Making a list, checking it twice

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We crossed our Christmas shopping finish line today. I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief; I’ll be working flat-out at the store until Christmas Eve selling Christmas goodies, putting the finishing touches on customer’s holiday meals with cheeses and bottles of wine. I feel good knowing that my bases are covered at home now. Because, of course, when I speak of Christmas shopping, I am talking about shopping for our Christmas dinner!

We met up this morning in Chelsea for brunch after S had a doctor’s appointment and then went to Chelsea Market to pick up groceries. First stop was Dickson’s Farmstand Meats. I want to make something porchetta-ish. The traditional porchetta is a pork loin wrapped in pork belly with all the spices inside then roasted, a volume of meat that would daunt even the most committed pair of carnivores. I knew we wanted leftovers (just not for the next 4 months) so I consulted with one of the women behind the counter about options – pork belly only, pork belly wrapped tenderloin, pork shoulder…she offered to cut to size, talked about the amount we would need. I needed to think about it and get the rest of my provisions now that I knew what options were available so I told her I’d be back in a few minutes.

Next, the Italian market Buonitalia to get semolina flour and dried porcini mushrooms for our Christmas Eve lasagna bianco. Naturally, because it was the week before Christmas and surely one of their busiest days of the year, their register system was malfunctioning, grim-faced staff trying to ring  up the growing line of customers, a manager clutching the counter and muttering into the phone. Eh, these things happen.

Manhattan Fruit Exchange is one of my favorite places to shop, one of my weekly stops for groceries. It comes the closest to replacing some of the great produce markets in the Bay Area (not even close, but the closest option I have available) with a huge variety of produce, from sea beans to quince to chiles to lacinato kale at not-fancy prices. I got baby artichokes and lacinato kale (cavollo nero), sprigs of rosemary and sage, king oyster and shitake mushrooms, sour oranges, red navel oranges, and little gem lettuce for the salads and seasonings and green parts of our dinners.

Another favorite, we walked through The Lobster Place to ogle the gorgeous seafood. It looks like jewels laid out on crushed ice, luminous under the lights. The fishmongers were breaking down whole salmon today, filleting them as cleanly as unzipping a dress. I love good knife work (and get pretty snippy about lackluster work). It’s something I enjoy practicing when I’m cooking myself and work hard to cut as cleanly and precisely as possible at work. I couldn’t resist a pretty little filet of pearly pink  fish to take home for tonight’s supper.

So back around to the butcher shop: I decided to get a pork sirloin roast with a beautiful white cap of fat, butterfly it, and as the late Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe’ Cookbook taught, “early salt” the meat with a herb mixture for a few days to infuse the meat with herby goodness. The counter woman found a nice sized one and then had a butcher with a sharp curved knife slice it open like a trifold wallet, fold it back up, and wrap it up for me. I also got a link of salt and pepper sausage for the lasagna.

I have a grocery delivery coming in the morning before work with some of the heavier things I normally order (truly, you can get almost anything imaginable delivered to your door here) like orange juice, eggs, bacon (for Christmas breakfast bacon oatmeal scones), milk and butter. It makes life a lot easier not to have to carry all of that home from the store but I can’t stand not to pick out my own meat and produce. I need to see how my fruits and vegetables look and smell,  and I don’t like buying a pig in a poke either literally or figuratively.

I may pick up something here or there if I happen to run across something interesting, and I’m sure I’ll bring home some cheese from the store but it is so relaxing to have it all in hand, to be cooked and enjoyed at our leisure but, there it is, Christmas shopping done with a bow on it. And I am deeply grateful for the luxurious gift of an overflowing refrigerator.

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Meeting Madame Fromage

Many of you know that while I am a general culinary enthusiast, I am also a cheesemonger. Here at Cognitive Leeks, I try to share my love of food and cooking, try to encourage and enable my readers to go boldly into the kitchen and feed their bellies and their souls. At work, I do the same with cheese (mostly).

Many years ago, I was traveling in The Netherlands and Belgium and wanted to try a cheese that I had read about, Epoisses, which is so funky and raunchy that it is banned from public transportation in some European cities. I was a sort of timid traveller then, a little nervous about the Euro to dollar rates so when I found a really lovely cheese shop in Rotterdam, I went in, browsing quietly, a little afraid to ask questions. The shopkeeper greeted me and after seeing me eyeing the case with a Epoisses several times, asked if I would like one. I stumblingly asked if they were expensive or something similarly awkward. She answered “NOTHING is too expensive to have a taste!” and went and found a runny piece of Epoisses from behind the counter and sold it to me for a couple of Euros. I’ve kept that experience in the back of my mind at work; I try to make cheese discovery a welcoming experience at work. I try to answer questions, give tastes, listen to feedback, overcome any intimidation people may be feeling. But sometimes I get a question I can’t answer so I’ve found a few wiser cheese people who I can look too for help, many on cheese blogs or on Twitter.

One of these experts is Tenaya Darlington (better known as Madame Fromage) a writing instructor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia whose mighty cheese obsession fuels her cheese blog. After moving to Philadelphia from Wisconsin, she developed a relationship with Di Bruno Bros, one of the titans of cheese on the east coast,  (you may remember the picture I took of their store in my post about a weekend in Philadelphia.) They have collaborated on a new book called Di Bruno Bros House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings  and to introduce the book, Tenaya and Emilio Mignucci, one of the owners of Di Bruno Bros. hosted a class Sunday night at The Venue at The Little Owl in NYC. I was excited to be invited, not only to experience the cheese and pairings that were presented, but also to meet other passionate cheese people.

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As I sat at one end of the table, I noticed a few faces that looked familiar and discovered that there were three Twitter cheese peeps in attendance whom I’ve interacted with for a while but never met, Matt Speigler  writes Cheese Notes and has been very helpful in my exploration of the cheese culture here in metro NYC and Colleen from Cheese and Champagne and cheese tweeter from Washington DC.

This was our menu:

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I appreciated that the menu (and the book) provide a way to associate styles and flavors of cheese in a memorable and relatable way. I talk to people who, when tasting a cheese, sort of squint thoughtfully and try to think of a word besides “delicious” for what they are tasting. It seems to help when I suggest adjectives like ” green oniony” or “butterscotch” to help place the flavor in context.The book and the class expand on that premise with categories like “Quiet Type” and “Mountain Man” and then goes into background on the cheeses to help pinpoint why the unique flavors in each cheese are there.

Each cheese was served with an accompaniment and a wine pairing and a bit of explanation, guidance, and back story on each plate by Tenaya and Emilio.

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The Camemebert du Normandie was the classic pairing of bloomy rind cheese, dried fruit and nuts. Subtle and approachable, nutty and sweet.

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 The “Stinker” Adrahan on the menu was replaced by this Sardinian Pecorino called Moliterno, paired with apple pepper jelly and a dirty martini. The sharp pepperiness of the cheese echoed in the hot pepper jelly and the saltiness with the briny olive in the martini.

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This final plate was a crysatalized caramely aged Dutch gouda called L’Amuse with candied pecans and a buttery voluptuous Blue de Bufala with chocolate covered figs.

We each took home a copy of the new book. Im looking forward to reading it, seeing what Tenaya and Di Bruno Bros. have put together. I also left happy to have learned something new from people who know a lot more than I do and feeling excited to have met more people who are really into good food, into the experience of sharing flavors with their friends, readers, and customers. Like the experience I had with the shopkeeper in Rotterdam, I’ve learned that there is a desire among “food people” to open the door and make everyone welcome in the world we inhabit, to share our enthusiasm. I left the class feeling energized and excited to keep providing that open, welcoming door for those who might be feeling timid.

On Inspiration and being a fan

Last night, I met one of my very favorite writers, Calvin Trillin, at a reading of several pieces to celebrate the publication of Cornbread Nation 6 , an anthology of Southern food writing put together by Southern Foodways Alliance. The event was at KGB Bar in the East Village, not the kind of bar that one happens into accidentally; I found it up two flights of stairs in a blank- faced building, a dim room with Soviet era pictures and flags on the walls.

A couple of the writers included in the book were there to read, Jane Black and Francis Lam, plus its editor Brett Anderson to MC as well as Mr. Trillin. It felt like most of the people there either knew each other or were there with friends, chatting about book fairs in Italy they had just attended or mutual talented fabulous author/publisher friends. I sat gawkily alone on my bar stool trying to figure out who was who based on my looking up their Twitter profile pictures (“the Asian guy in the gingham blazer must be Francis Lam….”).

But when the readings began, particularly Mr. Trillin’s, I remembered why I was there. Hearing words crafted to so invoke a place, a person’s nature, an ethos, as to bring a pang of recollection or recognition is what inspires me to write. And it reminded me of the importance of inspiration. Reading the work of excellent writers (or experiencing excellent art or music) has the two-fold benefit of keeping me appropriately humble- no, I’m not the greatest thing since sliced bread- while also giving me something great to which to aspire- don’t be self-satisfied, always try to be better.

Calvin Trillin is one of those writers that can write about a ham sandwich and make it interesting, funny, and meaningful. It will make you really want to go to the place where he describes enjoying this sandwich immediately and have one yourself. His stories about making the Saturday morning food rounds in Manhattan were part of what helped quell my terror at moving here- he made it seem so neighborhoody and unpretentiously delicious. And speaking of unpretentious, he writes sparely, no frills, but still genially, like your uncle telling you about his latest trip. He talks about his wife and daughters a lot, but kindly and respectfully.

I’m not sure why, but I’m very reticent to approach or acknowledge people that I think are “famous”. I guess I feel like they mostly just want their privacy like anyone else, and saying “I really admire your work” doesn’t exactly trip off my tongue. I feel awkward as a fan. But as people began to trickle out at the end of the evening, I made my way out past the table where the writers were sitting and said “IenjoyedthissomuchthankyouMrTrillinI’velovedyourwritingforalongtime” before scurrying out the door.

But in the spirit of the verse that says “if you have a word of encouragement, say it!”, here is what I wish I had had the presence if mind to say:
Your work has made me laugh for many years. I’ve recommended your Tummy Trilogy many times. Your stories about food and travel are so true and funny and lovely that I almost despair to write myself because you’ve already done it so well. Thank you for inspiring me to try to write well.