Lesson from Palermo
July 2, 2014
A decade or so ago, I visited Sicily. Eager to avoid eating like a tourist, I asked during my first afternoon over coffee in a little Palermo café where I could find a real Sicilian dinner.
A few hours later I was walking around the Teatro Massimo to a restaurant whose name I now forget.
It turned out to be huge, perhaps 100 tables, not very promising, I thought. I was seated right away and was told what the fish of the day was and what it would be served with. I was given a bottle of house wine, uncorked, and invited to visit the antipasto area.
No plates of veal or pasta could be seen on any table. Everyone was eating either a whole fried fish or a variety of antipasti as an entrée to the meal.
I walked to the front of the restaurant to the antipasto area and found there the variety missing from the diners’ tables: Sticks of fried eggplant, octopus salad, carrots and greens, olives, caponata, grilled red peppers, cheeses, salumi, fish, tomatoes, arancini, and I don’t remember what else.
The foods looked fresh and in such numbers and diversity that to have sampled each one was out of the question – and so I took bits of some – and could easily have made a dinner—and wanted to. The importance of a main course, the fish had receded (although the fish too turned out to be simple and wonderful).
I have been thinking about the food of Bread Furst. During the past six weeks we have served as evening take-away food Moroccan chicken one week, blue catfish the next, jerk chicken, couscous, chili relenos, spring green vegetables, roasted beets, potatoes and artichokes, vegetable soup, avocado soup. We are making good food with good ingredients and I can’t describe to you what we are doing.
Perhaps I am trying too hard to be consistent, a characteristic I am not known generally to possess, but this seems awfully disjointed and theme less.
When over the many months I was planning to open Bread Furst I knew I wanted in our take-away food assertive spicing, multi-cultural food, local ingredients.
I imagined three or four sandwiches for lunch, one soup, and three salads; and for dinner adding to those salads two or three take-away dishes.
I find now after two months we put on the menu as carryout foods dishes we like and often you like them too. Two of our sandwiches are so popular that I can’t change them. You buy our salads and evening foods but I must be able to understand and explain what we are doing.
I can do that with our bread: We make traditional breads, a line of whole grains, a line of ancient grains, and soon a line of flatbreads – all traditional.
Why can’t I describe our food?
I can talk about food values: Rooted, tradition-based, seasonal, multi-cultural. I can talk about my own style – leaning toward the Mediterranean, heavy on vegetables and grains, foods that are bitter, spicy, sweet/sour. But apart from the pickling program on which we have embarked and our own jams, we haven’t really found yet a food repertoire to which I feel committed.
I think about my style of cooking and what I like to eat on a summer evening — salads with a few grains and herbs and crunchy seeds and nuts, flavors of the grill, pickled herring, cheese, beets.
I keep thinking about that Palermo antipasto bar and particularly at this time of year when fresh, local vegetables are coming to market.
Suppose instead of doing three or four foods each day, we did 20. Suppose instead of making chicken curry, Swedish meatballs, and ratatouille we made half a dozen salads from seasonal ingredients, some grainy combinations, our own tuna confit (tuna-fish), artichoke hearts, bacalao, three-bean salad.
We could set those up each day on the front counter and let you choose from the diversity of our preparations; and we could change those preparations seasonally. It would be an antipasto bar. You would be able to find all the time a few dishes that really interest you.
This week our large and heretofore unfunctioning large case is finally going to function; and this week you will find in that case a range of spreads – hummus, eggplant, pimento cheese and others. We’ll add to those next week and put into the case foods that give you a lot of seasonal choices.
And as summer continues we’ll experiment with the antipasto bar. I trust you’ll comment liberally.