I was very excited to receive this email this morning:
I was very excited to receive this email this morning:
At 2Gourmaniacs, it’s all fun and games, smiles and giggles, even after the dishes are done and the pots and pans washed – until it’s time to clean this bad boy. It wasn’t just because we’re snow bound here in Southampton that I cleaned the stove.
No siree, it was because every time I fired it up, I couldn’t take the smoke and smell emanating from the large oven any longer. That’s not to say we’re not fastidious about sanitation here at 2GM. It’s just that to clean this stove plus the hood is a two day ordeal of unpleasant genuflecting in front of the ovens, scraping, scrubbing and washing, and that’s only after an overnight does of industrial strength oven cleaner. The stove top periodically requires the same industrial strength treatment, but then all the parts go on the outdoor grill for a half hour, over high heat, then get scoured, and sometimes even steel brushed with an electric wire wheel.
Cleaning the hood is a contortionist’s nightmare. I have to twist and bend to get under the hood while looking up and being careful not to get any of the oven cleaner in my eyes, and scrub and wash the nasty grease build up off all the surfaces. It’s a great upper body workout though, especially for your rotator cuffs. There are four removable grease filters which have to go in the dishwasher for a couple of cycles. When it’s all finally done, the stove looks great, and I swear that I’ll be so extra careful not to have a pot boil over on the stove top, and I will never, ever, have a spill over in either of the ovens. Right.
So the next morning after I finished cleaning the stove, I came downstairs and I discovered that the pot fill (that metal thingie on the wall behind the stove) had frozen because of the extraordinary cold temperatures we’d had the previous night. The very first winter after I installed the pot fill it froze because it is on an exterior wall facing north. (Yeah, I know, you never put plumbing supply lines on exterior walls. We’ll get into the plumber I used when I built the 2GM kitchen in a minute.) Back then I had the stove moved, and I wrapped the water supply for the pot fill with an electric metal braided wire which is on 24/7/365 and which has worked great for the past seven years. Until last week, when it failed. The cool thing is I learned that I could now move the stove by myself! Giving herculean pulls on the right leverage points, I inched the beast far enough from the wall to first warm up the water supply pipe with a hair dyer, and then replace the heating device. More contortionist’s exercises. Of course I had to go to three different electrical supply houses to finally find the right one. At least the car started up.
Eventually I got everything put back together, and I shoved and pushed the stove back against the wall. Of course that’s only after the other gourmaniac had a compulsive half hour cleaning spree with the sides of the stove and the floor underneath. Later that evening we made a celebratory meal, drank a bottle of wine, put the dishes in the dishwasher, and we went to bed content that our stove and entire kitchen were spotless.
The next morning, I was at the kitchen sinks washing something, when I noticed the water level rising in both sinks. I hit the garbage disposal and it grurrrred and sucked water, and then it belched a frothy spew back into both sinks. I knew immediately what the problem was. Remember a paragraph or two ago that I promised to have a word or two about the plumber I used when I built the 2GM kitchen? I won’t get into the entire catastrophic experience I had with these plumbing idiots (Moe, Larry and Curly), but the thing that concerned my stopped up sinks was the fact that the plumber didn’t pitch the drainpipe correctly running from the kitchen sinks in the island to the crawl space under the dining room where they tie into the main drain pipes leading to the septic system outside. And it can’t be fixed either, because the drainpipe running from the kitchen sinks is encased in 6 inches of concrete as well as hot water coils for the radiant heat in the kitchen floor. Oh, my aching back. The solution to the problem is a trip to the crawl space with a pair of channel locks and an empty 5 gallon “mudbucket”. I can barely sit up in my crawl space. More contortions. This experience is one which occurs with enough frequency that I leave a 50 foot plumber’s snake right by the clean-out trap in the crawl space.
So here’s the real fun: I have to open the clean out trap with the channel locks while securing the mudbucket right in place because all that backed water has to go somewhere before I can run the snake down the drain pipe to break through the blockage. Lucky for me, there’s so much water backed up it takes me two trips with the 5 gallon mudbucket. Oh, and to empty the water in the mudbucket necessitates doing the hully-gully, scooting on my butt, and lifting the full mudbucket in front of me each time I scoot another couple of feet forward in the crawl space. I finally emerged through an access port into the furnace room and then into the office where the other gourmaniac cheerfully asks from her computer,”What’s going on?” When I explained the problem she replied, “You know I thought I saw the water backing up last night, but I thought it was just the dishwasher cycle.” I touched my face with my gooey, slimy fingers because I think I’ve developed a noticeable tic under my left eye. I smiled and replied everything is taken care of … so what’s for breakfast?
When we think about Easter, several symbolic images come to mind, beyond your basic Easter eggs, simply because of tradition. The egg represented the Pagan spring rebirth celebration and was adopted by early Christians as a symbol of the rebirth. But how did the little critters’ association with Easter originate? The rabbit, for example, has always been known as a particularly fertile creature, and as such it symbolized the coming of spring. The lamb tradition supposedly dates back to Passover, when the sacrificial lamb was roasted and eaten. Little ducks and chicks are also commonly associated with Easter since many baby animals are born, or hatched, during Spring time. When visualizing these cute little animals, do you ever wonder “how would I like them served?”
OK, I know some of you need a moment to collect yourselves just about now. Claire is probably out feeding her ducks as I write this; Vicki will feed anything that swims, flies, crawls or hoofs on over to her sanctuary; both Anita and Claire will talk fondly about all the furry little rabbits they raised when their children were younger. I can just imagine my friends recoiling in horror at the simple mention of eating these adorable creatures! Well, I’m not a carnivore and I’m certainly not alone among our mammal-free friends. At one point in my childhood I refused to eat chicken because, as the saying goes, you shouldn’t name something if you are going to eat it. Not that I had a choice; I was powerless to stop the grownups from serving up my little feathery pets.
Traditionally in many South American countries, like Peru, Guinea pigs are happily running loose in the kitchen one day, and served on a platter the next, after being amply fattened up with grains. I wonder if those children are equally distressed at the sight of their pudgy little “cuy” disguised as a meal, as I was at discovering my pet chicken swimming in my soup.
When I asked Robert to read my first “Easter post” paragraph, above, just to see what he thought, I was taken aback to hear him say he was surprised “I went there.” So does that mean that as a non-meat eater I shouldn’t be contemplating fleshly menus? Regardless, perhaps I will leave the carnivorous aspects of Easter dinner to those who enjoy it and have myself some non traditional good ole’ fish: I can always sink my teeth into that!
Where have we been? Actually, we’ve been right here at the home of 2Gourmaniacs, cooking, writing, and photographing. But, as you can see our blog site has been revamped, spruced up, redesigned, and generally improved. We like to thank Rachael Butts for her time and effort to make this a reality, and if anyone’s looking for a WordPress or website designer / developer, I’d strongly recommend contacting her. As a way to start off our new look, I thought I’d post a food writing story about a travel adventure I had several years ago which, coincidentally involved food and/or the lack of it.
A while back I did a photo documentary project in India about how handmade oriental rugs are made. It is a subject with which I am quite familiar as a professional photographer. I had been to India as well as Pakistan and Nepal before so I knew what lay ahead. The one major difference for this trip was the time of year I would be traveling in India. In terms of personal comfort, the ideal time to go to India is either right after monsoon, in late October or November, or in late February or early March. By May, the heat is on and it becomes extremely uncomfortable. My plan called for late June to mid July. Needless to say, I’ve never been so hot in my life.
As I planned my trip from the comfort of my home office desk, I impulsively decided to sign up for a trek in western Tibet before going on to India. I had had some trekking experience in Nepal, and I had always wanted to go to Tibet. One of the issues for westerners (or just about anyone) is that when traveling in Tibet you can’t just show up at the border and be on your way. The Chinese have different ideas when it comes to independent travel in Tibet: they maintain a very strict and rigid control over the Autonomous Region of Tibet, and aside from having to have a Chinese visa, I also had to attain a Chinese issued permit to enter Tibet. And in order to get to where I wanted to trek, I had to be part of a government sanctioned tour or expedition. Prior to leaving the United States, I signed up online for an overland expedition with twelve Hindus from Calcutta. They were on a religious pilgrimage to western Tibet to Mt. Kailash, the most sacred mountain for Tibetan Buddhist, the Bo people, and Hindus. I mean how bad could it be? I wanted to go and take one lap around the mountain on foot. By coincidence, the Hindu pilgrims and I arrived in time for the annual celebration of Sagadawa, or the anniversary of the enlightenment of the Buddha in early June. Without getting into what might or might not be an interesting travel story, let me say that during nearly a month of traveling overland with no roads, at a minimum altitude of 14,000 feet and reaching almost 20,000 feet during my actual trek, I lost nearly twenty pounds. When I arrived in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, after my trek around Mt. Kailash, I was hungry, dirty, and none of my clothes fit me. The Hindus that I traveled with had required a vegan diet, and even without that stipulation. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine that I could have found and consumed enough calories to maintain my initial body weight. And from a previous not so pleasant high altitude experience gained in the Andes in South American, I knew better than to drink any alcohol. Not that it was even an option with twelve Hindus on religious pilgrimage chanting and prostrating themselves sporadically along the way to and from Mt. Kailash.
From Tibet I flew to the Nepalese capital, Katmandu, where I did some initial rug making documentary work with Tibetan refugees who I had previously met there. Also, I started consuming some substantial calories in the form of dals, legumes, rice, and an occasional yak burger. From Katmandu I then flew to Varanasi, India. Varanasi is about a forty-five minute flight south of Katmandu, just over the southern Himalayas, and the last time I had been in the Nepalese capital there was air service several times a week between the two cities. Since then, that had been terminated resulting in having to fly to New Delhi, then changing flights and airports to get on the “local” plane which made stops in Agra, Khajuraho, Allahabad, and finally Varanasi. I got off the plane in Varanasi after what for some might be considered a hair-raising flight on Indian Airlines (most flights are) as the pilot swerved and banked continually avoiding thunderstorms and lightning strikes. The late June temperature hovered at 110° with a humidity level that made Key West in the summer seem like Arizona desert in the winter.
At the airport I was met by a distinguished looking Indian gentleman named Shafiq. He and I would become very good friends over the course of the next couple of weeks. Shafiq and his driver took me to a walled-in compound in Mirzapur, a small city on the southern bank of the Ganges River, about an hour and a half west of Varanasi. Within the compound there were both marble floored residential quarters, where I stayed, and also the headquarters for a large rug exporting business as well as a small mosque. The people I was visiting were extremely devote Muslims, something of a minority in India, and, well, if you watched television or read newspapers recently, or you remember your Indian history during Partition in 1948, you know about Muslims and Hindus in India. My hosts were kind, generous, and gentle.
So, after this long preamble, what did I eat in Mirzapur? Allow me to preamble a bit more now that we’re on the right path, talking about food, that is. On previous trips to India and Varanasi with westerners, I often watched with incredulity as some of them would gain a dining-room table in the best hotel in town and open their briefcases, rummage around and bring out a couple of cans of Bumble Bee or Chicken of the Sea tuna fish. Some even had their own can openers with them. The first time I saw this, obviously I asked why. Their explanation was they didn’t want to get sick from eating indigenous food. As we all know, I am a fearless omnivore regardless of locale; and as Rosaria, my wife, knows all to well, I get sick just about wherever I go outside of the USA. (Also this may be a subject of another interesting travel tale, I’d suggest you ask Rosaria). And yes, I’ve gotten very sick in India. I’ve come back to New York with things in my gut that have confounded western medical science. “Just let it work itself out.” was the final advice one Manhattan physician once gave me several years earlier, and it finally did work itself out, but not without an awful lot of discomfort, a major investment in Charmin, and being on a constant look out for the closest bathroom. Yet, I had eaten some incredible things in southwest Asia.
Back in India, things got going early in Mirzapur, especially during the sweltering hot summers. When I came down after my first night I was greeted by servants, one of whom ushered me onto a small marble terrace overlooking the side of the compound which, for the most part, was choked with brown, woe-be-gone looking weeds already wilting in the early morning heat. From the other side of the high wall I could easily hear the ubiquitous Indian cacophony of motor vehicle horns, two cycle engines, and loud shouting. A different servant appeared with tea, and he inquired in respectable English what I’d like for breakfast. My gut was still a little unsettled from high altitude and from having been sick off and on for a month. I replied that two eggs over easy would be nice, and some toast, and did they have any coffee? Of course, he didn’t have any idea what I was talking about, but he just smiled and disappeared inside.
Nighttime temperature in western Tibet in June was below freezing, at Mt. Khailash it snowed, and it snowed hard during my trek around the mountain which took several days. Here, in Mirzapur, at 6:00 am, it was the temperature of blood. I drank my black tea and started what I would continue to do for the rest of the time I remained there. Sweat. Sweat like I’ve never sweat before. I couldn’t stay dry for five minutes. I was soaked all the way through. After an hour or so, I could wring water of out my clothes. Even my running shoes were drenched as sweat ran down my legs.
A small man in a white jacket appeared by my table on the marble terrace. He bowed a little and inquired in good English if I could perhaps explain to him how I’d like my breakfast. He said his name was Amir and that he was the cook. I explained how I’d like to have my two eggs fried and flipped. Toast he understood. Breakfast arrived with two eggs gently fried in ghee, two pieces of Indian white bread that had been “grilled” over an open gas flame, a sliced banana, and small pot of excellent black Indian coffee, and a mango. I noticed the mango was larger and a brighter yellow than those to which I was accustomed in the United States. I was just finishing my breakfast when Shafiq strode through the door. After exchanging pleasantries, I rose up from the small table, ready to begin the first day of photographing. He paused and asked how I liked the mango. I replied that it was delicious. He smiled and we went on our way.
Over the course of the first week, Shafiq and I settled into a routine of rising early, I’d have fried eggs, toast, banana, coffee and a mango for breakfast; then he’d drive me to different locations, usually in small outlying villages where various parts of he rug making process were taking place. The handmade oriental rug industry is basically a cottage business which, on a large scale level, requires an almost Kafkian sense of logistics and bureaucracy to keep track of everything, and to have the final product come out they way it was initially intended and designed. Shafiq co-managed one of the best Indian rug export business in India. He would try to find someplace for us to spend the hottest part of the afternoon, usually with a business associate or someone who was a supplier for the rug business which he managed. I was treated like royalty. Wherever we stopped to pass the heat of the day, meals would magically appear: dals, tandooris, spicy soups, and fruit. Many were incredibly good. And as I mentioned, I would be soaking wet from sweat, but I’d be the only one as I don’t recall ever seeing anyone else break a sweat. At one place, the owner who had a huge meal prepared prior to our arrival, took one look at me, tssskked, and had one his men fan me with a large palm during my entire meal. Somewhat uneasy at being fanned, I didn’t know what to do. But I was slightly cooler and of course, I ate.
Evenings at the compound were quiet, very quiet. Since this was a Muslim household, there was no alcohol. I had had a liter of Grey Goose stowed in one my bags since I left Kennedy Airport in New York, you know, just in case. Tibet was too high to drink alcohol. Now, here in India, it was just too hot to even consider drinking vodka. Further, it had been sitting in my bag and it was as hotter than the tea steeping in my cup; and besides, I hadn’t seen an ice cube since I’d been there. As we settled into the daily rhythm of rising early, driving and photographing during the daylight hours, a couple of times, to break the monotony in the early evening as the heat relented a bit, Shafiq took me down to the Ganges river where he’d hire a boat man in flat bottom boat about twice as big as a standard rowboat, and we’d float around on the Ganges with him and me reclining on very dirty cushions on a raised platform in the stern. Shafiq would tell me about himself, about growing up in Mirzapur, and the Ganges River which to an Indian Muslim has absolutely no religious or spiritual significance. He told me how children love to swim in it, and although not a great swimmer himself, he had learned to swim about four hundred meters upstream from where we were floating. I looked up stream. At Mirzapur, the Ganges is a very wide brown expanse of water, slow moving in the heat of July. I told Shafiq that I had been on the Ganges before, downriver in Varanasi where I’d watch funeral pyres on the ghats, the burned remains are brushed into the river, I had seen numerous dead animal carcasses float by, I’d even been out on the Ganges for Hali, a Hindu festival involving all kinds of celebrations where you inevitably end up covered head to toe in a rainbow of colored dyes and powders. He gave me a simple smile, and sort of dismissed the topic with a wave of his hand. Hindu celebrations were as meaningful to him as the Holy sacrament of communion is to a Southern Baptist.
As we prepared to return to our launch point, I asked Shafiq what sort of fish were in the Ganges because I had seen men in small boats fishing at dawn. He explained that there were lots of different fish in the river. I nodded my head, but I seriously doubted it, especially with the amount of pollution that I’d seen run off into the huge waterway: think of the Passaic River in Northern New Jersey in the ‘60s.
Towards the end on of my first week at the compound in Mirzapur, the significance of Shafiq’s initial inquiry as to I how found that first morning’s mango became apparent. For dessert every night, Amir the cook would always bring us a basket with six or seven mangoes in it. A mango was a great finish for the predominantly vegetarian fare that Amir was preparing daily. One night Shafiq informed me that I wasn’t peeling and cutting my mango correctly. This was after about six days of eating mangoes for breakfast and for dessert at dinner. I watched him as he neatly spiraled his knife around the mango and the skin just seemed to slip off. Next, he sliced the mango without any prior inspection of which way the pith ran inside the fruit. Two orbs of mango fell away from the pith. He looked up and smiled, and then he told me a story about when he was a teenager, how his cousin and he had mango eating contests. He claimed that they could each consume several dozen mangoes before one of them would have to quit. To Shafiq, mangoes were the king of fruits. He went on to tell me how to select the perfect mango. After that meal, each day during our travels, Shafiq and I would stop to select and buy mangoes. It was like mango boot camp. My first several selections weren’t up to spec as far as Shafiq was concerned. He’d select his and I’d select mine. Then we’d have a taste test. Needless to say we were into the subtle nuisances of mango. But I got it, and there was a subtle difference. The secret was not only visuals of color and the tactile quality of the fruit’s ripeness, but the weight and the shape. It’s not easy to explain. One thing was for sure: I was eating mango three and four times a day. And although I felt as though I had started to put on a few pounds since I had arrived in India (all the tuna fish eaters would be shaking their collective heads in disbelief), with all this mango fruit I was eating, daily regularity was, how shall I say, greatly enhanced.
Several nights after what I like to refer to as “our last Ganges float”, we sat down for dinner. Shafiq announced with a little more than usual ceremony that Amir had made a special treat just for me. I was flattered. I adjusted my posture in my seat and waited with anticipation while the cook brought out a plate with what I immediately identified as fish. Utter Pradash where Mirzapur is located in India is landlocked, and a long way from either the Indian Ocean or the Bay of Bengal. I glanced up at the cook who was beaming proudly at me. I looked over at Shafiq and asked, “Where’s the fish from Shafiq?” as if I didn’t already know. He explained that Amir had been trying to find a fresh fish for several days just to surprise me. And, boy was I surprised! Both their faces were joyfully smiling at me. I hesitantly looked down at the fish. It was a pathetic looking creature, mostly bones, with the skin and head on, about the size of a piranha, that had been fried in a small pond of ghee.
I had no choice.
I first asked if Shafiq wouldn’t like some as well.
“No, no!” he replied, “I know it’s small, I want you to enjoy it all.”
Again, I had no choice. Fortunately, there wasn’t much flesh to it. Second, there were about a dozen mangoes to pick from for dessert. So how was it?
My recollection of it was that it tasted somewhat like catfish, except a little muddier. And the good news is I lived to tell about it. Actually I didn’t even get sick. Maybe enjoying three or four mangoes for dessert had something to do with cleaning my digestive tract.
As the last day of my documentary project drew to a close, Amir grew agitated and nervous, and not because of my imminent departure. For the past several days, Shafiq had been keeping me updated as to the condition of the cook’s daughter who was about to give birth. She had tried several times before, and she’d always lost the babies. The morning before I was set to leave, Amir was absent, and an old Indian woman struggled with fried eggs and coffee for my breakfast. Shafiq arrived several minutes with downcast eyes after I sat down on the terrace, and informed me that Amir’s daughter had lost her baby once again. I felt terrible. Naturally, I thought of my children, and I tried to put myself in the nightmare position of a parent loosing his or her child, or of a grandfather watching his own child loose her baby. I lost all appetite. I got up and walked in the weed blown side yard of the compound letting the sometimes grim reality of India wash over me.
Overhead, the sky turned gray, and then dark. There was a huge clap of thunder and the wind suddenly picked up. At first it was like a blast furnace blowing in my face. And then I could smell the rain approaching. I had only read about the looming monsoons on the sub-continent: and for several moments I had no idea about what was going to happen. The skies literally opened up, and sheets of water started falling down. The temperature quickly dropped ten or fifteen degrees. The side yard was instantly transformed into a mud bath. I ran for shelter in the main house of the compound. Workers, servants, and managers all rushed to the windows to watch the forthcoming monsoon.
Shafiq found me dripping wet, and he told me that we needed to start for the airport in Varanasi immediately if I was to stand a chance of catching my flight later that afternoon. He explained that the roads would be flooded, and some may be impassable. The hour and a half trip turned into four hours. He packed snacks for us, including several mangoes. During the ride in the car, I watched Indians sitting and squatting on the roofs of roadside stands as water swirled around them. Our driver seemed impervious to the flooded conditions and the roadways that disappeared under small ponds of water. For me the ride to the airport was filtered by the sorrow I felt for Amir and his daughter. Almost there, Shafiq who was sitting next to me in the back seat spread a napkin on his lap, and he peeled us one last mango to share.
Well, not literally but in a culinary sense. After much anticipation discussing various coobooks that I wanted, my daughter gave me Fuchsia Dunlop’s masterpiece Chinese cookbook, “Land of Plenty” for the holidays, among others. As soon as I could get myself to Manhattan I headed for Chinatown and, armed with a long shopping list of some uniquely foreign ingredients, I picked up every item I could get my hands on and vowed to start cooking from Ms. Dunlop’s cookbook. After making several Asian-inspired dishes with my new found ingredients, like a spicy duck and bok choi dinner or a Tom Yum noodle soup with woodear mushrooms and fish, I happened to reference a recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks, “Sicilian Home Cooking” by Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene … and that was that. I simply could not put it down! As I got more into the cookbook, I realized it contained some of my favorite childhood foods and, at times, slightly different versions of foods I had not eaten since my younger years in Sicily.
How exciting, I thought! So after another shopping excursion, albeit for more familiar ingredients, I began cooking up a veritable Sicilian storm, all along evoking wonderful childhood food memories and creating new ones by revisiting traditional recipes with a new flair or by adding or omitting certain ingredients. Last night’s new take on Chicken Parmigiana was absolutely delectable, with capers in the fresh sauce and four cheeses melted on the breaded, sautéed chicken. Tonight I will prepare Bruschetta with Swordfish and mint, as well as Couscous alla Trapanese, originating from Trapani, my paternal grandfather’s birth place. I can still remember him cooking his seafood couscous with fish stock when I was younger and how happy that made him. What about my Chinese culinary extravaganza? I guess it will have to wait until I’m done with Sicily.
Both Rosaria and I have been a little remiss in the lack of posts in the past week. No, we haven’t been asleep at the switch or hibernating during the cold snap since Christmas, although it’s tempting. Actually, we’ve done something that neither one of us has done before: we’ve entered a cooking contest of sorts. For those of you who know us, yes, you read correctly, a cooking contest.
What that entailed for each of us was to prepare one dish to be plated before a panel of judges reviewing, tasting, and evaluating our culinary creation. We spent most of last week figuring out what to make and present. In the process of doing that, I photographed most of the possibilities, or food candidates, as we made them. Initially, I thought I was going with a small seafood pasticcio, and Rosaria quipped that she was going to make and present MY soy-cured salmon. In that she thought of using it before me, I acquiesced. But then after sleeping on it for a night, Rosaria decided to go in another direction, leaving the door open for me to sneak in and grab MY soy-cured salmon back. Clearly, my preparation and execution was much less work than Rosaria’s dish. She whipped herself up into a fury of culinary energy and, ultimately, she made the prettiest and best tasting dish she’s ever prepared, and to my eye, it was the best plated dish I saw at the contest’s viewing.
So how did we do? If I’m being a little circumspect about all this, it’s for a reason. I don’t want to jinx the whole thing, for one thing. Second, I don’t want to say too much in case this all comes to nothing; however, both Rosaria and I as individuals passed the first hurdle, and we were invited to participate in the second round of this contest which we both successfully completed. We are on our way to level three. When I have more to share, you’ll be the first to know. In the meantime, I’ll show some of the images of what we made, plated, and photographed.
It all started with an email from our friend David during the week, informing us about a wine tasting event at Robert’s Restaurant in Water Mill Friday evening. David thought it would be fun if a group of friends went together. “Wine not?” I thought. An escape from our kitchen will be a welcomed change for one night. We’ve been frequenting Robert’s with many of our friends since it first opened, but this was our first wine tasting event there. So last night eight of us took over a table at Robert’s – some with pen in hand – eager to sample some new wines, ask questions, and take notes.
Once we were adequately surrounded by a sea of wine glasses, spittoons, water pitchers, and warm bread for palate cleansing, a comprehensive list of 12 wines was handed out to everyone and the sampling began! Coincidentally, it turns out that I knew Christopher, the sommelier in charge of the wine tasting event, from our mutual tennis club in Quogue.
Christopher Miller is not only an advanced sommelier, but he’s also a very talented restaurant consultant, a food and wine columnist for various publications, including Long Island Pulse, Dan’s Papers, Hamptons Magazine, New York Post. Chris is also a partner in Hamptons Wine Shoppe in West Hampton and the co-founder and co-director of Sommelier Wine Academy. With the myriad questions coming from the eight of us, we managed to have Chris spend a lot of time at our table and infuse us with his broad wine knowledge. Our friend Jeanne, a wonderful chef and food stylist, enthusiastically shared her excellent ideas for wine and food pairing while Claire, who loves reds, let the wines intoxicate her simply with their fragrant bouquet.
The very enjoyable evening unfolded as expected, with conversation becoming increasingly animated as more wine was happily sniffed and consumed, and lots of fun was had by all. In spite of the fact that each of us made an effort to pour off the wines after tasting, it was difficult to waste the ones we really liked. For example, the citrusy-fruity Italian Tocai, the nicely balanced, crisp New Zealand Sauvignon, as well as several delicious reds, such as the Lewelling, Napa Valley 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon or the Languedoc reds. Not surprisingly, before long we were somewhat tipsy. Well, lucky for us, we were at Robert’s restaurant. No sooner did the wine tasting end that we began ordering food from Robert’s extensive menu and, of course, more wine! Salute!
When I was six or seven, I accidentally fell head first through the lower glass panel of an aluminum storm door at my friend Philip’s summer house. This was at the Jersey shore, on Long Beach Island, way back at the end of the fifties. My mom, who had been sitting right by the door, screamed in horror as I was lodged half in and half out of the door with my belly laying on a jagged shard of glass still in the door. Philip’s father and my mom lifted me off the glass and they rushed me into our car. My mom then drove the ninety miles back to our hometown in northern New Jersey, where our family physician was waiting for our arrival. Doctors did that back then. I was lucky, I only needed a couple of stitches along my hairline and some bandages across my stomach.
I have no idea why I was rushing out the door that summer afternoon when I missed the door handle and I went through the glass instead. Kids are like that. I know that they re-glazed the door panel with plastic after that incident. But I have a very clear recollection of where the storm door led to: it opened onto a deck that overlooked the beach and the ocean in Harvey Cedars. My mother had rented the house a couple of summers earlier, so I was very familiar with it. It was an upside down house, meaning that the living space, kitchen and dining area were on the second floor so you could see the ocean, and the bedrooms and baths were downstairs. The deck was two stories high and came off of the kitchen/dining area.
This deck holds some pretty significant moments for me. It’s where I took my first photograph (of my Mom of course). It’s where I learned to play canasta under the deck table with a blanket draped over it. It’s where I watched in disbelief when Philip’s older brother, Bill, jumped off the deck into the sand and ran down the beach as if he had just dropped to the ground like a bird hopping off a branch and onto a lawn. It’s also where I first had my first bowl of ham and green pea soup.
I don’t why, but ham and pea soup came up the other day. Wait … Rosaria and I were talking about Quakers while she was making a soup with potatoes and chick peas. We got onto ham and pea soup because my friend Philip and his family were Quakers and we were talking about the Quaker school that our son attends. They were the first Quakers I ever knew. Philip would tell me about going to Sunday meeting, and how they just sat there until someone got up and started talking; talking about whatever they wanted to talk about. It sure sounded a lot different from my Sunday morning spiritual experiences. My mother was a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist, originally from Kentucky. During the summers, she made me go to the only Sunday school in Harvey Cedars which was held at the fire house every Sunday morning. The Harvey Cedars’ firehouse was the community center for most things of importance, from Santa at Christmas to block parties in the summer, and where a lot of dads hung out on hot summer Saturday nights drinking beer and talking war stories from WW2 and Korea. Even in the summer on Sunday mornings, it smelled of heating oil and the single red fire truck. I know there were no Quaker meetings at the Harvey Cedars’ firehouse. I have no idea where the Quakers met every Sunday. I can’t imagine there was a meetinghouse anywhere on Long Beach Island. But it seemed like an enviable alternative to a little wizened faced woman telling us few kids who were forced to show up about Joseph and his amazing technicolor coat.
I don’t remember too much about what we ate down at the shore. Well, that’s not exactly true, but I don’t want to digress too much from ham and green pea soup. For some reason, one weekend I was staying at Philip’s house. He, his two brothers, his sister and I were playing in the crawl space under the house. It was a magical place in the cool sand, totally dark except for the access panel on one side of the house. The house was built on pilings and the space between the sand and the first floor was sheathed by the building material of choice back then, asbestos panels. You couldn’t stand up in the crawl space. We’d play hide and seek under there for hours. You had to be careful when you scurried around like mice in the pitch black darkness not to bash your head into the wooden girders overhead. As you lay in hushed silence in a sand bunker trying to avoid being tagged, you could hear anyone overhead walking around, talking, or using the bathroom. During our various sessions of playing hide and seek, we got an earful of Philip’s parents personal life. On this particular occasion, however, only Philip’s dad and his siblings and I were at the house. We were all going to have lunch and then pile into their car and drive back to Northern New Jersey where we all lived in the same town during the winter. It was a grey, cool day with the wind coming off the ocean. When we came up from the crawl space we shook ourselves off out on the deck and tumbled inside. The big windows overlooking the ocean were steamed up, and I smelled the delicious aroma of some kind of soup. All of us plopped down at the well worn dining table and Philip’s father, who was a gruff ex-navy dentist, dealt out orange plastic bowls of green pea soup and ham. I have no idea whether he made the soup from stock or if it was out of a Campbell’s can. I suspect the latter, with chunks of leftover ham thrown in. It was my first comfort food moment. I was enthralled by the taste, the color (pea green) and the its thickness and texture. I’m sure there were plenty of slices of Wonderbread and margarine to go around. Philip and I took our bowls cupped in our hands and went out on the deck. The smell of the ham and green pea soup laced with the briny saltiness blowing off the ocean was intoxicating. It was wonderful. It was some sort of defining moment for me and a benchmark for how I looked at and tasted soup for along time.
Back home, I started pestering my mother for ham and green pea soup. She made it a couple of times from a can without it resembling the mysterious taste and satisfaction of Philip’s dad’s ham and green pea soup. Not even close. She’d mutter that she didn’t see what the big deal was about pea soup. Later, much later, when I was a teenager in college, much to my amazement she’d say the same thing about takeout pizza from a brick oven pizzeria which I brought home one evening after work. “What’s so great about this?” she asked. I opened my mouth to remind her about ham and green pea soup of earlier years, but I knew she’d long forgotten about it.
Prompted by my recollection of ham and green pea soup at Harvey Cedars, I recently made homemade pea soup. Here’s what I did.
2 cups dried split green peas
1 medium onion chopped
2 cloves garlic chopped
4 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
2 smoked ham hocks (or a ham bone, or chopped up leftover ham)
2 oz. pancetta
2 T olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Soak the green beans in cold water for at least 30 minutes, changing the water once or twice. Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a sauce pan, then set aside. Get a small stock pot, large sauce pan or a marmite, heat up the olive oil, and add the onions. Sauté over medium heat until translucent, then add the garlic. Drain the the peas, and throw them with the onions and the garlic. Add the hot chicken stock and the smoked ham hocks. Bring to a simmer and cook for an hour-and-a-half, until the peas have almost dissolved, and the soup is thick. Stir every once in a while to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add salt and pepper to taste.
When ready, remove the ham hock, gently pan sauté the chopped pancetta for a couple of minutes until tender. Pour the pea soup into bowls and sprinkle a pinch of the pancetta on top. Serve immediately.
I almost titled this post “too many dinner parties” but then I stopped and thought, is that even possible? We have had three in five days, not counting Thanksgiving, which we thankfully didn’t cook this year. Last night’s dinner was a small sit down for six which included our good friends David and Claire, and Mario and Ramona. You might know Ramona from her role on “The Real Housewives of NYC.” It was great catching up with everyone while enjoying the following culinary delights:
(yeah, i know, not more focaccia!) but, yes, we had focaccia because its heartiness and fragrance lends itself well this time of year, with a cozy fire in the fireplace. We also served small grilled chicken brochettes with a peanut dipping sauce. We summoned our guests to the dinner table by ringing our beautiful new Baccarat dinner bell (courtesy of our good friend Ilse) and we began our banquet with a rich and silky Lobster Bisque which contained no butter or cream. That was followed by oven roasted acorn squash stuffed with sautéed apples, caramelized onions and pancetta. The main deal was a Pasticcio di Magro. Pasticcio is a pastry case that contains, in this case, layers of risotto, porcini mushrooms, braised artichokes, peas and celery, red onions, and fillets of Arctic Char. You slice it like a cake, and mine had seven layers. I’ve been searching for the right pastry dough for Pasticcio for a while, trying a different one every time, looking for a light, airy crust that doesn’t get soggy while baking. Last night I used a brioche which worked quite well.
For dessert we had my home-made nocciola gelato (hazelnut) served with some of Rosaria’s biscotti and small chocolate flecked meringue kisses. I was so involved with the food and the conversation, that I just didn’t get a chance to photograph any of the food. That’s the price of a good time!
T’was the night after Thanksgiving, and it was girls’ night at 2gourmaniacs. Except, of course, Robert hung out and provided some culinary enjoyment (not to mention wit and an obviously too long and convoluted story about photographing tequila production in Los Altos Jalisco at the end of August). Actually, everyone was pretty stuffed from the day before, so Robert rooted around in the refrigerators and came up with some of the home-made veal ravioli and veal reduction sauce that he made earlier in the week. Rosaria topped some of her curried chicken salad on freshly baked Indian crackers for an appetizer at the island in the kitchen. We also had a substantial salad with homemade vinaigrette. And for dessert, after some prompting, the girls caved in and they each had a very thin sliver of pear tart.
What started out as a teetolling evening quickly became a two bottle of chardonnay event. A great pick up meal, lots of laughs, and a good time was had by all.