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.

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

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)?

 

Monday Sunday Blues

Summer of Solace

Just as Sunday is the end of the weekend, so Labor Day is the Sunday of the summer- the day before it all begins again.  In the morning I remembered what a Sunday used to feel like: it felt like a luxury, borrowed and treasured. It felt like there was all the time in the world for whatever we wanted: bacon, french toast, waffles or pancakes.  Sunday mornings were elastic and we let things unfold until the children needed to be released to the outdoors- shepherded, as city life necessitated, to the parks and playgrounds.  But that was before.

Beautiful Vermont!  We have, of course, fallen in love with you. I knew this could happen. But what I didn’t know was that a whole summer of seeing your cool green, hearing your frogs and crickets and just being, could not heal me.  A salve is all I can hope for. “Healing?! Whatever that means” another mother of a boy killed by a car last year, said to me.  She’s right I’m sure: there is no such thing as healing now.  For me what’s helped has been space to breathe, with the knowledge that I’m always held close by friends and family. Retreating from too much noise and activity has made me calm. I’ve worked to treat myself well.  This was to have been our summer of solace. But loveliness was crowded out by sadness, and this has been the summer of watching my surviving son learn to be an only child.  He has also been learning to swim, daring himself to go a little bit deeper and a little bit longer every day.  And he’s reading pretty well now, dipping into favorite books again and again- some of these books were inscribed a long time ago with his brother’s name. He’s working hard all the time, and he’s doing all this without his big brother to cheer him on with his sweet smile and words.

After my little boy awoke on this Sunday, he ran down the lane to play with his friends. His dad had gone fishing early, so I had the house to myself, space to stretch out- and time to bring my tea to bed. I finished the Laurie Colwin novel I’ve been reading, in which the sudden death of a young woman’s husband teaches her to see her own depths. Looking out the window over green rolling fields to Mt. Ascutney I felt the ripples of the moment wash over me.

I needed this quiet morning to myself. After I finished the novel I thought about breakfast. I could skip cooking completely if I wanted to. What would make me feel most free?  I tried to imagine eating a simple boiled egg, outside on the grass by the pond. Or toast with a slice of gorgeous, ripe tomato, and salt. Hmm, cereal? No cooking involved there. Give yourself time to do something else, I told myself- get out of the kitchen!

But I knew what I wanted to eat: a Sunday breakfast. Earthy buckwheat pancakes, big as a plate; deep blue, local berries and maple syrup. The sun shone through the glass bottle of syrup, refracting amber onto the kitchen table as I stirred batter in a bowl. I fed myself today, and made enough for us all to eat tomorrow.

Buckwheat Pancakes and Syrup

Delicate Buckwheat Pancakes

This is an adaptation.  There is a copy of The Joy of Cooking in this kitchen which has been used so often it’s lost its cover and its spine; therefore I can’t say which edition it is – but my research leads me to guess 1964.  The recipe for Buckwheat Cakes on page 215 calls for buttermilk. In the absence of buttermilk, I used a combination of yogurt, milk and water. The recipe produces a batter which can be spread almost as thin as crepes in the pan; it makes light, slightly crisp pancakes. But what really drew me to the recipe is that, according to The Joy of Cooking, the batter stands up very well to “several” days in the refrigerator.   I like to make these individually in a small skillet so I can really swirl the loose batter into a crepe-like griddle cake.

Sift before measuring:  1/2 cup all purpose flour

Resift flour with:

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

Whisk in: 1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour

Pour into a large bowl: 3 1/4 cups buttermilk (or substitute 1 cup whole milk, 2 3/4 cup plain, whole milk yogurt and 1/2 cup water)

2 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for skillet

Add dry ingredients into liquid ingredients, and stir just enough to combine. If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate.

To cook, pour a large spoonful of batter (about 2 tablespoons) into a medium-hot skillet of sizzling, melted butter. Reduce heat to medium and swirl pan to spread batter into a thin pancake.  When pancake is filled with bubbles, flip; if it won’t flip easily, wait a few more seconds until the bottom has crisped slightly, and try again. Cook just until set on second side, and transfer to a plate or a a warming tray; raise heat to medium-high and repeat. Serve with blueberries and Vermont maple syrup, of course.