Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Early Summer Orzo

I wish I had a great story behind this dish since I love it so much. But in truth, it evolved over several years, and I can't really pinpoint its beginning. I do remember a meal at which there was a dish of summer squash with almonds and there was an orzo salad, and when I came home, having the recipe for neither, I decided to combine them.

In any case, what I ended up with has become one of my favorite summer dishes. It's not that you couldn't make it well at other times of the year; it's just that it's especially good during that sweet spot of early summer when there are fresh peas and corn on the cob and the first zucchini that have not yet reached baseball bat proportions.

There is a certain amount of prep work involved in this, between shelling the peas and husking the corn and dicing the rest of the vegetables, but it's totally worth it. (Fortunately, I'm listening to the new PD James mystery--The Private Patient--on my iPod, which helped keep dicing tedium at bay.) And the recipe is flexible enough to accommodate a range of vegetables, though stay away from anything like a tomato that would fall apart--this is a dish whose pleasure derives from tiny, intact pieces of tasty things all melded together. I happen to like it with a combination of yellow and green vegetables (I make an exception for the red onion). There are two keys--one is that all the vegetables should be approximately the same size. (That is, the size of a pea or a kernel of corn.) And you have to add the orzo to the vegetables rather than the other way around. This isn't orzo with vegetables--the orzo is integrated into the vegetables so that it's a part of the whole rather than the base.

My basic routine is this. Dice the red onion and start to cook in some olive oil. Throw in some minced garlic, if you like. Once it starts to soften, add the diced zucchini or summer squash. (For my latest batch, I used one of each.) Husk the corn and cut off the kernels, then add those to the other vegetables. Add the peas last. In the meantime, cook the orzo. (Because orzo is so small, it's deceptive how much you need. The last time I made it, I used half a box which was way too much--that turned out to be enough for 1 small batch and 1 large batch, with some leftover. The flip side is that it's just as easy to add leftover orzo as fresh. Just make sure you add it while the vegetables are still in the pan so it heats up. When I'm using just-cooked orzo, I mix it in the serving bowl.) If you like, you can also add some toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds. I also add any fresh herbs I have around--basil definitely works, as do chives. When the vegetables are tender but not mushy (and the peas still bright green) and the orzo is drained, slowly begin to add the orzo to the vegetables. The orzo should flesh out the vegetables but not overwhelm it. Here's my pan of vegetables:

And here's the pan of vegetables with the orzo added:

Sprinkle with some grated Parmesan, and dinner is ready. Don't hesitate to make a lot because it is excellent re-heated for lunch.

Because of the recipe's flexibility, it's hard to pin down exactly what you need. I didn't measure my peas, for example and just used all the peas I'd picked from the garden. The orzo would have been just as good with more peas and still fine with fewer peas. Exact amounts are less important here than with other dishes. You're just looking for a certain balance and no one thing or flavor dominating. I'm including these quantities to use as a guide and adapt at will.

Early Summer Orzo

1 medium red onion, diced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
2 small zucchini or summer squash, diced
3 ears of fresh corn, husked and the corn cut off the cob
1 - 1 1/2 cups fresh shell peas, removed from the pod
1 tbsp. olive oil
1/4 - 1/3 cup pine nuts or slivered almonds (or a combo of both), toasted

1 cup cooked orzo (very approximate--see above)
fresh herbs (basil, parsley, chives, etc), to taste, chopped finely
grated Parmesan cheese, to taste

salt and pepper, to taste

  1. Saute red onion in olive oil until soft.
  2. Add diced squash; cook until it begins to shrink and soften
  3. Add corn kernels, cook for several minutes
  4. Add peas
  5. Add pine nuts/almonds
  6. Add herbs
  7. Remove from heat and begin to add orzo, a few tablespoons at a time until integrated. It is better to have not quite enough orzo than too much.
  8. Season with salt and pepper to taste
  9. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan

Serves 4, approximately, depending on how hungry you are and what else is being served.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Old Favorites: Southwest Salad with Black Beans and Corn

There was a time that I cooked many of my meals from Mollie Katzen's third cookbook, Still Life with Menu. That time was long ago, it's true, and vegetarian cookbooks have multiplied exponentially since then, but I still have a soft spot for Mollie. The spinach soup in the original Moosewood, for example, remains my standard spinach soup, and the quiche formula in The Enchanted Broccoli Forest helped me reacquaint myself with quiche proportions after many years of not making them.

I have even more favorites, all these years later, from Still Life with Menu--the summer fruit crumble, the challah, the Mediterranean lentil salad and this black bean and corn salad, to name a few. The crumble I make frequently, of course, but the rest not so much, and after having made this black bean salad recently, I wonder why. I certainly never hesitated before--the page is splattered and well-used, but that could also be because the recipe opposite is for chocolate chip mint cookies, which I haven't made in years but now have a craving for. (Mollie is right when she says they're worth buying a bottle of peppermint extract for.)

The other night, I became somewhat overambitious when cooking for a work party--there was ginger ice cream (truly fabulous) and homemade ginger snaps to crumble into the ice cream (making it even more fabulous), and then there were chocolate-coconut macaroons to use up all those egg whites leftover from the ice cream (which required 5 egg yolks in addition to the 2 cups of half and half and one cup of heavy cream--I told you it was fabulous). But in the midst of my sweet-making frenzy, I had the sense to make a batch of this salad.

Over the years I've made many different variations of this, but there was something satisfying about returning to the original after all these years. I soaked the beans the night before I made it and used fresh corn. (I wouldn't hesitate about this later in the summer, but it's on the early end of corn season now.) I skipped frying the tortillas, figuring that there would chips for scooping at the party, but otherwise, I followed Mollie's instructions and suddenly remembered why this was one of my standard pot luck dishes for years--It's savory and tasty and satisfying and makes excellent leftovers. It was good enough that I'm planning to re-visit Still Life With Menu and see what other gems I may have forgotten about. In the meantime, even though the ice cream and macaroons are long gone, I'm glad that there's a tiny bit of Southwest Salad left in the fridge, waiting for the evening I come home starving and need something filling and delicious and already made. I won't wait nearly so long to make it again.

Southwest Salad
with Black Beans and Corn

From Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu

2 cups dried black beans
2 cups cooked corn
2 to 3 medium-sized cloves garlic, finely minced
A heaping 1/2 cup well-minced red onion (I just used one small red onion.)
1 medium-sized red bell pepper, minced
1 medium-sized carrot, minced (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 - 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (plus an optional 1 to 2 tablespoons for the tortillas) (I used the lesser amount and didn't miss the rest.)
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (3 to 4 limes)
2 to 3 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
2 teaspoon crushed red pepper(adjust this to your taste)
A moderate amount of freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 corn tortillas (optional)

Soak the beans for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight. Drain off any excess soaking water, place the soaked beans in a soup pot, and cover with fresh water. Bring just to a boil, then cover and turn the heat way down. Cook at a very slow simmer—with no agitation in the water—until the beans are tender. This should take 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours. Check intermittently to be sure there is enough water, and add more if necessary. When the beans are cooked, drain them well. Then rinse them thoroughly in cold water, and drain them well again.

In a large bowl, combine beans, cooked corn, minced garlic, red onion, bell pepper, optional carrot, salt, 1/2 cup olive oil, and lime juice.

Roast the whole cumin seeds, either in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat, stirring for several minutes, or very carefully in a toaster oven. Add the toasted seeds to the salad, along with the cilantro, parsley, basil, and red and black pepper, and mix thoroughly but gently.

Lightly brush both sides of each tortilla with olive oil, and cut the tortillas into strips approximately 1/4 inch wide and 1-1/2 inches long. Cook the strips slightly by toasting them in an oven (350 degrees) or a toaster oven for only about 2 minutes, or in a heavy skillet over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Ideally, they should be partly crispy and partly chewy. Stir these into the salad shortly before serving, or, if you prefer, scatter them on top as a garnish.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Modern Spice Virtual Dinner Party: Pan-fried Zucchini and Yellow Squash with Cumin

Early on in May, I wrote about the lovely chickpea crepe recipe from Monica Bhide's new cookbook, Modern Spice. Now, I'm happy to have another opportunity to talk about another one of Monica's recipes.

Today is the Modern Spice Virtual Dinner Party, in which 25 bloggers from the around the world cooked dishes from Modern Spice, all of which are posted on Monica's website, A Life of Spice. (Just looking at the list and all the photos makes me hungry.)

My contribution was the Pan-fried Zucchini and Yellow Squash with Cumin:

What I liked about this was that it reminded me that a quick side dish can still have a lot of zip to it. This recipe is easy, tasty and adaptable, not to mention healthy. I think it would be lovely with fish or as part of a larger vegetarian meal. Now that I've made it once according to the recipe, I'm looking forward to playing with it--trying it with mustard seeds, for example, or adding some onion and garlic. It's lovely as is, though, and a great way to use summer vegetables (especially if you were overenthusiastic in your zucchini planting).

Pan-Fried Zucchini and Yellow Squash with Cumin

Monica writes, "This has got to be one of my favorite Monday night recipes, because it’s so simple and quick. You can vary the taste by changing the spice from cumin to coriander or mustard seeds. I don’t peel the zucchini but you can if you prefer."

Serves 4
Prep/Cook time: 15 minutes

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1⁄2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 large zucchini, diced
1 small yellow squash, diced
1⁄2 organic red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1⁄2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1⁄2 teaspoon red chile flakes
Table salt
1⁄2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds. When the seeds begin to sizzle, add the zucchini, squash, and bell pepper.
2. Fry the vegetables over high heat until they soften and begin to brown, 8 to 9 minutes.
3. Add the turmeric and chile flakes and cook for another minute, until the spices are well mixed with the vegetables. Stir in salt to taste.
4. Serve hot, sprinkled with lemon juice and garnished with cilantro.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Strawberry Ice Cream Love

For the first time in many years, I'm in possession of a functioning ice cream maker. My friend Annie gave me a little Donvier ice cream maker for my birthday while I was in graduate school--a present she was justifiably pleased with herself for thinking of. (For months before my birthday, she would say, at random moments, "I know what I'm getting you for your birthday," and then laugh. Only when it arrived did I understand.) I made countless batches of ice cream in the Donvier (some with my friend Sarah Hart, who now has become an expert in all things sweet and especially chocolatey. If you're ever in Portland, OR, don't miss her store, Alma Chocolate. Annie (again wisely) sent me some of Sarah's sweets for my birthday a few years ago, and I'm still thinking of the Ginger Almond Toffee.)

Eventually, though, the part of the Donvier that was supposed to stay frozen stopped freezing, and the possibility of homemade ice cream went away. I'm not sure why it took me so long to realize that KitchenAid made an ice cream maker attachment for its mixer. I've had a KitchenAid mixer for 6 or 7 years now--why didn't I know that sooner? In any case, I know it now, and last week, my ice cream maker attachment arrived.

I didn't have to debate what my inaugural batch of ice cream would be. It so happens that, nearly every night, Alex says, at some point, "I want some strawberry ice cream." And it also so happens that he has a June birthday. Since I never get him strawberry ice cream when he has his nightly ice cream cravings, I thought it was the least I could do for his birthday. I started looking up ice cream recipes online and immediately found references to David Lebovitz's book The Perfect Scoop. It turned out that the Northampton library had it on the shelves, so I went to fetch it with dispatch. What a book. Immediately, I found many, many ice cream flavors I wanted to try. (And it turns out that David Lebovitz's website is even more tempting since it has recipes for baked goods as well.)

But for Alex's birthday, strawberry it was. I made one adaptation and made the strawberry-sour cream ice cream with yogurt instead, which, I believe, makes it strawberry yogurt ice cream. Of course, I will have to try it with sour cream for comparison's sake, but I don't think the yogurt version was lacking anything.

My garden is producing small numbers of lovely strawberries these days (when the birds and/or slugs don't get to them first), but I needed a pound for this recipe, so I bought a quart of local berries. The first step is to slice them and mix with sugar and a bit of alcohol.

Then add the yogurt or sour cream and then the heavy cream:

Then whir it up in the blender (I used my immersion blender right in the bowl) until it looks like a most delectable strawberry ice cream shake:

After that chills for an hour in the fridge, you let the ice cream maker do its thing. The results are sure to please even the most ardent strawberry ice cream fan:

As for me, I'm pondering the flavor possibilities for Fridays' work picnic. Ginger? Ginger with ginger snaps? Coconut? The possibilities are many, and I look forward to contemplating them all. I do think it's fortunate that the freezer bowl requires 18 hours in the freezer between batches. Otherwise, it would be ice cream all the time here, which, while delicious, might also be dangerous. There's a long summer ahead of us, and plenty of time for ice cream.

Strawberry Yogurt Ice Cream
adapted from David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop

(Makes about 1 1/4 quarts)

1lb fresh strawberries, rinsed and hulled
3/4 cup sugar
1tbs vodka or kirsch (I used Absolut Citron, which was all I had)
1 cup whole milk yogurt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp fresh squeezed lemon juice

1. Slice strawberries and toss in a bowl with sugar and vodka, stirring until sugar begins to dissolve. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour, stirring every so often.

2. Pulse the strawberries and their liquid with sour cream, heavy cream, and lemon juice in a blender or food processor until almost smooth but still slightly chunky.

3. Refrigerate for 1 hour, then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


So, yesterday I mowed the lawn, as I do on occasion in the summer. Usually, I give the area next to the cottage a pretty cursory going over, but yesterday I was more thorough, mowing around the old tree several times and up and down next to the path.

This morning, when I woke up, this is what I saw:

When I went up to inspect, it was even more dramatic:

I am somewhat convinced that it was only the tall grass around the tree that was keeping it upright, and once I mowed it down, the tree lost all its magic powers of survival and had no choice but to topple over.

Or maybe the tree was just dead. (While there wasn't excessive wind last night, there was a lot of rain, on top of a lot of rain a few days ago, and it's generally pretty soggy up there anyway.)

In any case, it was the best possible scenario if a tree has to fall down in the middle of the night. It didn't fall in the direction of the cottage and, almost miraculously, it didn't even wake anyone up, including the tenant who says he is a light sleeper.

And Alex and his chainsaw came to the rescue, so by late in the afternoon, the accident zone was peaceful again:

That is now the third dead tree on my property that's gone in the past few years--the birch tree in the garden I wrote about at the beginning of the blogathon, a second birch tree on the way up to the cottage (that Alex basically just pulled over with his bare hands a few weeks later) and this one. Since I'm a believer in things happening in threes, I'm hoping this means that all of my remaining trees will stay put for awhile.

In the meantime, maybe the pretty Japanese maple that was hidden behind the tree that's now gone will have more room to flourish:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Farewell, old blue chair

Okay, admittedly, the old blue chair hasn't gone very far yet--it's just a few feet away in the dining room. But the chair's days are numbered in my house, and it's served me so long and so well that it deserves a proper send off.

The chair came from my grandparents' house and was one of a pair, along with a matching couch (I believe), all covered in the same godawful mustard yellow paisley. When I came back from India in 1995 and (eventually) had a place to live but no furniture, I took most of my furniture from my grandparents' house, including one of the mustard yellow paisley chairs. It was ugly, but it was comfortable, and for my first two years in Northampton, it was my favorite place to sit.

In the summer of 1997, when I went back to India for the first time since my Fulbright, I had a brainstorm: I would have a slipcover made for the chair so that the mustard yellow paisley could be retired. Just in time, my mother gave me a key piece of information: the mustard yellow paisley was itself a slipcover. (Grandma and Grandpa, what could you possibly have been thinking?) I peeled it off, stuck it into my bag and brought it with me to India. Towards the end of my stay, I brought the slipcover to Fabindia, and with the help of my friend Ratna, I found material that I liked and arranged with a tailor to have the slipcover copied. (This was before the days of Pitumbar the Wonder Tailor, Sunil's discovery, who's made most everything I've had sewn for nearly ten years.) Within 48 hours, my slipcover was finished. The cost, for material and stitching: approximately $55.

The chair had a new lease on life. The yellow paisley stayed behind in India, and the blue slipcover came home with me. The chair suddenly looked fabulous, and I loved it more than ever.

And so the years passed, and the chair moved upstairs to a new apartment with me and then to my house, where it's served as a seat for humans and felines both. Alas, the springs began to go, and for the past few years, the felines have sat in it much more frequently than the humans. I began to contemplate its eventual retirement.

A fortuitous confluence of events made this possible. Exactly 30 years have now passed since my 1979 bat mitzvah, and the little pile of savings bonds given to me as gifts then now were worth a tidy sum, nearly enough, in fact, for a chair and ottoman. And Keith Woodruff at KW Home in downtown Easthampton just happened to be having his big spring sale, which brought the chair and fabric I wanted down to a reasonable price. (I was going to buy it from him anyway, but he sealed the deal when he offered to deliver it for free because I live so close to the store.)

This morning, Keith drove the chair and ottoman over, and I installed them in the living room. The living room went from looking like this:

To looking like this:

It's quite a change. It's going to take a bit of getting used to, but the chair (the Robin Bruce Drake chair) is fabulously comfortable and very handsome. It's given the poor blue chair quite an inferiority complex already.

(Looking at these photos, taken 2 1/2 years apart makes me notice several things. One is that my much-loved couch no longer looks new, alas. The other is that my fig tree looks vastly improved. I still feel bad about this, as the fig tree was lovely right before I moved, and I promised it that it would be so much happier once we were in a place with higher ceilings. Unfortunately, there was a bad winter storm on moving day, and--foreshadowing future events--the truck couldn't make it up the driveway. The fig tree (and several other plants that had been too big for me to move by car) got left in the moving truck longer than expected and got frozen. It wasn't clear the fig tree would survive (and since it's a cutting of a fig tree I had in grad school that I then drove across country with me in 1993, I would have been very sad if the move had killed it), and it sat in my living room looking dead all that winter. (Alex kept saying it was scaring the other plants.) But 6 months later, once it was warm out again, the fig tree eventually recovered except that it sprouted all of its branches in bunches on one side and looked very lopsided and strange. But a year or so ago, it finally began growing vertically again, and this spring, for the first time since its close call, the fig tree reached the ceiling again, and just a few weeks ago I gave it a trim. Still, it's a bit sensitive.)

Anyway, at the moment, the cats are scared of the new chair. Alex suggested that perhaps they think it's like an upholstered boa constrictor that might swallow them up. And they have been paying the old chair in its temporary spot much attention (as the chair is next to a bookcase whose shelves they've never had access to before). I hope that will help it ease into retirement gracefully. Clearly, I can't give the chair a gold watch for all its years of faithful service, so this testimonial will have to suffice.

Monday, June 8, 2009


I have friends who live in places where peonies don't grow who talk of having peony envy. I am grateful that I don't have to have peony envy, as I have 1 peony in each garden, both inherited.

I am also grateful that we didn't have an early June heatwave this year. Last year at exactly this time, we had a blast of heat that I didn't like and the plants didn't like either. The pink peony went from unopen to too open practically overnight, and the peas wilted in the heat and gave up the ghost. So I am definitely grateful for this year's more temperate weather. It is very dry at the moment, but we're supposed to have showers off and on all week, so that should help.

I love both peonies, the pink for its cheer, the white for its subtlety and elegance. I am always torn about cutting them--the buds are so lovely on the plants that I don't want to take them away, but they come and go so quickly. They really are ephemeral.

Meanwhile, I was delighted to see my first peapods today. I saw blossoms but no pods on Saturday, but today--definitely pods.

I planted two different kinds of shell peas (one on either side of the pea fence). I used to grow a mix of shell peas and snap peas, but it became clear to me that I'm much fonder of the shell peas (even with the shelling), and they're such a brief treat that I might as well have more of the kind I like more. I should point out that there aren't any peas in the pods yet, but I hope there will be in a few days. (Two colleagues at work have peas already--one had eaten 4 peas the day before, and the other had eaten 12. (It's the small pleasures, I know.) But they both planted their peas before I did.) I eat many of my peas while standing next to the pea fence in the garden, but there are a couple of things I like to make with them, and this year, there's a new recipe I want to try. (It's an Indian pea dish that my former colleague Bantu's wife made when I was there in January, and it was so good that I made her dictate the recipe to me while she was still cooking.)

In other exciting garden news, the first two ripe strawberries have appeared . . . and had already been nibbled on by the birds by the time I found them. Now begins the annual strawberry tussle as well as the more enjoyable morning strawberry walks in the garden. I am a bit alarmed, however, because I've spotted two little rabbits near the garden quite recently. Neither was actually in the garden itself, but it's only a matter of time, once they're in the vicinity.

It's a nice time of year in the garden--almost everything is planted, the weeds haven't taken over yet, and there's still a feeling of anticipation. I'll like it even more once I too can eat 12 peas and a strawberry that the birds haven't gotten to first.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Yogurt-related Drive-by

I have another post in the works, but for the moment, I just wanted to say that there's an interesting piece on yogurt over on the Atlantic Food Channel. The piece is by none other than Aglaia Kremezi, who Vera Marie Badertscher wrote about a couple of weeks ago in her guest post here, and begins with the enticing sentence, "Summer afternoons, under the shade of our fig tree . . . " There's also a little slide show, narrated by Kremezi, and several recipes, including this yogurt and almond cake with lemon syrup that sounds quite appealing. (The others, especially the salad with yogurt, spinach, parsley and walnuts--which seems to be eaten more as a spread than as a salad--also sound good.)

My third batch of yogurt was not quite as good as the first two (I think I let the milk cool off a bit too much before I added the starter), but reading this piece makes me want to try again. Maybe this weekend . . . And if not then, I'm still a week or two away from having ripe strawberries in my garden, but there's no doubt that I'll need to have some homemade yogurt on hand once they're ready.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Summer Reading

This past Sunday, the New York Times Book Review had its annual special "Summer Reading" issue. I always like the Summer Reading issue--there's a long cookbook review and gardening review and travel review--all things I like to read about. And sometimes--though not this year--they have special features.

Every year, when the Summer Reading issue comes out, I hope there will be something as memorable as there was on June 11, 1989, when they had a feature called "Anywhere, With the Best of Company," in which "The Book Review asked several writers what character (or characters) in fiction or history they would most like to travel with, and why." The one that has stayed with me for all these years, and which I can still quote from, was by Roy Blount Jr. who, otherwise, I mostly think of as a participant on Wait wait . . . Don't Tell Me.

Somewhere, in a file tucked away, I have the yellowed and crumbling original, or perhaps a photocopy of the original, which had a place of honor on my wall in Delhi and in Eugene and even Northampton. If I were a more organized person, and one with a scanner, I'd put that here as a visual. But I'm not, and I don't, so the words themselves will have to do.

I would like to buy Emily Dickinson a pair of sunglasses and drive around America with her. We'd make our way from Amherst, Mass., to the Mississippi delta, where we'd eat greens and butter beans and sweet, crunchy fried fish and whatever else we wanted at a place called the Booga Bottom Store, and then leisurely work on up through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, singing with the radio, and at some point I'd cut a little look over at her and say, ''So how about this, then?'' and she - on whom, as Henry James said, nothing was lost - would glance back sidelong and say delicately, definitely, For each ecstatic instant We must an anguish pay In keen and quivering ratio To the ecstasy.

And I'd say, ''Yeah, but Emily. Hey.''

She'd be looking off to the left at the cliffs and the sunset. And a light rain would start to fall, and I'd switch on the wipers, and they'd be slapping time to Ray Charles singing ''What'd I Say?'' Baby I wanna know . . . Baby I wanna know right now. . . .

And she wouldn't say anything for a while. Then I'd look directly over at her and say, ''Hey.''

And she would grin.