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There’s snow on the ground, love in the air and wafts of garlic floating down the stairwell of my West Village apartment building. Perched on high in my New York nest, I’m infusing olive oil with garlic. My neighbors tell me they can smell me from the second floor of my fifth floor walk-up. I’ve heard that vanilla candles in the kitchen and apple pies in the oven help sell homes, but I don’t think there’s any scent more seductive than the bittersweet smell of caramelized garlic. The first step in many a recipe, sautéing garlic holds a sense memory of every unforgettable meal you’ve ever had and sets off sparks both on the plate and on the palette.
It worked on my new neighbors. I first met the couple who moved in next door when our Super was showing the vacated studio that shares a wall the length of both our apartments. It’s an intimate building, or as Craigslist would say, “cozy,” which is shorthand for small. I prefer the term tenement chic! Kip and James laughed when I used it to answer their question, “What’s it like living here?” I didn’t tell them about the break-in I had two summers ago or the ratatouille-types who threatened my pantry (and my sanity) until I adopted Taleggio, and it wouldn’t have mattered if I had. All they really wanted to know was what that whiff of garlic was coming from my kitchen. Now that was a question I could answer.
“Quail Egg Toasts,” I boasted. “What are you Martha Stewart?” Kip quipped. “Close,” I replied, then James added, “No man, she’s way hotter than Martha.” I liked them already.
The combination of garlic wafts and rent control convinced Kip & James to take the apartment, but not before I invited them in to taste-test my garlic & thyme toast points topped with fried quail eggs and spread with a thin layer of spicy salami paste called ‘nduja. An Italian invention imported from the California Coast, the first time I tried ‘nduja was at Boccalone in the San Francisco Ferry Building. Mac and I were on a tasting adventure out West, and ‘ndjua was the standout flavor sensation of the trip. This soft, spreadable sausage has been referred to as “flaming liquid salami” and “the spreadable Italian love child of pepperoni and French rillettes.” A few weeks ago, The Times called ‘nduja, “the perfect food trend: it combines nose-to-tail eating, pork, smoke and chili heat.” With the official Dining & Wine decree, it’s now flying off the shelves at Murray’s. I’ve seen it pop up on menus at dell’anima and A Voce, and used it on pizzas for the Cajun Super Bowl party I attended last Sunday. Everyone swoons over the stuff, but combine it with a cutesy-runny quail egg, high quality extra virgin olive oil and garlic bread, and it’s a surefire knockout.
I’ll serve it to the girls I’m having over this Sunday to celebrate/commiserate the dagger to the heart that is Valentine’s Day. To my mind, V-day is lame if you’re in love and cruel if you’re not (made only crueler if you venture out for price-fixe menus on the worst dining date of the year), so I’ll have plenty of sausage on hand to sedate any among us who feel the sting of cupid’s arrow. If that doesn’t work I’ll break out the chocolate, but this year, I’ll save my green goodies until after I’ve finished cooking.
Here’s to hoping we all find a spicy sausage to love! February might be too cold for tomatoes and taking the long way home, but it’s perfect for toast points and nesting among new neighbors and old friends.
Quail Egg Toasts (serves as many as you toast)
• 1 loaf Texas Toast
• 1 head Garlic (diced)
• 1 cup+ Extra Virgin Olive Oil
• 1 bunch Thyme
• 1 ‘Nduja Sausage
• Quail Eggs
• Fleur de Sel
• Salt & Pepper
Make the garlic oil in advance. I usually make big batches of this stuff and save it in the refrigerator for every opportunity I get to toast garlic bread, sauté vegetables or whip together a pasta sauce. It’s also a great base for a marinade or salad dressing, and will stay fresh for weeks at a time. You can add lemon zest, chili flakes, basil, any spice you choose, but keep in mind that adding perishable ingredients decreases the shelf life of the garlic oil.
Simply dice or press a head of garlic, pour a cup of olive oil into a heavy-bottomed frying pan on medium-low heat, and when the oil begins to get hot (about 2 minutes) add the garlic. Season the pan with a pinch or two of salt and pepper and a few springs of thyme leaves separated from their stalks. Watch the pan carefully, stirring occasionally, and as soon as the garlic is about to turn brown take it off the heat (about 2 minutes more). The hot oil will continue to caramelize the garlic minutes after it’s off the flame. If you burn the garlic, you have no choice but to start over. Transfer the garlic oil to a bowl to cool, and reserve the frying pan.
Cut slices of thick-cut Texas white-bread toast into triangles, brush them with a thin layer of garlic oil and pop them in a toaster oven or under a broiler until golden (about 5 minutes in my oven, but oven temperatures vary, so watch these carefully so as not to let them burn).
Pierce the ‘ndjua sausage with a knife, creating a slit from which you can spoon out the soft insides. Spread a thin layer of ‘ndjua on each toast point.
In the same heavy-bottomed pan now coated with a thin layer of garlic oil, fry the quail eggs over-easy over a low heat, and season them gently with kosher salt as they fry. These suckers are quick so watch them carefully, and when the edges of the egg whites start to brown, remove them from the pan and place atop each toast. Sprinkle with thyme leaves and fleur de sel, and finish with a drizzle of the best extra virgin olive oil you got. Happy nesting!