Friday, September 11, 2009

A New Zeal

The work-filled summer was followed by a relaxing couple of weeks in the country, and then by frenetic preparations for the start of the new school year.

Among the culinary highlights of late summer was my first attempt at chiles rellenos, which was quite acceptable. I've got about 6 more poblanos in the fridge that are waiting to be smothered in cheese.

In the country we did a lot of cooking, but kept it simple. I loved Jhumpa Lahiri's piece in The New York Times about packing for and cooking in a summer rental. It was so timely. At the time that I read it, I had a constantly churning list working itself out in my head, even though we hadn't even settled on our summer vacation plans. I suppose I knew that in the end, my house rental scheme would prevail over the camping trip that Matt was talking about but not actually planning. Her essay on the subject spawned a Bitten blog post and drew a long list of commenters that spend as much time thinking about things like this as I do!

Our week in the country was split between 2 places. One was the home of a close family friend, and had a large, beautiful, well-equipped kitchen. We didn't need to bring any equipment, but we packed up some of our CSA produce. The second was a rental with a perfectly good kitchen setup, but no oven. For this, we packed a number of things, including a cast-iron skillet, a 3.5 quart pot, 2 knives, and a microplane grater. We also brought staples like olive oil, sea salt, pepper, grains, pasta, dried porcini, good parmesan, and a fair amount of produce, which we supplemented with trips to the local farm stands.

Among the memorable things we made:
A gorgeous Tomato Salad with Crispy Shallots from a Fanny Singer recipe that appeared in an old Food+Wine (September 2003). My friend Lauren turned me onto this. I took this recipe home, and made it at least 3 times since. Lauren also made a phenomenal escarole salad based on the one served at Frankie's Spuntino. The dressing was simply oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper. She added thinly sliced red onion, shaved pecorino, and a handful of walnuts. I love it when unbelievably simple preparations like this make your jaw drop in appreciation. It was incredible. We made another family favorite, Orechiette with Pistachio Pesto, also from a Frankie's recipe.

When we got to the house that week, there was a blueberry tart sitting on the table; Lauren had baked it from her mother's recipe. I wrote that one down and brought it home. We also had fun trying out new recipes based on what needed to be eaten quickly. I made a vegan banana bread from memory and enjoyed the first warm slice on the way to the Innisfree gardens. Another day, Matt and I collaborated on a peach crisp. I had never made a crisp before, but it made a great breakfast, so on our return home, I experimented with several recipes and whatever I had on hand. In the end I decided that I like to cook mine uncovered and for less time, about 20-25 minutes, and I could do without nuts in the topping.

At the other house, we made the Tomato Salad again (twice). A huge batch of porcini risotto, which didn't come out great, partly because I didn't have the right-sized pan and also did not salt it enough. The leftovers were salted and fried up for breakfast as little croquettes. Pasta with browned seitan and shallot bits, basil pesto, and more beautiful Hudson Valley tomatoes. Spicy mango salsa, eaten with chips! We ate out a few times, too. Our favorite spot was the burrito truck that sets up at the Montgomery Place farm stand. Excellent and affordable. And the little bakery in Tivoli made an extraordinary multigrain roll. Unfortunately, we weren't in the area for the weekend farmer's markets, which is usually a vacation highlight for us.

It was great to be able to cook in the relaxed, easygoing way that a week off allows. I returned home energized. The weather had turned cool, so right away I started baking. I made several more peach crisps, using a different recipe each time. The worst was when I experimented with a longer cooking time. I ended up with a hard, granola-like crust. I innocently brought it to a meeting to share, and I thought it was awful, but it was politely received. I made Patricia Wells' Spicy Polenta-Cheese Crackers one night. They were good, just the right amount of spicy. From her book, Vegetable Harvest, I also made some outrageously good roasted potatoes with lemon. You slice rounds of lemon and roast them with the potatoes. It is one of those easy recipes that seems kind of obvious, but it is perfect. I could eat that every day. I've had that book for a while, and now I am ready to really use it.

We have September birthdays at our house, so in the last 2 weeks, I have made a couple of batches of brownies (Peter Berley), some plain vanilla cake (Peter Berley), and some Taza Guajillo Chile Chocolate Mexicano Cupcakes with ganache frosting (Emilie at The Conscious Kitchen). All vegan, all amazingly good.

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