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.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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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