On Becoming a Patio Person
and doing more cooking by doing less cooking
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I have lived in many different apartments in New York. The first was a room in a railroad-style apartment in a borderline derelict building on Manhattan and Frost, long ago, before Daddy’s closed, before Bonnie’s opened. After that, there was a closet turned into a room in an apartment in Greenpoint that my cat Margaux and I shared with a kind yet irritable woman I met on Craigslist and her cat named Ronnie. After a bedbug scare, I left and briefly lived with a boyfriend in an old elementary school in the Lower East Side, and because that was a horrible idea, promptly left and found the crown jewel of my housing journey in New York: three rooms (three rooms!) in a fourth floor walk-up in the East Village for $850 ($850!) a month. There were multiple catches to this scenario, including a 60-year-old roommate who used to cut his hair on a blue tarp in the kitchen, a carpeted bathroom, and zero insulation, but I’ll save those details for another time.
After that, I signed my first solo lease in a one-bedroom in Prospect Lefferts with approximately two windows, then to a one-bedroom in Boerum Hill with a fire escape, giving me a taste of what it might be like to have outdoor space. Then, last year, after emotionally and professionally outgrowing the apartment with the kitchen everyone misses, I moved to a one-bedroom-with-home-office in Boerum Hill, about 600 paces away, where I began the transformation into the person I am today: A Patio Person.
Truthfully, the patio I recently inherited was not so much a patio as it was a patch of outdoor space. Effectively the roof of the neighboring apartment, stubbled with roofing paper, tragically uneven with dips and grooves, a surface too painful to walk on with bare feet. I decided if I wanted to really invest in my new personality as a Patio Person, I’d have to figure out how to install a sturdy covering made of wood, also known to many as “a deck.” As luck would have it, I found the person who could do this by simply walking down my street as they were installing something on the corner and I asked, “Excuse me, hello! Do you think you could build me a “deck?”” “I could!” they replied. And they did. If you’re in the New York area, Kate, aka Handyma’am and her team are amazing and I can’t recommend them enough.
The one-day installation dovetailed gorgeously with Patio Weather and I immediately began taking all calls, meetings, and therapy sessions on The Patio, my gorgeous little patio. But more than providing a good work space and a chance for me to grow dill for the first time (it’s not doing great, please send tips), having this little patch of outdoor space with a proper table and level ground really reinvigorated my enthusiasm for eating and cooking, which had really dulled the last few months.
Traveling so intensely for work and working so intensely when I wasn’t traveling, meant eating at a LOT of restaurants and ordering a LOT of delivery. I was generally fatigued with even the idea of food, of eating it, cooking it, talking about it, or writing about it– These sorts of ruts hit at least once a year, usually followed by a heavy period of doing exactly all those things.
But The Patio gave me something to be excited by. Eating outside felt different (“eating outside hits different” – anything there?), it felt novel, it felt almost (almost) like I was on vacation, a place where I could light candles and get bit by mosquitos while I ate green olives for dinner. It also gave me my favorite thing, and that’s an assignment. “Would this be a good outdoor meal?” and “would this be a good indoor meal?” will often produce two different answers, and I love thinking about the distinction.
The Patio encouraged me to buy oysters to shuck and scallops to sear, things I typically never buy for my home ($$$!). I made my boyfriend shuck the oysters while I did the scallops, seared them well, browned butter and crisped capers in their fond then used some salty white wine to scrape up the bits. I cooked pasta in the business and finished it with parsley from my garden– just kidding, my parsley has only birthed precisely 9 leaves since I planted it in April, it was parsley I bought at the store.
Beyond this moment I had with expensive seafood, most of my meals have consisted of a simple salt and pepper grilled fish or steak (not together, I don’t believe in surf and turf as a concept) and basic arrangements of mostly uncooked vegetables (in some circles known as “salads”). Slicing tomatoes and dressing them casually with torn bits of anchovy, flaky sea salt, raw onion, (more) capers, and parsley from not the garden, covering cooked lentils with mountains of shaved radish, lots of lemon juice, and raw garlic, scattering fresh peas and halved boiled potatoes onto a plate and showering them with zest, so much olive oil and lots of flaky salt and coarse pepper. What might otherwise feel like an incomplete trip to the salad bar feels like a long lunch in Ischia when you’re on The Patio*.
*[For those sans patio, know that The Patio is a state of mind, a proxy for any space that is outside the walls of your apartment. The park on a blanket you haven’t ever washed, stained with last years fruit (at least you think that’s last years fruit). The fire escape with a pillow underneath to protect your thighs from the grates. A table next to a parking lot on the beach that’s too windy or hot to be eating at. The kitchen counter instead of the table. The couch instead of the kitchen counter. The Patio is simply a change of scenery and headspace, freeing yourself from the usual table you occupy. They also, it goes without saying, are stiLl great eaten in whatever regular way you happen to take your meals or snacks.]
It’s not revolutionary to consider the simply dressed uncooked vegetables as an anchor for a meal, but it feels like the right amount of cooking for me right now, a person who’s truthfully not that excited by cooking. Less about recipes, more about instinctual layering, these types of things can be made by dressing nearly anything fresh with something from your pantry.
Celery and Fennel, sliced super thin and dressed with a bit of fish sauce, lots of lemon and crumbled or shaved parmesan or pecorino. Cabbage torn into large leaves and briefly massaged with sliced pepperoncini, thinly sliced red onion and fresh marjoram, the one herb I was able to successfully grow. Cucumbers tossed with sesame oil, sesame seeds and crunchy sea salt. You get the idea. Below are some more structured recipes to get you started, but take them as guides not rules.
Tomato Salad with Anchovies and Onion
2 pounds tomatoes, thinly sliced or cut into bite-sized pieces/wedges
½ small onion, thinly sliced (white, yellow or red)
2 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
Flaky salt, freshly ground black pepper
2–3 tablespoons capers (salt packed and rinsed or brined), coarsely chopped
6–8 anchovies, torn into smaller pieces
Crushed red pepper flakes, aleppo-style pepper or gochugaru, optional
Parsley or basil, optional
1. Scatter the tomatoes and onions onto a large plate or shallow bowl. Drizzle with vinegar, season with flaky salt and pepper and let sit a few minutes. Give them a toss (you should see lots of juices accumulate).
2. Top with anchovies and capers, crushed red pepper flakes of your choosing, and herbs if you’re using. Drizzle with a very good amount of olive oil, letting it pool into the accumulated juices to give you a bit of a broken vinaigrette vibe.
Boiled Potatoes with Peas and Lemon
1 pound small potatoes, purple or otherwise
White distilled vinegar, optional
¼–½ pound snap or snow peas, halved lengthwise or thinly sliced
1 large spring onion (or 2 scallions), thinly sliced
1–2 lemons for zesting and juicing
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Bring a medium–large pot of water to a boil and season it heavily with salt and white distilled vinegar (a generous glug, taste the water, should be slightly acidulated), if you like (this is optional but will impart a good, deep tang to the finished boiled potato).
2. Drain and let cool enough to halve potatoes lengthwise. Scatter them on a large plate or shallow bowl and top with the peas and spring onion/scallion. Season with salt, zest the lemon over everything, juice the lemon over everything, give it lots of olive oil to cover, and finish with black pepper.
3. This one doesn’t need herbs, but it goes without saying that dill would be perfect here.
For those interested in patio furniture, what plants have worked/failed and tablescape details, tune in later this week as I continue my path forward as burgeoning homemaker/urban homesteader.