurious not only included him in the universe of oils tested, but also cited his stuff twice, they knew what they were doing. And I really appreciated that the testers looked at four price ranges, because let’s face it – olive oil can be confusingly expensive and we need to know we can buy good stuff at an affordable price, no matter what “affordable” means to you.
The second article is a typical Serious Eats kind of piece in that it combines good information with fun. This was a riff on March Madness called Starch Madness: The Final Forks that sets up competitive brackets for the gazillion kinds of pasta shapes out there. If you want to know the winner, place your bets, and find it here.
I’ve mentioned before how much I like Fine Cooking magazine and their website is also excellent. I can’t remember how their paywall works and how much access you can have without a magazine subscription, but if you can click your way through, this article shows how to make your own staples when a store-bought one is sold out. Making things like tortilla chips, butter, or jam can be fun projects with kids, plus, if you make your own, you get the benefit that it usually tastes better, and it may be cheaper, than what’s at the grocer. What a surprise.
And finally, here’s a good reason to leave the kitchen. This year is the 100th anniversary of The Age of Innocence and whether it’s your first or fifth time reading Edith Wharton’s masterpiece, this summer is as good a time to read and savor one of America’s greatest literary treasures. Here’s a link to The Mount, which was Wharton’s home in western Massachusetts, which has lots of information about Wharton. And here’s more information about the centennial and ways to celebrate it.
Stay safe, stay engaged, and have a nice dinner.