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

Pomodori for Late September

IMG_6512I discovered pomodori al riso– roasted, rice-stuffed tomatoes- in the middle of a Roman summer. They were plump and appealing, sitting in the case of a rosticceria; packed almost to bursting with short grain rice, and cooked until soft; they begged me to eat them. I didn’t hesitate- they had been blackened in spots by the heat of a pizza oven in which they were cooked, and I found them irresistible.

I ate those pomodori ripieni sitting on a stool in a busy shop at lunchtime; with a slice of porchetta and a small plastic cup of wine. They were served at room temperature like so many Italian contorni. They would hold up well, I figured- so why shouldn’t I also bring some home to turn a whole lot of nothing into dinner? Simple brilliance; we should all be making these in the States too – and I will! I declared. These tomatoes are going to take New York by storm!

When I returned to Brooklyn on the first of August it was as hot as Roman summer, but twice as humid- there was no way I was turning on my oven. Besides, I craved spicy, exotic flavors and fresh, crunchy salads- I wanted all the things I hadn’t tasted for seven months: Vietnamese salads and banh mi, tacos and tamales, soba noodles and sushi. I cooked long grain rice, and spooned harissa and kim chee on the side. But as August crept further along in its leisurely but ominous way, I could no longer ignore the tomatoes. A pack of smoked bacon permanently installed in my fridge, I was prepared for any BLT emergency, and I adapted to the season; we picked up corn at the farm stand and markets and ate it with tomatoes at every meal in the last week of August. We embraced Americana: burgers and grilled steak, chips and dips. And finally, I was ready to return to Rome. By early September, all that made sense anymore was a sliced, juicy tomato with nothing but a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of crunchy sea salt. I regretted not having planted basil in my garden, and began using mint and my scruffy, leggy oregano instead. I brought home balls of fresh mozzarella, and good, chewy bread.

Now, late in September- I’ll call it Indian summer even though it’s officially autumn- I feel a chill in the mornings. I shut my kitchen windows. Tomatoes are big and ripe, heading towards their demise, and I am ready to turn on my oven. I could use a little bit of warmth. So for now, until the last tomatoes of the season are gone…

Pomodori al Riso

These are simple to prepare, a really genius idea for a person who doesn’t have much time to prep- I have been able to set them up in fifteen minutes, and then pop them in the oven long before I needed them for dinner. They do their own work in there the rice slowly absorbing the liquid of the tomatoes, and the flavors of garlic and herbs. You can serve them right away, or let them sit out for up to four hours until it’s time to eat.  Recipes always warn against over-stuffing the tomatoes because they will burst in the oven, but don’t worry too much; any burst tomatoes (and leftover ones) are delicious, and can be chopped up and stirred into soups or just eaten on their own cold, room temperature or reheated.

The Recipe:

Choose a baking dish just large enough to hold the tomatoes snugly together.  You will need one medium-large beefsteak tomato per person, Slice off the top half-inch of each tomato, making a little cap. Keep the stems on, and reserve. Using a spoon or a paring knife (or both), scoop put the insides of each tomatoes, being careful not to pierce the skin. You don’t need to be precise and fussy, just get out the juicy pulp and leave the walls intact. Collect all pulp and juice in a medium bowl. Salt the interior of each tomato and set upside down to drain while you prepare the filling.

For each tomato, add 2 tablespoons short grain, risotto rice (such as arborio or canaroli) to the bowl of pulp. For a filling to serve six people, mince one large, juicy garlic clove and stir into tomato-rice mixture.  Add a handful of finely chopped herbs: basil, or parsley, or mint and oregano and season well with salt and pepper.  Fill each tomato about three-quarters full of this mixture and place in the baking dish. Return the tops and drizzle the tomatoes with a very generous amount of extra virgin olive oil. Let stand at least 30 minutes, and up to one day before baking so the rice can begin to absorb the liquid (refrigerate if more than 4 hours).

Preheat the oven to 400º F.  Bake uncovered until the rice is tender and tops of tomatoes are beginning to brown (they probably won’t blacken and blister sexily unless you have a pizza oven), about 45 minutes to 1 hour ( the cooking time will depend on how long you soaked the rice and how ripe your tomatoes are). Check them occasionally catch the tomatoes before they collapse with satiation.

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