The package was sitting on my porch when we got back from vacation. I was almost afraid to open it, which is ridiculous since I've already seen the proofs. But what if I opened the package to find a book that I didn't recognize at all, on a subject with which I was completely unfamiliar, in a language unknown to me, with all kinds of abstract art I don't understand and would somehow have to try to explain because my name is on the book?
Could that happen? Could it?
I eyed the package suspiciously for some time until, finally, I just opened it. It was exactly what I remembered—in English no less—and all of the good feelings came rushing back like I was reuniting with an old friend.
1. It's beautiful. The cover is stunning. The photos are gorgeous. The whole design is just lovely. It's exactly the kind of book I'd be delighted to find under the tree on Christmas morning. I feel so fortunate to have worked with a publisher that somehow managed to align the art with my own personal aesthetic so closely (or, more accurately, the aesthetic I strive for). Don't you just love when you get some good luck once in a while?
2. Wow, it's really thick. Sure, I saw the manuscript pages numbering into the high two-hundreds, but I still couldn't picture what 280 pages of nice, thick paper would look like between a jacket-less hardcover. It looks really substantial. Not "intimidating" substantial, but certainly "you're getting your money's worth" substantial.
3. How the hell am I ever going to top this?
Last week, I was on my computer when the 7YO came in, sat down, and started quietly paging through the book, which was sitting on the armchair next to my desk. We used to do this all the time when he was little. He would sit on my lap in that very chair and we'd go page by page through whatever cookbook he picked out, usually a dessert cookbook (like mother, like son!). He'd look at all the pictures, read all the recipe names, and decide which ones we would make. He learned how to read that way.
At the time, I never considered that we would be sitting down doing the same thing in a handful of years with a cookbook I wrote myself. But there we were, cuddled up on the chair, the 10YO soon joining us as we plotted peanut butter blondies and whoopie pies. I was sure we wouldn't make it all the way to the end of the book in one sitting, but we did. I don't think there's a single review or sales statistic that could top that feeling!
Just a reminder that the book will be out next month. If you've already pre-ordered, thank you so much! Every copy supports my family and this blog. If you'd like to come to the book release party, it is open to the public and will be held on Friday, October 25 at 7 p.m. at Back Pages Book in Waltham. You can RSVP here so I know how much cake to make. (If you can't come, you can still purchase signed copies here.)
As I've mentioned before, I reign over a vast kingdom of poison ivy in real life. There's nothing glamorous about it. What started out as a few small patches of dermatitis on one cheek—acquired during phase 2 of my annual poisonous weed patrol of my yard—exploded into a swollen, lumpy, crusty mass of oozing, weepy flesh. Within a week, it had taken over the entire right side of my face, ear to nose, jaw to cheekbone. I had to tie my hair back in order to keep the strands from getting stuck and then drying to my cheek in an unholy thatch. And the itching. Dear god, the itching! It took every ounce of self-control not to claw myself to death.
This all coincided with our backwoods vacation, of course. I watched with trepidation as the rash (that word doesn't even begin to describe it) advanced toward my mouth and eye holes. Finally, my lake companions—in between private bouts of discreet retching—convinced me to seek medical attention. I located a clinic in the nearest small town (population: 1,700) and carried half of my face there in a pot. The sympathetic medical staff prescribed me large quantities of steroids, which have enabled me to regain human form and return to civilized society once again. Now it just looks like I have some kind of weird splotchy sunburn on one side of my face. (Also, I'm ripped!)
So, in case that photo gave you the impression of happy, carefree days spent shucking corn in the late afternoon sun, now you know. Those afternoons were happy—but very itchy!
Our vacation ended with a stay at our friend Red's family lake house in New York. I love that trip because it combines equal parts virtue and vice. The vice comes in the form of multiple pounds of bacon crisped in the morning and snacked on throughout the day, multiple bags of Doritos inhaled during the 2-to-3-p.m. time frame (also known as chip o'clock), multiple forms of meat seared on the grill round about sunset, and multiple containers of ice cream consumed after dinner, sometimes muddled with root beer in disgusting, chunky combinations.
The virtue is in all the exercise we get. The lake is about three miles around and we walk the loop at least once a day—sometimes twice—keeping an eye out for fun creatures to catch: leopard frogs, salamanders, snails, caterpillars, and crayfish. Some of us have to run to keep up with certain walkers, but that just means I get to make myself out to be sportier than I really am. There's sailing, and kayaking, and fishing to be done, if fishing counts as exercise (Husband says yes). Then there's all the great swimming. I love diving off the floating dock over and over again like a child. And, of course, we have the huge bounty of tomatoes, eggplants, and sweet corn we tote in from Waltham Fields, Lindentree, and the local farms around the lake.
One night after the kids were in bed, a few of us were working on a jigsaw puzzle when we heard a series of raspy shouts and some funny shuffling coming from upstairs. It turns out that Husband had emerged from the bathroom to find a live bat flapping right in his face. We've always known there are bats in the peaked gables of the cottage attic. There's a thick curtain clipped to the wall to block their access to the living area. At dusk, they somehow make their way outside, and you can observe them darting around the lake where they provide a valuable service eating bugs. When we arrived, there was a bat hanging upside-down in the top of the folded-up sun umbrella on the dock, guano dotting the tabletop below. But all of those bats were observed outdoors in at least partial daylight. And they weren't in anyone's face.
After what I can only imagine was a minor heart attack, Husband attempted to rouse some human reinforcements without waking the six children. Meanwhile, the bat proceeded to swoop up and down the hallway in complete silence like a spooky pendulum. Husband and his friend tried to shoo the flapping creature out the doorway to the porch at the end of the hall. After several attempts, the bat finally disappeared and they quickly slammed the door. Everyone collapsed into relieved giggles. Stupid bat! Too riled up to go to bed, I returned to my puzzle.
Ten minutes later, there was another muffled shriek upstairs. This time, it was Red who was rewarded with the flapping of batwings in her face. Another bat?? No, probably the same bat. It had presumably taken refuge in a dark ceiling corner to shelter itself from the ungainly humans that had mounted the earlier attack. The freaked-out bat fluttered into one of the adult bedrooms. More stifled squeaks were heard while the rest of us stood sentry by the kids' bedrooms. The porch door was opened once more and, in a rather large leap of faith that the entire outdoor bat population wouldn't swarm inside the house all at once, a more vigorous shooing resumed. Finally, I was able to give visual confirmation that the bat did actually fly out the door this time.
I haven't seen anything that funny in a very long time! No bats or humans were harmed in the scuffle. I guess all's well that ends in no rabies.
We're on one last quick trip before school starts and then it's business as usual around here. If you're planning on robbing our house while we're away, you should know two things: 1) All of our valuables were sold off years ago, including the 14-karat gold switch plates and diamond-crusted toilet seats, so you're too late for those. Sorry. 2) I've taken the liberty of stashing vast amounts of poison ivy booby traps around the rest of our items that we don't want to part with. For those of you hell bent on looting 10 years worth of my kids' artwork and/or my computer, there will be a price to pay. Yes, my poison-ivy-based security system was tricky to deploy (you don't want to look at the right side of my face right now, believe me), but I'd like to think it's worth it.
Enjoy the last week of summer vacation, kids.
Have I told you guys what a crappy pizza maker I am? No? Well, let me tell you, it is a sad, sad state of affairs when it comes to homemade pizza around here. Puffy crusts. Underbaked bottoms. Flabby, floppy slices. I'm a disgrace to my people.
I love Neapolitan-style thin-crust pizza. That's what I strive for when I make pizza at home. But it has taken years of off-and-on practice before I've made any real progress toward those coveted crispy crusts. And that progress has come in the form of cheating by buying Russo's already-made pizza dough. You see, I wasn't sure if my problem was my dough-making technique, or my stretching technique, or both, so I decided to limit one of the variables. A bag of good-quality Russo's dough, which is practically homemade, costs 98 cents. That's a price I'm willing to pay for good pizza! But what I found was that my pizzas kept coming out the same as when I made my own dough: Too puffy and not crispy enough.
I decided to cut the ball of pre-made dough in half and make two smaller pizzas. The size of my pizzas is limited by the size of my pizza stone, which isn't terribly big. With half the amount of dough, I figured I could stretch it to near transparency and still have it fit on the stone. And maybe, just maybe, the crust would be thin enough.
Did it work? Last Friday's pizzas were the best I've ever made. Now maybe I can attend my family reunions without shame. Some things that also seemed to help: Preheat the oven as high as it can possibly go (mine stops around 500°F). Let the pizza stone heat up in there for at least an hour beforehand. Press out the dough as thinly as you possibly can. Then really stretch it in whatever clumsy manner works for you. I don't fling it up in the air or anything—that would surely end in disaster—but I do try to use gravity to my advantage. Any holes that develop can be pressed back together.
To transfer the pizza to the oven, here's what I do. I set the dough on a sheet of parchment paper (not waxed paper) on top of a cookie sheet, and assemble the pie. Then I slide the pizza and parchment paper from the cookie sheet onto the hot stone in the oven. The parchment definitely gets toasty in there, but it's never caught fire on my watch. I know exactly where my fire extinguisher is, just in case, as well as all emergency exits.
[I actually bought myself a pizza peel for my birthday last year to cut down on the potential number of trips the local fire department has to make to my house, but let me tell you how that all worked out. When I slid the pizza onto the stone in one quick motion, all of the toppings—the meat, veggies, cheese, sauce—flew into the oven right on cue...but the dough remained on the peel. This despite the fact that I liberally sprinkled the peel with cornmeal beforehand. The dough just sat there mocking me as the cheese melted all over the racks and everything else burned in the bottom of the oven. (Cue fire truck sirens.) That peel and I still aren't on speaking terms.]
Anyhoo, my pizza-making technique is a work in progress, but I'm optimistic that I'll soon be able to graduate to making my very own pizza dough (though at 98 cents a bag for two good-sized pizzas, why bother). I do make my own tomato sauce. For cheese, I use regular store-bought shredded mozzarella sometimes with a little shredded local Cheddar mixed in, and a sprinkling of good Parmesan cheese on top. I don't use balls of fresh mozzarella on my pizzas because I've never liked the way it melts. It looks like spackle or bird poop. I'm a shitty Italian.
In case you're interested, here are some of our favorite homemade pizza flavors:
Hamburger, pepper, and onion: Ground beef, bison, or Italian sausage browned in a little bacon fat with garlic powder and whatever seasonings you like. Scatter on top of the sauce and cheese along with thinly sliced raw green peppers and onions.
Barbecue chicken: Use barbecue sauce instead of tomato sauce (I like Stubb's), toss some leftover shredded chicken with some of that barbecue sauce before scattering it over the cheese, and sprinkle liberally with sliced scallions.
Caramelized onion and goat cheese: My favorite (pictured above). No sauce, just a little olive oil brushed on the crust before topping with mozzarella. Cook the sliced onions for 30 to 45 minutes in a little olive oil and salt until soft, browned, and sweet. Arrange the onions in clumps on the pizza along with crumbles of goat cheese and chopped fresh rosemary. I usually sprinkle some Parmesan on there, too.
Radicchio: A Waltham Fields Special, sauté up some radicchio in a little olive oil for a few minutes until wilted (you can add a little balsamic vinegar if you wish). Proceed as in the previous pizza, subbing the radicchio for the onions and using plenty of goat cheese. It is delicious.
Do tell me your favorites!
Last week, one of my sons asked for homemade blueberry muffins. That might not seem like an odd request, but it is. The child in question is a purist. He prefers his food in stable, sequential, non-overlapping arrangements—not suspended in unpredictable matrices, juices running all over the place. He eats his hamburgers with no ketchup, his salad with no dressing, and his pancakes with no syrup—and certainly no blueberries.
I can respect that position. But I also can't resist the opportunity to promote my favorite "food on the foods" (or "food in the foods," as the case may be), especially when it's all his idea. Luckily, we had a quart of blueberries we'd just picked at Carver Hill Orchard.
I made the muffins right away. I admit, I've grown accustomed to glowing reviews on my baked goods, but I didn't even come close this time. He politely choked down one muffin, and then wouldn't touch any of the others.
I couldn't help being a little disappointed, but I reminded myself that it often takes several tries to appreciate something new. Kids aren't going to like everything you make—not even close. Or maybe, just maybe, my blueberry muffins SUCKED! What kind of a cookbook author can't make a simple muffin? You mix everything together in a bowl with a spoon!
When I asked him what he didn't like about it, he said: Too many blueberries.
Too many blueberries? I secretly scoffed. There's no such thing as too many blueberries. He loves blueberries. We all love blueberries. How can there be too many blueberries in anything ever? I took a defiant bite out of one of the muffins and it was delicious. See?
Then I tried to view that same muffin from a kid's perspective. Here's what I saw: 20 percent muffin, 80 percent purple goo.
Okay, so maybe the kid has a point. Maybe not so many blueberries next time!
I found this lovely bowl at TJ Maxx for under $10. The label said it was handmade in Poland. I'm pretty sure nothing made of hand-shaped hot molten glass should cost under $10. I hope that doesn't mean underpaid, underage workers are being chained to high-temperature glass-blowing equipment so that I can enjoy my precious trifle. I was conflicted about buying it at such a great price until another woman made a move toward the footed bowl, and suddenly my inner conflict was resolved. 'Cause, you know, it was already made. I wouldn't want all that work to go unappreciated.
This recipe is not a trifle exactly. A trifle is made with layers of boozy cake, custard, and fruit. This dessert is made with chocolate cookies, no booze (shame on me!), and coffee-flavored whipped cream, making it "technically" another version of icebox cake. But I put it in a trifle dish, so I'm calling it a trifle. It's a breeze to make and puts those amazing fresh summer berries on the pedestal they deserve. When assembling the dessert, try not to squash all the layers to the very edge of the bowl if you can. Better to leave a little space along the sides so you can see all the layers intact. That's why the top half of my trifle up there looks so much better than the bottom half. I wised up eventually.
Don't have a pretty trifle dish? Use an 8x8-inch casserole dish instead, or try individual mason jars.
3 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1-1/2 Tbsp. espresso powder (or instant coffee granules ground with a mortar and pestle)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
9-oz. box chocolate wafers (Nabisco brand is okay)
1 pint raspberries, blackberries, or both
In a large bowl, whip the cream with the confectioner's sugar, espresso powder, and vanilla starting on low and gradually increasing to medium speed for 4 to 5 minutes until the cream thickens and forms soft peaks when the beaters are lifted. You don't want the cream over-whipped to the consistency of spray confetti. The cream mixture should still be smooth, but mound easily and hold its shape when you spread it.
Add a very thin layer of the whipped espresso cream to the bottom of your serving vessel of choice. Add a single layer of chocolate wafers. On top of that, add a layer of cream. Scatter some berries on top of the cream. Repeat the order (cookies, cream, berries) for as many layers as you can fit in your trifle dish until you run out of ingredients or space, ending with the berries. (For an 8x8-inch casserole dish, you can fit 2 or 3 layers.)
Refrigerate the trifle covered for at least 4 hours or overnight. Be forewarned that it is virtually impossible to serve this dessert in a neat and tidy way. Just accept it and move on. Showtime was back when everything was on display in the trifle bowl and now showtime is over. It still tastes great.
Raspberries: My backyard!
Cream: High Lawn Farm, Lee, MA
Last week, I made that Italian tomato and bread salad everyone's always talking about: panzanella. It was a riff on a recipe I saw in Homemade with Love by Jennifer Perillo and Penny de los Santos (good book, by the way). I grilled the bread, brushing it with olive oil beforehand and rubbing it with a garlic clove afterwards. Then I cubed the toasty bread and tossed it with fresh farm tomatoes, chopped basil, parsley, and marjoram from my neighbor's garden, a little vinaigrette, and some crumbled feta cheese I had in the fridge.
The kids thought it was "weird" until I explained that it's just like salad except all of the lettuce was traded in for extra croutons. Then they were pretty okay with it. The adults thought it was really good, but someone made a whole giant bowl of the stuff and you can only eat so much. At least that was Husband's excuse. So I put plastic wrap over the top and saved it for the next day even though I knew what was going to happen. By tomorrow, it would be a spongy, disgusting mess. Who wants to eat a bunch of soggy croutons? No one, that's who.
Over one shoulder appeared a miniature version of Husband wearing a pair of plastic red horns on his head. You're never going to eat the rest of that, he said. Just throw it away. You can throw it away now, or you can throw it away later once an entire new micro-civilization has evolved. But, either way, it's going in the garbage.
Over the other shoulder appeared a miniature version of someone else who looked kind of familiar except she was wearing a flowy white dress over her jeans, which is very out of character. She was also holding a dinner plate over her head like some kind of a halo, which it clearly was not. Nevertheless, she implored me to keep it. Just keep it around for a day or two. It'll totally still be good. Think of all the starving people, blah, blah, blah.
So I saved the leftover panzanella and pulled it out for lunch the next day. It was even more horrible than expected. Why is cold, mushy bread so vile? But then I had an idea. An epiphany, really. Why not make soup? The Spaniards sometimes thicken gazpacho with bread. The Wednesday Chef has an amazing tomato soup recipe on her blog that is bread-based. What would happen if I just dumped the leftover panzanella into a pot with a can of tomatoes and cooked it for, oh, 10 to 15 minutes?
Awesomeness happens, that's what. Best. Lunch. Ever.
A few people have asked whether I plan to follow my winter dessert cookbook with a summer dessert cookbook. The answer: Probably not. I think I've already proven that I can't be trusted in any scenario where I have 24-hour access to dessert. The other reason is, come summertime, the last thing I want to do is turn on the oven. I'll do it once in a while when we get a stretch of dry air and mild temperatures like we've had this past week, but not during the sweltering, blast-furnace heat of the previous weeks. No, thank you. I'll have a whole eternity in hell as Lucifer's personal pie baker for that.
But I still have a sweet tooth that just won't quit. In other words, I'm still making dessert occasionally, just mostly no-bake ones. And by no-bake, I mean: no oven, no stove, no heat at all besides that which emanates from the horrible blazing sun you're presumably hiding from.
That's why I hereby declare this summer to be "The Summer of Icebox Cakes."
Icebox cake is a cool, creamy, layered affair that only improves with time sitting in the refrigerator (or icebox, as Nonni always called it). Graham crackers usually define the layers of whipped cream, mousse, or custard, but you can use other types of cookies, too. Think of icebox cake as a white-trash napoleon. A dumbed-down tiramisu. Don't let my disparaging language fool you, though. Simple, unpretentious icebox cakes can be perfectly delicious. My childhood version (made by Nonni on hot summer days) featured chocolate and vanilla pudding and sliced bananas between the graham cracker layers. We loved it.
My grown-up version alternates slices of fresh peaches with creamy whipped mascarpone and vanilla wafers. It's ridiculously fresh-tasting. And stupefyingly easy. Because there's so little to the recipe, it's especially important to use really good ingredients: super-ripe peaches, fresh organic cream, real mascarpone, and good-quality vanilla wafers. Not Nabisco Nilla Wafers. If you use those, you will ruin this recipe. You need something good. I recommend Mi-Del Vanilla Snaps from the "natural" aisle of the supermarket. Feel free to sneak a few raspberries in there, too, to get a peach melba thing going on. It's also fantastic with nectarines.
Once assembled, let the cake sit in the fridge for several hours before serving to give the peaches and cream a chance to soften the crispy cookies into spongy cake-like layers.
4 to 5 ripe peaches, peeled, pitted, thinly sliced
3 cups heavy cream
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
3/4 cup confectioner's sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
12 ounces best-quality vanilla wafers
In a large bowl, whip the cream with the mascarpone, confectioner's sugar, and vanilla starting on low and gradually increasing the speed to medium for 4 to 5 minutes until the cream thickens and holds soft peaks when the beaters are lifted. The cream mixture should mound easily and hold its shape when you spread it.
Add a very thin layer of mascarpone cream to the bottom of an 8 x 8-inch pan. Line the pan with a layer of vanilla wafers. On top of that, add a layer of overlapping peach slices. Add a thick layer of mascarpone cream on top. Repeat the order for 1 or 2 more layers as desired, ending with cream on top. (If you run out of cookies, don't worry, just spread them out the best you can.)
Husband is a bit of a comic genius. He's especially good with voices and has several in his repertoire, including Maniac Mushroom Hunter. That's me, in case you couldn't guess. I went through a long mushroom phase, which I may or may not still be in, and he could barely tolerate it. The voice he so lovingly crafted is distinctly male and that of a dim-witted but insufferable college professor chastising anyone who will listen about the crucial differences between a hen of the woods and a chicken of the woods. The kids love that voice so much, they often request a performance before bed. I just roll my eyes and correct all of his mushroom misinformation as he goes along. That only encourages him.
While on vacation down the Cape, Husband came up with a new voice. And this time, it didn't have anything to do with me. We were traveling down Route 6A in Dennis when we passed a spot called Captain Frosty's. Now I've never been inside Captain Frosty's nor have I sampled their menu offerings, but the imagined Captain Frosty is now a fan favorite. Imagine a fierce but wistful pirate well into his golden years who fell into the restaurant business once he became unfit for plundering. The character bears some resemblance to one Mr. Krabs, except less ambitious and not an actual crab. He has a way with the fish 'n' chips, but he's having trouble changing with the times. He can't afford to hire help and sleeps in a cot in the back.
Here's a sampling from Captain Frosty (be sure to use your best pirate voice!):
Captain Frosty here, yar! Come for me fish 'n' chips, stay for the soft-serve.
It's so hot in here, even me peg leg is sweating.
Ye don't have exact change? I'd tell ye to walk the plank, but it was repossessed last month.
Periodically throughout the trip, such as on our whale watch, Captain Frosty would emerge to comment on the present state of affairs:
What kind of a whaling expedition is this without me harpoon?
Even when we got back from vacation and I was suffering from intestinal distress, Captain Frosty resurfaced:
I hear there's trouble on the poop deck. Captain Frosty can help!
One thing you can count on with Husband's voices is that, no matter how innocuous they may seem at first, they'll eventually be used to torment his wife.
We like to cook a few meals ourselves on vacation to make sure we eat something that's good for us once in a while. Otherwise, it's just ice cream 24/7, with a few breaks in between for fried fish and doughnuts.
Husband was craving grilled chicken, so he concocted this marinade while I was sleeping late one morning. There's nothing like waking up at 9 a.m. to sizzling bacon and dinner half completed. I grilled up that chicken the following night while sipping a gin and tonic. With buttered green beans and corn on the cob, the kids were all smiles!
This recipe is totally customizable. Swap out the herbs for what you have on hand. Use different vinegar. Use lemon juice instead of lime. Just let the chicken marinate at least overnight so the flavors can penetrate.
16 chicken drumsticks and wings
1 cup rice wine vinegar (unseasoned)
1 small red onion, diced
4 scallions, light parts chopped, dark green parts cut into 2-inch pieces
3 garlic gloves, chopped
1 small bunch cilantro, stems removed
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
3 cups vegetable oil or olive oil
Rinse the chicken parts and set aside to dry.
For the marinade, purée all but the 2-inch pieces of scallions and oil in the blender. Through the hole in the lid, add the oil in a steady stream and blend until emulsified. Pour into a large gallon-sized storage bag (do yourself a favor and set the bag in a large bowl beforehand so it doesn't tip and spill all over the floor). Add the reserved scallion pieces and the chicken to the bag. Seal and set in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days, jostling periodically to redistribute the chicken and marinade.
Over hot coals, grill the chicken uncovered until nicely browned on all sides and cooked through. The time depends on how hot your fire is. I did about 20 minutes for drumsticks, turning every 5 minutes or so, and about 12 minutes for the wings. You want an internal temperature of 160°F, but you're not going to find a thermometer at your rental house, and you're not going to go out and buy one, either. The best thing to do is to cut into the thickest part of one of the larger pieces to make sure that the meat is cooked all the way to the bone. If the skin browns before the meat is cooked through, just move those pieces toward the outside of the grill to continue cooking over indirect heat. Enjoy!
Him: Our anniversary is coming up, right?
Me: Oh my gosh. Is it?
Him: I think it's next week.
Me: What day?
Him: The 27th?
Me: Nope, that's my sister's birthday.
Him: The 28th?
Me: Hmmm…no. Maybe the 29th? Do we have it written down somewhere? It was definitely in the summer.
We should probably make a bigger deal about anniversaries, maybe throw a few fireworks out the window or something. After all, living with someone for 13 years and not murdering them is a worthy accomplishment. (Fifteen years if you count the time we were living in sin.) (Twenty years if you count just the sin.)
In some ways, it's a miracle we can coexist in the same space. He's a morning person. I don't speak until noon. He freaks out if there's too much food in the refrigerator while I'm not happy unless the food is physically cascading off the shelves when we open the door. He requires Arctic temperatures at all times to function, while I get frostbite if the thermostat dips below 70 F. He would install an air conditioner directly into his pants if he could. The heat and humidity this summer are killing him.
The long haul of marriage isn't always easy. Even when you still love the person, it's sometimes hard to continue to let yourself be loved. Especially when the person doesn't love you for the things you think he should love you for, but instead insists on loving other different things and you can't make any sense of it whatsoever.
We don't make a big deal about anniversaries, but we do make a big deal about our family Cape vacation we take every year. I've never linked the two events in my mind before, but we should. The place we rent is in the same town where we got married. We always go in July, which is the same month we got married (I'm pretty sure). We didn't plan it that way, but that's how it always seems to work out.
That vacation is the best time of the whole year: swimming, sandcastles, sea creatures, doughnuts, BLTs, lobster rolls, fried fish, ice cream, books, outdoor showers, bike-riding, mini-golf, more ice cream. And, of course, our two sweet boys. There's nothing we could possibly plan for our anniversary that's better than all that.
Whoops! Sorry about my long absence there. It looks like my "I'll be on vacation for a week" post never posted. Probably because I never wrote it. The elusive post was on my "to do" list along with many, many other things I was supposed to do before we left, which also didn't happen. None of them were crucial to me enjoying my vacation, as it turns out, but the lists still demand to be made and agonized over.
I do feel a little bad for leaving you in the lurch, Internet. I know how much you worry. To make it up to you, I'm going to make a list of all the ways I plan to make it up to you. Are you ready?
1. Make a list of all the ways I plan to make it up to them.
2. Where are you going? Sit back down and make that list!
3. Make a list of all the other things I should be doing. Like laundry. Always laundry.
4. Ignore both lists.
5. Make icebox cake instead.
We just returned from our Fourth of July weekend, which spanned several states and left me unattractively matted with sunscreen, chlorine, and bug spray, scabbed with poison ivy and mosquito bites, but a smile imprinted across my sunburned face.
Why so happy? Because summer is awesome. And my book is ready for preorders. Want a peek?
I know winter food is probably the last thing on your mind, but you have to admit: After two weeks of blistering ninety-five-degree heat, a snow cone is sounding pretty good right now, isn't it?
Wintersweet can be preordered through all of the usual suspects—your favorite indie bookstore, Powell's, Barnes & Noble, Amazon—but here's another brilliant idea. If you buy it through my local bookstore, Back Pages Books in Waltham, I'll sign it before we ship it off. Just click here and then write what you want the inscription to read where it says "Order comments" (or just leave me to my own devices). Then we'll get it out as soon as it's available, which will be sometime in October. Back Pages is also hosting my book launch party on Friday, October 25 at 7 pm, so mark your calendars if you like food and books! More on that later.
Meanwhile, extra credit goes to anyone who can tell me what that dessert is up there on the cover.
I've spent a fair bit of time over the past few weeks helping to get the kids' school garden cleaned up and productive. A lot of the weeding involved removing mint bent on world domination. I thought of saving it to make pesto, but it was the wrong kind of mint. This tasted more like peppermint. While peppermint pasta doesn't appeal, I couldn't see throwing all of that perfectly good mint into the compost. Plus all that weeding makes you hot and sweaty. Soon I was craving something cool and refreshing. And minty.
Mint chocolate chip was always a favorite flavor of mine growing up, but I'd never made it at home. Turns out, there's nothing to it. Tear up the mint leaves and steep them in hot milk until cool, strain out the greenery, and proceed with the usual steps. Drizzling some melted chocolate over the churned mixture as you pack it into a container to freeze gives you instant chocolate chips (you get to use your favorite chocolate, too). It's a nice reward for an honest partial-day's work.
I make my ice cream the old-fashioned way: with organic raw eggs. You are not required to do the same. If you're worried about salmonella, your options are many: Use pasteurized eggs instead. Or leave out the eggs entirely for a very serviceable Philadelphia-style ice cream. Or pull out your favorite cooked custard-style ice cream cookbook (like David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop, for example) and modify this recipe using egg yolks and a thermometer. Or pull out your favorite cornstarch-based, egg-free, gelato-style ice cream cookbook (like Jeni Britton Bauer's Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream at Home) and modify, modify, modify. It's your kitchen after all.
1 cup mint leaves (or more), packed
1-1/2 cups milk
2 large eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Tear up the mint leaves and add them to a small saucepan with the milk. Heat the milk until little bubbles form around the edges. Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit until cool. Refrigerate until ready to use (the longer it sits, the more flavor becomes infused). Strain the mixture into a medium bowl, pressing on the leaves to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the leaves.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs for 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in the sugar a little at a time, then whisk for 1 minute more. Pour in the cream and minty milk, and whisk for another minute until the sugar is dissolved. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions (usually spin for 25 minutes).
While the ice cream is churning, heat the chopped chocolate on top of a double boiler (if you don't have one, improvise your own by setting a metal bowl atop a smallish saucepan with an inch of simmering water; the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water). Stir the chocolate until melted and smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.
Transfer the churned ice cream mixture into a freezer-safe container in layers, messily alternating big spoonfuls of soft ice cream with drizzlings of melted chocolate. Freeze until firm, at least 8 hours.
After coffee and bagels, the first thing we did on Saturday was check out the campground's pond. The 10YO wanted to catch frogs and couldn't even conceive of going on any mountainous treks until he had engaged in a battle of wits with any and all amphibians in the low-lying vicinity. The frogs and their fat tadpoles proved elusive at first, but we entertained ourselves catching little aquatic salamanders (or newts) for a while instead.
With a happy 10YO in tow, we adjourned for lunch (PB&Js and hummus wraps with cucumbers, peppers, and feta), and prepared for the afternoon's activity: scaling Mount Monadnock. The 7YO wasn't up for the challenge, so Husband occupied him at the campsite with various micro-engineering projects, ball playing, book reading, and napping endeavors befitting them both. Meanwhile, the neighbors, the 10YO, and I drove to the ranger's station to begin the four- hour hike. And that's when things got a little dicey.
Let it be known: I did no research on this mountain. All I knew was that the Neighbors' first grader had climbed it last year. Good enough for me, I thought. Note to self: a first grader's physical fitness and technical skills are no longer a suitable benchmark for me. No, apparently, I have the hiking skills of a kindergartener—perhaps even a preschooler—because I barely made it up that mountain in one piece. The walking part was fine, even the steep walking part, even the very steep walking part, but then came the rock-climbing part. The part where you're on all fours scrambling up these rocks and boulders only to reach another boulder, and then another boulder, and then another. Don't we need ropes and shit for this? Crampons? About halfway up the 3,165-foot mountain, I began to suspect I'd made a horrible mistake.
At some point while scrambling up yet another steep pile of sloping rocks on the White Dot trail, my internal compass went totally out of whack. I lost my sense of vertical and horizontal. All of a sudden, I felt the pull of gravity coming not from underneath my feet, where it usually does, but from the only flat ground I could actually see: the tree-carpeted overlook to my left and 1,500 feet below me. The pull was slow but steady, like alpine undertow. The more I backed against the rock I had plastered myself against, the more it seemed to be pushing me away. The world felt like it was tipping me over and emptying me out into the dizzying vacuum of open air over the precipice. I pleaded for my neighbors to come speak to me in gentle, soothing tones until the blood returned to my brain again and I was able to accept that the only way not down was up. From then on, I tried to keep someone else between me and the overlook. It's a miracle I have any photos at all. For future reference, this is about how much of a buffer zone I need between me and the edge of a mountain to safely avoid an emotional breakdown.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Monadnoc
I did eventually make it to the summit in case you're wondering, right behind the 10YO and my neighbors (including the pint-sized veteran). My reward was to nestle into the lowest spot I could find and decimate a chocolate power bar while quietly rocking. The reward for the 10YO was pool after pool of tiny tadpoles. That was a surprise! What are they doing up there on top of a mountain? I was grateful, though, because I needed a rest and the 10YO needed a psychological boost for the hike back down again, which was, in his own words, gruesome, despite taking the less steep White Cross trail.
When we got back, the neighbors made quesadillas on the camp stove and we grilled bananas with chocolate and dulce de leche over an open fire. Nothing has ever tasted so good!
I've only camped a couple of times in my young adulthood, and both times were with people much more experienced than I, people whom I felt confident could wrestle a bear if it came down to it, so that I might have a chance to run away. In a family camping situation, though, I'm pretty sure the bear-wrestling responsib-ilities lie with the parents, and so I put it off and put it off. Until our trail-savvy neighbors invited us to go camping with them for two nights in New Hampshire. Their bear-wrestling potential was off the charts according to my calculations, enough to cover two families easy, and so I felt comfortable finally taking that leap.
We camped at Gilson Pond Campground at the base of Mount Monadnock. As soon as we arrived on Friday evening, nature made itself known with a symphony of birdcalls not often heard in our backyard: eastern wood-pewee, hermit thrush, ovenbird, northern parula, black-throated green warbler. The 7YO knew them all and was immediately in his element. Meanwhile, the 10YO wasted no time taking inventory of the various caterpillars and moths on display. Check out this giant luna moth:
Caterpillars were everywhere: on the bathhouse walls, dropping from the trees. By the end of the trip, we were literally coated in caterpillars. The three boys got busy building them a mossy habitat out of sticks, leaves, and clumps of ground while we set up the tents. I know the little leaf-eaters are bad for trees, but they're so much fun for kids. Gypsy moth caterpillars in particular are so fuzzy and lively, like tiny tubular kittens.
Speaking of tubular, dinner that night consisted of a variety of extruded, pre-cooked meats like hot dogs, bratwurst, and some andouille sausages from North Country Smokehouse. The latter I bought on a whim because: a) their bacon is delicious; and b) they're made in New Hampshire. Eat like the locals, right? The sausages were fabulous. Spicy and awesome. Perfect camping food. We also had blueberries and slaw I shredded up from my farmshare veggies the night before. Afterwards, we toasted marshmallows and made s'mores because we would be fired as parents if we didn't have s'mores on our first family camping trip.
Tucked into their sleeping bags that night, both boys declared the past four hours to be the best camping trip ever. But there's more, I said, and began detailing our plans for the next day. They didn't hear. They were already asleep.
Wow, you guys. What a great response to my last post! Part of the fun of these giveaways is reading all of the comments from readers who share their brilliant ideas, like Melissa's beehive peaches, Gail's strawberry basil gimlet and grilled peach smash, and Erin's baked stuffed tomatoes with goat cheese fondue (thanks for the link, Martina!). What I'm trying to say is that with a community like you guys, we're ALL winners.
Cut the crap, Tammy, and just tell us who won.
Okay, fine. The winner of Home Made Summer is commenter number 19: Jill. Congratulations! I'll be in touch.
And now for the consolation prize: a crab cake recipe from the book! These crab cakes are probably the best I've ever made. The kids complained that the vegetable pieces were too big, so be sure to chop your onion and celery very finely if you want your "crabby patties" to go over well with the SpongeBob contingent.
Crab Cakes with Paprika Mayo
The mayo recipe makes a lot, so be prepared to find other uses for it, like spread on cubanos or other sandwiches or served with fried fish.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, finely diced
2 ribs celery, finely diced
6 ounces fresh crab meat (or 1 small can, drained)
1-1/2 cups plain bread crumbs
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1 large egg, beaten
A few fresh basil leaves, chives, and parsley, minced
Salt and black pepper to taste
Oil for frying
1 large egg yolk
Juice of 1 medium lemon
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 cups vegetable oil
2 tomatoes (canned are fine), seeded, chopped
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (plain is fine, too)
Salt and black pepper to taste
In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and sauté the onion and celery for about 4 minutes, until translucent. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and let cool. Flake the crab meat into the bowl with the veggies and add 3/4 cup of the bread crumbs (save the remaining bread crumbs for the coating). Add the crème fraîche, beaten egg, and herbs. Season with salt and pepper, and stir well to combine.
Shape the mixture into 8 equal balls slightly smaller than a baseball and flatten them (about 3/4-inch thick). Dredge the patties in bread crumbs until coated all over. In a nonstick pan, heat about 1/4 cup of oil over medium heat. Fry the patties for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
For the mayo, combine the egg yolk, lemon juice, and mustard in a food processor. Process until foamy. With the motor running, pour the oil through the feed tube in a thin trickle until the mixture becomes a thick mayonnaise. Add the tomatoes, paprika, and salt and pepper at the end and process until incorporated. Serve with the crab cakes. (Store the remaining mayo in a jar in the refrigerator.)
Source: Adapted from Home Made Summer by Yvette van Boven
Notions of summertime lemonade stands are what first drew my eye to this book. But those are actually preserved lemons on the cover—the salt-cured citrus fruits that brighten Middle Eastern stews and summer salads. That's what I like about this cookbook. It's a mix of the familiar and the unexpected using the fresh summer produce we hold so dear.
Author Yvette van Boven is a caterer and cafe-owner who lives in Amsterdam and Paris, but the food reflects the many summers she spent in the French countryside with her photographer husband Oof Verschuren. The photos in Home Made Summer are half the fun, depicting European bars and boulangeries, lively street scenes, and lush, misty greenhouses and gardens. Her recipes are real, fresh, and inviting—not stodgy. Like van Boven's previous books, Home Made and Home Made Winter, this one has the same quirky design and playful style. Her own drawings are peppered throughout the book, and she displays a penchant for making funny faces in photographs: proof she doesn't take herself too seriously.
Some recipes I've dog-eared include: tomato salad with goat's milk ricotta, coriander, and basil oil; buttery corn risotto; quinoa salad with fava beans, turnip greens, and preserved lemons; and watermelon granita. The crab cakes with paprika mayo I made last week were excellent, and I'll be sharing that recipe in my next post.
So, who wants it? I've got one copy to give away in the name of summer and the only question is: to whom? To enter this raffle, just leave a comment on this post about your favorite homemade food you can't wait to make this summer. Entries must be received by midnight EST on Thursday, June 20 so the winner can be announced on the summer solstice, which is this Friday, June 21. Don't let the warming temperatures make you sluggish or you'll miss it.
Boy, did I phone it in with the food-styling today or what? No utensils, napkins, or props of any kind. Just dinner. In a stark white bowl. On a placemat. A lonely, lonely placemat. That's why they pay me the big bucks!
My farmshare just started up this week and you know what that means: Time to get your stir-fries and salads on! This chicken and cashew stir-fry is a favorite. Unlike the typical restaurant version, with water chestnuts, green peppers, and a cornstarch-thickened sauce, this is more of a home-style dish with plenty of fresh ginger and a hit of Sriracha for some heat. Feel free to dial up or tone down the spice as you see fit (it comes in around medium as written).
We like this stir-fry with snow peas and scallions—perfect for this time of year— but it can be adapted based on whatever other spring vegetables you have on hand. For example, chop up garlic scapes instead of the garlic cloves. You could add a few handfuls of spinach or tatsoi to the mix at the tail end of cooking so the greens wilt into the sauce. Or you could slice up some bok choy for a water-chestnut-like crunch. Serve this healthy meal with white or brown rice (this is where my trusty rice cooker comes in handy).
By the way, I'm sure we've all heard about the high levels of arsenic that Consumer Reports found in both white and brown rice last fall. Arsenic is a naturally occurring toxin and known carcinogen. It has nevertheless been widely used as a pesticide and livestock feed additive (hooray!). Read the report if you want more info, but basically we're going easy on the rice in this house. Rinsing it thoroughly before cooking is recommended. Yes, the water washes away some of the nutrition, but it also washes away some of the arsenic. Another alternative is to buy other whole grains like barley or farro from trusted local farms and cook those up instead. They're delicious with stir-fries even if they're non-traditional.
Chicken and Cashew Stir-Fry
We use roasted, lightly salted cashews for this—the same ones we snack on. Feel free to use unsalted nuts if you're watching your sodium intake. If you don't have Sriracha hot sauce, you can chop up a few hot peppers of your choice.
1/2 cup chicken stock or broth
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon Sriracha sauce
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 pound chicken breast, cut into thin 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, cut in half pole-to-pole, sliced into thick wedges through poles
4 scallions (light parts chopped, dark parts cut into 1-inch lengths)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
8 ounces snow peas
1 cup cashews
For the sauce, whisk together all the ingredients in a small bowl. In a medium bowl, combine the chicken pieces with about 2 tablespoons of the sauce and let them marinate while preparing the other ingredients.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over high heat. Add the chicken pieces and stir-fry until browned and cooked through, about 4 minutes. Remove the chicken to a shallow bowl. Add the onions to the hot pan and toss for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the chopped scallions, garlic, and ginger, and stir-fry 1 minute more (don't let the garlic burn). Add the snow peas, cashews, cooked chicken, reserved scallion shoots, and remaining marinade to the pan. Cook, stirring often, a few minutes more until the ingredients are heated through but the peas are still slightly crisp and bright green. Remove from the heat and season with salt (sparingly) and black pepper (generously) to your taste. Serves 4.
Source: Inspired by Lisa Schumacher's recipe in the Chicago Tribune
Back in my college days, I could barely boil water. My senior-year off-campus roommates, on the other hand, turned out to be quite competent in the kitchen. Two were vegetarians and introduced me to the Moosewood Cookbook, cous cous, potatoes mashed with broccoli and melty globs of cheese, and the amazing concept of a rice cooker. I still have that rice cooker, in fact—a hand-me-down I use on a regular basis even though I may have finally mastered the art of boiling water (depending on the day).
My other roommate/BFF was my partner in meat-loving crime. It was she who first united my love of beef with my love of sour cream, producing for me her mother's beef stroganoff recipe to my ultimate delight. Ah, those were the days…when I could eat ungodly amounts of beef and sour cream and not even feel the tiniest bit guilty about it.
But perhaps the best recipe acquisition from that time period is a well-worn index card titled Tuna Macaroni Salad. It's filled with mostly pantry items: pasta, tuna fish, black olives, and pickles—with some cubes of cheddar cheese and sliced scallions mixed in—all bound together with mustardy mayo spiked with pickle juice. We liked it back then because it was easy, cheap, and filling. We like it now for the same reasons. (I also have happy associations of our house cats weaving between our calves in an always-successful bid to lap up the drained tuna water.)
This "salad" makes great picnic food. These days, I'm especially grateful to have it on hand when my kids have their sports ever-so-conveniently scheduled during dinnertime. When you finally get back, just open the fridge and dinner is served. You've got your starch, your dairy, your "meat" (tuna), quasi-vegetables (pickles, scallions), quasi-fruit (olives), and the ever-important mayo group represented. Quasi-complete nutrition in one lop-sided hexagon! Take that, Nutrition Pyramid!
Thanks to my liberal arts education, I can justify pretty much anything.
This serves 4 to 6, but, by all means, double the recipe for a crowd.
2-1/2 cups dried elbow macaroni (about 2/3 of a 1-pound box)
2 5-oz. cans solid tuna, broken up with a fork
1 cup cubed sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup sliced black olives
1/2 cup chopped dill pickle
4 scallions, sliced
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon dill pickle juice
Salt and black pepper to taste
Boil the pasta in a large pot of salted water until done, about 7 to 8 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water until the macaroni is room temperature. You should have about 5 cups of cooked macaroni. Toss the fully drained pasta in a large bowl with the tuna, cheddar, olives, pickles, and scallions.
In a small bowl, whisk together the mayo, mustard, and pickle juice until combined. Season with salt and pepper. Gently stir about 3/4 of the dressing into the salad until well mixed. Cover the salad and refrigerate it for several hours until cold. Reserve the remaining dressing covered in the refrigerator to remoisten the salad just before serving, as it tends to dry out over time.
I guess we'll start with baseball. Somehow, I became assistant coach of the 7YO's Little League team, which is hilarious since I barely know the rules of baseball. I can hold my own in a recreational setting, but only because Husband staged an emergency intervention in my mid-twenties. Basically, he couldn't be seen with a girlfriend who played the way I did. I'm very grateful for his tutelage and only wish that any one of my gym teachers could have taken a minor interest in my athletic development because I think I could have had a future in baseball. (Maybe.)
Anyway, I was promoted from "helpful parent" to "coaching staff" mainly for my disciplinarian tendencies—meaning my willingness to yell at kids for the most minor infractions, like climbing the fence of the dugout and rifling through the garbage cans. Things naturally progressed to whacking each other with their gloves and hats, whipping bottles of Gatorade at each other, and spouting language that would make this sailor-girl blush. I did politely ask them to stop, for the record. Their response: "We don't have to listen to you! You're not the coach!" Emboldened, three of the other boys yelled, "Yeah! We don't have to do what you say!!" and then proceeded to kick the bats down off the fence one by one.
At this point, my son distanced himself from the pack and wisely put his hands over his ears after which I unspooled a verbal lashing the volume and length of which set a new personal best for me (and perhaps for any military personnel in attendance as well). This was in the middle of a game, by the way. When I was done, everyone in the field, bleachers, and surrounding playground was frozen, our whole team was sitting quietly on the bench, eyes glued to their cleats, and the coach of the opposing team had peed his pants. Our coach quietly came over and placed the team's baseball cap on my head and I've been a fixture in the dugout ever since. I haven't had to raise my voice again.
That brings us to yesterday. We had a game against a tough team earlier in the week and got absolutely routed. We lost by several powers of ten. The kids were pretty disappointed. To raise their spirits, I decided at the last minute to make some blondies for their next game. There wasn't much time, but I figured I could get them in the oven, run up the street to meet the kids at the bus stop, be back to get them out of the oven with time to spare, let them cool, package them up, and go. That was the plan. I checked it backwards and forwards. Satisfied, I threw the batter into a pan, shoved the pan into the oven, and ran out the door.
Without my keys.
I heard the lock click just as I realized my fatal error. Ugh! That's okay, I thought, there's still 26 minutes to go before they're done. Longer still before they start to smoke. How much longer, I wasn't sure, but surely the bus wouldn't be late. (The bus was late.) Surely, there would be some open windows on the first floor when we got back. I always have some open windows on the first floor. (There weren't. Only second floor windows were open—all of them.) Surely, my neighbors, who have a copy of our key, would be home. (They weren't.) And so on and so forth through all of my usual backup plans, even though I don't think I've ever locked myself out of the house even once previously.
Eleven minutes and counting.
I called Husband to notify him that he married a dumbass. He could be home in an hour at the earliest. Crap. I was going to have to call the fire department like we did that other memorable time. There was no way around it besides breaking a window and risking lacerations. I'm not good with blood. I phoned our friend up the street, who's a firefighter, and asked if he had any tips on breaking and entering one's own home. He said he was calling in a truck.
Me: No, wait, I think I know where a ladder is!
Him: You don't need to be climbing any ladders. I'll call in a truck.
Me: Oh, god. Not again.
Him: It'll be fine, Tammy.
Me: Okay, maybe just a small truck.
Long story short, a BIG truck (and the cops!) arrived within minutes with their fancy ladders, broke in through a second floor bedroom window, and unlocked the front door just in time for me to pull the blondies out of the oven perfectly done. I thanked them sheepishly and promised them no more last-minute baking. I'm pretty sure they've heard that one before. (Plus, my fingers were crossed.) Thanks again, Waltham Fire Department! I really mean it!
So, how does the story end, Tammy? Did the kids win their baseball game and savor their victory over a pan of moist, delicious blondies?
No. They lost by one point. And one of the players had a nut allergy I didn't know about so the blondies never made it out of the car. (WHY DID I PUT NUTS IN THE BLONDIES??? NO ONE KNOWS!!)
The kids played a great game, though. Afterwards, I drove the whole plate of blondies over to my firefighter friend instead. Next time, I'll just pick up some brownies at the store on the way to the game. Or maybe just stay in bed that day.
To celebrate me losing all of my dessert cookbook weight, let's have a salad!
I've been enjoying this grapefruit fennel salad for months now. It was inspired by a recipe in Amanda Cohen's cookbook, Dirt Candy. If you're unfamiliar with the NYC veggie-focused restaurant by the same name or its comic-book-themed cookbook spin-off, I suggest you seek out the latter the next time you're at the library or your local bookstore. It's an entertaining read as it illustrates, quite literally, the reality of opening a new restaurant, Cohen's stint on Iron Chef America, as well as cooking techniques for vegetables. As the author and heroine of this graphic novel, Cohen dons her chefly superpowers with wit and humility. The book is great fun, as is her blog. Check out this hilarious post on how her celery salad went over at the NYC Wine & Food Fest. If you find yourself defecting to her blog, I'll totally understand!
But back to the salad. Cohen's version includes candied grapefruit lollipops and grilled cheese croutons, which are no doubt delicious, but my version is a little more pared down (read: lazy). I've settled on this basic arrangement: mixed greens with thinly sliced fennel and red onion, segmented grapefruit, and crumbled feta. The salad benefits from having something fatty and salty in the mix, so if you forgo the cheese, fill the void with crumbled bacon, chopped almonds or pistachios, or cubed avocado with a sprinkling of sea salt. The dressing, which I make with anise seeds instead of fennel seeds, is mildly fruity and refreshing. It's the perfect pre-summer salad.
(It also reminds me a little bit of dessert!)
Below are my suggestions, but use what you like in the proportions of your choosing. Just be sure to slice the vegetables very thinly. A tangle of radish sprouts would be a nice addition. The amounts below serve two grownups. Scale up as you wish.
1 to 2 cups mixed lettuce, spinach, and baby kale
1/2 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced (only cut what you'll use)
1 red grapefruit
Crumbled feta, goat cheese, or queso fresco
Chopped salted almonds or pistachios (optional)
1 tablespoon finely grated grapefruit zest (from 1 grapefruit)
2 tablespoons grapefruit juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the salad, toss the lettuce, fennel, and onion in a bowl.
Finely grate the zest from the grapefruit and set it aside for the dressing. Cut the grapefruit in half and reserve one of the halves for the dressing. To segment the other half, place it cut-side-down and slice the peel off the grapefruit in swaths, following the contour of the fruit. Then turn it over and cut between the membranes to remove the juicy flesh in between. Set the grapefruit segments aside in a shallow bowl.
For the dressing, add the grapefruit zest, grapefruit juice from the reserved grapefruit half, lemon juice, anise seeds, and mustard to a blender. Blend on high, then reduce the speed to low and slowly stream in the oil until smooth and emulsified. Add salt and pepper to taste. (The dressing can be stored in a covered jar in the refrigerator for up to a week.)
Lightly dress the greens and veggies just before serving. Arrange the salad on plates with the grapefruit segments, cheese, and nuts if using. Serve additional dressing at the table.
Source: Adapted from Dirt Candy by Amanda Cohen, Ryan Dunlavey, and Grady Hendrix
That's what this groovy cheese board is made of: Slate. Husband got it for me for Mother's Day so I can showcase my precious, precious cheeses. Want one, too? Visit Brooklyn Slate.
As for the cheese, this one is from Point Reyes Farmstead in California. I've been slowly working my way westward with the cheese-sampling, if you must know—a sort of manifest destiny of cheese. Don't hate, East Coast locavores. There's plenty of blue cheese here, too: Bayley Hazen blue from Jasper Hill Farm (VT), Ewe's Blue from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company (NY), Berkshire Blue, and Great Hill Blue (MA). But sometimes these are so popular that the local store runs out, in which case there's no reason to let perfectly good non-local cheese go to waste (she says as she tallies another mark on the underside of her cheese board with soapstone chalk. Only 923 more cheeses to go!)
Mother's Day got off to a great start this year. First, I was treated to a homemade pancake breakfast courtesy of Husband, which included his famous blueberry pancakes, bacon, and fresh fruit. The kids presented me with some sweet handmade cards (I find it interesting that my youngest still draws me with short cropped hair even though it's been down to my shoulders for a while now). We spent most of the day at the park kicking a ball around, and then we decided to go out to dinner at Mulan, the new Taiwanese restaurant that opened in Waltham where the old Beijing Star used to be. It's the second outpost of the original Cambridge location, which had received favorable reviews from Husband and his lunchtime companions.
Things weren't looking too good at first, as we stood on Main St. outside Mulan. The line was long, which always makes Husband antsy, and the kids were requesting things that weren't on the menu. It was starting to look like mutiny. In this case, mutiny would take the form of dinner at the Ninety Nine Restaurant instead. Now, don't get me wrong, I'll take the Kids Eat Free special at the Ninety Nine once in a while when the Red Sox win, but not on Mother's Day. I refuse. So I scolded everyone into submission, knowing that it meant one more strike against a potentially good meal.
But what actually happened is that we got seated within the 20-minute window they predicted. I've never seen anyone so competently manage a crowd as the woman running the hostess station. Friendly is not the word I'd use to describe her demeanor, nor entirely rude, but she got the job done efficiently. When she barked her orders, everyone listened, and that place moved like clockwork.
We got a big table right in the middle of the room, where the kids proceeded to devour the salted peanuts and pickled vegetables set in the center of the table. They sampled the tea, and liked it. Because we ordered our food while we were still waiting outside, the dishes began arriving 5 minutes after we sat down, which meant the kids had no chance to even think about whining. The boys are somewhat adventurous eaters at home (not necessarily by choice), but we haven't challenged them too much when it comes to restaurants. We've gone to a few Chinese or Thai places over the years, but mostly we opt for the typical kid-friendly fare, like pizza at Flatbread or a burger at the Warren Tavern after the 10YO's soccer win in Charlestown. Our thinking boils down to this: When we go out to eat, we don't want a fight. Also: If we're going someplace exotic, let's not bring the kids! On the other hand, they're old enough to try new experiences, and the older one actually seems to enjoy it.
The garlicky green beans arrived first. There were no utensils in sight, so the kids grabbed the chopsticks and started practicing. I feared it would devolve into angry frustration and possible tears, but they always managed to get the food into their mouths somehow. The older one got the mechanics down pretty quickly despite the awkward logistics of a left-hander trying to teach a right-hander how to do anything. The 7YO developed his own style where he clutched the chopsticks down by the tips and kind of wedged the food in between them. It worked just fine. It helped that they absolutely loved the green beans.
Next, in quick succession, came the eggplant with basil, scallion pancakes, chicken wings, crispy salt and pepper pork chops, crab rangoon, and big bowl of noodle soup for the 10YO. (Yes, we ordered way too much, but it was Mother's Day, damnit!) The kids absolutely devoured the chicken wings and pork chops. The scallion pancakes and crab rangoon weren't their favorites. No problem. More for Husband and me. But, aside from the green beans, it was the eggplant with basil and chilies that absolutely blew my mind. I have GOT to try to make this at home. They used the miniature fairy tale eggplants we get in our CSA and it was absolutely fantastic. Even the kids said it was "okay" (the kids have never liked eggplant).
Everyone had a great time, the prices were good, and the kids enjoyed reading their fortunes. Best of all: we had leftovers enough for a whole other meal the next night so I didn't have to cook. Both kids even asked for chopsticks!
Mulan, 835 Main St., Waltham and 228 Broadway, Cambridge (Kendall Square), MA