My dad is many things, but an avid cook is not one of them. His time in the kitchen is typically spent hunched over a pile of dishes in the sink, or readying the coffee maker for his morning brew. Or cooking up a batch of "extra crispy" (read: slightly singed) bacon.
But even though I may have learned to steam a perfectly tender artichoke and bake crumbly, buttery shortbread from my mother, I think it's my dad whom I've perhaps bonded even more intensely with over food. Many of my most acute food memories involve him.
More: Merrill's dad was known for his crispy bacon—and you can be, too.
There was my first visit to No. 9 Park. He took me there when I was living in Boston right after coming back from a year of cooking school in London, while he was in town on a business trip. We sighed and rolled our eyes together over oysters and crudo and chicken breast so tender it must have been sous vide (though neither of us was aware of the concept at the time). Then there was my dad's birthday dinner a few years ago at Boulud Sud, where, at his urging, we splurged on a bonus course of risotto littered with shavings of white truffle.
We've had lots of fancy dinners, but one of the things I love most about my dad—and something I inherited from him—is how equal opportunity his enjoyment of food is. He gets just as excited about Mint Milanos and canned green beans as he does about foie gras and morels (if he could, my dad would be buried in a vat of sautéed mushrooms). His approach to food is neither ignorant nor snobbish. His preferences aren't dictated by trends, but by his taste buds alone.
The one thing my father did make consistently over the years—I guess you could call it his signature dish—involved a box of Tuna Helper and a bag of frozen peas. He called it "Tuna Pea Wiggle" and he only made it once a year, when my whole family went sailing for a couple of days each summer.
The ritual of Tuna Pea Wiggle was very particular. It had to be, as anyone who's ever cooked in a galley kitchen on a sailboat knows. (New Yorkers have nothing on sailors when it comes to making do with limited space for cooking.)
My dad would first boil the pasta in a big pot on the tiny two-burner stove. He'd drain it, then balance the colander over the tiny sink while he used the same pot to prepare the sauce. The peas went in straight from the icebox, thawing out in the simmering sauce for a couple minutes before being joined by the pasta and a can of tuna. He gave it all a quick fold and then scooped up big spoonfuls and dumped them into enameled tin bowls. It was a one-pot meal in the truest sense, best devoured with big spoons.
After we all ate, crowded around the tiny little table in the galley, my dad would choose one of us to come up on deck with him. In the chill of the evening air with only the moonlight as our guide, we would spot him while he lay flat on his stomach and dangled one arm over the edge of the boat, dipping the dirty dishes and the cooking pot into the salt water four feet below, swishing them around to rid them of the first layer of gunk before returning to the warm galley below to finish the job with a judicious amount of warm, soapy water.
Now that my sister and I are both grown, with families of our own, these sailing trips are pretty much impossible to coordinate. I miss everything about them. I can't recreate dishwashing by the light of the moon, but thankfully I can still have Tuna Pea Wiggle. Here, I've used fancy oil-packed tuna and added some morels as a nod to my father's high/low tastes, but the soul of the dish remains the same.
1 cup fine breadcrumbs 1 tablespoon olive oil Kosher salt and black pepper 7 tablespoons butter, divided 3/4 cup finely chopped shallot 1/2 cup finely chopped celery 1 pint morel mushrooms, trimmed and sliced thinly 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 2 1/2 cups whole milk Zest of 1 lemon Pinch freshly grated nutmeg 1/2 cup heavy cream 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese 12 ounces fusilli or other short pasta Two 5-ounce cans of good, olive-oil packed tuna, drained and flaked into small pieces 1 1/2 cups peas (frozen, or fresh peas that have been shelled and blanched) 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 1/3 cup roughly chopped parsley
First photo by Alpha Smoot; second two by James Ransom
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).