Sometimes delicious food and love can just bowl you over, knock you down.
Once, back when we went on what I would call “dates,” Gus took me to Lupa, one of Mario Batali's restaurants. He knew the pasta would win me over. Really he could have taken me to IHOP and I would have been happy.
If I had to pick one last meal in the city, Lupa might be it. Each strand of pasta is perfectly cooked and coated in buttery, salty, thick-but-never-gloppy sauce. Pepper flakes are liberally applied. Herbs when appropriate. The odd slice of seasonal produce might find its way in, but never too much. Just enough. Perfection. We sat at the bar, shared a couple pastas, a couple pieces of their chewy focaccia, and each had a glass of wine.
We were having a great time. The restaurant was packed. We were shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar. I can’t help but sway a little when I eat something wonderful. And my date wasn’t bad either.
I was so delighted by my situation that I swayed a little too much and started to lose my balance. The smile on my face swiftly switched to shock and then terror as I tried to get my balance. My foot made a futile attempt to find the bottom rung of my stool but went through the middle. I stuck my hands out, trying to grab anything. Maybe a piece of fluffy focaccia to break the fall. But I got nothing. I saw Gus looking at me, confused, as I went right off my bar stool. I went down. All the way down to the ground. Within an instant I was sitting on the floor. Shocked but laughing. Down but not out.
The restaurant isn’t big. It was a scene. I can still remember the pretty, demure hostess’ look of terror, framed by a hand on each cheek.
Could have happened to anyone, really. But probably not twice. Just the other day I went to Lupa by myself for a “date” with my Kindle. I sat at the bar and enjoyed a cube of their pillowy rosemary focaccia, a glass of wine, and a bowl of pasta. Déjà vu. Just a little harmless shift in my seat. Just a bit unsteady. And then woosh. Halfway down I grabbed a hold of the counter for dear life. Focaccia went flying, but I regained my feet and stayed off the ground. What is it about those bar stools? Greasy from the sauces, I’m sure.
This week’s recipe is my attempt to recreate part of the old Lupa magic at home: a focaccia with spring herbs from my mother-in-law’s garden. Deborah has a fantastic garden. The blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries aren’t ripe yet but the herbs are in full swing. Oregano, dill, basil, cilantro, and thyme, and a couple specials. Like lovage. I’m in love with lovage. I’d never had it before Deborah introduced me to it. I think it tastes like something in between curry leaves and shiso and I want to put it in everything. (Gus won’t let me.) And winter savory. I think that one is sort of a mix of thyme and oregano. We dipped the focaccia in a light fish stew Deborah made. Less butter than Mario’s pastas, less hazardous seating, but still lots of love.
Spring Herb Focaccia
Serves 8 to 12 (and it freezes beautifully)
2 cups bread flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
6 T chopped mixed herbs, divided
1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon coarse salt, plus more for sprinkling
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for the pan
1. In a large bowl, whisk together bread flour, all-purpose flour, 3 tablespoons herbs, sugar, yeast, and salt. In a small bowl, combine 1 3/4 cups warm water (105° to 110°) and 1/4 cup oil. Add water mixture to flour mixture and mix with a fork.
2. Tip the mixture onto a work surface and knead until it starts to come together and become more elastic, about 10 minutes. (See the picture above.) The dough will be very wet and sticky but resist the urge to add flour. Use a bench scraper in one hand to scrape the dough off the counter and fold it over itself, then use the other hand to knead. A stand mixer fitted with the dough hook would be easier but much less fun. Using the bench scraper, transfer the mixture to a lightly oiled bowl, cover it lightly, and leave it to double.
3. Tip the doubled dough onto a work surface and knead it a few times to deflate it, then fold it over itself at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. Flip the dough over, put it back in the bowl, cover it, and let it rise again until almost doubled.
4. Oil a 15 1/2-inch-by-10 1/2-inch jelly-roll pan. Roll the dough out to about 15-inches-by-10-inches. Transfer the dough to the prepared pan, cover it lightly, and let it puff up and fill the pan. It should rise up to about 1/4-inch above the edge of the pan. Preheat oven to 450°. In a small bowl, combine remaining 3 tablespoons herbs and 3 tablespoons oil.
5. Using your fingers, press indentations all over the dough. Try not to deflate it too much. Drizzle dough with a few tablespoons of the herb oil mixture. Bake until golden brown, puffed, and set, about 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer pan to a rack and brush with the remaining herb oil mixture if you like. Sprinkle with salt. Let cool slightly then transfer to a board to cut and serve.