Tuesday, January 24, 2006

We call it mush

Sometimes I think that I lived a former life as a Southerner. How else can I explain my love for pimento cheese, fried chicken, okra, shell beans and biscuits? How else can I justify the strong cravings I get for fried peach pies, a delicacy I only enjoyed once at a joint in Nebraska? Why else would I spoon up grits with my runny eggs?

Well, I've got an explanation for that one. I'm Italian. Somewhere, buried deep in my DNA lies a prediliction for cooked cornmeal that is culturally non-specific. Call it grits, call it polenta, call it mush--it's all the same animal. Along with buttered baked potatoes, grits are the comfort food I turn to when I'm tired, sick, hungover or cold. I like my mush on the softer side, long cooked in a good pot so the edges get a little crispy, then garnished with a flurry of freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano. I like it under things, too--beneath some braised brisket or short ribs, under slow-cooked rapini greens and sausage, nestled beside poached eggs with some crispy strips of bacon poking out here and there. But I think I like it best in a bowl by itself, so steaming hot that you have to hold the first bite in your mouth for a minute before swallowing, regretting being so greedy.

Like a lot of good things in life, polenta takes time. Though the demons of convenience have delivered us quick-cooking polenta, nothing compares to a big pot of good mush that has cooked for an hour or more over low heat. Quality is important, too. Cornmeal is cheap stuff, so it's worth paying a few more dollars to get cornmeal that has been stone-ground, perhaps at a little mill in the American South, or maybe in the North of Italy.

I especially like the stone-ground organic cornmeal from Anson Mills, in Charleston, South Carolina (www.ansonmills.com) and the cornmeal (choose from white or yellow, fine or coarse) produced by Mulino Marino, in the Langhe region of Italy. Their product, which is also organic, can be ordered online from Formaggio Kitchen (www.formaggiokitchen.com). Cornmeal mush is perfect winter food--so get cooking!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mandarin Mania

This could be old hat, and I'm imagining the food loving public rolling their eyes at how hopelessly far behind the culinary times I am. But for those of you who don't get out that much, or live far away from citrus trees and swimming pools, allow me to introduce my new favorite fruit: the Kishu mandarin.

This darling little citrus, about the size of a large walnut, has an unparalleled sweetness, no seeds and the benefit of being so darn cute that, when faced with a big bowl of them, you discover that you have eaten ten or so without giving it a second thought. For those of you who have always wondered about the difference between a mandarin and a tangerine, Jim Churchill of Churchill Orchards in Ojai, California, has finally set the record straight: there is no difference. Mandarins are called Mandarins because they were said to have originated in Asia, Tangerines were a direct import from Tangiers, in North Africa. As it turns out, both stories are true: the citrus are native to Asia but made their way to North America via North Africa. Everybody wins.

Though it's hard to imagine life before those big crates of clementines from Spain crowded the market at Christmas time, I'm here to report that growing up in Vermont we didn't see those crates until at least the mid-90's. Before that, my knowledge of mandarins, clementines and other small seedless citrus was limited to the supremes of mandarin orange that came swathed in heavy syrup in a small can (which, of course, we kids loved).

Now, as is the case with most everything, citrus has gone boutique upscale. The aforementioned Churchill Orchards was shipping out crate loads of Kishus until last week, when the supplies dwindled (except for a few crates they reserve for restaurants, like Chez Panisse, who serve the Kishus nudi--whole, in a copper bowl, accompanied by some local dates), but the season is just beginning for their Pixie and Page varieties, and you can find more information about their harvest at www.tangerineman.com (the above kishu photograph was taken directly from the Churchill Orchards website, and credit must be due. Look, so tiny!)

Friday, January 13, 2006

From India, with love

These are trying times, dear readers. Due to some, uh, technical issues that ended in a a complete computer system restore I've been off the grid for a few days. Suffice to say I learn, once again the hard way, that I'm not really that techno-savvy.

I just finished reading a great memoir, Monsoon Diary, written by a woman named Shoba Narayan. She's a South Indian who writes about the experience of growing up in a food-focused culture, coming to America for school (like me, she's a Mount Holyoke alum) and then returning to India and feeling caught between two cultures. I have almost no experience with India or Indian cuisine so the book was an exciting education. Now I'm looking to head to the nearest Indian grocer to pick up dal and curry leaves and get cooking.

Wednesday's New York Times food section featured an article by Mark Bittman about "stuck-pot rice" which uses the Indian technique of first par-boiling the basmati then tossing in in a saucepan with oil and other spices, covering the pot first with a cloth towel and then with the lid, and cooking it over low heat until the bottom crisps and the rice takes on that perfect pilaf quality, redolent with the spices and with addictive crispy bits. Once, convinced that I could replicate the rice biriyani I usually ordered from the take-out joint, I followed Julie Sahni's explicit directions in her seminal book, Classic Indian Cooking. It involved soaking the rice for thirty minutes, then rinsing it until the starch had washed off (in no fewer than 8 changes of water) then proceeding with the par-boiling, etc. described above. I loaded mine up with toasted pistachios and raisins and a host of spices and it was the main event, accompanied by a salad of cucumbers, onions and tomatoes tossed with thick yogurt, salt and pepper. It was a wonderful meal, but for some reason I only made it that once time. Now, emboldened by the recipes in Monsoon Diary, I'm dreaming of udli and dosas, fragrant dals and spicy rasam. I'll let you know about my adventures.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Fueling Both Body and Big Rig

There are a lot of restaurants that I like a lot, scattered in cities and little towns all around the world. I love Pied du Cochon, in Montreal, where they serve massive pork chops, poutine (or, as we non-Canadians know it, gravy fries) and rich red wines. I feel perfectly happy when I'm eating at Primo, in Rockland, Maine, where big organic gardens supply the kitchen all year long. One of my favorite take-out joints has to be L'As du Falafel, on Rue des Rosiers in the Marais district of Paris, where you can get a falafel sandwich loaded with garlicky roasted eggplant, spiked with chile and sauced with tahini and lemon juice. In San Francisco, I'd happily eat at Universal Cafe at least once a week, especially when they're serving roasted Hoffman Farm chicken with polenta. At Keeper's restaurant, in Brownsville, Vermont, I always order the crisp, well-dressed iceburg and blue cheese salad, and when I'm in Boston I like to stop in for a rich plate of chef Ana Sortun's moussaka at her eponymous restaurant, Oleana.

But when I'm in Bangor, Maine, there is only one place to go: Dysart's. Dysart's is a truck stop off of I-95, a place to fuel both body and big rig, to catch a shower and eat a meal. The no-frills dining rooms looks just like you would expect a truck stop dining room to look, with bad art on the walls and formica tables. The menu is massive, the breakfast legendary, the breads and cinnamon rolls made fresh right there. Dysart's is a family business that opened in 1967. When Dan Dysart, the founder, died, over 100 truckers escorted the hearse from the truck stop to the cemetary, and then his children took over the business.

The food is good, but that's not even entirely the point. It's Maine food, camp food, and every day there are baked beans and brown bread in addition to burgers and fries. The point is that Dysart's never closes--24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on holidays and weekends--the truck stop stands as trucker's only chance of a good meal between Augusta and Fort Kent. The portions are big, the waitresses are friendly, the coffee is marginal and you feel right at home.