Tag Archives: New York

On the water

A couple of weekends ago, we met friends in Central Park and wound up at the model boathouse after a walk. Next to the concession stand’s noisy line was the boathouse itself. Inside, it was still, and light sifted through a couple of  dusty windows. Rows of model yachts lined the shelves along the sides of the boathouse and occupied two massive tables, in front. Pride of place belonged to a square rigger with toffee-colored wooden sides and hull. There was hardly room to do much more than stare at the boats, whose owners were out somewhere on the Sound on life-sized versions, perhaps.

Outside, only two or three boats were going around the pond, tilting wildly in the wind. A park worker in waders was fishing out both boats and giant clumps of algae from the middle of the pond. Pairs of brothers and sisters were fighting over the radio controls, as a parent sat, off to one side. My husband knelt down at the edge of the pond and stared at the granite.

Vážka,” he said, pointing. Something flickered on the stone, but I couldn’t make out anything. Our two friends, also Czech, peered closely, exclaimed, and dug for their iPhones. I was in some universe where, if you couldn’t name it, you couldn’t see it.

Then the sun came through the trees and hit the stone. The insect tilted its wings–a steely biplane pair–and vanished.

That’s how I learned the Czech for “dragonfly.”

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Le quatorze juillet

Shortly after the all-American food fest of last week, I was seized with the urge to try out some of the recipes from the stack of Larousse 100% plaisir samples I’d brought back from Prague. I’d only managed to bring back two or three from the pile that a friend in publishing gave me, but Goûters (Snacks) seemed a good place to start.

While in Prague, on one of the last weekends there, I’d made a sugar tart from this cookbook. It had turned out incredibly chewy, though Jakub’s dad said loyally, “It’s good with coffee.” When I got back to New York, I tried it again, and, here, the yeast dough rose beautifully, with the end result still chewy but vaguely successful. (And even better with coffee.) This time, though, I didn’t want to make something that required eaters to wash it down with coffee, so I chose to make Tarte au raisin et au pineau des Charentes, a grape tart flavored with cognac and Pineau des Charentes.

Just for cooking. Really.

Just for cooking. Really.

This is an easy tart to make, provided you have a tart pan and lots of Pineau (or a sweet white wine). Even if you don’t, the finished product is still very good, though you probably have no business calling it anything but Tarte au raisin, especially on Bastille Day…

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Most of the cookies, cakes, and tarts in the book don’t require much assembly. They’re designed to be thrown together for an afternoon snack, although the grape tart is great for breakfast the next day, on a blearily muggy July morning.

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This is essentially a grape quiche: you make the dough, press it into the pan, and scatter the grapes on top. You then stir together eggs, sugar, powdered almonds, cream, Pineau, and cognac, and that gets poured, doucement, over the grapes.

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Since I’m obsessed with the combination of recipes and stories over here, I was thinking of my semester in France as I made this–blackberry tea, cassis candies, big bowls of coffee, the baguette drawer in my host family’s kitchen, and of my host mother calling everyone to dinner, nightly, from somewhere in the apartment: On va se mettre au table!

Grape Tart (adapted from Goûters (c) Larousse, 2006)

Ingredients

scant 1 cup all-purpose flour

3 1/2 tbsp. very cold butter (grated, or diced in small pieces)

pinch of salt

1/2 cup sugar

cold water

1/2 lb. seedless green grapes

2 eggs

3 tbsp. powdered almonds

3 1/2 tbsp. heavy cream

1/3 cup + 2 tbsp. Pineau des Charentes blanc*

1 tbsp. cognac

pinch of salt

*(You can substitute another sweet white wine, such as muscat, for the Pineau.)

Directions

• Sift the flour into a bowl. Add the butter, pinch of salt, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 3 tablespoons cold water. Mix together (with your fingertips) to form a ball of dough. Do not knead it.

• Flatten the dough into an 8 1/2″ to 9″ tart pan.

• Preheat the oven to 400° F.

• Take the grapes off the bunch (removing the stems), and wash and dry them. Arrange them in the pan, spacing them apart evenly.

• Mix together the eggs, remaining sugar, powdered almonds, cream, and Pineau in a bowl.

• Gently pour this mixture over the grapes. Bake for 30 minutes. (If the tart crust browns too quickly, reduce the temperature to 350° F.

• Remove tart from oven, and let cool before removing from pan.

Permanent Jetlag

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I’ve been back from Prague for almost two weeks, and it’s still disorienting. The owner of the Korean grocery store where I go for chocolate and cucumbers gave me a quizzical look when I called, “Dobry den!” from the dairy case, out of habit. This is totally normal in Prague–not normal in Queens.

When the envelope above arrived last week from a friend in Canada, there was something familiar about it and the collection of overlapping bits the sender willed to add up to the right amount. It’s me. You think I’m projecting? Lately, I feel like my passport–worn at the edges, stamped with a bewildering assortment of remarks, stuffed full and about to run out of space, but totally useless, once back in the U.S. For the tenth month in a row, I’m out of work. (At least this month I vowed (to a New York Times correspondent on Twitter) that I’d open a biscotti shop, if it went to eleven months.)

For the Fourth of July, we ended up going to a friend’s apartment at the last minute. I was set on seeing fireworks, though I began to regret it when one of the friend’s roommates sniped, “It’s not like I’ve never seen fireworks,” which stung when I heard it from the bedroom. From the window, I could barely make out the edge of fireworks barely visible over the cluster of buildings near West 14th. Everyone else had given up, though my husband stood there behind me, for a minute, and it began to seem a candidate for the Worst Fourth of July Ever: standing in a stranger’s bedroom, looking through the window, alone, hearing fireworks but not seeing any. In any case, it had the makings of a massive pity party.

We’d called these friends at the last minute, because they have a balcony, and they’d invited us over, but when we arrived, it was clear that they hadn’t expected guests. The host scurried around, hastily tipping chips into a bowl, but everyone else stayed put, glued to their laptops.

Maybe it’s childish to want to see fireworks. I’m thirty-three, after all, and I’ve seen a good lifetime of them with my family. But sitting there on a wooden chair, a few minutes later, listening to my husband talk energy politics with his friend’s roommate, oblivious to the fireworks, was strange. Hey, I wanted to shout, I spent last Fourth of July, and a few before that, working on Leggings of 101 Rock and Pop Stars, or whatever literary gem good old crafty Tobias the Sneaky German Publisher had dreamed up in his den for us to slave over in Prague, that week. I deserve fireworks.

I should have left. After all, I’m the outsider anyway–an American among a bunch of international expats, the mopey out-of-work wife and humanities major among a bunch of hedge-fund analysts. But I stayed. And it only got worse. After the last boom reverberated outside and, faintly, in my chest, the host munched on a chip and looked at me.

“Is this a holiday that’s really important to you?” he asked.

“Of course,” I started. “It’s–”

“Because it’s hard for me to see how it has any real meaning to you, personally.” He cocked his head and sat back on the couch. “For me, you know, a big holiday is November 17, the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, because it happened during my lifetime, and it really changed my life. It gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had. I was in seventh grade.” He looked at my husband, who’s also Czech, for confirmation.

J. nodded. “My parents took me to the demonstrations.”

The host continued. “Right–so it has real significance.”

If I had been thinking clearly, I would have said something like, “Well, you have a point, and for you, sure, today is not that big a deal, and it’s clear that you don’t understand or really care what this holiday means to your average American, which is fine. Hey, I dig; to each his own, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go celebrate in the fashion that generations of my American-immigrant family has enjoyed. Thanks for letting us crash your evening. Please enjoy the beer we brought.”

But the conversation went on after that, with each expat offering his or her Holiday Story of Real Significance, and I sat and felt the top of my head grow warm. When the host leaned over and asked J. if he wanted another beer, I leaped off my seat, muttered, “Well, I think I’ll go home; I have a lot of work to do,” and walked into the hallway to get my shoes.

J. followed me. “What? I thought I would stay for one more beer.”

“That’s fine, of course, but we’re not attached at the hip.” I jammed my feet into my flip-flops. “You should stay.”

“No, I’ll go, too.” He sighed.

Really,” I urged. “I don’t want to be blamed for making you leave early.” The living room was silent. Physical and domestic fireworks! What a spectacle.

The host wandered in and stared at me. “You have to work?”

“Yeah,” I said loudly. “I got a lot of work done in Prague, and I’m trying to put it together, now.” I looked away.

“You don’t have a job yet?” he asked. “Well, I’m sure things will improve.”

“Thank you so much for letting us invade your evening,” I said. “The economy is still going to hell, so I don’t think so. But I’ll keep looking. Good night.”

When I’m angry, I walk very, very quickly, and my husband (who is well over six feet tall) has trouble keeping up. But there’s something about propelling yourself through streets and crowds at top speed that is calming, somehow. Everyone else seems to be in slow motion while you carve a swift path down the sidewalk. It’s satisfying. Behind me, I could hear J.’s footsteps in their particular rhythm, among all the other footfalls. It’s just something you tune into, after five years of marriage. But there are other things that you can remain tone-deaf to, until they suddenly ring in your ears like a fumbled chord.

So, since the Fourth of July, I’ve been trying to recreate it–unconsciously, I guess–with a barrage of archetypal American summer foods: lemonade, grilled steak, blueberries and strawberries with cake. Tonight was corn on the cob, with onion-and-chive butter.

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Maybe a whole week of the Fourth of July is better than one night.

Also, feel free to place a biscotti order below.