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Posts Tagged ‘tomato’

Okay, I know I meant to write more about food writing* this week, but I’ve had so much fun with another idea that I want to talk about it first. It’s my dearest love of sloppy food.

There’s such pressure to be perfect these days. It’s not new; our great-grandmothers used to compete, silently, to see which woman on the block was first to hang her clean wash on the clothesline on Monday morning. Those days are over, mercifully. But new ones, and pressures, took their place. With the advent of movies, TV, and now social media, we’re holding ourselves up for comparison to endless others paraded in front of us, forgetting that what we see is not likely the whole enchilada. Very not likely. (Philip Galanes of The New York Times recently received a letter from a young woman asking why on earth her stepmother, who had always been cold to her and her sisters, would post kitten memes on Facebook that read, ‘I heart my stepdaughters!’ He replied, ‘Facebook is not the real world. It is not even adjacent to the real world.’)

One way to counteract the deluge of pretentious perfection is to go whole hog in the opposite direction, at least for a time. An excellent way to start is with eating.

I work my way down this list if the pressure mounts, or when my life gets too tidy, and would encourage you to do the same. Sandwiches feature prominently.

  1. Tomato-raw onion-Cotija sandwiches. The ingredients slide out in 17 different directions, and I slurp extra-virgin olive oil off the backs of my arms.
  2. Dark chocolate that I’ve melted for a recipe, and had extra at the bottom of the Pyrex bowl, so I put it in the refrigerator to firm up overnight. This is one of my favorite choices for chocolate day: wedging the tines of a fork into that bowl to chip out the chocolate in shiny shards, and eating just shy of a migraine. I take my joys where I can get them.An example of bloomed chocolate. Looks cool in the bowl. Not so much on candy.
  3. Italian subs. With everything on it, and lots and lots of oil and vinegar. A sopping roll is a blasphemy and an aberration to many; to me, it’s a requirement. I learned from a counter guy at a local sub shop that if you like your sandwich this way, you should say, ‘WET.’
  4. Tuna-anchovy sandwiches. It drips out the edges of the bread as you bite into it and you get to pick up all the fishy little bits with your fingers.
  5. S’mores. Homemade, baby.
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  6. Ice cream with leaky cones. I like to take the paper cone off the bottom and slurp.
    on the clock to take the shot before I wear this.
  7. Thanksgiving dinner. The ultimate. On the floor. I grew up eating a delicious Thanksgiving dinner, but it was far too straight-laced for the likes of me. So one year I spread out my best friend’s grandmother’s afghan on the floor and we had a picnic of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. We wore fleece and socks instead of dressy clothes, and we deliberately ate the whole thing with our fingers. It was one of the most liberating meals of my life.StuffingIn the early ’90s, I taught a camp group of Pre-Ks (four-year-olds). One rainy day when we were stuck inside, all of the Pre-K groups were given smocks, big sheets of glossy fingerpaint paper, and bowls of chocolate pudding. I plopped a blob of pudding onto each of their papers with a plastic spoon. For most of my kids, this was exceedingly well received. One little girl, though, Lucy, didn’t want to touch it. Her mom always had her dressed just so; I can still picture her, with tiny gold stud earrings and her long hair pulled back with a ribbon. Everything she did at camp she did with caution, and I would gently encourage her to try more, to do more.

    At first she agreed to put her pointer finger in the pudding and swirled it around a little. That went on too long. It was a rainy day, and this was all we had to do in the cramped gym for 45 minutes, so I kept cheering her on. ‘Come on, Lucy Luce! Get your hands in there!’ She put two fingers in and Mona-Lisa smiled. That was it. I looked away for a few minutes and came back to find her with both hands flat to the paper and pushing them up and down and laughing her little beribboned head off.
    There’s a place for excellence in our lives…not perfection. There’s a place for tidiness. But too much, and with the wrong expectations, and we stifle ourselves. Life is a rainy day in the gym. Every day is. Go messy for a while, laugh, lick your fingers, and fresh new ideas will start bumpity-bumping around in your head. Let yourself enjoy it, too. Be a Lucy.

*Sorry if I melted your brain there. Peace & love.

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I was heading to the blackberry field at my favorite farm recently when I heard the old iron gate above swinging in the wind. It opened with an awkward squeak, then graduated to rich middle notes, then closed to a low baritone, jabbing its voice through the clear day and green landscape.

A 360-degree view of the August farm showed spring asparagus gone to seed and a few weeks off from another appearance, ripe blackberries, raspberries, corn, squash, and more crops beyond. I stood in the middle of LIFE, in exhilaration and exultation.

But the thing is, a farm isn’t a still frame of lush beauty. It’s hundreds of still frames that make up a continuous feature. A farmer knows that, but it just occurred to me that day when the gate whined back and forth, open and shut. A farm is the whole life cycle. It is both lovers’ bed and deathbed, nursery and graveyard.

In spring, the farm is fragile and palest green, a greenhouse full of teeny shoots a few weeks off from being planted because the soil is still too cold.

In late spring and early summer, it’s stretching its legs, testing boundaries, getting cheeky and rosy.

Now, in high summer, the farm is saturated with sun and rain and sugar and bite and intense color. Mid-life is when everything shines and bursts. Corn kernels pop when a fingernail is pressed into them. A ripe melon, at a single, infinitesimally small piercing, splits ahead of the blade wide open with a CRACK on the kitchen counter. Little potatoes dug from dusty soil are washed and roasted, and at first bite their skins, loose from the flesh, snap.

But as the crops lose the light bit by bit every day, that snap gives way to profound sweetness, softness, mellowness. Apples lose their sharp astringent bite, and are finally ready to pick. Tomatoes—boy, if the frost holds off and we can get tomatoes into September or even October, their flesh becomes deeper and richer than any July specimen. Green bell peppers turn lipstick red, and tender. Pumpkins become sweet and earthy. The farm is going to seed. It’s like everything is settling in to resignation, the innate knowing that the honeymoon is over, long over. But the farm is okay with it. We can actually taste that it’s okay with it.

Late Summer into Fall the farmer tosses spent squash and overripe tomatoes right into the fields to nourish them. Nothing is wasted; everything feeds everything else. Even the winter snow helps to fortify the soil. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s day, in the 19th century, farmers called fresh snow “poor man’s fertilizer,” and sent the kids out with the plow to turn it under the soil. They didn’t know why it did the job so well, but they knew it did. Now we know it’s full of nitrogen, the most essential ingredient for healthy plant development.

So in August, in the wind, that old gate was the farm’s mouthpiece, singing, reminding me of how it all works. The baby’s squeak to the young adult’s call to the elder’s hum, it’s all a song. It gets sung every year. We’re moving into the baritone hum. Enjoy time’s pendulum and the old iron gate swinging closed, and the flavors that come with them. I think they’re the best of the year.

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In Louise Fitzhugh’s brilliant, mouthy Harriet the Spy (1964), the heroine insists on a tomato sandwich every day for lunch. In her case, she likes it plain. In my case, I like thick-cut, sweet Vidalia onion, salty cheese (Cotija or feta), extra virgin olive oil, a leaf or two of fresh basil if you can get it (I couldn’t), and an heirloom tomato. If none, or only a portion, of an heirloom is to be had, a tomato from a local garden is a worthy pinch hitter. The above sandwich was supplemented by my friend Charlie, who left an upended crate of tomatoes for me on a bench by his back door.

Tomato season lasts from mid-July through September—a painfully short duration for the addicted.

For the past few days this sandwich has been lunch, or dinner, or lunch and dinner on the same day. If you’ve never tasted a local, ripe, sun-warm heirloom tomato, this admission will come across as lunatic. If you have tasted one, it will come across as utterly sound…and in fact, you’ll wonder what keeps it off my breakfast table. I’m beginning to wonder myself.

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My fellow stage-crew friend and I like to eat. And to talk about eating. And, often enough, to talk about eating while we’re eating.* Casey grew up in a family that cooks from scratch—hard core. When they make burgers they start with an actual cut of meat. Then they put it through a grinder and spice it to taste. Yeah. He also has a brother who’s a chef in Manhattan, and his dad’s wife is a pastry chef in Brooklyn. Having a friend like this is wise on all counts.

For a couple of years we’ve been dreaming about a banh mi, a sandwich made at our favorite (so far) Vietnamese restaurant (Pho Le, in Red Bank, NJ). The place only offers it for lunch, and the only time we’re both available for lunch is on weekends. That usually leaves lunch before a Sunday matinee…but most of the time we’re too sleepy to go after working a heap of shows.

Yesterday, before the closing matinee of Peter Pan, we quit whining and made it happen.

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Look at that fat wedge of jalapeño! Tucked underneath like it’s a common dill pickle, humming placidly and gazing skyward! Sneaky little poser.

Pho Le’s classic banh mi is at the top of the page. I have a recipe for one from the long-gone and much-lamented Gourmet Magazine, one that has liverwurst ably pinch-hitting for pork pâté.

This sandwich had the real thing: pâté, roast pork, pork roll, head cheese, cucumbers, jalapeños, cilantro, pickled daikon (a type of radish—pure white and mildly flavored), and carrots.

I’d never had head cheese before, but have always wanted to try it. As a lifelong Laura Ingalls Wilder devotee, I’ve read matter-of-fact accounts of offal preparation over and over, so I’m not especially squeamish about it. I did read up on head cheese as a refresher, though, and learned meat from the tongue, feet, and heart are sometimes added to the flesh from the animal’s head.** Only one complaint about this delicious sandwich: not enough of the pâté and meat. It gave me a little taste of the gaminess I love, but not as much as I’d like.

Casey yawns at squeamish as well; he’s eaten far stranger foods. His sandwich is just above and was more successful. It was a grilled pork banh mi, with avocado, pâté, greens, tomato, and the rest of the lovely vegetables I had in my sandwich. The smokiness of the grilled meat sold us both. And the sandwiches, it must be acknowledged, were served on very fresh, toasted rolls. Concentrating on the fillings and mailing in the bread has almost become a cliché in the food business, but this little place knows it matters. They’re right.

We put these sandwiches away while he told me about the snake-bitten production of West Side Story he did in college. Theatre people never run out of disaster stories, and we’re always ten minutes away from a new one. Then we pushed our chairs back from the table and sighed and headed off to Neverland. Two friends, two adventures, one afternoon.

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*BONUS: I just received a fantastic leftover turkey sandwich recipe, and right now we’re messaging about it. This is surprisingly common.

**Boy, if my mom didn’t stop reading earlier, she sure did now.

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I used to hate fresh tomatoes. Growing up in New Jersey, that was as heretical as blasting Conway Twitty music on the street outside the Pony.* I said it anyway, though. And to be fair, the supermarket tomatoes I grew up eating were hardly flavorful. Grown strictly to withstand shipping and handling, picked unripe and hit with ethylene gas**, they were pink, watery, and a bore on the taste buds.

Then maybe eight years ago I had a fling with an heirloom tomato and became even more smug in my distaste of remotely grown fresh tomatoes. Heirlooms taste like the berries tomatoes are: tender and richly flavored.

Yesterday I walked into Asbury Park for lunch—well, for the makings of it. First I stopped by a local organic farm stand run by a woman in a floppy straw hat. When I picked up one of the two tomatoes on display, I asked if she had raised them herself. She said she had, and warned me that the tomato I held ‘wasn’t perfect.’ I gave it a little squeeze, and a tiny bit of juice oozed out. It was probably two hours off the vine, a youngster in a new town. I told her I don’t care about perfect, and bought it.

Then I went to the bread stand run by a gregarious Roman guy. As he talked to customers he sliced up narrow anchovy-provolone sandwiches, casually handing bits to passers-by.*** Sold me two rolls for a buck. ‘Thank you, sweet dahling!’

Then I walked home, stopping by the lake to pick some wild mint.

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The tomato sandwich with basil is a time-honored thing, and for good reason. I figured mint and basil are cousins, so I’d give that a whirl. Picked a bunch—some for my sandwich, more for my friend who loves to cook and wouldn’t look at me the way the anti-Conway-Twitty crowd would. It takes a rare person, Jerseyan or not, who will not look at me askance for eating plants I picked by a lake. She is one of them.****

I sliced up the roll and gutted it a bit—I don’t like too high a bread-to-filling ratio—and added a slice of Trader Joe’s addictive mozzarella, a little bit of mayonnaise, and kosher salt. The juice from the tomato mixes with the mayo and makes the bread a little soppy, but that’s a plus.

You can try to build a quicker, better, cobbled-together summer sandwich than this, but it won’t work. Okay, maybe if you use two slices of cheese. I’m reasonable.

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*That’s bad. Trust me on this one.

**You’re smacking your lips at that image, aren’t you? I shouldn’t tease so.

***Several turned up their noses; I almost bit his hand off.

***This just occurred to me: the friend I mention is one of three good friends who are first-generation kids (Filipino, Italian, and Japanese). I find in cases such as this there is a stronger connection to where food comes from, and less of a tendency to be afraid of it. Kind of fascinating.)

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Midsummer, and we’re all starting to ooze into the fabric of our beach chairs (but today temps hit 90 again, so full disclosure: I’m oozing into my sofa as I write this).

A hazy, dreamy list of the not-to-be-missed—summer delights,`a la me.

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Beach rose in early evening light.

1. Go to the beach between 4 and 6p. The shadows are long, the sand has a golden glow, and the crowds have cleared. It’s the most beautiful time of day.

2. Or go to the beach between 7 and 9a when the ocean is sparkling in the morning sun. It’s the other most beautiful time of day. Dive in. You’re swimming in a big splashy tub of glitter.

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3. Eat locally grown fruit, picked perfectly ripe. To get the full flavor, resist refrigerating it. Trust me on this one.

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Sticky ripe plum.

4. Don’t put fresh basil in the fridge, either. Treat it like the plant it is: Trim the ends and stick the bunch in a jar filled with water. Use as needed. If flowers start to emerge, pinch them off to keep the leaves from getting bitter.

5. Go barefoot. Feel the differences between the textures of this or that sand, or this or that grass. Don’t freak over rough patches forming on your feet; they’re giving you the power to explore the summer world further.*

6. Make a pie. Any sensible pie crust comes together in the Cuisinart in 10 minutes, I promise, zip zip zip, and it won’t have any weird stuff in it. Then you can add anything summer gives you—blueberries, blackberries, late-season cherries. Doll them up or leave them alone.

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Peach custard pie.

7. Find a funnel cake and dive into that, too. Any will do, but I like ’em puff-tastic.

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From the very nearby Asbury Park, NJ boardwalk. I’m not 300 lbs., and it’s miraculous.

8. Slurp up an heirloom tomato—and go local on this one as well, too, for best flavor and price. All other tomatoes will seem like the soggy tube socks they are. Slurp at room temperature. A ripe uncut tomato will live happily on your kitchen table for a few days, if you can restrain yourself longer than I can.

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9. Ride your bike. It’s just as you remember—like flying.

10. Go to a playground and swing on the swings. Go at night. Even better.

11. Find an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and order something retro. The one near me, in business since 1901, offers a really sweet, really kaleidoscopically colored soda called a cherry-lime rickey. Or go back just as far as the boomers, who order butter pecan, black raspberry, and cherry vanilla.

12. Collect wildflowers and let them brighten your counter or night stand. Tiger-lilies, false Queen Anne’s lace, and many others grow in profusion in meadows and along roadsides. If you pull the latter up fully, smell the roots; they smell like carrots (a cousin). Cool, right?

13. Buy a melon from a farm stand. Be sure it’s local for best ripeness. You can eat it in slices or chop it up and make a smoothie or an agua fresca out of it. Use a knife; a melon baller wastes too much fruit.

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I inserted a sharp knife one half-inch into this Sugar Baby and it cracked itself right open. That’s ripe, my dear friends. That’s how melon should be, and taste.

14. Sleep with the windows open. Falling asleep and waking up to a breeze is beauteous.

15. Find something yummy growing somewhere wild and have a little snack. Then tell me about it. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.

*Gabrielle Reece, pro beach volleyball player, has said she isn’t ashamed of her weight—she is grateful for it, because she needs every pound to play with the force she wants. I feel the same about callouses on my feet; I’m proud of every one because I need every one.

 

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Warm marshmallow frosting for Devil Dog cupcakes. Random. Not in the post. Whatever.

I’ve gotten the impression, after talking to people about food and and reading a lot about food (which is what I do in my spare time when I’m not eating), that many people avoid cooking for two reasons. It’s because they’re either lacking proper information, proper equipment, or both.

Here, then, a list. Above all, please keep in mind the helpful words of the late and much-lamented Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic. You’re not supposed to loathe cooking. My goal here is to make the kitchen more approachable. This stuff you can do.

1. Get over your fear of freezing. I was taught that freezing any food besides uncooked meat ruins it. Freezer burn was a yucky reality in days of yore, and everything else from the freezer had a weird taste. Pretty sure most of this was due to poor-quality storage containers. But today you can safely freeze almost anything as long as you make sure it’s a) completely cooled and b) use plastic freezer zip-close bags. Make sure the box says ‘freezer’ on it. Slice up your fresh babka or bagels, squeeze the air out of the bag, close it and chuck it in the freezer. In the morning, take a slice out of the bag and set it on a plate.* Then go blow-dry your hair and find your shoes. By the time you’ve done that, your breakfast will be ready to eat. It will taste the same as the day you baked or bought it.

2) Repurpose utensils. I use my kitchen scissors to snip scallions and pieces of bell pepper; I smush up apples into applesauce with a potato masher; I whisk with a fork. Don’t buy any utensil that has just one purpose (garlic press, ice cream cookie sandwich mold). You’ll use it once, then it will clog up your drawers. Go low tech and open up the format with how you use your utensils.

3) Buy three good-quality knives and give away the rest. This is huge. I’m convinced that a lot of people who think they’re no good at cooking or get frustrated just at the thought of it aren’t using decent equipment. Knives are first on that list. You need a paring knife (to cut small stuff that you can’t snip with your scissors), a chef’s knife (to chop big stuff, herbs, or chicken) and a serrated knife (for slicing bread, tomatoes, and chopping chocolate or nuts). Knives should be somewhat heavy and the handle should not be made out of crap plastic. Be sure that the metal of the knife extends right down through the handle for good balance. If your knife is flimsy, you’ll be fighting with it to chop, it’s going to break by Thursday, and what’s more, it’s dangerous.

4) Unless you’re serving a cake to company and are excessively precise, ignore recipes that tell you to both butter and flour the pan. Wow. Okay, that one’s done.

5) If you’re a novice cook and want to have people over, go with simple, straightforward recipes. Novices tend to make pheasant under glass and petit fours with spun sugar, usually with nose-dive results. They want to impress their friends. Their friends, on the other hand, want to eat. Ask around for recipes that are tried and true, pace yourself, and read the recipe all the way through before starting so you know what ingredients and utensils you need. Make brownies for dessert.

What did I leave out?

*If you’re lucky enough to have a radiator, put the plate on it. I have a cookie sheet on top of my kitchen radiator for just this purpose. Me efficient.

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