Monday, July 30, 2012

easy brunch

Brunch is not a meal I usually prepare. On Sunday mornings I tend to linger in my pajamas over the real estate section of the NY Times, clucking at the prices of condos and occasionally spotting stories featuring people I happen to know. I think my own story should be featured in the Times real estate section, having moved after 30 years from a rent stabilized apartment in the West Village to an attached house in Rego Park, Queens with a new husband and four teenagers. Ah, but that's another story.

Brunch at home here in Queens is usually a batch of scrambled eggs with chives from the garden and re-fried rice with lots of sauteed onions; my husband's favorite meal.

This Sunday, I was honored by a visit from some of my favorite families bearing young children in their arms, arriving to spend a few hours in my garden to share a meal and splash in the wading pool on this sunny late-July day. Brunch was a must, but what to make?

The excellent August issue of Savour magazine is all about Mexican food, and it got me hankering for a Mexican inspired breakfast.

Fruit served in a single color looks so lush! Watermelon always knocks my socks off with its shocking scarlet flesh. I don't really even eat it,  I just love the way it looks. Fortunately kids seem to love watermelon so it disappears quickly.

I didn't want to serve guacamole, it felt too predictable. While thumbing through Deborah Madison's cookbook Local Flavors I came across a recipe for a Tomato and Avocado Salad with a Cilantro Lime dressing. Her salad had a lot of other ingredients in it but I thought simply sliced tomato and avocado on a bed of lettuce would be more what I had in mind. The cilantro dressing is my own variation on her theme.

Cilantro Lime Dressing
juice of one lime
1 clove garlic
3 Tbs. chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch of sugar
-blend above ingredients in a food processor, or with an immersion blender,
to puree the garlic and the cilantro.
With the motor running, slowly add in about 1/4 cup olive oil.
-pour over the salad just before serving.

Corn salsa seemed like a great way to use up the last few ears of farm stand corn I brought home from Long Island.

Corn Salsa
3 ears of corn- boil in salted water for five minutes, remove corn from the pot and let it cool till it can be handled. Slice the corn off the cob and place the kernels in a bowl.
3 Tbs red onion, minced
1/2 jalapeno pepper, minced
2 Tbs cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 lime juiced
1/2 teaspoon salt
Combine all the ingredients and taste to adjust seasoning. Let marinate for an hour before serving.

Quesadillas are an easy crowd pleaser. I made some plain, with just cheese, for the fussy, and then another batch with roasted vegetables.
The recipes and cooking tips in Savour 's Mexican Issue gave me the idea for roasting the vegetables to deepen their flavor. Normally I saute peppers and onions for quesadillas, but when I read the suggestion, it was a "duh, aha!" moment and I will never go back to the saute pan for this dish. At least, that's what I'm saying now!

Quesadillas with roasted vegetables.
-use what you have-
I placed a tomato, a bell pepper and a couple of slabs of sliced vidallia onion on a baking sheet and doused them with a bit of olive oil. Bake in a hot oven (400) for at least 1/2 hour-45 minutes, till the vegetables are soft and charred. Roughly chop the roasted vegetables and spread them over the flour tortillas and top with cheese. I cook my quesadillas on a hot oil-free skillet, for about two minutes per side.

This brunch was very easy to put together. Easier even than expected and I found myself with lots of free time to enjoy my young guests and their parents, who I plied with mimosas spiked with a very inexpensive Jaume Serra "Cristalino" Cava at under $10 a bottle. I would not pay more for a wine I was diluting with orange juice after all!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

shower power

Whenever someone asks me to cater a shower I am thrilled. They are my favorite events to plan. Hosting a a baby or bridal shower at home makes the occasion personal and intimate, even for a large crowd. It certainly takes a fair amount of work and planning, but it does not have to be an overwhelming experience and it can be done simply and even on a budget.
Good weather is a variable that cannot be adjusted. This weekend I helped host my niece's wedding shower at her mother's home; we were blessed with a perfect day for an outdoor lunch.

Here are some of my catering tips for a successful at home shower party:

Use rented tables, and plates to spare yourself a big clean up. Dirty glasses and flatware can go right back into the rental containers! This is a wonderful advantage that can make the cost of the rental worth every penny.

Choose a simple color scheme and stick with it for table cloths, napkins and flowers. This garden party in pinks and peaches reflects the bright summer day. Masses of flowers in a single color will add elegance. Fancy, expensive arrangements are not necessary. The charm of a humble flower such as a daisy or in this case, a cosmos, will rise to the occasion.

For hors d'oeuvres, an arrangement of crudites will make a colorful statement. Limit the vegetables to two or three choices. Make a dip in your food processor- it takes no time. This Green Goddess dip recipe is a cinch to make and can be prepared two days in advance.

Use fresh herbs to decorate the platters. Just tucking a few sprigs here and there will do the trick.

The buffet table can be personalized with small textiles used as runners. The serving bowls and platters do not have to match. This is where I really like to use treasures from the host's cupboards. Pull out all those dishes buried in the back of the cabinet. Using an old family heirlooms will bring memories and create new ones.



This lunch was put together with a spread of salads, perfect for a hot day.

A simple green salad will make a dramatic presentation with the addition of edible flowers. If you don't grow your own, look for them at farmers markets; even some supermarkets will have them. A surprising number of flowers can be edible. Let your inspiration and the season guide you. These nasturtiums, plucked directly from the garden add a little spicy bite and lots of color drama to a simple collection of greens.

One of my favorite salads in the summer: cucumber with dill. This can be made in advance and improves as it marinates.

2 cucumbers thinly sliced
1/2 a red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped dill
3 Tbs red wine vinegar
1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients and let it marinate in a fridge for at least two hours before serving.

Nothing could be easier than a caprese salad. Sliced tomatoes, lightly salted, fanned out on a plate, dressed with chopped basil, and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. For the cheese, go with the classic mozzarella or consider a crumbled goat cheese or blue cheese for variation.

This seafood salad is not vegetarian, I know.  I want to include it here because it was so tasty and so pretty and really not difficult to make.  For this occasion, we chose it to take advantage of the wonderful local fresh seafood available.

Orecchiette with pesto and peas is ridiculously easy and always popular. This dish can be made a few hours in advance and served room temp. The pesto can be prepared the day before and then mixed in to the cooked pasta just before serving. I throw frozen peas into the boiling pasta just before the pasta is cooked, to add a little color and texture to the dish.

The only dish served warm was a garden gratin made with fennel and Swiss chard. It disappeared quickly and adds a little substance to all the salads.

Are we exhausted yet? Even if you choose to only make one or two dishes, it will give a home cooked feel to the lunch.  For dessert, order a cake and put out some sorbets. Simple, but Delicious!

The mother of the bride made her own batch of jam to give as thank you gifts to all the guests, made from seasonal summer plums. The inspiration was a spinoff of her daughter's nickname "Plum" when she was a baby. My eyes are getting teary!

Have fun with an at home party. Adding your own touches makes the event memorable. It does not have to be "perfect" when it is filled with love!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summer in the City

There is no reason to head for the hills when summer rolls around. New York City offers so many outdoor events (and most of them free!) it can be difficult to choose which ones to attend. I gave up cooking this week to explore the great outdoors of New York.


Catch the sunset along Hudson River Park and enjoy the River to River Festival.
Suzanne Vega performed on a recent evening; a New York gal entertaining the home crowd.
Lay down your bike and pull up a backpack.  There are plenty more River to River shows scheduled all along the waterfront in the next few weeks.


 If you want to get above it all, the Metropolitan Museum's rooftop sculpture garden serves drinks (very tasty ones!) on Friday and Saturday evenings.  The signature cocktails are not to be missed. I am madly in love with the Cosmo Artini- a mix of vodka, cranberry juice, triple sec and lemonade, served with plenty of ice. Delicious!
This year's rooftop installation Cloud City by sculptor Tomas Saraceno gives a playfully disorienting view of the spectacular skyline and Central Park.


For movie lovers there are multiple outdoor venues showing films. Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City hosted an evening of music, soul food and a screening of the German film Soul Kitchen this week.
The skyline looks pretty great from here too.
All you need is a blanket to sprawl out on.
The Queens Comfort food ran out quickly. 
I managed to score some mac and cheese. The color looked perfect. It was perhaps not the most inspired version I have ever had, but doused with hot sauce it satisfied my hunger and, hey, I didn't have to cook!
By the time the sun had set we settled down to watch the movie with the city lights glowing in the distance.

Enjoying what the city has to offer: entertainment, food, some natural beauty courtesy of the sun moon and stars, not bad!

The perfect summer cocktail:

Cosmo-Artini (inspired by the Metropolitan Museum rooftop cafe martini bar)
1 shot of vodka
1 splash of triple sec
a drizzle of cranberry juice
2 oz lemonade
plenty of ice
slice of lime

Put it all in a cocktail shaker, give it a vigorous shake and pour into a glass!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

a gratin for summer

Having the Fourth of July in the middle of the week gets confusing. When do you celebrate, before or after? I opted for "before" and spent some lazy days on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

 This sleepy side of Florida, provides ample natural inspiration. 
I even managed to get some work done while away, making notes for some ideas for the upcoming school year for Wellness in the Schools.  I squeezed in a little sketching too, as my mind wandered from the task at hand!
The scenery never fails to send me into a dreamy relaxation. The stillness here is profound, only interrupted by the occasional fish that leap out of the water and slap back down before you can catch a glimpse, or grab a fishing pole.
Among the most arduous of tasks is deciding which sea shells are the prettiest.
 Or which trees are the most exotic. I get very caught up in the whole tree thing. Everything looks so improbable to this city girl, as if it all came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.
A meal served at this table setting is bound to taste good. At least, that was my excuse. I was not going to be critical with myself, but just enjoy the scene and try not to get too worked up about the cooking, especially as it was me again at the stove.  An outdoor grill and a light breeze was all I needed.

One of the many great things about Florida, and to me, additionally exotic, is that you can buy wine at the supermarket. I found this bottle of Ravenswood Zinfandel Vintners Blend 2009, for a reasonable $8.99 at the local Publix, and served it with some grilled vegetables and seafood. 

The wine was delicious! It was so smooth and round with a perfectly balanced chocolaty/cherry flavor- my favorite in red wine. It made me think about pairing it with the Fennel Gratin I made last week for my book group dinner. How I wish I had this wine on hand to pair it with that evening. Sorry ladies, next time.
The gratin is not exactly summer cooking- the oven has to be on for at least an hour, but sometimes you want something a little substantial in the summer, something other than a salad.
- r e c i p e-

Fennel Gratin

2 Fennel bulbs, sliced into 1 inch slabs
4 Tbs butter
2 Tbs flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 cup milk
1 cup grated fontina cheese
1/2 cup grated Romano cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F
In a large baking dish spread 2 tablespoons of butter all over the bottom and sides. Lay out the slices of fennel over the bottom of the buttered baking dish, trying to keep it to more or less a single layer with minimal overlapping.

In a small sauce pan, make a bechamel sauce by melting the remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter over low heat. When the butter is melted stir in the flour and the salt, pepper and nutmeg and continue to stir until a paste is formed.

Slowly add the cup of milk, whisking to remove any lumps. Let the milk come to a gentle boil and simmer the sauce to a thick consistency.

Pour the sauce evenly over the fennel. Top the baking dish completely with the two cheeses and the thyme. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until the fennel is tender and when the cheeses have melted and browned and the sauce is bubbling up.

serves 4