038: This is a Story About a Girl Named Digestivo
Felicia Culotta's Guide to Sweet Tea, Sweeter Friendship and Lifelong Loyalty
(SB) Howdy, lovely readers — it’s nice to see you all here again. Despite the insistence of my horoscope that things are shifting in the stars and in my life, this week has felt a lot like previous weeks, with a few changes sprinkled in. We got more snow, and a spate of extremely cold days. Our sink sprouted a hole, causing temporary panic and then gratitude it was fixed. Willis celebrated a birthday, which gave me reason to plot and plan and remember why caring for those we love most is a joy. As this hits your inboxes, New York City’s Taxi Drivers will be gathering at Gracie Mansion to ask, yet again, for debt relief on overvalued medallions; NPR will carry special coverage of yet another impeachment trial, and somewhere in Los Angeles, Britney Spears’ lawyers will be getting ready to go to court for our girl once more. A lot continues to remain uncertain about the next few months, and the weight of that anxiety hangs pretty heavily on pretty much everyone I know. Despite blocking out my Saturdays for leisure and having a largely self-directed schedule, I’m hankering, yet again, for a break. Nothing fancy or elaborate, just permission to do whatever I want to for several days in a row — likely a combination of staring into the middle distance and watching gay anti-Thatcher content.
Alternatively, I might settle for a radical re-imagining of the university in a way that pays people equitably, provides for a viable future for everyone involved, and prioritizes earnest inquiry over small fiefdoms of plenty in a desert of scarcity — but I’m not holding my breath. In the interim, here’s what I ate this week:
For Willis’s birthday, Marcella Hazan’s bolognese with pappardelle topped off with several slices of chocolate cherry torte from local bakery Choc NYC.
Tofu prepared with a buldak sauce and some zucchini, alongside Taiwanese-style popcorn cauliflower that I doused with Coco Podi and fried curry leaves instead of basil.
A repeat performance of both this cabbage and farro soup from Seven Seasons by way of Smitten Kitchen (except I used barley and added mushrooms) and also fish moilee with mahi mahi (not my favorite fish for the job.)
(JS) Friends, I’ve gotta be honest and say the aforementioned bad news cycle and subpar weather has really taken a toll. I find my mood to be loosely correlated to the alternate side parking schedule, increasingly salty and in dire need of a refresh. I was lucky to escape the city for a long weekend at boyfriend of the newsletter David’s house in New Hampshire, a cozy White Mountain sanctuary where the internet is reliably unreliable in a way the pandowdy WFH cycle has led me to intermittently crave. Fortunately Daddy Spectrum was kind enough to proffer just enough bandwidth to stream Framing Britney Spears and the latest Reply All, a harrowing portrait of thee Test Kitchen which my ever observant co editor described as alarmingly similar to a humanities graduate cohort (SB: Starring Alison Roman as the woman whose advisor seems willing to make a blood sacrifice to get her a tenure track job). This is all to say that once again I don’t really have anything to say this week. I’ve been eating pretty well though.
It’s been a gouty few days here in the Granite State, though I’ve been lucky to share cooking responsibilities with my podmates:
Categorical Hellenophile David lavished us with a feast of wintry Greek fare from Maria Elia’s Smashing Plates: slow-braised pork belly with wilted greens, olives, and capers, carrot keftedes, and stifado fondant potatoes, with a brandied apple walnut cake for dessert served with generous dollops of creme fraiche
Friend of the newsletter April treated us to galbi jjim, loosely guided by this recipe from Korean bapsang, alongside an assortment of homemade and mom-gifted banchan
In advance of the Lunar New Year, I tried this finger-sucking roasted beer duck from my favorite culinary maximalist Mandy Lee (aka Lady and Pups); fingers were, in fact, sucked (sorry); 10/10, would absolutely make again
TMYK: Tik Tok Tofu Tricks
(SB) Despite eating (more than) my fair share of meat, I’d like to think that I know my way around a block of firm tofu. I had a heavy infatuation with the tofu chilaquiles at Swinger’s (RIP) in high school, and found myself quickly smitten with the tofu karaage my housemate ordered frequently in college. But, learning how to prepare it flavorfully at home is what really helped me to overcome some fundamental misapprehensions about tofu that persisted from my younger days (FYI: tofu is actually not paneer, a fact that can really disappoint you for years). Luckily for me, the internet is full of tips from enterprising vegans and tofu evangelists and, like you, I’m wise to the basics: a 15 minute press under a heavy object and wrapped in paper towels yields a crispier skin, a brief marinade in coconut aminos can yield fabulous results, and a bhurji is not out of the question if you season liberally.
It took me a few weeks of heavy handed suggestion on my For You Page and a final nudge from friend of the letter Beans before I finally tried out a tofu preparation first incepted into my brain by vegan Tik Tok Chef George Lee. For those unfamiliar with the medium, Tik Tok-ers love the crunch shot, an ASMR-adjacent experience of the chef biting into whatever they’ve prepared to reveal a larger than life crunch, often with no deep frying required. Like millions of others, I am a sucker for the crunch shot. I love the elusive crunch, but, burned before, I was twice as shy to try a Tik Tok recipe. Nonetheless, George’s crispy tofu nuggets, coated in a glossy sauce lingered in my mind until a friendly endorsement paved my way forward. I was pleased with the results. (The crispy rice-spicy tuna craze, however? Don’t be so easily fooled my friends! Those crunchy first bites are actually the sound of teeth cracking on hard, poorly fried rice!) (JS: Salonee Dreams of Katsuya )
Like Lucas Sin’s now-IG famous roasted sweet potatoes, this technique makes use of the freezer to change the texture and absorbency of the tofu before pressing. Because water expands when frozen, the defrosted tofu ends up full of little pockets of air. According to Mark Bittman, this leads to more even cooking. Chef George freezes and defrosts his tofu twice, but I only did it once this time around. My tofu came in a shrink-wrapped package without much excess water, so I threw it directly in my freezer for several hours, though you may wish to drain and dry yours before freezing if it’s packed in liquid. Once my tofu defrosted, I wrapped it in paper towels and pressed it for about 20 minutes. As promised, it had halved in size. I then ripped my tofu into bite-sized morsels and tossed these in cornstarch, spread them on a sheet pan, drizzled them with olive oil, and baked them for about 20 minutes at 420˚. Since I was saucing the tofu in Maangchi’s buldak sauce (you can’t argue with a craving), I kept things simple before roasting, but I’d venture that one could easily substitute potato starch and/or throw in some other seasonings. I plan to attempt this with some Chinese 5-spice in a veggie banh mi situation.
My tofu came out just as crunchy as promised, with a satisfyingly chewy interior and admirably absorbent when doused in a sauce. I only regret not having tried this sooner.
(JS) If you google “tiramisu,” it seems that people also ask “what does tiramisu mean sexually?” The name translates to something like “pull me up” or “lift me up,” but apparently there’s more to the h*rny history of this famed Italian dessert than innocent innuendo. Silvia Marchetti explains on news.com.au (the foremost source for sexy tiramisu news on the web) that tiramisu was the preferred provision among the brothel-goers of Veneto and Friuli, served “before, during and after heavy and multiple sex sessions to keep them going and the money flowing.” Evidently the dessert is a more refined version of a shaken egg yolk and sugar cocktail called sbatudìn, literally, “gimme a shake, bang me,” a golden blend thought to increase strength and virility. A potentially apocryphal tale alleges that thirsty (hungry?) clients would show up at the brothel on the weekly closing day, tempting the sex workers with extra special ingredients to add to their ordinary sbatudìn (a bit of coffee or crumbled biscuits from the plebs, some chocolate or mascarpone from the bougie-er boys); after enjoying their collaboratively assembled dessert and some polite conversation, they’d get down to business, normal operating hours be damned. (SB: I am truly riveted by this story. The Valentine’s Day content I want. )
I cannot honestly say that tiramisu has ever aroused me, but I’m not here to kink shame. I am here to tell you it’s surprisingly easy to make, especially if you start with prepackaged lady-fingers (also called savoiardi) in lieu of sponge cake. You can and should make your tiramisu ahead of time, and under non-pandora circumstances, it’s an easy no-bake option to feed a crowd. My preferred recipe, from Marc Vetri’s Rustic Italian Food, strips the dessert down to its most basic ingredients; eggs, sugar, mascarpone, ladyfingers, espresso, and a bit of cocoa to finish. If you can splurge on some better mascarpone you’ll be rewarded with a smoother final product. I quite like Vermont Creamery, whereas Belgioso’s can taste a bit grainy. I’ve also had great success subbing in cold brew for espresso (lest we forget, this is a Gay Lil’ Dessert™).
There is some debate as to whether or not alcohol belongs in tiramisu. Many opt for fortified wines, especially Marsala, while others prefer something punchier, like dark rum. I love a strong cocktail, but when it comes to uncooked booze in desserts I’m kind of a child; let me double fist a dirty martini and a virgin piña colada, if you follow my logic. I am large, I contain multitudes, etc. (SB: Unsurprisingly, I like a little liqueur in my dessert.)
Vetri’s process is simple, if not particularly rustic: separate your eggs, then beat the yolks with some sugar using the paddle attachment until nice and thick (you can use a hand mixer if you’d prefer; whisking by hand would be masochistic). Transfer to another bowl, then whip your mascarpone briefly to soften, add in your sugared yolks, and beat until smooth. In a clean mixer bowl, whisk your whites with a bit of sugar until glossy and thick, then gently fold into the mascarpone mixture to form a light and airy custard. Soak your ladyfingers in the cooled espresso – they should absorb enough liquid to soften but not fall apart – then arrange to line the bottom of your serving bowl. Top with a layer of the mascarpone, then another layer of the soaked ladyfingers, and a final layer of mascarpone. At this point you can refrigerate the tiramisu, otherwise let it stand for at least 30 minutes before serving. Sprinkle the top with cocoa to taste, and enjoy.
TRASH TALK: Savory Sourdough Discard Pancakes
(SB) Those who know me and those following along with My Sourdough Journey may not be surprised to find out that discarding half of my starter every day (particularly when it was growing incrementally stronger) was one of the more challenging parts of the experience. Though I waste plenty in day to day life, I cannot help but feel guilty about it. After a few days of attempting to maintain multiple, smaller starters (psychotic), I conceded that I would simply have to make peace with discarding. Luckily, a whole cottage industry of neurotics populates the internet and I found myself with no shortage of fun things to try with my discard (including these delicious pancakes a certain somebody featured in our very first issue).
Since the early days of my sourdough journey coincided with a particularly intense portion of chapter writing, I often found myself turning to this easy discard scallion pancake recipe recommended to me by friend of the letter and sourdough aficionado Molly. In addition to being tasty and simple, its appeal is in its immediacy: no need to let your discard rest overnight, just chop some scallions and proceed with your life. It wasn’t long before I began to wonder about the potential of frying what had become my Daily Discard Pancake in ghee, subbing in some subcontinental flavors. Encouraged by this post on the sourdough support group, I began to mix in onions, cilantro, and various spice combinations — a little sambar podi here, a little cumin seed there. Needless to say, I was pleased: hot ghee on a cast iron made for a lovely crust on these pancakes, and they were easy and filling, reminding me of a very rustic uttapam.
As my starter grew in strength and my flour collection grew in volume, I grew even more bold. What could an overnight ferment accomplish? Taking some clues (but not quite a recipe) from IG chef @IndiaFoodRocks and Youtuber Bosie’s Kitchen, I tried my hand at a truly uttapam-adjacent discard pancake that required a full night’s rest. Starting with about 50 g of unfed, 100% hydration starter (I won’t lie to you… I eyeballed this), I mixed in 20 g of rice flour and 40 g of millet flour (chaotically, this, I measured) and stirred. I left the mixture overnight, and awoke to a pretty stiff and bubbly product. I added in about a tablespoon of fresh discard and enough lukewarm water to achieve the consistency of a pancake batter. Next, I stirred in some chopped red onions, cilantro, a little jalapeno puree, and a few hefty shakes of Coco Podi from Thommy’s Toddy Shop. I ladeled it onto a hot cast iron, waiting for the pancake to bubble and darken around the edges before flipping. The result was lighter than many of my previous attempts and even closer to an uttapam. It would have been stupendous with a coconut chutney. As is traditional, I enjoyed it with a strong cup of coffee. The last stretch took about as long as an episode of Up First, which is my measure of a viable breakfast. I’m also well on my way towards becoming a full on discard-dosa head, with plans to soak and ferment some lentils in the coming weeks. Watch this space.
PERMANENT ROTATION: The storied black cod from Nobu is relatively simple if you plan ahead, and adaptable if you’re missing an ingredient or two. Perfectly pareve for a Kosher Valentine’s Day, for our observant Jewish readers oddly beholden to a Hallmark Saint. (SB: If mascarpone doesn’t say foreplay to you…)
(SB) As Jake reminds me, a wish list is a place where you can wish for something that you’d never actually purchase yourself, and that’s precisely why I’d like to tell you about these Omakase Berries from the absolute scammers (I think!) at Oishii. Grown in New York with seeds harvested from “the foothills of the Japanese Alps” (JS: …?), eleven of these allegedly life changing strawberries will set you back about $50. Which, in all fairness, seems like a better use of $50 than the academic conference registration I just shelled out for.
(JS) I don’t remember if I’ve formally wished for one before but I really think it’s high time I invested in a wok. A hand-hammered option sounds like a real treat, and the Chef Amelie Kang seal of approval is more than enough for me.
(SB & JS) Canal Cafeteria is fundraising for a free grocery store with a cookbook authored by LES foodie faves. You can get your copy here and celebrate the launch event this Saturday in Chinatown, which will feature snacks by From Lucie, Partybus Bakeshop, Regina’s Grocery, and Chef Jeremiah Stone. As we reckon with what an appropriate and ethical response to the wave of anti-Asian violence sweeping the country might look like, we find ourselves circling back not to calls for increased police presence or policies that will once again pit Black and Asian against one another, but holistic solutions that address systemic poverty, hunger, and need. If you’re in a place to do so, donating to the Canal Cafeteria or another mutual aid project in your neighborhood is one way to help your community stay safe.