I am my father’s daughter. Dad is my slightly taller, male equivalent. I’ve been told we have an identical gait. We hold a fork the same way. When I waitressed at my parents’ restaurant through high school, customers inevitably said, as I filled their water glasses: “Oh, you must be Nick’s eldest!” I would smile and cringe inwardly, as teenage girls do. I am my father’s daughter.
Dad likes to shop for clothes – alone – and tell everyone about the incredible deal he got on a cashmere sweater. He read every high school and university paper I wrote, and instilled in me a love of grammar and structure as he slashed misused commas. Dad and I like our coffee strong, though he tempers his with cream. At family dinners, we wince together at the weak dishwater my grandparents on either side brew. Dad will vouch that he and I even wear the same socks. (Mainly because I raid his pairs of stripes and argyle a few times each year.)
As much as we’re alike, we disagree more often than not. Because of the fierce stubbornness I inherited (from dad, of course), disagreement has led to a stand-off or three in my twenty-four years. But can you keep a secret? It’s good stuff, when people say I’m like my dad. He’s a pretty cool guy.
Of all the traits dad and I share, one sticks out. We both love people by feeding them. From my observation, few things bring him joy like inviting a host of people to our home, offering multiple courses of delicious things, and sending them on their way, sated and happy. Dad visits me in Toronto for the day and lets himself into the apartment to leave a three-litre jar of olives on the counter. He always has an array of garlicky Greek spreads waiting when I get off the train, be damned if it’s two in the morning. One memorable evening, he traveled the entire city of Windsor on a midnight fudge run. You see, he misheard my sister Niki’s request for a pack of paper lunch bags. White and milk chocolate fudge were delivered to a befuddled 15-year-old.
My parents visited this past weekend. In true form, dad deposited fruits and vegetables for a family of six on my countertop. I’ve been digging through my crisper all week finding goodies. A mango here, a head of broccoli there. Let me tell you: having someone else stock the fridge is mighty fun. It’s the Red Lobster treasure chest I loved as a kid, only instead of scented erasers, I pull out banana bunches.
Last night, rummaging for dinner ingredients, I uncovered a produce bag of tiny red potatoes.
Potatoes are one of those funny starches in my life. I love them. But I never buy them. Into my grocery basket go yams and pastas and loaves of bread, but nary a white potato. And what a shame, because potatoes are delicious. Especially the little ones – creamy and a little sweet with yielding skins. They’re versatile, quick to prepare and nourishing.
I knew at once what to make with these little red gems: the Pioneer Woman‘s Crash Hot Potatoes. I almost want to keep this recipe a secret, it’s so easy and tasty. But Ree shared and so will I. Boiled red potatoes are lined on a sheet pan, smashed with the bottom of a water glass, doused in olive oil and salt, and slid into a scalding oven. Twenty minutes later you have perfect potatoes: crisp browned exteriors yield to creamy insides. Try if you can to transfer them to a plate before devouring the lot. And then call your dad. Tell him he has to make these potatoes.
Water Glass Potatoes
Adapted from Ree Drummond‘s Crash Hot Potatoes
Serves two, as a side
10-12 small new potatoes, whole
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
kosher or sea salt, to taste
cracked black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Boil the scrubbed potatoes in salted water until they’re very tender. Drain the potatoes. Line them on a generously oiled sheet pan – much like you would to bake cookies. With a water glass, gently smash each potato to flatten it, being sure to expose the white flesh. Drizzle the potato tops with more olive oil, and sprinkle generously with salt. Crack black pepper over each potato.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the potatoes are golden and crisp. Serve with sour cream, or sprinkle with whatever herbs you have on hand.
According to Sameer, whenever I’m making a decision or weighing options in my head, I twitch my nose from side to side. This nose twitching doesn’t accompany particularly life-altering decisions, I should mention. Mostly, it’s as I’m fussing over what wine to order with dinner or whether to roast an eggplant whole or sliced. As it goes, I must not make decisions – life-changing or otherwise – in front of the mirror, since I’ve never seen said nose wiggle. But I’ll trust Sameer on this one.
Quickly: name three decisions you’ve made lately.
You listed three great big decisions, right? Changing jobs, or moving to a new city, or taking in a dachshund as a pet (that last decision is mine, and I’m still working on it, for the record). But every day is a heap of decisions, mostly unconscious. For me, it starts as I clumsily jump from bed to push 20 more minutes on my alarm – one consistent decision on weekdays.
I’m convinced the big decisions matter much less than we think. Indulge me with a (really long but really good) quote from Stephen Jay Gould:
…with contingency, we are drawn in; we become involved; we share the pain of triumph or tragedy. When we realize that the actual outcome did not have to be, that any alteration in any step along the way would have unleashed a cascade down a different channel, we grasp the causal power of individual events. We can argue, lament or exult over each detail—because each holds the power of transformation. Contingency is the affirmation of the control by immediate events over destiny, the kingdom lost for want of a horseshoe nail.
No matter that Gould was actually an evolutionary biologist and I stumbled on the quote doing some “fun reading” in university. Tiny decisions drive kingdoms lost and also many terrible romantic dramas. Heather and I became housemates and friends because I liked the colour blue she used in her flyer. I studied politics at Queen’s instead of life sciences because I hated McMaster’s drab monolith of a student centre. I’m not being glib or devaluing these “big” events. The tiny details – whether cerulean or concrete – compound to create any number of life-altering decisions.
Cooking is the most tangible reminder of how little decisions add up. Take tomato sauce. Easy stuff, right? But the difference between a bang-on and ho-hum sauce is in the little decisions. The tomatoes, to start. Do you peel them and seed them? Blanch them first? At how high of heat should you cook the onions? (Nice and low, we don’t want them to brown.) Butter or olive oil for fat, or both? Dried basil or fresh? Do the tomatoes need some sugar to balance their acidity? (If it’s winter, most likely.) And what about salt? Should I fling the spaghetti at my wall to test its doneness? Spoon the sauce over top the strands or stir the lot together? Phew. It’s enough to make a girl throw down her apron and order in.
Luckily, with a four-ingredient tomato sauce this easy and delicious, your decision is actually pretty simple. Pour a glass of wine, pull out the cutting board, call up some people you love for dinner … and begin.
Originally from the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan
Makes 4 servings
This sauce is so simple, you’ll read the recipe and be convinced it can’t possibly be so darn wonderful. I did. But when two great food writers (Molly Wizenberg of Orangette and Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet) gush this hard about a sauce, I listen. It’s been a staple in my kitchen since.
Some help with decisions: out of season, I use a jar of good tomatoes like San Marzano or Muir Glen. In the summer, whatever mixture I find at the market works. While using butter in tomato sauce sounds strange, trust me that it’s the star ingredient – softening all the acidic edges often found in homemade sauce. Resist the urge to chop the onion: halved will work magic. Finally, though it’s a tomato sauce staple, don’t add garlic here.
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes with their juice, roughly chopped (or 2c fresh tomatoes, blanched and peeled)
5 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
salt, to taste, as you go
1lb cooked pasta, to serve (I like good ol’ spaghetti with this, but anything that holds a medium-body sauce works well)
To a heavy saucepan, add tomatoes, onion halves and butter over medium heat. Taste your tomatoes for saltiness and adjust accordingly. Bring to a low simmer and cook uncovered until everything melds and deepens, about 45 minutes (you’ll see some fat come to the surface). A couple times in the cooking process, stir and test for salt. Discard the onion.
Boil your pasta in well-salted water (be generous – pasta water should taste like the sea). Drain and toss with the sauce. Ladle into deep bowls and dig in.
So about mayonnaise. There are two camps, in my estimation.
First are people like my mom, who love the stuff. Mom, bless her heart, will make a big bowl of potato salad in the morning and stick it in the fridge. She will peel off the cling-film before serving to stir in even more mayonnaise. (Rationale: the original jar she added was “absorbed” by all the potato starch as the dish sat in the fridge, making it much too dry to consume.) And she’ll save the little frilly bits of celery tops to decorate the bowl.
I’ve never figured out mayonnaise’s appeal. I don’t despise it, but really I find the whole affair kind of gloppy and unappetizing. Aioli on toasts? Sweet potato fries dunked in curried-mayo? Hellmann’s slathered on drippy tomato sandwiches? I feel an oil slick on my tongue thinking about it.
Nostalgically, though – there’s something really enticing about mayonnaise. It screams of picnic blankets and gingham dresses (like this one, yes?), the kind I might wear with a wide-brim straw hat, barefoot in the grass and my toes sinking just-barely into the cold soil. Salads piled on paper plates, and higher piles of fried chicken drumsticks on those same paper plates, followed by sweet watermelon wedges. Summer.
Is it obvious that I’ve been cheating on winter with a fairer season? I found myself, mid-February, dreaming for summer salads – mayonnaise and all. Sturdy pasta studded with crunchy nibs of vegetable and a bit of kick from the mustard jar. I thought of using tahini to approximate mayonnaise’s texture, but it seemed awfully hefty for the task. And lo – I found something even better. It’s a pasta salad almost like the kind on your paper plate, sitting in the grass, with a tall lemonade. Just without the mayo.
Almost pasta salad
makes one nice-size bowl for lunch
I like to use a large-ish pasta, with ridges and nooks and crannies, so the vegetables get caught in each bite. This version offers just some finely diced carrot and celery, but I imagine it might be nice with radishes, or a fine sprinkle of onion, and dill if you have it. If you don’t own a food processor, the avocado purees just as nicely with a good whip of the fork.
100g uncooked pasta (I like a sturdy penne, rigatoni or fusilli for this task)
1/2 very ripe avocado, pureed
1-2Tbsp spicy mustard (my go-tos are Kozlik’s and Organic Gold Orange-Ginger, both based in Toronto)
1 rib celery, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
pinch of salt, crack of pepper, dash of sweet paprika – to taste
Bring well-salted water to a boil. Prepare pasta to your preferences, and cool in a colander.
While pasta cooks, combine in a medium bowl the pureed avocado, mustard, spices and diced vegetables. Add the cooled pasta and stir well to combine, adding more salt if needed. Eat straight away, or cool and serve. Pretend it’s summer.
[top photo, with thanks, via]
I have a confession. It’s awfully silly. For the past couple of years, I’ve been scared – nay petrified - of peanut butter.
I’ll forgive you if you stop reading this moment, aghast at my admission. (But maybe I can lure you back with a recipe for peanut butter fudge popcorn?)
Here’s the scoop. Peanut butter has held the most horrible reputation among health-bloggers for some time, and I read lots of these blogs which adds up to regular exposure. Peanuts – we write and read – are the bottom feeders of the plant world, poised to absorb every horrible soil impurity and pesticide in their path. Allergenic! Dirty! Those smiling little Kraft bears with their red and green bows? Guised killers, placed to lure us into peanut butter’s sticky trap.
Examining the research, I eventually converted to almond butter – which is delicious in its own way, but definitely not peanut butter. And I began to throw dirty glances at the Kraft bears – those murderers! – whenever I found myself anywhere close to breakfast spreads. Joking aside, I knew deep-down that a good-quality peanut butter eaten now and again was not going to kill me.
A couple weeks back, a friend mentioned the delicious PB&J he was having for lunch. Gosh that sounds good, I thought… if only I ate peanut butter… it’s been so long. I daydreamed of raspberry preserves and crunchy peanut spread with a cup of tea. Finally, on Sunday while grocery shopping, I bought some. Stealthily into the cart (lest anyone see my transgression!) I placed a small jar of MaraNatha Organic Salted Crunchy Peanut Butter. Baby steps. PB&J would soon be mine.
And it’s been a delicious tryst, between me and peanut butter. Into my smoothies and spread on bananas and straight from the spoon – the stuff’s delicious. Its ability to make things tasty knows no bounds!
Then, the other night popping popcorn in my housemate’s mom’s 1970s air popper, I had an idea. Popcorn and peanuts – a natural fit. Into a pan went some brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and peanut butter, stirred to a soft caramel. I shook it with the freshly popped kernels and placed them on trays in a low oven to crisp.
Oh my. Sweet, salty, crunchy peanut butter popcorn. It was popcorn crack. What had I started?
Since then, I’ve been perfecting the recipe nightly. Adding nuts here, and a sugar-coating there, a pinch more salt in some batches – and it just keeps improving. It took all my willpower to save a paltry tumbler (the photo at top) for my housemate to try. Even then, I had to portion it out, sit it on his desk, close the door, and run to make a tea so I would forget it. Popcorn that good.
I’m hopeful that by the time I deplete this jar, I’ll be so sick of peanut butter I avoid it for another couple of years. But I’m not holding my breath. And I still need to make that sandwich.
Peanut butter fudge popcorn
(serves two – well, one, unless you have incredible restraint)
10 cups air-popped popcorn
2Tbsp dark brown sugar
1/4tsp fine sea salt
tiniest shake of cinnamon (just a pinch!)
2Tbsp crunchy natural peanut butter
2 tsp brown sugar, reserved for shaking
Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.
Pop popcorn using your usual method into a large container that has a lid. You’ll need room to shake the corn, so sometimes two batches works best.
In a small pan over medium-high heat, combine brown sugar, salt and cinnamon with a scant tablespoon of water. When it starts to bubble rapidly, remove from heat and stir in peanut butter. The mixture will look like a thick caramel sauce. Pour over popcorn, pop lid on, and shake vigorously until all the kernels are coated. Open the container and add the 2tsp reserved brown sugar, tossing again to coat.
Spread evenly on two parchment-lined cookie trays and place in the oven to harden, about 8-10 minutes. Remove and let cool and store covered at room temperature.
[bear photo via]
I lay on the bedspread with its pink and purple gardenias that match the curtains that my grandma has sewn. Anywhere else, the pattern would be positively gaudy. But in this place, this moment – they are just right. The breeze is powerful and salty and full of clay-earth. It blows the curtains like great flowery sails above my head. I stare at the ceiling, listening to the clock that accompanies me through each siesta.
We spent many summers when I was little at my grandparents’ island house: a whitewashed specimen on the top of a hill on a little dot of an island in the middle of the Aegean sea. Sometimes I think we humans try to remember a childhood more idyllic than it really was – I am guilty, for sure. But my island home was everything and more. Quiet afternoons spent reading while the Real Greeks napped; walks home from the beach bathed in a fine white sand; climbing to my very favourite mill on my very favourite hill. Schinousa was a dusty, magical place.
Greeks eat their main meal at lunch time: in our family this fell after siesta at around three in the afternoon. Bellies grumbled from a day at the beach coupled with rest, wanting nourishment before the night (and real party) began. I’d quietly make my way to the kitchen before the rest of the house could wake. In two I would fold the napkins. I placed silverware – opposite to my North American upbringing – with the fork to each plate’s right. I poured bottomless jugs of wine into tiny thimbles that we’d refill through the meal.
My Yia-yia is an incredible cook. From her island oven would waft beautiful smells: revithosoupa, tyropites, yemista and other delicious things. But none so coveted (by me, at least!) as her gigantes. Her giants. Broad beans one inch across in a silky tomato sauce – thick and studded with carrots and onion and infused with nutmeg and allspice and maybe a cinnamon stick. Imagine the best baked beans you’ve ever had. These leave those beans in the island dust. Whether scalding your tongue straight from the tapsi or in cold spoonfuls from the fridge; they elevate beans to another level where beans don’t really belong.
I’m always amazed at the beautiful things island frugality produces. It doesn’t make sense that some stewed beans and tomatoes should be extraordinary. Just as, I suppose, it doesn’t make sense that island life – resplendent with quiet and sameness and constancy – should be extraordinary. It just is.
(makes one big tapsi – or pan)
Traditionally, these are spiced with dill and parsley – which is nice, just not the recipe I ate growing up. Mine are infused with the gentlest amount of warm spices: clove, allspice, cinnamon bark and nutmeg. It’s one of those funny recipes that’s equally suited to a hot island lunch as to a mid-winter’s dinner.
Cold leftovers are especially good spooned over toasty bread, sprinkled with parsley and taken in great bites over the sink.
1 pound dried gigantes (you can use elephant beans, lima beans or butter beans to equal success)
4 large carrots, sliced into rounds
2 medium onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, whole
1 28-ounce jar crushed tomatoes
4 allspice berries
1 small piece cinnamon bark
few rasps of fresh nutmeg, or 1/4tsp ground
salt and pepper to taste
1/4c reserved bean liquid
Overnight, soak the rinsed beans in pure filtered water. You can leave them on the counter, just make sure they’re covered with about an inch of liquid – they’ll absorb most of it.
The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large saucepan, bring fresh water and beans to a boil and simmer to firm-tender, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/4c bean liquid. In a separate pan, heat olive oil and add onions, carrot and garlic, salting liberally. Cook about 10 minutes until softened but not browned.
In the largest pot of the two, combine beans, onion-carrot mixture, crushed tomatoes, bean liquid and spices. Simmer until combined, about 5 minutes – the mixture should be soupy but not runny. Taste for seasoning. Transfer to a casserole dish and bake uncovered, about one hour, until the top is crusty and the liquid evaporates to a thick sauce.
This is great warm from the oven, but even better brought up to room temperature the next day. Leftovers will keep for 5 days or so in the fridge.