There's something about the color yellow tinged with a hint of orange that I find intoxicating. It's that golden-hour hue that comes just before sunset as the sun is sinking toward the horizon, slanting at just the right angle—some sources say between four and five degrees—to brush everything it touches with a yellow-orange glow. If you've seen the work of Van Gogh, you've certainly seen it. Or the movie Days of Heaven, shot by the legendary cinematographers Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler during the hours just after dawn and before sunset, suffusing the film with a dreamy, fairy tale-like atmosphere.
Meyer lemons, a hybrid of lemons and tangerines, are the fruit of the golden hour, carrying a warmer hue and a milder flavor than regular lemons. When they're in season—hint: now—I can't get enough of them. So as I've done in previous years, I decided to stretch out the pleasure of these golden jewels by preserving them in salt and lemon juice, perhaps one of the simplest methods ever devised and one that is virtually impossible to get wrong.
And the possibilities for using Meyer lemons, preserved or fresh, is endless. I've written about incorporating them into risotto, lemoncello, a crab risotto, pasta, a salad, evenacocktail…the list goes on and on. So run, don't walk, to your favorite produce department, get some of these gorgeous orbs and start squeezing them—need I say—now.
Preserved Meyer Lemons
12-14 Meyer lemons Kosher salt Wide-mouth quart jar with screw-on lid (either a metal ring and lid or a plastic lid)
Lightly rinse the lemons to remove any surface dust or dirt and dry them with a towel. Cover the bottom of the jar with a 1/8" layer of salt. Take six of the lemons and slice them vertically in quarters to within 1/2" of the base. Holding one upright in your palm over a small bowl, fill it with salt and place it in the jar. Do the same with the other five lemons and pack them tightly into the jar. Use more lemons if required to fill the jar within 3/4" of the top (you can slice the lemons into quarters to fit in the nooks and crannies). Pour the salt from the bowl into the jar. Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemons to fill the jar within 1/2" of the top (you can also use regular lemons if you need to). Screw on the lid and place in the refrigerator. Every day or so, shake the jar to distribute the salt and juice, and after three or four weeks you're good to go.
This recipe will work with regular lemons as well. You can also add herbs like bay leaves, peppercorns, cinnamon and cardamom.
Like stir fries or macaroni and cheese—see my previous post—soup is an ideal vehicle for making a simple, quick, warming winter dinner for a family out of what you have on hand, a skill that is increasingly necessary in a pandemic when dashing to the store for this or that isn't advisable.
Take a look around. Are there a bunch of odds and ends in your vegetable bin that are looking a little tired and wrinkly? Chop them up, grab a can of tomatoes and make a minestrone soup! How about those bits of leftover rotisserie chicken? Chop an onion and a carrot, pull out some stock and your soup pot, maybe add a potato or some dried pasta, and make chicken soup.
The other evening I had, as usual, no idea what to make for dinner but there was a smallish Sibley squash sitting on the counter that my neighbor Bill grew, so I roasted it and scooped out the flesh. Digging around in my pantry, I found a can of coconut milk, and I remembered seeing a baggie of curry leaves in the freezer that my friend Denise had shared with me.
With a quart of stock I'd made from the carcass of a roasted chicken earlier in the week and some zhooshing from my (admittedly) overflowing condiment shelf, the emerging Thai-inflected soup was well in hand.
I'd also run across a head of cauliflower in the fridge that was going brown in spots (easily remedied by simply scraping them off), so I threw it in the still-warm oven to get crispy and to provide some textural contrast to the creamy soup.
I'm hoping some of these skills will transfer to life after COVID when we won't have a second thought about making a trip to the store. (Promise me that time will come, though, won't you?)
Thai-ish Curried Coconut Squash Soup with Roasted Cauliflower
For the soup: 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil 1 onion, chopped in 1/2” dice 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped 4 c. roasted squash* 1 qt. chicken or vegetable stock 1 15-oz. can coconut milk 1-2 Tbsp. Thai & True red curry paste or 2 Tbsp. curry powder plus 1/8 tsp. cayenne 1 Tbsp. fresh grated ginger 2 tsp. turmeric 1 Tbsp. fish sauce 6-8 curry leaves or 2 kaffir lime leaves or grated zest of 1 lime Salt to taste
For the cauliflower: 1 head cauliflower, cut into small florets; chop any leaves into 1” pieces and stem into 1/2” dice 2 Tbsp. olive oil 1 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 400°.
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers, then add onion and garlic and sauté until tender. Add curry paste (or curry powder and cayenne, if using) and turmeric and sauté until it bubbles. Add remaining ingredients and combine. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer.
Place cauliflower florets, stem pieces and chopped leaves into a large mixing bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Stir to combine, then put on sheet pan. Place in oven and roast for 30-40 minutes until tender and well-browned. Remove from oven and set aside.
Take soup off heat and remove curry leaves (or kaffir lime leaves, if using). Using an immersion blender, purée the soup until smooth. (Pro tip from a chef friend: If using a blender to purée the soup, remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Blend in smaller batches, making sure to place a cloth over the lid of the blender and holding it down with one hand.) Replace puréed soup in pot and adjust seasonings, adding more fish sauce or salt as needed. Return to heat and keep warm until ready to serve.
To serve: Ladle soup into shallow bowls and arrange curry florets and leaves along one edge. You can also sprinkle with roasted pumpkin seeds, drizzle a few drops of sriracha, add a grinding of fresh pepper or whatever appeals to you.
* Pretty much any "winter" squash will do, including acorn, butternut, Sibley, kabocha or the like. Simply halve, scoop out the seeds and bake cut side down in a 400° oven for 30-40 minutes until tender. Scoop out meat. Learn more about winter squash here.
In my ongoing quest to a) keep our teeth from chattering in our 66-degree house, b) get something for dinner on the table at a reasonable hour and c) use up whatever leftover bits and bobs are left in the fridge before they spoil, I'll often resort to a casserole or stir-fry that will be quick to prepare and (hopefully) delicious.
And when you're in the middle of a pandemic and can't pop out to the store to pick up some ingredients on the fly to make a special dish, it's especially necessary to be creative with what you've got on hand. Which is where casseroles or stir-fries come in handy, since they cover all the food groups—starch, veg, protein—and are warm, belly-filling and can be zhooshed with spices, herbs and condiments to tickle any palate.
Which brings us back to me standing in front of the fridge with the door open (forgive me, Mom) and rummaging through shelves and bins. A hunk of cheese, half an onion, some poblano peppers that didn't get used for tacos the other night, a half pound of hamburger that was getting to the use-it-or-lose-it stage, plus a half package of cream cheese, some frozen corn, and leftover roasted tomatoes from a soup—another favorite absorber of leftover ingredients.
From scanning the heap on the counter, I could have made my mom's "goulash," basically a hamburger noodle casserole with corn and tomatoes for the base and chile powder for some zing. It would have taken care of most of the pile, but I was in the mood to try a variation on an old fave—which, to be honest, has more than once gotten me in trouble, as in "well, this is interesting but please never make it again" comments from my family.
But, glass of wine in hand, I forged ahead nonetheless and commenced chopping and frying and stirring and finally put it all in the oven. Promising aromas began wafting out, heads (including that of the dog) popped out from around corners with quizzical expressions, and finally the pot was placed front and center on the table, all crispy and golden and smelling amazing.
Moments later, it seemed, it was all gone, down to the last kernel of corn.
Tex Mex Mac'n'Cheese
For the meat mixture: 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil 1/2 lb. hamburger, or Tolucan chorizo 1/2 yellow onion, diced 1 large or 2 medium poblano peppers, diced 3 cloves garlic, minced 1 c. frozen or fresh corn kernels 1 tsp. oregano
For the sauce: 4 Tbsp. butter 4 Tbsp. flour 2 c. milk 4 c. sharp cheddar cheese, grated* 4 oz. cream cheese 1/2 tsp. hot pepper sauce 1 tsp. salt plus more to taste
For the casserole: 1 lb. dried pasta 1 c. whole roasted tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped 1/2-1 tsp. chile powder Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350°.
Bring large pot of salted water to a boil.
Place large frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the hamburger and brown, breaking it up into small bits. When it is completely browned, add onions and sauté until tender. Add chopped peppers, corn and garlic and sauté until tender. Stir in oregano and keep warm over low heat.
Add pasta to boiling water and cook until al dente.
While pasta cooks, melt butter in medium-sized saucepan. Remove pan from burner and add flour, stirring until the mixture is smooth with no lumps. Place saucepan back on burner and cook on medium heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add milk gradually, stirring/whisking until thickened, then add cheese in handfuls, stirring until melted. Add cream cheese and stir until sauce is thick and creamy, then add hot sauce with salt and pepper to taste. (The sauce should be slightly saltier than you'd normally make it, since when combined with the pasta it will tend to make it taste less salty.)
When pasta is done, drain and put back in pasta pot, add cheese sauce and stir gently to combine. Add meat mixture, drained tomatoes and chile powder and stir. Transfer to baking dish. Bake 30 minutes.
* I like a couple of sharp cheddars made locally, and recommend Face Rock Aged Cheddar and TMK Creamery Cheddar. Also Organic Valley Raw Sharp Cheddar and Organic Valley Grassmilk Cheddar are excellent.
Like all of us, my friend, illustrator Trista Cornelius is figuring out how to navigate her way through the pandemic between shutdowns, homeschooling her child, and freelance work. One coping device has been reading how others who've faced similar difficulties developed mechanisms to get through it.
Cornelius writes in her blog about reading MFK Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, describing Fisher's experience in England in World War Two:
"MFK describes using every scrap of leftover food as an 'absorbing and profitable pastime' and offers plucky solutions to big problems: Not enough fuel to heat your stove? Put the ingredients in a pot with water, heat to a hard boil, immediately shut off the precious heat source. Place the pot in a box lined with hay and cover it with an oil cloth. Let it sit twice as long as you would have simmered it on a stove in abundant times, and voilà: dinner."
Another way of coping for Cornelius is making vegetable broth. Taking the scraps and peels and turning them into broth "eased my pandemic anxiety. It gave me a feeling of alchemical power. I could turn scraps into nourishment!"
Thanksgiving is gonna be different this year, as every article in the country is noting. Duh.
You are staying home and not gathering with friends or relatives, right? Right? Because getting together for one meal this one time wouldn't be worth living with the guilt of killing your parents, grandparents, kids, relatives, friends or members of the broader community, right? Right.
So, anyway, just because there's a pandemic and you might not be getting together with the people you care most in the world about (see above) doesn't mean you can't eat well. Right?
For instance, Thanksgiving, to me, aside from spending time with those I love (but not this year, right?) is not so much about the turkey. Though Dave, who is hidebound in his compulsion to grill the bird regardless of snow, sleet, rain, freezing temperatures or any other calamities the gods may place in his path, and who must have his turkey enchiladas made from the smoky (and really quite fabulous) leftovers, will do it regardless.
Myself, I'm all about the sides. From dressing to potatoes and gravy, to (this year) a chicory salad à la Nostrana and various seasonal vegetables roasted to perfection, they are what make the dinner for me. (Sorry, honey.)
Below are a couple of easy roast vegetable recipes that I think are pretty spectacular that you could make for the holidays or anytime, and that could even serve as vegetarian-friendly main dishes alongside a roasted squash.
Wishing you a safe and healthy holiday AT HOME. (Right?)
Roasted Cauliflower à la Sahni
This recipe is my adaptation of Julie Sahni's version in Classic Indian Cooking. Sahni, who, along with Madhur Jaffrey, brought Indian cuisine to the masses here in the US, steams her cauliflower then crisps it by frying. I found it's easier and faster to roast it.
1 medium head cauliflower 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil 1 tsp. coriander seeds 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds 1 1/2 Tbs. fresh grated ginger 1/2 tsp. turmeric 1 tsp. salt 2 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped fine (optional)
Preheat oven to 400°.
Separate the cauliflower into small bite-sized flowerets and chop any stems or leaves into 1/2" pieces (seriously, they're great). Place in large bowl.
Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a small skillet until very hot. (Flick a drop of water into the oil. If it spatters, it's hot enough.) Add coriander seeds and cumin seeds and fry until the seeds turn dark brown, about 10 seconds. Reduce heat to medium-high and add ginger, stir briefly, then add turmeric and salt and stir. Pour over cauliflower and stir to coat. Place in 9" by 12" roasting dish (or roasting pan) and place in oven for 40-50 minutes until browned and very tender.
Taste and adjust salt. Garnish with chopped cilantro, if using, and serve.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Olives and Preserved Lemon
1 lb. Brussels sprouts, halved 10 castelvetrano olives, pitted and roughly chopped 3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed 3-6 anchovies, minced 3-4 Tbsp. olive oil 4 Tbsp. preserved lemons, chopped, or juice of 1 lemon Salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350°.
Place halved Brussels sprouts in a large mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Transfer to 9" by 12" roasting dish (or roasting pan) and place in oven for 35 minutes until browned and very tender. (I like the sprouts very browned on the edges.) Taste for salt and serve.
Mine tend to run to the hearty warmth and belly-filling attributes of the foods my mom made for us growing up. Tuna casserole, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, and a classic pot roast top that list, and I've added a few more of my own—a pandemic pantry version of mapo tofu is a new favorite—along the way.
Falling leaves and dropping mercury always mean getting out the braising pot and turning on the oven. It's an easy if not terribly efficient way to boost the chilly temperatures in a drafty old house like ours, for one thing, and the delicious smell of a joint of beef or simmering sauce wafting through the house for hours will have your neighbors hollering from the sidewalk, asking what you've got on tap for dinner.
The pandemic has everyone craving stability—three cheers for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris—and comfort even more than usual, and with most of us working from home or needing to save money on groceries, homey dishes like the ones mentioned above are both easy on the budget and can handily feed a family. (No doubt the reason my mom was partial to them, with three kids and a husband to feed every night, even when she also had a full-time job.)
The other night I was rummaging in the fridge and came across a pound of ground lamb and leftover hamburger buns that Dave had made, plus there were two half-heads of cabbage left over from making tacos. I'd been craving sloppy joes for awhile, so figured now was as good a time as any to give them a whirl.
Since cooking in a global pandemic means a quick dash to the store was out of the question, I decided to deviate from the standard tomato-based sauce and take advantage of the lamb to give them a Middle East-meets-Asia twist. Plus, instead of making a slaw to serve alongside, I took a page from pulled pork sandwiches and plopped the slaw on top of the meat-slathered, open-faced buns.
(Note: It helps to have a wide-ranging condiment selection for this kind of cooking. Fortunately our condiment shelf is literally overflowing…insert hysterically laughing emoticon here.)
Feel free to use the recipe below as a guide and make your own pandemic pantry adaptations depending on what you've got on hand. It may just become a go-to comfort food staple on your family's list of favorites!
Ground Lamb Sloppy Joes
2 Tbsp. olive oil 1 lb. ground lamb 2 Japanese curry bricks or 2 Tbsp. curry powder 1 yellow onion, diced 1 large carrot, diced 1 sweet yellow pepper, diced 1 sweet red pepper, diced 3 cloves garlic, chopped fine 1 tsp. cinnamon 1 tsp. cumin seeds, ground 1 tsp. coriander seeds, ground 1/2 tsp. ground ginger 2 Tbsp. gochujang 2 Tbsp. white miso 1/4 c. barbecue sauce 1/4 c. sesame vinaigrette or 2 Tbsp. rice vinegar 4 hamburger buns, toasted Cabbage slaw with miso vinaigrette (optional) Fresh cilantro, chopped fine (optional)
Heat olive oil in deep sauté pan until it shimmers, then add ground lamb and brown. Add butter bricks or curry powder and heat, stirring until fragrant. Add yellow onion and sauté until tender. Add carrot, peppers and garlic and sauté until tender. Add cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger, gochujang, miso, barbecue sauce and vinaigrette and stir to combine. Simmer for 20 minutes until flavors meld and meat is cooked through. Adjust flavors to taste, add salt if necessary.
Toast buns on both sides under broiler until nicely browned. Place one opened bun on each plate, top with meat sauce and then slaw. Garnish with cilantro if desired.
I am such a sucker for a good label, especially one with seriously old school fonts, and the one on the bottle of Mattei's Cap Corse Blanc Quinquina practically propositioned me from it's spot on the shelf. Fortunately I have a brother in the wine biz, so I didn't have to buy it blind, get it home and find out that I should have invested in a poster of the label instead.
(Yes, it's happened. On more than one occasion.)
Knowing my fondness for bitter aperitifs—Cocchi Americano Bianco, almost any Italian amaro and, of course, Campari—Bruce was more than happy to recommend adding it to our home bar. Looking it up, I learned it's one of the oldest and best known aperitifs from Corsica, "made from a base wine of Vermentino and Muscat, with subsequent additional macerations of herbs, spices, the local citron fruit, and cinchona bark (quinine, hence the name)."
It's bright, citrus-y sweetness with that typically bitter backbone only needed a cube of ice in a glass to make a late summer evening sitting on the front porch even more idyllic; a spritz of soda and a twist of lemon or orange peel wouldn't have been out of place, either.
But we're always looking for new variations on our tried-and-true list of cocktails, and since it's (nearly) fall and Manhattans are feeling oh-so-seasonal, Dave thought the quinquina might make an appropriate switch for the sweet vermouth in that cocktail. (We've done this before, of course, making a nutty, dark nocino Manhattan, among others.)
The quinquina brightens up the classic cocktail quite a bit, bringing a tinge of late summer sun, an almost-but-not-quite fall tone that matches the grapefruit color of the ash leaves falling from our trees.
2 oz. bourbon 1 oz. Cap Corse Blanc Quinquina 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters Amarena cherries
Chill cocktail glasses in freezer. Fill pint glass or small mixing pitcher half full of ice. Add whiskey, vermouth and bitters. Stir 30 seconds. Take cocktail glasses out of freezer. Strain liquor into glass. Drop in cherry. Serve.
For many people, their strongest memories center around firsts: the first time they rode a bike, their first car, their first kiss.
For me, many of those memorable firsts center around—no surprise here—food. The first time I had spit-roasted whole pig cooked over a fire by my uncles at a tiny cabin in the Blue Mountains; my first taste of kimchi at a snowy mountainside inn on a student trip to Korea; my first pesto pasta in the early days of Papa Haydn's eastside location that was so packed with garlic I could still taste it three days later—which I adored, by the way!
I remember being floored by the broth served with rockfish made by chef Serge Selbe at the London Grill that was as clear as water but was intensely infused with the flavor of fresh tomatoes—he described it as filtered gazpacho. More recently my mind was blown by the corn soup made by Benjamin Schade when he was chef at the late, lamented Old Salt Marketplace in northeast Portland.
Regular readers know I'm a fool for anything with fresh corn in it, and this bowl was the essence of corn in a smooth, creamy, velvety robe, adorned only with a pat of butter melting seductively over its surface punctuated by a sprinkling of fresh pepper. I'd been so taken with it I pestered the poor guy for a couple of years, and just this summer he graciously agreed to share the recipe.
Recently Schade has been cultivating a working urban oasis he's dubbed Schadey Acres Farm, growing heritage varieties of beans, squash, peppers, turnips and other vegetables in the more-than-a-dozen raised beds he's built around his home. He makes use of this bounty in his capacity as a personal chef, but also produces a line of pickled and preserved goods under his own Private Reserve Preserves brand.
When Schade arrived to show me how the soup was made, I was astounded to find out it had only four ingredients: butter, onions, corn and salt. No cream? What made it so velvety? He said it was all in the method, which he'd learned from Kevin Gibson while working at Castagna.
That answered a lot of my questions about this remarkable soup, since I consider Gibson to be a soup guru. (Anyone remember his remarkable Too Many Tomatoes soup from Castagna? I rest my case.)
With credit given where credit was due, Schade went on to say he basically makes the soup according to Gibson's recipe, which is incredibly simple but more technique-driven than one might guess given the number of ingredients.
Starting with onions simmered in butter, Schade combined them with the kernels from 10 ears of corn which he then simmered ever-so-briefly in corn stock—Schade said Gibson told him the secret to corn soup was to "not cook the corn." Purée the mixture in a blender, run it through a sieve and it's done.
With corn nearing the end of its season in the Pacific Northwest, I'll be heading to the nearest farmers' market this weekend and buying up as much fresh corn as I can, so you'd best get there before I do!
Benjamin Schade's Corn Soup
Adapted from Kevin Gibson
Makes approx. 2 qts.
10 ears of corn 3 med. yellow onions, diced finely 1/4 c. butter 2 qts. corn stock Salt Dash of Crystal hot sauce (or tabasco)
Cut the kernels from the ears of corn. (Schade recommends placing the cob on a cutting board and slicing one side of the kernels from the cob. Rotate the cob so the cut side is against the board and slice the second side. Repeat on the last two sides of the cob. See photo above.) You can also then scrape the cobs with a knife or a handy little tool called a corn slitter to remove any remaining kernels and juice.
If you need corn stock, place the scraped cobs in a large pot (a Dutch oven or pasta pot) and barely cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve.
While simmering the stock, chop the onions. Melt butter in a large pot and add onions. Sauté until translucent, stirring constantly to avoid browning. (Schade says it's critical not to brown the onions.) Add corn kernels and stir to combine then add corn stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer 5 minutes. (Remember Gibson's advice: do not cook the corn!)
Remove from heat and immediately strain the corn mixture through a sieve or colander, reserving the stock for another use. Put the corn in a blender, making sure not to overfill the blender; you can do this in batches—remember that hot liquids can explode out of a blender, so Schade advises holding down a thick towel over the lid of the blender while running it. Purée until completely smooth.
Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a large soup pot. If you're straining several batches, you can add strained bits of corn mixture back to the next batch to purée and strain. Discard the strained remains in the compost. Schade stresses that it's better for the soup to be thick since extra liquid can be added to thin out the soup but extra liquid can’t be removed. Start thick and thin to perfect texture.
When all the corn mixture has been strained into the soup pot, add 1 tsp. of hot sauce and salt to taste. (Schade recommends no more than 1 Tbsp. hot sauce for 2 quarts of soup; he said "the hot sauce is not for heat but for the vinegar to brighten the flavor.")
Heat briefly before serving, taste for seasonings and garnish with a pat of butter and grinding of pepper.
There are several homes in our neighborhood whose residents (current or former) planted grapes that, every spring, faithfully start producing leaves and vines that twine themselves around fences, trees or any stationary object, sporting clusters of teensy, pinhead-sized baby grapes. Most are table types, deep purple and seeded—contributor Anthony Boutard calls them "fecund"—with a few that are seedless, though their specific varieties have been lost to time.
So it was fortuitous that my friend, gifted cook and writer Denise della Santina, called and asked if I wanted to get together to make Greek-style stuffed grape leaves, the kind her mother used to make. Now, Denise's mother wasn't Greek, but she and Denise's father lived a peripatetic life, traveling extensively all over Europe with their three kids in tow, moving back and forth across the country as easily as they traversed oceans, eating and drinking and immersing themselves in the places they found themselves. It was almost the exact opposite of my own WASP-ish, Oregon-centric upbringing.
"We lived in Greece for five-plus years, so our Greek street cred is far better than elsewhere," Denise said. "Mom learned from the village ladies even before she could speak the language."
Am I envious? Why yes, yes I am!
Denise said she'd get the supplies for the stuffing if I could find some grape leaves. I said I'd do my best.
I arrived at her house the next morning with a shopping bag stuffed full of leaves of various sizes, which turned out to be helpful, since we could use the smaller ones for stuffing and the larger leaves for covering the rolls while they cooked. She trimmed the stems and softened them in a pot of salted water on the stove while I chatted from the doorway—pandemic, remember—then brought them out to the deck where I proceeded to separate and dry the leaves.
Ever the efficient project manager, Denise had cooked and cooled the onions the night before so she could combine them with the meat and spices just before I arrived. In proper socially distanced fashion we set up our work stations at opposite ends of the long table, scissors at the ready should we need to clip some tough leaf veins and a big pot of the meat-rice mixture each.
She showed me how to lay the leaf with the underside up and the stem end toward me, and to place a small amount—a tablespoon or less—at the stem joint, folding up the leaf ends to cover it. Then, like a burrito, the sides were folded in and the whole thing was rolled up tightly.
For the next ninety minutes or so we sat and rolled (and rolled some more), eventually filling up our trays with the shiny packets as we caught up on friends and family and summer events. It put me in mind of the kind of repetitive, calming work that women in my family did when I was growing up, sharing stories and gossip while snapping beans or doing dishes—you wash, I'll dry—or folding clothes fresh off the clothesline.
It was a gift of near-normalcy, a small break, a time out that I sorely needed. Not to mention that dinner was done, a bonus in itself! Thanks, my dearest Denise.
Della Santina Stuffed Grape Leaves
For the stuffing: 60-75 grape leaves, about 6" in diameter* 3 onions, minced finely (a processor works for this) 2 lbs. ground lamb (or a combination of beef and lamb) 1/2 c. uncooked long-grain rice 1/4 c. mint, chopped fine 3 Tbsp. dried mint (dried plus fresh gives added dimension) 3 Tbsp. olive oil (more if your meat is lean) 1 tsp. salt to start and generous grinding of pepper (see note)
For cooking the stuffed grape leaves: 1 c. water (or so) 1/2 c. lemon juice 1/2 c. olive oil
If you're using freshly picked leaves, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While it is heating, prepare the leaves by snipping off the stems and any thick vein ends. When the water boils, place the leaves in the boiling water and simmer for five minutes until softened and pliable (they'll turn dark green). Drain in a colander and run cold water over them until they can be handled.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat and sauté the onions until they're translucent and tender. Cool to room temperature.
While onions cool, take the blanched leaves and pat them dry with paper towels. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooled onions with the meat, mint and olive oil and some salt and pepper.
NOTE: To test for salt, pepper and mint, heat a small frying pan over medium-high heat and brown a small amount of the meat before you add the uncooked rice; rice will dilute the saltiness. Taste and adjust salt.
Once you're satisfied with the salt level in the meat mixture, mix the uncooked rice into the meat.
Take one leaf and lay it with the shiny side down and the veined underside up, with the base of the leaf toward you. Place a tablespoon (or less if it's a smaller leaf) of the meat mixture at the base near the joint. Bring the bottom lobes up over the meat and fold in the sides (like a burrito). Then roll the packet up toward the point of the leaf. It should make a tight packet. Repeat until you've used all the meat. At this point you can store the stuffed grape leaves in the refrigerator until you're ready to cook them.
To cook the stuffed grape leaves, pour three tablespoons of olive oil into a large Dutch oven. Place the stuffed leaves into the pot, stacking them in layers if necessary. Pour the water, lemon juice and remaining olive oil over them. The water should barely cover the stuffed leaves. If it doesn't add more. Top with more leaves (fresh are fine, too) and cover with a plate to hold it all down.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cover the pot with a lid. Cook for 45 minutes to an hour until the rice is done (test at 45 minutes and add time until meat is cooked, rice is very soft and the leaves are tender). Transfer to a platter, bathe in more lemon juice and olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
You'll also want to consider making tzatziki, a simple combination of yogurt, grated cucumber and crushed garlic.
* You can also use the preserved grape leaves that come in a jar. There are approximately 55 leaves in a 2-lb. jar.
We're heading into the height of summer and, along with an avalanche of fruit and vegetables cascading in from local fields, we're also going to be hitting some mighty warm temperatures in the coming weeks. Gorgeous weather? You bet! But 100 degrees is not the time to be pulling out the braising pot or turning on the oven.
And while grilling is a good solution to beating summer's heat when you need to put dinner on the table, it's good to vary the rotation, too. Which is where a back-pocket selection of simple dinner salads can come into play.
You don't have to heat up the house with hours of cooking, since most grains only need a half hour or so to get tooth-tender. Even soaking a pound of beans overnight then simmering them for an hour first thing in the morning can give you enough for a week's worth of meals.
I've put together a list of my favorite summer salads to keep your cool during the upcoming summer weather. Any would make a filling dinner all their own, and a couple could be a terrific complement to whatever you've got grilling.
Leftover Salmon Salad
2-3 c. leftover salmon, flaked 1/2 med. bulb fennel, sliced thinly 1 Tbsp. fennel fronds, chopped 2 med. plums, halved and sliced thinly 1-2 Tbsp. capers 2 green onions, sliced thinly 3 Tbsp. pine nuts, toasted 2 Tbsp. olive oil Juice of 1/2 lemon, added to taste Salt, to taste
Put salmon, fennel, fennel fronds, plums, capers, green onions and pine nuts in large mixing bowl. Drizzle olive oil over the ingredients and add half of lemon juice. Toss gently to combine but don't break up the salmon too much. Adjust lemon juice and add salt to taste.
This would be a great lunch salad or light entrée served on a bed of fresh-from-the-garden (or farmers' market) lettuce. It would also be terrific combined with pasta or a cooked grain like farro, barley or parched green wheat (frikeh).
15-Minute Ramen Noodle Salad with Kimchi
For the dressing: 1/3 c. canola or peanut oil 2 Tbsp. rice vinegar 1 Tbsp. garlic 2 tsp. tamari 2 Tbsp. white miso 1 tsp. gochugaru (optional) 1 tsp. roasted sesame oil
For the salad: 12 oz. fresh ramen noodles (not dried) 1/2 c. kimchi, chopped 1 Persian cucumber (can substitute 1/2 c. chopped English cucumber) 1 Tbsp. chopped chives for garnish
Bring a pot of water to rolling boil.
While the water is heating, make the dressing by placing all ingredients in a blender and blend at high speed until well puréed.
When the water comes to a boil, gently pull apart ramen noodles while adding them to the water. Tease the strands apart with chopsticks while the water returns to a boil and reduce heat to simmer. Cook for two minutes, stirring occasionally to keep noodles from clumping. When they're done, drain them in a colander and rinse in cold water to stop them from cooking further.
Chop kimchi into bite-sized pieces. Quarter the cucumber and slice crosswise into 1/8” slices. Place noodles, kimchi, cucumber and dressing in serving bowl and combine. Garnish with chives.
Corn Salad with Avocado Crema
For the corn salad: 1 15-1/2 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed 4 ears corn, kernels sliced fresh off the cob 1/2 red onion, halved lengthwise and slivered crosswise 1/2 large cucumber, seeded and diced, or two small Persian cucumbers, chopped 1 large ripe tomato, chopped (about 2 c.) 1 Tbsp. fresh-squeezed lime juice 1 Tbsp. olive oil Salt to taste
For the avocado crema: 1 c. milk 1 clove garlic 2 avocados 2 Tbsp. lime juice 1 c. sour cream Salt to taste
In a large mixing bowl combine the black beans, corn kernels, onion, cucumber and tomato. Pour in the lime juice and olive oil and stir gently to mix.
In the bowl of a food processor pour in the milk and add the garlic, avocados and lime juice. Process until completely smooth, scraping down the sides as necessary to incorporate all the ingredients. Add sour cream and pulse until just mixed, then add salt to taste.
The crema makes nearly four cups, which is more than enough to serve a small amount alongside the salad, but it is also spectacular as a dip for chips or in tacos or burritos. It'll keep for at least a week stored in the fridge, so don't be afraid to make the whole batch. (It can also be halved if you don't want to make the whole amount.)
Nectarine and Cherry Salad with Roasted Hazelnuts
1 1/2 lbs. nectarines (yellow or white) sliced 1 1/2 c. Bing cherries, pitted and halved 1/2 c. roasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped
Combine all ingredients (reserving some chopped nuts) in a bowl and toss. Garnish with remaining hazelnuts.
For the salad: 2 c. stale bread, cut in 1" cubes 4 oz. sliced bacon, cut crosswise in 1/4" pieces 3 medium-sized tomatoes, chopped in 1" cubes 1 small head iceberg lettuce or 1 medium head romaine, chopped
For the dressing: 1/4 c. mayonnaise 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar 2 Tbsp. olive oil 3 Tbsp. buttermilk or whole milk 1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard Salt and pepper to taste
To make this more-than-just-a-tomato salad-with-bacon, start by cooking about a quarter pound of good bacon until it's crispy. Set the bacon aside and add a couple of handfuls of cubed bread to the bacon fat. If there's not enough to really coat the bread, add some extra virgin olive oil. Toast the bread until it's lightly browned.
Add dressing ingredients to a large salad bowl and whisk to combine. Add salad ingredients and toss well to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Kale, Lentil and Nectarine Salad
3 c. lacinato kale, sliced into chiffonade 2 c. cooked lentils 1/4 red onion, chopped fine 1/2 cucumber, seeded, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise 1 red bell pepper, roasted and thinly sliced into 1" long pieces 2 nectarines, chopped into 1/2” pieces Juice of 1 lemon 1/4 c. olive oil Salt to taste
Combine ingredients in large salad bowl. Toss. Adjust seasonings.