Hot Fun In The Summertime
The other day I heard someone describe something they ate as scrumptious. Whatever it was they were referring to, I wanted some. Scrumptious means irresistible and satisfying and probably also a little bit wicked. A lick of homemade vanilla ice cream. The crisp, slightly salted, oily surface of perfectly fried chicken that shatters off at the first bite. A cold vodka tonic made with Schweppes and lots of lime. Just-picked baby peas with a knob of French butter. Peach pie.
For me, scrumptious is not the same as delicious. Scrumptious has to do with pleasure; delicious has to do with taste. A number of years ago I took a writing class with Alan Richman, the irascible food writer whose taste is pitch perfect and whose prose has won a pile of James Beard Awards. He taught as he wrote and as he judges food -- without pandering and without much tolerance for anything that wasn't great. It's not surprising that much of what I remember from his class has to do with feeling inadequate. Still, I left his class a much better writer. One lesson was how no good food writer ever uses the word delicious. It's imprecise, he said, and thus has no meaning since what is delicious to you may not be to me. The writer's job is instead to describe the food, the flavor, the aroma, its saltiness-heat-sweetness, enough so that the reader can decide for herself if she'd like it.
I think of scrumptious as a hot weather word because food satisfies us differently in the summer. Maybe it's because our heat-diminished appetites can use some inspiration. While we're still hungry, we need a more intense eating experience and clearer flavors. More spice. More cold. More crisp. As I write this, the thermometer on my computer says it's 94 degrees outside and so it's no wonder I have little interest in cooking. But nature does us all a favor by giving us during the hottest weather of the year the best ingredients, ones that need little done to them to make them scrumptious.
Hot Weather Cooking
New York and many other places have already had blistering heat, and it's only the start of July. Obviously there are ways to keep the temperature down in our city kitchens -- use the microwave, put slightly ajar lids on pots of boiling water, do more stove-top and broiler cooking and less roasting. Eat things raw.
Here are some things I've made in the past few steamy weeks:
- Garlic scape pesto that I've served with boiled shrimp and also plain, boiled potatoes.
- Tuna belly quick-sautéed in a little butter in a skillet. Tuna belly is hard to find but it's usually available in New York at The Lobster Place in Chelsea Market. Price is about $15 a pound.
- Green or yellow beans cooked until tender and tossed with little slices of sautéed chorizo, cooked just until the surface crisps and the pan becomes oily.
- Baby beets, roasted or boiled until tender, then served at room temperature tossed with a red wine and mustard vinaigrette and crumbled feta cheese.
- Apricot and blackberry tart in a cornmeal crust. I make it just like our recipe for Plum Tart except I substitute sliced apricots and fresh berries for the plums.
- Local strawberries sliced and tossed with a tiny bit of sugar and served with a wedge of Chavrie goat cheese.
- Chinese BBQ'd pork -- one of my all-time favorite recipes from America's Test Kitchen -- served with steamed spinach and jasmine rice. Here's the recipe.
- Salade Nicoise made with pan-grilled fresh tuna.
- Potato salad. I've published my current favorite, from the fabulous cookbook, Staff Meals from Chanterelle, Thanks to a reader of this newsletter, Maria, who wrote to me and shared that this was her favorite go-to cookbook for cooking for her family because it has since become one of mine, too. The book is now out of print but used copies are easy to find, including at Amazon.
- Broiled boneless, skinless chicken thighs. You can use almost any marinade but the cooking method is easy. And if you're a city cook with a grill, use that instead of your broiler.
- Shrimp fra diavalo on pasta. Use your favorite tomato sauce -- home cooked or jarred -- adding a pinch of red pepper to give the sauce heat. Bring to a simmer and add shelled, cleaned shrimp and simmer until the shrimp is opaque. Serve over your favorite pasta.
- Broiled fish -- halibut steaks, salmon steaks, swordfish, tuna.
- Farro salad with chopped, raw vegetables like red pepper, scallion, halved cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta cheese. I always make extra and use it just-made for dinner and then for lunch the next day.
- Bowls of sliced New Jersey peaches mixed with fresh raspberries and served with store-bought shortbread cookies.
- Sautéed steak tips (I bought a chuck skirt steak at Whole Foods and cut it into large chunks that I cooked in a skillet with a little olive oil until the meat was medium rare) served with separately sautéed mushrooms and both topped with a crumble of blue cheese; served also with cherry tomatoes I cut in half and tossed with a little olive oil, a pinch of salt, and chopped chives, plus a plain green salad.
- Fresh vegetables -- blanched, steamed or roasted -- cooled to room temperature and served with garlicky aioli, which is also great on pieces of leftover cooked fish.
What Makes A Market?
Last weekend a "French Market" opened downtown at Chelsea Triangle, a wedge of asphalt a block below Chelsea Market, at 9th Avenue and 14th Street. Since I've been lucky enough to have shopped at a number of French markets, meaning markets in France, I had high expectations. Taking the subway downtown on Saturday morning, I was anticipating glass cases filled with coarse pork paté and runny cheeses, bowls of briny green olives, tables groaning with heads of lettuce and bunches of white-tipped radishes, little paper boxes of tiny strawberries, and maybe someone with buckets of wildflowers. I also wished for the people behind the counter to be wearing aprons stained from the day's work, and for the authenticity and pride that comes from folks who sell what they grow and make.
Instead I found about a dozen merchants whose selection of goods included jars of chutney, pickles, mozzarella and mozzarella sandwiches, pizza, and three types of baked goods. Two tables also sold a small selection of fresh produce. I couldn't figure out what was particularly French about it all except that one of the bakers sold macarons, another had canelés, the small, spongy cakes with a crispy, caramelized surface, and the third baker, whose specialty was bread, had baguettes and croissants. From what I could tell, none of the merchants were local or French, most things were pre-made and not fresh ingredients with which to cook, and everything was expensive, that is if you think $8.95 for a ball of mozzarella and $4.00 for a dozen or so garlic scapes is pricey. I do. And unless you were having pizza or pickle sandwiches for dinner, you could not make a full meal by shopping at this market.
Mostly I was bothered by the silly faux branding. Why "French?" Has it come to this that a nice bunch of people in the food business can't gather to sell their wares without a brand -- especially one that is so obviously contrived? What we love about our Greenmarkets, or if you get to shop at a farmer's market in France, is that you can get very close to where our food actually comes from and every time we shop, we learn something. An authentic food culture doesn't need words like artisanal or "French" to let us know that our food merchants are committed to quality and flavor. The food and those who grow and make it will say it all.
The market will be held every Friday and Saturday between now and November 24. Maybe it will get better and become a good New York market, with or without anything French. But if you head there, you should also make a stop at the adjacent Chelsea Market (15th Street and 9th Avenue) where you'll find The Lobster Place, possibly NYC's best fish store, Amy's Bread (one of our best bread bakeries), and Manhattan Fruit Exchange for a big selection of organic and conventional produce at good prices.
And for a truly great New York market experience, don't forget New Amsterdam Market, held on Sundays right through November. Check out their Regional Food Events, including Ice Cream Sunday on August 19 and Tomato Festival on August 26. See their website below or more details.
I met Nora Ephron once, which is not to say I knew her. The circumstances of my meeting her don't really matter, but it was enough for me to have her sign my paperback copy of her novel -- or as I liked to think of it, her true crime book -- Heartburn. I keep it among my cookbooks, both for its recipes, as well as for knowing that she, with such a full and demanding and creative life, always cooked and always loved food.
Many of you probably did as I when I heard the news that she was gone. I gasped. And then I was very sad. I pulled down my faded copy of Heartburn, and it fell open to page 128 where her recipe for Linguine alla Cecca was written. I've made this so often -- every summer as soon as New Jersey tomatoes arrive -- I had forgotten I learned it from her:
It's a hot pasta with a cold tomato and basil sauce, and it's so light and delicate that it's almost like eating a salad. It has to be made in the summer, when tomatoes are fresh. Drop 5 large tomatoes into boiling water for one full minute. Peel and seed and chop. Put into a large bowl with 1/2 cup olive oil, a garlic clove sliced in two, 1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, salt and hot red pepper flakes. Let sit for a couple of hours, then remove the garlic. Boil one pound of linguine, drain and toss with the cold tomato mixture. Serve immediately.
I turned to the book's first pages where along with Nora's inscription to me, she had drawn a little frying pan with a heart hovering above. It was exactly how I felt.