I’m at the beach this week with the dozen or so friends I’ve been vacationing with for the last 12 years. We’re a group of food lovers, and over the years we’ve had memorable dishes, from an epic production of fried chicken to peach pie laced with bacon fat. (I believe in the goodness of that pie despite what everyone else says.)

Now, though, with only one member of our group under 40, things have begun to change. Suddenly, food issues of all sorts are putting a damper on our once free-wheeling, fat-laden extravaganzas:

1. Following her husband’s 40th birthday party a few years ago, in which he stored a whole pig carcass on ice in the bathtub for a few days, M.H. has, understandably, returned to her early vegetarianism.

2. Janice and her son, Julian, are gluten-free because her doctor has told her that she has the gene that causes celiac disease and that she needs to avoid wheat. (Her husband occasionally refers to the doctor as “that quack.”) She also avoids dairy.

As an aside, I caught Janice giving cod liver oil to poor Julian yesterday. My attempts to infuse humor into the situation: “I can’t believe you’re giving him cod liver oil!” went unappreciated. “It would be better to help rather than hinder the situation here,” Janice said. I decided it was best to leave Julian to the therapist he’ll be seeing in about 15 years.

Janice brings a lot of her own food.

3. Donna and Mara do not eat seafood.

4. Everyone (except me, it seems) has an idiosyncratic aversion of one sort or another, including raw tomatoes, tapioca pudding, mayonnaise, Brussels sprouts, liver, rutabagas, coffee, coconut, olives and mushrooms.

We had for years managed to work around these dietary predilections with minimal fuss and only the occasional blow-up.

But then Shannon and Carol chimed in.

I was planning dinner for our first night and sent an e-mail to the group asking them to remind me of their dietary restrictions. This was a silly idea in the first place, akin to stubbing my toe on purpose or giving myself a series of paper cuts. So I deserve what came next.

Carol wrote back the next day. In sum, her message said that they didn’t eat grains in any form—rice, wheat, spelt, millet, bulghur, you name it–any kind of bean, or dairy. Apparently, she and Shannon have embarked on the Paleolithic diet, in which they attempt to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors, on the theory that this is what humans originally evolved to eat before agriculture stepped in and ruined everything. (Shannon apparently picked it up when he was training for a bike race.) In essence, this means they eat only meat, vegetables, and fruit.

There’s probably no point in commenting on the wisdom of adopting the diet of a people whose average life span was about 35, or on why meat would not be considered “processed” food. All I can really say is that approaching dinner, I faced the following SAT-like logic problem:

1. M.H. eats seafood, grains, and dairy but not meat.
2. Donna and Mara eat meat, grains, and dairy but not seafood.
3. Janice eats meat and seafood but not wheat or dairy.
4. Carol and Shannon eat meat and seafood but not grains of any kind or dairy.

Our fragile equilibrium had collapsed. Were I to attempt to prepare a meal that took into account everyone’s dietary restrictions, we would be eating only vegetables, fruit, and eggs. And there are only so many omelets you can eat in a week. (Later, I learned that Mara doesn’t eat eggs.)

Poor Shannon and Carol. Over the next several days, e-mails flew back and forth mercilessly, including one in which Rocco declared that he was feeling very out of style as an omnivore and was therefore going to try his hand at dietary restrictions by keeping kosher and requiring us to get separate kitchens for meat and dairy at the beach house.

I wasn’t terribly surprised when Shannon and Carol decided to stay home. They claim it was because they’d just moved and started new jobs and didn’t want to haul two small children on a cross-country odyssey just then, but I know better. They were afraid we’d slip some millet into their vegetables.

On Saturday night, we ate tacos. Everyone was happy.

Focaccia Results, and Happy Birthday Rocco

I am pleased to report that 4-H and Lidia did not let me down in yesterday’s focaccia attempt, even though I misspelled Lidia’s name. Neither did my Cuisinart–a valuable ally who was not present during my youthful struggles with yeast breads, nor during later misguided attempts to make bread without “cheating” (i.e., doing things in an easier and more efficient way).

I hope that Rocco, whose actualy birthday is today and in whose honor this bread was made, will be pleased with these results.

Here is the recipe, modified slightly from Lidia’s Italy–a beautifully illustrated collection of Italian recipes that I highly recommend.

Onion-Tomato Focaccia

Makes 1 large round; serves 10 or more as a side dish


2 packets active dry yeast (I used outdated rapid rise)
2 1/4 cups warm water or as needed
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for handling the dough
2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil for bread bowl


1 large onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced (about 2 c.)
2 c. tomatoes, diced (original calls for cherry tomatoes, halved)
1/2 c extra-virgin olive oil, or as needed
1 tsp. coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1/2 tsp. dried oregano

Dissolve yeast in 1/4 c. warm water and let it sit for several minutes, until it begins to bubble. Put flour and salt in food-processing bowl. Stir together yeast and 2 c. lukewarm water in spouted measuring cup. With processor running continuously, blend flour and salt briefly, then pour in all the liquid through the feed tube and process for about 30 seconds. A soft, moist dough should gather on the blade, with some sticking to the sides of the bowl. Add more flour, 1 tbsp. at a time, if dough is too sticky and has not come off sides at all; add more water in small amounts if it’s too dry.

[NOTE: I misread the recipe and added the yeast directly into the 2 c. lukewarm water, then poured into the food processor before it bubbled. But luckily focaccia is a forgiving dough.]

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface (I used a clean, non-fuzzy kitchen towel), scraping bowl and blade clean. Knead by hand for a minutes, using as little flour as possible, until dough forms a smooth round, still soft and a bit sticky. Coat a big bowl with olive oil, drop in dough, and turn to oil it all over. Seal bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, 20 – 30 minutes (1 hour if using regular yeast).

After the dough has risen, it should look like this:

While dough is rising, toss together onions, tomatoes, 4 tbsp. of the olive oil, and 1/2 tsp. salt in small bowl and let them marinate.

Coat a large shallow baking dish or pan, bottom and sides, with 2 tbsp. or more olive oil. Deflate risen dough and lay it in the pan. Gently press and stretch it into an evenly flat round (or square, as you see below) that fills the pan. If dough is resistant, let it relax a few minutes.

Lift the marinated tomato and onion out of the bowl with a slotted spoon, draining off juices. (Lidia failed to mention you are to reserve these, so I ate them.) Scatter vegetables all over focaccia. Lightly press in with your fingertips to create dimples in the soft dough. Drizzle the marinating oil that you did not eat over the top, or if you did eat it, olive oil works quite well. It will look like this:

Let the focaccia rise, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. Set a baking stone, if you have one, on center rack in oven and heat to 425. Just before baking, gently dimple the dough again with your fingertips, and sprinkle another 1/2 tsp. coarse salt all over.

Puzzle over why Lidia ever expected you to slide this enormous square thing onto your round, medium-sized pizza stone, which perhaps is different from a baking stone but you aren’t sure. Decide that Lidia probably left out a sentence or made a typo, and anyway you have only 5 hours till your dinner party and can’t afford the disaster that will surely occur if a transfer is attempted. Set pan on top of the pizza stone in the oven and cross fingers. Bake focaccia for 20 minutes, rotate pan back to front for even cooking, and bake 10 – 15 minutes (or more) until bread is golden brown and onions and tomatoes are nicely carmelized.

Remove from pan and top with remaining olive oil and crumbled oregano. Let cool at least 15 minutes before slicing. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Give thanks for wonderful bread and friends. Wonder if Martha White would let you enter this in the next 4-H breadbaking contest.

1981 Breadbaking Champion Attempts Focaccia

In the spring of 1981, I was crowned the Tennessee 4-H District III breadbaking champion and traveled to Knoxville for the state competition that summer. Several key facts about the event should be noted.

a) The contest coincided with Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding–a great disappointment to a 16-year-old who had been waiting to see the dress for months.

b) When I did see the dress, I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever created, and I could not imagine that those puffy sleeves would ever, ever look dated.

c) Contestants in the breadbaking competition were judged on 1) a project book, which recorded all breadbaking activities over the course of your 4-H career; 2) an oral exam by state extension agents and representatives of the Martha White Flour company (sponsor of the event); and 3) no baking whatsoever.

d) I did not win.

e) Had we baked, I certainly would not have won.

In sum, I was a breadbaking champion who was more interested in the intricacies of Princess Di’s dress than in the chemical interactions that were making my loaves so tough.

Despite this, on an impulse that can only be called “stupidity,” I volunteered to make bread for a dinner party that starts in about 7 hours. I was intrigued because one of the guests is allergic to all oils except olive, does not eat dairy, eggs, chocolate, and a host of other things, and wrote the book I just finished. And so I am attempting Lydia Bastianich’s recipe for onion-tomato focaccia from Lydia’s Italy. Results will be posted.

I bake this in honor of my friend Rocco Marinaccio, who is having his 50th birthday bash in the Berkshires today and who gave us Lydia’s Italy for our wedding. Happy birthday, honey, and I’m sorry I can’t be there!


Continuing to return to the haunts of my youth, we went to Anotherthyme this evening. This restaurant has a special place in my heart, as the one of the first establishments where I spent way too much money on dinner. It was comforting to return to the site of my first forays into adult dining–using a credit card to spend money I didn’t have, ordering foods with unrecognizable names, and drinking wine with food. And having those first long, intimate conversations over a meal about things that mattered, like love and God and friendship; and wondering if the person sitting across from you would be the one you married; and thinking how lovely it was to have the future ahead of you.

So it is nearly impossible for me to “review” Anotherthyme. Walking into that intimate interior, with the warm wood and white Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling, I still feel a sense of magic. This is no accident–these are people who post a slide show of the interior on their web site. You can see why this is a place where I expect some new intimacy to develop, some depth of friendship to be revealed, some special bond cemented. It’s just that kind of place.

I also happened to love my salad with lemon tahini dressing, avocado, onion, parmesan and cashews. My dear friend Donna, who joined us, had the fried chicken she always gets and which she adores. Fred’s steak and my calamari did not stand out. If you want an experience where every dish is flawless rather than just good, and where you’ll find the latest trend done to perfection, Anotherthyme is not the place to be.

But I’ll go back. There’s something to be said for a place that has cast this spell over me for over 20 years. And it’s especially nice to return with an old friend, and the wonderful person you actually married, and to still remember what really matters.


No cooking last night. We saw Babel last night in our effort to see all the Oscar nominees before the awards. We had two bags of movie popcorn (free refills on the large!!) for our dinner.

I also talked to my friend Rocco last night, who was just putting away the ingredients for the Valentine dinner he’s making for his sweetie. I’m afraid forty-one years of East Tennessee-trained cooking simply cannot compete with forty-five-ish years of New York Italian cooking. (Rocco got his first promotion from AARP and was feeling sensitive about his age.) He even knew what calabasa was.

Rocco’s sweetie is getting tapas that include beet and blood orange salad and some kind of hazelnut/orange vinaigrette. Rocco doesn’t use recipes either. I can’t remember the rest but it was all glamorous and yummy. Fred is getting a pound cake and some as-yet-undetermined meat.

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all.