July 29, 2011
When I was in New York City earlier this week, I decided to check out Eataly, the Italian food emporium slash gastronomic theme park that opened near the Flatiron building a year ago. (There are also locations in Italy and Japan.) Aside from a large selection of imported products—pasta, anchovies, olives, oils, spices and much more—the complex includes six restaurants. Rather than specializing in different regions, each eatery focuses on a different kind of food: pasta, pizza, seafood, salumi, etc. Chefs Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich are partners in the venture.
At first, the atmosphere reminded me less of Italy—one of my favorite places—and more of a high-end and very crowded food court. It wasn’t until I ate something that I was transported. I sat at the counter of the pasta/pizza restaurant and ordered the daily special, half-moon spinach ravioli in a lemon sauce, sprinkled with pistachios. It reminded me of something I had tasted in Rome years ago, at dinner with an American expat acquaintance and her Italian friends that has crystallized in my memory as my quintessential Roman experience.
Afterward I roamed the food aisles, not buying anything because it was mostly too expensive. Then I spied the candy counter. At the end of a row of chocolates was something I hadn’t encountered since that Rome trip: marrons glacés, or candied chestnuts. These ultra-sugary confections are popular in France and Italy, and although I don’t always like overly sweet sweets, I remembered liking their earthy, nutty flavor when I tasted them more than a decade ago.
But they were $4 apiece for something smaller than a golf ball—two or three bites at most. I could have gotten a whole dish of gelato for the same price. Then again, gelato is relatively easy to find in the United States—if not always of the same quality you’d find in Italy—but a marron glacé is a rare sight. I decided to go for it.
It was worth it. As I bit into it, I was immediately hit with a sugar rush. The finely granular, almost creamy texture was similar to some Mexican confections (also very sugary) made with sweetened condensed milk. But then there was the unmistakable warm chestnut flavor, which anyone who has tasted roasted chestnuts from a New York City cart in winter (or elsewhere) would recognize.
For a piece of candy, it was expensive. But for a one-minute mental vacation to a favorite memory, it was a bargain.
The reason candied chestnuts are so pricey is that it takes a long time to make them, plus the cost of importing them—I don’t know whether anyone makes them domestically. You can make them yourself, if you have four days to spare this winter, when chestnuts are in season. There are also shortcut versions that take only an hour, but that seems like sacrilege.
As for me, I’ll probably just wait until the next time I encounter one—even if it takes another 15 years.
July 5, 2011
We introduced two Inviting Writing themes in June, one about bizarre dining-out experiences, and the other about food and sickness. Our grand finale for the latter category comes from Victoria Neff, a computer programmer who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and blogs at I Need Orange.
A Long Recovery From Chocolate
By Victoria Neff
When I was five, someone took me, my friend, and his little brother down the street for ice cream. I remember we sat up high, on counter-side stools, and I remember all three of us chose chocolate.
That was the last time I ever wanted chocolate ice cream. All three of us (and our mothers) were up all that night, while our bodies did everything they could to get rid of whatever contaminant was in that ice cream. For years after that, even the thought of chocolate ice cream would turn my stomach. My little-kid brain put hot chocolate in the same category, and I couldn’t stand it, either.
Eventually disgust reduced to indifference. The time came when I could eat chocolate ice cream, or drink hot chocolate, but I never enjoyed them.
Fast forward to the summer of 2010, when I had the chance to spend three weeks in France with my daughter, exploring different regions and cuisines. We started in Bayonne, the capital of France’s Basque country. Bayonne is known for ham, Espelette peppers and chocolate.
One lovely morning (all our days in Bayonne were lovely), we strolled over the bridge spanning the river Adour, to the old part of town. The narrow, cobbled street leading to the cathedral is lined with bakeries, boutiques and chocolate shops. Cazenave is known as one of the very best places for chocolate. In addition to dozens of varieties of fancy chocolates, its attractions include a hot-chocolate and tea room. The tea room is a charming place, with white wooden chairs, lace, brown-sugar cubes, tiny napkins, cute china and historical information in four languages. It has been serving hand-whipped hot chocolate for over 100 years.
I ordered tea. My daughter ordered the hand-whipped chocolate. The tea was fine. The hot chocolate was much better than “fine.” Here, at last, was the hot chocolate that was able to overcome my aversion. Here was hot chocolate that was delicious. Chocolatey. Bitter. Rich. Complex. Creamy.
We delighted in a large variety of wonderful foods in France. It’s hardly a surprise that it was there that I recovered an ability to connect with chocolate. I didn’t miss hot chocolate, and I haven’t missed chocolate ice cream all these years, but as I write, I wonder if French chocolate ice cream may be as delicious as French hot chocolate. Perhaps, next time I am there, I will eat ice cream, and will be glad I chose chocolate.
April 18, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you to tell us about the most memorable meal of your life. A pattern emerged from the stories we received: nothing focuses the mind on a meal like hardship, hunger or disgust. Today’s entry reminds us that meals don’t have to be traumatic to be memorable (and that sometimes food tastes even better if you reject standard table manners).
Emily Horton is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., who specializes in food and culture and is an enthusiastic cook. As she explains about her story: “What inspires me most, as a cook and a writer, are traditional foodways and remarkable ingredients, which is where the food I wrote about in this essay takes its cues. This meal was so memorable to me in part because it was so fresh in my mind, but also because it epitomized what I value most in cooking: simple, unfussy food made stellar by way of local and seasonal ingredients, and the shared experience of cooking and eating with others.”
The Magic of Kale
By Emily Horton
Kale is best eaten with the fingers.
I don’t think we had specifically planned to make dinner. But it was already around 6:00 when my friend John came by; it was a Friday and warm, and there were dogs to be walked. This being March, when warm days are a tease and thus impossible not to ravish, I thought company would be just the thing. “I’m bringing kale,” he said.
In my kitchen he emptied his bag of its contents: a bunch of Siberian kale, sweet, tender and mossy-hued. If it’s not the variety responsible for inspiring those “Eat More Kale” T-shirts, it should have been. We cooked it in a Dutch oven over a low flame, slicked with a glug of olive oil, a few dribbles of water and some sea salt, until it turned into a silken, glistening heap. We emptied the greens onto a plate, grabbed juicy bits with our fingers. Forks have no place here. We’re not sure why. “It’s so much better eating it this way,” he said. I nodded. We finished the plate with fewer words; we hadn’t bothered to sit down. I credit the kale for its sumptuousness. John says my technique is magic (it’s nothing special, and I’ve since taught him how to replicate the results). But flattery gets a person everywhere, and when he asked if I might bring him another beer from the fridge (could I open it, too?), I only narrowed my eyes a little.
“I have an idea,” I said. I remembered a dish I had coveted all winter, refusing to make for one, that had seemed too lusty of a thing to be eaten in solitude. We set about cracking walnuts, pounding them with garlic (actually, John took both of those tasks because he’s a better sport than I am), grating copious amounts of cheese. We stirred butter into the walnuts, then the Parmigiano, then olive oil. We boiled fresh linguine, nutty with spelt and oat flour, saving a bit of the cooking water. I turned everything into a bowl. The pesto covered the pasta now like a creamy coat, and the heat coaxed such a fragrance from the walnuts, heady and floral, that we understood why adding herbs would have been something of an interruption. We took the single serving bowl to the table, two forks, in the interest of minimalism.
John sat back in his chair, the wicker one without a match, and closed his eyes. “Wait a second, I’m having a moment.” There were bits of walnut shell in the sauce that my teeth kept catching. I decided not to care.
April 4, 2011
Thanks very much to those of you who contributed essays to this month’s Inviting Writing project. The theme, introduced by Lisa, was “the most memorable meal of your life.” A surprising pattern has emerged from the submitted essays: many of the most memorable meals were sort of horrible!
This week’s entry comes from Kristen Freeman, a senior at the University of South Carolina-Aiken. She’s working toward a degree in Science in Secondary Education in Mathematics. She submitted this piece as part of her Writing in the University English class.
How Hard Can P.B. Be?
By Kristen Freeman
November 28, 2007 will always be known to me as the day I had surgery. Due to a birth defect, my left kidney was enlarged and obstructed in two places. The surgery corrected this life-threatening issue.
The days that followed will live in my memory for other reasons—such as being the first time I ever spat out a peanut butter sandwich. I had a three-inch incision on the left side of my abdomen. After being allowed only clear liquids and intravenous vitamins and minerals for 48 hours, the only thing in my mind that would make me feel human again was a meal. And I thought anything would have tasted appetizing.
Two mornings after surgery, I received a lunch menu. I scanned the various choices. Three words caught my eye like a nurse with a needle: peanut butter sandwich. I quickly checked the box next to the listing and smiled with pleasure. Messing up a peanut butter sandwich is impossible, right?
As the hours passed, my hunger grew for a plain peanut butter sandwich. Finally, I heard the creaking wheels of the food cart coming down the hall. The only thought in my mind was how wonderful that peanut butter sandwich would be. My mouth began to water as the thought of lunch filled my mind. As the squeaking cart stopped in front of my door, I quickly sat up and cleared off the small table at my bedside. A delightful atmosphere filled the room as the hospital worker carried in the tray. My stomach growled louder as the food was within reaching distance. All I could think about was the peanut butter sandwich I was about to devour. The two pieces of white bread with the creamy goodness between them had finally arrived.
I hurriedly unwrapped my meal, anticipating the mouth-watering sandwich. I lifted the sandwich and took a large bite. As I began to chew, my hunger quickly subsided as the flavor hit my tongue. While I looked around the tray for a napkin, my mother, who had been by my side since arriving at the hospital, knew something was wrong by the expression that came upon my face. The napkin became home to the only bite of lunch I ate.
“Mom, that is the worst thing I have ever tasted,” I said as I rinsed my mouth out with juice. “It’s worse than the medicine,” a horrible liquid I had received just before entering the operating room.
My mother assured me that my intravenous pain killers and other medicines were the cause of the disgusting taste. To prove her wrong, I made her try it. She pulled off a small portion of the sandwich and began chewing. All of a sudden, the same disturbing look that had come over me consumed her. She quickly grabbed another napkin and spat out the bite, apologizing and admitting how horrible the meal tasted.
My appetite had disappeared like a doctor being paged. The most memorable meal of my life is one I couldn’t allow myself to eat.
March 21, 2011
We were so pleased with the variety of entries we received for our last Inviting Writing, about food and dating—they were sweet, funny, endearing, sad. Let’s see if we can top it with this month’s theme, a topic that anyone should be able to relate to: memorable meals. If it was the food itself that made it memorable, that’s fine—make our mouths water sharing every delectable detail. But it’s also acceptable—maybe even preferable—if the reason it was memorable was only tangentially related to the food. Maybe it was memorably disastrous (Dad burned breakfast, making you late for your driving test, which you subsequently failed), or was connected with a momentous event in your life (your first meal in your own home, for instance). Set the scene and let us feel whatever it was that still lingers in your memory, for better or worse.
As a reminder, submissions should be true, original personal essays somehow inspired by this invitation. Send yours to FoodandThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing: Most Memorable Meal” in the subject line by this Friday morning, March 25. We’ll read them all and post our favorites on subsequent Mondays. Remember to include your full name and a biographical detail or two (your city and/or profession; a link to your own blog if you’d like that included).
When In Rome
by Lisa Bramen
I had the most memorable meal of my life (so far) about 15 years ago, on a summer night in Rome. It wasn’t the fanciest food I have ever eaten. It wasn’t the most impressive feat of culinary skill; I don’t even recall every dish that was served. It certainly wasn’t the worst meal I’ve had—that dishonor may belong to a plate of lukewarm spaghetti swimming in orange grease, served by a grumpy waiter about an hour after I had ordered it. This was also in Rome. A travel tip: unless you are dining with the Pope himself, get as far away from the Vatican as possible before attempting to find a decent bite.
Here’s some more advice: If you have the good fortune to be 24, a recent college graduate with a three-month Eurail Pass (acquired with a deep discount through the job you just quit at a corporate travel agency), make sure one of your stops is Rome. There, look up a former co-worker named Lisa (no relation to yourself), who moved there to start her own travel business. Even though you don’t know her well, she will be happy to show you around. She will take you to off-the-beaten-track places, for instance, a church decorated entirely with human skulls and crossbones. She’ll introduce you to local delicacies like pizza rustica—thin-crusted squares with little or no cheese—and candied chestnuts. She will know the best spots for gelato.
One night she will invite you to dinner with her Italian friends, Francesca and Paolo, and another man whose name you will not remember. Although they will attempt English conversation with you, they will speak Italian most of the time. You won’t mind—all the better to soak in the atmosphere and the pleasurably melodic sound of the language, stripped of its meaning. Dinner will be at a small trattoria on a side street far from the tourist attractions. You will be seated outside; it will be a warm summer evening. You will drink wine.
The others will order food for the table to share. Each dish will be unfamiliar to you, exciting: fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with a soft cheese and something salty that you realize too late is anchovies (but, even though you have been a vegetarian for years, you will not care because it will be so delicious); orecchiette with broccoli rabe.
For dessert, you will order some lemon gelato to bring back to Francesca and Paolo’s apartment. You will sit on their lovely terrace, eating gelato and drinking small glasses of pear brandy. You will feel giddy from the alcohol, the setting, the company.
At the end of the night, the nameless Italian man will offer you a ride back to your hostel. It will be on a Vespa. As you buzz through the streets of Rome on the back of his scooter, you will feel as if you could launch yourself into the heavens like Diana, the Roman moon goddess. You will remember this feeling forever.