I Would Cook 4 U

Prince was once asked in a 1984 interview with Time Magazine if there was anything he couldn't do.  It took him some time to come up with a response.  Eventually, he conceded:  "I can't cook."

Photo: Rolling Stone

Photo: Rolling Stone

This seems to be his only shortcoming.  Measuring in at a modest 5 ft, 2 in., he was a small giant.  A powerful force.  Too big for the stage. Writhing and screaming and twisting to the side with his guitar as if his very life depended on it.  We saw this displayed no more passionately than in the 1984 release of "Purple Rain", the film and the album.  

Prince appeared on screen in his signature violet riot of a suit.  Shiny iridescence and unbridled movement captured both our imaginations and respect.  In one scene, he performs Darling Nikki in such a manner that one might think he has injured himself.  He had not.  

What can we say about this 'fish out of water' that has not already been said or grieved in the recent months except perhaps "Thank You for a Funky Time..."

Here is my tribute to the artist I saw as too big for this land-locked stage:

Black Sesame- Crusted Seared Ahi Tuna/Pacific Arame and Red Cabbage Slaw/Wasabi Aquafaba Cream/Black Pepper Citrus Beet Purée/Balsamic Honey Soy Reduction

Red Snapper and a Brass Band

Oh, winter.  I'm just not that into you. 

It's the same ruse every year.  You charm us into your skeletal arms with your images of fuzzy draft horses,  crackling fireplaces and the scent of mulling spices wafting through a bauble-adorned hall.  Then you shove us out the door and lock it behind us.  

It's called February.  And I'm not going to take it anymore.  It's as if winter, in its death throes, is grabbing us all by our tattered scarves and pulling us down into the abyss of its icy lair.  Hundred-year-storm, seven feet in Boston, Tennessee encased in an ice-tomb...I'm done.  I dream of the halcyon days of walking outside without looking like my mother has dressed me for a long day on the sledding hill.  I think I can speak for most of us when I say we could use a little lime in our coconut.  

That's better.  

That's right.  I packed up and went to Curaçao.  

Curaçao is a small island off the coast of Venezuela.  It is safely out of the hurricane belt and, more importantly to me at this particular time of year, out of the blizzard zone.  I went to Curaçao and took my coat off.  I took my coat off and walked straight into the warm, blue sea.  I sat in the sand.  I ate fresh fish and drank things that smelled like mangoes.  I listened to salsa and soca and tumba.  I slept under a palapa as the setting sun warmed the bottom of my feet and I learned how to say "thank you" in Papiamentu.  One night, I witnessed a Carnival celebration.  Everyone smiled as they strolled across the beach to the place where the music played and paper lanterns were strung across the sky.  All dressed in white, they laughed out loud and drank and held the edge of their cotton dresses while their bare feet beat the sand.  There was a drum and brass band bringing down the house.  Carnival dancers eager to show off this year's costume masterpieces filed in and followed suit; their wings and sequins spinning in rhythmic poetry.   

So, now that I'm back, I am eager to keep the momentum going.  I've been listening to brass bands and counting the days until we spring forward.  I found a recipe for Saus Krioyo, the creole sauce used on many dishes in Curaçao.   If I look outside, I can still see the reality of dirt-encrusted snow and hibernating, leafless oaks.  Plows are still growling and the old man across the street chips away unsteadily with a shovel at a mailbox post he may never find.  But, inside is different.  Inside the fish is frying and the trombones are sliding.  This Tuesday is going to be a FAT one, and the limes are fresh and juicy.  

Here is a whole red snapper, seasoned, dusted with flour and fried.  Served with Saus Krioyo, a tomato, pepper and onion-based sauce with fish stock and soy sauce.   On the side is funchi, a traditional corn meal mush similar to polenta and a bell pepper, jalapeño and cilantro slaw dressed with lime vinaigrette.  

Play this while you're frying:  

 

Here are a few more photos to warm you up:

Eggs with Legs: Brunch with Lake Street Dive

         "I could spend ages reading the news...     I could spend days singing the blues"

                                                                                                        -Lake Street Dive

Who doesn't love brunch?  It's breakfast.  It's lunch.  It's an ode to coffee sipping and people watching.  It's more deliberate than both its contributing parts of breakfast and lunch, more elaborate and (I'll just say it) someone else cooks it for you.  If you're lucky.  Cooking brunch for someone (unless you are a paid employee) is a fundamentally selfless act.  But, it can be also be quite self-indulgent if you do it right.  

First, find someone worthy of  your inherent selflessness.  Sit him down with the morning paper and present him with a thick-mugged cup of java tailored to his liking.  Take in the late morning sun while choosing a bit of music you feel will help you with your task.  Pour yourself a steaming hot cup of Colombian Supremo and take a deep cleansing breath.  Now, get started!

What to cook? Hmm...If you asked a hundred people on the street (why is this street so crowded?) what is their favorite brunch dish, I would think the overwhelming  majority would  say "Eggs Benedict."  I mean to say, until the day that we, as a nation, can collectively pronounce the word "chilaquiles", our Eggs Benny will no doubt reign supreme.  

Without sounding ungrateful or elitist or just bored, it is my opinion that there is an ever-so-tiny-bit-of-room for improvement on this mainstay of our weekend menu.  

First, the english muffin is cramping our style.  We pose our forks and knives above our delicate poached eggs and as we slide the knife through the yellow yielding yolk we are rewarded with enough rich, flowing goodness to tempt any palate.  Then it happens.  The knife hits an over-toasted muffin and our once sumptuous experience is now a lumberjack competition.  Sub-par.  

Next, on the same note, and no offense to our Canadian brothers and sisters, but let's be honest...it's not bacon.  Lose it.    And finally, while green is always a welcome addition to our plates, wilted spinach (eggs florentine) could totally call in sick and I wouldn't tell the boss a thing.   

 

Anyway,  since they say if you're not part of the solution then you're part of the problem, I set out to try my hand at improving upon it.  I don't think I'll get anything thrown through my window for this, but here goes:  

The muffin of ye olde Englande was replaced with freshly-grated russet potato hash browns.  Crispy and flavorful, the hash browns add texture without adding labor.  Asparagus puree seemed a great way to add color and nutrients.  It's quite easy to make (blanch, shock, blend, season) and feels much better than wilted spinach on the palate.  There are many ways to replace the Canadian bacon; my mystery ingredient was Alaskan King Crab legs.  They are salty enough to compete with their predecessor while adding sweetness and maintaining tenderness.   For the hollandaise, I kept it simple and on the lighter side.  No one wants mayo on their poached eggs (I think).    With the weekend upon us, I hope you will feel inspired to make brunch.   Or if not, maybe someone will make it for you.  Sometimes all you have to do is ask.  

On Meaninglessness: The Head and The Heart (and some Pasta)

These Days Are Numbered.   This week saw the passing of Robin Williams and the ensuing social media fallout that I have so far managed to avoid.  Let us all rue the day when we, too, should become fodder for passing judgment and the critical speculation of complete strangers as they gallantly swipe their "opposing" thumbs across our image.  This, an image intermingled with other images of back-to-school front porches, complaints about work, fuzzy concert photos, "ISIS", cute babies strapped in car seats doing delightfully unexpected things...Imagine for a moment your last words being "retweeted" and shared and "liked" with all the emotion an illuminating cartoon thumb can muster.  This web we know.  This web.  This web is a tangled mess, and we are all in its bondage.  

To find meaning in every day life is a challenge each of us faces regardless of our circumstances or mental state.  To judge one another for the decisions one makes only adds to the swirling dustbowl of noise.  We each greet the day as individuals with the same capacity for possibility as the next person, and yet what we do with it varies greatly depending on a whole host of reasons.  For those who find themselves thrust deep into the doldrums of despair, that which we would take for granted is much more challenging.  Making statements about the life and death of someone you have never met is particularly unnecessary.  Instead of criticizing, we might do well to stop and realize that we are all here together, and that "detail" is really all that is separating us from complete savagery.  

 

There is plenty of meaning to be found in the alchemy of cooking.  Like music, it is not necessary to have everyone on stage to create a stunning composition.  It is possible to take humble ingredients and transform them into something people want to devour.  Flour, eggs, tomatoes, a shallot... Lobster, for instance, is a dynamic creature that lives its life in the depths of the ocean.  The fact that it currently costs less by weight than mediocre cold cuts is wholly inconsequential to its worth.  It can still be respected, revered and refined.   We can all wake up with what we have and make something beautiful by day's end.  Since we are not sea creatures, some days the ocean will drag us under, spin us around, and cause us to lose sight of the earth from beneath our feet.   For most of us, we can still have faith that it's possible that the pull of the moon will eventually spit us back out.  As for the others, it's our job to respect and revere them.  It's our duty to make with the day what we can.

 

Here, fresh pasta with lobster and tomato:

 

 

More:  

 

 

Meenaleck Mussels with Velvet Voodoo Sauce

Meenaleck is a tiny village in County Donegal, Ireland.  It is described as "near Crolly", but there is no reason any of us would know where that is either.   Situated in the far northwest of the Republic of Ireland, it is home to about 80 people and boasts two pubs.  Irish is still spoken in this area, and traditional folk music thrives.  

You would be lucky to find yourself amidst the unspoiled beauty of County Donegal and should, quite logically, make your way to Meenaleck and Leo's Tavern for some traditional music and exceptional pub fare. 

Leo Brennan is the namesake proprietor of the tavern, but he isn't just the owner.  He is a well-known musician with a storied career, as well as father to Enya.  His other daughter, Moya Brennan and other family members comprise the band Clannad.  

One particular night on a recent trip to Ireland, we were taken to Leo's by family friends to hear a group of talented musicians.  Dinner is served and the kitchen closed before the set begins.  There is time to take an evening stroll down the gravel road before the music starts.  We ordered plenty of food, and it was all seafood.  Fresh and bountiful from the nearby pristine Atlantic, you really can't go wrong.  We ordered mussels.  Usually predictable, these were not.  They were so fresh, and so perfectly cooked, and the sauce...the sauce was not the type of white wine broth to which we are so accustomed. 

 The sauce was a velvety velouté.  It glossed over the mussel shells and found its place inside, where it stayed quite appropriately, until it was devoured.  Why don't we have this stateside? Why do we settle for less?  Why is it "so hard" to make a roux?  I feel strongly that this must change.

I have been threatening to re-create those mussels for a few years now.  Settling all too often on their thin-broth'd brethren,  always thinking about what was and what could be:  the fifes and pipes; the cold, damp air settling into your bones;  the conviction to make a roux...

I am, by all accounts, a fan of traditional Irish music, folk songs, and the ethereal beauty of the vast coastlines of Ireland that seems to lend its otherworldliness to the likes of Enya and Moya Brennan.   I think it is a sound representation of what you can come to expect in Ireland.   However, I recently heard a new voice that has changed what I think of when I think of Irish music.  

Andrew Hozier-Byrne has recently burst onto the scene.  His music is convicted, if not conflicted; devoted but not devout.  I don't believe he resents his religion, I believe he is resentful of being a Catholic in a Catholic world....resentful of the institution of religion. Who better than a twenty-four year old to ponder the supposed fallacies of the universe?  

His music is heavily-influenced by gospel and Delta Blues.  It seems to flow from Mississippi's Muddy Waters down to New Orleans' noted house of ill-repute, not to discount Northern Ireland's Van Morrison along the way.  

After hearing his break-out song, "Take Me To Church, "  I was inspired to re-visit those mussels.  I took the time to make a blond roux and built some flavors into it using fresh thyme and a bay leaf, seasoning it and reserving it.  I cleaned the mussels and sweated some shallots.  I de-glazed the shallots with Blackened Voodoo lager, giving the ubiquitous white wine a rest for a somewhat "darker" alternative, added the mussels and lovingly steamed them until they opened their repentant clasped shells and bared their wee mussel souls.  I used the reserved velouté to blanket them in everlasting flavor, and lay their heads on a consoling bed of crusty bread.  They won't soon be forgotten.  Not unlike this song:  

 

 

Here, a few photos of County Donegal:  

Enjoy and Sláinte!

Bonus track:  Here!

Home, Part One (featuring Alabama Shakes)

           "I feel so homesick, where is my home?  Where I belong or where I was born?"

                                                                                                             - Alabama Shakes

 

Some of my best friends and I have something in common:  We don't live where we were born.  Not that this is unusual, but it is curious to me how travelers' spirits are so often drawn to one another.  I was born just outside a small town in southwestern Ohio.  There were corn fields and country roads and cattle.  I lived there until I was sixteen.  My family lives there.  So many of my favorite people live there.  My fondest childhood memories took place there, mostly in and around a certain clay-filled creek bed where I would play until the sun went down.  But then I left, just like I knew I would.  I moved to northeast Florida for college and it became my second hometown.  My turf.  My life was mine there and I was coming of age with the people and places that I had chosen for myself.  I lived there for years after college, and eventually moved back for another go years after that.  I can't imagine what would have happened to me if I had not gone there.  It's in my soul.  When I go back, I feel so homesick it's palpable, and it almost always comes to an all-too-soon end with my cheeks stained by tears.

So, what is it then, that makes a place your home?  All I can figure is that "home" is a collection of experiences that we carry with us in our head...kind of like how the photos on your smartphone are stored as a group somewhere in outer space for when you need them.  It's a feeling, a taste, a joyfulness, a front porch, a regret, a rainy day, a sense of security.

 

This week we are celebrating our friend Paolo's birthday.  Paolo lives in New York City.  He and my husband became friends many years ago while working for the same company, but I can safely say that enough time has passed, enough adventures shared, that I can happily claim him as a friend in my own right.   

Last night, fifteen of us gathered together at a local watering hole to pay tribute to our friendship.  I decided to try to make a cake using some of the flavors true to Paolo's home.  I refuse to say the exact name of the town;  I wouldn't want it to end up on TripAdvisor or anything, but I will say it is on Italy's Basilicata coast and may or may not be this stunning:

We were fortunate enough to visit his hometown a few years ago, and even more fortunate to have his mamma prepare a multi-course feast for us on our first night.  It's something I will never forget.  She rolled fresh mozzarella balls by hand, created a baked eggplant masterpiece, and served delicate ricotta-filled ravioli, one plate at a time, as it was cooked.  At the end, she brought out a type of cake called a cassata, or "cassata siciliana" , as it is of Sicilian origin.  It's quite an attention-getter.  Sponge cake, ricotta filling, pistachio marzipan, candied fruit, royal icing, maraschino liqueur, and whatever else could possibly make you happy.  

Since my skills and knowledge of  14th century whole fruit candying are a little rusty, I decided to tone my cake down just a smidgen.  I made two pistachio sponge cakes, heavy on the pistachio, and added cherry preserves and a cannoli-type ricotta and chocolate chip filling in between.  I finished it with honey buttercream, large cherries and and chopped pistachios for garnish.  It was loud and much different from the simpler, minimally-decorated, delicate cakes I normally find myself making.  I drove it to the venue, we added plenty of savory bites and a gaggle of festive friends and the rest is history.

 "Buon Compleanno" to one of our own.  My home is your home.  

This recipe was adapted from Baked Brooklyn's pistachio cake recipe.  

Beck + Lasagne ai Pantaloni

Beck released a new album last month entitled "Morning Phase."  The music is mature and satisfying.  His voice is layered and soothing and reminiscent of that certain phase of rest where one is not quite asleep, nor quite part of this earthly realm.  Sauntering along the bouncing tightrope of consciousness about to float off into a slow-motion backward spin of cloud-filled oblivion...

...which reminds me of when I had the fond experience of meeting him while hurtling through space in a shiny metal tube.  If you know me, you will probably know what comes next.

 I was in my early twenties and working as a flight attendant for a major airline.  This was an occupation that would come to shape much of the way I view the world, with the stories to match.   On this particular night, I found myself hosting a hundred or so amiable guests making their way on the red-eye of quintessence: Los Angeles to New York.  Okay, it was Newark, but nonetheless, we were getting them there.  I was happily toiling in the aft galley, where I had set up the beverage cart and heated up the now extinct "hot meal" for our captives.  This night's fare consisted of vegetable lasagna and its accoutrements.  I was delighted it wasn't chicken or beef, which opened up a whole messy host of questions, including my favorite: "How is the chicken prepared?" to which I always choked back a smug "In a large vat with a lot of other chickens..." in response.   I was waiting for my partner in crime to come to the back and help me muscle the awkward beast out into the aisle when the lead flight attendant called me on the interphone.  

"Hey, what's up?"

"Hey, listen...there is a guy up here in First.  He says his name is Beck and the name of his band is "Beck?"  Do you know this band?

"Yeah, of course I do.  You don't?"  

"Anyway, the guy just spilled his drink all over himself and wants to know if we can dry his pants."  

"Sure.  Bring them back!"

The lead flight attendant, being male and straight, always made me a little suspicious.  If the fact that he was male, straight and a flight attendant wasn’t enough to deem his intentions questionable, he rang the bell with his hobby:   Magic.  While the rest of us were hurriedly trying to get our fresh herd of cats to take their seats and stow their kitchen sinks, he would loiter in the last two rows, leaning over and pulling a sheer, red scarf out of his closed fist to the mild amazement of three ladies from Pasadena.  

Much to my surprise, I looked up to see our Siegfried strolling through the cabin while cradling a tiny pair of jeans.   He handed them over to me and explained that Mr. Hansen would have to appear on MTV in a few hours and has neglected to pack a change of clothes.   Seems about right, I thought.  But wait.

“If he doesn’t have a change of clothes, then what is he wearing?”

“Blanket.  I thought maybe you could put them in the oven. “  

So that’s what I did.  Midnite Vultures was currently nominated for a Grammy for Album of the Year and I just put the artist’s “trou” into a convection oven filled with pedestrian lasagna.  

 

We went about our service as normal, filling the cart with lasagna from the non-pants-bearing oven until every soul on board was sated with the savory, thick béchamel-coated goodness and could slam their seats back into each other's knees and rest easy for the remainder of their journey.

I anxiously returned to the galley and opened the oven door, pulled out the jeans for inspection while allowing a few lava-hot coins to fall from the wee little pockets and roll under the carts, never to be seen or heard from again.  I gave a quick sniff…ahh…lasagna pants…and returned them to their owner unscathed.  Beck was grateful to be clothed again, and thanked me for my efforts, commenting on the “fresh from the dryer” feeling.   It was my pleasure.  

A few days later, I was on a flight to West Palm Beach, when a man seated near the exit row rang his call button.  I floated down the aisle, fingertips of one hand gliding along the overhead bins, to the middle of the cabin.   

“Yes, Sir?”

“I seemed to have spilled my drink on myself.  Do you have any way to dry my pants?”

I looked down.  He was holding his pants and wearing nothing but his shorts.  

Yeah, I got this.  

Here is my version of veggie lasagne.   It consists of fresh spinach pasta with alternating layers of basil pesto and flavorful béchamel.  Garnish with Pecorino Romano, quality extra-virgin olive oil and toasted pine nuts.  I served it with ricotta mixed with a hint of lemon zest, on the side.  

I hope you enjoy making your own version of Lasagne ai Pantaloni.  Buon Appetito!