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Mediterranean Inspiration

Between fish tacos and margaritas, I got quite a bit of reading in during our visit to SayulitaMediterranean Summer by David Shalleck, the story of his summer as a chef on a private sailing yacht in the Mediterranean, was a perfect beach read, except that it made me want to race to my kitchen.  But on Sunday night, when I had retrieved my daughters from their annual week in Massachusetts with my parents, it was time for David’s Linguine with Clams and Zucchini.  Additionally, Greta informed me as we were driving home from our Connecticut rendezvous spot that she was feeling the need to do a little baking.

“Can we do that, Mommy?  Can we bake something?”

“Well, I picked up some nectarines at the farm stand this morning.  How about a nectarine crumble?  And we could use some of those blueberries you’ve got there from your blueberry picking expedition with Nana and Grampa.  How’s that sound?”

“Good!”

The thing that made me want to give this clam recipe a try, was the idea that the almost over-cooked zucchini provides a coating that allows the sauce to better adhere to the linguine.  (Plus, as you know, I’ve just got a thing for linguine and clams.  New twists always welcome!)   You cook the zucchini in garlic and a nice amount of olive oil, remove the zucchini, and then cook the littlenecks (I had to use mahogany clams from Maine on this night) in the zucchini-garlic-flavored oil.  Add some hot red pepper (which I had to forgo in consideration of my daughters’ sensitive palates) and parsley, toss it all (including zucchini) together, using a bit of pasta water to make a bit more of a sauce, and va bene!

As for the crumble, we peeled the nectarines, added the blueberries, and Greta did her magic with cinnamon and grated nutmeg.  She then mixed together some whole wheat flour, oats, brown sugar, dash of salt, and pinched it all together into crumbles with half a stick or so of butter.   Many would insist that vanilla ice cream is the only appropriate accompaniment, but I prefer something to cut the sweetness a bit – honeyed yogurt or creme fraiche will do the trick.  If you’ve got some heavy cream in the fridge, how about that?




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Dinner for an August Night in June

The schools were closing early due to the 100 degree heat, and a sweet little bag of key limes became the inspiration for dinner.  Steak fajitas with guacamole, rice and beans seemed the perfect dinner for the south of the border-type heat we were experiencing.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this, but for a brief period of time I worked in the garde manger station of David Burke’s now-defunct Park Avenue Café .  We were responsible for cold appetizer preparation, and for a few hot summer days, this included a special of guacamole.

Park Avenue Cafe, circa 1997

A quick search on Epicurious produces 48 guacamole recipes.  Among the several versions found on The California Avocado Commission website is guacamóle auténico, which calls for cumin, tomato, sweet white onion, Serranos, cilantro, and lime juice.  Meanwhile, back in the kitchen we were told that Chef Burke’s version was the authentic one, and being young and impressionable, I believed it and have stuck by it.  Our version called for nothing more than salt, lime juice, and cilantro.   I seem to recall that some chopped tomato may have garnished the plate, but it certainly wasn’t incorporated into the guacamole prior to serving.

Aside from ingredients, another place where the guacamole camps diverge is on the question of texture.  There are some folks out there who apparently like their guacamole to have the texture of Cool Whip.  Should you find yourself invited to my home for margaritas, the guacamole I will serve you will be chunky.  The preparation of the avocado is, in fact, my favorite part of guacamole-making.  After scoring the avocado in half the long way, twisting each half in opposite directions to release one side from the pit, you can (carefully) smack the heel of your chef’s knife into the pit and twist to remove the pit from the other half.  You can then take a smaller knife and score the flesh of the avocado diagonally in one direction, then the other, forming a diamond pattern. Now, take a spoon and, pressing the back of the spoon against the shell, you can scoop out the flesh, and voila!  Diced avocado!  (For those visual learners among my reading audience, the next time I have avocados on hand, I will take a few photos of this process and add them here.)

One thing about which I’ve learned that my sous chef friends were mistaken, however, is the notion that submerging the pit in your guacamole will prevent discoloration.  Thanks to the thorough experiments of Harold McGee, author of The Curious Cook, I now know that the best way to prevent browning (which is caused by the interaction of oxygen with an enzyme in the avocado), is to lay plastic wrap directly on the exposed surface, being sure to eliminate all air bubbles.  While the pit will protect the small bit that it touches from browning, Harold tells us that a light bulb would perform the same function.  Nothing magic about the pit, and plastic wrap does a more effective job.

Margaritas, anyone?

Happy Mothers’ Day

At 7:45 this morning, I was awoken to a chorus of “Happy Mothers’ Day, Mommy!” and the sight of two beaming girls holding a breakfast tray.  For the past several days, 9-year old Greta had been saying that she wanted to make scrambled eggs for me for Mothers’ Day, and while telling her what a lovely thought that was, I had tried to encourage something that wouldn’t involved the stove top, since the thought of the girls in the kitchen with an open flame, while I slept, was a bit unnerving.

“We used Julia’s recipe, Mommy!”

“Julia?”

“Yes, Julia Child!”

How fantastic is that?!!  My daughters had turned to Mastering the Art of French Cooking for their first solo cooking endeavor.  Could I be more proud?

Considering how well that had all gone, I reasoned that it would be ok to ask Anna to put a kettle on, for my coffee, while I read their cards.

A few minutes later, after I had opened a gift of homemade vanilla-scented sugar and olive oil scrub, I realized I had been hearing a periodic clicking sort-of sound and asked Anna to take a peek in the kitchen to be sure everything was ok on the stove.  “Oh, no! Oh, no!” is what Greta and I heard seconds later.  I ran to the kitchen half expecting to find the room ablaze, to discover the milk bottle we have been using as a water carafe, sitting on the stove top, directly beside the gas burner, still standing but cracked into three pieces.  Though the girls were fond of the bottle, fortunately this was no catastrophe.  In fact, it provided a “teaching” moment, as well as an opportunity to practice my nursing skills.

Because as soon as I picked up the bottle, it fell to pieces and at least one tiny shard ended up on the floor, and soon after, in Anna’s foot.  Thus I found myself, seated by the window, sipping my coffee, tweezers in hand, extracting a sliver of glass from Anna’s tender foot. What’s a Mothers’ Day without a little mothering!

Sunday Night Pasta

After a weekend road trip to visit friends in the nation’s capitol (little did we know the intrigue that was afoot as we strolled past 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday afternoon), which included the consumption of mussels in a cilantro and coconut milk sauce at Bertha’s; baseball-size crab cakes from Faidleys Seafood; home-roasted salmon followed by berries with a brown sugar, amaretto sour cream sauce; fried artichoke hearts, NY strip steak, and Belgian beer;  and finally Sunday-morning eggs Benedict, by our return home on Sunday evening, we were ready for the easy comfort of a big bowl of pasta.

I suggested a recipe my trusty traveling companion had found in The NY Times a few years back – Fettucine with Butter, Peas, and Sage Sauce.  Agreement.  After a quick stop at the grocery store, dinner was soon in the making.  My beau has himself a lovely little herb garden, and the sage is already a good 8″ high, so I had no trouble procuring the requisite 12 leaves, though it was so much fun to pluck them that we went this evening with 20. 

When I returned to the kitchen, wine had been poured, water had been put up to boil, and a stick of butter was melting on the stove.  The sage was tossed in with the butter to stew a little bit, and I leaned back against the counter to enjoy my wine, while my host measured parmesan, toasted some pine nuts and prepared a salad dressing.

I love cooking.  And I love cooking for and with Dr. S.  But there is something so very delightful about watching Dr. S. cook for me, for us.  I don’t know that I will ever tire of it!  (Remind me to tell you about the recent breakfast he prepared out of dinner leftovers. . .)  So my contribution to this meal preparation was minimal.  Other than picking the aforementioned sage leaves, I tossed the butter sauce onto the pasta, popped it in the oven, and lighted the dining room candles.  Here’s what dinner looked like as it went into the oven . . .

And here’s what it looked like on the table . . .

And in case you’d like your own dish of this comforting pasta next Sunday night, here’s the recipe, courtesy of The NY Times, but with our own secret ingredient added at the end!

Fresh Fettucine with Butter, Peas, and Sage Sauce

1/2 c. butter

12 fresh sage leaves (but you can’t go wrong with more)

1 c. frozen petite peas

salt & freshly ground black pepper

1 lb. fresh fettucine

1/4 lb. Parmesan, grated (about 1 1/2 c.)

Optional:  J’s secret ingredient – Truffle Salt!!!

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and put the pasta water on.  Melt 1/4 c. of the butter in a small saucepan, and add the sage leaves.  Cook until they’re crisp – but not burnt!  When the butter begins to brown, add the peas and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.  Add 1/4 c. water, cover the saucepan and reduce the heat to low.  Cook for 10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cook the fettucine, drain well and, in an ovenproof dish, toss with the remaining 1/4 c. of butter, 1 c. of the grated Parmesan and the pea and sage mixture.  Place in the oven for 5 minutes.  Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan, and, if the idea does not offend you and you are so fortunate as to have it in your pantry, serve with truffle salt on the side!

Cooking for One

My daughters are spending the April vacation with their father, and the needs of family and work are taking a big part of Dr. S’s time at the moment.  Thus I have found myself somewhat at loose ends recently when it comes to my evening meals.  One night was cheddar, crackers, and wine, while Skyping with my dad, but last night I spent a few minutes in the kitchen, determined to make dinner for one from my almost-empty fridge.  (With the girls gone, why grocery shop?)  I found a red pepper and a nice bunch of basil.  I channeled that most fabulous former Gourmet writer and novelist Laurie Colwin (don’t tell me you don’t own Home Cooking), and slowly sauteed that red pepper in olive oil and garlic, while I brought water to a boil and julienned the basil.  Into the water went some penne, and when it was almost done I threw a huge handful of basil in with the now quite softened red pepper and garlic.  A big grinding of pepper, little salt to taste, and the sauce was done.  I tossed the cooked pasta into the red pepper pan, poured it into a bowl, added a very generous grating of parmesan, poured a glass of wine, and sat myself down in front of “The Black Swan”.

If poor “White Swan/Black Swan” Nina could only have contented herself in the same fashion, I think things may have turned out quite differently for her.

Toasted Barley and Sweet Potatoes

In addition to avoiding raisins, best friend Kathleen tries to keep her home leaning toward vegetarianism, something encouraged by her husband since he began reading books such as Eating Animals, Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Bacon, beef, and eggs do still make an occasional appearance, but overall there’s a great deal of healthy eating going on in their Westchester home.  And so I found myself flipping through Jesse Ziff Cool’s Simply Organic, as I sat at Kathleen’s kitchen table some months ago.  It was a chilly November day, and I was looking for some inspiration for the coming week’s dinners.  What I happened upon was Toasted Barley and Sweet Potatoes.

My daughters both LOVE sweet potatoes, and this looked like a pretty good way to include a whole grain.  The author suggested that it could be turned into a more substantial meal by adding an egg, or leftover chicken or shrimp.  We like it with an egg, as the runny yolk contributes an additional layer of taste to the whole event.

Toasted Barley and Sweet Potatoes

1/2 c. pearl barley

2 Tbs. vegetable oil

1 small onion

2 sweet potatoes, cut into 1/4″ pieces

2 c. vegetable broth

salt & pepper to taste

One egg per diner

Toast the barley in a skillet over low heat until just lightly brown.  Set aside.  Saute the onion in oil until softened.  Add the sweet potato and barley and stir to coat with oil and onion.  Add the vegetable broth, salt and pepper, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover.  Cook until the sweet potato is just tender (you don’t want it too mushy), somewhere in the 20 – 35 minute vicinity, depending on the size of your sweet potato cubes, and the strength of your flame.  Prepare the eggs (“over easy” is usually the way I go, but poached would be lovely, too).  Enjoy!

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