Monthly ArchiveApril 2007

Seasonal Cooking 22 Apr 2007 10:43 pm

Spring! (where’s the primavera?)

Today the farmer’s market was resplendent. Full of sun, full of people, full of pansies and geraniums and flats of spearmint and basil. True, the excellent Borough Hall greenmarket is open year round, but today when we broke into the ‘70s, for the first time since, um, January (yes we had a strange winter), it truly felt like the first day of the farmers market season. Still, it’s very early, and most of the spring veggies hadn’t arrived. I got someThe Farmers Market was Resplendent beautiful spinach and kale, some fat leeks and some plump crimini mushrooms, but I couldn’t find a spear of asparagus anywhere. There were even quite a few remnants of fall and winter: parsnips and kohlrabi, and crates of cameo and ida red apples, still enticing after a long winter in the cellar. At each booth I asked for ramps, but nobody had any. The farmer from Wiklow said he thinks he found a stand of them, but they’re still too small to dig up and anyway he wasn’t entirely certain that’s what they were.

But even if spring hasn’t fully arrived at the greenmarket, it was much in the air and seducing my tastebuds. For the past year I’ve had in my head a recipe for artichoke ravioli primavera, and the blue sky and warm sun and bursting tulip trees made me think it was time to try such a variation of the springtime classic. Pasta Primavera is a classic, right? Isn’t it right up there with spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmesan in the Italian American hall of food fame? Then why doesn’t Lydia nor Marcella, nor even the Joy of Cooking, nor even the Better Homes and Gardens Italian Cookbook, make even the merest mention of this dish? Did I make it up? I imagined it to be fresh green peas, asparagus tips, carrots for color, all in an alfredo sauce. Alfredo sauce – that’s a classic too, right? Right? Again, nothing from my trusty Italian advisors. The closest I came was a recipe called “Alfredo’s Noodles” in Fannie Farmer. I was a bit more successful on the internet, where I found some pasta primavera recipes, along with this link to a site (sporting a circa 1996 classic frames-based page design) that traces the histories of classic American dishes. Buy why are alfredo and primavera so shunned? Clearly a conspiracy is at work.

But this dish was tenaciously stuck in my mind, so I had to forge ahead. In my version I wanted homemade ravioli filled with ricotta and artichoke surrounded by a mixture of fresh, seasonal veggies in a rich-but-not-too-rich white cream sauce. I’d envisioned vibrant colors and a full, sun-rich, farmstand flavor. Since the local asparagus isn’t ready yet I made do with the California imports from Jim and Andy’s produce stand on Court Street. Reliably, Pacific Green had peas in the pod. And I had Sheets of spinach-green pastasome beautiful bright orange carrots and some fresh organic mushrooms from the farm stand. I cleaned & prepped, then blanched my veggies: blanching was all they’d need, leaving them with bright color and just a little crunch. But then something went wrong. Some breath of winter was still hanging on, and the dish I ended up with couldn’t quite leave behind those traces of winter heartiness, with its subdued colors and darker flavors. That must be why I couldn’t help myself from sautéing everything together with the mushrooms, which transformed my bright veggies into a somber, wintery-grey-brown medley. Spring may be in the air, but it hasn’t arrived yet on my plate.

As for the insides of my ravioli: there could and can and will ever only be one ricotta cheese, and that’s the fresh ricotta from Caputo’s deli on Court Street. Once you’ve had it you’ll never be able to go back to supermarket ricotta except in direst necessity and with a tear in your eye. And of course once I was in the door at Caputo’s I had to sample some of their other excellent offerings, such as their grilled artichokes which lived up to the names “fresh” and “home made” and had none of the vinegary bitterness I’m used to from other neighborhood delis?

Everything I’ve ever bought from Caputo’s has been of the highest, most excellent quality, so I had to try one of their fine cheeses as well. I was hooked by it’s little placard mentioning the 12th century, so I chose the Pont D’Eveque. When I opened it up my head swam a little, and I thought, this is a truelyLots of artichokes stinky cheese. My Murry’s cheese guide, however, describes it as only “moderately pungent” (although it does add “beefy”). Truly I have a long road to travel toward the cheese of true stinkiness. I did fully enjoy my moderately pungent Pont D’Eveque though, paired with a California Viognier called “Renwood.”

Food Matters 04 Apr 2007 10:14 pm

New York City Food Czar: NY Times Food Section 04/04/2007

Oh poor blog! Oh sad neglected blog! How I’ve ignored you. And oh my cooking skills how I’ve ignored you too. Despite my vows I’m still living on a diet of take-out (though it must be said some of that take out is pretty good: tonight falafel and babaganoush from Waterfalls, with sides of labney, baked kibbe, and salad. But that, I think, is the subject for another post).

But though my knives sit restless in their knife block, and as my skillets gather dust in the cupboard, there’s still much to blog about in the world of food. The cover article on today’s New York Times food section, for example, is a great hub for curious exploration of the strands winding through the world of food these days. The story tells of the food and health policies of the Bloomberg Administration, and though the author, Kim Severson, is careful to say that Mayor Bloomberg is no crusading health food paladin, she lays out a cast of characters and initiatives at work in the city that seek to promote easier access to healthier food, and are part of a nationwide trend of similar efforts. A quick roster — if only as a reference point for further study:

Benjamin Thomases – the “Food Czar” charged with “coordinating the city’s policies on food”

Linda I. Gibbs – deputy mayor, “tough and experienced bureaucrat” and Mr. Thomases’ boss.

Christine C. Quinn – the City Council Speaker, “a Greenmarket regular who has a strong following among New York health and food advocacy groups and who pressed the mayor for the (food czar) position.”

Toni Liquori – “an educator who has worked on food and public health projects in New York City for more than 20 years.”

Joel Berg – executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and former member of the (Bill) Clinton administration.

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden – the smoking-ban-in-bars guy, head of the Department of Health and — get this — Mental Hygiene. What exactly, Dr. Frieden, is mental hygiene, and what is your department doing about it?

What I love about an article like this — and what frustrates me about it at the same time — is the number of stories that spin off of it so easily and obviously. To wit:

“In many American cities, agricultural politics are being argued at the bar and alpha moms are organizing to take back school cafeterias. Chefs are making heroes out of cattle ranchers and the obesity crisis has prompted a new look at how and what to feed the poor. In an effort to build a cohesive public policy that brings all those food-related movements together, a handful of cities began forming food policy councils in the late 1990s.”

Those cities, Ms. Severson goes on to write, include Berkeley, San Francisco, and Portland (big surprise there), along with Hartford and Toronto. A state-level food-policy council is apparently in the works for Spitzer-era New York state, as “agricultural officials” recently announced.

So here’s the part I’m frustrated — or enticed, or curious — about. Who are these ‘agricultural officials’? Why do health-and-food advocates love Christine Quinn? What has Toni Liquori done over the past decades that makes her notable? Which chefs are lionizing which cattle ranchers? What else is Benjamin Thomases up to? Why was Ed Koch quoted in this article?

Here’s hoping that my curiosity extends beyond this rambling blog post, and bends itself to research and real knowledge. Google, here I come!