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.

My Kitchen in Malden.

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Where do you live?
Malden, Massachusetts.

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How often do you cook or bake?
It’s funny because I never really used to be into baking; cooking was always much more interesting to me, and frankly, baking always seemed so girly.  That said, I’ve recently taken up baking, though I don’t do it that often.  I definitely cook more, probably four to five times a week, depending on the leftovers situation.  I’ll bake when the mood strikes me, or when I’ve got a craving, which is something like twice a month.  I definitely bake more around the holidays — everyone gets cookies.  I also bake for Keith more than I bake for me.  I’m nice that way.

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What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
I’m easy, man.  It’s my wooden spoon.  I wish I had a few more of them.  I use it to mix just about anything, and I love the way it feels in my hand.  Actually, now that I’m thinking about it a bit, I think I would say my chef’s knife instead.  I’ve used some awful knives in my day, the kinds that coerce an onion apart as opposed to chop it, and having a good solid knife makes all the difference.  In fact, if you’ve got one good knife — one really good one — you don’t need any more.

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Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
Having lived in many an apartment without one, I’ve got to say my dishwasher.  You know, I used to buy glasses based solely on whether or not I could fit my hand and a sponge down its mouth?  Now I can purchase any style that catches my eye, and that feels great.  I like glasses.

I also like the area that I call “the in-between” or “the pass-through.”  It connects the kitchen to the dining room, and we have it cabinet-ed out.  The bottom portion functions as a snack pantry of sorts, as well as storage for platters and my massive stand mixer.  Half of the upper cabinetry is devoted to storing Keith’s whisky collection; the other half holds my cooking magazines and cookbooks.

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Come to think of it, this is a tricky question for me to answer; we renovated the kitchen to best suit our needs and our aesthetic (on a budget).  There are so many aspects of this room that I love, like the countertops that look like oxidized metal, the unusual color of our cabinets, the soffits, the ceiling fan, my knife strip…  It would be the equivalent of asking me to pick my favorite dog, if I had lots of dogs.  Or any dogs.  Or a dog.

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What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?
I would have to say it was the dinner I made for something like sixteen people last spring; at that point, the largest crowd I had ever cooked for was closer to eight, including Keith and myself, so doubling the amount of diners was a vaguely terrifying Big Deal.  I had invited my parents not only to the meal but also for the weekend; they drove in with the dog from New York a day early to spend some more time with us.  My mother and Keith volunteered to help me chop, sauté, mix, etc.  Whenever I asked him to do something, Keith would shout, “Yes, chef!”  It caused a lot of giggly delays.  Even funnier was when my mother — very polite, proper and petite woman that she is — wasn’t able to open something (what was it?  I don’t remember) and so, said very seriously to the object in her hand, “I think you must be retarded.”

In the end, we served the following:

Hors d’œuvres

  • bocconcini that I had marinated in herbs and olive oil few days prior
  • a selection of cured meats that Keith had picked out at Formaggio Kitchen

Entrées

Sides

Desserts

The leftovers lasted for days.

A Mussel Dinner.

Don’t tell Keith, but the mussel and I have been having an affair for years.  Do you blame me?  Is it possible to resist their briny flavor and luminescent shells?  (Not for me.  I’m like a bird — if it’s shiny or sparkly, I must touch it.)  I remember my very first mussel, served to me by my mother when I was in grade school.  Retrieving its melon-colored innards from within its dark casing was both fun and rewarding, and the taste was spectacular — faintly sweet and scented of the ocean.

You would think that since I’m obviously so very enamored with the mussel that I would indulge in it with as much frequency as I do cheese — that is to say, daily.  Sadly, that’s not the case.  In fact, I had never even had a mussel cross the threshold of my home, believe it or not, until recently.  Cooking a bunch was one of the many things that I simply hadn’t gotten around to, even though for ages I’d been reading about how quick and easy it is to steam them.  Not only that, I keep on encountering literature indicating that these little guys are an incredibly cheap meal to make, and one that has impressive results.  In today’s economy, I can’t think of a better reason not to make something so high-impact for so few dollars.

Since I wasn’t able to get over to the fishmonger, I ended up purchasing my mussels at Whole Foods, where I picked up two two-pound bags for just over six bucks.  Later I realized that four pounds of mussels seem like a lot more than they actually are; after each tender little treasure is removed from its shell, you’re left with considerably less weight.

I was the most nervous about prepping my mussels, as the last thing I wanted to do was spend my after-dinner hours hovering over a barf bin or groaning in the emergency room.  Mark Bittman‘s advice was the most helpful:

“Discard any mussels with broken shells, or those that don’t close when tapped lightly against a hard surface (the counter or sink, another mussel, or a spoon); they’re dead.”

I separated my mussels into “reject” and “accept” piles, rapping the suspect shellfish against the ridge of a cast-iron pot.  It was flat-out fascinating, watching their little lips close in super slow-motion.  It’s a handy trick.

mussels-on-the-plateHere’s a few tips more that I picked up:

  • Cleaning and priming are the most time-consuming part of mussel cookery, and a step that positively must not be skipped or rushed.  Take the time to scrub each little shell uner cold water with a brush, removing any hairy beards and tough little barnacles you encounter.
  • Soaking is not necessary. In fact, it’s a big no-no.  If you do soak your shells, you’ll kill the mussels before you have a chance to steam them.
  • Buy a baguette, taking care to pick an extra crunchy one.  You’re going to want to sop up all those juices after you’ve emptied each shell.

Fennel-Steamed Mussels Provençal, from Bitten by Mark Bittman
Makes four portions

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
½ cup Pernod or Ricard, or 4 whole star anise
1 cup chopped tomatoes, if desired (canned are fine, drained first)
1 sprig fresh tarragon, if desired
At least 4 pounds large mussels, well washed

  1. Place the oil in a large pot and turn the heat to medium; one minute later, add the garlic, fennel, fennel seeds, liqueur, and tomatoes and tarragon if you’re using them. Bring to a boil, cook for about one minute. Add the mussels, cover the pot, and turn the heat to high.
  2. Cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels open, five to ten minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the mussels and fennel to a serving bowl, then strain any liquid over them and serve.

Coming Soon…

Early in September I emailed a handful of friends with questions about their kitchens.  “Something I’ve had on my mind lately,” I wrote, “are the spaces in which we prepare our food.”

I won’t deny the fact that I’ve ogled glass-fronted refrigerators even though I’ve got a perfectly fine unit in the corner, that I think about garbage disposals and that I’ve made list of what I could possibly make with the right attachments for my KitchenAid.  The truth of the matter is, I don’t need any of those things.  After all, the vendors in Boston’s late and great Chinatown Eatery produced countless dishes with little more than ladles, woks and flames for over twenty years — a skill I could only dream of.  Knowing this, I asked via email anyone was interested in opening their doors and answering a few questions about the food they eat and where they make it.  What’s funny is that I intended to post their replies and the photos they took in November, but November turned into December, and now I’ve just read Mark Bittman‘s short piece in the New York Times exclaiming that all that is needed in the kitchen are “a stove, a sink, a refrigerator, some pots and pans, a knife and some serving spoons.”

I do happen to have a favorite knife, but that’s another story.  My point is, I’ll be soon posting pictures of some of my friends’ kitchens, and their answers to questions like “How often do you cook or bake?” and “Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?”  I think it will be interesting to see what we are able to turn out, and from where.

Apologies.

I’ve been embarrassingly absent these past few days and I have no good excuse aside from a mild case of ennui and an unabashed sense of anxiety about tomorrow. I promise to write much much more as soon as possible, perhaps starting even tonight. I’m far too worked up to do anything that involves wearing shoes.

Please allow this deliciousness to make up for my ineptitude.

Brunch with Book Club.

This past Sunday, I hosted book club at my house and I must say I was incredibly pleased with the brunch I turned out — orange-cranberry scones, Bon Appétit‘s lemon-raspberry cupcakes, Mark Bittman‘s potato-asparagus frittata, and my mother’s mango salad (recipe below). As usual, I ate too much, but I don’t feel too terrible about it; as per my request, Darlington and Amanda brought their parents’ dog, and he happily ate half of what I had on my plate. Honestly, he’s a glutton.

For this month, we chose Rose MacMurray’s novel Afternoons with Emily; we try to have some sort of interconnecting thread between books. Last month’s selection was about an accidental arsonist and murderer who burns down the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, Massachusetts, so it seemed appropriate for the follow-up to center more on the poet.

Afternoons with Emily is the fictional story of Miranda Chase, a Boston-born girl who, after a year of living abroad in Barbados, moves to Emily Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst. There, Miranda gains notoriety for her religious views; when Emily hears of this, she quickly extends an invitation to Miranda, and soon the two become almost friends. Miranda is both enchanted and disillusioned with Emily’s eccentricities, which she continually wrestles over the following years.

For what seems to be the first time over the history of book club, we all liked our choice-of-the-month. From the lush descriptions to the historic references, MacMurray’s writing truly takes the reader of the present and transplants him or her directly into the past. Sadly, the author died shortly after completing this, her first and only novel; her children worked to get Afternoons with Emily published last year, a decade after MacMurray’s death, leaving behind in their mother’s work an enveloping and interesting story.

Mango Salad
Makes eight portions.

6 mangoes
8 kirby cucumbers
1 plastic container of chives
1 plastic container of mint
juice of 1 – 1 ½ limes
Extra virgin olive oil
Korean red pepper flakes
salt, to taste

  1. Peel and cube mangoes; peel and cube cucumbers, taking care that manoges and cucumbers are the same size. Finely mince chives and mint.
  2. Emulsify lime juice, olive oil, red pepper and salt. The end result should be neither too tart nor too salty.
  3. Toss mangoes, cucumbers, herbs and dressing together and refrigerate for about an hour for flavors to develop. (Or, in my mother’s word, “One hour of standing will give it legs, and the flavors will get mixing and have a party.”) Serve chilled.

Art Versus Craft.

Last week, I sent my friend Ben in LA a box of cookies. I had baked a ridiculous amount of several different types: chocolate cherry chip, madeleines, hazelnut-anise, olive oil and, of course, Medz Mama’s cookies. Since I knew Ben wouldn’t mind eating my leftovers, I packed up a sampler and headed to the post office. When he got the cookies, Ben phoned to say thanks and we had a nice little chat, so I was surprised to get another call a few days later, after he had tried each one.

“Krikey,” he said, “you could sell these.”

When I heard that, I felt a thrill; what a nice compliment! Once I had thought about it more, however, my excitement quickly faded. After all, I hadn’t invented the cookie recipes, nor had I put my own twist on them. With the exception of Medz Mama’s cookies, I had pulled my miscellaneous cookbooks out of their cupboard (and in the cases of the olive oil cookies and the madeleines, I had gone to Mark Bittman and Heidi Swanson respectively) and dutifully followed the instructions to the letter. The result was an abundance of homemade cookies, to be sure. But should I have truly received the credit for making them?

(A quick deviation from the plot: I’ve made mention of my love for Top Chef in the past; what I failed to bring up is my love for Tom Colicchio. Perhaps love is a strong word; obviously I don’t know the man, only his television persona. Regardless, he is my favorite judge on the show. I appreciate his no-nonsense, straightforward demeanor, and I like how that mentality comes through in his cookbook Think Like A Chef.)

In this month’s issue of GQ, there is a short piece with Colicchio, done in Q+A format (my favorite). In it, he says the following:

If you just follow recipes, you’re not teaching yourself how to cook. Once you understand technique — how to roast something, how to braise, how to sauté properly — you won’t need recipes anymore. You can start cooking your own food.

Is Colicchio right? Can you not learn how to cook by reading and trying recipes? Obviously, you need a basic sort of understanding when it comes to the fundamentals, and I know I can thank my mother for teaching me that. That said, is what Colicchio is describing the craft of cooking, or the art?

To me, running alongside a recipe shows the understanding of the craft, while inventing a unique recipe is the sign of art. When it comes to cooking, I most certainly lack the artistry. I’ve never claimed to be a good cook; if anything, I’ve claimed to be able to follow a recipe really well. This past Easter, I served two entrées and four side dishes that I had never made before, as well as a whole string of desserts whose recipes seemed interesting; I’m pleased to report that everything ended up tasting exactly as intended. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t items that cause me to lose culinary confidence, because I’m nervous about roasting a whole bird and I find the idea of using yeast a bit terrifying. (At least I’m not alone.) But does this mean I don’t know how to cook?

This past Sunday I had book club over for brunch; at the last minute I decided to bake scones, which I hadn’t ever done before. Since I didn’t have my cookbooks handy when I made up my mind, I turned to Google and found a recipe. The result was so lovely that I baked a second batch immediately after my friends had left. Here’s a photo of the wet ingredients meeting the dry, which I snapped because the cranberries simply looked so pretty, with the white cream puddling in their little crinkly wrinkles.

If the delicious product I turned out of this bowl means that I can’t cook (or bake), then that’s fine by me.