Cooking Day in Zürich
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than two weeks since our Tiffin Club in Zürich with the marvellously talented Marlene Halter, but the time has just blown by since then. We took a one-week excursion south through Piedmont and Liguria just after the dinner, (about which we’ll be posting soon, so stay tuned), but now we’re back in New York and raring to go, though we wanted to make sure to share some images and reminiscences of our very special Bangalore-New York-Zürich dinner on the site. So here’s a glimpse into the day of our Zurich dinner.
The day starts early, when it’s still dark out. It’s a gorgeous fall day and I can’t think of a better way to get started than with a bike ride along the Limmat. Cows, storks, and small school-bound children are just beginning to stir as I return.
After a quick confab and a light breakfast, we’re off to the farmers’ market to pick up the produce and flowers for tonight’s dinner. The jovial, Italian-speaking grocer fills our bags full with greens, late-summer tomatoes, and sweet little onions. We stop by a fruit vendor and pick out a handful of lipstick-red Elstar apples, which should go nicely with the chicken-liver crostini Marlene has planned for one of her courses. On our way out we pick up a basket of grapes called, rather unusually, Chatzeseicherli (or Cat Piss), in Swiss German. The deep blue berries remind me of something I can’t quite place, but once I taste one, the realization is immediate: they taste uncannily like good old American Concord grapes. What better cheese pairing for our multi-culti supper club.
Our bikes loaded up with bags of produce we make quick stops to pick up the top round for Marlene’s Tafelspitz and to pick out the cheese and wine. The cheese stop takes a little longer than the others (for obvious reasons).
Back at the apartment, we need a replenishing lunch after all that biking. We sit on the sunlit balcony with a medley of Swiss cheeses, Bündnerfleisch, Burt’s British potato chips and cold glasses of Apfelschorle—an unlikely (and delicious) combination of apple juice and seltzer water. It helps that our apple juice is an incredibly brisk and fresh-tasting Süssmost from the farmers’ market. Note to self: new signature cocktail for life.
The top round is cooking away on the stovetop, filling the house with a rich, beefy aroma. Marlene, meanwhile, cooks the vegetables, poaching the rainbow chard stems, kohlrabi, carrots, and parsley roots, each in their turn. Meanwhile, Mike and I take a jaunt across the street to the community garden, proud and sprawling under the ominous sight of construction cranes overhead. The wind has picked up and the whole garden is leaning to one side in the stiff breeze. We pick a large handful of mint and make our way back.
We get back just in time to meet the mushroom delivery. It’s strange to see such a bounty of porcini mushrooms in our kitchen. They’re such a rarity in New York that it seems improbable that we should have such a stash to play with. Rubbing their sides with my thumb releases a dark and soothing odor of the forest floor.
I step out to the herb garden on the porch to pick burgundy-red oxalis leaves to garnish the crostini. The pretty yellow flowers also pack a punch: tart and fresh, and beautiful to look at.
The machinery of the kitchen is humming along almost suspiciously well. As Marlene pulls the goat cheese tart with tamarind-glazed onions out of the oven, I’m busy packing up in banana leaves the egli (little “sweet water fish,” as lake fish are known in German). A quick check on the biryani before the guests arrive releases a cloud of garam masala, mint, and onions into the air. Is it hubris to think this is the only kitchen in Switzerland where the smells of biryani and Tafelspitz are commingling?
The guests arrive, and all my daydreaming speculation disappears as one course makes way for the next. The tamarind-glazed onions are improbably delicious with the Swiss goat cheese in the tart, and I make sure to grab an extra piece for myself before Mike takes out the platter for guests.
Guests have downed their Manhattans and wine is poured as we take out the first course, a crostino with chicken-liver mousse, a smear of onions caramelized with apple-cider vinegar and coriander seed, a few butter-bronzed slices of Elstar apples (whose flesh has turned almost peach-like with cooking), and a light salad of Brunnenkresse—essentially watercress but subtly different in its Swiss form. As we start the next course it’s immensely satisfying to note the palpable silence from the dining room as guests dig into their first course.
Next up, without adornment or accompaniment, we serve the tidy little packages of egli—rubbed with a herb paste of mint, cilantro, coconut, spices, and green mango and wrapped in banana leaves before being steamed. Marlene points out something I’d never realized in all my years of eating on and from banana leaves: they lend an almost green tea-like flavour to the delicate fish.
I’m excited when it’s finally time for the biryani. We toss fresh mint leaves and toasted hazelnuts in with the rice at the last minute and serve it with a decadent scattering of shaved porcini mushrooms and a spritz of lime juice. This dish seems both wildly inconceivable in an Indian setting, but still, somehow, just right.
For the next course, Marlene warms hefty slices of the slow-poached top round of beef in a golden broth before layering it into soup bowls with the colourful vegetables, celery leaves, pickled ginger, and ladlefuls of the aromatic broth. It’s the perfect segue away from the rich and decadent biryani—clean and intensely flavourful.
We’re just about to take a breather before we start the cheese course when we’re called back into the dining room with effusive shouts of Supplément, supplément! We’re incredulous, but delighted, and make up a number of extra plates. Luckily we have leftovers.
It’s finally time for the cheese course. I’m still in awe of the number and variety of Swiss cheeses you can find in Zürich. While this ought to be a fairly obvious kind of bounty, I still can’t stop marveling at it. I think we’ve gathered a really fabulous selection: a blaue geiss, a Montoia Alpe, an Arni Schwand Alp, and a Gruyère d’alpage. They represent a nice little spectrum of flavours and textures, and it’s fascinating to see how they play off the sweet and spicy gajjar ka halwa, which I spike with a little apple cider vinegar to give the flavour a little more coherence, and the unique-tasting Chotzeseicherli, which the Swiss guests are ecstatic about, hooting and clapping as we bring out the cheeseboards.
Finally, all the courses have been served and we bring out the rasagulla and join the guests for a light dessert to put a cap on the night’s indulgent meal. The little fresh cheese dumplings squeak in their syrup as we bite into them, bursting with the flavour of elderflower and cardamom. We sip on verbena tisane and pass around espressos as the conversation meanders between Switzerland, India, Italy, and America, late into the night.