Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Spring Delights: Ramps, good friends, and a boy called Trouble

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that an unusually warm spring will follow an unusually warm winter. And yet, these past couple of weeks, as the Northeast has been softened by temperatures in the mid-70s, I still wake dumfounded to find the ground warming and the leaves peering out from their buds.

After two weeks straight of non-stop IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) conference attendance, writing, and schlepping back and forth to Midtown for meetings, I finally hopped in the car last Wednesday and headed up to the Valley to see the guy who got me into this city/country split, so entrancing me with his boyish, playful, troublemaker charm that I began living with each foot in a different place (as I'm sure you can already tell, though, he didn't have to pull my leg particularly hard).

Since arriving last week, the weather has been perfect-- warm, breezy, sunny. And so, we've been cramming in the spring activities as fast as we can-- beers on our friends' farm porch at sunset, walking in the woods, hikes, runs and being barefoot on the lawn.

On Sunday, intent on enjoying an off-the-grid day, we headed southwest for the Berkshires. We planned on summiting Mt. Greylock, the tallest peak in Massachusetts (at only 3,491 ft. at its highest point, MA is a pretty pathetically low-lying state). Alas, the park wasn't officially open yet, and so we had to start from the very base rather than the summit trail, halfway up the mountain.

We had gone maybe four miles or so, and had just started back downhill through the woods when a patch of green spears caught my eye amid the browns of dead leaves and tree trunks in the not-yet-awakened woods.

"Those are..." I exclaimed excitedly, crouching down to be sure I was seeing what I hoped I was seeing. The thin purplish vein up the back of the elegant oval leaves confirmed my suspicions.
"Ramps!" I said.
Trouble (as we shall call him-- due to his wily nature and the fact that, at the beginning, I would say to him, "I'm in trouble" every time I felt myself swooning-- until/unless I come up with a better name) didn't seem particularly thrilled. "I know, I spotted them earlier," he said flatly.
"Why didn't you say something?" I asked, tugging one of the leaves gently between two fingers to ensure that what I had found was the allium relative and not an imposter.
One whiff of that earthy oniony verdant scent on my fingers, and I was down on my hands and knees, brushing aside dead leaves in search of the bulbs.

Trouble followed quickly, finding a stick to dig with. While he pulled clumps of the beautiful ramps from the vast patch (I've never seen anything like this-- there were thousands of them), I sat on an overgrown stone wall, peeling off the outermost layer from around the slender stalks and bulbs to remove some of the damp spring earth.

It's an amazing sensation, to be in cool of the woods with the heady scent of soil and leaf litter underfoot, becoming more pungent with each ramp you rustle up from the undisturbed ground. We stumbled upon these wild, beautiful things offering themselves up for human enjoyment. Their season is so brief, their whereabouts so quietly guarded, I felt almost guilty having spotted a field with so many. But guilt didn't phase me from wrapping them up and bringing them home for dinner by the fistful.

I was giddy, and dinner plans had begun percolating. So we headed down the rest of the way, I with a spring in my my hiking booted-step.

Our Plan A for dinner failed (our friend Anna had a babysitting obligation), but luckily, our wonderful and enormously talented friends Jonathan and Cheryl of Hungry Ghost Bread have a standing Sunday supper invitation open to their friends. We stopped briefly at home after driving back East on Route 2 (as we were feeling especially jazzed about the food world from having seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi the night before, I read to Trouble from The Story of Sushi as we wound through farms, wetlands and old country towns), grabbed a few half-finished bottles of wine, rinsed off the ramps, and headed to our friends' house.

A perfect spring evening ensued. Jonathan, excited to have me at their home for the first time, gave me the full tour, replete with the outdoor reading futon facing the Holyoke range, the treehouse he built that serves as the summer sleeping spot/saxophone playing room/Cheryl's art studio/yoga porch, the sauna, and the new greenhouse. All pretty ingenious, if you ask me. We sat and enjoyed the view for a bit, then set to the task of dinner.

Jonathan opened some red, and we gathered in the kitchen. Cheryl, an Italian-American cook with incredible ease in the kitchen, whipped up a pot of lentils, then topped them with a dozen raw eggs and a layer of cheese and breadcrumbs, then set it all under the broiler to brown.

I washed and peeled the ramps a second time, then dressed them lightly with olive oil and a healthy sprinkling of coarse sea salt.

Trouble manned the grill, throwing on a few steaks he brought and charring the ramps.

Seven of us sat to table in the yard with a basket of Jonathan and Cheryl's bread and a ramekin of softened butter. The wine flowed freely, and talk ranged from a hysterical marital error recounted on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" to the Stein family exhibit at the Met. The sun set over the mountains, with even the mosquitoes-- still mostly dormant-- leaving us to our hedonistic feast.

We came home full, rosy-cheeked and happy.  The next morning, Trouble and I woke rested and jonesing for more. The weatherman was calling for 90 degree (!) temperatures that afternoon, and there were spring chores abounding. We set to tilling the garden in shorts and boots, grinning goofily at each other with the sensation of fresh air on our bare legs. In the afternoon, we made a run to Home Depot for plywood and hinges for our chicken coop, and picked up 50 meat bird chicks from a friend in the hill towns

(the little ones are out back now, peeping up a storm and nibbling at stale leftover bread from Trouble's bakery as I write this. But that's more for another time).

We've been falling asleep physically exhausted and exhilarated by fresh air and sunshine. It's plain as the nose on your face-- spring has sprung. And I couldn't be more pleased.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Longings for a Land Where Grilled Cheese is Just Grilled Cheese

I woke up this morning staring at a brick wall. It took me a few minutes to acclimate, as the birds have found their way back to the scraggly courtyard behind my Prospect Heights apartment. But the sound of them always makes me think I'm in Western Massachusetts or, even stranger, there are mornings where I wake up convinced I'm in my childhood bedroom in suburban New York, with the green green lawn and the white snowdrops in bloom in the backyard on those early earth-smellling days of spring. But no, I'm in Brooklyn, tucked into my bright (albeit internally facing") apartment, alone, just wishing I was in the country.

I'm in a  particularly city-grouchy mood today. Spring is springing everywhere, and I feel like I'm missing it! There is a garden, and a chicken coop too, that need my tending in Western Massachusetts. I've just come off a five day whirlwind of a conference called the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professional) that happened to be held smack dab in the middle of Times Square, a blaring, unholy, practically seizure inducing mix of lights, tourists, traffic, litter and noise. 

I've never been a fan of Times Square. As a kid, I remember my dad, a city boy by birth, squeezing my hand tight while he pulled me through the crowd as we walked to a Broadway show once or twice a year. And when I moved to Brooklyn in my early twenties, despite having landed an office job in the (almost) equally awful land of the West 30s, I avoided walking north through Times Square as if it was a room full of kids with whooping cough. I don't use the word hate lightly, but I vehemently hate Times Square.

I'm pretty sure I spent more time in Times Square over the past week than I have in my past three years spend (mostly) in New York altogether. And I'm not happy about it. I feel ragged and edgy, exhausted just from playing the "dodge the tourist" game. 

But more than anything, I've been thinking about something else these past few days. The theme of IACP this year was "The Fashion of Food", something I find rather irritating, given that my personal interest in food is more about history and legacy (thus the book I'm working on at the moment, along with the extraordinary Rio de Janeiro-based chef and activist, Teresa Corção, who owns the renowned downtown restaurant, O Navegador ). In particular, there was an opening panel session that included the editor  editor in chief of a certain food magazine (which I'll refrain from naming here) that talked about the real importance of trends in food today and blah blah blah. And then, when the who's who in the food writing world got up for Q&A and asked him where the space is for enduring food stories-- ones with history, identity and place-- he brushed aside the question, telling them there is plenty of room for long-form writing on the subject (not true) and that, bottom line is, he has to sell his magazine, and trends--face bacon, kale, Nashville hipsters-- equal dollar signs. Okay, I'll hand it to him. That's true. But I don't have to like it. And I don't have to agree with it being all that sells, either. Not when the grand dame of African American southern food, Edna Lewis, and classicist Jacques Pepin, are still among the best-selling food authors in America. 

This morning, lying in bed (where I still currently am), staring out at my brick wall, listening to the confused birds chirp out back, I was pushed over the edge by an article in today's Times whose headline read: "Rethinking Grilled Cheese: A tour of artisanal grilled-cheese shops, a culinary sub genre that has boomed in New York in the last year."  Now, I'm sorry, but no. This is not okay. The best reputed newspaper in America, and indeed in the world is paying a freelancer to go out and tour food trucks to eat cheese pressed between two pieces of bread? I mean, come on. You can (and should) make the stuff at home. It's not rocket science, especially now that you can buy whatever manner of artisanally, humanely, and (admittedly) deliciously crafted ingredients you like for your homemade grilled cheese sandwich. You can even find pretty good bread in most places these days (though I'm partial to the wood-fired sourdoughs my boyfriend-- for whom I haven't yet figured out a clever name for this blog's purposes, and the only fish in my seas of both bread and men--bakes out of his shop in Western MA). So come on, do we really have to get all Twitter-y about this? Is this really what sells these newspapers? Because I'm having a hard time believing anyone is getting all that jazzed about artisanal grilled cheese. Well, maybe in Williamsburg, but they're automatically counted as outliers in my book.

After seeing that headline (no, I did not read the article all the way through), all I want to do is hop in the car, roll down the windows, and head up to my other home in Western Massachusetts-- the one that trends barely touch, where making an "artisanal" grilled cheese involves my boyfriend's perfect rosemary or 8-grain bread, a couple thick slabs of bacon, lots of butter, and our everyday (and plenty good, may I add) Cabot cheddar.  Up there, it doesn't have to be in fashion to be good. It's just lunch.