Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Pleasures of a Small Kitchen

Growing up, we celebrated holidays in my grandmother's apartment, which was parked above the red brick grocery store she and my grandfather, a butcher, built in the 1940's. My grandmother was a lousy cook, but not for lack of trying. Until she died, she brought my uncle a buttered hard roll wrapped in wax paper each morning. Her workaday specialities were paste-like oatmeal and chili made with old beef pushed through a hand-cranked grinder that clipped on to the kitchen table.

For holidays, she turned up the heat, roasting gigantic turkeys or dozens of cabbage-wrapped golumpki in the oven. As seemed to be the habit with her generation, she baked everything slow and low. Ever smelled cabbage baking for four hours in a 200 degree oven? Don't.

But the greatest marvel was that she turned so much food out of her little apartment kitchen. We lived in Connecticut, where nearly everyone we knew lived in a house. An apartment was an anomaly, as was a small kitchen. Many Italian families in our town had two kitchens: one on the main floor and one in the basement.

My grandmother was the oldest daughter of a large farming family. I called my sister to double-check the number of our great-aunts and uncles, but neither of us could remember: Tadeuz, Stanislaw, Piotr, Helka--and who was that guy who lived in the attic? Alfred? Albert? A-something. Adolf!

On holidays she cooked for her children and grandchildren as well as her siblings and their children. We lit candles set into painted metal wreaths and woke up early to roll out sweet potato dough.

So it never seems like much of a feat when I cook for five or ten or twenty in my tiny San Francisco apartment. It feels normal, even preferable to one of those weirdly spacious kitchens with a dishwasher or, godforbid, adequate counter space. Cooking with friends like Sonya is a symphony, but not honeyed Debussy, more twangy, abrupt Elliott Carter, full of bumps and starts. Messy, like love, like friendship, like anything worthwhile and good.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Persimmon Jam with Sonya

Now a caveat: when I said in that last post that San Francisco pulled into its orbit good cooks and good eaters, and that my friends were both, one exception came to mind, and that is my very exceptional friend Sonya, with whom I cooked tonight.

Sonya is my closest friend here, and one of the dearest people I know. She is not, however, a foodie, which is one of her many charms.

Some time after we met, but before I learned that she cooked infrequently and detested sweet food, I assigned her to provide the dessert portion of a meal we were cooking at my old apartment on Liberty.

She showed up with a paper bag stuffed with two or three cartons of milk from McDonald's and a jug of Torani pumpkin syrup, the type Starbucks squirts into your latte 'round October. She scalded the milk on the stove, tipped in a bit of syrup, and served the hot, sweet milk in mugs. It was both totally insane and strikingly avant garde, a fast food version of Ferran Adria. Last week we met at a bar where she brought her dinner: two sticks of jerky wrapped in a paper towel.

So it was a surprise when tonight Sonya asked to make persimmon jam for a Montana-bound relative. She bought about eight persimmons, both Fuyu and Hachiya, from the Ferry Plaza farmer's market(which locals know to visit Tuesday, not the turista-crazed Saturday version. I asked her to pick up some lemons, sugar and canning jars, which she found at Rainbow, the co-op grocery in our neighborhood.

The sugar she bought was Rapunzel Organic Whole Cane, which imparted a dark brown color and molasses-like flavor. I read in other recipes that the persimmon's delicate flavor didn't hold up well to cooking, which was certainly the case here, though I'm not sure if it was the fault of the assertive sugar.

The night, however, was a resounding success. We bound ourselves in blankets against the weird cold--San Francisco dipped into the high 30's at night, and my windows are stuck open, so the scene's a bit like an 1880's Brooklyn tenament. Where's Jacob Riis when you need him?

Sonya gave me exactly the Christmas gift I most desired: chocolates decorated with the face of Cordozar Calvin Broadus, Jr, known to the world as Snoop Dogg, formerly of Death Row records, currently a high school football coach, and always in my heart the man who delivered the best-ever musical hat-tip to leafy greens on The Chronic:

Fallin back on that ass, with a hellafied gangsta lean
Gettin funky on the mic like a old batch of collard greens

Herewith, the recipe:

Persimmon Jam
8 persimmons (about 2 cups pulp)
1/2 c sugar (white! none of that hippie bs!)
1/2 lemon, squeezed

Peel, pit and chop persimmmons, then place in a nonreactive pan. Stir in sugar and lemon. Cook over medium heat for about 25 minutes. The mixture should boil and reduce by about 1/3. Bottle.