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.

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…

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Thinking Ahead: Preparing Vin de Pamplemousse in March

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: stoningtonseafood.com

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.

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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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