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Matt Molina's Linguine with Clams and Chiles


You may have, as I was, been charmed by Russ Parsons's profile of Matt Molina at the two Mozzas. The article may have, as it did for me, made your mouth water. You may have run, as I did, to the fish store on the way home to make his linguine with clams and chiles as soon as possible.

My question is: did anyone else lose all sensation in their lips, mouth and tongue after eating that dish, as I did and did and did?

I love spaghetti con le vongole - who doesn't? - and Matt 's idea of making a "pesto" of sorts out of hot peppers with which to sauce the dish seemed cunning. Since we're wimpy folk, I halved the amount of jalapenos called for, even de-seeded one, just for good measure, and then only used a quarter cup of the "pesto".

But when the jalapenos hit the hot oil and our apartment was instantly turned into some kind of pepper-spray purgatory, I realized, despite our precautions, that something might be going terribly, terribly wrong. Ben and I staggered around the place, yanking open windows and coughing piteously, but the painful stinging in our throats and lungs and nostrils wouldn't abate.

I went to the stove where the clams merrily steamed away and thought suddenly of this meal, destined for the trash. Is that what we faced tonight? A pile of slippery pasta and lovely, tender, delicate clams destined for the rubbish bin?


Well, dear readers, we did our best. We sat down at the table, armed ourselves with heels of bread and glasses of wine, and went to work. Tears started streaming down our face within a few bites, and then our noses followed suit. In the end, I couldn't handle it - I finished half my plate and realized that my lips, tongue and the insides of my mouth were completely swollen. Ben soldiered on for a few more bites, but even he had to surrender eventually. I couldn't watch as he threw out the rest of the clams and the gorgeous, briny sauce, rendered entirely inedible by all those bits of jalapenos.

So I went back and reread the recipe. Could it be that my jalapenos were hotter than the ones Matt Molina used? Could it be that he meant to say "coarsely chopped withOUT seeds"? One thing is for sure: 3/4 of a pound of linguine is definitely not enough for six people as a main course, so perhaps the 6 jalapeno-strong "pesto" was meant to sauce twice as much pasta? I don't know.

What I do know is that I never want to see another jalapeno again. And if you want to attempt this yourselves, all I can say is proceed with caution.


Linguine with Clams and Chiles
Serves only those people with asbestos-lined mouths

Red chile 'pesto'
6 red jalapeños, coarsely chopped with seeds (yeah, I'd go with two here)
1/2  red onion, diced
1/4  teaspoon salt
1/4  cup olive oil

1. In a food processor, coarsely purée the chiles, onion and salt. With the machine running, add the olive oil in a trickle to make a coarse sauce. Makes about 1 cup.

Linguine and assembly

1/4  cup olive oil
3/4 pound pancetta, diced
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3/4 cup red chile "pesto"
1/2 cup white wine
4 pounds manila clams, scrubbed
3/4 pound linguine (I'd double this)
1/2 cup sliced Italian parsley
3/4 cup (loosely packed) sliced green onions

1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil with the pancetta over medium heat and cook until the pancetta is crisp and lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Drain off half of the rendered fat and add the garlic. Cook until it is light golden brown, 3 minutes. Stir in the red chile "pesto," white wine and clams. Cover the pan and cook until all of the clams have opened, 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

2. While the clams are cooking, cook the pasta in a large pot of rapidly boiling, salted water until it is just al dente, 8 minutes.

3. Drain the pasta and add it to the clams. Place over high heat, ladle in one-half cup of the pasta cooking water and cook, stirring to mix well. Stir in the parsley and green onions over high heat; serve immediately.


Bill Telepan's Tomato Bread Soup


This is urgent, everyone, pay attention. I'm going to be forced to be bossy - it's that serious a situation. It's Wednesday, right? That must mean that there's a farmer's market in your area. If there's not, I send condolences and prayers for strength, as you'll have to wait until tomorrow. I'm just so sorry. The rest of you, put down what you're doing and get yourself to the market right now. Before you leave, jot down a shopping list:

-three pounds of plum tomatoes (this, if you're as fortunate as we have been with this ridiculously perfect summer, shouldn't set you back more then four or five dollars)

-a bunch of basil (unless you're lucky enough to have a plant of it growing on your fire escape or balcony or backyard garden)

-sourdough bread

-ricotta salata (if you've got a market that sells cheese, that is. You'll have to make a detour, otherwise, to your cheese store. It's okay, it's worth it.)

(You've got the rest - onions, garlic, olive oil, salt - lying around the house already, right? Of course you do.)

Then, clear your schedule for this evening and go home to make this soup - this totally incredible soup that rendered us, and Ben's mother, practically speechless when we first ate it on Monday night. It's as simple as could possibly be - just a bunch of chunked plum tomatoes (ours were so perfect they were deep red and dripping with juice) cooked for an hour with onion and garlic, but then - then! - you stir in cubes of bread and let them simmer in the soup before serving it with little strips of basil and a snow-white grating of ricotta salata, and suddenly you're faced with what has turned out to be the best summer soup you ever ate, I swear it.

Take a cooled spoonful in your mouth (if you can wait long enough for it to cool, that is) - you'll feel the bread, like custard, suspended in the gently silky tomatoes, the basil adding perfume and heaven-sent flavor, the crumbly, dry-ish cheese providing salt and kicky texture.  The whole thing will be exquisite. Swallowing will be tragic - it's one less spoonful you've got to savor. You might swear to never eat anything else ever again.

The recipe comes from Bill Telepan (I can't for the life of me remember its context in the NYT), but his version adds a can of peeled tomatoes. Perhaps, if your plum tomatoes were a bit mealy and less than perfect or if you were making this in winter, I could see why you'd be interested in adding canned ones, but with the glorious specimens available right now? It just seems silly. Also, he says to use stale sourdough and soak the cubes in water before squeezing them by the handful and cooking them in the soup. I'm sure that's fine, but my bread was fresh and it worked perfectly, so you can go either way on this one. Third of all, he says to peel and de-seed your tomatoes. I am far, far too lazy for that kind of behavior, but I am testimony to the fact that it doesn't matter at all - with seeds and peels, this soup is still one of the best things I've cooked all summer.

Okay, that's it, enough reading, off you go. You've got tomatoes to buy and soup to prepare. And if I may offer one more bit of advice, buy twice the amount of tomatoes required. Because when you're standing in front of your stove looking down at an empty soup pot, wondering what could have possessed you to be so generous as to share your meal with the people at your table, you'll feel some relief at the prospect of being able to whip up another batch, right then and there.

Tomato Bread Soup
Serves 3 to 4

3 pounds plum tomatoes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, minced
3 cloves garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups sourdough bread, without crusts, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup grated ricotta salata
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil leaves

1. Core and quarter plum tomatoes. Place tomatoes in food processor and pulse to chop, but not too fine.

2. Heat oil in 4-quart saucepan. Add onion and garlic and saute until soft, but not browned. Add tomatoes and their juices. Season with salt and pepper, bring to a slow simmer and cook 45 minutes, covered, stirring from time to time.

3. When the soup has simmered for 45 minutes, stir the bread cubes into the soup and simmer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Check the seasoning.

4. Serve hot or at room temperature, with grated ricotta salata and minced basil strewn on each serving.

Marian Burros's Plum Crumble


It's only taken me two years, but on Friday night I finally, finally, got around to trying Marian Burros's plum crumble. Longtime readers of this site will remember back when I made her fabled plum torte with somewhat unspectacular results. I felt like such a Grinch that day, just as I did when I made Marion Cunningham's yeasted waffles and didn't like them. There's something intimidating about famous recipes, isn't there? Something that makes you feel pressured into liking them, even if, secretly, you don't. (I actually plan on trying the torte again soon, with less sugar and a smaller pan. But more on that another time.)

Luckily, Marian's crumble isn't world-renowned the way its cakey cousin is. But that doesn't mean it's not deserving of fame and fortune. Glittering with translucent dots of spicy, candied ginger, its craggy, crunchy top a perfect bed for rivulets of melting ice cream or thick, poured cream, this crumble is a stunner. The topping comes together a little like streusel - hand-formed clumps of dough strewn over the halved and sugared plums. But then you pour a flood of melted butter over the topping, which, after baking, fuses the clumps together into a sweet and spicy cookie of sorts. Wielding your spoon and a judicious scoop of ice cream for its softening powers, you break through the topping to find purply-soft plums beneath, cooked to a jammy, sweet-sour pulp.


I always thought crumbles were softer affairs, more fruit than topping, with a fluffier crumb. But I'm happy to make this crumble the standard-bearer, the crumble to beat all other crumbles. Actually, wait. I should point out one or two things first. When I make this again, I'll be doing a few things differently.

First, I'll be doubling the amount of fruit. Cooked plums are such a gift that it seems silly to skimp on them, especially when I'd be happy eating them by the bowlful most of the time. Which leads me to my next point, a larger dish. If you double the amount of fruit, you could keep using the 9-inch pie plate, or you could throw the fruit and topping into a casserole dish, spreading your fortunes out a bit. This would turn the topping into more of a pebbly punctuation among the juicy plums than a solid mass capping it all. And lastly, go easy on the salt, people. There's a fine line to toe and it's just a little too easy to stray over that line sometimes.


Just to make things even more perfect, this crumble, with a dollop of plain yogurt, after impressing dinner guests to no end on Friday, doubles as a lovely Sunday breakfast. Cold from the fridge, the plums jelled to a squidgy consistency, the spices tamed by the cooling yogurt - well, all I can say is that you should try it, you really should.

I'm so glad I can love this crumble unequivocally. And maybe even start a little following that could snowball into a world-wide movement. But if you decide you don't like it, don't be afraid to admit it. That's not the way we roll around here. It wouldn't be quite fair, would it? A chacun son gout and that's that.

Plum Crumble
Serves 6 to 8

12 purple Italian or prune plums, cut in half and pitted
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons plus 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon plus 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
2 heaping tablespoons finely chopped candied ginger
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt (easy, easy here - maybe even just 1/8 teaspoon)
1 egg, well beaten
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
Vanilla ice cream, optional

1. Place plums in medium bowl. Heat oven to 375 degrees, with rack in center.

2. In a small bowl, thoroughly mix brown sugar, 1 1/2 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, ground ginger and the candied ginger. Add to plums and mix well. Arrange plums skin side up in ungreased, deep 9-inch pie plate.

3. In a small bowl, combine granulated sugar, baking powder, remaining flour and cinnamon and the salt. Mix well. Stir in egg. Using hands, mix thoroughly to produce little particles. Sprinkle over plums.

4. Drizzle butter evenly over crumb mixture and bake 30 to 35 minutes. Crumble is done when top is browned and plums yield easily when pricked with cake tester. Remove from oven and cool.

5. Serve crumble warm or refrigerate for up to two days or freeze, well covered. If reheating, bring to room temperature, then warm at 300 degrees. If desired, serve with ice cream.

Note: If you decide, like me, to double the amount of plums to 24, just remember to change the amounts of the sugar and spices that you toss the plums in, too. I'd do 3-4 tablespoons of brown sugar to taste, 3 tablespoons of flour, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger and 3 to 4 tablespoons of finely chopped candied ginger.

Ukrainian Honey Cake


Though I've been complaining about the cold and the rain these past few days, I have to admit that I'm secretly kind of thrilled to pull my trench out of the coat closet, belt it up snugly, and march off to work. It just feels so continental. Long pants and proper shoes, a cozy blanket for reading on the couch, swapping the air conditioning for a night breeze from the outside (a small victory for me, I might add, after weeks of negotiation and haggling with my overheated roommate) - these are all small pleasures that come from an unexpected autumn in August.

What's more, I've been struck by the baking bug that shows up so reliably each year when the sticky, swollen days of summer come to an end and that most exhilarating of seasons starts to reappear in the changing leaves and lengthening shadows. I've been eyeing my oven longingly, opening and closing cupboard doors to assess the sacks of flours and boxes of sugar, the leavenings and the flavorings standing at attention. I've run my finger down the spines of my baking books and plucked out more than a few to leaf through, fingertips humming with anticipation as they hone in and touch down on recipes I can't wait to try.


It's not quite bread-baking season yet, at least not in my house, but smaller ventures, ones less fraught with commitment and the prospect of floury floors, are the things I'm hungering for. Simplicity and ease, humble ingredients, a plain and rather homely crumb - I tell you, I'm not quite in the mood for show stoppers these days. Give me an hour in the kitchen, a few straightforward ingredients, and that age-old scent of baking that fills the air slowly and bewitches the people walking through my door and I'll be happy.

If there's one book that really fits the bill when I'm in this kind of mood, it's Home Baking, another home run of a book by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. A book that's just as at home on your coffee table as it is in your kitchen, bespattered and worn. If I had the time, I'd bake every single thing in it, like little date cookies and chewy, puffy flatbreads and banana-coconut loaves and crusty Vietnamese baguettes. The other night, when the sky grew dark too early, I settled on the simplest of cakes, one scented with honey and coffee and the barest fillip of cinnamon, one that could pass as easily for breakfast with a milky cup of tea as it could for a weeknight dessert, sliced thickly from the fridge and eaten out of hand.


I've eaten my fair share of pain d'epices in France, with chocolate and without, buttered and plain, industrially vacuum-packed and artisan-made, and it's fair to say that it is one of my favorite things - straddling the worlds of bread and cake with panache. So, I wondered, could this Ukrainian version, strictly spiced and dark with coffee, stand up to the feted Gallic model? It could and it did. What emerged from the oven was a light and airy loaf with a perfect crumb, an alluring scent of honey, and a barely-there hint of smoke and toast from the coffee. A night or two in the fridge firmed up the cake, but made it no less delicious. I'd say it might have even been improved.

We're still slated for a few more gaspingly hot days, a few more nights with the a/c humming, but until then, I'll be slicing off pieces of honey cake and waiting for fall. Impatient, now that I've had my first taste, for all that is to come.


A year ago, I thought long and hard about this little venture of mine. I'd blogged for a year and couldn't decide if I wanted to keep going or not. I thought about closing up shop on my one-year anniversary. Maybe I'd had enough, maybe I needed a break. I slept on it and then changed my mind the next morning, recommitting to another year. I'm so glad I did, because today, on my second anniversary in the blogosphere, I can only say that this second year has been even better than the first.

New friends, new readers, new ventures, new work - writing The Wednesday Chef has just been one reward after another. Thank you all for coming here, dearest readers, and giving me an audience.


Ukrainian Honey Cake
Makes 1 loaf-shaped cake

2 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup strong brewed coffee, cooled to lukewarm

1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-5-inch bred pan, then dust it with flour.

2. Beat the egg yolks and sugar until pale and smooth. Add the honey and melted butter and mix until blended and smooth.

3. Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl. Add half the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and stir in. Stir in the coffee, then stir in the remaining dry ingredients.

4. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold them into the batter, then gently stir several times. The batter will be quite wet.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes to an hour, or until a skwer inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes, then remove from pan and place on a rack to cool completely before slicing. Eat plain or buttered.

Amanda Hesser's Potato Salad with Green Sauce


Enough of this huggy-bear, kissy-face, I-love-my-home-wah-wah business. Let's get down to brass tacks, to the whole point this blog was started in the first place, after all, to the very reason you probably show up here week after week, shall we?

Pure (sort of), unadulterated (um, mostly) criticism. Yes?

I dug up this recipe the other day, one by Amanda Hesser that she had accompanying some article on indispensable kitchen tools way back in 2003 (I think.) (If I remember correctly, they included the Microplane zester and a vegetable peeler. I can't, for the life of me, remember what the third one was. A mortar and pestle? A can opener? Who knows.) This recipe for boiled potatoes dressed with an herb oil was meant to showcase the cunning skills of that vegetable peeler, because you were supposed to shave ricotta salata over the whole thing using said peeler and then serve it up.

Well, in theory that sounded pretty good. Creamy little potatoes, an herbal sauce, some bits of cheese flung here and there, fine. Except, when you actually start to think about it, it's a little strange. That herb oil is pretty one-sided, to begin with. (There's a reason pesto includes garlic and pine nuts and Parmigiano.) You try whizzing together those herbs with the oil and salt, then stick your finger into the green abyss and taste it - tell me if it doesn't taste almost a little... metallic a-a-and flat and harsh, even. Can you imagine, second of all, then, adding ricotta salata, which is purposefully rather bland and a little flat (and goes so well with certain things, except not really this sort of thing)? I couldn't at all.

Since the green oil reminded me of that most glorious of sauces, the salsa verde, I plucked my jar of salted capers from the fridge, added a spoonful or two of them to the sauce (after a wee bit of soaking, natch) and continued with the whizzing. The briny capers mellowed everything out, paradoxically, but I couldn't help it, it needed something more. So I unscrewed the top to my bottle of champagne vinegar and added a splash or two of that as well.

Suddenly, things started looking up. The potatoes, boiled and cooling in their sink-nest, got sliced up into chunks and then dressed with their green, vibrant cloak: herbal and fragrant, with the barest hint of sharpness. I left the cheese out, as I think you should, too, and let the potatoes to soak in their sauce for a while longer before serving them.

This new salad? A fine little dish. A lightened version of potato salad, for those mayo-haters out there (hello! and welcome. you're in good company), a springy way to eat your spuds when boiling them in their jackets and serving them with a pat of butter and a shower of chopped parsley isn't enough. Which, actually, leads me to my next question. When is something that simple and sublime not enough?

So on second thought, even with my changes, this just isn't all that truly special. If you've got good potatoes around, don't drown them in something that will mask their true flavor. Just boil them up straight, and serve them plainly (butter and parsley aren't essential, but they certainly can't hurt). Eat your green sauce on other things, like fish and meat, and leave the potatoes naked and happy.

Potato Salad with Green Sauce

Serves 4

2 pounds fingerling potatoes, or Yukon Gold
Sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 cup packed mint leaves
1/4 cup packed basil leaves
3 tablespoons sliced chives
(1-2 tablespoon salt-cured capers, rinsed)
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
(1-2 tablespoons champagne vinegar, to taste)

1. Peel potatoes (or don't). Rinse and spread in base of a large pan. Cover with water, seasoned generously with salt. Bring to a simmer and cook until potatoes are just cooked through, but not squishy, about 20 minutes. Drain and transfer to a bowl. Let cool.

2. Meanwhile, drop mint, basil, chives (and capers) into a food processor with a pinch of salt. With motor running, begin pouring olive oil through feed tube. Process about 1 minute, to a bright green puree.

3. Slice potatoes into chunks and pour over the green oil, seasoning with a few grinds of pepper. Add vinegar and fold together so potatoes are well-dressed. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Russ Parsons's Braised Romano Beans with Cherry Tomatoes


Summertime and the days are chilly. We've had a few surprisingly breezy days here, replete with gray skies and an uncomfortable little wind. It was a treat, at first, to wear a cozy sweatshirt while drinking hot tea in the morning, a pleasing taste of the crisp September days to come. Walking down 6th Avenue on Saturday, I was practically swept sideways by the veritable gale making its way through Lower Manhattan. Goose bumps littered my skin and it all felt fresh and thrilling. But by Sunday, the chill had stuck around too long. I found myself curled up on the couch (yes, the situation has been resolved!), feet tucked under seeking warmth, while paging through cookbooks in a stab at coziness (and regretting having dumped various half-finished sacks of flours in the move. Baking seems a rather sensible pursuit again.).

With a bag of velvety-skinned Romano beans in the fridge and after our great braised zucchini success, it was only a matter of time before I got around to the other recipe in that article. Could I have found a better time to braise vegetables to shortly before the point of disintegration than a prematurely dark, cold evening in August? Our work on the apartment for the weekend was over, including a mind-numbing trip to Home Depot (tell me, is there anyone else out there that finds this place soul-sucking in the worst way? I think I would rather watch paint dry than find myself in the Hardware Nuts and Bolts lane again, staring blankly at row upon row of little plastic baggies full of screws of differing sizes, while Ben mutters things under his breath and workshoe-clad men stomp about us looking Busy and Serious and Also A Little Bit Pissed Off while sorting through the incomprehensible amount of fiddly bits littering the aisles. Pardon the sexual stereotyping, but is the desperate boredom that I felt in Aisle Fourteen how men feel at Sephora?) and we had gotten the stereo working, so there was music in the air and a sense of accomplishment, too.

I got diced onions in the pan with some olive oil (I eschewed the pancetta, because Ben made turkey bacon for breakfast yesterday morning and nine hours later, the stench aroma of it still hung in the air, depleting me of any desire for pork products, fake or otherwise, for the foreseeable future), then threw in the sectioned beans and sliced garlic and water. As the beans simmered on the stove and the sky grew darker, I sat on the couch in the very spot where my father taught me how to read 24 years ago (the couch seems smaller, yet is just as comfortable as I remember) and looked around at the marvel that is cohabitation.

Forgive me, as I know I'm getting repetitive and I promise to stop soon with all my moon-eyed pronouncements on the subject, but somewhere in the last three weeks, during the arguing and the furniture-moving and the Ikea-tripping and the painstaking artwork-hanging, we found ourselves a home. A peaceful, cozy, beautiful home. One that we can't wait to come back to at the end of the day and one that pains us to leave it in first thing in the morning. One that makes us feel rich with happiness. And that warms us to the bone. One where the smell of cooking reminds me of my childhood and yet fills me with the thrill of things to come. One where our two lives are coming together so well that it fills us both with unexpected delight. It's just all so much better than I had even imagined.

So bring it on, August, with your cold Sundays and gray Mondays. We're ready.

And, oh yeah, the beans. Well, is it any surprise that they were delicious? I didn't think so. The barely-cooked tomatoes were like little pops of candy here and there. Sometimes the skin felt a little tough beneath my teeth, but mostly I didn't care, especially because they provided such a nice contrast to the soft, pale beans that had become practically creamy in the braise. I usually stew Romanos in a chunky tomato sauce, which is delicious in its own right (Ben remarked upon first eating that dish that it tasted like my family, which I thought was adorable until I typed it here and realized it sounds like Ben regularly cannibalizes us, which, obviously, he doesn't. Urgh.), but this new method takes the cake.

Braised Romano Beans with Cherry Tomatoes
Serves 4 as a side dish

1/4 pound pancetta, in 1 slice about  1/2 -inch thick
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 cups chopped onions, about 1 medium
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds Romano beans, stems removed and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil

1. Unroll the pancetta and cut it into pieces about one-half-inch long. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the pancetta and cook until the meat is well-browned and has rendered much of its fat, about 8 minutes.

2. Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of the fat, return the pan to the heat and add the onions. Cook until the onions are tender, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and the Romano beans and stir them with the onions and pancetta. Add the salt and three-fourths cup water and reduce the heat to medium.

3. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are silky in texture and extremely flavorful, about 45 minutes. If the mixture begins to cook dry, add a little more water.

4. When the beans are cooked, remove the lid and cook long enough to evaporate most of the remaining water, about 5 minutes.

5. Reduce the heat to low and add the cherry tomatoes. Cook until they are warmed through. Serve either warm or at room temperature, first stirring in the basil and tasting and correcting the seasoning.

Amanda Hesser's Rib Steaks with Parsley and Crouton Salad


I don't mean to be hopelessly materialistic, but I bought a platter (well, actually three - a smaller one and two larger ones, for a grand total of eight dollars) at a thrift store the other day and it filled me with deep-seated satisfaction and joy. I'm kind of into all that stuff, you see. Plates please me, as do tablecloths from flea markets and silver salt shakers from my mother and etched glasses in green and yellow crystal that we bought as seconds a few years ago in Berlin. For years, I've been making do with a few Sarreguemines plates I bought on Ebay years ago (they reminded me of my puces forays in Paris), with glasses that roommates contributed to the apartment, with a hodge-podge assortment of forks and knives, with paper towels instead of linen ones. But now that we've found our place in Queens, I've been thrilled to leave those things behind.

It was fine, at first. After all, at twenty-three, I was far too busy staying up until 6 am with my girlfriends in bars and eating hors d'oeuvres for dinner at book parties in the East Village and Tribeca to care about the state of my kitchen. I'd visit my mother and she'd show me the wonderful things she'd started saving for me, "for when you have casa tua", and I'd admire them, an antique ceramic bread box, linens she'd salvaged and starched, her grandmother's silverware, champagne coupes bought piece by piece at the flea market. But casa mia was a faraway concept, one I didn't particularly long for yet. I liked having roommates, a communal home, the freedom to break a glass or eat with a plastic fork. Linen towels would have been awfully annoying to launder compared with the disposability of a paper napkin. So I'd stow the treasures away in her closet and go back to New York to resume my life.

The years progressed, though, and as is wont to happen, I grew up a little and started hungering for a home of my own. One in which I could assume that the dishes would always be actually clean after being washed. One in which I didn't have to worry about an old plate being stuck carelessly in the microwave. One that made me want to wash linen towels and vacuum more than once a month and not to have to serve dinner directly from the pots on the stove. For years, I shied away from thrift stores in New York precisely because I didn't want to be tempted to buy anything I wouldn't be able to use. My life felt temporary. Why would I need to bring anything more into that life but the essentials?

Hence my joy the other day about finding those platters. It was an unexpected gift. Oh, I know I sound so bourgeois. But it's the truth - the collection of all those little things that I've been storing away for years and the release to be able to make this apartment my home, our home, well, nothing could please me more.

So I brought the platters back to Queens, the weight of the bag digging a red stripe into my shoulders, and washed the price stickers off in hot, soapy water. Then I made dinner - a punchy salad of watercress and parsley, dressed with horseradish and capers and two kinds of mustard, and topped with slices of broiled steaks. Arranged on that clean, white expanse, the salad really shone - glossy, green leaves, crisply browned croutons, juicy, pink meat with those perfectly crusty pockets and corners, while the capers provided briny little pops of flavor. The sensation of croutons crunching and rare meat yielding and fresh greens folding was totally sublime. (Though when I make this again, because I will, I'll use skirt or hanger steak instead. The rib steaks were a little fatty, and I prefer a chewier cut with salad.)

I know that stuff doesn't define us, that if all of those "precious" things were gone tomorrow, it wouldn't really matter. Love, family, health - that's what counts. And on those points, well, all I can ask is how I ever got so lucky. So, of course a good thrift, then, is just icing on the cake, a midday treat, an excuse to make a little victory jig in public, if anything. But it can also make you stop and think about life, its small yet profound changes, the immeasurable gratitude you have towards the universe, and the funny fact that sometimes all you need to do is serve dinner on a simple, white, oval plate and contentedness is yours.

Rib Steaks with Parsley and Crouton Salad
Serves 4

4 rib steaks, about 1 inch thick (this was far too much meat for us - I'd suggest 3 rib steaks instead)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons salt-cured capers, rinsed thoroughly
1 tablespoon horseradish, more to taste
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 tablespoon coarse-grain mustard
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups day-old bread cut into 1-inch cubes, lightly toasted
Leaves from 1 large bunch of parsley
Tops from 1 bunch of watercress

1. Line a broiler pan with aluminum foil and heat broiler. Season steaks with salt and pepper. Put steaks on broiler pan and broil for 5 minutes on each side, for rare.

2. Meanwhile, in a salad bowl, whisk together capers, horseradish, lemon juice, mustards and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add toasted bread cubes, parsley and watercress and toast until lightly wilted.

3. When steaks are done, let them rest for 5 minutes on a cutting board. Pour a tablespoon of the steak juices over the greens and toss. Arrange the dressed greens on a platter. Slice and arrange the steak on the salad and pour remaining juices over the steak. Serve.