Tuesday, September 29, 2009

You Want Pretty?

Oh man.  I finally did it.  I have been dancing around it for ages.  I spent twelve hours researching.  I collected six authentic recipes and three that were just silly.  I interviewed several people about their experiences.

Compiling all of this information, I waited until the time was right.  Today. Lunchtime.  I was hungry.  I had a few spuds from my sister's garden.  I was ready.

I reviewed all of the information about what could go wrong as I waited for the potatoes to steam.  No boiled potatoes in this recipe.  I got my equipment ready and made pesto from the last few basil leaves on my porch.  I have a few minutes so I toasted some pine nuts.  I poked the potatoes with a fork.  It was undeniable.  They were ready.  I nervously pulled out the ricer and quashed the spuds.  That wasn't so bad.  I beat the egg and mixed it through the potatoes.  So far, so good. 

I added the flour a tablespoon at a time to keep from adding too much.  This took forever.  For-ever.  I gently rolled out my snake.  Well--it wasn't so much a snake as it was an oddly-shaped floury gob.  Traditional recipes two and six cautioned strongly about over-working the dough.  I have a choice.  I work on the snake and have perfectly shaped gnocchi, however inedible.  Or I could break the rules a little and and go for something a little less traditional.

I carelessly ripped off pieces of dough and flung them into the boiling water.  Fabulous.  They floated.  I fished them out, drained them and tossed them with pesto.  I sprinkled them with cheese and the toasted pine nuts.  I opened my last Limonata.

I sat down at the table and looked to my bowl. In retrospect, I should have snapped a photo.   My first pesto-covered bite confirmed that they were indeed the best gnocchi ever.  So far anyway.   I may revisit that snake thing.

So there you have my gnocchi.  They weren't pretty.  You want pretty?  Call Sophia Loren.  These were perfect.  The perfect comfort food.  And in keeping with all great comfort food, I think I'm ready for a little nap.

Monday, September 28, 2009


I turn the key and step out onto the roof. Autumn blankets me as I settle onto the wooden bench.

I smile to myself as I put the key into my pocket. I borrowed the original years ago. Lied straight into the face of hardware store owner who questioned me about the ‘SECURITY KEY DO NOT COPY‘ markings on it. A little white lie, nothing sinister. Only self-preservation. Everyone needs a place of their own.

I lost the other one and I’m in big trouble, Mister. I could lose my job.

Tears welling up in my eyes. He nodded and turned to his workbench. When he finished cutting, he took the shiny new key and threw it on the floor. With the heel of his boot, he ground it into the cement. He flipped it over and worked the other side. Then he took some sandpaper and softened the edges and finished by rubbing some black stuff from a jar under the counter into the new scratches. It was aged well enough to match the original. Apparently, I wasn’t his first damsel in distress.

"There you go, hon. That’ll be $2.50."

Ten years ago, I could easily pull that off. My slow tumble into middle age makes the damsel much less convincing. No regrets, but as I am off into the unknown, it’d be a good skill to have.

Two weeks ago when the world was completely different, I’d lightheartedly hoped for adventure… a little controlled uncertainty. I’ve got a plan, a map and the number of Kurt’s cousin in Cahersiveen. I love the illusion of control! That was before planes began crashing into buildings and red-bereted soldiers with tanks and M16s patrolled my route to work. I’m not sure what I am looking for now.

I wrap my hands around my first cup of coffee of the day. I inhale its Costa Rican warmth and take a small sip.

Aaack! Too hot!

I knew it would be and went ahead anyway. Story of my life. I put the coffee down on the arm of the bench.

I look out over the misty Potomac River to where the mighty Three Sisters Islands hold their vigil over the City of Washington. The legend says that the islands sprung up at the place where three Manahoac sisters drowned while crossing the river to their lovers on the other side. A warning of the dangers of jumping in with both feet and both sisters? Or a monument to the importance of following your heart no matter what? Maybe both.

From his perch atop the neighboring USATODAY building, a peregrine falcon takes flight. He darts up and catches an air current high over Roosevelt Island. Wings straight, eyes forward he lets go and floats in ever-widening ovals. Willing to go wherever the wind takes him, he lets himself be carried and I, in turn, let him carry me. Around… around… around. Intrigued by his dance, the sun peers out, etching the horizon with the first scarlet cracks of dawn.

Alarm clocks wail. Newspapers land on front stoops. Lights go on. The city slowly awakens. I take another sip of coffee in my perfect solitude above it all.

My second day working here, Nelson Mandela walked up to my desk and shook my hand. I think I stayed out of fear of missing something. It took me a while to settle in, to fit in. Many wonderful things did happen to me here. I grew up, I grew stronger, I got on with it. And I stayed because I felt secure. Secure in the stress. Secure in the busy-ness of it. Secure in being needed. Now it is time for me to leave my nest on the 23rd floor.

The sun pushes through a crack in the horizon over Roosevelt Bridge. Drivers in their cars impatiently shield their eyes from the light as the red-gold dawn illuminates buildings on the horizon line one by one.

I open the paper bag and pull the crunchy caramelized top off of my perfect lemon poppy muffin. The Rastafarian baker calls it the Muffin of the Gods. Steam escapes from the center. Crumbs fall onto my scarf as I take a bite.
Life is good.

The falcon turns suddenly midair and descends toward Roosevelt Island and his unsuspecting breakfast.

My pager goes off. It’s time for my last day of work.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Transcendental Alimentation

As the warmth of Summer begins to fade and the garden gives up its last few treasures, I am trying to squeeze the most out of what is left. I had high hopes for the garden, but it all didn't go as planned. My inexperience and enthusiasm combined to create expectations that were tossed about by the poor weather and the blight that hit the tomatoes in our area.

When I started to plan the garden, I did so out of some necessity. Money being tighter than it was, planting a garden just makes good economic sense.

As I started checking out the seed catalogs (at what point did I turn into someone who looks at seed catalogues) and websites, I spied a tomato. That's how these thing always started I'd imagine. But it wasn't just any tomato. It was the tomato of my dreams. It was Pera d’Abruzzo, ripe, ridged and remarkably delicious. You can see a photo of it here.

I first met this tomato in a farmer's market in Venice. I bought it, tucked it into my backpack and headed off. Later, I was hungry and in need of a rest after walking for a few hours. I pulled the tomato from my bag, rinsed it off in the drinking fountain and sat down on a park bench on the island of Murano. I ate the tomato while sitting there looking out at the island of my dreams. As is. No frills, no fuss, no salt. It was perfect. The perfect tomato on the perfect day in the perfect place.

From there, I hatched my plan. Fortunes change and they change again and at the moment, I am not in a position to afford an Italian vacation. So I decided I would plant my memories of my Italian vacation. I splurged on $11 worth of seeds. My Pera d'Abruzzo, capers, Quadrato Rosso D' Asti peppers, basil Genovese and fiore di zucca (zucchini blossoms). I started them all in my sisters greenhouse. I coddled them and measured their growth and made great plans for our future together.

As time when on and the weather got warmer I planted them out in the garden. The bunnies made quick work of the capers. They didn't stand a chance, really. The basil and peppers flourished. The tomatoes had a promising start but to my great sadness were early casualties of the blight. I buried them in a black bag and moved on.

The peppers have appeared in all manner of dishes from sauces to bruschetta. They finished up last week. I ate the last one standing over the sink. The wonderfully abundant basil has been eaten on or with everything possible and have even made myself a year's supply of pesto for the freezer. It is getting sparse but looks like it has a few more weeks to go.

That brings us to the zuccas which quickly grew big green leaves and sat there. Big green leaves and nothing else. For weeks. Then the little buds started to emerge. And they just sat there. For days. Just when I was about to give up. They started to bloom. Six at once.

I scrambled for the perfect recipe. They all sounded so good. I settled on a filling of ricotta, garlic, basil, asiago and pine nuts. I washed and dried the blossoms and removed the fiddly bits inside. Using a baby spoon, I stuffed the blossoms with the mixture. I sealed them up and dipped them into a batter of egg, flour and sparkling water. Then, using skills I really didn't possess, I fried them quickly in olive oil.

When they were ready, I put them on a fancy plate, poured myself a glass of San Pellegrino Limonata and took it all outside.

It was magnificent. If I do say so myself. I took my first bite and I was transported from my back porch with its view of rust belt urban decay to the tiny cafe in the Canneregio where I tasted them for the first time. I felt the sunshine, smelled the sea air and heard Sarah Vaughan singing 'Someone to Watch Over Me" as I sat and ate them one by one.

As I took the last bite, the moment was broken by the whistle of an incoming train that deposited me onto my back porch.