Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Sunday, October 5, 2014

San Francisco: The Town of Stepford?

We had friends from D.C. visiting with us last weekend. Both were born and bred east-coasters. Lee originally hailed from the northeast (Long Island) and Christine was born a true steel magnolia from the coast of northern Florida. Each one's sensibilities as ruggedly and practically informed as anything that has been yielded east of the Mississippi River.

They are N.Y. bagels, Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, Nova Lox, Coney Island hot dogs, Maryland crab cakes and homemade 30 minute corn grits; if you get my purport: paragons of their culture: the purest paragons of the no-nonsense, quick-witted, intellectually advanced, slightly left of center (politically, not physically), cynical breed of personage necessarily fomented by an increasingly frenetic right coast lifestyle.

They are both smart, funny and amiable. They are also extremely well-traveled (he is after all THE Geographer of the United States of America; you know, like the Surgeon General), cosmopolitan and, although both are academically inclined, they are a far cry from those dusty denizens of ivy-covered, ivory towers who lead sheltered lives and remain blissfully untutored in the ways of the world.

Which is why I was wholly unprepared, though thoroughly amused, by their joint reaction to the wonderful world that is San Francisco.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that they disliked the city or its citizens. Or that they were dissatisfied with their accommodations (The Fairmont), their meals (Kokkari Estario, Gary Danko, Acquerello) or the tourist attractions (Cable cars, Fisherman's Wharf, Giant's game, Haight Ashbury, etc.).

On the contrary, they found everything and everyone to be very pleasant. Too pleasant.
Scarily pleasant, frighteningly helpful and ridiculously agreeable. According to them, the experience was much too much like that nightmare cult B movie of the '70s: The Stepford Wives. Wherever they went they were accosted by hordes of smiling happy people giving them unsolicited directions if our friends happen to be holding a map, offering them advice en masse on the best stop to get off on Muni to see a particular sight, constantly thanking them for their custom and patronage, endlessly wishing them well as in "Have a good one!".

These and many other small examples of friendliness and civility were too much for our friends. They being good east coasters were unaccustomed to such neighborly largesse; a stomp on the foot and a dirty look being the usual mode of intercourse between strangers on a metro line back east.

One day, Christine asked me with some concern and great puzzlement, "What is wrong with these people?"

She feeling that perhaps it was some nefarious conspiracy headed by the chamber of commerce to hoodwink innocent tourists into believing that they had entered the last bastion of Norman Rockwell's America by planting out-of-work actors on the city buses and streets to behave like something in a Frank Capra movie thereby ensuring future visits by rubes who would then believe San Francisco is an earthly nirvana to be experienced again and again. (Have I mentioned that tourism is currently the number one industry in San Francisco? All of our techy young upstarts who own all those start-up companies that are gentrifying San Francisco's few gritty neighborhoods notwithstanding?).

Or worse, that the Board of Supervisors or some other governing body in cahoots with Eli Lilly had drugged the citizenry by placing large but not lethal doses of Prozac or some other anti-depressant in the drinking water in order to conduct long-term, large-scale studies of the drug's effect on the various populations of would-be users.

Try though I might to explain the purely altruistic motives of the good citizens by the bay, our friends would only shake their heads, smile sadly and say, "They're so weird!". It was said gently, without rebuke, as though San Franciscans were to be more pitied than censured.

Maybe, we are.

I say we because after several years of living here, I, too, find myself almost irresistibly drawn to people with puzzled looks who are carrying maps and wearing Bermuda shorts. God help me!! Move over Stepford, USA, make room for Baghdad by the Bay! I still despise taking pictures of tourists, however, especially whilst I am trying to hike along Crissy Field, think beautiful thoughts and enjoy the stunning bay view (so that aspect of my former NYC street cred remains untarnished).

Well, in honor of our friends' experiences as tourists in the sweet and easy-going town of San Francisco, I offer for your consumption a uniformly easy to make dessert, west-coast style:

San Francisco Treats: Double Chocolate Almond Biscotti with Dried Cherries


These biscotti evoke one of the favorite tourist spots in San Francisco: North Beach with its Italian-American heritage and its cafes/coffee shops that were once the home and work place of the famed beat generation poets.

Columbus Avenue. Washington Square Park. City Light Bookstore. Jack Kerouac Street.

All crammed with tourists in the summer and fall. These cookies are something they might enjoy as a pick-me-up to go with a foamy cappuccino in one of North Beach's sidewalk cafes after a long day's touring.

Biscotti means twice-cooked in Italian and that is exactly what we are going to do. Bake them, cut them into slices and bake them again.

As always, you can substitute the ingredients fairly freely: hazelnuts or pistachios for almonds, cranberries or raisins for cherries. Use what you like.

You can substitute canola oil for butter. You can omit the butter altogether for a more traditional, longer shelf-life style of biscotti. Just add another egg white to the recipe.
If you like your biscotti a little less crunchy, decrease the time for the second baking.

  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces) semi-sweet Ghiradelli chocolate chips (for added San Francisco cache)
  • 3/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 egg yolk, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon high quality pure vanilla extract
  • 1 and 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries, chopped into raisin-sized pieces if large
  • 3/4 cup roasted unsalted almonds purchased as slivers or coarsely chopped by hand

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, make sure to place rack in center of the oven before heating.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silpat.

  • In a large stainless steel bowl with a whisk or hand mixer, cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy.
  • Add the eggs and egg yolk, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
  • Beat in the vanilla extract.
  • In a separate bowl, add the dry ingredients using a large strainer as a sift adding the flour, cocoa, salt, and baking powder into the strainer one at a time then carefully agitating the strainer over the bowl, allowing the ingredients to fall into the bowl as they sift. Once the strainer is empty and all the ingredients are in the bowl, give them a quick whisk to ensure they are uniformly distributed.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and beat until well incorporated. Stir in the cherries, chips and nuts.

  • Transfer the dough to a floured surface and divide it in half. With well-floured hands, form each half into a 10" log by rolling the dough back and forth on the board into a cylinder shape. Don't worry if the log breaks apart while rolling just paste back on & re-form it. Make sure you have a 12" ruler handy to help you measure out the length of the log.

  • Carefully place the logs on the baking sheet, placing them well apart on the pan. Remember the logs will spread as they bake.
  • Even out the shape of the logs with your hands then bake in center rack 25-30 minutes until logs are firm to the touch. Remove from the oven, place on a wire, and let cool for 10 minutes.
  • Don't let them cool completely or they will be too difficult to cut.

  • Using a long spatula, carefully transfer the logs to a large cutting board.
  • Using a long serrated (bread) knife, cut the logs into 3/4 " slices on the diagonal. (About 24-30 slices depending on their thickness)
  • Arrange the slices on the baking sheet and bake 8-10 minutes on one side. Then turn the slices over and bake the other side 8-10 minutes until biscotti are crisp and dry. Remove from the oven and let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.

    Serves several smiling shiny (slightly incredulous) happy people. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Fruits Of Labor

"The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze."
-   John Updike, September

Labor Day has come and gone.

Labor Day wee
kend has always represented the end of summer to me; practically if not technically. As a child in Manhattan, this weekend meant the sad end of the old year and the beginning of a new one; even more so than New Year's Eve in January, which always felt more like the end of the Christmas season than the beginning of anything new. It was back to school, to regimented hours, to the end of summer's sweet liberty. Yes, for me, Labor Day always rang the death knell of all the long lazy days spent reading, daydreaming, and wandering through a nearly empty city enjoying all the parks, museums and other amenities that New York had to offer a curious child with a hunger for everything, including food. 

In the summertime, street vendors with ti
ny carts that rang little bells to announce their presence offered delights like Italian frozen ices, Puerto Rican piraguas which are shaved ice snow cones filled with exotic syrups like guava, tamarind and guanabana (my favorites with just enough sweetness to make them palatable but a touch of sourness to make them refreshing on sticky 95 degree, 95 % humidity days) as well as coconut ices called coquitos which were creamy frozen concoctions much more pure in their essence: fruit granitas rather than the sugar-laden frozen ices, and there was, of course, the Good Humor and Mr. Softee trucks with their sweet musical melodies resounding through the streets who were welcomed by the neighborhood children during the dog days of summer like conquering heroes freeing the wretched and oppressed.

I still remember lapping up those Mr. Softee soft serve frozen custard cones, one lick at a time, trying to make it last as soon as possible without having that tower of spiral cream melt into a puddle in my waffled cone. And Good Humor! Those chocolate eclairs, strawberry shortcake, toasted almond works of art. I never took my eyes off those bars as I ate them. I would stare at the cross-section of every bite mesmerized by their beauty. All those layers of flavor so beautifully delineated and contrasted by color and texture. It was like a miracle on a stick.  All of this wonder ended come September. Strange child that I was, I lamented Labor Day. It seemed less like a holiday and more like a threat for further oppression.

As an adult now living in San Francisco, the advent of Labor Day has come to mean something quite different. The strange confluence of nature with its Bay Area topography makes San Francisco's weather from late May to early September the greyest, coldest, gloomiest, 55 degree and foggy time of the year; as can be attested by any tourist who had the misfortune of coming here during the summer months and took home a pair of sweats with "San Francisco" emblazoned on them as unintended souvenirs. Mark Twain may never have said the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco, but I can guarantee even he would have felt his arms break out in gooseflesh on a brisk August morning and likely was grateful for that first September warm spell. 

Rather than marking the end of summer here, Labor Day represents its beginning. The sunniest, warmest weather of the year in San Francisco starts now and ends the first days of November. Labor Day now means to me the best of summer's produce: yummy, ripe, amazing heirloom tomatoes in all shapes & colors, avocados, peaches and figs. While we chill in San Francisco during the summer months, the surrounding areas north, east and south of us are sweltering in the more typical summer heat producing lush fruits that are just now at their most abundant and ready to be harvested, and more importantly, eaten. A loaf of bread, a slice of fruit, some lush creamy cheese and a few swills of something white and chilled set the tone for warmer days and longer nights. It's a different type of creamy beauty from my old Mr. Softee days as a child, but it is just as satisfying to the hungry soul. 


"Lord, it is time. The summer was very big. Lay thy shadow on the sundials, and on the meadows let the winds go loose. Command the last fruits that they shall be full; give them another two more southerly days, press them on to fulfillment and drive the last sweetness into the heavenly wine." 
-     Rainer Maria Rilke

Yes, Rainier, quite right. It is time to enjoy the fruits of every California farmer's September labor... 

Here's my suggestion:

Bruschetta with Caponata, Burrata and Prosciutto Crisps

  • The Italian verb "bruscare" means 'to roast over coals' and "brusciare" means 'to burn or toast,' which is how the first bruschetta was made. The noun bruschetta is derived from these verbs although modern style bruschetta is often made from bread grilled in a skillet or baked in an oven until hard and dry. If you order bruschetta in Italy, you will likely be served one piece of crusty, lightly toasted Italian bread slathered with olive oil with a clove of garlic on the side. However, if you order bruschette, the plural of bruschetta, expect a plate of bruschetta with a variety of toppings. Toasting the bread on the grill gives it a particular fragrance, but with an oven or a broiler you can obtain the same good result.

  • Although all accounts of bruschetta's origins trace it back to Italy, the exact region and year of its birth are murky. Ancient Romans reportedly used to test the quality of freshly pressed olive oil by smearing it on a piece of fire-toasted bread for tasting, a custom that is now common in all major olive-oil producing regions of Italy, specifically Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria. Certain accounts claim the oil-soaked bread was rubbed with a clove of garlic to bring out the flavors of the oil. Other historical accounts of bruschetta claim it evolved from people trying to revitalize stale bread by soaking it with olive oil.

It's believed that this "poor man's food" was born as a snack for the workers in the fields. It was prepared with homemade, sometimes, stale bread, and flavored with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and tomato. These are the basic ingredients of bruschetta. However today, the ways to prepare it and variations in circulation are truly endless.

For a proper preparation of bruschetta it is necessary to slightly grill or oven-toast the surface of the bread, taking care that it remains soft inside.  
For best results, use an authentic Italian bread, the more rustic the better; ciabatta is a good choice. Acceptable substitutes include French baguette or any hearty bread with a chewy body and porous texture that toasts well. Toast the bread on both sides to avoid sogginess. Use the highest quality virgin or extra virgin olive oil to impart the bruschetta with the best taste.

These slices of bread should be fairly thick, surrounded by a quite hard but crunchy crust, with a soft, white crumb, and small and regular cavities (suitable to absorb the oil). These, once grilled, although well seasoned with oil, will be stiff and easily manageable. It 's a bread that stays good for a long time and so it is ideal to be used to prepare this dish, even if it's not freshly baked. If you consider that in the past, especially in very poor rural areas of Italy, often one had little more than this, it is understandable how bruschetta often became a full dinner and not just a snack or appetizer.

Note: Burrata is fresh mozzarella with a harder exterior shell and creamy curd interior mix of cream and curd. It has a very short shelf life of about 2-3 days. If you can't find burrata in your market (Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Safeway or other specialty grocers usually carry it) substitute fresh buffalo or fresh cow's milk mozzarella from Italy or a good fresh creamy ricotta from your local dairy farmer, a creamy goat chevre would also work well; otherwise, skip the cheese because Polly-O while ok on a pizza will not be good under the caponata.  
Caponata is a Sicilian dish made with eggplant, tomatoes, capers. Traditional recipes add the raisins. I don't.  T
he etymology of the name is not entirely known. Some suggest it derives from the Catalan language, others that it comes from the caupone, the sailors' taverns. The dishes described by Wright would suggest that in the past the Sicilian dish was similar to the Genoese capponata
This recipe would actually work well over any pasta. 

  • 1 fresh loaf of Ciabatta or other country-style Italian bread, sliced into 1" thick rounds, or a French baguette sliced through its median line into halves
  • 1 lb. of fresh burrata, left at room temperature (for at least an 1 hour)
  • 1/3 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 lb. of very thinly sliced prosciutto
  • 1/2 large onion, sliced & cut into fine dice
  • 1/2 large red pepper, cut into strips then chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed then minced
  • 2 Japanese eggplants, cut into 1/2 inch dice, erring on the side of larger dice if in doubt
  • 2 zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch dice, same size as eggplant
  • 1 tablespoon italian tomato paste
  • 2 lbs. of heirloom or roma tomatoes, stemmed, seeded and cut into small dice (or 28 oz. can of plain crushed tomatoes)
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup fresh calamata or black olives, pitted & roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of capers, drained
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 handful of fresh parsley, minced
  • 3 sprigs of fresh oregano, leaves only, minced
  • 10 large basil leaves, thinly julienned
  • 1 pinch of herbes de provence (optional)
  • freshly ground salt & pepper to taste

1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Fire up grill.

2) Heat a large saute or braising pan to medium high. When hot, add half the olive oil letting it heat up for a few seconds then add onions and 1 grind of salt & pepper mill.

3) Saute onions for a minute then add red peppers & garlic, lower the heat to medium and add the eggplant followed by the zucchini, stirring to coat vegetables evenly with olive oil & aromatics. I
f the eggplant has absorbed the oil in the pan and still appears dry add additional olive oil one tablespoon at a time until the eggplant appears moistened.

4) Now add the red pepper flakes & herbes de provence, gently stirrin
g until fragrant (10 - 15 seconds) followed by the tomato paste. Coat the vegetables with the tomato paste and let the mixture cook for 2 minutes until paste loses its raw color.

5) Add the tomatoes, gent
ly stirring to completely incorporate, then add the parsley, oregano & olives. Lower heat to low. Allow the sauce to cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to insure that sauce does not burn. When sauce has thickened, add lemon juice, capers & half the basil, stirring gently, careful not to break up the eggplant or the zucchini. Taste sauce. Add salt & pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and let cool or keep at the lowest simmer possible and cover pan with lid to keep warm.

Caponata can be prepared & refri
gerated after cooling up to 4 days in advance then either reheated or served at room temperature.

6) While sauce is cooking, place prosciutto slices on a baking sheet that has been covered with either foil or parchment paper. Bake prosciutto uncovered in middle rack for 5- 7 minutes until crisp. Do not let it burn. When prosciutto is crisp, remove from oven & let cool. When cool, crumble each slice into small
er pieces like large bacon bits. Set aside in a small decorative serving bowl.

7) While prosciutto, cools lightly brush bread slice on both sides with remaining (or additional) olive oil and place on grill. Grilling both sides about 45 seconds or so each side until bread is warm & has grill marks. (Alternatively, place bread on a heated pizza stone or directly on oven racks and toast under the broiler.)

8) Now assemble the platter: On one 
very large or two smaller platters, place a bowl filled with the caponata & a serving spoon in the center, the burrata with a serrated cheese knife, the prosciutto bits in another bowl, the remaining basil and the bread slices around the perimeter. Have each guest serve himself. Take a slice of bread, top first with the cheese, then the caponata, sprinkle with the basil & the prosciutto. Mangia!!!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Life: It's a Helluva Good Option

The Three Ages of Woman, 1905 by Gustav Klimt

“We're all fools," said Clemens, "all the time. It's just we're a different kind each day. We think, I'm not a fool today. I've learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we're not perfect and live accordingly.” 

― Ray BradburyThe Illustrated Man

It is the last month of yet another decade on this planet in this incarnation for your humble food writer. A diplomat is a man who remembers a woman's birthday, but never her age. In three Wednesdays, my husband will toast to another happy anniversary of my 29th birthday. His words, not mine.  He thinking perhaps that I prefer to remain forever just one year shy of 30. I don't. I never have. Still, by any reckoning, I am now solidly in my middle-age, despite looking younger.  No amount of trendy clothing ill-advisedly purchased at Urban Outfitters or H&M can alter the ticks of my biological clock. (U.O. and H&M are inexpensive retail shops for the young and clueless that sell ready-to-wear garments with short hemlines and short-term expiration dates; I append for those of you in the Neiman Marcus crowd with quizzical expressions on your high-brows).

Who knows, maybe the Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and New Agers are right about the cosmic wheel? I may once have been a Babylonian princess, a Queen of Egypt, and Emperor of the Roman Empire, these were tough jobs but somebody had to do them. My ego would certainly lend credence to such a storied lineage. Of course if it is true, I've fallen a long way down the karmic ladder, baby.

Mark Twain once said, "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter." He's right. I never face my birthdays with trepidation, but I guess now I find myself doing exactly that.

Part of it is the fact that various parts of my body have conspired to commit mutiny against me. It is amazing how many musculoskeletal injuries I've suffered this year. Years of professional dance, powerlifting and competitive aerobics have finally and mercilessly taken their toll.

It seems to be happening all at once.

What was once agile, strong and graceful is now by comparison stiff, weak and limping. Far from being able to perform a tour de force: going from a rapid succession of pique turns into soaring tour de jetes and dramatically ending with a long, languorous 180 degree arabesque penchee' as I once did not so very long ago, I can barely climb a staircase without my body groaning while it plays some kind of twisted Rubik's Cube-like game with my knee joints. It would be funny if it were not so maddeningly pathetic.

“The wisest are the most annoyed at the loss of time.” 
― Dante Alighieri

This may be the worst of it - the acknowledgment that a solid chunk of my life is now behind me, if the average age for human beings is to be taken into account, and, like too many people before me, I feel I've got little to show for it other than a few strands of the requisite grey hair, even fewer so-called "character" lines, and what will probably be an extra 1000 lbs. on my frame, if my knee doesn't improve soon.

Another sad reckoning!

Is this the totality of the human experience?
Racing blindly forward the first 40 years or so stoked with hubris (and then denial when you run low on hubris) until you crash into a wall of futility where you contemplate your navel until they dump your bones into an earthen pit; only to repeat the cycle over again like you're caught in some demented Maytag appliance?

Like Woody Allen's Mickey says in the movie, Hannah and Her Sisters:
"... And Nietzsche, with his theory of eternal recurrence. He said the life we've lived we're gonna live over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again."

It hardly seems worth the trouble, does it?

Well, if I'm only going to end up where I am now anyway, no sense in trying to end it all prematurely especially if Nietzsche's wrong about the details of eternal recurrence and the Hindu's are right. According to Hinduism, I'd definitely experience another karmic downturn in my cycle if I killed myself for selfish reasons
. I'd hate to come back as a Velveeta-eating, nasal-twanging Indiana Hoosier fan and all that such a lifestyle entails just for the sin of suicide. It would be a version of hell that even Dante would shudder to contemplate if he in all of his Renaissance wonder could have imagined such a scenario.

Like Woody Allen's Mickey finally did, I, too, h
ave had an epiphany that has dragged me out of the murky depths of self-pity and nihilism.

Mickey's came while he was feeling his most morose and, in an attempt to escape his despair, he wanders into a New York art-house revival theatre that was running a classic Marx Brothers movie. A few minutes of Groucho and co.'s zany antics was enough to make him realize that life - though incessantly trying and likely meaningless - was full o
f delightful distractions; so why not participate in the experience and enjoy it when and while you can.

My epiphany came while writing this post, wondering how I would ever disentangle myself enough from the torturous knot I'd wound this posting into to come up with an accompanying recipe that didn't feature arsenic as its main ingredien
t. Then I recalled Woody's movies and their optimistic existential wisdom. Knowing that it is my choice to believe either the worst or the best of myself and my situation, I choose the best... while acknowledging that Life experience as such certainly has its foibles and limitations but, hey, it's all we got and as the saying goes: Quis non iuguolo vos plantos vos validus (what doesn't kill us makes us stronger). No one has yet died from a gimpy knee, so I'm sitting pretty. It's all a matter of perspective.

I like Krishnamurti's exploration into the subject of life and aging and keeping a fresh mind:

"I think constant endeavor to be something, to become something, is the real cause of the destructiveness and the aging of the mind. Look how quickly we are aging, not only the people who are over sixty, but also the young people. How old they are already, mentally! Very few sustain or maintain the quality of a mind that is young. I mean by young not the mind that merely wants to enjoy itself, to have a good time, but the mind that is uncontaminated, that is not scratched, warped, twisted by the accidents and incidents of life, a mind that is not worn out by struggle, by grief, by constant strivings. Surely it is necessary to have a young mind because the old mind is so full of the scars of memories that it cannot live, it cannot be earnest; it is a dead mind, a decided mind. A mind that has decided and lives according to its decisions is dead. But a young mind is always deciding anew, and a fresh mind does not burden itself with innumerable memories. A mind that carries no shadow of suffering, though it may pass through the valley of sorrow, remains unscratched.
I do not think such a young mind is to be acquired. It is not a thing that you can purchase through endeavor, through sacrifice. There is no coin to it and it is not a marketable thing, but if you see the importance of it, the necessity of it, if you see the truth of it, then something else takes place." J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life 

In other words, just be present in the moment. React directly to the world around you, not through the hazy lens of your habits and memories. Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, focus the mind on the now. Life is so simple, it is we who insist on complicating it. 

Today I offer my culinary metaphor for life: 

Shrimp Fra Diavolo, a simple, hellish but delectable dish  - just like the human experience.

The man who inspired the dish was a late 18th century Neopolitan Jesse James type who liked to disguise himself on occasion as a monk when embarking on his mercenary missions (hence the "fra" part of his nickname Fra Diavolo or Brother Devil; you can guess where the "diavolo" part drew its inspiration). As to why a hot red toma
to sauce with shrimp was named after him is anybody's guess as there hasn't been any substantive historical evidence that this brigand (as such outlaws were quaintly called back then) nee' Michele Pezza ever ate the dish.

My best guess is that this infamous figure in Italian history while acting as a mercenary for the king of Sicily was so brutal that when he and hi
s buddies went on their rampages they left trails of red hot blood in their wake (appetizing, huh?) and in some kind of morbid commemoration of this man's dubious achievements the dish was born. Oh well, leave it to the Italians to derive gustatory inspiration from murder and still make it appealing.

The shrimp part of the story may be because Mik
ey was short in stature if not in savagery, or just because shrimp (as well as other forms of sea life) were cheap and bountiful in the south of Italy. Whatever the origin, it is a simple and satisfying dish to make at home. 

Get ready to spice up your life.....

Shrimp Fra Diavolo

You can amp up or tone down the heat by adjusting the amount of red chili flakes and garlic. You can also add another dimension to the dish by using fresh red chilis in the fresh chili pepper section of your produce market. Try to use the largest freshest prawns you can buy (16 to the pound sized shrimps work best).

I used a squid ink-infused pasta. I love the drama and contrast of the black against the red of the sauce and the white of the shrimp. The squid ink also gives the pasta a bit of a briny sea kiss. I prefer Fettuccine for this dish because the wider thicker noodles stand up to the heartiness of the sauce well.  You can, of course, use any type of pasta you like, or none at all. This would make a lovely stew served only with oven-warmed baguette lightly brushed with extra virgin olive oil.

For the vegetarians in the house: chunks of diced eggplant and fresh or smoked mozzarella make a great substitute for the shrimp. Just make sure you use a more substantial pasta shape like penne, ziti or farfalle if you go the veggie route. Linguini or fettuccine won't stand up to the veggies as well. Also add the eggplant after the onion & garlic to saute. Don't poach it. Add the mozzarella at the end when you are tossing the pasta with sauce.

A spicy California zinfandel or Italian barbera works great with this meal; as would any syrah-based wine like a southern French Rhone. Don't use your Turleys, your best Guigals or Gajas. Save those for drinking either on their own after dinner or with a roasted beast feast.

  • 1 lb. of fettuccine 
  • 1-1/2 lbs of large shrimp (size 16 to the lb.), deveined & shelled
  • 28 oz. of crushed San Marzano tomatoes or a box of Pomi 
  • 1 Tablespoon of tomato paste
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced with sea salt until paste forms
  • 1 small onion, chopped into small dice
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons of crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 handful of fresh parsley, leaves only coarsely chopped
  • 1 large lemon, rolled vigorously either on the countertop or between your hands
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (clean tasting & not too oaky)
  • 1/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
  • sea salt & fresh ground pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup pitted nicoise or black olives, sliced in half lengthwise (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon of sriracha hot chili sauce (optional)
  • freshly grated pecorino or parmagiano-reggiano, to taste (optional)


Fill a large pasta or stock pot 3/4 of the way up with cold water. Set it on a large burner over high heat to boil.

In a mixing bowl large enough to accommodate the shrimp, place one teaspoon of the sriracha (hot chili) sauce in the bowl and mix in one tablespoon of the extra-virgin olive oil and 5 grinds (or 1/2 teaspoon) of fresh ground pepper. Do not add salt as the hot sauce contains sodium and additional salt would only toughen the shrimp. Add shrimp to bowl & coat them completely with the marinade. (There should not appear to be much marinade.) Set aside.

  1. Meantime, heat a 14" saute pan (or a dutch oven if you don't have a 14" pan) over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, lower heat to medium and add the remainder of the olive oil, allowing the oil to heat up for 30 seconds or so.
  2. Add onions, a pinch of sea salt & a few grinds of black pepper (or no more than 1/8 teaspoon each). Saute until onions are soft and translucent.
  3. Add garlic paste, stirring in for 30 seconds or until fragrant.
  4. Add oregano, stir until you can smell the oregano.
  5. Add tomato paste, stir; cook until tomato paste loses its raw color and darkens slightly. Add olives, stirring them into the sauce.
  6. Pour in white wine, raising the heat slightly to medium-high and deglazing the pan by scraping any bits of sauce that have stuck to it. When white wine has almost evaporated, add the crushed tomatoes. Stir well to fully incorporate then add half of the parsley. Lower the heat to low setting. Let cook for 15 minutes. Now cook the pasta.

While sauce is cooking, add salt to boiling water. Stir; add pasta. Be sure to use the lowest time recommended by the pasta manufacturers instructions. Pasta may be ready before the sauce. If it is, have a colander over a large pasta bowl ready; gently lift the pasta out of the pot with metal tongs or pasta fork and place it all into the colander, allowing the excess water to drain into the large bowl. Then carefully lift pasta-filled colander; place it over the pasta pot still filled with water making sure the water does not touch the bottom of the colander, then add a tablespoon of butter (don't use oil) and a few tablespoons of grated pecorino, tossing the pasta lightly with butter (or olive oil) and cheese. Then lightly cover colander with aluminum foil keeping the water in the pot on a very low simmer until sauce is complete.

When sauce has thickened slightly, cut softened lemon (that you have vigorously rolled on the counter) in half; add juice to the sauce, using your fingers to strain any pips and discard the remains.
Stir in the lemon juice; now add the marinated shrimp to the sauce in one single layer. Try not to allow the shrimp to touch each other in the pan.
Cover pan with a large lid or foil and allow shrimp to poach undisturbed for 3 minutes or 4 minutes (if size 16, 2-3 minutes if smaller). Test shrimp for doneness. They should be just opaque with pink edges. Do not overcook. When shrimp are cooked remove them from pan, set aside with a little sauce in a dish to keep warm.

Have pasta in colander handy.
Now, turn the heat up for the sauce, adding the remaining parsley; 1 ladle full of pasta water, stirring well to incorporate. When sauce looks smooth, turn off the heat, add the grated cheese if using, stirring well, now carefully combine the pasta with the sauce, using tongs and a large spoon and adding a little additional pasta water or drizzle in extra-virgin olive oil if pasta appears too dry. Place pasta in warm individual plates or large pasta bowl. Garnish with shrimp and a drizzling of the reserved sauce.

This recipe will serve 4-6 optimistic existentialists.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Eat Drink Man Woman: On Food & Sex (with a side of risotto)

"Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke."  ~Margo Channing, All About Eve

It started with Eve and the apple. Forbidden fruit, the wide-eyed promise of a naked truth eternal. A smile, a bite, the taste of seduction is always sweet. 

The secret to pleasure lies not only in the carnal, but in the ephemeral. Think Proust and his episode with a few crumbs of madeline as they touched his palate, "a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it? "

He is transported instantaneously through the power of taste to a time and place that his conscious self had forgotten. That place of abandon where the fleeting moment lives suspended waiting only to be revived with the tip of a tongue, a flare of the nostril, a firing off of ganglionic overdrive...

My relationship with food has always been intimate, and creating a meal for someone, especially a lover, floods me with a sensation of sinuous excess, as the possibilities abound. I am steeped in a luxuriant world of aromatics, spices and unguents. Being tactile, I manhandle my food. Not for me the salad tong, or the garlic mincer. I run my fingers through every leaf I toss, feeling the weight of it to determine when it is adequately saturated with a dressing. I chop everything by hand. Meat is seasoned only after I have rubbed my herbs & spices in, kneading its fibers, willing it to absorb my flavorings. I would never insert a cold metal thermometer into a fine piece of beast to check for doneness, I use my olfactory senses and my fingers; sniffing it, prodding it, touching it-  experience teaches me when a particular cut and type of meat is ready for consumption. Just as in lovemaking, there is no substitute for hands-on knowledge. You either have it, or you don't.

My husband was aghast when I told him I was going to write about food and sex. He pictured me describing tawdry scenes of my former sexual exploits: the champagne bath that preceded the first time I climaxed, the honey-coating of my skin, the unique and varied ways one can use a cornucopia of nature's bounty to enhance and broaden one's culinary horizons in bacchanalian wonder.

There's no need for such graphic exploitation of food. Eating itself becomes a temple of the sensual. The sumptuous made sublime. Let me explain to you as I did to him.

 For many people, eating sensuously is all about texture:

Silken, unctuous foods, foods anointed with a holy oil that feel like ritual sacraments as they glide over your tongue, coating your palate with their essence. Creamy risottos, viscous honeys, delicacies that melt or glide, caramel, custard. Some of these foods take on anthropomorphic qualities that imbue them with eroticism. Consider MFK Fisher's oyster. Or the egg scene from  Jûzô Itami's, Tampopo, a favorite of mine and my husband's. A fetishist's dream...

Sigmund Freud explains that fetishism is based on the castration of the woman phallus. No "male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals". For Freud, the "fetish is a penis-substitute" to be precise for the "woman's (mother's) phallus which the little boy once believed in and does not wish to forego". The boy refuses to accept the fact that a woman has no penis: "for if a woman can be castrated then his own penis is in danger; and against that there rebels part of his narcissism which Nature has providentially attached to this particular organ". The fetish "remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a safeguard against it" The organs or objects selected as a substitute for the penis do not always act as a symbol thereof. When the "fetish comes to life, so to speak, some process has been suddenly interrupted . . . interest has been held up at a certain point – what is possibly the last impression before the uncanny traumatic one is preserved as a fetish"

Itami takes it one step further and combines the phallus with the egg … literally. The sustained exchange of a perfectly formed egg yolk, between two lovers' mouths, back and forth, back and forth, sliding from mouth to mouth, both moaning with the heightened pleasure of a most delicate penetration into each other's oral cavities, the sexual tension heightened by the need to restrain their excitement so as to prolong it until the climatic breaking of the egg yolk (which then runs from the woman’s mouth and down her chin) - a sublime moment. 

For others, it is visual... 

When someone gazes at an object we say that he devours it with his eyes, "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active / male and passive / female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to - be - looked - at - ness.” (Mulvey in Evans & Hall 1973 p 383). Consider the suggestiveness  of the lollipop-licking Lolita, the slow peeling and consumption of a banana, the way one laps at an ice cream cone. Contrast that with your average fast food commercial and the sight of someone chomping on a Big Mac or gorging themselves on a slice of pizza, giving the diner all the glamour of a jungle beast tucking into an antelope. Licking, on the other hand, is enticing to watch, almost ethereal by comparison - like an angel of Eros enjoying her daily dose of ambrosia.

How about juicy, self-contained foods that use your fingers, preferably while making contact with your lips, especially those capable of being eaten in one or two bites? Think of soft, pouty lips wrapping themselves around a fresh strawberry, a red cherry, the ripest fig, or piece of ahi nigiri. The light tooth-grazing consumption of the tender leaves of steamed artichokes also falls into this category of food come-ons.

Many cultures tend to reckon shape with sexual aphrodisiacs. Take the obvious likeness of avocados, apples, bananas, eggs, asparagus spears, ginseng, zucchini, oysters, mangoes or even the more far-flung rhinoceros horn to their sexually reproductive anatomical counterparts and you can come up with an interesting, if somewhat eclectic menu.

Some foods, over time, have been endowed with magical, potent sexual powers for their ability to excite rather than their physical characteristics. My four favorites: chocolate, champagne, caviar and chilis fall into this category.

Dark chocolate with its LDL lowering stearic acid, mood-elevating theobromine, "love chemical" inducing phenylethylamine, pleasure enhancing serotonin and energy boosting caffeine was considered not only an aphrodisiac but also quite the health elixir by the Aztecs and the Mayans and was revered as a food of the gods; 2000 years before more recently undergoing its latest health food status. 

The hot spice of chili peppers with its tear inducing capsciacin mimics the feelings of arousal by elevating the blood pressure & body temperature leaving you flushed, moist & panting.

Champagne has always been the wine of love & celebration with bubbles that tickle your tongue as well as your fancy. The alcohol in it is a powerful relaxant, allowing you to shed your inhibitions (if not your clothing).

The goddess of love, Aphrodite, was born from the sea, so all of the sea's creatures were said to be endowed with her aphrodisiac powers. It doesn't hurt that most seafood contain prodigious quantities of the mineral zinc which is known to be an effective nutrient for the erotically-challenged. Caviar is sturgeon roe. The many eggs of caviar also represent fertility; procreation and the propagation of the species, of course, has always been the most powerful catalyst for the sex act. Just ask Darwin. Money is a pretty good conductor of sexual electricity, too, and caviar costs lots of it which would likely add to its romantic allure.

Of course, too much of anything, champagne and caviar included, can douse the most ardent fire, so I advocate a little discretion in all things edible. While moderation may not seem to fan the flames of molten passion, it's always good to be a little hungry for something more....

Asparagus, Artichoke and Shiitake Risotto

I have chosen this dish as an illustration of a sensuous food for several reasons. There is just something so remarkably satisfying and sensual about the creamy rice texture once it has lapped up all that savory stock and the Parmigian-Reggiano has been delicately melted and laced throughout. The earthy flavors of the mushrooms, asparagus, and artichoke all meld together beautifully. The individual ingredients themselves are foods with sexual and/or romantic symbolism. The making of risotto, itself, is a rather languid affair, it is not a dish you can just slam, bam, thank you ma'am... Risotto requires your true devotion, unwavering commitment and the firm grip of patience. It’s a good 25-30 minute process that needs a dedicated and loyal hand to lovingly stir in the savory stock one cup at a time while it’s slowly absorbed into the rice. Of course, you can certainly invite your lover into the kitchen with you as you find yourself bent over that hot stove. Give him (or her) a glass of sauvignon blanc and carte blanche. 

The word asparagus comes from the Greek and it refers to any young, tender shoot that can be eaten. Asparagus was prized by the ancient Greeks over 2500 years ago. It was considered to be a cleansing and healing herb and used it for many medicinal purposes. The Romans in their turn also prized asparagus and cultivated it (the Greeks wildcrafted it) and spread it throughout Europe on their conquests. Emperor Augustus coined the term ''“velocius quam asparagi conquatur”'' which means to do something quicker than you can cook asparagus. Similar to our phrase “two shakes of a lambs tail”. So much did the Romans prize asparagus, that in the first century, runners took asparagus from the Tiber River valley to the Alps so that it could be frozen and thus preserved for the Feast of Epicurus.

King Louis XIV had asparagus grown in his greenhouses so that he could enjoy it year round, he dubbed asparagus the King of Vegetables. It was also popular in England and other parts of Europe and colonists brought it to America where Native Americans used it for medicine.

But most interestingly (and pertinent to this essay) asparagus was considered a phallic symbol banned from girls schools in the 19th century, but Victorian women were taught to detect the scent of this aphrodisiac on their husbands urine- a sure sign that he was behaving improperly!

Artichoke's Latin name - Cynara - comes from a mythological tale about a beautiful young maiden named Cynara, with whom the Greek god Zeus fell hopelessly in love. Unable to persuade Cynara to leave her mother and her earthly home to become a goddess, Zeus became so enraged that he transformed her into an artichoke, forever capturing her tender heart at the center of a protective crown of thorny leaves.
The Italians get the credit for developing the fine varieties of artichoke - carciofo in their language - that captured the courts of Renaissance Europe. They still have the largest repertoire of artichoke dishes. So including it in this risotto was only natural.
The rice itself is a symbol of fertility, as well as prosperity. Historically, in certain primitive tribal cultures, the mere act of supping on rice together bound a couple in matrimony, as eating this local food together implied their living together. In other cultures, the symbolic eating of rice together preceded a shower of rice over the married couple.
The shiitake mushrooms have umami.  Literally translated, the Japanese word umami means “delicious taste” or “pleasant savory taste” and was coined by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 when he discovered that monosodium glutamate, naturally present in some foods, reacts synergistically with some ribonucleotides, including Umami - how humans experience taste inosinate and guanylate. That sounds rather stale and scientific, but what it basically means is that chemicals in some foods interact in a special way to really impress your taste buds.

Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste difficult to describe. If a flavor had to be assigned to the term umami, it would be meaty and brothy with a tongue-coating savoriness that causes salivation... Enough said. 

The proper pan makes all the difference. I am partial to Le Creuset 5 quart braiser. It is made from cast iron, enamel-coated, shallow-edged and wide which allows for even cooking as well as the relative rapid absorption of the liquid. However any heavy-gauged 4-5 sauce pot or Dutch oven will do. 

  • 5 cups chicken broth (40 fl ounces)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 pound thin to medium asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices, leaving tips 1 1/2 inches long
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
  • 3/4 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
  • 2 large fresh artichoke hearts, cut into 1/4 inch thick slices, prepared*
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (10 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (preferably the one you are drinking)
  • 2 ounces finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup, though I used half)

Bring broth and water to a boil in pot. Add asparagus and cook, uncovered, until crisp-tender, 2 to 4 minutes (depending on the thickness of the stalks). Transfer asparagus with a slotted spoon to a large bowl of ice and cold water to stop cooking, then drain and pat dry. Keep broth at a bare simmer, covered.

Heat oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a heavy saucepan over moderately high heat until foam subsides, then saute mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then transfer to a bowl. Set aside.

Cook onion in 2 tablespoons butter in saucepan over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add wine and cook, stirring, until absorbed, about 1 minute.

Ladle in 1 cup simmering broth and cook at a strong simmer, stirring, until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Continue simmering and adding broth, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently and letting each addition be absorbed before adding next, until rice is just tender and looks creamy, 18 to 20 minutes. (Save leftover broth for thinning.)

Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup cheese, remaining tablespoon butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Gently stir in asparagus, artichokes and mushrooms, then cover pan and let stand 1 minute. If desired, thin risotto with some of remaining broth. Serve immediately with remaining cheese on the side.

* Don't use canned hearts. Not for the risotto. They will be too acidic & disintegrate into the rice. My favorite artichoke heart preparation is to remove all the outer leaves, the hairy choke and stem of a whole artichoke, leaving just the heart. Cut the heart into 1/4 inch slices and toss it immediately in a bowl filled with water acidulated with the juice of one lemon. Make sure each and every edge, angle and side of the hearts gets coated in lemon juice, or they will brown very quickly. In a small pot, boil water with a good glug or two of white wine, a splash of white vinegar, a smashed garlic clove and/or a bay leaf. Drop in the artichoke hearts with all of their lemon juice, and simmer them for about 10 minutes, or longer if needed for them to become tender. Drain and set them aside.

This recipe will feed Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (if you're into that sort of thing) each a main-course serving.