Saturday, July 24, 2010


Summer’s cute phase is over, and our neighborhood has gone to seed earlier than usual. Weeds are bolting up through the cracks in our bluestone sidewalk, merging into a mass that’s more wilderness than pavement. The trees are raining frizzled leaves from the heat wave, which has also addled the human contingent: crime is doing its annual mini-spike. Not Son of Sam type stuff, but restless, fiddly transgressions. I see the posters plastered to telephone poles ("Wanted for Deception and Burglary"), and I hear neighbors whispering of stolen bicycles during evening dog walks. Last year around this time my bike got clipped. A few nights ago, our GPS was lifted (OK, so I asked for it by not locking the car) and our patio got broken into; nothing was taken, but a woman’s sandal was left behind as a calling card.

It’s time to say good-bye to friends for the summer, too. Many, with origins and family abroad, have already flown until September: Korea,
Canada, Spain. Each year, they lift away as naturally as birds migrating.
The upside? Some of those weeds in the sidewalk are wildflowers: thistles, sweet peas, morning glories, Queen Ann's lace. It’s easier to get a parking spot, and there's no need to queue up for a table in a restaurant. But still, all signs point to the inevitable: it’s a good time for me to pack up the brood and head out of town. This week marks the last one of routine, of stillness around the house while my kids sing and schvitz at day camp. From here on, I’m the camp director and we’re out of town more than in it. Once we hit the road my heart will lift with new possibility, as it should. It will also, quietly, sigh. The cover of this week’s New Yorker shows a happy family rolling out of town, car laden with sporting equipment. In the back seat, a girl stares miserably at the receding Manhattan skyline. I always secretly feel like that a tad, each time I leave. 

New York…rank July garbage and all, you're magnetic.

If you're wondering how any of these ramblings relate to food, or anything appetizing, I have just one word: zucchini. If there ever was an edible indicator of summer’s overripe, overly generous, poised-on-the-edge-of-decay stage, it’s zucchini. They recently made their yearly debut in our CSA basket, so they’re still on the delicate side. Soon they will balloon to the size of baseball bats, and even the constant baking of zucchini bread won’t be enough to keep up.
The gilt has not worn off the zucchini yet, though—on our summer table it’s featured prominently in pastas, gratins, and ratatouilles, its prodigious pulp not yet hidden away in breads and frozen for fall minestrone. My favorite at-home dinner right now is crisp, homemade pizza crowned with shaved zucchini–because also, I’m having a love affair with the no-knead baking technique in Jim Lahey’s My Bread. You can bet this book will hitch a ride wherever I go until September. And I know, I'm a bit of a late adopter of this minor craze, but better late than never: the bread turns out brilliantly every single time. If you’re a kneader by nature, you might miss the intimate, tactile interaction with the dough. The laissez-faire approach also goes against everything I learned in culinary school, about the science of having to muscle together all those good gluten strands with your hands. 

The  pizza crust recipe makes two full sheet tray sized pizzas, so you can freeze half the dough or make a few smaller, round pizzas. I whip up the simplest tomato sauce imaginable and use my beloved and scary mandoline to get those veggies paper thin, so they don’t make the pizza soggy. And the just-made, brine-dipped mozzerella from Caputo's is what I crave most of all...I might as well get my fill, because I'll miss it where I'm going. Farewell for now, Brooklyn!
You can, of course, use store-bought dough and/or sauce if you aren't in the mood for a project. On the topic of zucchini, I also like this simple pasta recipe from over at The Wednesday Chef. And, this article from last year’s New York Times offers some great ideas for using up zucchini. Readers: if you have a clever zucchini idea you'd like to share, Please! I invite you to pass it along in the Comments section.

Zucchini Pizza

Pizza Dough 
Adapted from Jim Lahey's My Bread
  • 3 3/4 cups bread flour (500 g.) or, substitute a cup or so whole wheat flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast (10 g.)
  • 3/4 teaspoon sea salt (5 g.)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar 
  • 1 1/3 cups room-temperature water (300 g.)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil for trays
 Simple Tomato Sauce  
(enough for one pizza)
  • 1 large ripe tomato or two smaller ones
  • 1 small clove garlic, crushed
  • Extra-virgin olive oil 
  • Sea salt to taste
Other pizza ingredients  
  • 1 small zucchini 
  • 1 small onion–preferably a spring onion (greens still attached) 
  • 1/2 ball fresh mozzerella, shaved or torn into shreds
  • Optional: Fresh ground pepper, basil leaves

Instructions for Dough: 
Whisk together dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the water and mix with a wooden spoon or your hands until blended, at least 30 seconds. The dough will be a bit stiff. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and let sit at room temperature about 2 hours, or until the dough has more than doubled in volume. 

Using a large rubber spatula or bowl scraper, scrape dough from bowl onto a floured surface. Divide and gently shape dough into two balls, separate, and cover with a damp dish towel for a half hour or so. 

Meanwhile, when you're ready to use dough, preheat oven to 500 degrees (may want to do 475 degrees if your oven gets too hot). Prepare tray(s)–this dough will cover two 13 x 18 rimmed sheet trays. Oil tray–and your hands–liberally. Gently stretch dough the length of tray and then press evenly onto surface, concentrating on places where dough is thicker. Pinch together any holes that form.

Instructions for Sauce: 
Put a medium pot of salted water on to boil. Cut an "x" in bottom of tomato with a sharp knife. Once water boils, dunk the tomato for about 30 seconds, remove with a skimmer and refresh under cold running water. Then, you can easily peel the skin off. Cut out the stem end and then chop tomato into segments. Remove seeds and tomato jelly and discard, then mash up tomato flesh with your hands or a potato masher, until you have puree consistency. Stir in garlic, a few drops of olive oil, and salt to taste.
Assembly and Cooking: 
Preheat oven to 500 degrees if you haven't already. Cut off root and stem ends of onion and remove peel. Use a mandoline or sharp knife and, starting at root end, slice onion very thin horizontally, into rings. Slice zucchini into paper thin rounds. Top dough evenly with sauce, then cheese. Spread onions on top, then finally zucchini. I arrange slices so their edges are touching (not overlapping). They shrink during cooking. Put tray into middle rack of preheated oven, then bake for 25-30 minutes, until crust is crisp and browned and pizza looks ready. Rotate halfway during cooking, and lower heat to 475 degrees if top is getting too brown but crust doesn't seem done in the middle. When pizza is done, scatter with basil leaves and ground pepper, if you like.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Honor berries

My mom had certain rules about food when my sister and I were kids, strict lines we were not to cross or we were entering into hostile junk food territory. Let’s just say we had to sneak over to our neighbors’ house for our Twinkie fix, and the jones was fierce. Mom made sure we had salad every night, and there was no way in hell cafeteria food was passing our lips. But then, her Berlin wall-like barriers were somewhat arbitrary. For instance, she wouldn’t dare bring home Frosted Flakes, yet she plied us full of Quaker 100% Natural, which probably had twice the corn syrup and derived its crisp from hydrogenated oil. And in the kitchen she kept a gum drawer, which all the neighborhood kids were wise to and raided on the sly. It was full of Chewels. Remember those? You bit into the sweet pink gum cushion and got a squirt of sticky fuchsia syrup in your mouth. 

But Mom’s firmest line was drawn right down through the middle of Entenmann’s country. It dictated that never would a box of Entenmann’s coffee cake or doughnuts see the inside of our house, but the chocolate chip cookies were a-OK–in fact, a staple of every Safeway haul. Health food. But, there were limits on even those, and we were allotted precisely two a day, after school, before homework. We adhered to our two-cookie ration obediently, washed down with our 2% milk. But later, after retiring to my room with my books, I would creep down the back stairs in an Entenmann’s frenzy and collect a towering stack of those cookies, so tantalizingly soft, the chips so sweet they scratched faintly at my tooth enamel. I couldn’t help it–swiping was just too easy and I was a scrawny, ravenous kid with no impulse control. So much for the honor system in our house.
Today, I adore the idea of an honor system, and not because I can work it to get more goodies. No. I’m happy to say that this former cookie thief grew up to be a law-abiding citizen; Mom must have done something right. You won’t catch me fudging so much as a snow pea over the weight limit at CSA pick up. I never, ever sample chocolate almonds from the bulk bin–though believe me, the temptation is there.

When we spend time up in rural Connecticut, I delight in all the honor system offerings set out by farmers and folks with prolific chickens or bees. To me, they are an indicator that trust and honesty are sufficiently alive in the world to keep these little businesses going the way they do. Driving down a road, you might see a hand-penned sign proclaiming EGGS or HONEY, propped atop a cooler by a mailbox. Along a minor highway, an unknown someone built a rickety wooden stand, which functions as an unmanned flower booth when its owners get around to stocking it with bouquets. And our dairy staples all come from a farm where there’s a “dairy sales” room adjacent to the milking barn; inside the door a fridge offers neatly arranged raw milk and eggs, and you pay via a wooden lock box plastered with Post-it note IOU’s. You can’t even get change unless the farmer happens to be there emptying out that old-timey till.
But my most favorite honor situation by far, one I go into yearly raptures over, is the blueberry patch down the road from us. It’s the best blueberry patch on earth–I truly believe this–set back behind one of the most gorgeously bucolic roads I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving down (the same one festooned with maple syrup buckets in winter). Its owner, a lovely lady who settled there decades ago, reserves the right to open the patch at her own convenience–or whim. If a red, white, and blue flag looms into view as you round the bend in the road, your heart sinks and you know you’re out of luck. But if that musty old flag is thrown back to reveal the peeling sign, on goes the blinker.
Through a hay field, over a bumpy rise, grasshoppers pinging off the car’s grill–that’s the way to the patch, which opens up on the far side of a small apple orchard, beside a pond where bullfrogs burp and thrum. The owner of this small farm once told me the land was all apples when she first moved in, but she doesn’t much care for apples so she ripped out most of the trees and made way for the blueberries, which she adores. Welcoming the public into the patch–and her home, really–is the only way she can possibly keep up with her crop, so she hung a scale and set a little money jar on a table in the open barn. They’re organically grown, these berries, and she picks off the beetles by hand, drowning them in coffee cans of soapy water, and keeps the birds at bay by netting over the whole thing (more power to the occasional lone bird that finds its way in).  
It’s best to bring your own containers, though usually in the barn you'll find a carton or two, maybe some plastic bags or a cut-open orange juice jug for collecting. If you’re thoughtful, you will, in turn, surrender whatever surplus cartons were lying around your kitchen. That’s collectivism at work. Follow her note to find the ripest berries (because she probably won’t come out to tell you in person), go in through the mesh door, and settle into a rhythm. 
My kids are pros now, I’m proud to say. Over the 4th, we spent a sweaty afternoon picking with our friends Tara and Josh, and the four kids between us more than contributed to the pie that night. Is it child labor if they gorge themselves purple on their favorite fruit?
Tara and I swear the berries taste different on each of the 100 or so bushes, and each time we make a game of finding our favorite, the one with just the right balance of tart and sweet. Grabbing as many as we can get becomes compulsive and hypnotic, and usually a kid at the point of meltdown is what it takes to rouse us from our stupor. We weigh our take on the scale in the barn, rounding up for those intercepted by our stomachs, and go bouncing back over the field, dreaming of the things we'll bake. 
Inevitably, someone sits on a bag or capsizes a carton on the ride back, but those squished berries don't have to be goners–they just have their own purpose now. Into the freezer they go, where they will later fill out smoothies and morning baked goods, well into the winter if we stretch them out. And plenty get devoured as is. Last year I held off on cooking them for the longest time, because I wanted to burn the taste of fresh summer blueberries in my memory. So I whipped up a lemon vanilla ice cream, super rich and custardy, and tumbled berries on top. One day I'll post that recipe for you. Then, of course, came the muffins and scones that roused the kids from bed before camp. For the 4th this year, we improvised a pie by baking a simple graham cracker crust, cooking berries down with sugar and lemon zest, and then baking it all with an easy crumble topping. Incidentally, we strained away some of the berry juice prior to nestling them in the tart shell, and it made a delicious sauce over pancakes the next morning

The recipe below is something a little different. Back when I was catering parties, this was my go-to dessert during blueberry season. It's taken from Claudia Fleming's beautiful cookbook The Last Course and is ever so slightly fancy, sophisticated enough for a dinner party or host(ess) gift but soothing in its interplay of childhood flavors of graham cracker, cream cheese and blueberry. If it seems too complicated and rolling your own graham cracker is not your thing, you can cut corners by using a store-bought graham cracker crust, or the simpler one I linked to above. 

Thank you, Tara and Madeley, for supplying many of the photographs in this post!
Blueberry-Cream Cheese Tart with Graham Cracker Crust
*Recipe makes two 9-inch tarts or about 10-12 individual tarts

Adapted from The Last Course, Claudia Fleming with Melissa Clark
Graham Cracker Crust
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Cream Cheese Pastry Cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 5 Tablespoons sugar
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 2 1/2 Tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3/4 cup (6 oz.) cream cheese, cubed and softened at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream (whipping cream), whipped to soft peaks

  • 2 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  1. Graham cracker crust: use an electric mixer to cream together butter and sugars in a medium bowl. Mix for a minute or two, until blended and fluffy. Add honey and beat until combined. 
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk together flours, salt and cinnamon. Mix the flour mixture into the butter in two additions, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Mix until well combined. Form dough into a two disks (or smaller balls, if going the individual tart route) and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until firm, at least an hour. 
  3. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. On a floured surface roll the dough to a 1/8 inch circle, or individual circles as you wish. If you are making a 9-inch tart, roll circle to 11 inches. Lift carefully and lay over tart mold, then press dough evenly into mold and trim away excess. Prick all over with tines of a fork and refrigerate for about 20 minutes, until it is firm again. Bake for about 25 minutes on the middle rack of oven, until golden brown. 
  4. Pastry cream: In a medium saucepan, combine 3/4 cup of the milk with about half of sugar, and bring to a gentle simmer. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, cornstarch, and the rest of the sugar. Add the remaining 1/4 cup milk to the yolk mixture. Remove milk from the heat and whisk a little bit of hot milk at a time into the yolks, whisking the whole time until yolk mixture is warmed up. You want to avoid scrambling the yolks, so keep it moving! 
  5. Add the warmed yolk mixture back into the milk pot, whisking constantly, then put back over a low flame. Whisk for a couple minutes more until you begin to feel a  resistance against the whisk and the mixture becomes thicker. Remove from stove and strain into a clean bowl, using a very fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth-lined strainer. Cover surface with parchment or plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled. Once chilled, whisk smooth and fold in whipped cream until combined and even.
  6. Blueberries: In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup of berries with sugar. Simmer gently over low heat until berries have burst and liquefied, about 5 minutes. Strain the cooked berries into a clean bowl and throw out the solids left behind. Add the rest of the blueberries to the syrup and stir together to combine. 
  7. Assembly: Once tart shell is cool, spoon pastry cream into it and top with some of the blueberries.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


After the happy, smoky meat-fest with friends that was our 4th of July weekend and the heavy, unshakable heat that's settled over the city, our CSA delivery arrived like a stroll in a cool forest. And with it, fava beans–just about the heartiest thing I can manage to eat right now, with temperatures locked in the 100's. It's not even the beginning of their season around here–they've been around in the markets–but I've held out this long for the local ones. Around April, some restaurants usher in a false fava season for winter-jaded diners, but I refuse to be seduced.

The mention of fava beans would have, a few years back, caused me to squirm in discomfort, and not just because of the creepy Hannibal Lecter association. In the restaurant where I used to work I hovered pretty low on the kitchen totem pole, so guess who got to peel all those infant favas for the spring salad? I also worked my fingers to the bone on the mandoline–quite literally–shaving the rest of the Lilliputian vegetables for that salad, which was so gorgeous and tender it would make you weep. Band-aids were my accessory of choice that spring, and I never could complete the task quickly enough. Hyperdrive is simply a gear I wasn't born with. Now, with no one watching over me, I don’t mind at all working through a pile of favas in the quiet hum of my own kitchen, the steady monotony a meditation. If my daughters are home, they fight to help out, since they're still too young to think it a chore.
Unpleasant associations behind me, I revel in the arrival of favas, their fur-lined green leather jackets hiding velvety, kidney-shaped beans which, in turn, have to be blanched and peeled to rid them of their rubbery hides. Do you really have to peel them twice? Some folks would say don't bother. Truly, you can get away with skipping this step if the beans are tiny and new (and you can also eat them raw at this stage, as the Italians do), but I wouldn't dare, because at one time I would have gotten fired for such negligence, and because I really do think those skins are a bitter distraction.
Since we usually receive only about a pound at pick-up, I have to make them count. I could throw them in a pasta, but I'm forever doing that with the more profuse vegetables we have trouble using up. Like zucchini. I prefer to let those favas shine after all the slaving I do over them, so I have this simple puree I make, with mint and pecorino and lemon. It tastes so, so good on crostini, or as a sort of alternate-universe hummus in a vegetarian sandwich. I also like dipping spicy-sweet little breakfast radishes into it. The assembly of the recipe is easy once you get through the shelling, and in this heat the blend of clear, bright flavors revives a wilted appetite like nothing else can.

Mashed fava beans with mint and pecorino

  • 1 lb. (approx.) fava beans in their pods (yields about a cup, shelled)
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 heaping tablespoon lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup finely grated pecorino cheese (or, try ricotta salata) 
  • 1 heaping teaspoon finely minced mint leaves (more, if you like)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Shell the favas by snapping off ends of pods, pulling out strings, and opening seams. Discard pods. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, and have a bowl of ice water ready. Boil the beans for a couple of minutes, depending on their size. You want them to be soft but not mushy, and still bright green. If you have larger favas that are beginning to turn yellow, you may need more like 3 minutes–but test as you go. Once done, remove favas with a slotted spoon and plunge into ice water. Drain when chilled, and remove skins by slitting them with a fingernail and squeezing beans out. 

To mash, you can use a food processor, potato masher, coarse food mill, or even a fork. I use the potato masher and like a somewhat coarse texture. Simply mash together everything but the mint leaves, taste for seasoning, add anything else you think it needs, then stir in the mint and serve.