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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?

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!

Baked Apples


On a chilly morning one month ago, my beau and I awoke to the smell of coffee, bacon, and warm apples, the perfect recipe for luring us from our quilt-covered bed and down to the dining room of the King’s Cottage Inn for breakfast.


We had just taken a few sips of our coffee, and wished a Happy Anniversary to each of the two other couples in the room (one a 2nd, the other a 13th, while we kept mum about our 2-Month), when our hostess set before us the source of that lovely apple scent that had drifted up to our room – a baked apple.   Its center was filled with a mixture of oats, almonds, and cinnamon, and we both agreed that it was a perfectly cozy way to begin the day.   Never before this day had I been served a baked apple, and I now had to wonder why.  It seemed a relatively simple and fuss-free sort of thing, and yet there was a not-everyday-ness to it that I knew my daughter Greta would love.  I made a mental note to introduce this to our breakfast menu one day soon.

New Year’s Day turned out to be that day.   I devised my own recipe that morning, with what I found in my pantry, but having taken a look at the suggestions in The Joy of Cooking, it’s clear that one can go many ways with a baked apple – from basic with just brown sugar and cinnamon to a richer version involving almonds, figs, breadcrumbs and ginger to a savory sausage number.  But below you’ll find my version of the apple we ate in Lancaster, and proving that old saw, “Mother knows best,” Greta was delighted with the result.

Baked Apple Chez K

2 apples (I used Gala)

a little heavy cream (though milk will certainly do)

a little milk

1 Tbs. butter

1 pkg. instant oatmeal  (I used apples and spice flavor)

raisins, if you are so inclined

cinnamon

Ideally, one would use plain oats, and flavor them with a bit of cinnamon, brown sugar, and a pinch of salt, all moistened with milk.  Being out of oats on New Year’s Day, I resorted to a packet of instant oatmeal, apple and spice flavor.  I added a bit more cinnamon to the packet, moistened it with a bit of cream, and tossed in a few raisins.

I then halved the apples and cut out the core.  Into the resulting cavity, I rounded a tablespoon or so of the oatmeal mixture.  I dotted each apple with a bit of butter and then put them into a small casserole dish.

I poured a bit of boiling water into the dish (about 1/4″ or so) and covered the dish with foil.  I set the casserole in a preheated 375° oven for about 30 minutes, until the apples were tender, and then served them with a little warmed cream.

Greta’s Pancake (fka David Eyre’s Pancake)

Amanda Hesser wrote a column about this pancake in the March 25, 2007, edition of The New York Times Magazine.  I gave it try one day soon thereafter and have been making it ever since.  Well, perhaps I got us started, but in the past year or so, my nine-year old daughter has taken command.

This pancake is nothing more than eggs, flour, milk, and a little nutmeg, baked in the oven in a pan full of butter.  It is then topped with powdered sugar and lemon juice.  It’s a cinch to make, and the original recipe takes well to tweaking.  By the time I first showed Greta how to make it, I had already decreased the amount of butter called for and determined that a pinch of salt is a welcome addition.  Greta has increased the amount of nutmeg and to the recipe she adds her special stirring method.  I can’t tell you what she does, but her pancakes come out more billowy than mine every single time.  I’ve watched her, trying to uncover the secret of her technique,  but it evades me still.

Today being New Year’s Day, Greta and I decided that it was an excellent day for her pancake.  I had also decided to prepare a batch of baked apples, something I’d been wanting to do ever since I’d been served one for breakfast at King’s Cottage during that Lancaster weekend.  Greta set to work beating a couple of eggs, and then added 1/2 c. flour, 1/2 c. milk, and a pinch of salt.

Next the fresh nutmeg -her favorite part.  Greta will tell you to “just grate it until you think you’ve put in enough.”

After the nutmeg, blend until only combined.  The batter should still be a little lumpy.  (This is where Greta excels.)  Next, melt 2 Tbs. of butter (or twice as much, if you’re so inclined) in an oven-proof skillet.

Pour the batter into the hot pan,

and set it in a 425° oven.  Bake approximately 12- 15 minutes.  The pancake should puff up, in billowy mounds, and should have a lovely golden color, even toasty on the edges.

Remove pan from the oven and sprinkle to your heart’s content with confectioners’ sugar.

Next, we would normally sprinkle with the juice of half a lemon, but having discovered our fruit drawer remarkably bare of lemons, we decided to use an orange – and we loved it!

Cut the pancake in wedges and serve with berries, if you have them.  Jam or fruit butter might also be considered.

Next time:  the baked apples!

Two Cooks in the Kitchen

Confession:  I am one of those cooks who is a bit territorial in the kitchen.  Some of it stems from the fact that my kitchens have always been quite small and therefore difficult spaces in which to operate with more than one person.  But I’ll admit it, I also have a bit of a control issue in the kitchen.  I am an oldest child, and true to my birth order, do tend to believe that if  I want something done properly, it’s generally best to do it myself. (My sister would say “yes, you’re a know-it-all.”)   A number of recent events, however, have begun to move me in a new and surprising direction.

First was the “dinner is served” experience, though I believe things began to brew at the cheese counter on the evening of that salad and cheese dinner.   Next, the joint effort that resulted in the (largely) successful recreation of Effie Ophelia’s roasted carrot and fennel salad.  And then there was the double play of Christmas Eve.

I had decided to make spaghetti with Littleneck clams for our Christmas Eve lunch.  Dr. S was joining us, as my daughters had made an expressed request to spend some time with him, having had only a brief introduction to him one Saturday evening.

While he and the girls wrapped presents in the living room, I went about my business in the kitchen.  All was going well until I dug my spoon under the pile of Littlenecks, into the bottom of the pot to ladle out some broth.  To my horror, the broth was a deep and troubling gray, almost black.  I looked at the clams I had just spooned onto a dish of spaghetti and saw that one of them was filled with black mud, which had now spilled onto the spaghetti.  My cries of distress brought Dr. S to the kitchen.  After a peek in the pot, and a moment of thought, he asked if I had a gravy separator.  I did. While he poured the broth into the separator, I began to heat some oil and garlic, adding white wine and bottled clam juice, as a substitute sauce.  My level-headed friend suggested we stick the clams in a low oven to keep them warm in the meantime.

While the broth never did clear, it was an excellent idea and may well have worked if we had had more time.  Though not exactly the meal I had planned, the lunch was a success in the more important ways.

After the Christmas Eve Mass, my children left to spend the rest of the evening with their father and his family, and Dr. S and I headed to the home of good friends for a pre-dinner glass of wine.

Our menu for the evening was the same as my friend, Julie, had planned for her family –  Ina Garten’s Seafood Gratin.  While having our drink, Julie shared her frustration about how much prep time had been required.

“What?  I read that it takes only 20 minutes!”

“Ha!  It took forEVER to reduce that sauce!  And have you julienned the vegetables yet?  If you haven’t, you can forget about eating before 10.”

Well, as it happens, my physician had actually exercised his knife skills while the girls and I were at Mass.  But Julie is an experienced and good cook, so if this recipe had given her grief, there was reason to be concerned.

Once back in my apartment, we headed immediately for the kitchen. I began to clean the shrimp and prepare the scallops while Dr. S sautéed the leeks and carrots, started the sauce and picked through the lobster meat.  I chopped herbs then moved onto blanching the seafood while Dr. S melted butter and prepared the herbed breadcrumb topping.  While I reduced the sauce, the doctor sliced endive and whipped up a salad dressing.  Within 35 minutes we were sliding the casserole dish into the oven.  We sent Julie a text message 25 minutes later to let her know we were sitting down to dinner!

In my tiny railroad-style kitchen we had gracefully made this Christmas Eve dinner together.  And I had felt neither the need nor desire to provide my new kitchen companion with any instruction other than the next step in the recipe.

I think I could kinda love sharing my kitchen.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

At my physician’s suggestion (and invitation), I recently spent a weekend exploring Lancaster County, PA.  While this little trip did nothing to improve my aforementioned chronic condition, it resulted in a number of delightful eating experiences.

After booking our room (the Duchess) at King’s Cottage Bed and Breakfast, Dr. S received from the owners a comprehensive list of nearby restaurants.  Aided by this list and the recommendations of the ever-helpful Chowhound message boards, we had pretty much decided on Effie Ophelia in downtown Lancaster for dinner the first night.  But when we learned that the restaurant was scheduled to close in just two weeks time, due to a job-related relocation for the chef’s spouse, the decision was sealed.  Of course we must eat there!  If not now, when?!  And upon strolling by and peeking in the windows on the afternoon of our arrival in town, we were gleeful in our choice. (OK, perhaps “gleeful” better describes my reaction, but Dr. S certainly agreed that it looked like a great spot.)  We saw an intimate space, seating only 30, made cozier by the dark wood of the interior, the cushioned benches, and the red velvet drape protecting diners from the opening and closing of the front door.   Anticipation for dinner now beginning to build, and having skipped lunch after having eaten a rather late breakfast, we rushed off for the sustaining distraction of a hot chocolate with whipped cream.

A few hours later we were seated in that candle-lit room, sharing our two first courses, and making mental notes as to how we could recreate one of them at home.  While the sea scallops served over a mound of whipped parsnip and pear puree were perfectly seared and comforting on what was a chilly night, it was the roasted carrot and chickpea salad that captured our full attention.

We had not expected that the salad would be served warm, but it was.  It arrived at the table in a perfectly round form, a low cylinder, about 2 1/2 inches high.  Jutting out from the compressed form of chickpeas, spinach and roasted fennel, were roasted carrot batons, and a spiral of honey curry vinegar circled the plate.  After a few bites, it was quite clear that this was an example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.   Nothing fussy was going on here, just simple roasted vegetables with this interesting honey curry dressing.  As much as we enjoyed the sugar barbecued pork loin and striped bass that came next, the carrot and fennel salad remained on our minds.

And so it was that two nights later we decided to try to recreate it as part of our Sunday night dinner.

Clearly the carrots and fennel had been roasted, but we weren’t sure what the treatment had been for the chickpeas.  Because we they were somewhat flattened and blackened on one side, we surmised that they, along with the roasted vegetables, had perhaps been seared on a flat griddle beneath a heavy spatula, and then everything spooned into a cylindrical mold.  Not having a griddle, I decided to just toss the chickpeas in to roast along with the carrots and fennel.  (This would turn out to be a bad move.)  Determining that the spinach would need only a quick wilting, we turned to the honey curry vinegar.

With the discovery that his cupboard was bare of curry, Dr. S made a “kitchen emergency” call to his neighbor, and returned bearing a restaurant kitchen-sized container of Madras curry, but also somewhat soggier due to the torrents of rain he had to brave in the process.  We mixed, we tested, we added, and we learned a few things:

Number one:  it’s helpful to heat the curry in a little bit of oil in order to best bring out the flavor

Number two:  it’s helpful to heat the honey a wee bit, as well.

Number three: mix the curry and honey first and add the vinegar (we used rice vinegar) drop by drop.  You want the consistency to remain honey-like.  The object is a sauce with a sweet, hot taste, zinged up with a bit of vinegar.

The vegetables done, we were ready to compose!  Foregoing any attempt at a mold, we served the dish as a traditional salad, with a drizzle of honey vinegar.  The result . . .

Success – almost!!!

As I alluded to above, the chickpeas had not been properly handled.  They were crunchy.  And though I understand that some folks like crunchy, roasted chickpeas as a snack, they were out of place here.  After discussion, Dr. S and I agreed that the next time they should be thrown in for only the last few minutes of roasting, or perhaps even just heated in a bit of (curried?) oil.  But other than that, we were pretty pleased with our experiment.  It was the first time either of us had tried to recreate something we’d eaten in a restaurant and it was great fun!  I do believe we may do it again.

Thanks, Effie Ophelia!

Clam Sauce

I grew up eating linguine with clam sauce with regularity.  My mom’s version originated in one of those Junior League-type cookbooks, but over the years it became more her own.  When I had my first apartment, the recipe came with me to Boston’s North End, where I prepared it often for my roommate and friends.  It was budget-friendly and made for a great left-over lunch.  Later, it was one of my (now former) husband’s favorite dinners, and I could whip it up in a flash on a work night.   But here’s the thing.  This clam sauce is made with canned clams.

Now, I grew up outside of Boston and shellfish are not difficult to come by.   But the clam sauce we made at home never, ever involved live clams, and I never thought one whit about it.  Sure, I’d eaten linguine with real clams in restaurants, but, in my mind, clam sauce made at home was made with canned clams, end of story.   However, I’ve shared this recipe with acquaintances on several occasions, and I observed a certain reaction when I mentioned the canned clams.  It wasn’t much – perhaps just a “canned clams?” sort of thing – but after a few of these reactions, I began to wonder if it might be worth rethinking the whole canned clam idea.  And so I found myself buying a bag of New Jersey little necks at Whole Foods, in advance of my parents’ visit one recent evening.

If my mom’s recipe was quick, this one is like a lightning flash.  After scrubbing the clams, there just isn’t much else to do.  Mash a few garlic cloves, chop some parsley, cook the pasta.   The experience of eating this version is also more pleasing – nudging the clams out of their shells, the satisfying clinking the empty shells make when you drop them in another bowl, the ocean-like taste that is simply missing from the canned version.

My mom’s recipe, however, will remain in my repertoire.  It’s economical ($2.60 for two cans of clams vs. $20 for the Whole Food bag) and the ingredients are easily at the ready in the pantry.  But perhaps most important, it reminds me of home, my mom, and some of my first cooking experiences.

Mom’s Linguine with Clam Sauce

2 cloves of garlic (or much more)
1/4 c. olive oil
4 Tbsp. butter
2 cans of clams (minced or chopped)
1/2 c. white wine
1/4 c. chopped parsley
1/4 tsp. rosemary, chopped
1/4 tsp. oregano
1/4 – 1/2 c. clam juice (optional)

Saute garlic in oil and butter.  Drain clams (reserving liquid) and add reserved liquid, wine, and herbs to pan. (You may add additional clam juice to increase amount of sauce.)  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cover.  Simmer approximately 5 minutes or so.  Add clams and cook until heated through – do not overcook or clams will be tough.  Pepper to taste.  Serve over linguine.  Serves 4 to 6.

Spaghetti with Little Necks

50 little neck clams, scrubbed
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, mashed
1 c. white wine
Pepper
1/4 c. chopped parsley
Juice of half a lemon

While spaghetti is cooking, heat oil in bottom of a large pot, add garlic and sweat until soft.  Add clams, wine, and few grindings of pepper and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cover.  Stir occasionally and cook until clams have opened, approximately 8-10 minutes.  Add parsley and lemon juice.  Discard any unopened clams.  Spoon sauce over spaghetti.

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