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9.29.2008

On cue

I don’t make many demands around here, but today, I have to. So listen up. (Please.)

Get a pen and a piece of paper. Then write the following:

4 large tomatoes
1 yellow onion
Arborio rice
Fresh basil
Breadcrumbs
Potatoes

Now, go to the grocery store or market or wherever, and buy everything you wrote down. Go on! And don’t forget to preheat the oven. Tonight, for dinner, you are having Luisa Weiss’s tomatoes filled with rice. (With a couple of potatoes on the side.)


This photograph hardly does them justice, but trust me: you are going to love these tomatoes. I say that as someone who doesn’t, under ordinary circumstances, even like tomatoes filled with rice. Prior to last night, my only experience with them was in the dining hall in college, which I would rather not talk about, and at a couple of banquets in hotel ballrooms, the kind with cottony chicken breasts and canned green beans and lighting that makes your eyes hurt. Tomatoes filled with rice were nothing to write home about - or to even finish. Come to think of it, the same goes for stuffed bell peppers. Lots of people love them, I know, but I’ve never had one that did much for me. When confronted with a stuffed pepper, I often find myself wishing that there were some cheese involved, or, if there is cheese, that there were a lot more of it. I find myself wishing, I guess, that there were something to tie the whole thing together: the rice, its seasonings, and their edible container. And, I don’t know. I kind of wonder why the pepper is there at all. I mean, why a pepper? Why? This, as you can imagine, has a tendency to lead to all sorts of existential questioning, which makes it very hard to get up in the morning, much less look happily upon a display of bell peppers at the market.

I think you see where I am going here. I was not hard-wired to love anything filled with anything. But I do now. And I, or we, have Luisa to thank.

If you have spent any time reading her site, you will know that Luisa has family in Italy, and that she visits them as often as she can, and that she has a way of writing about them and their cooking that makes you sigh contentedly, reach for a Kleenex, pick up the telephone and tell your mother that you love her, and turn on the oven, in that order. That is the highest praise I can give to anyone, and I mean every word of it. She also has incredible taste in food. She has never, ever, led me astray. So when, last year, she described her recipe for tomatoes filled with rice, an Italian classic, I had to print it out. Had to.

Sadly, this is not to say that I made it immediately, which I now greatly regret. I added it to my “to make” pile, but somehow, I forgot about it, and it was slowly buried under a steady influx of other clippings and print-outs. I feel awful about it. But this past weekend, when I was looking for a particular cake recipe, I pulled the pile down from its home atop the bookshelf in the hall and, after choking briefly on the dust, began leafing through it. I didn’t find the cake recipe, but about halfway down, lo and behold, there were Luisa’s tomatoes. As though on cue. Only a year late.

Which is how it came to pass that last night, I scooped the pulpy insides from a few fat tomatoes, briefly stewed said pulp with Arborio rice and herbs, spooned it back into the tomatoes, topped the whole thing with fresh breadcrumbs and an unflinching splash of olive oil, and, an hour and a half later, fell madly in love, and I now recommend that you do the same. In the heat of the oven, the tomatoes relaxed and sweetened, splitting voluptuously at the seams, their flavor concentrating and ripening. Inside them, the rice and tomato juices turned into something almost risotto-like: rich and fragrant, soft but thick, surprisingly creamy. And on top, the oiled breadcrumbs went crispy and toasted, a perfect foil for the spoonable slurry underneath. Luisa had mentioned the possibility of throwing some sliced potatoes into the pan too, so I did. And that - plus some red wine, some bread, and a plate of cheeses and salami - was our dinner. On a cool Sunday night in late September, it is very, very hard, I think, to do better.

P.S. Wednesday is October 1, which puts all of us (in the northern hemisphere) a lot closer to having no good tomatoes. SO HURRY.


Luisa Weiss’s Tomatoes Filled with Rice
Adapted from this recipe

I made my own breadcrumbs for this, but it’s not really necessary. It is nice, though. If you happen to have some leftover baguette lying around, or some crusty white bread or something like that, it will take you about 5 minutes. Just cut off the crust, cut the soft center into cubes, and whirl the cubes in a food processor until they are reduced to fine crumbs. (Only process a couple of handfuls at a time, though, or the motor of the machine could overheat.)

4 large, good-tasting tomatoes
1 small yellow onion, diced
Olive oil
1/3 cup Arborio rice
1/3 cup water
5 fresh basil leaves
Salt
Breadcrumbs
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, sliced into ¼-inch-thick rounds

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Cut the tops off the tomatoes. Holding them over a bowl, scoop out their insides – flesh, seeds, and juice – and let it all fall into the bowl. Set the tomatoes in a lightly oiled 9”x13” baking dish. Then fish the flesh out of the bowl, and chop it. Return it to the bowl with the juice and seeds.

In a medium (2-quart) saucepan, warm a glug of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and translucent. Add the rice, and continue to cook, stirring, for another minute or two. Add the tomato flesh, juice, and seeds – it may look like a lot, but add it all – as well as the water. Tear the basil leaves into small pieces, and add them too. Add a generous pinch or two of salt. Reduce the heat slightly, cover the pot, and simmer for 10 minutes. Taste, and if needed, add more salt.

Spoon the par-cooked rice mixture into the tomatoes. Top them with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs. Arrange the potato slices around the tomatoes in the pan. Give everything a good drizzle of olive oil. (You might want to flip and rub the potatoes a bit, to make sure that each has a nice coat of oil.) Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. The tomatoes should shrivel a bit and release some of their juices, and the potatoes should cook through.

Cool for 15 minutes or so before eating, so that the tomato juices have time to settle.

Yield: 4 servings

9.22.2008

Hello again, finally.

It feels so good to say that.

Thank you for your immensely kind comments last week, friends, and for waiting patiently while I plowed through a few deadlines. It’s always so nice to come back to this space after a little while away. It is also very nice, I hear, to sit on the couch with a good book and drink a beer. I hope I still remember how to do that. I also hope to clean the baseboards around our apartment sometime soon, because you would not believe how much dust those things can accumulate. Or maybe you would? Seriously. They’re like little tiny shelves - Barbie™-sized, almost - only instead of holding useful objects like tiny plates or tiny books, they hold tiny dirt.

Wow. It really is good to be back.


Now, I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but my birthday took place recently, in the midst of all the hullabaloo. It was a week ago yesterday, and it was my thirtieth. I’m not sure how that could possibly be, but seeing as my birth certificate says 1978, I’ve decided to go with it. Anyway, I don’t really mind the thought of entering another decade. A number of people have told me that their thirties were a very peaceful time, mellow and forgiving, and I like the sound of that. I’m ready. I also think that my thirties might be the time for a pair of red heels. My grandmother loves red shoes - she says they go with everything - and I do have her genes, after all.

But what I really wanted to tell you about was what we ate that night, last Sunday night, the night of my birthday. The refrigerator was almost empty, so we decided to go to Cafe Lago. It was late when we got there, and the kitchen was closing, but we managed to grab an order of ravioli and a serving of lasagna, along with a glass of prosecco for me and a beer for Brandon. Our friend Carla was working that night, and she kept us company while we ate. But when our plates were cleared, she sneaked away - she’s very sneaky, that Carla - and a few minutes later, she emerged from the kitchen with a wide, flat bowl. Inside it were two halves of a grilled peach, topped with a scoop of honey ice cream.


Needless to say, we did not protest. We picked up our spoons and dug in. The peaches were warm and tender, having been cooked over apple wood until their juices went thick and sticky. They were lovely, perfectly late-summer, but in truth, the ice cream was even better. Sitting atop the fruit, it was melting quickly, forming a milky puddle at the bottom of the bowl, so we spooned it up like soup. Then we scraped the bowl. Even soft and half-melted, the ice cream was superlative: silky and delicate and surreally light, and faintly floral from the honey. I asked Carla how she had made it, and she smiled a little sheepishly. The recipe came from Alice Medrich, she said, and it was ridiculously easy. You just scald some milk, let it cool, stir in honey and salt and cream, and freeze it in an ice cream machine. Ba daa! The end. Happy birthday to me.

I made some yesterday, just to be sure that it really was that simple, and of course, it was. Which is why I am telling you about it today. So hurry up! Go make some. And while you’re at it, maybe grill a few peaches to go alongside? Or make a plum crisp? Or how about a cornmeal cake? Or no, wait, how about this: bake a batch of ginger cookies - the soft, chewy kind with a crinkly top - and turn them into ice cream sandwiches. I might even do that myself, come to think of it, if the couch doesn’t claim me first.



Honey Ice Cream
Adapted from Pure Dessert, by Alice Medrich

The original version of this ice cream calls for ½ cup honey, but I found that to be a bit too intense and sweet. I think, however, that it’s mainly a question of what type of honey you use. I used blackberry honey, which has a fairly strong flavor. If I had used something more dainty and mild, I think the result would have been more balanced. So, that said, I guess I would recommend starting with a bit less honey, no matter what type you use. Then taste and adjust to your liking.

½ cup whole milk
1/3 to ½ cup honey (see note above)
Slightly rounded 1/8 tsp. salt
2 ¼ cups heavy cream

In a small saucepan, warm the milk over medium heat until it begins to simmer gently around the edges. Pour it into a medium bowl, and allow to cool completely. (This will prevent curdling when the honey is added.) Add the honey and salt, and stir well to dissolve the honey. Stir in the cream. Taste, and adjust the amount of honey as needed. Cover and chill thoroughly, preferably overnight.

Freeze according to the instructions for your ice cream maker. Then, before serving, store the ice cream in the freezer until hard enough to scoop, at least 3 to 4 hours.

Yield: about 1 quart

9.16.2008

IOU

Well, I know it sometimes looks like things are all sunshine and Bordeaux around here, but I’m having sort of a rough week. It seems that I have bitten off more than I can chew lately - and unfortunately, I don’t mean that literally. I’m so sorry, guys, because I really would like to sit down today and catch up with you. But I just can’t.

I can, however, give you a rather triumphant picture of the sky. I took it about a month ago, on a very nice, calm evening, and it always makes me feel better.


I can also give you an IOU, if you will take it. Will you? Please? I promise to make good on it - and get things back to normal around here - next week. Promise.

9.09.2008

The least I can do

Hi again.

Thank you for taking such good care of the place while I was gone. That was a long way to go for only a week - and I have the jet lag to prove it - but wow oh WOW. It was good. You’ll have to wait until the article comes out to get the juicy details, but for now, how about a few pictures? You were so nice to cheer me on, and the least I can do is give you some photographs in return.

Do you think fourteen will be enough? I hope so.


On the way over, we had an eight-hour layover in Amsterdam. I had never had an eight-hour layover before, and I can’t say that I recommend them, but if you do happen to have one, you should make sure that you’re in Amsterdam.


The airport is conveniently attached to a train station, so we crammed our bags into a luggage locker, bought tickets, and went into town. We were only there for a few hours, but it was long enough to have a bowl of tomato soup with bread and butter, to wind our way through the narrow streets and between the canals, and to have a torrid love affair with about 1,000 bicycles. I don’t know what it was about the bikes in Amsterdam, but they stole my heart right out of my chest. They have upright handlebars and curvy fenders and sometimes a basket in front. They are old and battered and rusted in spots, as functional as can be, and in their utterly simple way, they are gorgeous. They’re like men’s lace-up dress shoes, the kind my dad used to wear with a suit: timeless, well-worn, almost romantic somehow.

I also liked the buildings. Especially this blue one here.


And in the late afternoon, the sun on the canals was nice too.


But we had somewhere else to go. Namely, Bordeaux. (Not Paris! I know, I know. I like to mix things up a little.)


This was my first time in Bordeaux, but having now spent six days there, I can say with some authority that it is a very lovely place. Especially in early September, when the sun shines almost every day, and the light in the evening makes the limestone buildings look glowy and golden, and you can walk around in jeans and flats and short sleeves and never get too hot or cold.



It is also very beautiful, no matter where you look. Whenever we crossed the Pont de Pierre, the stone bridge, I liked to look up at the street lamps.


And out in the countryside, you should always stop to look out at the vineyards along the road, even if you’re in a hurry.


Some of them are a bit much, but if you make good wine, I guess you can get away with things. Like erecting a giant wine bottle sculpture at the edge of the property.


And should it happen to rain, you can still have a good time. The view from the car is not half bad.


Plus, merlot grapes look very pretty when they are wet and drippy.


And so do sauvignon blanc grapes. Even if you are rushing to leave for a dinner reservation and get a shoeful of mud while you try to snap a photograph of them.


When you come back to the city, you can wear a different pair of shoes. Ideally something comfortable, for walking on paving stones and old cobblestones.


And when you get home, you can give those muddy shoes a good cleaning. As soon as you recover from the jet lag, of course.


P.S. Brandon and I are gearing up to teach another cooking class in Bellingham, and this time, the topic is quick pickles and basic jam. (Or, in other words, how to make the most of the farmers’ market before fall sets in for good. Eeek.) The class will be held on Tuesday, September 23, at 6:30 pm. For more information, or to register, call 360.927.4890, or e-mail classes (at) inthekitchenbellingham (dot) com.

9.02.2008

Out of Office AutoReply

Today I planned to give you a recipe for a roasted eggplant salad. It was kind of an Italian riff on ratatouille, only minus the tomatoes and plus a dressing of roasted garlic, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, and olive oil. I found the recipe a handful of years ago in one of my cookbooks, made it a couple of times, and loved it. I was thrilled when I thought of it again last week, because it’s the perfect thing for late summer, when the market tables are piled high with shiny-skinned eggplants and peppers.

Unfortunately, however, when I made it this weekend, it was totally underwhelming. Actually, it was more than underwhelming: it bordered on painful. It was so aggressively vinegary that it singed my sinuses. It could probably be marketed, I think, as some sort of perverse aromatherapy – a new-age alternative, maybe, to smelling salts. I don’t know what I was thinking when I made it before and ate it so happily, but on this go-round, my first thought was DEAR GOD, PLEASE SAVE MY MOUTH.

So, needless to say, I am not going to tell you any more about that today. And I am so sorry, because this means that I have no new recipe to give you this week. As I type this, I am sitting on the floor of the Amsterdam airport, en route to France(!) for my first travel writing assignment(!!). I will be there for the next week, eating and drinking and feverishly taking notes, pinching myself at regular intervals to make sure that I am not in fact sitting at my desk in Seattle, imagining the whole thing. I will also be hoping that my sinuses soon recover sufficiently that I can actually smell and taste again. That would be really nice.




But before I go, I would like to quickly call your attention to something that may actually be even more perfect for late summer than that eggplant salad. It’s not a new recipe, per se, but as these things go, it’s only slightly used. It’s the recipe for pomodori al forno that ran with my column in the September issue of Bon Appétit. I’ve been meaning to call it to your attention for a couple of weeks now, ever since the magazine came out, and I figure that now is as good a time as any. Yes? I hate leaving you empty-handed.

Pomodori al forno is an appetizer served at Café Lago, one of my favorite restaurants in Seattle, and is, as the name implies, a dish of oven-roasted tomatoes. But these are a very fine specimen of the genre. First, they are roasted long and slow with a bit of sugar and salt, dried oregano, and a good dose of olive oil. Then, when they are tender and a deep shade of scarlet, you transfer them to a bowl, layer them with lots of minced garlic and parsley, pour the (now tomato-infused) oil from the baking dish over the top, and let them marinate for a few hours. They wind up rich, concentrated, and sweetly pungent with garlic and herbs, and I have yet to meet a person who didn’t find them completely, completely addictive. Especially when served with goat cheese and toasts. And especially right now, when we should all be eating tomatoes by the dozen, before winter comes and steals them away.

Happy September, everybody. See you very soon.