To say that the move north — from the weeks of packing to the two-day drive to the week of unpacking — has taken a toll on the children’s diet would be an understatement. There has been too much takeout, too many salty snacks, too many drive-thru visits. And I fear there has been irreparable damage: A few days ago when I pointed to a bunch of carrots in one of Graham’s favorite books, he, with complete confidence, identified them as, “hotdogs.”
Oiy. In this season of vegetable bounty, there is no excuse. I immediately set to work making a pasta sauce — sauce counts as a vegetable, right? — I learned years ago from The Tra Vigne Cookbook, a recipe Michael Chiarello learned from Jacques Pèpin. In the book, Chiarello pairs the sauce with stuffed chicken thighs and notes that any leftover sauce can be used to poach fish roulades, no doubt a suggestion made by Pèpin.
But that the sauce can be used for such a preparation gives you an idea of its consistency: it’s watery. And while I have always loved its fresh, clean flavor — there are no onions or garlic or crushed red pepper flakes (all of which I love) — these days I like it better when it’s cooked down even further until nearly all of the water evaporates and the tomatoes and bell peppers and basil reduce into a sweet, summery concentrate.
Last summer I discovered eggplant caviar, a dish made from peeled eggplant roasted in a foil-covered pan, a preparation that, with minimal oil, produces the creamiest lightest flesh imaginable. Seasoned with fresh herbs and macerated shallots, spooned over grilled bread, this mashup makes a wonderful summer hors d’oeuvre.
This year, I’ve been using my grill to make the eggplant caviar, and I think I might love it even more. After reading about charring whole, unseasoned eggplants over coals or in the oven seemingly everywhere I turned — in Mark Bittman’s Flexitarian column, in Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem, and in the book I always rely on this time of year, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables — I had to try the method myself.
Remember last week when I brattily exclaimed, “I want one!” after seeing my auntie Marcy’s Lifefactory glass bottle? Well, guess what? I got one. And guess what else? I have one for one of you, too, and I couldn’t be more excited.
Upon returning from Albany, I started researching Lifefactory, and it came as no surprise that one of the company’s co-founders, Daren Joy, is an award-winning designer and architect. In a video on the site, Daren briefly discusses his design process and observes that “there is a connection that gets formed almost immediately,” noting that people “know they love [the bottle] right when they first touch it.” Perhaps my reaction wasn’t so bratty after all: the instant desire to have one was simply the sign of successful design.
As I suspected, I am loving my Lifefactory glass bottle. After a week of heavy use, I have yet to open my shoulder bag to find my phone lying in a pool of water — success! — and I have yet to find myself at the sink trying to scrub away a fungal smell from the opening — success! The glass delivers such a clean, pure taste. Moreover, thanks to the silicone sleeve, the bottle has survived several crash tests — the kids are as drawn to the bottle as I am — down our asphalt driveway.
I arrived at the Albany airport to find my auntie Marcy waiting at baggage claim ready to snatch Wren from my arms and to feed me, as always, immediately.
She led me to her car, and before I could even buckle my seatbelt, she had pulled a ball jar filled with cucumber and green grape gazpacho — one of my favorites — from a cooler and handed me a Lifefactory water bottle — I want one! — filled with ginger-mint-and-orange-flavored water.
Feeling nourished and ready to face the task of the day — find me a place to live — we zoomed off in Marcy’s mobile spa, equipped with coolers holding bowls of quinoa and mango salad, a brown paper bag sheathing a loaf of Shelburne Farms chili cheese ciabatta, and a little baggy holding rice crispy treats for dessert. My auntie spoils me.
I returned home to a heat wave craving nothing more than this cool summery meal. As I mentioned, this white gazpacho, loaded with dill, is one of my favorites. I find nothing more refreshing this time of year, and had I not been so worried about disappointing some of you, I would have shared this recipe ages ago. You see, some of you may be turned off by the zing of the raw garlic. One clove imparts an amazing amount of bite, and while you certainly could leave it out, I fear something would be lost without it. While variations of white gazpacho can be found all over Spain (so I’m told), raw garlic (along with the stale bread) seems to be a constant. This soup makes a wonderful first course, especially when every sip is accompanied by slivers of toasted almonds and sweet grapes.
I find myself living in a Potemkin village, my cookbooks — clutter! — hidden away, my stand mixer — clutter! — stashed in the hutch, my pots, pans, utensils, teapot — clutter! — boxed up in the garage. Staged by the realtors, our house has never looked cleaner, prettier, or more color coordinated. It also has never been more unlivable.
Even so, today I discovered that with little more than a knife, a cutting board, and a large bowl, a beautiful whole grain salad can materialize in no time. Determined not to eat takeout for the fourth night in a row, I made a big bowl of tabbouleh, a dish my mother made for us all summer long for as long as I can remember, a dish that feels at once light, satisfying and nourishing. With some warm pita and a block of feta, dinner was served.
Unlike many grains, bulgur requires nothing more than cold water — yes, cold! — to fluff up and become edible. You can’t mess it up. There are no grain-to-water ratios to remember; there are no cooking times to adhere to. After an hour of soaking, the cold water is drained and the bulgur is ready to be dressed in olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, salt and pepper.
I have yet to hear of a tofu preparation touted for allowing tofu’s true flavor to shine, lauded for not overpowering tofu’s delicate nature. Subtlety is not the name of the game when it comes to dressing up tofu. Domination is more like it. It’s all about the sauce.
This principle holds true with the two tofu recipes I make with some regularity. In the first, a block of tofu that has gently simmered in water bathes in a scallion and garlic soy-based sauce; in the second, cubes of crispy sesame-coated tofu plunge into nuoc cham, a pungent spicy, sweet, and sour Vietnamese dipping sauce.
And this principle holds true as well for marinated tofu, a preparation I have only just discovered. I hadn’t really given marinated tofu a thought before last month, when I was on my soba noodle salad with peanut sauce binge, and a variation I had made with tofu left me unsatisfied. Even when tossed with that yummy peanut dressing, the cubes of tofu I had pan-fried tasted bland, and they were a pain to prepare to boot.
Suspecting that marinating might be the best preparation for tofu in these sorts of salad, I tried a few recipes, all of which I really liked. You see, what’s great about this treatment for tofu is that if you like the marinade, you’re going to like the tofu. There are no surprises. A tofu marinade won’t ever behave like cake batter, tasting delectable unbaked but inedible baked. The only trick is to use firm or extra-firm tofu and to drain the tofu for as long as possible — an hour at least — before marinating. The longer you marinate, too, the more flavorful the tofu. It’s completely straightforward.
During the week of Passover, I received an email from one of the many food websites I subscribe to featuring the most beautiful macaroons I had ever seen. I immediately clicked on the link to read the post, examine the recipe, and check out the comments. But as I scrolled through the oohs and aahs, I came across one comment that made me pause:
“I can’t fathom why you would want sweetened coconut for anything, it’s full of preservatives and has the consistency of wet shredded Styrofoam. There’s sugar in the recipe anyway – do yourself a favor and get unsweetened coconut, it’s already sweet and delicious.”
Upon reading this, my first thought was, “I don’t like your tone Young Lady.” I didn’t — I mean, is it so hard to use our nice voices? My second thought was, “Maybe this rascal is on to something?” I have always used sweetened shredded coconut in my granola recipe, which I love, and which I haven’t thought about changing in years. But I decided to do some sleuthing even so. I pulled a bag of sweetened shredded coconut from my pantry and read the ingredient list: desiccated coconut, sugar, water, propylene glycol, salt, sodium metabisulfite (to retain color).
I googled propylene glycol to discover it is a “synthetic liquid substance that absorbs water and is used by the chemical, food, and pharmaceutical industries as an antifreeze when leakage might lead to contact with food.” Furthermore, “the Food and Drug Administration has classified propylene glycol as an additive that is ‘generally recognized as safe’ for use in food.”
Hmmm. Generally recognized as safe for use in food. I hate to be an alarmist, and perhaps the amount of propylene glycol in sweetened shredded coconut is negligible, but this phrase got me thinking. For the odd macaroon or slice of quick bread, perhaps propylene glycol is not worth losing any sleep over. But for the bowl of granola consumed nearly every morning? A substitute was worth looking into. I mean, there wasn’t even that somewhat reassuring clause — “contains 2% or less of …” — printed before the ingredient in question. And even so, I don’t want to consume anything — ever — that is only “generally recognized as safe” no matter how small the amount.
My pantry is cluttered with odd ingredients, a reflection of impulse purchases made after seeing recipes for “ultimately authentic” dishes I feel I have to make immediately. As I often don’t make these dishes immediately, I end up collecting tubs of tamarind concentrate and palm sugar (purchased for pad thai) and shrimp paste (for satay sauce) and fermented black beans (for mapo tofu).
Often these ingredients sit untouched for months (years), or they get dipped into, stashed in the fridge, forgotten, and ultimately unnecessarily re-purchased when I see that next completely authentic recipe I have to make immediately. It’s a vicious cycle.
A few unseasonably hot days last week had me craving chilled soba noodles with dashi, a favorite summer meal I first tried at Morimoto, where they make it with green tea soba noodles — SO good. After scouring my pantry and finding myself making the usual note to self — purchase bonito flakes and kombu promptly — I paused. Certainly I could make something that could satisfy this same chilled soba craving without going down my usual pantry-cluttering path.