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I, Tomato Hoarder

10 Sep

ImageRight around the end of August every year, I start getting a little crazy. Not in the seasonal-light-disorder-panic kind of way, but in the “ohmuhgod, all these delicious tomatoes are here for but a fortnight x 3! (or so)” kind of way. The red and yellow and green and purple of it is blinding. It’s all I can see. If I were in a roller derby and the prize were tomatoes? I would knock down everyone in my way. Which would be all the peoples. It’s kind of bad news. Which is probably why my dad sends me back with bags of them, myriad friends leave gifts of garden tomatoes on my stoop,and  my local veg guy with all the good Jersey ones sees me coming and clears a path. I just came home with a few pints of eensie, indescribably sweet yellow ones from him and ate half of them in a sitting. Feed the beast and the beast will leave you alone.

This year, with our weird, warm East Coast winter and dry as crackers summer, it was quite possibly the best in memory for ‘matoes. And so I’ve been using them every chance I get. Simple stuff, but I’m fairly certain I’ve eaten a tomato at least every day since early August. Not bad. And I even shared them sometimes. One week, I made tomato and cheddar and mayo sandwiches for my co-workers at the wine shop I write for, and another I made tomato-saffron-orange marmalade and gave it away to anyone I thought who might dig it.

But now it’s mid-September and my dad informed me a few days ago that his garden is all done. On my kitchen sill today sat 6 heirlooms from a friend who texted with a tomato SOS over-abundance (thank you, Mary Kay), a pile of chubby red grape tomatoes that I grew in pots in the few dollops of sun I get in my yard, and the rest of the little Jersey yellows I got for a song down the street. Tonight, I thought, tomato pie seemed in order.

ImageKnowing Heidi Swanson is a wiz with making really fresh ingredients stand-out, I found two great recipes on 101 Cookbooks, but as I read them through and thought about the other ingredients I had and might want to use, I wound up morphing them into something slightly different. The one I was leaning toward most heavily – an uncooked tomato tart in a crunchy parmesan crust – sounded great, but I took the advice of one of her readers and gently heated the slices, as well as a bunch of the yellows, with a little olive oil, butter, and garlic, and then let the juices run off so the tart wouldn’t get soggy. Also, I didn’t really have enough parmesan, but I did have cheddar. I made the butter-flour crust with cheddar subbed for parmesan, baked it as Swanson suggested (with a few extra minutes added for my oven), and lined the bottom with the rest of my cheddar to keep the drained tomatoes from doing any leaky damage (another one of Swanson’s awesome suggestions). This, by the way, tastes like the most delicious Cheez-It ever.

There’s an onion tart recipe that I make often for parties from French Tarts: 50 Savory and Sweet Recipes (great book) and I was craving some caramelized Vidalias, so they became the base with a little anchovy paste and fresh thyme mixed in. The layering was as such: onions, yellows, reds arranged as concentrically as I could manage. A salad on the side rounded the whole meal out. And while I’m inconsolably bummed that my tomato feasting and hoarding is pretty much at an end, this was a pretty good savory note to go out on. Also, I think my friends and family might stop avoiding me now that they’re safe from being knocked to the ground by my alter roller-skating ego, Early Riot Grrrrl.

Last Tomato Tart

6 medium tomatoes, slice about a quarter inch
½ pint of yellow cherries, cut in half
1 large, or 2 small, garlic cloves, cut in half and slivered
1 Vidalia onion, sliced thin
1 tsp anchovy paste
1 tsp fresh thyme
2 TBS olive oil
1 ½ TBS unsalted butter
Kosher salt

1 1/4 cups white flour
1 tsp kosher salt
3 TBS ice water
½ cup cold, unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon, cut into small pieces
1/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar, plus ¼ cup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a food processor, combine the flour, salt, and cheddar, and pulse until the texture is grainy. Add in the ice water, one tablespoon at a time, until mixture can be pinched with your fingers and won’t fall apart. Immediately press into a tart dish (removable sides are best so you can see the pretty ridged pattern when all is said and cooked), line with wax paper or aluminum foil, fill with pie weights, rice, or beans, and bake 15 minutes. Remove from oven, take out weights and liner, and then put back in and bake for another 15 minutes or until deep golden in color. Remove from oven and sprinkle with the remaining ¼ cup of cheddar.

ImageMeanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and the butter in a medium-sized pan. Add in onions and cook until caramelized, stirring and turning over occasionally; about 15 minutes. Add in 1 teaspoon anchovy paste, chopped thyme, and a pinch of kosher salt. Cook for one more minute.

In another medium-sized pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and the rest of the butter over medium heat. Add in garlic and let cook until fragrant, about a minute. Place the sliced tomatoes in the pan in one layer, gently salt, and cook for about 1 minute. Remove from pan and place in a colander set over a place (to catch the juice). Repeat until all tomatoes are cooked.

To assemble the tart, evenly spread the onions on the bottom, followed by the yellow tomatoes, then the slices formed in a concentric circle. Be fancy and garnish with a few sprigs of thyme. Eat and be happy.


The Salad Days of Summer – Mindy Style

27 Aug

As Labor Day makes its “My gourd, how did that happen so fast?” rapid approach, I’m eyeballing the veggies and such from my dad’s garden and my local greenmarket with increasing amounts of hoarder’s greed. And thinking a little extra about my mom.

See, my mom used to make great salads. Nothing fancy, I guess — we still ate the middle-class expecteds of iceberg lettuce drizzled in Good Seasons salad dressing, but her greens always went above and beyond what I’d get at my friends’ houses at dinner, if there was salad at all.

My mom’s salads were ever-chock full of fun surprises — bits of salami and provolone cheese, quartered artichoke hearts, plump, pitted olives, always seasoned beyond the Good Seasons and tossed, properly, with tongs, so each bit and bite had a little bit of dressing, a bit of this, a bit of that. We also ate the salad last, post meal. A kind of “voila!” finale, maybe with an extra piece of Italian bread to sop up the oil and vinegar and herbs. And I remember always really, really looking forward to that, and wondering, as an adult, how I lost that tradition along the way.

Somehow, salads started to feel like an afterthought. Or a pill. Or just a bunch of extra work when all I really wanted to do was eat a bowl of pasta in front of the TV while watching Glee and call it a night.

But I miss salads. Which maybe — or, well, not maybe; certainly — is also a little bit about missing my mom and the care she put into the things she did. “I love you; here’s a nice salad I made!” Seriously, what’s nicer than that?

There’s a great book that hit shelves this summer, and it’s written by a friend of mine, Mindy Fox. I knew she’d been working furiously on a follow-up to her great and much-used in my house book, A Bird in the Oven and Then Some. But as it happens in New York, or any big city or town for that matter, it’s easy to get caught up in the grind and lose track of what your friends are up to.

Both food writers, Mindy and I met through a mutual chef friend and his wife a few years ago, and learned on that first meeting over salted, buttered radishes and wine that we were born on the same day in the same year, and were married to our respective husbands only a day apart, as well. The joke between became that we were twins — except, well, she’s tall and blonde and blue-eyed and just really lovely and I’m… shorter. And not blonde. And not blue-eyed. Still, I’d take her as a sister any time. Especially if it meant I’d get to have her cook for me more.

Which brings me to the topic at hand today. Mindy’s new book, Salads: Beyond the Bowl (Kyle Books, $19.95). I have spent pretty much this entire summer preparing what’s in it. It not only feeds my produce-hoarder tendencies, but for those of you who have fallen into the salad-as-afterthought rut, I guarantee you will be  inspired far and beyond the bowl. I was.

Some of the recipes are sidedishes, some are stand-alones; all are a tangle of texture, flavor, and color. I’ve mixed and matched them, getting excited about one dish and taking pieces and combining them with something else I had on hand, which is another really great aspect of the book: It’s utterly approachable. It’s not the kind of book that makes you feel fenced in to rarified ingredients or strict parameters. Follow the recipes to the letter and you’ll be thrilled with the results; diverge using what you have on hand as subsitutes and you’ll still be excited with what you put on the table. Like Mindy’s addictive, super-summery zucchini and corn salad. In her book, the recipe pairs it with an amazing crab-stuffed grilled squid, but I had some great skirt steak on hand one night and used it as a sidedish for that, such a perfect complement to the smoky meat with its snappy greens and sweet crunch of fresh corn. I’ve also just made it and eaten it with a little grilled shrimp on top as a supper salad all on its own.

Another favorite – her recipe for warm Mediterranean-inspired tuna brochettes over fresh cilantro-spiked tomatoes. It’s the kind of dish that feels simultaneously good for you and healthy, and yet a little decadent thanks to the velvety, flavorful tuna and sweet, summery tomatoes – everywhere in all their bright, chubby red glory right now. I also can’t get enough of the (easy and VERY impressive!) Roman spiced, bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin (hello, pork-on-pork!) with sweet roasted grapes and bright, bitter arugula, topped with Marcona almonds. Hot damn.

I have many more recipes to make from this book, and I’m constantly satiated and surprised as I work through it. Which another great bit about this: It’s a workhorse book. Full of impressive dishes you can make for one or a dinner party for 12, I’m finding it pretty indispensible. As the sun is starting wane in the summery sky, it’s helping me not just to make use of what I’ve got (a problem sometimes when I’m feeling less than inspired and my dad has sent me home with, say, 5 enormous zucchini), but to re-discover and celebrate a sidedish – and now, sometimes, main dish – that I used to love. The salad days, I think, might be back for good. And maybe Mindy isn’t exactly my twin, but she’s re-gifted me something my mom gave me years ago, and if that’s not some good, crunchy sisterly karma, I don’t know what it.

Cook with Books: Zuni Cafe Cookbook

15 May

[Note: Cook with Books will be an ongoing, cookbook-reviewing, musing, hands-on, pots-hot section of this blog–hopefully weekly, possibly less or more, depending on what in heaven’s name is going on in a given 7-ways-to-Sunday period.]

Judy had me at chicken.

It was just about 10 years ago when my husband, Dan, and I went to dinner at Judy Rodgers’s Zuni Café. I’d never been to San Fran and was already pretty excited about the food scene. Add to that the notion that we were there for a book project I’d just co-written on wine and food pairing, and I was feeling pretty fa-lee-da dazzled. And I hadn’t even had the chicken yet.

I’d read about the famous Rodgers chicken with bread salad, and ordered it before our waiter even got to the specials. It was all it had been built up to be — crispy, a little salty, dribbly juicy with this crunchy/soft tuft of torn peasant bread, at once tangy, sweet, nutty, savory, bitter, and bright. It stayed in my sense memory long after licking the last crumb of the salad from an index finger.

Rodgers’s Zuni Café Cookbook was published that same year, and when I got back to NY I bought it, and still faithfully roast my bird the Rodgers’s way: fast and hot. But this book is no one-fowl flash in the pan. It’s deceivingly packed with great recipes. I say deceivingly because of the way it’s written–at once rambling and practical. Sort of the way my sisters and I talk to each other when phoning up to ask for or explain a recipe. Which is another thing I love about it; how personal it seems. Instead of playing to the masses, Rodgers’s classic (I’m hauling out the C word, I am!) is kind of intimate. After years of splattering it with myriad juices and dribbles and bits and bubble-overs, I feel like I could walk into her kitchen and know exactly what I’d find in it.

And I learned a week or so ago, with no real surprise, that I’m not alone in my Zuni swoon. I was at a wine dinner with a group of other writers, and somehow Zuni came up. Two seats away from me, the eyes of writer Andrew Dornenburg (whose own recent tome, The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine, written with wife Karen Page just got a Beard nod) lit up. “Oh, I love that book!” And within seconds our end of the table were confessing undying love for this 10-year-old compilation of recipes. Written by a woman who, to my general knowledge, isn’t slinging hash on TV, or selling chicken stock with her face on a Tetra-pack box, or opening up Zuni chains in airports. But this is a semi-snarky digression and getting away from the point.

Being it’s not just the bread salad — it’s pretty much everything in its beautiful, quirky pages. There hasn’t been a single recipe that disappoints. And even though it’s hard to pull yourself away from favorites (those short ribs!), it’s inevitably rewarding when you do. Which brings us to tonight’s asparagus and rice soup with pancetta and black pepper.

This time of year, it’s impossible not to get a little asparagus-happy, and it so happened I had a bunch in my fridge that I bought at my local greenmarket this past weekend. I wanted to use them tonight but not as a side; I was craving something a little more communal. Like soup. After flipping glumly through a few other books packed with empty promises, I turned to tried-and-true Judy, and there it was. It lets the asparagus be asparagus, chopped instead of pureed, to really get their texture along with the bright green color and spring flavor. Add to that a genius bit of Arborio rice, bits of pancetta, sweet onions, and black pepper and you have that trademark Rodgers savory quality that will keep you coming back for seconds and thirds — simple yet surprising.

Asparagus and Rice Soup with Pancetta and Black Pepper
– makes about 4 cups –
(adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, W.W. Norton and Co. )

6 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
2 cups yellow onions (about 1 large)
Pinch of kosher or sea salt
1/4 cup dry white rice (Arborio if you’ve got it–otherwise, use what you’ve got)
3 1/2 cups chicken stock, give or take (next time, I’ll use a little more, and maybe some more rice, too)
1/2 cup water
8 or so oz. asparagus, woody ends cut off, stalks sliced diagonally about an 1/8-inch thick (don’t worry about being perfect; really–it’s just soup and it’ll still taste great)
3 to 4 oz. pancetta, finely chopped (I like mine a little bit chunkier than that, and got (2) 1/4-inch slices and diced them about a 1/4 inch)
Fresh black pepper

Heat 3/4 of the olive oil in a 4-quart saucepan or soup pot over medium-low heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt, stirring while cooking until they start to sweat. Add the rice, stock, and water and simmer. Cover and cook about 15 to 20 minutes until rice is tender. Turn off the heat.

While the rice cooks, heat the rest of the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Toss in pancetta and asparagus, stir to coat and then allow to cook for a few minutes, turn; repeat until pancetta starts to brown and everything gets tender.

Transfer to broth-rice mixture, bring to a boil for a minute. Add pepper. Serve right away with a nice hunk o’ bread.

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