The Art of Assembly

This time of year one’s cooking skills are a bit of a fifth wheel. The produce is so varied and abundant that the real challenge is narrowing it all down to a single meal. From there, it’s mere assembly.

I’m hosting a fancy fundraiser in the Hamptons next weekend, which necessitated a midweek trip to Sagaponack. Turns out that the drive out isn’t so bad if you hit the road at 10:00pm on a Tuesday. By midnight I was in bed munching the last of my blueberries and perusing a magazine.

The next morning was a flurry of espresso and emails. I knocked off in time to hit the amazing Breadzilla for lunch before my noon meeting. In my experience, the Hamptons is rife with overpriced and lackluster food. But I happily forked over $16.50 for the best lobster roll of my life, which I ate on a bench in the adjacent garden. I also picked up a baguette, assuming it would play a roll in the evening’s dinner.

The afternoon was back-to-back meetings. I selected flatware and linens, discussed the logistics of transporting a baby grand piano, and wandered around Wölffer Estate Vineyard with a tape measure while vacationers enjoyed wine flights. I did manage to squeeze in a stop at a farm stand, picking up Italian eggplant, zucchini, young shallots with the green shoots still attached, basil, and some unimaginably sweet small yellow tomatoes. I was saved from buying even more by their cash-only policy. This is what I could get for the $16.50 in my wallet.

Veggies

I got a bit lost trying to take the back roads home, but was rewarded when I passed a fish shop selling all sorts of local delights. Mercifully, they took credit cards, so I was able to pick up a pound of wild sea scallops, a couple of balls of burrata, and a lemon for good measure. I still didn’t know what I was going to make, but it would be hard to go wrong with these ingredients.

The day was a hot one and my last meeting had been on an unshaded terrace. I got back to the house where I was staying around 5:00 and rewarded myself with a dip in the pool.

Another hour of furious emailing and it was off to collect my dear friend Louis at the train station. On the way home, we picked up the two final ingredients for our evening meal: rosé and rosé. We made short work of the first bottle, a Côtes de Provence, while gabbing poolside as the sun set.

Sunset

Time to uncork the next bottle and start assembling dinner. I cut the shallots in half, leaving the green ends intact, and tossed them with olive oil, salt and pepper. The scallops got the same treatment, minus the slicing. (Had I been able to locate a grater of some sort, they would have gotten some lemon zest too.) I cut the eggplant and zucchini on the diagonal and added fish sauce and tamari to my simple marinade.

While I fired up the grill, Louis got busy halving the tomatoes, chiffonading a bunch of basil, and pouring another round of wine. Once they were ready, I arranged the grilled veggies and scallops in stripes alongside the tomatoes and burrata, which I tore into hunks. The whole platter got a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and some fresh cracked pepper.

This being a casual and intimate meal, we dined at the kitchen table, each armed with a soup spoon to ladle things onto our plate, a lemon wedge to dress our meal, and a baguette hunk to sop up the juices.

Summer DinnerThe evening concluded with a midnight swim.

The next morning found us back at the kitchen table, where we worked until lunchtime. Then it was off to Breadzilla, where Louis enjoyed the lobster roll while I moved on to the delightful shrimp salad. In the afternoon, I downed an espresso and swam laps, which was a shockingly pleasing combination. A few more hours of work and it was time to bid the pool adieu and head back to the city. But first, one more farm stand…

Louis Melons

Jasmine Melons

Garlic Scape and Happy Rich Omelette

A CSA share can be a bit daunting when your household numbers just one. Despite having had folks over for dinner Friday and Saturday, I had yet to plow through last week’s vegetables by the time Tuesday’s pickup rolled around. Digging through my crisper this morning (after a completely unnecessary trip to my local farmers market), I came upon some Happy Rich (aka broccolini) that was looking a bit worse for the wear. The leaves were mostly yellowed and the buds had opened into delicate white flowers. But the stalks were green and crisp, so game on.

  1. Bring a tablespoon of olive oil up to medium heat in a small nonstick skillet and add a garlic scape sliced into long, thin slivers. (Regular garlic would also work, but ’tis the season of the scape.) Add a pinch of red pepper flakes.
  2. When the scapes are softened and just starting to brown, add a cup or two (one small bunch) of roughly chopped Happy Rich, starting with the stems, which will take longer to cook. Pour a little water in to help them steam. I recommend aiming for an al dente texture. Stir in the flowers and leaves along with salt and black pepper. Turn the temperature down to medium low.
  3. Crack two eggs into a cup and mix gently with half an ounce or so of shredded cheese. (I used a youngish aged gouda to great effect.)
  4. Pour the egg mixture into the pan and stir briefly to ensure even distribution. Sprinkle a little more cheese on top. When the bottom seems to be firm, pop it under the broiler for a couple minutes to set the top.

This was crazy good. Now on to the bok choy, kale, kohlrabi, and Swiss chard that are still in the crisper!

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Is It Spring Yet?

Despite having lived in New York for more than two decades, I am newly disappointed each March to discover that it is still winter. School, work, and a chronic lack of sunshine conspired to make this past week quite challenging. By the time Friday rolled around, I was ready for some relaxation in the form of a specialty cocktail.

Is It Spring Yet?

  1. Add a shot (or more if you’ve had as rough week as I’ve had) of white rum and two to three times as much mango nectar to a rocks glass.
  2. Use a microplane or the fine holes of a cheese grater to grate some fresh ginger into your glass and give it a stir. (Your index finger works fine.)
  3. Pour some Prosecco or another dry sparkling wine on top, add a squeeze of lime, and plop in a large ice-cube.

This cocktail pairs beautifully with takeout Indian food and your sister and brother-in-law’s HBO on Demand while your nephew slumbers in the next room.

Is It Spring Yet goes down so easy that you might find yourself feeling less than stellar the next day. Fortunately, there’s a cure for that, and the ingredients can all be found at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket – even in early March.

Not Yet Spring Breakfast

  1. Get your ass out of the house. Be sure to take gloves; it’s still cold. Seriously.
  2. Grab some coffee on the way to the farmers market. (If you failed to bring gloves, this will help.)
  3. Pick up some fresh Madura Farms shitaake mushrooms, an organic whole wheat sourdough miche from Bread Alone, a hunk of Cato Corner Farm Farmstead Cheeses’ Dairyere and, if you don’t have some stashed in the fridge, a shallot and some eggs.
  4. Head home, remove your pants. In that order.
  5. Add half a tablespoon of unsalted butter to a small skillet over medium heat. Once the foaming has subsided, add a finely minced shallot and sauté for a few minutes. Sprinkle a little thyme over the top and then add halved or quartered mushrooms. Stir occasionally, allowing your mushrooms to brown. At some point, add salt and pepper.
  6. Lay thin slices of cheese atop sliced bread and broil until bubbly and browned.
  7. Turn the heat under your pan down a tad, slide the mushrooms onto a plate, add a little more butter and fry an egg. A bit of water and a lid will help cook the white while preserving the runny yolk. 
  8. Assemble the components as you see fit, grind a little pepper over the top, and enjoy.

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The Hungover Fig

I’m kicking off a two-week vacation with a few days in Baltimore visiting good friends who are serious foodies.  Last night we hosted a truly decadent dinner party that featured two kinds of roasted bone marrow and a whole lot of wine.  Unsurprisingly, I woke up feeling less than stellar this morning.

I dragged myself downstairs for coffee and was delighted to recall that one of our dinner guests had left fresh figs from her yard.  I trimmed the stems off and scored the figs into quarters before topping them with some rather pungent sheep’s milk feta and a drizzle of raw honey.

I ate this standing at the kitchen counter.  Midway through, one of my hosts appeared and tipped me off that there was fresh mint growing in the backyard, so I sprinkled some small leaves over the top.  This dish is so simple and so delicious and works with all kinds of cheese.  I am particularly fond of ricotta and soft goat cheese.

As I polished off the last of the figs, I remembered that we scored an invitation for brunch and fig harvesting on Saturday before I head down to the beach.  Life satisfaction is high at the moment.

Living Room Picnic

Last night I was supposed to meet friends in Prospect Park for a screening of The Muppet Movie. Mother Nature had other plans. I’d been prepping for a picnic, but a blanket over the coffee table would have to suffice. On the menu: a Pressed Picnic Sandwich, Quick-Pickled Kale and Beets, Potato Chips (lifted from Thursday’s Prospect Park Alliance fundraiser) and a boatload of rosé.

Pressed Picnic Sandwich

This isn’t so much a recipe as a concept. The idea here is to layer a bunch of tasty ingredients in a logical order and then to press the sandwich with a weight.

I started with a round, day-old olive loaf from BKLYN Larder, but imagine you could use any rustic loaf with a nice crust. I sliced the loaf in half horizontally and scooped out most of the soft stuff with my hand, leaving about 1/2 inch all the way around. I then slathered the inside, top and bottom with a homemade tapenade (oil-cured black olives, anchovies, basil, garlic scapes, almonds, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, capers, and whatever else was lurking in my fridge.). You could use prepared tapenade or pesto or even some herbed mayonnaise. The key is that you need a layer with some fat in it to prevent the bread from getting soggy.

I then added a layer of browned onions followed by strips of grilled summer squash. (I like to do this in a hot cast iron pan and then sprinkle the vegetables with smoked sea salt to give them the depth that comes from outdoor grilling). Next up was an Italian cow’s milk cheese. I’m blanking on the name, but it was creamy and a little tart, which provided a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the veggies. Then layers of hot sopresatta, prosciutto and peppadew peppers.

I wrapped the sandwich in a couple of layers of aluminum foil and placed a cast iron grill pan over the top. Periodically, I would flip the sandwich and apply pressure to the pan until the sandwich looked like a UFO. I would guess that you want this to sit for at least an hour. (Had we been successful in dining outdoors, I would have stuck the sandwich in the bottom of the picnic basket, allowing the weight of the other items to do the pressing.)

As you can see, it sliced beautifully.

Quick-Pickled Kale and Beets

  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2-3 Tbsp combined of whole pickling spices (such as coriander, fennel, allspice, cloves, cumin, fennel, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, bay leaf, mustard seed, etc.)
  • 1 pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1 thinly sliced red onion
  • 4 large beets
  • Small bunch kale including stems, roughly chopped

Combine all but the last two ingredients along with ½ cup of water in a small saucepan, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and let simmer for 20-30 minutes to give the spices a change to release their flavor into the brine. In a separate pot, add the beets, cover with water, bring to a boil and cook until they give when pierced with a fork (approximately 30 minutes). Pull the beets out and add the kale, starting with the stem pieces. Let this boil for a few minutes and then drain. When beets have cooled, peel and slice them. Combine beets, kale and brine in a jar or plastic container and let sit for at least one hour, making sure to stir if the brine doesn’t fully cover the vegetables.

The living room picnic continued with a trip to the wine shop for reinforcements, a Barbie styling session and fresh nectarines and rum over salted caramel ice cream. Regrettably, it did not conclude with any efforts to clean up.

The Kale Caesar Cure

That last margarita was definitely not necessary. I awoke this morning to a trail of clothes leading from the front door to the kitchen, where I had stopped off to grab a glass of water before planting my face in a pillow. Note that I did not actually drink the water, despite the advice of the drag queen in house slippers who read our palms on a dimly lit street corner somewhere in the West Village. But that’s another story.

Something healthy and restorative was in order.

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Kale Caesar

  1. Heat a cast iron skillet to medium-low with half a tablespoon of butter and a thinly sliced garlic glove.
  2. Cube a slice or two of stale bread. (I had some sourdough rye on hand.) Add the pieces to the skillet, stirring to coat. Add some salt and pepper, turn the heat down to low and stir occasionally while you continue your preparations. If you have not figured it out yet, the goal here is quick croutons.
  3. Hard boil an egg. Put an egg in a small saucepan, add water to cover and place over high heat. When the water comes to a boil, wait a minute or two, then turn off the heat and let the hot water continue cooking your egg for about ten minutes. Drain the water and cool the egg quickly by adding a couple of rounds of cold water and maybe even some ice. (This helps ward off that greenish gray ring that screams Continental breakfast at a crappy chain hotel the morning after your friends’ wedding.)
  4. Toss the following ingredients into a food processor or mash together with the back of a fork: 3 anchovies (I used sardines because I had an open tin), juice of 1 lemon, 1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1/2 tablespoon mayonnaise, 1 clove garlic, pinch of cayenne, pinch of sugar, black pepper.
  5. Rinse and finely shred your kale. I went with some young lacinato, which is also known as dinosaur kale, that I got in last week’s CSA share.
  6. Add the kale, dressing, croutons, some grated parmesan or romano cheese, and a pinch of smoked sea salt if you’ve got it. Toss the salad and add your peeled, sliced egg.

This plus an iced coffee and I am feeling a good bit better. Now if I can just figure out how to get the remaining glitter off of my eyelids before this afternoon’s babysitting gig.

Fromage Fort

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This one is so easy I feel a little guilty. I recently hosted a wine tasting at which I served a selection of cheeses.

OK, fine, I did more than taste the wine. It was all I could do to toss the remaining cheese hunks into a plastic container and shove that into the fridge before my face hit the pillow. Four weeks later, I unearthed the container and found a triple-cream Brie, some aged Gouda and a little nugget of Fourme d’Ambert that were beginning to assume one another’s identity.

I had a hazy memory of a French cheese dip that was made for just such a situation. A quick search led me to fromage fort. Traditionally, it’s made with white wine, garlic, fresh herbs and black pepper. I skinned the Brie and pinched off hunks that I dropped into the food processor along with the Fourme d’Ambert and the aforementioned wine and seasonings (thyme being the only fresh herb I had on hand). The Gouda was hard, so I grated it with a rasp—one of my all-time favorite kitchen tools. I ran the processor for a few minutes and sampled the results, which were a little boozy. I had some leftover Ricotta and a rapidly aging Romano in the fridge, so in they went to provide balance.

Now it was starting to taste good. Never one to leave well enough alone, I decided to see what I could do to improve upon the flavor and create a nice complement to tomorrow night’s Sazeracs and gumbo. Dried mustard, cayenne, smoked paprika and just a pinch of sugar created a well-balanced cheese dip that you could eat with a spoon. I did.