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…


Thinking Ahead: Preparing Vin de Pamplemousse in March

The No Recipe Chicken Recipe

All that hot weather shopping at the outdoor market yesterday led me to write about my summery, salty salad with an egg on top. But the dinner I was really shopping for gets an honorable mention:IMG_9382So simple, it’s something everybody already knows. But there you have it: pan fried chicken cutlets with lemon and olive oil; a salad and crispy potatoes. Who wouldn’t want that for dinner on a hot evening?

Walking home with my chicken from the market yesterday I wondered why it is that usually, (when in America) I feel awkward about asking a butcher to cut up or pound my chicken for me. Am I afraid to take up too much time, because there’s always a crowd at the counter in Brooklyn? Or maybe I feel that because I can, then I must. Yes, I know how to do it myself; I know how to cut a chicken into eight pieces, bone out thighs, make paillards, all of that.  But sometimes it feels like a chore (or at least the washing up of everything the chicken has come into contact with when what I really want to do is get on with cooking does). I know that most people in the U.S. are not buying their meat at a butcher’s shop, and I don’t always have that chance either. Here in Rome, however, there seems to be one one every block, and several within each market; and for better or worse, these butchers seem to have a bit more time on their hands…

At home in New York, the best nose-to-tail, locavore butchers certainly don’t sell chicken breasts. Of course, it makes perfect sense- why would they? Well, I thought they might have a few in the case once in a while, after having taken the other parts from the bird, but no. Oh, I know because I’ve had to ask, my head down, anticipating the thinly veiled scorn of the guys behind the counter when, one day, I urgently needed some chicken breasts for recipe development at the magazine.  Sorry! I know it’s not as tasty as the dark meat, nor does it lend itself to delicious, longer cooking methods, but sometimes a golden, quickly cooked piece of white meat is just the thing. Especially when the weather is hot and I have a child to spend time with before dinner.  It used to be that my two boys would entertain each other while I frantically dashed around, cooking for them while unpacking groceries and emptying lunchboxes.  Now my little guy is here alone with me so I like to keep my attention on him more than on the stove. Also, if I allow myself to ask the butcher to slice the chicken for me, not only will I get four or five thin scallopine for the same price as a chicken breast half (a petto as opposed to two petti, I realized with chagrin after ordering a single petti yesterday) it will also give me a dinner prep time of about ten minutes, and more time to talk with my son about how he made the bumpy mosaic tile he brought home from school.

So, I did. And because I had already washed that lively, peppery rughetta at lunchtime, I was even able to sit down with my bitter orange-infused gin and tonic before dinner.

The No-Recipe Chicken Dinner Recipe

Heat a large skillet over medium-high flame and add olive oil to coat the bottom. This is a good chance to crisp up any leftover boiled potatoes you have to serve alongside the chicken, which I did. When they were golden brown and crunchy I poured them out of the pan onto a plate, and added a bit more oil to the pan. Now the seasoned chicken cutlets went in one at a time, with just enough space between so they didn’t steam. (2-3 per pan). Tell me if I am insulting you by giving instructions for something this simple.  Once they are golden on the first side (2 minutes or so), flip each one and cook until barely springy when poked, about 1 minute more. Transfer to plates and repeat.

To me, the best way to eat this is just with a pile of fresh salad greens. Both are drizzled with lemon and olive oil (or a garlicky vinaigrette), and sprinkled with crunchy sea salt and fresh pepper. A few shavings of parmesan or pecorino Romano over everything is an optional flourish. Lemon on the side, certo.




A Nicoise Panzanella Moment

cooling effect

Suddenly, it’s hot in Rome. Hot.

Fa caldo. Fa caldo tutti insieme- I’m pretty sure those were the words that came galloping out of the mouth of the organic vegetable vendor at the market today. It’s hot all of a sudden! She said some other things too, which I didn’t quite catch.

I was shopping for dinner, looking all around the market to see what was best today. The rughetta (rocket, arugula)  looked lively, which is more than I can say for the other limp greens I saw (although one vendor had a freshly spritzed crate of cicoria, which gave me a pang…a momentary desire to hold onto the winter and spring vegetables I’ve been loving and never let them go; to stop time from passing).

But here we are, it’s May…I mentally prepared for a seasonal update. Cucumbers are coming in now and hers looked good. They would be juicy.  I needed eggs, so I bought six from her stall.  And rosy, tight garlic heads with stalks- all were biologico.  Ok, good. One of my favorite simple summer dinners is chicken with a salad. I had the salad…so I crossed over to the butcher and pick up some petti di pollo, which he sliced in fine scallopine for me.

It was so hot, I walked home directly to get the chicken in the fridge.  But once at home I realized I’d forgotten about lunch.  What could I make with what I had, the familiar refrain? I needed something cool and healthy and salty.  Egg, rocket, cucumber…. I made an eight minute egg.  I had some stale but delicious olive bread from Le Levain bakery, so the toasted olive bread became the base for a salty, savory, juicy and satisfying salad.

IMG_9356This is how to make a sort of panzanella– or maybe it’s a Nicoise bread salad. Or do the oregano and olives make it a Greek one?

Toast sliced olive bread (or just toast plain, rustic bread and then add olives to your salad). You could rub the bread with a garlic clove when it’s warm, to impart just a whiff. But have you ever had garlic so fresh it’s still juicy? Mine was, so I decided to thinly slice it and add it to the bowl, yum. And some best quality anchovies from a jar- I’ll eat six fillets, but you should decide for yourself.  The toasted bread needs to be torn with your hands and then moistened. I don’t like it to be soft as pap, so I pour in a little bit of water, and then a few drops more, just until the bread is tender. I add balsamic vinegar and olive oil; a few crumbles of dried oregano and a pinch of spicy crushed red pepper go in and it all gets tossed really well.  Now the green. I tear the rocket leaves and add them to the bowl along with thick half moons of cucumber.

That’s it. I slice the egg in half and marvel at its yolk. Did you know that in Italian the egg yolk is referred to as the rosso (red)?