After college, when Malcolm moved into his own, one-bedroom apartment in Astoria Queens, I rode the train to New York a lot. I had an outfit that consisted of burgundy ankle boots, nude fishnet stockings, a wool pencil skirt, tank top, hooded sweat shirt, and reddish leather jacket that cinched at the waist in which I felt like a girl from Berlin riding through Europe on a mysterious adventure.
In truth I was a student from Connecticut spending every weekend with her boyfriend in the city, meeting Malcolm’s grown-up friends for drinks at bars like 32nd Street O’Reilly’s, taking walks around Manhattan in all kinds of weather, and eating dinners out in a neighborhood thick with interesting people, Middle Eastern people, Greek people, superstitious or religious people who held festivals of food and tambourine music in the streets of every weekend.
Astoria was not cool like the East Village, where we saw burlesque dancing girls dancing after their performances had ended; it was not remote, breathtaking, and made of stone, like the Upper East Side, or littered like the shady alleys of urine-soaked Hell’s Kitchen. It was a family borough-within-a-borough, with hirsute men smoking hookahs at sidewalk cafes, skinned rabbits hanging in shop windows, concrete parks where children played in open hydrants, private card-playing clubs for ancient immigrants, all life occurring in a jumble under the elevated N. It was nothing like the places I had lived.
We once had dinner at a Cypriot restaurant in summer, with whitewashed walls and God’s Eyes in the tile. We were served a variety of savory dips to start – yogurt with cucumber and mint, mashed potato with garlic, mashed potato with carp roe, followed by a whole fish, jumbo shrimp, stuffed grape leaves, bitter greens, astringent beets, lamb meatballs, fried squid, and a plate of grilled halloumi, a goat and sheep’s milk cheese made in Cyprus, with bottles of mineral water and strong table wine.
This was a meal out of time and place; it came from before their expat kitchen deep in Astoria, and went well beyond my own limited life experience, and lingers in my memory as one of the many, many instances of magic at the dinner table.
I bought a block of halloumi at the good grocery store and sliced it into 8 thick pieces before grilling. The vegetables require very little seasoning, since the cheese is so salty (in a very, very good way). I used harissa powder, but you can also find it in paste form in many stores. Feel free to adjust the spice as you like, it can be quite potent.
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into thick strips
- 2 small Italian eggplants, sliced into coins
- 1 small zucchini, cut into coins
- 2 large cloves garlic, quartered
- 2–3 teaspoons olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon Harissa powder
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 8 oz. halloumi cheese
- 4 slices olive bread
- Preheat oven to 450. On a baking sheet toss pepper, eggplant, garlic, with 1-2 teaspoons olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand.
- In a small bowl combine mayonnaise, harissa, and lemon juice. Stir in smashed roasted garlic.
- In a medium sauté pan over medium high heat, get 1 teaspoon olive oil very hot. Sear halloumi, about 2 minutes a side.
- Meanwhile, toast the bread.
- Assemble sandwiches: spread bread on both sides with harissa mayonnaise, then layer with halloumi and vegetables. Best served immediately.
Adapted from a recipe by Blue Apron