Hipster, Meet Toddler

For the past dozen years I’ve lived in a neighborhood in Boston called Allston. Think Venice Beach, with maybe a touch of St. Mark’s Place. It’s full of students, mustachioed, tattooed hipsters riding bicycles, and there are still punks leftover from the 80s. This year a civic board I sit on for the community built a pop up skate park/vintage market/bike co-op/event space. It’s as weird and wonderful as it sounds.

bea, eating grilled cheese

Being the student enclave, Allston is where you go for cheap eats and to find food from around the world: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Taiwanese, hot pot, Venezuelan, Honduran, Korean, Burmese, Vietnamese, ramen, Lebanese and Indian. It’s got some of the best beer bars in Boston, and a thriving vegan scene. The girls’ day care is also in the neighborhood, in a building just behind some of the best restaurants in all of Allston. There’s Lone Star Taco, where I get my amazing nachos. Deep Ellum, which shares a kitchen and an owner with Lone Star, has incredible beer, remarkable cocktails and it cures its own lox. You’ll never have vegan ice cream like they sell at FoMu any place else. Whole Heart Provisions does this thing with a seared avocado and crispy lentils and za’atar that’s just… wow.

And then there’s Lilli’s favorite restaurant, Roxy’s Grilled Cheese. The restaurant started as a food truck; they still are on the road and share the parking lot with Lilli’s daycare. We passed one of the trucks leaving the lot today, and she pointed and said, “Grilled cheese truck!” You can get a cup of tomato soup with your sandwich, or some poutine, or even grab a burger and a nice beer. There’s also an old school Ms. Pac-Man to play, along with a pinball machine.

grilled cheese

As you can imagine, getting out at all is tricky with a toddler and a baby, but I am here to report that, after close observation at Roxy’s, as well as making dozens of them in my own kitchen, I have perfected the grilled cheese sandwich. It’s kind of like America’s Test Kitchen around here, but for grilled cheese. (Rich could write much the same for French toast: frequently requested, hardly ever “actually” eaten, to use the toddler’s new favorite word.)

First haircut

Today I offer tips and tricks from extensive research, rather than a definitive recipe. This is not cave-aged gruyere on artisanal sourdough. My kid eats provolone (“circle cheese”) on challah or white bread. To my own taste, there’s something to be said for rye with a nice, sharp cheese. A college classmate of mine who’s now a junior doctor in London (damn you, Jeremy Hunt!) swears by Munster cheese, although she says it’s impossible to find over there. I know people enjoy caramelized onions, or maybe some mushrooms or sautéed greens. All are good.

On Making A Grilled Cheese Sandwich

I prefer non-stick and Rich prefers his cast iron. Whichever you do, go you low and slow. Put your stove top on medium, then turn it just a touch towards low. Your sandwich might take about 15 minutes to make, but it’s worth the time.

Here’s the big reveal: Instead of buttering the outsides of your bread, use a thin layer of mayo. (Hellman’s if you’re on the East Coast, Best if you’re out West.) Over the past few weeks I’ve tried to measure out how much that would be – a teaspoon? Two teaspoons? A tablespoon? — but I’ve realized it will really depend on what size bread you’re using. But the mayo is what makes the bread that deep brown, and greasy in the best way possible.

I also don’t assemble my sandwich on the counter. Once my bread is shmeared, I turn to my heated skillet, add a generous tablespoon of butter, watch it melt, then put a slice of bread down. Then I add my cheese – at least two slices – then top it with the second piece of bread. Fry that sucker for a good six minutes, then gently lift up a corner and admire how nice and golden it’s turned. Flip with a spatula, slide a second pat of butter on the pan, then cook until golden and gooey.

Finally, and this is key, once you’ve finished making your grilled cheese, quickly remove it from the pan, slice it in half, then prop the two pieces on their side on a cutting board. This will cool it down enough to eat, and will prevent the bread from getting soggy. Then you can proceed to cut it into toddler-sized triangles, or squares, or “squares and triangles” as has been the request this week. (The geometry on that one took me back to high school math.)

on its side

So, yes, fried, mayonnaise-slathered, grilled cheese, for the toddler. Judge away. She’s so tiny that she needs the calories however we can get them in her. And she barely eats half of what we give her, anyhow. Which means we (mostly Rich) gets to eat a lot of grilled cheese. And French toast.

 

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The Great (E)scape

In the past week, I have found myself in no fewer than four conversations with people scratching their heads as to what to do with some of the contents of their weekly CSAs. Things like strawberries and arugula are pretty much no-brainers – in fact, a salad of just those two things is quite lovely – but alien-looking kohlrabi and twisty garlic scapes seem to stump most folks, myself included.

I have yet to receive kohlrabi in my own box, but two weeks in a row I’ve gotten bunches of scapes, the green shoots that grow out from the heads of some types of garlic. Otherwise known as green garlic,  baby garlic, or garlic flowers, among other aliases, they’re much milder than garlic cloves.

Based on my conversations, the default blueprint for garlic-scaping is a pesto recipe, via a Washington Post blog. I’m here to report, first and foremost, that said recipe is very tasty indeed. Tossed with pasta, it makes a very nice dinner and a very portable lunch. But when Scapes: Round Two arrived in the CSA box, I felt the need to branch out. I am happy to report a new development in scape-ology, and I owe it all to Rich.

No, he didn’t come up with the recipe, but he offered up the inspiration. When I told him that we were having yet another dinner featuring red leaf lettuce salad, he asked if we could pick up garlic bread at the supermarket. (We were actually headed over there later that day, to meet with a financial adviser from our bank. Yes, our bank is in our supermarket, which is not so much convenient as depressing. Think strip mall instead of Le Corbusier.) What Rich had in mind were those supermarket bakery loaves, impregnated with garlic and butter and sold in foil bags so that they can go straight into the oven. And that’s when it hit me: garlic-scape bread.

The recipe I’ve come up with is so painfully obvious, I’m embarrassed that it has taken me until now to come up with it. It’s basically the same formula as the pesto: scape-paste incorporated with fat (butter instead of oil), served with starch (bread instead of pasta).

An added bonus: the compounded butter turns a wonderful shade of pea green. Rich asked what, if anything, had I added to achieve its springtime hue. Not a thing. Call me a garlic-scape bread purist.

Incidentally, our meeting with the financial adviser was remarkably pain free. We ran some life insurance quotes and discovered, actuarially speaking, that I’m a safer bet than Rich. “Women eat more vegetables than men,” the adviser observed by way of explanation. True, but I don’t think he had this recipe in mind…

Don't be fooled by the green. That's mostly butter in there.

Garlic-Scape Bread

Ingredients

One bunch of garlic scapes, approximately 10 shoots

One stick of unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces

Pinch of salt

One loaf of bread — French or Ciabatta, whatever your preference; we grabbed a day-old, discounted baguette which did the job just fine.

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Roughly chop the scapes on a cutting board. Add to the bowl of a food processor and process about 15 seconds. Add butter and salt and process for another 15 seconds or so, until the butter and scapes form a paste.

There are two ways to tackle the assemblage: Either slice the loaf length-wise and shmear or cut a dozen or so horizontal slits across the top and apply the butter inside each. Or cut the loaf in half and try both. Wrap the loaf in foil and toss in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove and enjoy.

My Favorite Food: A Riddle

In a History of Food course I once took, the instructor spent a great deal of one class trying to get us to understand what the Conquistadors saw when they arrived in the New World. As detailed in The Columbian Exchange by Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., the Spainards beheld an entirely new universe of fruits, tubers, vegetables, and animals. Could we, if asked, be able to fully describe a new food to an awaiting court?

She asked us to each think of our favorite food, and describe it to our classmates — kind of like the game show Password. I’ll be honest and admit that I couldn’t identify many of the dishes described. There was lots of fancy stuff involving parts of animals I had never sampled. I’d never heard of a crayfish, although I don’t think I’m missing much based on my classmate’s description of eating one.

Finally, it was my turn to describe my favorite food, and I managed to stump the class. Try to guess: It grows on a tree and has a pit;  it starts as one color and changes to another; it’s salty and has a bit of a twang to it; most importantly, it is only edible after adding poison to it.

The answer is the olive, and I have adored them for as long as I can remember. (The poison is lye, which is used as a curing agent.) Black or green, Spanish, Greek or French, oil- or salt-cured, if a dish of them is near me, soon enough there will be a pile of pits on a nearby plate.

I remember once, when I was in high school, sharing an olive pizza with my Oma (German for grandmother), happily popping the canned California ones into my mouth. “In France,” my Oma began, “we had olive trees.” (I guess they were next to the persimmon trees.) I looked up excitedly from my slice and asked her if they were green or black olive trees. She looked a little surprised at the question. “They all start green, and then change to black,” she said, looking for a moment a little worried that her granddaughter might be a little dim. I’ve told that story many times in the past 17 years, and I am a relieved to say every single person who has heard it has remarked that they had no idea about the color-change.

The recipe here employs both the green and black olives, and lots of them. I think we used nearly an entire jar of pitted black Kalamata olives from Trader Joe’s, plus a whole container of house-made green olives with lemon and garlic from Whole Foods — one of my favorite tastes in the world. The recipe comes from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today, a much-appreciated present from my dad for Chanukah this year. I had been looking for a good olive loaf recipe for a while, and this one is great. There are so many olives in this recipe that they bleed and streak through the dough, making it look more like a marble rye. Two pieces would make a great backdrop for a sandwich of roasted red peppers and shmear of goat cheese. But I have also enjoyed munching it plain, enjoying each salty bite.

As Rich loves baking, I enlisted his help with this recipe during one of our January snow days. Although the recipe says it will yield 5 small loaves, serving 2 to 3 each, Rich made four round loaves of three servings each.

Hanoch’s Olive Bread (From The Foods of Israel Today by Joan Nathan)

Ingredients

5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus 2 teaspoons for sprinkling

1 package dry yeast (1 scant tablespoon)

1 1/4 cups water

1 to 1 1/2 cups Mediterranean black olives, pitted and chopped

1 to 1 1/2 cups Mediterranean green olives, pitted and chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoons melted butter of pareve margarine

Directions

1. Put 4 cups of the flour into a mixing bowl and make a well in the center.

2. Dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of the water and pour into the well. Incorporate the flour into the liquid, then turn the dough out onto a board and knead until smooth. Return the dough to the bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour.

3. Punch down the dough, then work in the olives, salt, oregano, 1/4 cup of water, and remaining cup flour. Knead again for a few minutes, and let rise, covered, in the same bowl for another hour.

4. Divide the dough into 5 portions and form into ovals about 6 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide (or four rounds). Using a sharp knife or razor, cut 3 slits horizontally across the tops and allow to rest, covered, for 20 minutes.

5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease 2 cookie sheets. Brush the tops with the melted butter or margarine and sprinkle with the remaining 2 teaspoons of flour. Place the loaves on the cookie sheets.

6. Bake for about 45 minutes or until the breads sound hollow when tapped. Serve warm.

Note: This bread freezes well. Remove from freezer an hour before serving and neat in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes.