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Something more exciting

I have a bad case of Book Brain. Oh, people, is it ever bad. It doesn’t matter what I appear to be doing - eating, sleeping, bathing, talking, writing this sentence - because I am not really doing it. I am thinking about how to revise my manuscript. I am useless. Also, I am boring. Last week, Brandon and I had an argument over vanilla extract. When you argue with your husband over baking ingredients, you are a very boring person. This week, if we argue, I hope it’s over something more exciting, like bank robbery, or politics, or lace underwear, or who gets the last drop of gin from the cocktail shaker.

On Saturday, in an effort to combat Book Brain and feel less boring, I decided that we should have a dinner party. So I called our friends John and Olaiya, who kindly acquiesced, and we threw together a menu. John and Olaiya brought olives and beer, and Brandon and I made this old salad, which never really gets old, and this old pasta, which also never gets old, and I baked the chocolate bundt cake from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, which got old very quickly, because it wasn’t that great. But the best part, aside from distracting myself for a few hours with some of my favorite people, was the aforementioned cocktail shaker and the cocktail it contained.

I am not ordinarily much of a mixed-drinks person. I am mainly a wine, beer, and occasional gin-and-tonic kind of girl. But I have found my Summer Drink of 2008, and it is called a Gordon’s Cup. It starts with lime and cucumber, which are muddled together into a pale green pulpy mess that smells like Mexico and the beach and a hammock in the shade, and then you add gin, a smidge of simple syrup, and some ice, and you shake the whole thing until it’s nice and cold. And then, blessed be, you get to drink it. I found the recipe a couple of months ago, in the April issue of Bon Appétit, but until this past weekend, the weather didn’t feel quite warm enough to warrant bringing the gin out of the cabinet. However, now that it has come out, I don’t think it is ever going back in, because I need more Gordon’s Cups. But only after my revisions are done. Because I am boring.

Gordon’s Cup
Adapted from Bon Appétit, April 2008

We used Tanqueray gin for this drink – it’s our usual brand – but Plymouth would also be very nice. We served it in wide-mouth champagne glasses, but you could also use a rocks glass, which is what the original recipe recommends. Oh, and before you start, note that the quantities listed below make only one serving. You can scale them up easily, though.

To make the simple syrup called for below, combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water in a small saucepan, and stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat, and boil for 1 minute. Cool the syrup to room temperature; then store it in the fridge indefinitely. (Or, if you cannot be bothered to make simple syrup, you can use superfine sugar to taste.)

2/3 of a small lime, cut into 6 wedges
2 (½-inch-thick) rounds of peeled cucumber
¼ cup gin
1 to 1 ½ Tbsp. simple syrup
Pinch of sea salt

Place the lime and the cucumber in a cocktail shaker, and mash them with a muddler or wooden spoon until the lime is juiced and the cucumber is pulpy. Add the gin, 1 Tbsp. simple syrup, and 1 cup ice. Cover, and shake vigorously three times. (At this point, I recommend tasting a little bit: you might want a splash more gin, or a bit more simple syrup.) Pour the contents of the shaker into a glass – with or without some ice, as you see fit. Sprinkle with salt.

Note: To garnish this, you could use a wedge of lime or a thin sliver of cucumber. Brandon, however, wants to try a sprig of mint or cilantro next time.

Yield: 1 serving


Happy to report

Alright, guys.

Do you remember that chickpea salad? The one that makes such a good lunch? The one that has five ingredients and takes five seconds to make, and that tastes ten times better than you expect it to? Well, I’ve just met its Italian cousin, and I can’t wait to introduce you. There are no chickpeas involved, but the feeling is the same, and I think you two are going to really hit it off.

I love matchmaking. Especially when it involves wild mushrooms and fresh mozzarella. (I also enjoy it when it involves our friends Sam and Meredith, but that’s a whole other story.) I know it’s a little hard to tell what is happening in the photograph above, but basically, what you’ve got there are thin slices of mushroom that have been dotted with nubbly bits of mozzarella, sprinkled with thyme and salt, drizzled with olive oil, and given a quick bronzing under the broiler. What you’ve got there - plus a heel of crusty bread - is one stunning, dead-simple lunch, courtesy of Mr. Jamie Oliver.

I am a little late, admittedly, in jumping on the Jamie bandwagon. Until last February, when Brandon and I got the flu and spent a week on the couch, passing a box of Kleenex back and forth and watching videos on the computer, I had never seen a single one of his shows. And I didn’t own any of his cookbooks until even more recently, when Brandon came home from an errand-running session with a copy of Jamie’s Italy. But that is all behind us now. I am officially on board. Anyway, I don’t know how anyone could resist the ruddy charm of this book - its recipes, its down-to-earth voice, or its lush, atmospheric photographs. I am generally pretty iffy on big television personalities, but Jamie is hard to dislike. He’s messy, bed-headed, and endearingly foul-mouthed, and his recipes actually work. Also, I would like to steal his seat at the table in the photograph on pages 108 and 109. I don’t think he would mind. And while we’re at it, I would like to be adopted by the old lady on page 268. I’ll bet she makes the best polenta.

I spotted this recipe shortly after we got Jamie’s Italy, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I actually gave it a try. Wild mushroom season is slowly ramping up around here, and at the Sunday farmers’ market, next to the morels and miner’s lettuce, was a small basket of porcinis. They were thirty bucks a pound, so we only bought two of them - which, as it was, set us back a solid five dollars - but what fine specimens they were, fat and stubby, with reddish-brown caps. So we brought them home, sliced them up, and turned them into lunch.

Now, I love braised onions, and buttermilk cookies, and green garlic soup, but I don’t know the last time I tasted anything quite this good. A porcini alone is one thing, and a fine thing at that, but a porcini plus mozzarella, olive oil, and the fiery blaze of the broiler is another thing entirely. When the platter came out of the oven, we put it on the table, sat down, and stared at it. It was gorgeous, and it smelled even better. I picked up my fork and took a bite. And then I started cussing. The mushrooms were meaty and tender, just cooked through, with a pure, heady flavor that nestled cozily against the milky mozzarella. And when they were gone, which was about two minutes later, we called into service some crusty bread and set to work mopping up the rich, perfumed puddles that had collected around the platter. Which led to more cussing. In fact, I am having a very hard time describing this dish today without resorting to copious swearing. Please bear with me.

It may not be quite as pantry-friendly, or quite as cheap, as Brandon’s chickpea salad, but I don’t know. It certainly is easy, and simple, and in my book, it falls into the same category: Instant Lunch. Anyway, it’s not as though the porcinis are a requirement. (Let’s be real: the day I start eating porcinis without sweating a little at the price is the day that Brandon and I move back in with our parents.) I made this recipe again today, this time with supermarket creminis, and I am happy to report that for everyday purposes, the ordinary brown mushroom more than does the trick. Ba da! Meet my new favorite lunch.

Sliced Mushrooms with Fresh Mozzarella and Thyme
Adapted from Jamie’s Italy, by Jamie Oliver

This is one of those recipes where exact measurements are totally unnecessary. But to give you an idea of proportions, when Brandon and I made this yesterday, we used two medium porcini mushrooms – each two or three inches tall – and topped them with about ¾ of a standard-size ball of fresh mozzarella and the leaves from one sprig of thyme. It was just about perfect as a light lunch for two, with a glass of rosé, some bread, and fruit for dessert. And today I made it again - this time with some crimini mushrooms and half a ball of mozzarella - and ate the whole thing. I plan to do it again tomorrow.

Fresh mushrooms, such as porcini, crimini, shiitake, or portobello
Fresh mozzarella
Olive oil
Fresh thyme, leaves removed and stem discarded
Sea salt

Preheat the broiler.

Clean the mushrooms with a pastry brush or damp paper towel, and then slice them thinly. (Ideally, aim for slices that are no thicker than ¼ inch.) Arrange them in a single layer on a large ovenproof platter. Tear the mozzarella into coarse bits – each about the size of a nickel – and scatter them over the mushrooms. Drizzle with olive oil. Scatter the thyme leaves over the top, along with a good pinch or two of salt.

Slide the platter under the broiler, and cook, checking frequently, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the cheese is melted, bubbling and golden in spots. Serve with bread for mopping up the platter.

Note: Though this makes a terrific, easy lunch, it would also be great, I imagine, as a first course for a low-key, elbows-on-the-table dinner party.

Yield: As much as you want


Entirely unmannerly

Well. I know it’s May, and mid-May at that, and technically spring and all, so I probably shouldn’t be writing about something so wintry as braised onions. But today it was a cool 56 degrees outside, and anyway, Braised onions. With butter. And Madeira. On pasta. It’s never the wrong season for that, is it? I hope not.

Plus, I hear the weather has been iffy on the East Coast too, and heck, in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s autumn, so it must be chilly. Right? Right. I feel entirely justified.

Last week we had a house guest. His name is Ben, and he is an opera director, and his wife is one of Brandon’s old friends from college. The two of them are moving to Seattle this summer, so he came to scout an apartment, and we put him up in our guest room in the basement, which is really more like a storage room for papers and files and mix tapes from an ex-boyfriend of mine, and more than a little scary, as you can imagine. But he didn’t complain. He was very brave. We barely knew each other, but we had a great week. We sneaked a bottle of bourbon and some chocolate into my purse and went to the opera. We played card games and listened to old Ray Charles, and on his last night in town, Ben cooked steak and mushrooms and opened a bottle of red wine, and we yapped so long and late that Brandon and I had to take a nap the next afternoon. He also found a house to rent only 10 or so blocks from ours, and needless to say, I feel a very fine summer coming on.

But the best part, and the reason why I am yapping so long and late about all this, is that one day, after wandering the neighborhood, Ben came home with a gift for us: a first-edition copy of James Beard’s Beard on Pasta. He’s a great fan of Beard, he confessed, and he had noticed that we only had one of his books, an old, beaten-up copy of The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery that lives on the shelf above our sink. Obviously, it was time that we got another. And, he noted, the braised onion sauce in Beard on Pasta happens to be very good; we really ought to try it.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find it almost impossible to resist a book whose introduction begins with this sort of humble, hopeful, utterly disarming statement: “This is a book about good times to have with pasta.” Especially when it has a swirly, old fashioned illustrated cover. And even more so when it goes on to say such things as this:

We Americans have been intimidated for far too long by other people’s opinions of what we should eat. We’ve been even more intimidated, I think, in the area of table manners and propriety. Pasta is not a mannerly food to eat. And I remember when hostesses in this country were so insecure and etiquette-conscious that they would break up noodles into inch-long pieces before they cooked them, and would choose elbow macaroni over spaghetti so that their guests wouldn’t risk the crime of slurping at the table. I think we’ve gotten over that kind of tearoom niceness, but now there is another worry people have about eating pasta, which is of not doing things in the proper Italian way. They worry about whether the Italians use bowls or plates, and whether it’s proper to serve a soup spoon along with the fork as a help in picking up the strands, and how to avoid slurping up the last inches of long noodles. To which I say that it’s time to stop worrying and start enjoying. (Pages xii-xiii)

To which I say: James Beard, you died entirely too soon. If you were still around, we’d like it very much if you would join us for lunch tomorrow, when we will dig, entirely unmannerly, into the leftovers of some pasta with your braised onion sauce. Which, for the record, is very, very good.

James Beard’s braised onion sauce is essentially that: braised onions. But as you might expect, these onions are special. First, they have a lot of butter. We’re talking about Beard here, people, and the man did not skimp. For two large onions, he calls for two(!) sticks(!) - that’s eight ounces, or HALF A POUND - of butter. Heaven help us all. Ben confided, however, that he had made the sauce with half that amount, and that it had turned out beautifully - and still very buttery. So I took his advice and used only one stick. It coated the onions amply, enough that they could cook slowly and sweetly without the least bit of scorching, and when they were golden and melty, so soft that they slumped into lazy heaps, I stirred in a good splash of Madeira, which simmered with their juices and made a sort of chunky, rustic sauce.

Tossed with hot pasta and topped with salt and Parmesan cheese, it tasted rich and winy, dark and deep, delicious. Delicious enough, even, to make 56 degrees in mid-May feel entirely excusable - until the leftovers are gone, at least.

Braised Onion Sauce
Adapted from Beard on Pasta, by James Beard

James Beard’s commentary on this recipe reads, “Long-cooked onions have a naturally sweet taste. This is a substantial sauce, and I like to serve it with a pasta that has body, something like bows or wagon wheels or wide ribbons or macaroni.” I served it with shells.

8 Tbsp. (4 oz., or 1 stick) unsalted butter
1 ½ lb. yellow onions, halved and sliced about ¼-inch thick
1 Tbsp. sugar
¼ cup Madeira
¾ lb. hot cooked pasta
Salt, for serving
Grated Parmesan, for serving

In a large (12-inch) skillet, warm the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent. Stir in the sugar, reduce the heat to low or medium-low – keep an eye on your stove and see what seems best – and cook the onions very gently for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. (Do not cook them too quickly or over too high heat, or they will get dry and papery.) As they cook, they will become meltingly soft and juicy, and they should caramelize to a deep shade of amber. Stir in the Madeira, cook for a couple of minutes to combine, and then add the pasta to the pan. Using two large spoons, toss the pasta well with the sauce.

Serve with a generous sprinkling of salt and some grated cheese.

Yield: about 4 servings


A starting place

I got some very exciting news on Saturday, and before I do anything else, I can’t help but share it: namely, that my book is available for pre-order on Amazon! A very kind reader of this site wrote to tell me (Thank you, Emily!), and apparently she’d heard because Amazon sent her a notification e-mail. Maybe this happened to others among you? Either way, I promised to let you know when you could pre-order it, so here I am. Somebody asked me the other day about this pre-order thing, and why anyone would want to pre-order something, so in case you wonder, here’s the lowdown: Amazon gives a 5% discount on all pre-ordered books. So you save a bit of money, and when the book is released, it just shows up at your door, ta da, with no further prompting. It’s a nice system.

Anyway, what a lovely, crazy world this is. My. Book. I can hardly believe it. Especially because the manuscript is lying in a very messy heap next to my desk, and I am still knee-deep in the process of revising it. But it’ll be done soon. Yes. It. Will.

And in the meantime, from atop this pile of papers - which does, incidentally, make for a nice vista - I’m starting to notice the subtle hints of spring that are cropping up everywhere. Like asparagus, for one, and soft new greens. After a winter of relying on heartier things, we’re finally starting to eat salads again, and it feels so good. Yesterday, for instance, at the Ballard farmers’ market, we bought a bag of wild watercress from Foraged and Found Edibles. If you haven’t seen wild watercress before, it’s delicate and spindly, with a lightly bitter flavor that sits halfway between cultivated watercress and arugula. It’s absolutely delicious. (The guy who sold it to us wasn’t bad, either. I think he used to work at Whole Foods. I remember noticing him a long time ago, in the dark days before I met Brandon. Oh, such dark days.)

Brandon and I first tasted wild watercress, or something close to it, in Paris this spring, at Bistro Paul Bert. Brandon ordered it as a first course, and it came to the table as a warm salad, doused in a dressing spiked with mustard and cream and topped with a poached egg. (It was supposed to come with lardons, too, but because Brandon doesn’t eat meat, they kindly left them out.) It was a rich dish, to be sure, but the green, sweetly grassy flavor of the watercress cut cleanly through the yolk and cream, and needless to say, when we saw wild watercress at the farmers’ market, we had to have it again.

So, working from memory, Brandon cobbled together a dressing. (He is, for the record, much better at that sort of thing than I am.) And though it isn’t identical to what we ate in Paris - we serve ours at room temperature, for one thing - it’s delicious. It has all the qualities of a traditional vinaigrette, smartened with the smooth, dairy softness of cream. That makes it especially good for greens with a bitter edge, or for almost anything that needs a touch of mellowing, flavor-wise. And so today I sat down to tell you about it, and about wild watercress. And then, in the process, I read some very scary things about the latter, such as this, after which I sat at my desk and rocked back and forth for a while, moaning softly, and though feeling quite fine, wondered if I should call myself an ambulance.

So. I don’t believe I’ll be eating wild watercress again, or not raw, anyway. Or not without trepidation, at the very least. But this dressing is far too tasty, and too versatile, to be tossed away just because of that. In fact, as we ate it, we thought of all sorts of other things that it would be good on, from other bitter greens to cucumbers and celery. It’s just a starting place, really, for so many things. Including, come to think of it, spring.

Cream Vinaigrette

For the mustard here, we like Roland Extra Strong. It’s the brand we use for almost everything these days.

4 Tbsp. olive oil
3 Tbsp. heavy cream
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
About 1/4 tsp. pressed garlic
About 1/4 tsp. salt
Pinch of sugar

Whisk all ingredients well. Taste, and adjust as needed. Spoon liberally over any bitter (or bitter-ish) greens, such as watercress or arugula. Toss well. Top, if you want, with a poached egg, bits of bacon, or cubed ham.

Note: This vinaigrette will thicken considerably when chilled. Either pull it out of the fridge a little while before you need it, or zap it in the microwave for about 5 to 8 seconds, just to loosen it slightly.