Summer scallops

knee-high.jpegOn the Fourth of July, the corn was not quite knee-high. Tomatoes were good but not magnificent, not yet the stand-alone dish they will become next month. Garden arugula was bright and not too sharp, happily reminiscent of Italian varietials. Peppers and onions came off the grill with flesh still meaty and toothsome.

Still, although Mr. Henry does not like to complain, the tastes of the weekend were beginning to be a bore. Meat grilled outdoors is all very fine but without a skillful marinade lacks both subtlety and complexity.

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On a lazy Sunday morning at Paul’s country house, however, Mrs. Henry, ever the clever one when given a moment’s free time, created an appetizer of scallops that was the most exciting new taste of the summer. Completed in five minutes, it was beyond compare.

She brushed the broiling pan with olive oil and arranged a quart of sea scallops across its surface. In three minutes they were nicely browned yet still soft to the touch of a finger. [Don’t let them get rubbery. There is no need to cook them solidly throughout. So long as they are warm inside, you’ve done your job.]

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She served them on top of a cool, fresh relish. To a peeled, seeded and diced tomato she added coarsely chopped cilantro leaf, the juice from half a lime, a pinch of salt and — now for the genius — one peeled and diced peach. The flowery aroma of peach married to its tangy tomato cousin created a subtly balanced liqueur, lighter than a wine sauce, which perfectly supported the scallop’s mild sweetness.

Mr. Hendricks

Before consuming a beautiful roast loin of pork encrusted with a Mario Batali dry rub (a pulverized mixture of dried porcini, red chili flakes, garlic, and brown sugar), Gail and Jeff plied Mr. Henry with a small shot of syrupy Hendricks gin straight from the freezer.
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Mr. Henry has converted. Can there be a summer libation more apropos than this? The juniper is balanced by citrus peel and, surprisingly, coriander. It was the consummate aperitif. Afterwards, sitting in front of his TV, visions of the perfect martini swirled in Mr. Henry’s brain as he watched The Tudors chew the scenery.henry8.jpg

Rainwater Madeira

In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the unctuous Lord Beckett offers Captain Jack Sparrow a small glass of honey-colored liquid that must surely have been Madeira, the preferred drink of 18th-century British and Americans alike. (It was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite drink.)

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Least expensive of the fortified wines, Madeira bears the singular virtue of being utterly still like whiskey or eau de vie. Uniquely aged in heat rather than cool, the sweet wine oxidizes slightly and thus after opening retains its flavor even in hot climates.madeira.jpg

Riddled with flu on his return from Italy, Mr. Henry repaired to his favorite apothecary, Nancy’s Wines for Food. Though his head was full of cotton, his reasoning was not occluded. Mr. Henry decided that the purchase of a subtly aromatic libation would be money wasted. Consequently he threw himself on the mercy of a young apprentice with shaven pate and satyric smile who recommended an $11 bottle of Rainwater that Mr. Henry dutifully drank every evening for a week.

The cure was thorough and complete. Rainwater is the cough syrup of the gods.

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With newly-acquired curiosity for the mysteries of Madeira, Mr. Henry detected traces of it in a mascarpone cream dessert served by Cipriani at the McKim, Mead & White designed 55 Wall Street, one of Manhattan’s greatest rooms, former site of National City Bank, the Merchant’s Exchange, and the New York Stock Exchange.

The dessert is one that itself must be very resistant to decay because the cream is principally composed of stiffly beaten egg whites with some mascarpone and a splash of Madeira. Sandwiched between pastry layers and sprinkled with shaved coconut, it was light and toothsome. (Best of all, it can be prepared without cooking!)

Okra

Toddson Says:

Actually, it IS possible to ruin tiramisu following this recipe. An article in The Washington Post several years ago was written by someone who came from someplace (alas, I forget which) where “ladyfingers” refers to okra. As a result, she sliced okra, soaked it in coffee, and proceeded from there. It was not a pretty sight and, seemingly, tasted worse than it looked.

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Ladyfingers in the tiramisu! What a hoot! The South is SO worthwhile. Mr. Henry’s dear friend Trudy, bound in the shallows and miseries of Washington, DC, reported lately that one of her friends there promised to keep her “abreasted” of new developments, and this surely is one.

As it happens, okra is one of Mr. Henry’s secret lunchtime quick-fix foods. He places them in a bowl, rinses them, covers them with a dish, and nukes those fuzzy ladyfingers for two minutes. That’s it. Total preparation time: two minutes and change. Don’t eat the gnarly lil’ stems, by the way. (Mr. Henry is fearful that his reading audience might abandon all common sense in slavish devotion to his recipes.) The rest of the okra is a crunchy and gelatinous treat, a toothsome combination of green vegetable and nutty seeds.

Tiramisu & Stinky Accusations

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Emboldened by freely wandering the antique byways of Rome, Little Henry’s friend Stinky launched an accusation that Mr. Henry will not permit to stand uncontested in this or any other forum:

“Mr. Henry talks a lot about cooking but never does any!”

Ha! Only weeks ago Mr. Henry prepared a tiramisu at home that even the skeptical Stinky admitted was a bona fide, authentic, and glorious tiramisu.

It wasn’t exactly cooking, mind you, because no heat was applied. But it greatly impressed the crowd. Here for his gentle reading public so long ignored because he has been re-arranging his life, his office, and his books, Mr. Henry offers up a recipe of sorts, or rather recipe guidelines, for la vera tiramisu di Signor Henry.

Don’t worry. The thing is failproof. You can fudge any proportion and it turns out just fine.
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Mr. Henry’s Tiramisu

6 eggs
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
splash of scotch
1 large tub mascarpone (500g)
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
1 package ladyfinger cookies (200g)

First brew some coffee quadruple strength (In deference to the children Mr. H. chose decaffeinated.) and let it cool to room temperature or colder. Grate some good chocolate like Scharffenberger, mixing half a bar of bittersweet withScharffen.jpg a modicum of unsweetened to intensify the flavor. Have close at hand, as well, a bottle of single malt scotch whiskey. (Mr. Henry believes this to be sound advice for any recipe.) For this recipe, Mr. Henry chose The Macallan.

Separate six eggs. Whip the whites until stiff. Cream the yokes together with a cup (or more) of confectioners’ sugar, beating until the color becomes pale. You raw-egg worry-worts at home, please relax. The sugar preserves the egg. In the fridge the concoction will stay perfectly fresh far longer than it will survive repeated servings to you and yours.

Finally to the creamed yokes whip in a splash of scotch, dark rum, or any other spirit appropriate for a coffee, chocolate, and mascarpone confection. This last touch brings a perfume to the dish that separates it from a quotidian custard.

With big gestures and a big rubber spatula, lightly fold in the mascarpone and then the egg whites. Ecco! Mascarpone custard cream. Now you build.

Slice the ladyfingers in half lengthwise if you like. (This is a decision more of style than of taste.) Spread half of them loosely in a deep dish pan. Using a pastry brush soak them – yes, soak them – with coffee. [A Mr. Henry Dictum: Italian desserts must be either soggy or hard as brick.] Cover with a layer of mascarpone custard cream. Then cover the cream thoroughly with half the grated chocolate. Repeat the procedure to create a second story. Chill until set, at least three hours.

Mr. Henry is reminded of an equally false accusation hurled his way by his diminutive and opinionated life-long consort, Mrs. Henry, namely, that whenever he gets an idea for a new dish he feels compelled to purchase a new kitchen utensil. This is falseness itself! Mr. Henry always makes do with whatever is at hand. (A recent purchase of a Le Creuset oval enameled gratin pan was NOT an indulgence. Someday soon she will thank him for it, and mean it sincerely.)

As an example of his resourcefulness, on the morning after returning late from JFK he prepared a fine breakfast of marmalade and crackers borrowed from several of Italy’s nicer hotel breakfast baskets and conveyed trans-Atlantic in Aunt Bev’s backpack. Although there are grocery stores within walking distance of his apartment, Mr. Henry prefers not to conduct his marketing at 3:30 a.m., an hour when he receives stares from street strays and riff-raffy youth.

He prefers the adoring glances he believes he got in Florence from American college students envious of his casual insouciance and his fluency in Italian. He did not actually witness these glances, mind you, being too polite to stare slack-jawed at breathtakingly beautiful young women. Mr. Henry, you see, has faith in the unseen.

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Porca Miseria!

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From the perspective of maintaining waistline, the true indicator of male fitness, travel is evil. In Florence how could Mr. Henry NOT try the roast hare and wild boar at Il Latini?

How could he forego the fried artichokes and zucchini flowers at Cammillo? Should he have skipped the pizza in Rome? Skipped the quickly roasted chicory and taleggio at Taverna Fiammetta off the Piazza Navona?

Should he NOT have tried each and every gelato flavor at the Gelateria del Teatro on the via dei Coronari? Should Mr. Henry take vows, renounce all worldly pleasure, seek satisfaction only in the hereafter, and sulk alone in his upstairs garret?

Yes. Because Mr. Henry has grown thick, beefy, almost fat. Little Henry has been taking huge delight in chucking his chins and daring him to wriggle into that Speedo over at the JCC pool. Ice cream, previously relegated to the list of foods favored by the morally craven, has become a hideous obsession. He reaches for it even after breakfast. Without turning to spiritual guidance, 12-step programs, or other superstitious behaviors such as ph-balancing or an all-meat diet, is there no way he can regain the true path?

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Facing his summer wardrobe, he trembles, not least because Mrs. Henry may not countenance another mad shopping spree at Patagonia. (Mr. Henry imagines himself surfing pipelines on Hawaii’s south coast, afterwards donning slouchy trousers for their insouciant slacker-headed drape rather than for their abundant “relaxed-fit” seat.)

His sense of self, his inner cool, the requisite confidence for continuing his career path, indeed his entire future depends upon regaining that athletic form he had only two short weeks ago, before Italy, before pasta, before caky white breakfasts and crunchy white breads.

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On the tenth day of debauchery in Italy, after a shameless pig-out at Il Latini where he quaffed two carafes of vino da tavola and two glasses of complimentary vin santo, Mr. Henry’s liver went into serious crisis. The next morning on his birthday (one he shares with Olivia) he staggered green with bile along the streets of Florence. Mr. Henry’s liver and Mr. Henry’s American Express card, appropriately positioned in his jacket pocket directly over that benighted organ, throbbed in unison. Dinner for five without wine at a fine but not exceptional restaurant, one much less exciting that the average Manhattan eatery, cost three hundred dollars. Porca Miseria!

But before panic takes hold, Mr. Henry must remind himself that his torso swells each year in spring. He is fighting off a Florentine flu, and extra carbs help keep his energy up. Also, markets don’t offer much fresh produce these days. Wherever lies the blame, Mr. Henry must remember that he is not a victim of the seasons. His own mental rigor will overcome the seductions of Italy. He is made of stronger stuff, even if that stuff feels slightly soft around the middle.

Buttermilk

Mr. Henry does not leave well enough alone. Even with well-established recipes, he tinkers.Ochurnx.jpg

Last month, to provide a colonial-era touch of sourness to cornbread, a Mr. Henry favorite that can easily become too sweet, he bought a quart of buttermilk. Later that week he poured a goodly portion of buttermilk into pancake batter. In both cases results were splendid. Buttermilk in baking always yields extra fluffiness. Indeed, when using buttermilk, because of its acidity you may decrease your baking powder.

But ultra-pasteurized buttermilk just lasts and lasts. Not wishing to simply throw away perfectly good buttermilk but eager to free up refrigerator space, from time to time he spirited a dollop of the antique sour and creamy liquid – a poor people’s leftover from the preparation of heavenly butter – into other menu items not born with buttermilk in mind.

To grated celery root remoulade made with an entire bunch of chopped dill he decided that a healthy splash of buttermilk might add an appropriate hint of creaminess without overpowering what in essence remains a light, crunchy, winter salad.

Without permission from Little Henry, master of the vinaigrette, he added a dollop there, too, a bright foil to an acidic Italian red wine vinegar. Flush with success, the next night he let the buttermilk dominate the salad dressing, butterchurn.jpgmasked slightly by a final addition of grated parmesan to the finished salad, and no one complained.

Tonight he plans a bolder stroke. Because chicken is such a boring bird, Mr. Henry invariably marinates it before cooking. What will happen to chicken steeped for hours in buttermilk? Mr.recipes-biscuits-buttermilk.jpg Henry recalls southern fried chicken from his youth that carried magical aromas possibly attributable to buttermilk, though tonight he will add curry to the marinade and bake it tandoori-style. And with chicken, without question he will make buttermilk biscuits.

Mr. Henry is thankful for the recurrence in New York of a first-class winter storm. Cold weather grants him special sanction to eat with wild abandon. Rules, after all, are meant to be broken.

A Hymn to Left-Overs

For the past week Mr. Henry has been turning out his light early, sleeping until one or two, and then rising quietly so as not to wake either Mrs. Henry, perfectly unperturbable as she busily thrashes, talks, and even
laughs in her sleep, or to rouse the faithful Pepper nestled at the foot of the big bed. Since unlike princes of yore Mr. Henry does not permit himself a midnight capon or goblet of vintage port, in place of victuals Mr. Henry sneaks off to his chilly office garret, carves out a free spot from his cluttered daybed and reads A Stew or a Story: an assortment of short works by M.F.K. Fisher, the doyenne of food writers, indeed, the most remarkable of writers about places and the feelings they arouse.

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She studied at the University of Dijon in 1929 and was still writing in the 1990’s. Equally at home in California and in France, she absorbed the deepest secrets of both places. Ever the gracious hostess, she wrote in small servings humbly sandwiched in the most unliterary journals. Who today would remember the magazines Holiday or McCall’s, or expect them to hold such riches? Who would think House Beautiful a trove of great writing?

For Mr. Henry, her sentences and paragraphs are finer than food or drink. Her styles, for indeed there are very many, established the template for this century’s food blogging. Rather than make you ache for a seat at her table, she quietly invites you, slyly prepares the tone, conjures the physical setting, and lays out recipes in amusing, clear prose that is readable and re-readable. She adds unexpected spice to a line, never too heavily, that illustrates concisely and elegantly exactly what taste truly is. She is never fussy or bombastic. (Might Mr. Henry find a lesson herein?) Her spirit is mischievous and what was once called ‘gay.’ Her laugh must have been indescribably attractive.

In A Hymn to Left-Overs (Pageant, 1950), writing of serving room-temperature roast chicken to her disapproving father, she says, “He is baffled…and I am happy, for nothing is more devoutly to be wished for in family gastronomy than the strong element of bewilderment.”

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Housebound by last week’s unremitting winter wind, Mrs. Henry embraced this ethos and served up a truly original stew composed of odd bins found in the fridge. It began with chick peas soaked all day and boiled in preparation for a hummous that Mr. Henry failed once again to prepare. (Such things, after all, take time.)

After sputtering and fuming in the direction of her feckless consort, exclaiming how he never, ever comes up with new dinner ideas, how he leaves her to do all the planning, and how there is now no possible way she could come up with a suitable dinner — a stream of invective nearly unsuitable for Little Henry’s tender ears — she yanked out every left-over container and set to work.

First she sautéed some crumbled-up Italian sweet sausage. Removing it from the fire and wiping away its grease, she quickly did the same with some chopped-up sliced ham. After sautéeing chopped onion in olive oil she added chopped tomatoes and kale. After the kale had wilted she added a small container of vegetable stock and the chick peas. Finally the meat went back in just long enough to heat but not to steam. Topped with grated parmesan this amusing, elegant invention was eagerly devoured on the new Henry couch in front of the TV.

Since the stew tasted vaguely Mediterranean but not exactly site-specific, Mr. Henry decided he had traveled to a hidden corner of Spain and chose to drink a glass of rich, dark de Ribera. This kind of traveling reduces jet lag.

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