Saturday, March 31, 2007

Birthday eats

I turned 30 on March 30--my "golden birthday" according to my friends. To be honest, I wasn't so thrilled. An ex-boyfriend says I've been 30 my entire life, and in a way, it feels natural to finally be 30. But trying to make that day somehow more special, brighter than the days before and after, it's just the kind of pressure I don't need.

Even choosing a place for a celebratory meal felt tiresome. As I get older--and become a better cook--I don't like eating out as much any more. It's hard for me to enjoy food that I could have cooked myself at home better and for less money, and I have less patience for food that tries too hard. So I was relieved when Lina and Leslie, my oldest friends, invited me to have dinner at Leslie's place.

Spaghetti with clams--this is the kind of simple food that Leslie makes perfectly. The clams were juicy, clean and salty, the pasta just al dente. Lina and I agreed, it's a dish we love but never order in restaurants because it's often executed so poorly. And in classic Leslie-style, it was preceded by simple antipasti--fresh mozzarella balls; roasted eggplant, onions, and peppers; and crusty bread--and followed by a green salad and the lightest, most delicate cupcakes.

The next morning, we went to Prune for brunch. We had to get there by 10 am to get seated in the first seating, and it was really too early to eat a big meal, but we made a good effort, starting with bloody Marys. I'm quite proud of my strong stomach and its ability to eat pickled herring and fennel early on a Saturday morning. It came with a "side" of beer.

Prune is the kind of restaurant I would open if I were ever to own a restaurant--simple, satisfying food cooked perfectly. (There's a theme here.) Stewed chickpeas with poached eggs, which were somehow coated with buttered bread crumbs, and served with a little plate of harissa, preserved lemon, some unidentified pickle, and oil-cured olives. My favorite kind of food.

The rest of the dishes were similar pleasures, hearty and straightforward, not relying on anything other than the ingredients. The famed Dutch pancake wasn't the puffy, eggy pancake I've always called a Dutch pancake, though obviously cooked in a cast-iron skillet. It was a thick with a crunchy crust, but somehow light like a good cake and not too sweet.

When the check came, these little licorice dogs came, too. Perfect, again.

But I can't say I'm going to rush back. In the end, it's still a Manhattan restaurant that's too hard to get into, with prices that are slightly too high for brunch (though not for what it was, very good food). Prune is the kind of restaurant I would open if I were to own a restaurant, but only if it were less popular. I care more about food than most of my friends, and I think about food almost every second of the day, but in the end, I don't think it should be such a big deal. I want good food to be an everyday part of my life, not something revelatory or inspired or mind-blowing, not something rare to strive for, I guess in the same way I want my birthday to be as good as any other day of my life.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

My friend who eats everything I feed her

One obvious benefit to cooking and living alone is that you're the only one around to lick the batter bowl.

But what you really need is a good eating friend, someone who is willing to eat whatever you make. I make fun of B all the time, for preferring Breyer's ice cream to premium gelato and otherwise being the child of a mother who never cooked with butter, but she really is the best friend I could have. She doesn't really like the taste of fat, yet she graciously lets me feed her braised short ribs rendered meltingly tender by their own fat, roast chicken with potatoes roasted in the chicken's own fat, and cakes fatty with butter and eggs.

We were supposed to go to Greenpoint last night to eat Polish food with some friends, but with the piles of snow and ice around, she suggested we make Irish soda bread, innocently not even realizing it was St. Patrick's Day. It was the perfect excuse for me to make the "World's Best-Braised Cabbage" from "All About Braising," fry up some turkey sausage from DiPalo's stand at the farmers' market, and roast some rosemary-garlic potato chunks. I'm sure turkey sausage isn't particularly Irish, but it seemed Irish, and it was hearty and warming on a cold night. I pointed out to her that it was a pretty healthy dinner, since there wasn't much butter or oil involved, but she didn't really believe me.

And bless her heart, she didn't even protest when I told her I wanted her to come back for dinner the next night, when I was planning to make lasagna and chocolate pound cake, courtesy of Candy on Chowhound Home Cooking.

Oh Sunday. Is there anything better than having a chocolate cake baking in the oven and a bolognese sauce simmering on the stove on a lazy Sunday afternoon?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sunday chicken

Well, the chicken looks beautiful.

I love roasting chickens on Sunday afternoons. I love the lazy luxury of making something that takes time, nothing complicated or stressful, but something that needs to cook slowly while I nap or read or watch figure skating on Sunday afternoon TV. And even though it seems preposterous to roast an entire chicken for one person, it's actually very efficient. Roast chicken for lunch, shredded chicken for salad, a nice carcass to save for later stock-making. Almost makes me feel like a Native American buffalo hunter.

I normally make Marcella Hazan's "Roast Chicken with Two Lemons," combined with the Zuni Cafe pre-salting method, and it's the easiest, juiciest, loveliest chicken in the world. But tonight, I thought I would try Paula Wolfert's roast chicken with Moroccan flavors, what she calls "Expatriate Chicken." It's an odd recipe. You prep the chicken by stuffing the cavity with a mixture of chopped garlic, preserved lemon pulp, olive oil, ground ginger, and a pinch of cayenne early in the day. The odd part begins with the cooking. The chicken gets started in a cold oven that gets cranked up to 550 degrees while boiling water is poured into the roasting pan with grated onion, saffron, a cinnamon stick, and a little bit of sugar. After 45 minutes, the oven gets turned down to 275, and you're supposed to keep turning the bird to get it brown on all sides, 20 minutes one side, 20 minutes on the other, and 10 minutes on the back. At the end, you take the bird out and let it rest, add green olives and cilantro to the pan, and then let the pan juices reduce further in the oven.

I would give more exact instructions, but it wasn't very good. The inner seasoning didn't seem to have done much for the outer bird. The breast was a little too dry, and there just wasn't much flavor. The pan juices were deliciously fatty, but the olives and cilantro didn't really meld into a larger, more complex flavor. Not bad, just disappointing. And to top it all of, I realized that the Moroccan flavors wouldn't really make for a very stock-able carcass.

So it goes.