Archive for October, 2009

Ma Nuit Chez Panisse

October 14, 2009

Chez Panisse was really all I dreamed it would be. Cozy, utterly welcoming, full of delightful culinary surprises. I went with my brother, sister-in-law, and boyfriend last Monday night, after exploring Berkeley for the day.

Coming into the restaurant, I was overwhelmed with an elated anticipation. It’s hard not to sound trite, but I really had the feeling I was entering some uniquely wonderful realm. The first-floor restaurant in Chez Panisse’s converted house has rich chocolate beams, simple wooden chairs, comfy booths, soft, warm light, and a generous view into the kitchen. The kitchen looked like the loveliest place on earth. Elegantly worn furniture and counters, calm and attractive chefs, an aura of easy happiness. Perfect.

We were each presented with beautifully printed take-home menus with that date’s unique first course, entrée, and dessert. It was the first time I’d been in a restaurant where you are entirely vulnerable to the chef’s judgment. I am anxious about the idea in general, being a notoriously picky eater with an abnormal sensitivity to spiciness. And yet I wasn’t especially apprehensive about the menu at Chez Panisse. I think I’d practically convinced myself that foods I couldn’t stand elsewhere I would eat here with relish.

First course: Leeks vinaigrette with shaved porcini and Parmesan. This was my favorite dish of the night, probably because it was also the one I was most nervous about. I hate onions and was worried about the oniony taste of the leeks, but in the very tart vinaigrette it was severely muted. In fact, the leeks tasted almost creamy. The Parmesan was stiff and sharp, and the porcini were extra acidic. It was so wonderful that no one spoke for several minutes because of our sensory distraction. Putting energy into talking at that moment felt kind of absurd.

Entrée: Canard aux olives – Liberty duck leg braised in white wine with green olives, ratatouille and soft polenta. This was a very homey, comforting meal. Really good, but not particularly exceptional. The duck was crispy and delicious. The olives were the second case that night of a delicate acidic flavor tasting creamy, and it was delightful. There was jus all around, making for a thoroughly enjoyable dish. I found out later, while reading Thomas McNamee’s Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, that canard aux olives was also the main course served on opening night in 1971!

Dessert: Black Mission fig tart with Sauternes Sabayon. I’m not a big fig fan, but I loved this. The figs had an alcoholic, kind of burnt taste which was terrific. Definitely added a complexity to the fig flavor, which I think tends to be boring. But the real genius of the tart was the crust–wow! It was incredibly flakey. The bottom layer of the crust had barely let any fig juice soak into it, and it flaked apart in your mouth. It was also sugary and very tasty, unlike lots of bland crusts I’ve sampled. I’ve only baked one tart so far (which was, in fact, from the Chez Panisse Desserts cookbook) and my crust turned out nothing like this. Something to aspire to! The Sauternes Sabayon was a very nice accompaniment–a barely sweet, thick whipped cream. The flavor of the Sauternes complimented the alcoholic taste of the figs very nicely.

However, despite all this gastronomic elation, something happened at the start of the second course that drastically altered the meal for me. I’d intended to take some pictures of my food that night, primarily with this blog in mind. The first course was so surprising and enticing that I had forgotten about picture-taking until I was halfway through, and then reasoned the main course might be more appropriate anyways. After the beautiful plate of duck arrived, I fished my phone out of my purse as inconspicuously as I could. I thought I would even pretend to be checking my email or something to appear less noticeable. At this exact moment of mimed casualness, I became aware that a guy at the table next to us was talking about me. He was about my age, there with his girlfriend, both of them dressed in an expensive preppy way. They also apparently knew much of the Chez Panisse staff and dined there often. He was saying, “Wow, those people are taking pictures of their food. I mean, they could be doing something else on their phone but it looks like they’re taking a picture.” What? My heart was beating fast. He went on to say how ridiculous it was,  how I obviously didn’t appreciate the food, being primarily interested in taking a picture like some tourist. His commentary was loaded with the judgment that here was this ignorant, tactless person for whom the whole Chez Panisse experience was a novelty, who could never understand the caliber of the food. I think he even made an overtly classist remark, like, “You or I would never take a picture of our food.”

I felt so scared and shamed that I copped out altogether, finishing my actions on the phone as if I really had been looking at an email, and started to eat my duck with shaking hands. Aaron saw that I hadn’t taken a picture and sensed something was wrong, and quickly took his own picture of me and my food. He didn’t get much of the food in there, mostly my nervous smile, but he did capture the jerky guy in question in the background (which gave us a good laugh later).

panisse

I couldn’t believe how expertly they had preyed upon my exact anxiety. I had thought I might attract a disapproving look, maybe, at the most, but never anticipated this attempt at humiliation. Being the intensely sensitive person I am, I felt shamed to the point of tears and dropped out of table conversation almost completely as I struggled to concentrate on my food. What especially saddened me was that this attitude was so out of step with the philosophy of Chez Panisse. Alice Waters intended it to be the most unpretentious of restaurants, where even the food would play second fiddle to warm conversation in a homey atmosphere. How was it that these people had appropriated it and made it an elitist, exclusive place? I guess it’s inevitable that a restaurant that great, no matter how informal its intentions, must end up cultivating a snobbishness about it from a certain portion of their clientele. I did notice that the wait staff agilely and subtly adjusted their behavior to give off a “one of you” vibe to the preppy table and a few others, without losing the general friendliness and openness that had established such a nice feeling in the dining room.

I was extremely frustrated, in the moment and long afterward, as I viewed myself from the outside. I happen to be a financially stable young woman who’s been fortunate enough to do a lot of traveling and can indulge in extravagance every so often. But what if I wasn’t financially stable, and had been saving up for this meal for a long time? Anticipating it for months in advance, my chance to try this fabled divine food? And what if, finally on that special night, I overheard such brutal, wounding comments? Or to go down another speculative path, what if I had been taking a picture for a loved one physically or financially unable to come to the restaurant, but who wanted to share in the joy of my experience?

This capacity for cruelty, simply to reaffirm the couple’s own superior positions, was so frightening to me. All the implications of their behavior shook me up for the rest of the night, until I was back in the car with my family and we could laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. Of course I shouldn’t care about such small-minded opinions. Of course those people are laughably irrelevant to me. I thought then that maybe I could let it all pass without too much further worry. But after the contained safety of the car, being alone with my own mind, I knew I couldn’t forget it. Thoughts of how I could have and should have responded to those comments began to plague me. I’d focus on another topic and then suddenly be dreaming up deliciously mean retorts without even realizing it. I am forever cursed to let the moment of engagement pass irrevocably in these types of situations before I can figure out how to answer. I become so flustered physically and so unsure of whether my internal pain deserves to be voiced that I say nothing. It’s only long after that I realize all the things I should have said. I torment myself by playing the scenario over and over in my mind, vowing to keep an arsenal of verbal self-defense at the ready for next time.

What the experience most made me think about was the capacity for everyday cruelty that strangers have towards other strangers, and how some people are totally able to deflect this cruelty, and others (like me) absorb it and agonize over it, falling into a deep pessimism about human nature. This is a big problem for me living in New York. The subway is a regular source of pain for me, a minefield of injurious moments, both received and given. (I too participate in moments of anonymous brutality, the effects of group mentality boring into me, and it’s disgusting.) I keep reasoning that I just need to move away from the city, but I’m not really sure that would change much. I feel I should work on becoming less sensitive, but I also don’t see that as my responsibility.

injurious

Butternut Squash Pie

October 8, 2009

After focusing on pie baking for the past few years I’m finally developing a more instinctual understanding of construction and the balancing of flavors. Last weekend I took a maple pumpkin pie recipe from my trusted book Pie by Ken Haedrich and modified it a little with great success.

Pumpkin has a monopoly on squash-centric desserts, which I suspected was probably unfair and I wanted to play around with other delicious varieties of winter squash. Butternut squash was the obvious first divergence without being too adventurous. It has a less pointed flavor than pumpkin while still boasting a strong, creamy taste. The recipe called for 1 3/4 cup puréed pumpkin but I used all of a medium-large butternut squash, about 2 1/3 cups. Coming home from Vermont two weekends ago, we picked up some strong, dark Grade B maple syrup which I thought would be great to give the pie a bold flavor profile. For the creation of the custard, the recipe called for three eggs and a cup of half-and-half or light cream. When my local Compare Foods turned out only to have heavy cream in one-cup cartons, I didn’t hesitate to make the substitution but was also wary of letting my love for dairy push the pie into too-rich, heavy territory. The last element in the recipe that I wanted to rethink was the spices. The recipe suggested ginger in addition to cinnamon and nutmeg. I omitted the ginger in favor of some beautiful allspice we’d just purchased in bulk from the Aphrodisia herb store in the West Village.

The pie turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever made. Though my modifications were modest, this pie encouraged me to trust my developing instincts in altering and creating recipes. The extra fat in the cream deliciously accented the creaminess of the squash, and I think adding the extra squash helped prevent it from tasting too heavy. The maple was subtler than I expected, but bolstered the squash’s taste in a really nice way, as if it were there to help out and not draw attention to itself. I loved how the allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg worked well in concert but weren’t lost individually, and I felt it was just the right amount of flavor to accompany the squash and maple. Refrigerating the pie enhanced everything, bringing out more of the spices and letting the creaminess excel as a flavor and not be simplified in the mind as simply a texture.

As my pie baking has matured, I’ve become less focused on choosing and planning which pie to create ahead of time, and more eager to explore what fresh, beautiful produce is on hand and how to most deliciously present it. The chefs I admire most are those who are only trying to create something worthy of the ingredients they use, and it makes me feel good to make small advances towards achieving that goal.

Update: See recipe below! Perfect for Thanksgiving, and since I think it tastes best served cold, you can make it the night before.

Maple Butternut Squash Pie (adapted from Ken Haedrich‘s Maple Pumpkin Pie)

1 medium to large butternut squash

3 eggs

1 c. heavy cream

1/2 c. Grade B maple syrup

1 t. vanilla extract

1/2 c. firmly packed dark brown sugar

1 1/2 T. all-purpose flour

1 t. ground cinnamon

1/2 t. ground nutmeg

1/2 t. ground allspice

1/4 t. salt

Crust

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1 T. sugar

a pinch of salt

1/4 c. cold unsalted butter

1/4 c. cold vegetable shortening

1/4 c. cold water (more/less as needed)

1. Prepare the crust. Put the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl and toss with your hands. Cut the butter into quarter-inch chunks and throw onto the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until you have evenly sized crumbs. Add the shortening, also cut into small or quarter-inch chunks. Cut into the dough until it all looks even. (Recipes often say “pea-sized” but my crumbs are always smaller than this and the crust still comes out beautifully.) Add the water, a little bit at a time, and tamp down with a fork until all the crumbs stick together and the dough can be gathered into a ball. Flatten the ball to a disc and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm (about an hour) or overnight.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the squash. Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Place the halves face-down in a glass baking dish. Cover the bottom with an inch or so of water. Bake for about 50 minutes, until the flesh is tender and a fork will pierce it easily. Let the squash cool a bit, then scoop out the flesh and purée in a food processor.

3. Roll the dough out on floured wax paper until it’s a couple inches wider than your pie pan. (I use a 9 1/2-inch deep-dish ceramic pie pan.) To get the dough into the pan, either put your hand under the wax paper and invert it over the pan in one quick motion, or lightly fold the crust in half two times (so you have a folded quarter) and then unfold over the pan. Center the dough (and peel off the paper) and tuck into the side of the pan without stretching the dough. It helps to readjust the dough by letting it fall into the bottom, rather than pushing the dough down to make it fit. Sculpt the edge however you prefer (I like to do an upstanding ridge or fold the edge in towards the center) and redistribute excess dough where needed to make an even crust. Place in the freezer for 15 minutes to firm the dough.

4. Prebake the crust. Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Tear off a generous piece of aluminum foil and tuck it into the bottom and side of the pan, hugging the dough as snugly as possible. Let the excess foil flare out over the sides, and don’t bend it over the edge of the crust. Fill the pie with pie weights or dried beans. Bake on the center rack for 15 minutes. Then slide out the rack and slowly lift the foil to remove the weights. The crust should look more or less set. Prick the bottom and sides generously with a fork, twisting a little to make the holes bigger. Lower the oven to 375˚F and bake for an additional 10-12 minutes. Keep watch and if the pastry starts to puff up, prick it with a fork to release the air. When you take it out, the crust should look just slightly golden. Mixing the filling won’t take too long, so you can keep the oven on, reducing the heat to 350˚F.

5. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs together lightly. Add the cream, maple syrup, and vanilla. In a small bowl, mix the brown sugar, flour, spices, and salt. Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet. Add the squash purée, and whisk until everything is blended well. Pour into the cooled pie shell.

6. Bake the pie for 25 minutes, then rotate 180˚ and continue to bake for another 25 minutes, until the filling is set. The edge of the filling will look rounded and a little puffy, and the center should look slightly shiny (but should not be soupy).

7. Put the pie on a wire rack, let cool, and then cover with loose aluminum foil & refrigerate for the best and most complex taste. I think it’s creamy enough that whipped cream is a little redundant. Enjoy!

Not-so-happy Haneke

October 8, 2009

I find Anthony Lane’s recent New Yorker profile of Michael Haneke lazy and mostly unenlightening to anyone familiar with Haneke’s work. The majority of the piece is preoccupied with illustrating the difference between films that entertain and films that are intellectually engaging, and why the latter are important. Now, the average New Yorker reader may not be especially film-literate, but he or she is probably versed in the arts and has a generally thoughtful and perceptive outlook on the world. Surely he/she doesn’t need an extended explanation of the difference between diagetic music and a score that manipulates viewers’ emotions (which is a token contrast cited between Hollywood and art films). I often complain of Haneke’s condescension towards his audience, and this is another kind of condescension from Lane—wasting our time explaining things that don’t need much explanation, and not taking his profile subject to task for his already outspoken artistic attitudes. Even the title, “Happy Haneke,” broadcasts both the subject’s and writer’s complacency.

Haneke is an extremely provocative director, and Lane did not approach any of the meaty controversies that his films provoke in favor of a bland, flattering retelling of Haneke’s surface interests and philosophies. He brings up one argument from Haneke’s “detractors,” that in order to condemn societal evils, Haneke must indulge them to portray it in his films. But Lane brushes this away with adulation from Haneke’s formidable leading lady Juliette Binoche and a favorite moral tale of Haneke’s of when he intervened in a cowardly display of child abuse.

My main issues with Haneke are his didacticism and his arrogant attitude towards his audience. The first topic Lane totally ignores and the second he dismisses with a surface quotation from Haneke about how he respects the audience member that feels uncomfortable during his films. These films are not supposed to baby you, Lane reminds us over and over. Why didn’t he probe Haneke deeper on the subject, perhaps on the belief he reveals in the video interview on the Funny Games DVD that if a viewer stays and watches the whole film he/she has been complicit in its violence? That he expects the morally sound audience member who does not want to be a participant in the violence to walk out of the theatre during his film? This attitude deeply troubles me. Walking out of a film is a fairly radical act, especially for the average movie-goer (it would seem to me), and to reprimand your audience for staying to watch your whole film is disgusting.

One major dilemma with Haneke’s work, as my former BU professor Roy Grundmann has voiced eloquently, is that often his views on participation in violence are aimed at the type of audience member who most likely will never see his films. He tries to show us the dangers of portraying violence romantically or playing it for laughs, and yet his audience is limited to the art house crowd. This point of intended audience seems especially relevant here, since Lane quotes Haneke as saying how much he hates going to multiplexes and what sorry establishments they are, and how the whole communalism of movie-going should be corrected. Wasn’t a major motivation for remaking Funny Games in the U.S. with stars to get closer to his target audience? The ones who would learn their lesson the most?

Over and over Lane says how Haneke challenges his audience, but never does he investigate Haneke’s tendency to use film as a means of making statements, devoid of warmth or sympathy. Haneke identifies evils in post-modern society, and does not so much explore them as construct a platform through which he can show us what we do wrong. From Benny’s Video to Caché to Code inconnu and even to The Seventh Continent (which I feel is a magnificent film and Haneke’s best), there is always the sense that we the audience should share the guilt of the characters’ perversions of morality. I think of him looking on smugly as he conceived the scene in Funny Games where, after a character finally wrests control away from the boyish villains and shoots one of them, the scene suddenly rewinds and the victims are left more hopeless than ever. It displays such utter disrespect for his audience (of course, the responsible ones have walked out by this point) to create a trap for them to fall into so that he can lord it over them and self-righteously prove to them, “See! You were complicit in this violence! You have condoned murder!”

I obviously have an empassioned reaction to Haneke’s work but I can’t write him off or refuse to engage with his films anymore (tired as I may be). I wish Anthony Lane hadn’t been so preoccupied with explaining how people should approach Haneke’s films, and instead investigated Haneke’s own approach, which is endlessly provocative and interesting.