I had the impulse to start this blog post with an apology about how long it’s been since the last one. And then I realized that was a silly idea. I can’t imagine a single person reading this who would say: Yeah, I’m so upset with you. I’ve been sitting and hitting “refresh” on my device for months waiting to see what you’ve been making for dinner during the pandemic/culture crisis!
So instead of an apology, how about a brief update? Bob and I are well, working from home. As we are both over 60 and I have a tricky health history. I’ve had pneumonia 5 times and Lyme Disease twice, and consequently decided to be very protective of my immune system and my lungs. We have been extremely careful. We see Brian often. I cook a little something to share with him, he brings us food and supplies. Meg and Jon have come up from DC twice, testing and quarantining so that we could celebrate birthdays (mosty notably her 30th) together.
Our weekly hikes (we’ve skipped only one since February) manage to help us salvage some small dose of sanity, as do daily walks/runs, and the occasional kayak paddle with my Mary.
We have our pork share, seafood share, csa, and grocery delivery. When I decide to take a break from cooking, we revel in a beautiful pickup Friday dinner from our beloved friends at Fannie’s of Warwick.
As the days get colder and shorter, our social distance deck dinners with Brian get trickier to schedule. I bought a couple of little outdoor space heaters to extend the season a bit longer. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at the weather as closely as I have these last few weeks. Between our precious hiking adventures, and our outdoor meals, these days, the forecast is EVERYTHING!
One of our other COVID times oddities is 3 am texting. The subject almost always drifts toward food unless it started there (like 98% of the time). It was during one of these convos that we followed up on a subject that started at our last dinner together: Italian Dunkers.
Italian Dunkers was a menu offering in the cafeterias in the Warwick schools. I knew they were a favorite, but I don’t think we ever discussed the particulars. Until now.
Brian: Think of the Platonic ideal of the perfect cheesy garlic bread served with a lightly tomatoey long cooked meat sauce. It was nothing like that.
Now the brainstorming begins. We agree the bread needs to be long, but not too thin to maximize textural variation in each bite. Some soft buttery inside, some crusty baked exterior, plenty of cheese, plenty of salty garlic.
The sauce should have rich meatiness that can only be achieved with long, slow cooking.
I made a simple yeasted bread dough with mostly bread flour, a bit of whole wheat, and a bit of spelt. I decided to braid it because I thought this would increase that textural variation. It was a nice touch, but pretty much unnecessary.
Because I had some of my homemade guanciale left, I decided to cube it up for the base of the sauce. Pancetta would be equally good. I sauteed the cured pork along with some minced onion, celery and carrot in a bit of butter. Then, I added two big, meaty turkey thighs, well seasoned. Pulled them out once well browned and deglazed the pan with some vermouth and some milk. Added two big cans of whole peeled tomatoes and their juice. Brought this to boil, added back the turkey, and reduced to simmer. Before covering, I popped in a big parm rind.
The sauce cooked on the back burner for the entire afternoon. I think 3 hours should do it, but it could go longer if you like.
I took the thighs back out and removed the skin*, shredded the meat with 2 forks. Then, I used the stick blender to roughly puree the sauce before putting the shredded meat back in for a nice bath.
Now it was time to make the garlic bread. I preheated the oven to 300° and minced a couple of fat garlic cloves. The minced garlic got mixed with a half stick of softened butter, some salt and pepper, and a good sprinkling of parm. After cutting the bread lengthwise, I shmeared it with the garlic butter and then, buttered sides together, wrapped it in foil. It baked for a half hour while I made the salad and mixed martinis for the guys, who had by then settled on the deck.
Increasing the oven temp to 450°, I unwrapped the incredibly fragrant bread and (refraining from tearing off a hunk), topped each half with sliced mozzarella (shoprite had mistakenly sent me machine sliced thin pieces of mozz. They were ideal for this, but any sliced or shredded mozz would be fine). Cheese side up on a sheet pan, the bread went into the hot oven for 10 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.
Time to break for a garlic bread family memory. We had just moved to the “new house,” which means my best friend, Anne, and I were 10. Mom was making garlic bread and needed to run to the bathroom while it was broiling (this is why I don’t broil). She asked Anne to watch the bread. When she came out, the bread was smoking and had charred to the point of inedibility. Controlling herself (only because Anne was not her child), she asked, “What happened, I thought I told you to watch the bread?” To which Anne replied calmly, “I did. I watched it burn”.
The sliced cheesy bread was served alongside bowls of the sauce for dipping. Salad and asparagus were lovely, but superfluous. Brian pronounced this the best thing he’d ever eaten.
*If you nuke, broil, or fry the skin ’til crisp, you can crumble it on your salad or steamed veg.
I hope you enjoy this if you try it. Keep in mind that you can skip the meat for a vegetarian version. You can use gluten free bread to make it gf. The cheese and milk are optional if you’re kosher or don’t do dairy.
Please, please leave me a comment and let me know how you’re doing. Stay safe, my friends and please, please VOTE!!