Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Today I faced my demons. I put my best out, and I lost. I spent years waiting for this mind to settle. Train rides, braised lamb, and dirt roads didn't save me. Today I looked denial in the eye and screamed out to be heard. I cried my eyes out at the resevoir. My crying stopped and the most incredible thing happened, failure and loss turned to the smell of Wild Pasture Rose. Growing from the wilds of muggy Manhattan's June was a huge shrub of roses. With nothing to lose and no fear left inside, I plucked one rose. Six, cool, pink petals encircled a chandelier of bright yellow spindles, each holding a golden pollen cluster. No thorns, just a toothpick thin light green stem and a mind altering, deep floral scent. The nose of this rose was a mouth full of berries warm from the bush, fresh cut young leaves, and the aching freedom found in failure. I did not take the flower from my face, each breath brought the rose's beauty closer to me, and each exhale was met with a step in the direction of the street beyond the park. I left the park wondering why? If failure doesn't kill us, but sets us free to move on, and if wild roses smell so good, why don't we fail more and make a greater effort to enjoy wild roses. Scent and liberation at hand, I walked beneath the elegant umbrella of a tree's limbs. The sidewalk below the arched limbs was speckled with dark splotches that fell from the branches of the tree whose trunk was rooted on the other side of the stone wall in the park. I lifted my chin to see that my head was surrounded by Persian Mulberries. The thousands of mulberries were an ombre of ripeness. I was born and raised in Manhattan, I never knew we had mulberries tumbling with readyness onto our sidewalks. I chose the darkest berries and ate them with the rose in hand. A flow of foot traffic passed me by without taking notice to what I was devouring from the city's boughs. They burst black sweet into the back of my mouth and left ink on my palms. I closed my eyes, and there was nothing but loss, rose, and mulberry, I felt like I had been reborn. I promised right then to never smell a wild rose or eat a mulberry off a tree without remembering to always put my best out, and when I have failed and am crying hard to have a small glass of mulberry juice with a large ice cube, two drops of rose water, and a petal on top.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
The maritime journey to Chania, a Venetian gem of a town, and Crete’s secondary port, was a forgotten yet still glimmering, zombie, disco at dawn. All of the 70’s sea faring, lost glamour (an abundance of fake flowers planted into mirrored beds that frame royal blue carpets, hot pink velvet swivel chairs, and white leather in the captain’s quarter) was found; under fluorescent lights in a pre dawn glow aboard a Cretan Sea ferry. The fading glama-rama was tamed by the aged crew that wore tattered and soiled butler uniforms, smoked black tobacco, and sported a ghoulish pallor The completely outlandish boat ride from a Greek island to Chania was cherished, but no gauge of what we would find on Crete. Crete is a massive island hovering above Africa with simply the most exciting and natural food. There are no waves of trendiness crashing on these shores, what’s savored here has been perfected over hundreds and hundreds of years of eating.
Once In Chania, you must allow yourself the luxury of lunching for hours upon a pristine, portside, white tablecloth. There are three rules. The first rule is of course octopus, the second being sea urchin, and thirdly spoon sweets, but it wouldn’t be disastrous if you were to switch rule one for rule two. Octopus is hung with clothespins on laundry lines all over town. The cheerful meat sprinkled with wild oregano hangs in the strong island sun, and is tenderized beneath the rays. The meat needs nothing more than a little heat and flavor from the wood burning grill, herbs, salt, and olive oil. The Tentacles are left long, and they coil on your plate. The meat is so tender it requires only a butter knife, and you wonder whether this divine texture came from the sea or was a gift from the sun. I realize this simple mezze so heavenly due to the collaboration of the Cretan Sea, Hellenic sun, and the Greek octopus. The octopus delicately enhanced by red wine vinegar and chopped parsley will let you consider nothing other than the sensation of that moment until your plate is cleared. Knowing the amount of tedious work that goes into cleaning urchin roe from its spiny shell, makes rule number two, a glass bowl filled with the roe, a lavish treat. The bowl of urchin, olive oil, and lemon comes with a teaspoon, and a basket of bread. Each teaspoon lifted out of the bowl is a patchwork of urchin colors, ranging from pumpkin to a pale pink, kittenish lipstick. After all the roe has been eaten, you are left with the best bite: vinaigrette of lemon, olive oil, and urchin essence- perfect for soaking up with the last crust of bread. The only thing to do at this point is sit with your chair facing the boats on the harbor and watch the light on the sea from where these delicacies came. The afternoon sun is blinding as it reflects off the starched white tablecloth, and as you close your eyes you don’t lose your sense of place. Chania’s leisurely port is filled with the din of cutlery on flatware and Greek chatter. Just as you suspect it couldn’t get better, cool, tangy, thick yogurt, and small glass bowls of colorful incandescent jewels are brought to the table, as show of hospitality. In a moment of amazement it’s realized the jewels are for you, and they are whole kumquats, young figs, lemon rinds, rose petals, grapes, green walnuts, and bitter oranges. There is no disappointment, spoon sweets with a cool glass of water, are one of life’s treats that exceed your greatest expectations. The sweets are a Greek tradition, made with whole, under ripe fruits, occasionally flower petals, herbs, vegetables and nuts are used. They are made by gently simmering the fruit, sugar, and small amounts of water for many hours or days. This is the simplest and most natural procedure. The transformation of sour fruit, into chewy, aromatic sweetness, with its shape and color preserved in beautifully tinted syrup, is a frank reminder of why I love to cook. This is a ritual that as of late has been carried on by monks and artisanal producers who have the kind of time on their hands that Island women used to have. The hard green figs’ journey to a syrupy jewel is like that of a caterpillar into butterfly. I in turn am like a moth, and the spoon sweet is my burning flame; their sweet glowing glory sent me compulsively flying. I mean I was really flying, feeling really euphoric, strangely so. I happened to be eating with a diabetic and thought this might be a good time to test my blood sugar. A normal post meal blood sugar should be around 120, mine was 430. I believe that’s why they call them spoon sweets, one should not exceed an ample spoonful in a sitting, but in my moth like excitement I turned them into 3 bowl sweets, not a spoon sweet. With a new frantic bounce in my step we jumped from the table along the water, and ducked into the narrow winding stone streets of Chania. The sugar worked it’s self off while I explored the alleyways steeped in byzantine, Venetian, and ottoman design. Chania with it’s dramatic entrance, sea fare hanging from laundry lines, and obscenely delectable simple sweets, is the perfect jump off for the wilds of Crete.
Friday, May 15, 2009
Fava Bean Mash-Up.
Serves 2 for a meal, and 6 if used as an appetizer.
2 Lbs, fresh, organic Fava Beans. (Much better fresh, but you can find organic frozen Favas, you will only need 3/4 Lbs if shelled)
½ c, olive oil
1 large, organic Shallot- diced
1 1/2, Arbol chiles (or any dried, whole chili you want to use)- broken by hand
2 tbl, whole cumin seeds, ground
¼ c, water
1 large, organic lemon, cut in half
½ c, mint- chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
Garnish options: crumbled feta, toasted pine nuts, and chopped mint.
1. First you must remove beans from their pods. Tear open the pod at the top and then continue to open along its spine. Keep the shelled beans in a separate bowl. While you do this get some water in a pot to boil.
2. Fava’s need their outer membrane removed as well. Get a bowl full off ice water ready. To get the membranes off, plunge them into the boiling water for one minute, and then put into ice water immediately to stop the cooking.
3. As you remove the membranes of the beans you may begin the cooking process.
4. Slowly heat the olive oil in the bottom of a pot, on low heat, add the chiles (as they will infuse the oil as you chop), all the while chop and mince the shallot and garlic.
5. Add the shallot to the pot with a couple pinches of salt and let the shallot become translucent on medium heat.
6. Add garlic, cumin, and a couple grinds of black pepper to the pot. Give this mixture some nice stirs with a wooden spoon until it becomes very aromatic. We are not looking for any real color on the garlic.
7. Add your cleaned Fava beans, and coat with the fragrant oil, occasionally stirring until the beans are really soft (about 10 minutes). Keep your water close by, and if beans begin to feel dry or stick t the bottom of the pot add splashes of water.
8. Using your wooden spoon or a potato masher, mash the beans until they form a chunky paste. Add more water or more olive oil until you get the consistency and spread ability you desire.
9. Season the pot with salt and pepper to your liking, remove from heat, and while still warm add your chopped mint and lemon juice.
10. Your mash is done. Here’s where you decide what to do with it and what to garnish with, or in my case, eat half of it with your wooden spoon.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Athens Central market is divided by a two way street, into the outdoor produce market, and the “COLORFUL” indoor meat and fish markets. I guess in Athens when they tell you it’s colorful, they mean grisly, surreal, and barbaric. Excited to get a dose of some local “color”, I dove head first into the long, dark meat hall with ancient sky-high arched ceilings. It was an artificially lit artery of gory traffic, stalls on each side run by smoking butchers with huge bellies under aprons who’s white only illuminated the layers of dried blood and market grime. Some were busy selling the lamb’s insides and outs, and others hacked away loudly and sloppily at sheep primals. Some vendors seemed content to take a break from their daily grind to entertain themselves by shoving plastic buckets filled with goats’ heads in our faces and making far from tempting sexual advances. The most memorable of stalls were those featuring whole skinned rabbits. Pristine furry tails offset pearly pink flesh, and white hind feet were kept intact- should there be any question as to whether they were real rabbits, they had the thumpers and cottontails to prove it. A couple of bloody butcher’s hands groping at my arms was all it took to get me through the meat hall in just one breath. Free from the wild ride of the meat market, I was laughing, gasping, and wide-eyed. The parallel fish hall separated by a cement wall was of equal intensity, but a different scene. The vivacious sea creatures sat on mounds of crushed ice in wooden crates, lit by gorgeous bright bulb lamps with green metal shades. It smelled of captured, salty Hellenic sea breezes and cigarettes. There was something assuring about the constant trickle and flow of the ice melting and being carried away by a tiny drainage system running throughout the hall’s stone floors. I weaved through the stalls in total awe of the octopi, squid, and prawns. Flesh taught with swim, and colors that still belonged to the surf, their graceful jet propulsion could be seen in the curled tentacles. An aging housewife with a grey bob and wide pumps stood in a pool of wet and chatted amiably with her fishmonger. He laughed with her as he scooped kilos of baby octopi into a cone he had made of sturdy grey paper printed with blue writing. Water began to seep into the soles of my boots and we made our way back into the light of the afternoon and across the road to the vegetable stands. What a welcome relief the friendly outdoor stalls were. Children and cats running loose, leaves you wanted to touch, and grocers excited to tip the scale in your favor with a smile. There is something so grounding about the market in early spring, lots of bulbs fresh from the dirt, zings of bright green, sensible purple, and roll up your sleeves kinds of brown. The market was bursting with huge mounds of Horta (a tough chicory that is boiled, chopped and served room temperature with olive oil and lemon), garlic, lettuces, dried beans, herbs, snails, and amazing flower bulbs that look like shallots and are traditionally used with rabbit. Athens’s early spring vegetables inspire work in the kitchen, with the promise of an effortless asparagus shoot next week. Had we been leaving the markets and headed to a kitchen I would not have left without paper cones of baby octopi and squid perfect for a quick fry, herb salad, and lemon. There would have been a canvas bag just for horta on my shoulder, and shallots, leeks, and flower bulbs to go alongside my rabbit with his good luck tail intact. I rarely get an alarming , gruesome twist to my usual market glee, and for this I am grateful to the Athens’ Central market.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Mastiha is aromatic resin that comes from the mystical Mastic tree in the pistachio family. Most of the trees grow on the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean Sea. Though found in the Mediterranean and Middle East, it is only the Mastic trees of Chios that weep the sacred resin from their bark. Chios is the protected designation of origin for the Mastic spice, and is cultivated by rather chic south island co-ops. Resin seeps out of small cuts made into the tree’s main branches, is hand washed, and then sun dried. At this point the Mastiha is in small, translucent, yellowish resin balls, this is my favorite point. Pop a few of these in your mouth and indulge in ancient chewing gum, mentioned in the bible and treasured in sultan’s harems. Chewed for 30 seconds or so the resins becomes malleable, turns white, and exudes its powerful, intoxicating aroma. Mastic’s flavor is as resiny as you would expect but without bitterness, yet there is no sweetness, and while I would like to throw around words like pine, anise, and sage I think they may lead you astray. It’s very base, and has the light notes of a classic men’s cologne, and the deeply tickling notes of a juniper berry. It will send your mind wriggling to find flavor comparisons, but you wont find a match, and this will be the birthplace of your yearning passion for Mastiha. Even after leaving Greece Masticha would pop up now and again in Turkish delight and Dondurma (chewy Turkish ice cream), in sauces, spoon sweets, soups, toothpastes, pastries, liqueurs, lotions, and candies. The resin crystals are ground to powder in a mortar and pestle, and is often combined with sugar, but could be paired with rose water, fennel, cous cous, or whatever you fancy. Just as all good flavors seems to be good for you, Mastic is certainly no exception. In oil form it’s anti bacterial and anti fungal, and in chewing form it soothes the stomach and lowers cholesterol. Once you know Mastiha, any trace of it’s flavor will sound off bells in your head (and heart), and will be like bumping into a very dear friend in the most unlikely of corners.
Monday, May 11, 2009
And he said:
Would that you could live on the fragrance of the earth, and like an air plant be sustained by the light.
But since you must kill to eat, and rob the newly born of it’s mother’s milk to quench your thirst, let it then be an act of worship,
And let your board stand an alter on which the pure and the innocent of the forest and the plain are sacrificed for that which is purer and still more innocent in man.
When you kill a beast say to him in your heart,
‘By the same power that slays you, I too am slain; and I too shall be consumed.
For the law that delivered you into my hand shall deliver me into a mightier hand.
Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.’
And when you crush an apple with your teeth, say to it in your heart,
‘Your seeds shall live in my body,
And the buds of your tomorrow shall blossom in my heart,
And your fragrance shall be my breath,
And together we shall rejoice through all the seasons.’
And in the autumn, when you gather the grapes of your vineyards for the winepress, say in your heart,
‘I too am a vineyard, and my fruit shall be gathered for the winepress,
And like new wine I shall be kept in eternal vessels.’
And in winter, when you draw the wine, let there be in your heart a song for each cup;
And let there be a song of remembrance for the autumn days, and for the vineyards, and for the winepress.”
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Heartbroken, awestruck and hungry, I stood on a dock in Oxnard watching six 110-pound crates being forklifted into the Ocean Queen delivery truck headed to a processing plant. Thousands of sea urchins piled on top of one another-—onyx, purple, claret, dime size and lavender, wiggling and fierce.
Billy the urchin transporter, who looked like Santa Claus and smoked a cheap cigar, stood amid the creatures as they were hauled away. In the sea of slick purple black, I saw soft earthen neon, and instinctively I took the fallen roe and slipped its milky brine into my mouth.
Much like oyster, urchin takes over at once with the cool perfume of marine and briny umami. Channel Island urchins push it further-—they leave you smiling over their opaque sweetness. Our Channel Islands are producing uni so exquisite in taste they are auctioned off for the highest prices in Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, second only to the extremely rare and white uni from Hokkaido in Japan.
Billy laughed at me actually eating the stuff and ripped one open to give to Pete the gull, a dock regular with a bum wing who relies on Billy feeding him uni. No one hanging around seemed interested in this live delicacy but the bird and me. Sure, they’d had it on the boat once or twice with a beer and some lemon, but they don’t usually go out to sushi bars and order that really expensive orange stuff in the wooden box.
Urchins are harvested by divers who risk their lives in the cold, deep, shark-infested Pacific waters, going out to sea for days at a time. The peak season is from September to April.
The prized Central Coast urchins head to plants in Santa Monica, downtown Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. There, they are cracked open by hand, and the roe is scooped out, rinsed and set in a light saltwater solution, before being placed in small wooden or plastic trays. Sixty percent of it will be exported to Japan and auctioned off for sushi. The other 40 percent will be found on risotto, tangled in foam or laid upon a pillow of rice for no less than 20 bucks a pop somewhere in cosmopolitan California or New York.
This is Southern California’s native rustic food, the way lobster in Maine was once the poor man’s meal, ennobled to preppy summer fame. Uni is being thrown to the gulls, shipped to Japan and blogged about as a panini in New York. Why has it passed over those of us who aren’t foodie bloggers, Japanese power lunchers or maimed dock birds?
I left Oxnard with a bucket of urchins that wiggled the whole way home, spilled all over my trunk in the Valley and wound up on my friends’ Laurel Canyon driveway as I hosed out the car.
A friend came by and couldn’t believe we were about to clean and eat them.
“Where are they from, Japan?” No, this is iconic Southern California: bluffs, poppies, Meyer lemons, Malibu wildflowers, almonds, tide pools, date shakes, avocados, In-N-Out Burgers…and Channel Island sea urchin.
We kept the live urchins iced in the refrigerator until they were served, avoiding direct contact with the ice or any fresh water, as this would kill them. With a folded dish towel and my chef’s knife, cleaning the urchins was as simple as cutting off the top, pulling out the center bits in one piece, draining any liquid that remained and carefully removing the roe that clung to their walls with a teaspoon or knife tip.
Why aren’t Angelenos celebrating with this delectable local treat instead of Russian sevruga at $100 an ounce? I can’t think of a more decadent way to fete our food patriotism than a Channel Island uni on toast and flute of Schramsberg rosé.
Let’s all learn how to clean a fresh urchin, butter a piece of bread and start loving our prized urchins as much as the suits 5,478 miles away in Tokyo do!
Up the coast, down the road and under the arbor at Rancho San Julian near Buellton, yellow jackets swoop through our lunch, falling into our wine, leaving behind smudges of pollen from the fertile Santa Barbara mesa. Jim Poett is pulling a bee out of his daughter's bowl of ice cream. His strong silence at the long table belies his pride in his daughter, Elizabeth Poett, 28. Jim is one of the first organic beef farmers, former president of the South Coast branch of CCOF ( California Certified Organic Farmers) and collaborator on the California Organic Foods Act of 1990. Just as Jim did almost 30 years ago, Elizabeth has returned home to her family's ranch from the big city. She has all the best intentions and is mentored by her father in order to realize her heroic visions of better beef. For Elizabeth, it's all about continuation and preservation of tradition, family, land, community—and feeding us really, really well.
The legacy of the Poetts' Rancho San Julian reaches back in history to long before California was a state—to when Mexico wrested Alta California from the Spanish. The land's original owner, Captain José de la Guerra y Noriega, Elizabeth Poett's great-great-great-grand- father, had been comandante of the Royal Presidio. Because of his aid in the junta against Spain, Mexico awarded him more than 100,000 acres of land throughout what were called at the time the Santa Barbara and San Buenaventura regions. After Alta California became a U.S. possession, his land remained. Indeed, de la Guerra y Noriega's family embraced the newcomers, literally. Three of his daughters—Teresa, Angustias and Anita—married Americans. And Rancho San Julian's 15,000 acres—14,000 of which are grazable—are still intact, one of the oldest family-run ranches in California.
Now Elizabeth focuses on steer-rotation cycles, worries about the effects of grass-fed versus grain-fed cattle, takes care of getting the steer bathed and wonders why one of them is making a snoring sound while breathing. The family's ranch is completely organic and sustainable and goes so far beyond free range and humane they stop just short of naming each one. I would venture to say the Poett cows are as happy as bovines can be. And for all we know, that's why they taste so good.
On this particular afternoon, a group of neighbors and friends, many of whom contributed the fruits of their labors, linger over the cleared lunch plates in the shade of Zinfandel grapevines, draining the last of the Pinot noir brought to the table by Tekla Sanford, who runs the nearby boutique organic winery Alma Rosa. They savor delicious perfumed heirloom melons from Chris Cadwell (of Tutti Frutti Farms) and José Baer's (of La Nogalera) nusstorte, his old Swiss recipe made from Central-Coast honey and his own Chandler walnuts (grown in one of California's last walnut orchards). Lunch-table conversation for Elizabeth includes her plan for monthly 15-pound deliveries of locally produced meat to Southern California families, getting L.A. chefs interested in serving Rancho San Julian beef and opening the ranch to all visitors.
After lunch, as we stand in her office (very bohemian, modish, with doors that open onto one end of the corral), Elizabeth and I look at an-antique meat chart from Chicago that she found amid the ranch memorabilia. It shows the old-school breakdown of the cow. She feels it may be the right time to bring back some of the classic cuts of meat, like beef bacon, because cooks are moving beyond the safety zone of chicken breasts and filet mignon.
On the walls are a mix of family ranch photos dating back more than a hundred years, shots of her knee-deep in the ranch's lavender field, a dry-erase board listing the exact weight of all her steer and a pile of red lollipops for her youngest cousin, Isabella, and the children on the ranch who come to visit.
Beyond the office, Elizabeth's boyfriend, Austin Campbell, leans on the corral railing in boots and a hat, waiting for us. He is a bona fide cowboy and doesn't give a second's thought as he spits out the yellow jacket that landed on his lollipop. He's a rancher for a local government-run ranch and dairy. They fell in love after meeting two years ago at a branding at the ranch. She was covered in dirt and manure and had just performed a castration, and I imagine he was dumbfounded by her long blond hair and statuesque beauty. They now live surrounded by artichoke fields.
Elizabeth's mind is still on lunch. She is anxious to know how we feel about the fat content in the tri-tip her dad grilled. One bite, and we can taste that the soil has been nurtured to grow the cattle's feed and that the little bit of fat provides a distinct elegance and gratifying mouth-feel that renders easily on the tongue. She is conflicted: Whole Foods has told her that to be part of their program the ranch should have a sprinkler system (despite the water crisis) so there's always green grass for the cattle to graze on, because the term grass-fed beef is good for marketing. Elizabeth isn't convinced. She thinks her cattle should eat a varied diet that includes organic hay and alfalfa as well as grass. She thinks it's better for the cattle and the sustainability of her ranch and asks, rhetorically, "What do chefs in L.A. want?" She already knows the answer: a product with the best flavor, and her grass- and grain-fed Angus delivers just that. Elizabeth's goal is to give a life to her cattle where "they get to live the way animals should live, and families can enjoy food in good health."
Our after-lunch tour continues. The Poett ranch house, built in 1817, is something of a Ralph Lauren set, Bob Dylan song and Lorca novel spoken by Steinbeck and frequented by Hemingway all rolled together. As we meander through the home's three wings, I have to keep reminding myself that what seems like a wrinkle in time is real. "It's like a museum, but you can sit on all the chairs. No one actually lives here full time, but the whole family shares it--we do brandings, lunches and reunions here."
In the cowboy dining hall, Elizabeth moves toward the head of the long, wooden dining table. Jim stands in the doorway, beaming as his daughter passes on her family's oral history: "A Chinese cook who didn't speak English and grew opium outside his bedroom window prepared three meals daily for the cowboys at 6 a.m., noon and 6 in the evening." Elizabeth veers from the tale to tell me about the year she spent in Seville and how she almost didn't return. She reminisces about her job in TV production and the great hole-in-the-wall apartment on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village. Seeing her standing at the head of the cowboy table, you can't imagine her living anywhere but this land.
We take our black coffee on the front porch under the trellised Cecil Brunner roses. I'm sent off with an armload of zinnias. Then, with reluctance, I travel back to the present, up that road, down the coast and back on Mulholland before sunset.