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.
For years, all of my favorite cookbooks have been urging me to seek out salt-packed anchovies, that I won’t be disappointed once I find them, that their superior quality is worth the effort of soaking and filleting them, that once I get my hands on them I will want to sneak them into everything from herb butters to pizza toppings to sauces and salsas.
So when I read once again in my latest cookbook purchase, April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig, about their umami properties, I decided it was time to bite the bullet on a tin. To my computer I marched, to the rescue came Amazon, to my door two days later for a grand total of $24 arrived a kilo of salt-packed Italian anchovies. It may have been the beautiful tin; it may have been the sight of something other than diapers and Desitin; it may have been the snow on the ground; but opening that package felt like Christmas in March.
The arrival of the anchovies coincided with the arrival of my parents, who would take part in the little fishies’ induction to my kitchen whether they knew it or not. Let me explain. My stepfather believes he dislikes anchovies. Because of this, I would have to be strategic, as my mother always is, about preparing them, first with the rinsing and filleting, next when adding them to the bread crumb salsa, their ultimate destination that evening. When Chip escaped for an afternoon walk, my mother, Auntie and I began scrambling. All evidence of anchovies — the tin, the backbones, the scent — had to be removed before Chip returned lest he suspect their presence and in turn ruin his dinner.
Observing that the twice-a-week broiled-burger-topped-with-cheddar routine was leaving everyone at my dinner table a little wanting, I decided a change was in order. Lamb burgers seasoned with oregano and feta would do just the job, but when I reached for my favorite recipe (from an August 1990 Gourmet), a different recipe on the same page caught my eye: curried lamb burgers with chutney mustard.
The recipe, which called for deep frying onions and mixing them into the ground lamb, sounded fabulous if a little fussy — deep-frying certainly wasn’t going to happen. And as it turns out, deep frying wasn’t necessary. Caramelized onions, while offering little by way of crunch, provided wonderful flavor and sweetness in addition to keeping the burgers incredibly moist.