Do I dare to eat a mango?

I just cubed a mango, which is one of my personal Proustian memory triggers.

In my Senior year of high school, I took the advanced level French course (did we call it French 4 or French 5? I can’t recall). It’s a joke that I even took the course. In my school system, languages were primarily taught via memorization. Whether conjugated verbs or categorized vocabulary for various assumed frequent-use topics (weather, food, transportation), you’d be given a page or three of words to memorize as homework. The next day, you’d have written or spoken drills in class. We even memorized scripted conversations, often echoed back to a tape of “native speakers”:

Bonjour…Bonjour Jean…Bonjour Marie…Bonjour Jean et Marie…Comment va tu?…Pas mal, merci, et toi?…Pas mal, merci.

When there was extemporaneous conversation, the emphasis was on being linguistically correct over expressing your thoughts. From the earliest I can remember, I’ve learned most effectively through context. Even when I was acting, I’d learn my lines better by putting the work up on its feet than by reading the lines over and over to myself. Rote memorization has never been my friend, I lack that magical language-music-math gene, and I grew up in a monolingual environment. Put it all together and you get a miserable language student (though, should I ever run into Jean and Marie, I can successfully say hello and let them know I’m fine, thank you).

Monsieur Henri Solganik, Teacher (with a capital letter 'T')

Monsieur Henri Solganik, Teacher (with a capital letter ‘T’)

However ineffectual my attempts to learn, I continued to dream of someday speaking another language, and I knew that the teacher of the only advanced French class was Henry Solganik. He was one of the younger, cooler teachers. More than that, he was vibrant with life and the implication of a world far wider than our neighborhood in Queens.

So in my final year in high school, I made one more attempt to learn some French. This time, thanks to Henry, something stuck. What happened that year was that French was finally freed from drills and scripted “conversations,” to become a living language. We read Sartre and Racine—aloud, and with tremendous overacting. As we might have done had we been raised in France, we read Le Petit Prince and Le Petit Nicholas. I also recall thumbing through issues of Paris Match. Not only did we read, but we spoke. We discussed current events and what we did over the weekend. Henry told us about some of his travels. His travels were an important part of who he was to us, fundamental enough that, when we wanted to give him a present to say “thank you,” we chose to buy him the suitcase you can see in the snapshot above.

I know there’s much else I’m forgetting about that class; but I can haltingly express myself in French if I have to, and there are two important moments I will always remember.

We were smart kids, but Henry knew how narrow our horizons were. He decided to broaden them before we launched out into the world. At the end of the year, he treated us all to dinner in Chinatown. The enormity of his generosity must be considered in light of the size of the class (there were about 30 of us; he split us into two groups to do this) and the fact that teachers’ salaries were even lower (proportionately) than they are today. The only qualification was that he would be ordering the meal, and we must each absolutely taste every single item that was put on the table. In an almost hysterical state of anticipation, we took the subway downtown and followed Henry to the restaurant. We’d all eaten a lot of what we considered to be Chinese food (Americanized Cantonese), but even those whose families might have ventured downtown had never been to a place like this. It was a half-basement space, and dimly lit, the combination making it seem far more exotic that it probably was. The maitre d’ greeted our teacher like a friend and showed us to the large round table. Food started coming out. With each new plate that arrived, Henry would scan our faces with wicked glee. Some of what he’d ordered was actually familiar, and even the more mysterious dishes weren’t scary once we tried them. Except, that is, for the snails. They came in the shell, with toothpicks to dig them out. We didn’t know what to do so, with one trembling eye remaining fixed on our own plates, we watched him demonstrate. Then he sat back and, grinning from ear to ear, watched. I remember sticking the toothpick into the shell and wiggling until I pulled out what looked like an inch and a half version of a pencil eraser. I held it gingerly between my teeth and snapped my mouth shut before I could decide not to. It was as chewy as an eraser, too; and it honestly didn’t taste like much of anything. Yes, the first snail I ever ate in my life was overcooked and under-seasoned. But this peculiar not-horrible mouthful, consumed in a strange place but among safely-familiar faces, made me feel worldly and adventurous. It was probably the first adult meal of my life, and the memory became a kind of mascot to bring me courage when confronting the unknown.

At some point during that same year, one of my classmates (I think it was Thalia Gross) brought a mango to class. During the years of my childhood, pineapples were about the most exotic produce any of us encountered. The closest we came to other tropical fruits was the label on the can of Hawaiian Punch. I don’t think there were even two of us who’d ever seen a mango. Henry’s face lit up like the sun. I’m sure that’s why she brought it to class; she knew he’d know what do. He took out his pocket knife and ran it around the edges to halve it, then scored the halves and turned them inside out. He passed the halves down the rows of desks. Each of us in turn nipped a single cube of sweet flesh from the skin and passed the rest down. Unlike the snail, the mango was a revelation to me. It was what I thought Olympian ambrosia must taste like.

During that final year of childhood, I was lucky enough to spend 40 minutes a day with a teacher who thought not only of the schoolwork we needed to master but of the wider world we would explore once we ventured past our own backyards.

I remember Henry Solganik, and that moment on the frontier, every time I cut open a mango.


Fourth of July

Maybe it’s the effect of coming off a holiday weekend, but I decided this month’s 4 F post would, after all, be about food.  And maybe because it was specifically July 4th weekend, my most satisfying moments were with some very simple American foods.  No, not hot dogs, potato salad and the berries + whipped cream flag cake.  I live in an urban neighborhood and three blocks from the firehouse, so outdoor grilling is out of the question.  And to my mind, the only excuse for the flag cake is that it follows a pile of barbecue or a sandpit clambake, so it’s a decoration and not a dessert.  Come to think of it, the dishes that seemed so right to me this weekend were almost equivalents for that barbecue and clambake, and the dessert might not have been wearing bunting but it had an American soul.

Usually it’s all I can do to get to the end of a Friday at work. By the time I get on the subway, all I want is to have a glass of wine, eat some dinner and throw myself in front of the most escapist offering I can hunt up with the remote (making a decision about watching a specific video would be too much effort!).  This weekend, just knowing that there were three days ahead of me gave me a sudden surge of Friday energy.  I called The Mom and suggested she run out and pick up some soft shell crabs for dinner.  Then at lunchtime, I ran out to Chelsea Market (where I spend far too many lunch hours), to hit the Manhattan Fruit Exchange.  That shop itself is a source of much simple satisfaction.  It boasts a dazzling variety of produce (the mushroom section alone sets me dreaming) as well as most of what you need to round out your dish after the unexpected item has called out “buy me NOW!”  Because it was the start of a holiday weekend, there were more than the usual number of foodie safaris in the market, and I had to do some nimble navigation to get to my rhubarb.  It was crazy enough there that I actually forgot to get a tomato, which I later wished I had.

The recipe I was focused on was the Lemon Buttermilk Rhubarb Bundt Cake from Rustic Fruit Desserts, by Corey Schreiber and Julie Richardson of Portland OR’s Baker & Spice (book is available all over, but I like to promote Jessica’s Biscuit whenever I can; they “simply” specialize in cookbooks and always have — even before we started doing all our shopping on The Internets).  Like all the recipes in the book, this cake is about showcasing the fresh, honest flavors of seasonal fruit.  There was nothing remotely complicated about it, other than the usual challenge of prep work in a kitchen that has no counter space (remember that kitchen in Julie & Julia?  consider it typical).

I popped the cake in the oven to bake, and after doing enough of the washing up to have a sink again (not only is it small, but the kitchen is also in an old apartment building that is not set up for dishwashers), I sautéed the crabs for a favorite seasonal dinner of mine — the soft-shell crab sandwich.  This is a superb dead-easy urban picnic dish.  It takes less than 10 minutes.  Dredge the crabs in a seasoned mixture of flour and cornmeal, then sauté in olive oil while you toast some hamburger buns.  If you like, after you’ve turned the crabs you can add some white wine or even water (just a few tablespoons), a squeeze of lemon, a few splats of Tabasco and a pat of butter, all of which creates a little faux sauce to keep the little critters moist.  If you’re going deluxe, use homemade rolls.  My own failsafe is a roll I’ve been baking out of Bobby Flay’s Bold American Food for as long as…well, apparently since 1994, which seems to be when that book first came out; make them plum-sized to use as dinner rolls, but make them the size of oranges and you’ve got a great sandwich bun.  They freeze beautifully. Since I had no big ones in the freezer, it was store bought burger buns for me this weekend, which was fine.  And definitely store bought mayo (you need that level of emulsification to hold up against the sautéed crabs).

Now, in a better world, I’d have remembered that tomato.  And in a perfect world I’d have planned ahead and made some potato salad and jicama slaw.  This being imperfect and somewhat improvised, i just used up the basil I had in the refrigerator and, when the crabs were out of the pan, gave a quick stir to some asparagus that was also pushing it’s luck.  And you know what?  Even without a ripe red slice of tomato, it was a very happy sandwich.  Crunchy crabs, lathered in mayo and wrapped in a nice sweet roll, and just a touch of something garden-y.  Mmmmmm!  Since a crab sandwich is a drippy thing, you get to lick your fingers and it truly feels like a picnic, no matter where you are.

By the time we’d finished eating, the cake was ready to cool in the pan.  Following directions, half an hour later I removed the pan and drizzled on the lemon-&-sugar glaze.  A perfect amount of time had passed in which to digest the meal and be ready for coffee and the cake.  The cake was a joy; buttery, lemony and delectable.  A toothsome crumb, just rich enough for the tongue, and yet amazingly light. I say amazingly because no eggs were separated to make this cake, which does use a full cup of butter plus has buttermilk as the liquid (helpful hint for any bakers who haven’t yet caught on — King Arthur sells an excellent powdered buttermilk; keep it on hand as I do and you’ll always be only 20 minutes away from warm soda bread or scones!)  It’s a cake that can easily serve 10 – 12, so it’s a good thing for me that it keeps tasting great for several days.  It may have helped matters that I suddenly remembered my old Tupperware “cake saver” (they now offer an updated model), one of many designs of simple genius from a brand that, suitably for this story, also screams “American” to me.

Saturday was, s those in the same zone will know, a gorgeous summer day.  I decided to take advantage of the weather and indulge in another of my lifestyle diversions — raiding the final markdowns.  This is a ritual that can be observed twice a year.  At the end of the seasonal sales, after the department stores have reached a certain plateau in selling down their leftover merchandise, it’s time for my favorite words: “take another 30% off” (more or less).  This is my semi-annual chance to possibly acquire clothing from designers whose labels would otherwise hang only in my fantasies.  Shopping this way is for gatherers, rather than hunters: you can’t go out with expectations; you forage for what you can find.  I had a lucky day and gathered up some wonderful buys — simple (yes, I said it again), classic and entirely satisfying garments I’ll be happily wearing for years.

After a shopping binge, my adrenalin rush insists on being fed.  Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to stop by Todd English’s Plaza Food Hall for a bite.  I could call this the “hunting” portion of the day as it was my second time there in as many weeks, and I was going there purposefully in search of one thing — the prime rib sliders.  Nothing intricate — perfect ingredients prepared with exquisite care.  Three oblong buns, slightly soft and slightly sweet.  A touch of fontina and onion. All in discreet support of moist, flavorful shavings of prime rib that melted into the mouth with every bite.  Accompanied by a pour of extremely pleasant grenache, this made for a soul-satisfying urban “barbecue”.

When I think about it, the only thing I missed this weekend was corn on the cob. On the other hand…there’s still that one last sliver of cake.

Much More than Marbella

“If fresh basil is not available, substitute 1 cup fresh parsley leaves and 2 teaspoons dried basil”
The Silver Palate Cookbook, by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins, 1982
(from the recipe for Tapenade Dip, p. 22)

Can you imagine fresh basil not being available?

Me neither.  But I can remember it.  When I was a kid in Queens, NY, unless you grew up in an Italian family and had a house with a garden, you probably never had fresh basil and you sure as hell had never heard of arugula.  Oh, we had dozens of little urban produce stands, but unless you ventured over to Little Italy or Chinatown or various other ethnic enclaves, you’d probably never seen a mushroom that wasn’t a bland white cap or greens that weren’t iceberg lettuce or spinach.  Concord grapes weren’t a real thing, only something invented by the people who made jelly.  I’d never heard of a mango, no less seen one, until my Senior Year of High School when Thalia Gross brought one to school and shared it around our French class.   And please don’t get me started about cheese!

Julia Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking may have opened the door to fine cuisine in America, but it took another 20 years to open America’s palates to the possibilities of simple preparations of fresh local ingredients, and the excitement of cuisines that weren’t French.  No doubt people will argue with me on this, but I think that American culinary  openness and fluidity may turn out to be one of the greatest lasting legacies of the Boomer generations.

At the close of a summer where so many eras seem to be coming to an end, in the wake of Sheila Lukins’ passing, I pulled out my copy and started thumbing through.  [and here I must give kudos to Workman’s Press for the quality of the paper and binding; apart from the waterspots and underlinings of my own making, my 1982 first printing still looks beautiful]  A lot of people have recently been moved to set down grateful remembrances of what The Silver Palate meant to them.  Most of these focus on “Chicken Marbella”, which seems to be the madeleine for memories of early 1980’s dinner parties.  Whether I’m a couple of years younger than these people, or because I was a struggling actor at that time and had different kinds of dinner parties, “Chicken Marbella” is not what The Silver Palate means to me.

While looking back at early days of The Great American Food Revolution, memories of the Alice Waters cabal may hold sway over the West Coast, but in New York City, we had our own leaders and touchstones.  Ten years after I tasted my first mango, The Silver Palate Cookbook was published. I already knew the store, a tiny place about the size of a NYC apartment kitchen-dinette, on a half-abandoned street called Columbus Avenue that was just beginning to show green shoots of life. The same way that I would go downtown to buy sleek tins of cardamom and such from that new Dean and Deluca place in Soho, I would sometimes go uptown and treat myself to the Silver Palate mustards and chutneys.  I never bought their prepared foods –it would have been too much of a splurge for my pocket — but the minute I heard about the cookbook, I ran to get one.

At the time, all the food presented by Lukins and Rosso was simply exciting. It was young and hip. It was worldly, in both its simple sophistication and its nods to unfamiliar or under-familiar cuisines.  It was modern and it was New York.  I look through the book now and marvel because, in retrospect, I’m holding the blueprint for the way I eat and cook today.

What’s in this book?  What’s not!  The book is a “survey” as we used to say in college; in other words, the scope is wide and shallow rather than narrow and deep.  Starting with the starters — hors d’oeuvres, nibbles,  whatever you want to call them — recipes glide by in various categories of soups, entrees, vegetables, etc., with only a few choice dishes representing each.

The catering (and take-out) sensibility of Lukins and Rosso is evident throughout.  For example, salads have a high profile, with sub-categories for “Significant Salads”, “Summer Salads”, “All-American Salads”, “Salads From the Sea” and “Salads on the Green”.  There is a Breads chapter, which includes a smattering of yeast and “quick” from challah to soda bread, to skillet cornbread and zucchini bread.  There are also instructions on how to make “The Big Bread Sandwich” for a party.  As for Desserts, well, they cover all the necessities:  chocolate and lemon; gooey cakes and pumpkin pie; even a few recipes for mousses and (yay!) a sabayon.

Throughout the book, there are helpful definitions of such exotic foods as prosciutto, carpaccio and pancetta; smoked salmon and gravlax; and, peppercorns (including pink pepper berries).  Are you amazed that we needed these notes?  A few years BSP  (Before Silver Palate), I brought some friends from college home with me for the weekend and took them out to brunch.  (And for those who think brunch started in the 80’s, please note that this was 1974).  We ate in one of the “Days” restaurants (back then, the city boasted a Tuesdays, a Thursdays, a Fridays…).  I can’t remember which it was, but it was  in the upper 50’s on the West side (I think) and very famous for it’s brunch, which was a multi-course NYC culinary jumble including both bagels and lox, and stuffed french toast, as courses in the same meal (and yes, I cringe to remember this).  When the bagels came with, not only lox, but herring in cream sauce — I had two panicked Southerners poking with their forks, wondering if it such things were edible and if there was a polite Southern way to avoid finding out.  By the way, speaking of brunch, the book includes an entire chapter on this local trend, which was starting to spread across the country.  “The Brunch Bunch” section even includes several appropriate beverages.

The Silver Palate Cookbook’s coverage of innovations doesn’t stop with  brunch, or with a description of the new instant read thermometer, or the cooking technique of baking in foil.  With fascination, I read about how to prepare exciting new things like pesto and flavored butters, both of which soon after became ubiquitous in NY restaurants.  There are informative sidebars about varieties of mushrooms and pastas, and a whole section called “The Cheese Board”, which includes recipes for “Brie Baked in Phyllo” and “Marinated Chevres”, thereby correcting my memory of these preparations backwards by a couple of years.  The chapters on vegetables included some that many of us had only eaten once or twice in a “special occasion” restaurant, where they would have been liberally covered with some sort of butter sauce.  I’m not just talking artichokes.  My book has a heavy pink highlighter line under the recipe for “Green Beans with Tomatoes”.  These were probably the first fresh green beans I had ever cooked, just as “Peas A La Venitienne” (with baby shrimp), prepared according to Perla Meyers’ recipe in The Seasonal Kitchen, had been my very first fresh peas a few years before.

Looking for the recipe for “Chicken Marbella”, I came upon the “Blueberry Chicken”, which I actually remember more.  The recipe includes blueberry chutney which is noted as being “available in specialty food stores”, though the only store I recall having that particular chutney was The Silver Palate itself.  Chutney looms large in my memory of The Silver Palate, and in the book.  There’s a discussion of the condiment on p. 90.  And the introduction to the section on Meats (p. 97) notes that  “At the Silver Palate, we have always seasoned entrees with fruit”, going on to gently instruct America that “sweet and savory meals have an ancient and worldwide tradition. Dishes of the Orient, the Middle East and Africa…often [use] fruit as much for color and texture as for their natural sweetness….In much the same way, mustards, vinegars and chutneys enliven meat dishes, and we use them freely in our cookery.”  These days, who doesn’t?  But back then, it was an epiphany.  I remember taking my mom down to the Soho Charcuterie for a Mother’s Day Brunch (now that’s a time capsule image for you!), and her omelet came with a dab of chutney on the side.  We didn’t know what to make of such a thing; then we ran to find a store where we could get some.

So much was new to us back then.  Imagine having to be told that “swordfish is deliciously meaty; when cooked with a little care, it need not be dry.” (p. 115) Now we’ve overfished it to endangerment.  The recipe for “Green Lasagna” (p. 76) is described as “an intriguing departure from the usual lasagna and yet respects the traditions of freshness and lightness that permeate the best Italian cooking.  The combination of soft, fresh goat cheese and fresh basil is one we find especially exciting…”  Yes! there was a time when a goat cheese salad did not appear on the menu of every single restaurant in the USA!

And how about this news flash from p. 186?: “Garlic lovers are in luck these days.  The hot and spicy flavors of Szechuan cooking, and the intriguing combinations of Italian cuisine, both relying heavily on garlic, are currently in vogue.”  It’s hard to believe, when every take-out place in the country ranks its dishes with a sliding scale of chile pepper graphics, but there was a time when spice was new and daring.  My Dad took me to my first Szechuan restaurants, all located near the UN, in 1979, where he stunned the waiters by pulling the bird peppers out of the sauce and downing them whole.  A couple of years before that, my family was early to make the move to beyond-Brooklyn-Italian thanks to the opening of a new restaurant in our neighborhood.  Buonovia was in risky competition with some local stalwarts, but they had food like nothing we’d ever eaten before, including their anchovy-and-garlic-soaked Spiedini alla Romano, which I can taste in my mind to this very day.  It took a few years, but owner got some traction with this kind of cooking.  You may have heard of her — Lidia Bastianich?

A lot has happened to American food in the last 30 years and The Silver Palate was in at the start. Browsing the pages of The Silver Palate Cookbook is a trip down memory lane, but with nothing old or dusty about it.  I could still today cook my way from cover to cover and be happy with every bite. No, I’m not going to do a Julie/Julia Project, but the point is, I could.  There are lots of salvos in a revolution, but most turn out to be little more than fireworks, and quickly fade.  In 1982, Rosso and Lukins fired a shot that hit the mark.  That’s a pretty good legacy, I think.