One of the events I most look forward to every autumn is my friend Ken's Post-Vermont Brunch. He does not use the phrase "Post-Vermont" dismissively, as in "Vermont is so last season! Sugar Maples have totally jumped the shark!" No. What he means is, he has now come back from his annual trip to Vermont, and returns triumphant, bearing gifts. Credit: roboppy via flickr He brings home local, seasonal Vermont products: bread from a small bakery, fresh-picked apples, locally-smoked bacon, and maple syrup. He beams his brunch beacon into the midnight sky, and a fuzzy image of Mrs. Butterworth hovers against the racing moonlit clouds, alerting his friends to assemble. (Actually he sends us emails.) We converge upon Ken's home at the appointed date and time and the breakfast-type merriment begins.
Continued from last week ... I like to start a cheese platter with a hard or semi-hard cheese. In the fall I like to use cheddar (you could serve a sharp one and a mild one), aged Parmesan, or aged Gouda. If you haven't tasted aged Gouda, I encourage you to try it. It's a bit pricey, but the flavor is so intense that a little goes a long way. Aged Goat Gouda is good too, though the flavor is very different. I'd pair aged Gouda with apples and aged Goat Gouda with pears. I also enjoy another Dutch cheese called Paranno that's also a type of Gouda and much more affordable. It's moister and less crumbly than aged Gouda and it has a wonderful nutty flavor that reminds me of a good Parmesan. There are some flavored, semi-hard cheeses people tend to like, such as Cotswold (a double-Gloucester with chives) and Huntsman (which consists of two cheeses, stilton and double-Gloucester, in alternating layers), and the weirdly green Sage Cheddar. And, as Wallace and Grommet can attest, Wensleydale is smashing, and you can get it imbedded with cranberries. I recently had Stilton with lemon rind (it's a white cheese and doesn't have the blue veins of mold found in a blue stilton). It would make an excellent dessert cheese. (I put a piece of it down to go answer the phone and when I came back I found that the Stilton was gone; in its place was my cat Echo, happy, suspiciously lemon-scented, and licking her paws contentedly.)
David has asked me to come up with some dishes and menus especially appropriate for entertaining. I've got several full-menu columns planned for the fall: a brunch, a casual dinner, and a Thanksgiving dinner (with both turkey and non-turkey options). As far as ideas for entertaining in general, I highly recommend Entertaining for a Veggie Planet by Didi Emmons. It includes tips on entertaining applicable to any meal or event, not just vegetarian ones. She is a very funny writer, a fantastic cook, and a deeply committed activist. I had the pleasure of doing a little bit of work on the book with Didi, and I can attest that it is fun as well as useful. For now, let's talk about the kind of gathering that isn't a full-on dinner party but where you want to offer your guests something delicious to eat -- like, say, a board-game party! In such instances, I like to serve fruit and cheese platters. (These platters are good at meetings, too, as there's nothing spilly or sticky and it doesn't require lots of elaborate plates and utensils. I belong to a writers group and at our monthly meetings we serve just enough snacks to be hospitable and welcoming without it becoming the center of attention or detracting from the work at hand. For convenience and taste, fruit and cheese platters are a great choice.)
Certain people have a natural elegance. They look good in anything (and, presumably, nothing). They speak articulately and judiciously, move with grace, and generally make it appear as though living in this world isn't the vexed, booby-trapped, humbling endeavor the rest of us poor slobs find it to be. If miso were a person, that's the kind of person miso would be. Its natural elegance stems from its already being complex and complete on its own: you don't need to tart miso up to make it good. Indeed, if you have good miso to start with, simply adding some warm water will create a satisfying broth that reveals something more about itself with every sip. Because of this stand-alone greatness, I showed my respect for miso soup for years by never adding competing flavors (other than the vegetables I cooked in it). It was a culinary "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Then one day I had a glass of pinot gris and said to myself, "You know what would be good with this? A soup made with yellow miso." So I tried it and it was great. Next, I added roasted red peppers from a jar and some freshly pressed garlic. I was going for a vaguely Spanish flavor. When I served this to my friends on a cool autumn night, everyone said it was warming and good. So put on some classical guitar or Flamenco CDs and sip this bright red soup while you finish off the rest of the pinot gris.
"Enjoy every sandwich." -- Warren Zevon As is true for so many people, 9/11 is on my mind this week. I'm thinking of the people who perished on that day in the towers: those I knew from college and high school, friends, coworkers, and of course all the strangers whose families' lives are forever altered. I'll always remember the breathtaking beauty of that day -- an impossibly blue sky -- and how all my calls to editors in NYC suddenly stopped going through. "All the circuits to New York are busy." It was only when a friend called late in the morning that I learned about what had happened. It seemed as though everything around me was disappearing, as if I might disappear myself. Once I had gotten through to friends and family in New York, I turned on the TV. The footage of the towers coming down over and over again made me numb, but two things caught my eye. The first was how quickly people were able to print up and post signs asking after the fate of their loved ones. They must have been carrying pictures in their wallets. The other was how many of the pictures were of family celebrations around food.
Over the 4th of July weekend, I traveled from Boston to western New York to see my uncle and many of my cousins. I'd been there before but couldn't recall the route from memory, so I quickly printed the directions from a website, never thinking that there could be two different ways to get there when one route is so obviously superior. I hopped into my car and set off. About an hour after I passed a turn-off for Albany, I thought to myself, "These rolling hills and grazing cows look different." Then I told myself that I was being absurd and that there was no way that a city mouse like myself could tell one set of rolling hills and grazing cows from another, but in fact I was right. These weren't my beautiful rolling hills, these weren't my beautiful grazing cows. My inner GPS told me that I was on a much more southerly route, and my choice of CD, the Dixie Chicks' "Long Way Round," suddenly seemed painfully apt.
My parents were way ahead of the curve when it came to employing Integrated Pest Management for tending their garden. They would send me (henceforth referred to as "the pest") out into the garden to weed, partly to control the weeds and partly to get me out of their hair. The problem was, from my point of view (then and now), I was only four years old. Some four-year-olds might be able to handle being out in a garden by themselves, but I was not one of them. It wasn't the weeding itself that bothered me -- it offered the same easy satisfaction one enjoys when picking at a scab, something I relished at that age -- and it wasn't the feel of the dirt on my bare knees, although it's true I didn't care for that very much. It was the bugs that got to me. There were so many of them and they were everywhere. I liked some of them. Ladybugs were acceptable to me and I knew how to pick up earthworms and cut them into two to make two new worms. I have never minded ants (even after watching The Naked Jungle) but I hated, and still hate to this day, flying, stinging insects and spiders.
A few weeks ago I sat down to watch No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain's food and travel show. It was a surreal experience to watch him wend his way through Sweden knowing that he and his camera crew had recently been stranded in Beirut. Indeed, his August 21st show will be devoted to that experience. (He and his crew evacuated safely a few weeks ago.) You can read Bourdain's account of what went on there on Salon. Meanwhile, back in Sweden, the show included all the sorts of segments one might expect: checking out a herd of reindeer, spending the night in a yurt-like structure somewhere near the Arctic Circle, and going out on the town to see musicians play at a club with a comely Swedish MTV host. (A great deal of the show is dedicated to Bourdain's oft-expressed hatred of Abba.) After he and the young host went clubbing they headed out in search of late-night street food. At a perfectly normal-looking street-corner establishment they ordered something that Swedes apparently eat all the time (although none of my Swedish friends has ever mentioned it ...), namely a hot dog, shrimp salad, and mashed potatoes served together in some kind of wrap.
"It's so hot that the terrorist alert level has been raised to Gazpacho!" -- David Letterman Several years ago one of my male friends came up to me at a party, leaned down, and whispered in my ear: "You know, sometimes, late at night, I lie awake and think about your ... gazpacho." This particular scenario might have been slightly less annoying if it hadn't happened so many times already. There seems to be a very strong soup-sex connection in men's souls. My father had a habit of saying mortifying things at the dinner table whenever a boyfriend of mine was visiting from college, and one night he announced to all present, "You know you're getting old when you lie down at night and find yourself thinking about soup instead of sex." My mom looked furious (you could always tell when she was furious because her lips pressed together to make a completely flat line), but it was hard to tell exactly why she was upset. There were so many possibilities: