Monthly Archive for May 2009
I wrote the other day that I’m impatient for the weather to catch up to my summer mentality. I mentioned that I’m eating burgers and strawberry cake and such, in spite of the cold weather. But maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe I’m really eating those things to entice summer. I, for one, cannot resist a good barbecue and maybe, just maybe, summer feels the same way. So, I’m thinking this: let’s all have a barbecue, even if only here on this web site, and cross our fingers that summer, along with its sultry heat and golden light, will want to join our party. I’ll bring beer, which should help. Or even some fresh-squeezed lemonade? I bet summer could use a cold one.
Aside from beer, the other essential ingredients for a barbecue include some sort of meatstuff, kissed with the smoke of the grill; a buffet of irresistible salads and sides, from baked beans to potato salad to buttered corn on the cob to vinegar-y cucumber slices to salted, thick-cut rounds of heirloom tomatoes (I could go on); a good place to sit down, lean back and maybe even kick off your shoes; and a dessert, preferably involving ice cream, to round out the night.
Something changed over the weekend. I’m more rested, my fridge is fully stocked after a week of not much cooking, and I finally shook a nagging cold, but I’m not talking about any of those things. This change was much more impercetible. I slipped from spring—with its hope and newness and unpredictability—into summer. Sweet summer.
I’ve been edging my way to the summer state of mind for a while now, so it’s hard to say for sure when exactly the switch happened. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was Sunday night, as I gripped a juicy burger with both hands and sunk my teeth in. It smelled and tasted like every barbecue I’ve ever experienced—the smoke of the grill, sandaled feet, late sunsets, laughter. Like that, summer arrived.
I made this pasta by accident, after standing in front of the open refrigerator for a long while staring, slightly slack-jawed, at its contents, waiting, I think, for divine intervention. After a long day at work, it was late and I was hungry. As you might imagine, divine intervention did not strike. Instead, I started withdrawing items from the fridge, without much thought. Before I knew it, I had amassed a pile of asparagus, French radishes, a dwindling nub of feta and a box of baby arugula. Surveying the pile, salad was the obvious choice. But I wanted something more substantial. Pasta!, I thought. It was my culinary cure-all in college, after all. Surely it could work on this desparate evening!
So I set a pot of water on the stove to boil and set to work washing and slicing and mincing, mellowing out imperceptibly along the way. While some whole-wheat spaghetti boiled in salted water, I heated a puddle of olive oil in another skillet, to which I added a couple cloves of thinly sliced garlic and a liberal pinch of red pepper flakes. (Apparently, I didn’t want myself to fall asleep, head first, in my dinner. ) When the pasta was nearly done, I slid the asparagus, sliced on the bias, into the bubbling water. Meanwhile, I transferred the garlic-chile oil to a large bowl, whisked in the juice of a lemon and a bit more olive oil. On top of that, I piled up some arugula and crumbled the feta. By then, the asaparagus was tender and the pasta was al dente. Both were drained and added to the bowl, which I tossed until the argula had wilted and the feta had nearly melted, creating a rich, salty sauce. The finishing touch was a shower of radish coins and some more red pepper flakes. I can’t tell you how good it was—beautiful, nourishing, comforting. Exactly what I needed.
Tall and slender, slowly swaying, chives are a staple on the edges of my grandparents’ garden. In fact, they’re one of the only things I distinctly remember growing in that garden when I was a kid, probably because they grew around the garden’s perimeter, a swishing border trying in vein to corral the bounty of produce growing behind it. Plus, their pungent scent, oniony and fresh, demanded that you notice them.
They were plentiful, and I’m sure my resourceful grandparents found many uses for them, but I seem to recall only two: snipped into tiny rings, the chives found a way into the nightly dinner salad and, second, the blades that were topped with purple poms were cut and slid into bud vases placed around the house.
I want to tell you about this cake—a lemon cake with buttery lemon curd between the layers and a thick jacket of lemon zest-flecked cream cheese frosting. Its a cake that deserves a gushing essay of its own—wherein I would tell you how fun it was to make and how delicious it was to eat. But I’m just too distracted. You see, we’re boarding a plane in a few hours and heading to Minnesota for the weekend to see my family. And I can’t wait. I’m so excited that I’ve got a case of tunnel vision: I can’t seem to concentrate at work and or to give this cake its due.
The weekend forecast in Minnesota, per weather.com, is currently boasting big yellow sunshine icons. What’s more, we’ve got a full roster of plans: dinner out tonight, a brunch at my sister’s apartment tomorrow, a big home-cooked meal tomorrow night, a trip to the Minneapolis farmers’ market. And that’s just the official agenda: I fully expect to play some heated games of Doodle Dice, to swap recipes with my mom, to talk to my grandpa about his garden, to places bets on the Preakness.
I’m well aware that this salad is unlikely to have the same appeal as that chocolate sheet cake I was fawning over a couple days ago, but I’m still going to try my best to convince you that the salad is every bit as a good as the sheet cake. Better, even. There, I said it. I’ve probably either lost you or caught your attention—so farewell to the former and hello to the latter.
To be fair, I too questioned this recipe, which filled out the Mother’s Day brunch we hosted on Sunday. The brunch otherwise consisted of tomato-feta strata, a giant platter of fruit, grilled breakfast sausages and a dozen or so members of Kevin’s immediate and extended family. This line-up was almost perfect; all it needed was a salad and I had asparagus on the brain (don’t we all?). Then I found this recipe, which looked promising, but my hang up was this: Dates? Really? I don’t love dates and before this salad I wasn’t even so sure I liked dates. In fact, I’ve probably picked them out of salads and and baked goods many times before. There may have been a bacon-wrapped exception to my no-dates policy, but that was it. Then again, though, dates did seem kind of breakfast-y, so I went with it.
To start, I’ve got two things to say to Texas. First, I’m assuming you had something to do with this cake, since your name is in the title and all. So, thanks, Texas, because this cake is really wonderful. Second—and you might want to sit down for this—I owe you an apology, Texas. You see, I shrunk your cake by halving the recipe. I know, I know: how very un-Texas of me. My only excuse is inexperience; I haven’t spent much time in your fine state. I’ve been meaning to get to Austin and I was into Friday Night Lights for a season or so. But that’s about the extent of my Texas experience. This cake, though, makes me think we should get to know each other better.
I can’t say that I’m all that surprised to have fallen in love with Texas Sheet Cake. I had a feeling about it. It just seemed like something I would like: simple, homey and, of course, chocolate. I envisioned that it would be the kind of cake that you could leave on the kitchen counter, covered in plastic wrap and accompanied by a butter knife ready at the waiting for any potential snackers who pass by.
Oh, baby. The Chicago Green City Market has gone open-air again for the summer and I couldn’t resist a visit this morning: the first Saturday of the season. I woke way too early, with a giddy Christmas-morning-type feeling in my stomach. As Kevin slept on (can you blame him?), I walked east, under a low, grey sky full of dramatic, ominous clouds. By the time I hit Lincoln Park, it felt a lot more like late fall than early spring, but those thoughts were immediately wiped away when I saw the white tents and the splendid produce spilling out beneath them. There were radishes, slim and fushia with white tails and leafy green tops. And there were truckloads of asparagus, some thick and purple, others slender and green. One farmer had stacked his spears so high that he could barely see the patrons over the three-foot stack on his table.
Produce spilled out from yellow bins at the Nichols Farm stand—the same bins that will tote juicy tomatoes in every hue later this summer (though, for now, that almost seems impossible). People milled about excitedly, huddling against each other and gripping cups of hot Intelligentsia coffee to ward off the wind.
The second best thing about this cheesecake is that it prompted my discovery of Carr’s Whole Wheat Crackers (or, as the recipe charmingly calls them “whole meal biscuits”). These crackers, which go into the crust of this chocolate-hazelnut cheesecake, along with a good bit of butter and some finely grated bittersweet chocolate, are quite possibly my new favorite snack. They have the texture of a graham cracker, but they’re nuttier and only faintly sweet. They’re particularly good when topped with a chunk of sharp cheddar.
The very best thing about this cheesecake was the party that surrounded it: a make-your-own-pizza night, followed by bowling (and, yes, we realized that this was essentially a 12-year-old girl’s birthday party, but this group of grown-ups decided to embrace it). My friend Brynn brought a king’s ransom of toppings (Carmelized onions! Folds of prosciutto! Thinly sliced roasted peppers!) and individual portions of pizza dough, rolled thin and stacked between sheets of parchment paper, along with a caesar salad. All I had to do was whiz up some marinara and pesto and slice a few balls of mozzarella. The pizzas—some baked in our oven, others on the grill—came out great. No two were exactly the same and not one of us was disappointed.
For a long time, I was under the impression that scones were a fancy sort of breakfast pastry—one that was fussy and time-consuming. Actually, for a long time before that, I didn’t even know what a scone was. In the pre-Starbucks days, scones were just not the sort of thing that populated the bakery cases I visited as a kid. (That, or I was so blinded by the chocolate-glazed long john’s that I just didn’t have eyes for anything else.)
I’ve since grown to love scones—how they hover on the line of sweet treat, without ever fully crossing the threshold; how they manage to achieve that buttery, crumbly texture that demands a coffee chaser; how they’re always a little misshapen, no two looking exactly the same; how they’re a blank canvas, waiting to be spiced and spruced however the baker sees fit.