Cioppino

Recently I reread Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.  This time round, one particular character stood out–her good friend and fellow writer, Norman Douglas.  Her anecdotes about dining with him in Italy and how he’d keep a hunk of salami in his pocket even when going to the best restaurants were hilarious.  As were her accounts of his writing the aphrodisiac cookbook, Venus in the Kitchen.  His maxims about food, “Indigestion and love will not be yoked to together” “Good intentions–no. . . Gastritis will be the result of good intentions” “To be miserly towards your friends is not pretty; to be miserly towards yourself is contemptible,” were so amusing, I ordered his book.

There is much to love, starting with the introduction by Graham Greene.  “There are said to be certain Jewish rabbis who perform the operation of circumcision with their thumbnail so rapidly and painlessly that the child never cries.  So without warning Douglas operates and the victim has no time to realise in what purgatorio of lopped limbs he is about to wake, among the miserly, the bogus, the boring, and the ungenerous.”

Mr. Douglas’ recipes are really funny and not just because they have titles like Marrow of Leopard or Vulvae Steriles.  The latter was apparently a favorite of Horace, Pliny, and Martial.  Those crazy Romans.  “I have been perusing Seneca’s letters.  He was a cocoa-drinker, masquerading as an ancient.”  There are lots of brilliant little jewels in this humorous last book of Mr. Douglas’ but my favorite would be his recipe for Stewed Crabs.  Not because it’s particularly entertaining but because it reminded me of home.

Going back to Elizabeth David. . . There is an article she wrote for The Spectator, 8 December, 1961 which is included in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.  The piece is entitled West Points.  In it she reviewed Helen Brown’s West Coast Cook Book which was published in 1952.  “The recipes, says the author, are the regional ones of the three Pacific States–California, Oregon, and Washington State.  Some, brought from all over Europe, originated with the early settlers, and proving suitable to the new world, settled in as native dishes.”  David goes on to write that one such dish is cioppino which is what Mr. Douglas’ stewed crabs reminded me of.

Cioppino is a seafood stew and a west coast classic, especially in San Francisco.  It’s the Italian-American answer to bouillabaisse and I ate lots of it as a kid.  My mother made a version with hazelnut romesco.  Fishermen from Genoa who settled in Northern California used to make this dish aboard their boats in the 1800s.  Later when some of them went on to open restaurants, this became one of their most famous dishes on the menu.  The name cioppino comes from a word in the Ligurian dialect, ciuppin which means to chop.  As the stew is made from chopped up pieces of the day’s catch, this seems appropriate.

So many food writers begin their careers when they leave the land of their birth.  Like Claudia Roden who contacted her friends and family for recipes before leaving Cairo.  Through food she could reconnect to the feelings and memories of her old home whilst living and growing roots in her new one.  When I read her writing, I sense the attachment to her childhood.  She writes about it with nostalgia as I think a great many food writers do.  I certainly do and it wasn’t until I left Los Angeles for London that I started doing so.  Food is a great communicator.  It summons memories and gives them life again.

If you want a taste of my childhood, try the cioppino recipe I’ve written below.  The broth is made from tomatoes, wine, garlic, onions, peppers, herbs, and spices.  I like mine a bit spicy so I add chopped chilies or red pepper flakes.  All kinds of seafood is then simmered in the broth.  Since I live in England now, I’ve adapted the recipe to use what’s around me–Cromer crab and smoked fish.  I serve it with parsley, basil, and the nicest bread I can find.  And of course, I raise my glass and toast to home.

me and the mouse train window royal hill sign

 

Ingredients:

1 pound fish pie mix–salmon, cod, and smoked haddock

1/2 pound crab meat (I usually use uncooked but as I shopped late in the day, cooked was all they had.  I always think it’s fun to see crab claws in my stew)

2 handfuls of clams

2 small onions, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

7 cloves of garlic, grated

1 chili pepper

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

a bunch of fresh thyme

a bunch basil, chiffonade

1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped

3 bay leaves

1 jar fish soup (I use the soupe de poisson from our fishmonger)

1 can of chopped tomatoes

1/2 bottle white wine (I use Vinho Verde as that’s what I like to drink with this meal)

ingredients

Method:

Dry roast the fennel seeds until you can smell their fragrance.  Remove from heat and grind with a mortar and pestle.

fennel dust

Next, add some olive oil to a large pot.  Over medium-low heat, saute the onions, bell peppers, garlic, chili pepper, bay leaves, thyme, basil, parsley, and fennel dust.

1st saute

Once everything starts to caramelize, add the can of tomatoes and wine.  Simmer for about 15 minutes or until flavors start to meld.

tomatoes and wine simmer

Pour the jar of fish soup into your mixture.  This will enrich it.  Then, stir in the clams.  As soon as they start to open, add the fish.  After two minutes, stir in the cooked crab.  Turn off the heat and allow everything to stand for a few minutes under a lid.

fish soup clams fish pie mix crab pot of soup bowls of soup soup

 

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Slicily (or so I’ve called it after a few aperol spritzes) and the Sweet Life

Five years ago, I met my husband under a blood red moon while on a classic car rally in Sicily.  We were both there as guests of people who owned vintage cars.  Neither of us really fit in.  We were the strangers who came not knowing anyone other than the friends who invited us.  Still, what an adventure.

We spent a week together with 50 or so other people, toodling around hill towns and rugged beaches, meeting up only for meals and parties.  Not until the last day did we actually talk to each other.

At Catania Airport, or Aeroporto I should say, Henry and I had our first proper conversation.  The ice breaker was of a sartorial nature.  He was wearing a stripy blue jacket with white chinos as was I.  His was paired with brown suede loafers and mine with red patent leather ballet slippers that criss-crossed and buckled around my tan ankles. We were like a his and hers page in a J. Crew catalogue.

It was there at the curb while checking luggage that Henry and I realized we had a really good rapport.  Sadly, he lived in London and I in L.A. so we both quit flirting parce que what was the point and said our good-byes.  Neither of us thought we’d ever see the other again.  But life is funny and we knew nothing of what the future held.

When I got back to Los Angeles the customs officer asked if I had anything to declare.  “Boredom, vice, and poverty,” I said.  I thought I was still nursing a grand-daddy of a hangover I felt so bad.  My sickness turned out to be food poisoning from something I ate on the plane.  Once at home, I crawled into bed and stayed there for a week.

My friend who invited me on the trip forwarded me an email.  It was a humorous account of the first breakfast in Sicily that Henry had written for the London Review of Breakfasts.  I enjoyed it so much and immediately wrote to him.  He responded by telling me how pleased he was I was the first person from the rally to comment on it.

From that day forward we were in correspondence.  Daily.  I sent him parcels full of candy, Nat Sherman cigarettes, and CDs.  He sent me books with endearing inscriptions inside.  The day Geoff Dyer’s “Jeff in Venice Death in Varanasi” arrived along with some Owl and the Pussycat vanilla biscuits, I knew I had to go to him.

I flew to London for a ten day visit and there at Heathrow we had our first kiss.  I remember holding his hand the whole of our train ride to Paddington and then the entire cab ride to Bethnal Green.  I remember looking at him and hearing Lord Tanamo’s “I’m in the Mood for Love” on a loop in my head.  Life was full of magic.

Henry took me for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants, 32 Great Queen Street, where we’d later have a dinner party belatedly celebrating our marriage the following spring.  I remember potted shrimp and smoked mackerel and Bandol rosé, but what I remember most about that meal came after we left the restaurant.

As we walked outside and down the street all wrapped up in each other like new lovers do, an old man in a wheel chair outside a pub raised a tremulous arm and pointed to us.  “Love,” he said.  And it was.  So novelistically so.

At the end of those ten days, I never went home.  Instead, Henry and I survived a car crash in the South of France and he asked me to marry him on the Eurostar back to London.  A few days later he presented me with a diamond ring so I wouldn’t doubt the sincerity of his proposal.  The rest is history.

Tomorrow, we’ll be back in Sicily for the first time in five years.  Just the two of us.  No classic cars, no naughty toddler, no distractions.  Just the owl and the pussycat and a pea green boat.  Maybe a little Nino Rota on the iPod to keep us company.  And why not?  This is the sweet life.  Sweet and refreshing as any good frappato.

When I return I’ll inundate you with pictures of rugged coastlines and cannoli.  Until then, I’ll leave you with this.  My recipe for Swarthy Sicilian Chicken for Magical Realists.  Life is magical.  Sometimes it just takes a blood red moon and a distance of 5,437 miles to illuminate it for you.

 

Whole Wheat Israeli Couscous Salad with Turmeric Vinaigrette

Despite being from Los Angeles, I am not a health nut.  Sure I drank juice elixirs laden with spirulina during my teen years, but I did so because they tasted nice.  That and you try ordering juice in Southern California that doesn’t already come with added super foods.  It’s damn near impossible.

My reason for using whole wheat Israeli or pearl couscous as it is also known is not health related.  Though it’s true whole wheat has more fiber and iron than the regular stuff, I really don’t care.  Its nutritional value is just an added bonus.  The reason I use it is because it tastes better.  I love its nutty flavor.  I also prefer its size as I think big grains are better in salads.

Given the grain’s natural nuttiness, I thought the salad should be decidedly nutty.  Which is why I added toasted almonds and hazelnuts.  They’re my favorite nuts but you should use what you like.  Same with the herbs.  Experiment.  Discover a combination you like best.

 

Ingredients:

150 grams whole wheat Israeli or pearl couscous

1/4 cup fresh chopped herbs (dill and flat leaf parsley)

1/4 cup toasted roughly chopped hazelnuts

1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds

1 sweet red Ramiro pepper, diced

Turmeric vinaigrette: 1 tablespoon dijon mustard, 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup cyder vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, salt and pepper to taste

2014-05-19 17.22.35

 

Method:

First, boil the coucous for about 6 minutes.  Make sure there is still a tiny bit of chew when you take it off.  Strain it and rinse with cold water to prevent further cooking.  Set this aside.

Next, toast your nuts over a low flame.  Sorry, the 9 year old in me can’t stop laughing over that last sentence.  But seriously, toast your nuts over a low flame.  Make sure they do not burn.    You only want them slightly browned.  Generally, I use my nose to tell me when they’re done. The moment you can smell warm hazelnuts and almonds, they’re probably ready.

Now chop your herbs and dice your red pepper.

Add all ingredients to a large bowl and gently mix.  Be sure not to smash your couscous.  Spoon over the vinaigrette.  I do this a tablespoon at a time so as to not get too much dressing on your salad.  A soggy salad is never good.  Season to taste and serve.

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Coconut Cake and Paolo Conte

Today is a good day.  Not just because I purchased tickets to see my favorite Italian Grandpa perform in London later this fall, but because there is leftover coconut cake from this weekend.

Saturday was an old friend’s birthday.  He and his joined us and ours for aperol spritzes and a Mexican feast I spent two days preparing.  To top it all off, I made Mr.  Peacock‘s famous coconut layer cake.  The recipe is on Better Homes and Gardens if you want to check it out.  There is even a helpful video of him walking you through each step.  I recommend it.  The only modification I made was using the fresh coconut milk in lieu of water for the syrup that goes in the icing.  Also, yesterday, I served the cake with sliced mango.  ‘Twas a winning combination.

coconut cakethe cake cake slicecross section P1000658

Darjeeling with Dogs: Whole Milk and Andy Warhol on the Side

SarahAndyWhen I was 11, my family moved into a 1924 Spanish style house in Laurel Canyon.  It was an oasis in the hills with a history steeped in Old Hollywood.  The yard smelled sweetly floral like orange blossoms on a hot summer’s night.  Or the lingering perfume of a silent film star’s ghost.  Clara Bow lived on our street and Louise Brooks in the neighborhood.  Bougainvillea cascaded down the hill like a waterfall of jewel tones washing over the dusty succulents.  Squirrels were fat from gorging themselves on the fruit of an avocado tree.  And the coyotes were fatter still from eating the squirrels.  Deer, opossums, owls, quail, rabbits and raccoons all lived in our backyard.  It was so charming, but not at the time.  At the time I was 11.  I had curly hair, ill-advised bangs, braces, and a bad attitude exacerbated by the fact that I was a competitive figure skater who wanted to be Moira Kelly in The Cutting Edge.  The 76 front stairs made me feel sorry for myself whenever my parents made me take out the trash.  And the fact that they bought me a pair of Lightning Rollerblades that I wasn’t allowed to use because my mother said our street was too steep, made me feel sorrier still.  How as a child in 1993 was I going to have any fun?

With a dog.  For my 12th birthday, my parents got me a Maltese that I named Bailey Jane.  She looked nothing like Elizabeth Taylor’s Maltese that appeared in her White Diamonds commercials.  For starters, Bailey’s hair was kept short in a puppy cut.  Sure, she was an animal of privilege but she was still a dog.  A canyon dog.  She had trouble to get into.  The likes of which she would have never found if we had been constantly getting her groomed.  Like the baby coyote she discovered with the broken leg in the muddy underbrush of my mother’s hydrangeas.  A dog just can’t have those kinds of expeditions with silky floor length tresses.  That’s not to insinuate that the hair Bailey did have wasn’t silky.  It was.  So much so that I took to using her puppy shampoo.  I adored her.  I wore zip-up hoodies so I could walk around carrying her.  Her ears smelled like cookies and her dirty paws of stale popcorn stuffed in old socks.  She was my best friend.  But that didn’t mean I was hers.  At least not her only.

Bailey Jane

Bailey’s best fur friend was Patches, the black and white cattle dog who lived next door.  Despite their size difference they really enjoyed each other’s company.  Patches would mosey over to ours and paw at the door like a child asking if her friend can come out to play.  Bailey would look at my parents and me longingly.  We’d open the door and the two of them would chase each other outside.  One day, Patches came over and I noticed a piece of paper tucked into her collar.

“Would your family and Bailey like to come over for tea?”  I showed the note to my parents.  We wrote back.  “Yes.”  I tucked the paper back where I found it and sent Patches on her way.  She returned a few minutes later with another note.  “Great.  See you at 4 o’clock.  Gary & Sarah.”

Gary and Sarah were Patches’ parents.  We didn’t know much about them except that they had been in the canyon for a long time and that Sarah once scolded my father for speeding up the hill.  “Dogs and children live here!  Slow down!”  But that afternoon, we were going to do what people in L.A. never do.  We were going to get acquainted with our neighbors.

Where our house had shades of Norma Desmond’s in Sunset Boulevard but on a much smaller scale, the Legons’ house had shades of Tom Wolfe’s “The Pump House Gang.”  It was magnificent, modern, and full of Pop art.  And tea.  Not Snapple Peach, but properly brewed hot tea in the middle of the day.  Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong, or plain English Breakfast.  I loved it and I loved them.  Each time I’d go to theirs, it was like taking a field trip. Like going to Pooh Corner in the 1960s with Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell as your chaperones.

Bailey and I would often go without my parents.  Over time and cups of tea and slices of Stilton on raisin toast, I would learn about and develop an appreciation for art.  Sarah came to New York from Southampton when she was 13.  There, she and her older brother, David, fell in love with the art scene.  She told me the Leo Castelli Gallery was one of their favorite places and that the manager there took them under his wing.  And that one day he took them to a party hosted by art director, Art Kane, which is where they met Andy Warhol and forged a friendship that would change their lives.  While still children David and Sarah became Andy’s assistants.  And what most people don’t know is that it was young Sarah who taught him to silkscreen.

Sarah is the real Edie Sedgwick–except she had class and she never cared to be famous. For instance, there is a photo that some paparazzo snapped of her with Andy and she’s wearing a dress from his FRAGILE HANDLE WITH CARE series. She is identified as “unknown woman,” because her mother taught her it was tacky to give your name to the press.  No young gorgeous girl standing next to an icon would do that these days.

But it wasn’t just Sarah’s history or the Rauschenbergs that hung on her wall that interested me.  It was how she was genuinely interested in 12 year old me.  I’d tell them about Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis.  I’d tell them about making crêpes in French class.  Sarah would help me conjugate verbs in the passé composé using être as opposed to avoir.  I’d tell them about the Lichtenstein exhibit I’d seen downtown with my parents.  We’d discuss his Ben-Day dots and how they related to Seurat’s pointillism.  We’d talk about Clueless.  I’d show them my latest figure skating tricks. They were like the cool eccentric relatives I didn’t have in town.

We all know the African proverb made famous by Hillary Clinton: It takes a village to raise a child.  I am so happy Patches and the Legons were my villagers.  I think of them fondly whenever I hear “Our House” and remember afternoon tea parties at theirs with Bailey Jane whenever anyone offers me a good cup of tea or a toasted Stilton sandwich.  Now that I’m a mother, I wonder who will my daughter’s villagers be?  And more importantly, what kind of dog will we get?

Miss Cat Ballou’s Creamy Mashed Potatoes

The last time I was in Los Angeles my husband and I supped with a friend of mine, Miss Cat Ballou.  She is an Irish aristocrat from County Clare who traded in her silver spoon for a Smith & Wesson and some pointy boots the moment she turned sixteen.  She is now a cowgirl in the Pacific Southwest and the only one who wears Lanvin with Levi cut-offs.  When she’s not rounding up wild hearts, she enjoys cooking in her outdoor kitchen.  Have I mentioned that her mashed potatoes are the best in the world?  They are.  And thanks to her benevolence here is her recipe.

Ingredients:

4 large Russet potatoes

1 stick of butter

1 cup milk

1 egg (if you are making mashed potatoes for shepherd’s pie)

Method:

Skin the potatoes and cook them on a rolling boil until they are very soft.  Strain them and place them in a large mixing bowl.  Add the butter and the milk.  With a whisk, beat the potatoes until they are smooth.  If you are making shepherd’s pie, add the egg and beat them some more.

Lucy’s Salsa

Salsa
In the weeks building up to my college graduation, I viewed the event as being let out on parole.  I lived through four years of Pilgrim-cold east coast winters and plates of refried puddles in restaurants claiming to be “Tex-Mex.”  Hand-to-god, neither Texicans nor Mexicans had anything to do with the culinary apologies that came out of those kitchens.  I lost my tan.  I lost my morale.  But most importantly, I lost my adolescent infatuation with New York.  I met my quota on the number of times a person can watch Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” in a lifetime and I no longer cared about hanging out in coffee shops Ginsberg used to frequent.  My dreams of the-big-money-poetry-life were over.  All I could think about was Joan Didion’s last essay in  ”Slouching Towards Bethlehem.“  I was a prodigal daughter ready to come home and without admonishment for ever leaving her Promised Land, California beckoned me.  Like Didion, I wanted the comfort of seeing the moon on the Pacific and smelling jasmine all around.  I wanted to go home.
Ten years after graduation, I still get this feeling.  Though London is my physical home, Los Angeles is where my heart resides.
I miss L.A.’s latin heartbeat.  I miss the way lots of streets have Spanish names and you can hear Spanish spoken everywhere you go–even though I don’t speak a word.  I was the idiot in high school who studied French instead.  I miss the smell of taco trucks, fresh fruit and the sea.  I miss L.A.’s hot dusty smells too.  The ones that make you feel like a vaquero amongst the sage brush or a Spanish settler praying to god for protection in the New World.  I miss howling coyotes and ripe avocados and the out of work actors/writers/directors/musicians/artists who all have shows they’d love for you to attend.  I even miss Bukowski’s seedy Hollywood.  Black Dahlia Hollywood.  Ugly people, bad judgement, misdeeds, and broken dreams.  I miss Spanish colonial architecture and tree houses up in the hills.  Mostly, I miss the people with whom I have a shared history.  Hell, I miss it all.  I miss outdoor malls.  I miss the restaurants I went to with my parents as a kid.  I miss The Little Door where my husband and I had our wedding dinner.
Sometimes I miss it all so bad.  When I do, I make the following salsa and it helps.  The family housekeeper, Lucy, used to make this when I was growing up.  It’s amazing.  It’s transportive and it really can heal heart wounds.  Even from 5,400 miles away.
Ingredients:
3 large ripe tomatoes
1 scallion
1 jalapeño of your desired intensity
3 unpeeled garlic cloves
the juice from one lime
1 small onion
freshly chopped cilantro
salt
You will also need foil.
Method:
Fashion the foil into a small boat.  Make sure it’s sturdy.  Now put the tomatoes, the scallion, the jalapeño, and the garlic cloves into it.  Place the foil boat on one of your stove’s gas burners and keep it on low.  Some of the foil will burn away, but try to make sure enough of it remains.  Dry roast your ingredients until they start to char.  Turn them every once in a while.  When the tomatoes start to go soft and juicy, remove them.  Let everything cool for a few minutes.  Then roughly chop one tomato and put it in a bowl.  Slice the scallion into thin rounds and add this to the chopped tomato.  Next, peel the garlic cloves.  Put them and the jalapeño in a mortar and use a pestle to mash them until they form a paste.  Add the remaining two tomatoes and mash them as well.  Pour the contents into the bowl with the chopped tomato and the scallion.  Dice your small onion and add it as well as the lime juice and cilantro.  Season with salt to taste.
Dip into this salsa with your favorite tortilla chips and no matter the weather, you’ll taste the sun.