Clips

01.13.2015

Last summer I met the inimitable editor/stylist Valentina Llardi Martin and soon thereafter she asked me to help create a food section in her quarterly brainchild, Grey Magazine. I was honored, to say the least. Our first issue together, Grey I.II, has a small food section, but it was a delicious first taste of working with the Grey gals, Valentina, Aimee and Monika. Such trust. Such soaring standards.

So groovy to work with photographer Grant Cornett, whose modern images juxtapose my insistently nostalgic prose. It was also a delight to include recipes from a few of my favorite chefs: Mads Refslund of ACME, Ann Redding and Matt Danzer of Uncle Boons, Zoë Feiggenbaum and my dear mamma, with her rendition of Julia Child’s classic Coquilles Saint Jacques.

In case you don’t live in a metropolis with fancy newsstands in every neighborhood, here is some of the section. It’s printed on gorgeous paper and belongs in your hands, so please get a copy of the real thing if you can.

PRY ME OPEN, PLEASE

GRILLED OYSTERS

MUSSELS YEN TA FO 1 MUSSELS YEN TA FO 2

IMG_4014

SEA URCHIN BUCATINI

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Writing

12.30.2014

My first week on the job was quiet, waiting for the shack to be functional and scooting to the beach in the afternoon lull. At first I stayed alone, letting the beauty of the beach, the water and slanting sunlight wash my mind and body clean. Eventually, I succumbed to their invitations and migrated to the La Susana employees who camped out down the beach from the restaurant in a cluster not unlike the cliques that gathered together to horse around on the circle green at my boarding school. Here, however, the gang smoked cigarettes, drank hot maté and cold forties of beer and told jokes I couldn’t understand, the girls unselfconsciously sunning their thonged derrières. They all lived together in “containers”–shipping containers that had been converted into bunks, worked together and “played” together. I was a curiosity first for my presence, then for my paleness. “Muy blanca, ella es muy, muy blanca,” I heard whispered often. Obvio.

Though slow at first work became utterly manic. The town of Jose Ignacio, which could easily be described as “sleepy” on the Monday before Christmas, was positively brimming by the 27th. The ceviche shack, for all its dreamy, I think I’ll quit my job and get my hands dirty romance, had certain inherent complications, such as (in no particular order), exposure to the wind, making chopping herbs impossible on a breezy day; complete separation from the kitchen, making it extremely difficult to time when to fire orders; one sink, shared with Uri the sushi guy and the bartenders; the aforementioned sink having a drainpipe prone to clogging and spewing water onto the floor, around my feet and occasionally even over my feet. In addition, my limited Spanish did in fact make me flail and I was quite clearly the butt of jokes, which is to say people were laughing at me, not with me (for which I don’t blame them). My hands were not only dirty, they smelled of fish without cessation, and hours each day spent making my Ceviche La Susana mis en place, meant the yellow, red and green bell peppers, together made my nail beds a special shade of shit brown.

In other words, almost all of my dreams were coming true.

Making mis

My most often-used phrase—puedes m’ayudar?—was becoming my calling card, and in my efforts not to miss anything important, my ears perked up at any utterance of the word ceviche, which produced a reaction in me as though someone was calling me by name. Nico, the Uruguayan hipster cashier, often hung out in the shack in the early evening so that he could keep one Ray Ban-ed lens toward the late-setting sun. He’d perch on the bar a few feet behind me whispering ceviche, ceviche, just to see me crane my neck to find out whether there was in fact an order for ceviche or what was going on, like a dog sniffing the wind.

I spent Christmas—the only harbinger of which was a man wearing a speedo, sunglasses and a Santa hat while enjoying his sandy al fresco lunch—making ceviche, cloistered by busy work and sunshine from my family and the cold of the northeast. I dined with Belle and Marcelo, who were practicing parenting on me, and spent my last night at their place before New York pals were arriving and taking over the guest rooms. Marcelo had created a makeshift tree under which were many adoring gifts for Belle and two extremely thoughtful gifts for me: a Turkish towel and maté paraphernalia including gourd, pipe and yerba.

Christmas Sunset

On December 26th I moved into the casa in which sundry employees were living. Two guys and two girls inhabited the two upstairs bedrooms, respectively. I was to share the living room, which had two single beds in it, with a chica called Victoria. Due to a deluge the ceviche shack closed early and I wore my navy plastic poncho home as I walked to the house in the rain through La Juanita.

I arrived just as Nico and Veronica, two of my new roommates, were leaving to go to a party in La Paloma for the night. “It’s going to be very complicated. Lots of my friends will be there,” Nico explained mysteriously. “Want to come?” I declined his offer in favor of a few hours to myself to write and get settled, and while I relished quiet, contemplative time outside of my ceviche shack during daylight, whilst sitting on my bed looking out the window at the setting sun below the clouds, the grim reality of the house was undeniable. The kitchen was a maelstrom of fruitcake crumbs, half-drunk wine glasses and gourds with caked maté. The floor was grotty and the bathroom particularly fetid, with stalagmites of toothpaste growing from the shelf beneath the mirror. I miraculously found the Uruguayan equivalent of Lysol on a shelf in my bedroom/living room and sprayed the cushioned toilet seat before sitting on it.

In characteristic form, I forced myself to take the plunge and dove right into the filth by taking a shower. A drain full of hair, a windowsill with dirt ringed soap slivers and a floor like a petri dish, made me feel as though I was getting dirtier as opposed to cleaner under the feeble stream. After my shower, as I looked through my bag for something to put on, I couldn’t bring myself to unpack. It seemed my clothes would need to be washed if they so much as touched the living room shelves. I congratulated myself for stuffing sachets of Santa Maria Novella potpourri in my suitcase, as it brought sweet-smelling cleanliness and glamour to me on my thin foam mattress atop a flimsy wooden bed frame.

In fairness I had been warned: that night as I “slept,” hundreds of mosquitos dive-bombed me. I pulled the poly-cotton sheet over my head thinking it might protect me, but they knew I was there cowering, and buzzed near my ears to wake and lure me out. I warred with the bloodsuckers all night and when I rose in pinkish dawn light, it was to find the wall beside my bed a canvas of bloody splats where I had murdered the Draculean insects in my frantic half-sleep. I over-dozed in the bug-less respite of morning, and when I woke it was to the unmistakable squeaks and sighs, umphs and groans of morning sex coming from the room above. The bar manager and his girlfriend, the hostess, were enjoying the delights of youthful summer love. I didn’t begrudge these two their aurora fucking, but I knew I couldn’t remain in this house for another night and started to gather my things, hoping to sneak out before the couple finished their dayspring fornication.

Leaving my packed bags at the casa in the hope of some miraculous as yet unknown lifeline, I went to work. That evening, I recounted this to my newly-arrived New York City friends over dinner. They naturally laughed at the hoopla, but were aghast at the description of where I was currently residing. “We’ve got a room for you. It’s small, and on the other side of the kitchen (a.k.a. it’s the maid’s room), but it’s clean and it’s yours.”

I moved blissfully in with them that night after dinner and stayed for a week in the lovely maid’s room of their beachfront rental–the exact room I hoped for on this journey: small, white, one single bed with a window above it that framed the waxing moon and a clean bathroom. Why such simple things are so hard to find I shall never understand, and I plan to someday have a room such as this to give adventure-seeking, solitary artists and lost little lambs with aching hearts shelter from the storm.

P.S. Don’t be misled by my anecdotes of endless chopping and constant moving, I am sublimely happy.

* * *

Ceviche La Susana, recipe by chef Marcelo Betancourt (serves 1)

1 large fillet of local white fish (Brotola), cut into inch cubes
1 large pinch sea salt
1 glug of Tobasco Sauce
5 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed pomelo (grapefruit) juice
1 tablespoon brunoised mango
1 tablespoon sweet corn, blanched on cob, then shorn off
2 tablespoons julienned criollita (red, yellow & green bell peppers and red onions, cut into matchsticks)
1/2 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped

Prepare your mis en place. (Depending on how many servings you’re planning on, this can take a while if your knife skills are underwhelming. If you’re serving 100, I speak from experience when I say you may want to get started. Like now.)

Chill all ingredients.

Add ingredients to a small bowl, stirring to blend ingredients. Let chill for 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a cold clean bowl. Garnish with a mango slice. Eat immediately.

 

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Writing

12.21.2014

It’s been quite a year. When I think of my life last December—the beginning of that month, the end and all that followed, it’s hard even for me to believe where I’ve wound up. I’ll tell you in a moment, I swear.

About a month ago, I did something crazy: I quit my job at a fantastic restaurant and chef-focused PR firm, to go on an adventure and recalibrate my compass. Funnily enough, the itch for change brought me to the most unexpected of places: Uruguay, a country from which I know exactly four people. Sisters Francesca and Isabella—whom I have loved since high school, Marcelo—the man who loves Isabella, and a man whom I once loved are my only connection to the place. For years our pals have been jetting down for winter visits to Belle here and I’ve always wanted to go, but life has never been such that I could just jaunt to South America for a winter hols. This year my life was no more conducive, yet that’s nearly just what I did.

Last summer, when I met Belle’s fiancé Marcelo at a boozy dinner, we got along like butter and jam. He oversees five restaurants in José Ignacio and its environs, and when he told me to get my ass down here, I countered that I would need more than just an invitation—I would need a job…and so he said:

“You’e hired. All I do is battle with finding people to hire for the season. One less person to find.”

“Great,” I said. “Put me to work in the kitchen; let me brood on peeling potatoes and chopping onions.”

He left for Uruguay the next day and I went back to my life: waking up every morning on 17th Street, going to my job, trying to do well at it; getting happier; drinking wine. Changing incrementally and knowing something was building inside me. The seasons began to shift. With the scent of winter I recalled the brutal one that had come before. All New Yorkers will shudder when they think of last winter’s unending cold, but in my case, it was worse than that: my mother was ill; I was heartsick. So when Marcelo emailed in November to confirm that I was showing up on December 15th, I realized that the seed of the idea, which I hadn’t taken all that seriously, could grow into the exact experience I needed. What had been nothing more than a pipedream suddenly appeared as the panacea.

I longed for the meditative lull of repetitive motion, of doing something until it’s done. Starting with a stainless steel bowl of giant carrots and making them all into matchsticks, that sort of thing. Scrubbing radishes under water so cold it almost burns your hands. Rolling dough: pushing and pulling and kneading separate elements together. That’s what I wanted. Promoting food and chefs in any capacity is a dream job, but I’ve so missed getting my hands dirty and the quick satisfaction of making something that is eventually, if not immediately, delicious. And writing, I missed that most. So I said yes—yes to whatever it was this job would entail, knowing that an adventure with sea, sand and sun would accompany it.

A few days later Marcelo and I spoke to go over logistics and expectations. “Well,” he told me. “I’ve come up with a slightly different plan for you.”

“Tell me,” I said.

“There’s this shack out past the main dining room at La Susana, closer to the ocean. Last year it was a bar and this year, I want it to be a raw bar. So you’re going to be the ceviche girl.”

“Oh,” I said.

“We couldn’t have you come all this way, to what is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and keep you in the kitchen peeling potatoes. This way you are out in nature, talking to people, making something immediately delicious.”

He’d more or less read my mind in terms of what I was craving. I’d never actually made ceviche, the stuff New Yorkers eat at cocktail parties out of martini glasses? I don’t really speak Spanish, so I had to picture myself out at this bar past the main dining room at La Susana, the restaurant he’d opened last year, with the ocean lapping or banging over my shoulder, me miming and flailing, looking stupid, sounding worse and no doubt burnt to a crisp with my hands deep in raw fish.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I’m in.”

You see, I needed nature. I’ve been on an upswing for a while now, but I needed to be in nature to fully restore my faith in the world and I needed to go as far out of my comfort zone as possible to fully restore my faith in myself.

Isabella has a southern hemisphere outpost of The Shack Yoga down here in José Ignacio, so there’s that too. After not exercising for the last 6 months, I can realign and do yoga everyday here with Belle as my instructor.

As soon as I committed, the universe provided everything I needed to make it work (there it is, that faith thing—regenerating like the lost arm of a starfish). And so I quit my job, bought a plane ticket and here I am: Ceviche Girl at La Susana. The adventure starts here.

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Writing

11.26.2014

Recently the lovely Dana Drori of the new site Aftertastes–a place of word-loving foodies–asked to come and talk to me in my kitchen of childhood. Here is a bit of our conversation:

Dana: It’s one thing to watch people move through their own kitchens, the space an extension of themselves, an unconscious grasp of spices or tea mugs. It is entirely another to watch people move through the kitchens in which they grew up. Past spaces rekindle past habits—the way we open our parents’ fridge or sit, knees-up, on the couch—but the familiarity is also hesitant, qualified by the feeling of passed time.  

When Tarajia Morrell revisits her mother’s kitchen, the comfort is palpable but mature, her present layering on her past. The actor-turned-restaurant-publicist, freelance writer, and founder of The Lovage invites us to her childhood apartment just as she’s about to prepare lunch, a wintry take on a frisée salad using brussels sprouts as a base. The kitchen is bright and cozy despite the overcast light from a grey Manhattan morning. Edith Piaf echoes from the living room. We talk rather than interview, the stories emerging as sharp and as well-known as the smell of a simmering mirepoix

Tarajia: Since I was old enough to walk, or carry things without spilling them, I was expected to help out at dinner parties. My parents were always entertaining: inside the apartment in the winter months, outside on the terrace in the summer months. When we had fancy parties, my dad would let me carry a tray with champagne flutes on it and pass them around to people. Before that, I was going around the room with a plate of hors d’oeuvres, saying “would you care for one?” with a handful of napkins in my other hand. I learned how to be a cater waiter by the age of four!

My mom taught herself to cook when she met my dad. He’s in the wine business; he was pouring extraordinary wines and he expected his gorgeous young wife to make some great food to go with them, so she taught herself. Her cooking is definitely of the French ilk—you know, that formalized haute cuisine, homemade French recipes—Coq au Vin, tons of salads, roasts, really traditional French stews. Things that she could make ahead and then go to her job and be able to put dinner on the table quickly.

I am an only child, so my mom was my companion. When I was really little, I always wanted to be with her while she cooked dinner. It was a tiny kitchen, and there was nowhere for me to stand and not be in the way, so I would sit on top of the refrigerator and talk to her while she cooked. And she put me to work! But it was always super interactive and fun.

She and I cook very well together. We have a rhythm, even in this tiny kitchen. The second my father comes in, it’s ruined! We made a really nice rabbit feast upstate a few summers ago. I decided I was going to break down the rabbit myself (I learned from a YouTube video).  I think it’s important to have a sense where food is really coming from, and not that it just arrives as a perfect filet at the grocery store. It’s from an animal—that should be respected! I find it more satisfying, to eat and to cook, when I am starting as close as I can to the living thing.

The first thing I was taught to make was vinaigrette. I feel like every household that eats together has a house vinaigrette. Ours is still inedible in my memory: it was a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, fresh pepper, sea salt, mustard powder, garlic powder, and one part balsamic to four parts olive oil and four parts vegetable oil. That was the vinaigrette growing up. I would never make that in a million years today.

This restaurant silver is my childhood. I was small so I had to use the salad fork. My mother cooked for me every single night of my childhood, and we did all eat together a lot. Dinner is a pretty great thing to show up for in this household. When I left home for boarding school, she would send me these hilarious care packages, like vichyssoise and other dishes she made from scratch that she knew I could heat up in the microwave.

I am obsessed with my mom’s Dansk cookware. She has been cooking with it since 1974. I have my own set—mine are red and yellow, hers are yellow and green—and they are my favorite things in the kitchen. I find them so beautiful. I use them for everything: roasted vegetables, fish, a cassoulet. She gave me a couple to start me off, and I bought the rest on eBay.

Even though our family’s cooking involved a lot of French food, it was still super practical. My mom made delicious roast vegetables and simple dishes that don’t take much work, you just season them well. I find that that’s really a great way to eat. In the winter I’ll roast a bunch of vegetables on a Saturday, and I’ll make an aioli and bring that to work. I used to hate mayonnaise but now I absolutely love it. I got into it when I first started making it from scratch, but now I’ll even eat Hellman’s. A tomato and mayonnaise sandwich in August is my favorite thing in the world.

I started working in food when I moved back to New York from Los Angeles. I did not love it there. When I got back, something kept telling me: food, go back to food.

So I took a French culinary class. I wanted to take a serious culinary class because there was so much to learn, and I wanted to learn the right way, because my mom was self-taught and I wanted to fill in those blanks, like sauces and other things that you learn in a French serious atmosphere. I can’t imagine French food will ever die out. Of course the healthy Californian clean food is the food of the future, but I think there will always be a place for delicious winey stews. And I don’t think it has to be in every house or restaurant, but it’s too special to let it fall by the wayside.

The Lovage was born out of being inspired by that culinary experience, and wanting to put pen to page. I always had written, and I realized that I could use food and my love for cooking and eating as a lens with which I could see everything else. I could relate any kind of experience to a meal or to some aspect of a meal. My posts are infrequent because I’m so consumed by my day job, but each post is borne out of love. It’s calledThe Lovage, after all. It’s a place of good vibes. It is tiny and neglected and not fancy but it has brought only amazing things into my life, amazing opportunities, people, love, amazing experiences. The more I put into it, the more it gives me. The Lovage is an extension of the way I was raised—at the table and in the kitchen.

Food and Love. That is all I think about.

All photos by Matt Rubin.

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