Into The Pan

15 Jan

I have a co-worker, an accomplished young woman, who’s guilty pleasure is reading chick lit.

To her this is a deviant activity.  She was raised by a family of very smart women, is Ivy League-educated and has a rather important job for someone of her not-yet advanced years.  So to her, reading what is the literary equivalent of a pair of fluffy, pink maraboo-bedecked, high-heeled boudoir slippers is a delicious and deviant activity.  It’s a release into a fantasy world where the tough questions life tosses at you include “Manolo or Louboutin?”  “Should I or shouldn’t I?”  and “Champagne or martini?”

I think this is a wonderful escape.  Working in the same newsroom, a place that can make Times Square look like a misty Adirondack lake, I fully understand the need to escape into another world.  But chick lit has just never done it for me.  Nope, I like my literary frippery to have a little more age on it.  My guilty pleasure is historical fiction.

I know, I know, you’re all sitting out there thinking, “Wooooooooo… Wow, that’s so, uhm, indulgent, Ann!”  God, even my guilty pleasures are cerebral.  But, it’s true. When I’m surrounded by chaos, there’s nothing I love more than to sink into a book about another time, far far in the past.

I especially love ones set in New York.  I know.  Another shocking revelation! Thinking about another New York, a New York where people still speak Dutch, a New York that still has hills, a New York lit by gaslight where the canyons between the buildings ring with the echoes of hoof on cobblestone and foghorn on harbor.  That’s my guilty pleasure.

I loved City of Dreams and Washington Square, The Alienist, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Snow In August (but never, ever Suspension, ack, I’m still on the hunt for whomever greenlighted that piece of work). But the book I love most, the book that walks with me at every turn is Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin.

I’ve talked about it before, and I’ll probably talk about it again, but it’s such a love letter to New York, my New York, the New York that skirts the entire length of the Hudson.  There’s a scene that I think about a lot when I’m being tried by life.  The main character of the tale is Peter Lake, and he’s a thief.  But he wants to change, he wants a new life.  So he decides to rob the house of a very, very wealthy newspaper publisher.

The night before his whole life changes–in ways Peter Lake could never imagine–he heads for the Bowery and one of its many subterranean oyster shops (I’m sad that there are no remaining equivalents)¹ .

He orders 4 dozen roasted oysters “from the thyme-hickory fire,” and a pint of cider.

For an hour, his eyes saw straight without a blink while he grunted and hummed, alongside those with pink skulls and dangling powdered wigs in disgusting disarray amid a thousand loose and distended oyster bellies hanging by cords of white sinew.

He turns to a barrister, seated next to him and says “I like to relax myself before a burglary… It makes sense to be slack before a big exertion…”  And the lawyer agrees, “I find that wildness of that kind clears the mind and makes it a tabula rasa, so to speak, able indeed to accept the imprint of pytacorian energy.”

It’s one of my favorite fin de siècle New York food scenes ever put down on paper. And it’s what I was thinking about when I walked out of the fish monger’s a few weekends ago with scallops instead of monk fish.  I wanted to do something comforting and warm because I knew the next week was going to be trying: lay-offs, mergers and a new world order.  So I took direct inspiration from Peter Lake’s meal and made a scallop pan roast² .

I caramelized an onion and cut up root vegetables³ into perfect little cubes and then roasted them all until they were soft and golden.  Then I added chopped tomatoes and clam juice, a touch of lemon and salt and pepper.  After the liquid cooked down a bit I added a touch of heavy cream and the scallops (I halved mine, but I think they’d be even better quartered).  As a final flourish I cooked a large handful of gorgeous, local shitake mushrooms in vermouth and then fried them in olive oil⁴.

It wasn’t authentic.  My pan roast didn’t have Worcestershire sauce or celery salt or chili sauce or even oysters.  But it was delicious, and comforting. I walked into work on Monday with a happy belly and a calm, sedate mind.  And I survived, and in fact seem to be prospering in the new world order.

Sometimes taking the advice of thieves and lawyers, even fictional ones, can really pay off.


¹ I do not consider the Oyster Bar an acceptable equivalent, despite it’s name.  It’s the right idea, but not democratic enough, or frantic and frenetic enough to really scratch the itch.  Oh, and it’s too expensive.  The whole idea of the oyster bars on the Bowery was that they weren’t expensive. They were affordable to all.

² For another beautiful version of a scallop pan roast by Melissa Clark, my cooking double.

³ A large parsnip, 9 tiny turnips and 1 beautiful celeriac from the newly almost completely open Chatham Real Food Co-Op!

⁴ Sprinkle with paprika, frilly sea salt and chopped parsley for a pretty presentation.


11 Responses to “Into The Pan”

  1. Stephen January 15, 2009 at 7:07 am #

    Just found your blog…Fantastic photos. Thanks!

  2. Anne January 15, 2009 at 12:20 pm #

    I’m a chick lit indulger myself. But I don’t feel too guilty about it. Guess ’cause I went to a state school. Ha.

    I also love historical fiction, and I’m going to my library site next to put Winter’s Tale on my reserve list. You should be Helprin’s agent. You could serve up this yummy goodness you made when you’re pitching his books.

  3. Dana Treat January 15, 2009 at 5:14 pm #

    Oh my god. I love Winter’s Tale. I totally fell into that world and had trouble coming out. It is one I would love to read again but am afraid the spell would be broken if I tried to. I have recommended it to many people, especially those who have lived in New York. Thanks for bringing back some fond memories.

  4. Christine January 16, 2009 at 8:48 am #

    After law school and now as an associate who is only supposed to be thinking about billable hours, I harbor guilt when I’m reading anything not related to work. I am trying to break myself of the habit by shutting off the mindless television (my current escape) and picking up a book. After I’m finished with The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, maybe I’ll pick up a Winter’s Tale.

    But what I am most certainly going to do is pick up some scallops on Sunday. This looks fantastic, and warm, and perfect for a nice possibly snowy day.

  5. ann January 18, 2009 at 8:31 am #

    Stephen — I like yours too! Thanks for stopping by.

    Annie — I hope you like ‘Winter’s Tale’ if you give it a whirl. I’m obviously a huge fan. I don’t think I’d like to be Helprin’s agent though, he has some odd ideas about government that I just can’t stomach.

    Dana — I’ve read it and reread it at least a dozen times, and while some of the spell does break on the umpteenth time through it, it holds up surprzingly well. I found it a huge solace post-9/11, I must have read it at least 4 times in the year or two after.

    Christine — You should try “TV Free February!” Basically you give up TV for the entire month except for news in the morning and the Super Bowl, Puppy Bowl or the Oscars or something that you just can’t bear to give up. It’s a great way to read a lot. Good luck with law school. Don’t let them get too far into your head ;-)

  6. Lisa (Homesick Texan) January 18, 2009 at 9:51 am #

    I love all those other books you’ve listed so I reckon I’ll love “Winter’s Tale,” too. How did I not know it was about New York? No matter, there’s been a copy floating around the office for a while and now it’s time for me to take my turn reading it.

  7. Teri January 18, 2009 at 10:20 am #

    Hurray! I’m on record with A Winter’s Tale at the top of my list, too. Currently I’m reading a terrific non-fiction book titled A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century by Timothy J. Gilfoyle that reminds me in parts of Helprin’s ragtag group of Short Tails. It’s far grittier, this tale, and without any white horse, but compelling.

  8. Christina January 18, 2009 at 11:03 pm #

    I’ve put A Winter’s Tale on my list of to-reads. As much as reading is very essential part of me, I’ve been doing very little of it lately (other that student work–I’ve been reading a lot of that!). Every single second of daylight that I’m not at work, I’m in the yard, working. (Except for Friday, when I was back on a horse. A horse! It has been years!) So when bed time comes around, when I usually read for an hour or so before sleeping, I fall asleep the second I hit the pillow. This must change. If it ever rains here again, it will.

    So, Winter’s Tale is going on my list, along with a few others, and somehow or another, I’ll get to reading them. I hear there’s rain in the forecast.

    Question: Why is it called a roast?

  9. Lucy January 19, 2009 at 7:39 am #

    Sci fi, mystery and thriller here. Ooooh! A thyme-hickory fire with which to roast oysters. What a wonderful idea.

  10. ann January 19, 2009 at 9:21 am #

    Lisa — Your copy must be the one with the bizzaro flying horse on the cover, because there’s another one that has a picture of Grand Central that leaves little doubt as to the novel’s storyline. If you read it, I hope you love it!

    Teri — Nice! Thanks for the tip. I’ll be sure to put that one on my list. The Short Tails are such an awesome part of the book. Though I prefer the name Dead Rabbits. Who came up with these things?

    Christina — If you’ve just started riding again, then Winter’s Tale is even more of a must read! I have no idea why it’s called a roast. If I hadn’t already moved my copy of ‘The Big Oyster’ to the new apartment I’d look it up. I’ll get back to you on that one.

    Lucy — Mysteries are great too. “The Alienist” is a fab mystery and a crackin’ good read. If you haven’t read it yet, highly recommended. Isn’t the idea of roasting oysters with thyme so dreamy? Someday…

  11. Miriam January 21, 2009 at 9:56 am #

    My guilty pleasure is historical chick lit – as a former medieval historian, it was my escape from the seriousness of historical research AND life!

    It does seem sometimes that *everyone* has their own version of New York – mine is not Dutch. My New York was always medieval, as that’s where I received my training. I do miss the Cloisters, and the gardens there.

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