Mark Bittman is a hero of mine. Many of my most successful meals can be traced back to his Minimalist column, and my recipe collection is stacked with cuttings from it. People say that I am a great cook, but really what I am good at is spotting great ideas, and The Minimalist is a font of those. My attraction for this style is not so much the ease of preparation, as much as his innovative attention to the pairing of complementary flavors, so that, using a minimum of ingredients, he can create a dish of understated elegance.
Chris has a different approach to cooking. In her eyes, I like to tease her, Mark Bittman is the Antichrist. This is because I have never met more of a “more is more” foodie than Chris. It’s as if she views ingredients as having a multiplier effect on taste, while I am trying to balance an equation. For example, presented with home canned pears, Chris will marinate them in apple juice with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, throw in some apple jack brandy for good measure, then grill them and drizzle with the canning fluid that has been reduced with extra orange zest and a bit of milk to make it creamy. All of this will be served over a cinnamon crumpet. (For more about this creation, and about Chris’ approach to food, see Brian Blaho’s brilliant rendition in his story Pills). But for minimalists like me, this plethora, even redundancy, of ingredients is a bit overwhelming. How can you ever find those delicious pears that are submerged in there somewhere? It’s like with bagels and lox. If I am getting a bagel and lox with the works, no way am I going to get it on an everything bagel. “The works” and the “everything” compete too much against each other. Chris, on the other hand, would not dream of getting anything else.
This basic difference between us is reflected in the way we have furnished our respective homes, too. Mine has clean lines, each piece chosen with care and arranged in a way that each gives the other lots of space to be itself. I have only the number of glasses, plates, and silverware I need, and they are respectively: clear, black and white, or grey. Chris is a collector. An eclectic collector. Her house is filled with furniture, ornaments, and kitchen gadgets that she has amassed, all rubbing up against each other. She has a collection of glasses that range from antique ruby red goblets she inherited from her Italian grandmother to brightly colored perspex tumblers found on sale at Target. Somehow it all makes sense in her space, and I feel at peace being there, as she finds relief in mine. At the same time we sort of marvel at each other’s insanity.
Where we have common ground is in grilling. Chris loves to grill, and this preparation lends itself to the simple seasonings and spices that I favor. Here is a recent menu I put together, with me seasoning and Chris executing:
Corn grilled directly on the flame, topped with olive oil, salt, and torn basil leaves. This was inspired by The Minimalist’s July 28 column. In his version, Bittman calls for parmesan cheese as well as the olive oil and basil, but I left this out and added salt instead. It turns out corn and basil work fantastically together, and I will be forever grateful to The Minimalist for this one.
Porterhouse steaks, seasoned with “Something South African” Sweet and Smoky spice rub. Chris discovered this rub at Marshall’s, and while I am generally suspicious of store- bought spice blends, in this case I can vouch for its authenticity: it is the closest that I have found to replicating the flavor of the South African braais of my childhood. If you can’t find it, you can always make up a batch yourself, using sea salt, garlic, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, cumin, ginger, garlic oil, chili, and sugar, and use wood chips in your fire. We would always make some version of this from scratch when I was growing up, braaing over wood fires.
No frills grilled asparagus
Bellingham Cabernet Sauvignon The hearty porterhouse, particularly in this zesty version, calls for a big wine. I paired it with the Bellingham, a South African wine which is not widely imported, but which I stumbled on at Libbie Market (formerly Joe’s Market) in Richmond, VA. If anyone knows of a DC source for this, please let me know!
Ciao Bella Key Lime Graham gelato. Truly, Ciao Bella gelatos render me speechless, and this flavor was no exception.
For the occasion, Chris brought out her gold and white Plaza plates with a big P in the middle that she picked up at the hotel’s fire sale, and her silver pedestal ice cream dishes from eBay.
This post is dedicated to Dr. Joseph Svoboda, Chris’ dad, who passed away a few days before we had this meal. Brian talks about him in his story too.