Monthly Archives: August 2013

Golden gazpacho

So, remember how I said I didn’t really like gazpacho? I may have spoken too soon.

There’s a Spanish-ish restaurant near my boyfriend’s apartment that does a very good gazpacho–very light, very soft, and a beautiful marigold color. I’ve eaten there several times, and ordered the gazpacho, and…well…liked it. But it wasn’t until recently that it really registered why. I just chalked it up to restaurant-magic and continued on my merry way.

But last week, Sam wanted gazpacho. He made puppy eyes at me. I caved. And it turns out there are a few things that will make me almost-kinda-sorta love gazpacho:

  1. It must be blended completely smooth.
  2. It must be relatively light on tomato, and heavy on other flavors.
  3. It must be served very, very, very cold.

This restaurant makes a gazpacho that nails all three. It’s ultra-smooth, soft and not the least bit fibrous. The dominant flavor is bell pepper, not tomato. And it’s served in chilled bowls, in small portions, perfect for slurping down before it loses its frigid edge.

I set about my task, and ended up with something not totally unlike the restaurant version. To keep the gorgeous golden hue, I stuck with yellow cherry tomatoes, sweet as candy, and a big yellow bell pepper. I tossed in a few chives and some tarragon, left over from making dip, and a jalapeno pepper for a slow bloom of mild heat. I refrigerated the thing in the blender carafe for a while, then strained it into bowls.

It was good. I ate all of it. (Well, most of it.)

I still don’t think tomato gazpacho will ever be my favorite soup, but at least now I know how to make a version that I will willingly eat. So, just as I started the summer with a gazpacho disappointment, let’s kick off Labor Day weekend with a gazpacho success. It’s cold, it’s refreshing, it’s the color of sunny summer things, and it’s a nice reminder that I can sometimes be wrong about food.

golden gazpacho

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Food of the gods

I’m a sucker for a good theme party. Fortunately, my friends throw good theme parties.

Like, for example, a Greek gods party. With togas and garlands and grapes and more grapes. It was glorious. We all lounged around in the silliest, cleverest costumes we could think of, and drank wine and grilled meat and then changed into swimsuits and played tag in the pool. We were also encouraged to bring thematically-appropriate food. Which I did. And, apparently, went a little retro to boot.

I’d been seeing recipes around for green goddess dip, and this seemed like the perfect party to test it out at. Green goddess dip is in fact an adaptation of green goddess dressing, which was invented in the kitchens of a fancy hotel in the 1920’s (in San Francisco, I believe!). It’s got a slight head-scratcher of an ingredients list: mayonnaise, sour cream, tarragon, chives, chervil or parsley, lemon juice, and anchovy. The combination of aggressive herbal brightness and luxe creaminess must have been a stunner back in the bootleggers’ days, but I wanted to find a way to lighten it some. The solution? Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, and a big ripe avocado in place of the mayonnaise. Not only did the avocado make the dip insanely buttery and thick, but it also turned it science-fiction green. A green green goddess dip, indeed.

I didn’t have high hopes for this one; it was mostly for the ha-ha of the name and the theme of the party. But man, was this a huge hit. The combination was unusual and immensely satisfying: the cool milky smoothness of the yogurt and avocado against the pale oniony chives, light licorice tarragon, leafy parsley, and just the faintest whisper of salt from the anchovies. We started out with carrot sticks, then migrated to tortilla chips, and by the end of the party I was swabbing out the dregs from the bowl with my finger. I have no regrets.

green goddess dip

Since this was a party of the gods, I also wanted to try my hand at the food of the gods: ambrosia. There is such a thing as ambrosia salad, a throwback to the days when processed foods were new and exciting. It’s like a fruit salad with the sugar and chemicals turned up to 11: canned pineapple, canned mandarin orange, mini marshmallows, flaked coconut, maraschino cherries, premade whipped topping or sour cream or both. I’ve had ambrosia salad. It’s…not my thing. But I knew there was a hint of something amazing underneath all of that. And August, with its absolute abundance of stone fruit, is just the right time for a creamy fruit salad. Which is really what ambrosia salad is.

I suppose I shouldn’t really call this ambrosia salad, since it has none of the requisite ingredients. What it does have are fresh peaches, plums, and cherries, tossed in a dressing of thickened coconut milk, lime, mint, and vanilla. Toss it in the fridge for a couple hours–it gets better the longer it sits–and serve it chilled from a big bowl. The juices from the fruit mingle with the rich coconut-sweet glaze, making it nearly impossible to stop eating chunks of fruit straight from the bowl with your fingers. (At least, if you’re me.) Ambrosia salad, it’s not; but ambrosia, it just might be.

stone fruit ambrosia

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Invisible

Here’s something I’ve been mulling for a while.

A few months ago, during an online conversation, my friend Robyn made a striking statement. For some girls, she said, being fat might be a blessing in disguise–because it makes them invisible. In a society where so many women feel so much on display, falling outside the realm of “pretty” is actually a good thing. It lets women like us go about our daily business unmolested; it helps us feel secure.

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. It seemed glib, this idea of fat being a good thing, which flies in the face of every subtle and overt message in the air around us. But at the same time, I had a quiet sense that she was right. She was describing me.

For a long time now, I’ve felt my status as an invisible girl. I don’t get approached on the street, or catcalled, or hit on in broad daylight. I don’t get offered drinks at bars; my friends and colleagues do, but I don’t. I ride public transit every day, for long distances; I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been addressed by a stranger. I can almost always count on reading my book or listening to my music in unblemished peace. I know women who are accosted daily, who come up with routines for avoiding and confronting; but not me. I tell them so, and they’re surprised.

It hasn’t always been like this. When I was a teenager, 14-looking-20, and my big breasts came in before my bigger hips did, I could feel the gazes and the winks on my skin. But now I’m an ordinary twentysomething, heavier and less taut than I was then. Neither thin enough to be “hot,” nor fat enough to be “disgusting.” Neither pretty enough to draw catcalls, nor ugly enough to prompt jeers and taunts. Young enough that I could be on display, but I’m not. It’s a sweet spot of unremarkableness. So I brush past the crowds on Market Street, and don’t fear being seized on.

I like my invisibility. I feed it. I don’t wear makeup, and hardly style my hair. I wear comfortable clothes and sensible shoes. I daydream on my feet, and people-watch with glee. But sometimes–more often than I’d like–being unseen seems more curse than blessing. In a culture where looks are currency, and male attention means female validation, being invisible is perhaps evidence of a defect. It’s easy to take it that way, to use every unmet glance or drink bought for another girl as an excuse to pick and pick and wear down. It takes a certain hardheadedness to recognize the good in being invisible, and I’m not always so hardheaded.

I don’t think I’m alone. I think there are lots of invisible girls. And I think we’re all slightly confused about whether our invisibility is good or bad. But after a lot of thought about it, I’ve decided Robyn has a point. It’s not always easy to be unbeautiful in a beauty-obsessed world, but the invisibility of it can be a relief.

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Pan-roasted Padron peppers

I wish I could say I first had these in Spain, but I didn’t. It was actually at a tapas bar in San Francisco, on a chilly February night right around Valentine’s Day. Sam and I were going to a fancy party–tux for him, satin for me. We shared a bottle of very dry Iberian cider, and a cheese plate, and a little skillet of roasted Padron peppers. They astonished me, those peppers, sharp and smoky and once or twice fiery, punctuated with the occasional crunch of a salt-flake. So later that year, in summer, when I spotted Padron peppers at the farmer’s market, I snapped up a big bagful and roasted them myself. And I’ve been doing it regularly ever since.

This is one of those 1-2-3 food tricks that adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. It starts with fresh Padron peppers, adorably dimpled and bright leaf-green. Padrons have a flavor all their own–where jalapenos are fruity, and poblanos are sharp, these are grassy and light, almost parsley-like. They’re also conveniently bite-sized, with long elegant stems that make them an ideal finger food. They really don’t need much done to them: just a dance in a hot pan until they shudder and crackle and char all over. (Some recipes coat the pan with olive oil before adding the peppers, but that generates an awful lot of smoke, so I keep the pan dry.) Then just a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of flaky salt, and a tapa is born.

A slightly dangerous tapa, too, because there’s an element of chance involved. Padron peppers are naturally mild, but occasional cross-pollination with nearby chiles can produce the occasional spicy pepper. I’ve most often seen a pile of Padron peppers described like a roulette game: most are utterly mild, but about every one in 10 is shockingly spicy. I think there’s actually a little more nuance to it than that. Most are completely without heat, a few will prick you lightly, and every batch has one or two that detonate in your mouth. I’d say the hottest Padron I’ve tasted was about on par with a jalapeno. There’s no way to tell in advance which peppers are the spicy ones, so adventure is the only option. Which I happen to love.

These are at their absolute best when they’re hot from the pan. I’ve been to multiple restaurants that serve them in miniature cast-iron skillets; if you’re able, I definitely recommend going that way. Otherwise, use these as an excuse to gather people around the kitchen with their glasses of wine, and hand over the peppers the moment they’re oiled and salted.

pan roasted padron peppers with bread

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Parsley miso pesto

This one started with a fridge cleanout. I opened one of the crisper drawers and unearthed most of a bunch of parsley, about a week old (leftover from making stuffed tomatoes, I think). The leaves were slowly darkening and turning brittle, and it was clear they were at their use-or-lose point. Of course, when life hands you a bunch of herbs, the natural thing to do is make pesto; but, as the rest of the fridge-cleaning revealed, we had neither nuts nor cheese around. What we did have was a tub of white miso, which I’d bought for some other cooking project that ultimately flopped. So I decided to experiment a little, and see what a vegan, nut-free pesto might be like.

As it turned out, miso makes a surprisingly appealing pesto. I was concerned about texture, but the miso easily replaced both the waxy bulk of the nuts and the salty stickiness of the cheese. It looked and felt just like an ordinary pesto, lightly bound and made moist with olive oil. I used a knife, as per usual, and the whole thing came together quickly and without fuss. In fact, I think it was faster to make than my usual pesto; the knife glided through the miso paste, instead of having to bite chunks of nuts and gather flecks of cheese with each stroke.

I will say, though, that if you came to this expecting an exact replica of Italian pesto, you’d be disappointed. This is different from the nut-and-cheese version, and majorly flavorful in its own right. It’s lighter and more relaxed than the traditional stuff, and the mass that binds the herbs and garlic together is soft instead of slick. The miso is subtle but definitely present; instead of the earth tones of nuts, there’s a grassy undercurrent of soy. The saltiness is deeper and blunter than it would be from cheese. This version feels even more summery than regular pesto, if that’s possible; the greenness of the parsley is really front and center.

Because of the unmistakable miso flavor, I don’t think I’d use this on pasta. Rice, perhaps, or some other grain; maybe as a spread on bread; perhaps as a coating for roasted potatoes. I could see it spread and rolled in a piece of meat, or basted on chicken, or stirred into vegetable soup, or folded into scrambled eggs. But, in my mind, this pesto is really tailor-made for seafood, and specifically fish. I thinned out my batch of pesto with some lemon juice and a splash of hot water, and used it as a sauce on simply seared white fish: incredible. So light, so sophisticated, so much flavor in so few bites.

parsley miso pesto fish

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Blackberry raspberry crisp

About a month ago, Sam and I took a jaunt up to Portland. It was a glorious trip, the kind that passes you by in a swirl of color and sunlight and leaves you with a jumble of picture-frame memories. We crashed with one of my college friends, met up with a few others, spent the trip happily tangling ourselves up in conversations that lasted for hours and rambled for miles. We meandered all over the city, took in the roses and the Sunday market art stands and the surprising cloudless sky, spent hours combing through the shelves at Powell’s. We drank our fill of Portland’s phenomenal beers, and some remarkable hard ciders as well. We ate dreamily, greedily, filled ourselves with brewery food and bagels and ice cream and donuts. And berries. Lots of berries.

It was my friend Leslie who tipped us off to the Oregon Berry Festival. Self-centered California girl that I am, I’d had no idea that the Pacific Northwest is so renowned for its berries. But the calendar had handed us a sweet seed-studded opportunity: a feisty little celebration of all things berry, coinciding exactly with our weekend in Portland. Of course, we had to go. For science.

oregon berry festival sign

We went to the festival on our first full day in the city, a gloriously warm day bathed in white sunlight, and discovered a riot of tented stands, bearing treat after berry-flavored treat. There were stands selling berry shortcakes and berry vinegar and berry salsa and berry barbecue sauce and berry cider, all of it tasty, some of it memorable. But Sam and Leslie and I kept getting drawn to the stands selling berries themselves, in neat cardboard baskets, lined up in rows, each table a starburst of colors and textures.

We tasted, of course–eagerly, asking questions around each mouthful. There were the familiar ones: blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, all perfectly ripe and summer-sweet. There were boysenberries, which tasted just like the syrup I put on my pancakes as a child, and olallieberries, which I’d heard of but never thought to try. I tasted my first gooseberry, a rare ripe one–pinkish-red and veined with green, fleshy and tart like a slightly unripe grape. There were blackberry-raspberry hybrids I’d never heard of: tiny shadow-black tayberries and chubby red loganberries and marionberries, oh, marionberries, dark and rich like blackberries but with just a whisper of raspberry roundness. I didn’t know marionberries existed until that morning, and now I miss them desperately.

oregon berry festival berries

Later in the trip, over lunch in a nondescript restaurant, Sam and I shared a marionberry crisp for dessert. The flavor was just right, deep and resonant and not-too-sweet, but the crisp itself was a mess: gluey filling, soggy topping, barely lukewarm all through. It felt like an injustice to the fruit. So last weekend I decided to right that wrong, and make a really good berry crisp to remind us of Portland. I haven’t gotten my hands on marionberries yet–not for lack of trying, mind you–so had to make do with a mix of blackberries and raspberries. I studded the crumble topping with pecans, for a little added crunch, and waited till the berries bubbled volcanically before taking the crisp out of the oven. It was barely cooled before we dove in with spoons.

This is quite possibly the best dessert I’ve made all summer (and I’ve made a few). The blackberries kept their juicy burst, and the raspberries melted around them to create a purple-red liquor, almost like red wine in its intensity. The topping itself was as crisp and nubbly as I could have hoped, and just sweet enough to support the summer-ripe berries. It took me right back to the berry festival, standing at a table, eating berry after gorgeous berry, trying to tease out the the balance of blackberry and raspberry in each one.

I love cooking this way, bringing back flavors from abroad and creating food that’s as bound up in memory as it is in taste. It’s probably the most pleasurable thing I do in my kitchen. Especially when the results taste this good with a scoop of ice cream on top.

blackberry raspberry crisp

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