Sunday, July 26, 2009

101 Salads. Really Bittman?

Hey. Last night I read through Mark Bittman's contribution to the NY Times Dining section, Weds. July 22, 2009. My mother-in-law recently got a subscription to the NY Times. She loves the NY Times, being a native New Yorker. Since her usual NY Times supplier, one of her many daughters, just moved to the mid-west, she thought she'd treat herself to regular home delivery. I casually commented that I liked the weekly Dining section and low and behold, when I came home from a recent trip to Vermont, I found two slices of blueberry pie (gone pretty far south) and two Dining sections sitting on my dining room table. My mother-in-law kind of mixed up our traveling plans and thought we were going away this week not next. An honest mistake that had some dire results for our kitty, who she mistakenly left unfed.

Anyways, I first perused the attractive front page of the July 22 Dining segment. In it, Mark Bittman committed to write down 101 salad recipes. That's a lot of recipes folks. I don't think I could come up with 101 versions of anything. And at the time, I didn't think that I could actually read through 101 salad recipes. I mean how interesting could this be- Arugula, tomatoes and shaved Parm.; Arugula, cucumbers and shaved Parm...

That said, I like Mark Bittman's cookbooks, they are so friggin comprehensive and doable. On the other hand, I loathed that self-congratulatory, foodie-ego fest television series that Bittman did with Gywneth Paltow, Mario Batali, and some Spanish actress I can't remember. I try to erase that show from my memory when I open his cookbooks or read his recipes.

His 101 salads didn't fail. I found the segment pretty compelling. I kept my eyelids open long enough to read every single recipe. Some I could have guessed and others were a sweet surprise. Today, all I can think about are these salads. Which to make first? With so many vegetables in season, it's a hard call. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Brklyn to Manhattan

This week we took a trip to NY- a trip to our past and the city's present. In the 1980s, both I and my mate lived in NYC- I on the very upper West Side (the last stop on the A train), he in Brooklyn. Since he initiated the trip, we got to travel through his memories. I have heard about his time in Brooklyn on Hicks Street. The report is usually mixed. He hated his job in some unremembered corporate financial institution. He fell into this field by default or by habit or by peer influence. Whatever the motivation, while he chafed at his work, he remembers Brooklyn fondly. (I particularly recall snippets about his French roommate who described American coffee, circa 1986-7, as "A big cup of shit.") Life is like that sometimes with the even hardest stretches tempered by small sweetnesses.

He lived in this very lovely building in Brooklyn Heights. Wow! What a beautiful area. I hadn't been to Brooklyn Heights before. In fact, when I lived across the river and on the other side of the island in the 1980s, I never ventured over to Brooklyn once. My story of 1980s NY is similar to and different from my mate's. I'll leave it for another time.

Let me give a little texture to our trip. The day was simply perfect. The weather this summer is really astounding-- low humidity, intemittent rains to keep my garden fresh, sparkly blue skies, low 80s. Needless to say, Brooklyn Heights felt and looked as good as I think it ever could--bustling, sun-dappled, urbane and aristocratic- just dreamy.

After snapping a few shots of my mate's brklyn abode, I realized I needed to eat. I generally don't "lunch". Lunch is a bore to me. I don't long to go out to lunch and I am pretty lacksidasical about at home afternoon preparations. I expected we would grab a sandwich or something while walking around, but we decided to sit down at a Thai restaurant, Latern, around the corner from the Hicks apartment.
A truly acceptable, satisfying Thai lunch, we had. I think the spontaneity, the weather, and the nostalgia pulsing through our veins made the standard Thai lunch noodles and stir fry all the more delicious.

That's the thing about food right? It is so much more than sustenance. Often the mind and heart of the eater color the reception of the ingredients and preparation and flavor. Certainly the case here--everything tasted right, as we watched the daily goings on at the intersection of Montague and Hicks. After the kind of lunch that you see in the movies, we started the trek to the Brooklyn bridge. My mate intended us to walk the bridge to Manhattan (as he often did from home to work back in the day) and then play our next move by ear.
First we checked out the views of the city from the Brooklyn promenade--and then the bridge.
Boy o'golly alot of other folks decided to take this walk. Bikes, people, it was crowded and hot, for an obvious reason: the views.

Oh yea, the bridge itself ain't nothing to sneeze at. It's big and impressive.

After this hot walk we rambled into the subway to get over to the west side. Sure we could have walked. In my younger days I might have insisted to do so, but heck I wanted a cool drink and a Central Park greenspace and fast. We ended up taking a train to one of my undergrad. alma maters, Hunter College,then moved ever west towards the park. On the way we asked a doorman where the closest coffee shop might be. Espresso, on the corner of Madison and 64th, he claimed. After looking around this address several times we finally found it, and walked in to find, hmmm, how to describe it?? Super chic,mod, rich and hushed with a hostesses at the door. She informed us that there was a 15 minute wait for a table, we split. I mean really, this is just coffee we're talking about right? We found a little bakery coffee shop down the block and hoofed it over to the park. I forgot to take a picture of the cute peach berry tart, cookie and coffees we imbibed, but here are the remains.

For a weekday late-afternoon-evening, the park was suprisingly alive with kids, families, couples making out intensely, sports, games, musicians, strange hippy-violin chanters, everything. We walked by a spot where gentlemen played various yard games.

And then collapsed in Sheep Meadow.

It was a day weighted by memory and rich with the present.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Morning After

On Friday night we had an impromtu dinner party with a few close friends. It was a beautiful evening. After a late afternoon downpour, the skies opened up to a pink and pale blue sunset. Of course I forgot to take any picture of all the food we ate and cooked. And most importantly, I forgot to take pictures of the star of the evening--Mojitos! Mint is abundant right now and so were the many limes brought by our guests. The drinks were just delicious to my lips. My mate found them a bit too strong. And the expert mixologist at the table, EM, claimed the first batch too weak. As always, everyone had an opinion.

After a round of drinks and appetizers, we hit the fields for a rousing game of Bocce. I can't, or don't want to, remember who won. All I know is that my team put forth a noble effort, even as it became almost impossible to see the pallina.

Post-Bocce, all the kids pitched in to get dinner on the candlelit table (set by the expert mixologist).

The menu included two kinds of pasta, one with pesto, one with a sausage sauce, roast chicken, salad, and bread. Despite the hearty appetizer offerings and many pre-dinner drinks, everyone ate like they needed a good meal.

The party concluded around 12 am, after we noshed some unbelievably delicious packaged cookies brought by AM and some other sweet things. Luckily for me SM hit the dishes like a professional and put my kitchen in order before she left. God bless her, since I would have had to face those nasty dishes and pots alone, the next morning.

It is my habit, after a night of drinking, to get up pretty early and wander around. And so I did the next day. As I cleaned up the dessert dishes, I got to thinking about,what else??? Food, of course. Perusing the party remnants, I spied a basket of leftover French bread and thought: French toast.

Topped with some leftover blueberry compote and served with a side of turkey bacon. Right on!

Remarkably, even after that satisfying and substantial breakfast, my hungover mate decided that we needed to go to a local bakery for coffee and an after-breakfast snack. Haven't heard of an after-breakfast snack? Nor had I, until yesterday morning. We went to C'est La Vie in New Hope PA.

C'est La Vie is owned and operated by a real French dude. Going into his bakery is really like going to France. There's just something very European about the place. And his croissant, brioche, etc. are f'in good, as is his coffee which is always just the right temperature and flavor. I'm one picky coffee drinker; he rings my bell every time I go.

You might note the prominently displayed travel mug in the photo above. My mate is adamant about not using paper cups. I, as you can see, am not. It is a bit of a religion for him. I am slowly being converted.

After all this eating and drinking, I retired to the couch for the greater part of the day. My mate engaged in some project, I dunno what and really couldn't have cared less. I was tired and well fed.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pasta Cruda and Garden Friends

Sun of a gun. I just lost a full entry. Don't know exactly how it happened, but anyway here's what I think I said.

Last night was pasta night. I originally contemplated making puntanesca sauce. I like the salty super fishyness of anchovies and olives and capers. But when it got down to cookin', I had only the anchovies, didn't want to go to the store to get the need goods, and wasn't so sure I wanted to cook over a stove. It really wasn't that hot yesterday, wet and warm describes this summer in eastern Pennsylvania, but I thought a raw tomato sauce might be nice. I've made this sauce before. For some reason I didn't love it this time. It was watery, but it's always watery. Too much raw tomato and garlic for my taste. Maybe it just didn't go with the stuffed tubes of pasta I cooked up. Who knows.

My mate liked it muchly, but I can't always trust his opinion when it comes to pasta. The Italian in him loves pasta in almost any form even if served with a sauce of dirt and poo.

I blanched some fresh green beans and tossed with a very little oil and salt. I think I liked these more than the salsa cruda. I must say that I did enjoy the sauce when sopped up with bread. It tasted like the bruschetta I often order at our favorite local eatery, Bell's Tavern in Lambertville NJ.

Anyway, a few of my most favorite little friends stopped by for a visit at the end of the meal. We played and took a wander through my vegetable garden.

Sometimes people are way more fun than food. Happy summer, ya'll.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Falafel and the Garden

Back again with news about food and flowers and other growing things. This week I decided to plan a menu. I cook alot more often and consciously during the summer, because I am less busy (no work for teachers in the summer, it is the absolute benefit of the profession for those who care to take advantage). Here's the menu thus far.

Sunday: Veg and tofu fried rice (a good way to get rid of old vegetables and rice)

Monday: Falafel, homemade tahini sauce, and cucumber, tomato, red pepper salad.

A word about this salad.
I know everyone is talking these days about local and seasonal eating. I read it all the time, in all the food mags I get, in NY Times food articles, on television; it is obviously a fad or a trend of sorts. As a skeptical foodie, my back gets up when food trends start to sound pedantic and utopian. "You must eat local, if you have any morals or conscience!" "Local and seasonal fruits and veg will save the world and fight the corporatization of America!" Ok, everyone needs to take a deep breath and chill out a little. I mean sometimes food is just food, ya know. Good tasting and fun.

But shit, I have to admit, when tomatoes are in season, they are something to behold. The recent batch I bought at Homestead Farm Market in Lambertville NJ were beautifully tomato-eating heaven. And they, along with my homegrown mint, a healthy squeeze of lemon, some olive oil and salt, made this salad so sparklingly bright I couldn't stop eating it. It balanced the richness of the tahini sauce and the fried falafel balls (Near East boxed mix, they make it as good as I could with my own two hands, why suffer?) so well that we really couldn't stop eating it. A truly revelatory meal that made me proclaim several times "why don't I make falafel more often?" I don't know why I don't. Maybe because the fresh-local-seasonal veg salad made the meal and you can't eat local, fresh, and seasonal all year round, right? Do I sound like one of those seasonal devotees, sorry.

Not to brag, but that mint from my garden sure helped those vegetables shine. I, like many folks I know, am vegetable gardening this summer. I have tried my hand at this many times before, but veg. gardening is not easy or predictable. I have always flower gardened.

My flowers are like old friends, they come around every year. They don't need extra special tending: water, weeding, mulch, deadheading. That's it. There are enough of them that if a disease or bug infestion occurs, someone will be blooming if another isn't. I can trust them and they trust me. Vegetable gardens are different. They are emotional, whimsical, and susceptible to predation. They don't return each year, like my predictable perennial flowers. They need the right soil, the right amount of water, protection from bugs and molds. They are high-maintenance friends. I've tried year after year to grow vegs and have failed. Maybe my soil is too acidic or too alkaline, I dunno. But do you see what I'm saying, they ask to much of my brain. I want to only use my body and my heart in the garden, not my head. That's why I love the garden, it silences my analytical tendencies that are in overdrive during the academic year.

But, I heard the siren song of the vegetable garden this summer. Vegetable gardening can be so alluring. You plant the seeds and they actually produce a sprout. Oh,the excitment of seeing a seed turn into a sprout, it's fun people. And then the sprout gets bigger and bigger and hopefully turns into sumthin'. That's when things get tricky, but my hopes are high. Check out the activity.

Thusfar, I planted beets, cucumbers, zucchini, arugula, cantalope, bush and pole beans, broccoli, various herbs, and tomatoes; I think that's it. We'll see what happens. Some critter is lacifying the arugula and broccoli, and the tomatoes aren't progressing at a timely clip, but who knows what the future holds. That' s the thing with vegetables, they keep you in suspense. For those of you who successfully grow vegetables (without chemicals), I would love any advice. I can't say I will follow it, but I will read attentively.

Oh yea, the menu for the rest of this week includes: pasta tonight and fish, veg coconut curry on Thurs. Friday is open. I'll keep you posted.