Grown Folks’ Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup

Summer reared its head one last time this weekend, with temperatures soaring to the low 80s on Saturday. I kicked off my 40th birthday by taking a funder on a tour of community-run farmers’ markets in East New York and Bushwick and ended the night jubilantly dancing with good friends at Franklin Park. (OK, fine, I ended it at a 24-hour diner, but that was technically the day after my birthday.)

By Wednesday, which was the first day in October, temperatures had dropped to the low 60s. There’s a crispness in the air that I will always associate with the first day of school. The woman at my local coffee shop must be feeling the same deeply ingrained nostalgia. “Have fun. Make new friends!” were the words she sent me off with this morning.

The close of my workday found me meeting the same funder for a cup of tea and a lovely apricot and pistachio tart at one of Maison Kayser‘s New York City outposts. I hadn’t had their addictive pain au cereales since my June study trip to Paris, so I grabbed a loaf before departing.

A couple of blocks away I stumbled upon Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, which I had been meaning to investigate. Cubes of their signature cheese, Flagship, greeted me just a few steps inside the door. It was everything you want cheddar to be–sharp, creamy and crumbly all at once. My hunch that it would melt beautifully was confirmed by the sweet bearded Macalaster graduate working the counter. I mentioned my grilled cheese vision and he encouraged me to add a little funk to the mix in the form of Alemar Cheese’s Good Thunder. This young man seemed to know his cheese. And so I departed with not one but two precious (and preciously priced) cheeses in my sack.

While I am perfectly capable of eating nothing but a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner, I felt compelled to dispatch with some of this week’s CSA share. Boy, am I glad that I did.

Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Soup

  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 jalapeño pepper
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small handful cilantro
  • salt and pepper
  • splash red wine vinegar

Preheat the oven to 425. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil into a roasting pan. Rinse the vegetables and slice them in half, making sure to core the peppers. Place everything cut side down in the roasting pan, drizzle the remaining olive oil over the top and place in the oven.

Veggies Pre-Roast

Let roast for 30-40 minutes until the vegetables are soft and their skins are beginning to char and pull back.

Veggies Roasted

Peel off the skins from the peppers and tomatoes and transfer everything to a food processor. Add a healthy pinch of salt and black pepper and purée until smooth. Continue to run the processor while you slowly add water until you’ve achieved the consistency of your favorite tomato soup. Add the cilantro and purée for a couple of additional minutes. Just before serving, bring soup to a simmer, remove from heat and add a splash of red wine vinegar.

WARNING: This recipe made about two servings of soup. I am seriously bummed to not have more leftovers, as it is quite tasty. As your attorney, I advise you to double it.

I recently read that Gabrielle Hamilton makes her grilled cheese using mayonnaise instead of butter. This is a game changer. Seriously.

Grilled Cheese Ingredients

Grown-Up Grilled Cheese

  • 2 slices good quality bread
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise 
  • 2 ounces serious cheese – 1 cheddar and 1 a little funkier 

Bring a cast iron skillet up to medium-low heat. Spread the mayonnaise on one side of each piece of bread. Place one slice into the skillet, mayonnaise-side down. Layer on your cheese and add the top slice. Let cook until nicely browned, pressing gently with a spatula. Flip and repeat the procedure. Let sit for a minute or two before serving to make sure all of that oozy goodness doesn’t drip right out.

Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Soup with Grilled Cheese

Whole Wheat Penne with Squid, Tomato & Feta

I started my new job yesterday. While having so much to do and so little knowledge of how to do it is intimidating (it will be a small miracle if I ever master our phone system), I am really excited about the work and the people.

I am not, however, stoked about the location. After 14 years of working in the heart of Greenwich Village, I find myself on 43rd Street and Avenue of the Americas. Yesterday’s lunch was a couple of so-so vegetarian empanadas from a cart, consumed while rushing in between meetings. Today I braved the touristic hordes in Times Square on the hunt for a healthy and delicious lunch. The place I had sussed out online turned out to be tiny and not all that. I am mystified by the lack of even a basic grocery store in the area (and really, really need to remember to bring almonds and dried fruit from home).

It seems I will be packing my lunch with far greater frequency than I have in the past. This is not a bad thing, but it will take a certain amount of forethought, particularly given that I am not much of a morning person.

I left work late but determined to cook enough of something to get me through Friday. The lovely and sustainably-minded Mermaid’s Garden was about to close up shop by the time I emerged from the subway. I grabbed a pound of their succulent Carolina White Shrimp to stash in the freezer for a future food emergency and scanned the counter for something to pair with the insane quantity of tomatoes I picked up from my CSA last night.

The squid from Rhode Island was only $5 a pound. Squid is generally economical, but this seemed too good to be true. Turns out it was not cleaned. The nice folks behind the counter assured me to that it wasn’t hard–separate the cap from the rest, slice off the tentacles just below the eyes, remove the plasticky hard thing (there’s probably a name for it) and, if you feel like it, peel off the skin. They assured me I could find YouTube videos if I got stuck and sent me on my way with a lemon (a charming touch).

Uncleaned Squid

I am here to report that cleaning squid is, in fact, just as easy as promised–which is a good thing since there was no way I was going to try to stream a tutorial with my hands covered in ink and guts. Less than an hour after walking in my front door, I was sitting down to this delicious dish while my lunch for the rest of the week cooled on the counter. 

Whole Wheat Penne with Squid, Tomato & Feta

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium green pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 pinch red pepper flakes
  • 12 ounces cleaned and sliced squid (about 1 pound pre-cleaning)
  • 3 large, very ripe tomatoes (or 1 15-ounce can)
  • 1/4 cup white wine (or ouzo if you happen to have it)
  • 8 ounces dried whole wheat pasta
  • 4 ounces feta, crumbled
  • fresh herbs (if you got ’em)
  • salt and pepper
  1. Place a pot of generously salted water over high heat. Bring a large skillet up to medium heat with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and browned around the edges. Add the green pepper and continue cooking and stirring until softened. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook stirring continuously for another minute or so until it smells amazing. Once your pot of water comes to a boil, add the pasta.
  2. Slide the peppers and onions to the edge of your skillet and add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil followed by the squid. Cook stirring constantly for a minute or two until the flesh is just opaque. Turn the heat all the way up and add the tomatoes, wine and a good measure of salt and pepper. When your pasta is still a couple of minutes from being done, use a slotted spoon to transfer it directly into the squid and tomatoes to finish cooking. Remove from the heat and stir in the feta, allowing it to melt a bit and thicken your sauce. If you have some fresh herbs (parsley, oregano, basil or mint), now would be a great time to add those as well.

Penne Squid Tomato Feta

Zucchini, Corn & Tomatoes with Pan-Grilled Shrimp

I am not particularly fond of hotels. I know that I am an oddball in this regard, but the anonymity, sameness and unabashed luxury that everyone seems to find so soothing make me nervous and a bit antsy. I would rather stay someplace with charm and quirkiness that feels lived in. And I would definitely prefer to have a kitchen.

I am in the middle of a five-day trip upstate to re-center between jobs. I chose Hudson because it is nestled within the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley while offering yoga, artisanal coffee and drinking establishments within an easy walk–a DIY spa experience for the burnt out urbanite. I’ve eaten a few meals out, but have mainly chosen to treat my day trips as scavenger hunts, returning each evening to pull something together from whatever I managed to find. It helps that the kitchen in my rental is dreamy.

Perfect Kitchen

The key to cooking while traveling is to keep it simple and bring a handful of essentials with you. For this trip, I brought small containers of regular and high-end olive oil, red wine vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes, salt, coffee, garlic and an all-purpose spice blend. I also brought two essentials that every rental seems to lack: a good knife and a proper pepper mill. The bourbon and tequila, while not essential, do add a certain something to the experience.

Vacation House Kitchen Essentials

Yesterday I attended an afternoon yoga class and then took a hike to Bash Bish Falls (which lived up to their name when I succeeded in falling and bashing the hell out of my leg). When I got back to Hudson, I rewarded myself with a Negroni followed by what I think may have been the better part of a bottle of Vinho Verde at the wine bar down the hill from my temporary digs. It was a great opportunity to get a sense of the local scene and meet some lovely people–oddballs themselves, I was relieved to discover. Sometime well after sundown, my homing instinct kicked in, so I settled the check and stumbled up the hill. Luckily, I had half a pound of very large shell-on shrimp defrosting in the fridge and some fine Hudson Valley produce.

Zucchini, Corn & Tomatoes with Pan-Grilled Shrimp

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 1 large pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1 medium red onion, diced
  • 1 medium zucchini, cut into 3/4″ pieces
  • 2 ears sweet corn, cut from cob
  • 8-12 large black cherry or other small heirloom tomatoes
  • 1/2 pound peeled shrimp
  • 1/4 cup of whatever (white or rose) wine you are drinking
  • salt and pepper
  1. Put on some Al Green and pour yourself a glass of wine.
  2. Toss shrimp with 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Set aside.
  3. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to a skillet over medium heat. When oil comes to temperature, add onion and sauté, stirring frequently. When onions begin to brown, add zucchini. Stir occasionally until zucchini is soft and browned in places. Add corn along with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, for 2-3 minutes. 
  4. Remove from heat and stir in basil and tomatoes. Empty mixture onto plate.
  5. Return pan to heat and add shrimp along with any accumulate marinade. Cook for approximately two minutes, flip and cook for an additional two minutes. Pile shrimp on top of vegetables. Return pan to heat and add 1/4 cup of whatever you are drinking, scraping to remove any residue. Cook for one minute and then pour over shrimp.

Zucchini Corn Tomatoes Shrimp

This dish is a delicious celebration of summer–and so easy that even a rather tipsy vacationer can bang it out in about 20 minutes.

Non-Suffering Succotash

Tuesday’s CSA share brought plums, corn, romaine, basil, peppers, onions, eggplant, cabbage and more glorious tomatoes. The rest of the week brought a flurry of social engagements and two distinct mountains of work.

It seems the cat is finally out of the bag; after two decades working in sexual health and reproductive justice, I am making the move to food. While I won’t officially start until after Labor Day, I am already hard at work behind the scenes preparing and training for my new role as the Executive Director of Just Food. Just Food works with community leaders to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to fresh, locally grown food. To say this is my dream job is a bit of an understatement. To say that I am busy is more than a bit of an understatement.

Somehow I managed to knock off the lettuce, plums and most of the tomatoes by Sunday morning. But that left me with a whole lot of vegetables to consume. Add to that the fact that I felt compelled to buy okra, scallions and hot peppers while introducing a friend who is new to the neighborhood to the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket and the situation gets comical.

I spent my Sunday strolling Brooklyn for a series of food-fueled meetings. I had it in my head that I might indulge in a little impulse shopping along the way. While I tried on a few pairs of shoes and a vintage dress, nothing really struck my fancy–until I stumbled on Park Slope’s Sunday Down to Earth Farmers Market. It had been a couple of years since I had hit this market, which seems to now focus less on fruits and vegetables and more on all manners of dried, fermented, preserved, juiced, pickled and canned products. Tucked among the stalls was Barry’s Tempeh. I love me some tofu and I love me some seitan. Tempeh, however, has always struck me as a bit dry and dense. But one sample of Barry’s brown rice, quinoa and barley version and I was a convert. I departed with a pound of frozen tempeh stuffed into my purse.

Barry's Tempeh

My next meeting was scheduled to take place in a bar with a backyard, but it seems we weren’t the only ones who thought outdoor drinking on a mild August afternoon was a good idea. So we retreated to Four & Twenty Blackbirds for an afternoon “snack” of giant slabs of peach and raspberry crumble pie. By the time I got home, I was pretty sure I was done eating for the day. But by 9:00 I had miraculously regained my appetite. Fortunately, the tempeh has defrosted nicely nestled between my sunglasses and some books I picked up on the street.

Tempeh, Corn & Okra Succotash

  • 1/4 cup or so of olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 pound tempeh (ideally fresh or fresh frozen), cubed
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
  • 3 cobs of corn, stripped (Freeze the cobs until you have enough to make a killer chowder.)
  • 3/4 pound okra, trimmed and sliced into 3/4″ pieces
  • 2 medium red tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/4 cup loosely packed basil, chiffonaded
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • salt and pepper
  1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add the tempeh and cook until nicely browned on one side. Flip the pieces, adding a little more oil each time until they are nicely browned. (The more oil you add, the tastier and crispier your tempeh will be, so use your own judgment.) Sprinkle liberally with salt and set aside.
  2. Add 2 more tablespoons of olive oil followed by the onions, green pepper and jalapeno pepper. Cook stirring occasionally until the onions are limp and starting to brown. Add the corn and cook for another couple of minutes. Season with salt and pepper and empty into a bowl.
  3. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the okra. Cook stirring occasionally until the pods have softened and are dark along the ridges. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper and then dump in the tempeh and the corn mixture. Cook for a minute more. Off of the heat, add in the basil and vinegar. Taste and add additional salt, pepper or vinegar as you see fit.

Tempeh Corn and Okra Succotash

I made up for my afternoon drinking fail by pairing this succotash with a Sixpoint Sweet Action. For a brief moment, I forgot that tomorrow will be another 12-hour workday. Luckily, I have three additional servings of succotash to get me through the week.

EAT THIS: Red Leaf Lettuce with Tomato Vinaigrette

Red Leaf Lettuce with Tomato Vinaigrette

For a simple supper at the end of a superb summer Sunday, macerate fresh chopped tomatoes and basil in a garlicky red wine vinaigrette. Toss with red leaf lettuce and croutons made from the remainder of Friday’s baguette. (If you happen to have a little Serrano ham left, so much the better.) Pair your salad with a wine spritzer using that Riesling that somehow escaped consumption mixed with a little seltzer.

Gazpacho, Calamari & Paprika Crostini

My friend Sara is on vacation in Maine this week, which means that I picked up a double CSA share Tuesday night. Hauling this quantity of vegetables plus two melons, goat yogurt, honey, eggs, granola, and a few pounds of assorted meat is no joke. It took me a good 30 minutes just to organize my refrigerator.

Summer Bounty

Between the tomatoes, onions, green pepper, cucumbers and fresh basil, it was clear what had to be done.

Farmer Ted’s Gazpacho

  • 5 large tomatoes, cored and quartered
  • 1/2 bulb fennel, cored and chopped
  • 1 large green pepper, cored and chopped
  • 1 large cucumber, seeded and sliced
  • 1 medium white onion chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and sliced
  • 1/4 cup good quality olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons or so sherry vinegar
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 cup packed fresh herbs (I used basil, Italian parsley and fennel fronds, because that’s what I had on hand.)

Add the tomatoes to the large bowl of a food processor and run until you have a slightly chunky tomato sauce. Add the rest of the vegetables, oil and vinegar and a good dose of salt and pepper. Run until any large chunks are gone. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional vinegar, salt and/or pepper. You can also add a pinch of sugar or a few dashes of hot sauce to balance the flavors. Add the herbs and run for about a minute more. Refrigerate for at least a few hours to allow flavors to meld.

Paprika Aioli

  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1/2 tablespoon hot paprika
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients and let sit in refrigerator for at least an hour.

The rest of this dish takes about 20 minutes to complete, so feel free to knock off for a while and grab a nap. You deserve it. (And, if you’re honest with yourself, last night’s margaritas demand it.)

Catnap

Crostini

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 8 slices baguette

Bring a large cast iron skillet up to medium-low heat and swirl with the olive oil. Place bread in skillet and let sit until the bottom side is crisp and just a bit browned. Flip and repeat.

Calamari a la Plancha

  • 1 pound cleaned and sliced calamari, drained and patted dry
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper
  • 3 garlic cloves, pressed
  • salt and pepper
  • juice of 1/2 lemon

Return the skillet to the stove over medium heat. Toss the calamari with oil, Aleppo pepper, garlic, salt and pepper. Add to skillet, cook for one minute, stir and flip pieces and cook for one more minute. Remove from heat and dress with lemon.

At this point, you are ready to plate. Pour the gazpacho into bowls and nestle the calamari in the center of each. Spread the aioli onto your crostini and strategically place alongside the calamari. 

Gazpacho Calamari Paprika Aoili Crostini

Sean and I ate our supper on the roof while sipping a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and admiring the pink and orange sunset–which, now that I think about it, evoked the warm hues of our gazpacho with calamari a la plancha and paprika-aioli crostini. For dessert, we managed to polish off a whole, perfectly ripe melon with some lovely serrano ham I’d picked up earlier in the day at BKLYN Larder. A couple of hours later we trekked down four flights of stairs, walked past a handful of buildings, climbed another four flights and joined friends on a nearby rooftop for one last round of drinks before calling it a night. God, I love summer.

Melon and Serrano