Being extremely familiar with Matt’s likes and dislikes, I began brainstorming potential less-than-healthy, meat-centric menu ideas. We had recently had the most amazing dish of sausage and clams at Salt's Cure and without consulting Matt, I began to scour recipes to see if I could recreate it. I found a homemade sausage recipe and another for clams in a broth that seemed like what we'd eaten. I printed them out and was about to leave for the store when I realized I hadn’t yet run this idea by Matt. I sent him a quick email and got a reply with much enthusiasm but also some other ideas—dishes with more cheese and less fuss. Right, I remembered. This is Matt's birthday.
His birthday dinner had already been postponed a week because of our Sonoma trip, and having wasted much of the morning on the sausage and clams, I didn’t have time to mess around. I went straight to the woman who has always gotten it right when it comes to Matt’s dream meals: the aforementioned Ina Garten. And in less than fifteen minutes, she helped me pull together a winning menu comprised of steaks, onion rings, salad, and a non-Ina dessert he’d requested months earlier, Crack Pie. Maybe it wasn’t my dream menu, but let’s be honest, it didn’t sound too bad.
The bummer about Crack Pie, apart from the name conjuring images of Bubs, is that it calls for one night in the refrigerator before eating. This time around, I decided to skip this 24-hour step. I made it in the morning, put it in the fridge by 1pm, and at 8pm, served it up to fantastic results. And while I’m sure that the overnight chill does serve some mysterious purpose, for those of you who need their dose of Crack Pie that day, there’s hope—a lot of hope.
With the Crack Pie in the fridge, I ventured out to Lindy and Grundy, a new butcher shop I keep hearing great things about. And while I found the store to be impressively cute and almost shiny in its newness, I’d arrived a few days after Memorial Day weekend, and they were completely sold out of most cuts of meat including the filet mignons that Ina’s recipe called for. Not wanting to make another trip, I asked if there was anything else I might be able to substitute and was soon introduced to the faux hanger steak, a long and skinny cut of meat that didn’t resemble a filet at all. I was skeptical, but the nice guy behind the counter assured me that I could prepare it the same way I would the filets—by searing it on all sides and then finishing it off in the oven. They had two left, and I had only a few hours until dinner, so I took them. Besides, I had a feeling this dinner was going to be all about the onion rings.
Home again, I sliced the onions and began soaking them in buttermilk. I washed the romaine and made the salad dressing—a vinegary, lemony, creamy dressing I hoped would stand up against steak and fried food. By the time I got back to the rings, all I had to do was heat up the oil, dredge them in a flour and cornmeal mixture, and then, in small batches, fry them into delicious crisps. Unfortunately, the candy thermometer I had planned on using to watch the oil temperature was too big for the pan I’d chosen. This, combined with having recently read a story about kitchen traumas (warning: graphic!), made for nervous frying. So nervous that when Matt came home from work, I was deep in the weeds with a few batches of overcooked onion rings, a few batches of undercooked ones, and a question: “Did you know that hot oil burns are the worst kind of burns?” Having not read the article and being a very nice person, Matt changed out of his work clothes, grabbed the tongs, and cooked the rest of the rings to perfection. Meanwhile, I seared the steaks, dressed the salad, and mixed a Manhattan with extra cherry juice. And very soon, we sat down to plates that looked something like this:
Hearts of Romaine with Creamy Dressing from The Art of Simple Food
This salad is best made with whole uncut leaves of romaine. You may need to remove quite a few of the large outer leaves to expose the smaller pale green sweet leaves at the heart. There are tender small varieties called Little Gem and Winter Density that make incredible salads. Look for them at your farmers' market.
Remove the outer darker green leaves from:
2 heads of romaine lettuce
Cut off the stem end and separate the leaves. Wash them thoroughly and spin-dry in batches.
To make the dressing, stir together in a large bowl:
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
fresh-ground black pepper
Taste, and adjust as needed. Whisk in:
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespons heavy cream
Cornmeal-Fried Onion Rings via Barefoot Contessa
2 large Spanish onions (or 3 yellow onions)
2 cups buttermilk
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (medium) yellow cornmeal
1 quart vegetable oil
Peel the onions, slice them 1/2 to 3/4-inch thick, and separate them into rings. Combine the buttermilk, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper in a medium bowl. Add the onion rings, toss well, and allow to marinate for at least 15 minutes. (The onion rings can sit in the buttermilk for a few hours.) In a separate bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Set aside.
When you're ready to fry the onion rings, preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with paper towels.
Heat the oil to 350 degrees F in a large pot or Dutch oven. (A candy thermometer attached to the side of the pot will help you maintain the proper temperature.) Working in batches, lift some onions out of the buttermilk and dredge them in the flour mixture. Drop into the hot oil and fry for 2 minutes, until golden brown, turning them once with tongs. Don't crowd them! Place the finished onion rings on the baking sheet, sprinkle liberally with salt, and keep them warm in the oven while you fry the next batch. Continue frying the onion rings and placing them in the warm oven until all the onions are fried. They will remain crisp in the oven for up to 30 minutes. Serve hot.