Friday, June 25, 2010

In Full Flour

To make pizza at home requires some equipment that you won’t otherwise have much call for. (Not that I have much call for madeleines and I’ve got a pan for those, and a cast iron one that makes little corn breads in little corn cob shapes; it weighs a ton as one of my less fortunate toes can attest – but I wouldn’t be without either of them.) So if you are thinking about making pizza think about getting a peel and a baking stone.

Then there is the question of heat. The classic wood fired pizza oven reaches temperatures the domestic oven only dreams of in a rage. I read recently that some people use the self-cleaning setting to bake pizzas at home. The whole idea of “self-cleaning” is as ludicrous to me as scrubbing bubbles and age defying creams, I mean, don’t you just wish inanimate objects had such good intentions? Yes, I mean you, roll of tape with no apparent beginning. Anyway, I say 550◦ is plenty hot.

Great pizza starts from the bottom up and the night before (true of so many things, no?) though I began the pizza pictured here at 7:30 in the a.m. I am told that really good pizza dough rests over night in the fridge. This was pretty darn good, which I attribute to the flour, Antimo Caputo tipo 00. My friend Elizabeth says it is available in Little Italy, but I ordered it from Forno Bravo.

My previous attempts at pizza have been stymied by the dough’s elasticity. I’d shape it, turn my back to gather my toppings and discover my circle of dough had gathered itself back into ball with a yeasty harrumph.

I let this dough rise in the fridge about nine hours, then divided it and let it come to room temperature for about an hour and a half before shaping it. Here’s where I need to improve my technique. My pizzas were thin in the middle almost to the point of tearing, but still too thick at the edges. I’ve since watched a couple of You Tube videos and will take up the dough again shortly. As soon as those bubbles have tidied up the kitchen . . .

Me, Impressed
Last October I had a delightfully spooky experience. I got to swim lengths in Johnny Weismuller’s favourite pool in his hometown, Chicago. The present day Intercontinental Hotel embraces an earlier hotel built in 1929 which included the pool at the then dazzling elevation of 13 storeys. Salad or fries? How many times have you watched someone virtuously choose salad and then not eat it? Hotel pools are like that. That’s why I love them.

Entering this Art Deco playground is like walking into an amphitheatre made of Spanish tiles instead of marble. At one side of the pool is a ceramic fountain filled with ferns. The other side is raked and fitted with tables and chairs so the audience can watch swimmers while getting watered. Except no one is there. Send in the Sandra.

I kept thinking of that setting as I made my way through Me, Cheeta the autobiography of Tarzan’s best friend. Yes, I said autobiography. The story is told by the chimp to complex effect. Scientists tell us that the act of observation influences the outcome of experiments, but this Hollywood insider has the animal advantage of in no way inhibiting the behaviour of those he observes. His misunderstandings of human motivation are funny and poignant by turns. Or does he misunderstand?

Cheeta sees human hierarchies as paralleling that of the chimp pack, hard to argue with; and always refers to Jane Goodall as attractive. Cheeta dislikes Chaplin, Rex Harrison, and Maureen O’Sullivan. He views himself as ground breaking comic actor, deserving of the Academy’s first Oscar for Best Animal in a Comic Role – one of the most powerful parts of the book is his imagined acceptance speech. The heartbeat of the book is Cheeta’s love for Tarzan/Weismuller. That you believe in with aching certainty.

I wish I had time to read this book again and eventually I will in the vain hope of puzzling out just how he did it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Queen of the Carbs Meets Quinoa

Starch. When most people are planning a meal, they plan it around the protein. Me, I plan it around the starch. Crown me the Queen of Carbs, without them I simply don’t feel full. Where I would be wary of sampling an exotic fish (I’m squeamish about the bones), or cautious when considering an unfamiliar fruit, tell me about a noodle or grain I haven’t tried and I’m there, fork at the ready.

This isn’t to say I’ve never met a carb I didn’t like. I’ve never cottoned on to kasha. I will never forget the hiking trip in the Outer Hebrides where my companion would put a quantity of bulgur in a margarine container with some water before we set out. By lunch time it was sufficiently softened for her to eat. She also ate apple cores. Enough said. Happily the bulgur ran out and we fortified ourselves from little brown paper bags filled with shortbreads and oatcakes purchased at the various villages we passed through. Happy days. Farro is a high protein grain that sustained the Roman legions and is still popular in Italy, but not with me. So too soba noodles.

Pasta, potatoes and pancakes, they are all great things to build meals around, but even I can tire of these three princes, particularly now that the weather is turning warmer. Last year I made several nice rice salads: one with chicken and a lemon dressing garnished with pistachios, another with proscuitto and asparagus, but quinoa is my new favorite starch for summer.

This tiny grain looks rather like couscous, but takes considerably longer to cook. Every recipe I have tried requires you to boil it then steam it. It’s easy and worth it. If you don’t already have a fine meshed strainer that fits over a pot, this is a good reason to get one.

Like all good starches, quinoa is happy to be a vector for a variety of flavors. My most successful experiments have included dressings of melted butter and a citrus juice, combine with this with cooked corn, chopped scallions and mint and you have an ideal summer side dish that will keep well in the fridge for a couple of days. The dish in the banner picture uses lime juice, black beans, scallions, tomatoes and coriander. Bonus, quinoa is suitable for people who are gluten intolerant.

Library of the mind
I heard an interview recently with Apichatipong Weerasethakul winner of the 2010 Palme d’Or for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. To paraphrase, he said memory is fragmentary.

This struck me forcefully because with Father’s Day approaching, I have been trying to recall my dad. I was going to make this post about food we’d shared. He’s the man, after all, who taught me how to fry an egg. I remember him coming home from work on a cold night with redskin peanuts in a bag in his overcoat pocket still hot from the roaster. I remember a meal in Boston, my first time having lobster bisque, and the gist of what we talked about, and a dream that didn’t come true. I remember a richly sauced dish he made of partridges with pears and picking out the buckshot—fragments, literally and metaphorically.

More fragments: the smell of pipe smoke on wool, a grey cardigan I never remember him not having. He spoke Trevor, a basso profundo grumble that I had to translate for my friends. He laughed reluctantly, volcanically.

He gave me books. I remember one book of limericks that I’m sure he thought had been inspired by Edward Lear, but to his horror hailed from somewhere near Nantucket. The book I think of when I think of my dad is R. M. Ballanytne’s Martin Rattler.

Born in Edinburgh in 1825, Ballantyne is the granddaddy of dangerous books for boys (and the daughters of enlightened fathers). He lived a Boys’ Own Life. His father went bankrupt and died. At 16 he signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company in order to support his mother and sisters and sailed for what became Canada. He spent most of his seven years here in cargo canoes, collecting furs from outposts.

Based on those experiences he wrote a series, The Young Fur Traders and Ungava. His most famous work Coral Island appeared in 1857, Martin Rattler the following year and believe it or not, is still in print. These are books about plucky youngsters in sticky situations and threatening environments.

In the Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim explains that the purpose of fairy tales, at least traditional ones, is to warn children that there are dangers in the world, but at the same to instill in them the belief that if they are sufficiently clever, calm, patient, hard working – you pick the adjective, they can overcome, perhaps even triumph. Isn’t that a parent’s job too?

My dad enchanted me with Kipling’s Just So Stories and Treasure Island. My dad taught me that in an emergency you can use a Brazil nut for a candle. I have long awaited a suitable opportunity. This bit of survival lore probably came from Martin Rattler, along with my fear of anacondas. Catastrophes have out numbered triumphs, but better to light a Brazil nut than curse the darkness. My dad, I miss him.