Sunday, March 22, 2009

An Unexpected Appreciation

I’m having a strange little love affair with radishes right now.  I know, it's strange.  I'm a little perplexed by it myself.

Maybe it’s because spring is here and these little ruby globes are coming into their peak season. Perhaps my new fixation is the result of my being recently bowled over by a canapé which involved a radish, one which had been thinly sliced and artfully arranged on a good baguette spread with glorious French butter and sprinkled with flaky sea salt. I’m not really certain what happened. All I know is that I find myself looking for any and every excuse to eat radishes right now.

Until recently, I never gave radishes a lot of thought. Honestly, I could take them or leave them. I remember reading a hilarious Tom Robbins novel in which he described the beet as the most passionate of vegetables, but he thought that the radish possessed the cold feverish fire of discontent and inquietude. That always struck me as apropos, for beneath their vivid pinkish-reddish exterior, I found radishes to be cool and pale as moonlight. Moonlight with a bite, that is.

But then one recent fine day, a radish snuck up on me and won me over. In some ways this new appreciation feels similar to developing a massive crush quite unexpectedly on someone you’ve known for years but never paid any serious attention to in the past, yet now you find yourself constantly thinking about this person and looking for any reason to throw yourself in his or her path. I never paid much heed to radishes whenever they appeared in a salad, and until this March, I don’t think I’d ever bought a single radish in my life. But in the past few weeks I have experienced them on a new level, and there has been a bundle of them in my shopping basket each time I’ve been to the store this month.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

An East Village Crawl

Until I met Jennifer, I had never known someone who was as enthusiastic and adventurous in the culinary department as I was. I discovered during our first year of school together that not only was she a gorgeous violinist who could make me cry by the sheer beauty of her music-making, Jennifer was also someone who met my epicurean enthusiasm and raised it a notch. We quickly forged a great friendship that has lasted for nearly two decades and has been cemented by a mutual passion for bittersweet chocolate. She has been my longtime partner-in-crime for exploring restaurants and recipes, first during our college years in Boston and later in New York. Whenever we go out to eat, the question is always “what are WE having?” for it would be inconceivable for us to order individual dishes but not share them. Today was a beauty of a day, an ideal afternoon to wander around the East Village and try a few new places together. It would take me far too long to count the number of times Jennifer and I have shared meals together over the years, but today was especially memorable for it was the first time that we were joined by Siena, her beautiful 6-month-old baby girl.

A craving for steamed pork buns provided the impetus for a visit to the sleek Momofuku Ssam Bar on East 13th Street. These were unlike any I’ve ever tasted before, and I was so enraptured by the taste that I completely forgot to photograph the dish! The pork had been braised until meltingly tender, succulent and juicy while crispy on the edges. A soft pillowy white bun wrapped its way around the luscious pork like a warm embrace, while a few lively slices of pickled cucumber and scallions tucked inside provided a tangy textural contrast. It was the perfect marriage of decadence and comfort, and I could have left the East Village a very happy girl after eating that singular pork bun. But there was more in store for us.

I didn’t know I was capable of growing so excited over Brussels sprouts the way I did over the ones Jennifer insisted upon ordering for us. Many people I know are avowed Brussels sprout haters, including my dad, which is probably why I never had much exposure to them while growing up. But these were prepared in such a way that I think even my dad would have enjoyed them. They were a marvel: little green globes sliced in half and roasted till their outer leaves crisped to perfection, then tossed with slivered scallions, fresh mint leaves, hot chilies and a judicious amount of Vietnamese fish sauce to balance the flavors. We downed these little guys in no time and were tempted to order another plate of them, for neither of us wanted the dish to end!

Monday, March 9, 2009

It Might Be Spring

Asparagus is one of those definite signs that spring has arrived. A contrast of colors and textures within each stalk, I love the way the smooth vibrant green stems give way to thistly purplish-tinged tips. I imagine the asparagus spears pushing their way through the earth, emerging triumphantly to herald the arrival of spring, signifying the end of the winter at last.

March came in like a roaring lion earlier this week, treating us to a substantial snowstorm followed by several chilly days. I didn't check the weather before leaving for my matinee performance of “South Pacific” yesterday afternoon, and I dressed as I would for any typical late winter sunny-but-cold day. But as soon as I stepped outside, bundled up in multiple layers of clothing, I discovered that I had seriously overdressed. It was a beautiful day, and the temperature had spiked a good 15 degrees since yesterday. The trees were about to explode with little buds, the branches spidery with anticipation. It seemed to happen overnight, as the trees went from bare winter branches to limbs about to burst with the expectation of spring.

I unloosened my scarves and unbuttoned my long coat as I strode down Broadway towards my theater, soaking up the unexpected warmth and wishing I had worn a lightweight jacket as everyone else on the street had. I realized that I would probably luck out at the farmer’s market that afternoon, and as I played my matinee of “South Pacific”, my taste buds began to wander in the direction of all things green. This craving took particular focus with a strong yearning for fresh asparagus.

Friday, March 6, 2009

In Praise of A Homemade Life

It is a funny thing to finish a book only to immediately go back to the beginning and begin rereading it all over again. That is what I have just done with A Homemade Life, the delightful debut book by Molly Wizenberg. I really should just stop rereading and go directly into the kitchen to try out every recipe in the book, for both the prose and the recipes are absolutely scrumptious.

Molly is the creator of Orangette, my favorite food blog, and it was her writing which inspired me to create Kitchen Fiddler six months ago. What I immediately loved so much about Orangette was that her posts weren't just recipes with a bit of photo documentation. Instead, Molly invites you in, making you feel that you are a dear friend to whom she is writing enthusiastic letters about her various culinary discoveries and kitchen adventures. She writes with such freshness and vitality, and she approaches food in such a way that resonates deeply within me. I think there are many of us who feel that even the simplest of meals are threaded with memories and people, all of which shape us and help remind us of who we are.

I can't think of the last time I looked forward to a new book with such anticipation. A Homemade Life was due to hit the stores this Monday, and I cannot tell you what a thrill it was for me to see this volume on the tables at Barnes&Noble. "It's here, it's really here!" I thought. I had to force myself not to tear through my copy in one sitting. In fact, each time I put the book down and came back to it, I always started reading several chapters earlier than where I had last left off, just to stretch that first reading out as long as possible!

This is not primarily a cookbook as much as it is a series of very personal vignettes about a loving family who are bonded by their mutual love for being in the kitchen and the memories they created there. Molly's stories are heartwarming, filled with passion and compassion with a good dash of humor, and each essay is aligned with a mouth-watering recipe.

Her description of a Tarte Tatine ("like a housewife in stilettos") had me laughing out loud, and I immediately began mentally planning a dinner party as an excuse to make this caramelized apple tart for dessert. I can't wait to try Molly's recipe for coconut macaroons, and the almost-flourless "Winning Hearts and Minds Chocolate Cake" has my name all over it. I'm very curious about the cider-glazed salmon, and the Sliced Spring Salad With Avocado and Feta looks like something I could eat every day for weeks on end. I want to make the Butternut Soup with Pear Cider and Vanilla Bean, as well as the Tomato&Two Fennel Soup, and the Pistachio Cake with Honeyed Apricots, and the Dutch Baby pancakes, and and and......

Treat yourself to a copy of this book. I am sure you will be as charmed by it as I am.