New Directions.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of  my college graduation (and the birth of the bar that was my first real regular spot in Brooklyn), the ninth anniversary of my move to New York, eight years with the Carnivore, seven years as a freelancer. In that time, like many of you, I’m sure, plenty of people have passed in and out of my life; when I think back on all that’s happened in the past decade, I can’t help but succumb to a bout of nostalgia or two.

I won’t say that things were easier back in the day, or that I was happier—my glasses aren’t as rose-colored as all that—but there are friends who, over the years, have slowly vanished from my everyday life, contact minimized, and traditions that have fallen by the wayside. I know, logically, that this is the way the world works, that it’s naive and immature to expect certain things to remain constant even though everything around me morphs into something else, but I’ve never been good with letting go, with change.

All of this maudlin sentimentality to say that when the opportunity to resurrect one of those aforementioned traditions surfaced, you can bet I jumped at it.

A few years ago, before a small group of us drifted apart, we made time for semi-regular potluck-style Sunday dinners.

Most weeks, my friend Daysha was in charge of the main course. She makes one of the best pots of Trini-style stew chicken you’ll ever eat. Really, if I’m being honest, the whole Sunday-dinner resurrection thing was just a ploy to get a taste of her cooking again.

She doesn’t follow any recipes—every measurement is “a little bit of this” or “a handful of that,” which makes it next to impossible to recreate the magic on your own.

If you’ve gotten accustomed to her version, the withdrawal is torture. (That’s her, above left.)

She also makes a wicked callaloo, that classic West Indian mix of okra, dasheen (or spinach, if you’re stateside), and coconut milk. I think it’s great on its own, but I know certain people (*cough* Carnivore *cough*) who won’t eat it without rice and peas or—shocker—meat of some sort.

When Trinis are in attendance, they expect to be fed macaroni pie, a less cheesy version of classic macaroni and cheese, baked with eggs and spices and usually served at room temperature. I much prefer the American rendition, served piping hot, the more gooey stuff, the better; to that end, a giant dish of mac ‘n’ cheese has become one of my standards for parties and barbecues. Not just any mac ‘n’ cheese, though. This, according to my father, is the best version ever created. (I’m not bragging, I swear—it’s not my recipe, so I claim no credit.)

When al dente pasta is liberally doused with creamy, nutmeg-spiked bechamel sauce, layered with Fontina and Parmesan cheeses, and topped with buttered breadcrumbs, you know you’re far from Kraft territory.

And, as usual, my dish was the one that held up the most important aspect of all: eating. Together, around the same table.

This was my first helping. I refuse to disclose how many times I refilled my plate.

Suffice it to say, I barely had room for dessert. A pity, too: This was my friend Lisa’s first attempt at tiramisu. If all of my forays into uncharted territory were as successful as hers was, I would be one happy cook. Of course, I managed a few bites, even though I felt like I could pop.

In the end, save for the company and the cooking, this Sunday supper didn’t have too much in common with its predecessors. There was a slight hint of the bittersweet about it, with the inevitable, subconscious comparisons to The Way Things Used to Be, but there was also a glimmer of excitement at the idea of this next-generation version of an old favorite, and—please excuse the schmaltz—an undercurrent of pure sweetness to be spending time with people I love, doing something I love.

Sunday Dinner, version 2.0. I like the sound of that.

Daysha’s Famous Stew Chicken

For those of you who, like me, battle with anxiety when cooking without a recipe, take a deep breath before continuing on. Daysha measures out most of her ingredients by eye and then adjusts the seasoning to taste.

Cilantro
Scallions
Garlic
Pimento
Thyme
Lime juice or vinegar (optional)
Chicken legs and/or thighs, bone-in and skin-on
Bottled browning [or brown sugar and a neutral oil]
Green, red or yellow peppers, chopped
Chives, chopped
Carrots, chopped
Tomatoes, chopped
Garlic, minced
Squash, cut into chunks
1 packet Sazón seasoning
Ketchup, to taste
Salt, to taste

1. For green seasoning: Blend cilantro, scallions, garlic, pimento and thyme with a little bit of water, lime juice or vinegar. Marinate chicken overnight or at least 1-2 hrs before cooking.
2. To brown the chicken, place a heavy-bottom pot over high heat and add a little browning; when hot, add chicken and coat with browning.**
3. Add a little bit of water to make the gravy, add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and partially cover pot; cook until chicken is tender.

**Alternatively, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy pot, add 3 tablespoons brown sugar and let caramelize. The sugar will go from the colour of peanut butter to a bubbling, dark, reddish brown. When the outer edges start to turn an even darker brown, add all the chicken to the pot. Do not stir. Let the water generated by the chicken dry out some and give chicken a chance to caramelize. Turn chicken and let rest again for the other side to caramelize. Repeat this process, turning chicken occasionally so that it browns on all sides. If the sauce looks a little bit gooey at this point, you’re on the right track. You may need to add a few tablespoons of water during this process if it seems that the sauce is drying out too quickly, but keep it at this thickened stage until the chicken is brown. If your sauce is too thin and watery, the chicken will not caramelize. Don’t rush this stage. Let the liquid dry out, turning chicken occasionally so that it browns on all sides. If water is added too soon, the brown colour will wash off and the chicken will be too pale.

TIP: It takes a while for the sugar to get to the dark color you are looking for. Do not walk away while browning the sugar; it goes to black quickly.

Daysha’s Callaloo

For convenience, Daysha uses frozen vegetables, but fresh would work as well.

1 package each creamed and regular chopped spinach
1½ can of coconut milk
1 packet Sazón (vegetable)
1 package frozen squash
1 package frozen okra
Peppers, chopped
Scallions, chopped
Pimento, chopped
Carrots, chopped
Thyme
Garlic, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Put all ingredients into a pot and cook over medium heat, until the seeds of the okra turn lavender-purple.

2. When finished, use a hand mixer or immersion blender to purée, leaving the consistency a bit chunky.

Anna Thomas’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese
From The Vegetarian Epicure

My father didn’t call this the best mac ‘n’ cheese around just for kicks; it’s a great version of the classic dish. Feel free to mix and match with your favorite cheeses—I love to add in some Gruyére—or make it as written, but either way, be sure to double the recipe if you’re expecting a crowd.

3 cups Sauce Béchamel (recipe follows)
1 lb. mostaccioli noodles (about 2½ inches long) [I used rotini here, and have used elbow noodles in the past; both work well]
4 oz. Parmesan cheese, fresh-grated
3/4 lb. Fontina cheese, coarsely grated
Salt and fresh-ground pepper
1 cup buttered breadcrumbs

Prepare the Béchamel according to the directions below, but add more thyme and bay leaf than usual. (An interesting variation is to make the Béchamel for this dish with skim milk. It works quite well, as the amount of cheese in the dish ensures its richness.)

Having made the sauce, boil the pasta in a large kettle of salted water until it is just al dente. Combine the grated cheeses and set aside. Butter an attractive 2½- or 3-quart baking dish.

As soon as the pasta is ready, drain it and place 1/3 of it in the baking dish. Cover it with 1/3 of the cheese and pour over the cheese 1/3 of the sauce. Grate on plenty of black pepper. Make 2 more layers like this, and sprinkle the buttered breadcrumbs all over the top. Put the dish into a preheated 350° oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, then serve at once, well browned and bubbly.

I assure you, this dish bears very little resemblance to the macaroni and cheese of American convenience foods. Serve it with a sharply flavored salad and a good Chianti, and you will have a feast.

Serves 4 to 6 generously.

Anna Thomas’s Sauce Béchamel
From The Vegetarian Epicure

3 Tbs. butter
3 Tbs. flour
½ onion, minced
2½ cups hot milk
Peppercorns
Thyme
1 tiny bay leaf
Salt
Grated nutmeg

In the top of a double-boiler, heat the butter until bubbly. Add the finely chopped onion, and let it cook over very low heat for 3 or 4 minutes—stir in the flour and continue cooking a few minutes more, then begin adding the milk. Pour in the milk bit by bit and stir with a whisk while you do. The sauce will begin to thicken after a few minutes. Add a few peppercorns, some thyme, and a very small bay leaf or a piece of one. Sprinkle in a little salt and nutmeg, let it cook slowly for 10 to 15 minutes, then strain through a sieve.

Béchamel is the basic white sauce, and countless subtle (and strong) variations can be executed with it by the addition of particular herbs, spices, cheeses, and other ingredients. It will keep in the refrigerator in a tightly covered jar for a few days, but it is not recommended that you attempt to store it longer than that.

Lisa’s Tiramisu
Adapted from Balducci’s

24 ladyfingers
2 cups espresso, cooled
6 eggs, separated
6 tablespoons sugar
1 pound mascarpone
2 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons bourbon-flavored vanilla
2 tablespoons hot chocolate mix
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1. Toast ladyfingers in a 375-degree oven for 15 minutes.

2. Arrange the ladyfingers on a plate and lightly soak them with the cooled espresso. Put half of the soaked ladyfingers in one layer in a rectangular serving dish.

3. While the ladyfingers are soaking, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until the yolks turn pale in color.

4. Add the mascarpone, liquor, vanilla and chocolate mix, and stir gently.

5. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a wire whisk until they are stiff.

6. Gently fold the whites into the mascarpone mixture.

7. Use half of this mixture to make a layer on top of the ladyfingers in the serving dish.

8. Sprinkle with half of the chopped chocolate.

9. Repeat the procedure with another layer of soaked ladyfingers, the mascarpone mixture, and chocolate.

10. Cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

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8 thoughts on “New Directions.

  1. Baseball Boy says:

    Wow, this all looks great. The macaroni pie reminds me a lot of Jewish Kugel—was it similar?

  2. Michael says:

    That does look great.

    Your opening reminds me of a John Irving quote from Cider House Rules:

    “The thing that is most hardest to accept about the passage of time is that the people who once mattered the most wind up in parentheses.”

  3. Maya says:

    Thanks, guys.

    BB: Consistency-wise, yes, very similar to kugel; savory, not at all sweet, though. It really is just a much less cheesy mac ‘n’ cheese.

    Michael: That’s it in a nutshell, I think. ….Sigh.

  4. Cindy says:

    Re the mac and cheese–I do a very similar thing with blanched cauliflower. Maybe I’ll try it with cauliflower AND mac…

    Re kugel–I never got used to noodles being SWEET! Not right at all, to my Pennsylvania Dutch taste buds!

  5. Brenton says:

    Wow..!!! you just got me hungry…. Nice article…

  6. Maya says:

    Cindy: Cauliflower would be great in this–it could use some lightening up. Kugel is an acquired taste, for sure; my problem is less the sweet factor and more that the noodle-to-other-stuff ratio is always skewed in favor of the noodles. I like more flavor than starch, y’know? And the raisins. I hate the raisins.

    Brent: Are you wrangling for an invite? Maybe we’ll manage to bring some food to this summer’s Prospect Park concerts. You can cook, right? ;)

  7. Lauren W. says:

    My god that all looks so good. Now I wanna make mac and cheese! Mine has sharp white cheddar, marscapone and pancetta.

  8. Maya says:

    Yum!! Lauren, I might have to try that version next time—sounds delicious!

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