In September 2008 I returned from Slow Food Nation convinced I would, by the end of the week, build a mud oven in the alleyway next to my apartment and, as a result, have wood-fired pizzas at my disposal from then on out.
I had watched volunteers at SFN stomp in the mud and cobble together an oven in two days, and I couldn’t stop dreaming about the pizzas, thin and crisp with a blistered bubbly edge, that emerged from that wood-fired oven.
After doing a little research, I made a list of supplies and stuck it to my fridge. I even bought a book: How to Build Your Own Hearth Oven. It was going to happen. I would get my wood-fired oven.
But a few weeks passed, and I never got around to building it. And before I knew it, a few years passed. And then a few children appeared. And then a few dreams disappeared.
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.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me she had checked out Canal House Cooks Every Day from the library and described it as the loveliest cookbook she had seen in a long time. Middle child that I am, afraid to miss out on any fun, I immediately followed suit. That night by the light of my itty bitty book lamp, I poured through every chapter, making mental notes of ingredients to purchase and recipes to try, feeling more wound up with every page I turned, finally closing my eyes to a photo of a sheet pan lined with chocolate chip cookies, the last beautiful image in the book.
The following morning, before even thinking about coffee, I set butter out to soften and turned to the recipe, credited to Katherine Yang, a New York City pastry chef. When the Canal House ladies sought Yang’s guidance for the best chocolate chip cookie recipe ever, Yang passed along this one, a thin and crisp variety, one that perfectly balances that irresistible salty-sweet dynamic — there’s no need to top these off with any flakes of fancy sea salt. Crisp on the edges, chewy in the center, buttery with chocolate chunks throughout, these delicate cookies are enough to convert the thick-and-chewy-chocolate-chip-cookie lover in me forever. They are delectable. Even Ben, who never does any heavy lifting in the dessert department, eats them by the half dozen and swears he could eat them by the whole. I wouldn’t put it past him.
I have never considered myself a mixologist but for a gathering last Sunday, I found myself filling champagne flutes red Solo cups with peach-flavored liqueur, opening bottles of Cava, garnishing cocktails with diced peaches.
If I’m going the mixed-drink route, I tend not to stray from my gin and tonic, always with a lemon just as my British granny, affectionally known as Granny “Puff Puff” for allowing my sister and me puffs of her cigarettes as we wished, taught me. But after the warm reception of both the traditional sangria and the sangria Penedès I brought to last Sunday’s gathering, I think I could get into mixing it up in the drink’s department. I’ve never felt as equally proud as disappointed to see revelers return to the fridge searching for more of the “peach stuff,” which had long been polished off. Next time I’ll make a double batch.
There is nothing I don’t love about a summer fruit galette: the sugared and golden crust, crisp and flaky throughout; the delicate ratio of fruit to pastry; the rustic look of dough enveloping fruit. At the height of stone-fruit season, I love nothing more than making these free-form tarts, always with a layer of frangipane slicked over the pastry, the combination of almond cream, warm fruit and buttery pastry nothing short of perfection.
But if I were feeling nitpicky and had to find one fault with this dessert it would be its circular shape, which doesn’t lend itself to feeding a crowd. And in this season of backyard celebrations, the height of which is nearing, feeding the masses is the name of the game, one at which cobblers and crisps, in the fruit-dessert category at least, succeed in particular.
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.
Last week, while packing away a few cookbooks, an old newspaper clipping tucked between two books slipped off the shelf and swooped into my lap, opening as it landed to reveal a photograph of a mouth-watering spread: a bowl filled with herb-and-olive oil topped ricotta, a few slices of grilled bread, and a handful of halved black mission figs. A quick glance through the article led me to discover that this appetizer, described as “stupid simple” by the chef of A Voce at the time (2008) was the most popular appetizer on the menu.
With the task at hand long forgotten — I’ve always been a hopeless packer — I made my way to the kitchen, hoping to find cheesecloth and heavy cream, making ricotta the order of the hour. And thirty minutes later, the stupid simple appetizer had materialized: creamy curds seasoned with sea salt, fresh thyme, dried oregano, and a drizzling of olive oil.