Dirt, Death and Dough

The night before I meet Jim Lahey (from Sullivan Street Bakery) I do my homework. I go to his restaurant, Co., and eat the Fennel and Coppa pie, which has a deep nuttiness of nose-to-tail roasted fennel on a layer of béchamel. Then I eat the famous ‘Popeye’. The crust is salty, crispy, chewy with a blistering underside. The grassy aroma of the charred spinach topping greets you before the pizza even gets to the table. I fall, and then fold into the arms of it’s three cheeses that melt into a runny, hot, river and then, even though I’m quite full at this point, I order, just for good measure, (sigh, homework!) a slice of sticky creamy caramel banana Banoffee Pie. I mean, one can’t be too careful.

Jim’s personal assistant, Liz, and Brendan his sous chef, are coincidentally there too. Brendan has visited Australia once, and loved it so much, he had pictures of 2 Platypuses, tattooed, neatly, on either side of his chest. (He loved Australia so much he made it permanent! And not once, but twice!) There’s a man who looks like a lanky European tennis player in the corner. “See that table?” Says Liz. “The whole first cookbook was shot there”

But not today. Today they’re shooting the second book and it’s being shot at Jim’s place above his bakery. And I’m here, and I’m sipping Pellegrino. I’ve gatecrashed the shoot of his next cookbook because my friend Squire Fox is shooting it. I weigh in a bit, but I don’t want to interrupt. I want the camera to focus on the scars on Jim’s arms acquired from the too hot oven, I want to see a spray of flour on his pants and shirt, I want to push away the props completely, and just get the camera in there, forget everything else, focus on the dough, the fabulously simple and highly documented no-knead dough, and he does. Jim Lahey likens his dough to a dead body. Limp, no longer breathing, collapsing under it’s own weight. He notices a tiny bit that is frayed. “That’s not good, I need to cut that bit off” He notes.

It’s true; I admit it, I tend to kill things. Plants particulary. Succulents, even hardy Cactus. (And a goldfish as well, that turned belly-up, for no reason, and who’s name I can’t quite remember) My friends joke that it’s a shocking relief that my gorgeous son is happy, smiling and well… still living. Engaging, high energy and enigmatic. Jim Lahey is now showing me his rooftop garden, where it looks like he doesn’t get to kill very much. We spy a Holiday Inn Express going up next door. He frowns, then shrugs, like he’s accepted that change is somewhat inevitable. Everything changes, he says ‘I’m changing’ he says. And he is, noting a girlfriend who’s delivering his third baby in less than a month. He applies bone meal to his strawberries. He tells me he likes to get his hands into the dirt. It’s warm, it’s comforting, I’m strangely attracted to the bone meal. To maximize space, Jim’s growing plants out of the side (as well as the top) of his planters, which is brilliant. I want to stay here. Curl up here. Roll myself up in his pie dough, slather me with olive oil, salt me (leave me for a good 12 hours, or more)

We head back in to start shooting, and I spy a quote scribbled on the cupboard door.
 “Always be kind to others. Do not jump to false conclusions
I love it. I want to live by it. I might get it tattooed on my butt. (Together with a Platypus. What the hell)

Like the versions of ‘Marc Jacobs’ that have mushroomed all over the top end of Bleeker Street. Lahey’s bread pops up all over, but it’s not always his. You can say what you like about the Catskills water and it minerals and it’s effect on the New York City bread dough, and what that does to the dough of his competitors, but in the end, its his hands that make the difference. He knows how to shape dough. (and sometimes shape dough into very obvious genetalia… feminine… masculine… circumsized, but hey, that’s another story) It’s his hands that make it work. You can copy his recipe, do it at home, (and you should) and it will taste freaking great, but its never going to taste incredible. Why? Because frankly, he didn’t make it.

If my Great Great Grandfather, who got deported on a giant vessel from England to Australia for stealing a mere loaf of bread, was around today, Jim’s delicious loaves would have been in trouble. But then again, if he’d stolen one of Jim’s, it would have made the hellish trip worthwhile.

STECCA with SUN-DRIED TOMATO and  2 CHEESE SPREAD with ARUGULA:

Stecca are small baguettes, punctuated with tomatoes, green olives, and garlic that I picked up from Jim’s bakery after the shoot. I spread them with a mixture of 10 sun-dried tomatoes, about 2+ tablespoons of ricotta1 tablespoon of feta and 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Which I put in a food processor and blended. Then I spread the mixture on the stecca and added a thick wad of peppery arugula. This is a great quick dinner idea (you can also add avocado, and mayo if you wish). No need to add salt though, at any stage, because the Stecca has a super flavorful crust of glazed olive oil hit with fresh sea salt, and the feta rounds it out (salt wise) nicely. I also tried these weighted down in a cast iron skillet (like a pressed sandwich) fried in a little walnut oil and that was delicious too.

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Click here for info on SULLIVAN STREET BAKERY.

For info on Co. Jim’s Pizza joint, Click here.

To watch a video of Jim making one of his loaves with Mark Bittman, click here.

To get the recipe for Jim’s no-knead bread, click here. 

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