Pick me up; Make me happy

Picture this: a shirtless Italian man in your kitchen whipping egg whites, making tiramisu. For me, that’s a long life dream come true. While ladies fantasize about firemen with suspenders strapped over their bare pecks and six packs, I find nothing sexier than a man in an apron.

I don’t bake. I’ll occasionally make a pan of delectably indulgent brownies (I have a secret ingredient that I’ll come around to revealing- eventually), but I typically don’t do well with precise measurements or entrusting things to the oven. And while I am admittedly more of a savory person (I could eat a third helping of pasta for dessert after a pasta supper),  if I were to say I lack a sweet tooth entirely, that would be a monumental lie (after all, I’m one of those who will go off real food every 28 days and luxuriate in chocolate and chocolate goods).

I remember a conversation with a professor this summer, concluding that I am left with no choice but to marry a man who can make creme brulee. That ultimate life goal of mine has not yet been achieved, but at least my fantasy of having a man in pants and exposed chest hair making me dessert is no longer just a pie in the sky.

I did not learn, or even bother to learn how to make a tiramisu. I did learn, however, that “tiramisu” can be broken down into “tirami su” to deservedly mean “pick me up”- lift my spirit when I’m down, and make me happy again. Instead, hungry from the chore of shopping, hopping from one grocery store to the next, tailing the Italian in his search of the better brand of lady fingers, I made a sandwich, artfully layering a spread of mayo, parsley, and mustard with two slices of roast beef, two of lean pastrami, pesto (always homemade and never store bought), swiss cheese, dill pickle slices, and again mayo but this time paired with  just a tad of spicy pickled mango nicely mashed (it can overpower, plus guinea pig doesn’t like things too spicy), between a couple of slices of toasted wheat bread, which we cut in half and snacked on after the Italian had the components of his cream made and in the refrigerator resting, before the time came for layering the pick-me-up-to-be.

After we had our sandwich halves and the Italian guinea pig‘s little  sounds of satisfaction ceased, I sat back and watched as he took out the bowl of egg yolks and sugar (8 yolks and 10 tablespoons of sugar to be exact), beaten on high speed to a dense consistency. He added 500 grams of mascarpone to the mixture, and called me over, handing me over the responsibility of the beater, with the order to go low and slow, making sure not to raise the temperature- the mascarpone fragile and vulnerable to melting. As my eyes followed the rippling cream  with my wrist circling the bowl at lento speed, the Italian added a couple capfuls of rum to the espresso he had cooling in a pan. One minute later, he took back over, and added the egg whites, two of which he had separated from the yolks, beaten swiftly and popped into the fridge. He continued with the beater, on minimum speed, low and slow, and put the composed cream back into the fridge. Freeing the whisk attachments, he let me lick them off before adding them to the cumulating dishes in the kitchen sink, giving me a taste of nostalgia, taking me back to the early 90s in my mother’s kitchen, when I was 6 or 7, and she would make the most delicious rollettes, her version of a sponge cake roll, and reward me with the whisk of her from-scratch-made whipped cream and later the creamy spatula she used to coat the cake.

Back to 2012, I could say the most attractive scene was when the time came to stack the tiramisu; his wrist dancing as he brushed each lady finger, gently and swiftly into the cooled espresso, not too deep of a dip, like Christ gliding on water. Tightly packing the bottom of the pyrex with the biscuits, that they call Savoiardi (I don’t know what it translates into if anything rather than merely a name, but I sure do hope it’s something more appetizing and pleasing than the unsightly “lady finger”), he followed with a layer of cream, then biscuits, cream again, and a snowfall of unsweetened cocoa powder.

The most strenuous of the process, at least from my bystander point of view, is the wait; trying to resist at least 6 hours, or preferably over night, for the drunken Savoiardis to digest the espresso-rum cocktail and soften from their originally dry and crusty nature, seduced by the sultry cream slathering them.

But all is well that ends well, and my share of tiramisu did tirami su.

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Howl to the Moon

I have never been a fan of carbonated drinks. I am not a soda-drinker, and gag at the site of the over-sized grape sodas on the shelves of Walmart aisles that have bottled nothing more nutritious or delicious than gas, color, and sugar. San Pelligrino and Perrier are just imported waters with fancy names that allow them to wear higher price tags, but still don’t impress me as their fizz buzzes up my nostrils and carbon dioxide vainly occupies the insides of my girth completely. I have a surprisingly high-capacity stomach, able to fit bowls and bowls of cheesy carbs like a macho man, but go yellow belly when it comes to gulping glasses of gassiness, a reason I’m not a soda fan- it takes up all the stomach space leaving the food with nowhere to go. There was a time when almost the same went for beer, a bubbling liquid with low alcohol content that brimmed over my stomachs capacity before getting me the slightest bit drunk, the European of the brands earning more of my respect than the bland tasteless Americans. I know, beer fizz isn’t fairly comparable to soda fizz, beer’s naturally forming yeastiness versus soda’s injected CO2, and while I preferred the bitter notes over the artificially sweet, it still was not my drink of choice. Until I settled in the Upper Valley of New England, where everything on tap is micro-brewed local and flavorful, saving America the embarrassment Miller and Budweiser has caused to the world.

I have come to realize that the best thing to wash a burger down is a good pint, and to do that, the favored beer of cold and flu season’s peak is Howl for me. It’s crafted by Magic Hat, a brewery out of Burlington, Vermont, that is actually more widely distributed than some others, and comes bottled in their Winter Seasonal pack. The black lager with cocoa subtleness speaks to our winter needs. I will open a parenthesis here and add that the state of Vermont has earned my blind faith when it comes to food and drink, my favorites their delicious apple ciders, exquisite cheeses, voluptuous maple syrup, and well-bred micro-brews. Parenthesis closed.

Magic Hat's graphics are just as, if not more appealing than what's inside

Not every snowy night calls for a mug of mini marshmallow spotted hot cocoa. Spiked or not, a cold beer shall conquer, especially when beef between buns is involved, roofed with oozing cheeses, sweet caramelized onions, pickles, and sauce that elopes with the meat’s juices all over your hands and runs past your wrist onto your arms, and what could be better than a beer that’s not too chocolatey to take away anyone’s thunder or deviate from the purpose of being a beer, but delicately nostalgic of that mug of cocoa. And as for the fight with the fizz? I think I have overcome.

Another Saturday

Friday night I got a booty call from my good friend and schoolmate- saucy and smart from Arab descent with an attitude, we’ll call her Harissa. I was just about to start my very late dinner of wild sockeye salmon baked oil-free with dill and sumac in a pocket of parchment paper along with a scallion and a clove of garlic. The guinea pig and I were in the library earlier that night, the guinea pig studying, me pretending to, and schoolwork, a late lunch, and a lot of fruit had led up to this 11:00 o’clock dinner. We had just managed to hush the smoke alarm; I had skillfully set the parchment paper on rapid fire when attempting to open the folds and after turning the dial from bake to broil to give the skin an extra crisp, when a corner of the paper hit the broiler and went up in flames. Now generally, I prefer the stovetop; I am no good with the oven- maybe one of the reasons I barely ever bake, but this wild fire was a work of art. After choking the flames with a silicone turner, the pan now in the hands of the guinea pig hovered over the kitchen sink, the smoke alarm started screeching. I waved a dishcloth as I stood underneath it, and he ran to open the window completely to let in the 26 degree New England air in. Eventually, the smoke detecter went silent, before the apartment building had to be evacuated and firetrucks showed up. Just a month ago they had come in and changed the detectors, replacing the old ones that never said a word with the apartment full of hooka smoke, with these fancy oversensitive ones, that beeped even though the apartment wasn’t smoked. Yes, there was a fire, but it wasn’t smokey. I’m still not sure if the spatula killed the fire, or it let out by itself after the entire sheet of parchment paper was burned through; the good thing was that I hadn’t used a drop of oil and the fish were unharmed.

I wrap up my wildfire detour to walk back to the booty call.

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Hmm. I’m not sure. Like when tomorrow?”

“There’s a protest in Boston. Against the war against Iran. Do you want to go?”

“Oh is there? Do you want to go?”

“I mean, I don’t know.”

“You just want to protest, don’t you? OK. Let’s do it.”

“OK.”

“Can you check the buses? But can I call you back? I was just about to have dinner.”

“Yeah OK. Oh wait. Can we get kabob when we’re in Boston?”

So we ended up busing down to Boston, leaving Hanover on the Dartmouth Coach at 9 am, to get there in time for the protests. When we got to South Station 3 hours later, we stopped at the lady’s room before anything else. I tend to skim through the notes markered in the stall as I squat to pee- I like having things to read in the bathroom, but this stall was surprisingly clean from graffiti except for: (peace sign) w Iran. How randomly compelling, I thought. It must be a sign!- maybe not a sign, but it was an amusing coincidence.

Lav Note

We joined the protesters, mostly anti-war hippies and occupy supporters, marching to the Israeli embassy, (when no one but Harissa had the realization that Jews probably don’t work on Saturdays), then to a square with a name I don’t remember.

After listening to veterans, students, and school bus drivers, the protest ended and the crowd broke off. I approached a young group- they appeared to be around our age, probably grad students as well. I thought I heard them speaking Farsi, so inappropriate taking into account the circumstances or not, I sprung my desperation on them, do they recommend a Persian restaurant with a good Kabob Koobideh. Koobideh is the kabob of seasoned ground beef- usually a 50/50 mix of ground beef and ground sheep or lamb if your in Iran- cooked on metal skewers over open fire. “Sabzi,” he answered. I could see the reminder start to give him cravings.

So Harissa and I took the subway out to Harvard Square in Cambridge, and then the bus out to Arlington, what looked to be a suburb outside of Boston. We were standing in the window when the restaurant door unlocked as soon as the clock struck 5, and the restaurant opened for dinner.

We started with Kashk-e-Bademjan to share, eggplant and fried garlic onions mashed with whey, but the real love came with the two plates of Chelo-Kabob, rice and kabob. The rice they used was basmati, but a basmati that didn’t expand as much when cooked, keeping a slim grain- not my favorite. The meat was good- I’ve had better- but it was good. My stomach expanded from the moist meat and rice I had sprinkled with sumac and chased with mast-o-musir, thick shalloty yogurt, and Harissa wanted to get in bed and cuddle with her plate of food. We were already high on kabob when the waitress suggested just what I needed: baklava and chai, tea.

kashk-e-bademjan

chelo kabob-e-koobideh

chai and baklava

Protests and food made for a good Saturday.

But of course the day doesn’t end here. The story started with the guinea pig staring at the flaming pan of fish, contemplating whether or not to run it under water, putting out the fire and destroying the perfectly pink fleshed aquatic vertebrate, before calling for the orange Kitchenaid turner resting on the counter, raising his voice over my amused laughter. The story will end with me asking the waitress one last request before she brings out the check: two skewers of kabob to go, that would fill the bus ride home with its meaty aroma and treat the guinea pig over a bed of rice I quickly prepared, its grains plump and tasty.

Hello fellow food lovers!

Julie Powell blogged her way through the pages of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, recording her experiences in the kitchen, followed by a national bestseller. This is not inspired by a cookbook, but my life 10,000 kilometers away from home, away from my mother and the meals she fed us, that appeared so effortlessly onto the kitchen table the I never thought how and where they came from. This is my journey, independent and liberated in a kitchen to call my own, without my mother whom I adore hassling that I have made a mess and soiled her stove top, or meddling in my pot, telling me that it should be done this way and not that.

Food is meant to share, as it is an experience that must be savored, not a drive that must be filled for the sake of filling. Now eating for one may not be as pleasurable or possible – I believe cooking in too small portions can be challenging and complex, and fortunately, I did not have to struggle terribly finding the second mouth to feed. I tried nourishing friends, in groups and in singles, but it was too easy. As much as they made little and big noises indicating satisfaction and begged for more, I was the one who was not satisfied – until I found my current guinea pig, an Italian of 179 centimeters with green eyes and dark dishwater blonde hair. I will accentuate that this guinea pig of mine is not a third generation who sounds like a New Yorker and speaks as much of his grandmother’s tongue as I do, limiting his vocabulary to si, ciao, and cazzo. No. He comes crisp from his parent’s house located in a small town in Northern Italy where everything is homemade and fresh from the garden, stressing and pronouncing English words and sentences no different than he would if he were speaking Italian. Moreover, he is a foodie who can cook, amused by not only the boring discussion of nutritional value – potassium among his favorites, but taste and texture, and every sense that a dish may tickle. He knows food and distinguishes great food from good food, and makes a mesmerizing penne with radicchio and sweet sausage that swallowed me into the depths of love. To hear little and big noises of satisfaction coming from him as he unhurriedly chews and swallows with his eyes closed and chin extended, completely baptized in each morsel, satisfies my urges and brings me to content with myself and my creation.

With my guinea pig enthusiastically on board and my high capacity belly always welcoming deliciousness with or without his presence, I pledge to create, cook, eat, drink, and enjoy, photograph, write, and post.