Pastitsio

Bay leaves and what we're drinking, reading, and watching ...

By far the best thing we ate this past week was a dish I’d never tasted (above), and we only had it because of leftovers. Actually leftovers of leftovers. In the last newsletter—this was two weeks ago, keep in mind—I’d noted we’d had our first dinner party in more than a year. The main course was boneless leg of lamb, grilled then finished slowly in the oven while we ate amazingly huge artichokes with lemon-shallot vinaigrette.

There was a lot of leftover lamb. My wife, Ann, requested Shepherd’s Pie, a meat stew (typically lamb, hence the name), covered with mashed potatoes and cheese and baked till it’s bubbling hot and nicely gratinéed on top. I cut up the leftover lamb a week after our dinner party, and put it through a meat grinder. I sautéed diced onion, garlic, carrot, celery, deglazed with a cup of red wine, added chicken broth (boxed, as we had none frozen, though I could have used water), added the lamb and plenty of rosemary, simmered it for 20 to 30 minutes, thickened it with a roux, and finished the dishes off with potatoes and cheese in individual bowls.

“I see you have some lamb left over,” Ann said to me later. I said, I’d only used half of the ground lamb. “I know what I’m going to make you,” Ann said, smiling mysteriously.

When Ann was at the University of Rhode Island in the 70s, one of the main restaurants in town was a Greek restaurant. “It had a funny name,” is all she can remember about it, that and their pastitsio. So, Tuesday night, a full 17 days after I’d initially grilled the lamb, we finished it off, with this wonderful Greek dish. It’s essentially a beautifully spiced, creamy pasta bolognese.

If you want to try the pastitsio (and I encourage it) there are plenty of recipes online but Ann used this one from the redoubtable Ina Garten. It’s a bit of a project—two sauces (a meat sauce flavored with cinnamon) and a béchamel, and you cook the pasta in advance. But if you spread the work out over the course of a day or even two, it feels like a snap.

That one leg of lamb, which cost around $34 at Whole Foods, in effect served 13 people. That’s a good leg of lamb.

Tweeting of Bay Leaves …

This past week, Amy Berger, who describes herself on Twitter as “Low-carb/keto nutrition writer & enthusiast. USAF veteran; woodwind player,” wrote the following:

I’d never heard anyone question bay leaves, but what a good question it is! I think bay leaves are fabulous because they give stocks and soups an umami boost.

Michael Tsonton, a chef in Chicago whom I got to know in Cleveland wrote (accurately IMO):

I'm not a fan of dried bay leaves (must be high quality) outside of Indian and some Asian cooking. Fresh bay leaves are magical...

Harold McGee describes their flavor/aroma this way:

They “combine eucalyptus, clove, pine and flowery notes.”

And they do need to be fresh. If you don’t remember the last time you bought bay leaves, it’s time to buy some new ones.

The above is a tree filled with bay leaves. It’s in Gascony, southwestern France, at the home of Kate Hill, the wonderful teacher, cook, and author. When we departed after a few days visiting her, summer 2019.” How I wish I had a Bay Laurel outside my door.

Kate Hill is great—subscribe to her newsletter about life and cooking in Gascony.

What we’re drinking…

Today we’ll be drinking mint juleps, of course. A julep, of course, is a category of cocktail primarily defined by the way the spirit is served, over crushed ice in a julep cup or Tom Collins glass (which I’ve always called a highball). Simon Diffords describes a number of them here.

The bourbon mint julep is best known, customrary on this day of the Kentucky Derby, and one of the older cocktails on record. I loved the following from an unsigned article on liquor.com.

The Mint Julep gained prominence in the southern United States during the 18th century, and it first appeared in print in 1803 in John Davis’ book “Travels of Four and a Half Years in the United States of America.” He wrote that the Mint Julep is a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” An ice-cold whiskey drink is certainly one way to start your day.

I’ll stick to a poached egg on toast in the morning, I think.

Curious how the mint julep has been addressed in books and stories? Here’s a splendid literary tour.

The other cocktail we’ve loved is a contemporary one dubbed The Little Italy by it’s creator Audrey Saunders, who opened the cocktail bar Pegu in NYC (though it did not survive the pandemic). It features Cynar (SHEE-nar), the amaro flavored with artichokes, and is in effect a rye Manhattan with Cynar replacing the bitters. An excellent variation.

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What we’re watching…

If you haven’t seen Two Distant Strangers, which won an Oscar for best short feature film, watch it now. Its Groundhog Day format offers surprising turns and conveys viscerally how it feels to be black, with humor, intelligence, and ultimately deep sorrow. It couldn’t be more timely. It’s brilliant. It also remind us how powerful 30 brief minutes of film can be. #BlackLivesMatter

And if you like the Groundhog Day conceit, don’t miss the binge-worthy Netflix series Russian Doll.

Ann and I both loved Promising Young Woman, staring Carey Mulligan, who richly deserved the Oscar nomination. Watch the trailer here.

What we’re reading…

There on top, is Eric Ripert’s latest book. The photography, by Nigel Parry (who mainly shoots portraits of famous actors, it seems), is amazing in that it focuses more on cool shots of food than on what are often called “hero” shots, the beautiful finished dish. Eric’s book is full of simple, clever recipes for vegetable courses. He sent me a copy, but I’d buy it just for the looks alone, and then use it because the recipes are simple but ingenious.

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes. Barnes writes with such consistent intelligence and eloquence, I will read anything he writes. This odd volume, published in 2013, comprises three longish stories: an engaging look at the history of ballooning and photography, and how it changed our perception of the world (non-fiction); a fictional love story that involves ballooning, photography and Sarah Bernhardt; and a short memoir on losing his wife, Pat Kavanagh in 2008 after nearly 30 years of marriage, a compelling reflection on grief, that manages, credibly, to use the metaphors illustrated in the previous stories to enhance the last. It’s brilliant. What a fine writer. If you’re a fiction reader and haven’t read his Flaubert’s Parrot, I recommend you make that the very next book you read. Then come back to Levels of Life.

Ann just started Paula McLain’s new novel When the Stars Go Dark. “She had me at Glock. Gorgeous writing too,” says Ann. McLain lives in Cleveland (yay!) and is the author of The Paris Wife and other books.

In the obits…

Pursuing my love of form of the obituary, something I share with my wife, who actually wrote a novel called The Obituary Writer, here are a few from The NYTimes that caught our eye.

Sometimes obits tell you social stories you’d never have otherwise known. Such as how Daniel Kaminsky caught a flaw in the fabric of the internet that would have made all our information, banking and so forth, vulnerable. The subhead to the link is, “If you are reading this obituary online, you owe your digital safety to him.”

Other obituaries bring you back in time, like this one of Helen Weaver, a paramour of the author Jack Kerouac, which took me back to the West Village of the 1940s and 50s.

And this is a personal one. I was a copyboy at The NYTimes from 1985-1987. During that time, the assistant Metro editor was Chuck Strum, who died this week at age 73. I clerked a lot on the Metro desk. The Times, NYC itself, was hard. I found a half naked man in my closet at 95th and Riverside (he wasn’t supposed to be there), a fellow copyboy got knifed in Times Square picking up the bulldog edition of The Post, and crack cocaine was tearing neighborhoods apart. Inside, The Times was intense and to me ultimately, for me, unpleasant.

But I learned how to report a story and I met great people. Times current wine reporter, Eric Asimov, was a copy editor, as was the sweet Carl Lavin. A national desk copy editor, Rusty King, befriended me and made life more fun generally. Chuck Strum was never a friend. He was just this really kind, smart, unflappable wonderful man at the center of the Metro desk in that very intense world.

Links we’re liking…

England’s Stinking Bishop cheese is soaked in a pear cider. I will simply quote from the Gastro Obscura article:

The Stinking Bishop pear was named after a farmer who lived in the area from 1847 to 1919. Frederick Bishop was, by all accounts, a terrible man who liked drinking as much as he disliked bathing. The drunk farmer’s foul reputation earned him, as well as the pears on his property, the nickname Stinking Bishop.

Is it coincidence the we come across the world’s largest rabbit and the world’s largest Mallard duck in the same week? Who knows? (It’s not actually the largest duck, if you read the story, but the pix went viral. And the rabbit is still missing!)

I learned to knit with pet hair.” Ann’s a knitter and she sent me this bizarre story from The Guardian. People send this woman their pet’s hair and she’s figured out how to turn their pet into a permanent, scarf? But it is more than that. From the story:

A customer asked me to make a replica out of her cat’s fur when it died. She took the knitted cat to bed and slept well for the first time since her loss

And this is a really odd but wonderful story about a farm that invites nearby cello students to play for its cows. What got me was that the cows, after several concerts, began to race toward the cellists when they saw the cellists get off the bus. They loved the music!

And finally …

Watch this brief funny video of llamas on the loose in Sun City Arizona. Lassoed at the end! Have a great week everyone!

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