24 September 2007

Trinacria Macaroni Works

In profile, I've got a Nefertiti head and the length of my hair, cut every two weeks, is just short of shaved. The only down side to my trademark look is a bone-dry scalp during heating season that no dandruff shampoo can cure. So I started rubbing my favorite extra-virgin olive oil, Colavita, on my head before showering. I jokingly refer to my head as a salad bowl.

One day, when buying an extra bottle of Colavita, I mentioned all this to Vince Fava, the owner of Trinacria Macaroni Works, the 100+ year-old Italian grocery founded by his grandfather with the same name. He informed me that Colavita makes a shampoo with olive oil and he would soon have it.

That got me thinking about how little Trinacria has changed over the years and how unusual - not bad, just unusual - any changes have struck me. Things like finding shampoo, body wash, and soap on the shelves; or the impossible-to-miss stainless steel 55 gallon drum holding olive oil that is decanted to order (by the way, it has a lighter taste than Colavita); or the staff's use of electronic devices rather than their brains, paper, and pencil to tabulate purchases – amazingly, the manual method persisted until just a few short years ago.

Located at 406 North Paca Street, it’s the lone retail outpost on this block, though that hardly deters the hoards seeking farfalle, farfalline, linguini, and linguini fini. Once in the door, the nose immediately alerts that Trinacria is so much more than just pasta, with the scents of cheeses, olives, breads, cookies, and deli combining into the finest kind of Italian perfume. Non-odiferous pantry items include a wide variety of canned and jarred sauces, tomatoes, peppers, etc.; arborio rice for risotto; quick-cook and conventional polentas; bottled and tinned olive oils; plain and fruity vinegars; locally-roasted coffee beans; and a plethora of well-priced wines. Actually, everything in Trinacria is well-priced, including cold case items such as make-your-own pizza components, heat and serve chi-chi dinners, and tubs of mascarpone. And the cherry on the gelato? - the overstuffed, made-to-order Italian sandwiches.

Here are some words of wisdom for first-timers: Trinacria is closed on Sundays and Mondays, bring quarters for the parking meters in case you’re not lucky enough to snag a space in the alley just north of the building, and don’t be dismayed by the crowd - the line moves pronto. Take a number and start assembling a pile on the counter. Chances are when it’s your turn you’ll still be marveling over the beet and squid pastas. It’s a safe bet that founder Vince Fava never sold these 100 years ago. Change can be good.

20 September 2007

The Great Triad

My all-time favorite Sunday summer at-home supper is what I call the great triad – green beans, corn, and tomatoes.

I have a favorite bean man at Baltimore’s Downtown Farmers Market and his beans can best be described by the lyrics of “Farmer’s Market” by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross - “They’re the finest beans, the coolest beans, the best beans that you will find in this or any other market place.” (If you’ve never heard of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, get thee to Amazon.com and treat thyself to “The Hottest New Group in Jazz,” originally released in 1959. These lyrics and more are there for the listening on the Amazon site if you want to try before you buy).

Crazy, but after all these years, I’ve not a clue what the bean man’s name is; he’s just the skinny, nice blond guy on the corner with the best beans (and beautiful cantaloupes starting at fifty cents). Guess I shouldn’t beat myself up about not knowing his name. I know Doug the quince guy and Kathy and Dave, the heirloom tomato and apple folks, and that’s about it. Still, after shopping this market for twenty-five-plus years, it feels a little odd to not know the names of most of the farmers who provide my main source of sustenance.

I prefer my beans straight up, cooked for just a few minutes until they’re worthy of a Technicolor close-up. I immediately toss them into a colander and run cold water over them to stop the cooking, then usually eat the whole pile before biting into anything else.

But every once in a while, especially at the end of the season or if somehow they’ve escaped notice in the veggie bin, I do cook them. I’ve always considered one of Ikaros restaurant’s chief drawing cards their green beans cooked in tomatoes. I suppose I should have just asked my friend Xenos, one of the owners, for the recipe, but it always seemed rude, so I made one up. Sometimes, with a beer in me, they taste the same.

I sauté a few cloves of garlic and a big onion in olive oil, then add a can of Cento tomatoes with basil leaf (Cento is by far the best brand of canned tomatoes I have ever had. I order them by the case at Eddies Market on St. Paul Street in Charles Village). It makes less mess to chop the tomatoes in a bowl and then add them to the pan, so there’s no plop. After reducing that for a few minutes, I add a two-dollar basket of beans with stem ends trimmed; there’s no need to chop the beans because they will cook down. I also add at least a heaping tablespoon each of cinnamon and dried Italian seasoning, and also a bit of sugar and a little salt and pepper. There’s no right or wrong here – just adjust to your own taste. I let the whole affair cook til I just can’t wait any longer.

Corn is another vegetable that should be cooked only slightly. I was multiple decades tardy learning this. I remember the corn of my youth boiling endlessly in the pot. I don’t know why. Maybe there was a good reason.

Corn certainly tastes sweeter now; the name Silver Queen seems to have lost its cache, as every variety is sweet, and stays sweet longer. Maybe fooling with corn’s DNA to increase the sweetness also changed the cooking requirements. At any rate, just a few years ago, a friend told me she cooks corn by boiling the water, putting the corn in, covering the pot, and then immediately turning off the flame and letting the corn sit for two minutes. That’s it. That’s all it needs.

As much as I love the beans and the corn, I really only have eyes for the tomatoes. I grow heirloom tomatoes of all colours and descriptions, but I rely on Kathy and Dave at the market for the bulk of it. For eating out of hand, my favorites are anything black, especially the small oval black cherries and any other smallish black variety. I’m convinced all those best-tasting tomato contests that Brandywines usually win are rigged – or there are never black tomato entries.

Again, the simplest preparation is the best for these sweet treats. I cut up what I haven’t already pilfered before dinner and add a little salt and pepper. There’s no need for basil, olive oil, or vinegar.

Or dessert.

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, er, Peaches

At 6:00 AM, between the beginning of May to just short of Christmas, you will find me at the downtown Baltimore Farmers Market each and every Sunday that I'm not at the beach. During every phase of peach and nectarine season, I'm on the prowl for the white varieties. Not to disparage regular peaches and nectarines, but the white ones are different fruits entirely. Their spellbinding perfume and liquor-like taste makes their intermittent appearance at the market a source of frustration for me.

As a foodie and a gardener and an artist, I find inspiration at this market even if I leave without the ultimate prize. No matter how scheduled the rest of the day will be, I try to relax and enjoy the time going round and round as the market wakes up and more wares come off the trucks and onto the tables. Only a few farmers are ready and waiting for early-birds like me. Luckily, one is Doug, my quince guy, who is also my main white peach and white nectarine guy. He's also my main bruised regular peach and nectarine guy. Two Sundays ago, he brought no bruised ones, but that disappointment was erased last Sunday, when the end of his table brimmed with baskets of gorgeous, and therefore, puzzling, cut-rate peaches. I truly couldn't discern the fruits' faults and didn't take the time to ask. Competition for this stuff can be fierce, so I've learned to claim my fruit, pay quickly, and go, and anyway, there's ample opportunity for conversation at quince time.

I was also a bit distracted because a treasured friend was expected at my house for an eight o'clock breakfast and I was pre-occupied with a work-related project. So I hurried home and dumped the dozen and a half not-quite-ripe peaches in the rare black yelloware bowl that holds pride of place atop my stove.

Breakfast with my friend might have been the only relaxing moment between Sunday and yesterday, when the peaches ripened. While I am jazzed and excited by my project, it has pretty much dominated my thinking and made me less than mindful about almost everything else. So imagine my surprise - and delight - when I opened the kitchen door and was knocked over by the fragrance from the bounty in the bowl. Not just peaches, but white peaches.

Trattoria: A Passion For Italian Food

I might as well get this out of the way - I do not travel much and have never been out of this country. I enjoy, however, hearing about other people's trips, particularly the food, and have noticed traveling foodies often say it's impossible to re-create in this country whatever dish they happen to be describing. I suppose I wouldn't really know, but I tend to doubt such pronouncements. I don't think it's the availability of ingredients - FedEx/UPS/USPS can bring practically anything to one's door - I think it depends more on finding authentic recipes.

While I'm baring my soul, I'll also admit a hyper-sensitivity to book design in general and cookbook design in particular. I did graphic design and food styling for years and sometimes can't help but dismiss books that offend my eye, even if the topic is of interest. Every once in a while I pick up a book that, conversely, is so glossy and beautiful that I imagine it's all looks and no brains and anyway, I'd be petrified of splattering it.

I read a positive review of Trattoria: A Passion for Italian Cooking, by Ursula Ferrigno when it was published last year. With relatively little space for cookbooks in my compact Bolton Hill kitchen, I've an incentive to at least try to avoid cookbook sections in bookstores. Today I was ambushed, not in a bookstore, but instead in the usually depressing Tuesday Morning book aisle. A ten second flip through Trattoria revealed copious stunning photos of food, people, places, and things and convinced me it was easily worth having at a third of its published price, even if I never cooked from it.

Once home, I simply could not stop looking at this book. The photos are nothing short of food porn and the recipes authentic and provocative. So very odd, but right now I have a serious jones to pack a bag and jump a plane to Italy.

Gotta Hand It To Wegmans

I'm a firm believer in keeping my money local, for a couple of reasons. My Baltimore City property tax obligation certainly reminds me of the importance of every penny of sales tax re-distribution. And owning a small niche business for thirteen years that was patronized mainly by non-city residents frustrated me because even my immediate neighbors didn't understand that supporting locally-owned neighborhood businesses builds community and raises property values. For these reasons, I refuse to buy anything outside of city limits that can be procured within them and I prioritize patronizing family-owned businesses. In addition, paying a few cents more to buy, say, a bucket at family-owned Belle Hardware in Bolton Hill instead of motoring out to the just-inside-city-limits Eastern Avenue Home Depot decreases my carbon footprint and actually saves me money once I figure in the cost of gas.

So it was an unusual occurrence that I ventured out to Wegmans yesterday. In my defense, I was there to meet a friend, so I browsed and did not buy. Talk about your self-restraint - to a foodie and accoutrement addict, Wegmans is nothing short of paradise. And it is a family-owned business - just not a Baltimore family - so I don't feel too guilty shopping there when they've got what no one else does, and they do in spades.

While perusing the knife case, one of their ultra-helpful staff, another great aspect of this store, asked if I were looking for anything in particular and I answered in half pantomime that I was seeking a foot-long magnetic knife rack. Somewhat amazingly, Wegmans does not carry such an item, but she noted that my gesticulations would have enabled her to understand my request even if she had not heard it. That launched a brief conversation about the American sign language classes taught in-house; it seems Wegmans has a number of deaf staff members and of course they have deaf customers. I know a few deaf folks and have tried, admittedly not hard enough, to learn American sign language.

Sorry I didn’t get her name, but she gave me a whole new perspective on this unique emporium and I'm looking forward to going back soon with acquisitive intentions. When I got home, I pulled out my guidebook to American sign language and practiced the alphabet. So although I didn't buy anything, I didn't walk away empty handed.

Colour My World

Colour is one of my greatest joys - so much so that I elevate its importance by employing the British spelling. I look at paint chips when I'm feeling blue and virtually always turn sunny. I see hairs of difference in colour, even at a distance, and I often get flashes of colours out of nowhere. I view all of this as a great gift, though, sometimes choosing between an excess of beauty does have its challenges.

I often get asked about "bad" colours. There is no such thing as a bad colour, only a colour in a bad place.

Instant Gratification

I spent over seven hours today, without a single break, standing in front of my Bolton Hill walnut entrance doors, trying once again to liberate them from countless layers of paint. Seven passes of ZipStrip today, in addition to PeelAway the last time around, and I doubt I got even ten percent more accomplished.

With Rosh Hashanah dinner for thirteen guests only three nights away and much left to do, I was glad that starching and ironing napkins awaited - finally, a task I could complete.

Ironing quickly allows me to render something perfect. And I love, love, love starch - the stuff in the bottle, not the can. Spray starch is convenient, but can be messy, and I've yet to find a brand up to the challenge of starching a napkin into total attention.

An hour and fifteen napkins later, I could finally say I had had a productive day.

Perfectly Imperfect Rosh Hashanah Dinner

I gave up trying to be perfect a while ago. Despite the now-usual unpolished copper pots, burned pizza, unwashed windows, English cocker spaniel tumbleweed, and years-out-of-commission powder room, among other imperfections, my guests invariably chide me for expending so much energy on being perfect. So I've given up trying to explain that I gave up trying to be perfect.

Rule number one of entertaining is that it's not about being perfect, but about you enjoying your guests and your guests enjoying you. The food and everything else is secondary, no matter how many hours you fussed over the menu. If you are not relaxed, your guests won't be either, and they may even feel guilty for thinking you worked so hard. Being relaxed with your guests goes a long way in making up for so-so cuisine and an unkempt garden. Faults are overlooked. Laughter and great conversation are remembered and savored.

My guests left last night satiated and convinced the dinner was worthy of a magazine spread, but I know I didn't have time this year for my usual homemade challahs and pickled gefilte fish, nor did I wash the windows, polish the silver, get my dogs groomed, or tame the jungle out back. Good thing, as it made for a perfect evening.

Roasted Tomatoes

It's a special alchemy that occurs this time of year when tomatoes and basil meet an oven. My roasted tomatoes recipe transforms even semi-mealy or bruised and broken local tomatoes into a sweetness you will mourn for after frost. The summer and early fall menu I most often serve guests includes risotto topped with roasted tomatoes, a salad of anything fresh, good crusty bread from Trinacria, and sauteed peaches (bruised ones from the farmers market) with mascarpone. Your guests will likely detect the other-worldly roasted tomato fragrance before you even answer the door and you'll notice my menu omits a first course, as wading through an appetizer while the tomatoes await seems cruel.

I enjoy making this a visual feast as well, so whenever possible, I use red and yellow tomatoes. Any type of oven-safe dish will do, but I like to use an eight-inch square pyrex dish and nine big tomatoes or sixteen little tomatoes for a snappy checkerboard effect.

The tomatoes must be skinned - not a big deal. While boiling a few inches of water in a soup pot or wide saucepan, cut into the tomatos just enough to remove the top part of the core and then make a small x on the bottoms. Place tomatoes in the boiling water, cover, and when the skins begin to wrinkle after a moment or two, remove the tomatoes to a bowl, preferably an ice bath. While they cool, wash a big farmers market-sized bundle of basil and don't worry about drying it. Coat the bottom of the dish with a little olive oil and then add the basil leaves. Carefully skin the tomatoes and place them core side down into the dish. I usually roast them at 400 degrees - but anywhere between 350 and 425 degrees works - until about after an hour or so, when the tomatoes become slightly charred.

At serving time, use a slotted spoon - these babies are soupy. And one last instruction - after your guests go home, drink the nectar remaining in the dish.

Crafting - Sickness or Wellness?

While having too much fun (crafters need no further explanation) at the Michaels crafts store in Rehoboth Beach, I muttered to my friend and Michaels employee, Phoenix, that wanting/needing/buying all that stuff was a sickness. Phoenix, a shaman of partial American Indian descent, quickly corrected me. "No, Donna Beth. It's a wellness." And he's right.

In today's parlance, I'm a crafter, a term I dislike, as it's way too generic and soul-less for an essentially creative enterprise. Little makes me happier than the luxury of time and a table full of project. Knitting, sewing, scrapbooking (from childhood I've known this as collage), beading, and lots of things in between - all are fun, relaxing and rewarding - when not maddening.

Sometimes the motivation to create is clear - we need something custom-made because what's available store-bought just won't exactly suffice. But what of the other 90%, a figure, by the way, I just made up. Why do we do this? Why do we spend so much time and money on this stuff?

In trolling for a satisfactory explanation, I got sidetracked by the contents of the cottage-painted Victorian dresser in my otherwise Arts + Crafts-furnished sewing room, stuffed with part of my collection of 1910s and 1920s millinery, sewing, and knitting books. An often-quoted reason for the current crafting craze is that it's an antidote to the cold anonymity of technology and that it's a soothing, nesting response to 9-11. But we've been crazed before. The Arts + Crafts movement of 1880-1910 was a reaction to the Industrial Movement and the 1910s and 1920s are often thought to constitute the last previous era with a technological explosion rivaling our digital one. My paper treasure trove contains projects that even Martha (do you really have to ask Martha-who?) and I would laugh ourselves silly over.

So the best explanation, or at least the one I'm going with, is that history shows we sometimes just can't help ourselves. Accordingly, my next excursion to Michaels will be blissful and guilt-free.