Scene: I’m with a grandmother in Dresden Germany. She hass taken me out to show me the finest shops. We enter one through a large wooden door with ornate carvings, and inside a well dressed man greets us. I’m handed a book- small and light blue, with a sturdy spine. It is a book about eggs: brown ones, speckled ones, oval, circular and many hues of greens, blues and whites. All of the text (in German, therefore indecipherable to me) is in a gilded cursive font. I can feel the quality of the printing by running my fingers over the page. I’m brought into a smaller room off to the side and there are embellished cases with glass domes. Inside are beautifully arranged eggs, and I have no idea if they are fresh and temperature controlled or hollow for display. It’s an aesthetic sight for sure, but are they delicious? I can’t tell.
If we hadn’t just last afternoon been talking about the construction project we’re undergoing at work, with one of our goals being to carry a large selection of different types of eggs (quale, duck, chicken, etc), one could assume that there are some underlying fertility issues at play here. But that’s not the case. I’m excited about having a deliberately cultivated collection of eggs in the shop. Where I might veer from reality is in how I imagine it will look like.
When I think of eggs, I immediately think of the egg lady in John Walters’ ‘Pink Flamingos’. At the Deli, Edith will not be present, but I’ll be sure to pay homage to her in some fashion, with an illustration of a baby pen, or her likeness in cartoon form. Waters’ low-brow egg lady and a fancy egg emporium seem to be at polar opposites, but the truth is that the quality lies hidden in the shell. They can be beautifully housed on stands under glass as if they’re in the hermitage, or obfuscated by cartons in a florescent grocery aisle, yet their quality has little to do with how they look. It’s their pedigree and freshness that counts.
Last night I coordinated with my friend and restauranteur Ji Hye to make some tea eggs for an upcoming event next week. When I mentioned the eggs, her first reply was ‘Ooh, I’ll get them from the market on Saturday. They might be hard to peel, but they’ll be delicious.’ Fresh eggs don’t separate from their shells very easily after being hard boiled. Only with time-“aging”- do they loosen up and release easily. But the flavor also diminishes with time. The quality of the farm- the care of the chickens and (very importantly) their feed- is a big determinant of how they taste. A well cared for chicken will lay beautiful eggs, full of flavor and color.
I had never seen this illustrated before I went to Italy. We were in Parma, visiting a culinary school with an impressive library of antique Italian cook books. The man giving us a tour offered us to stay for lunch, which was very tasty, but the tiramisu they served as dessert blew me away. It was one of those singular moments I’ll never forget. Brilliant yellow cream was hidden under the dusting of cocoa powder. When I inquired, he told me about the man that supplies their eggs, and that the ones used in our cake had been delivered that morning. ‘The chickens eat well, and their yolks show it’ was his response. He let me crack one open and inside was a deep orange-yellow globe- fully intact and perky. A damn fine egg indeed.
More than 10 years ago, Sam and Sam Clark of Moro Restaurant in London published their first cookbook. Simply titled ‘Moro,’ their cooking was born out of an interest in Islam and a love of Spain.
“Linked in history by the Moors’ 700-year occupation of Spain, the two spheres of cooking are connected by what we call the saffron-cinnamon link (Spain and the Muslim Mediterranean).”
It’s a great book, drawing on influence from Spanish food and the foods of “the Muslim Mediterranean” – countries like Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon. One dish that I have resorted back to time and again is a blend of chickpeas and spinach, with a touch of vinegar and spice.
Chickpeas and Spinach/ Garbanzos con Espinacas
from ‘Moro’ by Sam and Sam Clark
200g chickpeas, soaked overnight with a pinch of baking soda, or two 400g cans of cooked chickpeas, rinsed
6 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
500g spinach, washed
75g bread (preferably white), crusts removed, cut into small cubes
3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 small bunch of fresh oregano, roughly chopped
1 small dried red chili, crumbled
1 1/2 Tablespoons good-quality red wine vinegar (I used the ‘Forvm Cabernet Sauvignon’ vinegar from Spain)
a good pinch of saffron, infused in 4 Tablespoons of boiling water
1/2 teaspoon sweet smoked Spanish paprika (I used ‘Santo Domingo de la Vera (dolce)’)
salt & black pepper
If you’re using dried chickpeas: drain the dried, soaked chickpeas in a colander, rinse under cold water, than place in a large saucepan. Add just over two quarts of water and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, skimming off any scum as it builds up, and cook for about 1-2 hours or until soft and tender (the older the beans, the longer they take to cook). Remove them from the heat, pour off the excess liquid until it is level with the chickpeas in the pan, and season them with salt and pepper. Set them aside for now.
Place a large saucepan over medium heat and add half of the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the spinach with a pinch of salt (in batches- if necessary), and stir well. Remove the spinach when the leaves are just tender, setting them in a colander to drain. Set them aside for now.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Fry the bread for about five minutes until it is golden brown all over, then add the cumin, oregano and chili. Cook for about one more minute, then transfer it to a mortar and pestle or food processor. Add the vinegar and mash (or puree) it to a paste. Return the bread mixture to the pan and add the drained chickpeas and saffron-infused water. Stir until the chickpeas have absorbed the flavors and are hot, then season with salt and pepper. If the consistency is a little thick, add some water. Now add the spinach until it too is hot. Check for seasoning. To serve, fry a slice of bread in a little olive oil, transfer it to a plate and spoon the chickpea and spinach over it, sprinkling some of the smoked paprika on top.
To say ‘rich polenta’ is in contrast to polenta’s place in Italian food history. It has traditionally been considered a ‘peasant food,’ serving as an inexpensive (and accessible) filler that can be enhanced by pairing it with small amounts of other foods (ie: rabbit, anchovies, or whatever is available). There are quick and slow cooking varieties available, and if you’ve tried them both, you’ll know that the slow cooking type is generally better and worth the time.
I came across a recipe for ‘Mushroom Ragu on Polenta’ in the Canal House cookbook (volume no.2) and it was a really satisfying meal. The recipe calls for a small amount of sherry, which was an unexpected surprise – not only did I get to learn a bit about a fortified wine I wasn’t very familiar with, it added a wonderful aroma and flavor to the dish and I’ve got the rest of the bottle to add to cups of tea. (side note- I used an Amontillado sherry)
Mushroom Ragu with Polenta
Canal House Cooking, no.2, 2009
For the Polenta-
1 cup slow cooking polenta
2 cups of chicken stock
2 cups of water
1 cup of whole milk
2 Tablespoons of butter
For the Ragu-
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 Tablespoons of butter
1 small onion, chopped
2 pounds mixed wild and/or cultivated mushrooms, cleaned and halved or quartered
Leaves of 4 thyme sprigs
2 Tablespoons of sherry
4 canned whole peeled plum tomatoes
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 bunch of parsley, leaves chopped
salt & pepper
Start with the polenta. Put the chicken stock, water and milk into a medium, heavy-bottomed pot. Stir in the polenta slowly and add two generous pinches of salt. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is tender, which can take anywhere from 50minutes to an hour and a half. Don’t be dismayed, and don’t underestimate the time it takes to cook polenta (the cornmeal takes a while to soften). It will swell and thicken as it cooks- if it gets too thick, add a bit more water. When it’s ready, stir in the butter and season it with some salt.
For the ragu, heat the olive oil and two Tablespoons of the butter together in a large skillet over medium heat until the butter foams. Add the onions and cook until soft and translucent, which will take about 3-5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, about three minutes. Add the thyme and sherry (it’ll smell so fantastic!). Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hand as you drop them into the mushrooms. Add the stock, parsley and remaining two Tablespoons of butter. Simmer over medium-low heat until it is stewy and has thickened a bit, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve, put some of the warm polenta in a bowl (wide and shallow works best) and spoon the mushroom ragu over top. Enjoy it with a bit of the sherry (slightly chilled).
It’s extremely hot outside. And humid. Take an egg out of the fridge, and it’ll start sweating within a minute. The dog is panting so rapidly she could be mistaken for a hummingbird.
I’ve been putting drops of rosewater into the big widemouth mason jar full of water & ice that has been my constant companion this afternoon. The hint of rosewater tastes delicious, but if you don’t know it’s in there, it can be confusing. The first time I experienced it, I thought that either the restaurants water tap was dirty or someone had washed out the glass with a geranium.
This week marks the annual Ann Arbor Art Fair, and as usual, it’s the hottest week of the year. I walked through a small part of it yesterday afternoon and it just seemed miserable- exhausted vendors, gawkers, ‘art on a stick,’ a panoply of weird smells and lots of sunburned people complaining of the heat. As a child, I remember slowly meandering through the tented streets with my parents, weaving in and out of the crowds. As a teenager, my favorite part was waiting until after dark, when everything was shut down and the streets were closed, lined with white tents and open wide for me to ride my bike fast enough to cool down in the breeze. As an adult, it’s a source of casual conversation about who’s lucky enough to leave town, and how busy we’ll be at the Deli. I can’t say, however, that I’ve ever found it to be a source of inspiration or enjoyment- the crowds, the heat, the pressure that 500,000 visitors puts on this town….it’s so much that I’m always glad when it’s over.
It’s been three years since I was in Darjeeling, India. I went in March ’08 specifically to see the ‘first flush’ harvest- the picking and harvesting of the first batch of tea for the year. Then, as is now, there was political unrest.
Darjeeling, like Kolkata (formerly ‘Calcutta’) is in West Bengal, but there is a strong political move for ‘The Hills,’ as Darjeeling is called, to become a separate state known as Gorkhaland. Truthfully, I only know a fraction of what the struggle is about. It’s gone on for many years, spearheaded by a group known as Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), with frequent strikes known as ‘bahns’ calling for workers to halt all work for a day. Those bahns sometimes carry on for several days. I’ve been searching for the latest news, and this is my favorite quote of the day: “GJM supporter Anup Chamling was arrested from Happy Valley tea estate for carrying seven khukris (small daggers) with him.” Not so happy a valley, indeed!
It’s one thing for humans to decide to stop working for a day, but the tea doesn’t stop growing. It’s on a different cycle. It’s what supports their livelihood, and it’s also one of their biggest bargaining chips. Fortunately, despite the dire emails that have been floating around about a potential lack of first flush 2011 because of the political unrest, they managed to compromise enough to begin the harvest on time. Apparently the supply is limited- lots are selling fast and the prices are high. I managed to secure 40 pounds for us at Zingerman’s from the growers that I met and stayed with three years ago. This years harvest is a bit more floral than last. I always love how lively and vibrant the first flush tastes, but it’s best when it’s fresh. I’m excited for it to arrive, hopefully by the end of the month. Then, the drama over the second flush begins, for harvesting in late May.