On January 23rd, 2006, two cases of duck legs arrived to the restaurant, and per the day’s to-do list, I threw them into hotel pans, covered them with a layer of kosher salt, then headed to the walk-in to find the duck fat. This was how we made duck confit at the restaurant: 1 case of duck legs per hotel pan, liberal coating of kosher salt, duck fat submergence, tight covering of aluminum foil, two and a half hours in the oven.
But when I got to the walk-in, I couldn’t find the duck fat. I looked and looked. I had made the mistake more than once of declaring we were out of something when we weren’t, and so I looked some more. Shit, I thought. But before running to the chef, I looked and looked again. It had to be there. I was positive this was the greatest conspiracy of the inanimate I had ever faced. There was no way two 8-quart tubs of duck fat had walked out of that walk-in.
But after awhile, I had to tell the chef. He looked too. He couldn’t find it. We suspected it had been tossed. There had been a lot of turnover in the kitchen staff in recent weeks, and it was likely someone had innocently trashed the duck fat, a supply the chef had been building for eight years, a supply that grew more flavorful with every use, the key ingredient to one of the restaurant’s staple dishes.
After the chef berated me for allowing this to happen, noting that this — me — is why he could never take a vacation — oh, the drama! — let alone a day off, he set to work rectifying the situation. Into each hotel pan he tossed pounds and pounds and pounds of butter along with a few sprigs of thyme. Then he cooked the legs just the same: tightly covered with foil for two-and-a-half hours. And when those legs emerged from the oven, we stored them just the same: legs in one tub; fat, clearly labeled, in another.
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.
So, as you can see, I’m kind of on a Barefoot Contessa kick right now. And it’s not stopping here. I’ve got one more recipe coming, something sweet and chocolaty and festive, and I can’t wait to share it.
In the meantime, let’s talk about this chicken, which has become a favorite around here, both piping hot right out of the oven for dinner and cold straight from the fridge for lunch. Like the vodka sauce, this one comes from Foolproof; unlike the vodka sauce, this one wasn’t entirely foolproof, for me at least.
Friends, I opened the mailbox this morning and found a hand-written note from a dear old friend. I had to transcribe it and share it with you.
I hope this letter finds you well. I just wanted to write because with the holiday season rapidly approaching, I know you and I and many of your friends will be spending a lot of time together. I feel awkward reaching out like this, but I think it’s best I voice my concerns now. You see, while I love that you and so many others have discovered my versatility — really, I mean it, I loved those blondies — I’m feeling a little torn about all of the attention I’ve been receiving in recent years.
OK, I’ll just say it: the truth is is that I miss sage. And I miss crisping up its leaves in a pan filled with butternut squash ravioli. And I miss being tossed with ribbons of pappardelle and toasted pine nuts. And I miss bathing with fillets of sole.
There. I said it. I just wanted to remind you of, well, what I once considered my strength. I think you will understand. And I hate to impose, but if you wouldn’t mind sharing this with anyone you think might be interested, I would so appreciate it.
Last Friday, Ben and I arrived at our friends’ house to find a beautiful scene: a rice cooker sitting on the counter, a serving dish spilling with pickled bean sprouts, a plate towering with sheets of roasted seaweed, and a jar glistening with brilliant red pickled cabbage. All week we had been looking forward to Korean bbq, a meal we learned to love many years ago at Kim’s, a hole-in-the-wall in North Philadelphia.
At Kim’s we could always count on a few things: a blazing hot charcoal grill, replaced several times over the course of the evening; an array of banchan ranging from spicy pickled daikon to steamed egg custards to scallion pancakes; and a table surrounded by a crew — friends, family, coworkers, anyone willing to spend an evening charring whole cloves of garlic, slices of jalapeno, and platters of paper-thin beef.
More often than not, the gathering at Kim’s had been organized by Thien, the chef of Fork at the time, who found any excuse to cab north for Korean food, and who somehow managed to pack into his messenger bag both wine (for everyone) and glasses (for everyone) — as much as Thien loved his cheap eats, he pooh-poohed plastic cups. We always stayed at Kim’s for hours. We never left hungry, and upon exiting, we never felt more grateful for fresh air — Kim’s ventilation system (or lack there of) could use some work.
To say that the move north — from the weeks of packing to the two-day drive to the week of unpacking — has taken a toll on the children’s diet would be an understatement. There has been too much takeout, too many salty snacks, too many drive-thru visits. And I fear there has been irreparable damage: A few days ago when I pointed to a bunch of carrots in one of Graham’s favorite books, he, with complete confidence, identified them as, “hotdogs.”
Oiy. In this season of vegetable bounty, there is no excuse. I immediately set to work making a pasta sauce — sauce counts as a vegetable, right? — I learned years ago from The Tra Vigne Cookbook, a recipe Michael Chiarello learned from Jacques Pèpin. In the book, Chiarello pairs the sauce with stuffed chicken thighs and notes that any leftover sauce can be used to poach fish roulades, no doubt a suggestion made by Pèpin.
But that the sauce can be used for such a preparation gives you an idea of its consistency: it’s watery. And while I have always loved its fresh, clean flavor — there are no onions or garlic or crushed red pepper flakes (all of which I love) — these days I like it better when it’s cooked down even further until nearly all of the water evaporates and the tomatoes and bell peppers and basil reduce into a sweet, summery concentrate.
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.
When I think of summer dinners growing up at home, I think of this meal. I think of the smell of charred garlic and basil; I think of my stepfather sweating at the grill, a slave to his stopwatch, the wrath of my mother should the chicken be the slightest bit overcooked driving his utmost concentration; I think of sitting at the table in our screened-in porch with my brother and sister and eventually Ben, too. I think of eating for hours, a time of considerably faster metabolisms. I think of the candles melting into the tabletop, the humidity just beginning to subside and the buzz of the crickets as we clear the table at the end of the night.
I have yet to hear of a tofu preparation touted for allowing tofu’s true flavor to shine, lauded for not overpowering tofu’s delicate nature. Subtlety is not the name of the game when it comes to dressing up tofu. Domination is more like it. It’s all about the sauce.
This principle holds true with the two tofu recipes I make with some regularity. In the first, a block of tofu that has gently simmered in water bathes in a scallion and garlic soy-based sauce; in the second, cubes of crispy sesame-coated tofu plunge into nuoc cham, a pungent spicy, sweet, and sour Vietnamese dipping sauce.
And this principle holds true as well for marinated tofu, a preparation I have only just discovered. I hadn’t really given marinated tofu a thought before last month, when I was on my soba noodle salad with peanut sauce binge, and a variation I had made with tofu left me unsatisfied. Even when tossed with that yummy peanut dressing, the cubes of tofu I had pan-fried tasted bland, and they were a pain to prepare to boot.
Suspecting that marinating might be the best preparation for tofu in these sorts of salad, I tried a few recipes, all of which I really liked. You see, what’s great about this treatment for tofu is that if you like the marinade, you’re going to like the tofu. There are no surprises. A tofu marinade won’t ever behave like cake batter, tasting delectable unbaked but inedible baked. The only trick is to use firm or extra-firm tofu and to drain the tofu for as long as possible — an hour at least — before marinating. The longer you marinate, too, the more flavorful the tofu. It’s completely straightforward.
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.