My sister, the doctor, lover of pies and Peeps, is hosting Thanksgiving this year. She has it all under control, sleeping arrangements organized, color-coded cooking timeline mapped out, and the menu finalized, promising her 12 guests a turkey, a spanakopita, cranberry sauce (not this one) and pie.
To help lighten her load, I’ve signed up to bring punch, stuffing, bread, and this potato gratin, a dish my mother has served at nearly every big holiday gathering for as long as I can remember, one that often steals the show no matter what it’s beside, turkey or otherwise.
Most often, when I see recipes with quantity-ingredient combos such as one cup heavy cream, two sticks butter, a quarter pound cheese, I don’t give them a second look. It just never seems necessary — comfort food can succeed at comforting without heavy doses of heavy ingredients.
But after reading the preface to this pasta alla vecchia bettola recipe in The Barefoot Contessa’s Foolproof, I had to make it despite the cup of cream. More than being a mainstay on the menu of one of Ina’s favorite restaurants for 20 years, what struck me about the recipe was the method, which calls for sweating onions and garlic, reducing vodka, adding canned San Marzano tomatoes, and baking the mixture in a covered pan for one-and-a-half hours. The recipe originates from a restaurant in Florence, and Ina likens the dish to the classic penne alla vodka “but with so much more flavor.”
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.
We passed Saratoga Apple en route to Argyle, but the stand’s happening scene — hordes of people, cider in hands, pouring in and out; live music; wood-fired pizza; alpaca petting — lured us back on our way home. We soon discovered the main attraction: apple cider donuts. Made on the premises, these warm, cinnamon-and-sugar coated, crispy on the exterior, feather-light donuts disappeared by the tray-full about as quickly as they emerged from the fryer.
Upon returning from the stand, I read online that Saratoga Apple’s donuts “have been known to inspire jealousy, ecstasy, and even inter-state travel.” I wasn’t surprised. I have never tasted anything so delicious. And of course I immediately had to tell everyone I knew — new friends, my neighbors, the mailman, everyone at the Niskayuna Coop — about my experience. I quickly learned that apple cider donuts are kind of a “thing” around here. And that you don’t need to travel 40 miles to find a good one. And that one of the most popular spots in the area is, as the crow flies, two miles away. So much to learn, so little time.
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.
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.
Yesterday, while three movers packed away our lives into boxes, I snuck one last dish into the oven, a mixture of steel cut oats, cinnamon, maple syrup, and coarsely chopped almonds, a dish I have been addicted to in some form or another since March.
For months, I made this baked oatmeal using rolled oats and, as suggested, always mixed up the dry ingredients the night before baking, which allowed for easy preparations in the morning. But about a month ago I discovered that when steel cut oats replace the rolled oats, the morning effort disappears altogether: the entire dish — egg, milk, melted butter, baking powder and all — can be assembled the night before baking.
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.
Remember last week when I brattily exclaimed, “I want one!” after seeing my auntie Marcy’s Lifefactory glass bottle? Well, guess what? I got one. And guess what else? I have one for one of you, too, and I couldn’t be more excited.
Upon returning from Albany, I started researching Lifefactory, and it came as no surprise that one of the company’s co-founders, Daren Joy, is an award-winning designer and architect. In a video on the site, Daren briefly discusses his design process and observes that “there is a connection that gets formed almost immediately,” noting that people “know they love [the bottle] right when they first touch it.” Perhaps my reaction wasn’t so bratty after all: the instant desire to have one was simply the sign of successful design.
As I suspected, I am loving my Lifefactory glass bottle. After a week of heavy use, I have yet to open my shoulder bag to find my phone lying in a pool of water — success! — and I have yet to find myself at the sink trying to scrub away a fungal smell from the opening — success! The glass delivers such a clean, pure taste. Moreover, thanks to the silicone sleeve, the bottle has survived several crash tests — the kids are as drawn to the bottle as I am — down our asphalt driveway.