A long train ride back from a weekend in Syracuse, New York called for comfort food even an exhausted traveler could throw together from what was on hand. Below, the recipe for the easiest thing I cook.
We took the overnight train from Chicago to Syracuse last weekend. No fancy sleeping compartment for us. We toughed it out in coach, with reclining seats, a stack of magazines and books, DVDs for the laptop, a bottle of wine, sandwiches and assorted snacks. Okay, so we weren’t exactly roughing it.
At the other end, we were rewarded with a lovely, if too brief, visit with one of our daughters. Syracuse offers a wealth of delicious food options. Among those the three of us chose were a late lunch at Empire Brewing Company, one of our required stops each time we visit; hearty, flavorful dinners at New Century Vietnamese Restaurant and Taste of India; and snacks at the vegan Strong Hearts Cafe and the brand new Picasso’s Pastries and Cafe (pumpkin whoopie pies were sampled at both spots—both rocked). And a classic, stick-to-your-ribs breakfast at Ruston’s Diner, a place whose great food and warm service explain the perennial line out the door.
But the weekend wasn’t all eating. We also attended a grad student double birthday party, where we were delighted to be surrounded by smart, funny, friendly people. For their part, the students seemed pleased to meet people ready to talk about things besides doing research, defending theses and grading undergrads’ tests. Among the topics discussed was which is better, Star Wars or Star Trek (it remains unresolved). Of course, this being a birthday party, there was cake, in the form of the best red velvet cake we’ve ever eaten. It was made by a grad student who sees baking as therapy, something with defined steps and definite start and stop points.
And there was art. We’re always happy to visit a new (or new to us) art museum. This time it was the Everson Museum of Art in downtown Syracuse, designed by architect I.M. Pei in the mid-sixties. Pei sees the Brutalist style building as a piece of sculpture, and as you walk around it and through it, that becomes clear at every turn. The building’s site-cast concrete construction makes its physical presence very much part of the art experience.
The Everson’s permanent collection is comprised “largely of American paintings, sculpture, drawings and graphics that date from Colonial times to the present day,” according to their website. In the photo above, you see one of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington (how many of these did he paint?) and one of Edward Hick’s The Peaceable Kingdom paintings (same question) flanking a ’70s ceramic sculpture by Italian artist Aldo Falchi (of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, giving it the right to be in such august company—and some curator the right to pat himself or herself on his or her clever back).
The museum collection is particularly rich in ceramics, with thousands of pieces ranging from a Chinese funerary urn from 3000BC to contemporary ceramic sculpture. When you first descend into the Everson’s lower level, you get the alarming sense that every single ceramic work they own is on display. Scores of glass cases are crowded together, they in turn crowded with pieces practically touching on every shelf. But if you take the time to pore over the cases, you find some real gems.
The long way home. Speaking of time, our train ride home was epic. According to Amtrak’s timetables, each one-way trip is about 13 hours. Even when they stick to the schedule, you’re really ready to be off the train by the time it arrives. We’ve made the journey many times now and have rarely arrived at either destination on time. This past weekend, we got back into Chicago about two hours late, a 15-hour trip with long stretches spent sitting on some siding in the middle of absolutely nowhere, waiting for a freight train to pass. By the time we climbed out of the taxi, we were exhausted and ready to not be anywhere else but home.
We were also hungry for something home cooked. Fortunately, our daughter had mentioned that she often cooks a simple pasta dish we’ve posted here in the past: Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Pepper.
This really is the easiest thing I cook. It contains just four ingredients: spaghetti, salt, pepper (lots of it) and cheese. And you only cook one of them, the spaghetti. While the pasta’s cooking, you grind some pepper and grate some cheese. Then you toss them all together. That’s it. For all its simplicity, it’s a traditional favorite in trattorias and home kitchens all over Rome. And for two weary travelers, it was a delicious welcome home. You’ll find the ridiculously easy recipe—and the back story—right here.