Leaping In

We are back in Brooklyn, and our little boy is entering fourth grade. It’s the moment we’ve been dreading since his brother Lucian was killed by a car, when he was also in fourth grade and at the same school, almost four years ago. Now we find ourselves in the middle of a reenactment; like sleepwalkers going ahead without being able to stop or speak, just walking numbly into things. To me the first week of school felt threatening, a looming terror- but in fact so much of the reality is mundane and rote: the school letters and lists, the daily routines we need to apply, the new sneakers to buy.

All this past spring and summer it was the anticipation of Theo’s move to his brother’s level, from Lower to Upper, that had me, us- and definitely him- in knots; we were worried, he was angry. Or we were angry, he was sad; only he was unable to say it so he acted out in every possible way. I had lost my faith in the future. Now that I am here in the unavoidable moment I see the smiles of the excited kids and optimistic parents, and I feel like a ghost of myself. I have memories, clear as today, of his brother standing at those same lockers, talking with his friends, on fire with the excitement of learning, wanting to come into school early to rewrite a paper, because he was full of fresh ideas.

Here we sit at our kitchen table, after a preliminary half day of school, a warm-up, and I know we are all completely exhausted. I’m putting my best foot forward though, for Theo; now gearing up for dinner before the school year truly begins. I’ve cooked something up for us, something unplanned, at Greg’s suggestion: pasta. We have some excellent sausage from our favorite Upstate pig farmer in the freezer, which will defrost quickly. There are greens too, waiting to be used, also from the Kinderhook farmers’ market…these things are feeding me a connection to summer peace, to a village in the Hudson valley. We are doing our best to feed our little/big son, the angry/sad one- and do it early so he can get a good night’s sleep. Maybe he’ll wake up on the right side of the bed tomorrow morning if we get this night off to a good start. I can lead with purpose when I’m in the kitchen; the rest of the time I feel pretty lost. We set the table, three at one end together with our bowls so close they are almost touching, and eat until we are full.

Pasta with Pork Sausage and Broccoli Rapini

Serves 4

Extra virgin olive oil

Four plump pork sausages from Lovers Leap Farms, in 1 inch slices

2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1 large bunch broccoli rapini, in 4 inch lengths

1 pound short pasta such as shells, gemelli, fusilli

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Lots of finely grated pecorino Romano

I use my largest large cast iron skillet to brown sausage from our favorite Upstate pig farmer in olive oil while the pasta water comes to a boil. I salt the pasta water generously and wait; nobody is near enough that I can trust they will appear in the kitchen once the pasta is cooked. I pull garlic from the basket on the counter. The purple, papery skin on the cloves is tight and so juicy because it’s that time of year.  I smash the cloves lightly to open them, then give the garlic a coarse chopping before I throw them in the skillet with the mostly cooked sausage. In go the greens- I’ve washed them, and the water still on their leaves speeds up their cooking- wilting them down quickly over a medium high flame.

Once the pasta has been cooked and scooped into the skillet with a strainer, I stir over low heat and pour in almost a cup of starchy pasta water from the bottom of the pasta pot to thicken and bring it all together. This, and a healthy pour of olive oil with a handful of grated cheese hold the ingredients to the pasta and turn one panful of disparate things into a warming bowl of pasta. Pass the cheese please.

 

Going for a Dip

This election day has got me all- I don’t know what- amped up and wishful, I guess, and a little nervous too. I just can’t wait until this long season, with its animosity and tension, its media fixation and wasted energy, is over.  A week ago I was feeling really panicked about the nation’s future, but today I am feeling hopeful. When I saw the queue around the block and when I walked into my neighborhood polling place- a public school gymnasium- and saw that instead of the usual half-empty room, there was an additional one with a quadruple, snaking line leading into the voting room, I felt elated. People really wanted to exercise their right to vote today. And as much as I have mixed feelings about continuing to abide in this part of Brooklyn, where I have experienced so much violence and sadness, I am still full of love for the community. I was overcome with emotion when I watched my ballot sliding into the scanner, and I almost cried as I said Thank You to the kind church-lady volunteer who helped me through the process. I love the mix of people around us here. I saw families I have known since Lucian and Theo were babies, and people who’ve lived around the corner from us for years, with whom we’ve never spoken. Many strangers, some friends, one collective push forward.

We’re going to be with neighborhood friends this evening watching the results. When we were invited, we decided comfort food was in order. I got all fired up to make good old-fashioned “French” Onion Dip, and I bought many bags of Tyrell’s salt and cracked black pepper potato chips for dipping. Last week, when I was feeling more pessimistic, though, I was thinking maybe I’d make Devils on Horseback, and present them with an ironic flourish… but now I’m glad to say a crowd-pleaser is in order: something with depth- something sensible, kind, comforting and reliable.

img_6172Cooking the onions earlier today was fun- I made a large batch ( 3 pounds of onions) so I had two pans going to caramelize them efficiently. After they were browned and very soft, I cooled them down and went about my day.  Later on I pulsed them in the food processor with sour cream, and a few dashes of the excellent Red Boat Fish Sauce (or use another Asian fish sauce, or Worcestershire sauce) and a drop of sherry vinegar. Done.

Now I’ve got some delicate bubbly rosé chilling and I’m ready to start dipping in.

Caramelized Onion Dip

Serves 8-10

olive oil

1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, thinly sliced

coarse salt

1 cup sour cream, preferably organic (better texture and a real, cultured cream flavor)

pinch of sugar, any type

pinch of cayenne pepper, optional

Asian fish sauce, about 3/4 tsp or to taste

sherry or balsamic vinegar, about 1/2 tsp, or to taste

Coat the bottom of a large, heavy skillet with olive oil and place over high heat. When oil is shimmering, add onions and a large pinch of salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and beginning to soften. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until meltingly tender- 25-30 minutes. Add a pinch of sugar. Set aside until cooled to room temperature.

Transfer onions to food processor with sour cream and pulse until coarsely pureed. Season to taste with remaining ingredients. Best if allowed to stand for at least an hour so flavors can mingle.

Serve with the best potato chips you can find, and a bottle of sparkling wine.

 

POST SCRIPT

In hindsight, maybe Devils on Horseback were in order…

devils on horseback

Remove pits from large dates, such as Medjool. Tuck a small knob of blue cheese inside each date and wrap with thinly sliced bacon or pancetta. Roast in a hot oven until sizzling and the bacon is beginning to brown. Serve warm.

These are good served without bacon too. But I think the bacon is the devil part, and that’s the salient point. Don’t forget the napkins! Things may get messy.

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

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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