Well, the time has come. On this, the day after publication and the day of my first official EFB event (at Greenlight Books in Fort Greene, Brooklyn–come on by if you’re in the neighborhood!), I can’t resist giving you a little glimpse at EFB, the book, recipe included, here on Friday Food Writers. I’ve been so amazed and honored by the response to the book so far. It’s always slightly odd putting something you’ve spent so much time working on alone out into the world, and such a relief when people read it with care and then take the time to give you their thoughts. So here, with no further ado, an excerpt. If you like it, please do click on over to one of the stores listed in the sidebar and buy a copy of the book.
One of the most cherished activities of my youth was making forays with my father to The Cellar at Macy’s, which was a gourmet mecca of a kind that is now commonplace in a city like New York but was still exotic back then, especially to a young child. There, we would buy two things I loved dearly: freshly baked “salt sticks”—stubby, narrow, rolls covered with rock salt and caraway seeds; and candied orange peel. Both of these items evoked for my father memories of his own childhood in Czechoslovakia, and we would often talk about his favorite sweets and cakes that couldn’t be bought in America. Standing on one of Macy’s rattling old wooden escalators one afternoon, a dreamy look came across his face as he described a striped coconut confection. I must have been about six years old, and it was the first time I understood that he had had a life before my mother, my sister and me, in a place very far away that he had not been back to for many years. On the bus ride home, while I tried to imagine him as a little boy in middle European short pants and knee socks, we demolished our spoils, arriving at our apartment far too stuffed for lunch.
I hadn’t thought about these trips to the Cellar for a very long time until one day in the kitchen at applewood. I had just finished peeling an enormous metal sheet tray of roasted cipollini onions, which were mixed into many of the vegetables for extra flavor just before plating a dish to be served, and was looking to take a little break before moving on to a similarly huge tray of roasted beets. I stepped over to the grill, where Sarah was scribbling ideas for the evening’s meat dishes on a paper towel. Sweetbreads with turnips, apple-ginger compote and brown butter; crispy pork belly with grilled potatoes and scallion puree; roasted rabbit with fingerling potatoes, rapini and basil pesto; grilled goat with cannellini beans and squash; and duck breast with red cabbage and candied orange peel.
The last item on Sarah’s list caught my eye. Candied orange peel. If she had written it on the paper towel, that must mean that she knew how to make it. And if Sarah knew how to make candied orange peel, chances were there was some in the vicinity. Then I saw it–a full plastic quart container sitting on the stainless steel counter in front of her. It was as though I’d stumbled right back into the Cellar at Macy’s, only this time, I wasn’t separated from the bounty by a glass case. I dipped a spoon in to swipe a few pieces. Savoring the citrusy sweetness, I asked Rachel how to make it, thinking that if I gained the power to produce my own candied orange peel I would have penetrated one of the great secrets of, if not the universe, at least my universe.
“It’s so easy,” she said, characteristically encouraging me as she caramelized shallots for a chanterelle mushroom ragout with polenta (the grill station also made the nightly vegetarian entrée, an extra task that nearly pushed me over the edge every time I worked it). I watched intently as she pantomimed julienneing orange peel. ” Then you toss it in a pot of water, boil it, change the water, boil it and change the water three more times, add the sugar the last time and then let it reduce until all the liquid is gone,” she said. “Voila!” Okay, how hard could it be, I thought, heading back to my beets. I craved that orange peel, and since Sarah needed hers for the duck I didn’t think she was going to let me make off with the whole quart.
At that time, I was especially prone to the kind of longing triggered by the candied orange peel, because my father, he of the giggling on escalators and the unfettered joy at the prospect of eating candy before lunch, had died when Jules was four months old. It had been left to me to pass on to my son all of the details that made him whole, eccentric snack habits included.
It had not occurred to me that I would find anything at applewood to remind me of my father (another reason, perhaps, for my flight from my regular life into the kitchen). Despite his love of good food, he was a man blissfully free of the ability to cook much of anything beyond a very festive cheese fondue. But of course there’s a good deal more to food than cooking, as I had discovered on that escalator.
And so it was with more than just normal apprehension that I bought half a dozen oranges (yes, they were completely out of season) and carried them home through the chilly streets one evening to attempt Sarah’s recipe. As I stood over my stove watching the matchsticks of peel churning around in the boiling water, I thought of my father and all the times we’d eaten it together, often to the point of gleeful illness, in cities and towns around the world. My heart pounded at the idea of being able to recreate, in some small way, the food that strung those many memories together. When the final pan of water had evaporated, leaving just the peel, now coated in sugar, I put a piece on my tongue and tasted those long-ago afternoons.
Jules, who had learned to walk by this time, was using his new talent to get as close to the hot stove as possible. In spite of his eating habits, he was usually good for something sweet, so I gave him a piece to try.
“Like it!” he exclaimed in a surprised voice, chewing and raising his bright blue eyes up to mine.
And suddenly my father was there, if only for an instant, visible in the look of sheer delight on Jules’s face. A few lines of a poem by Wyatt Prunty that I’d loved for many years, since long before I had any acquaintance with any of its subject matter, rushed into my mind. He was talking about the arrival of his own son, but he could have been standing in my dining room watching Jules munch his orange peel when he wrote:
…your birth was my close land
Turned green, the stone rolled back for leaving.
My father dead and you returned.
My own father, I saw all at once, was not lost to Jules after all, and not quite as lost to me as I had thought.
Candied Orange Peel
1 cup sugar
- Remove the peel from the oranges by cutting off each end, then cutting from top to bottom of the orange, following the shape of the fruit, so the peel comes off in big sections. Do not cut off the white pith, just the peel.
- Julienne the peel into thin strips.
- Place the peel in cold water in a pot and bring to a boil to remove bitterness. Repeat 3 times, changing the water each time.
- Place drained peel in a pot with cold water and sugar, bring to a boil, and reduce it until all the liquid is gone.
- Feed to your toddler against the bad advice of everyone who says it will ruin his teeth. Do not feel guilty.