I may be the first person in history to say such a thing, but I sort of miss airplane food. I don’t mean those roast beef sandwiches in foil packets, the spongy ones that look like they’ve been sat upon, or the pizza pockets warmed in plastic baggies. I mean real food. I’m talking about the stuff of twenty years ago, back when airfare bought not only a seat but also a tray of somewhat edible food. Back then, eating on the plane was kind of fun. You could file all sorts of requests for elaborate special meals, and some of them were actually pretty good. My parents were fond of the “Cold Seafood” option, which usually came with shrimp cocktail, a salad, and a piece of decently poached fish. It wasn’t anything to smack your lips about, but it was perfectly serviceable. Heck, you wouldn’t go hungry, at least, which is more than I can say about air travel now. R.I.P., Cold Seafood. Today, it’s all pretzels and Sesame Snaks and greasy cheese crackers.
I think about this sort of thing more than you might expect, because in order to see my family, I have to board a plane. My mother is in Oklahoma, and my siblings live in D.C., Boston, and New York. I have aunts, uncles, and cousins in California, Maine, and Canada. This is troublesome, as you might guess. Not only does it add up quite unpleasantly, but long flights can make a person pretty hungry. On the average day, I feel nibbly about every four hours. My internal clock is wound tight, and travel does nothing to change it. Come mealtime, it jitters and chirps like those old-fashioned nightstand alarms, the round ones you see in cartoons. Some women hear the tick of a biological clock, but I hear my inner dinner bell. It’s very noisy and persistent and annoying, especially at 30,000 feet, and it can only be quieted with a carry-on bag of food.
I can’t even remember the last time I flew without a food bag. I’m getting pretty good at packing them. Breakfast is easy: a scone or muffin, or leftover pancakes in a baggie. For lunch or dinner, a sandwich works, or a big hunk of bread and some cheese. Ratatouille is good, and so is lentil salad. For a while, I was into boiled eggs, but they can smell pretty bad, so I put a stop to that. Then, a few days ago, I stumbled upon a new favorite airplane food. It tastes good; it smells good; and unlike the jar of peanut butter with my name on it that now sits at the bottom of a landfill somewhere – wah! – it won’t be confiscated at the security checkpoint.
Last Friday morning, Brandon and I boarded a plane to Oklahoma for a long weekend with my mom, and with us came two Tupperwares: one containing a carrot salad, and the other a frittata streaked with ribbons of kale.
I’ve written about a frittata here once before. (Back in what seems now like another lifetime.) It’s a testament to the goodness of the genre, I think, that it’s making a repeat appearance today. To me, a frittata is the ultimate “kitchen sink” meal: it will accept nearly any bit or bob or half-forgotten thing from the crisper drawer and, a few eggshells later, render it eminently edible. That makes it a perfect way to clean out the fridge before a trip, or to use that leftover something you weren’t so excited about to start with.
In our case, we had a handful of kale in the crisper and a lonely red onion in the basket, and let me tell you, what a frittata they make. Happy bedfellows, those two: with a little oil and heat, the onion goes sweetly brown, and the kale curls around it like a savory green knot. Beaten with a fork into a bowl of eggs and sharp cheddar and cooked gently in a heavy skillet, the mess comes together into a rich, satisfying omelet of sorts – only flat, minus that fussy folding part. Not only is it a wildly easy meal for two, but it tastes delicious at room temperature – a rare feat, you know, for an egg-based dish. To go along with, we chucked together a carrot salad that I first ate in France, a simple, slivered job with lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic. It would have been a shame to let a bag of good carrots go unused, and anyway, something crunchy always helps to clear the pressure in the ears, mid-flight.
All told, the duo was tasty enough that we made it again yesterday for our return trip, giving the julienne blade of my mother’s food processor a much-needed workout in the process. It’s nobody’s Cold Seafood, but that’s okay by me.
Kale and Cheddar Frittata
Frittatas are a cinch to make, except for the business of the skillet. First, you need one that’s oven- and broiler-safe. That means no wooden or plastic handles, unless the latter is formulated to be heat-resistant. [My cousin Katie has also been known to sneak her wooden-handled pan under the broiler, but she watches it carefully and keeps the oven door open.] Secondly, you need a skillet that won’t cause the frittata to stick like crazy. In theory, a nonstick skillet would be best, but I’m wary of putting Teflon under the broiler. It just sounds like a bad idea. My preference is for anodized aluminum, such as the Calphalon One line, which works wonderfully. You could also use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. That’s what I used in Oklahoma, and though the frittata did stick a touch, it was easy to rectify with a slip or two of the spatula.
Keep in mind, also, that the recipe below can be used as a template for any number of frittatas. It makes a fairly thin one – about a half inch deep – so if you like yours thicker, try adding a couple more eggs. As for flavorings, you can throw in nearly any cooked meat or vegetable. We made a great one recently with gruyere and two medium leeks that I sliced and cooked slowly in a tablespoon of butter with a pinch of sugar and salt.
3 ½ Tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 small red onion
4-5 oz. lacinato (also known as dinosaur) kale
5 large eggs
½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese, such as Black Diamond
¼ tsp. salt, plus more to taste
Preheat the broiler of your oven.
In a 10-inch heavy skillet – (see note above) – warm 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and translucent but not browned. Add the kale, 1 tablespoon of the oil, and a pinch of salt, and stir until just wilted. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The kale should be very tender, and the onions should have taken on a rosy brown color. Set aside.
Break the eggs into a medium bowl, and beat them well with a fork. Add the cheese and salt, and beat again to blend. Add the kale and onion mixture, and beat to mix well.
Wipe any burnt bits from the skillet, and add the remaining ½ tablespoon oil. Place the pan over low heat. When it is warm, pour in the egg mixture. If necessary, use the fork to gently push the kale around a bit, so it is evenly distributed. Cook over low heat until the bottom of the frittata is lightly browned – tease the edge up with a heatproof spatula and peek underneath – and the top looks mostly set.
Remove the pan from the heat and slide it under the broiler until the top is nicely browned, 30-60 seconds. Don’t walk away from it while it’s under the broiler; it cooks very quickly.
Cut into wedges, and serve warm or at room temperature, with additional salt, if needed.
Yield: 2 servings as a main dish, or more as a side
Note: Refrigerated in an airtight container, a frittata will keep nicely for up to 48 hours, although it is most tender within the first day.
French-Style Carrot Salad
You can find this salad all over France: in bistros, in homes, even in the packaged-foods section of the corner grocery store. It’s a classic lunchtime starter, as cheap and simple as they come. It’s all about the carrots, so be sure to choose good, sweet ones. Try them before you use them, and if they don’t taste good, well, this may not be the day for your carrot salad. You’d be smart to wait for better ones.
1 lb. carrots
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
¼ tsp. salt, plus more to taste
1/8 tsp. pressed or crushed garlic
Rinse and dry the carrots, and trim away their ends. Cut them into short segments, and using a mandoline or food processor fitted with the julienne blade, cut them into matchsticks. [If you don’t have a mandoline or food processor with the proper blades, you can also grate the carrots on the large-holed side of a box grater, but they won’t be quite as crisp or as pretty.]
Put the julienned carrots in a medium bowl, and toss them well with the lemon juice. Add the oil, salt, and garlic, and toss again to mix well. Taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve.
Yield: 2-4 servings
Note: This salad is a great traveler. It stays crunchy for a good 24 hours – meaning that you can make it the night before an early-morning flight – and it tastes just fine at room temperature.