Tomatoes and lemons and very good bread.

Taste pretty.

I am the worst bride ever. It’s been nine months since the wedding, and it’s taken me that long to finish my thank-you cards. That’s how it goes when you do them three at a time, every few weeks, and I am terribly embarrassed that it’s taken this long. But tonight, with Nick away at a stag and nothing pulling me out of the house, and with two bottles of wine and a recipe from a cookbook I got as a wedding present, I got them done. All of them. Addressed, sealed, and stamped, all ready to go.

Ohai, me? I suck.I am pretty sure you can do anything if the meal is right, and today, without anyone demanding meat hunks or cheese-covered miscellany, the meal was perfect. Please don’t think I am in any way against meat or cheese – my two favourite things. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to play with other flavours. Today I found some rainbowriffic tomatoes at the market, and some fat, fragrant lemons. And basil, which is my favourite kind of leaf. And it was hot out, but not too hot, especially as dusk began to fall, so soup was more desirable than it’s been in a long time, and I’d missed it.

Avgolemono is a kind of soup. It’s easy, though it seems fussy, and it tastes like it would be perfect if you were in the early stages of a cold, or if you were a few days into a flu. It’s quite lovely, with a soft chicken taste, framed by lemons, and made rich with egg yolks. Apparently it’s Greek. I’ve had it in restaurants before, and though it seems like a fancypants dish, it’s very simple. Very few ingredients. And you can taste everything in it.

This recipe comes from the Williams-Sonoma cookbook, which I got as a wedding gift. It’s quite a good book, and everything in it is completely doable. I halved the recipe, as it serves four, but I’m going to give the full recipe, with tweaks.

The book.Avgolemono

(Adapted from The Williams-Sonoma Cookbook. Serves four.)

  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup jasmine or long-grain white rice
  • 4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (approximately two lemons)
  • 1 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • Salt and white pepper, to taste
  • 2 tbsp. fresh chopped parsley

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the rice and boil, uncovered, for about 15 minutes or until tender. Remove from heat, and add lemon juice.

In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, lemon zest, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper. Scoop out a cup of the hot liquid and add it gradually to the egg yolk mixture, whisking as you pour. This is tempering. It sounds harder than it actually is, I think.

Pour your tempered egg mixture into the hot liquid. Return to heat and reduce to medium. Stir, cooking another three to four minutes, until the soup has thickened slightly. Don’t let it boil. If it boils, you could scramble the eggs, and then they’ll look like sneeze. That would be a heart-breaking disappointment. When you smell this, you’ll understand what I mean. Salt and pepper, to taste.

Pour soup into bowls and top with chopped parsley. Or basil. That’d be good too. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with very good bread, fresh tomato salad, and chilled prosecco. And breathe a sigh of relief, especially if this is your reward for crossing one big red late item off your task list. And then eat a pint or so of concord grapes while whipping up a batch of “You don’t suck, you’re awesome!” brownies.

Lemons and tomatoes. And very good bread.

In which it takes me a very long time to get to the point, the point being soufflé.

This was going to be a post about blackberries, because we’re right smack in the middle of a DIY revolution and I’m calling myself a revolutionary because I’ve never been cool and I thought this – this – might be my chance. I was going to pick the berries, and then preserve them elegantly with plums and other berries and Christmas spices, which is a thing I discovered in England (at the Queen’s grocer, no less) and give them to everyone at the holidays, which I believe is the pinnacle of DIY … that is, inflicting crap you made on people at Christmas under the guise of caring even though they know you’re actually just cheap.

Pickers.Anyway. This was going to be a post about blackberries, but it isn’t.

And let me show you why:

Sharp.Prickles. No, thorns. I was expecting a magical time where fat little blackberries would pop right off the plant into my palm, all juicy and lovely, just begging me to turn them into blackberry sorbet and Christmas jam. Instead, the berries were mostly red, and the black ones were almost all hidden behind skin-shredding barbs, almost all of them out of my reach. I think we gave it a solid 40 minutes before Grace was all, “Can we go home now?”

Stupid little jerks.And so we piled into James’ car and headed back home, a little disgruntled. Revolution isn’t supposed to be so prickly, I thought. I didn’t pick enough to do much with, so I turned them begrudgingly into clean-out-the-crisper jam. Which might be my best jam of the season, as it turns out, but I didn’t write it down so I can’t tell you about it until I reconstruct the recipe. Next year.

The surprise of the morning, the thing I’ve been dawdling at telling you about, was the soufflé. One can’t participate in any sort of revolution without a rich breakfast.

I am not sure how one finds himself in his third decade without so much as a taste of soufflé, but neither Grace nor James had ever made or consumed soufflé ever before, not even once. Le shock! Which leads me to believe that there are others. And I hope to correct that.

Soufflé is a kind of fluffy egg cloud filled with cheese, held up by butter and cream, and flavoured with any of many spices, the combination of which makes your kitchen smell like France. Not the sewery smells that unhappy tourists report, of course, but the France of my, and perhaps your imagination. Eggs and cheese. Melting. Fluffy. Clouds. That’s all the introduction I needed.

This recipe was adapted by Molly Wizenberg from Julia Child, and I’ve since adapted it a bit further. Recipes are not things to just read and obey – they are suggestions, and if you have no gruyere but you have gouda, don’t go out and buy a different sort of cheese. And if you feel like cumin seeds? Add those too. Hate nutmeg? Omit it then. This is a dish you can make entirely out of things you already have on hand. And breakfast should never be any more complicated than that.

Classic Cheese Soufflé

(Serves four to six as a main course.)

  • 2 tbsp. finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 1/2 tbsp. butter
  • 3 tbsp. unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 5 large egg whites
  • 1 cup (packed) coarsely grated gouda cheese

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Butter a six-cup (1 1/2-quart) soufflé dish. I used my Corningware dish that looks like a giant ramekin. I think that’s what’s meant by a soufflé dish. Round. It should be round. Add Parmesan cheese, coating the bottom and sides. Don’t worry if it doesn’t get everywhere.

Warm milk in small heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat until steaming.

At the same time, melt the butter in larger saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and whisk for about 3 minutes, until it is golden and doughy. Do not let it brown. Remove from heat and let stand for one minute. Pour in warm milk, whisking until smooth. Return to heat and cook, whisking constantly until very thick, another three minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in paprika, cumin, salt, and nutmeg. Add egg yolks one at a time, whisking to blend after each addition. Scrape soufflé base into large bowl. Cool to lukewarm. I made this part ahead, and then went fussed about with the music for a little while, and bothered Nick.

Beat egg whites in another large bowl until stiff but not dry. Fold 1/4 of whites into soufflé base, so that the mixture begins to look airy, and the colour is lighter. Fold in 1/2 the remaining whites while gradually adding cheese, then fold the remaining whites into the batter. Do not stir. If you stir it, you’ll break it.

Pour batter into your buttered dish.

Place dish in oven and immediately reduce oven temperature to 375°F. Bake until soufflé is puffed and golden brown on top and center moves only slightly when dish is shaken gently, about 25 minutes (do not open oven door during first 20 minutes). Serve immediately. People will be excited that you’ve placed this in front of them.

CHEESE CLOUD!Serve with a vegetable. I grilled some fresh pattypan squash (toss halved squash in olive oil, 1 tsp. kosher salt, and 1 tsp. black pepper, grill six to eight minutes per side) instead of frying up hash browns because it’s summer squash season.

Cute.

Breakfasty.A little bread and jam is nice too, and bacon makes everything better, so don’t forget that. All in all, an excellent start to the day, even if the day made us bleed. Note to self: Just buy blackberries. And definitely, DEFINITELY make soufflé.

Spaghetti squash latkes.

Oh, I have so much to tell you this week! It’s been busy around here, and we’ve been chopping and canning and roasting and eating, almost nonstop. The weekend was busy, and it’s only Tuesday but it feels like we’ve been going-going-going seven days already. And come to think of it, maybe we have. So tonight seemed like a good night to have breakfast for dinner. (Note: It’s always a good night to have breakfast for dinner.)

But I still wanted to use up the spaghetti squash I told you about last week, and not in the boring way that everyone always serves up spaghetti squash. You know, plain with butter. Which is delicious, of course, but if there’s a way to make anything into a pancake, it’s advisable to try. So, Nick roasted the squash when he came home from work, so that by the time I got here it was cooked. I shredded it, let it cool, and then turned it into batter.

The latkes were delicious, crispy to the bite and creamy on the inside. Squashy and delicate, and a delightful alternative to the traditional potato version.

Spaghetti squash latkes

(Makes 15 to 20 latkes. You can freeze any you don’t eat, up to one month.)

  • 2 lbs. spaghetti squash (about four cups), cooked, cooled, seeds removed and flesh shredded with a fork
  • 1 medium onion, grated
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 to 1 cup oil

Preheat oven to 250°F.

In a large bowl, combine the squash and onion. Mix together, and then pour out onto a large kitchen towel. Roll the towel up like a jelly roll, securing the ends, and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Return the squash and onion to the bowl, and add the flour and salt and spices. Mix well, making sure there are no chunks. Break the three eggs into the bowl and stir to combine. When you’re done, it’ll resemble pancake batter.

In a large frying pan, heat 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the oil over high heat until it shimmers. Reduce to medium-high heat, and add the batter by the spoonful, gently pressing down to spread the batter so that it’s thin like a pancake, and two to three inches in diameter. You want the oil to touch the sides of the pancakes, but you don’t want the oil to cover them.

Batter!Fry for three minutes per side, or until the edges are crisp and the latkes are golden brown.

You’ll have to fry these in batches. To keep them warm and crisp, place them on a wire rack on a baking sheet, and place in your oven while the remaining latkes cook.

Serve hot with sour cream and chives. Possibly with other breakfast dishes. Like bacon. And eggs. And maybe eat in front of the TV, because if it’s breakfast for dinner night, then it’s possible that you’re not wearing pants and you don’t care about formal table settings or talking to each other. Enjoy!

Breakfast for dinner!

Beet pickles, zucchini relish, and my fingernails are still stained purple.

Rose gave me a bag of zucchini this week, and a five-pound bag of beets. And that’s quite a lot of produce, especially around here, where there’s just the two of us, and two very small apartment-kitchen counters, and all our dishes were dirty. So I didn’t cook it all right away, and by Saturday it was time to deal with it all, lest it perish and disintegrate in the crisper. And I really like beets and pickles. And relish.

So I’m giving you two recipes today, because it’s been a busy food week. Yesterday there was pattypan squash and soufflé and we picked blackberries, and today I made jam. Tomorrow, tomato sauce and something to do with strawberries. Here are Saturday’s recipes.

First, beet pickles. Bittersweet spicy magenta pickles. Wonderful with crusty bread, soft cheese, and thin slices of raw onion, or between stained pink fingers, straight out of the jar.

Beet pickles

(Makes four to five 500mL/2-cup jars)

  • 5 lbs. beets
  • 3.5 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp. whole cloves
  • 1 tbsp. whole green cardamom
  • 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Boil whole beets, unpeeled, with tops and roots still attached, for 20 to 25 minutes. They should be just soft enough for the first millimetres of the prongs of a fork to just pierce the skin. Drain the beets, and dump them immediately into a sink full of ice water.

I want to say “shuck the beets.” Because shuck seems like the right word, though I don’t think it really is. You are going to peel the beets using your hands to strip the peels. Cut the tops and roots off, then strip the peel from each beet, pushing with your thumbs to rub the peel away from the flesh, then running a knife over any spots where the peel won’t tear away. I learned this week that I can record video using my camera, so I’ve taped a demo so you can see what I mean. I thought it was silent, so I didn’t bother talking.

Prepare your jars, using the Procedure for Shorter Time Processing.

Once the beets are peeled, cut them into slices, no thinner than 1/2 an inch thick. Set aside.

Beets. Resting.In a large stainless steel or otherwise non-reactive pot, combine your vinegar, water, sugar, spices, and salt. Bring to a boil, then add your beets. You’ll want to boil your beets for four to five minutes, just as your jars are about ready to come out of their boiling water and be filled.

Spoon beets into jars, and fill with liquid. Don’t worry about filtering out your spices. Add them to the jars too.

Once you seal the jars, process them as per the instructions linked above. Label them with the date you pickled, and be sure not to open them for six to eight weeks. They will need to soak up all that spicy pickle juice. And then they will be marvelous.

Beet pickles!Since the pot was boiling jars anyway, I also made five little jars of zucchini relish. Each jar held 250mL/2 cups. Easy, and very fresh-tasting, not too vinegary, and gently spiced.

This recipe comes from Epicurious, because I’d never made relish before and thought it’d be a good place to start. The Epicurious recipe makes ten jars; I halved the recipe because I only had half the zucchini. I didn’t peel it or seed it, because my zucchini were very small, with thin skins and soft seeds. Here’s my adaptation:

Zucchini relish

  • 2 lbs. zucchini, grated
  • 1 medium white onion, grated
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp. kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp. celery seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. white pepper

In a large bowl, combine your zucchini, onion, and bell pepper. Salt, and refrigerate at least four hours. Drain well, and rinse.

Once drained, put your vegetables into a large stainless steel or nonreactive pot.

Relish, pre-relish.Add your vinegar, water, sugar, celery seeds, nutmeg, and white pepper, and bring to a boil. Boil for ten minutes, and then place into prepared jars. Process as usual.

Zucchini relish.Give this a couple of weeks to sit in a cool, dark place, stewing in its juices. It will be very nice with burgers at the end of the summer, and meats and cheeses into the fall. And perhaps even the winter, if you don’t gobble it all up by then.

Fried green tomatoes, and I think it’s a sign.

Green tomatoes.Fried green tomatoes are kind of weird. You either like them or you don’t. I’m on the like side of things, because I like their salty tartness, those thin slices with the texture of fresh tomatoes but with the bite of something else, coated in spicy crunch, and fried up in butter. Everything crunchy and fried in butter is worth a try. You know I’m right.

And as it happens, today is the anniversary of the passing of my awesome Grandpa, who also liked fried green tomatoes. And he had excellent taste. That today was the day I decided to make the tomatoes worked out strangely – a coincidence, to be sure. But I’m reading The Jade Peony at the moment, and it’s full of dead grandparent mysticism, and it’s making me paranoid that this was a sign, and now I’m kind of embarrassed that I didn’t wear underwear to work today. It’s laundry day. By which I mean, we have to do laundry because I officially ran out of clean underwear. I can’t be experiencing Grandpa-related coincidences on a day when I am all out of underwear. My grandpa would never run out of clean underwear.

My mom, upon alerting me to this coincidence, if this counts as one of those, told me that I should simply fry them in butter and sprinkle them with seasoning salt, which is how Grandpa did it. Seasoning salt is one of those strange things I can’t bring myself to use, because … well, why is it orange? What are those black things? I don’t know. I’m a salt snob. And, besides, I like my spices. My grandma, Cuddles, who I’ve mentioned before, would sneak spices into things and my grandpa would eat them, delighted. He didn’t know what they were. Better not to tell him, she thought.

Though he did eat around, and had a fondness for all kinds of tastes, particularly sweet tastes. He would buy boxes of seconds from the chocolate factory, and would hide them all over the house, so that wherever he passed by, a treat would be within reach. During business hours, he would apparently do lunch right around my neighbourhood – I didn’t realize this, but the company he worked for for years and years used to be located just a block or two down from where I live now. The little Chinese restaurant where my grandpa and his friends would go for lunch and eat so much he’d be too full for dinner? Probably the one I like to go to for lunch sometimes and eat too much at. It’s very reasonably priced, you know, and it’s been there for eons.

Oddly, my last apartment was right around the corner from my grandparents’ first house, or at least the one where my mom spent her formative years. Coincidences. Or, perhaps a weird kind of parallelism, or I’m reading too much into things. I never find out about these things until after I’ve settled on a place, or a thing. And I don’t look too hard for things like signs. It’s probably just that I am predisposed to good ideas. Yes. That must be it. Heredity. Green tomatoes.

Green, with sheen.

Fried Green Tomatoes

(Serves four as a side dish.)

  • Two or three large green tomatoes (make sure they’re very firm)
  • 1 cup cornmeal (the finer the grind, the better)
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. white pepper (black is fine too)
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • Salt, to taste
  • Two large eggs, beaten’
  • 1/4 cup of butter, melted

Slice the tomatoes into rounds about half an inch thick.

In a large pan over medium-high heat, melt the butter.

Combine the cornmeal with the spices. Dip each slice into the beaten eggs, and then dredge in the spicy cornmeal. Place into the pan of butter, and fry, two minutes per side, until the tomatoes are soft, about the texture of a ripe red tomato, and the crust is golden and crisp.

Buttery.You may have to fry your tomatoes in two batches, like I did. In that case, feel free to refresh with more butter. More butter. Have two more perfect words ever been uttered together, or typed side-by-side? I don’t think so.

When the tomatoes are done, move them onto a plate covered in paper towels, and salt immediately, while still very hot. Serve right away.

And eat a box of very good chocolate in your favourite chair afterwards, for dessert. Luscious.

Drunken Spaghetti.

Too arthritic and whiny to invest all that much time in cooking, I wanted something flavourful and soothing that I could make and eat in under 20 minutes. I wanted to watch Good Eats, and then Iron Chef, and then Star Trek in my pajamas, and not have to move once the food was done. Solution? Drunken spaghetti. Flavourful, fast, and quite a lovely garnet colour. A pleasure for all the senses, the lazy sense included.

Different. Easy.This recipe grew out of David Rocco’s recipe of the same name. Only this one involves more wine, and is much improved by boiling the noodles in a portion of the wine. Use a cheap but drinkable wine, one you’re not hugely fond of but would drink if you had to. The effect you’re going for here is a winy taste, but the heat is going to kill a lot of what makes the wine distinctive. That’s the idea. Save the good wine for pairing with this dish.

You could use a dry white wine if you wanted to, or if that’s what you had left over. I bet that would be quite nice as well, with asparagus.

Drunken Spaghetti

(Serves four to six. Adapted from David Rocco)

  • 1 lb. spaghetti
  • 3 cups of red wine (1 cup reserved)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 anchovy fillets, chopped (you can omit these if you’d prefer it be vegetarian)
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp. chopped capers
  • 2 tbsp. chili flakes
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Bring two cups of the wine and six cups of water to a boil in a large pasta pot. Add the spaghetti, and cook for seven to eight minutes. You want this to be al dente, and you are going to finish it in the frying pan so don’t worry if it’s got a bit of bite to it.

In a large frying pan, heat the oil, and add the anchovies, garlic, capers, and chili flakes. Sauté while the pasta cooks, five to seven minutes.

Once the pasta is about ready, drain it, and add your noodles to the frying pan. Pour in the remaining cup of wine, cooking until the wine has reduced and the spaghetti is done, another two to three minutes. Taste as you go to make sure you get the noodly doneness that you prefer.

Toss with parsley and cheese, and serve hot, with a dry, delicious red wine.Purple?

This is quite a good thing to make when you’re tired from too long a day. It’s easy, and you don’t need to do a lot to make it flavourful – it pretty much flavours itself. Literally. The wine does a fantastic job, and the salty bits and the cheese and the fresh parsley all add quite a lot without costing you much in the way of effort. From the time you set the pot on the stove to boil, it’s twenty minutes to cook, plate, and slip blissfully into your ass groove on the couch. Flavour aside, sometimes that’s the most important thing about a recipe.

Nice salt & pepper shakers.

Warm cucumbers? A good idea, actually.

One of the benefits of being so beyond-excited about food is that people like to give me stuff. My sister-in-law periodically gives me her overstock, or things she’s bought but has no real use for. Rose, at work, has given me lovely fresh basil, a jar of her homemade pesto, and a selection of delightful jasmine teas from her personal collection. I’ve come by garden-grown zucchini, green beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes. And on Friday, Nick came home with a bag of fresh goodies harvested from the garden of one of the ladies he works with. For me. For me! There was still damp soil on the squash, that’s how fresh it was.

Included in the bag of goodies was a rather round cucumber. Nick had thought it was a zucchini, but it was, in fact, a short, stubby cucumber, about two inches in diameter with no tapering. A fat little guy, with firm flesh … the kind that stands up to a bit of braising.

From here, this looks like a close-up on a pickle.
From here, this looks like a close-up on a pickle.

I’ll admit, I hadn’t really thought about this until Julie & Julia. I’ve read recipes for this dish before, but kind of skimmed over them, barely reading, having always considered cucumbers a raw-eating vegetable, a thing suited to salads, and generally a pleasant sort of bland. I see now the error of my ways. And given that this dish is low-risk, requiring little investment of either time or money, it’s something you really ought to try. And it’s summer, and you might even have cucumbers in your garden; if not, they’ll be all over your local market.

Braised Cucumber

  • 1 large cucumber
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
  • 2 tbsp. heavy cream
  • 1 tsp. chopped fresh mint (if you don’t like the sound of mint, you could use fresh dill, which would also be lovely, or a bit of fresh parsley … anything you like)

Peel cucumber. Cut in half, and scoop out the seeds. I find that scraping them out with a regular old spoon works great. Chop cucumber into one-inch pieces.

In a pan, melt the butter. Add the cucumber, make sure it’s coated in the butter, cover, and let cook covered for about five minutes over medium heat.

Remove lid, and add salt and lemon. Cover and cook for another minute. Remove lid, add cream to coat the cucumber, and cook for another minute.

Before serving, toss with mint. And then dive right in.

So fresh-smelling!
So fresh-smelling!

It’s an odd thing, and at first you may be a bit surprised – cucumbers are not all that notable, and they can often go without notice on your dinner plate. When turned into pickles, they are a thing to celebrate. And when they are freshly plucked from the garden and cooked in butter, they are a lip-smacking revelation, a buttery blend of flavours, with a satisfying touch of crunch. And the mint makes them even more lovely. I’ll be adding this to my list of staple side-dishes immediately.

No, really. Go make this right now.
No, really. Go make this right now.