Alinea at Home: Comfort Food (Bison, braised pistachios, potato, sweet spices)
I bought my house just over twelve years ago, and I remember my first night here as clearly as if it were yesterday. I didn't sleep at all -- partly because I was sleeping somewhere new, and that meant new smells, new sounds, and just a whole new feel... not to mention it was the first major investment I'd ever made, and those numbers on the closing sheet leapt from the page into the worry area of my brain and cascaded down the inside of my eyelids like a cruel hybrid of Tetris and The Matrix as I tried to fall asleep.
The second night in my house, it rained... and the sound of that hard pouring rain completely washed away the fear of owning a home. It washed away the digital shower of numbers in my brain, the weird sounds and smells, and it calmed me completely. I've always loved the sound of rain -- and, there's something about the way it sounds when it lands on my roof, or hits the muddy ground or the leaves of my hydrangea bushes just outside the living room window.
We had quite a lovely sunny, warm streak of weather last week, which melted all the snow, but for the past three days, it's done nothing but rain. Dreary, gray skies, and a steady ploploploplopdropdripdripdrop all day and all night. I love it. I loved it even more because it had been a week where that kind of soothing noise was very much needed... one of those weeks where I worked from the minute I woke up until my head hit the pillow at night.
My phone rang non-stop and email poured in. There were new clients to pitch, brainstorms to be had, things to write, conference calls to conduct, deadlines to meet, projects to deliver. Some things took off beautifully while others stalled or got postponed or rushed or canceled or left in limboland. And while I was working, I kept noticing things around the house that needed to be done. Errands to be run. Pet projects I want to start. Things I want to cook. Photos to organize. Things I want to write. People I want to talk to. Books I want to read. Magazines I want to peruse. Friends and family I want to see.
Working from home is usually something I love and am really grateful for. But last week, I wished I had a job and an office I could leave in the evening so that work was work and home was home.
I didn't sleep well at all last week, because my brain was still trying to work while I was trying to sleep. And when it wasn't my own thoughts waking me up in a cold sweat, it was the herd of ten or eleven deer that, every night, makes their way from the woods next to my house, through my front yard, over the garden wall just below my bedroom window (they huff and snort, and thonk and clack their hooves on the wall as they leap over), and meander around my neighbor's garden just outside the other bedroom window.
Again, grateful for the work and the business I've built over the past nine years, but I was more physically and mentally drained by Friday afternoon than I've been in a long, long time. I knew I needed to shut off that part of my brain for just two days (something I rarely allow myself do). So, late Friday afternoon, I went across the street to my friend Linda's house to sit by the fire with a glass of wine, many snacks, and played a mean game of cards with my friends.
On Saturday, I spent a good part of the day reading my friend, Tara's book, The Butcher and the Vegetarian. I loved the book because it "sounds" just like Tea when she talks. I'd also recently re-read my dear friend, Laurie's book, Saving Henry. Both books are so personal and so beautifully written, and yet both books also deal with profound struggle on so many levels. Throughout, both Tea and Laurie maintain a sense of hope and courage and a fierce determination I admire.
I spent a lot of time Saturday afternoon thinking about Tara and Laurie and how their stories weighed heavily on my heart, and that, heaped onto my already-exhausted self, made me sorely in need of some serious comfort food.
I've written quite a bit about my love of cooking for others. I love to show people how I feel about them by cooking for them. But it's not often enough that I care about myself that way. Yes, I cook nearly every day for myself, and yes, I actually do eat at my dining room table many nights. But, it had been a very long time since I'd spent an hour or so in the kitchen making something just for me.
I needed to cook something that was comforting, yet wouldn't make me feel like crap three hours later as it sat there in my stomach like a lump (hey there, mac and cheese) (also, bag of Swedish fish). I didn't want to slap anything together in a hurry. I wanted to take my time and really pay attention to what I was doing.
So, I adapted the Bison, braised pistachios, potatoes, sweet spices dish. There was nothing difficult about making the dish as it was in the book. I'd already bought all the ingredients and was ready to let 'er rip. But, I decided to adapt it because I wanted something that felt like dinner, not a tasting menu item, and I wanted it to taste like something that was mine, only better.
In addition to the bison tenderloin thawing in the fridge for this dish, I'd already begun to dry-age a six-ounce bison tenderloin in the fridge, thinking I'd eat it Sunday night. I love prepping meat this way -- I rinse it, thoroughly dry it, salt it, and stick it on a plate for 4 or 5 days in the fridge, uncovered. It gets all hard and tough on the outside, which gives it a lovely sear when you put it in the pan, and it cooks more evenly.
I poured a little canola oil into a stainless-steel saute pan, heated it on medium for about 3 minutes, then placed the bison tenderloin in the pan, searing it on all sides (took about 10 minutes). Then, I put it (still in the pan) in a 450-degree oven for 5-7 minutes.
I made mashed potatoes (my own personal favorite comfort food) by boiling some Yukon Golds, then mashing them (skins on) in the Kitchen Aid mixer, along with some whole milk, unsalted butter, and sea salt. No measurements. I've been making mashed potatoes for so long, I do it completely unconsciously now, and they're always perfect.
I also sauteed some Swiss chard with carrots, shallots, and pistachios in butter and olive oil, along with some curry powder (dash), cinnamon (pinch), thyme (sprig), allspice (trace amount), salt, and pepper. Oh, I wish you all could've been in my kitchen to smell this as it came together.
I poured a glass of water and a glass of Malbec, and sat and ate that dinner at my table in the dining room... no music... no television... no books or magazines. Just me, my dinner, and the sound of the rain on the roof.
The bison was cooked a perfect medium-rare. So flavorful and robust, without being overly rich or heavy. And let me tell you -- the tiny amounts of spices I put in that vegetable dish blended so beautifully with the carrots, shallots, and chard, and the pistachios were so tender, they fit right in, texturally. This dinner had all the elements of the original dish in the book, just done a little differently.
As I cleared the table and started loading the dishwasher, my friend, Chris, called to see if I wanted to grab a drink or see a movie. I'd bought a bottle of Caol Ila I hadn't yet opened, so I told him to come over for some scotch and a movie. It was the perfect way to end the evening.
Sunday morning came, and for the first time in a long time, the whole daylight-saving-losing-an-hour-of-sleep-thing didn't bother me. I credit dinner the night before. I slept really well and loved the feel of the rain on my messy morning hair as I plodded in my new slippers* down the front sidewalk to pick up the New York Times from the edge of the yard. I made a pot of coffee as I got started on the crossword puzzle (which I'm now able to do every day of the week without looking up any of the clues -- one of those life list goals. I know. NERD.).
I emptied the dishwasher and got ready for the day. I felt really good about the dinner the night before, but still felt like I needed to be taken care of a bit more. This week is going to be as mentally draining as last week, so I thought it would be good to get the heck out of Washington for the day... away from my phone and my laptop and all the things in my house nagging to be done. I also really wanted someone else to cook for me, and I wanted it to be Carlos.
Carlos Barroz is from Cordoba, Argentina, and is the chef at one of my favorite restaurants in the little beach town I go to every summer. He's a good friend and a great cook, and he and two of his best friends (also dear friends of mine) just opened a new restaurant, Hoof + Fin, in Philadelphia. I wanted meat and I wanted chimichurri, but I also wanted raw fish. And I wanted to see his new restaurant. And, even though it was raining, I also really wanted to drive. I wanted a few hours of uninterrupted time to clear my head, listen to podcasts, and daydream.
So, I hit the road and made it to Philly in record time. Um, I mean, I, uh, drove 55 the whole way, MOM, and made it there in exactly the time I should have. (only not) (I have a lead foot) I cruised up I-95, and as the highway split to 495 toward Philadelphia, off to the right was the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which just broke my face into this huge, uncontrollable smile. That's my bridge. That's the bridge that, when I cross it, means I'm just an hour and a half from kicking off my shoes, running in the sand, turning my face toward the sun, and standing ankle-deep in the ocean, grinning from ear-to-ear. (one of my favorite things in the world) (but I digress) (and what's up with all these parentheticals I'm doing) (I need to knock it off)
I puttered around Old City and Queen Village for a bit, then headed over to the restaurant for an early dinner. If you live in or near Philadelphia, I hope you'll stop by and eat at Hoof + Fin. It's a great space, and the food is... well..... wow.
I started with the fluke carpaccio (sorry for the crap iPhone photo quality), which was raw fluke, radish, red onion, clementines, red chiles, and a truffle-lime-lemon juice :
Carlos then followed that with a giant plate o' meat: skirt steak, short ribs, chorizo, sweetbreads, ribeye, lamb, some chimichurri, as well as a stack of frites topped with an over-easy egg, and a side of parsnip puree:
And, exactly what I needed.
I sent back an empty plate, but for the bones.
* * * * *
I know what I made on Saturday night was not the exact dish from the book, but it encompassed all of the flavors, and they all came together in a way I didn't expect at all. In fact, this dish -- and the adaptation of it, really -- came at a time I didn't expect to need it, but found out I really did.
In fact, if you'd told me when I started this blog back in October 2008 whether I thought anything in this book could ever remotely resemble comfort food, I'd have told you to put down the crack pipe.
And now I know I'm wrong. Happily so, in fact. Usually, this book challenges and expands the ways in which I think about food. But this weekend, this cookbook calmed, comforted, and soothed me. Used to be that a grilled cheese sandwich was my go-to comfort food. Now, it's something Alinea-inspired. I like that. I like that a lot.
What do you do when you need to be comforted and cared for? Do you cook? If so, what? Or, do you want others to cook something for you? Neither? Both? (I'm in the "both" camp)
Do tell.... I'd love to know.
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* I got new slippers! Because I am a dork who falls when she wears old, tread-worn slipper socks! Yay! Thanks, Mom and Dad.