January 16, 2012
There are two recurring problems in my life: bears and ovens. I just can’t seem to avoid undesirable run-ins with the former and operational issues with the latter. Moving to L.A. has so far solved one of those problems—obviously, the bear encounters.
The first time I saw a bear, at 10 or 11 years old, I was camping in Canada with my family. Walking on the path to the “toilette,” I heard a noise and turned to see, less than three feet away, a small black bear. He looked about as happy to see me as I did him.
Years of lectures from my wilderness expert father and his friend had prepared me for this moment. Don’t panic. Wait for the bear to leave. Whatever you do, DO NOT RUN…
At any rate, by the time I got back to the campsite I was understandably hysterical. I worked myself into such a state that when my parents asked me what the bear looked like, I said it had a long tail like our gangly black mutt, Max. From then on, the bear was referred to as the “bolf” (half bear and half wolf). I still have not lived that one down.
Fast-forward to another camping trip with my dad, this time in the Adirondacks of New York. Normally, my dad is opposed to camping near lean-tos, but after an entire day of walking through what I dubbed “the fire swamp” after the movie/book The Princess Bride, we were exhausted and hungry. The campsite beckoned with its picturesque view of a nearby marsh and a very nice fire pit, and won against my dad’s better instincts.
You see bears, at least in the Adirondacks, love lean-tos because of all those campers who are not good at securing their food. It’s become such a problem that in many places in the park it’s now mandatory to keep food in bear-proof containers, called “bear cans.” On this particular trip, our food was in the bear cans but our garbage was hanging from a tree.
I awoke in the middle of the night to see my dad sitting up in the tent with the bear spray in hand. I started to ask what the hell he was doing but loud crashes and vicious snarls stopped me. Two bears were fighting each other very close to the tent, presumably over the garbage. I will tell you the sounds were terrifying.
I’ve encountered other bears, most memorably a huge three-legged bear that roamed my parents’ property with a nasty attitude and a penchant for garbage cans. But here in L.A.—no bears. Sigh of relief.
My oven problems—albeit less exciting ones—follow me everywhere I go.
In Cairo, the ovens of my various apartments were gas—not a problem in itself, but the fact that they didn’t light themselves can be a bit of an issue for beginners. Lighting an oven is not as simple as lighting a stovetop. The first time my roommates and I attempted this it was a comical scene. Feeling that a match did not provide a safe distance between our hands and the potential explosion of fire, we used a piece of paper. Actually, many pieces of paper and maybe even some toilet paper. We did finally get the damn thing lit without the eruption of fireworks we had anticipated and without burning down the city. There was, however, a pile of ashes at the bottom of the oven and a terrible smell filling the kitchen.
More problems back in New York, when I gave a dinner party that redefined Murphy’s Law. A good friend of mine was home visiting from Japan, so I invited him over for Persian food, specifically lamb stew and Persian rice. A stew, of course, requires a low, steady temperature. Persian rice requires the luck of the draw, the Irish, and possibly God’s consent—it is a very finicky dish. First you boil the rice to a specific texture and then you steam it at a very particular temperature until the rice on top is cooked and the rice on bottom has formed a crust. There’s not a millimeter of room for error.
Everything was going well—the stew getting tender and the rice ready to steam—when the gas suddenly ran out. I ended up having to finish cooking the rice on a campfire stove and the stew in the fireplace. Nothing was entirely inedible, but the rice did not have a great crust, which is really the only reason to make Persian rice, and the stew meat was tough. The gas turned on the next day, and then went out again minutes after I put homemade hamburger buns in the oven. Those went in the fireplace too, on an inverted cast-iron smoker, and no, they did not rise properly.
Here in L.A., I’m currently once again without gas in the kitchen. But then, I like a good culinary challenge. If I want cake and don’t have an oven, I figure out how to steam it in a crock pot (more on this next week). If I want a tuna melt and don’t have a working broiler, I melt the cheese in a microwave. After all, some of the best culinary ideas have come from necessity or accident, right?
The classic tuna melt—composed with great quantities of mayonnaise and cheese—is decidedly not good for your arteries. I have made many attempts at creating a more healthful substitute—a tofu salad melt, a tuna melt made with yogurt (horrible idea!), a tuna sandwich with olive oil and lemon—but none of these come close to the real thing. However, my tuna melt is definitely nowhere near as bad for you as its diner counterpart. The tuna salad is equal parts tuna and veggies, it’s light on the mayo, and I don’t put butter or oil on the bread. None of these alterations were motivated by nutrition, by the way—I just like the crunch from the veggies and I don’t like eating gobs of mayo. The recipe has evolved over the years, and my latest addition of capers really makes it, in my biased opinion, the best tuna melt I’ve ever had.
For the tuna salad: Finely dice the carrot, celery stalk, shallots or onion, and red pepper. Run your knife through all of the veggies combined a few times. (You may be able to do this with a food processor but you run the risk of a watery tuna salad). Roughly chop the capers. Transfer the veggies and capers to a medium-sized bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Stir and mash with a fork to break up the tuna.
Toast the bread and place the tomato slices on top.
To make the melts with a broiler (recommended): Make a mound of tuna on top of the tomato slices and top with cheese. Put under a preheated broiler until the cheese is melted—a minute or two depending on your broiler.
To make the melts in a microwave: Make a mound of tuna on a plate that is the same size of the bread (I do this by putting it on the bread and flipping it over onto the plate). Cover with cheese and microwave on high until the cheese is melted. Using a spatula, carefully slide the tuna and cheese onto the tomatoes.
Sprinkle with hot sauce if using.