The Greatest Snack Ever Invented

April 26, 2010 · 14 comments

A perfect midday snack.

I come from a long line of noshers; when I was very little, I remember my father sitting down to watch The College Bowl (during which he would shout “Wrong! Wrong! That child is WRONG!” repeatedly at the top of his lungs for the duration of the show) with the added benefit of a sleeve of Mallomars, which would be demolished before the first commercial break. My mother, who is thin as a wisp to this day, would eat plain salad with a squeeze of lemon for dinner, and then I’d get up in the morning to find nothing but crumbs in the Entenmann’s donut box.

It is what it is, as they say, but oddly, I somehow managed to avoid this fate. I’ve never been much of a nosher (which translates loosely to snacker, or one who grazes), and I was also born without a sweet tooth, which makes my family scratch their heads and wonder if I was switched at birth with the real Elissa Altman—the one who loves ice cream and cake and cookies and eating round the clock— who is running around out there somewhere, looking like a female Fernand Point and buying her clothes in the unfortunately named Manhattan dress shop, The Forgotten Woman.

All of this said, there are certain snacks that I do brake for because I mostly can’t help myself: a warm pretzel or a bag of hot chestnuts on a chilly day on Fifth Avenue; a Gray’s Papaya dog, well-done, extra sauerkraut, subversively eaten before nine in the morning on Broadway and 72nd Street; a fingertip-burning pumpernickel bagel from H&H up near Zabar’s. These are the snacks that stop me in my tracks, without fail, because on the one hand, they’re delicious, cheap, and quick; and on the other hand, because they’re unquestionably wrapped up in a kind of romantic inclination.

But one day last fall, Susan and I were traipsing around the remarkable Brooklyn Flea in Dumbo, and we stumbled upon perhaps the most perfect snack either of us has ever had. This sine qua non of quick fixes, this small bit of mind-bogglingly luscious goodness jumped out at us amidst a market filled with high-end taco trucks, artisanal bbq purveyors, makers of miniscule cupcakes that are too cute to eat. No, this was no trend waiting for recognition. This was simplicity at its most extreme: this snack was comprised of three ingredients.

Good bread.

Thick, magnificent, full-fat ricotta.

La Quercia prosciutto Americano.

And that’s it.

We stopped at a makeshift counter, where a young woman was slicing the ham by hand. Someone else handed her a piece of Sullivan Street Pane Pugliese spread with a hefty amount of the ricotta, which she then topped with the ham. She wrapped it loosely in a napkin, and handed it to me. I could have handed her a hundred dollar bill and told her to keep the change, it was that good, and we stood there, the market swirling around us, noshing on our tartines, happy as clams, and oblivious to the world.

And I started thinking: why don’t Americans snack this way more? Why do we always go for the bag of chips and the jar of salsa, or the prefab cupcake and milk product drink? Why do we head for the beer nuts or the Taco Bell burrito? Why does snacking run parallel to other activities like, in the case of our former president, watching television (during which the poor man couldn’t manage to watch a sports event and eat a pretzel at the same time)? Are we pre-programmed to believe that snacking must always translate to salt or crunch (or salt and crunch), to cake and milk, or to prefabricated, unwrap-and-heat fast food?

Doesn’t a simple tartine of ricotta and prosciutto also translate to fast food? How much more basic—or fast— could it possibly get?

That of course is the beauty of the tartine. It’s elemental. It’s faultless and reasonably guilt-free. If you produce it from limited ingredients, but you make those ingredients the most exquisite you can find (ramps and an olive oil-fried duck egg? top quality ricotta and a little ham? roasted tomato jam and some minced, sauteed shallot?), the tartine can elevate the concept of snacking to a very different place, and one that we’re not necessarily accustomed to in our culture. Granted, Susan and I had our tartine standing up in a flea market in Brooklyn surrounded by hipsters wearing big plastic glasses. But still.

Recently, we were home on a Sunday afternoon and at work trying to go through the clutter that seems to have piled up around us over the years. We took a break midday, and, feeling a little peckish, started to graze: the day before, we’d had lunch with Andrea Nguyen at Caseus Fromagerie and Bistro in New Haven, and came home with a tub of Naragansett Creamery Ricotta and some Jamon Serrano. Not even bothering to toast the country bread we had in the house, we fashioned ourselves a lovely afternoon snack, which we had with a small glass of wine, and then we went back to work.¬†We’ll never look at a bag of chips and dip the same way again.

What would your ideal tartine consist of?

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Deborah Madison April 26, 2010 at 1:26 pm

What you described sounds pretty perfect, but even without the La Quercia, I’m crazy for ricotta on toast. Best if the ricotta is really creamy and super fresh and not an industrial kind. I spread it on hot toast, drizzle good olive oil over the surface, add chopped marjoram from the garden, fresh ground pepper and a pinch of Maldon sea salt.
It works for me every time.

2 Elissa April 26, 2010 at 1:33 pm

That’s it Deborah. You’ve done it. I’m moving to Galisteo!
The ricotta was pure heaven; I’ve never tasted anything like it. Next time I’ll try it your way!

3 Brigit Binns April 26, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Yum, Elissa. I tried to stop at La Quercia on my west drive last fall, but he was out of town! I’m a big fan of sheep’s milk ricotta (Chatham makes one), so that would be my choice. I brought back some olive-and-fig jam from Paso Robles great olive/olive oil producer, Pasolivo, so that’d be next. Then, for some brightness, a few basil leaves.
(Although I’m certain I’d give in and add some slivers of whatever smoky, porky slice-able was currently on hand.)

4 leslie land April 26, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Is it too piggy to say my favorite great ricotta quick fix is to put some in a little dish and eat it with a spoon?

5 Elissa April 26, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Never! That’s what I do when no one is looking.

6 Jenny B April 28, 2010 at 12:49 pm

I make these all the time, but always called them “lazy pizzas.” Thank you for introducing me to the term “tartine.” I’m going to go with that from now on. The last version I made was olive bread spread with a sauce I made of canned roasted tomatoes pureed with an onion and jalapeno. Then I placed roasted poblano pepper strips on top of the sauce, and topped it all with queso fresco. I broiled them in the oven until the cheese was melted. Not bad!

(I’m a new reader, just found your site through the Alternet article.)

7 GretaGrace April 29, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I think my go-to sandwich snack is a slice of good bread smeared with butter and Marmite, all toasted with a thick slice of extra sharp cheddar cheese. That and a cup of tea and I’m set!

8 Faith July 22, 2010 at 11:09 am

How scrumptious! I need to use ricotta in tartines more often; I don’t keep it around enough. Personally I like cream cheese and radishes with chives, and arugula with a touch of dark honey.

9 Elissa July 22, 2010 at 11:14 am

Thanks Faith, I’m going to try your version asap!

10 laura k July 23, 2010 at 12:33 pm

One of my favorite versions is ricotta topped with very olive heavy tapenade. The saltiness of the tapenade is a great foil for the creamy, slightly bland ricotta. I might need to have this for dinner tonight.

Yes, I also grew up in a family of snackers, but unlike you, I became one of them. I think nothing of making a dinner of cheese and crackers or carrots and hummus or, yes, chips and salsa. (Do not knock the chips and salsa. With good salsa, it can be otherworldly.)

11 Elissa July 23, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Oh Laura, I would NEVER knock chips and salsa!

12 Sari July 26, 2010 at 5:53 am

OK, you’re going to think that I’m really weird, but don’t knock it before you try it; a slice of bread, decent quality hummus, thinly sliced onion, and avocado. Seasonal, but worth the wait.

13 Elissa July 26, 2010 at 9:16 am

Sounds great!

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