Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ptarmigan Under Glass

Traveling teaches you to taste. From craving fried cheese in a cafe in Bratislava to savoring an espresso sized cup of hot chocolate in wintered Verona, flavors didn't really begin for me until I spent time instinctually eating and curiously trying--anything abroad. Until that winter with George, I didn't know food would become not just something for sustenance, it would become part of my, well, character. I think this is true for most people. Food guides us into our most precious and powerful sense: our sense of smell. A meal can stay in our minds and lead us into stories we want to share. We later mimic that meal when we return, somehow never letting that moment ever leave us--trying to share it beyond us. Yet, I think it isn't just the food, but the hues of scent that we want to search for and find. We want to somehow return to a sense of ourselves, maybe lost in a foreign city, maybe around a table of family.

It is like a game we can play. Think of a scent, you'll find the memory. Molasses, my grandmother's kitchen, Smoked Bacon and Sweet Rolls, my other grandmother's kitchen. The sulfur of cherry spray, nights with my window open as a child. Okay, so this might seem trite, but scent is so often trumped by sight in a good story. Scent is also part of how Faulkner worked his own keen descriptions. He worked from his nose first and then found the image.. Trust me, reread A Rose for Emily . It was also how George told his stories too.

George would tell me about a meal he had had along the Southern French coast and how the calamari was coated so lightly it crumbled in his mouth, how the first scent was butter, not fish as he lifted his fork. I asked him one night, while we were eating dinner, "George if you could have one more meal from your past, what would it be?" Like many answers, George found a way to create a story. He told a chronicle of memorable meals beginning with his mother's one-pot stews in a cast iron skillet over an open flame. These were meals of George's summered youth in a place called Indiana Woods, a thick forest of birch and beech along the shores of Lake Michigan in the protected harbor of Leland. He then told of random places like a steak in Argentina that he still sometimes dreamed about. Yet, George would never forget the original question regardless of where he weaved himself. He would return to say, "Simply, there is one dish that I would want. Ptarmigan under glass."

Now at the time, I found myself at a loss. I asked in hopes that I might in some earnestness try to make his coveted dish. Shyly, I asked, "George, I don't understand. under glass?" Laughing, he said, it's a bird I ate once on the Queenie Two. The first time Beulah and I went to Europe. I only ordered it because I had asked my friend, Mr. McSweeny what to order to not look so well, to not look like I didn't know what I was doing."

And really, that is how I felt cooking for George. I really didn't know what I was doing and here was this man who had traveled and had a mind and memory of flavors and tastes far more advanced than my elementary skills. What was I but a young college girl marooned in a boarded up beach town in the middle of November, cooking meals I found in a cookbook called, Hollyhocks to Radishes. But it was with that book, I found my own flavors of place. The midwest is more than mushroom soup and casseroles. It can be the delight in the simplest ingredients, not boiled or overcooked, but fresh and simple. And of course, never flashy, just modest tastes for modest people, regardless of where they might later travel. Here's one of my favorites and one George really enjoyed from those days of fumbling with my own new nose and flavors. I have changed it a bit from the first time I made it,  but I still come back to it as a fond memory, a scent of that winter with George.

Fancy Tomato Pie

1 9-inch pie crust, unbaked
1 cup finely chopped leeks
2 tablespoons of butter
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1/4 teaspoon of fresh basil
Dash of salt
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup of milk
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup Parmesan Reggiano
1 cup Jarlsburg cheese
2 medium tomatoes peeled


1. Partially bake pie crust at 400 for seven minutes. Cool.
2. In a medium saucepan, saute leeks in butter until soft. Add tomatoes, basil, and a dash of salt. Cover and simmer for five minutes.
3. Uncover pan and mash tomatoes. Cook briskly, uncovered, over medium heat until all liquid has evaporated. Depending on the tomatoes, this will take 10-20 minutes. Cool.
4. Reduce oven to 350.
5. Whisk together eggs, milk, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Stir in grated cheese and cooled tomato mixture. Pour into prepared pie crust. Bake 35 minutes of until center of pie is firm to touch. 
6. Cool on a rack and garnish with sliced tomatoes and fresh bail.

1 comment:

  1. Emily, I love you for not cooking Ptarmigan. I miss your meals on the ranch when you had time to be my wife. :) I also miss the fried cheese of Greece and the grilled octopus and the cheese salad that wasn't salad at all. Just last week. Take me back.