Saturday, May 26, 2007

Dining in the Raw

One-thousand years from now, archeologists digging on the island of Manhattan will debate the reasons why a group of sophisticated, urban city-dwellers chose to reject traditional kitchen technology and abandoned the use of the four-burner stove.

My friend “Lee Sloan” is a Grande Dame of food and wine on the New York circuit. In days of yore, she developed marketing and public relations strategies for food companies and producer associations. Lee made Louisiana Yams yummy and pickles and pasta sexy. She also knows a lot about fine wine and good taste.

Lee is my guide to gastronomy, my doyenne of the delicious. But now and again, I relish the opportunity to rock her world – just a little – and expose her to some radical new food concepts. It is a journey she willingly embraces.

“So, what do you say we check out this raw food movement?” I suggest.

“You know I don’t eat raw meat or fish,” she replies tersely. It’s almost an implied threat.

“I think it’s all about fruits, vegetables and seeds,” I answer timidly.

Now, I’m inherently lazy. I’ll find any excuse not to cook. But, I’m not sure I truly understand this raw food concept. Does raw food really qualify as cuisine? Have you joined the raw food movement when you have a peanut butter sandwich for dinner?

Not so much.

The term raw food describes uncooked, unprocessed and often organic foods that have not been heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit. The movement, uh, “heated up” during the 1900s and true enthusiasts believe that the consumption of raw foods is more healthful and preserves essential vitamins and nutrients.

It sounds like I’m going to have to cut back on my recent cake binging, but I think I’m up to the challenge. Fortunately, Lee requires minimal coercing and we make reservations at Manhattan’s leading raw food restaurant, Pure Food and Wine at 54 Irving Place. However, an alarming editorial in the morning edition of the New York Times called “Death by Veganism” has given Lee a moment of pause.

A couple of hours before dinner I have a moment of panic, as well. I email Lee and frantically ask, “What about the wine? Will it be any good?” I’ve barely mastered the art of pairing wine with meat and fish. What kind of wine goes best with sprouts? Lee tells me to calm down and to keep reminding myself it is all part of the adventure.

It is a balmy spring evening in New York when I arrive at Pure Food and Wine. Lee is waiting for me outside the restaurant and she’s already got her hands on the wine list. “I think we’ll be okay,” she says with a smile.

We are led to an enchanting outdoor garden of wood decking, red cushions and camp chairs. White votive candles line the slate stone path to our table. All we need is a roaring camp fire and some s'mores and it will be a perfect evening under the stars.

Oh, no … fire is wrong!

I get a closer look at the wine list and I am relieved. All of the selections are organic or sustainable wines. I make a mental note to investigate what “sustainable wine” is all about, and we order two glasses of bubbly, organic Cava. We review the menu and speculate on what the meal will be like. “When you think raw, you think boring,” Lee murmurs with a slight touch of skepticism in her voice, and I point out that these are certainly cooked food prices.

Our server, Cesar is a tall, lanky young man with a mop of sandy curls. As is her style, Lee begins to interrogate the unsuspecting Cesar on the finer points of raw food. What is it really, and how is it different from vegan food?

Cesar is unflappable. He’s clearly navigated this territory before and boils it down to one concise statement: “If you eat raw, you’re kind of a vegan by default.” He does concede that raw food is about a preparation style, while vegan is a philosophy, but advises us that there is no wheat or starch in the menu – only “simulated starch” which is likely to be created from pureed raw nuts. Cesar tells us that this is the only raw food restaurant in Manhattan committed to a fine dining experience (hence the cooked food prices) and artisanal ingredients, many sourced from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket. But, aside from the ingredients, tradition – in the culinary sence – is an anathema at Pure Food and Wine. “There is no old guy wielding the bludgeon of tradition in the kitchen,” says Cesar. “These are young, visionary kids.” The Chef de Cuisine is 25 years old.

Lee and I order the chef’s tasting menu, and she sits back to survey the crowd, noting that it is a mix of suits and earthier types. A different server brings our first course to the table and announces, “This is your Gestapo.” Just behind him, Cesar makes a correction. It is, in fact Gazpacho – consisting of pureed mango, radish and avocado, served in a martini glass. “This is your amuse bouche,” he tells Lee, who promptly retorts, “The French would find that amusing.” But the golden potion manages to do the intended job, and is full of pepper, crunch and a smooth, subtle sweetness.

From there on, dinner becomes a bit like all-you-can-eat buffet night in the Garden of Eden. For each course we are both presented with a different dish so we can share. We take note of several characteristics of raw food. First, it is incredibly fresh and, well, green. Everything has a fresh, clean and crisp taste. Oddly enough, there is very little of the aroma that you would typically get with hot food, so the sense of smell seems to have taken the night off. The taste buds and the teeth are doing all the work.

Lee reflects on the dramatic difference between this and how she was brought up. “We were Kosher, so everything was cooked and cooked.”

We then take note that the alcohol absorption rate of raw food is far less than a diet high in fat and protein. Our second round of drinks – an herbaceous, sustainable Sancerre from France – has gone directly to our heads. I’m definitely feeling a buzz, and through the haze of it all consider that the pairing of raw food and wine may be an art that has yet to be developed. You need a strong wine to stand up to those raw vegetables.

The color palate of the dishes brought to our table is brilliant. There is intense visual appeal. Not exactly eye candy, but definitely eye veggies. An avocado soup is the color of sea foam. Emerald-green Spicy Thai Lettuce Wraps with mahogany-colored Tamarind Chile Sauce, pea shoots, mango and cabbage are artfully arranged. Sweet maize corn, red peppers, snap peas and fat morel mushrooms marinated in balsamic vinegar looks like a mountain of festive confetti. A white corn tamale is bursting with a rich, nutty filling. Red cabbage is the color of rubies and is so tangy my eyes water. Prior to dessert, a palate cleanser of Lime Ice is pucker-tart and refreshing. We agree that it is a garden of earthly delights and Lee may indeed be a convert. “I’m astonished at the creativity and the fact that it can be so appealing,” she raves.

We encounter a slight speed bump before dessert. Lee – an avowed caffeine addict – realizes, “My guess is they’re not going to have coffee,” and Cesar confirms that hot coffee would break all the raw food rules. “The Europeans go crazy when they find out,” he confides. But the delectable desserts more than compensate. Chocolate Molten Lava Cake with mocha mousse, chocolate sauce and vanilla pink peppercorn ice cream is richly decadent, and Passion Fruit Mousse with lime cream, pineapple coconut sorbet is layer-after-layer of frothy citrus sensations. We leave feeling pleasantly full and just a tad virtuous, although Lee wonders if she will end up raiding the larder for a cheese and cracker snack later in the evening.

Just before I board the train for Long Island, I stop at the newsstand and scan the headlines on the latest issue of Gourmet Magazine. A line of type along the bottom of the cover screams – Investigative Report: A Chicken’s Life. Yikes!! Instead, I pick up Everyday Food for the ride home which promises Fast, Favorite No-Cook Dinners.

I suppose I can always use my oven to store sweaters …

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Food with Personality

From astrological signs to dating services to corporate team building exercises, we love to label personalities and deduce the psychological “type” of those around us.

We favor an endless supply of “tags” to classify character – cheerful, aloof, moody, mercurial, passive, and aggressive. Some years ago, I took the classic Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which neatly packaged me as ISFJ – which, translated from psychobabble, means Introversion, Sensing, Feeling and Judging.

Bogus? Maybe. To be honest, I had to look my “type” up after almost five years, but I know many people who can recite it just as easily as their SAT scores or Social Security number. There just seems to be some great degree of comfort in being able to classify, define, label and wrap things up in a neat little box.

Not so with food. Between color, texture and flavor, food offers an endless array of unpredictable combinations that consistently go against “type.” Yet, at the celebration feast this weekend, welcoming my brother and sister-in-law home from a year abroad, a fascinating collection of eclectic personalities emerged, not only around the table, but on the dinner plates.

Bell Pepper and Farro Salad

This combination of ancient wheat and a trio of multicolored bell peppers is a contradiction of a highly-traditional grain and bold, extroverted spontaneity. The black olives denote a mysterious, sensual undertone.

Tagliatelle with Mushrooms

A quick toss of fresh pasta made from scratch, sautéed onions and a mélange of wild mushrooms, epitomizes hands-on creativity and earthy, idealistic values. The sauce is adaptable and flexible to all kinds of situations.

Roast Pork with Orange

Slow-roasted boned loin of pork, basted with a rich mix of butter, orange juice, orange zest, chili powder and oregano is steady, painstakingly dependable and practical, yet imaginative with slightly exotic inclinations.

Chestnut Cake

Highly original, and non-conformist, this torte of chestnut flour, pine nuts, rosemary and olive oil eschews the tired, boring routine of sweet desserts, and its deep, nutty flavor is far from frivolous.

The meal was finished off with an effervescent Bartenura wine made from the Moscato grape, a sparkling and exuberant “life-of-the-party.”

Of course, I wouldn’t want to typecast anyone …

(Recipes from The Silver Spoon, The Bible of Authentic Italian Cooking.)

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Watermelon Cake and Thoughts of Summer

Summer vacation started yesterday.

I thought our teacher Mrs. Hall would never let us go.

When school had finally ended, my little brother Fred and I raced each other down to the creek. We tossed our books on the riverbank and waded barefoot in the stream. We splashed each other until we fell over laughing, soaking wet. Then, we lay on the bank so the hot afternoon sun would dry our clothes. Dad says he’ll blow up the old inner tube tomorrow so we can float along the stream this summer. After dinner, we got to stay up late and listen to “The Shadow” on the wireless.

This morning, I stretched out in the hammock on the porch with the new issue of “Boy’s Life.” I really like the stories about Scouts that have incredible adventures. I have this new comic called “The Phantom.” He’s a masked hero that fights bad guys. But, I’m saving it for later. Fred is down the hill trying to catch frogs for his collection.

Ma’s making a Watermelon Cake to celebrate the start of summer vacation. I ask Ma if there’s watermelon in the cake, but she says no, it just looks like a watermelon. I ask her why we don’t just slice up a watermelon, but she says she likes to make fancy cakes and show us what a good baker she is. Ma says Watermelon Cake is niftic, but I’m not sure what that means.

I hear Ma in the kitchen so I go inside. Ma does the baking early in the day before it gets too hot. There’s a slight breeze that moves the gingham curtains that hang on the kitchen window. Ma has on her favorite stiff white apron. I pull myself up on the battered kitchen stool to watch her work.

Ma cut the recipe for Watermelon Cake out of the newspaper. She says the recipe is really old and someone named Mrs. Rorer showed a bunch of people how to make it at the World’s Fair in Chicago way back in 1893. Ma says Mrs. Rorer was a famous lady who ran a cooking school and showed people at the fair how to bake.

Ma beats creamy yellow butter and sugar together and separates the yolk from six eggs. She mixes the egg whites with the butter and flour. The batter is very white and half of it goes into a pan. The rest of the batter she colors pink and then tosses in a handful of raisins and then pours it all into a second cake pan. She says it will look like the seeds in the watermelon when it’s all baked.

After the layers come out of the oven and cool, Ma cuts the white layer in half and uses more butter and sugar to make the frosting. She tints the frosting green, so the outside of the cake will look like a ripe watermelon. She alternates layers of white and pink, and lets me lick the bowl after she ices the cake. The frosting turns my tongue green. If I stand at the other end of the room, the cake kind of looks like a watermelon sitting on the kitchen table.

In the afternoon when Dad is home, we slice the cake. I take a bite. It is sweet, buttery and delicious and summer vacation feels like it will last forever. Fred picks out the raisins, but I guess when you eat watermelon, you really do spit out the seeds, don’t you?

Dad’s going to take us to the Bijou tonight to see “Flash Gordon Rocket Ship” and he says we can take a ride on the carousel afterwards.

School seems like a million years away.

(Dedicated to The Old Foodie and devotees of summertime and Retro Cakes.)

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sushi and Serenity

If it’s Sunday, it must be sushi. I’ve been planning this culinary meditation all week, and it is essential to my future well-being. The past seven days have been a tough haul. Too many people, too many issues at the office. Harassment from fellow commuters on the Long Island Railroad. And, seven days of Chocolate Malted Milk Cake for breakfast has given me a severe sugar rush.

It’s time for calm in the kitchen. Sushi and serenity.

I’ve intended to master sushi for some time now. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been feeling a little guilty ever since I attended a sushi demonstration at the Copia Food and Wine Center in Napa, California. The demonstrator made sushi preparation look like a snap. I COULD do this at home! I’d purchased the tools and ingredients and was gearing up for a Zen culinary experience.

That was three years ago.

On the road to sushi and serenity, I got sidetracked by French cooking, French pastry, fresh pasta, bread and a pretty nifty recipe for fondue made with Cheese Whiz.

Now, the time is right. The cosmic forces are aligned. I lay out the bamboo sushi mat (called Makisu) and the bamboo rice paddle (called Samoji), my tools on the journey to sushi and serenity. They are pure simplicity.

I’ve purchased the ingredients, but I must struggle with a critical decision – no raw fish. The risk of food poisoning is too high. In my kitchen, it’s already an occupational hazard. Raw fish is the stuff of a sushi master, and I barely qualify as an apprentice. So I defer. I’m comfortable with my choice – my sushi will hail from the Left Coast – California Rolls stuffed with cucumber and crabsticks.

I study the directions for perfect sushi and I can feel myself starting to perspire. The pamphlet describes sushi as “simple, yet complex; moderate, yet tempting; easy to make, yet refined and requires a creative sense of balance.” Already, I’m feeling conflicted. Am I simple or complex? Refined, or blessed with a creative sense of balance? Or, just plain confused?

Proper preparation of the rice is said to be the biggest challenge. Sushi actually means “vinegared rice,” and the process of cooking the rice and flavoring the grains with vinegar is painstaking.

First, I must rinse the short grain sushi rice to remove excess starch which can leave the rice gummy. I am directed to “drain and repeat” until the water runs clear. I rinse the rice five times, and it’s still a milky white color.

I’m already impatient. “Is it done yet?” I ask out loud. My fingertips are getting a little chilled having plunged them into ice water numerous times and I’m losing precious grains to the drain with each rinsing. After eight rinses, the water is not much clearer, but I decide that I’m probably obsessing over this first step. Then, there’s a moment of panic when I discover that my rice was grown in the USA. Hardly genuine, but maybe that’s actually better for California Rolls. My fingers are like 10 little cylinders of ice but I managed to get the rice into the pot for a lengthy cooking and steaming process.

Meanwhile, I mix the vinegar seasoning that will be added to the rice. The directions say a non-reactive bowl is a must. Do not, under any circumstances, use metal or the sushi will taste “unpleasant.” My stress level jumps. I scramble to find an appropriate stirring devise, pawing my way through dozens of metal utensils in the kitchen drawer. I finally locate a plastic spatula and a wooden cheese spread.

The seasoned vinegar is called Sushi-su, a tangy blend of rice vinegar, sugar and salt. I also combine a vinegar solution for my hands and tools to keep the rice from sticking.

While the rice comes to room temperature, I chop my filling: hot house cucumber and crab sticks, both favorites of the Venice Beach crowd.

Cooling the rice requires a flurry of ambidextrous activity. I must fan the rice with one hand and drizzle the sushi-su into the rice with the other. I am successful and achieve a glossy sheen on the little grains of rice.

I’m beginning to feel the serenity as I massage the bamboo mat and roll the filling and sheets of nori (roasted seaweed). It is a rhythmic, soothing, repetitive motion and actually works remarkably well. I marvel at the fact that I’m not inadvertently squishing the filling out of each end. I am perfecting the art of preparing Hoso-maki, which is thin roll sushi, about 1-inch in diameter with a single filling.

My slicing skills could use a couple of brush up sessions at the Ginsu Knife School of Sharp Cuts. The pieces are a bit uneven and look more like a collection of erratically-cut tree stumps than a pristine cluster of perfectly-formed jewels, but I’m still pleased with the results.

I unroll a set of burnished wooden chop sticks – a gift from a colleague following a trip to Asia – and taste my creations. The cucumber is crisp and the glistening rice is perfumed with a beguiling bite of vinegar, all wrapped in a briny green blanket of nori. A touch of wasabi paste has the alarming but pleasing result of making my hair stand on end.

It is Sunday. The sun is shining. The sushi is sublime. I have achieved that sought-after state of serenity.

I finish typing up my results and realize that the feng shui in my study is way off balance. Correcting this is going to take all afternoon.

Now, I think I’m retaining water and my blood pressure has gone up a couple of notches due to the high level of sodium in the soy dipping sauce. I must fix that.

But, first I’ve got to find a cookie. I’ve got a serious case of that salt-sweet thing happening.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

I Think, Therefore I Eat

Freya and Paul, who host the witty and irreverent Writing at the Kitchen Table, have very graciously nominated “Culinary Types” for a “Thinking Blogger Award!” A healthy helping of Monty Python seasoned with a dash of Shakespearean drama, Freya and Paul make me laugh and think about the culinary milestones and misadventures that we all share.

Frankly, I’m extremely flattered by their nomination, and glad to know that the stories told here might cause others to think about people and their adoring relationship with food.

Now it’s up to me to nominate five bloggers who make me think. May I have the envelope please?

1. The Old Foodie serves up history by the spoonful from Australia. Her daily posts on food and moments in history remind me of the crucial role food plays in our age-old human drama. And, her retro-cake challenges have kept my baking skills in fine form as I have collaborated with her by recreating cakes of the past.

2. Lydia, who writes The Perfect Pantry, uncovers a wealth of insightful information about the food items in her cupboard. She inspires me to look at even the most basic ingredients in a completely new way.

3. Ari, who writes Baking and Books makes me think about the connections between food, literature, people and place. Don’t miss her excellent Ten Questions with Dorie Greenspan.

4. Susan, aka The Food Blogga is a joy to read. Her funny and heartfelt stories of food and family never fail to remind me how sharing food can strengthen family bonds.

5. Veronica’s Test Kitchen will make you think about the techniques and chemistry of cooking. Although currently on a brief blogging sabbatical, Veronica approaches each new culinary challenge with a keen analytical mind and a refreshing sense of curiosity.

These are my favorite, thought-provoking “culinary types.” They will make you think, and they will make you hungry. I promise! Now, these five have to each nominate five bloggers that make them think. I can't wait to see who they come up with!

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved