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Articles / Kwame Onwuachi: Selling Candy on the Subway

Kwame Onwuachi: Selling Candy on the Subway

Published May 31, 2023

Plus: the right way to suppli, when “other people’s food” becomes tiring, and unsolicited praise

Photo: Instagram/@chefkwameonwuachi

A year ago — almost exactly a year, it was last May — I interviewed the talented chef Kwame Onwuachi. Then, most people knew of him for his much-loved memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chefa coming-of-age that garnered fantastic reviews. Now, however, Kwame is probably best known for his restaurant, Tatiana, which was, last month, named the #1 best restaurant in New York City by the New York Times. (I can’t comment on that, because there’s no way I can get a table there, but once I do, I’ll let you know what I think.) So: What better time to revisit Kwame’s interview on Food with Mark Bittman?

The recipe featured on the episode, Kwame’s Sweet Plantains with Avocado Crema, can be found here. Marksisms below!

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This Week’s Marksisms

PSA

Made In entrée bowls. Photo: Kate Bittman

The Made In Memorial Day sale that I wrote about last week (“My New Favorite Cookware,” yes, indeed) ends today. Check out all my picks (including my favorite bowls, pictured above) in that original post — if you need kitchen items, now’s the time!

Suppli, the Right Way

Photo: Mark Bittman

I don’t want reporting on my recent Italy trip to become repetitive, as in “We went here, we ate this, we climbed a rock.” But I would like to discuss one last item, and then move back to cooking at home.

That item is the suppli. Before I’d even been to Italy, I had read about these traditional Roman fried rice balls. (I can’t remember where, especially since it was in the pre-Marcella days.) There was always some flowery language about the stringiness of the mozzarella contained inside (they’re sometimes called suppli al telefono, because, when pulled apart, the cheese resembles telephone wires, or so the literature said). Sometimes they’re served with a tomato-and-meat sauce, and that may have been more common years ago; now, usually, they’re not.

I’ve always found them disappointing, except when made by that non-traditional, non-Roman: me.

They’re easy enough: You take cooked short-grain rice (which holds together better than long-grain; this is a perfect use of leftover risotto), combine it with an egg or two per cup, then add flavorful stuff – mozzarella, sure, but also bits of meat or fish or veg; anything will work – coat in bread crumbs, and fry.

Suppli always look great and, because they’re usually served as a snack or an antipasto, you eat them when you’re most hungry and least critical. But usually, they’re bland and simultaneously soggy and dry.

Just before we left Rome last week, though, we went to an ordinary osteria called Peppo al Cosimato (Cosimato being a small but more-than-adequate outdoor market in Trastevere), and had a couple of different suppli, including one with squid ink (or, more accurately, ink of sepia – cuttlefish). These were good: Crunchy-crisp outside, soft and flavorful inside (like black risotto, which is what it was), not overwhelmingly cheesy … wonderful stuff.

My Own Cooking, Pasta and Veg Edition

Photo: Mark Bittman

We ate well in Italy, generally, of course, but in Italy, as elsewhere, there are two kinds of cooking: Yours and other people’s. And if I’m in Italy, and have no kitchen – as was mostly the case on this trip – I’m eventually dying to get home, because “other people’s food” wears on me. (Really, I could go on about this, but it would only serve to make you dislike me; I’m the last person you want to go to a restaurant with, and sometimes Kathleen looks at me with a look that says “Please stop complaining, because I actually think this is pretty good.”)

We came home and almost immediately had a houseful of family; I delightedly shifted gears. And I’ll report on two things: Pasta with Lobster, Chiles, and Mint, and the season’s first grill.

Kathleen and Holden on a Memorial Day weekend hike. Photo: Kate Bittman

I’ll say this about the pasta dish: It never disappoints and, although lobster are plentiful in the winter, to me this is a summer dish. I poach the lobster (you don’t need much – a 1.5-pounder is sufficient for four servings), chill it, take out the meat, make stock with the shells, use that in the (fresh) tomato sauce, which is laden with garlic and chilies, chop the meat and integrate it, and, at the very end, lace the sauce with mint, and use mint for garnish. Great for a crowd.

Ready for the grill. Photo: Kate Bittman

The more important thing that happened this weekend was remembering what “grilled” vegetables really means, and how even that shifts with the seasons.

We had, as you can see from the photo, asparagus, leeks, and spring turnips and, for this, I had two options: One is to layer everything on the grill and cook it over extremely low heat, patiently turning and basting with a little olive oil as the vegetables tenderize: It’s real work and takes a long time and a lot of attention.

The other is to parboil everything until it’s near-tender, chill it down in an ice-bath (you can do this hours, even a day, in advance) and then turn it in oil and basically give it a little color over high heat on the grill. I like this method better, at least for spring vegetables (zucchini and eggplant are a different story): It’s fast, reliable, flexible. You get more consistent tenderness also.


Once More Into the NBA Breach

I know that you’re dying for my stupid observations about the NBA, and my self-appraisal of my predictions of victories by the Lakers and the Celtics. Obviously, I was as wrong, as were about two-thirds of the professional sports writers. Indeed the Lakers were not the team of destiny – they were the team of inconsistent and maybe too-old guys – and the Celtics now appear to be not a team at all, and might even be dismantled in the offseason.

In the Finals, the smart bet is the Nuggets, now being portrayed as a super-team, led by the league’s best player (it’s said, a Drago-like gentle giant from Serbia) who is in turn being supported by just the right mix of stars (Jamal Murray, especially) and role players. I don’t bet; if I did, I’d take the Nuggets.

But I’m rooting for the Heat. They have no chance. But the what-ifs are super cool.

Unsolicited Praise

A letter in our inbox:

So I went to my MD for my annual physical and she said ”you gained 6 pounds this year.” And then she told me how much I weighed! I walked home in total shock and disbelief. And then I remembered reading about VB6. Immediately ordered the book online and in hard cover and started following the VB6 diet. That was in May, 2013! I lost 42 pounds, never gave up my nightly martini or daily piece of chocolate, and still follow it 10 years later. And I’ve not gained any of it back. It’s just a great way of eating on so many levels. I’ve been a Bittman fan forever (including Bittman Project) but this is more than being a fan….I’ve never sent a “fan” letter….this has had such a huge impact on my life. Thank you!

Thanks to you all. See you next week.