June 27, 2012

Hot and Cold

When I was young, it was one of the things that I most looked forward to. Slurping the bottom of the bowl with the ice cubes clanging against my spoon, their frozen bodies making the last drops of the thick, tomato-y broth watery and refreshing and ice cold. The salty croutons were always the first to go; next the garnish. We sipped and licked and downed spoonfuls of this refreshing, summer treat. We drained the last drops from the pitcher of the blender and bemoaned when there was finally, at last, after two bowls full at least, no more. We scraped up the vegetable scraps and we put our dishes in the sink and we all, I think, each of us in our own way, left the table with a feeling of satisfaction and refreshment.

These were the warm nights on which my mother made us gazpacho soup. I looked forward to them for weeks sometimes. I would request it again and again, waiting at long last to hear the whirl of the blender, to see the just-washed tomatoes and cucumbers and scallions and green peppers lining the table, to wait for that first crunch of crouton against the smooth silk of the cold soup, to feel that bite of fresh pepper crash between my teeth, to taste the lick of the olive oil, and to hear the crush of the ice cube beneath my spoon.

It’s recipes like this that make cooking worthwhile—they are inherently ceremonial; they inherently transport. Tonight, alone in my kitchen, without the buzz of mosquitos from a NY summer, or the swelter of our humid Washington Heights apartment, or the hum of cars below my window, I made it again, for the first time this year. I think I will be playing this one on repeat until the fog rolls in thickly for the later summer months and we settle into that particular type of coldness that descends here, in San Francisco, all the way through August.

I was alone tonight, and as I made this I missed my family. Perhaps it had to do with having just finished Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, in which family, in its many pitfalls and myriad joys, features prominently. In the final pages, she sits down to eat with her surrogate family (the in-laws) and hopes that she might, despite her divorce from their son, still be welcome at the table. She finds that she is—though things are different of course, after the wear of many years and the tumult and break of many promises.

I can’t somehow picture my sister at the gazpacho table—not completely. And I suppose it is her that I miss the most. We always joked that she was the eater and I the cook—this was a good arrangement for us in many ways. She used to bribe me with food promises, incite me with pantry items that I couldn’t reach (because I was the littler) in exchange for holding secrets, persuading my parents of something that she absolutely needed, or promising not to tell on her for whatever little insignificant thing she might have done wrong on that particular day.

I always abided.

It is uncharacteristic to think of eating something cold and feeling something warm, but that was how it was for me tonight. I ate this alone. I lit a candle. I tried not to feel so far away, and, in truth, I didn’t. We were all in there really, fighting for the last crouton, slurping the last drops of our near-frozen tomato-y soup, waiting for the heat to break, and spending perhaps a little bit longer than usual at the family table.

Gazpacho Soup with Croutons
Serves 4 (approximately), increase the recipe to account for seconds or thirds (you will need them)

4 large heirloom tomatoes (Brandywine is my favorite)
3 medium cucumbers
1 green bell pepper
6 scallions, dark green tops removed
A handful of Italian parsley
Salt and pepper
Half a rustic loaf of bread (I like Acme's Sweet Batard or Pain au Levain)
Olive oil

A small disclaimer: This recipe, since it lives in my mind, is always an approximation, and it always varies with the produce that one can find in the moment. The beauty of this is that it is very hard to ruin; you can make it in endless variations and still be satisfied with the result. The one main thing that I strongly suggest is that you use tomatoes that are very red (to achieve that vibrant color in the final soup) and that are as tomato-y as you can find. Local, organic, heirloom varieties tend to be the best ones out there, and the closest to the kinds of tomatoes you ate when you were a kid, with no mealy, white, sorry-excuse-for-a-tomato inside in sight. 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. 

Wash and lay out all of your produce. Peel 2 of the cucumbers in such a way as to leave half of the skin on (I always make stripes, having watched my mother do this a hundred times), and cut them in quarters. Trim 4 of the scallions of the dark green tops, leaving all of the light green and white parts intact. 

Directly over a blender (so as to not lose any juice), quarter and drop in your tomatoes. Add the cucumbers and the scallions. Add half of a green bell pepper (a little piece of jalapeno is also great here, without the seeds or the vein). Pulse for about 30 seconds, or until everything is incorporated—it does not have to be completely smooth, a bit of texture is nice. Add the handful of parsley and season with salt and pepper. Pulse again. Add a drizzle of olive oil and pulse one more time. 

Taste and adjust the vegetable proportions and seasoning according to your preference—sometimes at this stage I will add more scallion, or more pepper, or even more tomato if I find the soup is not red enough; so much of this depends on the quality of the produce that it is nearly impossible to predict what you will want more of, so just taste as you go. 

When you are satisfied with your soup, place it in the refrigerator (leaving it in the pitcher of the blender) to chill while you make the croutons and prepare the garnish. 

Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil. Cut the bread into thick 1-2 inch cubes. Lay the bread on the parchment and drizzle heartily with 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil—each cube should be glistening and coated. Sprinkle liberally with Kosher salt and pepper, and toss until thoroughly coated. Bake in the preheated oven for 10-15 minutes, turning frequently, until the croutons are golden brown on all sides. 

While the croutons bake, prepare the garnish. Chop a cucumber, 2-3 scallions, the rest of the green pepper, and some more parsley roughly and set it out on a board or a plate for the table. I usually leave each vegetable separate but in close proximity so that you can choose exactly what you would like more of. 

Moments before the croutons are ready to come out of the oven, retrieve the soup from the fridge and pulse it again. Set out your bowls; add 1-2 ice cubes in each. Ladle the gazpacho soup over the ice. To each bowl of soup, add a bit of garnish on top, and finish with a handful of piping-hot croutons. 

Eat immediately.  

June 14, 2012

Something’s Happened

There must be a term for it—for the sense of total euphoria that is also accompanied by sheer and utter disbelief and shock. I blink and it is still there. I sleep a full eight hours (bravo me!), and when I wake up it is still lingering around, clinging to the bed sheets, draping itself wildly around the curtains, puncturing even, the early morning light. I can’t shake it.

It’s what most young, burgeoning bloggers must feel when they discover that their tiny, secret, under-the-cover-of-a-great-big-internet-rock blog has just been posted to the Bon Appétit website. Bon Appétit, people! The single most amazing food magazine in the nation. I am still shaking my head in disbelief. I am also, and this one may be even harder to comprehend on an emotional level (so oblique the feeling can be, so occasionally far off): HAPPY. It takes a lot to get me there sometimes, but here we are.

You can find the momentous occasion itself here. We (that is, you, dear readers, and me) are image eight in the slideshow. We are beaming, can’t you tell?

It’s been almost impossible ever since to try to come up with what to make next. Oh my god, the soundtrack in my head plays, what will I ever make again? I’ve wrestled through a few ideas. I’ve called my mom about them—rattling off a list of spiraling, food-related thoughts (she is very supportive). I sit down with stacks of books and magazines and pour over them late into the night. In my dreams I bake galettes that are rubbery and stiff, or I make compotes that are gelatinous and murky. I’ve been in a bind. One that, I can only imagine, has been brought on by the celebratory joy and revelatory anguish of being noticed.

But it’s more than that, too. It’s that—no matter how many cookbooks I look through, or magazines I flip through, or food blogs I read—ultimately, the appetite always wins: one’s choice of what to make or eat can’t come from a carefully designed program of which meals will be popular, or what everyone else will feel like consuming in any particular moment, or how this specific dish will photograph, or how this entry will look next to that one. The choice of what to eat is dictated by some other thing—longing and nostalgia, weather and mood, memory and dreams colliding with seasonality, what’s available at the grocery store, which shops you will pass on your way home, who you may have spoken to on that particular day.

The appetite is elusive and intangible—what drives it is some mysterious combination of unseen factors, constantly changing and circling around that ultimate goal: to feed one’s hunger.

We do this in many ways, I think. Food is one of the least detrimental and perhaps also the one with the most potential for unfettered, uncomplicated joy. 

So I went through that list of prospective galettes and tarts and pies and cookies and shortbreads and brioche rolls and jams and chocolates, and then, when it was 76 degrees in San Francisco (a heat wave!), I made watermelon instead. Watermelon that was dusted with chiles and salt. Watermelon that you could slurp up in enthusiasm; whose juices would drip down your chin; whose spicy bite and sweet, cold crispness would glide, in ever-so-refreshing a manner, down your throat. Watermelon that would make the inside of your cheeks cold, and the tips of your fingers pink and soaked, and the picnic blanket a stained mess, and all of those other good summery things that make us feel, if only momentarily, like we are young again.

I thought perhaps you wouldn’t mind.

In the end, this is not a recipe: it’s a sort of incitement for pleasure. It’s something that will take you no time at all. It’s something that you’ll be able to do just by briefly looking at these photographs, by just barely skimming these words. But let’s eat it and be happy.

We have a lot to celebrate.

Watermelon with chili salt (adapted from Bon Appétit)

Watermelon slices
4 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons chili powder
2-3 limes

Slice a chilled watermelon. In a small bowl or salt dish, mix together the salt and chili powder, adjusting to taste. Arrange the slices on a platter, sprinkle with the chili salt, and then generous squeeze a lime directly over top. Consume immediately, when cold and spicy and dripping with lime.

David Tanis, in Heart of the Artichoke, suggests dipping a lime in a chili powder mixture and squeezing this over a platter of jicama, avocado, and orange. I tried the chili/lime technique both ways—by sprinkling the chili salt and then squeezing the lime juice over top, and also by dipping a halved lime in the mixture and then squeezing out the juice. I think I prefer the first method—but this, really, is a matter of taste. Just employ the ritual that will optimize your satisfaction—all the better if you are basking in the sun while you do it.

June 01, 2012

Rhubarb + Custard = Springtime Dessert Pleasure

Dear Friends,

Thank you for the outpouring of support that I received from you all this week—turns out, much to my surprise, that I have readers. Readers. A stray few that turned into a stray few more, that turned into an outpouring of emails and support and page views when I went “public” this week (me and facebook—albeit on very different scales).

Thank you.

For my part, I’ll try not to be daunted by the fact that this is no longer a secret pursuit, and I will trek on, starting right now with custard and rhubarb and a tillandsia in the background (don’t eat the tillandsia).

I thought I would continue on my last-gasp-of-spring theme and dig up a rhubarb recipe. I wasn’t sure what at first—crumble or coffee cake? compote or pie? And then it struck me—could one make a rhubarb clafoutis? Something warm and custardy and oozing of fruit, scented of lemon, and crinkly and curled in all sorts of delicious ways on top? Yes. Apparently, one can. I googled the phrase “rhubarb clafoutis” and came up with a fair few options. They were all roughly the same, give or take a few small additions or subtractions here or there; some with cinnamon, a few with citrus, all with that roasted rhubarb base and a decadent layer of yellow custard on top.

I’ve always wanted to make a clafoutis. Somehow daunted by what seemed too lovely to be very manageable, I’ve learned now that, in fact, it is one of the more simple desserts that one could possibly make. I’ve also learned that without using the traditional black cherries as your fruit, the dish is properly called a flaugnarde—the roots of which derive from words meaning “soft” or “downy.”

The dish is indeed soft, as custards often are, but especially so when eaten warm out of the oven. In this state, it is also fragrant and pillowy and oozing—all things that should be strived for when it comes to dessert consumption.

Thick slices of rhubarb are roasted in cinnamon and sugar in a tart or custard dish, and then, once softened and brought down to room temperature, a mixture of eggs, milk, flour, vanilla, sugar, and lemon zest is poured directly over top of this once sputtering, bright pink fruit. Into the oven it goes once more and within the hour you will be eating a warm, springtime custard. Perfect for evenings with a slight chill in the air; perfect for a midday picnic; perfect for breakfast the next day, even when it has chilled and firmed and has become, suddenly, sliceable—perfect, really, for anytime at all. 

Roasted Rhubarb Clafoutis (more accurately referred to as Roasted Rhubarb Flaugnarde), adapted from theKitchn

2 cups rhubarb, sliced to a thickness of 1/2 inch
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 eggs
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup flour
A pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Slice the rhubarb and place it directly into your custard or tart dish; toss it with the cinnamon and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Let this macerate for approximately 10 minutes, or until the juices of the rhubarb have begun to yield.

Roast the rhubarb for 20 minutes or until it is bubbling and soft when pierced with a fork.

Remove from the oven and let it cool until it is just warm and no longer hot and steaming.

While the rhubarb is cooling, whisk together the eggs, vanilla, and sugar; whisk in the milk, and then the flour, lemon zest, and a pinch of salt. Whisk the batter until the flour lumps have dissolved, but be a bit gently with it so that the batter doesn't become tough.

Pour this mixture over the rhubarb and bake for 35-40 minutes. The clafoutis should be set but still somewhat soft in the center. It will have risen in shocking and uneven ways—don't worry, it will settle down as it cools.

Let the clafoutis rest for 5-10 minutes, and serve.


I can’t really write about rhubarb, or consume it, or smell it, or see it in a store even, without thinking about the rhubarb plants that line a creek in the woods of upstate New York behind the house where my mother grew up. Prehistoric looking specimens, they are thick and tall with large, arching, and poisonous, leaves. We never see those plants anymore, but apparently they have been growing prolifically for at least eighty years or more. My mother dug some up at one point and planted them in her own garden, where they now grow, referred to as “grandpa’s rhubarb.” These plants accompany, further off, in a separate field, “grandpa’s apple tree” and “grandpa’s lilacs.” From the stories of this grandpa, whom I never knew, I learned to identify edible honeysuckle, elderberries, and black caps; we learned to suck the tips of the honeysuckle in the woods until they released their bright pearls of liquid; we learned how to find the wild spring violets and orchids and the red cardinal flowers that sprung up, inexplicably, in the streams. We learned about a raccoon named Brudel that he called and fed by hand, as a sort of dog-like pet. We learned about elderberry wine, and beaver dams, and the virtues of the frothy top of a mug of beer, among many other bits of lore and wisdom. Food is ancient and its reach is immeasurable. It is also fleeting and transitory. We consume it and it is gone. But the stories persist and the memories, embedded as they are in the aromas of a childhood kitchen, remain.