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.
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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.
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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.
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With summer drawing to a close (and boy, did it go fast this year), I’m trying to mark as many warm weather cooking projects off my culinary bucket list as possible. This season, that list has included homemade frozen yogurt, tomato cobbler, blueberry buckle and whole grilled fish. I managed to get the first three checked off in delicious fashion weeks ago, but the grilled whole fish has been haunting me since June.
Last week I decided it was time to be brave and tackle Bobby Flay’s Grilled Sardines With Garlic Walnut Sauce before Labor Day arrived. I figured that sardines would be easy, since they’re small fish (my assumption being that tiny fish would be more manageable than giant ones). Of course, when I paid a visit to my local fish market, I was told that sardines are hard to come by this time of year and that I shouldn’t expect to see them in the Philadelphia area until November.
Instead of letting my hopes be dashed entirely, I decided to pick a different small fish that could stand in for the sardines. I landed on tiny trout, and though the flesh isn’t as dense and oily, I had a sense that they would still go nicely with the sauce.
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We’ve gotten to that time of summer when even those of us who are most dedicated to the act of cooking are ready for a bit of a break from the kitchen. Thankfully, with summer produce approaching its absolute zenith, it’s possible to eat incredibly well without spending hours by the oven or the stove.
This time of year, I eat open-face tomato sandwiches for breakfast. For lunch, I toss cucumber, corn, tomato and basil together, add a little salt and olive oil and call it done. Dinnertime calls for big salads made with quick-cooking grains or pasta and lots of vegetables. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll call a friend with a grill and invite myself over for a cookout.
In past years, I used a lot of quinoa in dinner salads, but after a plaintive request from my husband for a little variety, I started scanning blogs and websites for something new. The answer came in the form of a recipe from Giada De Laurentiis. She combines large couscous grains with grape tomatoes, red pepper, torn spinach, mint and a smoked paprika dressing. The finished product is both familiar (it is essentially a riff on the classic pasta salad) and different enough to be entirely appealing.
Before you start simmering your couscous, read these tips
During my late elementary and early middle school years, my mother began relaxing her food rules. This can be credited in part to my sister’s refusal to eat more than a bite or two of anything healthy, as well as my mom’s return to a full-time work schedule. There were still plenty of whole grains and vegetables in our lunch bags and on our plates, but come Friday evening, things got a little lax (however, even on these takeout nights, a bowl of carrot sticks would appear on the table).
Some weeks, we’d be allowed to order pizza. Other times, we’d pile into the car and go through the Taco Bell drive-thru. It was on one of these Friday night outings that I first tried a tostada. Back in 1991, I was totally taken by the idea of piling a world of tasty meat and cheese atop a fried corn tortilla. For years, I ordered them whenever and wherever I could and they remain one of my favorite things to order in Mexican restaurants.
Over the weekend, I found myself with a powerful tostada craving. The time had come to try and make a tasty one at home. You see, my husband, Scott, has been doing a masterful job of losing weight over the last few months, and has done it primarily by cutting out carbs. By making tostadas in our kitchen, I could quell my craving and make a meal that would work for him by subbing out the crunchy tortilla for a giant salad. Marcela Valladolid’s recipe for Shredded Spicy Chicken Tostadas was the perfect starting place.
Before you start shredding chicken, read these tips
For the last 10 years, I’ve lived in the same apartment in Center City Philadelphia. It’s a wonderful, light-filled space that has been in my family since 1965. I am well and truly lucky to call it home. The apartment really has only one downside and that’s the total absence of outdoor space. During the winter months, it’s no big thing, but come summer, I long to have a bit of space in which to grow a few vegetables and set up a grill.
I’ve not found an adequate substitute for indoor gardening yet, but when it comes to giving food a grill-like flavor and appearance, I’ve developed a few tricks. I have a stovetop grill pan and a fancy George Foreman-like appliance that does a very nice job with pork chops. When it’s about more than the simple appearance of grill marks, I use either smoked paprika, liquid smoke or hickory-smoked sea salt. Each has a way of lending a touch of open fire to the foods they’ve been added to.
Recently, my husband announced that he was longing for ribs, preferably the kind that tasted like they’d spent hours in contact with indirect, smoky heat. Before we made tracks for our local barbecue joint, I decided to see if I couldn’t find a way to mimic that kind of flavor at home.
Before you heat your oven, read these tips