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Monday, July 30, 2007

The Essence of Summer



The story of The Peach has taken on near-mythic proportions. Everyone has stories they bring out on occasion and for the two of us, whenever any conversation includes discussion of organic produce or buying fruit in season, we feel compelled to tell the story of The Peach.

It was the early 90s, we were on Martha’s Vineyard for our annual summer vacation and thought we’d pick up some fruit and veg at a local produce market one afternoon. I strolled past a crate filled with peaches and then stopped. The fragrance wafted by me, like a caress…or something from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, where the aroma glides past like a hand. It was the smell of summer. The sign said “organic” peaches. Back then, organic was most definitely not something one could find at Wal-Mart. To me, it meant someone had spent some time and energy growing these peaches. The smell confirmed it with a most unsubtle advertisement. These peaches were ripe and completely unlike the rock hard, fragrance-free specimens at the grocery stores. Oh, I had been burned by ‘pretty’ peaches before. They’d catch my eye, all golden and streaked with pink, only to get them home and then realize they were some sort of cardboard, masquerading as fruit. Well, this was the real deal. I could tell. I put one in my basket.

At the register the cashier put the peach on the scale. The peach rang in at $7. Steve nearly had a stroke. I gulped. There was silence for a moment. She looked at as. “Do you still want it?” I coughed. My stomach clenched. The peachy bouquet rose to my nostrils…tantalizing. Steve glared. I said “yes”, my face burning. $7 for a peach? It defied imagination.

We headed back to our rental house, arguing over The Peach.

The moment we got in the door, I defiantly pulled it from the bag, took a plate and a knife and sat down at the table. Steve seemed shocked. Just sitting down to eat The Peach, so casually? I cut into the fruit and the perfume exploded into the room. Glorious peach nectar, ran down my fingers and pooled in the plate. I was giddy. I popped a slice in my mouth…juice dribbling down my chin, breathing in…swimming in… essence of peach. I could have cried. Steve sat down and had a slice. We agreed. It was the best peach we’d ever had.

I was reminded of The Peach recently when chatting with my neighbor, about our farmer’s market. She described going every week for her fix of peaches, which she puts together in a deliriously good salad. We both agreed that it was expensive, but worth it during this tiny window that is peach season. The salad she described sounded familiar. Turns out it was from Naked Chef. I remembered seeing it somewhere and yet, being hesitant…maybe given my history with peaches, or maybe the unfamiliar pairing with fresh mozzarella. I was inspired. Peach season is in full swing.

So, last week’s visit to Green City Market was for the express purpose of obtaining fine peaches and there were fragrant lovelies at Seedling. Pretty with that glorious ripe, peachy smell. Eating this salad is the perfect way to celebrate the season, as well as a few other perfectly delicious ingredients that, together, create lovely harmony-on-a-plate. Fresh mozzarella and prosciutto I buy from my favorite cheese shop, Pastoral. Even the guy who sliced the prosciutto was hesitant when I described the components of the salad—noting, “you’d have to have a really good peach though.” (If you live in the area, I highly recommend a visit to Pastoral. Just stepping inside creates the sensation of being in Europe, as well as other happy, warm feelings I associate with seeing piles of cheese.)

So, it’s July-heading-into-August and here’s my recommendation: if you can find a really good peach, take a deep breath…open your wallet and go for it. You won’t regret it.

Summer Peach and Mozzarella Salad
Adapted from The Naked Chef Takes Off


Quantities are approximate, depending on how many you’re feeding…
For 2

One ball/ovoline fresh mozzarella, torn into pieces
Two medium-sized peaches, sliced into quarters, or smaller
2, or 3 slices prosciutto, torn into pieces
two handfuls arugula, or your favorite greens
several fresh mint leaves, torn
salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil and lemon juice

Layer the mozzarella and sliced peaches on a plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (Naked Chef also says you can sprinkle with a pinch of hot pepper flakes, if you’re so inclined…)
Scatter the torn prosciutto over the peaches and mozzarella.
Dress your greens with a sprinkling of the best olive oil you’ve got and squeeze of a lemon juice.
Scatter the greens over the plate and, as Jamie Oliver likes to say, ‘tuck in’.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Success & Failure


Wow. Who would have predicted Cookie Triumph again – this time with Peanut Butter cookies —and so soon after last month’s achievement of baking nirvana?

And, who would have guessed that just a few short days later, I would find myself peering, prodding and poking at a dismal mess in a pan…an Italian vegetable pancake gone awry.

Here’s how it unfolded…

This weekend, to satisfy a weeklong craving for peanut butter cookies, I found myself back in the kitchen, sigh…yes…firing up the oven, again. So, as the mixer whirred away, I thought, "what is up with this infatuation I have with good, old American-style cookies.

Desserts in my house, growing up, were of two styles. There were the typical heavy, Eastern European ‘fancy desserts’ my mother made for guests. These always seemed to involve ground nuts. And booze. Not exactly the sort of tastes a kid yearns for…
Then there were the store-bought desserts that made my brother and I wild with joy. Twinkies. Ho-Hos. Ding Dongs. YUM. When my aunt , bless her, would visit, she’d bring a box or two, just for us. They were everything the leaden-nut-and-rum-soaked tortes were not…light and fluffy with that sugary, chemical-tang we adored. There was also that period of time when my father spent time on an engineering project at Sara Lee, so he would come home in the evenings with boxes of delicious, frozen desserts from the factory outlet store: cheesecakes topped with strawberries (which I enjoyed barely thawed – like ice cream cake), dark chocolate cakes with thick frosting and dense, buttery pound cakes.

Typical, American cookies, were elusive. My school friends’ mothers would make the mysteriously named Toll-House Cookies. LOVED those. I was especially enamored with the notion of mothers stocking large ceramic jars, to be plundered at will when one came home from school. There was something lovely, warm-feeling and homey to me about the old-fashioned, classic cookies: oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, sugar and snickerdoodle.

So, that’s mainly what I find myself craving when I want something sweet. No whip-creamy or fancy-pants desserts here…I hunger for cookies, pies and cobblers instead.

My neighbor and I have been passing Dorie Greenspan’s book, Baking: From My Home to Yours—as well as the tasty results--back and forth between our two kitchens trying various recipes. Everything so far has been outstanding. So, given this penchant I seem to have for cookies, I figured I’d give the Peanut Butter Crisscrosses a try…

Oh my!!!!! Crunchy, almost-but-not-quite shortbread-like and delectably salty-and-sweet…they were amazing. It felt as if I had achieved some sort of baking pinnacle, and took every ounce of will power not to pull up a chair and eat half the batch in one sitting as they came out of the oven. The recipe called for rolling the dough in balls and tossing them in sugar before placing them on the baking sheet, giving the cookies an almost professional look. All I can say is wow.

So, okay, I was feeling plucky…
And, I’ve been yapping on about pancakes
And, there was a pile of zucchini and summer squash from the CSA share sitting in the fridge.
And, I’ve been itching to try my hand at savory Italian Vegetable Pancakes, as suggested by Mark Bittman in the Times a few months ago.

Oooh, it seemed to be a good idea. I grated the squash and zucchini. (Is it me, or is summer squash kind of slimy?) Mixed them with eggs, parmesan and onion. (err, the batter seemed very wet…) Added bread crumbs. (hmm, still too wet…) Added flour. (A bad feeling about it…but, exasperated…I continued…) Dropped spoonfuls in hot oil. And then things went from bad, to worse. The gloppy, too-wet pancakes were burning on the exterior and remaining stubbornly soggy and uncooked in the center. Turning the pancakes was a wretched experience I won’t even go into, except to say it prompted a second attempt with a non-stick skillet. Disaster again. The Peanut Gallery (aka. Steve, between forkfuls of ragged, pancake scraps I kept dumping out of the pan) advised a thinner layer of batter. It just made thinner, scraps of ‘pancake’. Nothing worked. So, yesterday evening we ate the piles of tattered pancake with some cold grilled chicken and agreed they didn’t taste that bad, but there was something left to be desired with their appearance. It left me feeling glum.

Yet, today, writing this…I feel resolute. I will try to make vegetable pancakes again. You remember…I love pancakes and I feel there’s something good there.

Meanwhile, I think I'll comfort myself with another peanut butter cookie…



Note: It’s suggested not to use the freshly-ground, all-natural peanut butter here. Skippy Crunchy is what I used.

Peanut Butter Crisscrosses
adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan
makes about 40 cookies


2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup peanut butter—crunchy or smooth
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
¾ cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup chopped salted peanuts (you can add an additional ½ cup if you want even more crunch – I was just out of peanuts)

About ½ cup sugar, for rolling

Position racks in oven to divide into thirds and preheat to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and nutmeg.

Working with a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed for a minute or two, until smooth and creamy. Add the peanut butter and beat for another minute. Add the sugars and beat for 3 minutes more. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minutes after each addition. Scrape down the sides and bottowm of the bowl and, on low speed, add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they just disappear. Mix in the chopped peanuts. You’ll have a soft, pliable (mushable, actually) dough.

Pour the ½ cup of sugar into a small bowl. Working with a level tablespoonful of dough for each cookie, roll the dough between your palms into balls and drop the balls, a couple at a time, into the sugar. Roll the balls around in the sugar to coat them, then place on the baking sheets, leaving 2 inches between them. Dip the tines of a fork in the sugar and press the tines against each ball first in one direction and then in a perpendicular direction—you should have a flattened round of dough with crisscross indentations.

Bake for about 12 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point. When done, the cookies will be lightly colored and still a little soft. Let the cookies sit on the sheets for a minute before transferring them to cooling racks with a wide metal spatula. Cool to room temperature

Repeat with remaining dough, making sure to cool the baking sheets between batches.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bittman Rules!!!!

Yesterday's brilliant 101 Simple Meals in The New York Times Dining section was perfect, not just for the summer, but any season, because we all have known that weary, "I don't know...what should we eat?" feeling at one time or another. This list promises to kick-start a meal in a flash. I've printed it and it's up on the bulletin board in our kitchen--as I imagine it is in hundreds of other kitchens. I may go with #30 this evening: quesadilla...there are a bunch of avocados on my counter saying "now or never"!

Bravo!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

In Praise of Excellent Dinner Guests

So, after going on here about not using the oven very often in the summer…a couple of deliciously cool days swept into the city and inspired me to fire up my Hummer of a range for a small dinner with two dear friends, Michael and Didier.

Planning a dinner menu for these two is a delight and it got me to thinking about how there’s an extra joy in cooking for a certain type of dinner guest. It’s been said before, but bears repeating. Cooking for people is giving a gift. No doubt about it, to put together a multi-course meal is no small endeavor, but when the friends you’ve invited are charming, great conversationalists and exuberant gourmands all the preparation becomes worth it. The gift they bring us is a genuine sense of appreciation and joyfulness in getting together to share a meal.

Now, about the menu! First, there would be zucchini – a batch of handsome, compact summer squash had arrived as part of our weekly CSA box. Vichysoisse was also on my mind since I’m a fan of cold soups, and a perfect marriage of the two caught my eye as I leafed through a pile of cookbooks last week. Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris had a tempting recipe for Zucchini Vichysoisse. (I’m a sucker for a gorgeous photograph.)

At the fish market that morning, I’d boldly bypassed the halibut fillets, and the fancy King Salmon in favor of two gorgeous red snappers. Yes, everyone. Whole Fish. Yikes! Roasting whole fish has always been on my list of “things to do” yet, I find the idea intimidating for some reason. Yet the snapper was speaking to me, so I figured why not give it a try? (That’s the other beautiful thing about Excellent Dinner Guests. They are enthusiastic and supportive when presented with culinary experiments, which goes a long way in bolstering a cook’s confidence.)

For dessert on this, as it turned out, Bastille Day I decided on a tried-and-true favorite: a fruit galette. It’s one of many stellar recipes in Baking with Julia. This time of year you can’t go wrong with most fruit and I get giddy when contemplating the possibilities. The farmers market tables were laden with pints of ripe, fragrant raspberries and juicy blueberries. Perfect.

Sigh. I love when a menu falls together and has a kind of harmony.

The results? The soup was as tasty as it was refined. Ladled into chilled white soup bowls garnished with snipped chives, it was stunning. A sophisticated, elegant light green color with flecks of vegetables, perfumed by leeks… this was exactly what I wanted to eat on a summer evening. And, did I say it was a snap to make? I kept asking myself, “why don’t I make cold soup more often?”

The fish was quite dramatic. That afternoon I frantically flipped through cookbooks, and surfed Epicurious and Food Network, trying to figure out how to cook the fish. Wish I had seen Bea’s post on whole fish! The snapper was so beautiful, I wanted to do it justice. Ended up pulling different elements from an Epicurious recipe and The Zuni Café Cookbook. I roasted it in a super-hot oven, on a bed of Vidalia onions with handfuls of yellow and red grape tomatoes, all tossed with olive oil and chopped parsley. It was moist and bursting with flavor, and the veg turned into a languid, meltingly flavorful confit. I’d say it definitely had a Provencal quality.

And the galette? Well, not a single crumb was left when the four of us were finished with it. The crust is a cinch in the food processor – and actually makes enough for two galettes. I’ve saved the second bit to use in a savory version…maybe topped with some tomatoes and cheese.

A lovely dinner, if I do say so myself. Toasts were made, conversation sparkled and everyone was effusive about the food. (My tail wagged.) Cheers to excellent dinner guests!

Zucchini Vichysoisse
adapted from Barefoot in Paris
Note: I tweaked the quantities a tiny bit because I wanted the soup a little less thick.



1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts (wash them well!!)
4 cups chopped red boiling potatoes
3 cups chopped zucchini
1 3/4 quarts chicken broth
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/4 cup heavy cream
snipped fresh chives for garnish

Heat butter and oil in a large stockpot, add the leeks, and saute over medium-low for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, zucchini, chicken stock, salt and pepper; bring to a boil; lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Cool the liquid for 15 minutes or more before processing in a blender. (A food mill can also be used, but I don't have one.)
Add cream and season to taste. (This is SO important with cold soups!) Refrigerate for at least two hours.
Garnish with chopped chives, or zested ribbons of zucchini.


Roasted Whole Snapper
inspired by The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
for 2 servings



2 cups sliced Vidalia (or other super sweet variety) onions
Salt
About 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
A handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 whole red snapper (or, sea bream or black sea bass, about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds
1 1/2 cups (or couple handfuls) of red and yellow grape or cherry tomatoes (if larger, sliced in half)
About 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

1 lemon, sliced
1 clove of garlic, sliced thinly
several branches of fresh thyme

Several hours in advance, season the onions and the fish:

Combine the onions with a few pinches of salt, enough olive oil to coat, and most of the parsley. Knead and toss until the onions begin to soften. Set aside at room termperature to continue softening.
(Attention: this mixture will make your mouth water, it is SO zesty and fragrant!!)

Rinse the fish under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. If your fish guy has not already done so, make several parallel slashes on the thickest section of each side of the fish -- about halfway down to the bone. Sprinkle some kosher salt in the cavity and all over the outside of the fish, making sure to rub some salt in the slashes. Stuff the cavity with some lemon slices, the garlic and bunches of fresh thyme. Cover loosely and refrigerate until needed.

Cooking the fish:

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees, or as close as your oven can get.

Spreak the onion mixture in the gratin dish or ovenproof skillet you will use to roast the fish. Scatter the tomatoes over the onion mixture, reserving some to put on the fish.

Rub the fish thoroughly with a few spoonfuls of the olive oil and nestle it in the onions. Arrange some of the tomatoes on top of the fish, pressing them so they stick and release some juice. Season lightly with salt, and drizzle with more olive oil.

Place in the center of the oven and roast until just cooked through. Should take about 20 minutes, but this all depends on your oven, and your roasting pan, so keep an eye on it. The edges of the tomatoes and tips of the onions should brown.

While the fish is cooking, stire together about 1/4 cup olive oil, with the vinegar and the rest of the parsley. Salt to taste.

I served the fish on a platter, surrounded by the lovely roasted onion-tomato mixture. It was a little messy trying to slide a knife down along the bone, but I just did what I've seen waiters do so many times and the top fillet lifted up. Then I removed the exposed central bone out and served the two fillets below.

Spoon some onion mixture with each serving and top with spoonful of remaining vinaigrette.

Berry Galette
from Baking with Julia
serves four



The Dough:
3 tablespoons sour cream (or yogurt or buttermilk)
1/3 cup ice water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 6 to 8 pieces

To make the dough in a food processor, stire the sourc cream and 1/3 cup ice water together in a small bowl; set aside.
Put the flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt in the processor work bowl, fitted with the metal blade; pulse to combine. Drop the butter pieces into the bowl and pulse 8 to 10 times, or until the mixture is speckled with pieces of butter that vary in size from bread crumbs to peas. With the machine running, add the sour cream mixture and process just until the dough forms soft, moist curds.

Chill the Dough:
Remove the dough from the processor, divide it in half, and press each hafl into a disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours.
(Storing: The dough can be kept in the refrigerator for a day or two, or it can be wrapped airtight and forzen for a month. Thaw, still wrapped, in the refrigerator. It is convenient to roll the dough into rounds, place parchment between each round, and freeze them wrappped in plastic; this way, you'll need only about 20 minutes to defrost a round of dough at room temperature before it can be filled, folded into a galette and baked.)

The Filling:
1 1/2 cups mixed fresh berries
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter

Position a rack in the lower thrid of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Put the dough on a lightly floured work surface and roll it into an 11-inch circle that's about 1/8 inch thick. Since the dough is soft, you'll need to lift it now and then and toss some more flour under it and over the top. Roll up the dough around your rolling pin and transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.

Spread the berries over the dough, leavin a 2- to 3-inch border. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar over the fruit and drizzle with honey. Cut the butter into slivers and scatter it on top of th fruit. Fold the uncovered border of dough up over the filling, allowing the dough to pleat as you lift it up and work your way around the galette. Becasue you're folding a wide edge of dough onto a smaller part of the circle, it will pleat naturally--just go with it.) Dip a pastry brush in water, give the edge of the crust a liht coating, and then sprinkle the crust with the remaining teaspoon of sugar.


Baking the Galette
Bake the galette for 35-40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and crisp. Transfer baking sheet to a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Remove galette to cooling rack and serve warm or at room temperature, cuttin gthe tart with a pizza wheel or sharp knife.

Best eaten the day it is made.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Pleasure of a Solitary Lunch

Please don't think I'm odd if I confess to enjoying lunch out, alone. There's something very appealing to me about a civilized, sit-down lunch (is it the European roots?) and the solitude one can enjoy with good food, something to read and people to watch.

I know, I know...for some, the concept of eating out in public (and I'm not talking Chipotle here...) alone, makes them uncomfortable , but I find that lunch is somehow easier in this regard. The nice part is that if you travel for business, and can get away, a decent midday meal can carry you through the day, thereby avoiding the even more awkward solo dinner. The clincher though, is some sort of study I remember hearing about years ago, which found that eating lunch at your desk reduces your lifespan. Well then! What other motivation do you need?

My list of favorite-places-to-have-lunch-alone has been cobbled together over years and years and there's nothing 'hot' or groundbreakingly new here. Just good lunch spots. I'll share another confession: I relish going out for lunch alone here in Chicago when I've had a string of days working from home and would love a chance to get out of the house.

So, here are some personal favorites. Maybe give the idea a try. You've got the possibility of that don't-eat-at-your-desk-live longer thing going for you.

CHICAGO:

Shaw's Oyster Bar
Tucked off to the side of the bigger, more formal (and pricey) Shaw's Crab House dining room is this absolute gem. A cozy atmsophere prevails as an oyster shucker busies himself inside the traditional U-shaped bar in the center of the room and sushi chefs do their thing nearby. The seafood is impeccable. Sushi is outstanding. Oysters are available from numerous waters and are listed on a central blackboard. The crowds that normally dominate the evenings are not around, making lunch here even smarter. And, those icy cold martini's you see the guys behind you enjoying? I'll bet having one yourself has some sort of as-yet-undiscovered health benefit.
21 E. Hubbard Street, (between State & Wabash) 312-527-2722

Frontera Grill
sigh...I hesitate to even put this on the list, since Rick Bayless' win (Outstanding Restaurant) at the James Beard Foundation's awards. I long ago gave up going to Frontera for dinner, but lunch is still a wonderful option. There's a very colorful and inviting bar, which provides a perfect opportunity to sample the fantastic Mexican dishes served up here every day, along with a perectly made margarita. It goes without saying, the food is terrific, but it's feeling you get in a place that has great food and people working there who enjoy, and are proud of, what they're doing that makes Frontera so special. And, here's another option...if you're near Macy's (the old Marshall Field's) on State Street, you can try the 'fast food' version of Frontera -- Frontera Fresco in the Seven on State food court there. You grab a tray and go through a cafeteria-style line with a different, streamlined but still tasty, Frontera menu.
445 N. Clark Street, 312-661-1434 (Frontera Grill)
Macy's State Street, 111 N. State, Closed Sundays (Frontera Fresca)

Bittersweet
The marble-topped tables by the window whisper “French patisserie”…the beautiful tartlettes, cookies, cakes and brownies in the gleaming glass cases say “take us home!” and the lunch menu (written on a blackboard on the wall) features daily soups, sandwiches, quiches and salads inviting you to “linger for lunch”.
Run by a former restaurant pastry chef, this lovely bakery/café is perfect for a solo lunch.
1114 W. Belmont 773.929.1100

Julius Meinl
It's so easy to while away an afternoon at this lively Viennese "kaffeehaus"...comfortable tables and chairs strewn through a sun-filled set of rooms. I love the delicious sandwiches and salads, and the espresso is hands-down the best I've had in Chicago. Glass cases are filled with lavish, European pastries, if that's your thing. A small retail area sells coffee and tea for home.
3601 N. Southport 773.868.1857

NEW YORK:

E.A.T.
I could eat at Eli Zabar's famous deli every day. A bustling cafe sits behind the take-out deli counter. As you eat the finest egg salad sandwich you will ever have, the bustle of the Upper East Side parades by on the sidewalk. Their raisin-studded rye is so good I could cry...and I do, when the loaf I bring home with me on the plane runs out a couple days later.
1064 Madison Ave. (between 80th & 81st) 212.772.0022

Via Quadronno
This narrow little Italian coffee bar easily enchants with the most declicious sandwiches and homey, rustic feel. But it's their lattes and cappucinos that make me feel like a big kid...each arrives with a pretty pattern in mocha and cream decorating the foam, revealing expert barristas at work behind the counter.
25 E. 73rd Street (and Madison) 212.650.9980

Balthazar
A bit of Paris imported. There are so many people dining here on their own, you can feel totally comfortable. Menu is typical brasserie fare. As much as the food feels right, it's the buzz in the room that is transporting. One of my favorite times to come is breakfast when the room is hopping with people, and bread, butter and jam make your meal perfectly Parisian.
80 Spring Street (and Crosby) 212.941.0364

Union Square Cafe
A tried-and-true favorite. I know it's been there forever, and the reason is because it's so good. I've eaten dinners (!) here alone and always felt wonderfully well taken care of. Absolutely everything is delicious on a menu that seems to favor fish dishes, and again, this place hums along in a way that makes you happy to be there. AND, easy walking distance to ABC Home! Be still my beating heart!
21 E. 16th Street 212.243.4020

SAN FRANCISCO:

Tadich Grill
This is old school seafood, set in a classic, waiters-in-white-jackets setting. Vintage wooden booths line the walls. Eat at the bar. You'll be surrounded by the easy camraderie of your fellow solo diners and treated to the excellent service of the bartenders. Fish is superbly fresh. Sauteed sand dabs are my favorite. Cioppino here is also fantastic.
240 California Street (between Battery & Front Streets) 415.391.1845

Wilted




It was a moment of canine-human telepathic communication. Henry-The-New-Puppy looked at me beseechingly with his little blue-black eyes. “It’s HOT” he telegraphed, tiny, pink tongue flapping…his pot-bellied little body slumping to the sidewalk. I nodded back in complete agreement. We stood there for a second and then shuffled back into the building to the din of blasting window unit air conditioners echoing through our apartment building’s courtyard.

This week summer was dialed up a notch. Here in Chicago that meant a double whammy of heat and humidity, presenting an endless string of bad hair days for yours truly. I swear there isn’t enough hair product on the planet to help me during heat like this, but I digress. It also resulted in the notorious Hot Weather Appetite Shift. When it’s like this, I have longings for just a couple cool bites of sushi followed by an ice-cold beer, or the snap of cold vegetables and crispy greens. In a city apartment cooled by those ubiquitous window unit air-conditioners, my main goal is NOT to use the stove or oven for any length of time. Baking anything goes on hold, for sure. (And that brings the joy of a summer evening’s stroll to the local ice cream place for a cone! We really should take advantage of these precious few months.)

So when the heat wave rolls in what’s a wilted, tired person with a listless appetite to do? Pretty simple: salad and cold cuts.

It sounds pedestrian, I know. Yet, it’s also practical, and fitting.

I have a rotation of salads we eat throughout the summer months. Here are just a couple. More to come…

Chef’s Salad

I’m fairly certain that there’s dispute over who made the first Chef’s Salad, and I say, “who cares”! The main idea here is to use the idea as a platform for your own invention.
Here’s my formula:

Base: Romaine lettuce, washed and chopped roughly. (I love the crunch of romaine, but don’t let me stop you from using your favorite lettuce.)

Middle layer: Any combination of chopped veggies you prefer. I like a broccoli, red or green pepper and some chopped, or grated carrot. Sliced red onions are optional. Sugar snap peas are nice too.

Top layer: Cold, sliced meat. I like leftover grilled chicken breast if it’s available. Or, my favorite smoked turkey or ham. Slice these, stacked, into strips and arrange across the top.

Swiss cheese. Again, sliced into thin strips.

More options: Salami, or hard-boiled egg, or, mmmm, bacon.
It’s all good.

Arrange everything in a large bowl, using proportions based on your taste and how many you're feeding.

For the Dressing:
Here’s where I don’t want vinaigrette, and since I’m partial to creamy dressings, but often horrified by the ingredients list on store-bought, I make ‘creamy-ranch’ dressing at home. One of the really wonderful things about having worked at Oprah was meeting Art Smith, her personal chef. My copy of his cookbook,
Back to the Table is well thumbed, spattered and falling apart at the spine, which means I've got nothing but love for his way with food!

The perfect dressing for your Chef’s Salad is,
Art’s Ice Box Buttermilk Dressing.
(Makes about two cups, keeps for a week in a glass jar in the refrigerator.)

Put all the ingredients in a large glass jar and shake it up to blend!

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup mayonnaise (Art says to use reduced-fat, but I love my regular Hellman’s.)
½ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons grainy mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped rinsed capers (Optional for me.)
2 tablespoons minced shallots (I’ve used green onions or chives with great success.)
2-4 teaspoons of mixed, fresh herbs – whatever you like (oregano, basil, tarragon)
1 teaspoon sugar (for that certain je ne sais quoi…)



Here’s another salad in my summer rotation. This is a perfect side to a plate of your favorite salami or prosciutto, a crusty loaf of bread and maybe some olives. Pull that chilled white, or rose, out of the fridge and you’re in heaven.
No oven needed!



Caprese Salad My Way
serves 2

Toss in a large bowl:
2 cups fresh mozzarella, bocconcini, halved
2 cups fresh tomatoes (oooh, this is the time of year for the colorful, sunburst-in-your-mouth varieties at the farmers market!)
handful of basil, stacked, rolled and then sliced in a chiffonade

Add:
salt and pepper to taste
several drizzles of extra-virgin olive oil (now’s the time to pull out the good, peppery stuff you paid big bucks for!)
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar (again – here’s where the expensive, liquid gold really shines!)

Friday, July 6, 2007

My Big Fat Breakfast




Oh the wonderful laziness of a holiday morning. Yes, the 4th fell right smack in the middle of the week this year… but a day off, is a Day Off! That means having time to linger in pajamas, savor a cup of coffee and then make a big breakfast. Marcia’s Law says that a “big breakfast” should somehow include pancakes.

I’m not really sure why I love pancakes so much. All I can tell you is that my affection for them has no bounds – potato pancakes, box-mix pancakes, Denny’s pancakes, Korean pancakes, any-kind-of-vegetable pancakes, puffy oven pancakes, Swedish pancakes, crepes, dhosas, Italian crespelle, palacinke, moo shu, ohmy I could go on and on, and I love them all!

But let’s talk here about the typical American breakfast pancake. Remember Aunt Jemima and Bisquick mix pancakes? These were a few of the very American foods my mother would make when I was a child and they formed a sort of ‘taste imprint’, resulting in a strong preference for boxed mixes, lasting well into my 20s. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I really did think that there was no other way to make pancakes. A friend once pointed out that he made them from scratch, which made me stare at him as if he had two heads. Like, with a bunch of separate ingredients? I mean, why? I continued to believe in the infinite superiority of Bisquick.

The pancake that converted me was an ethereal, melt-in-your-mouth delight I found years ago in The Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham. Oooooh here, in one charming small volume, were lovely recipes for things like Sticky Buns and Shirred Eggs, and yes, folks…an entire chapter on…pancakes!! I decided to give the Buttermilk Pancakes a try. Wow. They were a dream… light and perfectly fluffy. Fellow pancake lovers at my table clamored for me to ‘keep ‘em coming’! They even passed the ultimate minimalist pancake test: a sprinkle of powdered sugar and the squeeze of an orange made you want to gobble them by the pile. Forget maple syrup.

Yet, in the back of my mind, the memory of a sturdy, fat Bisquick pancake lingered. Just for kicks not long ago, I thought I’d try my favorite cooking nerds’ version from The New Best Recipe. This was the pancake of my youth! A cake-y, yet fluffy, pancake with a nice, tangy buttermilk flavor. The Best Recipe cakes stands up to syrup or preserves, and are truly stellar when strewn with my new favorite pancake topping: fresh berries and vanilla yogurt.

So, this past 4th of July morning, after I had perused the paper and had my coffee at a leisurely pace, I spied the pint of black raspberries from this week’s CSA share sitting on the counter, and thought… mmm, pancakes. Then, perhaps a second later, this next thought crept into my mind: maybe later this week I could convince Steve to go for moo shu…


NOTE: Both recipes stress the importance of not overmixing the batter – stir just enough to combine, and leave the lumps!

When you want a light, elegant pancake…these go beautifully with a drizzle of maple syrup, my powdered-sugar-squeeze-of-orange treatment, or any warmed jam or preserves.

Buttermilk Pancakes
from The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham
(makes about 14 3-inch pancakes)

1 cup buttermilk
1 egg, room temperature (this is key!)
3 tablespoons butter, melted
¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

(Heat oven to 200 F. to keep finished pancakes warm as you are working through the batch.)

Stir buttermilk, egg and melted butter in a mixing bowl until smooth and blended.

Stir flour, salt and baking soda together in a small bowl and then add to the buttermilk mixture, stirring only until the dry ingredients are moistened – leave the lumps!

Pre-heat a skillet or griddle to medium hot. (This is important too…you want a hot surface.) Grease lightly and spoon out about 3 tablespoons of batter per pancake. Spread the batter with the back of the spoon so it is thinned out a little. Cook until a few bubbles break on top. Turn the pancakes over and cook briefly.

For a fluffy-yet-sturdy, tangy pancake…these use buttermilk, or milk mixed with lemon juice as an alternative).

Light and Fluffy Pancakes
from The New Best Recipe by The Editors of Cook’s Illustrated

(makes about sixteen 4-inch pancakes)

2 cups buttermilk, (or 2 cups milk, whisked with 1 tablespoon lemon juice)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1-2 teaspoons vegetable oil


1. Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bolw to combine.

2. Whisk the egg and melted butter into the milk until combined. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients in the bowl; pour in the milk mixture and whisk very gently until just combined ( a few lumps should remain). Do not overmix.

3. Heat a non-stick skillet (or griddle) over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes (they’re not kidding!); add 1 teaspoon of oil and brush to coat evenly. Pour ¼ cup batter leaving an inch or two between pancakes, and cook until large bubbles begin to appear, 11/2 to 2 minutes. Flip with a wide spatula and cook until golden brown on the second side.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Cityphile



As a television producer and travel maven, I subscribe to the belief that one can never be too prepared.

For me, the fun of planning a trip (for business or pleasure) is the research, which I tackle with relish... especially, "the essentials". And by that, I mean the basics, which I like to determine early on.

First: hotels. My taste runs to unpretentious, smart, stylish…with a splash of charm. Sure who wouldn’t want to just book the local Four Seasons and be done with it? But, there's challenge to finding a hotel that won’t hit the wallet too hard, and still has that perfect blend of practicality, comfort and style.

Next: dining. I’m always looking for special places to eat, because that’s one of the foundations of a great trip: the meals. By ‘special’ I don’t mean super-fancy, although that’s ok too! I mean local, off-the-beaten-path gems, or places simply known for their specialty.

Finally: neighborhoods. One of my favorite things is a nice walk and I'm always on the lookout for unique neighborhoods where one can take a long stroll that includes some interesting shopping… (Is anyone else tired of seeing the same retail chains in every city you land in?) and spots to stop for a coffee, snack or refreshment.

From websites, newspapers, and my overstuffed folders of magazine clippings to friends, neighbors, family, back to more magazines, more websites, I troll for information until I’ve got my 'file' ready.
I wouldn’t call it comprehensive or A-Z. It is simply one person’s effort to shape a good travel experience, whether for work or play.

So, I'd like to share all this great information by posting on travel here under the label, Cityphile. And, since I live in a great city -- Chicago -- Cityphile will also include opinions and recommendations on some of my favorite places here.

La Famille d'Oignon

So as I was unloading this week's produce/CSA box on my counter I detected a theme...

the humble onion was enjoying the spotlight. There were lovely young red onions...more spring onions...(eek, more spring onions...I still have most of the bunch from last week!) and there were some space-age looking garlic scapes. umm, I only know the wacky, corkscrew thing-ys were scapes because the weekly CSA newsletter said so!!

The newsletter suggested using them just as you would use garlic, so I tried two approaches.

Chopped fresh, as garnish on some tortellini in gorgonzola cream sauce. Hmm...it was like eating raw garlic...perhaps a bit too pungent and sharp for my taste.

Round Two of Adventures with Scapes was very simple. I sauteed them with red pepper flakes and a little salt in some olive oil and then added washed and chopped kale. (sigh...yes, to finish off the remaining kale from two weeks ago...) This was terrific. It's a treatment I give broccoli rabe as well as ordinary broccoli. I think in Italian it is called "jumped" and it's a classic approach...you take a sturdy green and then "jump" it in a hot pan with olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. Sometimes you blanch the green vegetable, then squeeze it dry before adding to the hot pan. It's a tasty way to cook greens and it worked like a charm with the gorgeous, artsy scapes...and, the lingering kale.

The thing I stumbled upon once we sat down to eat was that I could push the "jumped kale" over into the White Bean Salad on my plate, and ta daaah...an idea is born...the most delicious tuscan-like bean salad. A sort of quirky variation on Tuscan Bean Soup! Recipe is below. (The thing I love about bean salads is I always have a can of some sort of bean in the pantry and they are open to endless interpretation!)

The baby red onions were absolutely perfect for roasting in the pan with a chicken, which is what I did. The beauty of a meltingly sweet and tender roasted onion reminded me of Orangette's lovely treatment of some shallots recently. The onion family is finally getting some proper attention! Not nearly as poetic, my onions were bathed in some of the drippings from the chicken roasting overhead, as well as a bit of white wine I'd added to the roasting pan.

Some of the spring onions also made their way into the bean salad.





Hooray...vive la famille d'Oignon!

Tuscan Bean and Kale Salad

1 can white cannellini beans, rinsed
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1-2 green spring onions, chopped
2 T. fresh green parsley, chopped

Toss beans and vegetables with a Simple Mustard Vinaigrette.
I use this variation adapted from Michael Roberts' Parisian Home Cooking:

In a small glass jar with a lid:
1 small, minced shallot bulb
1 T. dijon mustard
3 T. red wine vinegar (I love O brand...Zinfandel Vinegar. It has great wine flavor.)
tiniest micro-pinch of salt (since mustard is salty, you can also omit adding salt)
Shake everything together, then
add 5 T. of extra virgin olive oil, or if you prefer a lighter taste, use grapeseed, peanut or canola oil.
Put lid back on and shake again, finishing off with a grind or two of pepper.

Add fresh herbs, chopped...a teaspoon or so, to really highlight whatever you're dressing...chervil is nice. I sometimes skip the shallot and use chopped chive instead.

Jumped Italian Kale

4-5 large leaves of kale, washed, the center tough rib removed and cut into 1/2 inch strips (kitchen shears are excellent with this!)
2-3 garlic scapes, or cloves of ordinary garlic, chopped
pinch of red pepper flakes
1/2 t. salt
2 T. olive oil
1/4 cup chicken stock
Optional: squeeze of lemon

Heat the garlic scapes, red pepper flakes and salt in the olive oil over medium-high heat, about one minute, keeping an eye on the garlic...it should just be coloring a bit. Slowly add handfuls of chopped kale and stir to wilt everything.
When all the kale is in, and has started to wilt, pour chicken stock over and cover. Cook for about five minutes until kale has softened, and then uncover. Cook another minute or two to evaporate whatever liquid is left. Off heat, add freshly ground pepper to taste, and then toss with the bean salad.
Add an optional squeeze of lemon juice after tossing everything together.