Harlem Wednesday


The artist in me is diligently working, so diligently, I'm mostly underground, mole-like in my burrowing - trying to reach somewhere new - hit an unfound vein, unwilling to waiver in my tenacity to mine to the very core of what makes us human, but what lures me out my solitary mineshaft is the same thing that draws out many artists (Syliva Plath to start... and a recent compendium implicates Pollock): my compulsion to cook. Desire to bake. A need to be in the kitchen concocting something. You could say this weakness/passion/enthusiasm is really no different from my underground work - same thing, different setting - an extension of what earmarks me as an artist. I recently heard a symphony conductor tell the anecdote of being a neophyte who dared to knock on the hotel door of "the last Bohemian in Chelsea" to see if the established conductor who lived there might teach him the trade.  The Chelsea Bohemian looked him over and said, "Why don't you come over here tonight and cook dinner? If you can cook, you can compose."

But I know that's not why artists cook. It's not to prove that they're good at composition. Or to demonstrate how they understand what fundamentally works with what and in degrees. Oh no. For an artist, kitchen alchemy is all about instant gratification. Because stirring flour, butter and Brer Rabbit blackstrap together into orderly (or disorderly, in my case) gingerbread Caulder shapes, may not be much different from taking time, oxygen, and powder-kegs of emotion, and distilling them down till you've got a compote as potent and eudemonic and bittersweet as blackstrap-deepened dough. Except that it's quickly finished. And you get to eat it. Unapologetic hedonists that we are.

Yes, food is art. At least in analogy. And I suspect that's what's heightened its status lately. Made it an en vogue subject to photograph. Talk about. Document and catalogue. Art, but accessible. And for the artist, cooking combines productiveness with procrastination in a such an ingenious way in that it simultaneously stalls and soothes the itch to create, while inducing the kind of kinaesthetic flow that snuffs out self-doubt (for a moment) by forcing focus into your hands instead of your head. You can have a baking success (which is easy compared to say, trying to bottle transcendence), then blog about it (also easier than writing something transcendent).

The food blog siren. I've fallen for her before. Many times. Yes, I've tried to cruise-brochure my cookery and cakery stunts. I initially was going to say my failure to be valiant in my food blogging could be chalked up entirely to boredom - that writing about cooking bores me because I rarely want to make the same thing twice, so I don't need to keep a record of my projects. And there's challenge in the actual creation - the threat of burning, for instance, gives the process *stakes* -  but there's no challenge in the rehash.

But I've decided that's not the full truth. 

I also think it's because food is something I do fully for myself. And food blogging devotes a lot of energy to convincing someone else about what they should make, when frankly, I rarely feel so convicted about an entrée that I think it deserves a place on the web as a stand-alone write up. Deb or Ina or Nigella, with their dedication to recipe dry-runs and tweaking, I am not. 

But yesterday, I made something that I felt compelled to write about: Hungarian Goulash.

It was a rare instance when I looked at my carrots and cabbage and nothing sounded melodious. As in, I was clueless how to appease my own appetite. Tired of offsetting Mediterranean flavours with Indian cumin and masala blends often enough to be some kind of Riviera-fleeing, found-myself-at-a-Goa-yoga retreat cliché, I went a different east than what's predictable. The cabbage conjured Magyars, whose cuisine too readily gets the cold shoulder due to unappetizing names, and undeterred, I cued caraway and loads and loads of smoked paprika.

I'm no expert at goulash, but after some authentic Hungarian goulash research, I vegetarianed it, poured in the entire remaining contents of a bottle of smoked paprika, deglazed the pan once, then twice with a nice red wine, and finally presented a steaming pot of bright orange stew to my sceptical guests whose cynical tongues were blind-sided. Now that's worth writing about. Soup with earthiness and tang and all the complex inscrutability of the Hungarian language itself.

Not trusting that I'd remember the caraway or the two (!) onions, and wanting it to turn out *exactly* the same, I made some detailed notes. Fully for myself. It's an incidental bonus that now my riff on Hungarian Soup Paprikash is available to everyone on the Internet who might want to recreate the formula.  

Such formulas can not be said of all of my art.

Enjoy x

Vegetarian Soup Paprikash (Goulash)



2 T butter

2 T olive oil

2 medium onions (1.2 lbs) chopped

1 tsp salt

4 scant T smoked Hungarian paprika

6 cloves garlic minced

1.5 T caraway seed

3 - 4 dashes cayenne pepper

16 oz extra-firm tofu diced

1 red pepper chopped

1/4 cup red wine

2 carrots sliced

1 medium tomato chopped

1/2 green cabbage sliced

5 cups vegetable broth

1 tsp black pepper


1) Sautee onions in olive oil-butter. Add 1/2 tsp salt once they turn translucent. Continue to sautee onions for about 7 minutes, till they begin to brown. 

2) Remove from heat. Add paprika and stir. Return to heat and once it begins to sizzle again, add another swirl of olive oil, then garlic, caraway seeds, cayenne pepper and tofu. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes. 

3) Add chopped red pepper and stir. If things are starting to stick, deglace the pan with some of the red wine, then cover and cook for another 5 minutes over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. 

4 Optional) At this point I fished out the tofu from the pot, and put the cubes on a baking sheet with some olive oil and added a few drops of soy sauce to the top of the tofu (this infuses tofu with a savoury flavour) then put the baking sheet in the oven at 375F and baked the tofu cubes, with the intention of reintroducing them into the soup at the end. This process of baking the tofu makes it more chewy and toothsome (like meat, for those who like that), however next time, since I tasted a few bites of tofu that I neglected to fish out during this process, I'm going to {the winning option:} leave the tofu in the stew the entire time and really compare and evaluate the difference. 

5) Now add the carrots, tomatoes and cabbage. Deglace the pan with the remaining red wine and give it a good stir. If it's not sticking, put the cover back on top and cook for another 4 minutes. (If it's still sticking and starting to burn, add one cup of the vegetable broth and cover the pot - You will need to do this as the next step anyway).

6) If you haven't already, add 1 cup vegetable broth, add some more salt and the pepper, stir then cover and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes. 

7) Add remaining 4 cups of vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer on medium low heat for 30-40 minutes, till the carrots are tender.  Add the baked tofu about 20 minutes before the stew is done simmering if needs be. 

8) Taste and add more cayenne, pepper, or caraway as needed. 

Enjoy your taste-buds' visit to the land somewhere between Buda and Pest!


The painting above is Artist in His Studio by a rather cool, lesser-known American artist, Gregorio Prestino (very multi-talented, inventive and often surprising - he won an award at Cannes for a short cartoon that was inspired by a painting series he'd done about Harlem). Lots of social art and abstract vibrancy... though he was very much an American artist who painted American themes, you'll sometimes find Slavic motifs in his paintings. He taught at the Brooklyn Museum school down the street!