For potatoes, with love

July 24, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m in deep with potatoes right now. It’s not like me, really, to lose myself over potatoes, except for right now, this time of year. Summer potatoes, they really get you. It’s tricky to pass them up as it is, with their papery skins (oddly I can’t say what it is about those papery skins that’s compelling, but it’s something) and dusty, just-dug coats, but it’s when you taste them that you’re really finished. These potatoes are like velvet inside, creamy and dense and tasting like they’ve gorged themselves on butter, and the upshot is that as long as they’re in season, I’m eating as many of them as is reasonable. The trick is that I don’t have a ready potato mindset; as I said, aside from this sliver of potato eden, I can take them or leave them.

Three weeks in a row now, I’ve pursued potatoes with equal relentlessness, and despite a potato salad or two, a soup here or there, I have ended up with so many at the end of the week that I’ve resorted to sharing them with friends—each time a huge salad of potatoes, dressed in a celery leaf-parsley pesto, specked with bits of celery and garlic scapes, that everyone wanted the recipe for. You must already know I didn’t learn lessons from this.

Sunday I brought home two sorts from market—enough rose-colored French fingerlings, which I’ve been cooking for weeks now, to fill the good-sized scalloped bowl that sits in the center of my dining table, and another French fingerling called La Ratte, which I was so excited to see that I hung up moderation altogether and bought a 3-pound bag. This week is going to be different, I said. These potatoes are too brilliant to be fantasized about all week without actually making themselves on to my plate more than twice. I started with this:

Potato-lentil salad with celery, tomatoes, red onion and a light mayonnaise dressing:

1/2 pound potatoes, preferably a recently harvested fingerling variety

3 tablespoons black beluga lentils, simmered just until tender, and drained completely

1/2 small red spring onion, thinly sliced

1-2 stalks cutting celery, chopped

1 small-medium heirloom tomato, diced

1 tablespoon salt-cured capers, soaked in cold water for five minutes, then drained and roughly chopped

few sprigs parsley, finely minced

1 tablespoon mayonnaise (preferably your own or one with an ingredient list no longer than six items long: egg yolks, oil, salt, lemon, vinegar, and maybe mustard, not necessarily in that order)

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, something buttery and maybe a little spicy, but not so peppery it scratches your throat; it’ll overwhelm things

1 teaspoon or so lemon juice

sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Boil the potatoes in a medium-sized pot-full of lightly salted water until easily pierced with the sharp tip of a knife, about 10-15 minutes. Keep testing them; if they’re underdone, they texture will be a bit chalky; if they’re overdone, they’ll start to fall apart, which is no good for potato salad. Drain them and rinse with cool water. When they’re cool enough to handle, slice them into halves (vertically is nice so more of the insides are coated with dressing) if they’re small enough, or quarters if they’re larger. Combine the cut potatoes in a bowl with the celery, onion, capers, lentils and most of the parsley. Leave the tomatoes aside for now.

In another smaller bowl (a ramekin is perfect), whisk the mayonnaise with the oil with a fork until blended completely. Add the lemon juice and whisk again. It shouldn’t be too thick; you’re looking for something with a consistency of heavy cream. Season with salt and pepper. I’m thinking in hindsight that a little dijon mustard would have been marvelous here, but it was so good as it was that it definitely didn’t need it.

Toss the dressing with the potatoes et al. until well combined. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust as necessary. Gently fold in the tomatoes and serve, garnished with the remaining parsley. This comes out looking like a tremendous amount of potato salad. If you make it right, this won’t be a problem.

Serves 1.

Something pretty while you can

July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

This doesn’t look very July; I know. A dinner mid-summer should be louder, shouldn’t it?, full of lavenders and purples, reds and yellows, oranges and golds. But summer’s produce has been holding back a little around here this year, and spring left us with a few stragglers—lively cutting celery and some particularly precious baby leeks—that hooked me completely at market last Sunday. Both usually keep to cooler times, but here they are, and it worked out that their timing was keener than I thought.

There was a night last week at dinnertime, when it felt like summer and I were at angles. I felt like a moody spring day, misty and gray, and summer’s eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes wouldn’t have felt quite right, anyway. Too sunny and bright, a bit like running into someone overly pleasant on a day that’s given you a run for it, and you know that under ordinary circumstances they’re probably delightful, but right then their cheer is just a reminder that you can’t find yours. So that night, wanting something delicate-tasting but comforting, something that I didn’t have to work very hard for, I took out the celery and the leeks and a few other things, and I made dinner.

I braised them in butter and a little olive oil with spring onions and zephyr squash, the kind with pale yellow necks that mottle into paler green at their ends, with some white wine I was glad I’d forgotten in the refrigerator drawer, and folded in parsley and tarragon to finish. I served it over cooked amaranth, which acts like a nuttier, glossier, more buttery-tasting sort of polenta (I learned this here), and after that, things were a little better.

On celery: Before I began finding celery at local markets, it was never an ingredient I cooked with out of anything other than necessity (gumbo.) A recipe would call for 1/2 a cup of celery, minced. I would buy a huge, unwieldy bunch at the grocery store, snap off one stalk for immediate purposes, and put the rest in the fridge, with no plans or intent for the rest of it, except stock, maybe. It was watery, stringy, pointless. I’m not even sure, writing that, why you’d use such an ingredient in the first place. It always contributed something, some inimitable flavor that made securing that largely unwanted celery necessary. But it wasn’t ever inspiring to cook with. And then I started finding it at local markets, and my whole celery-world changed. This celery was tender, sweet, crisp, and the leaves, so full of fragrance and potential—it was something I wanted, I mean really wanted, to cook with. And after years of cooking really good celery with a fever every time I can get my hands on it, I’ve realized it’s brilliant. Like Stravinsky, and maps. Except something you can eat, so better.

Ragout of summer squash, celery, spring onion and leeks

a tablespoon or so of butter, salted or not

1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 stalks cutting celery, diced

1 small red spring onion, diced

2 small, slender leeks or 1 larger one, halved or quartered, then chopped

2 small summer squashes, sliced into thin rounds

2 tablespoons white wine

1 sprig tarragon, chopped fine at the last minute

2 sprigs parsley, leaves removed and minced

sea salt to taste

In a saute pan or a dutch oven, heat the oil and the butter together over medium heat until the butter foams. Add the onion and leeks, a pinch of salt, and cook, partially covered, for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the wine, raise the heat slightly, and reduce for a couple of minutes more. Add celery and squash and another pinch of salt, cover, and braise gently for another 4-5 minutes, until the squash and celery are just tender. Fold in tarragon and parsley at the last minute. Finish with a few grinds of black pepper and a few more whole leaves of  tarragon after serving, just to be fussy.

Serve over amaranth or polenta or grits or, if you have it, alongside a good baguette. And something like La Tur, if you’re really feeling blue.

Serves 1.

A primer

July 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wasn’t quite finished with this salad. I had it in mind, just at the end, to toast and crumble some laver, that marvelous, briny dried seaweed, over the top. I could have added a few more tiny leaves of opal basil, another scattering of chopped chives. I would have thrown in cilantro by the fistfuls if I’d had any. Not that it needed any of those things.

Flourish and brevity are in constant tension in my kitchen, even though, really, I think they can coexist happily, in a way. Simplicity in cooking is one of those most splendid things, when you get it right on the nose. You can’t hide anything behind simplicity, though, not second-rate ingredients, not wobbly  technique, and definitely not uncertainty. Simplicity, at the least, asks for confidence.

Confidence eludes me more than I would like, so I am, in my ceaseless search for simplistic perfection, enthusiastic about fuss. How many distractions can I add to this salad to hide the fact that the dressing wasn’t perfect? It doesn’t even matter that the dressing was lovely, something I’d make again for company. A generous hand with garnish (not necessarily the opposite of simplicity, but certainly at odds with it) is like an extra insurance policy. As long as it’s not overpowering (too much tarragon, ew), it’s a little bit of a cheat, like salted capers, or oil-cured olives, or toasted pistachios (I should note that I rely heavily on all of these), or wearing a really smart linen cardigan when all you have on is the same pair of jeans and scrubby shirt you’ve been throwing on for a week without laundering. I think it’s sort of like that, some.

Besides that, garnish is pretty and it makes me feel good, even when there’s not really anything to hide. It’s a little self-indulgent. But since this blog is really just culinary navel-gazing, I think that’s fitting.

This salad came together because I’d been completely obsessing over some amazingly tender, sweet celery that’s been hanging around at my market at the same time summer’s wicked-sweet sungolds started coming in. My initial inclination was to pair both of them with the last of spring’s garlic scapes, salt-cured capers, spring onions, plenty of herbs, and pasta or farro, which is exactly what I did, oh, for maybe 4 or 5 meals. Then one day at lunch I felt like sesame oil was a better thing for the day, but I still couldn’t get the celery and tomatoes out of my head, and I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to shift my seasonings east a little. I used a dressing of ume vinegar and toasted sesame oil instead of the capers and olive oil, and am quite glad I did.

Soba noodles with celery, tomatoes, herbs, and an ume vinaigrette

2 ounces 100% buckwheat soba noodles, cooked, drained, and rinsed

1 stalk cutting celery, split and cut on the diagonal, blanched in boiling water for 1 minute, then drained and flushed with cool water

few handfuls of sungold or other cherry tomatoes, cut into halves or quarters, plus one or two nice, small heirlooms, diced

1-2 garlic scapes, if you have some, cut on the diagonal and blanched with the celery

1/4 small spring onion, minced

1 tsp. brown rice vinegar

2 tsp. ume vinegar

1/2 tsp. honey

4 tsp. toasted sesame oil

1/2 T. sesame seeds (preferably unhulled), toasted

tiny leaves of opal basil, any green basil, and minced chives, to taste

1 large or 2 small eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and halved

Combine noodles, tomatoes, celery and scapes, if you’re using them, in a large bowl. Whisk together vinegars, oil, honey, and salt to taste in a small bowl. Toss with noodles. If you’re funny about eating out of a bowl with clean sides, transfer to a clean bowl, then garnish with herbs and sesame seeds. Or you could take a napkin and dab away rogue dressing streaks, but that just seems silly.

Serves 1

*I intended to used cubed tofu in this dish, but it was spoiled (one month before the expiration date!), hence the eggs. I ate one half before assembling.

*A note on ingredients: Use only very good ones. Everything is disappointing if you don’t.

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