Last week, I was in New York for a work conference, and it was the best kind of work trip. I learned a lot and came back energized about the work I do. But I also had enough time before and after the conference to explore New York, experience some off-Broadway theater performances, go to some museums, and eat at some amazing restaurants. Nobody should be surprised that I googled Ina Garten’s favorite restaurants in the neighborhood where I was staying, and I roped some colleagues into eating breakfast with me at Nougatine by Jean-Georges. It was delicious and amazing, and even though we didn’t see Ina Garten, I feel just a tiny bit more stalkerish-close to her than I did before.
Now that we’re back in town, we were invited to friends’ house for another cooperative dinner party. This is now my favorite style of entertaining: someone else with a pool and some grilling know-how invites us over, and we bring various and sundry side dishes and desserts. I don’t have to pick up all of the nerf bullets and legos around our house or even put away the laundry, and we can finish the prepping dishes clean-up after we get home. The kids get a nice long swim while we catch up with friends, and everybody’s happy. This week, we sampled three more from Cooking with Jeffrey: sweet potato empanadas, herbed goat cheese (I used Boursin) and kale salad with pecorino and pancetta. The empanadas were slightly fussy to make, but less fussy than Ina’s instructions to cut circles in puff pastry, because we live in Texas, and I could buy pre-cut perfectly sized empanada dough from Goya at our local supermarket. They were tasty, though, and we’re already daydreaming about what else we might put inside an empanada. The herbed goat cheese was very popular, as you can probably see from the photo. And the kale salad was as good as kale salad gets: generously dressed with a garlicky caesar-type dressing and combined with pancetta and bread cubes.
We also brought some drinks, two very midwestern desserts (the now-ubiquitous browned butter Rice Krispie treats from smitten kitchen, along with my brother’s favorite chocolate revel bars), and a salad from Melissa Clark’s “Dinner” cookbook. I throw everything on trays from IKEA, which are inexpensive and cute, and they travel well. We came home with full hearts and tired kids, which is my favorite way to come home on a Saturday night.
The best thing about every place we’ve lived has been our friends, and Houston is no exception. I don’t know if this is typical of Houston or just our good fortune, but we have friends who smoke copious amounts of meat all day, and then invite us to help them eat it. These friends are also kind enough to taste whatever Barefoot Contessa recipes we bring along to go with the meat, so it’s a win all around. We brought two types of cole slaw, watermelon, cornbread, a roasted chicken for our picky kids, the Smitten Kitchen’s Salted Browned Butter Rice Krispie Treats, a metric ton of deviled eggs, and some new Ina dishes, too. I’ve been wanting to try the Dark Rum Southsides from Cooking for Jeffrey for a while, but I like to make new drink recipes when we have someone else to share them, since I’m not much of a drinker. This recipe might change my stance on that. They were delicious, and I wished I’d made a double batch. (Our friend also has nicer drinkware than we do, so they even look fancy!)
For appetizers or kind of a side dish, I made the two bruschetta recipes from Cooking for Jeffrey – ricotta with butternut squash, and goat cheese (we used mascarpone) with figs. I looked everywhere for fresh figs – two grocery stores and a farmers’ market – and couldn’t find them. Instead, I bought two different kinds of fig preserves at the farmers’ market this morning and called it a day.
As another barbecue side dish, I made the Fiesta Corn Salad from Cooking for Jeffrey. This was a little bit labor intensive for a salad, but really good and with just a little bit of kick from the minced jalapeños.
After we’d eaten and let the kids swim, we were treated to a beautiful double rainbow after dinner.
Cheers to friends, food, and Texas summer nights!
If I had to describe my most American quality, I’d probably say it’s my optimism. Sure, I have a sour attitude and a can’t-do attitude about most things, but when it comes to my own abilities in the kitchen, I overestimate them to the point of laughability all the time. If you looked in my refrigerator on any given day, you might think, “only an optimist would buy that much food and think that she could prepare it all for her family this week. How many people live here?” It’s not exactly a fantastic trait. It gets even better when we invite people over, and I overcommit us for a day’s worth of activities. I tend to do this for Independence Day, maybe because we don’t have a lot of church and work obligations this time of year, and maybe because summer entertaining just feels easier. My Ina obsession started with her flag cake, before I even knew Neil. There’s something to be said for independence from the usual holiday legalism and expectations.
Today, we leisurely futzed around the house, and I made Ina’s fruit salad with limoncello (from Back to Basics) for breakfast. Delicious. (I don’t know what took me so long to make this, but it was really easy, and really very good. Maybe more dessert-worthy than breakfast, but it’s a holiday!) We went to some friends’ house for a fun patriotic lunch, and then we went to the pool for a few hours. We got home about an hour and a half before we were expecting some dinner guests, and so clearly I thought we had enough time to: change out of our swimsuits, clean up the yard after a few weeks of neglect, tidy up the house, thaw some meat for burgers, clean out the ice maker, go to the grocery store to get more ice after cleaning out the ice maker and pick up some burgers because that thawing thing didn’t work out, fire up the grill, make dinner for eight, and bake peach cobbler for dessert. Spoiler alert: I was wrong. I did something similar last year, when I baked a patriotic pie and invited the same people over for dinner, and so at least they know how I roll. This year, their daughter is toilet training, and that particular brand of misery does love company, and so I don’t think they minded the haphazard dinner. I’ve learned that if you make deviled eggs, people don’t really mind waiting for dinner. I made hard boiled eggs in the pressure cooker, and mixed them up with mayo, dijon mustard, and pickle relish. They disappeared faster than the scientists in the executive branch, so they must have been good. We grilled burgers and hot dogs, I made potato salad in the pressure cooker and baked beans in the crock pot, and mixed up some salad and some fruit. The peach cobbler (from Cooking for Jeffrey) was a mess because I forgot the cornstarch, and then forgot sugar in the dough, so I ended up sprinkling it on top. It was more like peach soup, but at least it wasn’t laced with listeria. And warm peachy glop with really good vanilla ice cream isn’t going to make anyone cry.
I’m afraid I feel like a bit of a fraud using Ina’s titles for these recipes when I ended up serving up something slightly different. The lamb chops ended up being broiled instead of grilled (because we have a charcoal grill and it’s too damn hot in Houston to stand outside and babysit hot coals), and less Moroccan than she intended because I took out the turmeric and coriander and added some oregano. They don’t look nearly as beautiful last the cookbook photo, but they were really delicious. I broiled them in the oven on some nonstick foil, which is probably going to give us cancer, but it sure makes clean-up easy. The couscous was equally delicious because I was smart enough to set aside enough homemade chicken stock to make it, but not smart enough to keep the pine nuts from burning, ruining the ingredient and the pan (along with a measuring cup, somehow) in the process. Either way, the couscous was great, and good for sopping up the extra flavors from the lamb marinade. The fresh mint in the couscous was a nice highlight for the mint that was in the lamb marinade. The little side salad is a little bit Ottolenghi, and a little bit Melissa Clark – it’s cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, whatever fresh herb we have on hand (this time basil, but other times dill or parsley), a dash of coarsely ground sea salt, and a splash of a citrusy vinegar (tonight, a white balsamic). I’ve been making it several times a week when we need something a little bit fresh on the side. All in all, this dish didn’t photograph well, but it smelled and tasted wonderful, and it was easily quick enough for a decadent weeknight dinner.
We had a great weekend! We sent our oldest off to summer camp, which he loves, and we brought our youngest home for a week of being the only child, which he also loves. Every year, I buy a package of “camp labels,” and every year, I think, “Wow, that’s a lot of labels. I’ll never use them all.” Every year, I use them all. Pro tip for parents of new campers: zip loc bags and sharpies are your friends. In between the labelling and packing and postcard-writing, I cooked. I made some rice krispie treats and brownies for the staff at camp – anyone who looks after my kiddo for a week gets at least that! And I also cooked some for us.
For lunch on Saturday, we had the arugula, prosciutto and burrata salad from Cooking with Jeffrey. Ina says that the fresh figs are optional, but they were my favorite part. Figs are at our farmers’ market right now, and these were delicious.
For dinner on Saturday, we cooked for a vegetarian friend. I actually really like entertaining guests with dietary restrictions – maybe for the challenge, but also maybe because it narrows down the possibilities so I don’t have such a hard time deciding what to make. I made the tomato carpaccio, roasted vegetable paella, and limoncello cheesecake, all from Cooking with Jeffrey. For the tomato salad, I omitted the anchovies from the dressing to make it vegetarian-friendly. It was delicious. I used vegetable stock for the paella instead of chicken stock, and it was also amazing. If I made it again, though, I might use zucchini in place of some of the bell peppers, as it is very bell pepper-friendly. Part of the liquid that is cooked with the rice is pureed roasted bell peppers. Ina calls for smoked paprika instead of regular paprika, but I’m not a big fan of smoked anything, so I just used the regular paprika. If anything, I thought this needed just a little more salt, but that’s probably because I used vegetable stock instead of chicken stock. I’d still definitely make it again. The cheesecake was interesting – I never expected Ina to publish a recipe with a graham cracker crust in a 9×13 pan, much less one that includes a liqueur that looks like something that 16-year-olds in my hometown take into the woods to get drunk. But the end result was really tasty, and we served it with fresh raspberries.
It’s the first day of summer! And by the looks of my kitchen this week, it’s the first week in a long time when I’ve had the time to cook, and some summer produce to use. Last night, I made the zucchini and leek frittata from Cooking for Jeffrey. This isn’t a completely vegetarian dish, as it has a smidgen of pancetta in it, but it was still pretty veggie-centric, and easy and quick enough for a weeknight.
After the kids went to bed, I assembled the crusty cauliflower and shells, also from Cooking for Jeffrey, so I could bake it for a potluck at church tonight. This looks like it might be bland, but Ina packs in a lot of flavor in some otherwise beige food. Capers, lemon zest, garlic, fresh herbs, gruyere, and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes really make this dish interesting, and it’s a great main dish for a vegetarian dinner. I didn’t capture a great photo of the actual dish once it was baked up, but it went pretty quickly with the crowd of line dancers we had at church tonight.
This recipe, from Cooking with Jeffrey, is the kind of recipe that used to drive me crazy. When we lived in Minnesota, we got beautiful tomatoes that were perfect just on their own, raw and delicious. I hated to waste them in recipes like this, when their perfect flavor would be disguised with herbs and heat and cheese.
Enter Houston, and its (I’m so sorry) subpar tomatoes. I still miss the tomatoes and corn of the Midwest, and being able to breathe the air in the summer, but I don’t mind putting Houston tomatoes into this tomato tart, because they really do have room for improvement. (Houston, I love you. You know I do. But your tomatoes are garbage.) I picked up these tomatoes, along with some peaches and figs, at the farmers’ market this weekend. They were perfect in this tart recipe, which was originally published in Anna Pump’s Loaves and Fishes. The tart is quite a process – a crust which has to be refrigerated (but just for 30 minutes, so not really a make-the-day-ahead kind of thing), and then baked in two phases, and the herbs get smashed into a pesto … it’s kind of a thing. I messed up the entire kitchen for this masterpiece, but it was worth it. This is the kind of siren song that keeps me coming back to Ina, year after year, cookbook after cookbook.
Part of the recipes calls for draining some of the liquid off of the tomato-herb-garlic mixture, but retaining the solids for the tomatoes in the tart. I added the herby liquid to some steamed green beans, which was a perfect first course while we waited for the tart to bake.
Dishes like this make us think things like, “We could totally be vegetarians.” We would totally not be skinny vegetarians, though, with that crust and that cheese. But it’s so worth it, and I’m already looking forward to leftovers tomorrow.