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.

My girls

I recently returned from the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. Along with sharing the multimedia curriculum developed by the Palestine Education Project, I was there helping Chef Walter Whitewater with his session entitled “Cooking As a Form of Media: Stories & Experiences of a Traditional Native Chef.”  After five days away from home, the first thing I did was drop my bags, grab all of the pitchers I have, fill them with water, and climb out my kitchen window, excited for a hydrating reunion with “my girls.” Thanks to the careful, loving attention of my sister Shalva, my plants were looking better than they ever have when left in someone else’s care. Yet they still seemed to perk up even more after a day of my talking to them and touching them (rubbing leaves, pinching off dead flowers, checking for bugs).  They missed me! Coming home from being on the road and communing with my plants was so grounding. And I harvested my first basil! Isn’t she gorgeous?

Excited about my lil herbs and inspired by a delectable little dish at The Village Cheese Shop in Mattituck, Long Island, involving tiny new red potatoes topped by dollops of pesto and crème fraiche, I pulled together this brunch for my parents and dear fellow food traveler and friend, Sonny:

New Potatoes

Bring a pot of water heavily salted to boil and add little new potatoes (I used about 20).

After about 10 minutes, check them by sticking a fork in them – as soon as you can easily poke it in and pull it out, they’re done! (You don’t want them too soft and mushy so just keep checking them – better safe than sorry.)

Drain them and cut them in half.

Green Sauce

In a food processor combine:

–       2 small cloves of garlic or one big one

–       1 cup basil, 1 cup parsley, and ½ cup mint

–       about a teaspoon of sea salt

–       a few pinches of black pepper

–        ½ cup pine nuts or walnuts

–       1 cup olive oil (or drizzle in until it’s the consistency you want)

Polenta

I used fresh stone ground “quick grits” from Farmer Ground. Farmer Ground – which is farmer grown, owned, and ground – is part of a larger effort to restore grain growing to New York state. Upstate New York once grew so much grain that Rochester topped the nation’s flour production in the mid 1830s, giving it the nickname “Flour City.” Federal subsidization of agribusiness in the Midwest undermined that once thriving local industry.

And I use my mother’s recipe for making polenta:

1.5 cups cold water

1/3 cup cornmeal (more or less course or fine depending on the consistency you want- the finer, the creamier)

¼ teaspoon salt

1/3 cup cheese

1/2 tablespoon each of chopped thyme, sage, parsley, and/or basil (or whatever herbs you like)

1 or 2 tablespoons butter (depending on how rich you like it)

Bring the water, cornmeal, and salt to a boil in a thick bottomed pot.

Reduce the heat and stir in the herbs.

Stir consistently, making sure to scrape the bottom, for about 15 minutes.

When it’s creamy and thick, remove from the heat and stir in the butter, cheese, and add salt and pepper to taste if needed.

You can serve it warm and creamy or spread it in a square pan or casserole dish and chill for an hour, cut into squares, and serve.

(Stay tuned for my sister’s upcoming posts entitled “Gritty City” exploring polenta and grits throughout NYC.)

Early Summer Veggie Sauté

To be honest, I make these things up as I go along. So here’s what I can remember about how I made this:

I sliced up garlic greens and shallots and started sautéing them in olive oil.

I like to sprinkle some dashes of paprika on my garlic/onions/shallots while sautéing them before adding the extra veggies.

I then added a couple of handfuls of summer squash (zukes and yellow) sliced thinly into half-moons and a handful of chopped asparagus (it was late May when I made this dish and the asparagus abounded here in NYC).

I sautéed them covered for a couple of minutes and then lifted the cover, added some chopped thyme, parsley, and maybe oregano and then a few pinches of this honey-lemon-saffron blend called Mishmish N. 33 that my mother gave me from La Boite a Epice.

(I hope that this Israeli-born chef’s commitment to “the spices our ancestors used” is indicative of his respect and support for the indigenous peoples of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa from which he draws his inspiration and makes a living.)

When the veggies were soft, I added a dash of balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

Egg

I used to be so freaked out by eggs but now am enchanted by their magic – how many forms they can take and how many nutrients they contain. Of course, fresh, free-range eggs contain around four times as many nutrients and taste infinitely better than eggs from factory farms full of miserable, unhealthy, over-crowded chickens who never see the light of day.

For this breakfast, I simply fried an egg in black truffle oil and tossed a pinch of salt and a sprig of fresh thyme on top.

Serving

As you can see in the above photo, I plated a healthy portion of the polenta next to a mound of veggies. Then I laid out the halved little potatoes, drizzled the green sauce on them, and topped them off with a drizzle of Liberté Goat Fresh cheese. I then added the egg to each plate and we dined on the deck amongst the plants from which the flavors of our brunch were derived.*

*As with all great culinary efforts, I had invaluable assistance provided by my mother. So really I should be saying “we…” when referring to the preparation of this meal. Here’s to all of the kitchen tops like mother who are humble and generous enough to be kitchen bottoms when called upon!