Smoky Lo Mein, Pisco Sours

And other foods, drinks and stories we've been loving...

Smell: “One of the primary things that influences our life.”

In at least two other newsletters, I’ve talked about the our sense of smell and how important the smells of home cooking are. The subject has come up again in a fascinating story in last week’s NYTimes Sunday Magazine by journalist Brooke Jarvis on what smell can teach us about Covid.

The set up of the piece is how denigrated this sense is relative to our other senses. She notes one study showed young people would rather give up their sense of smell than Facebook.

In fact, smell is far more important than we give it credit for: She writes, beautifully, 

Smell is a startling superpower. You can walk through someone’s front door and instantly know that she recently made popcorn. Drive down the street and somehow sense that the neighbors are barbecuing. Intuit, just as a side effect of breathing a bit of air, that this sweater has been worn but that one hasn’t, that it’s going to start raining soon, that the grass was trimmed a few hours back. If you weren’t used to it, it would seem like witchcraft.

Other fascinating facts from the story:

  • Our brains know the difference between exercise sweat and fear sweat. 

  • We may be compelled to sniff our fingers shortly after we shake other people’s hands, searching for information about them that we’re not consciously aware of processing. 

  • Humans are fully capable of finding a scent trail while blindfolded.

  • We can tell, just from sniffing a T-shirt another person has worn, whether that person’s immune system is similar to our own. (If it’s different, we find the person more attractive.) 

The bottom line, as The Times article concludes, is this: all this attention given to smell due to people losing it from Covid, smell has gone from being considered a secondary sense to being recognized as “one of the primary things that influences our life.”

Nothing to sniff at.

What we’re eating…

The best and most intriguing meal over the past two weeks was far and away the Blow Torch Lo Mein. We first read about it in The Times food pages by wonderboy Kenji Lopez-Alt and the brilliant suggestion of charring both the noodles and vegetables with a blow torch.

My wife, Ann, first made the published version, then, wanting to up the sauce quantity and include a protein, I created a new version, which I’ve posted here with step-by-step pix. It’s fabulous and can be made with any meat. There are 9 items to prep, so I did all the cutting midday Sunday, watched a movie (see below), then completed the meal in about 20 minutes.

Other highly recommended meals were chicken Françese (there are numerous recipes but we used this one from Julia Moskin), deep dish pizza (at top) from King Arthur (excellent), and one of Ann’s staples that is so old she can’t even find it on line, slow-cooker pork with peanuts and bell peppers. Oddly, it calls for pork tenderloin; it should really be using shoulder because it cooks for so long. I need to properly update this one and put it online because it’s simple and delicious. 

What we’ve been drinking…

One very fun cocktail over the past couple weeks, featured in The Friday Cocktail Hour, was the Pisco Sour (see below for the other). It’s a traditional sour using the Peruvian clear brandy, pronounced PEACE-ko, and is fabulous:

We’ve also discovered a fabulous (for us) new grape and wine, thanks to our friend Aura Bland at the wine and spirits store, Bin 312, here in Providence. We’ve joined their wine club, 6 bottles at $20 each, monthly. This month featured a Malviràd Roero Arneis from Peidmont, northwestern Italy. The Arneis grape, Aura notes, translates as “little rascal,” because it’s so hard to grow. It was in danger of going extinct in the 1960s, especially with Nebbiolos becoming so popular. Glad it didn’t! This rich aromatic white wine the color of golden straw is a find.

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What Super Bowl food are you preparing …

Now that the Browns are long out of the picture I can focus on food. There is, of course, guacamole—it’s said that on Super Bowl Sunday this country makes enough guac to fill a stadium, literally. I love my simple version (avocado, mashed with minced shallot that has been macerated in lime juice, and salt).

But I want to call attention to this addictive version of the Chex Party mix, which in my family was always referred to as “Nuts & Bolts” (recipe here) and was made around the Christmas holidays. It’s for great snacking during the game and makes enough for at least 20, but it keeps for several weeks in an airtight container if you’re keeping within your pod (please?). Ours is meted out during the cocktail hour cribbage game.

And remember there may be no better hors d’oeuvre than the classic 1950s Lipton’s Onion Soup dip and Lays potato chips. We would sometimes bring this when a friend had a dinner party and asked us to arrive with an appetizer (back in the day). There were two invariable surprises. One, that we actually brought Lipton soup dip and a bag of chips. And two, how rapidly they are both dispatched. 

Somebody tell a joke…

“I’m only familiar with 25 letters of the alphabet—I don’t know why.”

What we’re watching:

Do not miss this utterly original tribute to Sophia Loren by way of Italian-American suburban New Jersey. “What Would Sophia Loren Do?,” trailer here. How did it ever get made? Wonderful, and just 30 minutes long. (The 86-year-old film icon also stars in her son’s excellent film “The Life Ahead” (trailer). Both are on Netflix.)

The Dig,” with Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, in a story about an archeological dig in the British countryside, is a delight despite a clunky side love story. Mulligan’s performance as an ill, middle-aged widow is especially astonishing compared with her performance in “Promising Young Woman,” about a young woman out to avenge her friend by posing drunk to pick up unsuspecting, abusive louts. A really smart script (and don’t miss the small part played by McLovin’, now all grown up). Well worth the fee, we both felt.

Bill Murray deserves an Oscar nod for his performance in “On the Rocks” (Apple TV+) as the eccentric father of a woman who suspects her husband is having an affair. Gosh, he had us laughing.

And Omar Sy is stellar as Assane Diop, gentleman thief in the Netflix series Lupin, the first French series to make Netflix top 10.

What we’re reading…

Both of us are reading Barbara Pym, I Excellent Women and Ann, A Glass of Blessings. Both are excellent. I was a bit waylaid from Pym by Ann’s all-but-finished memoir of her years as a flight attendant for TWA, which I love. She was really struggling with it. This is the third draft I’ve read and she nails it—shows how the real writing is in the rewriting.

New York City restaurant update…

Some have decided to wait out the pandemic, three of which are in my beloved Greenwich Village. Cris Crowley argues on Grub Street argued that when restaurants are allowed to reopen on Feburary 14th, all employees deserve vaccinations. I couldn’t agree more. And the day after his piece appeared, it looks possible. We’re venturing back this weekend; Ann hasn’t been in the city in eleven months. I can’t wait. How I miss the city, miss traveling.

Links we’ve loved…

I just came across Rachel Handler’s intrepid quest, also in Grub Street, to get to the bottom of the country’s buccatini shortage and the suspicious actions of Big Pasta interests (published more than a month ago in NY mag), and still one of the most read stories.

If you want to experience genuine, intense kitchen lust, have a look at Amanda Hesser’s new kitchen: her husband’s house in the Hamptons has been in the family since 1915.

An archeologist who focuses on food and cooking of the Mediterranean, looks at the latest discoveries at Pompeii and offers a glimpse of what a pub meal may have been in the first century there. (Thx Marianne Leone Cooper!)

Also from Gastro Obscura, how did Brandy become Wisconsin’s spirit of choice for mixed drinks?

And speaking of brandy, the NYTimes food pages herald the return of one of this country’s original spirits : Applejack, moving into the ranks of high-end cocktails. I’ve long been a fan of applejack and in 2014 wrote about this distiller near my old home in Ohio, Tum Herbruck, of Tom’s Foolery, who uses the apples and grains that grow near his distillery for Applejack, Bourbon and Rye. (Available by mail outside of Ohio.)

It’s the basis for yesterday’s Friday Cocktail Hour cocktail, a Wright’s Flyer.

Open field radio podcast, which talks about food issues as they relate to agriculture, asked to talk about agriculture and groceries. Podcast:

Chinese restaurant menu descriptions such as “This isn’t THAT good,” and “Customers say this is good, maybe I should spend more time eating in my restaurant,” have drawn enormous attention to this Montreal restaurant. Who wouldn’t love this guy.

Penguins, how did they get here?

As someone who writes a lot of recipes, I was interested in Ben Mims’s article on the new refinements of writing recipes for the Los Angeles Times. I was especially glad to see him note that Morton’s is denser than Diamond Crystal salt, so that a tablespoon of Morton’s is much saltier than a tablespoon of Diamond Crystal. (Via David Lebovitz.)

And I leave you with this astonishing and innovative Nia Dennis floor exercise. A long way from the Nadia Comanice that I watched in 1976!

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