The Bliss of Summer Cooking
We spent Memorial Day weekend in the city. I love New York on holiday weekends when so many others skip town and leave the parks, movie theaters, and the gym to the rest of us. These are the best times to try a new restaurant, or see a new play, which is what we did on Friday night. Even though this weekend is the official kick-off to summer fun, there's a certain relief for those of us who choose to stay at home.
I saw this in the proprietor of my neighborhood wine store who lingered longer with every customer, even helping with my search for the cheapest-yet-drinkable Pinot Grigio to use in steaming a pot of cherrystone clams (more on those clams in a moment). Or being able to navigate Fairway on Saturday morning and have a long conversation with Edward, the cheese guy, about ricotta cheese (I'm experimenting with baking it). Or to join others at any one of the city's Greenmarkets that are on the verge of full-market-mode.
The Greenmarket I went to this weekend, in upper Manhattan, offered ingredients that were a reward for not leaving town. Many of us are impatient for the markets to offer more, even though spring was long in coming and here in the northeast, the growing season has barely begun. Still there are "green shoots" -- a term that Wall Street has recently absconded with to describe signs of improvement in the economy but let's use it here literally.
I found long stalks of green garlic that resembled scallions on steroids. As raw garlic is typically harsh and dominant, these pale green and white bulbs are mild and sweet, perfect as the centerpiece of a raw pesto (green garlic, salt, red pepper flakes and olive oil) that I used to marinate shrimp that I then broiled in my oven. Three minutes a side, just until the shrimp became opaque and its edges slightly brown. Who needs a grill? I had saved a little of the pesto to dress local Yukon gold potatoes I had boiled and then let come to room temperature to serve alongside the shrimp, plus big pieces of roasted red peppers tossed with a little olive oil and a crumble of feta cheese.
The Greenmarket was also where I bought ingredients for our second holiday weekend meal. A Long Island fish monger, Pura Vida, trucks in whole fish and fillets plus shellfish, all caught off the coast of Montauk. A large ice-filled tray of small cherrystone clams, $5.00 per dozen, caught my eye and I bought two dozen to make a classic spaghetti con vongole which I served with a huge bowl of steamed local spinach, slicked with a little of my best olive oil and a pinch of Sicilian sea salt. I usually only make dessert if I'm cooking for company, but seeing the first New Jersey strawberries changed that. Besides -- it was a holiday! These berries were not yet as sweet as I'm sure they'll be in another three or so weeks but still, they tasted like strawberries. I left the small berries whole and cut the large ones in half, alongside a small bowl of luscious mascarpone cheese and a little light brown sugar.
We've entered the time of year when the payoff of astute food shopping moves ahead of the cooking. Find the best possible sources for fruits, vegetables, charcuterie, and seafood and the time you spend in your kitchen can be more assembly than cooking. I thought of this the other day when I was making one of my regular visits to Last Night's Kitchen, Jennifer Hess's inspiring food blog. There was a photograph of an alluring assemblage, a salad of sorts, for which instead of a recipe you need a shopping list. A plate was laid with thin slices of bresaola (dried cured beef) upon which was heaped a pile of thin slices of raw fennel, topped with shaved Pecorino-Romano (a sheep's milk cheese that resembles Parmigiano but is more aggressive), and drizzled with fresh lemon juice and olive oil.
This dish could only be so winning as long as each ingredient was perfect. In season. Handled with respect. Bought from purveyors who cared about the integrity of the food they sourced and sold. Like those who brought me my green garlic and Montauk cherrystones.
So whether you were home for the holiday or had escaped for the weekend, you can be happy to know that here in the northeast, the season of local food has begun. If you've joined a community supported agriculture program or are regulars at your neighborhood Greenmarket, it's time to celebrate.
I think it's going to be a delicious summer.