The Cherry Tree Knows

IMG_0234The cherry blossoms popped out this past week, throwing their abundance in my face. I wasn’t ready for this. The large tree behind our house in Brooklyn declares that Lucian’s birthday is approaching. I watch the tree each year, holding a small hope close to my heart: that it blooms its lush, pink petals just around April 27th, that they will hang over us like they did on his second birthday when one little friend came over. We ate cake with strawberries and cream, and my curly haired boy sat on my lap to blow out his candles. Or like they bloomed for his third birthday, when we invited other children to bring their tricycles and scooters, and they raced around on the driveway under the pink canopy.

I’ve been peeking at the buds all around our neighborhood, able to enjoy their occasional bursts of color and frivolity with a peaceful sense of appreciation.  At the same rate as the buds themselves (tiny, timidly at first) come out, I’m drawn back into the circle of growth, dormancy, regrowth.  Life, death, life.




Suddenly, Summer… in Spring

Sorrel and Green Garlic

Fresh Sorrel and Green Garlic

What seemed like an eternally dull and March-like spring has suddenly burst into summer But now it seems as if August is here in May! Because of the heat, I crave the foods of late summer like juicy tomatoes and melon, although here on the East coast we are still firmly within the season of young stalks and shoots: green garlic, rhubarb, asparagus, sorrel and pea tendrils. It’s so inspiring to see them at the markets, and I can’t resist- sometimes I buy more than I can possibly eat during my leisure days. These things are costly, and I make sure I use them all up. Some I can toss into salads, but many spring ingredients seem suited to cooler weather and delicate cooking: sorrel and nettles in puréed farmhouse soups and creamy sauces for fish; green garlic softened in butter and used in egg dishes such as omelettes and frittatas, and most deliciously, in the Green Garlic Pudding Soufflé- a familiar anchor of the Chez Panisse café’s spring menus. And as for rhubarb, it’s most often baked into crumbles and pies.

Although these ingredients require time spent in the kitchen when I’d rather be outside on the grass, cool drink in my hand, there are ways to work around this seasonal confusion:

Creamy puréed soups, such as the reviving nettle and sorrel one my friend Stephanie made for us on a sweltering night last week, or the potato with peas and herbs below, can be iced down and served chilled– or stored and reheated on cooler days- and are especially delicious with a large dollop of yogurt, creme fraîche, or a swirl of buttermilk stirred in.

Cool Potato and Lovage Soup CREDIT: Annd Kovel and James Ransom for The Wall Street Journal

Treat your lovely green things with care– they are newborns, after all. I like to place the stalks of asparagus in a bowl of cool water until I’m ready to cook them; I keep them on my counter for a day, and in very hot weather I place the whole setup in the refrigerator. The stems continue to drink in the moisture, which keeps the asparagus tips nice and firm. On hot days I prefer quick, simple preparations, and I will steam the asparagus briefly and toss with butter, or throw them on a hot grill if that’s what the meal dictates. All they need then is a drizzle of delicious olive oil, coarse salt, and a squeeze of lemon. Shaved, raw asparagus will keep you away from the stove completely, although I don’t think the flavor of asparagus can really be appreciated until it’s cooked. But, if you insist: Use a vegetable peeler to shave the stalks into ribbons, Toss them gently with olive oil, lemon and salt and layer on a plate with plenty of parmesan shavings and basil or parsley- and finely chopped toasted almonds or hazelnuts.

Prepping ahead is the other key to keeping cool in the heat. Wash and dry delicate greens and roll them loosely in a clean, light cloth before storing in the refrigerator in an open plastic bag. It’s very important for air to get in so the greens don’t become wet and slimy.

And I long ago relieved myself of any obligation to bake unless I feel like it. Instead, I make things I can use later stalks of rhubarb can be quickly chopped and simmered: in simple syrup and strained to make a puckeringly tart, pink liquid I keep chilled to use as a base for lemonade and cocktails. Or the rhubarb can be cooked down with just a splash of water and sugar to taste- and okay, strawberries too- until it’s all completely soft. Then the fruit simply needs to be mashed with a potato masher and served, still warm, over scoops of vanilla ice cream- or even better- fresh ginger ice cream. Any left will keep in a jar in the fridge until you’re ready for more. This is the most delicious fruity sauce to stir into your morning yogurt cup.

On Memorial Dy weekend I was thanking my lucky stars (though, of course I don’t believe I’m lucky) that I had planned ahead; my Vin de Pamplemousse is ready for aperitifs. During the cool months of early spring I had prepared a simple concoction, trusting that summer would come. Grapefruits were sweet and heavy with juice, and I sliced them and steeped them into a ratafia for 40 days.  But more on that later…


Thinking Ahead: Preparing Vin de Pamplemousse in March

Lentil, Tomato and Turmeric Soup for a Blustery Spring Day

IMG_1689There’s nothing like the prospect of a desk day, with its long hours yawning ahead, to get me into the kitchen and cooking. Today I have a lot to do: odious things like preparing invoices and health insurance paperwork; and some recipe writing too. My lunch plan was an easily thrown-together lentil salad with roasted beets and goat’s cheese… inspired by the happy coincidence of all three things coexisting in my fridge on the same day. But I’m feeling the chill on the strangely blustery May day, and the containers of cold, cooked ingredients sitting on my kitchen counter hold little charm. Just around 12 I make a snap decision to turn those lentils into soup.
A rummage in the refrigerator often turns up many ideas. It’s how I work the best, to be honest; I cannot plan ahead nearly as well as I can think on my feet. I’ve often felt really dull, sitting with a piece of paper in front of me, not finding any ideas to jot down; but throw me into a situation of limited options, put some leftovers in front of me, and I may be easily inspired. Today, with hunger, restlessness, and the cool breeze motivating me I was a mad genius.  I got a little pot of that soup on the stove and about 45 minutes later I was happily spooning a second helping it into my mouth before preparing to return to my dreaded paperwork. Genius or just hungry? I’ve inadvertently planned ahead: I made enough soup for tomorrow’s lunch, no more excuses.

“Fridge Rummage” Lentil Soup

Crush some fennel and cumin seeds and sizzle in olive oil in the bottom of a heavy pot over medium heat until fragrant; add garlic and ginger, stir and lower heat so the garlic doesn’t brown and become bitter. Stir in turmeric. To quickly slow down the cooking, add half a can of tomatoes, chopped first, and their juice. Stir in the lentils and enough water to cover so they have enough room to be stirred easily; add coarse salt. (If using raw vegetables or starting with uncooked lentils, add them earlier with the spices and aromatics, and simmer with water to cover until tender. But in a fridge rummage soup such as this, you might have ingredients which are already cooked, so they can be dropped into an aromatic soup base and cooked for a short time).  Now add roasted, finely chopped vegetables: parsnips and red onions in this case.  (Mad genius moment: two dates, which had been in with the parsnips went into the pot, finely chopped; adding sweetness and depth).  This is a good time to add greens, such as kale, so they can cook down until very soft. Partially cover the pot, lower the heat to simmer gently and cook until flavors and textures have mellowed- about 30 minutes.

Serve with generous spoonfuls of plain, whole milk yogurt, and crushed, dried chili, or a spoonful of harissa on top.

The amounts:

1/2 teaspoon each of cumin seed and fennel seed coarsely ground or crushed

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small red onion, finely chopped

1-2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger

3/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 cup diced, canned tomatoes, and their juice

2-3 cups cooked lentils

water or stock

coarse salt, about 1 teaspoon

2 handfuls kale, chopped





Finnan Haddie Chowder, or I Can See For Miles and Miles

Finnan Haddie ChowderI haven’t seen the coast for a while, and I miss it. I yearn for the kiss of salt air on my face and that unique, windy smell in my hair. I live in New York city, and when I get away it’s usually up the Hudson river, towards quaint towns and small farms. This winter has been many things: the season of majestic blizzards; walls of white snow which were soon washed away by rain- and the season of biting, crystal clear days, alternating with damp, warm, gloomier ones.  Settling into a mode is hard; however much the thermometer varies, I feel that it’s wise to hunker down for the long haul of winter- stay tough and be prepared for anything. I often wonder if warm winter getaways merely torture you and weaken your resolve; as a New Englander, I know that you need to be prepared for hardship until the first week of April is through.

Today the sky is coastal grey and I’m wishing I could see for miles. My personal mood board looks like this: Aran sweaters knit in creamy sheepswool; narrow lanes edged by stone walls. A fisherman’s hands, and ropes all faded and worn; seagulls on bleak northern beaches. It’s Ireland’s Brittas Bay, the softest scarf, and the green plaid Tam O’Shanter my grandmother brought from Nova Scotia when I was five; bare twigs and early spring grass. I dress myself in cream, greys, and pale blues and I drift away to the docks over a bowl of creamy chowder.

Finnan Haddie Chowder

I like the excellent cold-smoked haddock (Finnan Haddie) from Maine’s Stonington Seafood company:

1          medium leek, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced

2          tablespoons unsalted butter

1          medium bulb celeriac, trimmed and cut into large dice (about ¾ inch)

3          medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice (about ¾ inch)

coarse salt (sea salt of course!)

6          stems of fresh thyme

1          dried bay leaf

1          fillet (about 8 ounces) naturally smoked haddock (finnan haddie)

3         cups water

1          cup whole milk

Melt the butter in a medium pot over medium heat, and add leeks. Stir leeks, add a pinch of salt; cover to steam until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the potatoes and celeriac, thyme, bay leaf and water; raise heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Stir, reduce heat until simmering gently and then cook, partially covered, until potatoes are just beginning to break down and celeriac is tender, 12-15 minutes.

Stir in the milk and gently place the haddock, whole, in the pot. Press to submerge the haddock and cover the pot. Cook just long enough to heat through, about 5 minutes. Lift haddock from the pot; pull off skin and flake it into large pieces. Fish out the thyme stems and bay leaf. Return haddock to pot, stir gently and cook for 2 minutes. Season with freshly ground pepper and serve with crisp, toasted croutons.



A Taste of Puglia in Rome

IMG_0390It must have been the last straw for my husband. I saw a tower of giant, rustic bread wheels at a street fair in Lecce and I slyly suggested we need bread for the train trip home to Rome; wouldn’t it be a good idea to get some now? I walked back with him to the stall where I’d seen the stack of slowly fermented, wood oven-baked Pugliese bread, and inquired about buying a portion of one of the loaves.  But as the woman was holding up about one quarter of a wheel, asking me: basta cosi?? my son pulled on my shirt and pointed to the candy and torrone stall next door, so I left my husband standing there. He was overwhelmed by the bread haggling into which I had led him, so he gave in and paid six euro for the portion… she refused to cut him a smaller one. He felt ripped off and annoyed and made snide remarks when I asked for help carrying a bag. Two days later, and I think he’s still holding it against me- just a little.

But I have to say I feel pretty good about the situation I got us into. Each morning we’ve eaten sliced, toasted Pugliese bread with honey or apricot jam. After school it fills out the snack plate, and now that we have house guests coming, I feel secure knowing that the bread supplies are good. I’ve been saving breadcrumbs every time I slice the morning toast too, so the bread is doing double duty.

It’s a funny thing, this Pugliese. Not the chewy, air holey, loosely structured bread I usually fall for-but instead it’s dense and has an even, fine crumb which is almost yellow in color. It’s not a tearing bread; it holds up to slicing and it toasts beautifully.  My latest obsession is with the golden and crisp crumbs this bread can turn into when treated just right.

Lunch today was an urgent and serendipitous affair- I returned home from the market and when I put my bag down it slid off the chair; two cracked eggs needed to be eaten right away.  Tiny datterini tomatoes, are just coming into the markets here- I bought some today, seduced by their redness, but they weren’t very juicy. A little bag of crumbs was waiting to be used, so, why not a crispy fry-up on a salad?

IMG_0427 Crispy Fry-Up Salad

Pour enough olive oil into a medium skillet to generously coat the bottom, and heat on  medium until shimmering. Add a single layer of breadcrumbs and watch until they begin to brown- quickly toss and stir, and continue cooking until all are golden brown, then tip them out onto a plate. If necessary, return any big crumbs to the pan and toss until they’re browned on all sides.

Wipe out the pan and pour in new oil to lightly coat the bottom; raise the heat to medium-high and fry eggs, letting the edges bubble in the oil until slightly crisp, and cook until yolks are as you like them. Add halved little tomatoes and sliced spring onions to the pan, season and cook until just softened, less than two minutes. (If you don’t have space in the skillet for the tomatoes and onions, then slide the eggs out and use the same pan for frying them up afterwards). The inclusion of pancetta or other bacon would be just fine… if so, crisp before adding the tomatoes and onions.

For each serving: Pour about half of the breadcrumbs over a pile of rughetta or other peppery greens which you have dressed lightly with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and scatter the tomatoes and onions over them; top with an egg and the remaining crispy crumbs.  Sprinkle with coarse salt and crushed red pepper.

Eat! With coffee or red wine??




The No Recipe Chicken Recipe

All that hot weather shopping at the outdoor market yesterday led me to write about my summery, salty salad with an egg on top. But the dinner I was really shopping for gets an honorable mention:IMG_9382So simple, it’s something everybody already knows. But there you have it: pan fried chicken cutlets with lemon and olive oil; a salad and crispy potatoes. Who wouldn’t want that for dinner on a hot evening?

Walking home with my chicken from the market yesterday I wondered why it is that usually, (when in America) I feel awkward about asking a butcher to cut up or pound my chicken for me. Am I afraid to take up too much time, because there’s always a crowd at the counter in Brooklyn? Or maybe I feel that because I can, then I must. Yes, I know how to do it myself; I know how to cut a chicken into eight pieces, bone out thighs, make paillards, all of that.  But sometimes it feels like a chore (or at least the washing up of everything the chicken has come into contact with when what I really want to do is get on with cooking does). I know that most people in the U.S. are not buying their meat at a butcher’s shop, and I don’t always have that chance either. Here in Rome, however, there seems to be one one every block, and several within each market; and for better or worse, these butchers seem to have a bit more time on their hands…

At home in New York, the best nose-to-tail, locavore butchers certainly don’t sell chicken breasts. Of course, it makes perfect sense- why would they? Well, I thought they might have a few in the case once in a while, after having taken the other parts from the bird, but no. Oh, I know because I’ve had to ask, my head down, anticipating the thinly veiled scorn of the guys behind the counter when, one day, I urgently needed some chicken breasts for recipe development at the magazine.  Sorry! I know it’s not as tasty as the dark meat, nor does it lend itself to delicious, longer cooking methods, but sometimes a golden, quickly cooked piece of white meat is just the thing. Especially when the weather is hot and I have a child to spend time with before dinner.  It used to be that my two boys would entertain each other while I frantically dashed around, cooking for them while unpacking groceries and emptying lunchboxes.  Now my little guy is here alone with me so I like to keep my attention on him more than on the stove. Also, if I allow myself to ask the butcher to slice the chicken for me, not only will I get four or five thin scallopine for the same price as a chicken breast half (a petto as opposed to two petti, I realized with chagrin after ordering a single petti yesterday) it will also give me a dinner prep time of about ten minutes, and more time to talk with my son about how he made the bumpy mosaic tile he brought home from school.

So, I did. And because I had already washed that lively, peppery rughetta at lunchtime, I was even able to sit down with my bitter orange-infused gin and tonic before dinner.

The No-Recipe Chicken Dinner Recipe

Heat a large skillet over medium-high flame and add olive oil to coat the bottom. This is a good chance to crisp up any leftover boiled potatoes you have to serve alongside the chicken, which I did. When they were golden brown and crunchy I poured them out of the pan onto a plate, and added a bit more oil to the pan. Now the seasoned chicken cutlets went in one at a time, with just enough space between so they didn’t steam. (2-3 per pan). Tell me if I am insulting you by giving instructions for something this simple.  Once they are golden on the first side (2 minutes or so), flip each one and cook until barely springy when poked, about 1 minute more. Transfer to plates and repeat.

To me, the best way to eat this is just with a pile of fresh salad greens. Both are drizzled with lemon and olive oil (or a garlicky vinaigrette), and sprinkled with crunchy sea salt and fresh pepper. A few shavings of parmesan or pecorino Romano over everything is an optional flourish. Lemon on the side, certo.