Saturday, July 30, 2011

Pasta For One (Or More)

I seem to have been blessed with a non-addictive personality, though I have not always considered it a blessing. When I was an undergraduate at Tulane, I repeatedly tried to start smoking cigarettes, but kept forgetting to buy them. At one point, I remember thinking that my inability to keep on with smoking, a conscious decision, was the indication of a serious personality flaw. I was afraid I would never be able to persevere at anything.

I suppose this same trait has also kept me from becoming dependent on alcohol or drugs, and had my parents been more aware of it, it would have saved them a lot of worry. My mother’s older brother, Will, was a charming alcoholic and probably because I looked so much like him when he was a child – in our baby pictures we are indistinguishable – they were always afraid I would follow in his often staggering footsteps. One of my father’s sisters told me this after my parents both were gone and it explained why they carefully kept him away from me when I was growing up, though he lived not that far away in Texas City, Texas.

I remember seeing my Uncle Will only once when I was young; it was at a cousin’s wedding where he was tipsy and smiling and patted me gently on the head. I was a teenager when he died and left me a complete set of Balzac in translation and to my mother enough money to enable her to buy a new Buick. (Heretofore we had always had Plymouths.)

 He was an interesting and sympathetic character and I have always regretted that I did not get to know him.

Uncle Will  played the trumpet and had run away to join a circus band when he was a  teenager growing up in Ruston, Louisiana, the oldest child of my grandmother, the widow of a Presbyterian minister who was also raising four young girls. One of them, my Aunt Maud, never spoke to Will again, and the others all looked down on him. He later read for the law, married, and set up a practice in Texas City, but in my parents’ eyes, he didn’t amount to much. I never met his wife who painted landscapes and wrote one novel, the manuscript of which she lost before she had a chance to show it to anyone.   My mother inherited one of her undistinguished paintings. An eight by twelve inch oil on canvas, framed in a cheap gold frame, it was of a crooked, skinny tree growing amid some brush. Mother hung it in the parlor to which the artist had never been invited.

I believe that the closest thing I have had to an addiction is my devotion to pasta which crept up on me during the time I lived in Italy. I vaguely remember at some point during my Italian years growing tired of it and avoiding it for a while, then slowly I began to really enjoy it again and soon a meal without it seemed incomplete.

My partner, John, does not share my passion for pasta. He has, in fact, developed a mild aversion to it because I used to make it for us so often.  These days I usually have pasta only on those rare occasions when John and I do not have lunch together and I get to fix a bowl of it for myself.

This is my favorite recipe for “pasta for one.” It is tasty, simple, and fast. And the recipe can easily be expanded to serve many more.

Six to eight ounces of pasta, whatever one has on hand. “Penne rigate” are good because the ridges in the pasta hold the sauce well. The last time I used “racchette” pasta in the form of little tennis rackets, which also worked very well. The only brand of pasta I use, however, is de Cecco.  It is always of high quality and the brand most of my Italian friends swear by.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and cook the pasta in it for however long the package says one should.

While the pasta is cooking, put three or four tablespoons of good olive oil in a large skillet and over a moderate heat gently sauté the following ingredients:

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 small jalapeno, seeded and minced

1 miniature sweet red or yellow pepper (a really tiny one), seeded and minced

About two inches of anchovy paste from a tube or three or four smashed anchovies

2 tablespoons of chopped green onions

¼ cup of chopped parsley

About a dozen turns of freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste

Let the above simmer for a few minutes until everything is softened, being careful not to let it burn.

Set aside for garnish another ¼ cup of chopped parsley and 6 or 8 shredded sweet basil leaves.

When pasta is done, drain it and then toss it in the skillet until it is well covered with the mixture.

Turn into a bowl and stir in about half a cup of freshly grated Parmigiano and the rest of the chopped parsley and basil leaves. Serve at once.

One glass of red dry wine goes perfectly with this, especially if you are able to take an afternoon nap.

Following the example of my lucky French friends, I will be taking off the entire month of August. I hope you will come back to my blog in September for more stories and more recipes. Bonnes vacances! 

                                                       Pasta for one

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Fleshpots of the East

Istanbul in early spring, 1974. The bridge across the Bosphorus, connecting Europe to Asia, had just been completed a few months before when my brilliant, learned, and witty friend Timothy Verdon and I spent a week there.

I first met Timothy in early 1960s when he was a precocious undergraduate from Weehawken, New Jersey. He served as my assistant on a student ship on which I was directing an orientation program for students who were going to Europe for the summer or for a year of study. He kept the crossing lively with his surreal sense of humor and a series of practical jokes that he might not like to be reminded of today since he is Monsignor Timothy Verdon, celebrated scholar, television personality, a Canon of the Florence Cathedral, one of whose official titles is Director of the Office of Sacred Art and Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage for the Archdiocese of Florence. However, he is still as well known for his wit as he is for his erudition, and justly so.

That spring in Istanbul almost forty years ago, we stayed in a modern and nondescript hotel near the bazaar. The window in my room opened onto a brick wall on which had been stenciled a black and white portrait of Ataturk who stared fiercely back at me each time I looked out the window.

Tim, who was either finishing or had just finished his PhD in art history at Yale, was an excellent traveling companion. He wore his learning very lightly and joyfully shared it. We visited all the important monuments of the city: Santa Sophia, The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Archeological Museum, and a number of obscure ones.  

One day we decided to take a bus across the newly opened bridge and spend a day exploring the eastern part of the city.  We planned to wander around for a while, have lunch somewhere, and then, later in the afternoon, take a ferry back to the west.  We thought it a good idea to make inquires first at the Istanbul Tourist Office located in the Hilton Hotel. “Could you recommend,” I asked the woman behind the desk, “a good place to have lunch on the other side of the bridge?”  “Oh, no,” she gravely told me, “There are no suitable places for lunch in Asia.” 

I was somewhat taken aback by her sweeping statement, but, as I recall, we did not find a place for lunch.  We did have an interesting day poking around and looking at the architecture.  As the sun was setting, we took a crowded ferry back to Europe.

We were very tired and very dirty when we got back to our hotel and I noticed in the lobby a flier extolling the merits of a Turkish bath that claimed to be the oldest in Istanbul. The list of past customers was impressive and included Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, writer and wife of the English Ambassador at Constantinople in the 18th century, and Lord Byron in the 19th. There were other famous bathers as well, but somehow those are the two who have remained in my memory.

The Cagaloglu Hammam was only a few blocks away, so we decided to give it a try.  We paid the modest fee and were given huge towels and bars of soap and escorted into the vapors. We each had an attendant who scrubbed us so clean I thought my skin was coming off.  And then we had vigorous massages. Mine was given by a pot-bellied Turk with a moustache who pummeled and pressed and rubbed vigorously until I was completely limp. As I was lying there almost comatose, suddenly a young man with long hair, wearing a leather jacket and jeans, arrived and enthusiastically introduced himself. He had, he said, recently inherited the Hammam and when he heard that there were two Americans in the bath, he was eager to meet us.  His enthusiasm for Americans, it turned out, was the result of a year spent in Vermont on an exchange program sponsored by the Experiment in International Living. It had been, he told us, the best thing that had ever happened to him. And then, revealing the dark side of educational exchange, he announced that his time in America had inspired a plan to convert the ancient and venerable Cagaloglu into "a uni-sex sauna and kebab house.” I wonder if it ever happened. I certainly hope not.

Tim and I tried a number of different restaurants in Istanbul, from elegant to simple, and had some tasty meals with a variety of side dishes, but somehow we always ended up with a kebab of some sort. It seemed inevitable, inescapable, so much so that after a week of it Tim remarked, “The infamous fleshpots of the East seem to be filled mostly with shish kebab. “  As a memento of our trip he gave me a small cookbook entitled Turkish Cooking, which Tim with a pen subtitled “or – “The Pocket Fleshpot.”  

Turkish Cooking was written by Irfan Orga, who, I have discovered, was a well known Turkish author and former fighter pilot from an ancient Ottoman family who lived in exile in London for many years. The book begins with a charming and informative preface that explores Turkish cuisine and the role it plays in Turkish life.  The recipes are clearly written and simple to follow; there are about a dozen for various kebabs. It also has this sensible advice on their preparation:

Sliced green peppers, tomatoes and onions may be served as garniture but these must be grilled on separate skewers. If they are included on the meat skewer the meat becomes tough and this is why so many shish kebab dishes served in restaurants outside the Middle East are tough and unpalatable.

The following is an adaptation of the shish kebab that I hoped to prepare last evening, but our butcher could not supply the lamb, so I will have to try it another time. It sounds straightforward and delicious. As soon as the butcher can supply me with the right kind of lamb, I plan to try it.

Four skewers

2 lbs of leg of lamb removed from the bone and cut into 1 inch cubes

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 cup of dry white wine

1 teaspoon of salt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Combine the wine, garlic and salt to make a marinade. Marinate the lamb in the mixture for 6 to 8 hours. Dry and place on skewers, allowing a ½ inch between each cube. Brush well with the melted butter and grill for 5 or 6 minutes, turning continuously.

   The new owner of the Cagaloglu, with Tim standing behind me.

A steel engraving of the Cagaloglu Hammam made after a drawing by Thomas Allom (1804-1872), English artist and architect, showing what it must have looked like in the 1830s when Allom visited Turkey.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Chicken Fricassee (for Jane Davies)

One Easter before I was born, my father gave my sisters a pair of baby chicks that he had named, ominously for them,  Fricassee and Gumbo. According to my sister Lorraine, Gumbo was, alas, soon petted to death. But Fricassee lived to be a Methuselah among chickens.  She was still alive when I arrived a few years later and I remember her well.

When I was an infant and Fricassee was still a fairly young hen, our family lived in a small frame house on Brashear Street, near the college in Lafayette, Louisiana, where my father was  a professor of agriculture. It was an exceedingly quiet neighborhood and there was so little traffic that Fricassee was allowed to stay unsupervised in the front yard. According to Lorraine, Fricassee soon struck up a friendship with Connie, a neighbor’s pet duck on the other side of the street. Lorraine tells me that every morning Fricassee would cross the street to get her friend Connie and then accompany her back to our yard where they would spend the day clucking and quacking and scratching for bugs. At sunset, Fricassee would take Connie back to her yard, and then return home to the pen behind the house where she slept each night.

When my father became Dean of Agriculture, we moved from Brashear Street to the college farm.  Fricassee came with us and led a privileged life among the other barnyard fowl.  A few years later, when my father was named president of the college, we moved from the farm to the newly-constructed President’s House on the campus.  It was not a suitable place, my mother decided, for a pet chicken. She asked Mr. Landry, the grocer, if he would mind keeping Fricassee in his chicken coop. Mr. Landry said that would be fine.  We often accompanied Mother to Landry’s Grocery on Cherry Street and always went to the coop behind the store to say hi to Fricassee.  This continued for some time until the Saturday my mother telephoned Mr. Landry to order a chicken for our Sunday dinner.  The chicken he sent was Fricassee. Mother, fortunately, came out the back door just as Gus, our servant, was about to wring Fricassee’s neck. Mother screamed and stopped the execution.  Fricassee was not sent back to Mr. Landry. A pen was found and she lived out the rest of her life, not in the Groves, but in the bushes of Academe in our back yard.

At least once a week, we had for lunch (our main meal) chicken fricassee made from some fowl less fortunate than Fricassee.

It was prepared by our diminutive cook, Lizzie Pillet, who was descended from a Pygmy tribe. She was tiny, but a wonderful cook who every day brought to the table delicious dishes that, I’m afraid, we probably took for granted.

I still love chicken fricassee and though I have it less often than when Lizzie prepared it, I do make it from time to time and serve it, as it was always served, over boiled long grain rice.

Here is my recipe:

Large pie pan

Dutch oven

Heat oven to 350 degrees

4 large organic chicken thighs with skin and bone

2 tablespoons of olive oil

4 tablespoons of flour mixed with 1 teaspoon of salt and twelve    turns of freshly ground pepper in the large pie pan

Another 2 tablespoons of flour for browning

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped

2 stalks of celery, roughly chopped

1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

¼ cup of minced seasoning ham

¼ teaspoon of red curry powder

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs of fresh rosemary

½ cup of chopped parsley

1 cup of torn basil leaves

About 1 cup and a half of organic chicken stock, with more in reserve.

Dry the chicken thighs and toss in the flour mixture until well-coated.

Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.

Brown the chicken thighs in the olive oil and then set aside.

Sauté the onion, celery and jalapeno pepper in the olive oil until they are softened.

Remove vegetables, lower heat  and add two tablespoons of flour to the Dutch oven and lightly brown, being very careful not to burn the flour.

Put chicken thighs and minced ham back in the Dutch oven and add enough of the chicken stock to almost cover the chicken.

Add the remaining ingredients and put into a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes, or until tender, checking from time to time to make sure there is enough cooking liquid.

Serve over boiled long-grain rice. Accompany with a dry white wine like sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio.

Chicken thighs in flour mixture

Minced jalapeno

Chopped seasoning ham

Chicken Fricassee in the Dutch oven

Served over boiled long grain rice

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Perfect Caesar Salad

Recently we spent a week in the lovely Connecticut town of Kent and while there had a number of meals, both lunch and dinner, at a much-loved Kent institution: The Fife N’Drum. (
It is hard to decide which to praise more: the food or the ambience. Both are memorable. The ambience is warm, unpretentious, convivial, and the food is consistently excellent.

The guiding spirit of the restaurant is dapper Dolph Traymon who owns the restaurant with his elegant and welcoming wife, Audrey.

In 1973, Dolph retired from his successful career as a staff pianist for A.B.C. and as an accompanist for such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Joel Gray, to open with Audrey a restaurant that would not only serve good food, but also become his own personal concert hall. Today, at age 92, Dolph still entertains the diners six days and six nights a week with beautifully polished performances on the restaurant’s two Steinway grands.

We had five meals at the Fife n’Drum and therefore were able to have a real sampling of the menu. Everything was good, but the dishes we liked best were the half duck flambé and the tenderloin au poivre.  And especially the Caesar Salad for two with which we began almost every meal.

In this age when the deconstructed Caesar – several unmolested leaves of romaine lettuce artfully arranged on a plate with an anchovy and a few croutons – often appears without warning in restaurants that should know better, the classic version of the Fife n’Drum is both delicious and reassuring.

Dolph and Audrey’s daughter, Elissa Potts, who does a superb job of managing (“stage managing” would perhaps be a more accurate description)  the restaurant and making sure that the guests are as coddled as the egg yolk in the Caesar Salad, generously gave me a copy of the recipe, and I tried it last night with a good result. My Caesar lacked only the theatrical flair of the table-side preparation by one of the skilled staff.

We had our last meal at the Fife n’Drum on a Sunday evening and spotted Daniel Boulud, one of the most famous chefs in the world, sitting quietly at the bar enjoying his dinner. What better endorsement could a restaurant have?

Here is the Fife n’Drum’s Caesar:
A large wooden bowl
4-6 anchovies or the equivalent of anchovy paste
½ crushed clove of garlic
½ teaspoon of dry mustard
10 turns of freshly ground pepper
Mash all to a paste, then add

1 coddled egg yoke*
1 tablespoon of Lee & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
¼ cup of good olive oil
2-3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
Mix together to emulsify
Then add to the bowl:
1 head of romaine washed and chopped
1 cup of croutons**
10 more turns of freshly ground black pepper
Toss together until all the romaine is well coated
*I dropped a fresh organic egg in boiling water for one minute before separating the yoke from the white.
**Next time I may make croutons from scratch, but last night I used store-bought plain croutons tossed in olive oil with a clove of crushed garlic and a pinch of salt in a skillet over a medium flame until they were crisp and slightly brown. On second thought, they were so good that next time I may not attack a day-old baguette, as the recipe for croutons I have calls for me to do. What a bother, not to mention all those crumbs.

                     Waiter Tino Santiago and his tableside creations

                             The Fife n’Drum Caesar

                          Tino preparing the duck flambé

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Cous Cous Salad

So far, all of the recipes in this blog come from past meals. This one, however, I have just finished making and it is going to be served tonight when we have four guests coming to dinner. It is  baking hot in Fredericksburg (but not the soggy, oppressive heat I remember from my native Louisiana…when people in Virginia complain about the summer heat and humidity, I always think; “If they only knew!”) So we are having a cold buffet.
The Cous Cous salad is going to be one dish of a meal that will also include chicken salad and shrimp salad, served with a Sauvignon Blanc, and followed by a chocolate mousse from our cherished Wegmans. I couldn’t make a better one.

20 ounces  of plain Cous Cous
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon of salt
4 cups of water

Put water, oil, and salt in a large pot and bring to a boil
Add Cous Cous, turn off heat and cover.
Let sit for five minutes then uncover and gently fluff with a fork, breaking up all lumps
 Empty into a very large bowl.

Then add and mix in:
 1 medium zucchini, chopped and blanched in boiling salted water for one minute
6 Campari tomatoes, quartered and seeded (or cherry tomatoes, halved)
½ small  jalapeno, finely diced
½ cup of finely chopped fresh herbs: chives, parsley, tarragon, basil and mint
1 can of whole water chestnuts, drained and halved
¼ cup of pine nuts
¼ cup peeled and salted pistachio nuts
¼ cup roughly chopped roasted, salted almonds
Chopped green onion tops
One small sweet red pepper, seeded and minced
Juice of one lemon
¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
Add extra olive oil if the salad seems too dry

Let chill in fridge for at least four hours.

Serves six as a side dish (I hope)

                             The finished Cous Cous Salad