Not Again, By Arundhati Roy

What does the term ‘anti-American’ mean?  Does it mean you’re anti-jazz?  Or that you’re opposed to free speech?  That you don’t delight in Toni Morrison or John Updike?  That you have a quarrel with giant sequoias?  Does it mean you don’t admire the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who marched against nuclear weapons, or the thousands of war resisters who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam?  Does it mean that you hate all Americans?”

From “Not Again” by Arundhati Roy.

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My Miniseries

I’m taking the train to Venice on Friday so I’ve been thinking a lot about Venice lately and whenever I think about Venice I think about the Guido Brunetti series written by Donna Leon. If you like mysteries, food, or Venice, and you aren’t reading these books, you ought to go to the library and check them out, like right now.

The characters are so real and the stories are so pertinent and human that I cannot imagine why no one has made a mini-series out of them yet. (No one other than these Germans, I mean.) I would gladly do it. In fact I’ve made some important casting decisions already:

Colin Firth as Guido Brunetti

photo credit babble.com

I freely admit I stole this idea from an online discussion board about Venice tourism. (So you see I am not the only person that has followed or will follow Brunetti’s footsteps through the city.) But I can’t improve upon it. Firth is married to an Italian and spends part of the year there anyway. And I think he could get Brunetti’s complicated mixture intelligence, compassion, and cynicism just right.

Tea Leoni as Paola

photo credit Retna Ltd.

Paolo – Guido’s wife – might be my favorite character in the series. Her radical politics, her keen intelligence, her pasta with black olives and mozzarelline, her passion for Henry James…her family’s palazzo and noble title. Paola can be both fire and ice and I think Tea Leoni would do an excellent job of embodying those contradictions. Plus, they’re both blonde.

Elettra was the hardest of the bunch. She has fierce convictions (she resigned from her job at the bank, remember, because of her boss’ dealings with the apartheid government in South Africa); she also loves fashion magazines and good silk and charging fancy flowers from Fantin to the police department’s account. I imagine Elettra to be striking but not necessarily beautiful; there’s something untouchable and frosty, almost forbidding about her. At first I thought Olivia Wilde, but no–too young, too pretty, too soft. Then I thought maybe Marion Cotillard, but there’s something kittenish about her and Elettra is anything but. Then I remembered…

photo credit IMDB

Eva Green, of course. Beautiful and terrifying in equal parts. And as we already know, she’s capable of portraying a woman with an unruffled exterior that hides a vivid private life.

And if you can think of anyone sort of smarmy and tanned and self-satisfied to play Patta (incidentally, Patta is Italian for ‘flap’ or ‘fluke’), I’m taking suggestions. Another part-time Italian resident came to mind: George Clooney. But he’s a little too handsome, and I think I’m over budget anyway…

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Cauliflower Puree

While I was making cauliflower puree yesterday I recalled one of the more ridiculous things I’ve ever cooked, a cauliflower sandwich from Nancy Silverton’s sandwich book.*

The sandwich filling consisted of cauliflower that had been simmered in cream, pureed, and topped with browned butter and toasted hazelnuts. Then there were a number of other steps that I don’t recall, among them how it was eventually assembled into a sandwich.

It was interesting and it tasted good, but it was so over the top. The appeal of pureed cauliflower, to me anyway, is that it doesn’t need browned butter and toasted hazelnuts and cream. For a special occasion, sure, a dash of one or a sprinkling of the other wouldn’t be egregious. But in its most basic form, with just the addition of the salted water its been steamed in, there is a silky lusciousness to pureed cauliflower that is nearly as unbelievable as the fact that I once spent over an hour making a cauliflower sandwich.

 

Cauliflower Puree

A more generous hand with the cooking water results in a puree that’s akin to soft-set polenta, making it a suitable bed for a braised meat; a drier puree tends more toward mashed potato consistency, a nice complement to grilled sausage and a green salad.

Serves 4

One small head cauliflower, cored and cut into florets

salt

Bring a couple of inches of salted water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Steam the cauliflower florets for 10-15 minutes, or until very tender.

Remove the florets from the heat, reserving the cooking water. Once they’ve cooled, puree them in a food processor or blender, adding the cooking water a little at a time until the puree reaches your desired consistency.

*Though I’m poking fun at this one, all of the recipes I’ve tried from the sandwich book were excellent (and many of them were much simpler). It’s a good niche cookbook to have in your collection.

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Southwest Sicily (plus Palermo) recap

 

it's not a vacation until you get stuck in the middle of a herd of sheep

Whether your interests tend toward ruins, beaches, or ritual tuna slaughter, there’s no shortage of reasons to visit Sicily.

But the one foremost on my list was food, which is a window into the history of the island as good as any archaeology museum. A good thing too, since I didn’t visit any of those.

The emphasis on olives, favas, and fish on Sicily’s eastern coast hearkens all the way back to the period of Greek colonization in the eighth century. Trapanese couscous, a typical dish in the west, the Sicilians owe to centuries of trade and cultural exchange with nearby Tunisia.

But it’s probably the Islamic conquest of Sicily in the tenth and eleventh centuries that has had the most lasting influence on Sicilian cuisine. The Arabs introduced citrus, pine nuts, cinnamon, saffron – even what is thought to be the pre-cursor to ice cream, sharbat (or sherbet).

My first memory of eating Sicilian food actually takes place in Rome. My roommate had returned from visiting her father in Palermo toting little paper cups of gelo di mellone – watermelon jelly – garnished with pistachios and nubbins of dark chocolate.

As is characteristic of Sicilian desserts, it was very sweet, but also slightly floral and spicy – altogether unlike anything I’d ever tasted. Back in the United States, I tried to recreate it every subsequent summer, and finding a recipe was often the timeliest part of the task. Ten years later, there are a number of versions available online and in English. (I recommend Nick Malgieri’s take, featured here in Saveur).

But the first taste I had of the real thing has remained the best, so I was on the lookout for a local version as Evan and I ate our way through Sicily’s southwest.

No luck in Noto or Sircausa. But there are plenty of other Sicilian desserts suitable for summertime. Wandering around in the heat of the afternoon or in the relative cool after dinner, we stopped frequently for granita – basically, Sicilian shaved ice.

At Caffe Sicila in Noto we tried a sampler of three different flavors: almond, cappuccino, and strawberry-tomato. Made with almond milk from locally grown almonds, the creamy granita di mandorle is one of the most traditional flavors. And the strawberry-tomato which we ordered for curiosity’s sake stood up nicely against the classics: the tomato was nearly imperceptible, just adding a rich roundness to the strawberry flavor.

Of course there was more to eat than dessert. Nearly every night our dinner began with an antipasto of caponata – a sweet and sour eggplant dish that often features capers, raisins, celery, and olives. All the versions we tried included cubes of fried potatoes, a variation I hadn’t encountered before. But the potatoes contrasted nicely with the unctuosity of eggplant cooked in an abundance of olive oil.

On our last evening in Siracusa we ended up at Sciue Sciue, a tiny restaurant on the edge of Ortigia. Inside, there was a table or two in the corner but the space was dominated by an open plan kitchen that appeared small enough to fit neatly in our apartment kitchen back in Geneva. Outside and across a narrow cobbled street was the main dining area: four or five plastic tables crowded up against a city wall.

There was just one woman working in the kitchen and a younger man – her son, we suspected – waiting tables. Massimo (we knew his name because his mother frequently screeched at him from the kitchen) was slim and sort of sweaty, with Eraserhead hair. I asked for penne with swordfish but he persuaded me to try the pasta alla Norma instead. It was a beautiful pasta, he insisted, and I believed him – but I’d just overhead the couple at the next table over ordering it and suspected Massimo was just trying to make things easier on the one-woman kitchen.

Evan ordered a plate of sarde impanato and to start we shared the antipasto sorpresa alla Sciue Sciue which consisted of a heap of caponata, some semi-dried tomatoes, hard cheese and salami, a puddle of fresh ricotta and a pile of glistening anchovies.

The penne alla Norma – a Sicilian classic – was worthy of Massimo’s recommendation; rounds of grilled eggplant and a shower of grated ricotta salata crowned a tomato sauce so darkly savoury I thought it must have been made with sun-dried tomatoes rather than fresh. Evan and I were among the last guests to finish our dinners and as we were negotiating the future of the last fried sardine I saw Massimo’s mamma sink into a chair at the kitchen counter and light up a cigarette; he leant against the refrigerator and cracked open a beer, the dinner orders cleared at last.

I crossed another classic Sicilian pasta off my list, pasta con le sarde, when we ate dinner in a Noto trattoria with a mediocre atmosphere that suffered from the presence of a raucous party of about sixteen sunburned Brits. But the food was good and generous: Evan had a warm octopus salad and we both followed up our starters with tuna; his pistachio-crusted and mine served on a mound of peppers and onions.

The most spectacular dinner of all was in Palermo—fittingly, on our last night in Sicily. Craving peace and relaxation after a hot day of driving and a brief incident with the Palermitano police relating to the parking of a rental car in what turned out to be a lane for opposing traffic, we walked from our hotel on Via Vittorio Emmanuele to the edge of the island, then turned right and followed along the shore until we arrived at Kursaal Kalhesa.

A bookstore, bar and restaurant all located within an old city wall, there is a magic air about Kursaal Kalhesa. We ate in the restaurant’s large outdoor courtyard, which is fringed by towering trees and plants. In the semi-dark candles twinkled on the tables.

We ate an amuse bouche of panelle – a fritter made from chickpea flour – while we read the menu, which was rife with Sicilian classics. Some were presented in perfect simplicity, like my starter of macco, a fava bean puree flavoured with wild fennel. Others were whimsical reinventions. Evan followed a millefeuille of anchovies, celery, and tomato with a cannolo – of beef! It was stuffed with caciocavallo cheese, crusted with pistachios, and drizzled with a nero d’Avola reduction.

I opted for the tortino di spigola, or less poetically, sea bass cake. A filet of seabass was pressed into a mold, stuffed with seafood-studded couscous and baked, then turned out on the plate and served with a pistachio and citrus sauce, another nod to traditional Sicilian flavors.

For dessert, Evan had two flavors of ice cream, salsify flower and cinnamon. Me, I went straight for the thing I’d been searching for the whole trip, though Kursaal Kalhesa offered a more sophisticated iteration: a watermelon bavarian cream with jasmine and cinnamon sauce.

It was a parting gift of the sweetest sort.

a hazy view from enna

 

Sicily Restaurant Recommendations

Sciue Sciue, Via Santa Teresa 8, Siracusa

Caffe Sicilia, Corso Vittorio Emanuele 125, Noto / 0931 835013

Kursaal Kalhesa, Foro Umberto I, Palermo / 091 616 2282

 

sicilian colors

 

 

 

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Oven-Baked Sweet Potato Fries for Two

It’s been a long and tiring summer, encompassing a major illness, lots of applications, and transatlantic travel. One month I spent nights in 11 different cities in four different countries.

A look back at the diary where I’ve recorded every dinner I’ve eaten since the second week of January confirms the fatigue I’ve felt followed me into the kitchen.

The year started with chicken in Riesling, risottos, and cassoulet, but around the six-month mark ‘tuna sandwiches’ started popping up with increasing frequency; McDonald’s cheeseburgers and take-out pizza followed shortly thereafter.

I haven’t given up cooking entirely, but the dishes that have weathered the season trended toward the simple side: omelets, nicoise-style salads, crumbles and cobblers. And there’s one side dish in particular that shows up nearly every time we have hamburgers and even when we don’t: oven baked sweet potatoes.

Requiring very little prep and even less attention, these are the perfect side dish for the disenchanted cook. And they taste good enough that they just might get one excited about cooking again.

 

Sweet Potato Fries for Two

 

One medium sweet potato

Olive oil

Salt

Chipotle powder

 

Preheat the oven to 475.

Peel the sweet potato and cut it into batons about ½ inch wide.

In a bowl, toss the sliced potato with a very small amount of olive oil – no more than a scant cap-full – a couple generous pinches of salt, and chipotle powder to taste.

Spread the seasoned potatoes in a single layer in a roasting pan and cook for 15-18 minutes, flipping the fries once midway through cooking. They should be nicely browned – I like mine almost burned.

Serve immediately.

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Granola

During the winter I was busy rehearsing for a play. Sometimes I had rehearsals four nights a week and in between I was studying the script, memorizing blocking, and scouring thrift shops for bits of my costume. The play ran for five nights and after the last show we celebrated with a midnight dinner in the theater’s restaurant, the cast and crew and our friends sitting at a long table that stretched the width of the otherwise empty dining room.

Then the adventure was over and I was left with 12 or 15 hours unspoken for every week. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Any more time reading than I already spend could jeopardize my eyesight, the spring weather was still iffy enough to discourage long walks, and my balcony herb garden really doesn’t need to be watered more than every other day or so.

Naturally, my mind turned to cooking. Though there are only so many meals one can eat in a day, I realized that we were buying a number of processed foods that I could start making from scratch.

I made exemptions for pasta (we had at least 5 kilos in the pantry) and hard cheese, but all the other processed staples we buy regularly – cereal, yogurt, ricotta, bread, jam – I decided to learn how to make myself.

So I spent a month or two churning out bowls of whole-milk yogurt and sweet, soft mounds of ricotta. Then I’d use the whey from the ricotta to replace the water in this excellent sandwich bread recipe, which I baked a couple times a week (modifying it to make one loaf, halving the amount of sweetener, and replacing it with maple syrup).

It was a pretty good system, but it was also lot of hassle and – as anyone who’s ever scrubbed scorched milk off the bottom of a pot knows – it all made a damn mess. The final straw came when I was grocery shopping in France. It takes 30 minutes and a bus transfer to get there, but it’s infinitely better than grocery shopping in Geneva. Walking through the yogurt aisle, which rivals the meat section for square footage, I realized that making homemade yogurt in a place where you can buy the best was ridiculous and I didn’t want to do it anymore. And the same went for bread.

There’s one thing I’m not planning to go back on, though, and that’s homemade granola. It makes the house smell like heaven, lasts for weeks without going stale, and just dirties one dish. But it only takes an hour – so I’m back to the question of how to spend my free time.

I’m curious, if you had a year off to do as you pleased, how would you occupy yourself?

there i am in the spoon

Granola

The proportions of this recipe are important. Everything else – the type of nuts and seeds, the spices, the choice of fat and sweeter – can be modified to your taste. Sometimes I season a batch of granola with the caviar from a vanilla bean (just mix it into the oil before combining it with the dry ingredients). The vanilla bean flecks end up in the milk at the bottom of the cereal bowl, which makes it feel sort of like you’re eating a bowl of melted ice cream for breakfast.

4 1/4 oats quick cooking oats

2 1/2 cups nuts and seeds (I like 1 part flax seeds, 1 part pumpkin seeds, 2 parts sunflower seeds, 2 parts chopped almonds)

1 scant teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cardamom

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/3 cup + 2 T olive oil (or a very very scant 1/2 cup; the measurements are wonky since I’m converting them from metric)

1/3 cup + 2 T maple syrup or honey

1 cup chopped dried fruit, optional

Preheat the oven to 300F and line a large rimmed baking sheet (or jelly roll pan) with parchment paper.

Place all the dry ingredients in a big bowl and mix. Add the oil and sweetener, then mix with a wooden spoon til thoroughly combined.

Spread in a thin layer on the parchment paper and put in the oven. Every ten minutes, take the granola out and stir. Bake til deeply golden, about 40 minutes.

After the granola has cooled, stir in the dried fruit and transfer to a storage container. It will keep for a couple of weeks.

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Scaccia

a damn mess

Right before this gem began circulating Evan and I had embarked upon a Nicolas Cage binge. It started with ConAir and progressed through Red Rock West and Lord of War before culminating with Face/Off. Though I won’t presume causality this period did coincide with a steep decline in our standard of living. Dirty dinner dishes languished in the sink overnight and we began eating in front of the television. In our pajamas.

But if you are going to eat in front of the TV it might as well be something crispy, cheesy, charred and handheld, like the scaccia we had for dinner two nights running.

Scaccia (ska-chuh, basically) is sometimes referred to as a stuffed focaccia and it also bears a resemblance to calzone. I made a straightforward tomato and cheese version that came from Saveur magazine’s “Soul of Sicily” feature, but it may be filled with just about anything you’d put on a pizza. Next time I’ll try ricotta and sausage.

With salad and wine, scaccia would make a nice lunch. But it tasted just fine eaten from a plate balanced on my knees, in front of a Nicolas Cage movie.

several folds in. note the thorough job i made of grating the cheese.

Scaccia

from Saveur magazine

Serves about 4

The trickiest part of this is getting the proportions of sauce and cheese right on each layer. Once you start folding, you can’t go back and add more. Plan to use about half of your tomato sauce and half of your cheese on the first layer, then eyeball it from there.

The first time I made this I didn’t take seriously the directions to season each layer with salt and pepper – but following that advice the second go-round made a significant improvement.

1 3/4 cups durum wheat flour

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing

1/2 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste

1 clove garlic, minced

1 14-oz. can crushed tomatoes

fresh basil to taste

freshly ground black pepper, to taste

6 oz. Pecorino Romano cheese, grated

Place flour in a large bowl and make a well in center. Add 1 tbsp. oil, salt, and 1/2 cups + 2 Tbsp water, then stir until a dough forms. On a floured surface, knead dough until smooth and elastic, 6–8 minutes. Transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat remaining oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about a minute. Add tomatoes and basil, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Discard the basil and then remove the pan from the heat and leave to cool.

Heat oven to 500°. On a large floured work surface, roll dough into a rectangle 1/16th inch thick, with the long sides of the rectangle parallel to you. Spread a thin layer of tomato sauce over dough and sprinkle with about half of the cheese; season with salt and pepper. Fold left third of dough toward center, spread top with a thin layer of sauce, and sprinkle with cheese; season with salt and pepper. Fold right third over center to meet left edge, and repeat with sauce, cheese, and salt and pepper. Fold in top and bottom so they meet in center; spread top with remaining sauce and cheese; season with salt and pepper. Fold top half over bottom half, like closing a book, and transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 400° and continue baking until dough is set and slightly charred, about 60–65 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

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