Playing with Food, part 1

Or, entertaining yourself at home.



Here you will find what could be taken as recipes by someone who has not read the rest of this book. Really they are only descriptions of how one not very skilled at cooking happens to play with food. As recipes, they are vague and untested. They are rather illustrations. Of course, you might find that some of them sound savory and want to try them. Do as you like, but know there is a stiff undertow. You will be much better off with a real cookbook and only a general recollection of what went on here.


Baked Brie

According to the delicious M - - -

Who can eat it? A monstrosity of overindulgence lauded by over-dressed hostesses. A blandly rich cheese thing baked in buttery pastry so there is no graceful way of eating it without it dripping oil on your invariably silk clothes which, by the way, you will soon be too voluptuous to wear.

Then the sultry M--- walked into my life bearing gifts of friendship and regard and, one summer’s night, baked brie. Oh sure, it is still messy, still frighteningly fat. But now I will be rude to my friends, stiff business contacts, lie to small children and wear cotton for evening if I think it will get me another bite.

Seek out:

A brie round — Not too large.

Sundried tomatoes — Brought back to life with a minute in boiling water,1 bathed languidly for minutes or hours or days in olive oil and garlic. Or from the jar in which they were packed in oil. Chopped up, or pureed slightly in the cuisinart. M--- uses tomatoes from her own garden, dried in the sun or the oven. You probably won’t.

Pastry sheets — The sort you might use for brioche. Or that other, flakier kind used for baklava.2



Slice the brie round sideways so you have two full circles of brie half the original thickness.3 Spread a thick layer of sundried tomato stuff on the cheese side of one half, and then replace the other half on top. Now wrap this in pastry, however you like. Don’t look here for tips. Open a cookbook, or call someone who knows how to cook. Once wrapped, put it in the oven for awhile. Serve without bread or anything except maybe some good wine. Cut into squares and eat with your fingers. Encourage your guests to do the same.

The savory tomato and the spiciness of the garlic cut through the oppression of cheese wrapped in buttery pastry, allowing you to devour much more than you would otherwise find palatable. How fortunate for your tailor.

variations

On another occasion, M--- again arrived bearing gifts, but this time the brie was cut with prosciutto. Oh oh. She claims she did everything as above, but using the cured meat instead of the tomatoes. She seems trustworthy. Give it a try.

Another, also beautiful M--- of other, more public fame pats a nice layer of chopped nuts and brown sugar on top of the brie round and bakes it like that. No pastry sheets. No slicing open the round. Easier, richer, sweeter, different. Like herself. Serve with very plain crackers or with very good, also plain bread.






Bruschetta

Italian for savory things on small toast

visit all the finest markets until you have obtained:4

Roma tomatoes

Garlic

Fresh basil

Olive oil

Salt, pepper & sugar

French or sourdough bread — Loaves or baguettes



Chop up a bunch of roma tomatoes as small as you like them. Use a knife, not a food processor. Chop up several garlic cloves. They should seem like fresh, hard fruit and be sufficiently pungent that people walking into the kitchen should exclaim immediately how good everything smells. Pick the best leaves from a bouquet of basil and chop them up as well. Throw each thing into your favorite bowl as soon as it is chopped. A little salt, a bit more sugar, a grind or two or three of black pepper and several spoonfuls of olive oil. Mix with a wooden spoon and serve on French, Italian or better yet sourdough toast which has been cut into strips. If you use baguettes, slice slightly on the diagonal so the pieces are elongated. If you have nothing else to do with your hands, rub a peeled garlic clove on the toast before you spoon on the tomato stuff. Brush the bread with olive oil before toasting if you like and if you will be toasting horizontally.

Too easy.

Perhaps, but you might be surprised at how impressed your guests will be by this minor display of Italian flair. Hot jazz or romantic opera is perfect with this sort of thing, though Led Zeppelin may do as well. Check your lighting. If it is very bright, even still daylight, which is fine for lively conversation and summery food that tends to spill and fall all over the place, be sure light is not shining directly on anyone’s face or the top of their head. Napkins out and available. Survey the drink situation and correct any empty glass problems. Do all this without anyone noticing and you are on your way to being an extraordinary host; fresh, sultry and spontaneous with a dash of Italy. You might even consider keeping that chopping knife handy to ward off unwelcome amorous adventurers.

variations

If you don’t like bread, or don’t have any that is appropriate, or someone can’t eat bread, make up some white rice,5 let it cool and then toss some of it into the tomato mixture, and then some more and some more until it looks like something you want to eat. Add the rice slowly so you don’t add too much. The point of adding the rice to the tomato rather than vice versa is to assure that you won’t find you have less tomato than you would like mixed irretrievably with more rice than anyone wants.

Or, add a bunch of torn up brie cheese and more olive oil to the tomato stuff, let it sit around for a half hour or so and then toss with freshly cooked and very hot pasta.6

Or instead of the traditional tomato bruschetta, you might experiment with other things on toast, preferably rubbed with garlic. Italian cookbooks will sometimes offer suggestions. I can suggest very good pesto, preferably some that you made yourself with fresh basil, but there are very nice basil pestos to be had in the grocery stores of the larger cities and the smaller, gourmet towns. A strip of sundried tomato on top of the pesto, or instead of. Avocado and very sharp, very thinly sliced cheddar or parmesan cheese.7 Roasted red peppers marinated in olive oil and garlic and cut into strips. Roasted garlic puréed with a little stock and some herbs to make a spread perfect for bruschetta. Some incarnation of those white cannellini beans; cooked, mushed and toyed with.

Mostly, use your imagination and whatever is available at the farmer’s market or hanging around from last night.


Footnotes


1 You can use the microwave for this. Put the dried tomatoes in a small bowl with a bit of water and microwave for however long . A minute or two or three, depending on how many tomatoes. Remove the tomatoes from the water and bathe in oil and garlic for at least a few minutes before doing anything with them, like putting them on bits of French bread and eating them up.

2 As if anyone besides M --- would ever make baklava.

3 Naturally, I’ve never done this. And I don’t really expect you to do it either. But if you did feel bold...

4 You might have divined this list from the description on the menu at your favorite trattoria.

5 Not the minute rice stuff. Who could be in such a hurry as that? Put as much real, washed, preferably basmati or jasmine rice as you want in a pan, add as much water to cover it plus almost an inch more. Some small amount of salt. Bring to a boil and then simmer covered for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Or measure one part rice to something shy of two parts water. Salt. Ask your mom. Or your former spouse. They’ll tell you all about it.

6 That would pretty much be a recipe gleaned vaguely from the first Silver Palate cookbook, a book you might want to acquire. Those authors in turn gleaned the recipe from a luncheon in the Tuscan countryside. I’d guess someone in that Italian family spent a little time in France. A sublime dish almost any way you make it.

7 In an even greater variation for the usual wheat-intolerant friend, the bread was replaced by slices of boiled and cooled yellow potatoes. Perfect little canapés, or bizarre bruschetta. They were so good. It reminded me, because I do forget, that restrictions are nothing of the sort. They free you instantly from your own habits.

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