Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Gabrielle Hamilton: Embracing the hospitable amid life's uncertainties

This blog first appeared on Culinary Historians of the Piedmont.

Gabrielle Hamilton's years of hard living, coupled with her role as chef/owner of Prune, one of the most celebrated restaurants in New York City, have cemented an image of the quintessential bad-ass chef. She's famously infamous, a woman whose conversation is casually peppered with F-bombs and whose classic food evokes the rapturous praise of the most discerning critics.

So it was a surprise when she sheepishly accepted a glowing introduction last week at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, an event presented in collaboration with Culinary Historians of the Piedmont (CHOPNC). Hamilton read from the newly-issued paperback edition of her best-selling memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter (Random House), which was celebrated this week by Food52 as its No. 1 "favorite food-related find" from 2011. Yes, she assured fans, it is updated to answer some of the questions everyone asks about her children, her Italian mother-in-law, and the ashes of her failed marriage. 

The chapter she read recalled her liberating but at times frightening first extended trip abroad. Saved by a fortunate connection that took her from a freaky hostel in Amsterdam to a cozy attic room in small French village, she spent several weeks earning her keep in a working class cafe. It was there that she acquired an ease that allowed her the experience of learning "how we live and eat."

"Don't laugh," she begged of the capacity crowd as she allowed them a glimpse of the girl who two decades later would be named the Best Restaurant Chef in New York City by the James Beard Foundation. They hung on her every word -- even the French ones whose proper pronunciation, required by her demanding mother, made her feel "awkwardly pretentious."

"Can I stop? Ugh, I'll never read that one again," she said, clearly uneasy with the effusive accolades that accompany most everything she says or does. Or wears, like her chunky tortoiseshell glasses or fashionably greying hair caught in a clip, both of which drew admiring whispers.

Hamilton shares intensely personal details in her book, which is subtitled "The Inadvertent Education of a Relucant Chef." Arriving at a place where she could look back at the seeming chaos of her youth, and armed with an MFA in writing earned during a career detour, the book is evidence of a catharthsis -- a crystalization of  the good and the "gruesome" that shaped a journey from her mother's kitchen to the culinary world's center stage.

She welcomed a wide array of questions, ranging from how this working mother managed to find the time to write -- "I wrote while nursing, in the middle of the night, and sometimes on the line on torn sheets of brown paper we use to cover the tables" -- to how she traded substance abuse for the addictive passion for writing.
"I'd worked in kitchens since I was 12," she said, noting her rise from dishwasher to "salad girl" to the first of many Star Is Born-like promotions the night a co-worker failed to show up. "It was good, but I always thought to myself, 'I'm living the wrong life.'"

Hamilton hocked her stainless and "took a sabbatical" from cooking to complete the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Nine months after graduation, however, she opened Prune. "I said to myself at the time, 'Put away the fantasy; you're never going to write a book,'" she recalled. Six weeks later, she was published for the first time in the New York Times. The beginnings of Blood, Butter & Bones soon followed.

"The hospitality industry taught me more about writing than grad school," Hamilton said. "It's all about taking care of people."

Hamliton is enjoying a guest gig writing about food for House Beautiful -- her April column, which she intended to finish in her Chapel Hill hotel room, will be about salmon -- but her next book will be a cookbook "with a practical approach to real food."

"I want to focus on the realities of buying food in a grocery store and turning out great meals for your family. At least," she said with a good-humored shrug, "that's the plan."

Monday, January 23, 2012

The quest for the perfect pound cake

Brenda is a mild-manned co-worker, the sort who answers the phone in a friendly and professional tone, never misses a deadline and is glad to help colleagues solve problems. But there is one thing that gets on her nerves, and it can cause a meltdown as sure as leaving butter in the sun.

“I am on a quest. I am determined to make the best durn pound cake in North Carolina if it kills me,” said Brenda, who has baked several since the holidays and not found one that meets her high standards. “You use all that butter and eggs and it doesn’t work? I tell you, it’s about to piss me off.”

Brenda has scoured her cookbook collection, a 200-plus volume library that mostly celebrates Southern fare, for recipes that sound promising. She’s made pound cakes with whipping cream, sour cream and cream cheese. She’s made them in cold-start ovens and preheated ones. None have yielded the moist, tender crumb and toothsome crust she seeks.

“I made one this weekend that I felt sure would be the one, but it was a terrible disappointment,” she said. “I like to bring them to the office for feedback, but it went straight into the trash.”

Brenda laughs when saying this, but anyone who has tried to master a recipe with costly ingredients will appreciate her struggle. So in the interest of protecting the sanity of a very sweet lady, please share the best pound cake recipe you know – or share this request with others.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Making-Shit-Up-As-We-Go Night

I decided to surprise my family tonight with a dinner I'd never made before - nor, I'd wager, has anyone else - but it turns out I was the one most surprised. One of my key ingredients was something other than I believed, and I made an unintentional almost-dessert while testing to see if cute cordial glasses could withstand a ban marie.

First, the side. I had a bunch of what I thought were lovely blushing turnips that in fact were rutabagas. Yes, I know, they are entirely different shapes, but it's been a long week. In the middle of a deadline work project today, I found myself thinking about some heavy cream lounging in my refrigerator. Which led, believe it or not, to thoughts of my not-turnips. Which inspired - still with me? - the notion of a gratin.

I trimmed and peeled four big actually-rutabagas and sliced them into thin discs with a mandoline. They seemed too firm to yield a lush gratin, so I added a splash of water, covered with plastic wrap and zapped on high for three minutes. While letting them steam for a few minutes more, I remembered I had a bag of pesto cubes in the freezer. I defrosted three cubes in the mike, as my mother-in-law calls it, and blended with 1/2 cup of heavy cream and an egg.

When cool enough to handle, I layered the drained rutabagas slices into a buttered 9x9 casserole - alternate direction between layers - and sprinkled about a half-cup of feta between the layers, reserving most of it to scatter on top. I then poured the cream mix over the slices, pressing down to compress layers into liquid, and dotted with butter. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees about 45-50 minutes or until tender, browned and bubbly.

Meanwhile, mix about 1/2 cup of plain, non-fat Greek yogurt, 2 tablespoons honey mustard, 1 tablespoon honey and the juice of half a juicy lemon until well blended. Arrange four six-ounce, liberally salt-and-peppered salmon portions on a roasting pan - Whole Foods had Alaskan salmon on sale for $7.99 today! - top each with a generous tablespoon of sauce and ignore for about 30 minutes. Refrigerate remaining sauce. Tuck salmon into oven with gratin and bake 15-18 minutes or until done. Remove from oven and rest on cooktop. 

Ideally, salmon and gratin will finish at about the same time. Let gratin set at least five minutes before serving. I thought it was a bit underdone, but Tim and Graham liked that it was still a tad al dente. For the salmon, serve chilled yogurt-mustard sauce on the side, though you likely won't need it, along with a slice of fresh lemon, which I think you will. Pretty damn good for a throw-together dinner.

So the biggest surprise of the night was my experiment to see if I could safely cook in cordial glasses. To simulate a somewhat realistic cooking situation, I filled a 3.75-ounce glass with the same Greek yogurt, tucked it into a pot filled about halfway with water and covered tightly with foil. The recipe I was testing for bakes at 350 degrees, but I went ahead and popped it in the 375 degree oven for the entire cooking time.

The result was an intact glass and a concoction the consistency of, dare I say, faux cheesecake. I drained the accumulated steam, brought to room temperature and then covered the glass with plastic wrap and stashed it in the fridge. An hour later, I topped it with a dollop of homemade orange curd and gave it try. A bit tart, but promising.

Next time - in other words, tomorrow - I'll intentionally stir in some honey and maybe a splash of vanilla or citrus zest, or both.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Oranges two ways - with help from another

A zested Cara Cara
I'm working to expand my orange awareness by trying new varieties this season. It's hard to imagine I'll find another type as perfect as the satsuma - then again, a birthday delivery of juicy Honeybells is expected next week.

Still, I spied a display of Cara Cara's at the market this week. The pinkish-red flesh and fresh flavor of these distinctive California navels have captivated many food writers lately, so I bought two with the idea of making curd - which, to my mind, naturally leads to making a batch of airy meringues.

I rely on a lovely and simple curd recipe suitable for canning by Rose Levy Beranbaum. I had just enough juice for a double batch, which comes together quickly thanks to her foolproof directions. The result is a sunny curd flecked with bursts of bright orange zest.

I base the cookies on the Lemon Meringue Clouds posted on Food52. I tweaked it the second time around to mix the vivid zest into the egg white mixture at the last moment - the damp zest looked clumpy scattered on the surface and dried to an unappealing dark tone. Since I didn't have orange extract, I used my satsuma triple sec (made with advice from the always clever @MrsWheelbarrow - details to come) and sprinkled them lightly with my own satsuma dust to tint the puffy meringues and punch up the flavor.

Note: The recipe says they'll last in an air-tight container for up to four days, but I can almost guarantee not a single one will be found in my house by sundown tomorrow.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mark your calendar for slivovitz season

Homemade slivovitz with
my grandfather's glasses.
The new year creates a great excuse to raise a glass of deep amber slivovitz, a sort of plum schnapps I associate with my grandfather and the familiar comforts likely enjoyed by Eastern European immigrant families who savored the taste of home while seeking a better life in America.

I never sipped it or, to be honest, thought to look for it at the liquor store. But when I saw a post by Cathy Barrow (@MrsWheelbarrow) back in August, I decided I had to try it. I'm so glad I did and, I think, so are the friends and family with whom I shared this luscious elixir at the holidays.

Her recipe used small Italian prune plums, which were not available the day inspiration hit. Wikipedia claims that the Damson plum is most traditional for slivovitz. I opted for a roundish, gold-flecked red variety that was seasonally abundant and on sale at the market. 

Because they were larger than the variety cited, and I used a gallon-size Ball jar, the proportions had to be adjusted. One bottle of vodka barely covered the fruit, so I bought another and added an additional pound of plums and proportionately more sugar, orange peel and cinnamon. I also tucked in a small glass ramekin, pushing it down to fill and submerge to help keep the fruit from bobbling to the top.

Before adding more vodka, etc.

The only tricky part of the process is repeatedly turning the jar until the sugar is fully dissolved. I advise picking a jar that screws tight (the lid on mine only pushed on) to avoid any dribbles, which proved quite attractive to ants. Trust me: Like any inebriated houseguest, they can be annoyingly difficult to get rid of. 

When the sugar was no longer visible and, to ensure the ants were fully vanquished, I wrapped the jar in a double layer of Target bags -- one from the bottom up, the other top down, then secured with tape -- and tucked it out of sight for the requisite three months. It emerged from its cocoon with the elegance of a Monarch and, once relieved of its spent ingredients, yielded a glistening pour with a pleasingly smooth finish.

Don't bother imagining what you can do with those booze-soaked plums. They have given their best to the brew and will be fit only for the trash -- or perhaps the mulch pile, so long as it's not near anything combustible.

So take that new 2012 calendar, flip to August and make a note to yourself to make some slivovitz. I certainly will.