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Patti Callahan Henry’s Coming Up for Air. Plus grilled sandwiches: one savory, one sweet.

Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan HenryI read a wonderful book this week: Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan Henry.

I know Patti through the Atlanta writing community. She is one of those lovely, effervescent people full of warmth and laughter. One of those people whom you want to smile at because she’s smiling and looks like she’s having fun and you want to join her. If I were a betting woman (why am I saying “if?”; I love betting), I’d wager that Patti enjoys a shrimp boil, that she slides right up to the newspaper covered table, peels a shrimp, dunks it in cocktail sauce, and washes it down with a beer before settling in to eat her buttered corn on the cob, potatoes and sausage. Which is to say, Patti seems to be a woman who enjoys life.

Shrimp Boil

Shrimp boil from earlier this summer. Patti was not involved. But I bet she would have loved it.

Patti is also a woman who has raised three kids. And before having her kids, she was a nurse. Meaning, Patti has wisdom. And has seen hard things.

All well and good, I can hear you saying, but how’s the book?

Why it’s excellent. Thank you for asking. In it Patti’s warmth, wisdom, and engagment with life–the miraculous and the mundane–is on full display.

Here’s the skinny: Coming Up for Air is the story of 48 year old Ellie Calvin. At the book’s start, Ellie’s mother Lillian dies suddenly, just as Ellie’s only child goes away to college, leaving Ellie alone with her husband, Rusty, a man more interested in his golf game than understanding any part of his wife’s interior life. After Lillian’s death, Ellie reads her mother’s locked away journals, discovering two things: Her mother was passionately in love with someone other than Ellie’s dad, and her mother was involved with the civil rights movement in Alabama during the summer of 1961. Both realizations are shocking to Ellie, who knew her mother only as a Buckhead doyenne, locally famous for her organization and practicality, and not one to feel passion about anything other than following the rules. In fact Lillian, a consummate botanical gardener, discouraged Ellie’s own passionate, wildflower nature. But from reading her mother’s journals, Ellie realizes Lillian was not always like that. At a certain point in her life, Lillian chose safety over love, and then tried to drill that choice into Ellie, an effort that largely succeeded. Until now.

The plot of Coming Up for Air is rich and layered, and I am only giving you a teeny-tiny slice of it, in part because I don’t want to include any spoilers, but mostly because I want to talk about the underlying theology of the book. Because that’s what made me unable to put CUFA down until I had read it cover to cover–the theology that Patti Callahan Henry expresses in Ellie’s reawakening to spirit and love. It is not a theology of rules and regulations and exclusion; in fact it is the opposite. It is a theology of risk over safety, of love over rigidity, of choosing spiritual wholeness over a comfortable lifestyle. It is a theology that says everyone deserves an abundance of love–you, me, even that guy over there picking his nose on the subway. And occasionally divine abundance shows itself in our earthly life, if we are open to it, if we show up.

When you get to the jubilee scene, you will know exactly what I am talking about.

I really loved this book. Was totally immersed in the plot and was moved by the steady wisdom behind it. I even read it on the subway–and I have the hardest time reading on the subway because I’m always so interested in eavesdropping on my fellow passengers’ conversations…but Ellie’s story was more captivating.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Simple, simple, simple. But oh so good.

I got a big spiritual lift from Patti’s book, and then I got a mini spiritual lift by coming home this evening and making myself two kinds of grilled sandwiches. The first was nothing unusual, just a grilled cheese with lots of butter on Pepperidge Farm white bread. My only embellishment was to rub each side of the bread with a raw glove of garlic, and to use good sharp cheddar cheese as my filling. Then, for dessert, I tried a sandwich based on a Donna Hay recipe. For it I also used Pepperidge Farm white bread, each slice spread with nutella, and then one slice dotted with raspberries. When I sandwiched the bread I pressed the two sides together so that the raspberries would flatten a bit. Then I just fried the whole thing in lots of butter, so that the nutella got all oozy and melty and the raspberries warmed up and got all bursty. I sat at my little table in my little apartment kitchen and ate the sandwiches, first the cheese, then the chocolate. It had been a hard day and I needed the comfort. I was eating the grilled cheese, thinking about the Christian tradition of taking bread and wine as a way to experience the divine. It made a lot of sense to me–that God would come to us in such a tactile, necessary package as food and drink. I hunched over my plate, concentrating on what was before me, tasting the crisped butter against my tongue.

The champagne of beers

Blame it on the fact that I’m writing a novel where the three main characters experience the world through food: I can’t stop cooking. Last night I made butter cookies at 10pm. Granted, I wanted something sweet but had nothing in the apartment and didn’t want to schlep to the market four blocks away, primarily because I’m cheap but also because I was all cozy at home in my jammies. I looked in the fridge, looked in the pantry, looked in Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. Realized I had everything I needed to make a simple little cookie: butter, sugar, vanilla, lemon (juice & zest), milk, salt, flour. That’s it. Creamed the butter and sugar til it turned the palest yellow, the sort of yellow you want to paint your walls with, then added in the other liquid ingredients plus the salt. I used fleur de sel, smashed up to fine grains, just because I figured there were so few ingredients in these cookies each component should sing. I folded in the flour in batches, just til it was incorporated, then rolled the dough into three logs and refrigerated them until they were chilled enough to cut into little disks with a knife. This means you only cook as many cookies as you want at that time–the rest you just leave, in dough form, in the fridge. This also means I wasn’t cooking the cookies til 1am, as the dough wasn’t ready til then. I decided to gild the lily and glaze them with a little lemon icing. Confectioners sugar, cream, lemon zest and vanilla. That’s it. Nice complement to the tang of the cookie.

The cookies are really good. They are very short, which means you taste the cooked butter throughout. Gives them an almost granular texture, but not in a gross freezer burnt ice cream kind of a way. And with all of that lemon zest in the cookie, its taste puckers the tongue while simultaneously delivering the sugar it craves. Which leaves you desiring more even as you eat them.

For lunch I’ve been eating an old salad standby: shaved fennel, shaved apple, shaved Parmesan, toasted walnuts and a little dressing. It makes up for the cookies, I hope. For dinner tonight I stuck with fennel and apple, but changed the preparation. I cut a Granny Smith apple into chunks, and cut half a fennel bulb into 1/4 inch rings. I also cut a chicken apple sausage into disks. I melted some butter in a saucepan and added the apple chunks to it. I sauteed the apples til they caramelized a little, adding a little lemon juice so they wouldn’t oxidize. Then I threw in the fennel. The fennel and apple sucked up all of the butter–fast–and I really didn’t want to add more fat to the dish, so I tossed in about 1/4 cup of the Miller Genuine Draft I was enjoying, thinking, hey, Germans always pair beer with sausage, maybe this will work. I let the fennel and apples absorb the liquid, then added a splash of apple cider vinegar. Worrying I might have made things too tart I also added a teaspoon of honey. I salted, peppered, then added the sausage. Cooked it all together til it was all heated through, then did one more round of apple cider vinegar and honey, to add a nice glaze to the whole dish. Finished with a little more butter.

Dear Reader: I did not expect this one-dish slapdash beer-y meal to be so delicious but it was, it was! The apple chunks were tender but not mealy, and the butter/honey/apple vinegar flavor highlighted the apple’s own natural sweetness. The fennel added that great anise-y crunch, and the chicken apple sausage was just very satisfying in an “I don’t get enough protein” kind of a way, and also tasted great with the little bit of honey glazing it. Weird meal, I guess, but I’m gonna fix it again. And so is one of the characters in my book.

What summer is, part 1

Starting with late spring’s harvest of strawberries and going all the way through corn and tomatoes and blackberries and peaches, summer is about forgoing a temperate climate for the pleasure of letting sweet things grown in the sun roll around on your tongue.

Last weekend I went to Todd Johnson’s house in Connecticut for an intensive writing retreat. We are both working on novels and both in the stage where we need to be writing a bunch of words a day. That said, one still has to eat. We stopped at a strawberry field on the way from the train to the house and bought a quart of just picked strawberries. (Dear Reader, we did not pick the strawberries ourselves, though that was certainly an option.) Strawberries from the field look so different from the cat-head sized ones you buy at the supermarket. And while the catheads are mostly water and white hull, the ones we got in CT were small, bright red, and saturated with deep, red strawberry-ness. The juice tastes like honey, only clear and thirst-quenching rather than viscous and syrupy.

But enough of that. You know what a freshly picked, ripe strawberry tastes like (an argument for the existence of God.) And speaking of the Divine, we also picked up a pint of heavy whipping cream, not ultra pasteurized. Took it home, got to work writing, and then met 3 hours later for dinner. From the city I had brought some of my spinach / artichoke dip. We poured it into a casserole dish, sprinkled the top with Parmesan cheese, heated it then ran it under the broiler. We ate this with toasted French bread. And then we skipped past any thoughts of a main course and went straight for dessert. Strawberry shortcake. I had made a simple biscuit dough using cream instead of buttermilk, and butter instead of shortening or lard. Plus I added 2 T. of sugar to the dough. Todd didn’t have a biscuit cutter so we punched them out with the top of a drinking glass, brushed the tops with melted butter and a little sugar, and put them in a hot, hot oven. Meanwhile I whipped the cream with vanilla and sugar. I had already hulled the strawberries, cut them in half, and added a little sugar to them just to get them good and juicy. We got some mint from the garden, and had our assembly line all set up. As soon as the biscuits came out of the oven, we split them in half, put four halves in each of our bowls, poured strawberries and juice all over the hot biscuits, piled softly whipped cream on top of that, poured on more strawberries and juice, and then sprinkled it all with some mint leaves cut in a chiffonade.

Dear Reader, it was good. And the next day I wrote a scene in which my characters ate strawberry shortcake…

Tuna through the years

What is it about southerners and canned tuna? Growing up I ate a tuna fish salad sandwich at least once a week, that or pimento cheese or peanut butter and banana. I don’t remember ever contemplating the taste of tuna itself. Tuna wasn’t a singular object, it was a collection of ingredients enrobed in mayonnaise. In fact the point of all of those ingredients was to disguise the actual fishy taste of the tuna. My mom used the chunk light stuff (packed in water) and mixed it with mayo, chopped boiled egg, diced sweet pickles and diced apple. The apple and sweet pickles were both chopped so fine you couldn’t really recognize them by sight–just taste. It was a sweet tuna salad, and the most dominant ingredient was the apple, which my mom said made the tuna taste like chicken.

A couple of years back I bought what has become one of my favorite cookbooks, The Mensch Chef, by Mitchell Davis. Davis teaches you how to make all of the classic Ashkenazi Jewish staples, from stuffed cabbage to potato latkes to brisket to tuna fish salad. His tuna recipe has become my favorite of the mayonnaise based varities. He insists you use albacore tuna–not the chunk light stuff–and he suggests you use tuna packed in oil. To that he adds mayonnaise, chopped celery, the juice of a lemon, a chopped dill pickle, 1/4 of a chopped onion, a chopped hard-boiled egg, fresh parsley and salt and pepper. The lemon really makes a difference, brightening the salad in a sunny sort of way.

It’s been so hot in New York these past few days that long hours at the stove are out of the question. And so I’ve been eating a lot of cold composed salads, including salade Nicoise. Gourmet Garage sells this divine tuna packed in olive oil–Tonnino–that is the best I’ve ever had. The tuna comes in thick filets. It is firm and flavorful and yummy all on its own–you could eat it straight out of the jar. (And sometimes I do.) It’s too good to drown in mayo, which is why it’s so good for a salad Nicoise, where all you do is lay it over the lettuce and pour a lemony dressing over it. But today for lunch I was really craving a sandwich, so I thought I might attempt a sort of Nicoise/tuna salad hybrid.

Here’s what I did: Chopped a few black olives–which acted as the salt for the whole thing–then chopped a tablespoon of parsley. Put that in a bowl with the wonderful tuna, gave it a few squeezes of lemon, and mixed it with a fork. Next I poured a little bit of olive oil onto two slices of French bread, which I toasted. Meanwhile I tossed some arugula leaves with lemon juice and a tiny bit of salt, and took a couple of slices of roasted red pepper out of the fridge. (I roast them stovetop and store them in olive oil.) Not it was just a matter of assembly. I am on open face sandwich kind of a gal, and this was no exception. On each piece of toasted baguette I piled on the tuna mixed with olives and parsley, then put a few slices of roasted red pepper on top of that. I finished with a topping of lemon dressed arugula.

It was a pretty great sandwich. A native of Nice, I believe, would have really dug it. Though I doubt I would have liked it as a kid. I mean, c’mon! Where’s the apple? Where’s the Duke’s?

Truques

I feel really lucky that I grew up with a mom who loved to bake. (And I’m not being reactionary here, telling all ye career girls out there to scuttle back to the kitchen and put on an apron, stat. It would have been equally cool to grow up with a dad who cooked, or two mommies who cooked, or good God the luck!, two daddies who cooked and who cooked the way that most of my gay male friends do, which is to say flawlessly.) But back to my mom, who taught me so much about cooking, baking especially, without me even knowing that sitting on the counter watching her separate eggs, we were engaged in all kinds of teachable moments and shit. Like how to pack down brown sugar when measuring it, how to scrape the excess baking soda off a tablespoon with the flat edge of a knife, how to slightly underbake cookies knowing they’ll finish cooking on the tray, how to make a well with the dry ingredients when making strawberry bread, and then pour the wet ingredients into the well.

The thing about cooking is this: It is and it is not scientific. Yes, certain chemical things happen–baking soda makes things rise–but cooking is also about our squishy, sensitive sides: smell, taste, a “sense” of how something should look, instinct. The other day I was cooking with a friend. (Not you, Kasey. I’m speaking of another friend with whom I was boiling potatoes.) We were boiling potatoes. After twenty minutes my friend said, “Okay, my recipe said they should be done by now.” I stuck a knife in one. It didn’t pierce easily. In fact it was still quite hard in the middle. It wasn’t done. Which goes to say, when cooking, you have to have all five senses fully engaged. You have to let your food slap a diamond ring on your finger!

But if you want a cheat sheet, here are the tricks I’ve learned:

1) When chopping up a clove of garlic, sprinkle the clove with salt. It makes the knife stick to it while you chop and the whole process just gets done a lot faster.

2) Shrimp cooks fast. Way faster than you think it will. Honestly, as soon as it turns pink on both sides it’s done, but I always give it one more minute after that just to be safe.

3) When you are cooking meat, steaks especially, let the meat come to room temperature before you put it to the heat. And oh Lord, please don’t cook a pork chop til it’s white in the middle. It is really fine for it to be rosy. That “cook it to 180 degrees” b.s. was just propaganda created by people who hate food.

4) A roast chicken will always taste divine if you brine it first. I use Scott Peacock’s method, 1/4 cup of kosher salt for every 4 cups water. A 4 pound chicken usually takes 1 cup of salt and 16 cups of water. Make sure the salt is all dissolved before plopping your chicken in, then just let it hang out in the fridge all day. Great fun for house guests to encounter when they happen to open the refrigerator door!

5) After you serve a chicken, snatch everyone’s leg bones and such off the plate before you do the dishes. Use them to make stock. This is not gross. You will boil the bones. The cooties and germs will go away.

6) Err on underbaking cookies. Most people burn their cookies–especially the cookie bottoms. Take them out a little sooner than necessary, then let them finish cooking on the tray. I’m serious about this.

7) This trick is courtesy of the late, great Edna Lewis, and it works! When you bake a cake, listen for little popping sounds towards the end. You’ll hear them, almost like your cake is a baby blowing bubbles. As soon as the popping sounds cease, pull the cake out. It’s done.

8) It’s a pain in the ass, yes, but do butter AND flour the cake pan.

9) Stick an onion in the freezer for 20 minutes before chopping it. You won’t cry nearly as much. On that same note, if you are serving raw onion in a salad or a salsa, slice it and put the slices into ice water for 15 minutes. Takes the sting out.

10) If you are making meatloaf, and you’re not sure whether it’s seasoned enough (or too much) just pinch off a meatball sized ball and fry it up in the skillet. It will cook in about five minutes, and then you can taste it for flavor.

11) Never wash a cast iron skillet with soap. Rub it with kosher salt if there’s excess grease or stuck on bits, then rinse it with hot, hot water. Dry it completely before putting it up, or else it will rust and be ruint.

12) When making a braise, and you are told to brown the meat first in a skillet, REALLY brown the meat. Get it golden brown, caramel-y brown. Brown the hell out of it!

13) Have your pan reallyreallyreally hot before adding to it the meat that you are going to cook. With the big ol’ exception of bacon, which should be started in a cold skillet. A cast iron skillet, to be exact.

14) Please don’t ever buy salad dressing. Just mix it up yourself. I like to use a tea cup to do my mixing. Pour in 3 parts oil to one part vinegar. I often use olive oil and white wine vinegar. Salt and pepper liberally, and beat furiously with a fork. That is it. IF you want to get fancy you can add a pinch of Coleman’s mustard powder, or a squeeze of lemon. If you are putting strawberries or Parm on your salad, use balsamic vinegar.

15) Egg whites whip higher and faster if you let them come to room temperature before beating the hell out of them.

16) If you whip 12 egg whites, then add sugar and such, thus making an angel food cake, take a plastic spatula and run it a circle in the center of the batter once you have poured it into the tube pan. This will keep there from being big old holes in the cake once cooked.

17) Really fresh eggs are really hard to peel. I’ve pretty much given up on making deviled eggs from the ones I buy at the farmer’s market because they look all pock marked and scarred once I finally get the shells off of them. When it comes to deviled eggs, an older egg is best.

18) If for some crazy reason you don’t own a deviled egg plate, you can just slice off the bottom of your egg, so it will stand up straight on the plate.

19) If you over salt your soup or stew or chili, and you’ve got some time before you are going to serve it, throw a couple of raw potatoes, cut in half, into the pot. The potato will soak up the excess salt.

20) If you find yourself without a pepper grinder (which oddly, I have, many times), pour some whole peppercorns into a plastic baggie, and scoot them all to one corner. Then take the blunt end of a rolling pin (this requires that you have a real rolling pin, and not one of those ersatz things with the handles on the end) and smash the hell out of your peppercorns. This is an extremely cathartic thing to do when feeling agitated.

Salad is not comfort food.

I love fresh vegetables. Raw ones especially. One of my favorite suppers is a spin on Judith Jones’ fennel salad: shaved raw fennel (I use a mandoline slicer to get the pieces see-through thin), shaved apple, and shaved radishes topped with little curls of Parmesan and toasted walnuts, dressed with a simple balsamic vinaigrette. It’s crunchy and anise-y and light and a little sweet with nice satisfying chews of warm walnut and salty hits of Parm. I also make a raw salad with shaved beets, fennel, radish and carrot, served over arugula, also with Parm, though no walnuts and a lemony vinaigrette instead of a Balsamic one.

Come mid summer almost every meal I eat centers on the tomato. Half the time I just slice a sweet one from the farmer’s market, dribble olive oil and a dash of Balsamic on top, scatter on some s&p and basil leaves and dig in. Sometimes I’ll rip some sourdough bread into chunks, season with olive oil and salt, toast til brown, and throw into the tomato salad, letting the crisp toasty bread soak up the tomato juices. And don’t get me started on gazpacho, which I’m a huge sucker for, especially yellow tomato gazpacho, which is sweet and tart and so gorgeous in the bowl.

My point is this: I am not a finicky child-like eater who turns her nose up at healthy things, spinach and such. In fact, I devour spinach by the bagful, whether raw in a salad or sauteed with garlic and olive oil for a side dish.

Croque Monsieur with blueberriesBut I don’t want to write about healthy delicious food today. I want to write about my comfort food du jour, a white bread, white sauce, ham and cheese concoction that ze French like to call a Croque Monsieur. (Add an egg on top and the sandwich becomes a lady, a Croque Madame).

I’ve been making a boatload of Croque Monsieur lately. A more apt description might be a belly load, because these things are far from low cal. The secret to a great Croque Monsieur is bechamel, which is just a white sauce made of cooked flour, butter, hot milk and a little seasoning. The bechamel is the Cyrano de Bergerac of the sandwich. Most eaters wouldn’t even know it’s there, but boy does it make the cheese look and behave a whole lot better.

You start with the best bread you can find. I think sourdough works particularly well. Cut a thick slice, remembering that this is an open faced sandwich, so you don’t have to worry about getting your mouth around two huge slices of bread. Lightly mustard the sourdough. (Yes, it’s okay to use mustard as a verb!) I’ve been using Miele’s spicy Dijon, which adds a nice kick. Then layer on a couple of slices of ham. (I just use thin sliced stuff from the deli counter at the grocery store.) Now comes the secret weapon: Spread about a tablespoon of bechamel onto the ham, and give it a light sprinkling of salt and pepper. I usually add some chopped parsley at this point too, just because the greenness of the parsley gives the illusion that there is something healthy about all of this. Traditionally you should now top your cream sauce with Gruyere, though I use whatever cheese I have on hand. Today it was a slice of Monterey Jack with spicy peppers, and grated Parmesan. Once you cover the top of your sandwich with cheese you can scoop a little more white sauce on top of that, then cover once more with cheese. But zut alors, that is gilding the lily, and not at all necessary! Slide the sandwich under the broiler for about 10 minutes until the white sauce is bubbling and the cheese has melted and darkened and your bread and meat are warmed all of the way through. Serve with cornichons. I ate a small cup of blueberries with my sandwich, too, because blueberries are a SuperFood and I thought they might counterbalance some of the wrongness of the Croque.

Here is the thing: You don’t eat a Croque Monsieur for lunch when everything is going just swimmingly, when you are at the top of your game and you KNOW you’ll write 5000 words that day, and they’ll be good words, inspired words that will find their way into the novel that you are writing and you’re just SO ON FIRE WITH IT THAT YOU’VE GOT TO GET BACK TO IT RIGHT NOW!! You eat a Croque Monsieur when you’ve stared at your computer for 2 hours, tinkered with a paragraph, and are now trying to stop yourself from falling asleep at your desk. You eat a Croque Monsieur when your accountant calls to tell you that you’re going to owe a little more in taxes than you previously thought. You eat a Croque Monsieur when you feel a sort of generalized sadness about things, though you know the sadness is unwarranted. You know if you were to make a list of all you are grateful for that list would be long. But you don’t feel like making that list. You feel melancholy. Which means you feel French. Which means you should eat a Croque Monsieur.

You shut down your computer, turn on the broiler, put the sandwich together. Ten minutes later and you are hunkered over the plate. With each bite you try to figure out why you like it so much. You wonder if it was a nursery food for French children, the way grilled cheese was for you. You think there’s something primal about warm bread and gooey, melted things. You think you are eating too quickly. You think you had better add an extra fifteen minutes to your workout that night, but then you think, oh screw it. Food shouldn’t always be an intake/outtake calculation. Sometimes its purpose is simply that it is delicious and warm.

Simple

I spent the day in the apartment, writing. Which is a more gracious way of saying I did not leave the apartment–not once!–until 5:30 pm when I went to meet a friend at the park so her son could swing. It’s been so hot in New York lately that I expected it to be sweltering outside and so I dressed accordingly. But there was a lovely breeze, and it could not have been more than 80 degrees. After my friend and I chatted while the baby swung for about 30 minutes (don’t babies get dizzy?) I left with the intention of returning home. Except it was so nice out I kept walking west, to Central Park. I walked around the footpath at the Jackie Onassis Reservoir. The setting sun reflected pink off the buildings, and I felt so grateful to be in New York. Except for the fact that I felt like an idiot walking around the reservoir. EVERYONE was running. I didn’t know if I should walk to the right or the left or in the middle or what. All I knew was that every few seconds a stampede would come pounding behind me, and I would be transported back to high school, where the male track coach used to bark, “LANE! LANE!” when he and the boys came swooshing around the track. We girls, even if we were running, were expected to get the hell out of their way.

Back home I poured myself a glass of A to Z rose-ay, and ate the rest of the potato salad. That probably should have sufficed for dinner, but I felt obligated to eat a salad. Glad I did. The salad I fixed was good: arugula, pitted bing cherries, toasted walnuts, chunks of Gouda, and balsamic vinaigrette. Granted, the gouda was from a cut up Baby Bella, but it did the trick. Afterwards I watched 1/2 of Manhattan, but got too wierded out by Mariel and Woody’s relationship. (She was 17 to his 42.) The best part of the evening was eating half of a Michel Cluizel chocolate bar. I like the milk chocolate bars best, though the snob in me wishes I liked the darker varieties. But Cluizel’s milk has a 45 percent cocoa content, so it’s plenty intense.And there is no way to describe the experience of eating it other than cliche: it melts in the mouth, leaving behind tiny little cocoa nibs. It’s really fabulous. Almost made Mariel and Woody easier to swallow.

cold potato salad and warm sausage = better than the McDLT

Y’all remember the McDLT don’t you? The burger whose toppings of lettuce and tomato came in a separate compartment, so the “hot stayed hot and the cool stayed cool?”(TM.) With all due respect to McD’s, I always thought that was a pretty asinine marketing campaign. Except I was 10 when the McDLT came out, so I didn’t know what asinine meant. But it seemed to me that as soon as you smashed the two halves of the burger together the lettuce was going to warm right up, so what was the point, huh?

Well…

You know I’ve been cooking in a tiny NY apartment, and have been trying to keep a “continuous kitchen,” so I use up what I’ve got before running out to get more stuff. Well, I lied about having finished the bechamel last night. I actually still have more. I made a freaking ton of it and it seems to multiply each night as I sleep. Today I discovered that I also had a bag of baby Yukon gold potatoes that I had completely forgotten about, languishing in the cupboard. So me brain started churning, and here is what it came up with: wouldn’t bechamel work as a sub for mayonnaise in a potato salad? Or at least a partial sub? Only one way to find out:

I boiled the potatoes til a knife pierced them easily, and while hot tossed them in a little rice vinegar, oil, and salt, just to give the final dish some tang and deep-down seasoning. I hard boiled a couple of eggs, cut up a rather limp stalk of old celery, cut up a bunch of parsley, and cut up a scallion which I soaked in ice cold water for a few minutes while tending to the potatoes. (The ice water bath takes away the sting from members of the onion family.) My add ins prepared, I returned to my now warm potatoes that had soaked up all of the vinegar dressing. To the warm potatoes I added a healthy tablespoon of bechamel, and stirred it all around. Then I added the add-ins (duh), threw in a teaspoon of dijon mustard to honor the French, went ahead and put in a tablespoon of mayo just to round things out, and gave the dish a few more cranks of salt and pepper. I refrigerated it, knowing I’d have potato salad for dinner (and tomorrow’s lunch, and tomorrow night’s dinner, etc. etc. There is a lot in my fridge!)

At the gym tonight I started thinking about how good that potato salad would taste with a bit of sausage. (Terrible that my mind goes to sausage while I am trying to sweat off pounds on the elliptical trainer.) I probably had sausage on the brain because last night I went to dinner with two of my favorite friends who live in Brooklyn, and they made an authentic low country boil, aka frogmore stew. For those of you who do not fetishize Charleston, that is a big boil of potatoes, corn, sausage and shrimp, all seasoned with Old Bay. It was reallyreallyreallyreally good, the sausage especially. So, after the gym I went to ye olde grocery store and bought some spicy chicken sausage (a session on the elliptical machine will make you switch from pork to chicken), and when I got home I pan fried it, made a quick salad of arugula, strawberries and balsmaic vinaigrette, plunked a modest serving of cold potato salad on the plate, and added the hot sausage. The combo of all three things–the pepperiness of the arugula, the creaminess of the potato salad, the piquancy of the sausage–was just a great thing. So McD’s, I take it all back. By the transitive property, your McDLT ruled, cuz my cold potato salad / hot sausage dinner sure did.

artichoke heart

Wow, it’s been forever. Sorry about that.

I’m in Manhattan for the summer, writing a novel that is set here. This is my first time to ever “live” in NYC, though I know a three month sublet does not a New Yawker me make. Still. I have a big crush on the city. In particular I love that I don’t have to drive. Love that I can walk to Central Park. Love the multitude of lives, all being lived out on this island. Love the bustle, the tumult!

The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith JonesWhat I don’t love (cue the “obvious” sign) is how expensive it is to live here. One solution is not to eat out, because I swear, any time you do–at least for dinner–it costs $70 once you split the bottle of wine and tip generously. There was a fun book written about this very concept of eating in, about a woman who decided to cook every night in her tiny NY apartment (not Julia and Julie, which was also fun, but another one.) Which is to say I know I’m not the first person with this idea. But that caveat aside, I am proud to announce that in over two and a half weeks of being here, I have eaten out only twice, and that includes going for coffee, getting a bagel, anything. Basically, I’ve been a cooking machine, relying on Judith Jones’ very lovely book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, as inspiration. (Though really, it could be called “for one or two” and still work.) The key to economic cooking (home economics!) is to continually use the ingredients you buy at the grocery in various meals. So if I buy a jar of canned tuna in olive oil, I will use that to make a Nicoise salad; the next night I will toss the tuna with some white beans, parsley, artichoke hearts, red peppers, lemon juice and olive oil; then make a sandwich with toasted baguette, artichoke hearts, roasted pepper, mustard; and finally I will make a pasta with tuna, black olives, red pepper, white wine, olive oil and parsley. See the repeat of ingredients? The one jar of tuna will last you for at least three of those meals, and a red pepper will serve you in good stead for two or three. (I roast them on the gas stovetop. Once charred all over I wrap them in aluminum foil til cool then peel off the blistered skin, revealing a soft, smoky, sweet pepper underneath.)

The other night I made a roast chicken, which led to chicken salad then chicken divan. For the chicken divan I made bechamel, freezing the leftovers of the white sauce. I had friends over for lunch the other day and I served them Croque Monsieur sandwiches with bechamel and Parmesan. But I still had about 1/2 a cup of the sauce leftover. So tonight I used it to make an artichoke dip that was pretty fab. Here’s the recipe, loosely interpreted. (I didn’t actually measure anything, just ball parked.)

Take a large jar of quartered artichoke hearts. Soak them in a couple of baths of water to get out the canned marinade flavor. Heat up about 1 T of oil in a sauce pan, over medium low heat. Add the soaked hearts to the pan, then add a clove of chopped garlic. Stir it around. Add a few squeezes of a lemon, plus a little of the lemon zest, if you have the time and inclination. Continue stirring. Add a generous splash of white wine. Stir until liquid is absorbed. Add a little salt and lots of cracked black pepper. Taste for balance. If it needs more lemon juice or salt, add away. When nearly finished, add 2 tablespoons of bechamel. Stir to melt. Finish by adding a handful of Parmesan cheese, grated, plus a quarter cup of chopped parsley. Taste for seasoning, pour into an oven proof dish, sprinkle a bunch of Parm on top and slide under the broiler for 8 minutes or so until dip is piping hot and cheese is melted and even a little brown. Serve with sliced French bread of water crackers.

Delish! And I got rid of the remaining artichoke hearts and bechamel to boot!