Comfort in the Classics

Sometimes, you’ve gotta go back to the basics.

A classic done well is an immensely satisfying experience in any field- food, film, fashion….

This month has been cold, windy, dark, and wet.  All of us have been recovering from the month before which felt like a mild, modern day urban plague situation- fever, flu, colds, infections…

So I was not surprised to find myself turning to soup and salad over the past few weeks.

Carrot-Ginger-Cashew Soup to be specific. CarrotSoup

And not just any salad- I went as classic as you can get- spinach, roasted beet, feta salad with balsamic vinaigrette. (And toasted pepitas and avocado of course).

I had been taking a break from beets- they can get overwhelming and boring.  And I usually don’t enjoy raw spinach as much as other greens because it can be so minerally and chalky in your mouth.

But I was ready for those color-popping root vegetables again and the acid from the vinaigrette and mixing the salad while the beets and pepitas were still a bit warm softened the spinach just enough to change the mouth feel for me.

Some people can’t get motivated to cook creatively if they are eating by themselves. I used to be like that  too. Other people were the inspiration for my effort- myself alone could not have been enough of an occasion. I think there are some broader social issues playing out here.  While our society encourages us to behave in an intensely individualistic manner, we are simultaneously trained to be more externally focused in our energy when it comes to love, enjoyment, self-image, etc.  We end up not valuing and loving ourselves consistently, not being more grounded in ourselves as sources of wisdom and pleasure.  And even though I am unquestionably committed to communal meals as fundamental to the good life, I am committed to good food on the daily, no matter what.. I thus have learned to value myself as a perfectly worthy diner to cook for.

I have the privilege of working from home several days a week. There can be times when I’m sitting with my breakfast or lunch creation, thoroughly enjoying it all by myself, when I get so excited that I need to document it and share it with someone. These moments are no longer about feeling regretful that others aren’t here to acknowledge/enjoy the masterpiece. It’s more that I just get excited about beautiful things and want to share.

My culinary comrade Sonny, a Big Ceci contributor, has often served as an enthusiastic receiver of such random outbursts of Wednesday afternoon food photography. My partner tolerates my enthusiastic texts with some amusement- I know he’s laughing at me as he looks at my latest bowl of ramen or slice of frittata. It’s always satisfying to share with Boris, my friend who has his own creations he proudly documents at his new cafe The Pantry– being the love bug and Parisian chef trained from childhood that he is, he always responds with encouragement.  It would never occur to him to do anything other than unabashedly and constantly celebrate one’s meals.

It occurred to me today that this is partly what our blog is for! SpinachBeetSalad

I am very wary of the boring food photography and general self-obsessed over-sharing that social media facilitate so I tend to be a more reluctant, self-doubting blogger. But this soup and salad have made many delicious, easy meals for me these past couple of weeks and the colors are so inviting against the backdrop of a grey city right now. Also, my friend Jackie, a brilliant film-maker who usually can’t be bothered with complicated culinary labor, is finally turning her attention to cooking soup and I promised her a recipe.

So I’ve decided to share. Buon appetito!

Carrot Cashew Ginger Soup

Sauté one large yellow or sweet onion in about 2.5 tablespoons coconut oil for 1 minute.

Stir in about 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger. (A bit more if you want more of that kick).

Add about 1 teaspoon of curry powder and a couple of dashes of sweet paprika.

Sauté for a couple of minutes- just until the onions soften and start looking translucent.

Then add about 3/4 cup of raw cahsews and stir them in so they get all coated in the goodness. After 1 minute, add about 3 or 4 cups of carrots, peeled and chopped into small chunks. Add 1 cup of  peeled and chopped up butternut squash (this adds to the sweet orangeness of it all). Then I sprinkle 1 or 2 teaspoons of thyme and 1 teaspoon of salt on the veggies and stir it in.

Sauté with the lid on, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. You want the veggies to start getting soft but not too soft.

Then add several cups of vegetable broth.  I usually make sure that the vegetables are covered by about 2 inches of liquid. You can add more later if it’s not enough. You want the final product to be creamy so don’t add a huge amount of stock at first.  After I bring the soup to a boil, I turn it down to simmer.

Brief tangent: I make my own stock because it’s so easy, saves money, and repurposes what would otherwise be waste! (Also, when I use stock prepared by someone else, I feel like I can’t claim full credit for the flavors of my dish. So a little ego is involved here too).

I just save the peels, stems, and ends of garlic, onions, carrots, radishes, herbs, kale, herbs, and other veggies in a container in the freezer for a few weeks. When I have enough, I put it all together in a big pot and fill it three quarters of the way with water.  I bring it to a boil and add about 3 tablespoons of salt (I use a huge pot- put a bit less if your pot isn’t a cauldron like mine). I also add a big handful of parsley (if you have a bunch of the stems in there already you’re fine) and some thyme (dry or fresh) and simmer it until it’s nice and dark and fragrant. Then I pour it through a strainer and store it in jars, jugs, and tupperware, making a huge mess along the way. 

Back to the soup. When the veggies are soft enough to easily stick a fork in them, I turn off the soup and let it cool for about 5 minutes. Just so it’s not scalding. You should probably wait longer but I never have time for that. Then I ladle the soup into a strong blender, working in batches and making sure each batch has a good balance of liquid and veggies. After combining all of the pureed soup into a new pot, I taste it to determine how much more salt it needs (it will need more or less depending on how salty your broth was). I also add the juice of half a (juicy) lemon and a few dashes of black pepper.

Spinach Beet Salad

As for the salad, y’all can easily figure that one out for yourselves. I prepare my beets the way my father does. I wash them and cut the stems off and place them whole in a piece of tinfoil in a roasting pan. I pour ample amounts of olive oil over them, throw in a few cloves of peeled garlic, and sprinkle salt and pepper over them. Then I wrap them up in the tinfoil and roast them on 385 for about an hour. I check them at about 45 minutes to see if I can easily stick a fork into them and pull it out. When I cut them up, I leave the yummy, oily and salty skins on them. Others might choose to peel them for a smoother texture. I cut them up and mix them with spinach, sliced radishes, crumbled feta, toasted pepitas (or pine nuts), and diced avocado. Cucumbers are good too but I’m not feeling them in these wintery months- they’re too cool.  The vinaigrette I toss it with is one that my wifey and I make in large batches and just keep around the house for all kinds of purposes (including marinading).  It’s just olive oil, balsamic vinegar,  dijon mustard, lemon juice, a few dashes of hot sauce, salt, and pepper. While doctoring it up, I sometimes I add a few dashes of tamari sauce instead of more salt.

I love food. So what?

As a Jew raised vegetarian, with a sprinkling of Italian heritage, I learned life through food.  The kitchen has always been my comfort zone.  For my sisters and I, food was never something that appeared out of nowhere ready to eat.  We were our parents’ kitchen staff- garden assistants and prep cooks- peeling whole heads of garlic, picking green beans, serving soup, stirring the polenta, slicing the pickles for the requisite first course of the epic feasts for Shabbat and every one of the dozens of annual Jewish holidays for which the framework is primarily “they tried to kill us, they didn’t… lets eat!”

I am not a fancy chef. However,I have a passionate relationship with food- a deep reverence for the processes and people that make it happen.  (My partner laughs at me because I am often deeply moved by a recipe or a description of a meal and I can get the chills while reading an article about a chef). I was so emotional this summer when I harvested baskets of tomatoes that I grew from seed for the first time that I had to laugh at myself.

Although I have no professional cooking training, I do have to say that my forced conscription into the Sabbath feast preparations every single week until I left home, instilled in me a useful solid understanding of how to host- how to bring people together with artfully prepared delicious food, how to ritualize a meal, how to set a table with seasonal, conceptual unity between garden flower arrangements and colorful dishware, how to serve and clean up after large numbers of (often demanding) people.

Shabbat Dinner during a parental visit to BK

Brooklyn Shabbat dinner during a parental visit

My brain tends to work like a switchboard. In this way I am an apple that hasn’t fallen far from the tree; being the daughter of a rabbi and an artist-educator, I grew up directly witnessing my parents’ community organizing skills in action.  I think I just absorbed the understanding that what one does in life is build things- relationships, projects, communities, spaces. In a society where people do not often learn how to effectively communicate, get organized, solve their own problems, express love, connect with others…I was taught that those were the most important parts of being alive. And for me, food is a central part of that- a simultaneously creative and mundane act, an opportunity for gathering and for individual expression and experience.  Cooking is a collaboration with nature- it’s about drawing out the essence of the ingredients you’re working with, capturing them at the right moment, combining ingredients thoughtfully, understanding their needs, powers, and particularities, paying close attention, being humble yet confident, balancing age-old wisdom with innovation and discovery…just like effective cooperation amongst people.

There was a period of time during which I was in graduate school, helping produce the film Slingshot Hip Hop, running an after-school program, coordinating a collective of activists & artists doing workshops internationally about the struggle for self-determination in Palestine. I was so busy and so exhausted (while also, for the record, feeling excited and inspired) that the only time I ever felt ok stepping away from working was when I was cooking for the crew. I was never able to justify reading  a book or watching a film- I couldn’t escape the never-ending to-do list running through my mind. But cooking was a creative act and a form of decompression that I didnt feel guilty about because it was necessary in order to live.  I was able to relax into it. To this day, even though I’ve managed to balance out my schedule a bit more, one of the only times I feel completely present and never doubt my choice of place and activity is when Im cooking.

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Along with my gratitude for my food-loving family and the wisdom it has provided me with, I have questions at times about the potential lack of healthy balance in my family’s relationship to food and drink.  Sometimes it seems that we could benefit physically and energetically from letting go and taking a more casual approach every once in a while.  There is a fine line, as it turns out, between intentionality and obsession. Boundaries and balance in terms of food and alcohol can be tricky for us as individuals and collectively. There are times when we need to challenge ourselves to focus on other elements of culture, other ways of being together.

I am trying to learn how to let go sometimes- knowing that my culinary ideas and organizational skills are valuable during my crew’s myriad celebrations but that even benign bossiness ain’t cute for too long 😉 Plus I want to be able to enjoy receiving as much as giving and to trust others to make things happen and teach me things.

Surprise Feast for Giovanna's Bday

Cava & Oysters feast in honor of our dear Giovanna’s birthday

I am currently in a period of transition in my life. I am considering shifting away from the community education work I’ve been doing within the Jewish community for a decade.  Although I have always bounced between worlds and woven together interests and communities, I am committing now to focusing in on culinary art/culture/community. BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!! In the current context, in which white 20 & 30-something-year-olds throughout urban centers of the U.S. are r(e)discovering food like Columbus discovered America, what is useful? What is necessary? It is not enough for me to say food makes me happy. I try not to consider my life choices in a void, ignoring the big picture of the country and world I live within.  Happiness is of course a goal (and one we all need to embrace more) but also purposefulness. While brooding over this recently, I found Patti Smith‘s questions in Just Kids resonant. She was speaking of art, I am thinking of the world of food:

“Once again I found myself contemplating what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant.”

“Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.”

As someone exploring possibilities of jumping more fully into the word of making and serving food and the culture that surrounds it, I too should certainly feel concerned about not just participating in the gluttony that Patti Smith refers to. Otherwise I am just aligning myself with the wealthiest people on the planet- those with the resources and time to indulge in such things while the rest of the population is being pushed off their farmlands, picking fruit covered in poison, losing their olive trees to bulldozers, struggling to hold on to their food traditions, grocery shopping at Walmart, being served processed animal garbage in their schools….

Patti Smith created her boundary-crossing collaborative poetry-music-art as a heartfelt rebellion against the social and economic systems the music of her day was being shaped  by.  Her words, although originally written about rock n roll, provide us with perfect metaphors as we reflect on the “new food movement” we are a part of, wary of, reliant upon, and hopefully making an intervention into:

“We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity.”

So where to from here?

No blood money in our food please

We believe that linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to our communities and the planet is a key element of the world we want to help build.

City Harvest collects excess food from all segments of the food industry, including restaurants, grocers, corporate cafeterias, manufacturers, and farms. This food is then delivered free of charge to community food programs throughout New York City using a fleet of trucks and bikes. City Harvest also addresses hunger’s underlying causes by supporting affordable access to nutritious food in low-income communities, education for prevention of diet-related diseases, and channeling a greater amount of local farm food into high-need areas. This is important work and deserves the high level of visibility and support it receives from major chefs, celebrities, and city officials.

The problem is, that one of the big names that is now associated with City Harvest is directly responsible for undermining food sustainable food systems, creating poverty, and destabilizing communities from Palestine to Namibia to Brooklyn. Lev Leviev is a villain out of a Disney movie- it is that black and white. He makes money through exploitation and destruction. And now he is claiming to be a big supporter of City Harvest.

As we continuously articulate, The Big Ceci is committed to the goodness of food on multiples levels- the systems of agriculture, labor, health, and community-building that are involved in the making, serving, and enjoying of food.  We all want there to be more equality in who gets to grow and eat what…right?

Well…Leviev is a billionaire who is directly involved in increasing food insecurity and poverty of Palestinian families by developing Israeli settlements on expropriated Palestinian farmland.

uprooted olive trees

Palestinian olive trees uprooted to make way for Israeli settlement construction, sponsored by Leviev’s company.

And Leviev’s diamond companies are also involved in brutal human rights abuses, unethical business practices and impoverishing communities in Angola and Namibia and possibly now Zimbabwe as well. He has also in the past been involved in shady business in Brooklyn connected to new construction gone terribly wrong.

Unfortunately, City Harvest is now linked to Leviev’s abysmal human rights record through a number of media reports over a two year period, saying that Leviev is hosting fundraisers and donating money to City Harvest. Leviev Diamonds publicly stated its plans to support City Harvest with a portion of its November sales and there has been some buzz about hosting diamond-adorned benefits as well.

Local activists from Adalah-NY have been tracking Leviev’s actions since they first heard his plans to open a jewelry/diamond store in New York in 2007, holding pickets outside his store starting from its opening night. Since then, public pressure (yes, including letter writing campaigns!) and the careful research has compelled a wide variety of groups to officially sever ties with Leviev including UNICEF, Oxfam America, and CARE. In the case of Oxfam America, Leviev was promoting himself as an Oxfam supporter without their knowledge, and they were grateful to be tipped off by true supporters, quick to publicly state that they were disturbed to discover that they had unknowingly been a part of the “deliberate strategy of Leviev Diamonds to connect itself with unwitting charities.” Could it be that Leviev is trying to re-bolster his reputation as a philanthropist by associating with City Harvest now?

SO….it’s painfully clear that City Harvest needs to immediately disconnect itself from Leviev and his settlement funding and diamond dealing so that our food systems here are not relying on the exploitation and oppression of people in Africa and the Middle East, and so that destructive forces like Leviev can’t whitewash their dirty business by claiming to be philanthropists. Two letters have already been sent to City Harvest by Adalah-NY, Grassroots International, Brooklyn For Peace, Jews Say No!, and Park Slope Food Coop Members for BDS. But it seems like City Harvest needs to hear that others are concerned as well.

Can you write personal letters? Can you get the restaurant owners/chefs/food writers you know to use their good names to help make sure that good food in New York City isn’t linked with companies that cause major harm to other communities?

Often we feel impossibly bound up in a cruel and destructive system…so concrete opportunities like this to resist it are precious and important.  City Harvest does not need Lev Leviev’s support. This is a simple and direct way for all of us who care about food justice and ending poverty to act in a manner consistent with our values, and to ask our local organizations to be consistent with comprehensive food justice values too. Sometimes it is impossible or difficult to avoid supporting corporations profiting off of the earth’s resources while destroying communities but this is not one of those times! City Harvest and the rest of NYC can indeed avoid Lev Leviev and his blood drenched money, and doing so will make our efforts that much stronger and righteous.

Demonstrators marching in Jayyous

demonstration in the Palestinian village of Jayyous

Palestinians are involved in daily struggle to resist the continuing colonization of their land, but the obstacles they face are that much bigger when the colonization is bankrolled and supported by companies abroad…so it’s on us to push back on these companies (like Leviev) in New York whenever we can!

You can read more about Leviev, diamonds, and settlement building here, and sign a letter to be sent to City Harvest through the Adalah-NY website.

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Lucky Peach: A Delicious Approach to Food Writing

I am obsessed with Lucky Peach.  It is the quarterly journal of food and writing put together by McSweeney’s in collaboration with David Chang, Peter Meehan, Chris Ying and their posse (often including Anthony Bourdain and Daniel Patterson, amongst others) . Lucky Peach

Each issue focuses on a single theme, and explores that theme from often unexpected angles through essays, art, photography, stories, and recipes.
(For example, one might have expected the “Sweet Spot” issue to be about desserts, but it went a more philosophical route and included pieces about the search for the perfect apricot, the achievement of the ephemeral, split second moment of perfection in a dish, meal, or season, and explorations of the career peaks of athletes and chefs). There were also, of course, some genius approaches to dessert offered by Momofuku’s pastry chef Christina Tosi that you pretty much have to be a professional to undertake.

But why devote Big Ceci space to this publication given that it is not exactly an explicitly food justice or transformative community endeavor?

Well…first of all, I find the publication utterly satisfying in every way so I want to share it with my people. Also, I believe in embracing organic and unofficial subversiveness, creativity, critical analysis, respect, and passion found within spaces not (yet) formally aligned with social movements.
The thing is, the dudely bravado emanating from some of the writing and art of Lucky Peach can be easily digested because the overall approach is deliciously queered and hybridized- multiple forms of media, culinary-cultural reflections, thoughtful political and philosophical commentary, recipes integrated into skillful storytelling, a deep and genuine appreciation for food and those who make it, conversations, collaborations, and humor- providing the complexity and holistic context that I crave when reading and eating, and when reading about eating. (I also find the crass shock-and-awe approach to be chilling out as the publication develops and matures. Something that David Chang even articulates in in his message at the beginning of the most recent issue). Also, like all people who truly care about truly good food, the Lucky Peach crew is extremely knowledgeable about the problematic and the inspiring aspects of food production, agriculture, and food service and they share what they know in really digestable ways….

Exposé on the sushi industry in America. Oy.

Exposé on the sushi industry in America. Oy.

Something that really is my bag is collaborative creation and recognition of collective efforts and this Lucky Peach does very well. I commend them for truly coming across as a team. Unlike other publications (or restaurants) with celebrities in the mix, Lucky Peach seems to be a fun and cooperative creative enterprise and through reading it, we get a sense of their crew and the ways they work together, building off each other, inspiring, and challenging each other. It is easy to relate to- it reminds me of my folks and the ways in which we are constructing a shared language, value-system, aesthetic, and vision around food, culture, community, and love.

And although I said above that Lucky Peach is not a “food justice” publication, the articles and their authors always have on-point race and class analysis and articulate these politics in such an unpretentious and dignified way.  Having an “American food” issue is tricky. And they pulled it off really successfully. The key is that they are clever and self-critical and with a positive attitude acknowledge who they are and what they are not.  And, as they always do, they examine many angles. The issue offers a critical analysis of the language of “invasive species” referring to plants and animals and it’s dangerous connections to the lens through which immigrants are represented.  An Ojibwe foodie and writer presents the role of food in the colonization of his tribe while offering a poetic and moving description of traditional wild rice harvesting. Another piece educates the reader about the Khmer Rouge through an unexpected entry point (for those of us who are less familiar with the immigration and labor patterns of Cambodians in the U.S.)- the predominance of Cambodians in the donut shop industry in California.

This literature is using food the way it should be and actually is for many communities- an entry point into a culture, a celebration of special place/time/people, a connection to history, a process of learning, a form of self-expression, an inheritance across generations, a vessel for culture, a way to tell stories….There is also whimsy found in such elements of the issue as the choose your own taco adventure woven between the articles- brilliantly offering a rare nonlinear reading experience.  And don’t even get me started on the poignant critical analysis of food and race representations in cinema articulated by Elvis Mitchell in his piece in this issue and in his conversation with Anthony Bourdaine (who, btw, whether you like his crass politically incorrect straight guy shtick or not, is angry about all the right things and sticks it to elitist dickheads like a pro. See his righteous reading of many problematic food writers, chefs, and restaurants in general in Medium Raw. I’m hyped he’s on our side).

Basically, reading Lucky Peach I learn a lot and am unbelievably entertained. Where else can you find a mainstream fancy food project headed by famous chefs and food writers that has such perspective and actually takes on issues of race, culture, identity, class and combines it all with whimsy, science, film, poetry, and cartoons?

The Miso Cast of Characters. The perfect way to learn about different kinds of miso. Lucky Peach Issue #2

Their fifth issue is The Chinatown Issue. I just started reading it and have already laughed out loud, learned how to make fresh rice wine, and been enlightened by the exploration of the function of Chinatown in the white American imagination…check.it.out.

Storm Love

Waking up in Brooklyn today, still dark, windy, and rainy, we’re so grateful to not have been directly impacted by the power of the storm. However, we are so saddened by the damage done to our beloved city and all of our neighboring communities.

Last night we were looking at the mostly dark Manhattan skyline that normally twinkles in my bedroom window. We were thinking about our fellow traveler, Una, and her family, as they were going through the madness of the storm’s impact on their home just across the river–Stuyvesant Town in Alphabet City. It is one of the most confusing elements of the human experience–the way that one can be so close to and have such dramatically different experiences from others. (The different daily realities between neighborhoods in the same city, the different experiences people have walking down the same street in bodies that are read and responded to differently, the different levels of mobility and freedom people experience at borders and checkpoints and airports, etc.)

For those of us in this part of the Global North, we are accustomed to the damage and difference in experience being separated from us by many more miles and borders. With fires raging in the Rockaways, flooding shutting down lower Manhattan and the edges of Brooklyn, and Staten Island devastated, we are now experiencing the sadness and stress of the kinds of powerful storms we’ve watched hit other communities further away throughout the past several years.

So we were very cognizant of this existential dilemma as we hunkered down in Crown Heights, with wind pounding the building and lights flickering, but us safe and dry inside our cozy home. As we kept track of the storm’s path and the whereabouts of the people we love, we joined our fellow New Yorkers who were able, in gathering our peeps to cook, drink, and take care of each other. It was kind of an organic and surreal celebration of the goodness of life, home, and community borne of necessity. We created so much color and warmth within these walls, countering the scary night outside.

Blessed by a tribe of loved ones too big to fit in one Brooklyn apartment, we had two encampments a few blocks apart. Seeing as food is the most natural and immediate way we know how to connect with each other, we devised a playful process for merging–brunch in our two households became a creative culinary competition judged by the Honorable Judge Miriam of Big Ceci fame.

Each “team” prepared our menus, plated our food, and sent our write up and photographs to Miriam for judging. Here is what ensued:

The Bergen Brunch Boos

Maple bourbon pancakes with apricot peach preserves & maple yogurt
Rosemary purple potato hash
Hurricane harvest garden kale-cheddar-corn scramble

The Honorable Judge Miriam’s pronouncement:

Team Bergen Street brought a strong showing to the competition, with careful attention to form and technique in their preparation of maple bourbon pancakes, topped with apricot-peach preserves and maple yogurt; purple and red potato hash w/garlic and rosemary; hurricane harvest garden kale, corn, and cheddar scramble.  The plate demonstrated a sophisticated use of color and texture, and held a strong seasonal resonance.  In essence, this brunch created an idyllic autumn day that was a perfect foil to the apocalyptic demon storm raging outside.  This judge would recommend a slightly more acidic preserve to balance the sweetness of the maple-bourbon pancakes.  The tang of the yogurt helped a bit but a citrus or tart component might add more balance to the plate.  The hurricane harvest kale was an immediate crowd-pleaser, and elevated this traditional egg preparation to an innovative and delicious farm-to-fork level.

Presentation: 9.0 out of 10
Creativity: 9.2 out of 10
Balance: 8.6 out of 10
Concept: 9.8 out of 10

Overall score: 9.15 out of 10

Team Sandy Brunch Bonanza 

Spiced-apple pancakes with homemade apple butter
Veggie-sausage nutmeg greens
Zuke-tomato-basil-cheddar scramble
Sweet potato home fries

The Honorable Judge Miriam’s pronouncement:

Team Sandy Brunch Bonanza drew an immediate wow-factor with their precarious-crane-in-a-hurricane reminiscent stack of spiced apple pancakes with homemade apple butter.  Accented with sides including veggie-sausage nutmeg greens and a zucchini-basil-tomato scramble, and served with sweet potato home fries, this summer-to-fall harvest feast brought diners a compelling tale of two seasons, where the summery warm sea temperature flavors of zuke/basil/tomato collided with the winter storm system of apples, nutmeg, and sweet potatoes.  A thoughtful eye to color and palate made brunch stand out, and the brilliant marriage of sweet and savory flavor profiles made this a complex and inspired meal.  This plate’s greatest strength may have also swung as its deepest challenge; the heft of this hearty meal could intimidate the carb-sensitive or starchaphobe.  A lighter lifting aioli for the home fries, or a touch of parsley or fresh green salad might help this meal slide more confidently into the clean-plate club, but overall this july-september romance of a plate could convince even the firmest brunch cynic to fall in love again with the meal that knows no bounds – hurricane brunch.

Presentation: 9.6 out of 10
Creativity: 9.1 out of 10
Balance: 9.4 out of 10
Concept: 8.5 out of 10

Overall score:  9.15 out of 10

Food Worker Justice is Food Justice!

Knowing as we do that any true vision of food justice must include justice for food workers, we’ve got two important links for you today on The Big Ceci.

1. We want to send our congratulations to the workers at the Upper East Side Hot and Crusty, who finally won their battle with the boss after being fired and locked out of their store for organizing their own independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association. We’re filled with admiration for their courage in the face of tremendous threat, and we send them love and solidarity!

2. In other food worker news: the boycott of grocery store Golden Farm in Kensington, Brooklyn is entering its fourth week. The store spent more than ten years paying employees less than minimum wage and no overtime while they worked 70+ hour weeks (they were earning under $5/hour). Today, a year and a half after filing a lawsuit demanding the back pay they are owed, workers still haven’t seen a dime. They’ve called for a community boycott of the store to put pressure on owner Sonny Kim. We want to voice our solidarity with the workers of Golden Farm, and alert you, fabulous readers, to some ways you can support them.

WHAT YOU CAN DO [modified from the boycott’s campaign page on 99 Pickets]

  • Pledge your support for the boycott.
  • Call Sonny Kim, the owner of Golden Farm, at (718) 871-1009, and tell him you support the workers and the boycott.
  • Sign the petition demanding Sonny Kim pay workers their back wages and sign a fair contract.
  • Donate to support the family of Felix Trinidad (a Golden Farm worker who worked throughout his battle with stomach cancer – afraid to lose his job if he took time off to go to the doctor – and passed away in July 2012).
  • Follow the boycott on Twitter at @BoycottGF.
  • Finally, and perhaps most urgently: visit the picket line! This is a beautiful time of year to be outside, after all, and what better way to do it than showing your support for worker justice. Spend an hour or two gathering signatures and talking to local folks about the importance of basic benefits and fair wages for all workers. A little goes a long way – sign up for a shift here.

We’ll leave you with an awesome cartoon (yay for multimedia information sharing!) by badass cartoonist Ethan Heitner, sharing the story of the Golden Farm boycott:

A Taste of Paradise

On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, my mother, like many other Jews, bakes her challah into coiled circles representing the cycle of life, the new year beginning, our next rotation around the sun…

After blessing the sweet cylindrical bread, Ima tears the loaf into pieces (avoiding the touch of a knife to the sacred loaves because these instruments also have the potential to harm). We eagerly reach for the best pieces – shiny golden on the outside and soft, fluffy dough on the inside – and passionately smear butter on our torn pieces of yeasty treasure. The required next step in this process is dripping the honey from our apple and honey ritual (another symbol of fertility, the round planet, the “head of the year”).  The final stage of this collective culinary experience is my father inevitably saying, year after year, “mmmmm…this is a taste of the garden of Eden.” The unofficial yet religiously practiced ritual is not complete without this statement.

And it is indeed the most heavenly combination filling your mouth – the creaminess of the butter, warm yeastiness of the fresh baked golden challah, and tart sweetness of the honey. You feel like you are glowing from the inside. If paradise can be imagined as a place of total harmony, simple goodness, and comfort, this is how it would taste.

I thought of this famous family idiom miles away from home while having possibly the most magical meal of my life at Al Paradiso, an elegant trattoria tucked into a cluster of old, partially crumbling stone buildings surrounded by cornfields in the Friulian countryside.

Federica, our host, had become famous in my household as the talented creator of Basil Liver Soup (a delightful translation slip-up that took place during an email exchange with my father as she generously shared the recipe for the simple, bright, silky soup my parents have now recreated and shared many times). My parents had waited and planned for ten years to bring us here, to share with us the magical culinary experience that had so deeply impacted them on their first voyage here.

Ima & Abba happily returned to their beloved trattoria,  Al Paradiso

We were seated on the terazza at a round table with white tablecloth and green velvet runner (velvet on the table felt like a generous dedication to beauty over concern for the risk of spillage). The centerpiece was a large glass vessel filled with water, and floating orange roses matching the orange stones delicately strewn around the table. Our view through the white curtains was bright blue and white hydrangea bushes and bright red geranium growing on a stone building with wooden shutters that must have been the restaurant’s wine cellar and storage. We sipped sparkling water out of delicate blown glass cups (no effort was spared in the details of this paradise) and were welcomed by Federica in a traditional medieval Friulian country dress perfectly coordinated with the colors of our table setting.  Since my parents met Federica years ago, she’s had two children, both of whom hovered around her while her mama and papa served our meal alongside her.

The context inspired Abba to play around with redefining fusion cooking – understanding it as a dining experience carefully cultivated to integrate and satisfy multiple senses and forms of enjoyment – the aesthetics of the table, the lighting, the sounds and smells, the texture and temperature of the foods, the relationship and interactions between those making and serving the food and those enjoying it, the libations and their origins and pairings, the history and energy of a place.

The amuse bouche was ravioli fritti ripieni con melanzane (fried ravioli stuffed with eggplant) with a wonderful red pepper sauce (something like romesco?). We then moved on to fiori du zucchine ripieni di ricotta (zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta) served in a beautiful zucchine cream and crispy puff pastry with capriolo cheese perfumed with aromatic herbs.

The soup was prepared specifically for us in honor of our parents’ deep appreciation and excitement. It was, of course, the revered crema di basilico con sfoglia di polenta (meaning cream of basil soup with amazingly thin and crsipy polenta on the side). My parents were thrilled by the surprise addition of a tiny patate e carrote timbalo in the middle (a small, round-shaped mold of baked potato and carrot). Then we devoured the pacchetti pasta filled with marjoram and fonduta di montasio cheese and tomatoes. Seeing as this was a vegetarian meal sweetly prepared specifically for my family, the secondi in this epic banquet was gnocchi with patate and wild herbs topped with crumbled fried parmigiano. (Our carb-loving family was up for the traditional flow of an Italian meal involving pasta as a warm up for what in this meat free situation was yet another even bigger pasta!). Then there was also a poached egg (yeah!) atop al dente veggies (celery, carrots, kale) covered with potato creme.

With each course Federica spent time with us, telling us everything we wanted to know about every dish and its ingredients. She also carefully selected and presented a different wine with each course, the most ephemeral whites, an orange wine, dessert wines, all from the region.  Dessert was creme mille feuille with “coffee caviar”!

By this point I was happily floating in a dream-like state, induced by the quaint, fantastical surroundings, the sensuality of the food, Federica’s grace and wisdom, and, of course, the many bottles of bright, crisp, complex, smooth, and then ultimately sweet wines. (In Italy, local is a designation very precisely and carefully applied. Often I would ask if I could try a local wine and I would be pointed towards a wine with the apologetic disclaimer that it wasn’t local but it was made in the next town over and would that be okay?)

The only thing that tainted the blissful gift of this meal was Federica’s sadness, subtle and balanced by her graciousness, but still present. She was clearly feeling discouraged. When asked about where she sourced her eggs from, she complained about regulations that actually prevent her from obtaining fresh eggs from nearby farmers, providing a small and concrete example of the ways in which Italy’s food system is being industrialized and privileges large producers and agribusiness, while undermining small, local producers.  She expressed how difficult it is for her to run a restaurant, making the kind of food she believes in and the kind of environment she wants to create.

So as many Americans are (re)discovering food (kind of like how Columbus “discovered” America), and tend to romanticize Italian cuisine and its local and slow food tradition, our systems and corporations are undermining and poisoning it.

Sitting at Federica’s table was a joyous privilege. To borrow Tamasin Day-Lewis‘ description of a restaurant in England that had the same effect on her: “Everything was done properly with the finest ingredients from start to finish, without ever being too rich, too much, too pretentious…” It was one of the most elevated, gourmet meals I’ve ever had. Not a single detail of the evening was anything but perfect, and the experience was served to us with genuine glowing humility and grace. This Rosh Hashana, I will dedicate my first bite of buttered challah dripping with honey to Al Paradiso, a magical haven gifted to the world by a small family who knows how to serve food that gives you a taste of the Garden of Eden.

**Thankfully, my sister Shalva, the Diva of Details, took the pictures for this post and Ima diligently recorded every menu item, even making sure to ask Federica about the types of cheese in each dish. Otherwise, my compromised memory would not have been able to do this experience justice.  And speaking of my community-supported writing process, Naomi, my partner in crime, is responsible for this and most of my posts being readable and well-constructed.