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A melon made sippable

For someone who expends a lot of energy on her meals, I’m a tad lazy when it comes to their attendant beverages. I mean, I like a good glass of wine—or beer, or Lillet, or port, or gin—as much as the next girl, but for me, it’s kind of an afterthought. I need something to moisten the taste buds, of course, but it’s secondary to the meal itself. In some circles, this is tantamount to blasphemy, I know, but eh, well, it’s just the way I am.

I could, I guess, blame it on my laughable inability to hold my liquor. (Legend has it that I once had a couple of beers and, with a slow roll of the head, innocently asked, “How many sheets to the wind is it, again?”) But that’s not entirely it. After all, the second-class status of beverages in my book is not limited to those alcoholic. Heck, I can’t even remember the last time I had a cup of tea or coffee—an admission that may cause me to lose, sob!, all social standing in Seattle—and come to think of it, I seem to only drink juice on special mornings involving menus and waitresses and tables sticky with syrup. Most of the time, I just drink water. I am very well hydrated, and boring. But give me a beer, and I swear, I can make up for the boring part before the bottle is even empty. You won’t believe how entertaining I am.

Now, all this said, you can well imagine my surprise when, yesterday evening, as the clock turned to dinner, my eye fell upon a ripe French Orange melon in our refrigerator, and my first instinct was oddly not to slice it and eat it, but rather to sip it, of all things. This melon would have been fine, mind you, on the end of a fork or cradled in a spoon, but something took hold of me, and by god, it wanted a beverage.

So, working from a rough soup recipe that came with our CSA box, we whizzed together cubes of juicy melon with wine, lime juice, a pinch of salt, and just enough sugar to make the fruit sit up and sing. For this type of melon, it didn’t take much: a hybrid cross between the smooth-skinned French Charentais melon and the more nubbly, netted-skinned American cantaloupe, the dainty French Orange has sweet, dense, silky flesh and a rich, pregnant aroma that fills the kitchen. Its flavor is not unlike a cantaloupe—but the best cantaloupe to ever cross your lips. And made sippable with lime and sauvignon blanc, cross the lips it does, easily.

A glass of this would make a perfect partner for a platter of prosciutto or Serrano ham, or slices of baguette with butter, radish slivers, and salt. We quaffed ours with a salad of sliced lemon cucumbers, which we then chased with warm ratatouille, poached eggs, and baguette. With the possible exception of the melon itself, straight up, it’s hard to imagine anything better suited to a late-August evening. And for a beverage, you know, that means a lot.

Melon Made Sippable
Adapted from Willie Green’s Organic Farm and Renee Erickson of Boat Street Café

This cool, refreshing sip comes together in five minutes flat, and served icy cold, it’s my new favorite way to start a late-summer dinner. Be sure to start with a cold melon and cold wine: you’ll want to serve this chilled, so using cold ingredients is a good head start.

1 ripe French Orange melon (~2 pounds), or a really good cantaloupe
½ Tbs granulated sugar, or more, depending on melon’s sweetness
Juice of ½ lime, or to taste
½ cup light, crisp white wine, such as sauvignon blanc
A pinch of salt
A few sprigs of fresh mint, for garnish

Quarter the melon, and scoop out the seeds. Working with one quarter at a time, set the wedge on its side to steady it, and then carefully trim the skin away from the flesh with a sharp knife. Discard the skin, and cut the flesh into rough chunks.

In a blender, purée the melon with the sugar, lime juice, wine, and salt. Taste, and adjust as needed.

Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled: if you’ve started with a cold melon and cold wine, you won’t have to wait long. Stir well before serving—the liquids tend to separate slightly from the suspended solids—and finish with a garnish of mint, if you like.

Yield: 2 (or 3 modest) servings


List-maker, tart-baker

I am a list-maker. In fact, if I were deemed eligible for some sort of “World Champion” title, it would most likely be for my skill at making lists, although I am awfully good at lip-synching too, and crying, and balancing my checkbook, and scraping my breakfast bowl clean. (“What are you hammering in there?” Brandon yells from the bedroom. “Let me guess—a nail in the baseboard? No, no, wait! A birdfeeder for the backyard? No, no, I know! Your breakfast!” he shouts, ever the wise guy, over the ping! ping! ping! of my spoon against the bowl.) Yes, as I was saying, I am good at many, many things, but I am a true champion at lists.

I love lists. They’re so liberating. I can purge my entire brain onto a piece of paper, and Look! There it is! I don’t have to think about things anymore, because the paper does it for me. I can see exactly what needs to be done, and then I can decide what to do—or, even better—what not to do. [Oh, sweet liberty!] Most days come with a list, and some weekends do too. Under my roof, even the grocery list has a little space of its own, albeit a small, fat-splattered one on the shelf next to the stove, beside a looming pile of cookbooks. But my favorite variation on the theme, my pet list, is a messy Post-It that sticks in my agenda. It is the nerve center, the motherboard, the county seat. It is my list of what to cook. Because some days, you know, you forget. And if there’s one thing better than a delicious meal, it’s got to be a delicious meal that lets you check something off the list.

This tart is both. It’s been on the Post-It—one item of, oh, eleven—for at least a month now, waiting for a few pounds of good Roma tomatoes to make it possible. I tore the recipe from a magazine a few summers ago on a trip home to see my mother, who always plants a fat, shiny pile of recent food magazines and other ragtag mail—the newsletter from my grade school, say, or the society pages from Oklahoma City Friday, “The Newspaper for Oklahoma’s Trendsetters!”—on my bed as a welcome-home present. (My mom knows just what I like.) To make a long story short, said recipe joined me for the trip back to Seattle and has, in the summers since, taken up permanent residence in my seasonal repertoire. It’s an old friend of sorts, one I’ve been wanting to introduce you to. Hence, you see, its presence on the list.

And if you know a good thing when you see it, you’ll add it to your list too. Bright with the summery, sweetly acidic flavor of tomatoes, this tart tastes like the color red incarnate, a lush, vibrant, saturated flavor. I like to think of it as a cousin to pizza, one with a frilly collar and a French accent. Under its layers of thyme-and-oil-roasted tomatoes lies a thin cushion of cheese and a basecoat of mustard mixed with crème fraîche, whose soft dairy tang brings a creamy quality to the sweet-tart tomatoes. Gathered together in a tart shell made with plenty of butter, this thing calls for some serious plate-scraping, if not “World Champion” status.

Roasted Tomato Tart with Crème Fraîche and Thyme
Inspired by Food & Wine, June 2003

This tart is a tad labor-intensive, but if you’ve got time to spare on a Sunday afternoon, it’s well worth the effort. And as an added benefit—a gift with purchase, if you will—you’ll get a wonderfully fragrant kitchen too. As Brandon said, pointing to the oven, “That smells amazing.” In a pinch, you can try leaving the skins on the tomatoes: the texture of the finished tart filling won’t be as uniform and silky, but it’ll still taste good, and it’ll take less time. Also, depending on what’s in your garden or at your local farmers’ market, you can try using other types of thyme. We used lemon thyme, because that’s what we had.

4 lbs ripe plum tomatoes, trimmed, halved, and seeded
¼ cup olive oil
1 Tbs fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt
2 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ batch Martha Stewart’s pâte brisée without sugar (enough for one 9-inch tart), unbaked, or your favorite savory pastry recipe
2 Tbs crème fraîche
1 Tbs whole grain mustard
½ cup finely shredded gruyère cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and place racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven.

In a large mixing bowl, toss the tomatoes with olive oil, thyme, and a generous pinch or two of salt. Arrange the tomatoes, cut side down, on a rimmed baking sheet, and pour over them any oil that is left in the bowl. Slide the tomatoes into the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the tomatoes from the oven, and let them sit for about 5 minutes. Working carefully, remove the tomato skins. [I find that a pair of rubber gloves—the yellow, snug-fitting kind that you might wear when you wash dishes—helps here, but if your fingers are less heat-sensitive than mine, you might be just fine without them.] Turn the tomatoes cut side up, nestle the slices of garlic into their flesh, and roast for 30-35 minutes more, until the tomatoes look a little dry and the garlic is pale golden. Let the tomatoes cool.

While the tomatoes cook, roll out the pâte brisée on a lightly floured surface. Press it gently into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, and fold in the overhang to reinforce the sides. Trim away any excess dough. Chill the tart shell until the tomatoes are finished roasting.

When the tomatoes are ready, line the tart shell with aluminum foil and fill with pie weights. Bake the tart shell for 30-35 minutes, or until just set. Remove the foil and the weights, and bake the tart shell for 5 minutes longer, or until pale golden.

In a small bowl, mix the crème fraîche and the mustard; then spread the mixture evenly over the bottom of the tart shell. Sprinkle the cheese on top. Arrange the tomatoes in the tart shell in two layers, cut side up. Bake the tart for 25 minutes, or until the tomatoes are just beginning to brown at their edges. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Yield: 6 servings, for an appetizer or a light lunch


A reconciliation, with sorbet

As a kid, I was no fan of summer. I grew up in Oklahoma, where the season is “hotter than h-e-l-l,” as my grandmother likes to say. For me, summer was a sort of sustained misery. The problem was the temperature, plain and simple, which hovers most days in the upper double digits or even lower triples. It’s a still, airless type of heat, the kind that comes with a loud, unceasing soundtrack of cicadas. I used to feel sorry for even the family car, sitting as it did out in the sun: it shimmered under a haze of heat, and when we tried to start it, the poor thing would sputter and whine in protest. Not even a machine should be made to move in such heat. And if you tried to escape it by, say, going into a store or movie theater or someone’s house, the relief only lasted a minute or two, until your teeth started chattering uncontrollably. In most places, the air conditioning was so cold that it required—quite paradoxically—keeping a sweater on hand at all times, just in case. One word, people: h-e-l-l.

But then along came Seattle, with its (mainly) 70-degree summers and its warm—not scorching!—sun. Here, you can survive without air conditioning, and you can eat dinner outside without dying on the spot. This is a city that knows how it’s done. With each passing year, I find myself settling ever deeper into the happy, trusting, summer stupor familiar to dwellers of such climates, knowing that the season will be kind and gentle and that any errant heat waves will be short and only moderately sweaty. Yesterday, as we puttered around the city with our windows down, I actually heard myself say to Brandon, “I just love summer!” I am a changed woman, Seattle.

And it’s not strictly because of matters thermometric: there’s a whole wealth of side benefits too, mainly gastronomical. There’s something about summer in a clement zone, a city where the outdoors and in share the same, easy climate, that inspires in me a likewise easy sensibility about the stuff on my plate. Summer begs for unfussy food, of course, but it also gives it, hand over fist. No other season makes it so easy to eat so well. In the past week, we’ve spent only an hour or two in the kitchen, because, by god, we can. There’s been cold carrot soup, a few salads, and an entire weekend of corn and tomatoes and fresh cheese, repeating like a chorus. I love summer.

And then there are the blackberries in the backyard, which hang from the branches like a few hundred fat cicadas, only quieter. It’s a regular glut out there, the kind of scene that would make any responsible person feel a little panicked, summery stupor or no. So a few evenings ago, in the spirit of the season, we gave the blackberry bush a good, athletic picking, and then we did something really easy: we made sorbet.

With a dark, velvety hue somewhere between burgundy and purple, this sorbet straddles the fence, flavor-wise, between wine and fruit. In fact, it contains both, but the former is just a hint: a sophisticated, suggestive finish to a mouthful of mostly unmessed-with berries. It’s the way I like my summers. It’s h-e-a-v-e-n.

Blackberry Bonny Doon Sorbet

We used Bonny Doon’s delicious “Framboise” dessert wine for this, but you could certainly play with using other types, or even a good crème de cassis. Framboise is made from raspberries—hence its name, en français—and has wonderfully intense, rich, sweet-tart flavor. It doesn’t come through forcefully in the sorbet, but if you look for it, it’s there. Also, the presence of a bit of alcohol helps to keep the sorbet from getting rock-hard in the freezer, which is always a bonus in my book. You never know when you’ll need a spoonful straight from the container.

2 lbs fresh blackberries, washed but not thoroughly dried
4 Tbs light corn syrup*, plus more to taste
¾ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
¼ cup Bonny Doon Framboise dessert wine

Place half of the berries in the bowl of a food processor, and purée until very smooth. Remove the puréed berries to a bowl, and repeat with the remaining berries. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the corn syrup, sugar, water, and ½ cup of the berry purée. Place the pan over medium heat, and warm the mixture, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat to medium high, and boil the mixture for 1 minute. Remove from the heat, and let cool for ten or so minutes.

Add the sugar mixture to the berry purée, and stir until smooth. Add ¼ cup dessert wine, and stir to incorporate. Using a fine-mesh sieve, strain the mixture to remove any lumps and seeds; you may need to use a rubber spatula or spoon to gently push the purée through the sieve. Rinse the sieve well; then strain the purée again. This helps to ensure a very smooth texture. Taste the finished purée: it should be slightly sweeter than you want it to be. (Once it is frozen, it will taste less sweet.) If needed, add more corn syrup a teaspoon at a time, stirring well with each addition. [We added about a tablespoon, but this will vary according to the sweetness of your berries.]

Place the purée in the refrigerator until thoroughly chilled, and then freeze it in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Yield: 1 generous quart

* There is a lot of controversy these days about corn syrup, but I choose to include it in some ice creams and sorbets because it helps to ensure a smooth, less icy texture.


On cold soup

When it comes to cold soups, I’m of two minds. Part of me says that cold soup is as close as it gets to perfect summer fare. I mean, it’s only logical: so many of the season’s fruits and vegetables take well to cold preparations, and anyway, there’s something about a hot, steamy day that begs for a cool, quenching soup. But the other part of me can’t quite get behind it. Sometimes savory flavors don’t sit right when served cold and puréed: the taste doesn’t seem to fit the temperature and texture. Cold soups can taste harsh and kind of squeaky in the mouth, but their flavors seem somehow muted too, without the aroma and richness of their warmer siblings. And moreover, it just feels weird to sip cold liquid from a spoon. Cold liquids, this part of me argues, should be sipped from a frosty glass, or maybe taken through a straw, like a milkshake. Cold soups are not, sadly, much like milkshakes.

By this point, you can probably tell which of my two minds I usually think with. Which is why, when Brandon pointed out a recipe for a chilled carrot-ginger soup in a recent Gourmet, I nodded my approval with only mild enthusiasm. The list of ingredients sounded pretty good—especially with the presence of avocado and curry—but well, you know. Let’s just say that I didn’t exactly rush out in search of a stash of carrots. A week or so went peacefully by, sans cold soup, and then, on Saturday, it happened: my eye—cursed wandering eye!—fell upon a five-pound bag of organic carrots at Whole Foods. And what’s more, it was only $2.99. Two ninety-nine, people. I was powerless.

So today I came home from work to find Brandon in the kitchen and three cups of fresh carrot juice in the blender, soon to be joined by an avocado, lime juice, ginger, and salt. They whirred together for barely a minute—just enough time, say, for a girl to trade her high heels for bare feet—and then dinner was ready.

A vivid orange, almost iridescent, this soup is one of the prettiest things to land atop our table this season. It is also quite stunningly delicious—“even better,” Brandon said in mid-mouthful, “than the sum of its parts.” Silky smooth and subtly sweet, the beguilingly simple carrot base is spiced up with the zing of fresh ginger and a gentle kick from lime. The avocado blends in almost imperceptibly, its subtle richness serving as a sort of culinary cashmere blanket, I like to imagine, to soften and unite the soup’s flavors. Heck, even I liked it. It’s pretty perfect summer fare, I must admit—no matter how many minds you have.

Gingered Carrot Soup with Avocado
Adapted from Gourmet, August 2006

This soup is easy, easy, easy, and it would make an elegant prelude to a dinner from the grill—maybe flank steak or fish, with a few baby potatoes. [We, um, followed our soup with some garlic knots, but that’s not necessarily recommended.] The only thing to fuss over is the carrot juice: it must be fresh, either juiced at home or bought fresh from the refrigerated section of your grocery store. Don’t be tempted to grab the canned or bottled stuff. We juiced ours at home, and it took less than five minutes, so if you have a juicer, now’s the time to dust it off and use it! You’ll need three or four pounds of carrots to make three cups of juice.

2 medium firm-ripe Hass avocados
3 cups fresh carrot juice (see note, above)
¾ tsp salt
5 tsp fresh lime juice
2 tsp finely grated peeled fresh ginger
A pinch of good-tasting curry powder
Crunchy sea salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel

Quarter the avocados; then pit and peel them.

In a blender, purée 1 avocado with the carrot juice, salt, 4 tsp of the lime juice, and the ginger until very smooth.

Cut the remaining avocado into small dice, and gently toss with the remaining teaspoon of lime juice, curry powder, and a pinch of sea salt.

Serve the soup with a generous spoonful of the seasoned avocado dice.

Yield: About 4 appetizer-size servings