Friday, August 6, 2010

Of Fresh Figs, Ruined Balsamic & Benjamin Bratt

Gina salad

Let's start with the triumph. Somehow I produced this salad last night!

My old friend Alexandra Booke drove all the way over from the Eastside for dinner, leaving her husband and two young children behind. Talk about pressure. I wanted to feed her something delicious, make battling the traffic and abandoning her family worthwhile. Plus, Alexandra is a brilliant cook herself. When Love Junkie came out, she invited me to her home as guest author for one of the most memorable book club gatherings I've attended. Not only did the club pair books -- they read Love Junkie along with Story Of O (! more on that another time) -- but they also prepared a menu of food inspired by the featured book. (This should be an ongoing book club idea!). Luckily there was a section in LJ set in Morocco. Alexandra dipped into her Silver Palate cookbook and produced a lavish, mouth-watering Moroccan-inspired meal. (Menu asking her to recreate it). No wonder the literary conversation was so lively. I wanted to thank her for that meal and many others she's cooked for me through the years.

Alexandra and I go way back, same as Anastasia. We were all at college together, even though I didn't meet Alexandra until I moved to Los Angeles in 1985. Anastasia I met at Yale when I served her a heaping mess of wheat germ casserole in the Natural Food line at Commons (more on that in another post). At that time, she wore her hair in fabulous Dr. Seussian sprouts and dressed her feet in white go-go boots. Anastasia embodied the (then) mysterious San Fernando Valley. I was a grateful scholarship student who worked all four years in the dining halls. I handled food, pigged out (more on that another time) -- but didn't learn to cook. Cooking didn't interest me; eating (a lot!) did. I earned a decent wage, though the price I paid was that my hands always smelled of that distinctive dining hall worker scent. No amount of soap or scrubbing could remove it.

Since experiencing Chef Maili's first private cooking class on June 10th of this year, and then a second group private cooking class on July 15th, I've embarked on a culinary tear. I am a woman possessed. Because Maili is the artist and teacher who inspired me on this brand-spanking new (and shocking to my longtime friends) path, I've been drawing primarily from her recipes for now. Plus, I can zap her a question and get a response! Talk about cyber-mod interactive cooking. She's the paragon of generosity. Maili sincerely wants to share her love of food and artistry with everyone. Her recipes have all been tested and written clearly so others (even and especially non-cooks) can succeed. When there are problems, or questions, she addresses them. Then incorporates all into the recipe.

Anyway, I trusted when this salad leaped from the Maili list like a neon dive bar sign. I drooled at the ingredients:  fresh figs, red grapes, goat cheese, caramelized onions w/balsamic vinegar, baby arugula, maracona almonds. What's not to love?

I decided I would start by making my own fancy balsamic vinegar. Piece of cake! Snap of the fingers! Could do it in my sleep! (Adopting a certain confidence, or focused recklessness, is key to attempting challenging techniques -- even if it's not sustainable). Maili told us we could buy cheap balsamic at Costco, then reduce it at home by half to produce something on a par with expensive aged balsamic. At our second cooking lesson, she drizzled this rich brown liquid from a squeeze bottle into a sauce for rack of lamb. My friends and I ate the sauce alone. We couldn't stop. We licked the pans. We licked our hands. We licked each others' hands. It was that delectable. I heard the siren call of balsamic.

I started to warm the cheap stuff on the stove on low heat at 2:15PM. By the time I hightailed it to the Valley to find fresh figs and maracona almonds around 4PM it was practically at the same level. Hm. I added balsamic vinegar to my grocery list. Vons didn't carry figs. "People just eat them right outta the baskets so we stopped carrying them," said the guy hunched over a box of fresh peaches. Trader Joe's didn't have them that day, the face-tatted girl-clerk regretted to say. Whole Foods (Whole Paycheck) not only had them -- surprise! -- they asked if I preferred a fresh chilled batch from the back fridge. Aha! I'd been mistaken for someone who shopped here regularly, a well-born perhaps bitchy gourmand. (Actually, truth is I do shop there often. Or did. Adore the one on Lincoln. I could live off their case, or could, before cooking myself. More on all that in another post!) "I'm just sauteeing them, no need, but thanks!" For a moment, I felt like an heiress. A tall, lean and very sexy Benjamin Bratt in black appeared in the checkout line before me, his grocery cart overflowing. This no doubt contributed to my delusions and confusions.
Balsamic & concrete stain art/Rorschach test
Upon returning home, I opened the door to my battered old Dakota pickup and crash! The balsamic rolled to the concrete garage floor and broke, instantly spreading a long-legged stain. Whoops. Maybe the other balsamic would be reduced by now. Nope. It was 3/4" down, not halfway yet by my expert calculations and eagle eye.
Fresh figs 'n' Chilean red grapes
I set to work chopping grapes in half, then quartering figs. I retrieved a previously cooked dish of caramelized onions (that's for another post), leaving the arugula and goat cheese in the fridge to stay cool. (I'm learning that dualities of temperature and texture can jack up the taste experience of various dishes). I avoided picking up broken glass or cleaning the stain -- yet. What If glass shards embedded in my skin and slid into the dish? What If my old friend and I died with glass stuck in our throats right there on the star-drenched deck? That wouldn't do at all. So I delayed cleaning. The writer's mind hybridized with the addict's can be so useful when it comes to procrastination, or justification of -- well, anything.

For a moment, I visualized Alexandra coming into my place radiating competence and cooking know-how. I wanted to throw up my hands, hurl the dirty dishtowel, splat quartered figs against the wall (they have such an inviting mooshy texture and pastel lurid color w/that pale pink and cicada green, don' t you think?) -- and ask her to simply take over. Cook for me. Feed me.

Then, the moment passed. A moment encapsulating an infantile habit I lived in for many a year. Are you my mother?

I found a bottle of forgotten balsamic lurking in the back of a cupboard. Finally, I cleaned up the glass. (Since I've started cooking, I've broken innumerable things. The kitchen is like a foreign country to me. Frankly, I'm less afraid of traveling to, say, India, than entering my kitchen. But I'm learning my way around. And may I remind you, it's tiny. What's the tiniest country. My kitchen is, let's say, Latvia). Then I dragged the deck hose over there and sprayed -- which is of course when Alexandra appeared. "What're you doing?" Not the impression I'd wanted to make. She was shellshocked from the traffic, from getting hopelessly lost in the winding hills of Topanga Canyon, and there I was -- aiming a thunderous jet of water at her sandaled feet. 
Four saucepans a-blazing!  Front left, cheap balsamic well on its road to reduction ruin
I had to act fast. Whip the dish into shape. Feed her! So I did. At one point I had four sauce pans going. I, who didn't even know if all four (electric) burners even worked! I couldn't have been prouder than if I were steering four fire-breathing steeds down a dusty arroyo in pursuit of a horse thief.
A pretty pair of Gina salads
Whilst the pans steamed and sputtered, I arranged baby arugula beds on two white plates. Then dashed back to the stove to stir with various spatulas and other things for which I don't know the names. Then jumped back to -- wait, I couldn't remember the order of things on the salad. First this, then this -- so I also keep sprinting back into the bedroom/office (I did tell you my place was small?) to check the laptop. What's goes on the arugula? Okay, caramelized onion. Cold, hot...wait, then what? Sprint. Ah, then goat cheese, then figs, then grapes, then maracona almonds...didn't I learn mnemonics in that long-ago 7th grade Dale Carnegie course...but I couldn't remember how to remember...Alexandra's about to faint from hunger, chop the almonds! You can't just drop them on the steaming heap of Gina salad! (Who is Gina anyway?) and so you can see, the lovely mania we addicts hold so dear can still be tapped into...but to edible effect!

Alexandra Booke, about to sate w/second plate
We sat outside, positioned to see what would be a million dollar view if it weren't already dark. But our plates glowed. I observed as Alexandra made cooing sounds, smacked her lips, smiled with a glazed look -- and cleaned her plate. No words were needed. Something that a writer perhaps prizes most of all, since pushing beyond the limited bounds of language, pointing toward what's off stage and off the page -- is our ultimate goal. When something unfolds like a new leaf in the loamy soul.

We both ate two plates. (This dish is very rich -- beware! You can't eat six helpings like you can with the insanely irresistible Orzo-Arugula salad -- post TK). Then we managed to inhale two pieces of plum/blueberry tart (more on that in another post too!). And guzzle some Louis Jadot beaujoulais. Maybe now Alexandra wouldn't notice the long freeway glide back from Topanga to the Eastside, and would return for future feasting.

Here's the recipe. Maili's recipe for Gina Salad Enjoy! Let me know how it turns out.

If I can cook, anyone can.



  1. Gorgeous post. Thank you for writing. Especially loved the star-drenched deck and this incredible paragraph:

    But our plates glowed. I observed as Alexandra made cooing sounds, smacked her lips, smiled with a glazed look -- and cleaned her plate. No words were needed. Something that a writer perhaps prizes most of all, since pushing beyond the limited bounds of language, pointing toward what's off stage and off the page -- is our ultimate goal. When something unfolds like a new leaf in the loamy soul.

    Wishing you inspiration and beauty.

  2. Happy Cooking Rachel. Beautiful salad you created.
    When it gets cooler, you will have to try yeast breads. One of the most satisfying cooking/baking projects, and the aroma cannot be matched.

    Auntie S.

  3. Amelia! You are truly an inspiration. I so deeply appreciate your support and warm words. I wish the same inspiration and beauty for you. Thank you for your feedback and encouragement.

    And Auntie S.! You posted in cyberspace? Hallelujuah! So great to have you here. Jane's sister, adding her voice. Funny as I was just composing another blog post incorporating you. I'll check with you first. Thank you for your lovely comment and suggestion. We shall talk!

  4. Love the reference to a neon dive bar sign...nothing more enticing, aside from your cooking : )