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Blood, Bones & Butter: Book Report, Plus Prune Visit

Well, I read the book, went to a reading, and ate at the restaurant. Guess it’s time to write a blog post about it. Of course, I’m referring to Blood, Bones & Butter, the memoir of Chef Gabrielle Hamilton, who created the restaurant Prune in New York. I wanted to read Hamilton’s book because I hadn’t heard a woman’s voice in awhile. Remember how I wrote about Grant Achatz’s (chef of Alinea) biography? Well, there were hardly any women in that at all. I mean, on the periphery, girlfriends, wives, mothers, sure — but working in the kitchen at Alinea? I didn’t see a one.

Gabrielle Hamilton is no softie. She is scrubbing the floor at Prune while 39 weeks pregnant. There’s a passage in the book about a line cook quitting and telling Hamilton in the middle of service. Hamilton, now very pregnant and very understaffed, says, “You fucking suck so much”. At the reading, when she got to this passage she prefaced it by reiterating how much she still hated the woman. (I think she was trying to soften the upcoming blow for us of her shouting, but it had the effect of underscoring her hard edge.) In the book, when she goes to an event about women in the food industry and the panel is asked, “Is it okay to cry?”, she thinks about how she has never, no matter what, ever cried.

Still, you don’t realize that toughness when you first open her new memoir. It is hard not to be mesmerized by the first chapter that deals with Hamilton’s childhood punctuated by elaborate feasts put on by her former professional ballet dancer mother and a father, an artist/visionary who creates whole sets like the ones for Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus. (At one point, she’s with her dad at work and sinks her arms all the way to the elbows in a fifty-gallon barrel of silver glitter.) Hamilton captures her childhood voice so well and her love for her parents is so great. “Our house…,” she writes, ” was not really a house at all but a wild castle….”

And yet, that voice and that tenderness fades later on in the book. (Maybe for awhile displaced by the bad ass toughness?) The last section of the memoir, “Butter” that deals more with Hamilton’s marriage and her July stays with her husband’s family in Italy, is much harder to get through than the first. Maybe recent history is harder to write/make sense of/shape? than the more ancient chapters of one’s life…

I’ve heard a lot about this book and about how raw it is (she does kill a live chicken!) and I guess that’s true, but Hamilton is also indiscernible in some critical ways. As beautiful as the prose is, the most central questions about Hamilton’s life remain a total mystery. While she can talk about scraping by in catering kitchens and running summer camp kitchens, the major relationships with people (not food) in her life (a.k.a. one’s emotional heart) are difficult to understand. Why, for instance, did her connections to all her siblings (she’s one of five) except for her older sister disintegrate? Prune, after all, is not only the name of Hamilton’s restaurant but the nickname her French mother called her as a child. The affection there is powerful and unbreakable …

“Until this moment, more or less, I sat in her lap after dinner every single night. For a period I was too young for after-dinner chores –clearing, washing, drying — and possibly too favored, and so I eagerly crawled up and took my place in her lap, barefoot and drowsy. I leaned back into her soft body and listened to the gurgling as she chewed and swallowed. I breathed in her exhale: wine, vinaigrette, tangerines, cigarette smoke. While all of the others were excused from the table, I got to sit, alone with my mother and father as they finished. I watched her oily lips, her crooked teeth and felt the treble of her voice down my spine while she had adult conversation and gently rested her chin on the top of my head. She cracked walnuts from the Perigord and picked out the meats, extinguished her occasional cigarette in empty broken husks, shifted my weight in her lap; she squeezed the tangerine peel into the candle flame and we watched the oils ignite in yellow and blue sparks. I sat in that woman’s aproned lap every single night of my young life, so close to the sound and smells of her that I still know her body as if it were my own.” (23)

Such a gentleness and yet, later in the book, so little is mentioned of why the author and her mother did not communicate for 20 years! Similarly, Hamilton does little to illuminate why she married and stayed married to the Italian man that she at times doesn’t seem to have loved fully ever (keep in mind, she has only dated women up until this point). I found myself cringing at her comparison of her relationship to her husband to the homemade raviolis he first brought to her in an attempt to woo her. Apparently he carefully made the ravioli that are so beautiful and thin, but ultimately, they aren’t as perfect as they seem. She talks about how he forgot to blanche the pancetta so that the taste of the ravioli filling was too salty. Describing her relationship in this way is possibly a clever literary device, but is it a gracious move?

I say this partly because when you eat the food at Prune you feel the graciousness of the chefs in the back, of Prune’s creator. You get those nibbles on the table — in our case celery and olives. We even got to linger (three tea refills on my part, with milk and brown sugar cubes that came along with it), despite the small restaurant space.

Any questions or concerns I had while reading the book or seeing Hamilton at her reading, softened when I ate at Prune. The offerings were delicious, inventive, and fun. Deviled eggs were on the menu as was this hamburger on an English muffin with cheddar cheese.

I’m so glad Hamilton puts on the menu food that she has craved. Way before she opens Prune, she is young and traveling all over the world. She writes, “Because so much starving on that trip led to such an enormous amount of time fantasizing about food, each craving became fanatically particular. Hunger was not general, ever, for just something, anything to eat. My hunger grew so specific I could name ever corner and fold of it. Salty, warm, brothy, starchy, fatty, sweet, clean and crunchy, crisp and watery, and so on.” (129)

Lucky us to benefit from that kind of training (and a little like Achatz, no? Remember how he re-learned the specificity of taste when he was going through tongue cancer and only slowly got each taste back?)

Anyway, back to Prune. My skate wing was hands-down scrumptious. Nutty and lemon-caper buttery, yum.

And for dessert, lovely pâte à choux pastries, sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with orange blossom honey. At this moment, I wish I could better convey texture, like you could touch them through the screen. They are at the same time doughy and yet light, light, light.

If you go to Prune, you will see a very particular menu. It’s not trend-based; it’s the imaginings/memories-turned reality of a particular person with a particular lineage. And in the food at Prune? I think they’re both there — the tangerine peel into the candle flame and all that glitter…

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I’m off to celebrate with some friends, but thought I would leave you with at least a few Ballymaloe photos. Word on the street is that Darina is in NYC today and will be promoting her Forgotten Skills book on QVC. (We got our choice of Allen books as our farewell present from the cookery school and this is the one I chose.) She’s also been spotted on Bobby Flay’s Ireland special which airs on the Food Network today. I like this photo because Darina is poised with one hand in the future (her smartphone…While we were at the school, she mentioned being quite happy to figure out how to use this better. The next gadget she seemed excited about was the flipcam…) and one hand foraging on the Ballymaloe grounds (I think she’s holding a fresh chestnut).

Enjoy the day. Here is my favorite spot at Ballymaloe — the herb garden. Each section has a variety of herbs and greens growing in it.

Oh and if you are interested in celebrating by cooking something Irish, perhaps you could try brown soda bread. Here’s an easy recipe.

Alinea Book Report: Life, on the Line

Okay, I read the book. Yup, the one I just mentioned about Grant Achatz called Life, on the Line. I was totally engrossed and am still trying to process exactly why. Sure it had to do with food, but it also had to do with how dreams become reality. Achatz worked in kitchens basically all his life and was so sure of what he wanted to do from an early age.

There’s a scene towards the beginning of the book where he is talking to then-CIA extern Richard Blaise (yes, Richard Blaise!!) about how working at The French Laundry is just a stepping stone for him. The book is full of letters Achatz writes along the way to people to convince them of different things (he wrote Thomas Keller 14 letters about why he wanted to work at The French Laundry!) that eventually paved the way to make his dream of owning and running the best restaurant in America possible. Clearly, this guy works so hard and loves his work so much.

When Achatz breaks away from The French Laundry and starts as chef de cuisine at Trio, he articulates what he is after: “I didn’t have notebooks filled with new techniques or recipes, nor did I have complete menus ready to implement. I had a vague notion that I wanted to explore new areas, and I had a very clear idea of how I wanted a meal to feel to the diner. That was the driving force, and everything else simply had to support that. ” (134)

Later, he explains the restaurant philosophy to his new staff, “I want to create an experience that is based on emotions. I want people to be excited, happy, curious, surprised, intrigued, and even bewildered during the meal.” (137)

Something about reading this rang true to me in a way it hasn’t when I have heard about Achatz’s philosophy before. I think because in my own room I have a little square of paper on the wall that says: “happiest, saddest, funniest, most beautiful”. It’s creative writing prompt that gets you thinking about moments in your life and to start to write from there. The result is sometimes that the happy, sad, most beautiful emotion you felt at a particular moment in your life is conveyed through the writing even if the plot is totally different.

I guess when I first heard of Alinea, it sounded like too much of merely an intellectual exercise (I mean Achatz did admit that his crew tries to intimidate diners!), but some else of what he does is about sharing. In particular, I like how he taps into his subconscious with some of the dishes — just how diners sometimes take awhile to figure out his dishes, sometimes he does, too. I think that’s how creativity really works. Take for example when Achatz is working out a seafood sponge concoction. It occurs to him that he should include the scent of spring flowers to enhance the dish.
Photo Credit: flickr/astaa

“Quickly, I settled on hyacinth as the flower that was needed. I had no idea why. I just knew that hyacinth flowers should surround the dish, and then we would have waiters pour hot water over them to release the scent as the diners ate….Nick got a teakettle of hot water for me and I poured it over the flowers — instant spring int he middle of winter…. as soon as I smelled the sweetness of the flowers I was transported back to my childhood. Until that moment I had no idea why I wanted to pair this fish with flowers. But once it was all together, I remembered a day when I was twelve years old, fishing for walleye with my dad in the late spring. We would tuck in along the shore and eat lunch among the wildflowers.” (233)

His ingredients are the stuff of memories, and you see how re-creating emotional memory might necessitate innovative techniques. (Incidentally, Martin Kastner, the guy who designs a lot of the serviceware at Alinea spent time reverse engineering old sixteenth -century padlocks in the Czech Republic. There were no keys for the locks, so he had to think like a sixteenth century lock maker. Talk about preparation for Alinea work — there is some metaphor here, I just know it.)

Achatz gains his business partner, Nick Kokonas, through food as well. Kokonas and his wife Dagmara were regulars at Trio and Kokonas books a reservation for Dagmara’s birthday. He sends Chef Achatz an e-mail a few days before the birthday with a line that can only be taken as a challenge, “Incidentally she is ethnically Latvian, speaks Japanese, and loves Thai food. Good luck!” Of course, Achatz takes on the task and by the end Dagmara is tearing up, tasting a bit of her childhood in a Latvian sorrel soup with smoked ham hocks and quail eggs. That’s the night Kokonas tells Achatz he would love to build a restaurant with him one day.

The tongue cancer appears towards the end of the book and now having understood better just how important taste was to Achatz and how deeply he poured his whole self into his work, you can feel how truly devastating the diagnosis must have been. When he’s doing chemo and his hair is falling out on the sides, his staff at Alinea show him their solidarity by shaving their heads into mohawks, too.

Sure there was a lot of ego in this guy. Much of what he wanted to do was driven by being different, setting himself apart from his esteemed mentors. But the drive was not without heart. It’s so clear that he loves cooking. (For some reason, to me, this counts for a lot.)

His business partner Nick Kokonas won me over not only because he’s the one who dragged Achatz to see the University of Chicago research team that eventually saved his life, but because he is constantly telling Achatz that people would love to eat his “real food”, too. Kokanas gets to sample it whenever he stops by the kitchen and Achatz and his crew create makeshift meals on the fly with “real” ingredients. (Real food may make an appearance at Next, their latest dining venture. Check out a preview of the restaurant here — it opens April 1, 2011.)

Needless to say… this book got me thinking. Imagine what the food would do!

Mind Games and Olive Oil Lollipops

Obviously, I’m more of a let’s stay connected to nature-type food lover, but I just had to give a shout-out to Fresh Air’s recent interview with Grant Achatz, the chef at Alinea in Chicago. You probably know Achatz’s near-magical food work and his struggle with tongue cancer, but what got me to turn the car towards the library and check out his new memoir, was hearing him describe ingredients.

For instance, he talked about time-releasing scents (like pillows of nutmeg or cinnamon air) and about flavor release — how some foods immediately are flavorful, while others need chewing and time to work over the palate. He also discussed why he sometimes includes the scents of aromas that aren’t edible, like leather. He likened it to wine — how wine might have cedar notes, but you wouldn’t want to chew on cedar, but that it still adds something, that even smelling ingredients that aren’t edible can trigger memories. He talked about using a specially designed gadget, the anti-griddle, to freeze ingredients that aren’t easily frozen, like olive oil — and how he went on to make olive oil lollipops flavored with sea salt, dried basil and smoked paprika. He called the lollipops “savory and fatty” and then I had to get the book.

Chef Achatz admitted that he and his team do try to intimidate their diners with some of their offerings and seemed to think that after a few bites, you lose anyone’s attention. (Very un-Zen like.) That’s why he serves many, but tiny, courses. Here’s a trailer for the latest Achatz and Kokonas production. It’s Next, a restaurant that changes its menu every three months. Each menu represents a specific place and time in the world, like Paris 1912 or Hong Kong 2036.

If you visit one of the restaurants or read Life, On the Line, let me know what you think, yes?

A Garden of Chanel No. 5 and Peanut Butter Fruit

I recently posted about my visit to Paradise Farms, and then was reminded about how you don’t need to visit a farm to get great produce. You can grow it yourself. I visited some family friends who are avid gardeners and came across a lot of what I saw on the farm — arugula flowers and malabar spinach and a variety of fruit trees. Recognize this one?

That’s right — jackfruit! It’s the largest tree-borne fruit in the world. If you’ve seen full-grown jackfruit, believe me, you know what I’m talking about. I first ate jackfruit on a trip to India when I was a little kid. I remember it being served to me by my aunties as a kind of mash that tasted like a mix between banana and pineapple. According to our gardening friends, there are two kinds of jackfruit –one has soft and mushy pulp, the other is harder. (The ones hanging on this tree are the soft kind).

They also had these:

which I correctly identified as jabuticaba. (Hey, I had a tree outside my bedroom growing up, what can I say?) The fruit is goopy, white, and sweet on the inside. We always just picked them off the tree and ate them raw (just the inside flesh), but you can also make them into jellies.

Walking around the garden, we learned all sorts of fascinating tidbits of info. Their trees included the ilang-ilang tree, which, when it flowers perfumes the whole garden in — get this, Chanel No. 5. I’m not kidding — it’s the base scent in the production of Chanel No. 5! Also, we smelled leaves of two different trees (and crushed them in our fingers), surprised to find we were smelling allspice and cinnamon. Allspice, as we know it in cooking, is the dried berry of the tree and cinnamon comes from the inner bark, but you can smell the spice off the leaves. Can you imagine, shaving off some bark from a tree in your garden and then running into the kitchen to top off your apple cider? Loved it.

Also, we learned about bunchiosia — a tree that produces a red fruit that tastes like peanut butter — and about a vine that produces flowers that are white in the morning, turn pink in the afternoon, and red later in the evening. Nature is amazing.

If you look at the bottom of this photo, you’ll recognize it as an aloe vera plant, often used in moisturizer or to soothe wounds, but I’ve never seen a flowering aloe vera before. Neat-o.

Here are some other (non-edible) flowers. The bromeliad:


and of course, orchids.

Chinese Stir Fry: Looking for a New Cut?

I’ve been getting a bit of practice on a few different cuts by assisting Eleanor Hoh, who gives wok cooking classes in South Florida. I julienne vegetables,
wash and cut up bok choy (I was excited to see that my cut-up bok choy looks just like how it is in Chinese takeout), and slice the thinnest slivers of ginger you can imagine. My favorite is the way she has me slice up scallions using an “Asian cut” instead of a French one. They end up long and thin.

Eleanor has a basic marinade of tamari, sherry, white pepper, and corn starch she uses for meat. Here, we’re about to stir fry ground turkey. We add oil to a hot wok, then sizzle up some garlic before adding the meat.

She’s been perfecting her stir fry technique and classes for years, so if you are interested in tips, you should check her out. It’s like she’s thought of every detail to get her “wok stars” cooking as soon as they get home from class, even down to pre-seasoning the woks she sells. (I’ve helped her do this; it’s not as easy breezy as it sounds.) Here’s a video of her pineapple fried rice recipe. Yum!

A Sip of the Sun at Paradise Farms

Today was a good day. I got to visit a farm. This time it was Paradise Farms in Homestead, FL. We took a farm tour and ate a brunch made of all the goodies from the farm. In addition to being organic, owner Gabriele Marewski told us that the farm follows biodynamic principles. Paradise Farms is a supplier of baby greens, microgreens, and flowers to some of South Florida’s finest restaurants.

This is what I like about farms. They let you run around in the sun and eat things. Like flowers. We ate all sorts of flowers — not only peppery nasturtium like at Ballymaloe, but sunn hemp,

wild petunia,

arugula flowers (tastes like arugula),

and mizuna flowers. Who knew? Mizuna flowers taste like broccoli!

Also of note was a cotton candy tree that produces red berries that taste like cotton candy. A little willy wonka, right? Gabriele also showed us a room with a dehydrator that she obtained through what she dubbed, “decision-making by synchronicity”. A guy called her up when a nearby factory was closing down and wanted to sell her a dehydrator for a bargain price. Now Paradise Farms is in the process of dehydrating edible flowers (for possible sale at Whole Foods) and oyster mushrooms (their variety is 25% protein), so a dried one would be like a mushroomy-protein chip.

Okay, now take a look at these mimosas. Think they are sparkling wine and OJ, right?

Nope. It’s carambola juice. (TROPICAL FRUIT REFRESHER: Carambola = star fruit).

Someone sitting near me at my brunch table sipped the carambola juice, paused, and said, “This tastes like the sun.” Kind of poetic, right? I have to say though, there is a particular taste to carambola. It’s tart and can be refreshing, but there is also a tire-like aftertaste. I’m not kidding. There is something a little rubber about star fruit. I guess I would amend the statement to say carambola juice is refreshing, but with an aftertaste of sun-kissed tires. In the best possible way!! (Remember when I mentioned the plant that smells like gasoline — I welcome it all.)

The brunch included homemade yogurt (thick, slightly sour, creamy),

fresh strawberries and sliced oranges, honey from the farm, a salad of wild greens and flowers,

an egg strada made of local eggs (Gabriele is okay with using eggs, “as long as I know the chickens”) and this waxy spinach known as malabar spinach (When I was growing up my mother often made what I think of as a “swamp soup” because there was so much of this type of spinach in each bowl).

There were also condiments of homemade pesto and marinated, chopped up yellow heirloom tomatoes. For dessert, shortbread cookies made with pecans from Northern Florida, lemon zest, coarse sea salt, and a tiny bit of fresh-from-the-farm rosemary.

Another thing I like about farms is that you always see some incredible example of wild beauty. Like take a look at this…Gabriele called this simply, “mustard greens gone wild.”

Fresh Pasta: What Could Be Better?

I know I just wrote a post where a Zen monk seems to suggest we do one thing fully. However, I have been pleased by my own combining of favorite activities. This week, for instance, I made my own pasta (!) while listening to This American Life. Did anyone else catch the episode where Ira Glass and the team try to test out what they think is the original Coke formula? That’s not the episode I listened to while kneading my pasta dough, but it’s a good one. I hope TAL does more food-related stories.

I listened to this baby swap story. My eyes just welled up when the moms talk at the end! (One of mothers knew the babies were switched the day she brought a baby home from the hospital. The other didn’t find out until she was 69!)

I digress. What I’m trying to say is pasta making is enormously rewarding. If you love to eat fresh pasta, you should definitely try it. Definitely. It’s a teacher, this pasta.

Here are some photos: one of the final days of Ballymaloe where I was making my own tortellini (note the magical lighting…)

And voila: here is my pasta from yesterday’s lunch (just before dunking it into boiling salted water for a minute).

Gillian’s recipe (and by the way, looks like Gillian is teaching a pasta class this summer… wish I could go!) calls for a 1 oz. semolina flour to 10 oz. ‘00’ flour. I found both at a local Italian grocery store. It also includes a tiny bit (dessert spoon) of olive oil, a teaspoon of cold water, a pinch of salt, one egg and 3 egg yolks, (but you leave the extra egg whites in reserve to add if your dough can take more).

The basic gist of Gillian’s recipe is sieving your flour and salt in a bowl, then forming a well where you pour the lightly beaten eggs, oil, and water into. Then you mix it up into a firm dough and knead it. After it’s smooth, you let it sit (left mine for 30 minutes while I made sauce and got more involved with TAL), then you roll it out. I used a pasta machine, but obviously, the idea is with or without the pasta machine, to get it as thin as possible.

Another thing I love about pasta making is it is pretty forgiving. I mean, if you like eating pasta, your first attempts will be gobbled up just like the rest.

Also, here are my new friends — they are all British. I met them at the public library and they seemed to know a lot about food.

They’re Nigel Slater, Jane Grigson, and Elizabeth David. More on them later. I have to get to know them first, geez!

Elizabeth has a Tagliatelle al Mascarpone recipe I think I might try. For the sauce, you melt butter, add mascarpone and gently heat the mixture, making sure it doesn’t boil. Then you add the cooked tagliatelle and swirl it around in the sauce. You add a a few tablespoons of grated Parmesean and some roughly chopped walnuts. Sounds good, yes?

Oats Reconsidered

Mark Bittman takes on McDonald’s oatmeal offerings today. He writes, “oats are easy to grow in almost any non-extreme climate and, minimally processed, they’re profoundly nourishing, inexpensive and ridiculously easy to cook. They can even be eaten raw…”

Immediately, I thought of (and plan on making tomorrow morning) some of the fresh muesli I tasted my first week at Ballymaloe. It’s so simple. You just take a few tablespoons of rolled oats and soak them in twice as much water for ten to fifteen minutes. (So, 3 tablespoons oats would require six tablespoons water). Then, you add some fruit — for example, mashed up raspberries or strawberries, or grated eating apple. You mix it all up with a smidge of honey (depending on how sweet your fruit is), and there’s breakfast.

At Ballymaloe, of course you would have to add fresh cream and brown sugar, but you get the idea.

Of course, oatmeal/porridge works, too.

Presidential Grub

Happy Presidents’ Day! On a recent flight I poured through the food issue of The New Yorker. So many great pieces, but what had me gasping was a piece by Laura Shapiro called “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Inedible Cuisine”. You know Eleanor, wife of FDR, delegate to the United Nations, helped create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Actually my senior year high school quote was from First Lady Roosevelt … “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

To my shock, one place Eleanor did not excel in was food! The New Yorker piece documents the absolutely horrifying meals served at the White House at the request of Eleanor. She hired a housekeeper named Henrietta Nesbitt, who, for the next twelve years, “turned out meals so gray, so drooping, so spectacularly inept that they became a Washington legend.”

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the piece, taken from The Presidential Cookbook — a collection of White House recipes written by Mrs. Nesbitt…

“Sometimes we used pineapple cut in lengthwise sticks and rolled lightly in crushed peppermint candy as an opener for the meal.”

“Pear salad was a great favorite… For that we riced cream cheese, added a mite of heavy cream, chopped chives, candied ginger or nuts, and poured this over the pear halves on lettuce. We either used the green minted canned pears or colored the mayonnaise green.”


I found this neat Our White House site of presidential menus and recipes. A few of the early presidents were said to have been fond of gooseberry fool including Thomas Jefferson. According to the Our White House link, Martha Jefferson Randolph (Thomas’s daughter) had this recipe: “Gooseberry Fool: Pick the stems and blossoms from two quarts of green gooseberries; put them in a stew pan, with their weight in loaf sugar, and a very little water—when sufficiently stewed, pass the pulp through a sieve; and when cold, add rich boiled custard till it is like thick cream; put it in a glass bowl, and lay frothed cream on the top.” Of course, you can substitute gooseberries with strawberries or blueberries, or if you are very lucky, black currants.