Back, Tired.

I’m back from “Abroad,” and sitting on my sofa all freshly-scrubbed from a nice hot shower in my own fickle tub in my own cramped bathroom, as opposed to the clean-yet-guilty feeling I had each morning these past few weeks.  It’s not the first time I’ve stayed in hotels with aesthetically-pleasing but poorly-designed bathrooms, and have gotten the entire room practically flooded, and this trip was no different.  Well, there’s no flooding here in Massachusetts — thank god, as there is also no one in Housekeeping here but me and Keith — but there is one heck of a tired gal sitting here with you.  I’ll start the European low-down soon, I promise, but in the meantime I wanted to introduce a new little idea I had.  I’ve been writing to you all for a while now, but sometimes I forget that what it is that we’ve discussed.  So what I’ve decided is this:  each week I’ll post five utterly random things about me, whatever it is that I think of that day, and this way maybe we’ll get to know each other a little better.

Sound good?

CSA 2009, Week Eleven: Guest Writer!

Since Keith and I are in Europe and therefore unable to use two weeks of our CSA share, we asked some friends to take over the cooking, eating and writing that comes with our box.  This week, Melissa discusses fennel.  Enjoy!
— Nayiri

I was so excited to be the lucky recipient of one of Keith and Nayiri’s CSA boxes.  I spent the days leading up to the pick-up dreaming about the delicious vegetable goodies it would contain.  I knew tomatoes would be unlikely, but wondered what would be there instead, and would any mini food challenges come in the box, too?

Part of what I’ve really liked about participating in a farm share in the past is the element of surprise and of trying to figure out how to use things I might not normally buy. I have a farm share to thank, for example, for developing my appreciation of hearty greens. I didn’t used to regularly purchase collards or kale or even eat my beet greens prior to getting them in a farm share.  Now, however, I get excited by the possibilities whenever I have them, instead of feeling like “how am I going to use this?!?!”  I could hardly wait to find out what surprises would come this time.

When I finally got to unpack the CSA box, I found it filled with the following:

  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Cilantro
  • Cucumber
  • Fennel
  • Garlic
  • Japanese eggplant
  • Kale
  • Onions
  • Peppers — 1 green, 1 purple, and 1 small red (hot?)
  • Scallions

Melissa's CSAEverything seemed pretty straightforward, except one thing: the bulb of fennel.  Of course, I’ve had fennel seeds (and liked them) in sausages, and over the last few years I’ve even developed a taste for black licorice and anise-flavored things (like pastis or absinthe — which I just found out gets its flavor from both anise and fennel), but my experience with the vegetable-like bulb itself was limited and my memories not terribly fond.  But there it was, in the box.

Never having owned a fennel bulb before, I had no idea what do with it, and maybe even doubted why I would want to. Turning to the cookbook shelf (Who am I kidding? It’s a whole bookcase!), I selected a few I thought might provide some encouragement and curled up on the couch, determined to make use of that bulb.

Most of the things I came across left me uninspired, but when I saw the recipe for this salad, I knew I’d found my answer.  I was going to a friend’s house for small, poolside movie-night and knew (hoped?) this salad would be just the thing I wanted to bring. I mean, it did have two of the most crucial elements for the group: cheese and nuts.  How could it be bad?  Surely Annie Somerville (chef of Greens Restaurant in San Francisco) wouldn’t lead me astray, right?

Fortunately, she didn’t.  The salad was delicious, even with the fennel (maybe because of the fennel?!). Earthy and nutty, buttery and tangy, and just overall fresh tasting, it was enjoyed by everyone at the party — including me.  Score another one for the persuasive powers of the CSA box!
— Melissa

Green Salad with Beets, Fennel, Walnuts + Ricotta Salata, from Everyday Greens by Annie Somerville
Makes four to six portions

Sherry-Walnut Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
2 medium beets, about ½ pound, roasted, peeled, and cut into wedges
Salt and pepper
2 heads of butter lettuce, about 10 cups inner leaves and trimmed outer leaves
1 cup flat-leaf parsley, small sprigs and leaves
½ fennel bulb, core and stalks removed and sliced thin crosswise
1/3 cup walnut pieces, toasted and coarsely chopped
1½  to 2 ounces ricotta salata cheese, 2 to 3 tablespoons

  1. Make the vinaigrette.
  2. Place the cut beets in a small bowl, toss with 1 ½ tablespoons of the vinaigrette, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper.
  3. Wash and dry the lettuce and parsley. Combine the greens, fennel, walnuts, and half the cheese in a large bowl; gently toss with the vinaigrette.
  4. Separate the salad onto individual plates, tucking the beets between the leaves, and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and the remaining cheese.

Sherry-Walnut Vinaigrette
Makes about ½ cup

1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1 ½ tablespoons sherry vinegar (I used red wine vinegar)
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons walnut oil

Whisk everything but the oils together in a small bowl. Slowly pour in the oils, whisking until emulsified.

Belgian Graffiti.

I love graffiti, always have.  I remember riding in the backseat on the way to my father’s New York City office and sitting up straighter when we passed my favorite tags along the Henry Hudson.  I’d count how many times I’d see them spray painted on brick walls, cement underpasses and in between windows, and that number would glow behind my eyes until I went to bed that night.

New York is different these days, tidied up, and graffiti isn’t a common sight in Boston.  Europe, on the other hand, is teeming with street art, and I make a point of documenting what I see wherever I go.  Keith, I think, gets a bit frustrated with me, as I can tend to wander off down miscellaneous alleyways with only the most perfunctory of hold on for a second‘s, and then spend a good few minutes angling my camera this way and that.  The things we do for love, right?*

Click on the picture below for a slideshow of graffiti I photographed in Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent — unsurprisingly, there was no graffiti to be found in Bruges, but considering that the city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, even the teensiest tag would be instantly rubbed away.

Graffiti in Ghent, Belgium

* I’ll leave it to you to determine if I mean Keith’s love of me, or my love of graffiti.

Taking Off.

I’m sitting in my steaming hot dining room, contemplating the pile of dirty dishes from yesterday’s charcuterie fest (more about that later) in the sink, and avoiding packing.  We leave tomorrow for a week in Belgium, followed by a week in Holland, and I don’t know why I’m putting off packing, since I’m so efficient at it.  I think it’s because it’s too hot to move and I still have to turn the two cups of blueberries we haven’t eaten into muffins (or scones) that I’ll stick in the freezer and consume when we get back, and the thought of turning on the oven makes me want to cry.  Or crawl into the freezer with my muffins.  Or both.  I am that hot.

Yesterday my cousin Nikita came over to teach me and Melissa how to make charcuterie, and now my fridge is full of three different kinds, all of which must be eaten or given away before noon tomorrow.  I never thought I’d say this, but I don’t think I’m up for the task.  There’s that much food.  I’ll put up recipes on how to make duck liver pâté, rillettes and pâté de campagne when I get back, but here are is a picture to tide your interest in the meantime:

Charcuterie Saturday, 1
It’s called a tease for a reason, my friends…

I may have Internet access while in Europe, I may not, so just in case:  au revoir, à bientôt.

CSA 2009, Week Eleven.

Another CSA box, another damn eggplant to use up.*

Eggplant PizzaEven though I love moussaka, even I couldn’t seriously consider making the dish again, less than two weeks apart.  What I did do, though, was my take cue from Guillaume’s recipe, and broiled thin slices of eggplant; rather than layer them with spiced lamb, I overlapped them onto a pizza.  I had a red pepper in the fridge and decided to roast it in order to intensify its flavor.  After topping it all off with some cheese, dinner was all set — and I think it’s safe to say that I have thus conquered the eggplant.

A few things of note about this dish:

  • My mistrust of yeast remains firmly intact.  I have yet to make my own dough, or anything that involves yeast.  Maybe this will change in the future, maybe this won’t.  We shall see.
  • Making your own pizza sauce is easy.  This seems like a good recipe, though one I have not tried.  Please keep me posted if you do.
  • I was crazy to make pizza on such a hot day, and my oven warmed the entire apartment even more.  Please be smarter than me and try it on the grill!

Eggplant + Roasted Red Pepper Pizza
Makes six to eight portions

1 pre-made pizza crust
½ cup pizza sauce
1 red pepper
1 eggplant, thinly sliced
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
¼ cup Parmesan, grated
½ cup loosely packed basil leaves
Olive oil

  1. Roast pepper.  If you’re using a gas stove, turn the flame up to high and place the pepper directly over fire, otherwise use oven’s broiler.  Using tongs, rotating the pepper occasionally, until the pepper’s skin blisters and blackens all over.  Transfer the roasted pepper to a paper bag; crimp the bag shut and allow the pepper to steam inside, then cool down.
  2. While the pepper cools, broil eggplant slices.  Turn broiler on high.  Lightly oil a baking sheet; garlic-infused oil is particularly nice, but not necessary.  Arrange as many eggplant slices as can fit over the surface of the baking sheet, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Broil for five minutes six to eight inches from heat.  Remove from baking sheet to a plate, and repeat as needed until all the eggplant slices are done.
  3. Preheat oven to 450°; when the temperature is reached, prebake the pizza crust.  If you’re using pizza dough, roll it out on the baking sheet you used for the eggplant, otherwise plop down the pizza crust onto the sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until it begins to turn golden and crisp up just a bit.  Move the baking sheet to the top of the stove or onto a trivet to cool.
  4. Remove the roasted pepper from the bag and use a knife to scrape its skin off.  Cut off the stem, slice the pepper open lengthwise and use your knife to scrape out seeds.  Julienne the pepper and set aside.
  5. Spread pizza sauce over the crust with a spoon.  Top with eggplant slices, mozzarella, red pepper and Parmesan. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until the crust is a uniform golden brown. Sprinkle with basil before serving.
* The rest of our box contained cilantro, cucumber, collards, fennel, garlic, parsley, potatoes, salad mix, sweet onion and tendersweet cabbage.

A Pesto Summer.

ScapesIf this year marked the Spring of Risotto, then this is surely the Summer of Pesto.  I can’t stop making the stuff.  It all started a few weeks ago when I threw together some parsley pesto; since then, pretty much anything that I can fit in my Cuisinart is getting blitzed.

A particular favorite of mine is garlic scape pesto — doesn’t this look like I’m about to take my knife to a pile of bright green elvers? — but I’ve had great success with mint and even a sun-dried tomato and basil combo.

If you’re not going to use pesto immediately, no matter what type it is, after you transfer it to a storage container or bowl pour a thin layer of olive oil over its entire surface to keep it from turning an unappetizing shade of brown. Though pesto can be stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days, I’ll pretty much immediately spoon my results into a dated and labeled bags, then freeze them.  Days, weeks or even a few months later, you can defrost a bag to mix into a bowl of boiled potatoes, spread onto chicken breast, dollop into omelets and, of course, toss with pasta.

Basil Pesto, from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
Makes about 1 cup

2 loosely packed cups fresh basil leaves, big stems discarded, rinsed and dried
Salt to taste
½ to 2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons pine nuts or walnuts, lightly toasted in a dry skillet
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, or more
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan or other hard cheese (optional)

Combine the basil, salt, garlic, nuts and about half the oil in a food processor or blender.  Process, stopping to scrape down the sides of the container occasionally, and adding the rest of the oil gradually. Add additional oil if you prefer a thinner mixture.   Stir in the Parmesan by hand just before serving.

Garlic Scape + Almond Pesto, from Dorie Greenspan
Makes about 1 cup

10 garlic scapes, finely chopped
1/3 to ½ cup finely grated Parmesan (to taste and texture)
1/3 cup slivered almonds (you could toast them lightly, if you’d like)
About ½ cup olive oil
Sea salt

Put the scapes, 1/3 cup of the cheese, almonds and half the olive oil in the bowl of a food processor (or use a blender or a mortar and pestle).  Whir to chop and blend all the ingredients and then add the remainder of the oil and, if you want, more cheese.  If you like the texture, stop; if you’d like it a little thinner, add some more oil.  Season with salt.

Mint Pesto
Makes about 1 cup

2 cup packed fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts or toasted slivered almonds
2 garlic cloves, smashed with the side of your knife
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Salt + Pepper to taste

Place the mint leaves, pine nuts and garlic in a food processor and pulse until chopped. With the machine on, add the lemon juice and olive oil in a thin stream and process until smooth.  Season the pesto with salt and pepper.

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto
Makes a bit less than a cup

¾ cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained (I prefer to use the halves, though have used the julienned if that is what I had on hand)
¼ cup loosely packed basil leaves
3 tablespoons slivered almonds
3 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese
3 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of your knife
Salt + pepper to taste

Combine  ingredients in blender. Blend until paste forms, stopping often to push down basil.  Blitz until smooth, adding oil slowly to achieve desired texture.

CSA 2009, Week Ten.

Here’s a little secret about me, from my lips to your ears: I hate eggplant.  I know I’m supposed to like it — the same way I’m supposed to like asparagus — but non, je le déteste.

That said, it comes as a surprise to me — and, maybe, now to you too — that I love moussaka.  It’s creamy and rich and at once savory and sweet…  So imagine my delight when, earlier this summer, Keith and I were invited to Alyssa and Guillaume’s house for moussaka dinner.

“We’re in the mood to cook,” Alyssa wrote to me in an email, “and we’re thinking moussaka.  We have lots of beer and prosecco,” she further enticed, not knowing I was already all-in.

It was this meal I had in mind when I opened my CSA box this week and encountered a massive, teardrop-shaped eggplant, alongside the following:

  • Carrots
  • Chard
  • Dill
  • Garlic
  • Green tomatoes
  • Jalepeño
  • Purple pepper
  • Salad mix
  • Sweet onion
  • Yellow beans

With a little wheedling, I was able to get Guillaume’s recipe, which I am sharing with you all here.  Traditionally, moussaka is layers of sautéed sliced eggplant and ground lamb flavored with herbs, garlic, onion and tomato snuggling together underneath a nice blanket of béchamel.  (When I was in Spain several years ago, someone described moussaka as “Greek lasagna,” which I found both funny and oddly apt.)  Guillaume shortcuts the béchamel with a cream-cheese-and-milk sauce that works surprisingly well.

Guillaume’s Moussaka
Makes four portions

6 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound lamb
½ cup red wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 ½ cups canned crushed tomatoes in thick purée (15 ounce can)
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh-ground black pepper
1 eggplant (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into ¼ inch slices
4 ounces cream cheese
¼ cup milk
¼ cup grated Parmesan

  1. Heat the broiler.  In a large stainless-steel frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over moderate heat.  Add the onion and garlic; cook until starting to soften, about 3 minutes.  Add the lamb and cook until the meat loses its pink color, about 2 minutes.  Stir in the wine, tomato paste, tomatoes, bay leaf, cinnamon, allspice, ¾ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat.  Simmer, covered for 10 minutes.
  2. Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with the remaining 5 tablespoons oil and season with 1/8 teaspoon each salt and pepper.  Put the eggplant slices on a large baking sheet and broil, 6 inches from the heat, until browned about 5 minutes.  Turn and broil until browned on the other side, about 5 minutes longer.
  3. In a small saucepan, combine cream cheese, milk, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper.  Warm over low heat until just melted.
  4. Oil an 8-by-8-inch baking dish.  Layer half the eggplant in the dish, then half the meat sauce.  Sprinkle with half the Parmesan.  Repeat with the remaining eggplant, meat sauce, and Parmesan.  Spoon half the cream cheese sauce on top; broil until just starting to brown, 1 to 2 minutes.

Three Books, Two Days, One Lake.

This is what my summer has been like so far:  Maine, Maine, Maine, Maine.

See, we just got back from a weekend at Little Sebago Lake with Keith’s family; they’ve been renting the same house for the past thirty years, and I’ve been going up for the first week in August for the past nine years or so.  This year, Keith and I only stayed for a weekend, but that didn’t stop me from taking part in my favorite lakeside activity: reading.

Wanting to be prepared, I brought more books than articles of clothing — it wouldn’t be possible to get to each one during the stay, but I’m a really moody reader and knew I’d appreciate the variety, even if it meant I wouldn’t make my way through even half the stack.  Here’s what I read:

Those Who Save UsI am fascinated by World War II, and so will greedily consume any- and everything related to it — including, I’m not ashamed to say, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which I’ll be watching later this summer.  Jenna Blum‘s debut novel Those Who Save Us both is and isn’t about the Second World War; it’s also about guilt, love and the relationship between mothers and daughters.

Since emigrating to Minnesota, Trudy’s mother Anna has never discussed her experiences in Germany during World War II with anyone, particularly her daughter.  Now a German history professor, Trudy begins interviewing other German Minnesotans about their lives during the 1930s and 40s.  What she records changes Trudy’s opinion of her mother irreversibly.

Those Who Save Us swaps its narrative back and forth between Trudy’s present-day existence and Anna’s past.  Normally, when I read a multiple-character stories I find myself drawn more to one individual than the other, but Blum writes both mother and daughter so compellingly that I’m unable to pick favorites.

It’s difficult to discuss much of the plot without giving everything away, but what I can elaborate upon is, albeit briefly, what Anna did to ensure she and young Trudy survived the harsh times of World War II Germany.  Unwillingly, Anna takes a lover: the Obersturmführer of Buchenwald.  To say their relationship is strained and tense is an understatement of absurd proportions — though the exact same words can be used to describe the dynamic between mother and daughter.  Happily, Blum allows her characters to earn their peace authentically; not once do their revelations — and, in time, the novel’s conclusion — seem forced.

The Best of EverythingI was talking on the phone with my friend Amee the other night; during our conversation I confessed that I’ve always wished I could stand on a street corner in New York during the late 1950s and early 60s, and just people-watch.

“Imagine,” I said dreamily, “women wore hats and gloves, and got their hair set…”

Women do all this and more in Rona Jaffe‘s groundbreaking first novel, The Best of Everything.  Published in 1958, the book is has influenced modern-day television shows as disparate as Sex and the City and Mad Men (a personal favorite).  Through the five fresh-faced secretaries featured in The Best of Everything, the reader gets an incredibly authentic view into a very distinct period of American life — especially considering Jaffe wrote the novel when she was in her mid-twenties and working as an associate editor at Fawcett Publications.

Under no circumstances would I call Jaffe’s work here literature, but I will enthusiastically refer to it as compelling and engrossing reading.  I will also say it was oddly prescient — the women in The Best of Everything find themselves embroiled in situations that my friends and I (and our friends’ friends, and theirs, and women everywhere) still encounter today: men issues, work issues, friend issues, parent issues.    Luckily, the creepiest part of the book — blatant, unabashed sexism — seems mostly outdated.

The Sweet Life in ParisOne day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have a little walk-up in Paris, except we’ll call it a pied-à-terre, where I’ll live with Keith and our two dogs named Virgil and Geraldine, and I’ll wear stripey bateau-neck tops with quarter-length sleeves and dart in and out of bakeries and market stalls with my basket of groceries, and each night Keith and I will walk the dogs along the Seine.

You know what they say about girls being able to dream.

In the meantime, David Lebovitz‘s anecdotal cookbooky memoir The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious — and Perplexing — City will have to tide me over.

If you’ve not read Lebovitz’s blog, start reading it now.  It’s funny, observant and full of fool-proof recipes — and his book is more of the same.  My only complaint, for lack of a better word, is that Lebovitz’s choice of chapter-concluding recipes don’t necessarily pertain to the tales he spends the previous pages telling, which isn’t a bad thing, of course.  I just wanted a bit more continuity.  Though with instructions on how to make a plum and raspberry clafoutis and pain d’epices au chocolat, I’m kind of a jerk for being so nitpicky.