Friday, July 31, 2009

Extreme Packing
What’s cooking? Basil Pesto

What a summer of extremes – cold and damp in the Northeast, hot and dry in Texas. In our years of living in New Jersey, we took very few extended vacations during the summer, as it’s normally a glorious time in the Garden State for gardening, golfing, and my favorite food-related activity: trips to the farmers’ market. But in Texas, you can just take so many days over 100º before even “cold and damp” starts to sound really attractive. So this year, in honor of the heat and the economy, we planned a tour of our friends’ vacation houses: New Hampshire, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard.

Sounds easy, right? But something about the process of packing for a trip sends my psyche into overdrive. I have to have all my clothes clean and ironed before I can decide what to take, and I seem incapable of starting that process until, say, the day before we leave. So the final 36 hours before the plane takes off become a marathon of washing, ironing, and last-minute pleas with the dry cleaners.

And what about the contents of the refrigerator? I hate throwing out food, so in addition to packing my clothes, I sliced jicama and washed a container of Sun Gold tomatoes which, together with a pound of blackberries, went into a shopping bag to carry onto the plane, in case we got stranded at the end of the runway for a day. (I think these tendencies are genetic – my grandmother always used to take a banana and a PB&J to the airport, until my mother started taking it away from her with a "Really, mother.") Then I had to freeze the 2 pounds of blueberries I bought before the season runs out on me, and trim back my basil so it doesn't bolt (if basil does that) before I get back. Which of course meant I also had to make two batches of pesto.

Pesto is one of those dishes I find endlessly flexible. Of course, it makes a yummy pasta dish (mixed with cream and a little pasta water), but I also spread it undiluted on bruschetta (thick slices of Italian or French bread, brushed with olive oil and garlic and toasted), or drizzle it over sliced tomatoes and mozzarella, or use it as a dip for fresh veggies, like the tiny Sun Gold tomatoes from my garden. And it freezes really well. The best recipe I’ve found for it is from the original Silver Palate Cookbook. Sometimes I make it with pignoli nuts, and sometimes I stick with the recipe, which calls for walnuts and produces a slightly nuttier taste. Both are terrific. The only really important guideline is to use good quality olive oil. I visited an olive oil company in Italy once, and the owners talked about how expensive it is to make olive oil well, so you should never buy cheap olive oil. Then on a trip to California, I discovered the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufactory, and now I order the stuff from them by the case.

Basil Pesto (adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook)

2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup walnuts or pignoli nuts
1 cup good quality olive oil
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
salt/freshly ground pepper

Combine basil, garlic, and walnuts in a food processor and pulse until the mixture is coarsely ground. With the processor running, add the olive oil in a slow stream, then scrape the sides of the bowl down and process another 20 seconds. Add the cheeses with a pinch of salt and a liberal grinding of pepper, and process again briefly. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving. Makes about 2 cups.

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Back to my trip preparation, the final pre-boarding task is to straighten up my office, which usually begins around 1 a.m. the night before the flight. But that’s a story too ugly for words.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sage Advice
What's Cooking? Fried Sage Leaves

There’s a reason I don’t deep fry, and it’s not the calories. Ok, more than one reason, and you can include the calories. The heat, the mess – before, during, and after – and then what to do with the leftover oil. I’m sure my San Antonio grandmother, Minnie Lee, would sit up in her grave and berate me at the thought of life without fried chicken or fried okra or fried catfish, or that hallmark of southernness, fried hush puppies. She was a Louisiana girl, and I can still hear her soft, lilting voice as she talked to those little balls of cornmeal in the skillet, saying “Hush! Puppies,” as they spit and sputtered in the hot bacon grease. Mostly, though, I remember her perspiring in the heat and wiping her brow with a tissue she kept in a pocket of her apron. The heat would have been particularly intense because there was no air conditioning in her kitchen, only a big ceiling fan that pushed the air around.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Asparagus and NCIS – Perfect Together
What's cooking? Roasted Asparagus

Asparagus season is about over, so I’m trying to figure out how many times I can serve them to my husband in the span of a week, without generating a mutiny. Most of what I see in the grocery store are those microthin spears, and although I much prefer the heftier stalks, I’ll take whatever size shows up.

My fondness for asparagus blossomed once I learned that you could scrape off the tough skin with a peeler before cooking them. It’s a laborious process, but it turns out the USA channel carries re-runs of NCIS for three hours, starting at 4pm (CST), so I now save my time-consuming kitchen tasks for the period between 4pm and 7. I’ve seen all the episodes several times, so if I miss something, it’s not a problem. And on those rare occasions when they surprise me with an episode I haven’t seen, well, then, dinner will be just a bit late. It’s not that the story lines are so endlessly fascinating. No, I think it has more to do with the camaraderie among the cast – it reminds me of my days on Wall Street, where I worked in research with a bunch of really smart people. Part of the fun of going to work – and I did love my job – was being surrounded by smart, creative people who talked to each other, bounced ideas off each other, and occasionally goofed off together. So when I turn on NCIS, Tony is always flirting or making jokes, Abby is always doing something cool in the lab, and Gibbs is always being Gibbs. We’re all together in my kitchen, and everyone is busy.

Roasted Asparagus

Back to the asparagus, I’ve roasted them three times in the past ten days – brushed them with my best olive oil, sprinkled on a bit of tangy balsamic vinegar, and finished with a dusting of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Then 15-20 minutes at 400º, and they’re done. Winner, winner, lobster dinner, as my kids used to say. No lobster last night – we grilled giant shrimp instead, marinated in a lime vinaigrette.

I made a double batch of those green lovelies, and am still trying to figure out whether to chop up the leftovers and mix them with some pasta, or just eat them cold with my fingers as I figure out what else to make for lunch.