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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tis Hatched and Shall Be So

Easter and Passover are behind us—the  expectancy of summer is sure to follow. 
Passover and Easter are troubled cousins who sometimes refuse to recognize their patrimony. They both celebrate life or rebirth. Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt—a rebirth. Easter celebrates the literal rebirth—life from death—of Jesus. Both have strong food traditions associated with them, though my Jewish friends tell me I’m not missing much (think gefilte fish and matzo). 
Both holidays, however, also embrace death as a foundational premise.  In Exodus, God helps the Children of Israel escape their slavery in Egypt by inflicting ten plagues upon the ancient Egyptians. The tenth and worst of the plagues was the death of the Egyptian first-born. For protection, God instructed the Israelites to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-born in these homes—hence the English name for the holiday. And for Christians, there’s the Crucifixion. This was a form of execution long used in the ancient world that resulted in a slow, painful death that lasted for hours, if not days, until the victim died of exhaustion or suffocation. I don’t recommend one read Exodus or the New Testament just before bedtime. 
What many of us (both sides of the Old/New Testament divide) often forget are the similarities between the two faiths. It’s no coincidence that both Easter and Passover occur during the same time of the year. They also share a common food: the egg. 
One of the items on the Seder plate (a special plate containing symbolic foods that retell  of the story of the Exodus from Egypt), is beitzah, a hard-boiled egg. This symbolizes the festival sacrifice offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, that was then eaten as part of the meal on Seder night.
Now that sounds pretty familiar to us Gentiles—the Easter egg—a symbol of fertility and rebirth.
Of course, in celebrating Easter (whether secular or not), the Easter egg would be nothing without the Easter egg hunt—a brutal competition to collect more eggs than your sibling. Now that’s the true meaning of Easter for the under-10 age demographic!
But I grew up as an only child, so I missed out on the joy and pain of sibling Easter egg hunts. So I improvised. I employed my competitive desires in other ways: finding all of the two-dozen easter eggs hidden by my mother in record time (record: 10 mins, 15 secs.). There was also the great Sunday School Easter Egg Competition of 1980, weaving together the pagan and the sacred in one spectacular afternoon.
Change was in the air. Ronald Regan was challenging Jimmy Carter. Maybe all of us back then could sense the competitive go-go Eighties lurking just around the corner. And perhaps because of this, my Sunday school class decided to hold a contest for the best decorated Easter egg. Game on bro! 
I was determined to win this thing. This was my year! I convinced my mom to buy an expensive store-bought egg decorating kit (a rule-breaker for sure, as we were a food-dye-and-vinegar family) that involved Day-Glo powder and a Ziploc bag—a shake-n-bake approach to Easter. I even glued tiny gold leaves and silver beads onto that blue egg until it looked like a bona fide FabergĂ© egg! And yes, I did win in a landslide.
As I mentioned earlier, we were old school when it came to dying Easter eggs. Eggs were dyed the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday, using nothing more than vinegar and food coloring. I’m not sure about the brand, but I remember these teardrop shaped bottles. You carefully put several drops in coffee cups filled with hot water and vinegar. There were only four colors: red, blue, green, and yellow. Anything more sophisticated required the guide on the back of the box: two drops of red + one drop of blue = purple; two drops of yellow + one drop of red = orange. You get the picture. To this day, the smell of vinegar takes me back to the spring days of my childhood. It is my Proustean Madeleine.  
The day’s newspaper covered the table so as not to stain it, though I’m sure I did. We rested the freshly died eggs on plain, white paper plates to dry, leaving a light-colored spot where the dye ran, which  didn’t matter because we would place them in the basket in such a way that you wouldn't see the spot. And of course the basket contained green, plastic grass that lingers like death and taxes,  showing up obscure corners of the house months later. The next morning, I was rewarded with chocolate, including a large chocolate bunny proudly displayed in the middle of my Easter basket. 
After taking a few bites of that chocolate bunny (always start with the ears), the Easter egg hunt would promptly commence. We used the real eggs we dyed the night before. My mother took great pride in finding clever ways to hide the eggs, while leaving a few in pretty obvious locations lest I get too discouraged. After I had found them all, then it was my turn. I tried my best to be clever in how I hide the eggs, though my mother lovingly made it seem they were impossible to find. We held these kind of hunts even when it rained, which seemed a rather frequent Easter occurrence now that I think about it. And the hiding places were no less clever when the hunt was indoors sometimes too much so. One year, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t find that 24th egg. We did eventually—sometime in June. Ugh.
And then the Easter eggs that I had so carefully made and so carefully hidden were now ready for their final role: deviled eggs. 
I looked forward to deviled eggs at Easter as much as the chocolate bunny in my basket. 
My mother kept to the traditional side of things when it came to food. This was no less true when it came to deviled eggs, nothing more that eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, salt, and pepper. From there, the debate will never cease. Relish or not. Paprika or not. My mother was  pro-relish and pro-paprika. I am as well. 
I still love deviled eggs. I still make them. I still make them like my Mother did with a bit of paprika sprinkled on top. Anything else would be sacrilegious – as even the Easter Bunny would agree, I’m sure.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Don't Mess with the Classics

“Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?” 

—Robert Benchley

Last month we traveled to New York for my birthday. This time, I wanted to see a play.  There were several good choices that weekend, and we decided on The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. I was excited. Not only is this one of the greatest of American plays (and one of my favorites), but the main role of Amanda Wingfield was being played by Sally Field. As I had not read the play in many years, I bought a copy and re-read it on the train. I finished it shortly before we arrived at Penn Station. 

The production we were going to see is directed by Sam Gold, known for his bold reinterpretations of the classics. I'm not opposed to "re-interpreting" the classics—Richard III set in a counter-factual fascist England or Romeo and Juliet in mid-20th century New York. For Shakespeare, this works reasonably well because his plays are about language, regardless of time and place.

We booked the tickets for this play before the reviews had come in, flying blind so to speak. But it was Tennesse Williams; it was Sally Field; it was Sam Gold. That was all the information we needed, right?

Lunch that day was at ABC Cocina, a shabby-chic styled tapas restaurant next to the famed ABC Home design Mecca in Manhattan. At this point, however, instinct suddenly kicked in; my amygdala woke up. “Danger Will Robinson, Danger!” Much like my Neanderthal ancestor who grabbed a spear upon seeing a saber toothed tiger, I quickly grabbed my iPhone to read the reviews. 

I know that reviews about plays and movies, much like restaurant reviews, should be taken with a grain of salt—merely one person's opinion—but when three major New York-based publications slam a production for nearly identical reasons, then it's time to pull the fire alarm. The opening paragraph from the review in The New Yorker was especially blistering:

The despair and disgust I felt after seeing the director Sam Gold’s rendition of Tennessee Williams’s 1944 play, “The Glass Menagerie” (at the Belasco), was so debilitating that I couldn’t tell if my confused, hurt fury was caused by the pretentious and callous staging I had just witnessed or if my anger was a result of feeling robbed of the beauty of Williams’s script.

Ouch!

But I couldn’t agree more.

Thankfully, dinner at The Modern did a lot to compensate for what we had just witnessed. It certainly gave us plenty to talk about.

As is my custom, I ordered a martini before dinner. That got me thinking. Just like certain classic plays have no business being “reinvented,” the same holds true for certain cocktails, the martini being the prime example.

With the simplest of ingredients, the martini is sleek, cool, and seductive. It’s like someone poured a Maserati into a glass. Even the glass is elegant. It forces you to be deliberate in how you progress through happy hour. It forces you to be civilized. You must be careful not to spill any of the contents, guiding the glass slowly—but too much so—to your mouth while making a witty, but obscure, comment about Dorothy Parker. This is not some cheap whisky thrown over ice into a double old-fashioned glass at the 19th hole. 

And then it all came crashing down. The martini’s simplicity became its first victim. What followed in the early Aughts was like so many bastards with claims to the throne. There was the ubiquitous "Apple-tini" with an electric day-glo green tinge that looked like it had been cooked up in a meth lab. There was the Chocolate-tini," the “Cinamon-tini,” and the Lemon-tini. The martini was corrupted because it was made complicated.

And this is what Sam Gold didn’t realize when he reinterpreted The Glass Menagerie. He forced complexity onto the audience. He gave his audience the theatrical version of an Apple-tini. The Glass Menagerie is a great and timeless play because Williams’ language distills all of our very sad human hopes, dreams, and fears into a drink that must be handled carefully and sipped slowly. 

There are just some classics that don't work well unless performed in the vernacular. 

And by the way, a vodka martini is not a martini. Enough said. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Spring Has Sprung and so Have the Peas!

Everyone has their hypothetical “last meal” (or at least they should). For me, it would be my Mom’s baked chicken, white rice with gravy, and green peas. I grew up in the 70s and the concept of fresh, locally sourced vegetables was unheard of. Mind you, this was the era of big cars, shag carpet and T.V. dinners that came in aluminum trays with that mystery desert at twelve o’clock.

So my peas came in a can, but not just any can—Le Sueur! This was considered gourmet back in 1976! And my Mom would not dare buy any other variety.

To this day, green peas remain my favorite vegetable. However, I didn’t discover fresh green peas until I was an adult. If you have never had fresh peas, then you don’t know what you’ve been missing. But don't feel bad because there is a a good reason if you haven't. 

Peas are best eaten shortly after picking, but alas they do not travel well and spoil very easily. They are also in season for only a short time during spring. This is why most peas are found frozen or canned. In fact, only 5 percent of peas harvested are actually eaten fresh. It is this rarity that historically reserved them for the wealthy and the royalty. They became quite the rage in the Court of Louis XIV of France. Here’s what Madame de Maintenon (second wife of Louis XIV), said about peas in a letter to Cardinal of Noailles in 1696:

The question of peas continues. The anticipation of eating them, the pleasure of having eaten them and the joy of eating them again are the three subjects that our princes have been discussing for four days...It has become a fashion—indeed a passion.

Peas are best eaten simply and require very little effort. They are good raw in a salad or gently simmered and served with butter and mint or other light herbs. 

Peas are spring’s reward for our survival of winter. So, pick some peas (or more likely grab some frozen in a bag) and enjoy. More peas please!

Here’s a simple recipe for peas called “peas in butter” from Larouse Gastronomique:

Cook the peas in boiling salted water, drain them, and put them back in the saucepan over a brisk heat, adding a pinch of sugar and 3 ½ ounces of fresh butter per 6¾ cups of peas. Serve with chopped fresh mint.