Everyone and everything seems to be gluten-free these days.
I would roll my eyes, except for one thing: As much as I adore bread and pasta, I’ve noticed lately that bread and pasta don’t seem to love me. So I did a little experiment over the past few weeks, eliminating them along with other foods that contained wheat, and I have to say: I’ve never felt better. I don’t plan to be religious about this in any way — I’m not going to reject the crusty loaves of artisanal bread my friend Monica brings over from her fabulous Grandaisy Bakery, and if I’m faced with a lovely homemade pasta dinner at our neighbors’, I’m going to eat that too—and love it.
But for everyday, I’m finding plenty of alternatives to wheat: yogurt and fruit—maybe a hard-boiled egg—for breakfast; a big salad topped with crumbled goat cheese and sunflower seeds or sliced chicken for lunch; and masses of sweet roasted veggies for dinner with some kind of lean protein. My stomach is flat and my head is clear.
For a second I wondered how to reconcile this realization with my desire to make the incredible pork ragu I discovered last fall in the fabulous Dinner: A Love Story blog and book. I wrote about this particular sauce last year, and it was just as delectable when I made it again Friday night. Only this time, instead of serving mine over the pappardelle I gave everyone else, I ladled it into half of a roasted acorn squash. (Drizzle the squash with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper; and roast on 425 until soft.)
I first experienced this touch of brilliance at a dinner years ago cooked by our old friend Pat Clinton, who simmered a Mexican-style pork stew and served it up in small pumpkins. I found the combination and the presentation revelatory. What could be better for the Halloween/Thanksgiving season? So, wheat-sensitive or not, why not use this sweet, edible vessel for soup, stew, or meat sauce? Guaranteed, you won’t miss the pasta.
On a long and very steamy day last summer, I shot a series of ten cooking videos for ehow.com. I didn’t link to them because I didn’t love them (they’re too long and my hair is awful), but last week I defrosted a soup I made that day on camera, and it was so good I thought I should share it with you.
The recipe is for an Italian-style Lentil Soup. I’ve already posted one lentil soup in these pages—a spicy version that I adore. Whereas that one is rather beguiling, with garam masala and sherry, this one is straightforward—intensified with tomato paste and a splash of good balsamic vinegar. It’s rich and very flavorful, and absolutely right this time of year. Plus, it’s a snap—particularly with the ehow.com step-by step.
Italian-Style Lentil Soup
- 1 small onion, finely chopped (about ¾ cup)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 2 cups lentils, preferably the small dark green ones like lentils de puys
- 5 cups water
- 8 ounces beer or an additonal cup of water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons good quality aged balsamic vinegar
- In a large pot over low heat, cook the onion in the olive oil until soft, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Add the thyme and tomato paste and cook, stirring, for a minute or so.
- Add the lentils, water, salt and pepper, cover and cook 30-40 minutes, until the lentils are soft but not mushy. Turn off the heat and add two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. Drizzled each portion with a touch more before serving.
After making the ratatouille last week I was left with most of a bag of dried cranberries. I sometimes use them in orange-cranberry scones, but that’s for another day. This week, I concocted such a delicious salad that I ended up making it for lunch three times. As I was eating it today it occurred to me that it would be great with Thanksgiving dinner (or, really, as part of any fall menu).
Autumn Arugula Salad
This recipe serves one as a main-course lunch. Multiply the quantities depending on how many you’re serving. Also, I dress my salad very lightly. Use more oil and vinegar if you like.
- 1 tablespoon slivered almonds
- 2 cups baby arugula
- 1 tablespoon dried cranberries
- 1 ounce soft goat cheese
- 1 teaspoon good-quality balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon walnut oil (or olive oil if you prefer)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Toast the almonds in a dry pan or toaster oven until lightly golden. Combine arugula, almonds, cranberries, goat cheese. Drizzle with vinegar and oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss, taste for seasoning, and serve.
I went to the farmer’s market with my friend Judy Weinstein yesterday, as I often do on Fridays. The rain held off all morning, then started to come down just as we began to weave our way through stalls laden with autumn’s bounty. Somehow, the drizzle and dull gray light made the colors of the fat, shiny eggplants, deep green zucchini, and bright red and yellow bell peppers all the more resplendent.
I saw that there was just one thing to do: make ratatouille.
I use a recipe I got five years ago from Vicki Behm, a great artist and cook. Of all the wonderful dinners at her house, the one where Vicki made this is the most memorable and most delicious, because it was the first time she had cooked for us after going through aggressive treatment for breast cancer—a long period where she’d all but stopped entertaining (though she still had me over for long Balducci-bought lunches in her garden). The dinner invitation meant that she was well.
Vicki’s ratatouille, which she first ate at a dinner cooked by a friend of hers, chef Joe Ouellette, is superior to any I’ve had or made because in addition to the usual eggplant, summer squash, and bell-pepper combo, it calls for dried cranberries soaked in white wine vinegar, pitted olives, capers, fresh mint, and toasted pine nuts. The result is a bright, complex dish with a sweet and briny kick that tastes like something whipped up in a Sicilian kitchen. Vicki served her ratatouille with two roasted pork tenderloins wrapped in bacon and scattered with fresh thyme and rosemary. It was heavenly.
I wanted to pick up some pork from Bradley Farm—or as I always think of them, the two bearded guys at the farmer’s market with the beautiful herbs and baby lettuces. They always have a small selection of meat, and hang a big blackboard on the side of their truck that lists what’s in stock each week. I didn’t see pork loin or tenderloin, so I asked.
“Nope,” said Ray Bradley, who’s a former big-time chef.
“Chops?” I asked hopefully. Ray shook his head.
It was hard to read the blackboard, with its smudged scribbles and sweeping, casual erasures. Ray gestured to a big chicken, ensconsed in a clear plastic bag, sitting on a scale. “Killed it this week,” he said. I took it, but not for tonight’s ratatouille meal. Instead I roasted it for dinner last night on a bed of chopped leeks and lemon slices, in celebration of Teddy’s homecoming after three days away on the 5th grade class trip. That was one kick-ass chicken.
After the farmer’s market, I popped into Whole Foods and bought a few pork tenderloins. Cecile Bazelon—another great artist and cook— is coming to dinner, and I don’t know how many other people I’ll be feeding as Rex has a friend sleeping over for the three-day weekend. I don’t know who’s eating with us and who’s not, but I like to be prepared.
This morning I made the ratatouille. It’s so pretty before it’s had a chance to really stew – the colors of the vegetables are spectacular.
Tonight it will become a bed for the pork tenderloin, and what’s left will be lunch all week.
As I stirred this beautiful, fragrant vegetable stew I recalled another day, several years ago, when I made the same recipe. It was a few months into my mom’s illness and I remember dividing the ratatouille up into plastic containers, intending to give one to mom and maybe one to someone else—probably Judy. I mentioned it to my mother on the phone that day and was surprised when she said, “I don’t like ratatouille.”
“Really?” I asked.
“I don’t like eggplant.”
Huh. Who knew? Well I love it—and hopefully Cecile does too…
When Vicki emailed me the recipe she called it Joe’s Ratatouille, but it’s hers to me. Eat this on its own or over rice, or as a bed for roasted fish filets or pork tenderloin.
- ½ cup dried cranberries
- ¼ cup white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 large eggplants, cut into 3/4 inch cubes
- 4 to 5 zucchini and/or yellow summer squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 yellow or red bell peppers, ribs and seeds removed, 3/4 inch cubes
- 1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
- ½ cup pitted green olives
- 2 tablespoons capers
- ¼ cup pignoli nuts, toasted
- ½ cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
- Soak cranberries in vinegar and set aside.
- In heavy pan over medium-low heat, cook the onions in the oil until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook one minute, stirring. Add eggplant, zucchini, salt, pepper, and 3/4 cup water, and simmer 5 minutes. Add bell peppers and cook 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and thyme.
- Simmer, partly covered, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain cranberries and add to pot along with olives and capers. Simmer 15 minutes more and serve topped with pine nuts and mint.
Over the summer, on our way up to Maine or Vermont or the Adirondacks (I forget which—there was a lot of traveling), we stopped for lunch at a roadside chain restaurant that wasn’t a fast-food place but more like a Houlihan’s (it might have been a Houlihan’s), and I ordered the Mexican Tortilla Soup. Teddy took a taste and fell madly and deeply in love. (He ended up ordering his own bowl, for “dessert.”)
Last week I was inspired to try my hand at Teddy’s new favorite dish, and he seemed to approve. (The Modelo pictured above was for me.)
I realize the last recipe I gave you was also a spicy, tomato-y soup, but then again, what’s better than a tomato-y, spicy soup?
Spicy Chicken-Tortilla Soup
The heat of jalapeños varies wildly, so taste for spice and adjust your quantities accordingly.
- ½ medium onion, finely diced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
- ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
- 12 ounces diced canned (or boxed) tomatoes
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 2 chicken breasts, cut or shredded into bite-size pieces
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- Hot sauce, if desired
- 1 avocado, cut into thin slices
- ½ cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- Shredded Mexican blend or Jack cheese
- 1 cup restaurant-style tortilla chips, lightly crushed
- In a large pot, cook the onion in the oil over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, jalapeño, and cumin and cook for 2 minutes more.
- Add the tomatoes and cook and raise the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring, for a few minutes before adding the stock, chicken, and salt and pepper. Lower the heat and simmer gently about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding additional salt and pepper if needed.
- Ladle into shallow bowls and arrange garnishes on top. Serve with hot sauce on the side.
I love being a dinner guest. Eating at other people’s houses is very relaxing for me. I don’t have to do any planning or cooking, and I’m always interested in—and inspired by—other people’s food. I don’t think I’ve ever had a meal at a friends’ that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed.
I have, personally, served up my share of duds. (Remember the disastrous attempt at Nobu’s Miso Cod, Dan and Tia?)
And yet it is my dawning understanding that having me over for dinner isn’t always relaxing for my hosts.
It’s not that I’m a bad guest. I bring wine. I like to help. I run out of steam on the early side, so I don’t usually outstay my welcome. But apparently, some of my friends feel a little pressure and anxiety at the prospect of cooking for me.
Case in point: We had a brilliant meal at our friends’ Alex and Elizabeth’s last Friday. Intoxicating aromas greeted us the moment Alex opened the front door.
“Something smells amazing,” I said as I gave Liz a hug.
“Oh good. I feel a little intimidated cooking for you,” she said—or she said something to that effect.
I’ll tell you what I told her. Her cooking always delights me no end. I remember exactly what I ate at her table five years ago, because it was so memorably delicious. (Yes, I do have that kind of memory. I can’t remember the names of the people I met last week, but ask me what we ate…)
Liz handed me a glass of cold white wine in the kitchen, where a gorgeous, rustic-looking crumble was cooling on the counter. Pork tenderloins were marinating in a flavorful mixture, awaiting the grill. There was a big bowl of some kind of Morroccan-inspired orzo with chickpeas, chopped veggies, seeds, and aromatic spices.
It was the first chilly night of late summer, and Liz dug a cozy shawl out of the hall closet for me. Out in the garden, we sat at a big round table. Little girls with corkscrew curls sold us make-believe ice cream for the cost of a clothespin or a few colorful blocks. It had been a challenging summer for Alex and Elizabeth, yet here they were, cooking for old friends and toasting our time together.
Liz ladled deep-red soup from a stoneware pitcher into mugs, and it was astounding. Spicy, bright, and complex, it contained chunks of silky avocado and savory shrimp, along with layers and layers of flavor.
“You’ll never guess what the base of this soup is,” she challenged when we dug in. “Clamato.”
“What?” I said.
“Huh?” Mark said.
Neither of us had ever tasted Clamato juice. It was something we were only vaguely aware of, sitting there on supermarket shelves next to the tomato juice and V-8. But Mark wasn’t at all surprised when I sent him out for some two days later. We were having our next-door neighbors to dinner, and I didn’t have Elizabeth’s recipe. If she wasn’t on a weekend camping trip with her family in the wilds of Delaware, I would have called. Instead, I winged it.
The recipe below is my version of Elizabeth’s soup. I kid you not, it is awesome.
Don’t be afraid of the Clamato. And don’t be afraid to cook for me.
Or for anyone.
Gazpacho with Shrimp & Avocado
Substitute lumb crab meat for the shrimp if you like.
- ¼ cup finely diced red or white onion
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped (seeded) jalapeno, or to taste
- ½ cup finely chopped cilantro (or, for the cilantro averse, flatleaf parsley)
- 2 ripe avocados cut into 1/2-inch chunks
- ½ pound cooked shrimp cut into ½-inch chunks
- 32 ounces Clamato Juice
- Juice of a lime
- 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
- 10 drops of Tabasco
- ½ teaspoon Worchestershire sauce
- Fresh black pepper
- Combine the first five ingredients in a pitcher. (You may want to add half the jalapeno, taste, and then add more as desired.) Pour the juice over it. Stir and taste for seasoning. Add black pepper to taste.
- Chill at least an hour before serving.
Dinner at Lafayette the other night with Alex the Great and his friend Peter. We’re talking about fashion week — my life suddenly sounds a bit glamorous, doesn’t it? — and Peter says something about how crazy it is that the shows coincide with the Jewish holidays, which will surely have an impact on attendance. Then he utters a phrase that always makes me laugh:
“The holidays are so early this year!”
“Peter,” I reply, “They’re always either early or late. No one ever says, ‘Oh, the high holidays are right on time.’ “
Having made my point—and I’m right, don’t you think?—I will concede that the holidays feel awfully early this year. Temperatures are still in the 80s—there’s no way I’m braising brisket for hours or roasting anything that takes more than a few minutes in the oven. My kitchen isn’t air conditioned, and heavy roasts and braises just don’t feel seasonal now. In fact, I wouldn’t make brisket for this particular dinner anyway, because my sister and her gang are coming, and Karen and Rob are pescatarians.
So I started thinking about festive fish dishes that cook quickly, and came up with a few ideas: I could grill or roast wild salmon fillets and serve them over french lentils simmered in red wine, or do Arctic Char Over Wheatberries (or farro) with dried cherries and toasted nuts (pictured here).
I briefly considered making my Dinner Party Seafood Soup, but then remembered that shellfish is traif (i.e. not kosher) and while we are decidedly not kosher either, it feels wrong to fly in the face of actual religion on the high holidays. (There was the year my mother raised the idea of making a pork roast for Passover, until we all screamed with horrified, nervous laughter and convinced her that it might be a bad idea…)
At Lafayette I had a wonderful take on bouillabaise, where a fillet of black bass was the focus, rather than the shellfish (though there were lovely little cockles dotting the dish). I could, I suppose, eliminate the shellfish in my seafood stew altogether, and float fillets of cod or bass in the rich saffron-and-wine-infused fish stock…
I’m leaning toward the salmon, though, with a big pasta pesto on hand for any salmon-rejecting young’ns. The meal may not be traditional, but the salmon preparation does come from my mom—I think she got it from Mark Bittman—and it’s the way I always make it. (You’ll find the recipe in the post right below this one.)
Dessert will also be something she made a lot: her Purple Plum Crunch. (I mentioned this confection in a recent post that featured a summer fruit crumble, but it was too early for Italian plums, which are all over the farmer’s markets this week.) It may not be a honey cake (de rigeur for the new year), but since it’s just the right time of year for it, and will remind us of mom, I will replace some of the sugar with honey, and it will be just right.
Here’s to a happy, healthy, and delicious new year infused with memory and tradition, and ever evolving.
* * *
Purple Plum Crunch
Adapted from the Elegant But Easy Cookbook by Marian Burros and Lois Levine.
For the plums:
- 24 Italian plums, pitted and quartered
- ¼ cup honey (the original recipe calls for brown sugar)
- 3 tablespoons flour
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
For the topping:
- 1 cup sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 cup flour, sifted
- 1 stick unsalted butter, melted
- Heat oven to 375 degrees F. In the bottom of a shallow, 2-quart ungreased baking dish (I like to use an oval one) place the plums. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with flour and cinnamon. Toss with a fork, then spread evenly.
- Combine the topping ingredients and sprinkle evenly over plums. Drizzle with butter and bake 45 minutes. Serve with vanilla ice cream or lightly whipped cream if desired.
This recipe can easily be doubled (or reduced) depending on the number of people you’re serving. For a fancier dinner I like to roast individual pieces of salmon so everyone gets a neat presentation. For a more casual meal, I serve family style, mounding the lentils on a platter and placing one big fillet on top.
For the salmon:
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 4 6-ounce wild salmon fillets
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Salt and pepper
For the lentils:
- 1 small shallot, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup lentils de puy or other small dark-green lentils
- 2 cups red wine
- 2 cup water
- ½ teaspoon salt or to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Heat oven to 450 degrees F. Place butter and oil in a baking dish large enough to hold the fillets, and place in preheated oven for about 5 minutes, until butter is melted and slightly golden but not smoking. Meanwhile brush salmon with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Carefully remove baking dish from oven, place salmon in dish, and roast it until done, 8-11 minutes, depending how you like it.
- Cook shallot in olive oil until soft, 2-3 minutes. Add the lentils and stir, coating in the oil. Add wine and water and simmer over low heat for about 25 minutes, until lentils are tender but not mushy. (Cooking time varies wildly with lentils—they could take anywhere from 20-40 minutes, so check them periodically.) Add additional wine or water if liquid evaporates before lentils are cooked. When they’re almost done, add salt and pepper and taste for seasoning.
- To serve, divide lentils among plates. Top with salmon. To garnish, sprinkle with chopped parsley and/or drizzle with a few drops of very good balsamic vinegar and/or top with a dollop of crème frâiche.
So here we are at the end of summer.
I realize, I do, that the season officially goes through much of September. But who doesn’t feel like the Labor Day weekend marks its true finale? My nieces, Sophie and Nina, go back to school on Monday. My kids still have a bit of a reprieve. But I can practically smell those pencil shavings and fresh notebook pages, and I can feel the lazy days of summer, with their slow mornings and long, late evenings, coming to a close.
The only thing to do, as always, is cook.
So as the holiday weekend approaches, I offer up a handful of menus, drawn from my summer dishes and appropriate for all sorts of gatherings. Feel free to mix and match the recipes—and note that the quantities may need to be increased if you’re planning on feeding a crowd.
Menu No. 1: The Backyard Barbecue
Menu No. 2: The Vegetarian Feast
- Fontana Tomatoes (i.e. Stuffed Tomatoes Provençal)
- French Lentil Salad with Chévre
- Karen’s Farro Salad with Tomatoes, Black Olives, and Capers
- Summer Fruit Crumble
Menu No. 3: The Chowder Fest
Menu No. 4: The Elegant Evening
Menu No. 5: The Impressive-but-Easy Dinner Party