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dinners

This is such a bumper season; I hardly know what to do, what to wear, what to eat!

The pool is closed, and the nights are cool, and yet when I throw on jeans and an Oxford, I’m wishing I’d gone with a tee-shirt by sometime around noon.  It smells like fall, but still feels like summer might come back to visit.  It’s a bumper season at the farmer’s market, too – there are bins of apples (it’s been an early season here) and new-dug potatoes, but there are also a few baskets of gem-like cherry tomatoes hiding in a corner, not far from a bushel of late peaches.

I’ve been bored with summer cooking lately, so I was tempted to fast forward to stews and breads and bacon-studded goodness, but summer is far too fleeting around here to not really appreciate these last few weeks of having it – or something like it – around.  And, hence, here is this super-simple pasta dinner, that shines because of those last few sweet, vine-ripened beauties and the intense leaves on our now-leggy basil plants.

I always cringe a little when food writers and recipe authors say this, because I believe you can make good food with imperfect ingredients a good portion of the time – but do be sure to use really good ingredients here – they’re the star of the show, and there’s no cooking or fancy techniques to hide behind.

Linguine with Fresh Tomatoes
(Serves 2-3 adults; adapted, generously, from Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa at Home”)

2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
1/4 cup fresh basil, julienned
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Kosher Salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 – 3/4 pound linguine fini pasta (or other long, thin, pasta)
3/4 cup to 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Combine the tomatoes, 1/4 cup olive oil, garlic, basil leaves, red pepper flakes, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper in a large bowl.  Cover and let marinate at room temperature for 4 hours.  Or, if you didn’t read the recipe until right before you put the water on to boil, microwave the tomato mixture for about a minute.

Bring a large pot of water salted with 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt to a boil, and cook the pasta until it’s tender but still has bite.  Drain and add the pasta to the bowl of tomatoes.  Add the Parmesan cheese and toss so that it melts.  If the pasta feels stiff, add a bit more olive oil until it’s to your taste.  Serve with Parmesan and additional basil leaves, if you  like.

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So, I may have been taking the whole “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” adage too much to heart.  Apparently, July’s not cutting us any breaks (I’m not actually complaining, by the way.)  So, I’ve turned to meals that don’t require I turn on an oven or slave over a saute pan.  What better example than good old gazpacho?

I used to have a favorite gazpacho that I would make every year, once.  It required picky, fine chopping, and the resulting bits of tomato, pepper and cucumber swam in a spicy broth of vegetable juice and Tabasco.  It was good, but there’s not a lot I find more tedious than neatly chopping tomatoes. Read More

What are some of your food quirks?  We all have them – things we love for no logical reason (Sara Lee poundcake for me, toasted), and things we can’t stand, for reasons good or bad (mayonnaise.) Eggplant has also long been on my no-go food list.

But where I have no problem having never developed a tolerance for mayonnaise, I feel like eggplant is something that I should learn to like.  It’s apparently right up there with fatty fishes in terms of being “brain food,” and it’s loaded with anti-carcinogenic antioxidants and scads of unpronounceable chemicals that promote cardiovascular health. (Now that I write that out, perhaps it’s no big surprise that I don’t love eggplant, after all.)  Health benefits aside, it’s featured in world-famous French, Italian, and other Mediterranean dishes … my wheelhouse of culinary enjoyment.

Inspiration to give the dark purple nightshade another shot finally came via Pixar, and my kids’ recent bout of illnesses that have kept us at home.  I may be a few years behind on this, so you might already know that Ratatouille is a great flick.  I’d even say it’s a better movie for grown-up foodies than for (my) wee ones.  What you might not know, though, is that Remy – the secret rat chef – is modeled on and was “trained” by Thomas Keller, who makes even the most humble ingredients into unforgettable sensory experiences. Remy’s recipe for ratatouille was created by Thomas Keller for the movie – and so it struck me: if TK could get me to not only eat – but love, both foie gras and salmon tartar at his French Laundry, his recipe for the classic eggplant, tomato and zucchini casserole would almost certainly be my best bet for learning to like eggplant.

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Given my kitchen activities over the past few weeks,  today’s post could well be about how I managed to turn microwave mac-and-cheese into a gluey mess.  Or about how “pasta surprise” happens when I have four nearly-empty boxes of different pastas and cook them together and top them off with some sauce from the freezer.  We’re in a bit of the cooking doldrums here, people, and I cannot say I have a ton of inspiration to offer.

And then I think back to last week when inspiration did strike.  Necessity, is, after all, the mother of invention.  It was rainy, and Husband was away, and the kids weren’t interested in napping.  I had very few groceries on hand, and no interest in attempting a shop with an overtired entourage.  It was time for a project – something that the wee ones could help with, and something we’d all like to eat when all was said and done.  I had flour. I had water.  I had yeast.  I had little hands looking for something to play with.  I had … an idea, at least, and a plan, at best! Read More

Did you know that Cinco de Mayo is primarily celebrated in the Mexican state of Puebla and the United States?

Like Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo is a much bigger deal in the States than in the cultural home it celebrates.  Everyone’s Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day, and everyone’s having a fiesta on Cinco de Mayo.  I love such wholehearted embracing of the different cultures that comprise This American Life!  I couldn’t have anything to do with looking for an excuse to enjoy the excellent food and beverages that those cultures have brought us …

Okay, that might be part of it – but that’s okay.  I mean, everyone loves a good party.

Anyway, no one loves Cinco de Mayo quite as much as my sister.  Both of my sisters, actually, love all things Mexican food- and drink-related, regardless of the date.  You say ¡Fiesta! and they’re in – with maracas and a pinata.  Really, they’re more fun than I am.

But I bring the food.

And in their honor (and in the honor of Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín) I offer these appropriately-Americanized (but still more authentic than Taco Bell) Mexican dishes. Enchiladas Verde smothers a comforting chicken and cheese mixture in a pleasantly tart and mildly piquant green sauce built from roasted poblano peppers and canned tomatillos.  The Arroz Mexicana starts on the stove and finishes off in the oven, producing a pilaf with clean Mexican flavors that pair well with the enchiladas – or with any grilled meat, I would imagine.

Neither photograph particularly well in their final states, but they taste great, so just go with it.

Now, off to find a margarita …

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Gnocchi.  You think you know what it is, but you really don’t.  At least I didn’t.  Or, I knew one version of gnocchi (or two, if you count Chef Pisghetti’s cat on the Curious George cartoons).  That (non-cartoon) version was the sometimes ethereal, sometimes leaden potato version, ridged with the tines of a fork.  My mother remembers watching her grandmother make those by hand every week, and I’ve always wanted to try it out, but have always been deterred by the prospect of spending so much time on something that could turn into a gluey mess.

But I learned that making (some kinds of) gnocchi doesn’t have to be time consuming or unpredictable.  It turns out that “gnocchi” is just the Italian – Venetian, actually – word for “lump,” and that the little dumplings can be made from just about anything; regional versions include the well-known potato version, as well as those made with ricotta, breadcrumbs, or even cornmeal.  There’s even a French version that boils pate de choux (the base for gougeres and other baked puffs) that really intrigues me.

This very easy version hails from traditional Roman cuisine, and uses semolina flour – the same hard wheat flour used to make high-quality pastas, cooked up in milk much as you would polenta, mix in some cheese, spread it out on a cookie sheet to firm up, and then cut it into squares and bake it with some butter and cheese. Read More

So, it’s been awhile.  Sorry.

Last night was the first time I’ve really cooked in over a week, thanks to first being “home alone” while Husband experienced the volcanic interruption, and the Lad and Lass were at my parents’. It was a good chance to get a leg up on spring cleaning (though you’d never notice it) and a girl is due her share of take-out, once in a while.  But I may have overdone it.

Then, it was more meals out during our Vineyard getaway at the end of the week, then we got back and celebrated my birthday – out, again.  Blessedly, that dinner – being a grown-up affair – did  not feature anything swimming in unnatural-looking cheese sauce or containing pressed chicken (more on the dearth of good kids’ food in restaurants another time.)

So, by the time I had to contemplate the market and what to make for dinner, I decided (a) that I was almost tired of eating, and (b) that I couldn’t really plan much past the meal at hand, so I would just get enough to make some soup.

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