Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Hungry for Meatless? Horny as All-Get-Out? Need a Drinky-Poo?

In Around the web on July 26, 2010 at 9:22 pm

From FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Rock Island, IL

The high summer day slides languorously toward evening as the cicadas grind out their metallic song. Your gastric longings peak at a level that can almost be described as libidinous.

Your teeth and taste buds crave something substantial, like flesh, yet lighter, like farfel bathed sparingly in cream sauce. They want something savory and assertive, something that will hang on the tongue but not in the belly.

Your conscience, which always sits down to dine with you whether you know it or not, requires something seasonal and local, and your damned imagination interrupts with talk of color and texture. “Show me a palate,” it says. “Give me something soft yet crunchy, warm yet cold.”

In this season of oxymorons, let not your hearts be trouble; neither let them be confused. The most prefectest and yet simplest meal awaits you. It’s more simpler than good grammar.

So for the moment disregard what an English wag once said about his neighbors to the east (“nice place, France; pity about the French”) and pull a nice big French baguette out of the freezer—one of those prepared numbers that needs only to be baked for a short period of time. The ones I get need about eight minutes at 375.

(You can make your own, it is true. But remember that the day is already slipping into evening.)

Set the baguette down on a counter top cleared of all clutter. Remember: the mise en place is part of the experience.

But so too is everything. The fullness of man is the incarnate condition. So choose your music wisely. For the dish I am about to describe, I recommend something refined: Bach’s concerto for violin and oboe in D minor for your L’Allegro mood, or, if Il Penseroso be your portion, Elgar’s sonata for violin and piano in E minor.

Or crank up some Skynyrd—or the DBTs on that rare occasion when no one is around to roll her eyes at you. But be sure your amp goes to eleven.

You’ll be having wine with this meal, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have little drinky-poo while you work. God would not have you treating with contempt or disdain the bounties of this refulgent world.

Most authorities I have consulted on the matter say that Skynyrd requires a cold beer as see-through as intimate apparel, Bach a gin martini with a lemon twist and only a whisper of vermouth, and Elgar a finger or six of Laphroaig, opened to the nose with no more than two or three drops of hard water. If you are caught putting ice in your peaty Islay malt, you will be hunted down and, in the spirit of oxymorons, killed to within an inch of your life.

If the children are around and want to help, by all means let them. Suffer the little children to come unto you. (For their own dinner they’ll require more than what you’re currently preparing—which is why this is such a great meal to make when you’re home alone—but whatever else you’re going to have to feed them is your problem.) Cheese will need grating, garlic pressing, oil drizzling, tomatoes and green herbs chopping. All of these they can do or help with. Teach the children well, especially if you’re going your own way and listening to CS&N, which I would certainly allow.

On a large wooden cutting board place about five cloves of garlic, maybe more, for garlic is like irony: there’s no such thing as Too Much.

Also place thereon a brick of hard cheese, preferably asagio.

Put a ripe sensuous tomato next to the cheese—an aromatic heirloom, such as a Brandywine (thou name doubly blessed!), will do nicely—and next to it the leaves of your favorite green herb. For this most exquisite of meals I generally prefer sweet basil first, oregano next, and sage after that, but I will in no wise commit an act of culinary imperialism here. Choose ye this day which herb ye shall eat. There’s no disputing taste, as the ancients said.

(They said this not because you can’t in fact dispute taste, but because people with bad taste can’t be argued with.)

Lovingly place the bread along the back edge of the cutting board. Be sure that behind it all stands your olive oil, your favorite salt dispenser (mine’s stainless and has a handle), and a pepper grinder. Now look at the tableau before you. Look for a long time. Sip your drinky-poo and look again. The foods here assembled, when combined, are going to throw your tongue into spasms of pleasure that test the boundaries of analogy. You will seek far and wide, high and low, for the proper comparisons. Do not be surprised if your imagination hastens toward the bed ere you reach it at day’s end.

Behold the wild civility of the basil! The erotic plumpness of the tomato! The solidity—nay, the native unity—of that cosmo cosmema: cheese! The garlic cloves on their sides, inclining in love and affection toward one ingredient or another. The stately and solemn olive oil, erect and ready behind it all. Lord have mercy but the heart cracks!

Grab the bread. Slice it down the middle lengthwise but keep the two pieces together, cap on bottom, when you place it the oven. Close the oven door, set the timer to the appropriate number—your mileage may vary—and reach for the Laphroaig. O lordy that’s good!

Peel the garlic as you hum or sing along to the music. Set the peeled garlic aside. Sharpen your knife—always sharpen your knife by bringing the sharp edge toward you on the sharpening tool. Slice your tomato and chop it into small cubes according to local preferences. Pay no attention to what chefs on national cooking shows do. Indeed, never watch TV.

Chop your herb of choice. Press the garlic.

Place all of this in a bowl. Sprinkle it with salt and grind in some black pepper to taste. Open the spigot to the olive oil. Stir. Stir slowly at first. Stir rhythmically. Behold the concupiscent mixing of colors. Moan a little if you must.

Now for the cheese. This is a matter of some debate. My own multiple personalities have debated this at times, with no small consequences accruing to my physical person, depending on the “Prep Lubricant,” as I sometimes call the drinky-poo.

The widely accepted practice is to grate the cheese and apply it to the dish last. I’ll allow this method because, as I once said to a bartender, “I’m open to all truth.”

So consider this: the bread you are warming (or baking) is going to have chopped tomatoes, a chopped herb, crushed garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil on it. It is likely to be served not as a sandwich (though I’m open to all truth) but open-faced—that is, bread down and colors up.

So you have to ask yourself: where do I want the cheese?

As I said, conventional wisdom says you put the grated cheese on last. I’m ecumenical enough on this matter to give conventional wisdom its due.

But here are some other options:

You can prepare thin slices that are as long as the brick of cheese itself, and you can place them first or last on the bread. If first, the cheese melts a little and sticks. If last it neither melts nor sticks.

You can also grate it and place it first or last on the bread, with the same results.

You can also place it last and then re-heat the whole concoction so that the cheese melts and holds everything else in place.

This, I must insist (notwithstanding de gustibus), not to mention my avowed openness to all truth, is a mistake. You will have a cleaner plate when you are done, but you will also have ruined the cool freshness of the tomato. As with most things that grow from the ground, so with the tomato: it is better uncooked.

Here, for what it’s worth, is my method: take another drinky-poo. Remove the bread from the oven at the appropriate time. Lace it with grated cheese and let the cheese melt a little. After you’ve stirred the bowl in which the other ingredients mingle, spoon these same ingredients on the cheese-besprinkled bread.

Does your conscience bother you?

For the moment disregard what you’ve learned about Italians—that for them a broken arm is a speech impediment—and thank them for the general concept of Bruschetta. What you’re about to eat is a variation thereon.

Now, as I said, there will be wine with this meal. And it is a meal. You’ve been moderate with the libations during your prep time, and that’s good, for too much foreplay will ruin the getting-down-to-business of eating your bread. But now you must choose a wine.

Holy Writ is silent on the matter, and, so far as I can discern, so is Tradition. I therefore recommend a white sauvignon if the day remains clear and sunny. This wine is light and fruity enough and will not make you think that you ate a box of Grape Nuts for supper.

But should the storm clouds of summer move in suddenly, as they are sometimes wont to do, an inky red wine will answer to this simple meal of bread, tomatoes, garlic, basil, cheese, salt, pepper, and olive oil. Merlot I would shy away from. It is a grape meant to be blended sparingly with its superiors. Also avoid Pinot Noir. Get something thick and assertive, something you can write your name with, especially if your name has about fourteen syllables.

Now where to eat. If your kitchen has a countertop area that opens on to another room with bar stools on the other side, this is the place for you—especially if there are speakers behind you, as there are in my culinary mise en place. All your senses will be assaulted on such a stool. This is what we call a Christian Space.

If your kitchen does not afford you such a spot, seat yourself in a place that will allow you to hear the music and relish the work put into this simple meal. If you’re in the dining room, choose a chair that gives you a glimpse of the kitchen. If no glimpse is available, make sure your imagination has been properly trained by early nineteenth-century British poetry to conjure the glimpse. “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison” would be a good choice.

And eat slowly—the way you read poetry if you know how to read poetry. Let the oil, like words, dribble out of your mouth and onto your hands. Let the rogue tomato chunks spill onto the plate, the excess cheese slivers joining them. For what, I ask, did God invent spoons? Your job—is it not?—is to taste and see that the Lord is good.

For at this point—remembering the fullness of your condition—you should be savoring whatever the five senses tell you to savor.

You should see, if you can, the place where you did the work. You should also see the varied colors of your work.

You’re going to smell it—I guarantee you will—for you’re using an anti-social amount of garlic (and this in some measure is always the point of careful food preparation).

You’re going to feel the various textures in your mouth.

And you’re going to hear the music of your choice turned up to eleven. You’re listening to something that will really get your dog on. (I once tried Mozart’s requiem mass and nearly had an accident.)

Now, for those of you with rapacious appetites, there’s an addition to this meal:

Prepare some sweet corn ( O sweet corn! Thou best of summer’s staples!) to accompany the bread. Boil or grill it—I don’t care which—and then load it with butter and salt.

St. Paul said we are saved by grace through faith. He had this meal in mind when he said it. Trust me. I studied koine Greek very carefully the year I was training to be a licensed union plumber.

After dinner, clean up. This is bliss itself. If you are not home alone, it is especial bliss, for your Sweet Precious or someone else is putting the children (or the children are putting themselves) to bed.

But even if you are home alone, you are in the mise en place working to chord sequences turned up to eleven. What more do you want?

Clean up, finish your potable, and grab a book. I recommend What Matters?

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