Marla’s and Me

I must admit. Something happened that feels as completely incongruous as stumbling on a snowball on a summer’s day. I’m seeing someone. Regularly. Who I met online. A fellow I mentioned a few times, who I’ve called B, has showed me the value of online dating. That’s right. Meeting him online has not only been enjoyable — it’s been rewarding. All of those questions, answers, boxes, pictures, headlines, and quizzes that are usually so tortuous have proven, in this case, to be illuminating, flirtatious, and fun.

Somewhere, a little mud-soaked pig who thought he was forever stuck on terra firma is sprouting a set of wings.

B’s pictures were full of character. We each gave each other 5 stars. He got me to answer more than a couple hundred of those dreadful questions that force you to answer a totally complex question in only one of three possible ways.

His profile charmed me, as well.

“I love substantive and offbeat conversations.”

Swoon.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about… making and keeping a home.”

Sign me up!

“I would like to explore some new culinary horizons.”

Alright, boy, then come with me.

Because explore new culinary horizons we do. One restaurant we ate at recently has proven to be a strong favorite to us both — Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine. This place is only a couple blocks away from me, but still, I always dubiously drove past it on my way to and from the gym. I didn’t think it looked special, so I somewhat smugly never went to Marla’s.

Score: 0 for delicious Caribbean food. 0 for the hungry critic who lives inside my head.

With perfect timing, however, Citypages came out with their “best of” list and declared this: Best Take Out 2010: Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine

And this: Marla’s Doubles: 100 Favorite Dishes

After that, one thing was clear: I might be wrong about Marla’s.

B and I have eaten there a few times since then. While the experience is consistently quirky, the food is always flat-out delicious. As we were happily eating in the spartan dining room, I flashed back to B’s profile.

“You are delighted when you judge a book by its cover — and are proven entirely wrong.”

Oh, sigh. Few things could be more true. I was so wrong that I’m delighted by how wrong I was! From the unique beverages to the killer plantains, Marla’s truly delivers a great meal.

There’s ginger beer.

Or a curious and refreshing sorrel soft drink.

Here’s those doubles Citypages raved about. Curry chana between two fried bara. Get your hopes up — they really are that good — just leave a little room for your hopes to be dashed. The first time I went, they had no doubles. The second time, the server said they still didn’t have any, but the chef shouted out that they did (after I had a minor, although eloquent, thing that could be likened to a tantrum).

The plantains are among the best I’ve ever had.

The roti are almost impossible not to order. Here’s dhalpourie roti with curry chicken. Dhalpourie is a soft flatbread filled with finely ground yellow split peas.

While we nearly inhaled it, it still wasn’t as good as the paratha roti with beef we had another day. Paratha is a soft flaky flatbread made with butter. Next time, I’m getting the flaky paratha with this lovely and fragrant chicken curry.

Here’s a rich, comforting plate of dumplings with beef stew. The menu, which is sparse on details, might lead you to think you’re getting a plate of filled dumplings similar to a dumpling appetizer. Not at all. The dumplings are plain and mounded high, ready to be eaten with bites of the filling stew, grandmother style.

While I don’t have a picture of the Jamaican jerk chicken, B and I agreed that the charred and spicy jerk was the best thing we had. At the same time, we’re also both aware that we haven’t yet eaten at Harry Singh’s, which Citypages declared the best Caribbean in the Twin Cities. Given our love of Marla’s, B and I are both skeptical, yet true to form, ready to be proven entirely wrong.

Marla's Indian & Carribean Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Ms. Dalloway’s Party

It still amazes me just how much it takes to throw a good party. You have to quite completely throw yourself at it to make it seem as if you did nothing at all — caring deeply to be nonchalant, working all hours to appear effortless, choosing recipes carefully to discreetly impress. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf reported wryly on a boring English luncheon, saying “The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes,” as if slipping into the voice of my favorite hostess Mrs. Dalloway whispering into the ear of a well-dressed guest nibbling appreciatively at one of her parties. I see the ladies conspiring in unison before a beautiful party spread, “No, no. Indeed, it does not. Now please serve me more of that beautiful trifle, my dear.”

The lamp in the spine lights on French cheese wrapped in paper and globe-shaped green olives you can pop on each of your fingers and eat one by one, on strange combinations like the sweet snap of peas blended with almonds, and on long-loved ones like squash, nutmeg, and heavy cream. It lights on minor collisions of tastes that contrast with one another, like the piqued tartness of citrus against the reassuring simplicity of bread. It lights on champagne citrus punch with white wine, and always on a simple bottle of beer.

More or less, that was my philosophy behind the food I made for my May Day party last weekend: Cilantro-pea spread with almond butter (from Chocolate and Zucchini). “Les cakes,” French savory cakes with black and green olives, parmesan, roblochon, and pancetta (from Epicurious). Squash bread pudding (from Food & Wine). Cucumbers with four types of roasted peppers, three types of citrus, feta, and cumin (from me). Globe grapes with chevre, crushed roasted pistachio, and mint (from me). Champagne citrus punch with Chardonnay and pomegranate (also from me). And lots of beer.

As I throw more parties, I’m essentially learning how to make the food disappear, even before it is eaten. It should recede quietly into the background among the flowers, plates, linens, and candles, offering a sense of something I can only think to call grace. There must have been about 50 people at the party. Tracing the connections we share would look like the New York City subway map, with many intersecting strands of friends and family, including many people I never met before. In introducing myself to one of these strangers, he said, “I never met you, but I heard the food here would be good, so I had to come.” I’m pretty sure that’s what I meant by grace.

In the end, the best part of a party is the noise of the door closing after the last person leaves. It’s so quiet you can actually hear it click, and you hope you are lucky enough to have that one favorite person there with you on the couch to take apart the evening, to avoid the mess with you, and to fall asleep with you. I wonder what Mrs. Dalloway did on those quiet evenings when all the guests had gone. She had married her husband Richard to be practical. Did she wish it was her lost love Peter with her when she closed the door, the man who saw the whole world in her eyes, who was filled with excitement every time he saw her, always saying, so affirmatively, “For there she was. There she was.”

Beet of My Heart

I opened my email the other day to find an enticing little note sent by B. “What’s your schedule like this coming weekend? I’ve been thinking about your love for beets, and I’m told Café Maude has something yummy along those lines.”

This was the first date idea he offered out of the blue — and I must’ve clapped a little bit when I got his invite. It’s pretty clear he knows the path to my heart is strewn with funky vegetables.

Off we went for a 6 pm table at Café Maude, a restaurant best known for how hard it is to eat there. Even at that early hour, we sat in a far, not-so-ambient corner near the kitchen, a flash of light uncomfortably lighting up B’s face every time the door swung open. I was looking forward to the charming cocktail list. To B’s dismay, This Charming Man was no longer on the menu, but he asked for it anyway. Nothing was going to come between him and a drink that could make him sing a little Morrissey tune. The bar obliged. I had Ivan Putski, a dirty vodka martini with olives, onion, and black pepper.

We ordered our meal in a sort of unplanned give and take, throwing out suggestions and narrowing it down one by one. We shared everything. We didn’t decide we would, we just did. Plate after plate, the server paced our meal, and B and I kept everything in the middle of the table, slowly eating and sharing our opinions of the food.

The salad of red and golden roasted beets, mache, frisee, chevre, walnuts, and truffle champagne vinaigrette was perfectly lovely. The house-cut fries were great, but the truffle-mahor “fondue” (a.k.a., room temperature dipping sauce served in a ramekin) was lackluster — and I still don’t know what mahor is. We were pleased but not impressed by the roasted Brussels sprouts with rosemary brown butter, onions, and granny smith apples. Same for the Tuscan rice and parmesan croquettes with asparagus cream, basil, and pancetta. They’re great alongside a cocktail, but not especially memorable, and the asparagus cream didn’t taste like the vegetable it was named for.

The last course was glorious enough to carry every other plate of food that crossed our table: PEI mussels (that’s Prince Edward Island for those of us not familiar with island acronyms) with shallots, garlic, white wine, sweet tomatoes, chives, and grilled baguette. It just sang. The only problem is they served it with one lonely slice of thinly cut baguette, which doesn’t make sense, not on any island.

“I love eating with you,” B said. “When I go out with other people, we don’t share and it isn’t nearly as much fun.”

He’s right, I thought. Have you ever eaten with friends who get territorial about their meal? Those solitary souls eat by themselves, no matter how many people are at the table. Not only did B and I share this time together, we shared the same experience.

“And eating with you reminds me of that scene in Julie and Julia,” I said, “where Julia and Paul eat their first meal in Paris together, enjoying it so much they can barely keep their mouths shut.”

We ordered dessert, and after the server left, I posed a question that had been on my mind for awhile. “Would Julia have been the same without Paul? I mean, would she have been nearly as successful without him?”

B replied, “Of course not.” It’s true. It was all the eating they did together that filled her with such passion.

After cheesecake and a chocolate pistachio torte, we drove off to Magers & Quinn for books and Golden Leaf for tobacco to continue the pleasures of the evening, two bon vivants not exactly taking over Paris, but at least enjoying (and sharing) our own little corner of the world.

Mother’s Day Meringue

The following post originally ran here,  the April/May 2010 issue of my column The Sense of Taste with Valley Natural Foods, the lovely organic foods co-op in Burnsville. Go send them your love! It’s a hard-working co-op with a great community feel. In the meantime, if you would like to make the mothers in your life something charming for Mother’s Day, the recipe is for you.

***

My dear Grandma Polly left us on Mother’s Day more than 10 years ago. When I was a young girl, I used to call her Gob-a-gee. I still remember her looking over to me, saying, “Like chicken? Take a wing.” She’d put out her crooked arm, lock it into mine, and we’d hop a bus to go shopping on Mitchell Street in Milwaukee. She gave me apples and peanut butter every day after school, and her breaded pork chops hissed loudly in the frying pan. She also made a mean split pea soup so green and mushy my little brain never understood how anyone could eat it.

Over the years, I’ve collected as many things of hers as I can—crocheted afghans, embroidered linens, fine china, and plenty of old pictures. In my favorite one, she and my grandfather, who died before I was born, are sitting together on a wooden pier. She’s wearing overalls and holding an old cane fishing pole, smiling eagerly. He’s rugged and effortless with a pipe casually hanging in his mouth. They are stunning together and, despite time and place, my love for them feels as real as anything I know.

This month, I chose to make something as evocative as the memories of a grandmother. Pavlova, a charming, airy dessert, piques your senses with its ethereal flavors. In Australia and New Zealand, it is so revered every grandmother probably has a version of her own.

One bite and you can see why. Pavlova has a mesmerizing effect. The crunchy, yet soft meringue, silky cream, and tart fruit topping all tug at your attention. To further the effect, I added rose water, vanilla, and a hint of sage at the end. Each bite of this recipe dances in your mouth, much like the delicate ballerina Anna Pavlova who inspired its creation in the 1920s. It’s said that a hotel chef was so enchanted by her tutu laced with green roses that he used meringue and kiwi, Pavlova’s traditional fruit, to mirror her beauty on the plate.

Another wonderful thing about Pavlova is that it’s easy. This spring, put some flowers on the table and take a lovely afternoon to reminisce with your mother or grandmother while enjoying this heavenly homage.

*****

Grandma’s Rosewater Pavlova with Sour Cherries and Vanilla Cream

Serves 8

Your meringue will probably crack in the oven, which is normal and only adds to the patina. You can buy rose water at Holy Land or in the wellness department of most co-ops. You can also use cherry jam or sliced fresh or frozen cherries.

Meringue

  • whites of 5 fresh eggs
  • 1 cup caster sugar (synonymous with superfine sugar)
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon rose water

Topping

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 jar sweetened sour cherries
  • finely chopped sage

Preheat oven to 250°F. Place egg whites in a bowl and whisk with a handmixer until billowy, about 3 minutes on high speed. While whisking, slowly add the sugar and then the cornstarch to the egg whites until the mixture becomes glossy, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the vinegar and rosewater and whisk again to combine.

With a spatula, shape the mixture into eight 4-inch rounds on two baking trays lined with parchment paper or tin foil. Holding the spatula perpendicular to the meringue, turn it in a circle to create a slight indentation in the center so the fruit and cream have a place to rest.

Bake until the crust is pale and golden, about 40 minutes. Turn the oven off and let cool inside for 1 hour or overnight.

When ready to eat, whisk the cream in a bowl until stiff. Add vanilla and sugar and whisk until peaks form. Line the pavlova on small dessert plates. Spoon on a generous amount of cream and then sour cherries and sprinkle lightly with sage. Serve with a linen napkin, small spoon, and herbal tea. You can also take the more traditional route and make one large pavlova. I just think there’s something special about having an individual cloud of meringue served especially for you.

Just be careful, in any case, as those gorgeous sour cherries might ooze all over your plate.

Pham’s Deli

Somewhere along the line, Anthony Bourdain described the Twin Cities as having some of the best Vietnamese food in America. I wonder if he has eaten here enough to know, or if he knew just enough to feed James Norton, the hungry interviewer, a good answer. I can see him cooly ambling into Quang, lanky white guy in a tattered black coat slurping it up with the Vietnamese locals.

I’m not exactly an expert in the matter, so I’ll let him form the strong opinions. Last time I went to Jasmine Deli, I awkwardly missed out on the banh mi and I fell for the urban myth of the pho.

After I posted my review of the deli, I got an unexpected email from M, a close friend who had lost touch with me. It was pictures of the ingredients I made for homemade banh mi for a party I threw last year. Bright, snappy, and sweet pickled carrots and daikon radish, which I fell for and gladly ate for weeks after serving them to my friends. I still don’t know why he sent these to me. Maybe my review brought up some good memories, a bit of a Proustian moment among the madeleines, a memory of pain perdu.

Here’s the baguettes Angela insisted we pick up from Jasmine Deli. Someone in the owner’s family (was it a brother or a cousin?) makes them fresh on a daily basis, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

A couple days later, shopping for food at Midtown Global Market, I spotted this sign. I had no intention of eating anything, but I had to stop and finally order a banh mi.

This charming sign is perched on the counter at Pham’s Deli, a bright spot in the middle of the market near the central tables. Pham’s beckons you in with cheerful signs and a tidy operation. There’s quite a few workers back there, although it’s this guy at the rice cooker who seems to run the show. I wonder if it’s Trung Pham, owner of this family-run operation. Check out their adorable website. “Think fresh, think Pham’s.” I like this place.

He studiously made my banh mi and, with a swish of his hand, twisted it in a plastic bag and delivered it to me with a smile.

All of the needed ingredients came together to make the sandwich every bit as fulfilling as I thought it would be. A mouthful of pickled veggies and bread on the outside, a mouthful of meat and cilantro further in. “This isn’t that spicy,” I thought to myself a moment before I ate a eye-watering jalapeno, seeds and all.

The one thing I’m not sold on is the addition of butter (as described in the sign), which has that characteristic slippery feel in your mouth, much unlike mayo, which effortlessly complements the riot of tastes in a banh mi. If it were up to me, the sandwich would be laced with creamy mayo, Sriracha, and boatloads of pickled carrots and daikon.

Isn’t it always like that, though? You cater to your idiosyncracies long enough and go changing someone else’s perfectly good thing. The deli serves a few different kinds of banh mi, so I’m eager to get another one the next time I go to the market, one of my favorite spots in the city.

Pham's Deli on Urbanspoon

A25

Last week, I had the opportunity to have dinner with Peter Lilienthal, one of the restaurant reviewers for Minneapolis-St Paul magazine. I was introduced to him through a friend given my love of writing about food. Next up on his list of restaurants to review was A25, so Peter graciously asked that I grab two hungry souls and come join him.

A25, which opened a few months ago, is the newly reincarnated version of Anemoni, the former sushi outpost of Thom Pham’s Azia Restaurant. A25’s website dares you to imagine yourself stepping off a train and into a back alley of Tokyo, where you are delighted to find a mix of vendors selling delicious street food and wicked infusions. A25 is positioning itself as an edgy, cosmopolitan reprieve within the frenetic city.

And I can’t help but say that there’s something pretty darn cute about this — especially in Minneapolis at 6:30 on a Monday night. After all, how much time do we really spend ON the streets? Among the four of us Minneapolines at the table, we had four cars parked outside and spent about 30 seconds on the pavement safely jaywalking our way inside. Our train travels above ground from the city to the mall, stopping traffic on the way, and everyone knows about the missing street food of Minneapolis.

Come evening, though, I can see where the street starts to kick in, especially if you are enjoying the oasis of nightlife that corner of the city has to offer. Inside A25’s clever subway-inspired door, ambient paper lanterns hang from the ceiling, corrugated metal surrounds the sushi bar, the exposed brick walls are covered with torn broadsheets and graffiti, and the elevated DJ booth evokes the fire escape of an East Village walk-up. I half expected Mimi to swing down from the balcony in torn fishnet stockings howling about going oooo-ut tonight.

Dining with a restaurant critic is an exercise in conviviality. Rather than studying the menu, Peter socratically posed questions to the server to coax out the real scoop on the best stuff to eat. She did a stellar job with everything while Peter alternately asked us what our favorite restaurants are, taking notes when we said something memorable about the food.

“This place serves chef-inspired street food,” I said, and Peter wrote it down.

“This tastes like pork-flavored bubble gum,” B said of the pork belly, and Peter wrote it down.

We had a round of cocktails and two bottles of white wine. The unique calamari tempura fried with cream honey aioli and glazed pecans had a strange hold on me, while the lamb lollipops kept my attention only because of the toasted sweet potatoes they were served on.

The unassuming steamed buns were my favorite part of the evening. I think steamed buns are usually enclosed, but these looked like a little sandwich, with the spicy, rich oxtail meat sticking out of the perfect snow white bun. The oxtail was richer and more enjoyable than the pork.

Kabocha dumplings with ginger soy tasted typically delicious, while the pork belly was all but a failure. I’m a omnivore who winces at certain cuts of meat, but in the spirit of the thing, I wanted to try pork belly, which seems to make quite a few food lovers rhapsodize. Not at A25. We could barely get our knife through it. I stole some of the accompanying fried egg and spinach and we all left the majority of the plate behind.

For sushi, we had BBQ yellow tail, shrimp tempura, and botanebi — that is, B, the daring sushi-eater of the group, had the wide-eyed, whiskered botanebi. Sushi? Delicious. What else can I say.

For dessert, we had fried bananas with ginger ice cream, which is too good to fail, and rice pudding with coconut ice cream, which was too bland to succeed. The ice cream was served on top of a bed of dense rice that tasted totally unsweetened.

Given how much concept is driving A25, the food has a lot to live up to, and for the most part it does a fantastic job. Street food should be a fix. With A25 as your dealer and so many creative items on the menu, you just have to figure out what you need to order to get yours.

Jasmine Deli

The only banh mi I’ve ever eaten were the ones I made with my own two hands. It’s a little backward to first try this amazing Vietnamese sandwich by making one for myself (and for a few others, too), but it was a darn good approximation. After julienning the daikon and carrot, gently pickling it in a glass jar, sweetening the mayo, marinating the pork and tofu in lemongrass, and picking up the bread from Jasmine Deli, the ingredients and I were close pals and I was able to create more or less the pinnacle of banh mi deliciousness.

Ever since then, I’ve been daydreaming about banh mi, about grabbing one from Jasmine Deli after work or finding a good reason to head over to University, but for whatever reason, I never got around to it. When B asked me out on a third date, I got excited when I realized I could suggest Jasmine Deli, a small restaurant on Eat Street known for having one of the best banh mi in town. His new apartment is across the street from the MIA and walking distance to the deli. At last, the banh mi would be mine!

B and I, both well-versed in the menu and reviews before we arrived, walked inside the small storefront relieved to see there were plenty of places to sit. It was late and we were hungry. The owner, a friendly guy named Luke who I knew only through their adorably empty facebook page, came by and offered us a seat. Talking a little under his breath, he said, “We’re out of veggie eggrolls and bread” and simply ducked away.

Wait. “Did I hear him right?” I said to B, aghast. No bread? I called out after Luke.

“Not so fast! Did you say that you’re out of bread?”

“Yes, I’m sorry. It’s late in the day and I order for freshness.”

And with that, my little dream was unceremoniously dashed. No banh mi. I recovered by consoling myself with the fact that there was always pho, so I decided to pick one. The menu listed about 32 kinds of soup, and within the forest of heavily accented Vietnamese, I didn’t see the word “pho” anywhere.

Luke came back to take our order. “Everyone raves about your pho,” I said, “but I don’t see it listed on the menu. Are all of these soups pho?”

He corrected me in broken English. “I don’t serve pho. Ask everyone in this restaurant what they think my soup is, and they’ll say pho. But pho is made with beef broth. All my broth is made with vegetables or chicken. I suggest the chicken. It’s mild. Everyone loves chicken.”

Now that was too much information for my hungry head to handle. I asked Luke for a few more minutes and turned to B. “Let’s go over that again,” I said. “Everyone is wrong about the pho?”

“Yes,” he said, eloquently recapping what Luke just told us. Knowing my hopes were dashed again, B kicked in and conquered the menu.

“You don’t like mild, so let’s not get the one he recommended. Let’s get this one,” he said, pointing to the rice noodle soup with BBQ pork, chicken, shrimp, fish cake, and calamari.”

“What else?” B said. “I don’t want to disappoint you by ordering something that you aren’t into.” I said I wanted to get the classic Vietnamese combination of beef, cucumber, cilantro, and rice noodle. We found it on the menu: vermicelli noodle salad with charbroiled beef.

We also decided to get two appetizers, tamarind tofu and crispy pork egg rolls.

Dear Luke came back yet again to take our order. I rattled off our choices and asked for bubble tea, which B was excited to see on the menu.

“Sorry, I don’t have bubble tea either. . . but you can go to my new cafe,” he said with a charming smile, pointing to the north, knowing at this point he sounded like a salesman.

Simultaneously amused and defeated, B and I placed our order and settled in over two glasses of water, satisfied that we divided up the menu the best we could.

We loved the sweet tamarind tofu, especially when contrasted with a bite of something spicy. The pork eggrolls were good, but we didn’t see anything special about them. The soup was fulfilling and fresh, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t order it again. Too many proteins for one bowl (or for one girl). The vermicelli noodle salad was the clear winner, with the charbroiled bits of beef playing nicely off the cool noodles and fresh herbs. As B kept grabbing the best bits of charred meat and giving them to me with his chopsticks, I noticed something was wrong.

Luke came by to ask how everything was. “Good, I said. But why are there no cucumbers in the vermicelli? That’s the best part.”

“Must be out of those, too!” he said, at this point probably as amused by the evening as we were.

B and I had a laugh together and finished off our meal.  “You know what I like about you?” he said, leaning in. “You understand how food is related to everything else in life. You don’t look at it as a separate thing.” And I didn’t realize until later what I great reply that really was.

Christos

I finally got to enjoy what is often voted the best Greek food in town. I went to Christos on a Saturday afternoon with J, with whom I was going on a second date.

A few weeks back at The Muddy Pig, he got my attention by declaring his love of utilitarian furniture. With a tone that sounded like the lovable Julia Child met the refined Martha Stewart, he said, “If I could have my way, my house would be full of credenzas. There’s just so much you can DO with them!”

Last weekend, he proposed we get lunch and check out Josef Sudek’s photography at the MIA. I chose Christos right away given the museum’s brilliant proximity to Eat Street (and because a certain food critic at MSP magazine suggested as much). It was a great choice.

Christos at noon on a Saturday looks like a Mediterranean getaway. It has a large, comfortable dining room with an open kitchen, and the tall ceilings, white walls, ample plants, and big windows bring in lots of sunshine, like you’re hanging out in the courtyard of your seaside hotel (wearing a sweater and snowboots to ward off the Minnesota winter, of course). The place was busy, and at that hour, you get to eat alongside lunching ladies and families young and old. There’s something very “of the city” about it, and it couldn’t be any more different from their location in St. Paul’s neoclassical train station, Union Depot, which makes you feel like you have but a few minutes to feed your lifelong love falafel and grape leaves before dashing off to meet your train.

In any case, my date and I shared spanakopita, mousaka, dolmathes (grape leaves), melintzanosalata (roasted eggplant dip), avgolemono (soup described as “traditional egg-lemon delight”), and milopita (glazed apple slices baked in phyllo with ricotta and cream cheese).

All of the food was fresh, served at the perfect temperature, attractive, and satisfying. It looked and tasted like the Platonic version of Greek food. The only thing I questioned was the phyllo dessert served sitting in a pool of syrup, which is not my favorite place to keep a flaky pastry. Is this how it’s supposed to be?

We also had Retsina with our meal, the allegedly harsh tavern wine that gets its pine flavor from the resin traditionally used to seal whatever vessel wine was stored in. I’d never tried it before and was clearly curious, so the server offered a taste of the two types served by the glass: Tsantali and Achaia Clauss. (They have three more kinds served by the bottle.) I was impressed with how easy it is to drink. We settled on Achaia Clauss and drank it right down.

At one point,  I casually said something to J about the music I play while I cook. For a long time, I cooked while listening to records — Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King. Stuff like that.

Thinking nothing of it, J said, “Ella Fitzgerald is my cooking music” as he dug into another portion of our meal.

And I think it was at that point I knew he was someone to pay attention to.

Christos on Urbanspoon

Oeufs en Meurette

The following post ran in the February-March issue of my Column The Sense of Taste. Readers coming to this site from the link in the column, please see the post before this one for many additional poaching tips.

* * *

Although we’ve spent many hours together in the kitchen, the humble little egg still hasn’t given up all of its secrets. This isn’t to say that eggs are difficult to cook. They’re challenging only in that they provide an entire curriculum of cooking techniques. Eggs are both casual and refined. You can have them with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. They take you to France, Italy, Spain, Asia, and a diner in a small American town. They satisfy your teeth both savory and sweet. With minimal cost, they elevate other ingredients or take up a starring role in breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With a little dedication, cooking with eggs can become one of the most important techniques in your kitchen.

With Valentine’s Day upon us, I’d like to suggest a romantic morning recipe from classic French cooking repertoire, Oeufs en Meurette, or poached eggs in red wine sauce. If you make eggs for someone for breakfast, it means you care about them. If you make this egg dish for someone, your hearts might permanently join together right there at the table. With the first bite, the egg yolk oozes into the rich red wine sauce and the crevices of the crisp, garlic-laced bread. By serving it, you’re tapping into a vault of sensual French cooking and saying that you want to experience more of the world together. Poached eggs with red wine sauce is a sensual and beguiling gift of your affection.

It helps to view this recipe as the glorious sum of its parts: 1) red wine reduction, 2) sautéed bacon and mushrooms, 3) poached eggs, and 4) slices of toast rubbed with garlic—cooked in that order, but assembled in reverse. I wish you a most wonderful and romantic meal.

* * *

Oeufs en Meurette

Serves 2

For the sauce:

  • 2 cups stock (beef is preferred, but chicken or onion will do)
  • 2 cups red wine (go for an inexpensive pinot noir)
  • 1 thinly sliced small onion
  • 1 peeled and coarsely diced carrot
  • 1 coarsely diced celery stalk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig of fresh thyme
  • 10 peppercorns
  • dash of cayenne
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the rest:

  • 6 slices bacon cut into lardons (or tempeh bacon)
  • 12 to 15 crimini or button mushrooms
  • 2 to 4 very fresh eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • 2 to 4 slices dense white bread (I prefer sourdough)
  • 1 clove of garlic, halved
  • fresh thyme for garnish

Put all ingredients for the stock in a saucepan except for the flour and butter. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced by half. Drain the mixture through a colander and into a bowl, discarding the vegetables. On your chopping block, work the flour and butter together and then add it to the sauce, whisking with a fork until thoroughly mixed. Return it to the saucepan and bring to a light boil for 30 seconds. Turn the heat off, cover, and set aside.

Bring 2 inches of water to a boil in a deep saucepan for poaching the eggs. In a separate skillet, fry the bacon until crisp and set aside. Without cleaning out the pan, add the mushrooms and fry until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside with the bacon.

To poach the eggs, make sure the poaching water is at a gentle simmer, bubbling as lightly as possible. Add the vinegar. Crack one of the eggs into a small bowl. Place the lip of the bowl in the water and gently tip the egg into the pan. Repeat this process for all the eggs. Use a small spoon to fold the white back over each egg. Cook until the whites are set and the yolk still moves slightly inside the egg, about 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel. Trim off ragged eggs with a butter knife if you’d like. (If you aren’t serving the eggs right away, you can keep them ready in a bowl of warm water, or return them to the warm water in the saucepan for 30 seconds just before serving.)

Just before serving, re-heat the sauce as needed and toast the bread. Rub the toasted bread slices with the open the half of the garlic clove, putting one slice on each plate. Place a poached egg on the bread (I did this carefully with my bare hands). Pile the mushrooms and bacon on top of the egg and bread. Pour just enough red wine sauce on top, sprinkle with fresh thyme, and serve immediately with a fork and knife.

How to Poach an Egg

“One of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.”

— M.F.K. Fischer

If I’ve ever been ambivalent about eggs, it was due to the immaturity of youth. I used to think they were too weird for me, and too . . . well, intimate, in an animal kind of way. But I’m past that now.

Eggs have become one of the most important ingredients in my kitchen. Like a dog that will do any trick to make you happy, eggs can be your best friend. They’re a wonder ingredient. I would put a little cape on these things if I could. If I haven’t yet convinced you, here’s a survey of wisdom from my cookbook shelf.

Auguste Escoffier, French chef born in 1846 and author of The Escoffier Cookbook (complete with 2,973 recipes!), says, “Of all the products put to use by the art of cookery, not one is so fruitful of variety, so universally liked, and so complete in itself as the egg.”

Doyenne of domesticity Martha Stewart says, “The egg is a food that lets us perform magic in the kitchen.”

Mark Bittman, everyone’s favorite minimalist, says, “No other ingredient has the power to transform itself or other dishes as does the egg, perhaps the most important food in our kitchen.”

Deborah Madison, famed vegetable enthusiast, says, “Eggs are often described as the perfect food. Simply put, eggs do things in the kitchen that other foods just can’t do.”

Curious as I am, I decided to commit myself to the curriculum of eggs. Scrambled, turned into an omelette, boiled, half-boiled, fried, or baked, I look up information about every preparation whenever I make it. One technique I’ve learned tons about is poaching, which can seem intimidating even to the surest hand.

A few things about poaching eggs make the heart race a little bit, but don’t let any of it get to you. Nothing messes up a poached egg more than your own fear of it, so relax and have fun. Once you have a bit of confidence, get out a saucepan and poach 4 of them all at once. That’s how to really show ’em who’s boss.

To poach an egg, crack a very fresh raw egg into a bowl (or many raw eggs into individual bowls), dip about a half inch of the bowl into a simmering saucepan of 3 inches of water, tip the egg out, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the white becomes a firm pillow to carry the still-soft yolk to the plate.

One of the challenges of poaching a raw egg is that the whites fly around the yolk like the arms of a simmering octopus. To help fix that, add a tablespoon of vinegar (“acidulate” the water, says Alton), which keeps things together. Lots of people also suggest creating a whirlpool (Martha says, “technically a vortex”) in the water before sliding the egg in, as the momentum traps the whites close to the yolk. This is a cool trick, but for a long time it led me to think you can only poach one egg at a time — and that’s just not true. If you’re poaching an egg for yourself, go for the vortex. If poaching for a group of people, you can cook up to 4 eggs in the same pan. In this case, skip the vortex. To avoid the octopus effect, after you tip the eggs in, simply push the whites back over the yolk with a wooden spoon and hold there for about 3 seconds.

The most useful thing I’ve learned about poaching eggs is their durability. You can put them on a plate covered with a paper towel and trim off the messy edges. If you’re using them in a dish that’s still cooking, put the poached eggs in a bath of hot water until you’re ready to use them. If you really like planning ahead, Alton Brown says poached eggs can be refrigerated in ice water for up to 8 hours and reheated in hot water.

In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child offers lots of tips of perfect poached eggs. Especially if your eggs aren’t fresh, cook the shelled egg for half a minute to firm the white slightly, then crack it into the water to finish poaching. Alternately, Child and Bittman agree — a good substitute are medium-boiled eggs. Child says to boil an egg for 6 minutes, peel it, and use it in place of poached eggs. Bittman says, with a safety pin, poke a hole in the top and bottom end of a raw egg. Boil gently for 4 minutes, cool under cold water, and peel. (Beware: I personally find it more challenging to peel a medium-boiled egg than to poach a raw one, so experiment and find what works for you.)

I can’t begin to tell you how many things are improved by a poached egg. Maybe that’s what the Internet is for. But in my humble opinion, the crowning glory, the poached egg pièce de résistance, is Oeufs en Meurette, a sensual French dish I stumbled on and fell in love with immediately.

I wrote about this dish for my column with Valley Natural Foods. As soon as it’s in circulation, I will share the full recipe here. For now, here’s a hint of all its glory. If you’re lucky enough to wake up next to someone you love on Valentine’s Day, make this for both of you. You’ll be happy you did.