Archive for August, 2009

Frank Bruni’s Born Round

bruni

When I first started taking food-writing classes, my instructors explained that in order to write well, we students had to read. We needed to consume as much food writing as possible, including a range of books from the likes of M.F.K. Fisher and Anthony Bourdain, as well as the weekly New York Times Dining Section. “Anything written by Frank Bruni,” the Times’s restaurant critic, was required reading. Lucky for me, I was already a fan, eagerly turning the pages of the paper each Wednesday to see what Bruni had to say about the city’s newest restaurants.

But after five years of witty and intelligent reviews, Bruni is stepping down from his post. With the end of his tenure in this position, he has written Born Round, a memoir of his secret and not-so-secret struggles with overeating and weight control. There has already been a ton of press covering the release of this book, so I’ll give you just a quick summary: Basically, after being born in a large Italian American family with what he describes as an oversized appetite, Bruni wrestled with his weight throughout his childhood and adulthood. A confusing relationship with food dominated much of his life, as he experimented with fad diets, binge eating, and vomiting, never finding a proper balance with food until a few pivotal events jolted him into realizing how self-destructive his situation had become.

What was most interesting to me—apart from his loving relationship with his family (especially his mother) and its influence on his eating habits—was how Bruni succeeded professionally while enduring such personal torment. A scholarship to the University of North Carolina led to internships at Newsweek and later, various positions at the Times, where he eventually shadowed George W. Bush during his first presidential campaign. All the while, Bruni was obsessed with food, eating huge portions during the middle of the night and through the day, tracking his waist size through his pants that grew ever more snug with time. He led an essentially celibate life for years, lacking the confidence in his appearance to reveal himself to other men. While achieving such professional success, Bruni was still emotionally miserable, as well as unhealthy and overweight.

When Bruni finally devotes himself to turning his body—and personal happiness—around, it reads as an inspiring transformation. Exercise becomes the key, as the success he once found through childhood swimming reasserts itself with his new physical trainer. A position at the Times’s Rome bureau further helps Bruni learn about portion control, and teaches him how to actually enjoy food. By the time Bruni accepts the job of the Times’s restaurant critic near the end of the book, he has all the tools he needs to maintain control over food and his life. 

Born Round is proof that you never know how hard a person is struggling, no matter how successful they seem on the outside. It’s a brave as well as funny book, full of personal revelations and insecurities, as Bruni shows that the possibility for growth and change is always present. Whether you’re a fan of Bruni’s column or not, I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in food and our relationship with it. And while I am happy that Bruni has conquered his personal demons, I will miss him every Wednesday; the Times Dining Section just won’t be the same without him. 

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Summer Peach Carpaccio

Just so you know, I didn’t spend all of July lazing around Brooklyn while the blog went unwritten. No, one of those unproductive weeks was spent in Cape Cod, my favorite—and now annual—vacation destination. When Jim and I weren’t lounging on the beach, we were either grilling at our rental cottage or dining out at one of the Cape’s local establishments. We didn’t have much else on our agenda, to be honest. But about midway through our low-key vacation week, I discovered a dish that I couldn’t stop thinking about.

peachcarpaccio

Look at the photograph above, taken at an adorable restaurant called Terra Luna in Truro. This dish, called a peach carpaccio, was composed of thin slices of raw peaches adorned with arugula, shallots, goat cheese, candied walnuts, and just a bit of white wine vinegar (as far as I could tell). Each bite was light and sweet, a simple seasonal delight. As a playful and summery take on traditional Italian meat carpaccio, the idea of this peach-based version impressed me almost more than its actual flavors. Even as I lifted every morsel to my lips, I knew I had to steal this idea and make it my own.

Well, there’s no better time than the present, right? We’re in the midst of stone fruit season, and as you saw with my recent rustic fruit cake, peaches and plums are at their best right now. I went to the farmers’ market, picked up some fresh peaches and arugula, and returned home with a mission. I studied the photo above and cobbled together my own version of this fruity dish. The steps were simple: I sliced some peaches and a shallot, washed the arugula, and unwrapped some goat cheese. I had no idea how to make candied walnuts, so I winged it by roasting the nuts and then mixing them with some honey. A bit of food styling, a dash of balsamic vinegar (I was out of white wine vinegar), and my version of Terra Luna’s peach carpaccio was ready.

peachcarpaccio2

It was just as lovely as I remembered. The subtle taste of sweet peaches spiced with peppery arugula evoked my wonderful week at the beach with every bite. Bits of soft goat cheese, crunchy walnuts, and shallots, united by balsamic vinegar, completed my Cape Cod memory. I may not be on vacation anymore, but at least I brought the best parts back to Brooklyn with me.

Recipe for Summer Peach Carpaccio (inspired by the dish at Terra Luna restaurant in Truro, Massachusetts)

  • 2 large peaches
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, broken into small pieces
  • 1-2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 large handfuls of arugula, washed
  • 1 shallot, sliced
  • 3-4 tablespoons of soft goat cheese
  • balsamic or white wine vinegar
  • salt
  • pepper

Slice the peaches into very thin slices. (I used a regular chef’s knife, but a mandolin would probably work well, if not better.)

Heat your oven to 300 degrees. Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet, and roast them in the oven for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. When ready, remove them from the oven and cool slightly. Mix them with the honey in a small bowl. Set aside.

Arrange your peach slices on a small plate so that they overlap slightly, in a circular fashion. Sprinkle the shallots, goat cheese, and walnuts on top on the peach slices. Top with the arugula. Dress lightly with vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Serves 2. Enjoy!

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Memories of Essaouira

During our honeymoon in Morocco, Jim and I spent a few days in the seaside town of Essaouira. We strolled the narrow stone streets overlooking the ocean and relaxed on the beach, breathing in the salt air with each step. One hot, sunny day at lunchtime, we walked down to the port and seated ourselves at one of the myriad fish stands right by the water. Seagulls swarmed overhead, swooping down every so often to investigate the fresh seafood that local fishermen unloaded from their boats.

At the time, Jim and I didn’t eat fish often. But there was no way we could avoid it in Essaouira, and neither did we want to. Maybe we were still giddy from our wedding or something, I’m not sure. Anyway, we ordered a big platter of straight-from-the-sea, grilled sardines for lunch. Using our hands, we picked our way past the charred, salty skin and spindly bones to the cleanest, freshest meat we had ever tasted. Four years later, we still talk about about that lunch and its effect on us.

sardines_cooking

This past weekend we tried to recreate that meal—or at least the spirit of it—in a very different setting. We pulled our grill pan out from under the sink, heated it through, and grilled 2 pounds of barely seasoned sardines for dinner. A Brooklyn apartment might seem a shabby substitute for an exotic African port, but it didn’t hinder us at all. After cooking for just a couple of minutes on each side, the skin of the shimmery fish was transformed into a crackly coating, and our apartment was quickly infused with salty scents of the sea. (That’s my nice way of saying it smelled like fish.)

I don’t know why it took us four years to cook sardines at home, especially when there are so many benefits to eating them. Sardines are a highly sustainable fish source, which at least puts my mind at ease in terms of purchasing and eating them. And in addition to being a great source of omega-3s, they are low in all those scary contaminants I keep reading about. These small, oily fish surprisingly pack a big nutritional punch.

sardines_cooked

But let’s not forget how good they taste. I served ours atop a bed of rice, with some fresh lemon wedges on the side. The crisp skin was a perfect foil to the fresh, flaky meat hidden within. Even though we were miles away from Morocco, Jim and I were transported there for just a moment, as we once again used our hands to pick past the tiny bones towards the light, clean flesh of the sardines. Fishy apartment aside, it was a great trip.

Recipe for Indoor Grilled Sardines (adapted from Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe in the Recipes for Health section of the New York Times)

  • 2 pounds of cleaned sardines
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • sea salt
  • pepper
  • lemon wedges

Heat a grill pan over medium heat, until it is very hot. While the pan is heating, rinse the sardines, and dry them with paper towels. Toss with olive oil, and season them generously with salt and pepper.

When the grill is ready, place the sardines on it. Grill for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a platter using tongs and serve with lemon wedges. Serves 2. Enjoy!

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A Rustic Fruit Dessert

Usually after a prolonged absence from the blog I take a few minutes to explain where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. Well, this time is different, as I don’t have any excuses or stories to share. The simple and short explanation is that I got lazy, swept up in the easygoing vibe of summertime. I pushed the blog to the back burner and spent some quality time at the beach, computer be gone. But one look at the piles of fresh peaches and plums at the farmers’ market near my office last week quickly changed my attitude. The multiple baskets of tender stone fruit, bursting with their sweet, sticky juices, instantly awakened my urge for cooking, and yes, blogging.

cake

I knew exactly what I wanted to make with this summertime bounty. During one of those relaxing afternoons at the beach (as I sat under an umbrella with my toes buried in the sand, of course) I came across a gorgeous-looking recipe for a stone fruit tea cake in Gourmet magazine. Published from a new cookbook called Rustic Fruit Desserts, this recipe seemed perfect for me and this sunniest of seasons: simple, forgiving, and filled with ripe fruit. 

The key to this recipe is in the dough. Instead of a traditional pie dough, flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and eggs are combined into a loose, almost cream-like mixture. No rolling or painful dough transport required here, as I carefully spread half of the sticky dough into an even layer across my tart pan. After tossing the peaches and plums on top, I dropped the remaining dough in tablespoon-size pieces across the mounds of fruit, wherever I found room. This liquidy batter doesn’t follow any rules, but that’s what being “rustic” is all about, right? A sprinkle of brown sugar, 40 minutes in the oven, and my cake emerged. Bits of pink plums and orange peaches peeked through browned cushions of cake, promising a sweet taste of the season.

slice

I brought the cake to a barbecue over the weekend, and all I can say is that if the rest of the recipes in Rustic Fruit Desserts are this good, then I have to run out and buy the book. Every bite revealed the inherent luscious nature of the fresh fruit, while the surrounding cake was light and airy in its own right. The recipe suggests serving this dessert with a dollop of cream, but we didn’t bother. Oh, and if you can’t tell, you don’t need to serve tea with this tea cake either. It is perfect on its own.

I didn’t change the recipe (except for substituting a sprinkling of turbinado sugar with brown sugar before baking), so I am not reprinting it here. You can access it in the August 2009 issue of Gourmet, on Gourmet’s website, or in the new cookbook Rustic Fruit Desserts.

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