Archive for July, 2007

Until mid-August…

I’m leaving tonight for a business trip to Verona, and then a quick jaunt down into Puglia to visit with family. I probably won’t post again until mid-August…arrivederci!

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My Morning at the Carroll Gardens CSA

Onions from Garden of EveAt 9:25 on Saturday morning I found myself sitting on the stone wall of the Community Garden at 2nd Place and Smith Street, drowsily sipping a cup of coffee. Five minutes later a large white truck pulled up across the street, and a man wearing an orange baseball cap called out “Good morning!” from the driver’s seat. It was time to wake up. My shift at the Carroll Gardens CSA had officially begun.

My CSA requests that all members volunteer for one distribution shift during the season. This past Saturday was my turn. The morning began with unlocking the garden and transferring last week’s empty crates to the truck. I learned the basics of how to sign in the members while the rest of the volunteers carried heaping crates of produce off the truck. (I’m not lazy, I swear. I just have a bad back!) After setting up a tent to shade the veggies, we were ready for business.

As members started strolling into the garden around 10 am, it immediately became clear that everyone (unsurprisingly) loves their fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers from Garden of Eve.

It was also obvious that many of the members are sick of zucchini, which has been in season throughout the month of July. This week everyone could take six of them. For some people, that may have been six too many.

Even though I didn’t personally know anyone who came to pick up their food, it was fun to feel like part of the same community, even for just two hours. Together we shared in the excitement of the season’s first sweet corn and peppers, and delighted in this week’s batch of colorful marigolds.

Marigolds and flowers from Garden of Eve

“Start at this table and take three cucumbers, two peppers, two onions, and four ears of corn. Cherries and peaches are straight ahead, then come to the tent for more greens,” I repeated somewhat endlessly. All I needed was a microphone and a brightly-colored umbrella, and my dreams of becoming a tour guide would have been fulfilled.

I asked some of my fellow volunteers what made them join our CSA. Most liked the idea of receiving local, organic produce for both health and environmental reasons. Others spoke of the creative aspect that the CSA shipments inspire through their mystery contents:

“The CSA provokes me to make something good out of ingredients I’m not familiar with, such as such as pea shoots or kohlrabi,” ” said volunteer Jonathan Taylor. Suzy Pasette from Fort Greene also cited the lack of easily accessible, good supermarkets as one of her reasons for joining.

By noon we were out of zucchini but swimming in sweet corn. It must be very difficult for the farmers to figure out the exact amount of food for each week’s distribution. I’m going to stick to my strategy of arriving within the first hour, just to be sure I get a little bit of everything.

Locking up the garden and going our separate ways at the end of the shift felt somewhat bittersweet. Now that we understood the process, it was time to leave. A new group would have to learn it all again next week. Good luck to the next team of volunteers!


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Restaurant Review: Pó (Brooklyn)

po2.jpgOn Sunday night my family clamored into on Smith Street. We were there to spend Mom’s bowling money. Every year we take advantage of her mad skills and cash in her prize money with a decadent family dinner. With its warm setting and fresh Italian fare, Pó proved itself worthy of our annual celebration.

Open since mid-June, Pó Brooklyn is the sister restaurant to the Manhattan outpost of the same name. Mario Batali has long since come and gone at the original Cornelia Street location, but current chef Lee McGrath asserts his own successful interpretation of seasonal Italian cuisine at both locales.

Despite its small space, Pó evokes openness and sunshine, encouraged by mustard-colored walls, exposed brick, and off-white wood trim. Surprisingly restrained music made conversation easy. Well, easy for people who don’t constantly talk over each other, but that’s just us.

While my father selected from the extensive Italian wine list, we enjoyed the complimentary white bean bruschetta, light and cool, perfect for a warm summer evening. Jim and I then split the meatballs with tomatoes and asiago cheese ($10). Gentle and soft, those meatballs were smoother than Mom’s bowling ball heading for a clean strike.

A benefit of eating with family is that everyone shares their food. (Or steals from each other’s plates, however you want to look at it.) So I sampled my mother’s shaved fennel salad ($9), a refreshing mix of fresh fennel, bitter watercress, black olives, and tomatoes. We all picked from Dad’s tasty orrechiette with sweet sausage and broccoli rabe ($15), barely leaving the poor man with anything for himself.

My sister Melissa and I both ordered the white bean ravioli in a brown butter sauce ($13) for our main course. Delicate triangles of autumn-hued pasta filled with smooth white beans created a subtle exchange of sweet and tangy flavors. But Jim’s homemade gnocchi with fresh tomato, mozzarella and basil ($16) was my favorite dish of the night. The firm simplicity of the gnocchi gave full expression to the freshness of the accompanying ingredients. 

The surprises of the night were discovered among the contorni, especially with the fregula ($8), a toasted pasta salad with roasted corn and scallions that fairly exploded with crisp flavors. Jim, who had threatened to hoard his sautéed dandelion greens ($7), finally relented and allowed the rest of us to delight in their bitterness.

I had saved room for the “Pó Sundae,” composed of fresh mint gelato, cinnamon spiced pine nuts, and chocolate sauce ($6), and it more than fulfilled the sundae cravings I’d harbored for the past week. I distracted myself long enough to taste Melissa’s panna cotta with amarone cherries ($6), a firm, creamy slide of freshness.

And so we left Pó with our cravings satisfied and stomachs filled. Dinner was a gentle, elegant experience overall, filled with good food, friendly service, and relaxing atmosphere. For me, Pó is a little too refined to be considered a casual neighborhood joint; Frankie’s Spuntino already fills that need for us. But for very good Italian food (and generous portions of it) in a lovely space, it’s one of the best options on Smith Street.

And Mom, keep up the bowling. I’m already working on where we’ll go next year.

276 Smith Street (between Sackett and Degraw Streets in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn) 718-875-1980

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Thoughts on “Ratatouille”

Much has already been written about Disney’s Ratatouille, the animated story of the sensory-gifted rat Remy and his culinary adventures in the Parisian restaurant called Gusteau’s. I finally made it to the theater this past Saturday, but since I am a little behind the times on this one, I’ll just offer up a few random thoughts instead of a full review.

The film exhibits an amazing attention to detail regarding everything from the authentically-rendered Parisian cityscape to the scuffed-up pots and pans in Gusteau’s kitchen. In addition to the artistry of the film, the story of Remy, a rat who wants, who needs to cook no matter the obstacles, is touching and fun. It’s also easily understood by anyone who has ever pursued a creative goal. Near the beginning of the movie, Remy states, “If you are what you eat, I want to eat the good stuff.” These are words to live by, even if they do come from a rat (but a very cute rat).

Two moments in the film stand out to me more than others. The first is when Colette, the only female line cook in a kitchen of shady male characters, mentions how difficult it is for women to enter the professional kitchen, and how hard she has worked to be accepted at Gusteau’s. From what I have read, her story is all too familiar and true.

But for me, the most affecting moment of the film arrives when Anton Ego, the spindly-legged, miserable food critic, eats his first bite of Remy’s elegant take on ratatouille. With this first taste, the critic is whisked back to a memory of himself as a child, standing on his front stoop in tears, then quickly comforted with a dish of steaming homemade ratatouille. When the smile from his childhood spreads across his face as an adult, the wondrous power of food and cooking is summed up perfectly in this moment.

Besides simply sating hunger and providing sustenance, food also encompasses memories and feelings under the surface of these physical needs. Remy struggles to convey this point to his rat brethren throughout the film. In the end, everyone enjoys food in their own way, whether they are rats or humans. Perhaps we’re not as far apart as we think. (But I think that’s a topic for another movie.)

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Kitchen Gadgets: Brown Sugar Saver

Brown Sugar SaverTell me if this sounds familiar: You have a free afternoon in front of you. Maybe it’s cold and rainy outside, maybe not. In any case, you have decided to spend the afternoon in the kitchen, making a pie or some cookies from scratch. You think to yourself, “What a relaxing and productive way to spend the afternoon!”

All of the ingredients are ready to go. Until, that is, you reach for the box of brown sugar, and notice that the crystallized granules have hardened into a solid rectangular mass.

A gentle knock of the box against the counter doesn’t seem to help. One more time? Bang! Nope, nothing.

You reach for the rolling pin and hit it against the sugar brick a few times. When that fails, you pull out the mortar and pestle and try to grind some sugar off the block (yes, a mortar and pestle does come in handy sometimes). You start to wonder why the hell you ever wanted to cook anything today. Out comes the metal hammer. OK, now you know you’ve lost it. The sugar has won.

I have enacted this scene more often than I can count. (Should I be telling anyone this?) But now I am hoping to leave it behind with the help of the Brown Sugar Saver we bought at Sur La Table the last time we were in Pittsburgh. Made by JBK Pottery in Canada, these ceramic disks come in a variety of designs, such as hummingbirds and maple leaves. Ours is a cheerful sun. Supposedly the Brown Sugar Saver keeps all sorts of foods from drying out (dried fruits, cakes, marshmallows, popcorn kernels) and can even soften already-hardened sugar.

It’s hard to believe that a small ceramic tile will keep our brown sugar from hardening, but after reading some reviews, I am feeling hopeful. Last night we followed the instructions and soaked the disk in water for 15 minutes. Then we added it to our jar of brown sugar. The instructions state that the Brown Sugar Saver needs to be re-soaked after three months. By writing this post, at least I’ll remember how long it has been since we placed it in the sugar jar!

Does anyone else have experience with this simple kitchen product?

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