Archive for June, 2010

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Spontaneous lunch

June 15, 2010

I was going to write about ginger today, but that will have to wait, because I need to tell you what I had for lunch. Hint: it cost less than $6, required no utensils to eat, and was elegant enough to serve company, except I don’t have a lot of friends who would have wanted to eat it (maybe I need to make some new friends). And here are some pictures of my walk on the beach this morning to keep you company while you guess.

It was a cool, drizzly day, a relief after all those 80-plus days in the last couple of weeks, and somehow this felt like the perfect time to finally find the beach and go walking on it. Sure enough, there it was at the end of Furnace Brook Parkway, practically deserted. I stepped out of the car and inhaled: yes, there was that clean, fresh seawater smell. Gray waves rolled slowly into shore; a sparrow hopped among the rocks and discarded shells, startling away as I approached.

This is not a sandy, barefoot kind of beach. But that’s not really my thing anyway. I like rocks and shells and privacy, and there are days when I like startling amounts of gray, in as many shades and textures as possible.

There are also, apparently, days when the mere sight of the ocean awakens in my belly an intense craving for mussels. And this is where I need to make different friends, because a pound of fresh Prince Edward Island mussels, delivered to the supermarket just this morning, may only cost 1.99 a pound on sale, but they come in bags of 2 to 3 pounds, and Jacob doesn’t eat shellfish, and most everybody else I know is squeamish about eating squishy orange things that come in black inscrutable shells.

There are exceptions, of course. I think I got my taste for mussels from sharing plates of them with my friend Kelsey at Weia Teia, one of the nicer restaurants in Oberlin. Though it wasn’t cheap, I ended up eating there several times, due to birthdays and parental visits and dates, and every time but once, I ordered some kind of fish — the Midwest offers limited options for a New England girl needing a seafood fix, but Weia Teia never disappointed. They don’t seem to offer the mussel appetizer anymore, but I remember a light-colored broth, flavored with chiles and lemongrass and thickened with coconut milk. I also remember eating mussels cooked in tomatoes and saffron, though, so I’m not sure which is accurate.

Imagining variations on both sets of flavors, I drove from the beach to the market. I picked up a purple-mesh sack of mussels and crossed the store in search of a loaf of cheap but interesting bread to sop up the liquid. Passing the fish counter a second time, I was flagged down by the man who’d just handed me the mussels; the person right behind me in line had wanted all the mussels they had, which turned out to be none, because I’d gotten the last of them. The fish man speculated that I could probably get a pretty good price if I offered to sell mine to the other customer, but I don’t know… mussel scalping? It would have made a good story, but I was more interested in a good lunch.

Armed with the mussels (4.40) and a loaf of day-old, non-seeded scali bread (1.65), I headed home to consult How to Cook Everything, generally my first reference for unfamiliar fish. Mark Bittman advises leaving the mussels in a pot of cold water, under a slowly running tap, for half an hour; I wasn’t in a hurry, so I did this while I continued to think about recipe ideas. (Or read completely irrelevant food blog posts, I forget which.) One point of advice: don’t do this rinse in a dark-colored nonstick pot. When I went to retrieve the mussels, I almost missed the last two or three lurking in the depths, because their shells were the same color as the pot lining.

I ultimately decided to go with the Basic Steamed Mussels recipe; it used stuff I already had, and after rinsing the mussels and pulling off the “beard” (threadlike filaments that the mussel uses to cling to surfaces — mine were relatively beardless, though), I didn’t want to spend longer than 15 minutes actually cooking them. I’m pretty sure this was the right choice, because the finished mussels were completely satisfying, tender and slightly sweet, fragrant with saffron, but tasting mostly of the sea — exactly what I had in mind.

I wanted a wide, shallow bowl to eat the mussels out of, something like a soup plate or pasta bowl, so it would be easy to sop up the extra broth with slices of toasted bread. A pie plate worked fine, and after happily slurping my way through one serving, I decided that — while I could save the other half for dinner, or lunch tomorrow — they could not possibly taste as delicious as they did just then. Call me a glutton, but I would rather overdose on something delicious at its best, then save it for later when flavor and texture will undoubtedly have faded, simply out of some notion of restraint. And for the record, I didn’t end up eating dinner; 45 mussels is plenty of food for a day, no matter how you eat them.

Basic Steamed Mussels, à la Mark Bittman

You don’t need to add much liquid because as the mussels open, they will release their own salty, seawatery liquid, essentially making their own broth. Everything else is just to perk up the flavor a little, but the mussels don’t need much help, so don’t overdo it.

3 Tbsp. olive oil

4 cloves garlic

1 medium onion, sliced (I used a small onion and a shallot)

1/2 c. dry white wine

1/2 c. chopped fresh parsley (I used thyme — better the wrong fresh herb than something dried, right?)

Mussels, cleaned (Bittman says at least 4 pounds of large ones, but I had about 2.5, and that worked fine with the stated amounts of other ingredients.)

Pinch saffron (optional but highly recommended)

1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat, then add garlic and onion/shallot and cook until onion softens.

2. Add wine, parsley/other herb, and mussels, cover the pot, and increase heat. Steam until mussels open, 8-10 minutes (mine were done in about 6; M.B. says to shake the pot frequently, which I did a couple of times, but I’m not sure why, and it seems like you could break the mussels if you got too excited). Transfer mussels to serving bowl with a slotted spoon; strain some cooking liquid over them, if desired.

Serves about 1 person per pound of mussels, unless you are a glutton. In which case, serves 1 person.

Extra credit reading: More information about cooking mussels, Mussels are Seafood Watch approved!

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Rainbows, edible and not

June 9, 2010

I don’t know why it took me so long to hear about peperonata, the Italian dish of stewed bell peppers and onions. It has all the sweet, soft appeal of roasted peppers, without the trouble of turning on the oven or peeling off the charred skin: you just slice a lot of peppers and onions, cook in olive oil over low heat for a while, then season with salt and pepper and vinegar. Some versions include tomatoes or other spices. But it’s incredibly simple, and very tasty.

I think I first encountered the term in the archives of Roots and Grubs; it failed to ring any bells at the time, but then I was searching for something to top some Trader Joe’s pizza dough, and happened to notice that Stone Hearth Pizza offers a peperonata pizza. So I didn’t make the pizza dough myself (lame, I know, but it’s a step up from English muffin pizzas), and I didn’t even come up with using peperonata as a topping, but at least I had the sense to recognize a good idea.

I found this recipe on Epicurious, which has got to be the most basic peperonata recipe out there, but I figured that was a fine place to start. I substituted three sprigs of thyme for the rosemary, in honor of the little potted thyme plant in my pantry window, which I intend to use as much as I can before I leave in two weeks (yikes!). They didn’t impart a strong flavor to the finished dish, but they did look pretty.

After cooking gently for 40 minutes, the peppers were thoroughly wilted, the onions ever so slightly browned. I sprinkled sea salt and black pepper, then added a good dash of balsamic vinegar, a perfect foil to the vegetables’ natural sweetness. I happily devoured a few forkfuls, savoring the contrast of sugar and acid, then resigned myself to saving the rest for the pizza.

I almost wish I hadn’t. The pizza was fine, I guess, but the peperonata was perfect, and it would have been better matched with some polenta or fresh crusty bread. And I’ve read all about the difficulties of making decent pizza at home, and I haven’t even gone to the trouble of getting a pizza stone or some unglazed tiles, so I’m not really allowed to complain if the crust is a little pale and unimpressive.

Actually, the bottom of the crust was very nicely browned and crisp, but I hadn’t been able to roll the dough out thin enough to get that texture all the way through, and I didn’t want to cook much longer for fear of burning the bottom. Maybe next time I’ll finish with a few minutes under the broiler. And I don’t know if this is true of all pizza dough or just Trader Joe’s, but man, that stuff is elastic. I roll and roll, but it keeps springing back into a lump, and I can never get the edges thin enough. Sigh. Maybe pizza will have to be one of those foods I deliberately never master, so I can continue to enjoy it in restaurants without thinking of how I could have made it cheaper/better/fresher myself.

On a brighter note, here is the rainbow that followed me home from work. Two rainbows, actually; there’s a fainter one to the left of the obvious one. (Fear not, traffic-safety mavens: I took this picture while paused at a long stoplight.)

When I got home, I ran to the end of the street to catch one more glimpse of the rainbow (there are too many trees right around the house to see much sky. Alas, poor me). It was nearly faded by then, but you can sort of see it there, tucked between house and tree.

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No other choice, no other way

June 7, 2010

Yesterday was the final performance of Rent, the last day of four weekends and fifteen performances, and it felt good. The tempos were where I wanted them (mostly), the sound balance was solid, and the energy level was amazing, everybody giving their performance that little something extra. Yes, there were a few silly ad libs that hadn’t been there before. But there was a sense of rightness that I hadn’t felt, at least not consistently. I was relaxed, but also tuned in to everything around me — I felt sharp, aware, alive. This is a feeling I only get from two things, theater and hiking, and in theater, I only get it when I really feel like I’m at the top of my game. Which has not always been the case for me with this show, because there’s been so much to think about. Rent is not a difficult show to play, but it’s hard to conduct, a lot harder than I expected. Thankfully I had four excellent musicians to work with, who stuck with me through all the little wrinkles that happen in theater — missed entrances, skipped lines, battery-powered stand lights that die mid-performance (thankfully, the tech staff figured out how to wire the offending lights before the second weekend).

Early in the second act, thunder began to rumble overhead, and it was raining hard. I actually thought this had a nice atmospheric effect, reaching its peak in the scene before “Without You,” which takes place in spring and has to do with longing. And then the power went out.

It took me a couple of seconds to notice. My stand light batteries were still running strong, so that stayed on even as all the lights around me disappeared. And it was well before the keyboard part enters, so I wasn’t trying to play, just keeping time for everyone else. But suddenly there was no bass, just an unamplified acoustic guitar. The guitarist kept playing in the dark, the sound engineer switched on his flashlight and pointed it down to the stage to replace the missing spotlight, and the actress playing Mimi began to sing again. In another couple of seconds I had formed a plan: I was already reaching to hand the guitarist my stand light, and I would grab my own flashlight to hold for the drummer when his part began. Since this song is built around the acoustic guitar, it would be missing some important components, but it would work.

And then, after only ten seconds or so, the power came back, the audience applauded warmly, and the show went on. It took another few seconds for my keyboard to reboot so I could find the correct sound patch, and a few more for the stage manager’s computer to load the lighting program (I’m told the conversation on the headset was a little bit X-rated for a while). But soon all these elements came back together, and the thunder quieted. By the end of the show the sun was bright, there were tears and laughter and hugs and pictures and silly dances, toasts and awards and a giant pan of lasagna that was demolished with astonishing speed. I may or may not have been forced to wear a piece of the set on my head. I don’t know if there are pictures to prove it.

When I finally left the theater nearly four hours later, the convenience store across the street was still dark, and the stoplight at the corner wasn’t working either. So it’s a little bit extra magical that our power was restored so quickly.

Thank to you to all of the fabulously talented cast, crew, and band for being part of that magic.

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Calling a salad a salad

June 4, 2010

I don’t know who decided it was a good idea to dump a big pile of arugula on top of a pizza (or some ravioli, or what-have-you), but obviously a lot of people got wind of this idea and were similarly charmed by it. I’m not so sure I agree, but the thing is, the people who make the arugula pizzas are clever people, and they also top those pizzas with other things I cannot resist, so then I order that pizza in spite of its precarious green crown. And sometimes it works out just fine, and the rest of the time it tastes pretty good but is extremely awkward to eat.

The thing about the Tavern in the Square is that their Central Square location is just down the street from the Cambridge Family YMCA, in whose charming little theater the Longwood Players presented City of Angels this spring. So on closing day, when we had a matinee and an evening show with just a couple of hours in between, the Tavern was a natural choice for dinner. It’s a cozy, casual place, or it would be, except that a lot of the tables in the front are broken up by big posts running from floor to ceiling. Presumably these are structurally necessary, but they seem to result in isolating you from the conversation of all your dining companions except the one across from you, who is one of the leads and also feeling a bit under the weather, so he’s trying to rest up for the evening performance by not speaking to anyone, which as the assistant music director you totally support, but it makes for a sad and lonely dinner.

And then you order the arugula pizza (Melted leeks! Goat cheese!) and you can’t decide whether to eat the arugula first with a fork, followed by the rest of the pizza with your hands, or eat the whole thing with a fork, or just go for broke and eat the whole slice with your hands. You decide on the last option, because you are lazy and hungry, and because the pizza minus the arugula is frankly not that interesting. And, well, it’s not pretty. Well, the pizza itself is pretty, drizzled with a dark, shiny balsamic glaze, but you eating the pizza is something else entirely. The arugula doesn’t stay put — it falls all over the plate, and you can’t seem to bite it off elegantly, and it’s actually kind of hard to swallow because it’s fairly dry, being only drizzled and not actually dressed. And you almost wish you’d ordered a basic Margherita, like a normal person.

It seems like it’s a better approach to just call the arugula a salad, mounded in the middle of the pizza and nicely dressed, with another veggie or two mixed in. That’s what you get on the Farm Fresh pie at Stone Hearth Pizza, a local chain that features organic, locally sourced ingredients. Last night I ordered one of these, and because the salad was clearly a salad (arugula, thinly sliced red onion, and a strip of prosciutto, tossed in a light vinaigrette), it seemed right to eat it first, besides which I was planning on saving a couple of slices for Jacob and didn’t figure the greens would keep very well. The rest of the pizza was teeming with other delicious ingredients — cubed Yukon Gold potatoes, red and yellow peppers, halved cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts, green and Kalamata olives, and fresh mozzarella — which made it a little messy to eat, but oh, was it ever delicious. I didn’t notice until inhaling the fourth slice in my car, just before driving home from Rent, that there was no cheese except for the mozzarella blobs, which was fine because there was also no tomato sauce, just the pile of tasty, tasty vegetables. I would order that pizza again right now. And tomorrow, too.

I did save the last two slices for Jacob, who was hungry from a long day of rehearsals. It was very hard. But I did it.

I hear there is also an arugula pizza (the “Spruce”) at the Dogwood Cafe, which holds a special place in my heart even though I no longer live within walking distance. I think I may need to sample their version as well, strictly in the spirit of scientific inquiry, you understand. Also they have a drink called the Ruby Red Saint (St. Germain, pear vodka, grapefruit juice) that I’m pretty sure I need to try. Fortunately I’m doing a show at the Footlight Club in the fall, so I’ll be in the neighborhood often enough to continue pairing theater with arugula pizza. If I can wait that long.