Friday, July 16, 2010

Very Grown Up Float

After lunch on an intensely hot, stifling day, there were berries that needed savoring. Berries picked when ripe have a brief window before starting to mold. In this heat, they wouldn’t make it to dinnertime. We could can them, freeze them, or enjoy them immediately.

The combining of flavor, texture, smell and temperature is a simple way to describe the act and art of cooking. A bowl of berries is one experience: room temperature, their color and texture and smell unique, simple and subtle. Sometimes a raspberry is just sweet or sour and leaves a lot of seeds in your teeth. And sometimes there is a quiet, commanding wash of floral taste and smell, a sweetness of concentrated sunlight and sugar.

I asked what did we have in the house that could help fulfill the experience of the berries. First I floated them in a glass of Pellegrino water. That was pretty, and good, but needed something else. Bubbles and fruit led me to remember a small amount of vanilla ice cream left in the fridge.

Ice cream, then the berries, then Pellegrino poured slowly into the glass. This combination fulfilled and then expanded the potential of each ingredient. The popping bubbles and the ice cream in the heat served as a metaphorical backdrop to the fleeting, fresh berries. The float also literally buoyed the berries, letting them float a few at a time into a sip or spoonful enhancing the feeling of their flavor and texture.

At the table watching Coral methodically sop up her float, nose crinkling at the bubbles, naming the colors of the blueberries, red raspberries, Jewel black raspberries, and pink currants, the rare sensation of truly sugary sweet ice cream, I compared this tender, summer moment of her childhood to the life of the berries.

Time, as we all know, does nothing but march forward. Seasons show us that things we love come back. In the ice and sleet and cabbage of January we know that July will come and bring her tender leaf lettuces and berries. But we as people, the phases of our lives, we change absolutely. Coral still has the rotund belly of childhood, but every day I see it thinning out to look more and more like her lanky big sister’s.

The precious seasons of babyhood and toddlerdom, these pass by and do not return. We grow bigger and lose our milky sweet smells. We have dirt under our nails and giggle fits grow less frequent. But tastes and experiences can bring out the feeling of wonder and adventure that is childhood. While we grow big and our bodies change ever so much, we can always combine bubbles, berries and ice cream, and on a hot summer day, feel like kids again.

Blue Cheese and Summer's Tomatoes

This salad is so simple and so perfect. When I read it in the summer 2010, volume number 4, "Canal House" it seemed so obvious a combination I just couldn't believe I'd never had it. I read the recipe before our first local, giant, delicious, sun ripened tomatoes arrived. I held this recipe in my apron pocket, ready for the tomato, the irrefutable harbinger of summer. As I waited, I contemplated blue cheese.

Blue cheese has a wonderful association with friendship for me: standing in Meredith's Grandma's 1950's, canary yellow linoleum kitchen, staring at a hunk of blue cheese, each of us ready, with daring in our hearts, to cross from the cheddar of childhood to the blue cheese of adulthood. We were only eleven or twelve, but we knew that, for sure, imminently, our life was to be a whirl of glamour and cocktail parties, both of us glittering wits in swishing skirts and smart jackets. And for this, we had to prepare. First, by appreciating blue cheese.

We tasted it. We loved it, sincerely. The sharp creaminess, the crumbly texture, the demanding presence on the tongue. We sliced giant, freezing cold, green grapes into circles and stacked them on Wheat Thins, and topped it with a crumble of blue cheese. The flavor, the smells, the ingenuity of our chic, towering recipe, we knew life was only going to get better and better.

Awaiting the tomatoes, I found a blue cheese from Northland Dairy at the Farmers Market. I told Mary Rose the recipe it laid in wait to be used in and she exclaimed, "I don't have my summer Canal House yet!" And suddenly, we connected a little more, knowing our shared love for Canal House. I told her the issue was a dream, and as if saving the story line of a heavenly movie, restrained myself from telling her anymore.

Finally, tomatoes arrived at Brownie's fruit stand,and the next day at Ludgates. I made the salad. It was like falling in love: life felt more complete. As I ate, as slow as a turtle, savoring, savoring, I wondered if the Canal House Gals as we call them, knew Mary Rose and Northland Dairy. If they do not, I am sure it would be love. Their hearts are the same. The blue cheese is so, so good. The balance of salt, the texture, it is alive in your mouth. To quote the Avett Brothers "I hope I don't sound to insane when I say..." but, I feel like you can taste the reverence Northland Dairy has for its animals, for the process of its supremely hand crafted production. And that is how the Canal House Gals are, they care.

They care and they share their deep knowledge, the beautiful yields of their refined, elegant work. And, they are friends. Which inspired me to serve this salad to my friend, in honor of her thirtieth birthday. Across from a table set for lunch, with tall glasses of champagne beading up in the humidity, I could see her senses pause as she looked at the combination of tomato, anchovy and blue cheese. Then she took a bite and said, "I could eat this everyday." Everyday that the tomatoes are from plants nearby, raised in dirt, in the sun, we will. Eat well, savor the season, enjoy friendships.

Sliced Tomato Salad With Blue Cheese and Anchovies

Big, ripe tomatoes
Blue cheese
Anchovies, salt packed tastes best
the best olive oil you can find
red wine vinegar

Mince small garlic clove and combine with one tablespoon vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in 3-4 tablespoons olive oil.
Arrange two or three fat tomato slices on plate, and spoon dressing over them. Lay blue cheese, then anchovies. Season with more salt or pepper.
Because this is not mixed or blended and the proportions are important, plate each individual serving.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Zucchini, Fava and Goat Cheese Salad

July 16

Make this salad now with the tiny yellow zucchini squash of early summer. It is a fresh, unique way to experience a tender, precious moment of the season.

We first read of this salad in David Tanis's "a platter of figs." The only thing you really have to do is respect the tenderness of the young zucchini, cut or shave it very thin and handle it gently. After that, it is prime for a myriad of variations.

Favas or fresh peas, basil or mint, mild or slightly stronger crumbly cheeses. Young, sweet red onions, or small, mild white ones.

Fresh favas are worth the effort. Their texture, taste, smell, the brightness of their green, they are a potent and generous bean. You will probably be competing with the local chefs for the fava supply, make a deal with your vendor to at least save you a pint!

Soon the zucchini will all be large, every gardener drumming up ways to use them and people to give them too. Before the larger ones become zucchini bread and the Ratatouille of late summer, early fall, seize this tiny window, of the tiny squash.

Young Yellow Summer Squash Salad, as pictured here

4 or 7 small yellow zucchini
a handful of squash blossoms
about 1/2 cup of fava beans (cleaned, quickly blanched and skin around bean removed)
1 small new sweet red onion, sliced
1 lemon
sea salt and black pepper
some ricotta salata or mild feta or other crumbly goat cheese
a bit of basil or mint sliced into extremely thin ribbons (optional)
some really good olive oil

Wash and wipe the zucchini squash. Cut off the ends. Using a sharp knife, a mandoline or a vegetable peeler, shave each into thin ribbons (lengthwise) and set aside. Prep the favas by removing the beans from their pods, then blanching the beans in boiling water for a few seconds. Dunk the beans in ice water. Remove beans from their skins by pinching a tiny bit of skin off the end and gently (but firmly) squeezing the bright green fava out.
Just before serving season the zucchini with salt and pepper to taste, toss in the favas and, if using, basil and onion. Splash with olive oil and mix. squeeze in the juice from about 1/2 lemon (check for taste) and adjust seasoning to taste.
Heap onto a platter. Tear the petals of the blossoms over the salad and crumble the cheese of your choice on top. If using a harder feta, you can shave ribbons of cheese, using that handy vegetable peeler again, which looks very pretty with the ribbons of squash and blossoms.

Red Oak Leaf, Cucumber, Blueberry Salad

July 15
When Craig served this salad, I had not been paying attention to the kitchen at all. I was juggling the girls, feeding them little snacks after a long day of school and play, hanging the laundry out to dry instantly in the summer heat, and sipping at a rose wine with "Jewel" black raspberries, floating like deep purple clouds, in the glass.

The Oak Leaf from Red Tail Farm was heaped in the salad bowl. Craig tossed the salad and served it, filling the plates to their outermost edge. I noticed the cucumber, the first we'd had, bought from a table outside a house along the lake, with an honor box, seventy five cents. And then, tucked into the dark green and red edges of the lettuce, blueberries.

The combination of the texture and flavor: crunchy, slightly bitter lettuce; crisp, watery, mild cucumber; bright, sweet blueberry; balanced oil and vinegar dressing with a not too acidic vinegar. The sizes of things mattered too: the slender, elegant lettuce was not chopped, it was torn in half, or thirds so it filled your mouth, the slices of peeled cucumber gave a broad, fresh splash of water, and the whole blueberries a small, delightful pop of sweet in the bite.

It is very fun to be surprised. It does not take much to bring your senses fully in to the moment. A sweet berry hidden in the folds of crisp earthy lettuce brought such a feeling of fun, of playful levity to the table. This combination is not one of the recipes that was an evolution of another recipe. This was all Craig. That is one of the things that saves us, his ability to be present, to look with an open mind at what is before him, which in this case was a the seasonal excitement of the first beautiful cucumber, a handful of berries, our friends' lettuce.

Part of the fun deliciousness of this salad was the surprise of the blueberry. But then we had it the next night, I knew full well what to expect, and it was just as good as the night before.

Red Oak Leaf, Cucumber, Blueberry Salad

from the freshest available...
Oak Leaf lettuce
some blueberries
2 or 3 slender scallions sliced
Japanese cucumber peeled and sliced
juice of 1/2 meyer lemon
splash of champagne or chardonnay vinegar
fine olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients except lettuce in the bottom of a large salad bowl. After a bit of marinating add the lettuce, but do not mix. Just prior to eating, mix well and serve.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Eggs and Pancakes with the Cousins

July 12
My brother Rich drove down from Vermont with three of the four kids he and his wife Emily have. A house full of kids and cousins is a dream come true for Rich and I. We grew up without knowing our one cousin, and we yearned for the familial, non-sibling bond we saw our friends and their cousins share. It was with real joy that we planned to get all our kids together. We made one whole room into a room of beds in case of rain, and set up a tent under the apple tree in the pasture. I got out the tall stack of enamel plates, all the tiny spoons and forks and unbreakable glasses. Rich brought eggs from their chickens, we stocked up on bread, berries, milk.

Richmond has raised, is raising, a lot of kids. When Jay and Maddie were little they went through the predictable, "I don't like that!" phase for everything you put in front of them, even if they had eaten a mountain of it the day before. Rich is Gandhi like in many ways, very good at finding a path of least resistance and saving himself some aggravation. He decided that it was not going to do any one any good to get into a dynamic of anxiety about food. The kids were toddlers and far from "failure to thrive" so he decided, that they would eat when they were hungry.

He continued on his mealtime routine, presenting the kids with nutritious options at regular intervals throughout the day and left it at that. Sure enough, they would eat like little curly headed birds for a day or two, and then eat everything put before them for a stretch.

Rich's choice was very refreshing to witness. He followed his gut and found a path that worked for him and his kids. It has helped me a lot with my own kids. Colby can be hard to feed, there are textural, sensory issues and resistances to eating that are still a mystery to us. It takes a lot of persistence and patience, but sometimes, she, like all of us, just isn't that hungry.

Rich's wisdom sets a healthy, open field for food in his family: food is for when you are hungry and it is a communal experience. Come sit at the table, be together, eat what your body says it needs.

The cousins together at the table, five plates of fried eggs and a platter of pancakes. They ate their fill, and bounded off, into the yard, into the day, with all the fuel for play they needed.

Craig's Pancakes

7 or 8 tablespoons butter
1 1/3 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 tbs plus 1 tsp sugar
1 tbs plus 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

In a sauce pan over low heat combine the butter and milk. Heat until the butter melts and set aside. Beat the eggs in a medium sized bowl. When the milk/butter blend is lukewarm, slowly pour it into the eggs while stirring.

In a large bowl, wisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together. Pour the egg mixture into the flour. go slow barley mixing. the batter should be lumpy with dry patches here and there. Do not over mix.

Heat a cast iron skillet or griddle over medium-low heat. Wipe with a bit of butter, vegetable oil or bacon fat. When hot to touch, ladle in about 1/2 cup batter for each pancake. When they begin to bubble and are a deep, golden brown on the pan side, flip and cook until done. if you wish to add anything...sliced apples (try a sprinkle of sugar and a splash of lemon juice on those slices!), berries...candied bacon (!) do so when the first side is cooking, then flip.

Serve with whatever you like, jam, maple syrup, honey, yogurt. And for sure, an egg on the side.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Kenny Shopsin and Happiness

July 5

Kenny Shopsin, the strange and brilliant chef, not known for his social graces, gave me one of the most helpful ideas for parenting. He said that to find work that has meaning for you is the best example you can set, and that the best thing you can do for your kids is be happy yourself.

I held Colby, then a tiny newborn, in my lap and listened as he expounded, sitting across the table from us, exhausted from a day of cooking and yelling at his four kids, all at the time working to some degree in the restaurant. When Kenny does anything but rant and curse, you listen. He has an exceedingly rough personae, but under that is a compassion and an intelligence far stronger than his roaring expletives.

Contemplating his words now, from way inside the path of parenting and family life, they look different than when I first heard them. When I first heard, "Be happy yourself," it sounded obvious and easy, as easy as happiness ever is. Now, there is a larger family, work, and the thousand tiny shirts and shorts and socks that need folding. How to find happiness and do good work when you feel life is pulling you in a thousand directions, all of them important?

By making choices, and, the ever famous key to marital bliss, compromise. Make the beds but let the floors go. Write for an hour in the morning and accept the longing for a day. Make a dinner reservation.

What Kenny did not say was how in family life the happiness of the couple, individually and together becomes so linked.

Children are an astonishing amount of work. Their demands are tireless, their needs absolute. Meanwhile the rest of life clamors for attention. And, then there is each other. For us, that is the easiest one to lose track of. We operate for long periods under the illusion that we, the couple, can wait. That we come after kids, dishes, tractors, work.

We must take care of ourselves and our love the way we care for all the other aspects of a full life. To not let the inertia of distance between us become a habit, we need a moment together, to just gaze, and be.

We made plans for dinner out together and as I got ready I thought about all the small fissures between us, major and minor emotional infractions, moments of bad communication. I felt how that was not what I wanted dinner to be about, I did not want to talk, work, process. I wanted to be together, in the moment.

At dinner we laughed, we talked with our neighboring table, we caught up on the funny moments, profound work conversations, all the persistent beauty that occurred in the week. We invested in our happiness, the cornerstone of a loving, functional life, together. Thanks Kenny.

More Kenny wisdom, culinary and philosophical, can be found in his excellent cook book, pictured here. The essay on eggs is a revelation.