My Grandma Bunny was known for her spinach salad. It was one of her most regularly requested recipes by friends and made an appearance on her table at nearly every family gathering. She would search out adolescent leaves, wanting greens that would relax upon dressing and tossing, but not wilt immediately. Palm-sized leaves were avoided, as they were too old to be eaten without the application of heat.
Once the right spinach was chosen, it was washed carefully (I think this was in part to give an eager grandchild an opportunity to help). I’d climb up on a stool next to the kitchen sink and swish the leaves around until Bunny was certain they’d released all their grit. Once they were clean, she’d shake off the big droplets and heap them into a large pillowcase that was fitted with a drawstring. She’d take the pillowcase outside and twirl it around over her head. More efficient than a salad spinner and far more entertaining for small children.
Then it was time to make the dressing. It started with a few slices of minced bacon and ended with slices of mushrooms, cooked until tender but not rubbery. That, along with slivered red onions, a little red wine vinegar, salt and pepper finished the salad. It was warm, savory and still wonderfully crisp.
Before you start toasting bread cubes, read these tips
On Sunday night, a day before Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the mid-Atlantic, my husband and I had some friends over for dinner. We went back and forth, debating whether it was a good idea to encourage people to come out in what we were told was going to be ever-worsening weather.
After a brief consultation with the weather oracles and our invite list, we pushed on with our little gathering. I made two pots of soup. Friends brought bread, cheese, meatballs and wine. We sat around our living room for hours, munching our way through nearly all the food and appreciating the feeling of being part of a community.
When all that was left were empty bowls, a few crumbs and a cheese rind or two, I brought out dessert. Often, when faced with the challenge of choosing a dessert to serve to guests, I flounder. I waffle between making some ridiculously complicated confection that ends up tasting good but looking terrible or I choke entirely and dash out for cookies and ice cream.
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Each year around Halloween I find myself feeling nostalgic for elementary school — for class parties, costume parades on the playground and a plastic pumpkin bursting with candy. I also find myself craving my mom’s honeyed popcorn. It was her signature treat to give to friends and neighbors for the holiday.
After dinner when all the dishes were cleaned and put away, she’d fire up our yellow-and-white air popper and keep it running until she had filled a clean brown paper grocery bag with the popped corn. Once that task was finished, she’d melt butter and honey together into a thick syrup and pour it over the popped corn, using her longest-handled wooden spoon to help stir it all up.
The sweetened corn would then get spread across rimmed cookie sheets and would go into the oven for 10 or 15 minutes, to help set and crisp the kernels. The next day when it was cool, she’d package it up in plastic bags, secured with orange and black twist ties. My sister and I always got small bags in our lunch the day after she made it.
Before you start popping your corn, read these tips
Learning to make one or two pantry meals was one of the best things I ever did for my grocery budget. These are the dishes that you can easily cook up with the slow-to-perish items that you regularly keep in your fridge, freezer and cupboards. They are lifesavers on those nights when you get home late from work and you’re on the verge of calling for takeout. Knowing that you can throw together a pasta dish or something made from rice, beans and a tasty simmer sauce will keep your fingers from dialing your local pizza joint nearly every time.
I have several recipes that can be made from my kitchen staples and I turn to them regularly, particularly as the days get shorter and colder (who wants to dash out for last-minute ingredients when the wind is whipping?).
One of my very favorite pantry meals has been a quick baked pasta dish. You cook up any short, chunky kind of noodle you have knocking around the cabinet. While it boils, you simmer together onion, garlic, a big can of tomatoes and some frozen spinach. Once the pasta is done, you stir it into the sauce, scoop the whole mess into a baking dish, top with whatever odds and ends of cheese you have in the fridge and bake just until the cheese bubbles.
Before you toast your breadcrumbs, read these tips
During the summer I try and minimize how much I use my oven. The air conditioning in my apartment is adequate for dealing with Philadelphia’s steamy weather, but it begins to falter when I add all that radiant oven heat to the mix. So when cooler temperatures roll around, I’m more than ready to reconnect with the world of baking, broiling and roasting.
This last weekend, I was making a little dish to take with me to a birthday potluck. It was simple enough, just a bowl of lemony white bean spread and some crunchy baguette rounds. I’d cut the bread thin, so it would become akin to little crackers as it toasted and be a good partner for the smooth dip (this is a great way to give new life to day- or two-day-old bread).
As I stood by my oven and watched the bread to prevent it from burning, I saw a spark and then a small flame shoot out of the element (it’s electric). I quickly switched off the broiler, pulled my sheet of toasts off the rack and attempted to blow out the flame (for future reference, this is not a particularly good way to extinguish a kitchen fire). Thankfully, the flame died back almost immediately and I was able to investigate the damage. A chunk of the element was burnt away.
Before you pre-heat you oven, read these tips
I bought my first cast-iron skillet in my early twenties. I didn’t have much of a budget for cookware in those days and all the advice I read said that cast iron was the best bang for my buck. All I really knew is that I didn’t want to deal with flimsy, peeling, nonstick pans anymore.
I was initially a little nervous about introducing cast iron into my kitchen, because I’d grown up with a mother who hated cast iron with a passion. She thought it was too heavy, fussy to care for and entirely unsanitary (because you’re not supposed to scrub it with soap. My mother is a firm believer in the power of a good, sudsy scour).
When my parents got married, she actually got rid of my dad’s beloved collection of cast-iron skillets. Forty-two years later, those long-gone skillets continue to be one of the few bones of contention in their marriage.
With this history, it’s understandable that I was uneasy about my own cast-iron purchase. Turns out my anxiety was entirely unwarranted. I fell hard for that first skillet, so much so that I added several others to my kitchen in short order. If my husband tossed out my skillets, I do believe it would be grounds for divorce.
Before you heat your skillet, read these tips
Ask someone about their favorite rainy-day meal and chances are they’ll share with you childhood memories of eating tomato soup and grilled cheese on a chilly, drizzling Saturday afternoon. It’s a classic combination in our culture, though it’s one that I didn’t personally try until I got to college.
My parents weren’t trying to deprive me; the truth of the matter is that if they’d tried to serve me tomato soup during my fledgling years, I would have looked at them with absolute horror. I spent the bulk of my first two decades desperately trying to avoid tomatoes in their many forms. They were particularly egregious when raw, but I wasn’t interested in large amounts of any tomato-based substance. Tomato soup would have immediately reduced me to tears.
By the time I was 18, however, and away at school, I was beginning to open up a little to tomatoes. I don’t know if my palate had changed or if I was generally more mature in my approach to food, but slowly I started to understand the tomato’s many virtues.
Now I’m all in when it comes to tomatoes, and I particularly love a good bowl of tomato soup. In my book, there’s no tomato soup recipe better than Ina Garten’s Roasted Tomato Basil Soup. It’s been my go-to version since I first made it more than eight years ago. It starts by instructing you to roast three pounds of plum tomatoes and finishes with four cups of fresh basil leaves. It is deeply flavorful, and while not as silky smooth as the canned kind, still goes incredibly well with a grilled cheese.
Before you start roasting your tomatoes, read these tips
As much as I hate to admit it, the summer season is rapidly winding down. I managed to snag one last pint of raspberries last week and my favorite peach farmer told me that he’s nearly done with his harvest. The corn is almost gone and I’m starting to see my markets filling up with hardy winter squash and long stems of Brussels sprouts. Such is the cycle.
Last week in an attempt to ward off the effects of autumn for just a little bit longer, I went to the market and filled my bags with Roma tomatoes, glowing purple eggplants and as many Italian prune plums as I could carry.
The plums went into a batch of oven-roasted plum butter (it is so good on toast come January). Most of the tomatoes and eggplant became my husband’s yearly batch of eggplant Parmesan (it’s incredibly labor intensive, but so delicious), but after he filled a massive baking pan, there was still one giant eggplant and a smattering of tomatoes to be used.
And so I made caponata. Bobby Flay’s Grilled Eggplant Caponata Bruschetta With Ricotta Salata, to be precise. This is just the sort of recipe that uses up massive eggplants and wilting tomatoes with ease. It is terrific eaten on crackers, is good straight from the fridge or at room temperature and helps me pretend that I still have a few weeks of summer left. In my book, that makes it just the thing for The Weekender.
Before you start your grill, read these tips
When it comes to dessert, I’m not particularly inventive. On the nights when it’s just my husband and me, we stick to the simple things like a nibble of chocolate or if we’re feeling particularly virtuous, sliced apple dipped in a little peanut butter. When I have more than the two of us to satisfy, I tend to gravitate toward fruit crisps or basic brownies. No one ever complains, particularly if I serve them with vanilla ice cream.
Once in a great while, however, I feel the need to up my game a little. Such is the case for an upcoming gathering of my potluck group. We’ve taken most of the summer off from getting together, as nearly every week, someone was dashing off to a distant beach town or jetting across the country to visit family. But with the start of the new school year, people are settling back down and are free for potlucking once again.
The next dinner is this weekend, and I’ve been assigned dessert. Our hostess is from Mexico and since September 15 is Mexican Independence Day, a theme has emerged. I needed something impressive and in keeping with the rest of the meal. Enter Marcela Valladolid’s Banana and Cajeta Layered Crepes. They’re dramatic, thematic and different from anything I’ve ever brought before. I made one crepe as a trial run earlier this week, to ensure that it wouldn’t be a flop for my friends. Happily, it’s delicious and fits the bill for this potluck perfectly. Next time you need a dessert that will wow folks, I highly recommend this one. It’s a bit labor-intensive, but that just makes it perfect for The Weekender.
Before you start layering your crepes, read these tips
Every home cook has her backup, never-fail dinnertime ingredient. When in doubt, my mom sautés chicken tenders in olive oil with a bit of garlic and serves them on top of salad. My younger sister relies on sweet potatoes and cans of black beans to save the day when kitchen inspiration is scarce. Me? I’m good as long as there’s a pound of ground turkey in the freezer.
When I want something super-easy, I make turkey burgers with chopped onion and frozen peas stirred in (who doesn’t like a burger that also contains a serving of veggies?). If I have a little more time to play with, I mince up a carrot and a bit of onion in the food processor, stir it into the turkey with an egg and some smashed stale crackers (something we always seem to have on hand) and bake it in a loaf pan. Nights when I feel like I need some meditative kitchen time, I make turkey meatballs and cook them up in a batch of vegetable-laden broth.
All those applications are solid weeknight cooking. Sometimes, however, I’d like to be able to dress up my ground turkey and make it a little more presentable for guests and far-flung family members who find their way to my table on occasion. Just as I was pondering inventing my own company-worthy ground turkey dish, I spotted Melissa d’Arabian’s Spicy Turkey Lollipops.
Before you start rolling your meatballs, read these tips