Archive for the ‘Fish’ Category

Postscript in D flat:

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

       When one dines at the storybook La Provvidenza in Ferrara, that gracious, gardened city with its muted echoes of the tragic Finzi-Continis, the antipasto table will if the stars are in correct position include a dish of the tastiest herring imaginable, accompanied by large brown beans, and nearby there should be salami, gt35_stanislav_bunin_tokyo_program.jpgfrittata and endive with raisins and toasted pinoli before you go on to the macaroni pie which is Ferrara’s culinary signature tune. Perfection!

        I should say, though, that La Provvidenza while it is surely a destination experience was not my prime reason for traveling to Ferrara on an unusually hot spring day not long ago, arriving, as it happened, to the epiphany of encountering a vibrant Italian passeggiata fully operative in the vicinity of cattedrale-castello-mercato at twenty-eight degrees Celsius.

        My mission was to meet a distant cousin, the Russian pianist Stanislav Bunin, who was giving a concert — for a delighted but wilted audience, it turned out — in the venerable opera house across from the castle which for readers of guidebooks is Ferrara’s logo so to speak, its Transamerica Pyramid or Empire State Building.

        I had sent Stanislav a tape of Chopin played by my great aunt the pianist Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, and was intrigued when he told me that Fannie’s performance of the D flat nocturne revealed at one point a particular interpretive choice made by no other pianist he knew of, except himself and his grandfather the fondly-remembered Heinrich Neuhaus of the Moscow Conservatoire.

        Clearly providence was nurturing connections in this pianistic gene pool as well as smiling on the Ferrarese restaurant organizing for its clients such a harmonious assortment of singing antipasti. Need I tell you that a wish in my mind for Stanislav to cap his all-Chopin program with an encore or two from Schumann (we’d just been to the house where Schumann was born, in Zwickau) was answered as if by the surest telepathy.


Monday, September 3rd, 2007

        Back in the 1950s when I was stationed with the U.S. Army in Orléans, near the Loire châteaux, we would troop on special occasions to the Auberge St-Jacques down by the river, two stars in the Michelin guide. I remember so well Monsieur Fournier, the patron, sitting in his little raised cashier’s box rather like a judge, or perhaps a lifeguard surveying his beach, as if maybe one of his clients was in danger of drowning in a sea of Coq au Vin.

        The most enchanting meal I had at the St-Jacques was beautifully symmetrical: between the opening soup and closing cheese and dessert came a pair of courses, first a simple salmongt34_cheese_plate.jpg mated with creamed spinach in a little symphony of pink and green, then a small steak with boiled potatoes, pristinely skinned torpedo-ettes. Such a satisfying distribution of fish-meat-and-veg!

        And when I returned with Anne several years later M. Fournier was still in his box . . .

        Thirty years later I was waving at the St-Jacques from the Capitole roaring down to Brive-la-Gaillarde. Ten p.m. and we creaked upward in a birdcage lift at Brive’s faithful Terminus, pure 1910. “Great old place,” I announced, and the kindly concierge, trained, one suspects, for radio, responded euphoniously, “Ah, Monsieur, c’est solide.”

        He, too, was there the next time.

        Continuity, it’s wonderful! I remember entering the lobby of a hotel in Innsbruck nine years after an earlier visit and thinking: well, there was a very nice concierge here, kindly, helpful, about forty-eight I’d say, and he’ll probably still be here, in his black jacket with crossed keys, with about so much grey at the temples — and I had judged his ageing process with total accuracy.

        But our favorite perennial along our European way was the stout croissant-bearer at the Angleterre in Paris whom we christened Madame Bonjour because of her inimitable “GOOD Morning,” in French of course, with the accent rising to a great height on an arching, ever-chipper first syllable. Madame’s breakfast room welcome was as enveloping as the ample skirts of some fairy tale granny living in a non-Ferragammo shoe.


This is simply our basic quick-fried salmon steak proposed at the start of this chapter (along with a little browned butter, lemon juice and minced parsley or dill weed), plus a good creamed spinach, prepared as follows:

Slowly cook 1 package of frozen chopped spinach enough to thaw it — this can easily take 10 minutes — then drain the de-chunked veg through a sieve with maximum thoroughness, squeezing out the excess water with the back of a spoon; then return the spinach to your saucepan, add a healthy pinch of nutmeg and 1/2 cup of cream, stirring it in well, and re-heat the wavy green. Be sure to thaw your veg without butter, oil or water.  And remember, there’s no such thing as over-draining spinach.

Come to think of it, the Auberge St-Jacques’ spinach was probably puréed, but a bit of “leaf” in the epinardian texture is, I think, appealing. As for adding flour . . . !

But you might consider a few pinches of turmeric for a whiff of Bombay: I’m writing, of course, as a cruiser in San Francisco’s multi-ethnic restaurant world, my Orléans I only visit in dreams.


Monday, September 3rd, 2007

        The darling of New Bistro chefs, this tangly fritto.  I would be the first to admit this concoction is more gracefully produced in a restaurant, where the chef, I’m sure, doesn’t have the sensation of flying blind over a veritable Atlantic of boiling oil. But if you like squid don’t give up.

        Squid I certainly didn’t know about in my non-Italian childhood.  I think my awakening must have been at Il Cenacolo, a delightful Italo-American lunch club that still meets every Thursday in North Beach.  I was a member for several years a long time ago, until my consumption of too much good Louis Martini wine at lunch incapacitated me for metaphors in the afternoon.  Also, my damaged leg from a monumental accident was mending, and filled with a seeming barrel-full of Louis’ Barbera I walked two miles back to the office one day in a fit of joy and cracked a bone or some such thing unapproved by Dr. Niebauer.

        A lawyer named Fleishell, I believe, was a regular at the Fior d’Italia and he had inspired the chef to cook up an addictive dish in which fried calamari was entwined with sautéed onions.  It used to be called Calamari Fleishell, now it’s Calamari 1886, that being the date Fior opened, at a slightly different location.

        Mr. Fleishell and I collaborated not only on a love of good squid but a “quality of life” issue on the streets of San Francisco.  My native town forever contrives to be the most sophisticated and the most inept city on earth, and at that time, when my fellow squid-lover was heading a “beautification” program out of City Hall, I alerted him to the fact that the corner containers for garbage in our mecca were merely old oil drums, produced from heaven knows where. He leapt into action, and the improvement is still visible all about the town.


First off, sift 3/8 cup of cornstarch and 1/4 cup of flour into 1/4 cup of cold water and whisk until a thin paste is formed.

Then pat one pound of cleaned squid very dry with paper towels, slice it, coat it with the paste and fry it, in batches, for a minute or so in an inch of very hot olive oil, stirring vigorously — try to stand a mile away from the splatter! Serve over lightly vinaigretted greens with our saffron mayonnaise.