The first time I made risotto was with a friend. She pulled out her heaviest cast-iron pot and unearthed a well-worn wooden spoon that was bent ever so slightly. Its curve had developed over many years of use and it fit her hand perfectly. In order to preserve its form, she kept it hidden away so that well-meaning family members wouldn’t accidentally run it through the dishwasher or use it to encourage the blender to blend.
We started by chopping onions and sweating them in a puddle of melted butter until they were translucent. Then the rice went in and the heat went up, so that the individual grains would become slick with the butter and begin to toast. Just when the room began to smell impossibly fragrant, she poured in white wine, causing a puff of boozy steam to hover over the stove for a moment.
Then we started the process of stirring and adding hot chicken stock. The time went quickly because we were together, catching up and taking turns minding the pot. However, even in the joy of that moment, I could see how some people might find the necessary stirring a tedious act. That night, we finished our risotto with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, peas (from the freezer but still tender and sweet) and cubes of salty ham. With a salad, it was a complete meal and one we both enjoyed.
A few weeks back, my husband and I were having friends over for dinner. I was making grilled salmon and a chilled asparagus salad and needed one more thing to serve. Awash in deadlines and errands, I needed to find something easier than a classic risotto, but more refined than a simple pot of rice. Internet searches led me to Ina Garten’s recipe for Easy Parmesan “Risotto.”
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Every year when summer rolls around, I find myself on the hunt for a fresh, seasonal potluck dish. The requirements for the winning dish are that it needs to travel well, taste good whether warm or at room temperature and must not require immediate refrigeration upon arrival at said potluck destination.
Several years ago, I made many batches of a barley salad that included chunks of feta cheese and chopped cucumber. Through summer 2010, I fixated on a dish of made from chickpeas marinated in a vinaigrette made from olive oil, lemon juice and minced rosemary. Last summer, I opted for halved grape tomatoes, red onion and basil dressed lightly with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.
Each of these salads did an excellent job throughout their particular season, but by the time the cooler weather rolled around, I was ready for something more autumnal.
Happily, I think I stumbled across this summer’s salad just this last weekend, and with the hot weather we’ve been having, its arrival couldn’t be timelier. It’s Rachael Ray’s recipe for Tuscan Pesto-Dressed Penne With Crispy Kale. It’s light and tastes terrific freshly made or after a night in the fridge (I’ve tried it both ways and it’s a winner). The next time you have a summer potluck to attend, stir up this Weekender.
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So often, when I think back to the food of my childhood, all I remember is the seriously healthy stuff. Dark brown whole-wheat bread, carob chips and apple slices dominate my memories of what we ate during those years. However, a recent conversation with my sister brought up a whole other set of food memories.
She remembers the toasted cheese on white sourdough, fruit snacks in our lunches and the fact that just about every Saturday, we ate hot dogs and baked beans for lunch. I don’t know if our parents relaxed their food standards when my sister came along or if my memory is deeply selective. I do know that once prompted, I vividly recalled that baked beans were one of our pantry staples.
Part of the reason my mom was so willing to keep baked beans in the pantry and hot dogs in the freezer was that they were things we could easily help prepare. Opening the beans taught can opener dexterity and the frozen hot dogs could easily be wrapped in a paper towel and microwaved until warmed through. Plus, I’m sure she figured it was a meal that offered plenty of protein for our growing bodies (my mother is a big believer in the power of protein).
With this memory fresh in my mind and Memorial Day looming, it seemed the perfect time to try my hand at a batch of from-scratch baked beans. As is so often the case, a little digging led to a recipe from culinary mastermind Alton Brown. His recipe for The Once and Future Beans helped me nail it on the first try. The active work is fairly minimal, but the beans do need a solid eight hours in the oven, which makes them perfect for a lazy weekend supper and a definite candidate for The Weekender.
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My maternal grandmother, Della, wasn’t much of a cook. Forever dieting, she invested far more time into maintaining her dress size than she did perfecting her brisket recipe. However, when pressed into kitchen service, there were a few dishes that she could make tolerably well. She knew how to cook a pot of oatmeal so that it was thick and creamy, had long ago mastered the art of broiling a steak and made the best bread pudding around.
Bread pudding was a staple during Della’s childhood. After being orphaned, she and her siblings were raised by an aunt and uncle. The pressures of feeding three growing children meant that food had to be inexpensive and filling. Stale bread cooked in custard and sweetened with dried fruit checked both boxes and tasted good to boot.
Throughout her later years, bread pudding was the one thing that my grandmother just couldn’t resist. Any time my grandparents would eat out and it was on the menu, my grandfather would order it as his dessert. When it arrived, he’d nudge the dish my grandmother’s way. She’d insist that she was entirely satisfied with black coffee and then proceed to eat half the serving in small bites.
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Though kale is something of a hot new food trend, I happen to be one of those lucky souls who has been eating it for years. My parents are avid vegetable gardeners and both kale and its buddy Swiss chard were always prominent players in the spring and fall plantings.
To us, kale was simply a sturdy cooking green, best for use in soups or wilted with olive oil and garlic. On weekend mornings, I’d sauté ribbons of kale with zucchini and green onions and scramble a couple beaten eggs around the veggies. Topped with fresh tomato, it’s still my favorite breakfast.
The one thing we didn’t do back in those days was eat raw kale. It wasn’t that anyone was against it, it just didn’t occur to either my parents or me (and though my sister is one of the biggest kale eaters around now, she wouldn’t touch it in any form back then). It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when I started seeing mentions of raw kale salads in magazines and on blogs, that I tried it.
These days, I’m something of a kale salad evangelist. I have two versions that are in my regular dinner rotation. The first is a garlicky version inspired by a recipe posted to 101 Cookbooks and the other is a Grated Carrot and Kale Salad, dressed with walnut oil and rice wine vinegar.
Before you start chopping kale, read these tips
In the mid-eighties, before the nightly news scared my mom into switching to turkey, my family ate a lot of ground beef. It was on the menu at least a couple nights a week. Sometimes it was crumbled into tomato sauce and served over spaghetti noodles. During the summer, we had it scrambled with vegetables and rice and packed into overgrown zucchini.
On particularly harried nights, my mom would season a pound while still in the package, divide it into four patties and plop them into a pan. When burgers were prepared thusly, they were always served with carrot and celery sticks, with ranch dressing on the side for dipping.
The best nights were when the ground beef was mixed with oatmeal, an egg or two, chopped onion, garlic powder and a squirt of ketchup and packed into a loaf pan. I loved my mom’s meatloaf with a passion, mostly because she always made enough for sandwiches the next day. I have always been something of a fool for a good meatloaf sandwich.
In those days, my meatloaf lunch wasn’t a complex affair. It was always a half sandwich, made on whole-wheat bread spread with ketchup and mustard. Packed with one of those frozen disks to keep it all cool, it was the best thing to be found inside a canvas lunch bag.
Before you start assembling your sandwiches, read these tips
Sometime last season, a seafood stand appeared at my local Saturday morning farmers’ market. I live in Philadelphia, so the Jersey shore and its world of fish, clams, mussels and more really aren’t more than an hour or so away. Still, it took me a while to adjust to the idea that I could pick up a pound of cod along with my carrots, kale and apples.
However, once I made the mental shift, I’ve found that having regular access to seafood that’s no more than a day out of the ocean has been incredible. It’s so fresh and quick to cook, and the people who work the booth are fantastically knowledgeable about the product they’re selling.
It’s thanks to them that I finally took the plunge and learned to cook scallops at home. I’ve long been a fan of these sweet bivalves and frequently ordered them when eating at restaurants. But for the longest time, I had it in my head that they were hard to cook and easy to ruin. At $20 or more a pound, I didn’t feel like it was something I could experiment with.
But after a bit of encouragement from my friendly seafood stand, I decided to give it a go. I bought 2/3 of a pound (plenty for just my husband and me) and cooked them in a little butter until they were brown on both sides and just firm to the touch. It was a dining revelation that we’ve repeated regularly since then.
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During the final years of their lives, my grandparents stopped cooking at home. They’d do little things, like make coffee and toast in the morning and heat up a can of soup for lunch. But dinner was always eaten at Little Pete’s, the restaurant across the street from their apartment building.
Each day at around 5:00 or 5:30, they’d don coats (no matter what the weather) and make their way over. The wait staff took great care of them, reserving my grandma’s preferred booth and depositing a glass of iced tea in front of her the moment she sat down.
When we’d go to visit them, these trips to Little’s Pete’s took on even more importance, because it was an opportunity for them to show my mom, sister and me off to the unofficial members of their de facto nightly dining club.
Over the years, I logged a lot of hours at Little Pete’s. My regular order was a cup of French onion soup and a Greek salad with extra olives. Truly, though, the salad was simply there so that I could justify eating a bowl of tangy broth, onions and bubbling-hot cheese.
The tenth anniversary of my grandmother’s death recently passed, so it just seemed right to make something in her honor. Though I ordered it more often than she did, I chose Ina Garten’s recipe for long-cooked French Onion Soup as a way of remembering all those meals. I took my time slicing onions and cooking them until golden. I think it may have been my most favorite Weekender yet.
Before you start slicing onions, read these tips
When I was growing up, my parents really enjoyed making a big deal out of Easter. Being that they were Jewish (Mom) and Unitarian (Dad), they weren’t really interested in sharing the religious part of it, but they loved building up the mythology of the Easter Bunny and the arrival of spring. What can I say? We were a secular household that loved a reason to celebrate.
Because of this, preparations for Easter typically began weeks before the actual day. It usually started with an increase in scrambled-egg consumption as my dad began blowing eggs empty to keep the shells for decorating. Soon after, my mom would fill the Easter baskets with fresh potting soil and plant real grass in them (she was too much of a hippie to use plastic “grass”). Then, notes from the Easter Bunny would appear and my parents would claim early-morning sightings.
There would be a Saturday dedicated to coloring eggs (often with natural dyes) and an afternoon devoted to baking sugar cookies cut into the shapes of bunnies, eggs and baskets.
Finally, Easter arrived. My sister and I would wake early in order to begin the hunt for our baskets. There would be a note on the dining room table with the first hint and the race would be on. One memorable year my parents even managed to imprint fake bunny footprints all over the yard.
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One of the things I love about living in Philadelphia is the fact that the city has a deep well of secrets. No matter how many years I log in the City of Brotherly Love, I find that there’s always something new to discover.
In the neighborhood just north of South Street, there’s a Moroccan restaurant that you’ll never find on your own. Hidden behind an unmarked door, you walk off a residential street and into a world of lush fabrics, pillowed benches and low tables set with brass trays.
I’ve eaten there a few times since a friend first helped me find that hidden door. I love every part of the experience, from the ritual of washing hands to the fact that the meal moves slowly. However, most of all, I love a chicken dish they serve. Baked in phyllo dough, it’s highly spiced with ginger and cinnamon. The outside is dusted with sugar, so that you get sweet, savory and spicy all in a single bite.
Though it’s been years since I’ve had that chicken, I still crave it. However, a meal that lasts 2 1/2 hours doesn’t fit into my schedule as easily as it once did. I’m in that stage of life where most of my friends have small children, and though I love dining with my husband, you really need a group to make the most of a meal like this one.
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