Over the last couple years — a dark time in which I’ve slowly had to accept that my once-tiny baby with fairly simple needs now required real square meals at very specific times of the day, such as dinner, far earlier than we ever do and that he’d likely be looking to me (me!) to provide them or face the hangry consequences — I’ve attempted to increase my repertoire of two things: 1. Dinners that can be made easily in under an hour that I actually want to eat, and 2. Casseroles. No, no, I don’t mean the canned cream of soupiness things. I mean, the idea of taking disparate meal parts and baking them in a big dish until they’re much more than the sum of their ingredients. Plus, they’re dinnertime magic: they reheat well; they make excellent leftovers for as long as you can stretch them; and they rarely require anything more on the side than a green salad (for grownups) or steamed broccoli (for people who haven’t yet come around to salad). Long Live The Casserole Rethought With Minimally Processed Ingredients! is hardly a sexy catchphrase, but there you have it: my new battle cry.
I have spent most of my egg-eating life doing everything in my culinary power to avoid getting texture of any kind on my eggs. Even the smallest amount of a wire-like edge to a firm-cooked white made me want to run, so when I’d cook eggs, I’d opt for any method that didn’t involve a frying pan. Hard-boiled? Good. Scrambled? Better. Soft-boiled, peeled and smashed? Oh yes. Poached? Yeah we can.
To unforgivably botch something great, if all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone, I’m starting to believe that all of Smitten Kitchen’s problems stem from my inability to leave exquisitely simple things like berries and cream alone. Or maybe it’s about me being unable to sit in a room alone with strawberries and cream and not eat them? One thing is clear; I think we know better than to entrust me with the work of great philosophers ever again. I’m sorry, Pascal.
There’s nothing worth eating in Texas that Lisa Fain can’t teach you to make better in your own kitchen, from perfect, simple carnitas, kolaches, and chicken-fried steak to breakfast tacos, frito pie and peach buttermilk ice cream, plus two cookbooks worth of wonders (drool break for the buttermilk and bacon fat flour tortillas from her latest) but my favorite recipe of hers uses only three ingredients and is addictive enough to put on everything.
Every summer, I make a note on my Oh My God Good Vegetables Are Finally Here! cooking to-do list (what, you don’t keep one?) to post about how to make classic dill pickles. Every week they’re available, I pick up nearly a bucket of perfect-for-pickling kirby cucumbers from the Greenmarket for my cucumber-junkie family with the greatest intention of finally making good on this promise. And I never, ever do. It might be that the first couple times I tried, many years ago, my always-too-hot kitchen molded both jars, traumatizing me at the end of the jars’ incubation periods. It might be that because I live in NYC, when I want an insanely good sour pickle, I just go to The Pickle Guys on Essex Street or track down some from Guss’. Like bagels, killer soup dumplings, or Halal cart street meat, amazing pickles are in a category of food you have to be extremely driven and possibly cuckoo to make at home in NYC. I mean, I am, but apparently not enough.
On the very long list of things that I am convinced that other people do effortlessly while I typical flail and fail in the face of — dancing, running, walking from one room to another without forgetting what they were looking for — making dinner on a regular basis with a minimum of brow sweat and complaining is near the top.
New York City is a terrible place to summer. Whereas some water-bound towns have cool breezes rolling in off the ocean all day, we can better rely on the hot exhale of garbage trucks. Offices are set to roughly the same temperature as a polar ice cap, but subway platforms are so unfathomably sweltering that on my first day in NYC 14 years ago, I — adorably, like the wee baby New Yorker I was — uttered the words, “Is this even legal?” It’s a rare day that you don’t walk down the sidewalk and have a window a/c unit drip you-don’t-want-to-know run-off on your head. Flip-flops may cool your feet outside, but you may never recover from seeing the new color of your toes at the end of a day, and it always seems like everyone but me has Summer Fridays. The city tries, it really does, to make things more livable: the 14 beaches are free, there are dozens and dozens of free public pools, something like a zillion sprinkler parks, and you know all those endless photos you see of children frolicking in spraying fire hydrants? Hardly a symbol urban decay, it’s actually legal and encouraged. But the fact is that from July 4th on (and possibly earlier this year), anyone that has the means to be elsewhere is, and the rest of us plebes schvitz it out on the pavement.