Warning: this is the post to end all posts, if we’re talking length. If you’re not up for tons of educational and entertaining reading, at least look at the pictures and check out the ciabatta recipe at the end!
Last Saturday Steve and I packed up the car with a few essentials–my favorite cookware, toothbrushes, and chocolate–and drove from Connecticut into New York City for the evening. My sister, Tristyn, and her husband (still weird to say!) moved into a new little apartment and we were longgggg overdue for a visit with them. I thought cooking dinner at their place would be fun for so many reasons: a chance to practice my personal chef prowess, christening their oven (just kidding?), lack of background noise from 57 other people sitting way too close together, and avoiding the gluttony that ensues when the four of us eat out together, to name a few. But what to cook?
It was a very delicate situation, as I didn’t know if we’d be driving or taking the train in until last minute. Therefore, I had to pack extremely light and durable on both food and equipment. People bumping up against you at every stop is not conducive to successful cupcake transportation. Whole Foods two blocks from the apartment definitely helps, and while the boys played (i.e., went to the bar), we would go get groceries. Not sure how that works out. I also knew that I wasn’t going to have the luxury of a full day to get everything on the table, so I had to pick a couple key dishes that were cooked in different ways, simultaneously, in a couple hours or less. Now, any rational person would look at these facts and review their repertoire for dishes that fit the bill. Not this girl! I had to choose the most risky route and cook all new dishes, because I can’t resist the chance to explore uncharted kitchen territory. I also knew that we had a near limitless choice of restaurants, should there be a massive dinner disaster.
Fast forward a bit, and the menu I laid out was a kind of Middle Eastern-Greek fusion–just like Kian! They match. Honestly, though, they’re some of my favorite cuisines, with veggies and big flavors playing starring roles. Kian’s brother, Shayan, was joining us, too, so between the three boys, they would be HUN-GRY! If I had any prayer of satisfying them with a vegetarian main, we had to go heavy on the appetizers. However, after apps and a dinner of fibrous veggies and expanding rice, I took the opposite approach with dessert, going small but satisfying. Here’s the final menu.
And plenty of bubbly and red wine, of course.
The only real downfall, which would have been hard to predict, was the high outdoor temperature and lack of circulation in the apartment. Apparently central air is not standard in many NYC dwellings…oopsies. So we did have an incident of eye irritation/I-thought-I-might-blind-someone-for-life-with-shallot-fumes, and it was a little warm, but it all worked out in the end. The end being the point of relief at which I turned off the stove and oven.
Having tested it, I would 100% recommend you replicate this menu next time you host a dinner gathering for family and/or friends. The bread, from the current issue of Food & Wine, is worth the effort. I don’t make bread often, and I wouldn’t consider myself to even know the core principles of bread baking, but I followed the instructions (which only took up 1/8th of a magazine page) and loved the outcome. Was it perfect? No. I should have refrigerated the dough a bit after rising it, especially when working with it in an 80 degree kitchen on the hottest fall day imaginable. I also wish the recipe was more specific about the quantity of onions and to what extent the dough required kneading, but neither of those deterred us from devouring this unique loaf. I’m going to try it again with some recipe tweaks, but it’s so interesting I had to share it with you in it’s tentative state (including what I consider to be crucial specification/modifications), below.
That said, you could easily replace homemade bread with a fresh, purchased loaf or some store-bought crostini on which to pile meats, cheeses, and hummus. Grab some chocolates from your favorite (or just the nearest) decent candy shop or chocolatier (or Target–nothin’ wrong with Godiva in a pinch) or assign dessert to another guest, and your dinner party just got effortless. The ratatouille could be fully prepared in advance or you could just have the vegetables chopped and ready. The only thing I would be sure to make “live”, if using the recipes above, is the rice. Because it’s nearly a risotto, it would act as such if refrigerated, absorbing more moisture and firming up into kind of a creamy rice block, very difficult to return to its more fluid fresh state. The taste is still okay, but nothing can replace the texture of fresh, creamy risotto rice.
If you’re as lucky as we were, you may even have a live cellist perform to set the tone for the evening with none other than the most elegant version of “Twinkle, Twinkle” you’ve ever laid ears on.
Really, though, no matter what you eat, nothing beats the laid back quality of relaxing in the living room, no matter its size, with those most familiar and important to you. I’ll trade in made-from-scratch hummus for that any day.
- 6 T olive oil
- 4 C chopped yellow onions (about 2 medium)
- 2 T tomato paste
- ½ t crushed red pepper
- ½ C kalamata olives, pitted and quartered
- ½ C cherry tomatoes, quartered
- Kosher salt
- Ground black pepper
- ¾ oz. active dry yeast (not instant; 3 envelopes)
- 1 t granulated white sugar
- 1¾ C warm water
- 2½ C all purpose flour
- ¾ C semolina flour (fine ground; I used Bob's Red Mill)
- Heat a large skillet over medium high, adding 3 tablespoons olive oil after it's warmed up. Heat the oil until it shimmers and slides easily around the pan, then add onions and cook for about 8 minutes, until starting to brown. Add tomato paste and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes, until the paste has broken up to coat the onions. Reduce heat to medium low, stir in olives and fresh tomatoes, and cook for another minute. Turn off heat and stir in salt and pepper to taste.
- Pour warm water into a large glass or metal bowl, then add sugar and sprinkle yeast over the top. Whisk to combine, then let stand for 10 minutes. There should be a flat foam forming on the surface, but it won't be anything dramatic.
- Whisk 2 more tablespoons of olive oil and a teaspoon of salt into the yeast mixture. In a few batches, add both the regular flour and semolina and stir by hand each time until incorporated. The dough will form a somewhat fluid ball and you should see no more pockets of flour. Pour 1 tablespoon oil around the edges where the dough meets the bowl, then use your hands or a rubber spatula to gently rotate the dough to coat in oil, so it comes out easily at the end.
- Cover the bowl securely with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot for an hour and a half. If needed, turn on your oven to a low temperature (e.g., 250) and place the dough on top of the stove, assuming the stove is above the oven and some heat radiates up. The dough should be significantly bulkier and risen.
- If you have time, refrigerate the dough for an hour or two, which should firm it up so it's easier to work with.
- Preheat oven to 450 and flour a large work surface (I used ½ C flour). Lightly oil a rimmed sheet pan or cover with a silicone baking liner (my SilPat was fine at 450).
- Gently turn the dough out onto the work surface and sprinkle the top with more flour. I found it easiest to work with dough with a light coating of olive oil on my hands.
- Divide dough into two equal halves with a bench scraper or by hand. Working the dough very little, pile each piece into a ball shape. One at a time, transfer to the baking sheet and shape into a long loaf, the length of the pan by about 3 inches wide. My dough was very liquidy and my loaves kept flattening to more than 3 inches. Twisting them a bit helped, but if it's unavoidable keep as much space between the loaves as possible. Some flour may also be visible on the outside of the loaves, which is fine.
- Bake for about 28 minutes, until small areas of the top are browning. The original recipe indicates that finished loaves should have risen in the oven. However, mine didn't rise further during baking.
- Cool on the baking sheet until firm enough to handle without breaking. Then, pick up and transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. Serve in slices of your desired size, alone, or with olive oil or butter.