Simple tomato salad.

When I first started to throw dinner parties, just a few years ago now, I would work myself into such a tizzy over the damn things, overextending myself, liable to melt into a pool of nervous tears halfway through.  I needed to make enough food to feed an army, in the vain hope that everyone would be so enraptured by my talents that they’d eat until it was all gone.  I chose recipes that were vastly above my skill level, deciding on them before even hitting the market. There’d be hard-to-find ingredients hailing from Asia, or Morocco; cheeses I was supposed to use though I’d never tried them (and had no sense of their potency). And when something would go wrong—I couldn’t find the ingredient or hated the cheese—I would turn into a ball of nerves, believing there was nothing I could do, that I didn’t have any other recipes to turn to.

Thankfully, those times are past.  Lots of dinner parties, and problems, later, I’ve learned that you go to market without a set plan, with your head full of possibilities.  I still follow recipes, but loosely.  I keep a pantry full of basic ingredients—for a basic vinaigrette, a basic sauce—and I revert to the simplest food whenever a problem arises (or even, before.)  After a few years of chefs and cookbooks drilling simplicity into my head, I’ve finally come around.

The lovely thing is, simple food doesn’t have to taste simple.  Duh. But I think that fact eludes most fledgling cooks, entering a world of complicated techniques and endless cuisines.  It eluded me, that’s for sure.  I think I picked complicated recipes because I couldn’t bear the thought of screwing up simple, while making a mistakes in advanced cooking were easily shrugged off.  Simple can be scary.  But simple food is worth learning.

Especially in the summer, when you don’t want to spend too much time cooking (I certainly prefer swimming), and when you can take full advantage of the tomatoes you (or your magical elves) grow in the garden, and when even the measliest herb garden will do its part.  During the dog days of summer, simple isn’t just best, it’s the only option.  This simple tomato salad is a must too, or at least it was for me, because I got to spend a lazy summer day driving around the pretty countryside along the Delaware river, picking up tomatoes down the road, and a fancy goat cheese at the market; to come home and feel very accomplished while I picked French sorrel and herbs from my little potted garden.

I used a variety of tomatoes; some from down the road, some from the little gourmet shop where I got the cheese, and one from a fancy grocery store.  We did a blind tasting before making the salad and it was hard to judge these tomatoes, they were so different — though surprisingly, the fancy grocery store won by a small margin. (They did cost about 4 dollars per small tomato: don’t judge me people, I knew full-well it was ridiculous!).  I also used a variety of herbs: lemon thyme, a few leaves of peppermint, basil, parsley, a load of chives, and some very biting sorrel.  The goat cheese, a pepper crusted capricchio, was a perfect addition; it made the watery juice of the tomatoes taste creamy and it tempered the bite of sorrel.  Pick a goat cheese that  packs a load of creaminess and some sort or herb or spice crust is a nice.  And if you don’t have an herb garden, you can just use whatever herbs are on your shopping list, two of them at minimum, because without the variety of herbs, you risk your good, simple salad turning bored.  We ate this with a chicken slathered with marsacapone that practically knocked me off my chair, which I’ll write about next, promise.  It was one of my favorite meals I’ve made, summery and, duh, simple.

Simple Tomato Salad

serves 2-3

3-4 heirloom or garden tomatoes, tasted for quality
small bunch sorrel leaves (or watercress or arugula)
handful of mixed herbs, such as mint, basil, lemon thyme, and chives
soft goat cheese, preferably with a pepper crust
balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
good quality olive oil, for drizzling
fleur de sel, or kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Slice tomatoes into thick slices and season with a bit of salt.  Leave in a colandar to drain for 15 minutes.  Toss them around so any excess water comes off, then arrange them on a platter.  Tuck the sorrel leaves under and around the tomatoes.  Tear or chop up the herbs and scatter over tomatoes.  Crumble the goat cheese over tomatoes.  Drizzle balsamic and olive oil over the tomatoes and season to taste with fleur de sel and fresh black pepper.

Magical gardening elves and snap pea potato salad.

We have magical elves for neighbors, I’m sure of it.  Magical gardening elves.  Because every day, on my way out of town, I stop at their shed on the side of the road and find fresh snap peas, or potatoes, or whatever’s been picked the day before. And my neighbors are not just magical elves because they grow and offer this stuff (lots of people have front-yard farm stands around here), they are magical elves because their food tastes magical. Take a look at this pea, for example.

It’s plump, sweet, and fresh-tasting.  I couldn’t even take the picture without stealing a pea first.  My neighbors’ sugar snap peas are better than any I’ve tasted from farm markets, let alone supermarkets.  And once a few weeks go by, the elves will start to put out heirloom tomatoes meaty and bursting with sweetly acidic flavor.  These tomatoes were what made Jim and me wonder last year, when we just moved into town, if we could ever leave.

This potato salad, made with snap peas and potatoes from my magical neighbors, and fresh herbs from my own puny attempts at gardening (why try, when you have gardening elves?), is the kind of potato salad that you can fool people into thinking is healthy.  Very green, full of herbs and peas, it’s almost as if it doesn’t contain a healthy dollop of olive oil and a couple pats of butter. (Unless you are set on making a healthy potato salad, don’t leave out the butter; it melds all the flavors together and keeps it from becoming one of those ultra-vinegary potato salads—the type that make you long for some good mayonnaise.)

Use basil and chives if you can, because the basil plays up the sweetness in the peas, and chives work wonders for boiled potatoes.  You must pour the vinaigrette on before the potatoes cool and don’t be alarmed if it soaks into the potatoes before you can say mum, it’s supposed to happen that way.  Those potatoes will take on the sharp flavor of the wine vinegar, and be better for it.  It’s okay that it seems too dry, that’s why you add the butter. The end product — with the butter and everything mashed up a bit — is soft, creamy, and rich, with a background kick. Bring it to your next barbecue.  You can even tell everyone it’s healthy, I’ll keep the secret.

Snap Pea Potato Salad

The measurements here aren’t exact, I’m using volume because I didn’t weigh the peas and potatoes.  You can tinker with the measurements if you like.

1 quart snap peas, string removed
1 quart new potatoes, washed
2 shallots, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1-2 tablespoons good white wine vinegar
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
pat or two of butter
basil, to taste
chives, to taste
salt and pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil, add potatoes and a few pinches of salt.  Boil until potatoes are firm-tender, adding the snap peas into the water during the last minute or two.  Drain and transfer potatoes and peas to a large bowl.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette:  In a small bowl or measuring cup, add shallots, garlic, a pinch of salt, a few grindings of fresh black pepper, and mustard.  Add vinegar and whisk with a fork.  Add a drop of olive oil and whisk, adding a few more drops as you whisk.  If the vinaigrette is starting to emulsify, you can add the rest of the olive oil and whisk until the mixture is creamy, otherwise keep adding olive oil in drops until it emulsifies.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pour vinaigrette over hot potatoes. Immediately stir to combine.  Stir in basil and chives and, once the vinaigrette has absorbed, stir in butter.  Season to taste with salt and pepper (it can take a lot of both.)


Adzuki, I’m so glad I ate you.

I’m sure you’ve all been in this situation.  You go to the market.  You see something new and exciting you’ve never eaten.  You buy it, sure that you’ll go home and promptly find exactly what to do with it.  And then you do go home, throw it onto your bean shelf in the bedroom (you all don’t have those? …Weird) and then promptly forget about it.

But thank goodness for the internet, specifically the group of uber-talented, delicious people who write food blogs. Like constant motivation, the food blog world weekly slaps me about the head and reminds me to get in the kitchen.  And it daily (hourly!) lends me ideas.  Heidi from 101 Cookbooks recently posted an adzuki bean and butternut squash soup and I remembered I had unused adzuki beans on my bean shelf in the bedroom (yes, I’m totally crazy and have no design skills.)  I’d imagined they would go in a soup when I bought them but of course forgot everything by the time I got home.  But now here was the perfect soup, on my screen.

It’s got lots of butternut squash and just enough chipotle to make you sweat.  Onions and tomatoes and 6 cloves of garlic.  And ground cinnamon, of which you’d hardly know it was there, but would miss it if left out.  I added some kale because I had some.  A little cumin because I love some.  [And meatballs because we’d been at the butcher and who doesn’t leave their favorite butcher without some ground meat?  Sadly, though, the soup was made and photographed the day before, sans meatballs, and I was too hungry the next day to stop and do anything other than eat my meal as soon as it was done.  Another time, maybe. And you don’t need the meatballs, anyway, I loved it just the same without.]

It was spicy and a little sweet and wholesome and comforting and whoo-damn it was good.  Jim deemed it the best soup we’ve ever made, and I was hard-pressed to disagree.  Adzuki, I’m so glad I (finally) ate you.

Adzuki Butternut Squash Soup Recipe

serves 6-8, adapted from 101 Cookbooks

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 generous teaspoons finely chopped chipotle pepper (from can, or rehydrated from dried chile)
  • 2 teaspoons fine grain sea salt
  • 2 medium-large onions
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 5 – 6 cups water
  • 5 whole canned tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 bunch lacinato kale
  • 4 cups cooked or canned adzuki beans
  • chopped cilantro for serving

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the cinnamon, coriander, chipotle and salt and saute for a minute or two – until aromatic. Add the onions and saute for about 10 minutes, until they are soft and beginning to brown.  Add the garlic and butternut squash and cook for another 5 minutes. Add 5 cups of water. Increase the heat to bring to a boil, and once boiling, reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the squash begins to soften, 15-20 minutes or so.

Once the squash has softened, break up some pieces with the back of your spoon (it should be soft enough for you to do this relatively easily). Add the tomatoes, and cook a couple more minutes before adding the kale and beans. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and the cilantro.
Heidi’s recipe was adapted from Jae Steele’s Get It Ripe: A Fresh Take on Vegan Cooking and Living (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008)

Birthday belly.

Jim turned 25 last Monday.  His birthday request was short and specific: cook him the pork belly we ate at Resto.  He didn’t care what else was served, or even who was there; he just wanted that belly—in all it’s maple-and-lime, turnips on the side, decadently sauced goodness.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have a recipe.  It wasn’t on the restaurant’s website.  Nothing came back when I searched “maple and lime pork belly”.  The only thing I was sure of was the kimchi soubise—pretty self-explanatory: soubise is a bechamel with pureed onions in it, so kimchi soubise would substitute kimchi for the onions.  I also knew there were turnips and green onions involved.  But nada on the cooking methods, well, other than the fact that the waiter said the belly was glazed.

[And before you go gasping Bechamel! On pork belly?! let me explain. You don’t need a lot. And it was so good. It clung to the fried fat, yes, the layer of pan-fried fat on the pork belly, and made it even creamier and smoother and delicious-y-er. And it was his birthday. And we were celebrating. (Not that we won’t make it again – we will. Celebration or no. Because it was that good.)]

So, I started off with what I knew.  I put the pork belly, fat side down, in an enameled dutch oven and rendered for 25-30 minutes.  This is where, if you’ve never rendered the fat of a pork belly, you have to be brave.  You’ll be sure that the meat is burning, that you’ve got to flip it over, or that the whole thing will overcook.  It won’t (well, if it really, really, really seems to be burning, it probably is).  If you look up to my pork, you’ll see the blackness of it—and that’s the way I like it.  After it rendered I poured off the fat, sauteed an onion, and put the pork belly back in the pot, fat side up now, with a few glugs of maple, the juice of a lime, and a couple pieces of ginger.  I added water to three-quarters up the side of the belly and prayed for the best during the three hours that it braised.

Then I made the soubise, with unhomogenized grass-fed milk.  If you haven’t used this stuff for white-sauce making, please, drop  your laptop and leave the house.  Go to the nearest Whole Foods, or organic food store, no matter how far it may be, and buy some.  Then get yourself home straightaway and make a bechamel, it will be thicker, creamier, and saucier than anything you’ve made with pasteurized milk.  You don’t need to put it on anything, eat it from the spoon.  (And then please come back here because I haven’t finished yet.)

Finally, when the pork was tender and falling apart, I sliced it thickly and put it into a nonstick pan with diced turnips.  I let it fry away—rendering more fat, browning, just reaching black—until both the pork belly and the turnips were charred and fried and unimaginably good.  It was tough, but I made it all onto a plate, covered it with the soubise and green onions and ever (I don’t know where I found the willpower) took a few photos.

And we celebrated Jim’s quarter century.  It was everything he could want in a birthday dish.  And, if I do say so myself (and Jim says too!!), better than Resto’s.

Pork Belly with Turnips, Kimchi Soubise, and Green Onions

  • 1 ½ pound pork belly
  • 1 onion, diced
  • ¼ cup maple syrup, plus 1 tablespoon
  • juice and zest of 1 lime
  • 1-inch piece ginger, sliced
  • ½ cup kimchi, chopped or pureed a bit
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 ¼ cups unhomogenized whole milk
  • 5-6 medium sized turnips, peeled and diced
  • 1 bunch green onions, sliced
  • salt and pepper

Score the fat side of the pork belly in a crosshatch pattern.  In a hot pan, place the pork belly fat side down over medium-high heat and render the fat for 25-30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350F. Remove pork belly and drain off all but 1 teaspoon of the fat.  Put pan back on the heat.  Add onions and saute for a few minutes.  Add maple, lime juice (reserving zest) and ginger.  Add pork belly.  Add enough water to reach halfway to three-quarters up the side of the belly.  Cover and move to oven.  Cook for 3 and a half hours, uncovering when you have about an hour to go.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a small saucepan.  Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste cooks and bubbles a bit, but don’t let it brown — about 2 minutes.  Add the hot milk, continuing to stir as the sauce thickens. Bring it to a boil.  Add kimchi puree to taste and cook a bit longer.  Season with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Remove pork belly from pot.  Slice thickly.  In a nonstick fry pan over medium-high heat, add a few spoonfuls of the liquid from the pork belly’s pot.  Add the turnips, and saute for a minute or two.  Add the pork belly slices and leave in place in the pan for 5 minutes, moving the turnips around every 30 seconds or so.  Flip the pork belly slices and let the other sides brown for 5 minutes.  Remove slices to a plate, frying up the turnips in the rendered fat a but longer, until they are very brown.  Remove turnips to plate.  Drizzle warmed kimchi soubise over pork belly and sprinkle with green onions.  Serve hot with crisp, cold beers.

New beginnings.

It doesn’t feel like so long ago when I was last having new beginnings.  It seems that graduating from college and facing the big-people world works that way.  You get a job, any job, and then realize you don’t want any old job.  You work for a while, gain some confidence and start looking for the next challenge.  You may then, even, find your perfect place, a nice Mom and Pop of a school, perfect hours, summers off, and wonderful people all around.  Ok, that’s unlikely, though it was what I had.  But, like the rest of the world, things fall apart. Companies get sold, disgruntlements ensue, and you start wanting to begin again.

So that’s where I stand now.  A part-time job and a fledgling personal chef business.  It’s exciting.  And scary.  And lovely… unimaginably lovely.  Kind of like this soup, really.  The whole time I was preparing it, from breaking down the garlic cloves to passing it through the food mill, I was scared for what was to come, but pretty thrilled for it.  Four heads of garlic?  Garlic soup?  It sounds like something out of True Blood, but there’s no vampires to fend off here.

You don’t need to be warding off blood-suckers to love this soup anyway, because it’s hardly pungent, almost indiscernibly garlic—that is until someone tells you it’s garlic soup and you become altogether terrified that someone who hasn’t eaten the soup will kiss you tonight.  Not that they would notice.  Or care.  (Because who doesn’t need a kiss, anyway?)

You won’t notice the thyme much either, though it’s not the same without it.   Fresh thyme is best, and it’s the same for garlic.  Don’t make this soup with brown-bottomed, half-dead garlic bulbs—make sure they are fresh, resilient, and either white or purple.  Check the roots because (not that I want to get into the whole nature/nurture discussion) brown spots at the root is bad news.  Luckily, finding good garlic is the hardest part.

Just break up 4 heads of garlic, brushing off the white, papery skins but not bothering to peel the cloves.  Throw them in a pot with 12 or so sprigs of fresh, fragrant thyme.  Splash in a quart of roasted vegetable stock, chicken stock, or water, and simmer away until the garlic yields to the gentle pressing of the back of a spoon.  Run everything through a food mill with a fine grater (or take out the thyme twigs and blend) and then add the juice of one lime.  Serve piping hot with a slice of good, crusty bread, or all by itself for a warming first course.  It tastes exciting and different from any other broth soups, and is invigorating enough to sustain you through a long kissing session afterwards.

Garlic and Thyme Soup

adapted from James Peterson’s Splendid Soups

serves 4 in small bowls

  • 4 heads good garlic
  • about 12 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 quart roasted vegetable stock, chicken stock, or water
  • 1 lime
  • salt and pepper to taste

Break down garlic heads into cloves, brushing away the white, papery skins but not bothering to peel.  Wrap the thyme into a bunch.  Add both to a 3 qt pot and cover with 1 quart of the vegetable stock, chicken stock, or water (I use roasted vegetable stock and it is lovely here.)  Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until the garlic cloves are soft and yield to a fork, about 40 minutes, depending on your garlic.

Run the soup through a food mill fitted with a fine grater, or take out the thyme sprigs and blend in a blender (if you blend, you’ll need to pass your soup through a sieve afterwards.  Add the juice of one lime to the soup and taste for seasoning, adding a little salt or pepper if you like.  Serve in warmed bowls.

Comfort and a butternut squash.

I’d planned to be right back to tell you about my cilantro-laced dinner.  You still have some oil, don’t you?  Good; now get yourself a butternut squash.

Some of you may have noticed this soup in last month’s Gourmet.  February was The Comfort Food Issue and, of course, I am going to make everything in it.  Because who doesn’t need comfort in the middle of February, whether it comes from your valentine, or your soup spoon, or (preferably) both?

The soup was a curried butternut squash and red lentil soup and it wasn’t supposed to be pureed, but I left it on the stove just a wee too long and the lentils were too soft.  I was happy for this mistake in the end, though, because after a few post-mistake tweaks the soup really shone.  A pinch of saffron, a dash of smoked paprika, and a little extra salt—what couldn’t be better for it?

The end result was a smooth yet full-bodied soup; you could taste the lentils and their earthy note while the complex sweetness of the squash and all the curried spices lingered.  The cilantro oil added an extra green pop—taste-wise and aesthetically. The look of this soup—bright warm yellow and stark green swirls—is enough to make it tasty.  But thankfully, the flavors don’t disappoint.

Curried-Squash and Red-Lentil Soup

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 pound butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 celery rib, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced peeled ginger
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder (preferably Madras)
  • 1 cup red lentils, picked over and rinsed
  • 2 quarts water
  • pinch of saffron
  • scant 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • black pepper

Heat oil with butter in a large heavy pot over medium heat until foam subsides, then cook squash, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, ginger, and 1 teaspoon salt, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened and beginning to brown, 15 to 20 minutes.

Stir in curry powder and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring frequently, 2 minutes.

Add lentils and water and simmer, covered, until lentils are tender, 25 to 40 minutes. Puree soup with an immersion blender or in batches in a stand blender.  Add saffron, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste.

Serve drizzled with cilantro oil.

Watercress salad wrapped in chèvre and bresaola, with lavender and fennel pollen.

It was Thanksgiving, and I gave you pulled pork I’m sorry.  I just wasn’t very organized this year.  I didn’t trial-run anything for the Thanksgiving feast at Jim’s parents—I hadn’t even decided to attend until two days before.  But I do have something for you.  It’s not turkey… or mashed potatoes… or pumpkin pie.  But it is delicious and was an interesting little addition to our Thanksgiving: Watercress salads wrapped in lavender-and-fennel pollen chèvre and grass-fed bresaola.

Now, I wouldn’t normally post something that required such specific ingredients.  But this just happens to be that good. Worth spending the time searching for grass-fed bresaola.  Worth finding lavender-and-fennel pollen chèvre (it shouldn’t be that hard).  And they are definitely worth the time spent to roll them up individually.

The grass-fed bresaola has earthy, grassy tones that I wouldn’t necessarily want in my air-dried meat—except that it goes so fabulously well with the flowery lavender and talcy and yellowed fennel-pollen.  Add to that sharp watercress (with their juicy, crunchy stems attached) and good, (at least 6 year-) aged balsamic and, really, how could I not post that combination?

It was really perfect for Thanksgiving—a meaty, earthy start to a warm and cozy turkey dinner—and would fancy-up a roast chicken dinner party anyday.  So… now you know what to do with that grass-fed bresaola and all that lavender-and-fennel pollen goat cheese lying around…

Watercress salad wrapped in chèvre and bresaola, with lavender and fennel-pollen

Makes 20-25

  • 1 1/2 tablespoon good balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon good olive oil or other oil
  • kosher salt, pepper
  • 1 large bunch watercress, trimmed with most of stems left on
  • 20-25 slices bresaola
  • 4 oz. lavender-and-fennel pollen chèvre, room temperature

In a medium bowl, mix balsamic, lemon juice, and oil until combined.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add watercress and dress so all the leaves are wet.  Let sit for 20 minutes to 1 hour.

Working one at a time, spread goat cheese carefully onto a slice of bresaola, taking care to apply enough pressure with your butter knife flat against the meat so that it spread thinly but doesn’t rip through.  Leave both ends of the bresaola slices without cheese on them.  Add a small handful of watercress onto the goat cheese and begin wrapping the bresaola by rolling from one side to the other—like rolling a cigarette.  Once rolled, press the edge down to seal the roll.  Begin again and roll until you are out of slices or of energy.  You can add a bit of salt and pepper on top if you like.  Serve room temperature.

Sick-day soup.

When I’m sick (yes, I got sick—my body’s way of  saying look, you’re on the couch anyways…) I like to eat foods that are acidic and spicy.  No noodle-soup, give me something to wake up my nasal passages and energize my stuffy head. And if nasal passages and stuffiness doesn’t get your tummy growling… this tomato & black bean soup will do the trick.

It’s more acidic than my regular black bean soup, with equal parts tomato and black bean.  Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce lend a spicy smokiness that screams earthy, complex… sexy. (Because who doesn’t need a bit of sexy in their sick-day soup?)

If you can, find some fresh oregano to use for the soup.  Fresh and dried oregano are really different animals. Dried oregano is too piney, akin to thyme, and gives off a deep, woodsy flavor—great for a sauce but, as I didn’t want to feel like I was eating a bowl of marinara, too strong for this soup.  Fresh oregano, on the other hand, is mild (depending on the type of fresh you have, some are pungent, mine was mild) and citrusy, with a touch of bright bitter.  If you wrap up a bunch of fresh oregano and drop it into the soup,  you’ll add a taste that will seem clean on the palate, a bright flavor that’s non-acidic.  It’s a way to counterbalance the tomatoes without adding a dairy, and I think it gives the soup that hidden-flavor mysteriousness that I like to call the sumthin’-sumthin’.  And, since this recipe is almost entirely made from canned goods, herbs elevate it into freshness.  If you don’t have fresh oregano, go for marjoram or cilantro or even nothing at all; just don’t substitute dried.

If you’re short on time, you can serve the soup after about 15 minutes of medium-heat simmer time, but I like to simmer low and slow—over low heat for about 45 minutes—before pureeing the soup a bit with the immersion blender and serving.  If you don’t care for thick soups, you can nix the pureeing for a more minestrone-consistency.  You could also add some grated cheese and sour cream to garnish but if you’re eating this during a cold, eat it plain.  Your nasal passages will thank you.

Smokey Tomato and Black Bean Soup

serves a few hungry people as a first-course or lunch

  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • half of one (7 oz.) can of chipolte peppers in adobo, with sauce
  • 1 (30 oz.) can black beans, drained
  • 1 (28 oz.) can fire-roasted whole tomatoes, with liquid
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 small bunch fresh oregano
  • salt, pepper

Take half of peppers out of the can, split them open with a paring knife and scrape out the seeds.  Discard seeds. Chop peppers.

Add oil into a big saucepan or medium dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add onions, cooking until they begin to brown.  Add garlic and chilis and about half the adobo sauce.  Cook for a few minutes.

Add black beans and tomatoes with liquid and water.  Break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon, leaving them in chunks.  Bring to a boil.  Skim off the foam if you are particular like that, and then lower the heat.  Add fresh oregano and simmer gently for the flavors to meld, 15 minutes if you are famished, 45 minutes if you can wait.  Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Naked tush on the beach… and mushrooms.

If you happened to be at Napeague Beach in East Hampton this weekend, you just may have seen my naked tush running full speed into the crashing ocean waves.  And if you were wondering what the hell is that naked tush doing running full speed into the crashing ocean waves, I’ve gotta tell you – it was one of those spur of the moment ideas that just seems so right—the water felt warm, I’d forgotten my bathing suit, the beach was empty save for a few walkers in the distance, and you only live once. I mean, everyone needs to run naked into the ocean in broad daylight once in their lives, right?

I couldn’t have imagined myself performing this act of public indecency a year or two ago—one of the wonderful things about getting older.  I’m no longer a teenager and I no longer care if the little-dots-that-are-people walking far in the distance on a practically deserted September beach would like me in my birthday suit.  I like me in my birthday suit—but that’s besides the point—and I like jumping in the ocean every chance I get.  And there’s no better chance than when the water in September is still warm and the sky has cleared up for a moment in your otherwise-rainy weekend in Hamptons.

Now, if you are wondering why in the hell this relates to food, well, it doesn’t.  Except that, alongwith my newfound mid-twenties attitude (ohmygodijustrealizedi’llbe25thisyear), I’ve grown to love lemon.  Maybe my tastebuds have a better attitude now too, but whatever it is, I can’t get enough of lemon.  Fresh lemon-juice and oily lemon rind.  There’s something so fresh, so don’t-worry-that-it’s-not-summer-I’m-around-all-year about the taste of lemon that just makes me smile.  A big, puckered smile.

Pair it with a good olive oil, young pecorino cheese, and shitake mushrooms and I don’t know if I’ll be able to control myself.  Seriously.  I might have to make a big bowl, strip down, and jump into this dish.  The lemon sparks up the mushroom’s earthy dankness while cutting through the silky olive oil and creamy cheese; parsley gives a good herbaciousness to it all.  You can (and should) make this dish ahead—making it the perfect dinner party dish, for when everyone comes in from their last romp at the beach.

Shitake Mushrooms with Young Pecorino

makes 6 servings//from Bon Appetit, October 08

  • 7 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, divided
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 lemon, peel cut into long thin slivers (yellow part only)
  • Coarse kosher salt
  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray
  • 1 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, cut into 1/2-inch-wide slices or left whole if smaller than 1 1/2 inches in diameter
  • garlic clove, peeled, flattened
  • 8 ounces young pecorino cheese (pecorino fresco) or Monterey Jack cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves

Whisk 5 teaspoons lemon juice and mustard in small bowl. Gradually whisk in 6 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in lemon peel slivers. Season dressing to taste with coarse salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 425°F. Spray rimmed baking sheet with nonstick spray. Toss mushrooms, remaining 2 teaspoons lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons oil in large bowl. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle mushrooms with coarse salt and pepper. Roast 15 minutes. Using spatula, turn mushrooms over and roast until soft and beginning to brown around edges, about 10 minutes longer.

Pour half of dressing over hot mushrooms on sheet. Add garlic and toss to coat. Let cool on sheet.

Combine mushrooms, cheese, parsley, and remaining dressing in medium bowl. Let marinate at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours. Discard garlic clove. Serve mushrooms and cheese with toothpicks, if desired.

Ugly as a Monkfish’s Uncle

If monkfish can teach you one thing, it’s “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” There are hardly any foods in the world that are this ugly:

But monkfish isn’t simply ugly, it’s also hands-down the best fish to use in a stew, assuming you can get over the look long enough to cook it. That was easy for me—I found it’s ugliness rather intriguing, actually, and the monkfish I had this weekend was fresh, clean, and about one day off the boat—caught from local fishermen and bought at the farmer’s market.

As soon as I saw the vendor was selling monkfish, I knew I had to make a fish stew. Snagging some mussels and clams, I moved on to the other stands and bought some of the most delicate, flavorfully-bitter arugula I’ve ever tasted.

I went straight to Anne Willan’s The Country Cooking of France cookbook (my favorite new book) once I got home, knowing it would have some great fish stew recipes. To my delight, one of the recipes is for Cotriade Bretonne, a fish stew with sorrel and leek. It calls for a rich fish (monkfish), a white fish (I had some hake in the fridge), and mussels. I could easily substitute the arugula for sorrel and why not throw some clams in there! A perfect combination.

The resulting soup was perfect in more than just the ease it took me to procure the ingredients—it was flavorful yet balanced, creamy yet light, with a hint of bitterness from the arugula. The mussels and clams were a fun addition for a Saturday night (we spent hours eating and plucking the meat from the shells, which were filled up with all the leeky, arugula goodness) but you could easily omit both bivalves and make this soup in no-time on a weeknight. I’ll certainly be doing so often.

Cotriade Bretonne

Fish Stew with Arugula and Leek

adapted from The Country Cooking of France, by Anne Willan

serves 6

  • 1/2 pound white fish, without skin
  • 1 pound rich fish, without skin
  • 1 1/2 pounds mussels
  • 1-2 dozen clams (optional)
  • 1 pound arugula (or sorrel), stems removed, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 3 leeks, white and green parts, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 quart fish stock
  • 1 pound potatoes, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced
  • 1 bouquet garni
  • 3/4 cup creme fraiche
  • juice of 1/2 lemon

Wash and dry the fish, and cut into 2-inch pieces. Clean the mussels and clams and arugula. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the arugula, cover, and cook until the green wilt. Uncover and cook until all liquid had evaporated. Set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a soup pot. Add onions, leeks, and garlic and cook until they soften, 8-10 minutes. Add the stock, potatoes, bouquet garni, salt and pepper and simmer until the potatoes are partially cooked, about 5 minutes.

Add the rich fish to the cooking liquid, immersing it in the liquid, and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the white fish and simmer until all fish are tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Discard bouquet garni. Add the arugula and creme fraiche, mixing gently. Top with mussels and clams (if using) and simmer until they open, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Serve with baguette toasts.