The circumstances under which I have met most of my best friends are generally wildly inauspicious. There’s something about banding together with another being during a particularly grim moment in one’s life that bonds you — the common enemy, the shared campaign of grumpy and repressed hostility, the rugged ordeal overcome, etc., etc.
I first encountered the uniquely marvelous Lisa on a sagging, smelly couch in the stockroom of a catering company in Manhattan. We were both interviewing for a gig we weren’t particularly interested in, but we desperately needed.
It was a few years ago, squat in the middle of the economic downturn; I was fresh out of culinary school, mid-career change, my husband was in law school, rent was high, we had a mutt to feed, times were tougher than a snaggle-toothed transvestite hooker at 2:00 am on a Wednesday morn’ after a pint of tawny; Lisa was just back from a two-year teaching stint at a highly regarded cooking school in England, she had bills up the whazoo, a zany roommate’s pug to feed and an addiction to homemade duck confit to fund.
We were there to make some fast, dirty money. The only legal way to accomplish that with a culinary degree, of course, is to become a kitchen assistant at a high-volume catering company.
We were both hired to work their hectic parties and couldn’t wait to get started (read: get paid).
Within a few months, we found ourselves regularly strapping convection ovens to our backs and waddling up five flights of stairs to a makeshift kitchen on the top floor of a Times Square nightclub to crank out bad hors d’oeuvres (think endive spears stuffed with soft cheeses, garnished with chopped chives) in a badly lit, spottily heated, shack-style wooden crate of a room. We would spend our time running about, chopping chives, rolling our eyes and getting yelled at by frazzled event planners who weren’t quite sure what the client, or their boss, or they wanted us to do at any given moment, but were quite sure they wanted it done five minutes ago.
We laughed, we cried. We sang songs of innocence; we learned songs of experience.
We bonded over our love of all things James Beard and our disdain for chives as garnish; riotous outings at downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn watering holes and grazing joints ensued. While our tenure at the company was not destined to stretch far into the horizon, our friendship has.
From the beginning, Lisa and I have operated our ambling, obsessive, ribald and exuberant circus of culinary and cultural curatorship under a few stringent rules: the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness and nectarous bites cannot, will not, be curtailed by tiresome people, places or events.
This weekend — not for the first time — we ran into a significant obstacle, one that a few dashes of caustic wit couldn’t begin to dissolve. We met in the East Village on the corner of 12th street and 2nd avenue; our plan was simple: grab a decent beer at a warm dive bar and then find a tasty bite to eat. Before long, we were chilled to the bone marrow and, quite frankly, angry. I’m not sure why this fact is so difficult for us to accept, but it is: the search for genuine, cheap indie bars in the East Village has become as rife with drama and difficulties as the search for a genuine job that pays our intellectual and spiritual bills, as well as the paper stuff.
Life is hard!
We found plenty of bars with amazingly tasty $12 beers on tap and plenty of bars with amazingly crappy $4 beers on tap, and nothing in between. (Restaurants were a different story; ultimately, we ate several small plates at Bar Carrera, one of the bars that kicked off the current tapas craze. The food is simple, impeccably sourced, beautifully presented, intrinsically clean, deceptively complicated, lush. If you go, make sure you get the Jamon wrapped dates and the pork belly bocadillo.) Luckily, our cranky search could end when we remembered Jimmy’s No. 43. We’ve been to Jimmy’s dozens of times, but somehow our quest for an old-school dive threw us off the well-worn Jimmy trail.
Jimmy’s is like really good comfort food in the middle of a hurricane; it isn’t always the cheapest, or the fastest, or the neatest. But if you have a little time, a few extra dollars, you must go. The owner — Jimmy — is almost always there, milling around, hugging and high-fiving people, making sure everyone’s happy, buying someone (usually 10 people) a beer or two. His staff of adorable, sprightly faeries hop around with a healthy splash of punk rock attitude; the food flowing out of the kitchen is classic gastropub/green market/farm to table fare with a bacon-y, aromatic, Italian high kick; the beer selection is quirky, seasonal and gorgeous (the usual suspects like Goose Island and Left Hand share the stage with lesser known gems like Stillwater); the space is haute Bavarian rec room meets shabby chic on acid; the experience is primal, proto-dive bar, post-green eating revolution, divine.
Go there, and be inspired, as I was, to reach deep inside and ask myself: what do you really want today? I woke up with the answer — food that would nourish me through the seemingly endless winter snow blight; meals that would warm Stephen and me up while we sat under blankets on the couch with Penny watching the latest disaster-cast on Tunisia; snacks I could pop one-handed in my mouth while texting Lisa with my latest litany of complaints and laughs about life.
Food synonymous with comfort. The answer? Potato Pierogies; Sausage, Parmesan and Lentil Soup; Fried Mashed Potato Balls. Life is delicious. Click on for recipes and a few more pictures.
Adapted from Martha Stewart
Makes 30 to 60 pierogis, depending on how you roll (6-8 servings)
For the dough:
- 1 egg
- 2 TBSP sour cream (I used light)
- 1 cup 2% milk
- 1 cup water
- 5 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
For the filling:
- 3.5 pounds baking potatoes
- 5 TBSP butter, separated and melted
- 1 oz cheddar cheese, grated
- 5 oz neufchatel cheese
- salt and pepper to taste
- Whisk egg and sour cream until smooth, in a large bowl.
- Whisk in milk and water.
- Stir in 3.5 cups flour. If the dough is still soup, stir in more flour, until it’s a cohesive mass, firm enough to knead. Dump onto well-floured flat surface and knead, adding about 1 more cup of flour, stretching, folding and kneading for about 10 minutes, until there is no stickiness and it resembles the texture of a soft earlobe.
- When it’s the right texture (don’t panic, trust your instinct here, channel Martha Stewart, and you’ll know!), put it a floured bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rest while you prep the filling.
- Peel and quarter the potatoes. Place in large pot of well-salted water, bring to boil, reduce to lively simmer and cook until fork tender. Drain and return to pot.
- While still warm, pour in 4 TBSP melted butter, the cheese, salt and pepper to taste and mash until smooth.
- Roll the dough out. This part is difficult: the dough is elastic and wants to shrink back into a ball. Don’t let it. Just keep rolling it out until it’s about 1/8″ thick. Using a glass or cookie cutter, cut out 2 1/2″ round circles. Put about a teaspoon’s worth of filling in the center, and seal the edges carefully. NOTE: you will have a lot of leftover filling — perfect for Fried Mashed Potato Balls!
- Meanwhile, put a pot of salted water on the stove and crank up the heat.
- Place on a baking sheet lined with a clean linen cloth until all of the pierogies are sealed.
- Place pierogies in boiling water (do in batches of about 15 so they don’t stick together and clump) and cook until they float to the top; let them cook for another minute or two.
- Serve on warm plates with melted butter, apple sauce and sour cream.
Nutritional breakdown for Potato Pierogies: About 500 calories and 12 grams of fat per serving. High in Vitamins C, B6, potassium, iron, calcium. Also high in saturated fat, though the low-fat milk and sour cream help — marginally.
Cost breakdown for Potato Pierogies: $8, or $1.14 a serving (I had flour, butter, eggs and cheddar cheese already).
Verdict / In the future: Pierogies are pretty idiot-proof. Even if the dough comes out super thick, they’re going to be delicious. With flour, cheese, milk and butter as the main building blocks, it would require a seriously “Whoops, I spilled the arsenic in the batter” epic error to render them unapalatable. The yummy noises and encouraging nods Stephen and I exchanged while stuffing them in our gullets spoke volumes. Next time though, I may serve them with chopped chives. No, really.
Sausage, Parmesan Rind and Lentil Soup
Makes 6-8 servings
- 1/2 TBSP olive oil
- 4 small Italian or Chinese sausages or 4 oz. pancetta or bacon, diced
- 5 medium shallots, sliced thin
- 2 medium carrots, sliced into thin rounds
- 2 medium stalks celery, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
- 1/8 cup tomato paste
- 1/3 cup white wine
- 10 cups water
- 1 large rind of Parmesan
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp each red pepper flakes, oregano, thyme, basil, parsley
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 cup lentils, preferably green
- 3 stalks scallions, sliced into thin rounds
- Heat oil in large stock pot. Add sausage or pancetta, and brown. Remove and set aside.
- Add shallots, salt to the pan and sweat until translucent over medium heat, about 3 minutes. Add carrots and celery and sweat until softened, about five minutes. Add garlic and sweat until aromatic, about 30 seconds.
- Add tomato paste and stir until evenly distributed and beginning to cook through, about three minutes. Add wine and cook until most of the liquid is absorbed, about two minutes.
- Add water, spices, Parmesan rind, bring to boil, reduce to simmer. Add lentils and simmer for about 40 minutes until all of the flavors have blended. (My rind completely melted into the broth after about 30 minutes of cooking, creating a really rich, satisfyingly hearty texture).
- Add scallions and serve, with grated Parmesan, if desired.
Nutritional breakdown for Sausage, Parmesan Rind and Lentil Soup: 190 calories and 6 grams of fat. Bursting with fiber, protein, iron, folate, artery-unclogging magnesium, unsaturated fat, phosphorus.
Cost breakdown for Sausage, Parmesan Rind and Lentil Soup: I cooked from my pantry on this one, the beauty of lentil soup. Feel free to swap out any protein for the sausage, or skip it altogether. Aromatics can be chucked and moved about at whim. Carrots and celery are optional. A nice leafy green, like Swiss Chard, would be a lovely addition. Throw in some rice or pasta, too. Why not? Tomato paste and Parmesan rind are absolute necessities though — on this point, I will not budge.
Verdict / In the Future: Stephen’s violent antipathy toward high-fiber food can only be overcome by a gut-busting quantity of cheese; no mere rind is capable of quelching his one-man anti-health food crusade. I thought it was simply divine though. And so easy!
Fried Mashed Potato Balls
Makes 12 balls, or 2 big servings
- 1.5 cups leftover pierogi filling or other mashed starchy products
- 1 egg, beaten in a bowl
- 2 slices fresh bread, lightly toasted and ground to crumb mixture in processor, in a bowl (I used Challah; any bread would work, as would Panko crumbs)
- 3 TBSP vegetable oil
- salt and pepper to taste (mixed with both the egg and the bread crumbs)
- Warm oven to 200 degrees.
- Form quarter size rounds of the potato mixture and set aside.
- Heat large skillet with vegetable oil.
- Dunk balls in egg mixture then bread crumbs, and place in hot oil.
- Let them fry over medium-high heat for about two to three minutes, until golden brown (do in batches — don’t crowd the pan or they’ll steam, not brown). Flip until every surface is golden brown. Add oil as needed.
- While frying the next batch, keep the first one warm in the oven on a plate.
- Serve with ketchup or a flavored aioli.
Nutritional breakdown for Fried Mashed Potato Balls: 350 calories and 16 grams of fat per serving. This is not health food, folks: lots of saturated fat. Unbeknownst to most people, however, (including, thankfully, my husband), potatoes are actually quite healthful. They’re full of fiber.
Cost breakdown for Fried Mashed Potato Balls: These are the ultimate pantry brooms. Staples of pubs, bars and feel-good fare palaces across our great land, they’re practically free for all to make, and super-fun to boot.
Verdict / In the Future: I would add “extras” to the filling to make the eating as enjoyable as the frying — bacon, scallions, blue cheese, roasted garlic, come hither my sweet.