Tuesday, April 15, 2008

spring can't come too soon

...will that circle be unbroken...
The untimely death of (Chef) Beat (Bee-aht) Schonbachler shook up circles upon circles of people all the way from Switzerland to Wallingford and Rutland and New York and, well, the world. It’s not that Beat was a self-important person who inflicted himself on others – far from it – he was so entirely unassuming and warm and genuinely interested in others that people loved him from the first time they laid eyes on him, and they passed him from one circle to another as though he were a gift. Suddenly, passing from one circle to another you, yourself, might see him in an entirely different milieu from the accustomed one and think, “Isn’t that Beat? Now what’s he doing here?”
That’s what his big brother, Stanti thought the first time Beat came to America, by plane, and then to Wallingford, by taxi! “That was maybe 15 years ago,” says Stanti now. “Beat and our friend Bruno got off the plane in Boston and – thinking in terms of Swiss distance – put up their hands and said, “Taxi!” Several hours later the lace curtains of the Victorian Inn at Wallingford were twitching as that taxi pulled into the drive. “Isn’t that Beat? Now what’s he doing here?” said Stanti and his wife, Soo, as they recollect bittersweetly today.
You might have known Beat as the acting Chef of the Victorian Inn and/or of the now closed eponymously named Stanti’s in Rutland, or, more recently, as a bartender at The Pub in Wallingford. Though he was 42, he was ‘that sweet boy’ to me.
When my son called me and told me of Beat’s death – speaking of circles – I immediately called Stanti and Soo to give them my tearful and shocked condolences and to ask what it was that I could do to help. Of course there was nothing! Of course Stanti and Soo were continuing on with the dinner/dance they had long planned for that night. Brunch would happen the next day, too, because, just like the theatre, this show must go on.
Nothing I could do! I took Stanti at his word, but when I stopped by the Inn’s kitchen later that night, there was Danny Constantino, who owns Constantino’s Italian Imports on Terrill Street – also a deli and grocery – standing there with his apron already on. He had been told the same thing as I– “No, no, there is nothing you can do” – but showed up anyway, prepared to work. And work he did. It’s what you do in times like these.
And then on Thursday, the day of Beat’s funeral, Danny stayed back at the Inn and headed up a crew – many of whom had come in from far-flung places simply to help – to create the incredibly tasty Italian brunch that mourners were met with in early afternoon, and that forced Stanti to, for once, take himself out of the kitchen. There was a funeral to attend – that show, too, must go on.
Some people were too enervated to do much more than hold a glass, but others, like me, exhausted and impatient with sadness and the roller-coaster and whirlpool of grief, filled up a plate with sausages and various salads and ate with friends, barely speaking. My friends left and I filled up another plate and ate alone and said, when asked, “I’m eating for Beat!” And I did feel that way – sustenance pulling me back from the unthinkable brink. And from the looks of the plates and depleted bruncheon spread – "there was not a morsel left,” Soo told me later – I wasn’t the only one. We filled it up and shoveled it in, and when we were satiated we ate a little bit more and afterward did indeed feel better, and able to talk and rejoice in the different circles of people who had come to feast and to mourn the Beat they had loved. And it didn’t harm the cause that the food was delicious.

...eggplant & verbiage...
One must be at the top of one’s game if one would like to feed oneself a luscious Constantino’s Eggplant Parm Sub from the Terrill Street store, because Danny hands out verbiage as liberally as he does food! He’s got a sharp tongue on him, he does, but it’s a humorous one, too. At least that’s what I tell myself. But the spoils go to the brave, and that eggplant parm is very, very good, and there’s enough of it to feed at least two hungry people! They’re also available at the little cubbyhole right by the Center Street Alley entrance, but they’re transported already made from the Terrill Street location: what you see is what you get. Eggplant Parm is my favorite, but there are soups and other sandwiches that others have raved about. But I’ll leave those to Randal Smathers, our inimitable La Dolce VT restaurant reviewer, to tell you about. And his gift-of-gab can stand up any day to Danny’s.
Those circles? Of life and food and death; of friends here and friends there and friends gone? I can only hope that Beat has caused them to interconnect and loop and stand together. There will be newcomers, too, Stanti and Soo hope, as they set up the Beat Schonbachler Culinary Foundation to help kids who are interested in culinary careers.

...the winter ten...
Early spring – what we are experiencing now – is a dirty thing of old leaves and other less mentionable yard detritus, yet with green spears poking out of the mess, and great, hot, long sun when it bothers to wake up, and the fascinating intermingling odors of rot and fresh growing things. Do not hesitate to pinch off these green spears and eat them, for they’re full of the elements we need to slough off winter, although you might feel like Nigel Slater, the British chef and food writer, when he said, “The only drawback is the feeling of having committed vegetable infanticide, as if you have just cooked the vegetable version of the jelly-legged baby calf.” My only fear is that I’ll pick so much sorrel that I’ll stunt its rebirth.
For that’s the first green eatable in my garden – that sorrel that I planted two kinds of last year, and told you about. There it is – pink and burgundy and green, and indisputably rejuvenating – among those dirty old leaves, from which, each day, I pluck several spears for my daily omelet.
A daily omelet? What madness is this?
Every year, about this time, I realize – and I know I’m not alone – that I have allowed too many sweet or starchy foods back into my life, accompanied by too few long walks, and I’m bulking up and simply don’t feel very well – logy and out of sorts and just... tired. Luckily, there’s a very simple and delicious solution to this quandary, and that is to completely cut carbohydrates out of the menu for a week or two and subsist on hearty salads swathed in unctuous dressings, plump and multitudinous cheeses, free range meats and wild-caught fish, and bright, plump eggs from organic and cage-free chickens. Oh, the agony, right? Well, no. You can have the hamburger, lose the bun. Still hungry? Have another hamburger. Eat until you’re satiated, eat protein and fat and leafy greens; leave the bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and sweetenings on the shelf.
An omelet is the perfect way to eat eggs without the toast, and sorrel and cheese the perfect filling for that omelet.

To Make A One-Person Omelet: Gather your sorrel or other herby greens – not too many – and grate your cheese – quite a lot, if you please – and crack two eggs into a bowl and whisk them just until the yolk and white are commingled. Put a small pan over high heat, and when it is hot add a knob of butter – a tablespoon or two – and when that melts tip the pan to lubricate the whole bottom and sides, and when the butter has turned brown pour the eggs in all at once. Shake the eggs to cover the whole bottom, and begin lifting the edges and tipping the pan so that the uncooked egg flows underneath. This takes a minute. Strew the sorrel or other leafy greens over the omelet, then the cheese, fold the omelet in half, turn the heat off and let the turned omelet sizzle for a moment, then flip it onto the other side and let it brown for a moment, then slide it onto a plate and grind some sea salt and pepper over it. Eat.
This takes, including the walk to the garden to pick the sorrel, 5 minutes. At most.
Richard Olney, whose words in
Simple French Food taught me to make and perfect this omelet, writes, “Finely chopped fresh marjoram will fuse with eggs to produce an omelet of singular fragrance. A handful of tender young sorrel leaves, raw and finely shredded, will, on the other hand, permeate the eggs with none of sorrel’s qualities, but, because of its disposition to ‘melt’ instantly in contact with heat, the effect of fragile, disembodied sourness laced in suspension through the body of the omelet is not less exciting.”

Eggs and butter together? Nothing finer. They come in handy combined asparagus and other spring vegetables, or even slathered over a steak, especially when they come in the form of an eggy and buttery Hollandaise Sauce: This recipe can be halved, the parts of it can be prepared and set up beforehand to be finished just as the asparagus is done steaming, and the fussy but tasty shallot and wine reduction omitted if you’re short of time. If it breaks or curdles whisk hot water into it, tablespoon by tablespoon. The recipe is from Saveur’s Beauty of Butter issue #109.

For the Reduction: Put into a skillet over medium-high heat, ¼ cup white wine vinegar; ¼ cup dry white wine; 10 black peppercorns; 1 large shallot, finely chopped, and simmer until reduced to about 2 tablespoons. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve and let cool.

Continuing: If you have a double boiler, use that, or find a pan that a large bowl can sit in without touching 2 inches of water in the bottom of the pan. I use my kitchen-aid metal bowl and a deep saucepan. Bring the water to a simmer in the pan. In the bowl, beat 8 large egg yolks and whisk in 1 cup melted and slightly cooled butter, along with a bit of salt if the butter is not salted, a squirt of Tabasco sauce if you like, and the reduction if you’ve made it. (As you can see, the essentials are egg yolks and butter, and perhaps salt.)

Set the bowl over the simmering water and whisk until it thickens – 4 or 5 minutes. Remove the bowl from the heat, and whisk in 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice and ¼ cup hot water until the sauce is smooth. Keep warm.

We slathered this on asparagus for my son’s birthday dinner, and dunked lobster bits into it instead of drawn butter. It was pretty good.

Now I’ve been gorging myself for a week on these omelets, and those sausages and unctuous salads, and cauliflower roasted in cream and cheese, and my carbohydrate cravings are gone, and my appetite has receded too. I’m halfway through losing those Winter Ten – pounds, that is, the usual suspects that show up every year – and well on my way to my goal in this coming week. I feel TONS better.

I’ll start adding things back into meals gradually, things such as beans, and spring and summer vegetables as they come along, yogurt, and my favorite, thinly sliced Bear Mountain Honey-Oatmeal bread once in awhile. And I’ll probably be on easy-street until I notice, next February (aargh!!) probably, that pasta has become a large part of our meals, and I’ll have to drop back into no-carb mode once again. Oh, what an awful prospect!!

...potluck, crapshoot...

Community dinners – Yumm! All that crisply roasted pork or ham or chicken, lovely vegetable casseroles, steaming hot cauldrons of mashed potatoes, tasty crisp succotash, something maple, homemade rolls. Well. We’ve been to a few lately that were, to put it mildly, disappointing: pork roasts that tasted like they’d been boiled; watery frozen vegetables from the bargain section of the supermarket freezer section; bought pies. Such is my faith in home cooks and their goodness, that I could hardly believe it.

But Garrison Keillor noticed the phenomenon, too, and put it into these words:

“We used to have a potluck culture in Minnesota – the sharing of food as a way of life, you do your best for me, I do my best for you. But it easily breaks down: If some folks bring homemade pies and others bring a gallon of factory-made potato salad, forget it, the potluck is over. If other people don't care to make something good, then why should we? And so Aunt Elsie's excellent fried chicken passes from the scene and we settle for a Barrel O' Breasts from KFC and meanwhile standards slip in the public schools and bankers hand out high-risk mortgages.”

Oh! So that’s how society went to hell in a handbasket!

Here’s to Spring, Readers! It can’t get here too soon!

First Published in Rutland (Vt) Herald 04/15/08