Variation on a Theme

I made another cilantro/lime marinade last night, and I have to say this version is even better (sorry, Stonewall Kitchens). I put a couple of handfuls of washed and dried, fresh cilantro in the blender. I added the juice of two limes, about a half a teaspoon of salt, some fresh coriander seeds, peppercorns, and a little whole cumin seeds. Then I blended. After everything was chopped up, I added olive oil to form an emulsion like last time. I gave it a taste, and it needed something more. Remembering that I had seen salad dressing recipes with lime call for orange juice, I looked in the fridge for something sweet. No orange juice, but I did have mango juice. I dipped a little bit of the marinade on one spoon and a little bit of mango juice on the other to try the two out. Oh my was that good!I added about 1/4C of the juice and blended well.

I marinated chicken breasts in the marinade and then brushed more on while the chicken cooked.

I tried the Cook's Illustrated version of grilled corn on the cob. They say to peel the corn down to the last layer of husk, grill 8-12 minutes, turning every minute in a half. Master Chef Maurice is against the grilled corn idea, but I thought I would try it out. Result: It tasted kind of nice and nutty, but it was a lot of work to stand over the grill turning it every minute and a half. The regular boiling method produces fine corn with much less work.


Out of Gas

I had a pretty good menu planned for last night, but instead I made one of the worst meals of my life. I had intended to grill up some shrimp—seasoned with lemon, garlic, and whatever else, along with a sliced avocado squash. I thought of serving the beautifully grilled shrimp on a bed of rice. So far, so good.

But then the grill wouldn't light. File this as argument number 321 for having both a gas and a charcoal grill.

So I sautéed the shrimp, which became less than memorable, except for the squishy centers. The squash (which cost $2.50 at the Larchmont Farmer's Market!) was bleh under the broiler. The rice couldn't help anything. Besides, it was kind of like paste.

Better luck next time. And I'm going to need it too; Lora is coming to dinner tomorrow!


Announcing: The Summer Food Competition

Here is the first official entry in the category: best dish to take to someone's house for a barbecue. Black Bean Salad.

We were invited to our neighbor's house for a super-casual barbecue, and I wanted to bring something easy, fresh, that would travel across the backyard well, and that most people might like. I love black beans, and I've had lots of variations on black bean salads, so I decided to make one with all the different things that I love all in one big bowl.

When I make a salad I mostly measure with my eye. I want things to be represented but not dominate, so my process is chop a little bit, see how that looks—add more if necessary. Here are the ingredients for the salad, a salad that is so good that I quietly took the leftovers home and am eating it right now for breakfast.

Black beans (of course)— I used one can of Goya beans, carefully rinsed.
Orzo — cooked in salted water
Corn — I cooked one ear of fresh corn. I think I'd use frozen, but not canned.
Red Pepper — diced to about the same size as a black bean
Yellow Pepper — also diced to about the same size as a black bean
Red Onion — I used about 1/4, diced smaller than a black bean
Mango — about 1/2 C, diced
Cilantro — fresh, about 1/3 C chopped
Juice of 2 limes
salt / pepper
Ground Coriander — a couple of shakes
Ground Cumin — a couple of shakes

I'm eating it right now with a dollop of spicy guacamole on the side. I would add some diced jalapeno if I didn't want kids to have any and wanted most of it for myself. Fresh little tomatoes could be good too, but chopped tomatoes might make it a little watery.

Make it. Love it. Submit your own best take-away summer dishes.


You Say "Tomato"; I Say "La Tomate"

I got the latest Penzey’s catalog today. They’re a mail order spice and herb company with what must be very Mid-Western roots. I place orders from them from time to time, unless I run out of something and need it right away. Now they’ve opened up a shop in the food mall at Grand Central Station, so I’ll be able to save on shipping fees.

I thumbed through the catalog anyway because I’m always entranced by the food photography. They offer recipes that use a good portion of their product and the photos that reveal the desired result are shockingly bright. They’re old school, like the photos that illustrate Betty Crocker cookbooks or 1001 Quick Meals Using Campbell’s Soup. You can almost feel the warmth of the wattage used to light the food.

All of a sudden a bunch of bright shiny tomatoes caught my eye, and there it was: La Tarte! Penzey’s was suggesting that we should all make fresh Tomato Tarts this summer. They put the Penzey’s spin on the recipe by calling for Shallot Salt (a new product of theirs) and suggest that you could use either dried or fresh basil (as if!).

The part that truly surprised me, and made The Husband jump, was their suggestion to spread a full 2 T of Dijon mustard on the bottom layer. Regular readers will know the problems that can come from that kind of advice. They leave out the cheese too, which I think is a mistake. The Gruyere adds a nuttiness that balances out the tangy mustard and the sweet tomatoes.

It’s a strange to see something that has seemed so quixotic and unattainable in boldface in a catalog. Everyone will be making Tomato Tarts now, and I wish them luck.


The Squash of Summer

The vegetable of the moment in our house is summer squash. I slice it , length-wise, in thirds. Then sprinkle salt and pepper; drizzle with olive oil. I put it on the grill for about 3-4 minutes a side. That's it.

I used to steam summer squash and zucchini, and it always tasted kind of bitter and watery. Grilling makes summer squash incredibly sweet and succulant. I make sure not to overcook it, so there is still a bit of bite to it. Plus, the grill marks make it look much fancier than it really is.


More on Steak

I can clearly remember the first meal I had with The Husband. We were walking out of an Environmental Ethics class in Berkeley, and he was on his way to The Stuffed Inn on the North Side of campus. He didn’t really invite me to dinner, it was much more casual than that. He was going to get what must have been the cheapest vegetarian meal in town and I could too.

The Stuffed Inn was a darkly wooded den of a place with serve yourself soup, kept hot all day in steam kettles. Split Pea soup was their specialty, it seemed, and you could ladle yourself up a big bowlful and grab a wedge of chewy bread to go along with it. I was nearly in love with him by then, and it just seemed so fitting to be discussing living attuned with the environment and then having a peasanty porridgey bean soup. At that point in my life I knew how many acres of arable soil it took to produce a pound of beef, and I tried really hard to live a life that considered human impact on the planet.

I am not a hemp-wearing vegetarian. That’s a fact. I think my life began to shift when we moved to New York City. It can be extremely difficult to feel in touch with the Earth when you see so little of it. Some things don’t change: The Husband is an avid recycler. I prefer to buy organic food. Some things have.

Once bean soups were satisfying and comforting for The Husband. Now steak does the trick. When I know that he’s been having a hard time and that he needs to feel loved, I make steak. I either pan-fry it in a little bit of peanut oil or put it out on the grill. I like to make a rub out of coarsely ground peppercorns and coriander seeds, and a sprinkling of salt. I’ve gotten pretty good at telling how much it has cooked by how much the steak “gives” when you press on it (the softer it is, the more rare it is).

I usually buy prime beef at Fairway. It’s kind of pricey, but the three of us share one New York or Rib Eye steak, so it doesn’t set us back that much. Once I bought a strip steak at Lobel’s on Madison. It was delicious, but I just couldn’t rationalize the price. (Their ribs though, that’s another story).

The Husband can be less talkative at the table when we have steak for dinner. But that’s also because he’s usually enjoying his meal, as well as busily cutting up The Girl's portion too.


Turkey Because I'm Chicken

I grew up on hamburgers. I used to pinch pieces of the raw meat when my grandma was making meatloaf or burgers. She used a castiron meat grinder that she screwed onto the tabletop and ground it all herself. Years later, when I first saw someone eat steak tartare in France (a plateful of raw ground beef with a raw egg on top), I was overcome by both desire and revulsion.

We were regulars at Val's Burger's in Hayward, California when I was a kid. My cousin and I would get charcoal grilled "baby burgers," grilled by Val himself, and then add ketchup from a squirt bottle, lots of pickles. We'd share a plastic basket of crinkle-cut french fries and be in heaven.

Fear of mad cow disease has pretty much taken me off of ground beef, so whenever I go to a diner I usually order the same thing: a turkey burger, well done with tomato, onion, and mustard. They are usually pretty dry and sometimes taste like cardboard with mustard. I decided that I could possibly do better, so I took a stab at my own turkey burgers.

I didn't do any of the "fancy" things that make diner turkey burgers even worse. I didn't add chopped onion to the meat or add anything else that makes you sorry you ordered it. I simply made patties out of the burgers, put a little salt, pepper and ground coriander on top and then put them on the grill. I pulled out some of the bready part of the bun, gave each a brush of olive oil and let them toast on the grill for the last couple of minutes.

What really set these burgers apart, I think, were the condiments. I'm so tired of getting 1/2" slices of onion and tomatoes at diners. I know it takes more trouble to slice them thinly, but they would save money by having the onion and tomatoes go further. Mine were about 1/8", which seemed perfect. You could double up on tomatoes without having them slip out of the sandwich. I couldn't find dill pickle chips, so I went for sliced, and they were fine too.

I got mixed results with this dinner. The Husband was extremely happy (or extremely hungry—or both); he ate three! I thought they were much, much better than anything I previously ordered, and ate two (they were small). The Girl ate the pickles. Lots of them. At one point during dinner she came over and climbed on my lap and whispered, "I think I'm going to throw up." We waltzed away from the table, and I applauded her for paying attention to her body.

I know I'm going to be dissatisfied next time I go to a diner. Maybe I'll have to be like The Husband and order the fish filet sandwich. Next time I'm in the Bay Area, though, I'm going to Vals.


I Did It - My Way

I'm a big, big fan of Stonewall Kitchen's Cilantro Lime Dressing. Mostly I use it for marinating chicken before grilling, but at about $5.00 a bottle ($5.95 if you buy it through their website) it can get pretty expensive. I can go through a bottle of that with a whole chicken. So, in an effort toward living the frugal life I decided to make my own cilantro / lime concoction.

I put about 2-3 limes (cut away the peel), 1/2C fresh cilantro, 1 heaping Tbl of toasted, whole coriander seeds, a clove of garlic, and about a tsp. of salt in the blender. Then I added 1/4 of olive oil. I blended it really well for about 20 seconds. Then I poured in more olive oil while the blender was running to get it the consistency I wanted: a thick paste. Then I pourerd it over cubes of chicken in a shallow baking dish to marinate.

When it was time to get dinner going I jabbed the chicken cubes on to skewers and grilled them for about 8 minutes. Other grilled vegetables balanced out the menu (e.g., mushrooms, peppers, zucchini, tofu), and it was all served over rice.

Here are some of the good things about this:

1. It took hardly no time at all.
2. I got to use up some of my "older" limes.
3. The thick paste adhered nicely to the chicken, so a lot of the flavor stayed -on- the chicken.
4. It was truly delicious. Everybody said so.