Sunday, July 31, 2011

time and tide

Our annual family week on Fire Island has come to an end. We managed to avoid the hottest week of summer in the city and instead lolled around the walkways and beaches of the Fair Harbor community.
The long wooden boardwalks on this car-free, tranquil island connect the bay to the ocean.
Sand, driftwood and grasses define the landscape.
Bicycles become the best mode of transportation.
A boat would come in handy too!
A walk along the ocean requires nothing more than bare feet.
Adorable wooden cottages, closely spaced, side by side are so inviting and they ooze a cozy charm. Just don't speak too loudly or your neighbor will hear you.

OK let's get down to eating:
Our own cozy little rental cottage was packed with my kids and friends of my kids. A lot of mouths to feed. 
 Grilled ratatouille makes excellent use of fresh summer vegetables and the whole dish can be made outside so you don't miss a minute of sun and fun.
My sister suggested we serve the ratatouillie over her fried polenta triangles. The kids considered these crispy cornmeal cakes to be a revelation and gobbled them all up.
A white bean salad makes an easy and tasty accompaniment. Add lots of chopped celery and onion to the beans, a handful of fresh mint and a garlicky vinaigrette for dressing. 
The hardest part about being on Fire Island is having to say good bye at the ferry dock.
But all wonderful things do have to come to an end and we are already dreaming about coming back next year.

Love the pictures! I visited Fire Island once in the early 80's, and the pictures brought back memories!

As for the dishes - is the fried polenta hard to make? I think that's something my own finicky kids might enjoy! Easy summertime dishes like the ones you mention are always best served alongside easy-going, simple wines. During the summer I drink mostly whites and Roses. The wonderful thing is, you don't need to spend a lot of money. During the hot days of the season, I rarely will spend more than $12 or so on a bottle of wine. There simply is no need to. In fact, my favorite go-to wine this time of year is $7.99. It's a Torrontes called Lo Tengo. For sitting outside on the patio, you just don't need a "serious" wine.

Last night, I went to a friend's house for a barbeque. Hamburgers, hotdogs, lobster, and various pasta salads were served. (My contribution was a beautiful salad of cucumber and a variety of heirloom tomatoes, tossed with mint, parsely, olive oil, lemon juice and a sprinkle of red wine vinegar, with some crumbled feta on top...yummy!). Of course I brought along the Lo Tengo, as well as two of my other summertime favorites: Burgans Albarino and Domaine Sancet Cotes de Gascogne. The Sancet is an intriguing blend of Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Gros Manseng and Sauvignon Blanc...not your everyday varietals! It is a very pretty, floral wine with high acidity, and is delicious served with summery salads. It's bright with peach and pear flavors...and very refreshing!
These everyday wines are a perfect match for a variety of foods, which makes them ideal for impromptu summertime get-togethers. It doesn't matter what foods you serve - they will be enjoyed! They are, what I call, "crowd-pleasers". I always have plenty on hand, to open for unexpected visitors, or to bring to a friend's house. Just remember - for summertime, keep it simple!

Friday, July 22, 2011

tucking in

Ooooohhhh, Restaurant Week!! This is the time to score reservations at all the restaurants I've been dying to try, a perfect plan for the heat of the summer when all the "swells" are out of town and a seat can actually be had. I immediately got on the phone with my uptown sister, but she was way ahead of me, having already booked us a table for lunch at Tocqueville Restaurant off Union Square. My niece joined us at this pristine eatery with its creamy colored interior and hushed elegance. So cool!
July is a great time to seek out the prix fixe specials of restaurant week. Summer vegetables are in and the crowds are out!

Tocquville's restaurant week menu for lunch was a prix fixe offering of three choices of a three course meal with wine pairings for eash course including dessert. We ordered everything! Well, heck why not?

The appetizers were a chilled pea soup, an heirloom tomato salad and an asparagus vinaigrette, all vegetarian options that were spectacular to look at and heavenly to eat. The stand out for us was the pea soup which was poured over a fromage blanc panna cotta (that's right) and surrounded by crunchy fresh pea shoots. The flavor was a knock out, with its distinctive green-pea taste and a hint of tarragon. The wine pairing for the soup was a Francois Cartier 2010 Saugvignon de Touraine; luscious, light and crisp, a perfect pairing.
Fresh peas are now available in the farmer's markets. Making a fresh pea soup is easy and delicious!

The entrees were all really good too: an artichoke risotto, a soft shell crab with watercress and hearts of palm salad and a marinated grilled quail. The quail was our favorite (sorry vegetarians), a truly guilty pleasure. The legs were the size of my pinky finger. I said guilty. The paired wine went perfectly: a Domaine de Gournier 2009 Vin de Pays Cevennes, complex and light bodied with a hint of spice.
Ok, now on to dessert.

It was all begining to feel over the top at this point and we were getting a little giddy with all the wine and good food. The ricotta mousse with strawberry granita was crazy good. It was served with a 2008 Schmitt Sohne Ice Wine that was one cool customer. A bitter chocolate Mille Feuille and a spread of at least five sorbets and ice creams finished us off. Who could keep count, they were so divine? The one that intrigued us most was a lemon verbena ice cream.

This herb is almost impossible to find in the markets. You have to grow it to insure a steady supply. I have a small plant in my backyard herb garden that grows well in summer but does not always make it through the winter. (The picture, left, is a beautiful specimen of this herb growing in the Queens Botanical Garden). The scent is like lemon tea, fragrant and perfume-y. I am going to try to make a version of this ice cream when I get back from vacation next week, so I will keep you posted on that.
Lemon verbena leaves have a slightly rough, sticky texture, better for infusing than for chewing on.

Meanwhile, take advantage of restaurant week. Many of the participating restaurants will continue their specials throughout the summer. Let someone else cook once in awhile!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Working and Playing

The East End of Long Island is renowned for stunning beaches, fertile farmland and relentless traffic jams. I got to experience all three this weekend when I headed out to the Hamptons to see my brother in a production of the musical Working based on the book by Studs Terkel at the Southhampton Cultural Center.

The cast of Studs Terkel's Working. This terrific production, both poignant and entertaining, is playing for two more weekends.

Mecox beach off Dune Road in Bridgehampton was spectacular on Saturday. The sky was crystal clear, with dramatic drifts of clouds dotting the horizon in puffballs of elaborate configurations. On the drive to Mecox I insisted on stopping at my favorite farmstand, Foster Farm in Sagaponack on Sagg Main Street. 

I will let the photos tell the whole farm stand story:

Who could resist?
 Sunflowers with yellow centers, a rare find!
Green beans just need a quick blanch. Dress them in a garlicky vinaigrette and let them marinate in the fridge for a salad.
I brought home one of the white eggplants, sliced it up and sauteed it in extra virgin olive oil. It cooked in minutes, sweet and tender and delicious over pasta.
Hot, sweet, small or large, grab a pepper and whether chopped raw, grilled or sauteed they will add a brightness to your dish.
Radishes sliced very thinly look like little jewels and add a fresh, peppery taste to a salad.

Freshly picked produce looks so colorful and healthy. It is difficult to know when to stop shopping.
Beautiful produce requires the most minimal amount of prep to get a fabulous meal on the table in no time and perhaps even fortify you for those inevitable beach community summer traffic jams!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Monday in the park with William

As summer progresses, the opportunities for outdoor dining keep piling up. This week I decided to take advantage of the time honored hard-core New Yorker tradition of waiting on line in Central Park for free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater.  I was advised by those in the know to score my spot by 6:30 AM on the day of the performance. Really? Ouch, that seemed awfully early, especially as the tickets do not get handed out till one PM. But, I was game. Sitting in the park on a beautiful day, how bad could that be?
The line in Central Park on Monday was not so long!
All I can say is come prepared. I brought a folding chair, a hat, water and a snack. Some people on the line arrived with folded mattresses and took a long nap. Not a bad idea at 6:30 AM!

For the edibles, think about something crunchy and light that won't wilt in the sun during your six hour wait. Green Bean Dijonnaise is a worthy choice. The beans will stay crunchy after a quick blanching and the flavor just gets better as the beans sit in the mustardy vinaigrette.
Look for plump, smooth beans at the farmers markets in the next few weeks.

Another great picnic choice would be Amanda's Watermelon Gazpacho.  Pack it in a thermos to keep it cool and enjoy this very tasty and refreshing cold soup on the hottest of days. I must admit when Amanda first suggested her recipe last week I was a tiny bit sceptical. Watermelon is not a favorite of mine and the thought of combining this melon with tomatoes struck me as possibly underwhelming. 
Curious about how it would taste I gave it a shot. DELICIOUS!! I was so surprised and delighted with the quick batch I made, I already have plans to make it again. Amanda suggests skipping the onions but I urge you to use them. Soaking chopped raw onions in cold water for a few minutes before adding them to the soup (or a salad) will remove some of the bite that people often find objectionable. I did not have any dill so I used fresh mint and chives for the herbs, a very good alternative. The sweetness of the watermelon was balanced by the onion and chili peppers and it gave the gazpacho a really interesting depth of flavor. This is a recipe worth trying and it could not be simpler to make!

Watermelon gazpacho is a WINNER!

My morning wait in the park was well worth it. The six hours of sitting on the line actually flew by and I was grateful for the opportunity to stop and experience some stillness for a while. The production of Measure for Measure that my husband and I attended that evening was riveting and rollicking, a true Shakesperean crazy quilt of a plot that flirted with the bawdy and macabre.  How great to be a hard-core New Yorker in the summer!

Green Bean Dijonnaise with Pickled Shallots
 For the pickled shallots:
1 shallot
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
In a small pan combine the vinegar, salt and sugar and heat on a low flame till the sugar and salt dissolves. Turn heat off and add the shallots. Let the shallots sit in the vinegar mixture till cooled, then drain and reserve the shallots for the salad.

 For the green beans:
1 pound green beans, ends trimmed
1 quart water
1 Tablespoon salt
Bring water to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Add the salt and the trimmed green beans. Cook beans for about two minutes, till they are slightly softened, but still bright green. Taste beans to determine doneness. Drain the cooked beans and run cold water over them to quickly cool them down a bit. Drain beans again and arrange on a serving plate. Top the beans with the pickled shallots and toss with the Dijon vinaigrette.

for the Dijon vinaigrette:
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed and finely chopped
3 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
In a small bowl combine the mustard, salt pepper, garlic and vinegar. Whisk to combine. Continue to whisk as you slowly drizzle in the olive oil, till the dressing thickens and emulsifies.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Summer Lovin'

I have found me a new love. I can't get enough of it. I make a batch Sunday, and eat it all week...for lunch, dinner, in-between...I have even had it for breakfast. Watermelon gazpacho. Standard gazpacho with its tomatoes and various veggies has always been a summer staple of mine. This year I took it to a whole new level. There is no meal that satisfies me quite the same way on the hottest of summer days. When served very, very cold, it is refreshing in a way that no other meal can be. At least not that I have yet discovered. 

I found a great recipe on the Food Network website. The original recipe can be found HERE. The recipe calls for 1 tomato plus 2 cups of cubed watermelon among other ingredients. As that is the primary basis for the "broth", I can't imagine how that should yield 4 servings, as the recipe suggests. So, I altered the recipe a bit. The recipe also calls for some raw red onion as well. Now, I am definitely an onion lover. But I started omitting it from my gazpacho recipes as I found it was a bit overpowering. Plus, I eat it everyday for lunch while at work, and I can never get that taste out of my mouth! So, I now leave out the onion. I find the sweetness of the tomatoes are much more pronounced this way as well. But - as I do love a hint of onion, I chose to add a bunch of chopped chives to the finished product instead, which gives it the perfect, subtle amount of that flavor.

In the original recipe, watermelon chunks are served in the soup, along with some crumbled feta. One day, I had some soup leftover, but no watermelon chunks for garnish. I did, however, have some avocado. I cubed it, and added it to the "broth" instead. Fantastic! This produced an unbelievable blend of flavors, accentuated by chopped chive and dill. I also love the addition of a final drizzle of high-quality olive oil to the soup just before digging in!

Another thing I love about this recipe - for some reason, it is incredibly filling! I love a meal that's rewarding, satisfying...and extremely healthy at the same time!

My pictures cannot hold a candle to Deb's - but here you can get an idea of the finished product!

To be honest, I didn't really follow a recipe exactly. And, I do not share Deb's gift for concocting a dish and translating it into a recipe. These are general quantities. My best advice would be to add ingredients, and taste as you go, adjusting the recipe to your liking!

Amanda's Watermelon Gazpacho
(adapted from The Food Network Website)
5 large tomatoes
4 cups diced watermelon
1 cucumber
1 diced chile pepper (optional - sometimes I just use a few splashes tabasco if I want a little heat)
1/4 cup olive oil
a few splashes red wine vinegar
1/4 cup chopped herbs (chives and dill)
feta cheese for garnish
salt and pepper to taste
extra chunks watermelon for garnish

Place tomatoes in a food processor and puree. Add diced watermelon, cucumber, and chile pepper. Puree again. Add olive oil, a little at a time (you don't need to use all of it) and a few splashes red wine vinegar to taste. Pour into large bowl. Add chives, dill, salt and pepper. Chill till very cold. Pour into bowls, finishing with a drizzle of some olive oil. Add a few chunks of watermelon (or avocado) and some crumbled feta cheese.

This absolutely will cool you down on a hot summer's day! I promise!