There is a not-so-little known deli in my town called Gershon’s, and the first time Ben and I stopped in, we found ourselves in the to-go line staring up at the overwhelming menu board during the midday rush, the trail of hungry regulars growing behind us with every passing second, the decision of what to order becoming harder with every beep-beep-beep of the opening front door.
Fortunately, the man standing behind us offered us guidance, telling us to order the #1, a corned beef and pastrami sandwich, the one he orders every week, the one he has ordered every week since discovering Gershon’s 21 years ago. It seemed like a safe bet.
Served on rye bread, this sandwich, buckling with meat, dripping with Russian dressing, spilling with slaw, couldn’t have been more delicious. And as we chomped on our pickles and picked at our chips, we wondered if we too might fall into the #1-for-life routine. But fortunately, something happened — the weather turned — and when we found ourselves at Gershon’s again, this time to dine-in on a Saturday afternoon, we decided to warm up with a cup of the daily soup, white bean with escarole and sausage.
This time of year I suspect few of you are thinking about summer squash. Many of you are more likely celebrating the last prune plums of the season or refusing to eat anything but tomatoes before they disappear for too many long cold months. And some of you may have already moved on to pumpkins and apples.
But it’s been an odd summer for me. I just haven’t had my summer squash fill. So last Sunday at the Schenectady farmers’ market, I stocked up — they’re practically free at the market these days — with visions of spending the week making bread and fritters and spaghetti and salads with shaved Pecorino.
In September 2008 I returned from Slow Food Nation convinced I would, by the end of the week, build a mud oven in the alleyway next to my apartment and, as a result, have wood-fired pizzas at my disposal from then on out.
I had watched volunteers at SFN stomp in the mud and cobble together an oven in two days, and I couldn’t stop dreaming about the pizzas, thin and crisp with a blistered bubbly edge, that emerged from that wood-fired oven.
After doing a little research, I made a list of supplies and stuck it to my fridge. I even bought a book: How to Build Your Own Hearth Oven. It was going to happen. I would get my wood-fired oven.
But a few weeks passed, and I never got around to building it. And before I knew it, a few years passed. And then a few children appeared. And then a few dreams disappeared.
Last summer I discovered eggplant caviar, a dish made from peeled eggplant roasted in a foil-covered pan, a preparation that, with minimal oil, produces the creamiest lightest flesh imaginable. Seasoned with fresh herbs and macerated shallots, spooned over grilled bread, this mashup makes a wonderful summer hors d’oeuvre.
This year, I’ve been using my grill to make the eggplant caviar, and I think I might love it even more. After reading about charring whole, unseasoned eggplants over coals or in the oven seemingly everywhere I turned — in Mark Bittman’s Flexitarian column, in Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem, and in the book I always rely on this time of year, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables — I had to try the method myself.
Last week, while packing away a few cookbooks, an old newspaper clipping tucked between two books slipped off the shelf and swooped into my lap, opening as it landed to reveal a photograph of a mouth-watering spread: a bowl filled with herb-and-olive oil topped ricotta, a few slices of grilled bread, and a handful of halved black mission figs. A quick glance through the article led me to discover that this appetizer, described as “stupid simple” by the chef of A Voce at the time (2008) was the most popular appetizer on the menu.
With the task at hand long forgotten — I’ve always been a hopeless packer — I made my way to the kitchen, hoping to find cheesecloth and heavy cream, making ricotta the order of the hour. And thirty minutes later, the stupid simple appetizer had materialized: creamy curds seasoned with sea salt, fresh thyme, dried oregano, and a drizzling of olive oil.
Happily Ever After: or so ends the tale of so many kitchen accidents, this story of a batch of past-prime Jim Lahey pizza dough being no exception.
Once upon a time, an avid admirer of the Lahey pizza recipe opened her fridge to discover two rounds of several-days old dough, their plastic-wrapped seams bursting with nubs of desiccating dough. Not wanting to see the dough go to waste, the girl began experimenting, first in the form of focaccia. After letting the two rounds of dough rest briefly in a well-oiled 8×8-inch pan, she stretched it gently, using all ten fingers to create dimples, then sprinkled the surface with sea salt and rosemary. In no time the dough, with oil pooling in its myriad craters, began looking like a pretty decent focaccia, and it ended up baking off even more beautifully. Later that evening, the girl split the focaccia lengthwise and served roasted red pepper and herbed goat cheese sandwiches to some friends, none of whom would have suspected they had a batch of tired pizza dough to thank for their delectable dinner.
And that’s just the beginning of this tale’s happy ending. About a week later, the girl visited her family in CT, where the familiar sight of days-old pizza dough in her mother’s basement fridge — it turns out her mother’s planning is sometimes just as poor as hers — sent the girl scouring for other leftovers. When she found some caramelized onions, a tub of salt-packed anchovies, and a jar of olives, an impromptu pissaladière began to materialize.
The trouble with homemade ice cream, in my experience at least, is its half-life: what tastes smooth and creamy, light and airy on day one, becomes icy and hard, choppy and crystalized on day two. The texture after a day in the freezer just doesn’t compare to the best store-bought varieties.
So when I tried Jeni’s Splendid ice cream recipe for the first time a few weeks ago, what struck me more than the flavor — dark chocolate heightened by coffee — was the texture: dense and creamy, almost chewy, a consistency that persisted for days. Jeni’s ice cream scoops as well as the big dogs even after a week in the freezer.
For those unfamiliar with Jeni, let me fill you in: Jeni Bauer opened Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in 2002 in Columbus, Ohio, and her company now operates nine shops in Ohio and one in Tennessee. In her book, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, Jeni shares her ice cream base recipe, which can be transformed however your heart desires. So far, I’ve made the darkest chocolate ice cream in the world, a recipe from Jeni’s book, and this rhubarb ice cream, a combination of Jeni’s base and a vanilla-bean flecked rhubarb jam, which I only wish I could can by the barrel-full before rhubarb season passes.
… she rouses in the wee hours of the morning, brewing coffee, making oatmeal, preparing the kitchen for the pitter patter of hungry, cranky, little (and big) bodies.
… all day long she runs up and downstairs — seriously, she’s forgotten how to sit down — fetching clothes, doing laundry, making dinner.
… somehow she finds time to make me an Earl Grey tea latte — so good! — every morning, to make dinner every evening, and to bake a cake with Ella somewhere in between, this time a storybook recipe called “happy winter chocolate cake,” which, as many of you might suspect by now, is dry and disgusting.
… she, perhaps still seeing me as a three-year-old needing positive reinforcement, oohs and ahhs over every little thing I make, even a batch of completely inedible lemon ice cream. She tries not to wince as she forces a few bites down but finally agrees that cloying lemon ice cream and repulsive happy winter chocolate cake belong in the garbage together.
… she brings me fun gadgets like English muffin rings, because she knows I’ve been on a little English muffin-making kick recently.
… she also brings recipes. Her track record for selecting winners is astonishingly good.
In addition to mascarpone sorbet, my gnudi-making debacle, which left me with pounds of semolina flour in my pantry, has led to another pleasant discovery: relatively easy and completely delicious ciabatta-like sandwich rolls.
It turns out that when one cup of the all-purpose flour in the peasant bread dough is replaced with one cup of semolina flour, the loaves transform a bit, becoming at once chewier and lighter in texture and slightly more golden in color.
And when the dough, instead of being shaped into two loaves, is portioned into roll-sized pieces and sprinkled, just like those ever-so-promising gnudi, heavily with semolina flour, and gently stretched into squares or elongated “slippers,” it bakes off into light sandwich rolls, crispy on the exterior and soft on the interior.
But when the unbaked rolls are allowed to be pampered just a bit more by an overnight rest in the fridge, they bake off even more beautifully, becoming even crispier on the exterior, more porous on the interior, feather-light in weight, gorgeously golden in color, and resembling in taste the most delectable ciabatta, so well suited for housing any number of sliced meats and cheeses, fried eggs and bacon, or slices of mozzarella and tomato.