The City Cook Goes to the Beach
A Chance to Demystify the Glamour of Grilling
As I write, New York is in the midst of yet another heat wave. The TV weather folks have run out of ways to describe "sultry" and at Central Park, instead of seeing the usual joggers and bikers, there are brow-mopping tourists carrying open umbrellas as parasols. Exercise is only possible indoors and the carriage horses waiting for their fares in front of The Plaza are being carefully monitored by animal rights advocates to make sure they are also spared from the heat.
In one of my favorite episodes of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw rebuffed an out-of-towner who was being critical about New York by saying "I won't let anyone talk trash about my boyfriend." I have that same love affair with this town. But on these dog days I admit this is when it's hard to live here, when we're forced to stay off the scalding sidewalks and stay indoors because Manhattan is on fire.
So who wants to cook? It's a shame that the heat keeps us out of our kitchens just as local ingredients are at their best. But cooking doesn't have to mean hours spent at the stove. Cooking pasta or grains doesn't add much heat to our kitchens. Nor does broiling a steak. All our markets are full of summer produce and a little time spent chopping can produce a gorgeous salad of whatever is on hand.
Tonight our dinner will be small Newport steaks, a relatively inexpensive cut of beef that you can cook like a strip steak but it's about half the price. This triangle-shaped cut of beef from the bottom butt with a nice balance of lean and fat was invented and named by the late, great Jack Ubaldi who used to run the Florence Meat Market in Greenwich Village. In Jack Ubaldi's Meat Book, a splendid meat cookbook that is now out of print, he writes how he named the cut after seeing an ad for Newport cigarettes (hey, it was 1946). Today Newport steaks can be hard to find. Florence still sells them, as does Citarella. But I bought mine at Pino's Meat Market at 149 Sullivan Street in SoHo. There has been a butcher shop at this location since 1904 but for the past 16 years it's been run by Pino Cinquemani, a native of Sicily who has been a butcher since he was 9 years old, and his sons Leo and Sal. This is the kind of butcher shop that can make you want to move into the neighborhood.
Tonight I'll just sprinkle the steaks with some cracked black pepper and sea salt and broil for about 6 minutes a side, 4 inches from the heat, and I know they'll be perfectly medium rare. These have a nice rim of fat on two sides that will get crispy and golden and full of beef flavor; I'll be tempted to leave it uneaten but I know I'll succumb. Remember to let any steaks come to room temperature before you cook them and rest for 10 minutes after they're done. A big green salad dressed with red wine vinaigrette and a crumble of Roquefort cheese will partner the steaks into a perfect summer supper.
Grilling at the Beach
I imagine that most people with houses and grills would instead be outdoors putting the Newport steaks on the Weber grill. Outdoor grilling is one of the (only) deprivations when you live in an apartment. That and a decent shoe closet. If you love to cook but you can't grill you may worry that you're really missing a culinary adventure. But last week I got to spend five days at a beach house, grilling my city head off and I'm here to say that I don't think we're really missing very much at all.
My dear husband and I spent five days with family at a beach house on Cape Cod. The house was lovely, the company was wonderful, the weather was perfect and the Weber was huge. Since no one else shared my enthusiasm for spending the day in the kitchen, I got to experiment with ingredients that I had long wanted to grill. We grilled sausages, chicken breasts, steak, vegetables, littleneck clams, shrimp and tuna steaks. We also steamed lobsters but that's a whole other story.
Abandoning the beach house's well-equipped indoor kitchen, my grill-literate daughter-in-law became my teacher, showing me how to turn on a gas grill, get it hot, and how to move food around the surface to manage the speed and intensity of the cooking. There was the requisite smoke and occasional scraping to remove the carbonized gunk that collects on the hot metal. I learned the appeal of grilling -- its speed, how few prep dishes you need (a rimmed sheet pan can handle everything), and the easy clean up.
But while the easy cooking was evident, so was its brutishness. I guess I've spent too much time in a small kitchen when control is everything because I really believe you can get better flavor and better texture working with a stove-top grill pan than from that Maserati-like Weber grill I worked with last week.
Is this sour grapes on my part? Am I feeling defensive because in my real life grilling is not an option? Is this some secretly harbored regret about city living? Jeez, no. As someone who is interested in every aspect of cooking and all the techniques available out there, I had simply felt left out. When Mario Batali devotes a whole new cookbook to grilling, and every food magazine and recipe web site takes on the topic every July, how could I not think I was a cooking bystander? And now I know -- I'm not missing much. I'll gladly put my tuna steaks pan grilled in my little 12-by-12 cast iron pan up against any cooked on a Weber. Mine will win. I'll even have those little hatch marks.
Back in the city, we're now at week five of our Community Supported Agriculture share and the experience continues to be an adventure. I purchased a share in the Columbus Circle CSA with weekly deliveries every Thursday afternoon. The share gives me weekly vegetables, plus I bought a half share of fruit and a half share of eggs, which means I get these every other week.
Our CSA was supposed to have pick-ups from 4:00 to 7:00 pm but the schedule was moved back to start as early as 1:30 pm. This was done to give participants the chance to get their fragile fruits and vegetables immediately after they're dropped off from the farm's truck. The back alley where our CSA is located can get hot and the coordinators were concerned that the produce would wilt. This has been a good thing for those of us who can do a mid-afternoon pick-up. But for others who have a long New York work day, by the time they get to the West 58th Street depot, there's little left and what's there is a bit beaten up. The lesson here is to choose a CSA where you can pick up your food as soon as possible. If you're likely to be at the end of any pick-up period, you may be unhappy with what you get.
There have been a few other bumps in the process but we're only five weeks into what will be about a 22-week program. Sometimes the fruit shares have been inadequate, leaving a few folks without what was due them (the coordinators are quick to fix the records and do make-goods). The yogurt has sometimes been in odd flavors (orange?) and the cheese looks more mass produced than artisanal, which means you may be better off going to your Greenmarket for local farm cheeses.
Another reality is that the first produce to come off the farms has been a narrow selection. There's been mostly kale, lots of zucchini, and lots of baby salad greens. You don't know until the day before what's likely to be delivered so you must be open minded about what's for dinner. I'm optimistic things will get worked out especially as the farm's productivity hits its summer stride and we will continue to tell you how the season progresses.
If I'm sounding critical I don't mean to be. I just want you to know the practical realities of buying food directly from a farm. It's not like going to the grocery story. For all these inconveniences, the pleasures have included the most delicious green lettuce I have ever tasted (my salad-loving husband was nearly weeping when last week's leaves were gone). The eggs vary in size from medium to jumbo, with shells from pale green to medium brown, and with flavor that will make you think you never ate an egg before. And last week's apricots -- an overflowing quart-sized box of orange-red beauties -- made the most flavorful apricot galette I've ever tasted.
Whether you're at the beach or rescued by a city air conditioner, pursue the best summer ingredients you can find and enjoy your summer cooking.