Have you seen Black Swan? I haven’t. True Grit? Nope. And, god, wasn’t Colin Firth mind-blowingly good in The King’s Speech? Actually, I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t seen a second of it. Not even a preview. The sad truth is, we haven’t seen a single one of the movies nominated for an Oscar this year. It pains me to admit this, but in the nine years that have hurtled by since Phoebe was born, Jenny and I have been inside of a movie theater fewer than five times — once, in our first month of parenthood, when I went to Jackass and Jenny went to Sweet Home Alabama, and once when we both went to Avatar, which I’m not really counting, since it felt more like an endless video game than a movie to me, and Jenny slept through half of it, and we both came away wondering why we’d wasted a rare and beautiful movie date watching stuff blow up. We never thought we’d be these people, the kind with passports that hadn’t been stamped in a decade and who puttered around in bathrobes and still quoted George Costanza. (Seinfeld! Such a great show!) I remember back in the days before we had kids, when Jenny was pregnant with Phoebe, and other parents would tell us, knowingly — almost gleefully — to enjoy our remaining days of childless independence, since having kids meant The End of Restaurants, Movies, Grooming, Sleep, Privacy, Exercise, Vacations to Anywhere Other Than Orlando, and Sunday Mornings Spent Drinking Coffee and Reading the New York Times. (Hell, even reading Bob Herbert!) They’d tell us to enjoy that 9:45 showing of Gosford Park, because once kids arrived, we’d never ever find a babysitter willing to stay after midnight. They’d tell us to savor every last bite of that pistachio semi-freddo at Gramercy Tavern, because man, they really hated to break it to us, but once we had kids and discovered how brutal it was paying for a fancy restaurant meal and a babysitter, we’d never go out again. (Going rate for babysitting, in 2002: ten bucks an hour!)
We didn’t believe them. That won’t be us, we’d say when we got home. And boy, did we sound righteous when we said it.
Nine years later, here we are. Living the dream. Still thinking Kevin Costner is a movie star. Still getting bullied out of bed before 7 am to watch Beezus and Ramona instead of reading the Sunday paper. Still listening, unironically, to The Verve. Still working our way through last year’s Oscar nominees on DVD.* On one front, though — restaurants — we’ve managed to defy the odds and stay at least somewhat clued in, thanks largely to friends who are kind enough to keep us in the game. Take our friend, Jim. Jim loves to eat, and loves to take us to places we would otherwise not know about, or would never motivate to try. Through Jim, we’ve been lucky enough to eat at Le Bernardin, Degustation, Barbuto, Blue Hill Stone Barns, Babbo, WD50, Hearth, Boqueria, Esca, Cafe Boulud, the John Dory, Momofuku, and on and on. At any given meal, Jim will take a bite of something and say, “How good is this?” To which I will respond, “Really, really good.” To which he will respond, “God, it’s good. Taste that. Isn’t that good?” To which I will respond, “So, so good.” I like this about him.
Just last week, I had lunch with Jim at ABC Kitchen, which is a newish, kind of slick, organicky place owned by Jean Georges Vongerichten, and had something that rocked my very cloistered world. We split an appetizer they call “squash toasts,” which we both agreed was out-of-control tasty, and which I demanded Jim photograph with his iPhone and email to me immediately so I could show Jenny. It was simple genius: Crusty Italian bread, topped with fresh milky ricotta, topped with kabocha squash, topped with some bright green threads of basil and what looked to be a few drops of balsamic vinegar. The squash was sweet and roasty and, when combined with the cheese, made me want to weep tears of joy and gratitude. This weekend, I bought a big old squash and tried to replicate it, at home, for some friends who came over for lunch. Was it as good as Jean-George’s? Ummm, no. It was not. But it was maybe half as good, and it was easy and healthy and fun to make, and here’s the thing: I never would have known about it if Jim hadn’t shown me the way. We all need friends like this. I realize this may be a long way to go to write about a sandwich, but I’m not just writing about a sandwich. It’s less a sandwich than it is proof that I still have one tiny part of my toe in the game. — Andy
* I could go on and on with examples that illustrate this point. Here’s a small sampling of actual things that have come out of our mouths in the past couple years: “Hey, this Corrections book is really well written!” And, “You should try listening to Eminem when you run. It’s totally catchy!” And, “American Idol is so fun to watch!” And, “Isn’t it amazing how you can be in New York City at 9:30 in the morning, then get on a plane, and be in South Carolina by noon???” And, “I wish The Daily Show was on at 9, so I could stay awake for it.” And, “Uggs are so warm.” And, finally, “How incredible is the internet?”
Squash Toasts (Poor Man’s Version)
If you don’t think your kids will go for this, you can top the ricotta with roasted cherry tomatoes instead of kabocha squash. (Just toss the tomatoes with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, then throw them in the oven in a separate baking dish when you are roasting the squash.)
1 kabocha squash, about 2-3 pounds
2 tablespoons honey
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 loaf good Italian bread
Handful of basil (cut as shown — what the fancy types call a chiffonade)
Preheat oven to 400°F. With a phillips head screwdriver, poke two holes in top of squash, set in baking dish, and roast for 45 minutes to one hour. Take squash out of oven and cut into quarters — but be careful when handling; it’s hot. Remove seeds and scoop out flesh. Put flesh back into baking pan, and drizzle with honey, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper. (You don’t want it to dry out, so make sure you use enough oil.) Toss until coated and then roast for another 15 or 20 minutes, or until soft and slightly darkened. Put into a bowl, smash with a spoon, and set aside. When you’re ready to assemble your toasts, cut the bread into slices and toast lightly. Smear a foundation of fresh ricotta. Then spoon on squash, and sprinkle with basil and salt. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and a few drops of balsamic vinegar.