Monday, February 22, 2010

Plane Food

I realized at some point that my mental map is plotted wholly with good things to eat. When I scan in my mind over a neighborhood - say, Williamsburg - I get an impression of vague unease and feel an instinctive aversion. This is not due to the hipsters nor the posturing nor even the inconvenient trains, but rather the lack of treats. There are good restaurants, of course, but until recently a paucity of small rewards with which to fortify oneself in the course of an expedition. I have that initial impression - a sort of color-feeling - and then when I actually turn my mind to it, it begins to turn and process like one of those "loading" circles on a computer. And then the general impression begins to crystallize, and I zero in on the snacks: the lemon bombolini that can sometimes be found at Marlow and Sons; the lavender cake at Saltie; the barren stretch of Bedford; a sudden flicker as I realize that Cheeks bakery has closed. All this inventorying happens in a moment. But it's also why I so often find myself getting off the train at West 4th without knowing just why (Ronnybrook yogurt drinks and date-walnut brownies at Murray's; the squares of thin pizza at Amy's) or why I inexplicably continue to think of Chelsea as a friendly neighborhood (the Market, of course.) Lately, with the advent of the bacon rolls and sugar cake at the Stumptown in the Ace, I've begun to think very warmly of Murray Hill, even though in fact I know I hate it. The treats truck, itinerant as it is, drives my radar crazy.

This is why, for a long time, I have had very ungenerous feelings about Chicago - or at least, Hyde Park, where I went to college. The food is awful. The lone exceptions are the excellent applesauce cake very occasionally available at the coffee shop on the second floor of the Reynolds Club (now called "Hallowed Grounds") and, a good walk away, the Fanny Mae in the 55th Street shopping center. My heart would sink whenever I got off the El or the bus and the same thing happened when I arrived on Friday; I knew I was without allies. Nevertheless, this warred with the general feeling I have for the city, which is Ribs-Deep-Dish-Chicago-Hot-Dog-Breakfast-Skillets and, in any case, I was very eager to see Laura, one of my dearest friends, currently studying medicine.

I had a few hours to kill while Laura finished class, so I took the opportunity to seek out three bakeries and plot a number of possible restaurants. I felt better knowing they were there, and absolutely thrilled when, in a North Side coffee shop that just escaped preciousness, I had as scrumptious and moist a piece of banana bread as I've ever eaten. Sometimes I wonder if this need for food around me has to do with self-medicating; it's certainly true that blood sugar plays havoc with already ungoverned serotonin levels. And I feel a sense of panic when I'm stranded in the house without snacks and know the inevitable despair is coming. And the stupid thing is, I can't be placated with just a Snickers or some other practical remedy; it has to please me mentally, too. As a result, I'll refuse to settle and then go into utter despair, or faint, or get a migraine, and then it's too late. I faint a lot.

The things that make me happy are: good pound cake; eggplant; roasted tomatoes; brown sugar-flavored bar cookies. There are others, but these are the core of the arsenal.

Anyway, having found the banana bread, and knowing Lovely (that coffee shop) was there on North Milwaukee if I needed it, made all the difference. I loved Chicago. It was beautiful, gritty, full of character and sporadic charm. The campus was prettier than I remembered. The sun, and the 40 degree weather, hurt not at all. And having purchased an additional slice of banana bread to carry in my purse, more as talisman than anything, I felt fine.

The visit was wonderful. Besides the conversation and the stories and the wonderful, spacious apartment and the adorable sweet dog, Phoebe, there was much good food: we dined at a place I'd found in Eat.Shop Chicago which, like many things in their thumbnail photographs, seemed to me slightly misrepresented (the book makes everything look sleek and Wallpaper-ish; in fact the restaurant was highly eccentric, a bit frowsy and full of dubious art)but proved absolutely wonderful. Laura had a homemade fettuccini with a rabbit ragu; I had eggplant involtini, in a scrumptious, fresh-tasting tomato sauce, and an arugula salad on the side. They were all appetizer portions but ample and, with a glass of nice wine, festive, too. (I also love small portions and am depressed by huge ones. A Carnegie sandwich can send me into the blackest despair.)

Laura and her boyfriend have a well-stocked, adult and wonderfully accessible kitchen. I felt completely comfortable grinding beans and fixing myself a small French press of coffee and heating a pan of milk; that's saying something, when you've never stayed in a house. We took the dog on a long and vigorous walk and then drove to the Cozy Corner Pancake House whichm far from being burnished by nostalgia, was even better than I remembered, albeit a lot more bustling than in the pre-Yelp era. Just as I used to, I had the "Gypsy skillet," which is a pan of good home fries mixed with onion, mushrooms, cheddar and cured ham and topped with two eggs. Laura had the "Greek" rendition, which involves Feta and a passel of vegetables. The skillet is a marvelous thing, everything one wants in a single dish, hearty but never grotesque, and I don't see why no one has done it back East. I'm sure the pancakes are good, too, given that they're in the name and everything is good, but I can't resist a savory breakfast and when I do I always regret it after the first few bites. I mean, bacon!

Laura went to Lovely to work (I had talked it up) and I went on a many-mile thrift-shopping walk. I'd plotted out a number of food stops, even though I was stuffed; it made me feel good to know they were there. I did seek out a gourmet market recommended in my book and got the fixings for dinner, which I'd offered to cook so as to allow Laura to accomoany me to Shutter Island later in the evening. At length I joined her and had a cup of orange peel tea and a good oatmeal raisin cookie: the dense, raisin-packed kind, which I like slightly less than the chewy sort, but was still very good.

Dinner was simple, things I often put together at home and which I figured I could manage in an unfamiliar kitchen. First, I peeled, cubed and roasted a small butternut squash with a drizzle of olive oil and a scattering of salt and pepper. When the little cubes were browned and soft and crisp at the edges, I tossed them with baby arugula and goat's cheese and oil and Balsamic vinegar. The main was a homely dish from Marion Cunningham's Lost Recipes that I figured would make good leftovers for my hostess. It involves: sauteeing onion and garlic, then adding drained Cannellini beans, cut-up sausage (calls for Kielbasa; I had sweet Italian, which made it less like franks and beans and which I'll use again) a glug of white wine, a little red wine vinegar, brown sugar, salt and pepper. You cook it all down and eat it with mustard and it's very nice on a cold night.

Laura made us some terrific Irish oatmeal the next morning, cooked in milk and served with sliced banana. All I'll say about the rest of the day - because I'm being called away now - is that I obtained a sausage/pepper/onion pie from Pizzeria Uno and brought it on the Blue Line, to O'Hare, onto the plane, then on the shuttle from Newark to the station, then to Penn Station, and then back to Bed-Stuy on the A local. (I'd planned to try to bring a fully-dressed Chicago-style Gold Coast hot dog, but in the end, despitre some valiant with-pizza sprinting, wasn't able to make it to the terminal a mile away from my own to procure it. I had a hunger spell midway through, collapsed on the moving walkway, and had to eat a slice of pizza. Next time.)

Oh, and darn, I forgot to take a picture of the mediocre chicken tagine I made tonight. I am losing my faith in Tamasin Day-Lewis. Also, the lemon-rice pudding, from Laurie Colwin-via-Jane-Grigson (a spartan, milk-and-rice-only affair to which I added a little cardamom) which is pretty dreary. But I don't know what I expected. This is probably my hundreth Colwin failure. Fool me once, etc.

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