It only took us over a year, but Alex and I finally had dinner at Tia Pol, a closet-sized gem of a tapas restaurant on 10th Avenue on Saturday night. We live so close, it’s embarrassing that we hadn’t eaten there yet, but the thing with the proximity is that every time we’ve popped our heads in, taken note of the mob of people crushed against the entryway and the “at least an hour and a half” wait, we’ve rationalized that we’ll go another time — later. Well, six months had passed since our last “later,” when on Saturday, so we decided arriving at the criminally early hour of 6 p.m. would outsmart the crowds. The laugh was still on us but the 45 minutes were well worth the wait, the tight space not claustrophobic but cozy on a freezing night as we snugged into a row of coats while drinking our first then second (mon dieu!) glass of their delicious sangria. At the bar, we couldn’t resist trying one of almost everything — marcona almonds, potatoes with aioli and hot paprika, ham-wrapped artichoke hearts with manchego cheese, deep-fried spicy chickpeas and thick, fork-tender white asparagus stalks again with that blessed aioli.
By last night, it had been a whole two days since our last dose of aioli and we needed a fix. Alex grabbed some white asparagus, red potatoes and salad greens on his way home and I began mincing garlic for the sauce. Oh, how easy dinner will be, I thought… And now you see where this is going. The first aioli started out splendidly, but at some point near the end, when you start drizzling the olive oil more confidently, it split and if there’s one thing that’s impossible to fix, it’s a broken mayonnaise. Frustrated as hell, I didn’t want to associate mayonnaise-making with failure and unhappiness, and forced myself to make another, this time in the food processor. I’ve seen Emeril make his in there often (say whatever you want about the man; he always makes his mayo from scratch), and hey, isn’t that what the little drip-spout is for? This batch not only didn’t break, it didn’t come together at all. Four egg yolks, two CUPS of good olive oil, twelve cloves of garlic and any remaining joy I’d had toward cooking that night went right in the trash. I was ready to write the evening off completely — never happened, nobody needs to know, let’s not dwell on these failures, okay? — but I still had those four egg whites and I got clingy, unable to part with another ingredient.
Growing up, we only did one thing and one thing only with leftover egg whites: we made mom’s chocolate chip meringue cookies. They’re absurdly easy to make, have a wonderfully high chip-to-cookie ratio and so few ingredients, you can count them on one hand and one toe. They look deceivingly plush; it’s only when you reach for them that you realize that they’re lighter than air and if you gently tap your nail against their exterior, it sounds like a ping-pong ball. They taste like marshmallows when just out of the oven but the next day, they actually dissolve in your mouth, leaving you with little bits of nuts and chocolate chips to ponder. Really, I dare you not to love them, to make them once and not immediately tuck them into your permanent repertoire, or to ever be able to throw away an unused egg white again.
Frankly, if you’re looking for a little “oh, you shouldn’t have!” for your office, honey or office honey on Wednesday, I can’t imagine a more impressive reward for you five minutes of cooking labor. They’re light and crisp enough that you shouldn’t feel too weighted to do anything besides take a nap after dessert. If you’re still searching for that romantic homemade dinner or dessert, and meringues are not your bag, here are a few more things I can’t get enough of:
- Moules a la Mariniere and Baked Pommes Frites
- Braised Beef Short Ribs, though these are time-consuming so get moving already!
- Coq Au Vin (yes, I finally added the recipe)
- Tomato and Sausage Risotto
- Hoisin-Glazed Pork Riblets
However, if you’re like me and nothing screams romance like a meal that doesn’t make you feel like Pudgy the Whale when you’re done, some lighter notes:
- Balthazar Cream of Mushroom Soup
- Silky Cauliflower Soup
- Caesar Salad
- Asparagus, Artichoke and Shiitake Risotto
- Quiche, either Spinach or Mushroom-Leek
- Wild Mushroom and Stilton Galette
When it comes to dessert, I wouldn’t know where to start, but rest assured, there are plenty of chocolate and non-chocolate edibles in the Recipe Index.
Mom’s Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookies
2 egg whites, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup regular or superfine sugar (I use a bit less — 1/2 cup — they’re plenty sweet)
6 ounces chocolate chips, miniature chips or finely diced semi or bittersweet chocolate
1/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts, toasted first is even tastier
Preheat oven to 300°F.
Beat egg whites until foamy. Add salt, cream of tartar and vanilla, and beat mixture again until it holds soft peaks. Add the sugar, gradually, beating the batter until it is stiff. Fold in the nuts and chocolate chips. Spoon batter onto parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Bake for 25 minutes. Undersides of cookies should be golden or lightly tanned.
Note: There are two approaches to baking meringues. This shorter cooking time at a higher temperature yields a cookie with a crackly, crumbly exterior and an almost hollow center. A more traditional approach is a longer baking time, 200 degrees for 1.5 to 2 hours. Take the longer-baked version out when they are slightly golden and firm to the touch. They will be more soft and fluffy, like miniature pavlovas.