When I think of summer dinners growing up at home, I think of this meal. I think of the smell of charred garlic and basil; I think of my stepfather sweating at the grill, a slave to his stopwatch, the wrath of my mother should the chicken be the slightest bit overcooked driving his utmost concentration; I think of sitting at the table in our screened-in porch with my brother and sister and eventually Ben, too. I think of eating for hours, a time of considerably faster metabolisms. I think of the candles melting into the tabletop, the humidity just beginning to subside and the buzz of the crickets as we clear the table at the end of the night.
When my mother comes to visit…
… she rouses in the wee hours of the morning, brewing coffee, making oatmeal, preparing the kitchen for the pitter patter of hungry, cranky, little (and big) bodies.
… all day long she runs up and downstairs — seriously, she’s forgotten how to sit down — fetching clothes, doing laundry, making dinner.
… somehow she finds time to make me an Earl Grey tea latte — so good! — every morning, to make dinner every evening, and to bake a cake with Ella somewhere in between, this time a storybook recipe called “happy winter chocolate cake,” which, as many of you might suspect by now, is dry and disgusting.
… she, perhaps still seeing me as a three-year-old needing positive reinforcement, oohs and ahhs over every little thing I make, even a batch of completely inedible lemon ice cream. She tries not to wince as she forces a few bites down but finally agrees that cloying lemon ice cream and repulsive happy winter chocolate cake belong in the garbage together.
… she brings me fun gadgets like English muffin rings, because she knows I’ve been on a little English muffin-making kick recently.
… she also brings recipes. Her track record for selecting winners is astonishingly good.
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.
On one Mother’s Day many years ago, my sister and I ordered our mother a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Although unoriginal and basically thoughtless, the idea might have been somewhat good had we not used mom’s credit card to pay for the transaction. Oops. Let’s just say once the details of the purchase surfaced, mother was less than pleased.
“Have I taught you nothing?!” she cried. “All I want is a card! All I EVER want is a card! It’s so simple. A handmade card!”
While I likely knew all of that back then, over the years I have learned that I can’t go wrong on gift-giving occasions when I keep in mind the things that truly make our mother happy, namely said handmade card, photos, phone calls, tins of sardines, cold beer, popcorn, Jack Black, tea (preferably PG Tips served in thin-thin porcelain cups), an extra pair of scissors… simple things, really.
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.
In addition to mascarpone sorbet, my gnudi-making debacle, which left me with pounds of semolina flour in my pantry, has led to another pleasant discovery: relatively easy and completely delicious ciabatta-like sandwich rolls.
It turns out that when one cup of the all-purpose flour in the peasant bread dough is replaced with one cup of semolina flour, the loaves transform a bit, becoming at once chewier and lighter in texture and slightly more golden in color.
And when the dough, instead of being shaped into two loaves, is portioned into roll-sized pieces and sprinkled, just like those ever-so-promising gnudi, heavily with semolina flour, and gently stretched into squares or elongated “slippers,” it bakes off into light sandwich rolls, crispy on the exterior and soft on the interior.
But when the unbaked rolls are allowed to be pampered just a bit more by an overnight rest in the fridge, they bake off even more beautifully, becoming even crispier on the exterior, more porous on the interior, feather-light in weight, gorgeously golden in color, and resembling in taste the most delectable ciabatta, so well suited for housing any number of sliced meats and cheeses, fried eggs and bacon, or slices of mozzarella and tomato.
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.
Last week, a series of brilliant ideas led to a series of kitchen mishaps. Not only did I waste some food along the way, I also unjustly (perhaps) lashed out at my three-year old. For this, I feel it my duty to warn you about what could happen should these same brilliant ideas enter your brain, too.
So, upon deciding that it’s finally time to try your hand at making ricotta gnudi, you might decide you want to make the ricotta from scratch, because you can’t help but think homemade gnudi would be all the more delectable if you were to start with homemade ricotta.
You might even decide, once you make your ricotta, to save that whey — waste not want not! — and to make a couple of loaves of homemade bread with it, because you know that making bread is no big deal, it is adored by all, and it is so nice to have on hand.
In the meantime, you might breeze through the gnudi-assembly process pleasantly surprised to discover there’s not much to it — a little mixing, piping, snipping, and flour dusting. You might even photograph the process and with each snap of the shutter get a little more excited to share this project with a few of your friends. But you know, too, you must be patient, because gnudi require some pampering: three-days in the fridge with a quick flip every day to make sure they are nicely coated in that semolina flour.
A few weeks ago I discovered that for all the years I have been cooking quinoa I have been doing it wrong. The quinoa I have made, as a result, while edible and receptive to countless seasonings and additions, has never kept my attention for very long — after the odd week-long-quinoa binge, I’d forget about it for months.
But after posting the radish entry a few weeks ago, I received a comment from a dear old friend who managed several of the Philadelphia farmers’ markets while I lived there. Joanna pointed me to a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe for a quinoa salad with radishes, fava beans, avocado and a lemon vinaigrette she had recently made for some friends to rave reviews.
A quick google search led me to the recipe. While the ingredient list had me foaming at the mouth, it was the first few lines of the instructions that really struck me: Place the quinoa in a saucepan filled with plenty of boiling water and simmer for 9 minutes. Drain in a fine sieve, rinse under cold water and leave to dry.
PLENTY of boiling water. Simmer for NINE minutes. RINSE under cold water. Is this news to you, too? Why has every package of quinoa instructed me to cook it as if it were rice — 1 part grain to 2 parts water — in a covered pot? And to cook it for at least 15 minutes but often for as long as 20? And after the cooking process, to let it rest off the heat under its steaming lid for an additional 5 to 10 minutes?
On Easter Sunday 2003, my sister made Nigella Lawson’s Easter Egg Nest cake, a cake that had been featured in The New York Times the Wednesday prior. Studded with flecked pastel eggs, this cake could only suit my sister better if a flock of Peeps and a colony of white chocolate bunnies were nestled among the eggs.
I’m not sure anyone in the family including my sister has made the cake since, but upon finding an old photo of Lindsey presenting her creation at the dinner table, I felt I had to make it. At the very least, I knew it would look festive on the table, the kids would find it enchanting, and my few guests would welcome a sliver of anything chocolaty.