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Drop everything

A year or so ago, when we opened Delancey, I thought our lives were over and we would never see our friends again. Now that I type that out, it sounds like I was channeling Chicken Little, but my thinking wasn’t without reason: in the restaurant business, you work when other people play, and that complicates almost everything. But as it turns out, our friends are more flexible than I had given them credit for, and like us, a lot of them work odd hours. So over the past several months, we’ve begun to tweak our collective habits. I didn’t know this, but dinner parties don’t have to take place at dinnertime. You can also have them in the daytime. For example, last Sunday, our friends Sam and Meredith invited us over for what we used to call Game Night, and what we now call Game Day.

(In our world, Sam and Meredith are famous for their good ideas.)

The plan was to play a game called Agricola.

But we wound up with too many people for that, so we broke off into groups: Team Agricola, Team Settlers of Catan, Team Bananagrams, and the wishful Team Naptime, which was quickly disbanded when it was noted that sleeping is not a sanctioned Game Day activity. I played six rounds of Bananagrams and won none. My new life goal is to win once, only once, at Bananagrams. I don’t ask for a lot.

On the upside, we also ate some cheese, and we drank a little beer. Meredith roasted dates. Olaiya steamed mussels in white wine.

And most important for today’s purposes, my friend Keena taught me to make a spectacular gazpacho, which is big news, because I don’t usually like gazpacho. It often tastes flat and tinny, like canned tomato juice, and on a particularly unfortunate day, it can resemble a regrettable attempt at salsa. Keena’s is neither. It’s smooth and almost creamy, an opaque shade of orange, with a whiff of olive oil and a kick of sherry vinegar. The only sad part of this story is that I was so busy getting destroyed at Bananagrams that I downed it before I thought to take a picture.

I’m on the road this week, and my Internet connection is so slow that getting this thing posted has aged me by about a year, but I wanted to say hi. That, and that you should drop everything and make this gazpacho, before the good tomatoes and peppers are gone. It’s going to be a long, hard winter of tubers and crucifers. This is our last hurrah.

Keena’s gazpacho starts with olive oil, which you put in a blender and whip at high speed. It’s an unusual step, and it’s the key, I think, to this recipe. It gives the soup its light, nearly velvety texture, as though you’d sneaked in a dash of cream. When the olive oil thickens and begins to froth, you add garlic, sweet peppers, cucumber, and a combination of yellow and red tomatoes, and then you let it rip along on high for a while longer, until the mixture is smooth enough to be sipped from a glass, if you’re a gazpacho-sipping kind of person. If not, you can spoon it from a bowl. Either way, you’ll want to splash some sherry vinegar into the blender before you serve it, because that’s the spark that gets it glowing.

Keena’s Gazpacho

My friend Keena learned to make this gazpacho from her sister-in-law Margot. But I still call it Keena’s Gazpacho, because she’s put her own twist on it. Here are some notes to consider before you start:

- Keena uses heirloom tomatoes for their flavor and color, and at a minimum, she uses at least one yellow tomato, so that the finished gazpacho has a beautiful orange color. She tells me that when she tried making the recipe with only red tomatoes, it worked fine, but the taste seemed a little flatter and the color was less pretty. Her sister-in-law once made it using all Green Zebra heirloom tomatoes and a yellow pepper instead of a red one, and the resulting gazpacho was a pretty shade of green. Whatever tomatoes she uses, Keena makes this gazpacho in a 7-cup blender, and the size of the blender determines how many tomatoes you can use. She uses as many as will fit in her blender jar.

- Keena likes her gazpacho smooth and sippable, but her sister-in-law garnishes it with diced cucumber and bell peppers, so that it’s a little chunky. You can do whatever you want.

3 - 5 medium to large tomatoes, ideally yellow and red (see note above)
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 - 2 garlic cloves
½ of a green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
½ of a medium to large cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
½ to ¾ of a red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 - 3 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
Salt to taste

Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Score an “X” into the bottom of each tomato, and then blanch them until the skin begins to peel back around the “X.” Remove from the water, cool them until they’re not too hot to handle, and then peel. Remove and discard the stems, and cut out the rough spot where the stem attaches. Chop coarsely.

Put the olive oil in a blender, and blend on high speed until frothy. Add the garlic, and process briefly. Add the bell peppers, cucumber, a couple pinches of salt, and as many tomatoes as will fit comfortably into your blender. Process on high speed for a while, stopping the blender from time to time to scrape down the sides of the jar and mush around the ingredients as needed to allow the blender to run smoothly. (The mixture will be fairly thick until the tomatoes are pureed.) Let the blender go as long as you can stand the noise; the longer it goes, the better it will taste and the creamier it will be. Add 2 tablespoons of the sherry vinegar, and process to incorporate. Taste, and add vinegar and salt as needed.

Chill thoroughly before serving.

Yield: about 6 servings


Now here, now there

I have two half brothers who live on the East Coast, and when I was a kid, if they came home for the holidays, they would bring a Styrofoam cooler of oysters. My father would get out his knife and shucking glove and lean against the kitchen counter, flicking grit and shells into the sink as he went, and they would all stand around, eating and sighing, making the noises that people make when they eat oysters.

I don’t know how old I was that night, but I think I must have been about six. I stood next to my father while he shucked, and he leaned down and gave me an oyster, a fat one, an enormous one, amoeba-like, dripping with brine. I have no memory of eating it. I must have forgotten on purpose. But I do know that I ate it, approximately, if nearly choking can be considered eating, and that it took me 25 years to eat another.

Twenty-five years. Twenty-five years! When I get freaked out about something, I get freaked out. Like, a-quarter-of-a-century-long-freak-out freaked out. The look of an oyster, the texture, the choking thing: I was alright with the idea of never eating a second.

But around this time last year, we had a cook at Delancey who wanted to play around with oysters, and so Brandon went to the Sunday market and bought some kumamotos from Taylor Shellfish. At lunch that day, this cook made a mignonette, and then he shucked three oysters and put them on a plate. Then he dared me. I was tempted to punch him in the face. I was not pleased. I did what I do when I am presented with something that scares the crap out of me. I picked up an oyster, stared at it, and felt like I was going to cry.

I made everyone look away, and then I ate it. Only one, and it was tiny, but I ate it. I chewed and everything. I didn’t die. And when I swallowed, the flavor rang around my mouth the way the ringing of a bell ricochets inside a cathedral, now here, now there, and it did that for maybe ten seconds, now here, now there, before it dissipated. It tasted like seawater and melon and wet rocks. I didn’t even hate it. I almost liked it.

I’m not going to tell you that I am a reformed person, or that I pop oysters like jelly beans. I’m still working on that. Last spring, the first time I was faced with a dozen oysters, a whole dozen to myself, I felt like ducking under the table and making a run for it. I was forced to resort to something like Lamaze breathing techniques, a full-body aaaah-hooooooooo, to get me from oyster to oyster. Sometimes I still do. But it’s getting easier. And it’s worth it to me, because there is no other flavor like it, anywhere. I’m glad I learned that, that I let myself learn it.

A couple of weeks ago, when we had friends in town, I took them to our neighborhood oyster bar, a place called the Walrus and the Carpenter, where I took most of these pictures. We ate oysters from the Effingham Inlet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Ben had never had them before, and when he tasted his first, he yelled OH MY GOD, and I’m almost certain, almost, that he would have done that even if he hadn’t been drinking a cocktail called the Mustache Ride. It was that kind of oyster.

I met a man on a plane once, and we got talking about food. This guy had a Texas accent and the stature of a former football player, but his mother was a tiny Italian woman, he told me, holding his hands about a foot apart to show me how tall she was. We talked about Seattle restaurants, about where he took his wife for their wedding anniversary, about our dogs, about his kids. He has a son in his early twenties, and this son is away at college, but sometimes when they’re together, he told me, they go out for oysters. They’ll suck down four or five dozen, he said, grinning, and they’ll drink some beers, just the two of them, and a couple of hours will go by, and it’s just great, he said. And then he grinned even wider, thinking about it, and he sort of hopped around in his seat, and his face got pink, and he started to giggle. The man giggled.

I get it now. And I’m glad for that.


Because there was a bag of plums

I took this picture on an excellent afternoon.

It was a Saturday. I had just met a deadline that I had been dreading. I was immensely relieved. Two of our best friends were in town for a visit, two friends who moved here a couple of years ago and became sort of like family, but then they found jobs and gigs in other cities, so they moved away. But they were in town on this particular day, and we had stayed up late the night before, and the night before that, and now it was late afternoon. Bonnie had a concert, and Ben was driving her to rehearsal, and Brandon was at the restaurant, and I was home alone. Because there was a bag of plums on the counter, and because it was the second day of October, I decided to bake a plum tart. The house was warm from sunlight and the oven preheating, and I put on a dress that I won’t get to wear again until June, and while the tart baked, I sat down at the kitchen table, turned to my left, and took that picture.

The next day, we ate plum tart for breakfast.

I miss my friends. Even though they ate most of the tart before I could take its picture.


The good news is, at least this thing is easy to make, and to make over again. It’s the easiest, quickest tart recipe I can think of, and I’m not just saying that because I made it four days ago and it’s on my mind. The recipe comes from the esteemed Alice Medrich, from her book Pure Desserts, and she calls it a rustic plum tart. I’m tempted to call it a plum tart cake, because it’s a little like both and that’s how I am, but you can decide. Mix up some flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt, and then work in a beaten egg and some butter until you wind up with something like yellow sand. Press that lightly into a tart or cake pan, whichever you want, and then arrange some plain cut-up plums on top, and less than an hour later, it’s on. The plums soften into pockets of loosely contained jam, and the crust puffs up around them, tender-crumbed in the middle like a coarse cake and crunchy at the edges. I can imagine it with whipped cream after dinner, but mostly, I think of it as a nice thing to eat in the afternoon, with something hot to drink. And in the morning, with coffee, it also makes a totally reasonable stand-in for buttered-and-jammed toast. Especially if the company is right.

Rustic Plum Tart
From Pure Dessert, by Alice Medrich

Contrast is what makes this tart work: the crust is quite sweet, and the plums should be quite tart. Look for plums that are both sweet and tangy, especially the ones that make you pucker a little when you bite into the flesh closest to the skin. I’ve made this tart with some unnamed red-skinned, yellow-fleshed plums that I found at the farmers market, and also with Flavor King pluots. Medrich recommends Santa Rosa, Friar, Laroda, and Elephant Heart plums, and she advises against the small, oblong plums often called Italian prune plums. They’re not tangy enough.

Also, I make the dough for this tart in a food processor, but you can make it by hand, so I’m including instructions for both. The food processor makes it especially quick and tidy, but either way is easy.

Finally, for the tart dough, you don’t want ice cold, rock-hard, straight-from-the-fridge butter. You want it to be a little softer than that, but not as soft as it gets at room temperature. You want it to be firm, as it is when it’s pleasantly cool.

1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
½ tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
1 large egg, lightly whisked
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, firm but not hard, cut into a few pieces
4 to 6 juicy, flavorful plums

Set a rack in the lower third of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375°F. Generously butter a 9 ½-inch tart pan with a removable bottom – or, barring that, a 9-inch springform pan also works nicely.

To make the dough by hand, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. Add the egg and butter, and use a pastry blender, a large fork, or a couple of knives to cut the mixture together, as though you were making pie dough. The dough is ready when it resembles a rough mass of damp yellow sand with no dry flour showing.

To make the dough in a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse to mix. Add the egg and butter, and pulse just until the mixture resembles damp yellow sand and is beginning to clump around the blade.

Press the dough gently but evenly over the bottom but not up the sides of the pan. You’re not trying to pack it down; you’re just lightly tamping it.

If the plums are very small (under 2 inches in diameter), cut them in half and remove the pits. Cut larger plums into quarters or sixths, removing the pits. Leaving a margin of ½ inch around the edge of the pan, arrange halved plums cut side up over the dough, with a little space between each one. Arrange wedges skin side up – they look nice that way after baking – and press them lightly into the dough, so that they won’t turn onto their sides in the oven.

Bake until the pastry is puffed, deep golden brown at the edges, and a lighter shade of golden brown in the center, about 50 to 55* minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Then loosen and remove the rim of the pan, and cool further. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: This tart keeps at room temperature for a few days, but its texture is best on the first day.

* UPDATED on November 3, 2010: A number of readers have reported that 50 to 55 minutes was too long in their ovens, and that their tarts were burnt. To be on the safe side, set your timer for 35 to 40 minutes, and keep an eye on it.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings