Some old health advice from Fannie Farmer, the 19th-century culinary expert: “But for its slight deficiency in fat, wheat bread is a perfect food,” she wrote, “hence arose the custom of spreading it with butter.”

The dwindling quality of much of our bread aside, there are days when I wish we still believed that–both that bread is perfect food and that butter makes bread better. Like, baguette-, naan-, focaccia-, r’ghaif-, and pita-lovers before me, I think bread is the best side dish on the table.

Side dish? Really? But yes. If there’s not  enough leftover salad to form a filling brown bag lunch, a fresh roll and some butter will turn those veggies into a real meal (plus give you an excuse to run to the local bakery and get out of the office). If vegetable soup sounds a bit meager, ladle servings over fried bread for bulk. And when spaghetti and meatballs don’t quite cut it, you know you need some garlic bread.

Turns out there’s a long tradition of carb-loving in this country. The side of bread is an old, humble, and resourceful habit finessed by early American settlers, according to Abigail Carroll in her book Three Squares.

The settlers had all kinds of adorable names for specific uses of bread on the side. There were sippets, decorative slices of fried bread, used for garnish and texture in addition to substance. Sops meant pieces of bread soaked in soup or stew–much like the Italian bread morsels on which minestrones sometimes get poured. Trenchers have the coolest explanation of all: The earliest colonial Americans didn’t have plates, so they used “trenchers,” thick slices of stale bread to hold their food, a old habit imported from Europe. Back in the old country, gentry would have donated their sauce-soaked bread to poor folk nearby. But in the hardscrabble colonies, the trenchers were valuable nourishment. Remember, bread was the perfect food.

Apples and Honey

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Bring on the Brine! 9 Salty Favorites

Posted by on Friday Sep 19th, 2014

I like to think of briny as “umami of the sea.” Dishes that have saltiness plus. Clams, anchovies, olives, and even capers, seem, to me, to have that divine combination of saltness and pungency that makes a dish one I want to go back to for seconds and thirds and then rave about for the next 96 hours (sorry).

Here are my favorite brine-rich dishes from BGSK:

**Bring on the Brine! 10 Salty Favorites**


1. Grilled Mozzarella Sandwich with Anchovy-Olive Tapenade. While mozzarella makes this sandwich what it is–grilled cheese!–it’s the anchovy-laced olive tapenade that catapults the sandwich into addictive terrain.

2. Perfect Baked ClamsLast night, I ate at a restaurant called The Clam. The entire list of specialities is devoted to things made from clams. That’s why I went. Clams deliver the flavor of the sea in a deliciously mild and fun-to-eat form, and are therefore one of my favorite foods.


3. Bloody MarysThough you can’t go wrong mixing up the classic Bloody Mary ingredients–pickle brine, olive juice, black pepper–a dash of fish sauce takes this batch to the next level. Want to go big brine or go home? Add clam juice to the mix and you’ve got a Bloody Caesar.

Baked Peaches with Cheesecake Filling

Posted by on Monday Sep 15th, 2014

Natalie of Good Girl Style is back today with a stunning fruit-based dessert that’s literally fruit based: Brilliantly, a mouthful of cheesecake uses a halved peach as its foundation. Wow. Natalie joins us each month to share incredible desserts with Big Girls, Small Kitchen readers–desserts that are entirely gluten-free, but not like obviously gluten-free. That means no specialty flours or hard-to-find ingredients, just good old-fashioned butter, eggs, fruit, and cream cheese. Not ready to say goodbye to summer? Try her Chocolate-Covered Banana Pudding Pops.

It’s late summer. We shiver through early morning, determined we don’t need a sweater, determined that summer isn’t ending, determined that we have some say in the matter. Well, when it comes to dessert, we do have some say in the matter! This dessert is the perfect blend of the beginning of fall and the last taste of summer. The peaches go well with a strong cup of coffee, and can be served with ice cream or caramel sauce to make them more decadent.

This recipe is another easy-but-impressive dish that your friends won’t know took you 20 minutes. The ingredients are readily at hand, and if you can find local organic peaches, all the better. Just cut and pit the peaches, whip together the filling, and assemble. Tender baked peaches combine with a creamy, spicy cinnamon-sugar mix that might make you think fall isn’t so bad after all. And that maybe a sweater isn’t the worst idea.

Here is your perfect weekly meal plan for $125.

Well, not exactly. I have a hard time believing that I can advise you what you want to eat for 14 dinners and lunches straight. There are cravings! And spontaneous weeknight plans! And people in your life with preferences and restrictions. Often, I think, a meal plan just can’t keep up with daily life. (That’s why this post is going to be a little long! If you’re interested in entering to win a $125 Whole Foods Market gift card, you should definitely make it to the end though.)

I started Big Girls, Small Kitchen because I love to cook at home–obviously. But when I’m inspired by the cuisine of a far-flung place, sometimes it’s hard to find the right ingredients to follow even a simple recipe, and the only option is to go out. To equip ourselves to cook any cuisine in the confines of our small kitchens, we’re sending contributor Lauren Rothman off to visit the Russian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French, Greek, and Italian supermarkets of New York City. Her shopping expeditions will yield the specialty ingredients we need in order to make the food we’re craving at home these days.

Today, Lauren’s off to Bangkok Center Grocery, a Thai emporium in New York City, located in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Will the store have everything she needs for pad see ew and som tum?

Here’s Lauren:

As an avid home cook and an enthusiastic eater of New York City’s myriad cuisines, my appreciation of southeast Asian dishes goes way back—all the way to middle school, when some like-minded friends and I (read: total geeks) formed an “ethnic” cooking club. As de facto president, it was my responsibility, each month, to comb through my mother’s extensive selection of cookbooks and select the 4 or 5 recipes that club members and I would prepare together before sitting down to feast. Ostensibly, any type of fare could be eligible for the “ethnic” moniker, but over and over again, I found myself drawn to fragrant Indian rice pilafs; bright, cilantro-and-mint-stuffed Vietnamese summer rolls; and, above all, fiery, fish sauce-heavy Thai curries and noodles. More often than not, the cooking club sat down to a meal redolent of galangal, palm sugar and Thai basil.

Part of the fun of preparing for these monthly feasts was the excuse, as an intrepid young subway rider, to hop a train to parts of the city previously unknown to a brownstone Brooklyn native, in order to seek out those exotic ingredients. That’s how, all those years ago, I first discovered what remains my favorite Manhattan source for Thai ingredients: Bangkok Center Grocery. A tiny, supremely well-stocked store located on Chinatown’s Mosco Street, Bangkok Center crams all the essentials of larger southeast Asian groceries onto its well-curated shelves, from fish sauce and dried shrimp to fresh herbs and bitter melon.

Patafla: A Tomato Salad Sandwich

Posted by on Monday Sep 8th, 2014

Take a bright, olive-y panzanella sort of salad and stuff it into a sandwich. The resulting delicacy, readers, is patafla.

Never of it? Neither had Craig Claiborne in 1985, except for one tiny reference in an already-old book.

I have seen reference to patafla in only one source book–Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food, which first appeared about thirty years ago. She describes patafla as a kind of salad served in a sandwich.

It consists of chopped tomatoes, onions, sweet red peppers, pitted black olives, pitted green olives, and gherkins or sour pickles all blended in a bowl. To this you add olive oil, a sprinkling of paprika and salt and pepper. Slice a crusty loaf of French bread and pull out the soft inner part. Cut the soft part into small cubes and add it to the vegetable mixture, then stir. Spoon the vegetable mixture into the two halves of bread and combine, sandwich fashion. This is chilled well and then sliced.

Sixty-odd years later, it’s September in New York. I’m just off a big research project which demanded that I take many old cookbooks out of the library (and accidentally donate many dollars in late fees), and there are tons of tomatoes ripening and begging to be eaten. In searching for my actual subject in Claiborne’s alphabetical food listings The New York Times Food Encyclopedia, I discovered an entry about patafla, and I knew I had to make it.

Patafla has been left undiscovered, in spite of our preoccupation with retro recipes and authentic cooking. There are no records of it that I could find anywhere, besides David’s. She published her book about Mediterranean cooking in post-War Great Britain, with the intent of brightening the gray atmosphere, and so honestly who knows where she found patafla. But I’m glad she did.

Basically, as you saw in the quote above, patafla consists of a fresh tomato salad punctuated by many briny ingredients: pickles, olives, and such. By scraping out some of the soft interior of a bread loaf and mixing the crumbs with the salad, you give the vegetables something to hang onto. The outsides of the bread get over-stuffed with this mixture, before being tightly sandwiched, wrapped, and refrigerated. Overnight, the sandwich “cooks,” in much the same way as a summer pudding, with the juices and the bread solidifying into a seriously charming, delicious sandwich that, because it should be made ahead, is perfect for brown bag lunches and picnicking.

My Family’s Pepper Steak

Posted by on Friday Sep 5th, 2014

From the start, homemade food figured in my parents’ relationship. This pepper steak was, I just learned from my mom when she told me the proportions for the recipe, the first dish my dad cooked for her. She’s told me more often about the cooking projects they loved to take on, like a mushroom soup whose steps somehow occupied an entire day.

“There is nothing like a home-cooked dinner,” was a refrain, in actions and words, in our house. Sure, restaurants weren’t quite as good then as they are now, neither were prepared foods, and for most dishes there was no competition. We kids sometimes begged for pizza, and sometimes we got McDonald’s hash browns for breakfast, but the homemade pizza and homemade French fries beat them both. For a change, it wasn’t a stretch to think that parents were right. The homemade food was best.

That mindset, more than our passed-down recipes for matzoh ball soup, oil-based plum cake, or fried Cheerios, is my culinary inheritance.

Pepper steak’s actual culinary heritage is in the increasing American affection with Chinese food in the 19th and 20th centuries, brought about by Chinese restaurant cooks who danced around American’s tastes for adventure in their meals, simultaneously expanding eaters’ palates with dishes from across the world and tweaking those dishes to be sweeter and saucier than they were back in China. Today, you might think a dish like pepper steak would seem a throwback to those chop suey days. But really, this one stands the test of time: the sauce is minimal and not gloppy, and the vegetables are plentiful.

What’s more, because your pepper steak shopping list includes only steak and three peppers (if you have a pantry stocked with onions, soy sauce, sugar, and cornstarch), this Chinese-American dish is a home-cooking habit enforcer, the kind of dinner you can easily make on a weeknight, then take one bite of and say, “There’s nothing like a home-cooked dinner.”

In a series of videos called “The Butcher, The Baker, and The Belgian Beer Maker,” Stella Artois–this post’s sponsor–has explored three women in craft embracing their own heritage and tradition in their work today. I really loved “The Butcher” video – it’s about Cara Nicoletti (great name!), a butcher at Brooklyn’s The Meat Hook, and a third generation butcher. You can watch the whole series, starting with “The Butcher,” here.

This post is sponsored by Stella Artois. Thanks for supporting the sponsors that keep Big Girls, Small Kitchen delicious!