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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?

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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!

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