Monday, February 17, 2014

We talked about our dogs (hi Laurey)

She has always been there

In my mountains, Laurey has always been a part of the view. When I came to Asheville to bake bread, Laurey patted the empty seat next door on Biltmore Ave. We thanked her at our home with dinner and my bread; she brought a strawberry cake that had beautiful, crisp, meringue layers and a generosity of whipped cream. She had understood immediately what I wanted to do here and knew that it would work.

So we opened Blue Moon Bakery next to her tiny kitchen and storefront at 60 Biltmore. She used her space to cook and to meet catering clients. She hoped our bakery cafe would thrive and helped to spread the word. 

Our first Thanksgiving celebration in Asheville was in that small storefront; she had cooked for the crowd. There were about 20 of us, friends, employees, family and neighbors. A kind of guest of honor was her nephew who traveled with a nurse. He had been very badly burned and could no longer care for himself, but he had Laurey's spirit and refused to quit. And Laurey taught all of us (or at least me) to fight back against the instinct to cringe with pity. She loved her nephew and wanted to share her friends with him and he with them. 

She had already dealt with round 1 of her cancer battle. She is tough, we all know that. I admired her grit and wanted some. But the real gift I have from Laurey has been the rewiring of my mind. I've always been too cool. The protective layer of cleverness, sophistication and sardonic wit are the tools I use to keep emotions in check. I have privately snorted at all of the repeated phrases that form the soundtrack of living in these mountains. Be here now, live and let live, one day at a time, you doin' all right? 'preciate you?, have a blessed day and, worst of all,..Don't Postpone Joy.

I thought (again, to myself), what the hell does that mean? It's just a cute way of saying, "buy more of my food." A Chamber of Commerce slogan and something to embroider on a pillow. A bumper sticker and I never use bumper stickers, what could be less cool than a bumper sticker? I have always been a land snark. I almost feel apologetic for all of my cynicism. Almost. And it would have to be an apology to myself.

Of course that hasn't lasted, I've softened. I've mellowed for a lot of reasons but the greatest piece of it has been because I've directly witnessed and experienced so many expressions of love in the 22 years that I have been here. There have been many, many powerful examples of heroic living. As I think of friends who are gone and all of us who have come close, I see that I am changed. I no longer have time to be cynical. For myself and for everyone that I can touch I need to thank Laurey for her demand that we generate positive thought and choose joy.

The last time we talked, in late January, it was about the amazing the love of our dogs . How they sit next to us and press their warmth into us when we are not well. They are incapable of negativity. I hope her dog is with her now.

Thank you Laurey


Friday, February 14, 2014

After all the snow it's Fårikål for me

It is gorgeous outside. Asheville is always beautiful with a few inches of snow.

Buttermilk Creek                                     brigid burns

We seem to get a big snow every few years. My first Asheville blizzard was 20 years ago. The family lived on the Manor grounds. The Manor began as a fin de siecle mountain inn on Charlotte Ave. with cottages (each with a name: Cleo, Dogwood, Possum Trot) that wend up the steep base of Town Mountain. To approach our house, we had to cross a wooden bridge with stone abutments. "Wildfell" had seven floors with one or two small rooms on each level. There was a porch with tree trunks as supporting pillars. The whole neighborhood is a virtual museum of charming, antique architectural styles.

I had Blue Moon Bakery then and had been kept away for a full day by the snow. When I finally got there by walking and sledding, it was a mess. The doughs had overproofed, spilled out of the tubs and was stuck to the floor. It took me a couple of hours to clean up. It was depressing but I took the time to mix a fresh batch of country French bread.

After baking the bread, I filled some cardboard boxes and tied them to the sled. As I hauled the sled home, everyone I passed got a warm loaf. It was a wonderful moment for me. I had become the village baker.

Now, Brigid, Mookie and I live in a west Asheville neighborhood. It was developed in the 1920's as Horney Heights (revisionists want to say hor-nay, but we know better...we are the 'hor-nee haytians.') Mary, who lives across the street, was raised in the area and has seen most of the population turn over. Lots of dogs, children, and grownups with Subarus and kayaks.

repurposed kayak                             brigid burns

Since I was under the weather I spent the storm indoors. Dosed with Dayquil and ginger tea I slept away a good part of two days. I would get up from time to time and peer out at the fun, sad that I couldn't join but feeling the happy vibe.

home                                                     brigid burns

We have developed a tradition with our good friends, Martin and Leah. Whenever there is real snow on the ground we get together to share food and warmth. Last night, as I huddled under

the covers. Brigid and Mookie trudged around the corner for a sweet time. Martin had made a spinach lasagna and there was whiskey. Later I heard voices and looked out to see Martin shoveling a path to our backdoor. They brought me a square of the lasagna and went back to their fire. I helped dry the dog as B described the snow scene.
                                                                                                      brigid burns

A good crowd had gathered at the top of Harris St. to celebrate and sled. Cheryl had built a bonfire and there was every imaginable sliding device; no cars and the dogs ran free. Mookie is pretty small and has to hop to get anywhere in the deep snow. When everyone was warm (and I was full) all three of us went back upstairs to cuddle and watch a good movie on Netflix.

(so what is Fårikål?)

Knowing the snow was on the way I had prepared for the cold by making Fårikål, the Norwegian national dish. Simplicity itself: 4 lbs of lamb chunks layered with three lbs of cabbage wedges, a handful of black peppercorns, salt and water. Put it on the back burner and let it simmer for a few hours, it cannot be overcooked and the flavor is better each time it's reheated. After a couple of days of cooling and warming the meat falls into soft shreds and the cabbage turns into a broth. I expect it to restore me to health in a day or two. Today, we've eaten it twice.



Wednesday, February 5, 2014

FAKE SAUCE (sugo di scapatto, sort of)

I spent December, 1971 in Rome, visiting a girlfriend from Philadelphia. She was enrolled in a junior-year-abroad and I had spent the first of two years on a Scottish island writing poetry, drinking and smoking dope; getting over a war. It was just as cold and wet in the Eternal City and very crowded with Christmas shoppers. Some of the piazzas were ringed with green plywood booths selling celebration foods; I particularly remember enormous slabs of chocolate and nougat.

Timing is everything. In the midst of our romantic month, her parents flew in for a surprise visit. Her father, a psychiatrist, had gone to medical school in the Eternal City. We had to make arrangements to reassure him of the security of her virtue. The arrangements, of course, were rearrangements. More specifically, I was to stay out of sight except when I was specifically  invited. They needed a lot of family time. Whether or not he knew what we were up to, he certainly knew the city well and very kindly included me for a few of their outings.

On the days when I was not included I felt very sorry for myself and wandered the damp and windy city with a small cassette player listening to "After the Gold Rush"; both the rain and Neal Young's whiny voice provided the perfect soundtrack for my misery. But what a place to be miserable: I kept returning to the Capitoline hill, overlooking the Forum. I think that there were orange trees with fruit. In Rome with Christmas approaching. Enjoying my Roman Holiday.

When I did join them it was for meals that are still vivid in my memory. One day we went to a place outside of the city. I can't remember why, but I was the designated driver of the rental car. Driving in Rome during the evening rush was the third most terrifying experience of my life; at one point we were stopped for a light and on the curb was an actual one-eyed cat staring at me, very tough looking. There is an entire feral cat culture in the ruins throughout the city. I felt the scorn.

We arrived at the restaurant which was deep in an ancient cellar. There was no menu but they gave us everything. First, an aperitivo, wine, then a platter of cured meats and cheeses, wine, then a vat of spaghetti with a plain but perfect marinara, wine, then a huge assortment of grilled meats: beef steak, pork chops and both beef and pork liver, various sausages and chicken, wine, then (for those still able) a salad, wine, and finally, a digestivo. Everything was perfectly delicious. The meal, which went on for hours eclipsed my nervousness and on the way back to Rome, I drove like an Italian.

I won't  describe my other meals except to say that I found a different experience of food than I had known. In fact, although it took decades for it to sink in, the foundations of my culinary identity were being laid. The first principle of this identity is, "Everyone should be able to eat like a Roman." Food is simply much more important to the Italian than to the American.

In the end, on New Year's Eve, I shared a train compartment with a young German I had met. I was headed through Switzerland and across France to Calais and the ferry to Dover. My friend was only going across the Swiss border under a deportation order because of his day job. He drove luxury cars  to the market in Istanbul. As it happened, his employer did not own these cars.

Outside of the hamburger, nothing comforts me as completely as pasta in almost any form. Eaten for at least 4,000 years with western literary references from BCE Greece. The earliest record of boiled pasta is in the Talmud but people had been eating forms in China much earlier. There are so many different theories about how pasta might have been introduced from one culture to another that I have to conclude that it arose, independently, everywhere that grain was milled (or, in fact, where any starch was consumed).

4,000 year-old noodles with Chinese dirt

I love all varieties of pasta, although not equally, from Vietnamese glass noodles made from canna lily starch to Mueller's elbows made from bleached, bromated, "enriched" and extruded wheat flour. I like it stuffed, in broth, fried into rangoons, baked in lasagna (and even the baked spaghetti at the S&W cafeteria), boiled and tossed with butter and black pepper, boiled and then sauteed, or pushed through a ricer into a simmering stew as spaetzle.

Sometimes we just want pasta with red sauce and what follows is my approach. The sauce I make is based on a recipe by Giovanni Bugialli, a great chef and writer who inspired me through the 1980's. His intention was Sugo di Scapatto, meat sauce from which the meat has escaped. The sauce is normally meatless, hence the name. An alternate meaning is "fake sauce" because it is often a meat sauce without the meat. His version included veal stock. The one I made yesterday included ground beef simply because we had some in the fridge. His sauce was a revelation to me and the techniques I learned form the basis for a great number of my dishes.

red sauce ingredients                    brigid burns

My approach depends on a soffritto or a mirepoix, a seasoned vegetable mix: celery and onion and garlic . I add parsely and carrots (which is a bit Frenchy) for their sweetness. I think the size of the chop is important and for this sauce, I like a mince, which is pretty small (see below). For other dishes I might want these ingredients to remain separate and cut them into chunks. 

This time I began by cooking ground beef until all of the pink was gone. As it cooked, I broke the meat into the smallest pieces I could by stabbing it over and over with a wooden spoon. When the meat had all gone brown I added the soffritto, seasoned it lightly with salt and pepper, and cooked it slowly for about a half hour until all of the vegetables were soft and brown, If it seems that the sauce is too dry and might burn, a splash of water slows everything down.

Next, I added a glass of red wine (enough to lift the solids into a shallow soup) and cooked the mix slowly until it absorbed the liquid and had become almost dry again. Then I added an equal amount, or more of stock (in this case, a mix of veal and beef stocks). If you haven't got any of your own, the next best thing is to get 2 quarts of an organic stock and reduce it to one. It will cook for quite a while so there is no need to reduce it in advance. As the stock simmers into the mixture, add the seasoning that you choose. In this case I used a mix of oregano, marjoram and red pepper flakes.

When the stock had also been absorbed I added a large (28 oz.) can of the best tomatoes I could find. I prefer the whole peeled variety although you can use crushed or "chefs cut" if you wish.  I pour the juice into the pot and squeeze the tomatoes through my fingers. Now it is time to begin tasting for balance. This batch needed quite a bit of adjustment as the tomatoes were a little flat: I used lemon juice to raise the tartness, soy sauce for umami, or savory roundness, honey to balance the tart, heat from the pepper and just enough salt to bloom the flavors. It shouldn't actually taste salty, but the right amount opens your palate to the full savoriness of a dish.

From this point it is all about personal taste, tune it until you like it. Then it is time and low heat until all the flavors meld. It improves with an overnight rest. When you reheat the sauce taste it again until it pleases you. This works well with most pasta shapes, I like it with bucatini for a long pasta and penne rigate for a short  version.
Dinner        by brigid burns

Heat the sauce in a large frying pan while the pasta is cooking in a separate pot of salted water. When it is done, net it out with a spider, a skimmer or a slotted spoon into the sauce and turn it over and over to coat the pasta. If necessary, use a ladle of pasta water to thin a sauce that has become too thick.

Mange, mange!