Saturday, April 17, 2010

the color of money

"Where, I ask you, lovers of the arts, where are the male Muses?"

Monica Szabo is a moderately successful middle-aged painter when she jokingly poses her question to the audience at a gallery talk, hardly expecting a serious answer. B, a wealthy futures trader and admirer of Monica's work, has a serious plan in mind. B offers to become Monica's muse, providing her with time, space, money and sex - everything she needs to create great art.

My selection for Novel Food 2010 is Mary Gordon's Spending, a thoughtful, witty story of the connection between art, money, and desire. Gordon's imagery is lush and vivid, and the meals in Spending are richly detailed. There's Monica and B's first meal of bouillabaisse, "tomatoes and soft flesh of once-shelled creatures"; a post-Thanksgiving dinner of shrimp with garlic and parsley, followed by pasta con aglio ed olio; and a celebratory feast with a three-colored seafood terrine and plum tart with almond cream.

With so many meals to draw from, I couldn't decide. Instead, I took one passage with vivid imagery and used it as inspiration:

"I was talking about a painting of mine called The Artist's Muse. In the background there's a lot of emptiness. De Chirico emptiness, that kind of spacy gray green. And a shadow of a table. In the foreground, a man wearing only his underwear, a very beautiful pair of green and white striped silk boxer shorts. I had a wonderful time doing those shorts, the pearliness of the white, absorbing that dim light, and the green stripes, the green of an Anjou pear, but waxier, relating to the empty green of the background."

I decided to create a dish in green and white. A dish the color of money.

First, the green: I had oh-so-elusive fresh English peas, and I wanted a dish that would flatter them. I usually hesitate to cook fresh English peas in anything other than risi e bisi or soup, because anything more elaborate seems like overkill, but it occurred to me that I could make mezzelune, the stuffed pasta that are shaped like half-moons, and fill them with a simple puree of peas with onion, butter, and a touch of mint. Once I decided on pasta, the white followed easily: a cream sauce with mild spring onions and a touch of white wine.

The finished dish is simple but luxurious: a sweet, buttery pea puree, wrapped in fresh pasta, cloaked in a sauce of spring onions and cream. I don't know if Monica would want to paint it, but I hope she wouldn't think twice before picking up a fork and digging in.

Fresh Pea Mezzelune with Spring Onion Cream Sauce

(Serves one, with leftovers. Mezzelune can be frozen.)

To make the filling, start by shelling a pound of fresh English peas. Rinse and set aside.

Heat a knob of butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with lid. Add one finely chopped white onion, and cook until translucent. Add the peas, a generous pinch of salt, and a sprig of fresh mint (or a few leaves of dried). Cover with water. Simmer with lid on until the peas are tender and slightly wrinkled. Remove the lid and reduce until there is just a little liquid in the pan. Allow the peas to cool, then puree with an immersion blender or food processor.

To make the pasta dough, dump one cup of flour on a clean countertop. Make a well; add two egg yolks, a glug of olive oil, a little water, and a pinch of salt. Knead together until you have a smooth, pliable dough. Wrap in plastic wrap. Leave in the fridge to rest for at least an hour.

(For a detailed guide to making fresh pasta, go here.)

To assemble, use a pasta machine to roll out sheets on the thinnest setting. Cut out rounds with a ravioli stamp or cookie cutter. Place a teaspoon of filling on a round, then fold over to form a half-moon. Pinch the edges to seal. Repeat until you run out of filling. Set the filled pasta on baking sheets. Pasta may be frozen at this stage.

To make the dish, set a pot of salted water on to boil. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, melt a tiny dab of butter over low heat. Add two finely chopped spring onions (white bulb and pale green stem) and a pinch of coarse salt.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft and fragrant. Add a splash of white wine and allow it to simmer until the alcohol fumes dissipate. Add three-quarters of a cup of heavy cream. Let the mixture simmer, but do not boil.

Once the salted water hits a rolling boil, cook the mezzelune a dozen at a time for two to three minutes (a little longer if they're frozen.) Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and add to the pan with the sauce. When all the mezzelune are in the pan, the sauce will have thickened slightly. Turn off the heat.

Serve in big bowls, garnished with a sprig of something green.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

alone in the kitchen with an artichoke

When I eat alone, I like to snack on artichokes.

Come springtime, as soon as the displays in the supermarket produce aisle feature those lovely pale green globes, I get out the steamer basket and ready my kitchen shears. During artichoke season, if you open my fridge, chances are you'll find at least one whole cooked artichoke sitting on the top shelf.

I like to sit down at my computer with an artichoke (plain, still cold) while I check my e-mail or organize my notes from class. There's a distinct pleasure in peeling away each leaf and scraping off the edible bit at the end with my teeth. And then there's a sense of satisfaction, almost accomplishment, when I look at the pile of discarded leaves.

When I reach the heart, however, I'll put the rest of the artichoke in Tupperware. Plain and cold is not a good way to eat an artichoke heart. It may be the best bit, but it's not suitable for snacking.

The artichoke heart can wait until dinner. Thinly sliced and sauteed in olive oil with garlic and lemon, tossed with homemade potato gnocchi, the heart has a pleasure entirely distinct from that of the leaves.

It comes with another pleasure, too: if I cook too much gnocchi, I can snack on the cold leftovers straight from the serving dish later.

Potato Gnocchi with Artichoke, Garlic, and Lemon

The artichoke may be prepared the day before.

(Serves one. Extra gnocchi will freeze.)

Take a artichoke, and cut off the stems so that it'll sit flat. Trim the leaves, and use a spoon to scrape out as much of the choke as you can. Put in a lemon wedge and a peeled clove of garlic in the cavity.

Put the artichoke in a pot and add a half-inch of water. Simmer for twenty to thirty minutes - the bottom should still have some resistance when pierced with a fork. Remove from the pot and set aside to cool.

To make the gnocchi, take a pound of boiling potatoes (Yukon Golds are good), peel, cube, and cook in salted boiling water until tender. Drain and allow to cool.

Put the cooled potatoes in a mixing bowl and mash with a fork. (Or put them through a food mill, if you have one.) Beat in one egg until the mixture is thick and creamy. Stir in one cup of flour and a half-teaspoon of salt. You should have a soft dough that is still a little on the sticky side.

Put a quarter-cup or so of flour on a clean countertop. Pinch off rounded teaspoon-size lumps of dough and roll them in the flour. Press on each side with the tines of a fork to create a grooved pattern. Place the gnocchi on baking trays. Gnocchi may be frozen at this point.

Remove the lemon and the garlic from the artichoke. Discard the lemon. Thinly slice the garlic. Set aside.

Cut away the artichoke leaves (you can eat them later) until you have just the heart. Trim away any stray bits of choke, and cut the heart into thin slices.

Heat olive oil in a pan over low heat, then add the garlic and the sliced artichoke heart. Cook until the garlic starts to smell fragrant and turns golden. Squeeze over the juice from half a lemon. Season with salt, and turn off the heat.

To cook the gnocchi, set a pot of salted water on to boil. Once it hits a rolling boil, turn it down to a rapid simmer. Cook the gnocchi ten at a time - when they float to the surface and the water turns foamy, they're done.

Add the cooked gnocchi to the pan with the artichokes. Toss gently. Serve immediately with a little grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. (Or top with a poached egg.)