White Asparagus, a TWA Meal...
Fly Girl, books, cocktails, links and more ...
I may have prepared white asparagus at some point in my cooking life, but I don’t remember it. I do remember many orders at restaurants and I was never a huge fan. Too stringy, insipid.
But when my wife, Ann, began planning a special TWA 1st Class meal to celebrate her new book, Fly Girl, she asked for it. In addition to the Chataubriand and Chateau potatoes, she said they always served white asparagus. Alas none of the Whole Foods in Providence had any.
Happily, I was in NYC, and a new grocery store, Gourmet Garage, opened in the old Mrs. Greens (the old Duane Reade) at Hudson and Bank Streets, near our place, and there were five pounds of big, fat white asparagus. I texted, Should I buy? Ann was thrilled. Buy them all, she said. I did.
The following morning on Amtrak’s NYC-to-PVD train, with the TWA dinner just hours away, I figured I’d better Google how to cook white asparagus. When Jean-Georges and I discussed white asparagus, he told me he always double peeled them and that you had to cook them thoroughly, till completely soft and tender. Working with Gabriel Kreuther on his book The Spirit of Alsace, I watched him put together a white asparagus dish—but it was November. White asparagus season is from March through June.
He explained they freeze great. Just peel them first and freeze. Five minutes from frozen to cooked, he said.
So, there I was, barreling toward Providence, thinking about white asparagus when it occurred to me that my white asparagus were perfectly stored (ends cut off and standing upright in plenty of water) … in our West Village refrigerator. I’d forgotten them.
My fly girl was not happy.
But God intervened on behalf of our marriage. The big Whole Foods had just gotten a shipment in as I arrived in PVD. Five pounds.
More about the dinner below—it all worked out in the end (it always does). But when I arrived a few days later back in NYC, I had all this beautiful white asparagus to play with. Many people had asked on Instagram how I intended to cook them.
After a discussion with my partner in Charcuterie, Brian Polcyn, I decided not to boil them (as JG does), but rather to simmer/steam them in a mixture of butter and water, salted, covered, till tender. This worked beautifully as all the flavor that leached into the butter-water, would later be captured in the sauce.
I added more butter to the pan after removing the asparagus, simmered it until all the water had cooked out and I was left with white-asparagus-flavored brown butter. I added 2 tablespoons of minced shallot that had macerated in lemon juice to the brown butter.
I plated the asparagus, sauced it with the lemony brown butter and shallots, then topped them with hard-cooked egg that I’d sieved, a garnish sometimes called a mimosa. It was fabulous.
But I knew it would be. I just took a different template for a classic dish, Leeks Vinaigrette, and applied it to white asparagus.
So if you see white asparagus, the fatter the better, buy them! Cook them or freeze them.
Here’s a good Food52 story on the white asparagus of Germany, called spargle.
The TWA Meal…
Ann Hood was a flight attendant for TWA from 1978 to 1986, straddling the eras of truly elegant travel and flights that felt increasingly like being on a Greyhound bus. She enjoyed some of the old world elegance. In addition to learning the various planes, all the airport codes (there are nearly 20,000 in the US), how to evacuate a plane and give CPR, she also learned to toss salad and carve Chateaubriand in the First Class aisle.
Ann wanted to recreate this meal for friends and to write about it. She was, after all, celebrating and promoting her fabulous new memoir about those years (all she learned from the work, all the amazing stories of passengers and love affairs, and layovers in foreign lands, not to mention the rampant, astonishing sexism in the industry).
Ann’s daughter, Annabelle, designed and printed the menu. And Ann’s old flight attendant pal, Matt Davies, flew in from LA to help her roll our cart around the table to serve.
Cocktails, Martini or Manhattan, with warm nuts.
Salad: with Balsamic Vinaigrette or Country French Dressing
Chateaubriand with Béarnaise Sauce
Stuffed Baked Tomatoes
White Asparagus with Brown Butter and Lemon
Parker House Rolls (from Chef Beau at the amazing New Rivers restaurant)
Ice Cream Sundaes (also served from the cart)
After dinner drinks: Stinger or Brandy Alexander
When the last guests don’t leave until 1:30 on a weekday morning, you know people are having a good time. I even coaxed Jimmy Bradley to whip the Béarnaise (in his sporty blue hounds-tooth-check jacket—everyone dressed as for a first class flight in 1978, which would be blazer and khakis for me).
As far as book tour events go, this is one of the best ones I’ve been to. Ann’s on the road all this month with her memoir. Check her site for dates (mainly in New England, but today in Maryland, tomorrow in North Carolina).
If you’re curious about her memoir—a coming-of-age story, a working class girl’s empowerment within this fascinating, sexist, complicated profession—here’s a particularly informative review from NPR along with another new good book, The Great Stewardess Rebellion.
What we’re drinking …
Last Sunday, I returned to NYC from my son James’s graduation from Syracuse University (congrats, James!) and promptly tested positive for COVID. Thus I would not be returning to Providence as planned but rather isolating solo in our West Village pad.
Which gave me (feeling only as if I had a head cold), time to experiment with white asparagus and, importantly, America’s iconic cocktail, The Martini. I’ve long espoused a 5-1 Martini, just enough vermouth to taste it. (If you prefer the direct method, storing your gin in the freezer and pouring it directly into a glass, as I do often, you must at least add a half-ounce or ounce of ice cold water, otherwise it’s too alcoholic to enjoy. A martini really needs the dilution you get from stirring with ice.)
But during drinks with cocktail historian and writer, David Wondrich, a few weeks ago, he mentioned that in his final drinks column for The Daily Beast, he had perfected The Martini (or as near perfect as possible). A tall claim.
There are two ways a Dry Martini can be great: it can be sharp and incisive, an icy liquid blade that slices through the tough tentacles of worry and duty and aggravation that drag down the spirit and prevent it from soaring. Or it can be what Ogden Nash called "a yellow, mellow Martini," where it's a soft and elegant and comforting drink; even a sweetly (but not sweet) nostalgic one.
Wondrich writes that achieving the right alcohol content, without allowing the vermouth to overpower the gin, is key. He says that a Martini is best between 28% and 32% alcohol. Or 64 proof. Below that, it’s ditchwater, he says. So he discovered the secret: using an overproof gin, Hayman’s Navy Strength, at 57% ABV, or 114 proof. He does the math for you, and his quintessential Martini comes out to 7 parts gin and 5 parts vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters. Believe it or not, it is an exquisite ratio.
I thought this would be WAY to heavy on the vermouth. But it tastes like an actual cocktail, beautifully nuanced, not juniper jet fuel, but with that cat’s claw edge one expects from a good martini.
Here is his recipe:
1.75 ounces Navy Strength Gin (Plymouth or Hayman’s)
1.25 ounces dry vermouth (Noilly Prat or Dolin)
2 dashes orange bitters
Stir the ingredient in a mixing glass till very, very cold, 20 or 30 revolutions. Strain into an icy coupe and garnish with the twist.
What I’m reading…
Out of nowhere Ann bought me a novel, the sweetheart. And being unable to leave the apartment gave me plenty of time to drink martinis and read books. The novel she gave me was Sylvia, by the late writer Leonard Michaels, an autobiographical account of three years in New York City, 1960-63, with a girlfriend, then wife, who is batshit crazy. (They have fabulous sex.)
I haven’t read such controlled observatory writing since Ann finished reading Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, one of last century’s greatest novels, aloud during a long car ride. Leonard isn’t funny like Yates (Yates is viciously, mordantly funny), but his descriptions of New York City in the sixties, mainly in the Village (Bleecker and MacDougal, specifically) complete with visits to the Village Vanguard and a Lenny Bruce show, make this a quick, enthralling read in what is a vanished New York. (Though even in the 1960s, Michaels bemoans tourist-clogged streets).
What Ann’s Reading …
Maybe a new all time favorite, just reissued with an introduction by Maggie O’Farrell (of Hamnet fame) is O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker. Published in 1991, it was her only novel. I am loving every word. Reminiscent of another all time favorite of mine, I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith (of 101 Dalmations fame).
Ann wrote the above last Thursday. Yesterday, Elspeth Barker’s obituary appeared in the NYTimes. It’s a great obit. RIP.
I am so blown away by Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, Ann continues, which takes place in London in the early 1960s. But unlike other stories that focus on the swinging scene there, this novel digs deep into a woman’s psyche when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant from a casual affair and decides to keep the baby. One of the best explorations of motherhood and mother-child love I’ve read.
Wait, there’s more—Ann’s on the move…
Annabelle, Cousin GJ, and I were on our way to see Suffs at the Public Theatre when we got an email that it had been shut down due to a COVID outbreak. Luckily we snagged tickets to the recently reopened Beetlejuice with its original Tony-nominated star, Alex Brightman. I love a high energy musical like this where the electricity hums through the theatre.
And here’s the big project I’ve been working on since January: a temperature blanket. Daily high temperatures (in 5 degree increments) are assigned colors. Every day I record the high temperature, look up the color, and knit 2 rows! A record of climate change perhaps, since the dominant color has been Fjord (51-55 degrees), even during a New England winter.
What we’re watching…
Before I got COVID, indeed before the entire MCC theater shut down due to COVID, we saw a fabulous play called Which Way to the Stage by Ana Nogueira. It’s a very funny play about friendship and ambition in the NYC theater world. A great show, especially if you’re a theater nerd.
I happen to be working on a fictional story situated in Cleveland in 1980. To return to that world I watched two older movies that I can’t recommend enough, especially if you’re nostalgic for the 1970s. Dazed and Confused (1993), Richard Linklater’s delightful paean to 1976 high school youth—a brilliant period piece, with a wonderfully smarmy Matthew McConaughey as the older townie who won’t give up high school pleasures.
Next up was Borg vs. McEnroe (2017), the story of their famous 1980 Wimbeldon Final; Shia Labeouf as the hot-headed McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason as the reserved, but equally volcanic, Bjorn Borg. It made me long for my old tube socks.
And from Ann:
As everyone knows, I like to watch a good detective show—preferably British—while I knit. This week I started Annika, starring the fabulous Nicola Walker as a detective in Glasgow solving marine murders.
Links we’re loving…
If you want a short dose of the aforementioned Leonard Michaels, listen to Rivka Galchen read Michael’s short story “Cryptology.” I love The New Yorker Fiction podcast in which writers choose favorite stories published in the magazine to read aloud.
Also from The New Yorker, we enjoyed Ron Gallelas relentless gaze about photography and celebrity.
I was delighted to see that Apple and TSA are working together to allow pre-checked passengers to move through security using just an iPhone.
Acclaimed Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis was often so broke in the 1970s that he would pay for his lunch with paintings at his regular haunt. The owners are now bringing one of them to auction where it is expected to fetch $27,000.
And if you haven’t seen the movie about this artist, we highly recommend Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.
We’re very eager to see the new Matisse red room exhibit at MOMA. The Guardian calls it absolutely enthralling.
This has been an ongoing source of ire for Ann, who finds this new custom appalling. More and more couples are requesting money (Venmo is fine!) to cover the cost of their honeymoon, or even simple, eventual dates nights. Very curious what people think. Drives Ann bananas. I think it’s crass as well, but they can ask. That said, I’m not picking up a couple’s bar bill at The Four Seasons in Florence. A good Le Creuset Dutch oven is much more appropriate.
I did not know people could hold their breath for ten minutes, but these divers can when they swim with sharks. (NYT)
A chef acquaintance runs an excellent restaurant on our street, Balaboosta (Hudson and West 12th). So I was delighted to read in Grub Street that the chef owner, Einat Admony, has moved into Stand Up.
And finally …
I continue my dive into 1970s culture of my youth with this classic bit by Dan Ackroyd an is indelible depiction of Julia Child (Child thought it a hoot), from 1978.
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