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In her new memoir, My Kitchen Year, excerpted below, former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl reflects on the magazine’s devastating shutdown while she was at the helm – and how cooking brought her back to life.
The Gourmet conference room, a cold, glass-enclosed space, was barely large enough to hold the entire staff, and we stood, packed shoulder to shoulder, as Si Newhouse, the owner of Condé Nast, told us that the magazine was closing. Had in fact already closed.
“What about the December issue?” I asked. It was already at the printer.
“The November issue will be our last.” Si didn’t look at me as he said it, and I caught the eye of Richard Ferretti, our creative director, who seemed as stunned as I was. The cookie issue, the one that had five covers, one on top of the other, was never going to appear?
Si said something bland about human resources, and then he and his entourage left. Nobody moved. We were still too shocked to comprehend what was happening. I blinked, trying not to cry.
Boxes had appeared, as if by magic, and one by one people straggled out of the conference room, picked them up, and went off to start packing their possessions. Many had spent their entire working lives at Gourmet. At last only executive editor Doc Willoughby and I were left, and I finally allowed the tears to fall. He put his arms around me, and we stood for a long while, trying to comfort each other.
I went back into my huge office overlooking Times Square. Every phone was ringing. Reporters wanted to talk to me, and I could hear my secretary, Robin, telling them to call the corporate offices. She is the friendliest person on Earth, but her voice was cold, clipped. She had been at Condé Nast for almost 30 years.
When the noise level in the hall rose perceptibly, I went out to see what was going on. James Rodewald, our drinks editor, was standing in the conference room opening the hundreds of bottles of wine he had collected. “Drink up,” he kept saying, “no point in leaving it here.”
By dusk we were all drunk, exhausted, and feeling very fragile. Not one of us was ready to go home.
We were beginning to understand how unlikely it was that we’d all be together again in one place. Impulsively I said, “Come to my house!” and we trooped off, carrying bottles of wine and whatever we could salvage from the test kitchen.
It was curiously comforting, spending the night together. The cooks cleaned out their kitchens, each contributing something to the feast. Am I remembering this correctly? I think Gina Marie Miraglia Eriquez, the star baker of the food editors, brought one of her spectacular birthday cakes, which sat incongruously in the middle of the table. Paul Grimes, our ace food stylist, brought the hors d’oeuvres he’d been working on for the May issue, and food editor Ian Knauer packed up some of his brilliant bacon-and-prune-laced meatloaf. Food editor Maggie Ruggiero found some shrimp and scallion dumplings in her freezer and brought those along. My own offering was a few little pots of chicken liver pâté. I always make extra so I’ll have some in the freezer should an emergency arise.
It had arisen.
CHICKEN LIVER PÂTÉ
1 pound chicken livers
1 apple (grated)
3 tablespoons Calvados or cognac
8 to 12 tablespoons (1-11/2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 shallots (minced)
Salt and pepper
Serves: 8 to 10
The most important part of this recipe is the shopping. If you begin with a pound of pretty livers from free-range chickens, the rest is easy. Start with the bedraggled bits you often find in supermarkets, however, and you’re likely to have trouble. So beg your butcher for the best, take your livers home and cut off the gnarly parts (they’re bitter), dry the livers well, and sprinkle them with salt and pepper.
Melt a tablespoon of butter in a large pan, and cook the minced shallots over medium heat until they soften. Toss them into a food processor to wait while you melt a bit more butter and briefly sauté the apple. (Any apple will do, but I prefer a firm, tart variety like Granny Smith.) Add the apple to the food processor and melt a couple more tablespoons butter in the same pan. Turn the heat up high and quickly sauté the livers, shaking the pan, until the outsides have just begun to go from brown to grey (they should still glow pink within).
Remove the pan from the heat, pour the Calvados or cognac into it, return to the heat, light the pan with a match, and enjoy the whoosh. When the flames have died and the alcohol has burned off, add the contents of the pan to the food processor and blend until very smooth.
Cut 3/4 of a stick (6 tablespoons) of cold butter into chunks and slowly add them to the livers, as you continue to blend. If you have some heavy cream, add a teaspoon or so, although it’s not necessary.
Taste for seasoning and put into ramekins, custard cups, or small bowls. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, pressing it onto the surface of the mousse. Allow the pâté to mellow in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving.
This freezes very well.
Still slightly hungover from the party the night before, I threw some clothes into a suitcase and dashed to the airport. Kansas City was the last place I wanted to be, but the chef at Starker’s Restaurant had called, begging me not to cancel the first stop on the book tour. “I’ve had farmers raising special chickens for this dinner for months,” he pleaded. “We have more than a hundred people coming to see you. Please don’t let us down.”
My husband, Michael, thought I was crazy. “What do you care if the book sells or not? It belongs to Condé Nast,” he said. “You need to take a few days off.”
“The chef sounded so desperate,” I said. “I just couldn’t tell him no.”
Michael shook his head as he carried my suitcases to the door. His parting words were, “Promise me you’ll eat something at the airport.”
But by the time I got there I had lost my appetite. This trip was a mistake. I felt hollow, miserable, and utterly alone. I was staring blindly at the sandwiches when I realized the woman behind the counter was trying to get my attention. “I loved that magazine,” she said, offering a sympathetic smile. “I could hardly wait for it to arrive each month. Please take anything you like.”
She was so kind, and her generosity so unexpected, that my mood instantly lifted. I looked through the refrigerated case, pulled out a steak sandwich, and ate it with as much pleasure as if it had been a Peter Luger porterhouse.
I know the gift was a tribute to the magazine, not to me, but it was a lovely gesture at a terrible time. To this day a steak sandwich can turn me right around. One bite always reminds me of the power of random acts of kindness.
1 pound skirt steak
4 crusty rolls
If you love steak sandwiches, you need to make friends with skirt steak. It’s a fantastically flavourful cut that doesn’t cost much. It does, however, demand a bit of coddling.
The skirt is a bundle of abdominal muscles that have worked very hard, lending them great flavour and a tendency to be tough. Long and thin (a friend calls it “steak by the yard”), skirt steak has many aliases. In Texas it’s called “beef for fajitas,” and in the Jewish restaurants of New York’s Lower East Side it goes by “Romanian tenderloin.” But in my house it’s sandwich steak because the skinny slices can stand up to salsa, chimichurri, pesto – or simply mustard and a bit of butter.
If you buy your meat from an artisanal butcher, ask for the “outside” skirt, which is fattier and juicier than the inside cut. (If you’re buying meat from industrially raised animals, this is a pointless exercise; the Japanese import 90 per cent of American outside skirt steak.)
Rub the meat all over with salt – 3/4 of a teaspoon per pound of meat – and let it sit in this dry brine for 4 or 5 hours before cooking. This will draw out the liquid and concentrate the flavour. Just before cooking, blot the meat very well with paper towels to remove all the surface moisture, and brush it with a bit of vegetable oil. (I prefer a neutral oil like grapeseed, but it’s your call.)
Skirt steaks prefer high heat (cooked low and slow, the meat turns chewy), so get a grill or grill pan very hot. The steak will cook quickly; 2 minutes a side should give you beautifully rare meat.
Rest the steak for 10 minutes. Now comes the most important part: the slicing. If you cut with the grain, each slice will be a single tough muscle. If you cut against the grain, into very thin slices, you’ll end up with tender meat. (This means that when you’re cutting you want the grain to run up and down in vertical stripes, not horizontal ones.)
Now cut a crusty roll in half, butter one side, spread mustard on the other, and heap it with steak slices. You can add any condiments you like, but this meat is so tasty it really deserves the spotlight to itself.
Excerpted from My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl. Copyright © 2015 Ruth Reichl. Photography copyright © 2015 Mikkel Vang. Excerpted by permission of Appetite by Random House, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., a Penguin Random House company. All rights reserved.