Life Cafe Blog

Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

TOMATO LOVE

DIGGING DEEP IN MY PANTRY FOR THE FOOD OF LIFE CAFÉ by Kathy Life

“Life Salad” Menu Picture Riddle for Life Cafe by John G. Sunderland

This is an adaptation from my forthcoming book: How Life Began: Finding Hope, Love and Huevos Rancheros at Life Café in New York City.

This series is about the heritage of the Life Café menu and the food that was on that menu. Many of the recipes originated years ago in the old pantry of my youth, way before I came to New York City and are intricately connected to the history of Life Café and its humble beginnings.

I’m going back, pulling out jars of the preserved tomatoes I made that were inspired by those my mom use to make each summer. And I’m digging into the bags of brown rice and dried beans that I took along on my two-year American road trip with my young husband at the time, David Kirkpatrick (now known as David Life) cooking up wild berry pies and bean and veggie stews over log and mud campfires.

I hope this project nourishes you as it has me over the decades. And I hope you take pleasure in the read and the recipes. There’s more coming!

We were only married a few years. The unrealized hope of a loving marital relationship caused conflict inside me that I couldn’t shake. I looked okay on the outside when I wasn’t throwing myself on the ground in tears; but really I was a total mess.

As David went about with his pals busy with their art and antiquing, I tried to shake off my loneliness. It was probably more than that; it may have been depression. I compensated by expanding my universe from inside the house to the outside and the patch of land around us. There I told myself I would plant my heart in the garden that I would make under the sun and the trees and not in my husband’s shadow.

I planted a vegetable garden and taught myself how to preserve the harvest. I became obsessive. Once I started working the land I couldn’t stop until I was totally wiped or the sun went down and I couldn’t’ see anymore.

The physical work of the garden absorbed me completely, both mentally and physically. Ladies, if inside both you and the home is an emotional desert, go outside and create a garden. I did. With every turn of the sod, I buried my crushing depression. It wasn’t the garden I was planting, it was me. I needed to grow, blossom and bear fruit.

As a child canning was something I’d watched my mother do for years, and a lot of what she did was a mystery. Now married, I taught myself the specifics. Dave and I never had enough money so I quickly learned the fiscal sense of growing, harvesting and preserving.

I remember one hot afternoon when I was eleven when I helped my folks harvest tomatoes in our back yard.

I was a picky eater, but the tomato in my hand called to me. It was still warm from the sun; I took a bite. When my teeth pierced the skin the delicious flavor burst in my mouth and the juice ran down my chin – pure, and fresh. It was the mother’s milk of the earth. That single tomato planted in me seeds of the essence of real fresh food.

Back in our little kitchen Mom’s tomato canning process took over for days. First she blanched whole tomatoes in boiling water in deep white enamel pots to remove the skins making the kitchen a sweet tomato-scented steam bath.

Next she dipped the tomatoes in cool water, slipped off the skins then crushed the pulp of each tomato with her hands over a large pot, added salt and pepper and brought it to a boil. While that was heating up she filled an even larger blue and white-speckled enameled pot with water and put that on to boil too; into it went her Ball canning jars. The jars went in and came out on a wire rack. Boiled and baptized they were now ready to receive.

Now timing was critical. Once the jars were sterilized, she quickly poured the steaming hot stew into them, set the rubber-lined lids on top of the rims and lightly screwed on the collars, carefully placing each jar onto a rack on the kitchen table to cool overnight. As I passed through the kitchen I’d hear the jars “pop” on their own as they formed a vacuum seal. That “pop” meant they were ready and our future as a family was secure.

Months later while getting dinner ready she’d call down to Dad, “Bring up a quart of tomatoes, would you Tony?” He’d built a pantry in the basement to store all her canned tomatoes and the pickles she made from the cucumbers he grew. There were also canned green beans and homemade applesauce down there. Like secrets, at the back of the highest shelf were the jars of the wild mushrooms he hunted during the fall in the woods. I wouldn’t touch them; they looked slimy, evil and dangerous, like witches’ spells he didn’t understand. Of course they weren’t, at least to him. I sat head in hands at the table as Dad heartily sucked them up. I watched and waited while he wiped his lips and burped. But that was the worst of it; he didn’t up and die. Mom and Dad weren’t that happy together, but the kitchen is where they came together.

My mother served her stewed canned tomatoes in little side bowls chummed up to plates of steaming hot boiled ring bologna, boiled peeled potatoes and her homemade applesauce. We’d smother the potatoes with margarine (butter was too expensive for her budget), salt and pepper. The flavors melded simply and wonderfully. This was one of our Lithuanian family’s favorite meals and it was heartily delicious.

For my second garden season I was buried in even more tomatoes. I’d already canned enough of them to get us through the winter. What to do? I had to act quickly. I got a “eureka” moment – homemade tomato juice! I followed my stewed tomato recipe but strained the seeds, added oregano, basil and thyme and reduced the liquid. I was so proud of myself; I’d produced the deep red elixir of tomatoes picked fresh off the vine in glistening glass jars bursting with life-giving enzymes, vitamins and minerals. I can taste it now.

But there were still tomatoes left and I was beginning to run out of steam. I decided to make tomato sauce. Fran, my lovely mother-in-law, told me it was a good idea and that instead of going through all the canning, I could store the sauce in the new Ziploc freezer bags that just came on the market. And, she said, lay them flat in the freezer so they took up less room.

She was right, as always. It was easy to pull a bag of homemade spaghetti sauce for two, four, or ten people, however many showed up at any given time.

The recipe below was used many times at Life Café, but for economy of time and space, we used canned instead of fresh tomatoes at the Cafe. Use the sauce straight on the pasta of your choice topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Or, use it as a base, adding seafood, mushrooms. You can also add carrots, honey or  dash of sugar to add sweetness to it.

Don’t worry if you don’t use the sauce the same day you prepare it. In fact, it’ll taste even better the next day.  Once cooked, you can store it up to 5 days in the refrigerator. Otherwise, freeze it until needed.  Yes, spoon it in those new-fangled zip-lock freezer bags in the portion sizes that suit you. Just remember to store them flat to save room!

Life Cafe circa 1997

ELEMENTAL MARINARA SAUCE from Life Café, New York City

Enough sauce for a pound of pasta

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, sliced

½ white onion, diced

35 oz can whole peeled tomatoes (no not crush)

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup fresh chopped basil or 3 tablespoons dried

Sauté the onions in about 1-2 tablespoons olive oil for about 10 minutes until they’re transparent. Add the garlic and sauté 3 more minutes (don’t let the garlic turn brown or they turn bitter). Add the whole tomatoes with liquid and dried spices. (Hector, head cook of Life Café, said leaving the tomatoes whole helps neutralize the acid.) Bring to a simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat. If using fresh basil, add it at this time. Mash the tomatoes with a potato masher to the consistency you desire.

 


CHASING CHILIES IN LOCAVORE MARKETS, ORGASMIC TOMATOES AND FALLING IN LOVE WITH ROMESCO SAUCE

Life Café NYC on Tour

Turning Chili Under the Sun in Mazarron, Spain, October 2012

The rays of the midday sun still burned hot on my skin, but the usual breeze across the campo felt much colder. Autumn is in the air and on this particular day I got a hankering for the warming taste sensation of Life’s Veggie Chili.

Cool breeze, hot sun. It’s autumn on the Campo

Life’s Veggie Chili was the first hot menu item I served at Life Cafe in 1982 on the corner of 10th Street and Avenue B in the East Village neighborhood of New York City. Chili was cheap to make, warming and healthy. The local bohemians got a cup for 50 cents. And if they had an extra buck, they got it served over short grain brown rice and topped with grated cheddar cheese. The dish was a full protein meal for vegetarians like me and David Life, my husband at the time. I made sure I got the most nutritional buck out of my food staples.

Now in southeast Spain, I examined the list of ingredients for the Chili Paste in the Life Cafe recipe, a vibrant blend of dried chilies and spices. Garlic, Spanish onions, salt, vinegar, oregano, dried thyme – check, check and double check; I had them all. Nada on the whole dried guajillo, puila and ancho peppers. I no longer had the Mexican delis on Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn to raid. Instead I travelled to the nearby towns of Totana and Mazarron during market days with John’s sister Ann and Terry his brother-in-law, local residents. Thank heaven for them and their car. And they knew the roads.

Ann and Kathy Life at Market

Big healthy radishes

John checks out the dried fish at Totana Market, Murcia

Lady locals gossip in front of the olive vendor’s stall

The Moroccan Vegetable Vendor

There is a lot of this fresh and exotic squash

Just picked tangerines, Totana Market

I found the Nora chili, round, fat, glossy dark red. From the Internet I found it’s not hot at all, rather it has a mild, sweet flavor that gives a deep red color to dishes. It’s grown right here in the Murcia region. Now that’s real locavore!

Nora chili on far left

Discovering the Nora chili lead me to Romesco sauce, a classic Catalan condiment originating from Tarragona in Northeastern Spain. Made with roasted tomatoes, nuts, olive oil, vinegar and toasted bread, it’s an accompaniment to all types of dishes, like fire roasted or grilled seafood and vegetables. It also works as a sandwich spread on fresh baguette. I thought how  great it would be on Life’s Grilled Chicken Sandwich in place of chipotle mayonnaise.

calçots

During Springtime in Catalonia entire towns gather in the public square for a calçotada, an annual flame-licked ritual of grilling calçots (a large spring onion) over an open fire. The sweet alliums are served blackened from the ashes of vine-fed flames. Revelers slide off the charred outside layers and dip the silken centers into Romesco sauce. The Spanish appreciate the life in their food. Take tomatoes for example; slice open a fresh tomato here and the aroma can be orgasmic. So it’s not surprising that tomatoes can drive Spaniards a little crazy. Have a look at this link — it’s enough to put you off your ketchup, or spread it on all over! La Tomatina Festival 2012 

Wiping off the tomatoes and putting them back safely into the fridge, I refocused on the Romesco sauce. I just had to make some. The bit of work was worth it. The end product is thick like pesto with the color of rust. The nuts lend it texture and the bread gives body. John couldn’t stop raving about it, saying it was Moorish; spicy and original, a new taste. Try this recipe. It’s one of many variations, and all are good.

Tune in to the next blog to find out what happened to the Spanish version of Life’s Famous Veggie Chili!


THINKING OF OUR FRIENDS

LIFE CAFÉ NYC ON TOUR

November 6, 2012

U.S. Presidential Election Day

There have been showers off and on all day today here in “sunny” Spain and the temperature has dropped 10 degrees from the balmy 76 Fahrenheit it was a few days ago. I’m told it does that this time of year. The semi-desert landscape that surrounds us is turning deep green. This is good. The rains, carefully managed in reservoirs and irrigated in this area, cause a bounty of produce to flourish in the mineral-rich campo soil in this, Europe’s garden.

On the campo, in an almond grove

Little did I know, as my husband and I sailed on calm waters away from New York City on August 28th bound, eventually, for Spain, that after a few shorts weeks a ferocious lady called Sandy would pay the City a fearsome call.

I remember how frightening the warnings about Hurricane Irene were only a year ago. I recalled that in the film “An Inconvenient Truth” there was a warning that the Lower East Side would someday be under water, a reminder that the East Village is only a few feet above sea level. After seeing the film, a friend quickly sold her house on 11th Street near Avenue C and moved her entire family safely into a new house in  Midwood on the far northwest end of Manhattan.

I was so alarmed at the potential damage of Irene in 2011 that I moved equipment from the basement of Life Café upstairs to the dining room. Being on the corner of 10th Street and Avenue B, I expected flooding up to the basement ceiling. At home we plastered big ‘X’s” on our south-facing windows with duct tape. Instead, we were spared.

This time, watching on the Internet and TV from Spain, we were awe struck and horrified at what was happening with a strange mixture of fascination and a sense of guilt that we weren’t sharing the worst of times and keeping Life Café open. But it was a relief not to be in the East Village where the sea came up out of the East River and finally overcame the streets and filled the basements of the Lower East Side.

The night Sandy began to batter the mid-Atlantic region, I took a break from watching the awful news unfold on TV and walked outside onto our porch. A blazing full moon glared down as I looked up into the still clear night and realized it was the same moon that was causing the horrific storm surge to rage into the Northeast coast. Mother Nature has no conscience…

We hear another storm is threatening to assault the East coast very soon, a cold one. We hope you will all fare through it safely.

And we hope all America fares safely through the election and the results as well. Take care, our friends. Our thoughts are with you.