Friday, January 29, 2010

Sunshine Soup

Ithaca is freezing. Ice crystals cover the windows each morning, forming prisms and seaweed like shapes. Nearly every car has snow tires. Where once I loved austere white interiors, I now crave Marimekko. Winter is not only freezing, but there are weeks of gray skies. Days pass without a single beam of sunlight. The house is heated to sixty two during the day and fifty eight at night. We rely heavily on Craig's soups to give us a feeling of radiant warmth, and color.

One of Craig's favorite soups to make is Garlic Broth, Aïgo Boulido, from Lulu’s Provencal Table. As the cookbook brilliantly and forgivingly puts it, this soup is served in Provence to “soothe systems worn thin from enthusiastic celebration of the table.” We like it for those times, but also for its utter simplicity and warming effect.

On a particularly freezing day, the sky a thick gray that no sunlight could pass through, Craig decided to make Garlic Broth. I was engrossed in my task when he handed me my bowl. Afloat in the broth was a shiny fried egg, sprinkled with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. Holding the warm bowl, the ochre yolk, the light golden broth, it was as if the sun itself had just burst through the window and landed in my hands.

As I ate I thought about how cooking in season, in the winter, in the North East, we are releasing the energy we have stored from the sun. The seasons of sunshine and warm, workable earth are sustaining us through the winter when all is frozen and the sky is a persistent gray.

This local egg is from a chicken who eats local seed, grown in the sun. The garlic, grown in the rich black soil on the other side of the lake, ripens and cures in the warmth of summer, and is saved and coddled in the cool basement.

I never felt the direct link between work and harvest and surviving winter as immediately as I felt it the moment Craig gave me this bowl of soup. We survive the gray and cold both physically and spiritually through our store of the sun’s energy. Fortunately, we have the culinary gifts of Provence, and their wisdom about and reverence for food and sun, to make our survival beautiful, and delicious.

Garlic Broth, adapted from Lulu
Aïgo Boulido

1 quart water
2 bay leaves
1 head garlic, cloves separated and crushed
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 egg yolks, the traditional recipe
4 whole eggs if you want to serve with fried egg
Garnish with scallions, chives or parsley

To make croutons:
Into a cast iron skillet on low heat pour a large splash of extra virgin olive oil. When it shimmers put in some day old plain baguette cut or torn into 1/2" cubes. Season with sea salt and black pepper to taste (a pinch of thyme or rosemary if you like) toss to coat the bread cubes with the oil and cook until toasted.

In a saucepan, bring the water, salt, bay leaves, garlic, and olive oil to a boil and hold, lid ajar, at a light boil for 15 minutes. For traditional: with wire whisk, whisk the egg yolks briefly in a soup tureen (any large bowl works fine.) Strain the broth, discard the bay leaves and garlic, and slowly pour the broth over the egg yolks, whisking at the same time. To serve, place toasted baguette or croutons in bowl and ladle broth over bread. For fried egg version, simply strain broth, ladle over croutons, and float the softly fried egg. Garnish and season well with salt and pepper.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Candied Bacon

Craig loves bacon. “Everything is better with bacon,” is one of his motto's. I regularly lean on him not to put bacon in absolutely everything. Canal House Cooking has a recipe for Candied Bacon and that sounded too kinky to resist. Candy is sugar and that is pretty much what it means here: lay bacon between two blankets of brown sugar and cook it til your house smells like the Boardwalk.

Sugar when it cooks behaves a lot like how you feel when you eat it. The grace period is brief and when you’ve gone to far it is totally unforgiving. Craig dutifully followed the directions but before the time was up there was a distinct change in smell, heading towards sugar-fat cinders. With a fast clearing of children from the kitchen, he took the bubbling, smoking tray from the stove. As the smoke cleared there they lay, gorgeous shiny sticks of lacquered bacon. We tasted it, Craig, Serena and I, and decided it was delicious, but a bit much, even for Craig.

At dinner Craig set out a bowl of cooked carrots. We bought a twenty pound bag of carrots from Sacred Seed Farm here in Ithaca on the last freezing day of the outdoor Farmers’ Market, at the end of December. Late fall carrots have had time in the ground as temperatures drop which makes them exceptionally sweet. Craig cooks the carrots with lots of olive oil and butter and there are never any leftovers. I took a bite and the flavor deepened, sweetened beyond what I had expected. Looking closely at my plate, there they were: tiny crumbles of candied bacon.

Used as an ingredient a little goes a long way and adds a dimension of smokey umame, the pleasing combination of salty and sweet. Craig and I talked a few days later about a little going a long way, the candied bacon in the carrots, and the next morning sprinkled into pancakes as they cooked. At the table there are ways that we behave where a little goes a long way as well. In a busy life of work and family much of our communication is abbreviated. Conversations become short, frustrated bursts of information to convey a message, a task. Not much effort is put into the delivery. At the table we can be our best selves again. We can smile. We can say please and thank you, and heap on praise and compliments. We can enjoy our time and each other’s company. We can be kind and generous.

A small portion of the day, at the table, being kind and polite, a little goes a long way. It sweetens and deepens our lives, our family’s relationship one with the other, like so much candied bacon in with your carrots.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fretting and Fritters

Colby had twenty seizures between Sunday night and Monday evening. Coral’s hacking cough had kept her up that night, and woken her from her nap, so I took her to the doctor. She and I returned from the doctor and the pharmacy at 6:30 p.m., late for us to be starting dinner. Craig was chopping shrimp in the kitchen with Colby leaning into the corner between the wall and sink, her safe spot, near dad, when she knows more seizures are coming. He looked at me and said, “Fritters.” When Craig gets tired he goes for rich. When he knows sleep is not going to happen there is something in rich, fried foods that sends his body a survival message. We might not be sleeping, but we have oil: we are definitely going to survive. When he filled the giant cast iron pan with oil though, I told him I thought he was crazy. Tall seizing child plus vat of boiling oil seemed like a very dangerous idea. Plus, I hate the smell of hot oil, of frying foods. Especially in the winter, when it is ten degrees outside and the house is shut up tight and breeze-less, I really hate it. Ever trying to be less bitchy and more accommodating, I turned up the heat and opened some doors and windows.

Colby loves the kitchen. She will stand right beside you at the sink, at the cutting board, at the stove. All of it is OK except that her curiosity is not balanced by a memory of pain. She has suffered two serious burns from reaching right up for a pan or the kettle. So we feel the delight of her company commingled with acute anxiety and anticipation of danger, always thinking three steps, three moves ahead in an effort to keep her safe. Keeping her out of the kitchen means to listen to her cry the entire time, until everyone is at the table. And even then, sometimes when she is let back in to the kitchen she will go lay on the floor for a while as if to make up for lost time.

Craig mixed white wine and flour and dredged the chopped shrimp through in fritter sized bunches, sprinkling chopped Nori here and there. I set the table and wrangled the girls and worried and tried not to dwell on the smell. When Craig brought the platter of fritters to the table my thinking this was all a bad idea disappeared. Golden and glowing, they looked like a platter of little sunshine pools. Yes indeed, we were definitely going to make it through another sleepless winter night. Coral bit into one and before even finishing her first mouthful said, “I need more Shrimpy.”

All at the table, danger averted, golden orbs of shrimp, flour, wine and oil before us I let my mood shift. This is one of the things I love about Craig, that he bothers. He bothers to be ambitious and go through the effort even in the least ideal of circumstances. If it were up to me we would have had black bean and rice quesadillas, again. And we would have been fine. But we would not have been brought in to the moment, into our senses the way his effort delivered us. We would not have smiled at each other, the four of us, around the table, our greasy lips gleaming in the candlelight.

Recipe from "Canal House Cooking" volume 1, for Fritto Misto. Buy this book: it is gorgeous, it is self published, and you will see a lot of it here on this blog, we love it!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Beginning

Recipes to Save a Marriage By. This title came to me several years ago when I first began to realize dinners at home were saving my life, and saving our relationship. In the fall of 2005 my partner Craig and I received the news that our tiny baby girl had severe epilepsy, as well as microcephaly.

The table has always been central to our relationship. Like many couples, we fell in love eating together, and eating in New York City, what a joy: scrambled eggs and toast at Le Gamin, Huevos Rancheros at Shopsin's, Steak au Poivre at La Luncheonette, Ginger Scallion Lo Mein at Noodle Town, Flounder and Tempura at Omen, Panna Cotta all' Aceto Balsmico at Il Buco.

After our daughter was born and we realized her health problems, we poured all our resources into her care, and eating at home became a necessity. I, while incredibly stressed by new motherhood and the intense worry about Colby, was happy to be eating home, at our tiny table, in our tiny kitchen, in our tiny apartment. For Craig is the most astonishing cook.

These are not recipes to save a marriage. There are no magic spells or even many metaphors. Rather, these are the recipes, the food we are eating and cooking while we work to save our marriage. Save sounds dire, and some days it is. The stress in our house when Colby is not well shatters our patience and our hope. Some days we need saving, and we do that, in part, by sitting down together, eating and talking. Other days our time at the table at the end of the day with our two darling girls is the place that we thrive. We talk about the successes of our day, the beautiful things we noticed. The table is where we savor the good and peaceful moments.