Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cloudy, with a chance of tacos

"My Brain is Cloudy, My Soul is Upside Down." 

It isn't so much that I get writer's block, but language is my rabbit hole. I have always known that written communication is walking a rope with no net. Sharing knowledge, feeling, thought and experience stretches between rocks and hard places. Second guessing always sabotages first drafts.

Much of what I believe about language I learned from reading Wittgenstein. The master of the brain worm.

thanks a lot, Ludwig

“ All I know is what I have words for.”

"Language disguises thought..."

"What can be shown; cannot be said"

"Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself"

"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language "

"Someone who knows too much finds it hard not to lie"

I'm so dizzy

As if these mind invaders were not enough, contemporary language (and therefore thought) has become Oxy-cleansed. Between the rock of the politically correct and the blare of the marketplace it has become difficult to convey much at all. Superlatives are diminished to the point of uselessness. I can no longer believe 'awesome' or 'brilliant' as I read and, therefore, cannot use the words. Do I sound frustrated? brain is cloudy with nattering. It's taken years of louche profligacy to achieve this level of cognitive dissonance.

But I must write, I must. And so how do I fight my way out of the verbal slough of despond and right my soul? Oddly, Ludwig knew the answer:

“What is more important than the meal? Doesn't the least observant man-about-town look upon the implementation and ritual progress of a meal as a liturgical prescription? Isn't all of civilization apparent in these careful preparations, which consecrate the spirit’s triumph over a raging appetite"

spaghetti with milk and coffee?

And so I turn to dinner. For comfort, for stability and purpose; for good, orderly direction. Food ought to be safe territory for me. A place where I can sort it all out.

Of course cooking for others is also dependent on shared expectations. Cooking and talking. It is not as simple as my delicious versus your disgusting, oppositions abound: clear, muddled; too much, not enough; plain, spicy; authentic, revisionist; pure, tainted; exciting, boring; overheated, raw; comforting, challenging. Flavors, textures, irony, meanings, syntax, seasoning and mood, reference, metaphor, simile, color: the alchemy of the palate. Once again, where do I start?...

For today, how to beguine?...

I say, when in doubt, try something grilled

Cut through everything and light the fire. The streets all around are alive with the smell of asado. Various grills are turning meats into antojitos...little cravings. Street carts. Front rooms turned into diners. Meat smoke drifts through the humidity. Smoky kitchens. The parks at dusk are redolent. My sweetest childhood memories are of backyards and camp sites with open flames and glowing coals.

Greek, 17 century B.C,

We have been working at grills for a long time.

A few years back, British primatologist Richard Wrangham broadcast his theory of anthropology...culinary evolution. Essentially, the leap from beast to brahmin required cooked food. The arguments are compelling. I have taken the principle to heart as you can see below (keep in mind the Irishism that no truth is so fine that it cannot be improved):

First we ate rocks. Plenty of minerals. Gave us those flat molars. Our ancestors who survived the rock age moved on to plants and, so superior was the plant diet, that the rock gnosh mostly disappeared. I say mostly because one can still find edible rocks, in the form of dried clay, sold for consumption (occasionally blessed by the,...really.) Still most of our time was spent chewing raw leaves, stems, roots, fruit and seeds. Also, most of this food passed all  the way through us. Cellulose and too much fiber.

the jealous gods' payback

And then along came Prometheus. Fire: protection from beasts, warmth and cooking! Cooking raw food made it more tender and therefore, nutritionally available. We learned to hunt and gathered together around the fire to make up stories and gods to explain why grilled meat tastes so good. When fat drips onto the embers it turns into enticement. The lovely smoke rises and perfumes the meat above (and those gods.)

Since I am a gringo I dream often of the hamburger, the king of the grill. We believe that we have invented the burger. We didn't but we did make it wonderful. I have actually eaten the thing they make in Hamburg (kind of a meatball with white sauce, it's not even a good idea.) Sadly, once we perfected the burger, we created its nadir. What worked for Henry Ford as the assembly line turned the burger thin and tasteless for Ray Kroc's Mcdonalds.

Long before us the Romans minced meat, added pepper corns, pine nuts, garum (holy roman fish sauce!) It seems they baked the dish, Isicia Omentata, and sauced it with a wine gravy. They needed another millennium to get the tomato (from Mexico) to make my ketchup.

chevaline a la Genghis Khan

There was a historic gap until the Mongol horde carried a new approach across the steppes to Russia. They were in a hurry and, rather than stop to make camp they ate in the saddle, from the saddle. Placing strips of horsemeat between those saddles and their unbutchered horses. The meat was trotted into a paste and cooked at 100 degrees (horse heat.) The Russians cleaned it up and passed steak tartare to the Germans who turned it into Hamburger sausage which they then shipped to the new world because we already had ketchup (another interesting history for another day.)

Ah. The burger. Nothing like it. Fixings at your option. Cheese, of course. Big juice. Bacon? Sure. I can build a satisfying week around a good burger. They make a pretty good one at Hennessey's Irish Pub on the Pasejo Montejo. (The ketchup is wrong, too vinegary and not sweet enough; they claim that it's a bbq sauce [it isn't]). They use big fat beef and will grill it medium rare, just gone from red to pink. If you pick it up for the third bite, you cannot put it down without its disintegration. Which is ok. Grab a fork.

Into any really good burger feed the juices of everything merge: grilly beef fat, mayonnaise, pickle juice, ketchup, mustard, special sauce, cheese goo. An appetite for these elements separately is a vice but together...completely acceptable, understandable, laudable. Perfectly edible. Toward the end there may not be any meat left, but...if you have a piece of the bun left to swipe the soup from the plate...nirvana.

slow down, food is here

Mexico is one of the world capitols of street food and there are hamburguesas everywhere. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that the best hamburgers are not street food. But there is so much beyond the burger that is stellar (or, perhaps estelar.) Although small soft wheat rolls and pita (pan arabe) are available it helps to like corn in every conceivable form: tacos thin and soft, crispy or thick, folded around, stuffed or topped with a staggering variety of meats and vegetables.

Take a day trip anywhere. As you drive through villages and slow for the topes (speed bumps), vendors offer bags of cut fruit and jicama with chili powder, salt and lime, Cocos frios, juices, peeled oranges, cactus fruit both green or ripe red. Today I saw the persimmon red of mamey and its cousin white sapote along a city boulevard. And always, grills smoke along the street.

Except for the burgers, it's all good. I am not alone in loving one of these cravings above the rest. Tacos al pastor.

on the one hand

Not just another taco. This is one worth writing home about.

Tacos al Pastor (in the style of shepherds) is the Mexican version (and refinement) of a dish brought over the sea from Lebanon. Spin grill a roast at a broiler to a turn (ahem) until the edges crisp and caramelize. At your command, the patron de pastor will slice it thinly onto a taco, or first into the juices that accumulate below and then on a taco. Add some chopped onion and you are there.

These roasts are composed of slices of pork stacked in a great pile and run through with a spear. The meat has been marinated with pineapple which provides tenderizing and flavor. Here in the Yucatan, the meat is rubbed with recado rojo, a spice mix that dates to the early Maya culture. It now includes black pepper and cloves, neither of which are native to the western hemisphere and must have been added after the Spanish arrived.


However it has developed this great food serves Mexico the way that the burger serves us North of the Border. To say that tacos al pastor is important to the culture here is an understatement. From time to time they go overboard for a good cause. I can only imagine the animal that produced this roast.

So that's the story today. I cannot help but weave words which often launch me into uncontrollable fugues. When I cannot save myself from the run-on sentence my salvation is a meal. It doesn't matter whether I feed myself or cook for you. Cuisine stops everything for a moment. It ends whichever madness the day holds at least for that one moment. At the very best...grand elements join: cultural mores, history and the principle of nurture: this is why we are who we are and this is how we care for you. Often, particularly here in Mexico, grills flame the center of life on the nearest street corner.

Cheers (as always),


*Bob Wills, thanks unitstructure

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The cages are open...

Los pajaros estan en su lugar
 (The birds are where they belong)

Valladolid is a lovely, provincial town in the Yucatan. I spent a night there about a dozen years ago with a group including several of us from Asheville, some ex-patriot Americans living in Merida and one Meridano. We stayed at a hotel, El Meson del Marques, which has a lovely restaurant surrounding a fountain and garden. Hanging from one wall is a line of empty birdcages and a proverb painted on bamboo (my heading today, above.) Our Meridano friend, Samuel, translated the proverb for those of us whose Spanish was inadequate. The cages are open and the birds are free to choose their place, to choose where they belong.

The proverb struck me since I have spent my life moving from place to place. It's a common issue for the children of the military, "where do I belong?" I have always thought myself fortunate to be raised in the US Coast Guard. Our duty stations have been in extraordinary places including Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Seattle, the San Francisco area (Palo Alto) and after I left home at 18, I have spent extended periods in Germany, Scotland and Vietnam. Whether or not I have felt at home, each place taught me more about who I am and how to adapt.

I am visiting Merida again, and happy to be back in the Yucatan with its dense history and rich culture. By the way, my Spanish still sucks and I hope to change that (learning will help me stave off dementia.)  Merida is the "White City" and the capitol of the state.  I want to use my time here to understand more of the region and to deepen my ability to feel less other in the world.

Merida was founded in 1542 by three conquistadors (each of whom were named Francisco de Montejo, plus nicknames.) The early city was built of a local white stone and some of the structures and particularly churches date to the 17th Century. The Maya occupied the same location for many centuries and Merida is considered the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas. The population is 60% Mayan, making it the city in Mexico with the greatest portion of indigenous citizens.

Across the street from the second floor balcony; the neighborhood is San Sebastian

Today, the mix of houses on a given quarto (block) can be surprising. The street face is typically of high, thick walls. Ceilings in the old houses are very high to keep the rooms as cool as possible. Behind these walls are beautifully and traditionally restored spaces; high design, entirely contemporary interiors; modest (and less) dwellings and businesses; as well as abandoned ruins. The city is very proud of its beauty and often, from the street, it is impossible to tell what lies behind the walls.

The original popsicle was invented byAmerican, Frank Epperson, about 1909. I think
 Mexico has improved on the model.
Colonias, or neighborhoods, often spread around a principal church that fronts a plaza with large trees and fountains. Many areas have lots of trees and others simply bake in the sun. Sundays, large sections of streets are closed to traffic and throngs of locals and a small number of tourists walk, enjoy their city, shop and dine. As is the case throughout Mexico, there is an abundance of street food, fruit drinks, shaved ice with syrups, wonderful fresh juice popsicles called paletas and savories of all sorts. (Those of you in Asheville should visit Yuzu Patisserie in the Cotton Mill studios and try Cynthia's versions, seriously.)

It will be no surprise to you who have read a bit of this blog, that food, cooking and hospitality are at the top of my list of things to explore. Everywhere in Mexico, food plays a huge roll, Merida is no exception. The food in Merida is a major part of the culture and has combined Mayan tradition and native ingredients with a variety of European sources. Some of the food is incendiary beyond my comfort level but for the most part, the fire is offered separately as sauce. They love both serranos and habaneros, up there on the Scoville scale, the habaneros are from twice to six times hotter than tabasco.
Habeneros are native to the Yucatan and are inescapable

You cannot imagine the excitement I feel seeing all of the vegetables, fruit, cuts of meat, herbs and spices about which I have no idea. Just this morning I tried a guaya for the first time. They are in season and abundantly carpeted the patio of a new friend. (To call this wide, shaded and walled paradise just a patio seems insulting.)


Guaya are related to lychee and rambutan but with a less floral, more tart flavor. The flesh has the texture of peeled grape and I found them delicious and refreshing but a bit of work. Once peeled, there is a small amount of the juicy flesh that fastens, stubbornly, around a large stone. I popped the whole, peeled fruit in my mouth and ate the meat off the pit. I assumed the pits are inedible, as in lychee. Our friend's beautiful big dogs love them and have the skill to delicately peel the fruits before slurping them down.

I will need a mentor, and better Spanish. Much of what I see I recognize: guava, mangoes, abundant citrus including a wonderful, distinct variety of lime, pineapple, cactus pears ("tunas" in Mexico)  eaten both hard and green and ripe and juicy, huge papayas and bananas. There are at least a dozen varieties in markets that I don't recognize. 

Texas style enchiladas with green chili 
The Mexican food that is available in most of the U.S. has been sad. I was raised eating food prepared for the Yankee palate, which is to say, dumbed down, at least in most of the north. Truthfully, I  love many varieties of border state interpretations, New Mexican style, Tex-Mex, Arizona-Mex, Mississippi and Louisiana tamales. 40 plus years ago I was taken by an old friend to a San Francisco restaurant that offered "California Viejo" food that simply replaced corn tacos with spoon bread made from masa harina. I thought it wonderful but I am unable to track down any current reference to this subset. It might have been a dream. At least it was a good one.

As the U.S. palate has shifted in the direction of greater sophistication and authenticity (I suppose we need to thank the Food Network), it is now possible to get much better Mexican food in the States but the spectrum is limited. The foods I have eaten in my brief trips to Mexico have been a revelation, both in quality and variety. I have known this for years, from the terrific books of Diana Kennedy and, more recently Rick Bayless.  I have expected great food and I have not been disappointed down here.
There is, however, one issue. Let me tell you what you probably already know: it's hot here. In two months, we will begin a four month span in which the average temperature dips below 90 Fahrenheit. Yes, there are hotter places one can live, but... It is also humid, from May to October, the word is oppressive. It does cool off in the evening and nights can be very pleasant outside; inside, it stays pretty warm. Utilities are very expensive and our friends advise that one turns on the AC only when one goes to bed. The units here are split-system, the cooling device is indoors and the compressor (which actually generates heat) Is placed outdoors. 
 This is a split, it cools the bedroom quickly and
I love it, deeply

I tell you this because it affects my normal desire to turn on the stove. I do it but I might need to examine my head. Still, cooking is my life force and I will adapt. The first real cooking I have done is a made up sopa de lima, we will have it again tonight. We had gone to a Mexican superstore: furniture and appliances, clothing, groceries, pharmacy and so forth. Without thinking, we bought a chicken with celery, carrots, garlic and onions, thinking to make stock. I added a leek because it looked so good.

For a few days that chicken weighed on my mind. Do I really want to turn it into poached chicken and broth, simmering it for hours, heating up the kitchen. I couldn't throw it away and we need room in the freezer for ice, lots of ice. Two nights ago I woke up at 5 in the morning, a couple of hours earlier than normal. I knew it would be cool outside and I hobbled downstairs (I hobble a bit nowadays, but I can get around.) This was my chance! 

I put the chicken in a stock pot with the feet, neck, gizzard and heart and covered it with water. When it began to simmer and release its foam, I skimmed it and added a big carrot, scrubbed and chunked, two stalks of celery, washed and left whole, a quartered red onion, a head of garlic, sliced in half at its equator, and a small hand full of peppercorns. Back to the simmer and an hour later I fished out the chicken, let it cool enough to handle (about a half hour), and pulled  the meat off and threw the bones back in the pot until noon and then shut off the flame. 

In the evening, I strained the stock and tossed all the solids except the celery, which still had flavor. That evening, after everything had cooled, I sliced the celery into small moons, cleaned and sliced the leek and put them both in the fridge along with the stock itself. The next morning, I scooped out the fat and added the leeks and celery. When it came back to a simmer, I seasoned the broth and with oregano and bay and added the leek and celery.
Not mine, but this is how it looks (needs tortilla strips)

I began to salt the soup, a little bit at a time, tasting until the balance was right. I believe the salt balance is the single most important aspect of a dish. I aim for the fullest possible flavor which does not actually taste salty. The single most important tool one has is the act of tasting. After an hour or so, I added some of the chicken, the juice of a whole lime and a bit of excellent, even though canned, Salsa Casera (home style.) Meridanos would shred the chicken, roughly, into bite size pieces; I cubed it.

The lime juice upset the balance of flavors with a touch too much sour. More salt restored the balance. I served it with, not very crispy, taco strips and sprigs of cilantro. Our avocado was not yet ripe but it would have been a lovely addition, floating in the soup. Either way, it was rich and satisfying.

Tomorrow easier choice: gazpacho.



Lagniappe: Juicing a lime is more thorough with a reamer but when I don't have one, the butt of a chef's knife handle works admirably (Be Careful!)

Saturday, June 28, 2014


"The crowd is his element,

as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito..." - Charles Baudelaire

Add caption

I do that! I set up house in the heart of the a coffee house. In Asheville, High 5 Coffee Bar makes the best espresso and its variations, so here I am. As it happens, the folks at Waking Life also make the best espresso in Asheville. And, while there may be others, High 5 is my local. 

I've spent years cultivating this particular baristocracy. I tip reliably, don't ogle (much), and make no unreasonable demands. And, I order the same thing every time. They like that. What could be better than a low maintenance regular?  

In return, I get serious coffee, permission to plug in and a new soundtrack each day. Where else can you hear Yma Sumac, Bela Fleck and the Texas Playboys. Coffee houses have been exclusively my third places since March 16th, 1977. The warm spot that is neither home nor office. I believe that I need these places, for sanctuary from obligation. I don't need to serve or be in charge or even to collaborate. (Not that there is anything wrong with collaboration. Also, I'll walk the dog later.)

Within this sanctuary I learn contemporary culture and wander in my both cases, just to see what's there. Truly, I don't really know until I write it down (or speak it out loud.) Further, if I were less of a flaneur I might work this third place and be community. Propinquity alone qualifies me; I am so often there. But I have a different agenda now, my requirements are few and they are all available at High 5.

I want to be welcome, to be greeted warmly...but with poise. On occasion, I arrive grim (what with life and all...) but even when I am buoyant there should be some slight distance. A blend of both casual and formal, it is a professional exchange. It feels more solid to be a client then a customer.

My part of the bargain, other than the money, is to keep the confessional to this "page" and simply be courteous. B knows something about dealing with the public, day after day. Each one thinks that their transaction is the only one of importance and seems to need a fully detailed backstory, each and every time. It isn't and doesn't. And it takes up time and steals focus both of which are needed to do the job. I try not be that person.

It is always a pleasure to watch as they make a cappuccino. Good baristas have subtle, personal flourishes. They don't talk when they work.  B (again a reliable source) has pointed out the particular beauty of the careful execution of almost any task. Mindfully making coffee to be making coffee. Style, focus, craft and service. 

My current drink is a three shot cappuccino, with a side shot and a seltzer chaser. I toss the shot whole and stop everything to taste and inhale. I can't put names on the layers of taste (hazelnut, blackberry, wood, wet leather) but I do experience them in this holy moment. A quick sip of seltzer isolates that first experience. Then I take a sip of the cap and settle down to my spot (hidden at the center of the world.)

I scan the room, anyone to greet? Anyone with whom to seek or avoid eye contact? Interesting clothing, adornment, faces and bodies? New tats, new hair, new objects dangling...the baristas are a fashion strikeforce: the men groom their heads and curate their arms. These women (nature's best) often change totally from one day to the next. Grunge, the little black number, vintage circle skirts, altered clothing, leggings ringed with bold stripes, ear feathers, dirndls, mountain sports ready, fresh from the farm, bare face and stage makeup. 

Finishing the scan I start to write where I left off. Here, in my local I don't play solitaire. There is an academic theory that suggests we have a fear of being seen as purposeless and therefore, in whatever we do, we radiate intent. Whatever. Maybe. In the midst of this hubbub I write with greater focus than anywhere else. I have been waiting a long time to do this, to unreel my life as I speak my passion for food and hospitality. The right kind of third place allows me to write as if it matters.

Here is my theory: I've told you that I come from a seagoing family. At sea the constant hum of the diesel and the creaking sounds of the ship passing through waves are both comfort. It means that we are making headway. When the noise stops, we are in trouble. In the same way, the hubbub of new and familiar voices, the music drone, the china and metal clink and even the torture of the coffee grinder are comforting sounds. We have headway, I can relax and listen to my own voice.


El Patron of High 5, Jay Weatherly, worked his way through school pulling shots as folk met and posed questions, designed, schemed, argued, dissolved and reformed (remember: thesis-antithesis-synthesis.)  "Third places "host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work." Rae Oldenburg, in The Great Good Place. Jay needed a career and so he made a good place to build community.  Also there is excellent coffee,

Another sip and I can slip beneath my waves and check the tectonics of everything. 



Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Consider the egg

“Eggs shouldn't dance with stones.”     Charlie Chan  (Earl Derr Biggers)

the Twelve Monogram Egg, Fabergé

There is nothin' like an egg. Nothing in the world. Sometimes they disappear into a dish such as meringues, macaroons or macarons (see my posting from Dec 23.) Sometimes they are the dish: baked, boiled, coddled, dried, fried, pickled, poached or preserved as 100 year old eggs.

preserved eggs, composée

Should you wish to preserve eggs, here are very brief  instructions: take whole eggs and coat them with a mud made from ashes, salt and lye (if you have extra you can open a drain or two). Next roll them in rice husks and put them in the basement for at least a month at which point you may crack the shells and ... eat them. Or you could age them, forever.

here lies this guy

The egg holds things together. Paints made of pigment mixed with egg yolk and white wine have lasted more than two thousand years. Apparently, the odor was a little off-putting for the first two weeks, sort of like Florida tap water. Icon painters in Greece mixed myrrh into the paint to mask the smell.

Sometimes, eggs become the sauce, to wit: bibimbap, a Korean meal of rice, sauteed vegetables and meats topped with a raw egg to be stirred in by the diner. And... the magical spaghetti carbonara. By quickly combining eggs and piping hot pasta they bypass scrambling and emulsify with a little fat to form a sauce which coats the pasta like a rich butter. Just add black pepper.

Spaghetti Carbonara* for two

one half pound of spaghetti, linguine or bucatini
2 whole eggs and another yolk
picture by
at least a full cup of grated cheese, I like half and half pecorino/parmigiano
a quarter cup of diced guanciale (cured jowl.) Pancetta and unsmoked bacon works almost as well.
olive oil
lots of freshly ground black pepper

Put a pot of salted water to the boil and add the pasta. In a medium mixing bowl, beat the eggs and the extra yolk lightly and add the cheese, stirring to mix.
Choose a pan large enough to contain all of the cooked pasta. In a slick of olive oil, saute the meat until it has rendered and is not quite crisp.

Use tongs to lift the cooked pasta out of the water and into the pan with the seasoning meat. Pour in the egg mixture all at once and immediately begin tossing the pasta to distribute the egg. If it seems too dry when you're finished, add a splash of the pasta water. I would add a rounded teaspoonful of freshly and coarsely ground black pepper although you may like more or less.

beef tartare with egg

We eat eggs uncooked. Rocky himself drank them by the quart.. A cheap power lunch during the Great Depression consisted of a cheese sandwich and a milkshake with an egg beaten in. In tartar à l'Americaine, a yolk sits on top of raw beef. Personally, I would rather mix it all together and cook meatballs. Eggs are served uncooked in other dishes that I love: tiramisu, zabaglione, mayonnaise. We are warned about the dangers of salmonella although I am confident in eggs from organic and free-range producers.

Flying cloud (rust) coddler

The egg also holds a special literary place for me. Mother went to Occidental in Los Angeles where she once received the scariest writing assignment I've ever heard. The students in her class were told to write a three page (single spaced) essay on the feel of an egg (unbroken) in the hand.

In a non-egg aside: while a student at Oxy, Mother was fixed up for a college weekend with a Whittier underclassman. He turned out to be a bore and a boor so she terminated her date with Richard Milhous Nixon. I am so proud!

The ability to manipulate and cook eggs is a fine kitchen skill. They provide structure and texture in souffles, puddings, custards, cakes and sauces. There are many possibilities but eggs are delicate. They cook quickly and can become rubbery.  If you don't understand the different ways to combine eggs with other ingredients your cakes can be leaden, sauces curdled and souffles will never rise.

My father taught me a very fluffy omelet:

Capt. Kobler's Omelet 101

not cooked by my father
Lightly beat eggs one ot two eggs per person and season. You may enrich the omelet with a splash of water, cream, wine or stock.
Heat the pan, add butter, wait for the foam to subside and pour in the egg mixture.

Waiting until the bottom of the mix just begins to firm, shake the pan to loosen the omelet and so it slides easily. You can encourage the slide with  the curve of a fork. Continue to shake and slide from time to time and your eggs won't stick.

With a fork, gently draw the firming egg to the center, try not to touch the fork to the pan itself as you'll cut through the butter and the omelet may stick. As you bring the custardy egg to the middle it will mount up. When you can no longer pull the cooked portion to the center, scatter what fillings you like**. Then tilt the pan away from you so the omelet slides up the side of the pan. Lift the edge with a spatula and fold the omelet back onto itself, enclosing the fillings. After a very brief shake, slide the eggs onto a plate.

If at any point they do begin to stick to the pan, my advice is to scramble the remains and pretend that was your intent all along. Speaking of intentionally scrambled eggs, B showed me a method of low heat cooking that produces very creamy and rich eggs. It was taught to her as a Swedish style and it is a favorite. There is nothing particularly difficult about them. They simply require patience and frequent and gentle stirring. The idea is to cook the eggs slowly enough so that they barely form curds.

Shakshuka -  NYTimes

From time to time, I come across a dish that I want again and again. A few years ago I read about a north african egg dish that was intriguing: shakshuka. Basically, it consists of eggs baked or poached in a chunky pepper and tomato sauce and served with bread. As is often the case I knew the dish for quite a while before I tried it. B came across a version in a magazine and we tried it. It is a wonderful meal and we serve it often.

My version is seasoned with whole toasted caraway and cumin seeds, smoked paprika, turmeric and some spice heat (Aleppo pepper if you can find it.) The sauce comes together very quickly: sweat onions and peppers in olive oil, add tomatoes and seasoning and cook until a red oil forms little pools on the surface, stir in roughly chopped spinach or chard. Turn off the heat and break eggs into the sauce. Finish the the eggs (to the level of firmness that you prefer) either back on the surface with a moderate heat or place the pan in a 375 to 400 degree oven until the eggs are set. Top each one with a generous spoon of mascarpone or creme fraiche. Put out a basket of fresh, crusty bread and let diners serve themselves.

Lagniappe, if you have leftovers, lift out the remaining eggs (which toughen on reheating) before storing in the fridge. Chop the eggs coarsely, toss with  cannellini or garbanzos and canned solid, white tuna, preferable in olive oil. Nest portions of the mix on small piles of butter lettuce and dress with a vinaigrette. Garnish with capers and olives. -and- You can reheat the sauce and poach fresh eggs for another meal or add some stock to make a pasta sauce.

There you are, it's just a beginning but that's it for now,


*The Martha likes to add half in half and some people add English peas, softened garlic or onions. Personally, I think it's gilding a glorious lily, further, these are rarely added in Italy. Generally, I am not a purist but this dish is perfect as I've presented it. Splurge on fresh, organic eggs, first rate cheeses, good black pepper and the best cured meat that you can find. You will be rewarded. Serve it to me and I will come back.

**Since it is important to avoid overcooking and vulcanizing the eggs, I precook most fillings.
Exceptions are grated cheese and tender greens for which the heat in the omelet is enough.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Every morning, when the sun comes up

I learned to drink it black out of fear.

I didn't care for coffee until I began to reject peanut butter. Adolescence. I went to sleep thinking PB&J was fine and woke up knowing that I was tired of sticky, oily and too sweet. I lost my taste for soft bread and popsicles and looked for the new and especially the forbidden. Surrounded by adult things, I wanted some. Surely you can remember foraging the remains of cocktail parties: chips, clam dip with olives and eau de Gilbey's. I loved those olives.

I was sixteen; everything was changing. I no longer knew where I belonged or even what I liked. I needed to go off by myself. If only I could simply put to sea, to live before the mast and learn manly things. Wait, I did exactly that! Conveniently, we lived near a seaport so I signed on to have my Ishmael moment. While at sea, I was forced to drink coffee every single day.

The family lived in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle. I joined the Inland Boatman's Union and found a berth on the tug Charles. We pulled full barges up the protected inside passage to Alaska and empty ones south.

a different tow boat with barge

Sometimes we offloaded in Anchorage and sometimes in Whittier, one of the stranger places I've ever been. It was built as a military facility in 1943 (in case of something.) Basically a large dock facility, a railway spur and the largest building (abandoned) in Alaska. When a barge arrived, a crew of longshoreman would train across the isthmus from Anchorage, unload the barge and go back home.

My job was in the engine room, I remember it without even a trace of affection. I was a Wiper, the lowest conceivable position on a ship. My primary function was to ensure that the engines did not overheat. And explode. I never really knew how to do my job. It was explained once and involved adjusting seven valves in a very specific pattern. It was not written down. Furthermore, it was the first and last time that the engineer (my boss) addressed me directly.

inside passage

The engine room was a constant 120 degrees and a bit over 115 decibels. There were a lot of old Reader's Digests (bi-monthly editions.) To stall the impending explosion I would jump up from my reading or swabbing every few minutes and run from one engine to another, making random adjustments to the 14 wheels.

While on duty I was allowed up to the galley for coffee (the only option) and, because of the explosion thing, I was afraid to take the time to get sugar or milk, just the joe. Absolute and unvarnished (both the coffee and the truth.)

Since that summer my devotion (or enslavement) to coffee has settled in. I have learned what coffees, methods and cups I prefer. It has taken most of the past 52 years to get it right. The shipboard version was strong and both bitter and sour. Since my coffee consciousness began before the first Starbucks, it was all perked or boiled with egg shells and pepper. On special occasions, father would brew in an Italian moka.

Then, in 1966, I chased a girlfriend to Hamburg, where I got a job as a pearl-diver in the kitchen of the Hotel Europaeischer Hof. One kitchen for four restaurants and room service: many, many dishes. 3:00 PM to midnight, 6 days a week. The job included a room in a transient hotel and two meals a day (we were often served chicken necks with white sauce on white rice.)

While in Germany I moved to more serious coffee at stand-up tables. It was delivered in a heavy, silver-plate pitcher that held two full cups of rich, round flavored coffee. It seemed to me that I had actually not had real coffee until then.

I'm sure that it had much to do with libido and a manly, tough guy image. I liked being seen drinking this dark and rich brew without any feminine sweetness and cream.

Then, a dozen years later, I drank espresso in Rome and was reborn. Again, it was as if I had not had real coffee until that first moment. Those Roman shots remain my favorite coffee experience but I also happily drank church-basement coffee for decades. In Vietnam, we boiled water over burning C4 explosive, trying not to inhale the fumes. We dug it out of hand grenades and claymore mines (because it burned very hot) to heat rations and for my Sanka. It even burned in  the rain.

At this point in life, my coffee ritual is the way in which I ensure that the sun will rise (it has a retroactive effect since I like sleeping late.) I recommend the entire experience. It starts the day outwards, I have just spent hours floating inwards. It eliminates the grump and I approach the task with gratitude and focus. I know exactly how B likes her coffee and she has won me over so that my first cup now also gets a little sugar and milk.

The dog begins to wake me, she knows that walking and eating will only occur after that first cup. It can take a while but, when she's won, I go downstairs and she goes back to sleep. Sometimes the operating theater is prepared: water on the stove; cups, press pot, spoons and the coffee jar in place on the counter. If I'm really on my game, my pills and vitamins are laid out on the other counter.

An after dinner demitasse   (shot by Brigid Burns)


Having consumed the stuff for a long time uniquely qualifies me to tell you exactly how to make coffee for me
and B. Except for a wonderful Italian coffee, Lavazza Pienaroma, no single coffee  works for us. B prefers less caffeine and we start with a mix of two coffees. After I brew the first pot, I adjust the ratio and often add a third variety.

I do have a grinder that we use when I find a whole bean coffee on sale but I don't require my coffee fresh ground. I use nearly a cup of ground coffee in a one quart french press. I brew it very quickly. As soon as I've added the water I stir it thoroughly, press the plunger and fill the cups.

For the moment, we have an inexpensive espresso machine which I only use for the steam wand. I am pretty good with it.

And, now the world can turn..