Pesto Recipe…From The PaperGirl Kitchen.

posted in: Food 1
Not a covergirl, that pesto. Photo: Wikipedia
She’s no covergirl, pesto. Photo: Wikipedia

What is this, a food blog?!

I have been making a lot of pesto lately. Most of the items in my fridge right now are just vehicles for this pesto. I learned how to make it in Iowa City when I worked at The Motley Cow Cafe my last two years in college. I’m drumming up a PaperGirl mini-series on that experience. High-stakes drama, bodice-ripping, love triangles, salmon papillote — fascinating times. (Jeff, I remain ashamed about Charlottesville.)

Not long ago, Claus was coming over for dinner. I texted him to please pick up pine nuts because I was going to make my pesto and had forgotten that important ingredient. But the text was not received; Claus did not bring a single pine nut with him. I huffed and puffed; the man, much like me, never turns on his phone. I got my coat and went to get the dang nuts myself, when he said, “Let’s just eat something else.” No! Pesto! Then I realized I had walnuts in the pantry. Wasn’t walnut pesto a thing? I seemed to remember that it was.

It’s a thing, all right — and to my taste, walnut pesto is far superior to pine nut pesto. I’ll never go back. Pine nuts grind down almost to butter, while walnuts retain some body. Pesto is supposed to be a paste, sure, but walnuts lend a fantastic texture. That night, necessity was the mother of realization, and I’d like to share my excitement. This recipe is similar to my Cheesy Biscuits For All recipe, which is to say it’s rough — but I stand by it 100%. If you prefer a more precise recipe, may I show you something in life-altering chocolate cake? 

PaperGirl Pesto

*You’ll need a food processor to make this.*

A big thing of basil from the produce section of the grocery store
Olive oil (a lot)
A passel of raw, whole walnuts (make sure they’re not old — old nuts are so gross)
Couple shallots
Decent-sized clove of garlic, if you like garlic
Parmesan cheese (a big hunk of it and don’t use the powdered stuff! Don’t even have that stuff in your fridge! Buy a hunk of Parmesan cheese for your fridge and grate it onto your food fresh! It’s such a small thing and it makes such a big difference in life! Got it? Okay, good!)
Kosher salt
Cracked black pepper

NOTE: “But how many cups of walnuts is in a passel?? And how much cheese? What does “a lot” mean?? This is madness.” I don’t know the answers to your questions. Really, I don’t. But I don’t have to know, and neither do you. Just look at pictures of pesto. Think about how pesto tastes. Pesto is mostly nuts and basil, right? Right. And it’s oily. And it’s got a savory, almost onion-y flavor, and the tang of the Parmesan. Think on these things and then just go with your sense. It’s ratios. You’ll know what to do.

1. Fill a big bowl with water and float the basil in it. The dirt, sand, etc. will fall down to the bottom of the bowl. I don’t know if I have to do it this way, but when I wash basil in a colander, it gets depressed. Shake off water, blot with a paper towel.

2. In a pan on the stove, roast the nuts on a low heat. You don’t want to actually toast your walnuts, just “release the aroma” of them, as they say in Fancy Food Blogs That Don’t Know I Exist. Set aside. Don’t burn those nuts. Yuck.

3. Dice up those shallots. Same with garlic. Get olive oil in pan. Roast your shallots and garlic. People will come into the kitchen and ask you what you’re making. Say, “Go away. I’m doing something for the first time. I’ll let you know if it works out.” When the shallots and/or onion are translucent, set aside.

4. Pick stems off basil. Throw stems out, throw the leaves in a food processor. Put shallot and/or garlic mush in food processor, too. Dump in your walnuts.

5. Oh, I forgot to tell you: get that hunk of Parmesan and grate it. You can have too much Parm in your pesto, so don’t go overboard, here. And remember that Parm tastes salty, so when you add salt to your green sludge, go easy on it. You can’t unsalt.

6. Pour some olive oil into the food processor bowl with all the other stuff in there already. You’ll be surprised how much oil is in pesto. Because you don’t want crumbled green stuff; you want a paste. You want to spread this stuff on bread, or steak, or on someone’s face. Smooth. Almost creamy. So pour it in, baby.

7. Salt and pepper. See #5 for a word about salt. Now hit the button and watch the green sludge begin to blend and swirl.

8. Unlock the bowl, stick a finger in there. What do you think? Do you have nuts left? Do you need to put more in? Is it smooth enough? Is it amazing? Yeah! You did it! It’s tough to un-salt, and it’s hard to put more basil in your pesto if you’re out, and yeah, you might’ve put too much oil in this time but you can pour some of that off and with enough wine, no one will notice. But I bet you did pretty well your first time out!

9. Eat it.

Marie Antoinette’s Hot Chocolate Drink.

posted in: Food 0
I googled "hot chocolate in teacup" and got this, which is better than any image I could have ever, ever imagined for a post about Marie Antoinette. Or anything else. Photo:
I googled “hot chocolate in teacup” and got this, which is better than any image I could have ever imagined for any post, ever. If only it were bigger. Photo:

Exactly 221 years ago today, Marie Antoinette was beheaded!

With all the talk of the growing wage gap and the new billionaires and all, the French Revolution occurs to me from time to time. Could a bloody, desperate people’s revolution against a privileged and corrupt elite happen again? Here?? (Answer: Anything can happen anywhere and usually does. So yes.)

I’d much rather talk about hot chocolate. In an hour’s worth of research about Marie Antoinette, I learned that aside from not actually saying that thing about cake (it was a line in a story written by someone when she was just nine and falsely attributed to her) she liked to have hot chocolate in the mornings. Curious about how one might make Marie Antoinette Hot Chocolate, I consulted the oracle and indeed found the recipe for her exact hot chocolate on the official Chateau de Versailles website. It’s been passed down through the ages and this really does seem to be the way Louie and Mar-Mar liked it. Check this out:

“Place the same quantity of chocolate bars and glasses of water in a coffee maker and boil gently; when you are ready to serve, place one egg yolk for four servings and stir over a gentle heat but do not boil. If prepared the night before, those who drink it every day leave a leaven for the one they make the next day; instead of an egg yolk you may use a whisked egg white after having removed the first mousse, mix it with some of the chocolate from the coffee maker then pour back into the coffee maker and finish the preparation as with the egg yolk.”**

I assume they do not mean you should put chocolate through your Mr. Coffee tomorrow morning. And as for “the same quantity of chocolate bars and glasses of water,” there’s no mention of how large these bars are, or what sort of cacao percentage you should work with. I’ll bet they used extremely chocolatey chocolate, but it’s anyone’s guess. I do think if you attempt this (and I will and will let you know what happens) you ought to serve it in the fanciest cup you can dig around for. Marie liked it with whipped cream and an orange blossom, apparently, so get thee to an orange grove or the Versailles orangerie or, you know, Whole Foods.

**Source: “Les Soupers de la Cour ou l’Art de travailler toutes sortes d’aliments pour servir les meilleurs tables suivant les quatre saisons” (Court dinners or the Art of working different foods for the best restaurants based on the four seasons), by Menon, 1755 (BN, V.26995, volume IV, p.331)

My Position On Take-Out.

posted in: Food, Rant 0
I also have a position on food photography that looks suspiciously like it was taken in the late 1970s.
Food photography that looks suspiciously like it was taken in the late 1970s? Also problematic.

Tonight, here on St. Mark’s Place, a decision needed to be made. The matter was being discussed in homes from coast to coast, in kitchens around the world. Fights may have broken out over the matter! Families torn apart! Brother against brother, father against son, all asking the simple question:

“What should we do for dinner?”

I typically figure out dinner early in the day, but work and travel kept me from any meal planning today. I’ve been here before, though, and am a decent enough cook to be able to whip up something tasty on the fly with a little Pam* and a prayer. But tonight, I was uninspired. So naturally, Yuri and I considered take-out. In a city like New York, we could have any kind of cuisine the world could offer us, right here in our apartment without stepping one toe outside. Ain’t that some moo goo gai pan.

Except that I don’t like take-out. Delivery. Whatever you call it when someone delivers food to your house. For many years, I’ve had an odd aversion to the concept and tonight, when I balked at what would’ve been a sensible solution to the dinner question, Yuri asked me to explain. I hadn’t ever considered it closely, so it was very exciting. I sipped a little apple juice and really thought it out.

It’s the effort of the whole thing. You, the food, the players in the transaction, all of it. And eating this way also feels a little cheaty.

Let’s take the last part first: If I decide I want to eat something that I don’t want to kill, shop for, carry, or cook — and if I want to do the absolute bare minimum of clean up after I’ve eaten it — ring up the Thai place and let’s do this. But Thai food does not appear out of thin air. It’s made. Out of things. When you get a rapidly cooling mass of pad Thai in a styrofoam box, the creation part is a distant memory. Personally, I think that’s a drag.

And then there’s the effort. “Effort? In picking up the phone or clicking boxes online? She’s off her gourd,” I hear someone say, and then that someone checks to see if anyone is delivering harvest gourd soup in their area. It’s not your effort, of course, but the effort of the process. Look:

You call to order —> order placed by person or machine —> order given to kitchen —> food prepared —> food put into containers —> containers put into bag —> astonishing number of condiments also put into bag —> bag given to delivery person —> delivery person takes bushel of orders to his/her car or bike —>  food loses heat/freshness en route but is not discounted for loss of quality but in fact costs you more —> food arrives —> money changes hands —> delivery man leaves —> you sit down and open packages —> you eat —> you throw away all the crap that came with your sushi, including that weird plastic grass.

Good grief. Compare that to:

You take ingredients from fridge/pantry —> prepare —> cook —> eat —> dishwasher.

So, what did we do for dinner in the end? I realized I had prosciutto in the fridge, so I fried some up in a pan. I had some dates. I made some quesadillas without cheese for Yuri because his stomach was feeling bad and yes, quesadillas without cheese just means that I toasted some tortillas on the stove for him, which made him feel much better by the way. And that was dinner and it was enough.

Plastic grass is for Easter baskets! Everyone knows that.

*I do not currently keep any Pam in the house. I only wanted to link to the “Pam The Pan” entry from several months back.

A Recipe To Change (Your) Life.

posted in: Food 2
With honey, I'm home.
With honey, I’m home.

Long ago, in a Chicago far away, when I was a poet with barely enough rent money and my friends were all theater performers and poets with barely enough rent money, I learned a simple way to be happy.

It involves a grapefruit. So have one handy. I’ll wait.

*       *       *

I was in a friend’s apartment at Belmont and Clark. If you know Chicago, you know the corner of Belmont and Clark is rough around the edges: there’s a Dunkin Donuts, a crack spot, and a recovery house all crammed together, and that’s all next door to the tattoo shop, the Chinese market, and the skankiest Jamba Juice on earth. The Mexican restaurant down the block is good, if “good” means a place that serves margaritas so strong you don’t know your name when you leave.

My friend and I had been up and out all night. We were twenty-two. Kids. Kids with lame jobs, adult responsibilities, and zero supervision. We woke hungover, of course, and annoyed that the sun existed.

My friend’s apartment was in the bird’s nest part of the building on the corner of Belmont and Clark and it had these gorgeous, tall windows. I appreciated them aesthetically, even then, but I hated them that morning. Light poured in; there were no blinds. We were clearly ants under a microscope held by some supernatural force who was punishing us for our sins.

“Do you want a grapefruit?” my friend asked me, coming back into the living room where I was, scrunched into the couch trying to escape the light. I had crashed on the couch several hours earlier.

“No,” I said. “I would like to go home.”

“It’s really good how I make it,” he said. “I promise. Come sit at the table.”

The look I gave him was full dagger. But he had been rebuffed the night before by the boy he was in love with, so I couldn’t be mean. I pulled my bones up and dragged my body to the formica-topped table in the tiny kitchen. And there, I watched my friend make a magic treat.

He cut a beautiful, big, ruby red grapefruit in half with a serrated knife. He put each half in a bowl. Then he took down a Honey Bear (proper noun?) and drizzled honey over the top of each half. He then went to the microwave and put the bowls inside. He punched some buttons.

“Thirty seconds,” he said, and I squinted at him. He slumped against the sink like he was an old, old man. Youth is not wasted on the young. The young, they pay for it. We paid for it.

The microwave beeped that it was done. My friend put my hot grapefruit in front of me, sat down with his, handed me a grapefruit spoon (clearly a possession in his life vis a vis a kind set of civilized parents) and we dug in.

And everything was okay. Because into my mouth went chunks of cool, juicy, tart chunks of grapefruit, each with hot, melted sweetness on top. The warmth, the chill; the tart, the sweet. It was a revelation, and nothing felt bad anymore, and the sun looked the way it actually was: beautiful.

I eat grapefruit prepared this way quite a bit, so many years later.


My Soup, My Salad, My Nemesis: Vapiano

I'm sure these people had a better time.
I’m sure these people had a better time. Especially the dude in the hat. He always has a good time.

At brunch on Sunday, my (affianced!) sister Rebecca told tales of her recent trip to Tokyo. A transcription of that exciting conversation is forthcoming, but last night I was reminded of the specific tale she shared of the elegant efficiency of Tokyo noodle shops. I was reminded because I was sad.

Here’s how a Tokyo noodle shop works: you step up to an automated kiosk and put in your money. You press a button for the kind of ramen you want (select by picture) and bloop! out comes a ticket. You take the ticket to the noodle man and zing! he makes your ramen. Double happiness, arigato! No cashier, no waiter, no wait. The only possible mess in this process might be soup on your blouse.

Friends, let us leave the Tokyo ramen shop and pay a visit to its berserker anti-matter evil twin: Vapiano in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

[Pardon me, darling: before I begin, I’ll need my blood pressure medication, yes, thank you, and my smelling salts. Is there Xanax? There is? Yes, dear. I’ll have two, please, one for now and one for five minutes from now. I’ll take them with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Thank you, darling, and a napkin. That’s good. Yes, that’s very nice. Now, gather ‘round, children.]

Vapiano is a German-owned restaurant chain. The first Vapiano opened in 2002 and today there are 120 locations worldwide. Chicago got a roomy one in the old Carson Pirie Scott building about a year ago. During the construction phase, I passed it and felt happy because a quick, freshly prepared salad option downtown is always welcome news. Indeed, Vapiano proclaims “fresh” Italian-style pizza, pasta, soup, salad, and dessert. And each Vapiano restaurant has a full bar and a large dish of gratis gummy bears at the host stand when you walk in. Why, I don’t know, but when we went there, Yuri ate two handfuls of them immediately. This ended up being a smart move because at Vapiano, it’s gon’ be awhile.

The first thing that happens is that you’re greeted by a hostess so scared to tell you what’s about to happen, she races through the spiel fast enough you may wonder if she’s speaking English. Something about cards? Something about stations? Tapping? Paying…sometime in the future? She thrusts menu cards into your hands and you are then absorbed by the Vapiano food pen. We learn from the Vapiano website that the name is a word inspired by an Italian proverb that goes, “Chi va piano va sano e va lontano,” which translates to: “People with a relaxed attitude live a long and healthy life.” Clearly, Vapiano stakeholders are being ironic. There is nothing relaxed or healthy about their “high-concept” restaurant. “Long” works. Keep “long.”

So you get a credit card thing. There are stations in the food pen for the different offerings, pizza, pasta, etc. You stand at the counters and order what you want from the long-suffering line cooks whose smiles are so obviously required for employment there, you want to lean forward conspiratorially and tell them they can give it a rest. But you don’t. Because you’re hungry. You tell them what you want and then they say something you can’t hear and they make a swiping motion and gesture to your card. You look around for a credit card machine, but there isn’t one. There’s a screen, though, embedded in the counter, so you smoosh your card down there and it goes beep! and the line cook looks with a pitying look of congratulations and begins to make your carbonara.

Which takes a long time. So long. And you’re not seated at a table waiting, remember. You’re just standing around. And what do you do with the card? Well, the Vapiano people tell you that this is the beauty of the whole thing, that you can take the card all around and just keep ordering all kinds of stuff for hours and hours and your card keeps everything straight for you. (A waiter is surprisingly efficient for this, too, but don’t mind me; my Xanax just kicked in.) But… But where do you put it? Your wallet seems a little…final. Your pocket seems risky, though, because you’re blithely eating all this German-Italian (?) relaxation and health and what happens if you lose that card or forget what it is and give it to your kid’s teacher for Christmas? And it still wasn’t totally clear whether or not we should pay and then eat or hang onto the card even longer and let its confusing presence further flavor our caprese salad.

I spent most of the “experience” running all over the damned place, picking up the food we had ordered 20 minutes earlier. Got the soup! Okay! What else? Oh! Salad! Be right back! Ooh! Our pager went off! (Oh, there are pagers involved, too.) Pizza! Okay, do we have everything? Okay, I totally wanted a piece of pizza, but that’s okay! No, I wasn’t here. It’s fine. How was it? Awesome. Ooh! Dessert! Be right back.

Surely there are people who love this. Surely there are people who understand it better. I am entirely aware that I’ve probably done Vapiano incorrectly, that there’s something wrong with me. If anyone, German, Italian, American, or otherwise can help me, help me, because I really really like the tomato soup.

Seriously, it’s great.