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HUGS AND QUICHES

Dining critic Amanda Hesser recounts romantic inspiration for new book

for The Brooklyn Paper

Can a woman who makes her living tasting and critiquing food find happiness with a burger-and-beer guy? Readers who followed Amanda Hesser’s "Food Diary," in the New York Times Sunday Magazine for a year-and-a-half, know the happy outcome.

In May, Hesser’s "Food Diary" essays plus 13 additional stories and more than 100 recipes, were published in the book, "Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover’s Courtship, with Recipes" (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., $23.95).

"Cooking for Mr. Latte" chronicles Hesser’s courtship with Tad Friend (a.k.a. "Mr. Latte," named for his favorite after-dinner drink, a no-no in foodie circles). Hesser’s first book, "The Cook and the Gardener," a collection of essays and recipes that describe a year she spent observing the disgruntled, elderly gardener of Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, the culinary school she attended in Villecien, France, was published in 1999.

Sitting at the dining room table in her airy Brooklyn Heights apartment, Hesser, 32, a double for Izak Zenou’s slight, doe-eyed character used to illustrate her diaries (minus the tiny barrettes), recounted the column’s origin and the "very rich emotional year" before her wedding.

"I was a food writer at the Times," Hesser said of the "full-time job" she began in 1997. "During a conversation, the food editors sort of reached out to me and said, ’Oh, by the way, would you be interested in doing it?’"

"It" was the food column that appears weekly in the Sunday magazine.

"One of the comments I get as a food writer is, ’Oh, I read all your stuff, and it must be fun to eat in all those restaurants, but what do you really eat? What do you eat at home?’" said Hesser.

When she suggested "some sort of diary that would answer those questions," adding, "Oh, by the way I’m dating this great guy and he’s really not into food," the editors jumped. They loved the idea of Hesser playing Pygmalion to food-challenged Friend who, when asked which of his five senses he’d be willing to forfeit, chose taste.

"When I proposed the idea of the diaries," said Hesser, "I knew we [she and Friend] were already on fairly solid ground."

But, she added with a laugh, "Had the relationship not worked out, I still think it could have been a good column. And I could have written my version of Tad."

From "how do you do?" to "I do," "Cooking for Mr. Latte" brings the reader along on the couple’s first date in Merchant’s NY, an Upper East Side restaurant that Hesser describes as "the Manhattan equivalent of an Outback Steakhouse. Starbucks decor, loud music and utterly forgettable urban bar food."

Aside from Friend’s Equal-laced latte finale, the date went surprisingly well; meals in each others’ homes (he passes on her salmon and creme fraiche canapes; she’s surprised by his offer to cook and the sophisticated chicken breast with chutney and a tart couscous salad that he serves); a grandmother who accompanies Hesser to Italy then stubbornly refuses to eat in multiple courses the way the Italians do; and the growing affection between two people who find that their most meaningful moments happen at the table.

The book concludes with the exchange of vows in his parents’ Wainscott, NY, home.

"I love that you can open a bottle of Champagne without flinching and are the first to fill others’ glasses," she says to Friend.

"I love your passionate conviction that each day is incomplete without a bowl of ice cream," he answers.

The diaries elicited an outpouring of e-mails and letters.

"One thing I didn’t expect, was the kind of responses that I got from readers," said Hesser. "When you write personally, I think people often connect with things in their own lives and respond."

After Hesser described her first meal in Friend’s home, messages streamed in from women who wanted to recount their own boyfriend-in-the-kitchen stories.

The Italian debacle with her grandmother brought mixed responses.

"People were angry at me for being disrespectful to my grandmother. ’Why didn’t I accept her for who she is?’ they asked. They called me the ’evil grandchild.’" Others said, "That was exactly the experience I had with my grandmother in Greece!" Hesser welcomed the communication.

"As a writer," she said, "I often feel like I’m in a vacuum, so it’s interesting to get a response from someone who isn’t my mother."

Hesser is content with marriage and her new home in Brooklyn Heights. The kitchen is three times the size of the one in her former Manhattan home, she says, and has a great layout.

"Look at this," she said proudly, opening a cupboard under the counter and pulling out a tall trashcan. "You can sweep all the odds and ends right into the garbage. It’s really well designed."

On Saturdays, Hesser can be spotted buying fresh tomatoes at the Borough Hall greenmarket, and her pork chops come from Staubitz, a butcher in Cobble Hill. She and Friend are slowly discovering the pleasures of dining in Brooklyn.

"We love Grimaldi’s Pizza and Noodle Pudding," two restaurants near their home, and they’re becoming fans of the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory near the River Cafe on Fulton Ferry Landing.

Has she reformed her man?

"Well, he doesn’t use Equal anymore," she laughed. "He’s not ever going to be the kind of person who wants to go to Jean Georges every night of the week, but I’ve found that I don’t want to either. Actually, we’ve reformed each other. I drink more beer now and I eat more burgers and hotdogs," she added.

Hesser’s contribution to the Sept. 17 Times Dining Section was a recipe for chilidogs. She suggests stout as the perfect complement.

Veal Chops with Sage

Excerpted from "Cooking for Mr. Latte" by Amanda Hesser (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003)

Serves four

If you are not in the mood for a big, hefty chop, pound the meat flat with a mallet, keeping the bone on, like they do with veal Milanese. It will cook more quickly. You may also substitute pork chops for the veal. If you do, get nice fatty ones (pork has gotten so dull and lean) and soak the chops in salted water for a few hours to brine them. It will keep them nice and moist and seasoned throughout.

4 veal chops, with fat on the outer edge, about 3/4-inch thick, at room temperature
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper, or grains of paradise (not as hot seeds, with a citrusy, nutty aroma)
2 tbs. unsalted butter
1 tbs. olive or vegetable oil
12 large sage leaves

Season the veal chops on one side with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Place a saute pan large enough to fit the chops in a single layer over high heat for a minute or two. Add the butter and oil and heat until the foam subsides. Lay the veal chops in the pan, seasoned-side down. Season the other side of the chops, and sprinkle over the sage leaves, pushing a few down into the pan. Let the chops cook for two to three minutes, until browned, then turn and cook on the other side for two minutes. Regulate the heat so they don’t burn. Pile them up on a thick rustic plate, if you have one.

 

"Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover’s Courtship, with Recipes" (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., $23.95) by Amanda Hesser is available at BookCourt [163 Court St. at Dean Street, (718) 875-3677] in Cobble Hill and Community Bookstore [143 Seventh Ave. between Carroll and Garfield streets, (718) 783-3075] in Park Slope, and can be ordered at A Novel Idea Book Store [8415 Third Ave. (718) 833-5115] in Bay Ridge.

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