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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Buddhist Chicken and the Star Man

buddhist chickenAccording to the label, the chicken was dressed in the Buddhist style- in the sense that its head and feet were still attached to its body. To me, having no knowledge of Buddhist death rituals, this conjured up a peaceful ceremony- one in which the chicken’s neck was twisted in some humane yet final way, while compassionate farmers took time out from their chores to stand in a circle. They quietly blessed its life while poems were read and chants were hummed.

But once out of its bag and splayed on my cutting board, this chicken was less mystical and more cartoon-like, in a rubber chicken kind of way, its funny feet in particular.  Rather than finding it gruesome, I found it riveting. I took snapshot after snapshot of it, turning it this way and that- first nude, and then sprinkled with a dark salt and spice mixture for greater, shadowy effect. Life cycle. Death is the theme this week; we all talk about David Bowie, a timeless, indefinable spirit; an artist in every sense, a man of many modes. He seemed to know all along that he was part of a greater star system, while some of us have our eyes on the ground for years, and we keep on going, earth-bound, until a shock wakes us up.

All week I felt the weight of death and childhood, and the years of life in between.

A friend’s Instagram post broke my heart Monday morning and made me cry. It was the photo of her son as a boy- a boy I only ever knew as a young man. Looking at the image, I sensed his soul immediately.  And I thought of my Lucian, the boy who I will never know as a young man. This fact slayed me. And the Bowie lyrics she quoted were from one of my favorite songs, Kooks, from the album Hunky Dory. Kooks is an ode to childhood, and parenting; a song of irreverence and familial love. The priority is joy. My heart is breaking today. For my young son, the living one, who is already the young man he will be: I wish I could catch the time in between then and now and preserve you as you are.

Ashes to Ashes Spiced Salt

This mixture is dark grey thanks to the exotic, obscure and puckery Persian Lime powder. I buy it at the wonderful Kalustyan’s market in New York. It suited my mood to use it for this chicken rub, but if you omitted it entirely, the chicken would still be delicious. In fact, if you only used salt and pepper the chicken would be delicious, as this recipe is based upon the excellent Zuni Café roasted chicken method, developed by another shooting star, the late Judy Rodgers.

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon coarse salt

1 tablespoon ground Omani Lime (Persian Lime)

2 teaspoons cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1 teaspoon coriander seed

1 teaspoon fennel seed

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 small chicken, buddhist or secular

Crush cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds with a mortar and pestle or the bottom of a skillet, and mix with the salt, Omani lime, black pepper, and ground cinnamon.

Use a cleaver to chop the head from the chicken, as close to the breast as possible, and chop off the wing tips. Rotate bird and chop off its feet at the bottom leg joint. Save all parts for stock. Rinse bird inside and out, and pat dry.

Rub with salt and spice mixture and leave to sit at room temperature for at least 2 hours before roasting (or, preferably, refrigerate overnight, loosely covered, and bring to room temperature before roasting).

Preheat oven to 475º. Place a heavy pan just large enough to hold the chicken, or a sheet pan if you will add vegetables, in the oven to preheat for about 5 minutes; remove from oven, lightly drizzle pan with olive oil and place chicken on the hot pan. Roast until chicken is cooked through- you can tell this if the legs wiggle easily and the juice runs clear when the back of the thighs is pierced. For a small chicken (about 3 pounds or less) roast for 40-45 minutes. Rest 10-15 minutes before carving.

Judy’s recipe calls for roasting this way for 30 minutes, and then flipping the chicken to finish it upside down for another 15 minutes.  I am sure this method ensures the breast is very moist… but I’m inclined to put my chicken in the oven and forget it while it’s cooking, so I can do other things, and therefore I roast it breast-side up all the way through. It comes out crisp-skinned, tender and moist, even so.

To roast with vegetables, such as butternut squash: spread peeled, cubed squash on pan first, leaving a space in center for chicken. Season with salt and toss in the oil. The sweet, roasted squash plays nicely with the middle Eastern flavors of this spice mix.

With our chicken we ate the world’s longest grain basmati, according to Kalustyan’s: Golden Sella Basmati…Cook according to package instructions- requires triple washing, and a long steaming time after cooking to absorb moisture.

Ashes to Ashes Spiced Salt is pretty good on hard-boiled eggs too:

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Midnight in Rome, Un Anno Fa

IMG_4039The walls of our room in the old convent flickered and glowed, as if powered by an arrhythmic force. I closed the ten-foot drapes and returned to our bed, but I couldn’t keep the light out; it burst through the edges where the fabric curled just a bit and swayed, letting in a whisper of winter air. I lay on the starched white sheets, my young son’s head on my belly, and watched the show play out. We stared, mute- isolated together- as everything flashed around us. It was well past his bedtime, but it was his father who slept. Soon my boy got up, tucked himself behind the curtain, and reached up to pull the brass handle. He pushed open the old window, and I could see my paper-wrapped butter, bottle of wine, and package of sliced soppresata resting on the ledge outside; staying cool for tomorrow.  Beyond, small bursts of fireworks shot up from every surrounding roof and terrace, and I tried to picture what the enthusiasm of thousands of Romans looked like. I couldn’t, having nothing on which to base my imaginings. I joined my son at the window and we stood with our hands and elbows on the tiled sill, witnessing our new city. It felt nothing like home, and I felt nothing like celebratory. It was the eve of a New Year.

We’d eaten bread and creamy robiola earlier, with clementines and slices of fennel, and we’d shared acqua frizzante from the bottle, all while perched on the edge of the twin bed. A white napkin was laid out to cover a small ottoman, and we had spread our feast upon it. Outside the city waited for us to learn its streets and its famous marvels, but inside I held my breath. We had made it this far, the three of us. Now what?

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