Sunday, April 18, 2010

Favorite Recipe: Sicilian Pesto

I used to grow cherry tomatoes on my deck when I had full sun there (neighbors and a red maple have since intervened), and at the end of the summer was so inundated that I researched a lot of recipes for cooking with them. This was my favorite: a pesto that uses almonds instead of pine nuts. Hm. I may just make some tonight.

Sicilian Pesto (as adapted from Cook's Illustrated)

1/4 cup slivered almonds
12 oz cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
1/3 cup olive oil
1 oz parmesan cheese, grated
pinch of salt
1 lb cooked pasta (spaghetti is best, I think)

Process almonds, garlic, and oil in a blender until broken down a bit – add salt and the cherry tomatoes a handful at a time and process until smooth. Add basil leaves and process until smooth. The sauce will be a sort of unappetizing murky green color but don't despair. It tastes wonderful tossed with hot pasta and the grated parmesan. You might need to add a little hot water during the tossing process to make sure the sauce coats all the pasta.

Favorite Recipe: Cardamom-Pistachio Thins

I worked a food processing shift at the Park Slope Food Coop yesterday and promised to share some recipes with the people around the table. Here's one of my all-time favorites; it makes only a dozen cookies, and as Corinne my fellow food-processor noted, "it's really nice sometimes to not have huge batches of cookies."

Cardamom Pistachio Thins (from Eating Well)

I alter this recipe slightly by toasting whole cardamom seeds (discard the pod) in a hot skillet for about 30 seconds and then whizzing them through my coffee grinder. The aromatic nature of the cardamom is just so lovely this way. I also add a bit of powdered ginger. These cookies are a wee bit crisp at the edges and soft at the center, and are delicious with a cup of black tea.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Velik'den': The Blooming of the Bradford Pear Trees

"Velik'den" is the Ukrainian word for Easter, but it really means "The Great Day." I like to think that the pre-Christian Ukrainians, calendarless, anxious about the coming of Spring, all decided among themselves when the Great Day was. They'd just know, stepping outside and sniffing the air...and a special smile would spread across everyone's face.

For me, Velik'den' is when the Bradford Pears bloom in the treepits of New York City. In early Spring these trees present buds that open to a tight fistful of smaller buds, which gradually relax and open up into a bouquet of little white flowers. (Not particularly nice-smelling, though.) When warmth comes quickly, as it usually does at least once or twice in Springtime here, the trees explode into flower all over. This happened on Friday, April 2 this year.

Pysanky 2010: Freeform Pattern 6

I've been experimenting this year with making Ukrainian Easter eggs simply by melting the beeswax patty a little and smudging it immediately on the egg. The smudges are of slightly different shapes – some quite perfect-edged, others feathery. The overall effect is impressionistic. Since pysanky (if these can truly be called that) can be made very quickly via this method, I've been more daring with dye combinations. Here's one that I decorated with white, then red, and then dipped in green, producing an interesting dark grey background. It reminded me of something, and when I was on my way to work recently, I realized what it was. I've obviously been spending too much time in the subway just staring at the floor.

Early Spring, Union Square

Across the street from my office is an Anthropologie store. They painted their windows with a green leaf design that glows in the angle of sunlight coming across the street.

 At the greenmarket in late March it was still chilly enough to require a coat – and it was a good idea to have an umbrella too – while shopping among the forced tulips and hyacinth.

My eyes are hungry for green, but at this point in Spring I can only find this color painted on, or imported from a greenhouse....

Pysanky 2010: Kids at Ukrainian Museum

On Saturday afternoon, March 27, I taught a class at the Ukrainian Museum that introduced the art of pysanky to middleschoolers from Chinatown. These kids were from the honors class so they were serious and intelligent adolescents – only one of them set himself on fire, just a little bit. Here's a picture of one young gentleman melting the wax off his egg with great concentration. This is the best moment of the pysanky-creating process but also the riskiest. I do appreciate how he held his paper towel far away from the flame.

A small crowd gathered around this girl as she melted the wax off her pysanka:

And here are the finished eggs this group made. Very nice!

Pysanky 2010: The Hunter's Egg

Here is my friend Jeff's second Ukrainian Easter egg of the season, right after I melted off the wax. He likes to fish and hunt, so I drew him a pattern with fish swimming on one side and a deer pausing under a tree on the other. My friend Chris sketched the deer so it would look more realistic instead of the stylized Ukrainian design for a deer. The dyes were from last year and came out a bit too light, I think. But it's a very nice egg. I like the pattern underneath the soil where the deer is standing -- it looks like the energies of growing seeds. In the traditional Ukrainian reading of pysanky symbols, this egg invokes wealth (deer), balance and protection (stars and meanders around border), and health/Christianity (fish).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Early Spring; Oboes.

Friday March 26 was a bright sunny cold day here in New York City. The elms in Union Square Park had just started to unfurl tiny pale green leaves that looked too delicate to be out in the wind just yet. Stout daffodils nodded slightly, their faces still pointed at the ground. A squirrel begged on hind legs for a piece of my cookie. Unless I stayed in the sun with my wool scarf wrapped around my neck I was too chilled to remain still. The weather was rich and bracing. It reminded me of this piece by Poulenc, a gentle day suddenly overcast for a moment, then the smooth liquid oboe notes like sunshine carried on a breeze.

Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano, Andante

Read more detail about this piece of music at the Los Angeles Philharmonic's website.

Good city, bad city, good

I know I'm lucky to keep myself in comfortable enough circumstances to enjoy living and working in New York City. And, when I have free time and free range enough, to really love living here. I had such a moment a few weeks ago when I got out of a doctor's appointment early and had time to enjoy a good sit-down lunch at a Greek restaurant I'd wanted to try, Kellari's Parea. I took a table facing the street and while I enjoyed my kolokithokeftedes and lamb meatballs I watched the street scene opposite, as a waiter came out of the Russian restaurant (Mari Vanna, very interesting place) across the street and proceeded to undecorate the Valentine's day frippery on a small Christmas tree standing on the street just in front of the restaurant's main window. Although it was a raw day, barely over freezing with sparse flurries of large wet white snowflakes, the man stood outside in a t-shirt and jeans and apron worked comfortably for at least fifteen minutes without showing any signs of chilling – shoulders relaxed, workpace leisurely. I sipped my glass of red wine and watched him unravel the red sparkly garland and maroon foil hearts from the tree and deposit them in a wicker basket at his feet. His skin was pale and his hair black, the coloring my mother had, a Slavic contrast built for low sunlight, in my unscientific opinion. Suddenly he shivered slightly and picked up his pace, and soon was rushing back inside, the tree bare again in the falling snow.

Wine with lunch, especially after fasting for a blood test, makes me quite happy. I received three small delicious Greek pastries for dessert – each the size of a quarter – and decided since I had a little more time before I had to be back at work that I would walk up to Madison Square Park and stroll around a bit. I love the feeling of a cool snowy day when I am all bundled up and well fed. Even though the snow was coming down a bit more insistently I did not put up my umbrella and walked along letting the cool flakes hit my warm face and melt there. At Madison Square Park I noticed that the Shake Shack was open and that one of their frozen custard flavors of the day was Bananas Foster. I walked to the line, which consisted of two people, and was waiting only a moment before I had my treat in hand. "You know, you have an umbrella in your backpack," a young man behind me noted. I turned to him and grinned. "I love this weather," I said, turning my face up to the soft grey skies. It was cool enough to keep the ice cream frozen in its cup inside my backpack, and I enjoyed it thoroughly back in the office, late in the afternoon after I'd caught up with my work and wanted a break. The bananas foster flavor was delicious, although sweeter than I would have liked.

However, a few days later I had an experience on the subway that reminded me of how awful it can be to live in New York City. We are so crowded here; in the 2000 census, Manhattan was estimated to have 9,999.9 people per square mile. (The national average is 79.6 people per square mile.) So, here we all are, and of course, some of us are crazy. Some of us are dangerous. Some of us are both. One of the latter popped up at the end of my car of the N train as it left the Atlantic-Pacific station in Brooklyn; a not totally disreputable lump of an older woman sitting with a few plastic shopping bags suddenly stood up and yelled, "I need to clean! I need two thousand dollars!" Her accent was difficult to place but her tone of voice was definitely insane. People moved away from her end of the car and she upended one of her bags onto the floor there; a water bottle rolled away from her. Evidence of some kindness and care were among her belongings – she had some kleenex in a packet, and a nutrition bar. She kept yelling off and on: "Molesters! You molested me! Give me two thousand dollars!!" She did not accost anyone in particular but the force of her voice pushed the crowd of people in the train back one by one. I didn't move at first. Then she opened a bottle of rubbing alcohol and started to throw that around. As fumes of isopropyl stung my nostrils I decided that was the most discomfort I was willing to accommodate from this lady and I abandoned my seat to stand in the middle of the train. I thought the daylight coming through the train as we went over the Manhattan Bridge might soothe her – or at least produce some change in her behavior – but she raved on just the same, now throwing objects with some force, haphazardly. By the time we got to Union Square I felt something needed to be done to help this woman and protect the people around her, so I ran along the platform to the conductor's car – along with several other riders from my car – and we all said the same thing: "There's a lady throwing things." Or, "She needs help." One man said nervously, "She's throwing a bottle of alcohol around!" The conductor assured us he'd radio the police and they'd deal with it at the next stop, Penn Station. I hope they did.

The next night was my not-really-Orthodox-Christmas dinner at my dad's. My cousin and her godparents came, and I cooked a white bean cassoulet. Larissa called us from the street, very upset, because she'd left behind her purse in the subway. She called around everyone she could think of – the city's 311 information line, etc. – but to no avail. She was heading to our house when the subway station attendant called her and said someone had turned in her bag! She picked it up and the purse was fine, all its contents present and accounted for. She came to dinner smiling and bearing a beautiful poached pear dessert and told her story, giving us a reason to believe there's good in Gotham after all.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Western and Eastern Easter, everyone!

This year and next, Western Easter (that's what I call the Rome-defined Easter) and Eastern Easter (a.k.a. Orthodox Easter) are on the same date. This special confluence of the two Christian branches was something I felt like celebrating this year, and I'm happy to say we're all recovering from said celebrations. (Yes, as usual, The Brooklyn Sheep's chosen method of celebration was a homecooked dinner with gourmet flourishes. This one was served to a gathering of four – me, my dad, dad's girlfriend, and Helen, the very nice lady who introduced my dad to my mom way back when and thus has earned beyond measure her email landing in the "Family" superfolder in my inbox.)

Smoked Sable Tartare With Beets and Watercress (from Epicurious, served more simply though – just a stripe of salad, a stripe of sable, and a stripe of beet relish on each plate. Why fuss more?)

Rosemary Lamb Chops With Lemon Butter Breadcrumbs ('twas the financial splurge – D'Artagnan free-range Australian lamb, marinated overnight; just as Epicurious did it, except breadcrumbs added the last 1'30" of broiling)

Roasted Fingerling Potatoes and Baby Artichokes (much altered from Cooking Light's version: I used no artichokes, and instead of roasting I pan-fried halved parboiled yukon golds – with skins on – in a Tablespoon of olive oil until browned nicely on all cut sides and then tossed them in a paste of Vermont cultured butter, grated lemon rind, and fresh parsley)

Asparagus and Spring Greens Salad with Gorgonzola Vinaigrette (pretty close to CookingLight's version: I used half regular balsamic and half champagne vinegar, only green asparagus, and a tad less gorgonzola)

Nigella Lawson's Damp Lemon and Almond Cake ('twas the caloric splurge)
Decaffeinated Sumatran coffee from Fairway (thanks, Mary!)

I cooked almost everything in advance. On Saturday afternoon I did my coop shopping and then at home made Ukrainian Easter eggs, pausing while the eggs were in the dye to roast beets, make the cake, prep the vinaigrettes, and set up the lamb in its marinade.

We had such a lovely Easter Sunday afternoon in New York City. The sun was shining, everyone was outside. Two daffodils in my East-facing stoop pit were spring open. As I drove towards the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel WQXR had just racked up Vivaldi's "Gloria," sung by the San Francisco Girls' Chorus in the composer's original arrangement for his charges at Venice's Ospedale della Pieta. I cranked up the volume and sang along to this beloved music as I drove the familiar route up to my dad's. The sun shone in on my hands on the steering wheel. The recording was a bit too heavily reminiscent of boys' choirs but I appreciated the heck out of it all the same, channeling memories of my high school Glee Club as I navigated the curves of the West Side Highway. I liked the way this arrangement worked around the timbre of girls' voices – the tenor part was low and sweet instead of the high and thrilling quality in a male tenor's voice. I think there was even a particle of the bass line, mostly covered by the large string instruments in the orchestra but, in some cases, sung – so low in the girls' register that the effect was something like the bass pedal of a church organ, a vibration felt more than heard. And the altos – my tribe! – sounded out clear and strong, as though the sopranos were just icing on their cake. I kept driving around my old neighborhood until the piece finished, and as the final text of the final movement played, I was just passing the door of 164 West 79th Street, my first home. I gave it a wave of my hand, sang "In Gloria Dei Patris Amen," and continued on to my dad's, with the ingredients for Easter dinner packed carefully behind my seat. What a blessing to enjoy all at once a sunny Spring holiday, the reverberations of music I know and love in the marrow of my bones, and the satisfaction of driving back home with a feast readied to bloom in my father's kitchen.