Summer Cooking Is…

Summer cooking is… Standing barefoot in the kitchen next to the screen door, stirring pieces of day-old bread and garlic cloves in a cast iron skillet, until the garlic cloves soften enough that you can smash them with the back of the wooden spoon. They let out a sweet, roasted smell and infuse the olive oil that slicks the bottom of the pan.

Slow and steady, just don’t break a sweat. That’s the extent of any cooking I’m doing on this day in July, when the air is so full of humidity that it has got to spill any minute now- burst from air into water.  I don’t have any ideas, and there’s not much in the fridge. Theo’s home from camp for lunch.

Lentils, thankfully cooked two nights ago, can be the substance of our meal. I lift them, ever so inefficiently, one spoonful at a time, from their cool cooking liquid with a slotted spoon because I am much too lazy to search the kitchen for the strainer. In a small bowl, I toss the lentils with a splash of vinegar, some salt and a bit of pungent vinaigrette from the whole grain mustard jar… lentils absorb- they can take on extra acid, extra salt, a little more olive oil. And a tip: always make dressing in your mustard jar, even if it’s just a way to eke out the dregs.

On the counter I unwrap a wheel of goat cheese from its paper.  I brought it back from a recent trip up north;  I admired its blue ash coating at a stall in the marché Jean Talon, Montreal. It is tender to touch and soft on the palate. The crunchy, garlicky croutons, still slightly warm, are ready and waiting to be tossed with a mixture of peppery salad greens in a bowl. Lunch can just be this.

A Working Lunch

So here I am, in self-imposed exile, trying to write my story.  I’m alone in a warm house, it’s very, very quiet. The snow outside the windows looks like it’s beginning to melt. I don’t go out much, and I don’t have to- there’s plenty to eat in the fridge. I enjoy scrounging through the vegetable drawers to see what I can come up with. I don’t want to spend a lot of time cooking for myself, but I do think about my meals plenty. Even so, I should probably write more than I’m actually writing. Stalling? Right now I’m toasting a piece of somewhat stale baguette with a thick layer of fresh goat cheese (the kind that comes in a log), and some thyme leaves on top. First I used that trick of sprinkling the bread with water and toasting it lightly to bring it back, before I spread it with cheese and popped it in the toaster oven again. The goat cheese will melt a little. The thyme will give it that incredible, savory perfume that reminds me of summer and feeds into a long held fantasy about eating meals outside, somewhere in Provence. It usually happens when goat cheese and fresh thyme are united: I can feel the hot sun on the top of my head, and on my shoulders, where it blazes through the sand-colored fabric of my shirt. There’s a bee buzzing lazily around, and we linger at the long table, our feet in the grass. I gaze out at the lavender fields and…

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The toaster oven beeps. I drizzle a healthy amount of the most delectable olive oil (the one I reserve for special moments) on top of my toast, and impatiently take a bite before I put it on a plate with some cucumber slices. I sit, looking at my lunch and thinking about it for a few moments. Do I even like goat cheese warm and melty? I always think I will, but then when I eat it I think the texture is off-putting, a tiny bit slimy, in a state of pseudo-melt. And I usually don’t like chevre added to an omelette or other egg dishes, because I think it’s overpowering. But here, today, it’s perfectly fine, a creamy match for the extra crunch of the now-resuscitated baguette, and that whiff of thyme…

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Then I’ll eat. And read a page of a magazine. At some point (pretty soon) I’ll feel guilty about spending too much time sitting here eating and reading, and not enough time writing- so I’ll stand up and put my plate in the sink. Time to start thinking about dinner.

 

Tiptoeing Away, and Taking Tomatoes With Me

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That’s it for summer as we knew it, 2016… School is open and I’m getting back in the swing of some things I had almost, just almost forgotten about.  Like fitting in everything I need to do before two fifteen on most days so I can get to school, and having to plan dinner when I’m not anywhere near ready to think about eating. I’m not sure I’m ready to button up and stop living from moment to moment. Among other ways I’ve let it all go: I’ve ignored my pantry and my freezer. Now it’s time to wipe those shelves, throw out last winter’s uneaten candy, and restock. Can I have my cake and eat it too?

During the first days of September I tiptoed slowly towards fall, but I kept a strong hold on summer. I lingered upstate in our quiet, Hudson-area village, and spent long days with my son Theo before he had to go back to school, to the third grade.  My little boy will soon grow into a big one, leaving only a trace. There are only some things you can hang on to; the days were getting shorter. I made a last grasp, just to see how much of the summer I could keep.

At the farmstand up the road, tomatoes were selling for ten dollars per case… that’s heavy: a  25 pound box, about 11 kilos, or about half a Theo. The tender ears of corn were five dollars for 13 – a baker’s dozen- and so very, very sweet.

The linoleum-covered floor in my summer kitchen tilts comically, and there isn’t much counter space. When we moved into the house I purchased a small kitchen island for chopping on.  Now I stationed myself there. Before long, the narrow wooden surface was fully covered in tomatoes. I don’t have a lot of equipment, nor was I prepared with jars and supplies for canning- but I do have a new foodmill and I was very excited to use it. Truthfully, in my heat-induced torpor I was looking for the simplest possible way to preserve the summer.  So, in between our yard sale adventures and an afternoon visit from friends, I made a batch of tomato sauce in my largest pot. And when that visit turned into dinner, I decided I would save my energy and work in stages (in fact, two days is preferable so that your sauce can chill down nicely before you need to put it away for its hibernation). That night I stood in the little kitchen after everyone had gone to bed, turning the handle of my food mill and watching slips of tomato skin pile up in its metal teeth. When the tomatoes were effectively a purée, I cooked it down until it was a light sauce, and then returned the giant pot to the refrigerator for the night. The following day I divided it into smaller containers and froze them. Any extra tomatoes were peeled and frozen whole. And before we tidied the house and loaded up the car for the city I quickly cooked the corn cobs, then shaved off yellow kernels into a pile… I watched the steam rise, and when it dissipated I knew it was time to bag those little bits of sunshine up and pop them in the freezer; not saying goodbye, but more like arrividerci. Until we meet again…

img_4984September Tomato Sauce

Recipes for tomato sauce sometimes call for a pinch of sugar.  Towards the end of cooking time, taste your sauce to see if it is lacking a certain mellowness that a bit of sugar can help along. But I can’t imagine that any September tomatoes you cook with aren’t sweet, holding inside, as they do, all the sunshine and warmth of your summer days.

15 pounds plum (Roma) tomatoes

extra virgin olive oil to coat the bottom of your pot by 1/4  inch, about 1/2 cup

8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

coarse salt (kosher or sea salt)

a handful of fresh herbs stems: basil, thyme and marjoram or oregano, or a mixture

crushed red chile, optional

1. Quarter tomatoes through the stem. Place a large, heavy pot or a stockpot on the stovetop and add oil and garlic over medium heat. Cook just until you can smell the fragrance and garlic is becoming soft, do not let it brown AT ALL. Add the tomatoes all at once, and a large pinch of salt. Raise heat to medium high and cook until the tomatoes on bottom begin to collapse, about 10 minutes. Add herbs and continue cooking, stirring often to distribute tomatoes, until the pot is full of bubbling, juice and tender tomatoes, about 30 minutes. Mash the tomatoes up a bit with the spoon.

2. Let tomatoes cool, at least 20 minutes, and up to two hours. Strain through a foodmill fitted with the coarsest blade. The skins and some of the seeds will be left behind, and you’ll need to scrape them out of the food mill from time to time. The tomatoes will be a coarse purée. For a smoother sauce, use the smaller blade.  Return all of this loose purée to the pot.  Place it over medium heat and cook again, stirring occasionally until deep red, saucy and as thick as you like it. I didn’t cook mine for very long; a sauce with a light body and fresh tomato flavor can be a lovely thing to have on hand in winter. When you defrost it, you may need to add a bit of simmering time until it’s thick enough to coat your pasta, but it will be a versatile thing, and can be used in place of canned ground tomatoes- and so much more flavorful. Taste and add more salt, and a pinch of hot pepper if you like. Cool to room temperature before transferring to smaller containers and refrigerating or freezing.

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Summer Cooking, or Not

IMG_2593The key to cooking in summer is staying cool.  I’d say there are a few ways to achieve this, and sometimes it means not cooking at all- in fact, I often resort to this tactic. Learn to satisfy your appetites with food that can be made without any of that pleasurable (but hot) work known as cooking. This is where skillful purchasing comes in handy…

Stock up on things that can be eaten as is. Find a really great cheese or two that work well in several light dishes.

My summer fridge usually has an assortment of cheeses that are great for appetizers- but will just as often be employed in salads.  Goat and sheep’s milk are a bit lighter and feel right to me in the heat. I love a really good feta cheese. My absolute favorite right now is from Vermont Creamery. It’s a goat’s milk feta.  Like a French feta it’s not too salty, and it’s got the texture of a good Bulgarian one; creamy and soft enough that you can spread it on toast, but dry enough that it breaks into nice large crumbles- perfect for tossing into a salad. This could mean a green salad, a crunchy Greek salad, or a more substantial one such as orzo pasta, farro, or bulgur wheat that you’ve cooked ahead of time and tossed with cooked or raw vegetables and herbs. Remember that when food is chilled it often needs a little bit of extra salt and a drizzle of delicious olive oil to heighten the flavors.

Learn how to choose ripe, delicious fruit and fresh vegetables to eat with your favorite cheeses. First of all, feel the fruit’s weight; it should give the impression of density and fullness. Stone fruit should be slightly tender to the touch but not mushy. Most helpful in choosing fruit is the scent; ripe fruit should be fragrant. Don’t store your fruit (and that includes tomatoes) in a cold place, unless it’s overripe and you need it to last longer; in that case, allow it to come to room temperature before it’s time to eat. Once it’s been cut into, you do need to refrigerate fruit; it will rot quickly, and attract fruit flies. Vegetables should be bright and look lively, with perky tops; greens must not be droopy. In the height of summer, pods and shells and even green beans are slightly shiny and taut. Gorgeous.

Some pairings I love:

Canteloupe or watermelon with feta or ricotta salata cheese, with coarsely ground black pepper. Sometimes I add fresh chilis, basil or mint and a squeeze of lime.

Apricots with creamy soft-ripened cheese; a mild Robiola, or with fresh ricotta (sheep’s milk if you can get it)  or even good old cream cheese.  I like a drizzle of honey and almonds or hazelnuts too.

Most stone fruits; Peaches, nectarines, pluots, plums and cherries with soft goat cheese, or try with cream-filled burrata if you can find it- as suggested so temptingly in the August issue of Better Homes and Gardens.

Beets, cucumbers, and peppery salad greens with fresh or aged goat cheeses or feta cheese.

Pecorino, aged about 6 months so that it’s sliceable- or dry enough (as in pecorino Romano) to grate as you would with a parmesan over pretty much any green vegetable, cooked or raw: zucchini, Swiss chard, kale, asparagus, English peas, favas, sugar snap peas…

Tomatoes and Mozzarella (obvs)!  This is cow’s milk, all right, okay… and such a good summer cheese.  Also seen in the photo above, with an improvised contorno of sautéed zucchini and garlic with sunflower seeds.  Find the freshest and tastiest mozzarella you can, and use your best olive oil to drizzle. I learned from the Romans to keep my mozzarella in its water on the counter at room temperature until time to serve. It went against my cautious American food training, but was totally safe and its texture was so rich and amazing, much better than when stored dry and served cold. Don’t forget the basil.

an aged goat cheese button with raw chioggia beet salad