This time it’s more than just the apple pie

What does it take to put on a sit down, linen-napkined, starched-damask-table-clothed, polished silvered, Norman Rockwellian-style, Thanksgiving dinner? The sort of dinner at which there are little acorn shaped chocolate hazelnut truffles at every place, where candles glow in polished silver candelabra, and heavy cream-colored place cards perch over every plate. Imagine cooking a dinner like that for twenty five people. Every year. For ten years. What if you followed that dinner with a similarly scaled Christmas dinner just one month later? Sounds totally crazy, right?

Since we moved to Seattle nine years ago, I have never had to make Thanksgiving dinner, or Christmas dinner for that matter, thanks to my aunt, who lives just around the corner. Since I obviously like to cook, perhaps you are wondering why I don’t want to cook Thanksgiving dinner myself? I suppose, if anyone besides my very talented aunt were cooking, maybe I would have broken away from her big dinner and done my own. Sometimes I have thought about trying a sourdough, artichoke and prosciutto stuffing, or making brussels sprouts with chestnuts. But how could I? And miss her incredible menu and all the fun?! No way.

It goes like this:  On Thanksgiving night, as soon as I walk in the door, my uncle hands me a flute of champagne. In the background, one of my brother-in-law’s CDs plays just loudly enough to hear. Some cousins are clustered on low couches around the fire, which is blazing and snapping with big oak logs.  On the coffee table, my dad’s sister has placed the Braunschweiger pate with aspic. Braunschweiger pate with aspic might be considered odd in this day and age and even a little lowbrow, but it is traditional in our family and beloved by those who knew our Great-Aunt Frances, who, years ago, always used to bring it. Weirdly, my kids adore it and I have to stop them devouring all of it so that somebody else can have a little taste. In the kitchen, more cousins play yatzy and cribbage games at the table, keeping my aunt company. She should be very busy with dinner.

But my aunt looks as cool as a cucumber. Her kitchen is orderly and calm. How can this be? It’s as if, at the very last minute, she‘ll have to wave some magic foodie wand, and suddenly everything will appear on the buffet. Gleaming porcelain and glazed carrots. A wide platter of crisp little green beans with shallots or almonds. Deep pink sweet and sour cabbage.  Hillocks of mashed potatoes with several lakes of melted butter glistening in the valleys. Clearly she’s been up to something. You have to actually roast a turkey if you want the house filled with that bronzy, burnished scent. It’s astonishing. How does her kitchen stay so clean? How come everything is done at exactly six thirty? There are mountains of deliciousness to account for! How does she do it?!

I think I’m about to find out.

This year, for the first time in a long time, most of us cousins have dispersed for the holiday. And so, my aunt is taking a break from Thanksgiving. I have decided it’s my turn to host a slightly smaller version of the holiday myself. Besides the five in my immediate family, my neighbors are coming to dinner. So are my aunt and uncle (who usually host), and cousin Steve. Hosting Thanksgiving for my aunt feels a little like hosting the queen of England (or maybe the Queen of Thanksgiving). This will take some planning. A lot of planning probably. I am aiming for a perfect Thanksgiving like my aunt’s, although in miniature, as my dining room seats just ten in a pinch. And why not? There is nothing intrinsically complicated about Thanksgiving dinner. What you need is a good plan of attack.

Here’s mine:

In the week before Thanksgiving week:

  1. Make turkey stock and freeze it.
  2. Iron all the napkins (now is the time to make sure you have enough!) and the best tablecloth.
  3. Figure out the candle situation. Do you have any? Are they the right color? Do you want tapers, tea lights or pillars? All three?
  4. Figure out what wines you will serve. Have both red and white on hand and count on a bottle per person. (although we all hope you have some left over)
  5. Have a non-alcoholic beverage for kids and those who don’t wish to imbibe. We have the obvious sparkling apple juice and bottled water.
  6. Buy the place cards and candy favors if you like that sort of thing. My kids would be crushed if I forgot.
  7. Figure out where you will serve the food – in my aunts house, the kitchen is so huge and she keeps it so tidy, she can serve from the enormous kitchen island. She displays the dessert on the buffet. I think my kitchen will be something of a disaster and I am clearing off the side board this afternoon. The kid art and clutter that typically inhabits that space will take off for the basement temporarily.
  8. Are there enough serving dishes in the house? Take an inventory.  As you plan for all the serving pieces, imagine if they will all fit on the table or if you will need a serving station, either the sideboard in the dining room or a table in the kitchen. Look for:
  • a platter for the turkey – Mine won’t have to be too big as I will be carving in the kitchen and not at the table (I’m not good at carving and I don’t wish to have some sloppy turkey dismemberment in front of my whole family) Slices of turkey don’t take up as much room as the whole bird.
  • A gravy boat, a small ladle and a little plate to catch the drips
  • a bowl or two for cranberry sauce – one for each end of the table (I have a couple of plain white cafe au lait bowls that will suffice) with two little serving spoons
  • a medium bowl for the stuffing
  • a large baking dish that can go from oven to table for the dressing – white stoneware is what I have
  • a large bowl for mashed potatoes
  • a medium bowl for the red cabbage
  • 2 medium sized bowls for the glazed carrots and green beans
  • 5 (at least) serving spoons and one nice fork for the sides and turkey
  • enough plates, silverware, water glasses, wine glasses, dessert plates and coffee cups
  • you may also like cocktail or champagne glasses (I have made cranberry shrub – which I will mix with ginger syrup, gin and a splash of soda – I really hope it will be good!)
On the weekend before Thanksgiving:
  1. Make the cornbread if you are serving cornbread dressing. You can freeze it then pull it out the day before Thanksgiving so it can dry out a little.
  2. Make and refrigerate a pie crust. See here for my favorite method.
  3. If you are farming out any part of your dinner to your guests, make sure they know what to bring now, if they don’t know already. Appetizers and dessert make the most sense as side dishes would get cold if brought from home and you don’t want anyone messing around in the kitchen when you are trying to pull it all together at the last minute (at least that’s what my aunt says!)
  4. Make the cranberry sauce
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, pick up the turkey and make the brine. I bought a brining bag but if you are going to use a huge stock pot, make sure that your fridge is big enough and that you have space. I know some people do this in a cooler with a lot of ice but that gives me the heebie-jeebies. I would probably have to throw the cooler away afterwards.
On Wednesday set the table and do the flowers.
Thanksgiving Day
Make the pie
Make the stuffing
Trim the carrot and green beans
Toast the almonds
Drain (if you brined it) and stuff the turkey
Roast the turkey
Start the red cabbage
When turkey comes out of the oven, make the gravy
Finish the vegetable sides.
Serve and clean up.
Whew.
Now let’s just see if I can stick to the schedule! I’ll keep you posted.
Later today or maybe tomorrow, I will post a recipe for the cranberry shrub – I made some earlier this week and it’s wonderful. You can mix it with soda or ginger-ale for kids  or with champagne or gin for grown-ups – fun!
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Panna Cotta

This is my idea of the perfect dessert. It is elegant. It is understated. It is not too sweet. It isn’t dependent on the season and yet all kinds of seasonal fruit goes with it and that makes it versatile. From strawberries in June, plums in September, precisely cut little blood orange sections in December to rhubarb compote in March, they all marry beautifully with panna cotta. Plain, it is the essence of pure clean cream. It is ideal for dinner parties of up to 12 people because you must make it in advance so there is no last minute horsing around. Utterly creamy, it is the most beautiful pale ivory color, I am trying to think of a dessert I like better and I can’t. (Well, there is that roasted tangerine tart thing…and the pear custard with chocolate…oh and the fresh strawberry ice cream with brown sugar cookies. Nevermind.) Anyway. Panna Cotta is one of my supreme favorites and I can’t believe I haven’t written about it until now.

With rhubarb and strawberry compote

The first time I had panna cotta was in a dark cistern of a restaurant in Florence, following a wide soup plate of ribollita. A frutti di bosco puree swirled around the base. That one was good enough to start a bit of an obsession. For the next several years, if I saw panna cotta on the menu, I always ordered it for dessert. Sometimes it was dreamy, barely set, just sweetened cream, served with fruit or a tuile, or sometimes, weirdly, with chocolate. Occasionally there was too much gelatin and that was a disaster! Like rubber. Finally, in a little restaurant in the Mission in San Francisco, after a plate of very tender charred squid and a bowl of boar bolognese and tagliatelle, I had a panna cotta epiphany. Here on a little white plate, was the epitome of the the dessert. It’s highest manifestation. I’m only sort of kidding.

In a puddle of clear caramelized sugar, just burnt enough to be intriguing, a pale quiver of cream. Sections of blood orange were scattered at the edge; their membranes carefully sliced away. Luckily, SFGate published a recipe for the dessert soon after or I would still be pining for it here in Seattle.

I made this panna cotta on Monday for a dinner party I gave my dad as a present. I served it with a blueberry compote scented with lemon. (If you like to cook, it makes a great gift to give someone an entire dinner party. Loads of fun.)

Delfina Buttermilk Panna Cotta

Caramel

  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • a little water + 1/4 cup of water
Panna Cotta
  • 1 envelope gelatin (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 3 cups whipping cream
  • 1 1/4 cups + 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • Juice of 2 lemons

Caramel - the color of an old penny

  1. To make the caramel: In a small heavy bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and lemon juice.
  2. Add just enough water to moisten to a sandy texture.
  3. Using a pastry brush dipped in water, brush any sugar off the sides of the pot. This will help you avoid crystalizing the sugar. Don’t worry too much about this, I have accidentally crystalized sugar in other recipes, but never in this one.
  4. Cook over medium- high heat until the sugar caramelizes. The color should be as deep a copper as an old penny.  Getting the color right will ensure rich flavor. Just don’t burn it!
  5. Remove from heat and stand back while you add the 1/4 cup water. Don’t get spattered! The hot caramel will sputter like crazy when you add the water.
  6. When the sputtering stops, pour the caramel into a dozen little ramekins. Mine are 6 ounce and I got them at IKEA .Carefully tilt the cups to coat with caramel. Set aside.
  7. To make the custard: Empty the package of gelatin into a small bowl. Stir in 4 tbsp of water and stir. Set aside.
  8. Add the cream and sugar to a medium heavy bottomed saucepan and whisk. Heat until there are bubbles all around the edges but remove from the heat before it reaches a rolling boil. Stir in the softened gelatin and whisk until it dissolves completely. Add the buttermilk and lemon juice and whisk briefly until combined. Remove from heat and let cool.
  9. Pour the custard into the ramekins, over the caramel. Refrigerate overnight.
  10. To unmold:  Fill a small baking dish with very hot tap water. Working methodically, slip a small sharp paring knife around the inside of the molds to loosen the custards and set in the hot water for a about 10 seconds. Invert ramekin over a serving plate and whack it gently.  It should slide gently onto the plate, surrounded by a pool of caramel.
  11. Spoon a little blueberry compote around the edge.

Blueberry Compote

  • 2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen if you must
  • 1/3-1/2 c. sugar (sometimes frozen berries are very tart)
  • grated zest from 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp water (if using fresh berries)
  • 1 tsp. cornstarch
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  1. Stir the blueberries, sugar, lemon zest and water (if using) in a small saucepan. Heat until liquidy and the blueberries soften.
  2. In a small bowl, add the cornstarch to the lemon juice and stir until smooth. Scrape into the blueberry mixture. Stir and heat just until the berries reach a boil.
  3. Cool a little bit before serving. The contrast between the warm berries and the cool panna cotta is pleasing.

Leftover blueberry compote with yogurt and toasted almonds makes an excellent breakfast

I did have panna cotta last week at a sushi place here in Seattle. (Take note – this might be the best sushi I’ve ever had!) Anyway for dessert, they served Panna Cotta with a clear yuzu sauce. Fantastic.

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Swiss Chard

I’m writing this from the car in the corner of the parking lot at the soccer field. My kids got a weird combination of Cliff bars, macaroni and cheese, carrot sticks and apple slices for dinner tonight, depending on where they were going and what they were doing. Last night was slightly better.

I have been missing making dinner but I didn’t know how much until I got out my big sauté pan. The way it clangs as I drag it over the iron grate on the stove – I love that sound. My black apron with the orange pig embroidered on the bib has been hanging limply on its peg for weeks. I wrap the long strings twice around my waist then tie them in a bow in front. On the table is a heap of chard, rainbow stems poking out from the wide green leaves, papery garlic, a bottle of aged vinegar with a tiny cork on top, a tall slim green bottle of olive oil and a little prep bowl of dried chili.

I roll up my sleeves. Set the heat to medium high. Then peel and slice a couple of cloves of garlic. Swing an open bottle of green olive oil in a wide circle over the hot pan. A good pinch of dried chili, rough on my fingertips and stinging them a little bit. The garlic goes in then there’s the sizzle and the scent. Don’t let the pan get too hot. In about a minute the garlic slowly becomes golden, molten and then the air is charged with it. I lift a mountain of wet ribbons of rainbow chard and heap them in, up and over the edge of the pan. Turned with a wooden spoon, over and over. They settle down and soften. Pop the lid on and turn down the heat. In ten minutes with a few tosses and turns, they’re nearly done. A splash of sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar, a little softened butter and a generous pinch of sea salt. Finished. 12 minutes worth of work.

I am not sure why making chard this way is so gratifying. It just is.

 Sautéed Swiss Chard 

  • 2 bunches Swiss Chard
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • pinch of red chili flakes
  • sherry or balsamic vinegar
  • softened unsalted butter
  • sea salt
  1.  Wash the chard carefully and slice into 1” ribbons. Do not dry it.
  2. Heat a 12” sauté pan over medium heat heat while you peel the 2 cloves of garlic and slice them thinly.
  3. Pour the olive oil over the pan. It should shimmer immediately.
  4. Add the chili and the garlic. Stir until the garlic is deeply golden. Don’t burn it whatever you do. Brown garlic is bitter and not in a good way.
  5. When the garlic is golden, add the chard. Toss until it settles down a little and is coated with the olive oil. Clamp a lid on top, turn down the heat and wait 5 minutes.
  6. Take a peek and toss it. Does it look dry? Add a tablespoon or two of water. Stir and clamp down the lid again. In five minutes the chard should be tender.
  7. Remove the lid and toss in the butter. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of vinegar over the top. Season with salt to taste – I think about 1/2 a teaspoon should do the trick.

I didn’t write about the kalbi skewers I picked up at the grocery store. Or the nice but bland jasmine rice on the side. There wasn’t much to say about this dinner, but after weeks of bland quick cooking before soccer practice, that little hit of hot garlic was so satisfying.

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Plums

6:06 PM. The edge of a soccer field in south Seattle. I am seated on a cold aluminum bleacher with my laptop on my lap behind a tiny portable goal. A bunch of third grade soccer players are hurling the ball towards the goal. They often miss the goal or kick the ball with enough force to send the flimsy structure flying backwards. Right towards me and my laptop. I would move somewhere else, but there isn’t anywhere else. Their coach is yelling at them like a very annoying barking dog. How can they stand it?! How do I stand it? Now the sun has gone behind a tree. I should have brought a coat. I have an hour to kill and by the time practice is over, it will be nearly dark. Tap….tap tap.

Soccer practice has taken over dinnertime and I am bitter. Can you tell?

It’s frustrating because in September the market is full of plump tomatoes, chilies, peppers, zucchini – all the harvest vegetables. I want to be planning for grilled salads, ratatouille, vegetable couscous. These bright delicately hazy days are perfect for the few last dinners outside before the Seattle fall weather hits, bringing wet grey days and early nights. Since school started the weather has been dreamy. Our tomatoes may even actually ripen on the vine this year! (a first!) Now is the time to sit at the dinner table with a bowl of Pappa al Pomodoro and a glass of wine! Sadly, because of soccer practice, I never get to cook anything fun right now. We have been dining on refried bean quesadillas, peas, pasta, ham and cream and Marcella Hazan’s tomato butter sauce – which is very very good but I am afraid I’m tired of it. The days are so beautiful I want to be outside in the morning when I could (should?!) be coming up with something better for dinner.

Here’s what I’ve been doing instead and I recommend it highly.  After Leo hops on the bus I head home to a very quiet house and I take my breakfast in the garden. Since dinner is a bust, I make an excellent breakfast. Does anyone eat zucchini for breakfast? I never would – unless of course it was in some kind of cake.  In the market there are still local peaches, nectarines, plump, ripe plums. I bought far too many plums last week. In the kitchen, I passed by them guiltily, clustered in the blue bowl on the table. They are not ideal lunchbox fruits – they get squashed too easily. Then I remembered something. Something about some plums, a vanilla bean and a handful of raspberries – a recipe I liked from a few years ago. A quick simmer and it’s done. In the recipe, it is recommended that you serve the compote with ginger cake or ice cream and I am sure that would be lovely – the ginger cake from this book is exemplary. I like it swirled into yogurt though, with toasted walnuts on top.

Sitting on the bleachers at the edge of the soccer field, I am thinking about breakfast tomorrow morning in the garden. There are still lots of flowers blooming there, coneflowers, sweet peas, coreopsis, sweet alyssum. The sling chair sits right in the middle of them. I hope this weather holds. What is it that they say? Red skies at night, sailors delight? The top edge of Beacon Hill is a brilliant red so maybe tomorrow will be sunny again.

Plum Raspberry Compote

as I remember the recipe from David Leibowitz’ Room For Dessert – a wonderful book

  • 7 or 8 ripe red plums
  • 1/2 pint of raspberries
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1 c. water
  • pinch sea salt
  1. Halve the plums and cut each half into four slices
  2. Put the the water and the sugar into a medium sauce pan. With the tip of a small knife, scrape the tiny sticky black seeds from the inside of the vanilla bean into the water and toss in the hull too. Set the heat to medium high and cook until the sugar has completely dissolved.
  3. Add the plums and simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Remove from the heat and add the raspberries and a tiny pinch of salt. Stir.
  5. Allow to rest at least 10 minutes if not overnight before spooning over something. Like yogurt.

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Plum and Peach Crostata – no apology needed

My grandmother told me never, under any circumstance, apologize for kitchen mistakes. Sunken cakes, burnt soup, even simply not enough food to go around, it doesn’t matter. If you are feeding people, don’t make excuses. Get on with it.

So what do you make of this?

Do I apologize?

It is deeply black in parts. Also, part of the crust has had a major structural failure, resulting in large pieces of fruit trying to escape. (I can see why!) There are juices running all over, dripping right off the parchment even, and although it makes no difference in the eating, it is sticky all over the floor of the oven and the blackly caramelized scent permeates the air in the kitchen. Thank goodness it is warm enough to eat dinner outside!

Would you believe I tried again? And again. Three times in four days. And it never got any better. Looking. The reason I kept at it, building this ravaged looking beast, even though I know a few more reliable ways to make a pretty dessert with peaches and plums, is that none of them even come close to this edge-of-burnt, caramel-sweet concentrated wonder. This crostata should be the official emblem of August – flying on a flag!

A crostata is supposed to a rustic exercise anyway. I have read many recipes and tried several. Am I to believe though, that I am the only person who can’t manage to get it together? Literally? Even if the crust doesn’t fail, the juices, no matter what I try, leak out all over the place. When the crust does fail and I rescue the mess from the oven, it would seem that there is no hope and (godforbid) I will have to apologize to someone. It looks ruined. If I were a hand wringer, now would be a perfect moment for hand wringing.

If I listen carefully though, I can hear my granny whispering urgently in my ear in her heavy Norwegian accent: Don’t worry darling. Just don’t SAY anything to anyone! No. Shhhhh! We can fix it. So I set the sheet pan on a cooling rack and walk away. When the crostata has reached room temperature, everything seems more manageable and I take my largest sturdiest spatula and confidently (a huge key to success in these matters) whisk it from parchment to platter.

Ta – daa! It is suddenly gorgeous – rustic and perfect. The saturated colors, the rustic flaking crust. This is what an August dessert is all about. When I pull it off the parchment, failure and those dramatic black juices are left behind. I thought I made three of these in a row because I wanted to see if I could get it to hang together, but that is not real reason. For me, this crostata is the best expression of August, of heat, of warm tree ripened stone fruit, of the end of the summer. Which is nearly over, so I make it again. And again.

So, if you want to know, I did NOT apologize. Of course not.

Plum and Peach Crostata

(minimally adapted from In the Sweet Kitchen – where it goes by Rustic Apricot Gallete)

Filling

  • 1 1/2 lbs mixed plums and peaches (not excessively ripe!)
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 3 tbsp cornstarch
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
  • 1 egg white beaten with 1 tsp of water
  • 1 tbsp granulated sugar for sprinkling

Pate Brisée

  • 1 1/4 c. flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 c. unsalted butter in small cubes, cold
  • 3-5 tbsp ice water
  1. Start the pate brisée early in the day. It needs to rest in the refrigerator for 2 hours at least before you roll it out.
  2. In a food processor, pulse all the dry ingredients to combine.
  3. Add the butter, scattering it evenly over the flour. Pulse until the largest piece of butter is the size of a large pea.
  4. Dribble 3 tbsp of water over the flour/butter mixture. Pulse a few times until it is incorporated. The dough will not look like dough AT ALL. It will look like dry powder. This is not important. Pinch a little of this dough together with your fingers, if it holds together you are done adding water, if not, add another tablespoon or two until it does. It might help to know that I always add all 5 tablespoons.
  5. Take two pieces of plastic wrap, about 18″ long, and lay them a cross formation on the counter. You will use them to wrap the dough and chill it before rolling it out to make the crostata. Dump the contents of the food processor onto the center of plastic wrap.
  6. Then, quickly pull up each side of the plastic wrap cross over the dough to make a tightly wrapped 1/2 thick package. Compress and compact the dough quickly with your hands until it forms a flat circle 6 or 7 inches across. The dough will look like pie dough when you are done, all the dry crumbs will be incorporated. Place the package in the refrigerator for 2 hours or up to three days.

Forming and baking the crostata.

  1. Preheat the oven to 425.
  2. Remove the dough from the fridge 1o minutes before you want to begin. It will need to warm up slightly so it won’t break and crack when you roll it out. Don’t let it warm up more than that or you’ll really have some structural problems. (I found this out on a day that was 90 degrees. You couldn’t even really call it a crostata when it was done. It was still very delicious though.)
  3. While the dough is warming up slightly, cut each piece of fruit into 8 even slices and toss with the sugar and corn starch. No need to peel it!
  4. Take a large piece of parchment and draw a 12″ circle on the back with a pencil.
  5. Lightly flour the parchment and the rolling pin. Place the dough in the center of the 12″ circle. Roll it out so that it is 12″ in diameter.
  6. Move the parchment over to a half sheet pan.
  7. Mound the fruit in the center of the dough, leaving a 1 1/2″-2″ border. Try very hard not to drip juice all over the edges. Leave any extra juice in the bowl.
  8. Roughly pleat the dough around the edge of the fruit and brush with the beaten egg white. Sprinkle sugar over the dough.
  9. Place the sheet pan with the crostata on it, in the oven.
  10. After 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 375, and continue to bake for another 25 minutes.
  11. Allow to cool on a rack before serving.

Although this is lovely with vanilla ice cream, you might want to serve it with honey sweetened mascarpone – 3 tablespoons of honey whisked into a cup of mascarpone. Even lovelier.

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Summer Kitchen

This is the kitchen in California, where we vacation in the summer. It’s my favorite place in the world to cook, despite the clunky electric stove, the dishwasher that limps through every cycle, and the more-than-occasional mouse. Although, since we have a pizza oven, it doesn’t really matter about the stove. The oven is in a screened dining room, right outside the kitchen door.

If you were visiting the kitchen for the first time, you might think it was outfitted by an eclectic hoarder. But bear in mind that our kitchen turned 100 years old this year and is stocked by a family of people who love to cook. On the back wall is a floor-to-ceiling hutch with stocky towers of grey and cream stoneware mixing bowls and bright majolica serving bowls; one pink plastic and one flowered plastic pitcher; two dark blue Wedgewood pitchers, one large and one small, with gleaming Grecian ladies dancing around the base and that’s just a start.  There must be a dozen large platters. The Chinese ones have people in houses and gardens in reds, oranges and greens, while those from Japan are blue and white with chrysanthemums. An enormous, painted, chipped tin platter strewn with colorful strawberries, apples, grapes and a beet (or could it be a rutabaga?) stands brightly behind. All kinds of baking dishes are piled messily at the side: white ceramics from France, two small painted terra cotta ones from Mexico, and plain old pyrex, squares and rectangles. Pie plates in tin or glass, some with fluted edges are on the shelf underneath. There are so many sugar bowls, wedged in between the bowls and platters. Three teapots. Several cruets – does anyone actually use cruets? – patiently gathering dust on the top shelf. Did I forget to mention there is a stack of 15 wooden bowls, round or oval in every size? Oops. To say that this kitchen is well-stocked doesn’t quite describe it.

My favorite plate is a white scratched square for asparagus with purple and green spears painted around the edges. Like the asparagus plate, many of the pieces look like what you are supposed to serve on them. There are several bowls that either look like artichokes or are painted with artichokes. Next to those sit two small dark green artichoke-shaped containers for homemade mayonnaise. There are bowls painted with lemons or that look like a giant lemon cut in half, with little majolica lemons resting on the edge.  There is even a matching pitcher, in case you want to serve lemonade with your lemons. A small walnut shaped bowl with a lid is for serving, um, walnuts.

I haven’t even started on the tool drawer. Let’s just say that if you need to crush an entire head of garlic or open many bottles of wine simultaneously, you’ve come to the right place.

The one thing we don’t have is a heavy skillet for the pizza oven, so I haven’t had the opportunity to roast a chicken in there yet. But we do have a grill to place over the smoldering chunks of oak, so we grill steaks and chickens broken down into pieces in addition to the pizzas. You would think that a house as well-stocked as ours is would at least have a cast iron skillet, seasoned well, if a little dusty, shoved in a corner somewhere. But no. A heavy stainless steel skillet would be even better.

What we do cook,  we make over and over again. Pizza, of course. When we first got the oven, twelve times in fourteen days. Lots of grilled skirt steak rubbed with sea salt, pepper, and chili flakes, sliced thinly in corn tortillas with pico de gallo. Gazpacho. Guacamole. Big Greek salads. Lamb, butterflied, in the pizza oven. Pita bread in the pizza oven with the lamb and white bean puree. Cooking like this, reductively, with the simplest methods, a little olive oil, a chop of garlic, salt and pepper, the rhythm of my knife on the board, the scent and feel of the ingredients, the funny old tools and serving dishes – I cook more instinctively here. I use fewer recipes.

I had to make a few rules for myself, though, so I don’t spend the entire vacation chopping, being chained to the stove or going on obsessive searches for ingredients that are hard to find in a rural grocery store. (Of which I only use a few spoonfuls and then forget about after they get shoved in the back of the refrigerator.)

The rules are eccentrically specific but are important nonetheless:

  1. No julienne-ing anything under any circumstance! Just don’t! Even for Vietnamese noodle salad.
  2. No caramelizing onions. As hard as it is to resist this, if I spend another hour and a half getting the onions as brownly sweet as I like them, I will sulk. And nobody cares nearly as much as I do how brown they are. Bacon makes a good substitute.
  3. No buying any exotic ingredients. They will only be used once  anyway and then are quickly forgotten at the back of the refrigerator. For instance, tahini. There are 3 tins of tahini in the refrigerator right now. I bet I am the only person who makes homemade hummus here. It is hard to put up with plastic tub hummus, though. How about tzatiki or white bean puree instead? Martin makes pita bread in the pizza oven and we need something to go with it.
I’ll finish this post with an excellent summer cocktail. Martin made this last night and we sipped it as I was making dinner. The kids were reading quietly and a quarter moon appeared between the live oaks in the still blue sky. We could hear crickets.
Plantation from The Art of the Bar
(if you like making cocktails at all, you really should get this book)
Just outside the front door we grow basil, mint, thyme and rosemary. We use basil and mint in cocktails. 
  • 6 basil leaves
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 ounce Plymouth gin
  • 1/2 ounce Cointreau
  • 1/2 ounce lime juice
  • 1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
  • 1/6 slice grapefruit for garnish
  1. Mash or muddle the basil with the sugar in the bottom of a large glass to make a paste. If you don’t have a muddler, you can use the handle of a wooden spoon. Make it look like pesto.
  2. Fill the glass with ice then add the gin, Cointreau, lime and grapefruit juices. Stir thoroughly until very cold.
  3. Strain through fine mesh strainer into a cold cocktail glass.
  4. Garnish with grapefruit slice.
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A Perfect Day for Gazpacho

I am on vacation. If you have been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I usually take the summers off. This is never intentional. Summer should be the best time of year for writing about food and as I spend a good part of the summer in California, I have tons to write about. So, today I am up at 6:00, the sun just burning through the early morning fog. Everyone is still asleep so I can sort through photos, tap away on the keyboard, sip a large bowl of cafe au lait and write in peace! Through the open window, I think I hear an owl. When I look up, the valley is barely visible through the twisted branches of the live oaks outside. It is cool up here in the front bedroom with the breeze blowing through the open windows. Nothing like how hot it will be by noon. In a couple of hours, I’ll drive down the road to the farm in San Martin so we can have gazpacho for lunch. There, the tomatoes almost burst in the heat, the cucumbers staked under their their wide green leaves are crisp and cool, and the air is spicy with garlic.

There are two ways to make gazpacho. You can hand chop the vegetables or you can puree them in a blender. Hand chopping vegetables into precise smithereens seems like a waste of time on a blisteringly hot day, when the tomatoes are perfect for gazpacho. On hot days, you shouldn’t have to work too hard just to make a little lunch. This is why you have a blender.

Gazpacho – serves 10

  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • 1 (2-inch) piece baguette or if you don’t have any on hand (I didn’t) 1 slice of any kind of sandwich bread, crusts removed
  • 15 very ripe medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 1 1/2 medium English cucumbers, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons Spanish smoked paprika (smoked paprika has gone so mainstream they even sell it at Trader Joe’s!)
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  1. In a blender, soak bread in tomato juice for 15 minutes.
  2. Blend until smooth.
  3. Add tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, salt, and smoked paprika. Blend again until smooth.
  4. With motor running, slowly add the vinegar, then the olive oil.
  5. If you have the patience, chill for 4 hours, then serve. I had a bowl right away with an ice cube in it, and then another bowl 4 hours later.
The Garnish
  • 1/2 cucumber, finely diced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, finely diced
  • 1/2 small red onion, finely diced
  • 1 tsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp kosher sea salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  1. In medium bowl, toss together all ingredients.
  2. Ladle gazpacho into bowls.
  3. Spoon chopped vegetable mixture into middle of each bowl, dividing evenly among bowls. Serve immediately.

Leftovers can be kept in the fridge for 2 days.

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Eggs: Lime Saffron Aioli, Champagne Sabayon and Duck Eggs. Not all at once, obviously.

Here are some true things about me and eggs.

  1. I had to eat an egg in some form every single day before school when I was growing up.
  2. We were a mayonnaise eating family, we made our own, and, we kept it on the counter for a week. (If there was any left. Often there wasn’t.) I could make mayonnaise by the time I was 10. In a blender. Mayonnaise is a raw egg based sauce – in case you aren’t familiar with how you make it.
  3. Deviled eggs are a particular weakness of mine and my sister’s. My uncle makes loads of them for the annual Christmas party and we park ourselves right by the tray and shamelessly pop them in our mouths until they are gone. You make deviled eggs with mayonnaise.
  4. One of the best desserts I ever had was at a little bistro in the Village in New York.  I can’t remember what was for dinner at all, but the warm sabayon with fresh tiny wild berries was like…I really hate to write stuff like angel’s nectar but there really is no other way to describe that ethereal nearly white cloud of beaten eggs and champagne. Of course I had to figure out how to make it at home.
  5. I find duck eggs to be delicious but a little bit freaky. They’re so huge.

I have been thinking about eggs a lot this weekend, as you might have guessed. Earlier this year, I wrote about Mary Alice and the amazing eggs she gets from Tender and  Nugget, her urban chickens. Well, on Friday morning she dropped by with a gorgeous basket of those eggs, a dozen, unwashed, just for me. And then, you’ll never believe this, my excellent neighbor Susan, went to the farmer’s market on Sunday and brought me half a dozen duck eggs.

Is there no end to my good fortune?!

This is what we made:

Sunday Night:

Lime and saffron aioli for grilled halibut with parsley, orange and shallot salad

Lemon Tart

Monday Night:

Poached duck eggs on toast with prosciutto, grilled asparagus, truffle oil butter and kosher sea salt (and yes I think the salt is important enough to mention)

Champagne Sabayon with Strawberries, Blueberries and Figs

I dream of dinners completed in half an hour and both the fish and the poached egg on toast fit the bill. And aren’t they so pretty? I’ve made the halibut before. I’ve made the poached egg before too. Poaching a duck egg is the same as a chicken egg – so that’s easy. Varying the halibut recipe is just adding a few ingredients to the mayonnaise recipe.

Lime Saffron Aioli

all ingredients should be at room temperature

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tsp lime juice and the rind of the lime, removed with a rasp
  • 1/8 tsp kosher sea salt
  • 1 tsp hot water
  • 1 pinch of saffron
  • 1/2 small clove of garlic, grated
  • 3/4 cup mild oil, like canola

 

  1. Put the tsp of hot water in a tiny bowl with the saffron and leave to steep and cool. It’s such a small amount of water it will take no time.
  2. Whisk the egg yolk with the lime juice, salt, water and saffron and garlic until loose.
  3. Put the canola oil in a liquid measuring cup and as you whisk fiercely, drip the oil in very slowly, paying careful attention that it is completely incorporated before adding more. As the oil is incorporated, the mayonnaise should thicken into a silky looking sauce.
  4. As it thickens you can add the oil in a very thin stream, slightly faster than a drip.
  5. When all the oil is incorporated, the sauce should be glossy and supple and hold its shape softly when you dab at it with a spoon (Hopefully, you’re tasting your masterpiece!) Add the lime zest and taste for seasoning.

The parsley and orange salad is a cinch. Just use all the leaves from an entire bunch of parsley, the sections from two oranges carefully cut between the membranes and some of those thinly sliced shallots macerated in champagne vinegar. Add a little extra virgin olive oil, the reserved orange juice and some sea salt and you’re done.

Champagne Sabayon

Be careful to use a very large bowl for the double boiler. I should have used my large Pyrex mixing bowl. The sabayon foams up a lot – more than quadrupling its volume.

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup champagne
  • 2 tbsp St. Germaine liqueur, optional
  1. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in the top of a double boiler set over boiling water.
  2. When the eggs and sugar are foamy, add the champagne. Whisk constantly for 10 minutes or use your electric hand mixer. That’s what I do.
  3. Remove from heat and stir in the St. Germaine.
  4. Serve warm in wide bowls with fresh beautifully ripe fruit.

I thought I would make this for the entire family for dessert but it turns out it tastes too “grown-up drink-ish” for kids. It didn’t matter. Martin and I piggishly ate almost the entire thing. I guess if I’m going to describe this as “angel’s nectar” I can say it was “heaven”.

I wonder what a deviled duck egg would taste like?! If I try one over the next few days I’ll let you know. I have three more.

 

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Is THIS delicious enough?

I’ve cleaned up my act. Asparagus, arugula, beets, lima beans, salmon, plain yogurt, walnuts, blueberries, raspberries and cantaloupe and a dearth of processed grains have shaped my daily menu. Instead of veering wildly from starving myself to voracious bingeing on pear and custard pastries or salt and pepper potato chips I’ve made sure to consume responsibly in a measured and thoughtful fashion. (Although I have to confess, I was occasionally saved from some very poor choices by a square of dark chocolate.)

Then over the weekend I read this article by Mark Bittman. And I watched his little video and became obsessed. As you know, I am a slave to a rustic soup and this one was full of pork fat, cheese and olive oil. I know it’s not possible to detox on all that animal protein and fat, but is it possible to eat this kind of food in the midst of a detox and still be committed to detoxing?! For me, the metric has to be based on how delicious and flavorful the food is – which is a very personal way to measure! It seemed crazy to even try this soup, but…I just had to! Even the most thoughtfully prepared detox food can quickly become very boring!

In Mr. de Carlo’s “Bone Soup” there is a side of baby back pork ribs (it could have been any piece of meat with a large bone but the pork neck the butcher had was frozen in a solid lump and I wasn’t willing to wait for it to thaw). There is a lot of olive oil, not only in the soup, but on the soup and also gilding the deftly salted croutons which garnish the soup with bright raggedly torn leaves of basil. And how about the two big handfuls of parmesan cheese, in the soup – adding body and complex, savory, tang – and then even more thrown over the soup for good measure? This is what Mr. Bittman has to say about it:

But it’s worth pointing out, I think, that the soup is neither a fat-bomb (I wouldn’t be surprised if it has fewer calories than Olga’s) nor one that lacks complexity.

I am still trying to figure out how this soup is not a “fat-bomb”…

Olga’s method, as described by Mr. Bittman, is strikingly similar to this recipe I love from Alice Waters, which if you can refrain from adding cheese, is actually vegan. It’s very very healthy. And Mark Bittman says that this might have fewer calories than a vegetable soup made with water and olive oil…Hmmm.

I can’t wrap my head around it. Oh well. I will just trust Mark Bittman!

I felt compelled to make this soup as soon as I read the recipe and I would hate not to try something so clearly marvelous because of some silly detox “rules”. This is how to think about it: Bone Soup is a little vacation from the Detox. And like a really good vacation it will be revivifying, meditative, transporting and totally necessary. It is an entirely different sort of health transgression from pastry and potato chips.  The thing is, you can eat pretty much whatever you want on a diet if you set seriously high standards – this means only eat food that is truly delicious. Since Bone Soup takes five hours from start to finish there is no danger of eating that way everyday. I wouldn’t want to. Who would?! It’s too rich. It’s a maybe once a week vacation from the berries, melons, lettuces, yogurt and fish that I usually eat.

Save this complex and warming soup for a cold day. Like yesterday.

Bone and Black Chickpea Soup

slightly adapted from Frank de Carlo’s Black Chickpea Soup

  • 1 cup black dried chickpeas, soaked over night and then drained (next time I’m going with the yellow chickpeas, black chickpeas are good but much more firm than the yellow)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil + more for the croutons
  • 1 pound baby back pork ribs
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 carrot diced
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 1 14 ounce can peeled plum tomatoes, drained if very liquid and chopped
  • a bay leaf
  • a few sprigs of thyme
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 pound rustic bread cut or torn in 1 1/2″ chunks
  • 1 cup chard leaves, washed and roughly shredded
  • 2 eggs
  • coarsely grated parmesan – about 3 cups
  • fresh basil leaves, washed, dried and torn into large pieces
  1. Over a medium flame, heat 3 tbsp olive oil in a 7 quart heavy stock pot or Dutch oven.  While the oil is heating, lightly season the meat with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. When the oil is shimmering, start browning the meat. There should be a distinct sizzle but no smoke. If you happen to burn the fond (the delicious brown crispy stuff on the bottom of the pot, be sure to wipe it off before you continue to the next step or your soup will taste acrid.) The meat should be deeply browned on both sides but not burnt.
  2. After the meat is brown, add the tomatoes, bay, thyme sprigs, drained chickpeas, wine and enough water to cover everything by an inch. Cover the pot and bring the soup to a simmer over medium high heat. Then turn the heat to low, with the lid half way off. You can simmer for 3 – 5 hours.
  3. While the soup is simmering, take a moment to make the croutons. Heat the oven to 325. Toss the bread cubes in a bowl with some olive oil, 3 or 4 tablespoons and a pinch of sea salt. Bake on a rimmed baking sheet for about 10 minutes or until they are golden and crisp. Remove and set aside until ready to serve.
  4. When both the meat and the beans are fully cooked and tender, remove the meat to a cutting board and when it has cooled slightly, shred the meat and discard the bones, fat and gristle. Add the shredded meat back to the pot.
  5. Beat the two eggs together in a small bowl and then whisk into the soup. Whisk in 2 cups of the parmesan, and swirl in a little more olive oil
  6. To serve, ladle the soup into a wide soup plate or bowl. Garnish each with a few large croutons, another drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkling of parmesan cheese and several torn basil leaves.
Mr. de Carlo describes this soup as Umbrian. I don’t understand how this works exactly, but when I eat something like this, so complex and so distinctly of a certain place, it’s like being right there in Umbria just for those few moments you are eating. And for me that is reason enough to make this soup.

 

 

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Delicious Detox Day 5 – A bit hungry

5:00 AM. Saturday morning. The sun is out for the first time in months and my bedroom is too bright. The birds are shrill. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the sun or the birds though. I’m awake. Nobody else in my house is. I’m awake because I. Am. Starving.

I look over at Martin who is snoring softly. To my ear, incessantly. I think I might be able to go back to sleep, despite my growling stomach if only…I give him a quick kick. Just a little one. A stage whisper – You’re snoring! Roll over! He snorts and flips over muttering. I look at the clock. 5:07. Ugh. Too early to get up. I could sneak down to the living room with a book but I don’t. I’m too hungry.

After an eternity of tossing, I see that it is 5:55. Since it is so bright outside I wonder if there is any chance that this might be perceived as a reasonable time for a cup of coffee?! A latte would totally help. Ooh, and maybe a little sandwich! How early can I wake Martin? Maybe today I can wake him up pretty early. The sun is very bright and perhaps he’ll think it’s later than it really is…

I nudge him with my elbow and whisper – Hey, are you awake?! – He sighs then groans. – Wha?! Wha’s wrong?! –  I try to smile winningly at his closed eyes, hoping he’s peeking but he is totally fast asleep and me smiling isn’t helping at all.  Maybe I can hold out a little longer.

6:15 AM. I think this might be when the timer on our coffee maker starts the drip and the scent of coffee should start wafting up the stairs at any moment. The coffee could be ready in less than 5 minutes! I toss dramatically and sigh, yanking the covers in my direction. One of Martin’s eyes pops open. He stares at me blearily and then his eyes drift shut again. I think he read my mind. – The coffee doesn’t start until 6:45 on the weekends. So don’t look at me like that. – If he could roll his eyes he would, but his eyes are closed. I have to plead. – Oh please, I’m starving!– and I try smiling winningly again. No dice.

I think he can probably feel the intense beam of my gaze against his eyelids. – Sarah. My legs aren’t working yet, I can’t even move my arms. I am not ready to get up. You’ll have to make the coffee if you want it this early.

I am so desperately hungry though. Too hungry to make coffee. Too hungry to make toast. So I beg. He caves. Thank goodness!

Ten minutes later Martin returns, shaking his head, rolling his eyes, but he is carrying a tray. A steaming bowl of a latte scented with nutmeg and cinnamon, a tiny but excellent sandwich, sharp Italian cheese, bitter marmalade and butter – on this special bread Martin makes for Siri. It has spelt flour in it, and dried apricots and hazelnuts. This is such a marvelous breakfast. Especially if you have been over-zealously detoxing the previous day.

Blame my irrational behavior on extreme hunger please. There is no other explanation. And then, if you are taking the month off from any kind of crap bread, sugar, red meat and are finding yourself starving at inconvenient times, check out the following recipe. My cousin gave it to me. It is perfect for a healthy afternoon pick-me-up. I made it for a cocktail party this weekend and then immediately made another batch for me. Lima beans have a bad rap so don’t let them put you off. Lima Bean Pate is an herbaceous and lemony, gorgeously green spread for little crostini (for the kids, as almost no bread is delicious enough for Delicious Detox) or for crisp vegetable delivery devices – like celery, red and orange pepper or cucumber.  Lima Bean Pate can be ready in about 20 minutes – 15 of which is hands off.  It is the perfect afternoon snack. Very nice.

Lima Bean Pate

(adapted from The Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook)

  • 2 c. water
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 2 c. frozen baby lima beans
  • 1/4 c. tightly packed fresh mint leaves (from about 6 stems), washed and dried
  • 1/4 c. tightly packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (from about 6 stems), washed and dried
  • 2 tbsp  lowfat buttermilk
  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 1/4 c. lemon juice (from 1-2 lemons)
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  1. In a small saucepan, bring the water and 2 teaspoons salt to a boil over high heat. Add the lima beans and let boil until just tender, about 12 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water for about 2 minutes to cool. Shake the colander several times to drain as much water from the beans as possible.
  2. Place the beans and the remaining ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process to a smooth, thick puree, about three 30-second-long pulses. Between pulses, push any of the mixture that clings to the side of the processor toward the blade with a rubber spatula before pulsing again.
  3. Season the pate to taste with salt and pepper and transfer it from the processor to a small bowl or plastic container. Cover tightly, and store in the refrigerator until ready to use, not more than 3 days.

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