Kitchen Improvisation & a Birthday Dinner

A culture of cooking in conversation between mother and daughter

April 15, 2021

I have a tiny New York City kitchen. It’s a one person at-a-time space. If someone comes to get something from the refrigerator, I usually have to pause or even move aside. I have arranged it so that it holds everything I need within reach. That’s the good side.

On the other hand, I often need to use the stovetop as counter space or to go to another room to do serious chopping on a large cutting board.

I have lots of things in my kitchen, good knives, a huge mesh strainer I love for washing or draining everything, a peeler I bought in some French market that is so good I would buy one for everyone I know who cooks, if I could ever find it again. I love my cast iron skillet and my little one for making just one or two fried eggs, or 1 perfect grilled cheese sandwich at a time with a folded sheet of paper towel on top and weighed down with a partly filled tea kettle for about 2 minutes per side, a little butter melted under the bread.

I have a small cabinet for Asian ingredients and a bowl for tomatoes lemons ginger, and the occasional pomegranate.

An opening in one wall of the kitchen holds 3 appliances, a mixer, a blender and a food processor all of which I use from time to time.

I keep good olive oil and grapeseed oil in glass bottles the grapeseed for high temperature or Asian cooking.

And of course, an ever-evolving cabinet of spices

Here is my daughter Cloe’s take on my kitchen:

Spice containers stacked like bricks in cabinets that can’t be moved unless you know exactly which Tetris piece can be wiggled out of the way for the turmeric. Watch out for the baggie of cloves in the back!

Piles and piles of nuts and dried fruit in glass jars on the counter, leaving you absolutely no space to chop any vegetables except ON THE STOVE itself with a cutting board when the burners have (hopefully) cooled.

Storage takes on its own meaning in this kitchen: a stool is not a stool. It is a roof for a tower of water bottles and crackers to live under and grow as new partly abandoned but well-sealed packages of oat biscuits from London accumulate on top.

The refrigerator doubles as a cereal and candy shelf, where years of Halloween bounty regularly live until a major purge every few years finds peppermint patties shriveled into silver shrink-wrapped pucks. Behind that candy are bottles of fancy liquor that are gifted to us that we are all wholly uninterested in unless they end up in cooking. We sometimes pretend to care when cocktail-savvy friends come over.

The inside of the refrigerator is a sight to behold. The highest quality meats and cheeses are always just a gentle nudge away. Roll my Mom’s kale sausage soup (which is stored in bags for maximum volume to surface area ratio), find the gruyere and prosciutto di Parma. Look under the bright fuchsia plums from the farmer’s market that need to be eaten in the next 24 hours, find an envelope of smoked sable from the best Jewish deli. Move the 8 half-gallons of Lactaid milk for my Dad’s weekly consumption, find a set of perfectly spiced beef ribs in a container . . .

There is no such thing as a single-use surface in this kitchen. The microwave is a table for loose leaf tea. The six inches between the sink and the refrigerator double as a fruit bowl and a Jenga game made out of wrapped dark chocolate bars from many parts of the world.

Pots and pans hang at eye level next to the passthrough window and graze the tops of fickle drawers sealed by rubber bands which house accumulated clean plastic cutlery from years of the rare restaurant delivery dinner. They also house straws! Straws forever. Those forbidden plastic tubes that kill sea turtles are nestled relics in their soft paper casings beneath the cutlery and the street fair purchased mandolin slicer, all perfectly wedged in place within their Formica-clad rooms in the drawers. We use straws only on special occasions, when my Mom makes a particularly delicious melon smoothie for breakfast, which I would take with me in a to-go cup while running late somewhere.

For such a small space that is rented and not owned, so much love, care, and customization has been put into this kitchen’s cubic feet. The walls are painted bright turquoise, the countertops were redone with granite, the oven was replaced, a serious water filter was installed into the sink, and a passthrough window hole cut through the wall so my Mom could participate in our social gatherings while cooking at the stove. In that passthrough hang the same red wire baskets from France that have been there since I was very tiny, cradling onions and garlic, holding the remnants of shallot bulbs past.

If you’ve never been to this kitchen before, you will spend days discovering its glory and hidden treasures. If you’re like me, having reaped the benefits of my Mom’s cooking, reaching for a snack is a careful game of — don’t knock over more than two things on the way to the shredded coconut — I got to watch her through the passthrough for decades of my life, tasting everything delicious that she made while it was in progress and devouring each dish with utter glee in its complete form. And now, ten years after fully moving out of my parents’ house, the architecture of her kitchen informs my own.

***

I must admit, there is a part of me that particularly enjoys finding a way to adapt to circumstances. I’ve frequently used wine bottles as rolling pins for pies. I once made a birthday dinner for my friend Lynne who was still settling into a second home and didn’t have a lot of kitchen equipment. I made things in batches and assembled them using a sink lined with foil to mix large quantities of rice cooked with tomato, onion and saffron, then layering it with mussels and shrimp in garlic and white wine, sausage with peppers, and managing 2 trays of really good paella without any large pot having been involved. And in a small deep pot for the stovetop, I baked a citrus almond cake, and we ate it with kirsch-laced whipped cream and two combinations of cut fruit: figs and halved muscat grapes from a neighbor’s garden (OK, it was in the South of France) and red fruits: raspberries, cut strawberries and red currants. The colors were beautiful, the smells were enticing, and the company was great. And the successful improvisation added to my pleasure in celebrating.

The following is a guide to making a delicious Paella inspired rice and fish and sausage dish which serves 8 to 10 people.

Ingredients:

For the rice:

3 c. rice — I like the texture of Carolina, or short grain sushi rice for this dish

2 T. olive oil

1 small onion, minced

1 T. salt

1 small tomato finely chopped

~ ½ t. saffron (a sizeable pinch of the threads)

For the sausage

3–4 sweet Italian sausages

1 red onion, halved and then thinly sliced

2 red or yellow peppers, halved, seeded, white pith removed and thinly sliced

2 T. olive oil

For the fish

1 lb. white fish like cod, halibut or seabass- cut into 3–4 inch pieces and

seasoned with salt, cayenne pepper and then lightly dusted with flour

3 T. olive oil

For the shellfish

2 T. olive oil

5 cloves garlic, peeled, cut in half, central stem removed and discarded and

then thinly sliced

1–2 dozen little neck clams, steamers or mussels — select the ones that are

tightly closed

10–12 large shrimp, cleaned and deveined

½ c. dry white wine — Riesling works well for this

½ c. chopped Italian parsley

1. Make the Rice:

Rinse and drain the rice in a colander or strainer. Set aside.

Put the saffron and ½ c. boiling water in a small bowl to steep.

In a medium sized pot with a lid heat the olive oil and brown the onion to a light golden color. Add the salt and tomato and stir to combine. Cook until the tomato breaks down.

Put the drained rice in the pot with the onion mixture and stir over medium heat to coat and warm the grains for a couple of minutes.

Add 4 c. water plus the ½ c. with the saffron (for a total of 4 ½ cups water). Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cover the pot with a double layer of paper towel just under the lid to absorb the steam. — try to avoid much overhang by folding in the corners so there is just a little paper towel protruding around the lid.

Simmer for 25 minutes. Then turn off the heat and leave the pot covered until assembling the paella.

Preheat the oven to 250º so ingredients can be kept warm until serving

2. Make the Sausage

Put the olive oil into a skillet or pan and heat it. Add the onion and pepper and cook stirring over medium-high heat until browned.

Turn heat down to medium and add the sausages and cook covered for 10 minutes, then turn them over and cook for 10 minutes more. When fully cooked put aside in an oven proof bowl, cutting the sausages in half and scraping in every bit of sauce and vegetables from the pan. Cover the bowl with foil and place it in the oven to keep warm.

3. Make the fish

Using the same pan, add 2 more tablespoons olive oil to coat the bottom and heat over medium heat. Place the fish in the hot oil and cook on each side for about 5 minutes. Adjust the heat so it is gently sizzling. When cooked set aside in another bowl and place it in the oven (uncovered or it will steam and loose its crispness).

3. Make the shellfish

Add the last 2 T. olive oil to the pan with the sliced garlic. Heat until the garlic begins to soften.

Add the wine and heat until simmering. Then add the shrimp and clams and cover to cook for 8 minutes. The clams should open but give it 2–3 minutes more if some haven’t opened. Then, if any clams do not open discard them. Flip over the shrimp to fully allow them to absorb the sauce and throw on the chopped parsley.

4. Assembling the paella

Use a large platter or oval serving dish and spread the rice all across the bottom of the dish, making sure to break up and fluff any clumps of rice.

Distribute the sausage and peppers and onions on top, then place the fish and shellfish so that everything is evenly scattered on the rice. Be sure to pour all the sauce and broth on top of everything at the end and then eat it in good company.

And the wonderful cake we ate:

CITRUS ALMOND CAKE

Time: About 1 ½ hours plus 30 minutes resting

12 T. (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter in small cubes, plus more for pan

Flour for pan

¼ c. fresh lemon juice

½ c. fresh orange juice

2 c. granulated sugar

¾ c. confectioner’s sugar

1 T. confectioner’s sugar

1 ½ tubes almond paste (about 10 oz.)

7 large eggs

2 T. lemon zest

2 T. orange zest

2 t. vanilla extract

1 ½ c. cake flour

¾ t. baking powder

¼ t. salt.

½ c. sliced almonds, toasted for 8–10 minutes in an oven preheated to 325º

2 c. heavy cream

½ t. vanilla extract

4 c. cut red fruits, strawberries, raspberries, fresh red currants or pomegranate arils (depending on the season) or other combination of your choosing.

1 T. confectioner’s sugar

Heat oven to 350º. Butter and flour an 8-cup cake pan with a removable bottom. Put lemon juice, orange juice and ¾ cup confectioner’s sugar in a small saucepan over low heat; warm while stirring until the sugar fully dissolves and remove from heat to cool.

Put almond paste and 2 cups sugar in food processor and process until well combined; add butter and continue processing until light and fluffy. With the machine running, add eggs one at a time along with zest and vanilla, and continue to process until smooth.

Stop the machine, add the flour, baking powder and salt, and pulse a few times — just until the dry ingredients are integrated (be careful not to over process, or the cake will become tough). Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until golden, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. When a skewer or thin-bladed knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, remove the cake from the oven and let cool slightly.

Meanwhile whip the cream with the vanilla extract and 1 tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar. Cut the fruit and toss with another tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar.

Pour half the citrus soak/glaze over the cake and let it sit for at least 30 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed and the cake releases from the pan easily. Remove the bottom and put the cake onto a serving plate. Drizzle the rest of the glaze on the top and sprinkle with toasted, sliced almonds. Cut into thin slices and serve with whipped cream and the cut fruit with more of the sliced almonds.

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