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.
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.
If I were to look back on my life and find myself eating a bowl of muesli, it would most likely mean I was with my brother and sister at my dad’s house for the weekend. We would have found the box, the only cereal option, nestled with the Jaffa Cakes, the After Eights, and the Earl Grey tea in the kitchen cupboard, and it would likely be several months old, its powdery contents stale, any dried fruit petrified.
If we were in luck, there might be some milk in the fridge. If we were in more luck, that milk might be just a day or two past expiration. And if the stars were really aligning for us, we would avoid getting our fingers pinched in the mousetrap set in the silverware drawer while searching for a spoon. My English father is many things: a man of the kitchen he is not.
I often read about how well children do in routine, how structure makes them feel secure, how a schedule offers comfort. But the older I get — just celebrated a birthday — the more I realize how well I do in routine, how happy I am when my life feels like Groundhog Day, how I thrive when my schedule looks like this: breakfast, park, lunch, naps, park, dinner, bed.
But every time I find the gumption — I know, pathetic — to get away, I realize how important it is to get away. Last week, while Ben finished up work in Virginia, I trekked across Massachusetts with the kids to meet up with a college roommate home from Abu Dhabi for the summer, living with her two boys in the seaside hamlet of Duxbury, a well-kept secret so I’m told by the locals.
It felt like such an ordeal — packing the car, timing the traffic — but had I never braved that drive, my summer would have passed without squeezing lemon over a Snug Harbor lobster roll, without commencing the cocktail hour with a Mount Gay and tonic, without satisfying the post-dinner sweet tooth with a scoop of Farfar’s Danish sweet cream.
Every time I visit Philadelphia, I have high hopes of hitting up all of my favorite spots: La Colombe for a cappucino, Cafe Lutecia for a croissant, Ding Ho for fresh rice noodles, Reading Terminal Market for a soft pretzel, Fork for brioche French toast and Metropolitan Bakery for a millet muffin.
But on a recent overnight visit I had time for neither a coffee nor a croissant, and I returned home craving all of my favorite carbs but most of all a brown-sugar, millet-studded muffin.
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.
So, the funny thing about blogging for what now feels like a long time is that I feel I have to tell you everything. I can’t just say, “Hey, I’ve moved to Schenectady! And I have a kitchen with a teensy strip of pegboard and cabinets with awesome blue knobs. And in my corner cupboard I have a lazy Susan on top of which sits ANOTHER lazy Susan. And I have a pear and an apple tree bearing fruit in my backyard. And I have a landlord that advises me to get a cat because the mice and squirrels sometimes take over the house. I love her.”
I can’t just mention these things without offering any explanation. If you don’t want to listen, just scroll down to the olive oil toast. It’s a particularly handy thing to know how to make if, say, you’ve misplaced your toaster or are considering downsizing. It’s also about my favorite thing to eat these days.
OK, so, when I was a freshman in college, there was a boy, Ewan, who lived on the first floor of my entryway. Several times a week when I passed his room, I would spot him on the floor of his room in his dark green sweats and t-shirt doing push-ups and sit-ups. The scene always struck me as odd but I never gave it much thought. “Ewan’s intense,” I would think, as I, without a worry in the world, would skip up my steps heading to my room, hoping perhaps to find my roommates and maybe convince them it was time to go get some fro-yo.
It pains me to admit how clueless I was in the fall of 1999. The dark green getup should have been a giveaway. I would later learn that Ewan was in training to be a Marine Corps Officer, and even later learn that shortly after college Ewan would lead a platoon of Marines to Iraq.
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.