9.21.2009

September, in a bowl

sliced tomatoes before

By now, you've probably heard about the blight that has ravaged this summer's tomato crop all over the Northeast. Called "late blight," this pernicious, highly contagious fungus is the same disease responsible for the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s. It's no laughing matter. And yet, – farmers please forgive me – there’s something about the word itself that makes me giggle. "Blight." I can't say it without imagining myself in a petticoat and poke bonnet, fretting about things like dropsy and catarrh. Of course, the dreaded thought of a tomato-less summer snaps me right back to my jeans-and-t-shirt reality. Could summer even be summer without drippy tomato sandwiches on crusty bread? Without overlapping rounds of red and yellow heirlooms, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and sweet basil?

Thanks to the fine people at Kimball Farm, I may never know.

heirloom tomatoes

If late blight is big news here in New England (and I assure you, it is), the tomatoes at Kimball Farm didn't get the memo. Week after week, not a ten-minute walk from my apartment, flats of beautiful, healthy, tomatoes line the Kimball Farm stand at the Charles Square Farmers' Market. The staggering selection of heirlooms is enough to make you cast off your bonnets and petticoats and declare, "Blight, shmight!" This season, I've eaten Aussies, Green Zebras, Cherokee Purples, Black Cherries, and Pink Brandywines. My favorite, and Eli's too, are the Pineapple tomatoes. They're rich and meaty, blushing in rosy clouds over their bright yellow skins. Pineapple tomatoes are marbled all the way through with streaks of pink and orangey-red. Sometimes, when I slice into one at just the right angle, I feel as if I'm gazing at an early-morning sky, and not a refugee tomato that managed to escape the late blight of 2009.

A fat, shiny tomato on the kitchen counter is the most delicious excuse I can think of to avoid turning on the oven. This excuse is especially appealing in the heat and humidity of a Boston summer, when just the thought of touching a knob on the oven can cause you to melt on the spot. Until a few weeks ago, I ate every one of my tomatoes raw, at room temperature. I'd slice them alongside avocados; chop and toss them together with cucumbers and peppers; or, in a classic move, slide them under downy half-spheres of buffalo mozzarella. When you're leaning over the kitchen sink, biting into a whole tomato, and slurping loudly, it can feel like summer will last forever.

sliced tomatoes mid-meal

And then, in rolls September.

She wasted no time in announcing herself this year. On September 1st, blue skies faded to grey, and temperatures dropped suddenly into the low 60s. You could smell the almost-autumn in the air. It was a day for pulling on sweaters; for tying on scarves that you didn't really need, but that felt reassuringly soft and snug under your chin. It was a day for turning on the oven. With the slight chill creeping in through the window frames, a little extra heat in the kitchen didn't sound half-bad. The lunch that I threw together that day is a staple in my September kitchen: roasted chickpeas and heirloom tomatoes. I've eaten it at least twice a week for lunch all month long. It has taken me a while to get it down here, mostly because the recipe feels almost too simple to be called a recipe at all. Maybe you can think of it as assembly instructions, only instead of ending up with a swing set or an IKEA bookcase, you get lunch. You start with some canned chick peas, roll them in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast them just long enough for the outer skins to crisp up. Then, you toss them with a chopped tomato, top with basil, and call it a meal. If you happen to have a hunk of day-old bread on hand, I highly recommend using it to soak up any remaining seeds, juice, and oil in the bottom of the bowl. That part always feels like the grand finale to me, a special treat, like eating the heart of the artichoke, or the bit of ice cream that pools in the last bite of sugar cone.

People tend to talk about September in terms of where we've been and where we're going. We look back on the dog days of summer, cozy up to the idea of tights, hot cider, and evening fires, and brace ourselves for the coming winter. But for me, September is not about being betwixt and between. It's a special time all its own, and deserves to be enjoyed in the moment. Playing cool tomatoes off of warm, nutty chickpeas, this recipe celebrates just that. It's September in a bowl. And with autumn making its first official appearance tomorrow, I'm going to dig in my heels right here and, as long as there are tomatoes to be had, help myself to another serving.

tomatoes and chickpeas

Roasted Chickpeas and Heirloom Tomatoes

Because this recipe involves only four ingredients, it is important to go for high quality. I prefer Goya chickpeas, because – as far as canned chickpeas are concerned – they seem to stand up best to roasting. If you're lucky enough to have a selection of heirloom tomatoes at your fingertips, use whichever tomato is your favorite for slicing and eating raw. I have a feeling that "regular" tomatoes on the vine, and even cherry tomatoes, sliced in half, would also be delicious. If you feel like taking one step further in the direction of autumn, you can try replacing the basil leaves with fresh thyme.

1 15-oz. can of chickpeas
1 large, or 2 medium tomatoes (that have never been refrigerated)
2 T. good quality olive oil, divided
About 6 basil leaves, sliced into ribbons
Coarse salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Drain the chickpeas, and toss with 1 T. of the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Spill the chickpeas onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and shake them into a single layer. Roast for 20-30 minutes, until the skins brown slightly and begin to pull away a little from the beans.

Chop the tomato into large, bite-sized chunks. Toss the hot chickpeas with the tomato and the additional tablespoon of oil, and sprinkle with basil. Add a few extra grinds of salt and black pepper, to taste.

Serves two.

9.07.2009

happy birthday, dad


In 1999, on the cusp of the new millennium, my father discovered exercise. While alarmists warned of nuclear meltdowns and plummeting airplanes, Dad glided into Y2K on the roller-ramps of a Precor EFX elliptical. Dad not only got moving; he got eating, with a brand new attitude towards what kind of food he wanted to put into his body. This fall marks ten years of the fitter, fab-er you, Dad. I like to think that if you keep this up, you might just live forever. A girl can hope, anyway.

Dad has long been known for his pancake towers, his tomato-mustard grilled cheese sandwiches, and his Chunky bar habit. The launch of Dad, version Y2K, didn't change any of that. He still indulges in the occasional scoop of Graeter's black raspberry chip, ends a nice dinner out with a crème brulée and some serious ramekin scraping and, when given the chance, downs almond M&Ms by the handful. Dad has always been slim, so his transformation had little to do with deprivation, and everything to do with eating more of the foods that both his taste buds and his body could agree on. Just as much as he enjoys clean, simple foods, he loves the idea of taking care of himself by eating them.

For my father, eating well is a matter of pride. And I mean swagger-inducing, sit-up-straight, fork-flourishing pride. Dad's enthusiasm for fruits and vegetables in their purist forms is especially fierce. He is prone to dramatic pronouncements of his love for roasted Brussels sprouts, and one bite of a wild strawberry can inspire a slap on the table hard enough to turn the knotted wood black and blue. To the uninitiated dinner guest, my father's bug-eyed, awestruck expression might appear to signal distress, or anger, even. But most likely, it's just that he has never tasted a beet so sweet and flavorful. Give him a minute to recover, and he'll tell you so.

We tend to laugh and poke fun at Dad's earthshaking re-discoveries of, say, rice and beans. But secretly, I love these emphatic, hungry moments. Take, for example, a scene from my last visit home. We were seated at the dinner table, and my dad had just chewed and swallowed his first bite of the green, ruffle-y vegetable on his plate. It began quietly, as if to himself: "What is this?" Then again, a little louder, incredulously: "What IS this?"

"It's kale, Dad."

There was the thwack of his hand against the table, and finally, the exuberant declaration:

"I LOVE kale!"

This is what I mean when I tell you that good, healthy food, especially the plucked-from-the-earth variety, simply blows his mind.

I am my father's daughter, this much is clear, and not only because a perfectly cooked leafy green makes my day, too. The resemblance between us is undeniable, and far more than skin deep: There's our love of telling stories, our tight hamstrings, and our laughably poor senses of direction. And then there are the habits, the inclinations, and the tendencies: to intimidate without meaning to; to write late into the night, long past bedtime; ask pointed questions; and connect fully and deeply with the people we love. We read the newspaper and wonder aloud why the writer chose this word instead of that. We are hard on others, and even harder on ourselves. We want what we want, when we want it. (And frankly, we're awfully good at getting it.) We live so much in our heads, and so much in our hearts; we feel each moment triply, experiencing it, reflecting on it, and experiencing it again, all at the same time. We say what we mean, and mean what we say, and what I have to say is this: No daughter has ever had a father better suited to exactly who she is. (I used to tell people that Dad and I share a brain, but given recent events, I hesitate to wish that upon him.)

My inheritance also came with lessons, at the piano, in the pool, and on the sofa over a cup of chamomile. He taught me what a marriage isn't, and what a marriage is. For that, my gratitude knows no bounds.

And now, it's about time that I say what we've all been waiting for: Happy birthday, dear Dad.

Instead of celebrating with a recipe, I thought I'd share a couple of artifacts from my childhood, brought to you by none other than the birthday boy himself. Behold, two of the many lunch bags that Dad painstakingly created to transport my sandwiches and juice boxes from home to school or, in the case of these fine specimens, to Stagecrafters Theatre Camp. (Click on the lunch bags for larger, more readable images.)





Dad, I smush you. (Which is much, much better than love.)

[Never fear, Dad. Though this post lacks a recipe, you'll still be receiving a birthday treat at your door. It's something from the archives, and I can't wait for you to try it.]

9.04.2009

all of it

Sometimes, I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up. No, scratch that. It’s that I have too many ideas, I think.

For a while – the entire first decade of my life, in fact – these many ideas at least had the courtesy to take turns. I was a serial monogamist, wedded heart and soul to one career at a time. In preschool, it was carpentry. My grandparents owned a lumber yard, so my early exposure to sky-high stacks of two-by-fours and plywood may have had something to do with it. I carried around a block of wood and a square of sandpaper in the pocket of the carpenter’s apron that my grandfather had given me. Wherever I went, I sanded. I had big plans: One day, I would build a sprawling house where I would live together with my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.



We would have our own separate wings, and bunk beds, and – get this – every morning a train would loop around to each of our bedrooms and carry us down to Grand Central Station (the kitchen, of course) for breakfast. The carpentry years are well-documented in a caricature that still hangs on the wall of my childhood bedroom. In it, a five-year-old me sits happily sawing away at a sawhorse (because what else does one do at a sawhorse?), with several nails pressed between my lips. That last part always struck me as kind of dangerous, but, well, a carpenter’s got to do what a carpenter’s got to do. On Career Day, I would tie on my carpenter’s apron, tuck a T-square under my arm, and silently pity the mini-lawyers and businessmen who, as far as I could tell, had only suits, slicked back hair, and squeaky shoes to look forward to in adulthood. Not me. I was going to be a carpenter, and that drawing proved it. Its black plastic frame sealed my fate.

Until the second grade, that is, when I discovered a higher calling: veterinary medicine. I had a very specialized practice in mind. I would treat dogs and, in a nod to Roy and Innis, the Polish Arabians who lived in the stables across the street, horses. This veterinary phase lasted until the summer before the fourth grade, when I learned from a camp counselor of mine (he had been a psychology major in college) that psychology is what you study if you want to learn about the way people think and feel. Who wouldn’t want to know about that? Psychology, I decided, would be my life’s work.

But then came the fifth grade, and with it, the unsettling realization that there sure is a lot out there to be when one grows up. I read a book by Jane Goodall, and decided that I, too, wanted to study chimpanzees in their natural habitat. And my life would not be complete without a simultaneous career in musical theatre. (Painful and harmonically redundant as it sounds, I was going through an Andrew Lloyd Webber phase at the time.) Fifth grade was also the year of the poetry circle in Mrs. Barron’s English class and, to top it all off, the year that I discovered that holiest of tomes, The Thesaurus. It dawned on me like the blazing, incandescent sun: I would be a poet. One that would force her readers to dodge flowery adjectives like rapid-fire bullets, apparently. Oh, and a psychologist. Yes, still. I had far from abandoned that path. Laugh if you wish, dear readers, but I was dead serious. About all of it.

In the thick of this primate-pondering, show-tune belting, thesaurus-thumbing, and head-shrinking, I met a girl named Rachel. Rachel’s father was a produce man. To this day, I’m not certain exactly what that meant, whether he delivered the produce to the markets or arranged it on the shelves, or both. What I do know is that Rachel had a special claim to fame. At lunchtime, on a fairly regular basis, she would dump her brown bag lunch onto the table, and smugly announce: “I have never eaten a plum that is yellow on the inside.” I watched closely - we all did - and this daughter of a produce man spoke the truth. Every plum that ever crossed her lips was clearly blushing, inside and out. Of course, some plum varieties, at their ripest and most flavorful, are actually supposed to be creamy yellow beneath the skin. But we didn’t know that, and we didn’t care. To us, Rachel’s rosy plums were the plums to beat.

My curiosity about Rachel’s father’s career never blossomed into a full-fledged desire to work in produce. I did, however, entertain fantasies of the fruit that could be mine if ever I were to follow that path. The perfect plum often eludes me. It’s hit or miss. But if I were a produce professional, I would have it all down to a science. Or maybe a feeling, a stone fruit intuition, that would guide my hand to the sweetest, juiciest plums of all.

As it stands, I’m a mere layperson in the produce aisles. I never acquired any such plum-picking powers. Instead, I made the acquaintance of a certain plum-like fruit that is consistently more hit than miss: the pluot (rhymes with “flu shot”). The pluot, not to be confused with the plumcot or the aprium, is about three-fifths plum and two-fifths apricot in parentage. Deep purple, reliably sweet, with a tart, grapey finish, the pluot has officially joined the ranks of my favorite late-summer stone fruits. As its name reflects, this little fruit refuses to be just one thing. And you know, I think I might follow suit. There’s no better life than the cross-pollinated life. That may be my new mantra.

I enjoy pluots right out of hand, yes, but most of all, I like baking them into all manner of crusty, custardy, crumbly things, like galettes, clafoutis and, most recently, this simple cake.

plum cake 2

I first tried this recipe with raspberries, and then with blackberries, but my favorite topping by far is the pluot. I think it has something to do with the way they caramelize around the edges. A slice of this cake has it all: a moist crumb, a whisper of lemon, and the sweet nuttiness that fruit takes on when it melts and curls up into itself under an open flame. It’s good company on late nights spent dreaming, scheming, and figuring things out. And even better for taking a break from all that, and simply digging in.

Pluot Cake
Adapted from Everybody Likes Sandwiches, who adapted it from Not Derby Pie

1 c. flour
1 t. baking powder
Zest of 1 lemon
¾ c. sugar
2 eggs
½ c. canola oil
1 t. vanilla
4-5 pluots, or other small stone fruit (or 1-2 c. berries)
1 T. raw sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter (or oil) and flour an 8-9 inch springform pan, and slice the fruit into thin crescents. In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and lemon zest. Add the sugar, eggs, vanilla, and oil, and stir until the mixture forms a thick batter. Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan. As I said, it will be thick, so you may need to use a spatula to spread the batter evenly. Arrange the fruit slices on top in any pattern that pleases you. I like to go with overlapping rows on this cake. Sprinkle the top with the raw sugar, and bake for 50-60 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Do not overbake. I beg you. Just a couple of extra minutes rob this cake of its moisture, so check early and often. I have found that this cake is at its best on the second day. I like to bake it, let it cool, cover with plastic wrap, and keep it overnight on the counter. With this treatment, the moist crumb turns almost creamy. If you feel the need, you can slip the day-old cake under the broiler for a minute, or use a kitchen torch to re-crisp the top.