I love a good cobbler or crisp or pandowdy (yes, that is a thing), but when it’s July and a heat wave has descended, the last thing I want to do is turn my oven on. If someone else wants to turn on their oven and make any of the aforementioned desserts for me, then that would be wonderful (hint, hint); but I live in a house without air conditioning so turning on the oven on a July day is like wearing a bikini (from college that you dug out of a bag in the attic) when you take your kids to the town pool…not advisable.
So to prevent misery during the hazy days of summer, I make cold desserts, and the easiest of them all is berries and cream. Since we’ve entered the beginning of a long, glorious stretch of berries—strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries—there’s always something local at the market, or in a wild patch of bushes, that’s ready and willing to be combined with fresh whipped cream.
The original inspiration for this dessert (which is as basic as can be, but also elegant), is the communal whipped cream bowl at the ancient and wonderful restaurant Chez George in Paris, where they serve you frais de bois (tiny, ruby red, wild strawberries) in a bowl, along with a glass shaker of sugar and a giant bowl of wavy, thick, whipped cream, which arrives from the neighboring table after they’ve helped themselves to a generous scoop. It is heaven.
I do the same when I make cold berries for family and friends, but I like to toss the berries first in just a little sugar (I have done this recently with coconut sugar that my mom bough and it was very nice), a splash of lemon juice, and lemon zest, just to get their juices flowing. Then I whip the heavy cream with a tiny bit of vanilla. If I have creme fraiche I’ll use this instead which is more rich and tangy, closer to what they serve at Chez George.
Honestly, if it’s hot enough out, I might just skip dinner entirely and eat this instead. Why not? Also it’s so simple to prepare that even a kid or the cooking-adverse in your life can make it, so why not share this “recipe” with them and then sit back in your bikini with a good book and wait for the meal that you so justly deserve.
I’m going to skip the apologies regarding my abysmally spotty blog posting…no excuses except for the intrusions of life, cookbook writing, and the fam. Also, I’ve been writing this blog for so long that I guess the blog-hatching part of my brain needed a break; perhaps to get some distance and remember what it’s like to write because you WANT to, not because you HAVE to. Also I’m just intermittently inclined towards laziness so…yeah. There’s that.
But I have been busy in other ways. Besides chipping away at a follow-up to KEEPERS (more information will be dribbling to you over the next year or so!), I’ve also been in the kitchen and cooking a ton. Not just for recipe testing— although that takes up most of my energy— but also for luncheons, events, charitable functions. I love cooking for small groups because you learn a lot from the reaction you get from people who are not your relatives. Also, there’s something nurturing and civil about feeding folks in a more manageable setting, like someone’s house, instead of, say, the insane environment that is a restaurant (Sidenote: you must read the new novel SWEETBITTER, especially if you have ever worked as a server in a restaurant…it was scarily reminiscent of some of my own experiences working as a mildly abused but always entertained waitress in NYC, and I just tore through the sordid, heartbreaking, and beautifully written book…I think you will to).
Ok, back to what I was saying about being lazy and cooking for others… I’ve also been busy hosting something I call LUNCH CLUB, which is kind of exactly like it sounds. About 10 to 12 guests (a rotating list of friends, neighbors, acquaintances, friends of friends, local food lovers) come to my house and I make the lunch based on a menu that they know nothing about ahead of time, and that I prepare based on what is seasonal, what I’m testing for the cookbook, and what I’m just in the mood to cook.
Also, I try to make sure that every dish is “doable”, so that I can get it ready it without much trouble and also pass along the recipe afterwards and be sure anyone can make it themselves. Below are some photos taken of a recent lunch so you can see what I’ve been up to. It helps that one of the guests was my friend Erin Kiernan Frigerio , who also happens to be an amazingly talented professional photographer. So I’m wondering if this is something you might do? Host your own Lunch Club (and I guess this could also be a dinner club but there’s something about a daytime get-together that makes everyone feel relaxed and kind of European, like “look, we’re eating a lunch during the day, alongside other interesting people, at a table, and not with a plastic fork next to a keyboard and out of a plastic clamshell!). I highly recommend giving the concept it a whirl. And the requirements are simple:
-KEEP IT SIMPLE. And as seasonal as possible.
-Try to have a few items you can make in advance (example: salad dressings, cooked grains, marinated protein, dessert).
-Invite a group that is a mix of people you know and might like to get to know one another, try and avoid making up your table of an entire group that is already close friends. It’s nice to mix it up, have people make new connections and hear new stories.
-Ask if there are any dietary or allergic requirements but make it clear that they have to be ingredients that will really and truly make the guest feel unwell or sick, not just, “I’m not into lettuce.” The idea is to try new things!
-Have wine and sparkling water. Skip the cocktails. Although I served blood orange bellinis at one lunch and they were a big hit.
-Make the table pretty but skip the tablecloth (dry cleaning bill averted) and just give the wood a good shine. Pretty plates and flowers and handwritten place cards can be your focus.
-Eat with your guests!
-And have some disposable Tupperware on hand for leftovers…people really like that.
The other day, I had the pleasure of informally interviewing my favorite fishmonger. His name is Mark Drabich and he owns (what I consider) one of the best seafood operations in the northeast—Metropolitan Seafood– located in the most unlikely of places, a rural county in northern New Jersey, off a sleepy commercial highway. It’s also only about 50 miles from New York City, which is where Mark travels every morning at some godforsaken hour to pick out fish at the wholesale seafood market at Hunts Point in the Bronx (aka, the new Fulton Fish Market), alongside fishmongers and chefs from all over the New York City-metro area, including famed establishments like Per Se and Le Bernardin.
The best thing about hanging with Mark is not just that he feeds you lunch made in his shop’s take-out kitchen (on this occasion it was two soft tacos stuffed to bursting with delicately fried rock shrimp dressed with a spicy mayonnaise and pickled red onion and jalapeños…there may have also been a chaser of lobster bisque…), but being privy to his very deep knowledge on the topic of selecting, buying, and preparing fish. The man is a fish guru, with a growly voice and a good dose of Jersey bluster. My hope was to glean information for those of you who are still skittish in the fish department. Perhaps because good fish is expensive and you just don’t want to mess it up. Perhaps because you ate “bad” fish once and you’ve kept your distance ever since. Or maybe you just make the same fish the same way over and over and so are in dire need of some new ideas. If any of these descriptions sounds familiar, then here are 3 of my favorite takeaways from my fish chat which addresses all of these concerns:
- “If you walk into a fish store or by a fish counter and it smells “fishy”, turn around and walk away.” Fish should NOT smell fishy, it should smell clean. Same with the establishment selling the fish. Worse, if you get a whiff of an ammoniated smell, that’s the smell of decomposing fish…so when in doubt, remember, “the nose doesn’t lie!” Find yourself another vendor, and in the meantime, maybe buy a nice organic whole chicken for dinner instead.
- Wild-caught, sustainable fish is the ideal. But this may not always be in your price point, or readily available. So Mark says that almost as good is organic fish that is hormone and antibiotic free. The person selling you the fish should provide this information openly, “people are afraid to ask, but ask!”. What you DON’T want, EVER, is fish processed in China or farm-raised in Southeast Asia, where practices are not well regulated and pollution is rampant. Even frozen fish can be preferable to fresh fish that is not coming from the best place (I have bought some solid frozen cod and salmon from Trader Joe’s; wild caught Gulf shrimp is also a good bet).
- “Have an open mind” says Mark. Salmon, tilapia, shrimp, yada yada…all fine and good and kinda boring. But why not take a stroll past the under-appreciated fish section, where you’ll find terrific value and taste. Mark recommends varieties like skate, whitings, porgies, and sardines. Most can be cooked simply: Season all over with salt and pepper, dust with flour, cook in a hot skillet skimmed with olive oil, flip and baste with butter and lemon juice, serve with chopped parsley and the pan-juices on top. I did exactly this after Mark convinced me on an earlier visit to buy some large, cleaned sardines he had gotten in (so these don’t resemble the ones you find in dusty can in the back of your aunt’s pantry, but the larger, fresh variety). I went home, made them exactly as described above, and they were complete HEAVEN. I’ve been a sardine convert ever since. I’ve also done the same with Spanish Mackerel, which has a wonderful flavor and now whenever I see it at the store, I have to buy it.
Thanks again to Mark for all the solid wisdom (side note: the salmon pictured above is a side of organic salmon I purchased at Metropolitan that I prepared KEEPERS style, roasted in the oven with slices of lemon on top and a flurry of herbs to finish it off. Check out the recipe for one of the simplest and most satisfying fish recipes you can make; and I highly recommend making an entire side (which will be about 3-4 pounds depending), which is wonderful as a dinner party dish, or because you can use the leftovers the next day for KEEPERS Expat Fried Rice (a major reader favorite), or just flaked and gently tossed into a bowl of soba noodles with ponzu sauce for a tasty lunch.
When I opened my mail the other day, I was beyond excited to find, not yet another Land’s End catalog, but this new, beautiful cookbook from Chronicle Books:
If the artful stack of grilled cheese sandwiches oozing deliciousness doesn’t hook you, then the recipes will; which include not only recipes for classic and less traditional grilled cheese sandwiches (like open-faced tuna melts, avocado-grilled cheese on sourdough bread, Moroccan chicken pita grilled cheese, and a green egg and ham grilled cheese),but also soups, salads, pickles, and even a grilled cheese inspired macaroni and cheese recipe. Heaven, right?
The book was written by the husband and wife behind the book’s namesake restaurant in San Francisco (side note: people who live in San Francisco are just completely spoiled in the food department). They clearly have a gift for grilled cheese because they’ve apparently won a gazillion awards at the Grilled Cheese Invitational (yes, there is a contest for best grilled cheese…why have I not yet been invited?)
The lovely people at Chronicle have been kind enough to let me share one of my favorite recipes so far: Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese served with an Apricot-Jalapeño Relish. Jalapeño poppers are a guilty pleasure of mine (I can’t pass them up if I see them on a menu and I once made so many for a party that I had to sleep with my hands inside of two ice-cold washcloths because they burned for hours from handling all the peppers), and so this version satisfies everything that makes that dish irresistible–spicy, gooey, tangy, crunchy.
See below for the recipe and make sure you check out the book (it would make a terrific college graduation gift for the youngster who’s destined to subsist on melted cheese and bread for the next few years).
Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese
The Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese really should be called “The Scout.” One night while recipe testing, Nate and I fed our friend Scout—who was also the very first customer at our restaurant—a goat cheese and Jack grilled cheese. Scout’s response: “This is good, but can I put some jalapeños on it?” Thus it dawned on us that the jalapeño popper, that mainstay of sports bars everywhere, was a perfect candidate for grilled cheesification.
1½ tsp salted butter, room temperature
2 slices rustic artisan bread such as levain, sourdough, or white
1 Tbsp fresh chèvre (goat cheese), at room temperature
1 slice Monterey Jack cheese
¼ cup [55 g] Apricot-Jalapeño Relish
2 strips thick-sliced bacon, cooked until crisp and drained
1) Heat a cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-low heat.
2) Spread the butter on one side of each bread slice, dividing it evenly. Place both slices, buttered-side down, on a clean cutting board. Spread the chèvre on one slice and place the Jack on the other. Carefully spread the relish on top of the Jack and place the bacon on top of the relish. Finish with the second slice of bread, chèvre-side down.
3) Using a wide spatula, place the sandwich in the pan, cover, and cook until the bottom is nicely browned, about 3 minutes. Turn and cook until the second side is browned and the cheese is melted, about 3 minutes longer.
4) Cut the sandwich in half, if desired, and serve immediately.
Makes about 2½ cups[455 g]
Everyone loves this relish so much in our Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese and Breakfast Popper Grilled Cheese (page 25), we started selling it by the jar in our shops. The chunky texture and sweet-hot flavor is just right for burgers, roast pork loin, or grilled chicken. Make an easy canapé by topping crackers with a dollop of chèvre and a spoonful of relish. To make it extra spicy, add a finely chopped habanero chile to the mix.
4 medium jalapeño chiles, seeded and cut into ¼in [6mm] dice
2 small serrano chiles, seeded and cut into ¼in [6mm] dice
½ small white onion, cut into ¼in [6mm] dice
2 cups [240 g] dried apricots, cut into ¼in [6mm] dice
1½ Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp peeled and grated fresh ginger, or 1 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp kosher salt
1½ tsp dry mustard powder
1) In a medium glass or plastic bowl, combine all the chiles, the onion, apricots, vinegar, lime juice, ginger, salt, and mustard powder and stir to mix thoroughly. Pack the relish into glass canning jars or plastic storage containers and cover tightly.
2) Refrigerate overnight to allow the flavors to blend before serving. Consume within 3 weeks.
A wave of arctic chill has begun to blow into the Northeast on this holiday weekend; but I don’t care, because it means I get to stay inside with the fam and the dogs, and make two of my favorite things: Chocolate Mousse (for Valentine’s Day tomorrow, I’m using the recipe from the Buvette cookbook) and Stromboli.
If you’re not familiar with the baked, cheesy delight that is the stromboli, it’s basically what happens when you take a pizza and roll it up. Or think of it as a first cousin to the calzone. Rather than folded, the fillings are layered and rolled into a savory strudel of sorts.
I’m still working on perfecting my stromboli—how to make it so that the fillings are even and fairly displaced, the crust stays crusty and tender (not mushy), the sauce is super-flavorful, and it doesn’t all turn into a hot mess while baking. But honestly, even when it is a hot mess, it’s pretty darn good. I urge you to try making one at home. All you need is a store-bought pizza dough (unless you’re a rock star and want to make your own), bring it to room temp, gently stretch it out on a floured surface until it’s approximately the size of a baking sheet, lay it on a parchment-lined baking sheet and shape it more or less into a rectangle, and then start layering. I recommend crushed tomatoes, grated pecorino, fresh mozzarella, salami, and basil. Roll it carefully, brush with an egg-wash, and bake for 20 minutes at 450 degrees.
Most important is to let it cool for a bit before cutting your first slice (the fillings need to set or they will all just ooze out). It actually tastes terrific at room temp (so also good for slicing and taking on the go if you insist on going outside to experience the thrill of subzero wind chill and frostbite).
Enjoy…and Happy Valentine’s Day!