Friday, September 14, 2012

The Perfect Grind

I don't drink coffee. I'll have a latte once or twice a year, and like a spot of English Breakfast Tea every now and again. I love the aroma of coffee, but it tastes "thinner" than it smells, so I've never gotten into it. The "perfect grind" then, for me, does not refer to coffee.

My foodie-friend-from-cooking class-in-Italy, Laura, was visiting from Boston for my birthday and as I twisted some sea salt and pepper onto morning eggs, she said, "That's the perfect grind."  She so gets it!

Laura definitely wasn't referring the coffee that I loaded into the French press...because she asked later if that coffee had been hanging around for awhile. A year? Note to self, replace coffee for upcoming weekend guests! The pepper grinder made a slow, crunching sound and the pepper came out in good sized, aromatic flecks. The salt was just the right size for looks and taste. It was a deliberate seasoning, and I thought it was interesting that Laura mentioned it! I thought I was the only one who listened for it. The sound is a trigger for me, much like the slow, creaky-spring sound of an old screen door.

My 25+ year old salt and pepper grinders from Williams-Sonoma. Sea salt and peppercorn refills.
I like the ritual of refilling, and then turning the knob on top to get the right sized grind.

As with coffee beans, there is a world of choices for S&P. There are sea and gourmet salts. Celtic, Hawaiian, Italian, French, Coarse, Finishing, Flake, Fleur de Sel, Kosher, Smoked, Pink, Grey, Black, Kala Namak (Indian), to name just a few...then there is lowly idodized Table Salt.

There are black peppercorns, green ones and red ones, depending upon the stage of the dried fruit of a flowering vine. And there's white pepper, too.

Salt and pepper are a pair, as inseparable as Fred & Ginger or Currier & Ives. People are named Pepper, Piper, Pippa, and there's a band called Salt 'n Pepa, and a soda called Dr. Pepper. An "old salt" is a navy man who tells tales of the sea. Images conjured are of a crusty old guy with a white beard and a worn-in sailor hat.

I don't go nuts on S&P. I go to the grocery store to get basic Sel de Mer sea salt for grinding and finishing. I have a canister of old-standby Morton's table salt for baking. That's probably a habit I need to break. Iodized...hmmm. I get a big jar of black Malabar  peppercorns, for everything.

I received a pink salt slab for my birthday, from my foodie friend Elaine. It's about 12" long and 8" wide. I've used it for presentation, but it can also be used to bake and serve fish and veggies. Haven't tried that yet. I'm a little afraid it might be too salty. or that the block will crack. I just spoke with a cook who puts the slab right on gas burners, or on a cookie cooling rack in the oven. The slab turns white after use. His advice was to DRY food before placing it on the salt, and it won't pick up the salt. Ok?! I'll try it!

In 2010, I brought back sea salt from Cancale, a small Breton town in northwestern France that is well known for local oysters and sea salt.

 The salt was damp when I dug it out and put it into small paper bags. This photo sends me right back ;-)

After I bought the salt, I chose some oysters at this little shed, and ate them, sprinkled with lemon,  on the sea wall. They traveled about 10 feet---can't get much more fresh!

I have just a bit of Cancale sea salt left! I use it sparingly.

The "salt of the earth" describes those of great worth and reliability...and more popularly, as good, down to earth folks.

According to, "It seems that the excellent meaning in 'the salt of the earth' was coined in reference to the value of salt. The aristocratic and powerful of the earth were referred to as 'above the salt' and valued workers were 'worth their salt'. 'The salt of the earth' was first published in English in Chaucer's Summoner's Tale circa 1386, although Chaucer undoubtedly took his lead from Latin versions of the Bible verse: Ye been the salt of the erthe and the savour.

I like that.

 Try to step out of your "daily grind" to see and to hear. Tell a salty joke every now and again and keep down to earth people around you.

Life is good. Level and Plumb.

Feed Sacks, Money Bags and little French Dogs

What's old is new again, then it fades away. Then it re-emerges. Pioneer women made use of every bit of fabric, and that included bleaching the ink printing from burlap and logos from cotton flour sacks to make clothing for their families. It wasn't considered fashion-forward. It was for survival.

America laughed at the ridiculously hilarious "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy whined to Ricky because she wanted a Jacques Marcel "origninal" Paris dress...and she went on a hunger strike until she got it.

Ethel smuggled food to her, so the strike was a farce. Meanwhile, Ricky and Fred hatched a plan to make dresses for their "honeybunches" out of burlap, and pretend that they'd bought Marcel's originals in Paree.

The moral of the story unfolded...Lucy and Ethel strutted and posed in their "Marcel's." The trick was exposed, and the girls were humiliated, but meanwhile Marcel caught wind of the "groundbreaking" fashion, and copied Ricky and Fred's designs. By the time Lucy and Ethel could have claimed the design and produced it, Fred and Ricky had burned the original outfits. 

I remember burlap potato sacks being used in the late 60's and 70's at school fairs for sack races...and nothing said summer like a burlap burn and grass stains on skinny, shorts-clad legs. I don't remember anyone nabbing and repurposing the potato sacks...they just went back into storage for the next year's fair.  And that was probably the last time I had skinny, shorts-clad legs.

The French feedsack/grainsack trend emerged again a few years a cottage-y feel to spaces as disparate as an urban loft, a high end apartment, suburban and country homes. Restoration Hardware has tres expensive French and Belgian linen covered furniture, and stenciled accent pieces.

This canvas covered box was a birthday gift basket, filled with goodies--so nice to save!

Burlap potato sacks, coffee bean bags, printed cotton four sacks, and rice bags have been used to upholster chairs, daybed matresses, couches and ottomans (ottomen?), for window treatments, lampshades, pillows, table runners, headboards and corkboards.

You know a trend is on the downturn when a chair can be found on sale at Home Goods. I like the look, end of trend aside, and I would not have bought it for more than $50.

My sister Leslie made chair covers from rice bags I got for $1 each at a junk shop!

Stacks of linens and piles of pillows in various shops around Paris and the Loire Valley. I looked, and was inspired, but did not buy!

I found an old canvas money bag for $7 at a flea market in NC. I washed and ironed it, stuffed it with an old bolster pillow and tied it with a ribbon that complemented the brown sofa and sage green walls of my "reading room." I like it because I use to work at that address in NYC! It's a comfy throw pillow.

The French have adopted the German Dachshund, to the point where they are viewed as "very French!" I took this "dog crossing" photo in Paris.

We've made their stenciled burlap into a French Industrial trend. It is said that fashions fade, but style is eternal. Look around, get inspiration from various sources and choose the look YOU want, trending or not.

La vie est belle. Level and Plumb!

Burrata Cheese

I'm late to the Burrata party. Turns out, it's been around for 80 years. The first time I tried it in 2009 at Manducatis Rustica in Long Island City, NY, I was hooked.

It's a-w-e-s-o-m-e cheese! 

Burrata means "buttered" in Italian and the cheese is essentially a soft "pouch" of mozzarella-looking cheese encasing scraps of cheese curds and cream. Does that sound wierd to you, or good to you?

At Manducatis, Gianna's vendor has it flown in fresh, wrapped in local asfodelo (plant) leaves and tied with a blade of grass. She serves it alongside pieces of pizza dough that have been baked in her wood burning brick oven. Fantastically rustic, with a drizzle of olive oil, some sea salt and cracked black pepper.

As my regular readers know, I moved to North Carolina in 2010. I've been on the lookout locally for burrata, to no avail. It's avaliable online, but I want to find it nearby. Deli's are not on every corner here, nor are there mailboxes. I tracked down an Italian Deli (owned by a former fellow Queens, NYer.)  This one is 10+ miles away, and I thought I'd struck gold until he said he'd never heard of burrata. What? I'm Irish/German, and he's never heard of burrata? He must not be from Apulia or Basilicata, the southern regions from where burrata originates.

Small cities often lag behind a bit in the availability of "unusual" foods, but they do make their way here. In a summer 2010 blog post, I wrote that I couldn't find panko bread crumbs in the grocery store! A chef from the restaurant next door was in the aisle and he said I'd have to go to the International Food specialty store. To save time, he told me to go next door, and he gave me a ziploc bag full of Panko. So thoughtful! Now, panko is in every grocery store, not just the specialty shops. I've had to dull my "cutting edge" and "oh, why don't you have that?" a bit~~which is challenging for a recovering Type A NewYorker.

I went out to dinner recently at Wolfgang Puck's Pizza Bar in South Park, Charlotte and bingo...burrata was on the menu! An orb of bright white, runny cheese-y perfection, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and served with prosciutto, arugula and grilled bread rubbed with garlic. Yum! A wonderful appy for 2-3 to share for $14.

After that, my antenna shot up again. No luck at the grocery store. Whole Foods hadn't had it's grand opening yet. I tried the "pasta and provisions" store, and they said they used to carry it but there was no demand, and the minimum order was too big to make sense for them. Grrr.

Lo and behold, I found it sitting on the shelf at Trader Joe's. Has it been here, just down the road, all this time? I asked about it and was told that they've had it for awhile, but it's not always in stock.

Trader Joe's burrata 

For burrata that's flown in fresh, the shelf life is very short (about 48 hours) and freshness is defined by the bright green asfodelo leaf wrapper.

Trader Joe's does not reveal it's sub-contracted manufacturers. The cheese (made in California) is sold in an 8oz tub, with two 4-oz portions, floating in brine, for $4.99. That's a bargain, for about 4 servings! The ingredients list is very short, and the "use by" date is about a week into the future.

Review? Based on my limited experience and less than scientific comparison of 3 sources: Manducati's, Wolfgang Puck's and Trader Joe's...the latter (2?) may not be the "real thing," but they are a close 2nd. I was worried that the cheese would be too hard, but it's nice and soft! When I cut into it, the middle was creamy and pretty close in texture to the one served at Manducatis Rustica. Oh, the plans I have for you, burrata! Porch parties, a little nibble, baked into a pizza, caprese salad....

The ever-so-slightly sweet cheese serves as a blank canvas for so many flavorful accompaniments:

Your best olive oil for drizzling
Grated lemon rind
Bacon, or lardons, or prosciutto
Sundried Tomatoes (sliced into matchsticks)
Olives, or olive tapenade
Basil or other fresh herbs
Balsamic vinegar
Heirloom or beefsteak or cherry or roma tomatoes...sliced, or roasted
Carmelized shallots or onions or figs
Tomato jam
Pepper jelly
Toasted or grilled bread
Roasted garlic....etc...

Feel free to add to the list---I'd love to hear where you've had it (restaurant), or where you found it (retail) and how you serve it!

I'm late to the party, but I'm going to hang out for awhile.

Life is good~~Level and Plumb.