Monday, December 2, 2013

Blogging Here and There

Okay, so clearly I haven't been blogging here in quite awhile. I'm still not ready, though, to call this blog defunct.  Maybe on a temporary hiatus.

But I wanted to let you know that I have been blogging and writing elsewhere. 

First, and hot off the press, I wrote another piece for Bloom about another little known Barbara.  (I've decided that's my Bloom niche--writers named Barbara who are well known in their own countries and nearly unknown here.)  First, it was Barbara Trapido.  Today, it was Barbara Anderson, a writer from New Zealand who started writing in her 60s and published 11 books in the next 20 years. 

Barbara Anderson, Unavoidably Detained

Even though this blog has been silent, for the past few months, I've been blogging weekly for the Hampshire College Food, Farm and Sustainability program.  My job was to collect a CSA share from the Hampshire Farm every week and then cook with the produce.  Lucky me! I had a great time, and there's a whole range of recipes over there, from Nigel Slater's Chocolate-Beet Cake to yummy Sri Lankan Butternut Curry and many more.  There will be a few more holiday posts up in the next few weeks, so keep your eye out for them.  (This week, I am taking a wee break. Even though I was not primarily responsible for the food at either of the two Thanksgiving dinners I attended (thankfully not on the same day), I did make 3 desserts (dark chocolate tart, chocolate cream pie and Dorie Greenspan's All-in-One Holiday Bundt Cake), and I need a little breather.) 

A few other things.  I've had some assignments from Amherst magazine as well over the past few months.

There's the essay on crashing my 25th college reunion: The Reunion Crasher

And a book review of Jennifer Cody Epstein's lovely new novel: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

I have a few more newsy pieces in the current issue, including one about the guy who went from Russian major to Green Beret to med student.

So, here's my blogging goal here.  I leave for India on December 29.  It is my fervent hope that I will finish the post about the trip to Scotland Alex and I took . . . in May.  Yes, that's very lame, I realize, but so be it. 

And in the meantime, Happy December!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Barbara Trapido Appreciation Week

I should start this by saying that I am lame. Barbara Trapido Appreciation Week (not its official title) was actually last week, and I'm only getting around to reporting it now. 

I've written before about my great admiration for Trapido, a South African-born British novelist.  I wrote about her a few years ago in my post about re-reading, and I mentioned her as well in my post last fall about Laurie Colwin.  It turns out that I also write about her in a bigger way every 10 years (to the month!).  In 2003, I wrote about her for the very nice but short-lived Readerville Journal, for a column called "Ode to a Lesser Known Genius."  Trapido's agent was very helpful, and once the piece was out, I got a thank you message from Barbara Trapido herself, which thrilled me. 

In the decade since, Trapido has published 2 novels, the autobiographical Frankie and Stankie about Trapido's childhood in South Africa (which actually was coming out right when my article was published) and the 2010 Sex and Stravinsky, full of mismatched lovers, teenage daughters, a truly horrifying mother and the mysterious Jack.  (You'll have to read it to know what I mean.)   I have continued to remain an enormous fan and to wonder why she is so little known in the U.S.

So when Bloom--a cool new site focusing on writers who first published after the age of 40--asked if I was interested in writing a piece, I knew exactly who I wanted to write about.  (Trapido's first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, was published in 1982, when she was 41.)  

It was a lovely project.  I spent part of January re-reading four of Trapido's seven novels, the four that share a common set of characters.  It is a testament to her that I'd originally only intended to re-read two of them, but then I just couldn't help myself and kept (re-)reading.  (I'd read each of the four books at least twice previously, though not in the last ten years.)  It was a joy and a pleasure to be back in Trapido's world for that time.  

And last week, I also spent a delightful several hours on the phone with Barbara Trapido herself, just back from a literary festival in Mauritius (and truly a champ to agree to talk to me within hours of her return home to Oxford).  Our conversation was long and rambly and thoroughly enjoyable, and I hope we'll have the opportunity to talk again.  It's not often you get to gab so nicely with one of your favorite writers.  

So, even though Trapido was last week's feature author, and Bloom has moved on, I encourage you to go over to check the site out and participate in Barbara Trapido Appreciation Week--because it's never too late for appreciation!

The Joyful Mystery of Barbara Trapido

Interview with Barbara Trapido

(For a cool photo of Trapido a few years ago, scroll down a bit in this flickr set--she looks to me here the way her character Katherine Brown would look.  (Katherine was the narrator of Brother of the More Famous Jack and reappeared 20 years (and 4 books) later in The Travelling Hornplayer.  If we are lucky, we'll see her once more.  (But you'll have to read the interview to find out more!))

Monday, March 4, 2013

Meatless Mondays: March Forth for Mujaddara


March Forth!  Today is the only day of the year whose date is also a command, an exhortation, a rally cry.

There are many things I could march forth and do today--I did, in fact, march down to my compost pile, in snow boots but not in snow shoes, which is an improvement over a few weeks ago.  But I decided that I also needed to march forth and blog, and what I needed to blog about was mujaddara.

 It is hard, admittedly, to get very excited about cooking in early March.  The vegetables available are the same ones that have been available for months--i.e. vegetables in season in the southern hemisphere or those that can survive for months in a root cellar.  It's hard to cheer for chard or kale or even sweet potatoes in March.  March is that kind of month.

And it's still winter, of a sort.  I was skyping with my friend Sonia this morning, and she was exalting about the sun in Geneva and how she'd walked back to her house with no gloves on except when she was in a particularly shady bit.  I said that it was not not sunny here, and we agreed that was an improvement.  There are flashes of sun on this early March afternoon, and the sky is brighter than it's been in days.  But still, to get to the compost requires snow boots, and when I went for my Sunday run yesterday afternoon, I had to choose a route that avoided the bike path, which is still mostly snow-covered and slippery.  Then again, I didn't leave the house until almost 5 p.m., and that would have been unheard of even a month ago. So, spring is on its way, but it's most definitely not here yet.

And so, mujaddara--a 3 ingredient dish that is absolutely more than the sum of its parts.  It doesn't require any sad winter vegetables, although, of course, you could (and probably should) serve it with a vegetable on the side.  (I enjoyed mine last night with a bit of roasted sweet potato.)

I'm sure that there are as many versions of mujaddara as there are Middle Eastern grandmothers, but I have been making the Food 52 version for several years now and have found no reason yet to expand my horizons.  (The version in the new Ottalenghi Jerusalem cookbook might be that reason, but not quite yet.)  The ingredients are these: lentils, rice, onions.  There is also olive oil and butter, and there is salt, but that really is the sum total of the ingredients.  You boil the lentils, you cook the rice, you caramelize the onions and then you mix it all together and let it sit--for 15 minutes, for several hours, for a day.  What you will find is savory and a bit sweet from the onions and slightly salty and altogether delicious.  Rivka's Food 52 recipe adds a spiced yogurt, and many (though not all) of the commenters over there found that it made the dish for them.  Alas, it didn't for me.  I made the spiced yogurt the first time I made the dish but not since.  I may experiment with coming up with a spiced yogurt I like better, but in the meantime, I've been eating the mujaddara with plain yogurt from Side Hill Farm and enjoying every mouthful.

Last night, Alex and I were talking on the phone, and as soon as I said, "I made the mujaddara with caramelized onions," he said, "I'll be right over."  His reactions are not always that immediate.

What I love about this recipe is that it's simple--you can basically caramelize the onions while the lentils and rice are cooking, limiting your time at the stove--and delicious and easily adaptable.  If you or your guests are gluten-free, no problem.  Vegan--just swap out the butter with olive oil.  Vegetarian, easy.  Carnivorous--well, maybe then you'd serve it as a side, but still, it's a delicious one.

Soon enough, we'll be able to expand our winter repertoire to include  the earliest spring greens, asparagus, green garlic,  chives and more.  But in the meantime, as we wait March out (and entertain ourselves while doing so--it's Tournament of Books time again!), there is mujaddara, and that is at least some consolation. 


 Mujaddara (minus the spiced yogurt)
 (adapted from Rivka at Food 52)

Serves 4

  • 3/4 cups Puy lentils (aka French lentils, the tiny dark brown ones)
  • 1 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 1 cup jasmine rice
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 cups onions (about 3 medium onions), halved and thinly sliced

  1. Put lentils, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 4 cups water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer lentils until soft but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Drain lentils and set aside. 
  2.  At the same time, add rice, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 cups water to another pot, set over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Turn heat down and cover.  (My jasmine rice takes between 15-20 minutes to cook on very low heat.)  Remove lid and fluff with a fork. Set aside.
  3. While rice and lentils are cooking, set a wide, deep saute pan over medium-low heat and add butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil. When butter has mostly melted, add onions and toss to incorporate with butter and oil.
  4. After 5 minutes, onions will have softened slightly and started to release their liquid. Raise heat to medium and cook 10 to 12 minutes more, until onions are very soft and browned. Add water by the tablespoon if pan gets too dry or if onions start to stick. When onions are well browned, add last tablespoon of olive oil and raise heat to high. Cook another 3 to 4 minutes, until bottom layer of onions has charred and crisped; try not to stir too much, or onions won't crisp up. (Note: I never added the final tablespoon of oil, and it was still fine.)
  5. Combine rice, lentils, and most of the onions in large serving bowl and let sit for at least 15 minutes, to marry the flavors together. (This dish definitely improves with age.) Taste, and add more onions if desired.
  6. If mujaddara has cooled significantly, reheat in a low oven or even in the microwave for a couple minutes. To serve, plate a big scoop of mujaddara and top with a dollop of yogurt.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Eat More Kale Soup!

I think I'm going to skim right over how long it's been since I first started this post.  Let's just say that I believe it was in 2011.  That's right--not even last year, but the year before.  And then I'm also going to skim right over what a bad blogger I was in 2012.  It's a new year, 2013, and we're looking ahead.  So I'm going to first say Happy New Year to the five people who are still reading this, after my prolonged absence, and then I am going to tell you about one of the best ways to eat kale that I know of. (In the interests of honesty, I will also tell you that I made this linguine with kale and breadcrumbs from Food52 last night, and it was also delicious, but make the soup first!)

Remember Bo, the Eat More Kale guy?  He's the guy in Vermont selling "Eat More Kale" t-shirts who was told to cease and desist by Chik-fil-A because, according to them, "Eat more kale" trespassed on their copyright of "Eat Mor Chikin"?  This was in the news last winter--here's the New York Times story on it.  I googled to see what's been happening since, and one thing that's happened is that a documentary called "A Defiant Dude" is being made about Bo and his fight.

While I don't own my own Eat More Kale t-shirt, I have, in fact, been eating more kale, and that's because of this kale and potato soup.

Last fall, or perhaps the fall before that, a kale-growing colleague brought me a big bunch of kale.  I wasn't entirely sure what to do with it.  It's not that I don't like kale--it's more that I'd never cooked it regularly.  I poked around looking for recipes.  I was tempted by Molly's recipe at Orangette for Boiled Kale with a Fried Egg and Toast--I like almost anything if it includes an egg and toast--but it wasn't quite what I was in the mood for.  I decided, instead, to make kale soup.  I remembered that there is a Portuguese soup called caldo verde (green broth) with kale and potatoes in it, so I thought I'd make that.

Alas, I soon learned that traditional caldo verde also includes large quantities of pork sausage.  But since I had recently discovered that smoked paprika could add a nice smoky flavor to a vegetarian soup, I decided to experiment.  (Exhibit A in this category is the smoky minestrone with tortellini and parsley pesto, which remains a favorite.) I also had been making a lot of potato-leek soup, and I used that as another inspiration. 

I've made this soup over and over since then, and it's almost certainly true that I've never made it exactly the same way twice.  That's actually one of the great things about it--you can be flexible with the ingredients, and the soup will still be delicious.   As long as there is some kind of allium (onion, leek, shallot), some kind of potato, garlic, kale and smoked paprika, you will end up with delicious--and deliciously healthy--soup. 

You basically start as if you're making leek and potato soup, by sauteing leeks (and/or onions and/or shallots) in a bit of butter.  I usually put my first hit of smoked paprika in with the leeks or onions.  Then, you add diced, peeled potatoes and mix everything up.  Once the potatoes have had a few minutes to mix and meld with the leeks/onions, you add water.  Meanwhile, you're dealing with the kale. 

Kale can be kind of annoying to process--you need to cut out the tough stems and chop it thinly.  (In traditional caldo verde, the kale is sliced into ribbons, and the soup isn't pureed.  In my version, since I do puree it, it doesn't matter how thin the kale is sliced since it's all going to get ground up anyway in the blender. Still, thinner slices cook faster, so that's what I usually go with.) 

Then, you add the kale, which eventually cooks down. 

Once the potatoes and kale are both soft, you're basically done.  I like my kale and potato soup pureed, so at that point, I use my handy immersion blender and whirl it all up until it's a nice shade of green.  You could also put it through a food mill instead, if you were so inclined.

 At this point, you still have options.  I often add more smoked paprika, and I always season it with Maldon salt, which is another kitchen favorite.  (Really, I was never a believer in the power of good sea salt until I tried Maldon salt, and now I am never without it. It is especially good for finishing a dish and bringing the flavors out.)  Sometimes, I add a bit (maybe a few tablespoons) of half and half, which gives the soup a luxurious touch.  (It also mellows out the flavor of the kale in a nice way, which is especially helpful if you have kale-doubters at your table.) 

Last summer, for the first time, with this soup in mind, I decided to grow my own lacinato kale. (That's the dark kale, also called dino kale and Tuscan kale.)  Except, being the haphazard gardener that I am, I bought a six-pack of it in the spring, thinking I'd plant that so I'd have some while waiting for my seeds to grow.  But then, I didn't plant the six-pack or the seeds, and by late August, there was no kale at all in my garden.  But suddenly I discovered that the six-pack of kale was still alive.  Blessed, hearty kale.  So, I planted it in the garden, and it grew.  Not as huge as it would have been if I'd planted it earlier, but it still grew.  And at exactly the moment it was getting big enough to eat, tragedy struck.  I looked out my kitchen window one day in the fall to see how it was doing and learned that what it was doing was nourishing a deer.  The deer was gone by then, but so was the kale, every single last edible piece.

The thing with gardening, though, as it is with blogging, is that there is always another chance.  Summer will return, and hopefully before then, the urge to blog will return as well. (Maybe it even has already!)  And January, after all, is a good month for blogging and soup eating and dreaming of, if not exactly kale, then of gardens in which to plant it and deer who will find someone else's greens to munch on next summer.

Smoky Kale and Potato Soup

  • 3 large leeks (or 2 onions or several shallots or some combination thereof)
  • 2 large (or 3 small) cloves garlic, minced
  • 1-1 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 large bunch kale--I always use Lacinato, but other kinds should work
  • 1-2 tbsps. butter
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika (or more to taste)
  • 2-3 tbsp. half and half (optional)
  • Sea salt
  1. In a large soup pot, saute the white part of the leeks (and/or the onions or shallots) in the butter until soft but not brown.
  2.  Once the leeks are soft, add the garlic and continue to stir.
  3. Add 1 tsp. smoked paprika to the leeks and garlic and stir until coated.
  4.  Meanwhile, while leeks are cooking, peel and dice the potatoes.  Add to the leeks and garlic and cook for several minutes.  If anything starts to stick, you can add a bit of water now.
  5. Add approx. 2 quarts of water.
  6. Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer.
  7. Take out the tough ribs of the kale and chop the kale leaves finely.  (I usually do it in ribbons, even if I'm pureeing the soup.)
  8. Add the kale to the soup.
  9. Cook for approximately 20 minutes or as long as it takes for the potatoes to be soft (they should break up when you mash them against the edge of the pot).
  10. Puree the soup with an immersion blender or grind it up in a food mill (and return to the pot.)
  11. Salt to taste, ideally with Maldon salt, and season with additional smoked paprika to taste
  12. (Optional) Add several tablespoons of half and half (I never usually measure but use just a splash from the carton).
  13. Eat more kale and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On 20 years without Laurie Colwin

Photo by Nancy Crampton
 I still remember the day I found out.  I was living in Eugene, OR, then, in my last year in graduate school at the University of Oregon.  For some reason, a day or two earlier, I'd felt the need to re-read one of Laurie Colwin's books.  I can no longer remember which one.  Happy All The Time, perhaps, or The Lone Pilgrim?  All I know is that the book was sitting on the kitchen table, and I was eating lunch and reading the New York Times.  And there was Laurie Colwin's photograph.  I stared.  It didn't make sense.  This wasn't on the arts page or in the book review column.  It was an obituary.  Laurie Colwin dead of a heart attack at 48.  I was heartbroken.

It's been 20 years since Laurie Colwin died, and I still miss her.  I never met her.  This was not a personal loss, except that it was.  Colwin was my first favorite writer as an adult, the first one whose books I read over and over, the first one I turned to for comfort and sustenance, the first one I wanted to be like.  By the time she died, she'd published 4 novels, 2 books of short stories, one book of linked short stories and a book of food writing.  Posthumously, a fifth novel and a second collection of food writing were published.  She'd written for the New Yorker and Gourmet, for Mademoiselle and for Playboy.  She'd won prizes, received glowing reviews.  And yet she was not an intimidating writer at all. You suspected, if you met her, that you would just gab and gab, as if you were old friends.  At least you hoped you would.

Losing Colwin was like losing a friend, and I am certainly not the only one who felt that way.  Several months after her death, I read that there would be a memorial service at Symphony Space in New York City.  I would still be in Oregon--there was no way I could attend.  But my friend Bill--whose departure from Eugene the previous spring had briefly wrecked me--was in New York, and I was determined that he should go for me.  Alas, he didn't.  (And, it turns out, it was so packed that he may not have been able to get in!)  But a few months after that, the memorial service was played on WNYC radio, and Bill taped it for me and sent me the cassette.  (Yes, it was a different world 20 years ago.)  He said that listening to the service made him wish he had gone.  I didn't say, "I told you so." I just thanked him for the tape, which I listened to instantly.

Because this is now, and not 1992, I googled "Laurie Colwin memorial Symphony Space" to see what would turn up.  And what turned up was a special 2009 issue of the New Haven Review in which there was a Laurie Colwin tribute.  (The link opens a PDF file of it.)   A number of essays from the memorial service are reprinted, and I read them for the first time since I'd listened to them almost 20 years ago.  Deborah Eisenberg and Anna Quindlen both read excerpts of her work.  Willard Spiegelman, editor of The Southwest Review, spoke of winning the cha-cha contest with her at their 9th grade prom in Elkins Park, PA.  Colwin's friend, novelist Anna Shapiro, read excerpts of letters Colwin had written.  (Colwin died before the advent of email.  What would she have made of it?  Would she still have sent friends a series of canning labels pasted onto postcards, as one friend mentioned? I kind of hope she would have.)  But what I remembered most clearly was the contribution of Peter Smith, then dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University.   Smith had not known Colwin personally, but he had loved her books, and he was given the task of reading a few of the letters written to Colwin's husband and daughter after her death.  Because, it turns out, they received hundreds and hundreds of letters of condolence from Colwin's devoted readers, one of them from me.  My letter was not read at the memorial service, but more than anything, I was both heartened and humbled that so many other people were as stricken by Colwin's death as I had been, that so many people felt her loss so deeply. (For a more recent tribute to her, see this blog post.)

The original hardcover, 1978
The newest edition, 2010

 What remains, these 20 years later, are her books, all of which, amazingly, are still in print. (In his Washington Post essay on Colwin published in 2003, Jonathan Yardley points out how rare this is--and it is still true almost ten years later.)  And publishers, it seems, are still looking for a fiction writer who can match her combination of snappy dialogue, seemingly effortless prose, quick wit, a big heart.  Multiple times in the past 20 years, I've seen a new novel--a domestic comedy, perhaps, written by a woman based in New York or Philadelphia--with Laurie Colwin hopefully mentioned on the back cover.  I almost always read these novels, but I am also almost always disappointed.  These writers, these novels, might be good, but they are not Laurie Colwin good.  The publishers are looking for another Laurie, and maybe I am looking for another Laurie, but we will almost certainly never find her.

 The one writer I've discovered who feels like a spiritual cousin to Colwin is Barbara Trapido.  Trapido is a South African living in Britain, but she and Colwin were born within a few years of each other and share a love of the domestic detail, among other things.  Trapido's books are denser and more whimsical than Colwin's, but there is--in my mind--an essence that they share.  Trapido's first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, was published in 1982 and highly praised on both sides of the Atlantic.  I wonder if Laurie Colwin, a self-admitted Anglophile, ever read it.   

I recently stumbled upon a blog (reached through the same "Laurie Colwin memorial Symphony Space" search) written by another fan of Colwin's (one who actually attended her memorial!).  He writes of how he wanted to write like Colwin and a grad school professor told him to be careful.  The danger for him was writing characters like Colwin's--upper middle class, urban WASPs or assimilated Jews with old money and lots of things.  This was interesting to me because when I think about my own desire to write like Colwin, it's not her characters I wish I could emulate--though I do enjoy it that she's particularly good at prickly, complicated  women (see Misty Berkowitz in Happy All the Time and Billy De Lielle in Another Marvelous Thing).  It's more her spirit, her optimism, her way with the perfectly chosen detail, her humor, her dialogue.  Colwin's prose reads so easily that it seems that it must have been easy for her to write that way, but of course, it probably wasn't.  

Two brief examples.  In Happy All the Time, Colwin is describing the dauntingly accomplished dilettante Holly Sturgis Morris:

Holly could cook, do needlework, play tennis, and fish.  She had studied the Italic hand, the Carolingian minuscule and the restoration of paintings and china.  She could balance her checkbook to forty-five cents, make a perfect pie crust, identify most wild flowers in the northeastern United States, and bandage simple wounds.  She could stand on her head, do a swan dive, repair lamps and knew the collections of most major museums.  Guido had once recited this list to Vincent, including the fact that Holly spoke French and Italian.

"Does she fly on commercial airlines?" Vincent had asked.

"Of course she does.  Why?"

"Anything short of a transport carrier would crash under the weight of those accomplishments," Vincent had said.
My favorite phrase in the whole thing--"bandage simple wounds." It's what still makes me laugh.

 And here's this brief bit from Another Marvelous Thing, a collection of linked stories that follows the love affair (and aftermath) of a pair of unlikely lovers, a gallant older man and a cranky younger woman.  From the first story, "My Mistress," originally published in Playboy.

In movies, men have mistresses who soothe and pet them, who are consoling, passionate, and ornamental.  But I have a mistress who is mostly grumpy.  Traditional things mean nothing to her.  She does not flirt, cajole, or wear fancy underwear.  She has taken to referring to me as her "little bit of fluff," or she calls me her mistress, as in the sentence: "Before you became my mistress I led a blameless life." 
A few pages later, we learn how they meet, in one of my favorite pickup lines in all of literature:

Billy and I met at a reception to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the journals to which we are both contributors. We fell into a spirited conversation during which Billy asked me if this reception wasn't the most boring thing I had ever been to. I said it wasn't, by a long shot. Billy said: "I can't stand these things where you have to stand up and be civilized. People either yawn, itch, or drool when they get bored. Which do you do?"

I said I yawned.

"Huh," said Billy. "You don't look much like a drooler. Let's get out of here."

My fiction favorites remain Happy All the Time, Another Marvelous Thing and The Lone Pilgrim, though I also have a soft spot for her first novel, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object.  (I alternate favorites, depending on my mood.)   Her two volumes of food writing (Home Cooking and More Home Cooking) have a cherished place on my kitchen bookshelf.  I still consult her for advice on gingerbread, chocolate cake, Ismail Merchant's creamed corn.  She is less strong on precise measurements and much, much stronger on perfect details.  I would love Home Cooking for no other reason than that it includes the essay "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir."  But even less good Colwin is still better than much else.  When I lived in Delhi in 1993-95, I took her novel Family Happiness out of the American Center library more than once.  It's probably my least favorite of her  novels, but it was the only one they had,  and even lesser Colwin was desirable when Colwin was what I needed.

A month or so ago, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Northampton League of Women Voters book sale.  It's held every year in late September in the vocational school cafeteria.  Hardcovers are $1 and paperbacks $.50.  No matter what promises of restraint I make to myself, I always fill a bag.  This year I spotted, in quick succession, copies of Happy All the Time and The Lone Pilgrim, donated by the same person (I knew this by the initials penciled in.)  I snatched them up, and I gave them to my friend Janna, whose birthday was approaching.  It felt right to give them to Janna because Janna was 7 when Laurie Colwin died, and it seemed that the best present I could give her (well, along with a tart pan) was an introduction to Laurie Colwin.  I envy her her first encounter with Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy, with Holly Sturgis and Misty Berkowitz, lucky people who are lucky in love and can toast to a truly wonderful life without irony.

It's been 20 years without Laurie Colwin.  Her husband is now a novelist, her daughter grown. There is even an official Laurie Colwin website. And, the books are still in print.  There is some comfort in that.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Last Gasp of Summer: Easy Oven Roasted Tomatoes

 I know that summer is over.  There are flashes of red on the trees outside my window, an additional pile of blankets on my bed.  My window of opportunity to run late in the day is growing narrower.

And yet, there are still tomatoes.  Tomatoes at the farmers' market and tomatoes in my garden.  Not in the copious quantities of August, certainly, but as September has edged into October, summer into fall, there are still tomatoes.  I have made plain tomato sauce and roasted tomato sauce, this tomato soup and that tomato soup.  I've made several batches of luscious eggplant and summer vegetable gratin  (Quick, there's still time, but not for much longer!) And still, there are tomatoes.

Every summer, or at least most summers, I make an attempt at oven roasting tomatoes.  I've tried the kind that you leave in a very low oven for hours and hours.  I've tried the kind that you start in a hot oven and then turn the heat down as they cook, supposedly to replicate the Italian version in which tomatoes were roasted at the end of the day in a cooling bread oven.  (For more on the story, see The Splendid Table.)  I had fleeting successes but no recipe I tried became my go-to oven roasted tomato recipe.  (And given that I'm very loyal to my favorite recipes, as indicated by my list of tomato-based things I make repeatedly each summer, that's saying something.)  

But now, my flirtation with oven roasted tomato recipes may be ending.  I may have found The One.

In late August, I came home from a few days on the Cape with my brother, sister-in-law and nieces to find a heavy Amazon box waiting for me.  In it were the first six volumes of Canal House Cooking, a birthday present from my brother.  We'd had a long conversation about Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter, which I had just listened to on my iPod and he had read (on his iPad), and which we both thought was terrific.  (More on that in another post.)  I mentioned that I had looked up Gabrielle's sister Melissa, formerly of Saveur, and discovered that she was one of the women behind Canal House Cooking, which is a cross between a magazine and a set of small, lovely cookbooks.  My brother, to his credit, remembered that key detail, and with my September birthday fast approaching, he acted.  It was and remains a great present.  A subscription buys you 3 seasonal cookbooks in a year, beautifully designed, written and photographed.

Being a logical Virgo, I started with Volume 1, Summer, in a lovely shade of tomato red, and I went straight to the chapter called "Too Many Tomatoes."  And just for the hell of it, I decided to try their version of oven roasted tomatoes, which is less a strict recipe and more guidelines.  (You can roast them in a hotter oven for less time or a cooler oven for longer, for one thing, and there are no amounts set for anything.  "Make as many as you want to make," it instructs.)  I made, in the end, two cookie sheets worth.

I liked it that the recipe specifically called for plum tomatoes (of which I had many) and that it was light on the oil (the words "drizzle" and "a little bit"" indicated that). My tomatoes went in plump and meaty:

And came out hot and chewy:

In the past, I've put oven-dried tomatoes in the freezer for the winter.  Occasionally they get eaten, but more often, they sit in their little foil packets until the next summer, and then I toss them.  This year, though, will be different, because this year, I obediently followed the Canal House ladies' instructions and put them in a zip-loc bag very neatly, with a few basil leaves for flavor.  (Please ignore my dirty cutting board beneath my nice packet of tomatoes--I had been chopping tomatoes on it, after all, and I did wash it post-photo.)  (I should remember to do that before I take a photo next time, I realize.)

That night, pre-dinner, I toasted some country bread from the Hungry Ghost Bakery and spread it with some fresh goat cheese from Hillman Farms.  (Their goat cheese has been one of my favorite discoveries of the summer.)   I chopped up some of the newly oven-roasted tomatoes and put them on top.  There was no time to photograph them because we ate them too quickly, and then two more pieces almost immediately thereafter.  The tomatoes were sweet and savory both, not too oily, a perfect complement to the tang of the goat cheese.  They were also a perfect way to say farewell to summer and greet the fall with cheer, knowing that among the many tomato-based products in the freezer, there are several bags of these, a hit of summer waiting once winter has truly arrived.

Canal House Cooking Oven Roasted Tomatoes.  

 The recipe really is more a suggestion than an actual recipe, but the keys are to use plum tomatoes, to spread them cut-side up on a cookie sheet and to drizzle with a bit of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  They recommend using a 325 oven for an hour and a half, or until the tomatoes have "shriveled up a bit and their juices have concentrated and caramelized somewhat."  I was cooking something else at the time so my first batch ended up in a 350 oven instead, and it was fine.  Use your judgement for how shriveled and concentrated you'd like them to be.  Mine cooked at the slightly warmer oven for about the time recommended. 

You can drizzle them with a bit more olive oil when they're out.  To store, pack in a bag or container with a bit more olive oil and herbs for flavor--a bay or basil leaf or sprig of rosemary,  They will keep in the fridge for a week or so and in the freezer for up to a year.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Smoky (late) Summer Soup #1: Tomato Bisque

A few weeks ago, I made a luscious batch of Eggplant and Summer Vegetable Gratin for dinner, and Alex asked me, only half jokingly, if there was smoked paprika in it. No, in fact, there wasn't. But it wasn't unreasonable for him to ask, given that I'd been on a bit of a smoked paprika kick, making several batches of soup in a row that contained it.

This is one of those soups. I was already a smoked paprika convert before this. It's only been in the past year or two that I've discovered that its smokiness adds a layer of flavor and depth to vegetarian dishes. I've used it in my bacon-less version of Smoky Minestrone with parsley pesto, and it turned out to be the key in the kale and potato soup I still haven't written about yet. (I will, as soon as it gets a bit cooler out--it doesn't seem right to write about kale when it's still summer.)

A brief aside about smoked paprika. I use this brand, Safinter, in the bittersweet variety. (There's also hot and just plain sweet.) I found it for around $7 at Whole Foods. When I was in New York recently, I paid a quick visit to Kalustyan's, that spice lovers paradise, and could have bought their store brand more cheaply. (In fact, I could have even bought 5 pounds for $75, but that seemed excessive, even for me.) Next time, I'm going to Kalustyan's at the beginning of my NYC day rather than at the end because by the time I reached there, I was somewhat overstimulated and lacking in focus. I wandered the aisles in a daze and left empty handed, which seems a shame. (Several hours spent eating Indian food, wandering the Union Square Greenmarket and restraining oneself from buying a kitchen's worth of dishes at Fishs Eddy will do that to you!)

Anyway, back to the soup. I already have a standard summer tomato soup recipe. I also have a winter tomato soup recipe, though it would be sacrilege to make tomato soup with canned tomatoes in August or September, during our fleeting fresh tomato season. Still, a change of pace is always nice. And when the very first tomato I picked from the garden turned out to weigh over 2 pounds (seriously, that's one big tomato), I decided to try this version. Deborah Madison begins her introduction to the recipe by saying, "One magnificent, giant Brandywine tomato that needed to be used right away tempted me to turn it into a soup, just to see how far a one-pound tomato would go." Since my magnificent giant tomato was also a Brandywine, it seemed like fate. I added a few less impressive tomatoes to the huge one and tripled Madison's recipe so that it makes 3-4 servings, depending on what else you're eating and how hungry you are.

One brief note: Madison has you put the soup through a food mill, which I did, but I also blended it in the immersion blender first. You could probably stop there, but this soup is especially nice smooth, and the food mill removes any stray tomato seed or bits of skin.

Whether your tomatoes are massive or modest, whether they come from your garden or the market, late summer is a fine time to celebrate them in a variety of ways. And a bowl of tomato soup and some bread and cheese, make a fine supper whatever the time of year. (More soon about that bread and cheese we had with this soup--there was a special, seasonal tomato twist that made it especially fabulous.)

The soup in its chunky, pre-immersion blender, pre-food mill state.

The soup now smooth. Yum.

This one I call Still Life with Zinnias and Cookbooks!

Tomato Bisque
Adapted from Vegetarian Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen

Serves 3-4
Preparation time 45 minutes

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 large or 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
3/4 tsp. Spanish smoked paprika (more to taste)
3 pounds of ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks
2 slices of sandwich bread or 1 thick slice of bakery bread, torn or chopped into pieces
sprig of fresh basil or thyme
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. heavy cream or half and half

  1. 1.Heat oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot, add onion and garlic and cook for several minutes, until soft but not brown. Then add the paprika, tomato, torn pieces of bread, basil, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 2 cups of water. (You can add more water if it looks too thick.) Bring to a boil and then cover and simmer about 20 minutes or until the tomato has broken down.
  2. Puree the soup with an immersion blender and/or pass the soup through a food mill if you have one or stir through a fine sieve, pressing the juices out and removing the pulp. Return the soup to the stove, taste for salt, add more paprika one pinch at a time if you want more smokiness, and season with fresh pepper. Add cream or half and half last.