Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Every September, like clockwork, Farmer Bill delivers these husky little tomatillos, and each time at CSA pickup I see someone turning one over gingerly in his or her fingers, muttering "what do I do with these?" Maybe it's the papery packaging, or perhaps it's the fact that they look like green tomatoes in the rough, not yet ripe enough to be edible; they seem to scare some people. 

Tomatillos first appeared on my radar when I was 14, and my parents took us out west for the first time. We flew to New Mexico and drove through Colorado, passing through the great sand dunes and, finally, winding up through the Rockies. The night before our departure my poor mother had tumbled down the stairs while wrangling the cat, and she was sporting colors as varied and shocking as the ones in the bowl above–a bit too conspicuous for my comfort level, as everyone we passed seemed to eye my Dad suspiciously. But what had started as an ominous trip turned glorious, and my suburban Tostitos world was forever rocked. 
My parents ordered Huevos Rancheros every morning for breakfast, much to my horror–beans and chile sauce over eggs? Seems like a pretty terrific idea now. The trip was my initiation into the world of southwestern cooking, with its deft uses of peppers, its sopapillas and enchiladas and beans–a young vegetarian's wonderland. The flavors on everything were new and brilliant, as was the otherworldly light of Santa Fe and the alien terrain of sand and sagebrush, embracing us from all sides during our long hours in the car. I developed a mania for beaded jewelry and all things Native American, and I believe this was the budding of my hippie wannabe phase and my fixation on Jim Morrison and other cliché teenage things. The experience is preserved in glossy prints of my sister and me, awkwardly posed on adobe walls against desert sunsets, our tight-rolled jeans now accessorized with concho belts and giant turquoise bracelets.

Although it would be years before I held a tomatillo in my hand, much less cooked with one, I saw them heaped in markets, and their tang seemed to shine out from whatever plate they graced. Back east, I was deflated to discover that dinner at Chili's was but a flat, gummy facsimile of the marvels I had tasted out west. A bite of fresh tomatillo, even now, brings back a glimmer of the newness I had tasted that summer.
Back to the question of what to do with tomatillos. First, you'll want to get rid of the husks and rinse them, since they're invariably coated with a weird, resinous stickiness. You don't need to cook them–for all their firmness, they're surprisingly yielding once you begin chopping or pureeing them, and although tart, they are not puckeringly so–there's also a hint of sweetness and a faint hum of that umami thing tomatoes have going on. They also taste fantastic roasted, which concentrates their flavor and adds a layer of smokiness. This post from Food and Think, the Smithsonian magazine blog, includes some helpful suggestions and links. I've always thrown my tomatillos into a simple salsa verde, combining both roasted and raw tomatillos to get the best of both. Farmer Bill, of Green Thumb, thoughtfully pairs his tomatillo delivery with other salsa building blocks: yesterday a nice array of hot peppers and a spray of the freshest cilantro arrived. You don't need much more than that to make a nice salsa verde. I'm not sure it would pass muster in Santa Fe, but mine does the trick, and if I have a lot of it I'll use some as a marinade for grilled chicken, spooning extra over the chicken as it cooks (just discard any leftover marinade, and make sure to set aside plenty of the salsa verde to serve as sauce). Of course, it's also great with things in the vegetarian realm, like enchiladas or simply beans and rice.

A word about peppers: yesterday we received green jalapenos (somewhat spicy) and orange habaneros (damn spicy) and I used one of the latter in the recipe below. I removed all but maybe two seeds and the result was still pleasantly searing–and we can handle heat around here. Although I washed my hands, they were tingling for an hour or so from the pepper oils, so don't even think about getting your hands anywhere near your eyes if you've recently handled a spicy pepper, and check out this pepper guide if you're not sure what's what.
Roasted and raw tomatillo salsa
  • Approx. 1 lb. (10-12 medium) or a few more tomatillos, husked and rinsed
  • 1 hot pepper (jalapeno, habanero, or other)
  • 1 large (or 2 small) cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • juice of 1/2 lime
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro (leaves and tender stems)
  • Optional: a pinch of sugar
Arrange half of the tomatillos on a lined tray and put under broiler, in the toaster oven or oven. Monitoring them carefully, cook tomatillos until softened and blackened in spots. Alternatively, you can place tomatillos directly over a low flame of a gas stove, until skins begin to blister.

Meanwhile, use the tip of a paring knife to cut out the stem ends of the remaining tomatillos, and discard. Chop tomatillos roughly into fourths, then put both the raw and cooked ones into a food processor or blender. Cut open the peppers. Depending on the level of heat you desire, either leave in or discard seeds. In a jalapeno, you can leave in the seeds and achieve a moderately spicy result. Unless you're a thrill seeker, you probably want to remove most of the seeds if the hotter varieties of pepper. Roughly chop the pepper and throw into the mix, along with the garlic, salt, and lime. Pulse in the food processor until mixture is coarsely blended, with small pieces (adjust the texture to your liking). Add cilantro, pulse a few more times, and taste for seasoning. Add more salt, lime, and/or cilantro, and sugar if you like. 
Note: this sauce is best left to sit for an hour or two, if not overnight, to allow flavors to mellow together. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Country fare

If you’ve never visited a country fair this time of year, do yourself a favor and hop a bus. Now. They're sprouting like mushrooms from the cooling soil just outside of cities and suburbs, and they won't stop until the last leaf is off the tree. Hokey, you say? You might well take that stance, if you happen to consider tractor pulls, whack-a-mole, and giant pumpkins hokey…but for me, these things all add up to charm.

They’re wholesome and pleasantly seedy at the same time. I can't help but think of that fabulous rat Templeton, from Charlotte's Web (I'm envisioning the musical 70's movie version, guys), gorging himself drunk amid trash bins and animal stalls. 

If you’re a little kid, these venues are great, giddy fun, with their carnival lights, dizzy rides, and petting zoos of youth-raised livestock. Having not grown up in the proximity of country fairs (at least not that my parents let on), I consider it my personal duty to make up for lost time and haul my daughters to them every chance I can get–often to Ben’s torment. In fact, the children make a pretty handy excuse. We started with the 4-H fair when they were babies and now we’re on to the ones with amusements galore, most recently the Goshen Fair, which is kind of the sultan of the local fairs. We’re still in that sweet childhood phase where the merry-go-round is the hottest thing going. That's more than fine with me, since I discovered in my 20's, at Rye Playland, that my vestibular system is no longer cut out for those tarted-up instruments of torture called rides. 
More my speed was the rural tools exhibit, in the dusty loft of a barn. What purpose, you might ask, did that rickety old contraption below once serve?
If I had one, I could harness my dog's hyperactivity to make butter.
Now that we're talking about food, let's discuss all the treats to be had at these fairs. I have a feeling there are some who pay the entrance fee solely for the edibles, and at the Goshen Fair there were entire makeshift streets (plural) devoted to them. Aside from the samplings of pies and other homemade baked goods, there were all manner of roasted corncobs and meats, gargantuan sandwiches and sundaes. By far most impressive, though, was the array of deep fried delicacies. We spied onion blossoms and steak bombs, mini donuts, apple fritters, and churros. 
Anything you can plunge into hot oil, those vendors did–except, alas, for battered candy bars, which seem to be the province of Southern country fairs (and chip shops). The aromas of all these things, as well as the sounds of sizzling and popping, swirled all around us in a confusing vapor and rose up into the blue autumn sky. 
Spending the day at a country fair can be exhausting to the senses, so it's a good thing they don't happen every weekend. For now, we've retired to the more restful pursuit of apple picking for a while, particularly since the apples are coming in early and fast this year and need to be collected. I wish I could say our own trees were keeping us busy, but thanks to the industrious critters in our yard, we could count our harvest this year on one hand.
Around the corner from us is Averill Farm, in Washington, Connecticut. They use minimal spray, feature at least 15 varieties of apples (plus pears and quinces), and have been around for over 100 years, so many of the trees are twisted, bowed, or hollowed out into sculptural forms. We imagine they would make great homes for hobbits. But the real lure at Averill are the homemade apple cider doughnuts, made fresh, right there, every day. They're best purchased by the dozen and still taste amazing the next morning with coffee.
The direction I was going with this post was a fried apple recipe, some kind of crisp and dreamy apple fritter in keeping with all the fried dough we have been enjoying in the country. But to be quite honest, the weather turned hot this week and our A.C. is broken, and the last thing I want to do right now is spatter the kitchen with hot oil. Plus, I need to use up more of our fruit, and some of the applesauce I made. We picked bags of apples and then two days later received 5 varieties with our CSA. Anyone else crying "uncle" yet? 

So I'm going with an old standard. This pretty bundt cake is something I have baked every fall since stumbling upon it in the November 2002 issue of Saveur. It's simple to make, and if you don't own a bundt pan, you can make muffins. A slice is laden with healthy fruit and nuts, and owing to the quantity of diced apples and applesauce, it's pretty difficult to dry this cake out. Not overly sweet, it nimbly treads the line between dessert and breakfast (or snack)–and it would fit right in at a country fair or market, among proud displays of pies, jams, and homegrown fruits.

Apple Bundt Cake 
Adapted from Saveur
  • 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups plus 1 tablespoon flour (substitute up to 1 cup whole grain flour, if desired)
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil (e.g., sunflower, canola, or grapeseed) 
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 firm, crisp apples, peeled, cored, and chopped (e.g., empire, ida red, or jonagold)
  • 2 cups chopped, shelled walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a bundt pan (or muffin tins) with butter, then dust with 1 tablespoon flour and knock out any extra. 

Sift together flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl, and whisk together. Stir in applesauce, oil, and eggs until just combined. Fold apples and nuts gently into batter. 

Pour batter into pan and smooth out top so it's even. If you're making muffins, fill cups 2/3 of the way to the tops. Bake about 1 hour (about 45 minutes for muffins), or until top is nicely tanned and a toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool for 20 minutes, then invert onto a large plate.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Last swim

When it’s the last swim of the summer, you’d better make it count. Especially if you’re anchored off Orient Point, doing a clumsy but earnest crawl in deep, cool water around the hull of a sailboat.

The moment will replay in my mind throughout the winter, when I need to remember that perfect emulsion of air, sunlight, and sea spray…the boat straining its anchor,
the swells slapping at my face, the faraway shoreline bobbing in and out of view. Later, my skin prickling with salt as it dried in the sun.

I did some magical thinking for a moment, channeling Neddy Merrill: if I keep moving forward through water, might summer stay? Can I trick time if I keep gliding from house to house, drinks rattling in hand?

Or, as my cousin Copeland mused, perhaps the key to pinning down summer is to eat a sun-ripened tomato sandwich every single day. She’s onto something there–tomatoes might well be the ticket to estival immortality. Slicing through the waves quickly becomes exhausting, but sawing off another slab of heavy-with-juice heirlooms…well, who can tire of that?
As summer wanes, tomatoes are nature's halfway houses, here to ease us across that span between corn and acorn squash. And their timing is just right: as it gets cold enough for the first soups to hit the table, the final tomatoes, blemished though they may be, linger a while to brighten up pistous and minestrones. And better yet, to head into mason jars for home-canned tomato sauce. Eugenia Bone's Well-Preserved is kind of my bible right now, and I'm fortunate enough to have the outstanding Marble Valley Farm nearby, which offers up flats "seconds" at 50 cents a pound.
For now, tomatoes are still abundant and bodacious. We have a few perched in our fruit bowl at all times, canoodling with the nectarines and peaches. On a steamy day, a few hours is all it takes for them to go from firm to mush, so acting quickly is of the utmost importance. Partially for this reason, I've been on a panzanella kick. Panzanella, or bread salad, also answers the question of what to do with yesterday's fossilized baguette. The first time I threw one together, at the house we rented on Shelter Island, we had been playing on the beach all day and had guests, mojitos, and lovely grass-fed ribeyes awaiting the grill–but nothing else prepared by seven o'clock. Quickly pulling together bits and bobs from around the kitchen and sending the girls out to pluck herbs from the garden, I came up with something akin to the recipe below. My husband Ben eyed me skeptically as I hacked the rind off a forlorn hunk of bread. 

"You're feeding us stale bread for dinner?"

"Not exactly," I explained. "Because the bread soaks up all the good stuff and becomes…not stale." 

"Ah, so we're having a soggy bread salad." 

He quickly ate his words and happily admitted it. The beauty of this recipe is not only in its thrift but its versatility–the one below is but a single possibility in a multitude. And, the "soggy" bread cubes are the big, happy surprise, as they drink up every drop of those sunny tomatoes and make it all last a little bit longer.
Bread Salad (Panzanella)
feeds 4 as a side
  • 2 1/2 cups stale baguette or country-style bread, crusts removed, cut into 1-inch cubes (just shy of a baguette)
  • 2 medium tomatoes or the equivalent–cut into wedges then halve the wedges
  • 1 small bell pepper, cored and diced into cubes
  • 1/3 cup diced, peeled cucumber
  • 1 small onion or shallot, minced finely
  • 1/4 cup crumbled feta
  • a few leaves of basil, torn
  • a few mint leaves, minced
For the vinaigrette: 
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar 
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil 
  • pinch salt
In a medium bowl, put first the bread cubes, then all other ingredients except those for vinaigrette. Whisk together vinaigrette ingredients then drizzle over the salad ingredients, tossing together to combine. For best results, let this sit for a bit while you pull together dinner, then toss one last time before serving.