Happy New Year from the Heartland

I spent Rosh Hashanah visiting good friends, Juliet and Phil, who lured me with the promise of an 18-pound kosher turkey and a smoker in which to cook it.

I arrived Friday evening and immediately began assessing the vegetables that had collected in the crisper. There were pattypan squash, corn and bell peppers in abundance. There were fresh herbs in the garden. I wanted a menu that spoke to traditional Rosh Hashanah foods (apples and honey) but also reflected the place (Madison, Wisconsin) and the season (that glorious moment in between summer and fall).

That night Phil stayed home with their son Doobie, who is almost two. Juliet and I strolled over to Lombardino’s for some Brandy Old Fashioneds (when in Rome) and classic Italian American food prepared well using local ingredients.

Saturday morning we headed to the Dane County Farmers’ Market, which is one of the best I’ve had the chance to visit. The stalls are arranged in a square around the state capitol. The Madisonians rotate counterclockwise in an orderly fashion—and are polite enough to not say anything when a New Yorker who’s forgotten something fails to do so. The quality and variety of the produce is pretty astonishing. And oh, the cheese curds!

We bought onions, edamame and poblano peppers to round out a succotash. We snacked on oatmeal rhubarb bars and beef jerky. We bought onions, shallots, leeks and apple cider. I had a vision of a bitter green salad with roasted squash and hazelnuts that would speak to the changing season. There were no delicata squash among the array on display at the squash stand, but the overall-clad man behind the table dug through buckets to procure three lovely specimens. The woman with the exotic greens had sold through her dandelion, but had some chicory that tasted right.

Afterwards, we hit an African drumming class at the Madison Children’s Museum. Doobie got down on the bongos while I tried out the reading nests. Juliet and Doobie headed home with our farmers’ market haul in the undercarriage of the stroller and I headed to the University of Wisconsin campus to collect a friend, Elliot, who was arriving on a bus from Chicago. We indulged in a Madison tradition, beer and bratwurst on the Memorial Union Terrace, which looks out over Lake Mendota before making our way back along the Lakeshore Path, admiring the sailboats bobbing in the water. One of the many charming things about Juliet and Phil’s home is that you know you’re almost there when you spot the octopus.

Later that afternoon, the five of us swung by the grocery store for a few last-minute ingredients. Doobie helped himself to some organic raspberries as we wandered aisles that were a bit overwhelming to an urbanite like myself. Case in point: there was an entire aisle devoted to frozen pizza.

That night a babysitter allowed the four of us to go out for decidedly not frozen pizza at Greenbush Bar. Located in the basement of an old Italian social hall, it is just as charming as it sounds.

Sunday morning was devoted to toasting hazelnuts, roasting squash (with olive oil, salt and pepper) and getting the turkey started in the smoker. We didn’t have one of those handy fire-starting chimneys, so Juliet and I conjured our inner girl scout and eventually achieved a nice smolder. We layered chunks of soaked apple wood on top of the lump charcoal, filled the drip pan with apple cider and set the bird (which I had rubbed inside and out with salt, pepper, allspice, sage and bay leaves the night before) to smoking. I was guessing that this would take anywhere from six to ten hours. I left Juliet, who had challah to make and a child to put down for a nap, with instructions for stoking the coals and refilling the drip pan.

Madison has a bunch of old rail lines that were converted into bike paths, allowing for minimal interaction with cars. Elliot and I followed one of these commuter paths down to the capitol where we had a lovely brunch at Graze, a locally focused gastropub in a light, airy space that’s definitely worth a visit. Four hours later, the smell of smoked turkey wafted down the block as we approached the house. It looked and smelled amazing. I added whatever wood chunks were left and drizzled a little grapeseed oil on top to ensure crisp, brown skin.

The rest of the menu came together pretty quickly.

While the turkey rested, I ladled most of the fat from the pan drippings off and poured the smoky, meaty apple cider that was left into a saucepan. I added some diced onions and salt and left it to simmer while I worked on the other dishes. Before serving, I hit this with an immersion blender, allowing the onions to provide the gravy with some body rather than risk gumming it up with a roux (and because I was already using every burner on the stove).

For the succotash, I browned some kosher Andouille sausage (yes, that exists—and it’s surprisingly good) in a little olive oil in cast iron skillet. I added onions, poblano pepper and red bell pepper. In time, I added the pattypan squash, some shelled edamame and fresh corn cut from the cob. Salt, pepper and basil went in just before serving.

Juliet carved the turkey, which we spread onto cookie sheets with some of the pan drippings and kept warm in a low oven until guests arrived.

I made a wild rice pilaf by sautéing leeks in olive oil, adding crushed red pepper and thyme. I toasted the wild rice in this mixture for a few minutes until each grain was coated and then added turkey stock. After 45 minutes or so of simmering, I pulled the rice off of the heat and added dried cranberries and crushed toasted hazelnuts.

I made a honey lemon dressing for the chicory, toasted hazelnut and roasted delicata squash salad by combining lemon juice, honey, shallots, olive oil, pepper and a little mayonnaise using an immersion blender. (Had this not been a kosher meal, I might have gone with buttermilk instead of mayonnaise.)

Guests began arriving at 6:15. By 6:30, we were an even dozen. Once the sun had set, Phil led us in blessings over the wine, over Juliet’s beautiful raisin-dotted challah, and over the apples and honey. Then we began eating. Things get a little blurry after that. There’s a mysterious alchemy to wine, a bounteous meal and interesting people. At these moments, I feel as though time has stopped and the only thing that exists is our table. It is a moment of pure joy.

Here’s to a sweet 5773!

Pesto and the Art of Procrastination

It’s Sunday evening and my computer screen mirrors my blank stare. That grant proposal that I’ve been meaning to get to has not magically written itself. The coming week is going to be beastly.

It would really be best to just finish the proposal tonight.


All three email accounts are checked. The dishes are done. The litterbox is clean. Hell, I’m procrastinating so hard that the plants are even watered.

Write, damn it.

Wait! Isn’t there a bouquet of purple basil that was brought by a brunch guest and is still languishing in the fridge? I don’t imagine that rosemary plucked from my dad’s front yard will be good for much longer. And what of the parsley that arrived in last week’s CSA share?

Screw the grant proposal; there’s pesto to be made!

  1. Toast a handful of pine nuts, walnuts or whatever else you have on hand in a cast iron skillet over medium low heat. Be sure to watch the nuts closely and stir frequently once they start to brown, as there’s a fine line between toasted and burnt.
  2. Rinse and stem your herbs. While basil is traditional, you can make a pesto with just about any herb. I have a particularly fond memory of a cilantro jalapeño and lime pesto that I used to top some grilled pork chops. In this case, I used the aforementioned purple basil, rosemary and parsley. I suspect that it will pair nicely with roast lamb or merguez.
  3. Toss your toasted nuts, a clove of garlic or a garlic scape, and the fresh herbs into a food processor and grind until you’ve got a coarse paste. This will likely necessitate scraping down the work bowl a few times. I find that it helps to start by pulsing. If it really won’t get going, just move on to Step 4. It’s all good.
  4. While cheese isn’t necessary, it is delicious. Mix in a cup or so of finely grated Parmesan, Romano or other sharp hard cheese. (This is an excellent use for that dried out hunk in the back of your cheese drawer.) If you do not already have one, I highly recommend acquiring a rasp, which is often referred to as a microplane in kitchen supply stores. It will make short work of hard cheese, citrus rind, whole nutmeg and your knuckles. Be careful!
  5. With the food processor running, gradually add a stream of extra virgin olive oil until your pesto reaches the desired consistency. I tend to go with less oil, which yields a thicker pesto, assuming that I can always loosen it up later if need be. In this case I used about half a cup of oil. Since you will not be cooking the pesto, this is the time to bust out the good stuff.
  6. At this point, you can call it pesto, but I find that a little tweaking helps. The pungency of the herbs, the saltiness of the cheese, and the grassiness of the olive oil will all impact the flavor. So taste it and adjust as you see fit. In this case, I added the zest and juice of one lemon to brighten the woodiness that the rosemary imparted. I added a little more salt and a healthy dose of freshly ground black pepper because I’m into that. Sometimes a pinch of sugar does the trick. Trust your tongue.

Pesto freezes brilliantly. I like to spoon it into ice-cube trays, freeze it overnight and then toss these cubes into a plastic baggie so that I can defrost just what I want on a given night.

The nights are getting colder and the air has that crisp feeling that signals the end of summer. Soon acorn squash and beets will replace the sweet corn and tomatoes and the notion of an overabundance of fresh herbs will seem laughable. Pesto cubes will be a welcome reminder of summer come January.

Baltimore Brunch (with Figs!)

While passing through Baltimore on vacation, I met a couple of lovely artists, David Page and Lauren Schott. Over a dinner that featured two kinds of bone marrow and necessitated a trip to the basement to use power tools, it came out that Lauren and David had three fig trees in their backyard and more figs that they could handle. Fueled by marrow and a good bit of wine, I invited myself and my Baltimore hosts Beth and Don to a fig picking brunch.

Two days later, we arrived bearing a basket.

Lauren explained how to identify the figs that were ready for picking (they’ve started to split at what I like to think of as the belly button) and we got to work.

This is about two-thirds of what we picked. And Lauren assured us that there would be just as many the next day.

Fig picking completed, we retired to the front porch, which has a distinctly Baltimore feel to it.

Lauren poured a round of bloody marys that she made using tomato “seconds” from the farmers market. They hit the spot.

Lauren and David’s two giant dogs stuck close to her as she prepped for our first course on a Weber grill in the front yard.

Grilled figs stuffed with blue cheese are good. A little freshly ground pepper makes them even better.

Eggs cooked inside of Canadian bacon cups and toasted peasant bread followed. Lauren did this all on the grill, using a cast iron muffin tin to cook the bacon and eggs. Cooking eggs for a crowd can be tough. (I frequently resort to a frittata or quiche, which can be prepared all at once and served hot or at room temperature.) I made a note of this technique.

When we had finished eating, David took me and Beth on a tour of his studio space and some of the pieces that he was working on for an upcoming show in Philadelphia. This mask is part of a head-to-toe suit that will be worn by a volunteer during the show. David was kind enough to humor us. It was dark in there.

I could have spent the rest of the day hanging out on Lauren and David’s front porch, but I imagine they had other things to do–and I had a train to catch–so off we went with our basket of figs.

Two weeks later, as I sat at my desk contemplating a mountain of work, a package arrived. Apparently Don had been busy. It contained jars of homemade fig pickles and fig barbecue sauce. The fig love continues.

Rice and Peas de Provence

I’ve been laying low since getting home from the beach, resting up in preparation for my return to work and–after a 16-year hiatus–my return to school. I’m starting the Master’s Program in Food Studies at New York University tomorrow. My weekend goals included finishing the baby blanket for my nephew (just need to weave in the loose ends), the juicy novel I started at the beach (33 pages to go), and season 3 of Mad Men (done).

Ordinarily, my little corner of Brooklyn is a pretty quiet place. But each Labor Day millions (yes, millions) of people descend on my neighborhood for the West Indian Day Parade. The bump bump of giant speakers loaded onto flatbed trucks and the aroma of jerk chicken cooking on steel drum grills waft through the air on what I’ve come to view as the last day of summer.

But a week and a half of vacation eating have left me craving vegetarian fare and the cupboard is pretty bare. Rooting through the fridge, I found some celery, garlic and red onions left over from my CSA share. On the counter were dried French lentils that I’d bought on a whim just before leaving town, some unnamed Caribbean hot peppers my stepmom had picked up at Spence’s Bazaar (a must if you find yourself in or around Dover, Delaware) and dried porcini mushrooms that I’d bought at Byler’s (a country variety store in Dover that’s also worth a visit).

Clearly, a West Indian-Provencal mashup was in order…

Rice and Peas de Provence

  • 1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms
  • vegetable stock (I’ve taken to keeping a jar of Better Than Bouillon on hand)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tbsp herbes de provence (or an equivalent amount of thyme, rosemary, savory, fennel and/or basil)
  • 2 whole allspice berries, crushed into a fine powder
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
  • 1 Scotch bonnet or other hot pepper, cut in half and seeded
  • 3 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 cup French lentils (the small ones)
  • 1 1/2 cups long-grained rice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter (you could use canola or vegetable oil to make this a vegan dish)
  • 1 large red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 lemon
  • salt and pepper
  • Scotch bonnet or other Caribbean hot sauce
  1. Bring 4 cups of vegetable stock or 4 cups of water with bouillon to a boil in a medium-sized heavy pot and add dried mushrooms, breaking up any large pieces. After five minutes, add the bay leaf, spices, wine, garlic, pepper and celery and let boil for an additional five minutes.
  2. Add lentils, lowering heat to a simmer. After five minutes, add rice. Let simmer for 25-35 minutes, stirring gently and adding small amounts of water as needed, until lentils and rice are just tender. Turn heat off and top with a tight-fitting lid.
  3. Melt butter over medium-low heat in a small pot and then add onion. Cook until onions are very soft, stirring frequently. 
  4. Remove bay leaf. Add cooked onions, lemon juice salt and pepper to taste. If the dish is spicy enough for you, remove and discard the pepper. Alternately, you can mince it up and add it back to the pot, which is what I did.

I’m meeting a neighbor at 7:00 for a little rooftop dining. I plan to serve this with some Scotch bonnet pepper sauce that I picked up in the Bahamas and a Vinho Verde that I have on hand, although I suspect that some ice-cold beer would also do the trick.