A chilled melon soup

I planned to bake cornbread and fry okra for dinner Thursday night. Paired with sliced ripe tomatoes and freshly cooked pink-eyed peas, they make a classic Southern meal, something I make for myself once every summer. It's a seasonal, feel good meal, one I look forward to. Another day of scorching temperatures made me rethink my course of action.

A cantaloupe hid in the corner of my refrigerator — an overly ripe, slightly dented specimen from a CSA box of old. This not-so-attractive fruit, peeled, chopped and combined with a handful of almonds, turned into dinner with the help of my Waring blender and a few drops of citrus juice. I think of this as a super-simplified take on grape and almond gazapacho. A cucumber might be a nice addition to the melon-almond soup recipe below (I didn't have one), and the heat of a jalapeno pepper would be an interesting twist. My cantaloupe was very sweet, but add a bit of simple syrup or agave nectar if your soup needs a little sugar.

Simple syrup is made by combining equal parts water and sugar in a saucepan over low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Adding granulated sugar to the soup would result in a grainy texture.

The following recipe would serve 3-4 as an appetizer; in typical single gal fashion, I consumed 2 helpings, slipped Season 5, Disc 1 of Six Feet Under into the DVD player, and supplemented my delicious starter with popcorn. Everything — entertainment included — was wonderful, but I'm a little depressed. There is no Season 6.

Chilled Melon and Almond Soup
Serves 3-4

1/2 cup blanched, slivered almonds
1 ripe cantaloupe, peeled and roughly chopped
3/4 cup cold water
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons lime juice
pinch of kosher salt
mint leaves, finely chopped
extra virgin olive oil

Put the almond slivers in a heat-resistant bowl. Cover with boiling water and let sit for at least 30 minutes, allowing them to soften.

Put 1/4 of the peeled and chopped cantaloupe into a blender with cold water — enough to get the blades going without trouble — and puree. With the blender running, add the rest of the melon, a few pieces at a time, and puree until smooth. Add lemon and lime juice, and a pinch of kosher salt. Taste, and add a few teaspoons of simple syrup or agave nectar if necessary. If the soup is too thick, thin it with more cold water.

Chill for at least 1 hour before serving. Garnish with freshly chopped mint leaves and a drizzle of olive oil.


Panzanella, for a sweltering summer

I'm living for my Northern California vacation. Temperatures dropped from their record highs earlier in the week — it's only in the 90s now. Ninety-something degrees Fahrenheit plus the sweet kiss of humidity that causes profuse sweating after 5 minutes outdoors. I plow through it, but I'm generally miserable.

An attitude adjustment is in order.

My CSA produce box helps a bit. Each Wednesday is a little like Christmas. I enter the (cool, clean) walk-in refrigerator at Foster's Market to pick up my share of goodies, thinking about what I'll create with the contents. After walking the dogs near the market yesterday (dogs is plural — I'm caring for my brother-in-law's sweet black lab this week), we piled in the car, fresh veggies in tow, and headed home. Under Gus and Jenny's watchful gaze, I made panzanella, the Italian bread salad that's perfect for summer. No oven or multiple saucepans needed — just a sharp knife, heavy cutting board, and a mixing bowl.

Panzanella is peasant food, a dish that makes use of leftovers, a no-waste option that's not only delicious, but makes you feel virtuous to boot. Basil and tomatoes from the produce box joined leftover ciabatta from the weekend's romesco sauce. Softened by liquid, the bread cubes absorb the flavors that surround them. Cucumber adds crunch, the onions are a bit pungent — the result is a refreshing option for yet another sweltering summer day. This is intended to be served as a side dish, but some of us consume more than one helping and call it dinner.

Serves 4 as a side dish

4 cups of stale ciabatta, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3-4 ripe tomatoes, cubed
1 small red onion, sliced
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
16 or more basil leaves, chopped
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Place ciabatta cubes in a large bowl. Sprinkle with olive oil and red wine vinegar and let sit for 10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, toss gently to combine, taste for seasoning, and serve.


Romesco to the rescue

Saturday was hot. Crazy hot. Sweltering, blazing, go-inside-before-you-melt hot. With a heat index of 108 degrees Fahrenheit, it was a good day to get things done early. I'd dealt with the dog and completed my shopping at the Raleigh farmers' market (30 miles away) by 8:30 a.m. It was also a day for egg cookery experiments — I tried to cook an egg on my back deck. Really. It was very much a runny-yolked, sunny-side-up sort of egg, but the heat got to it. And to me.

It was not a good day to turn on the oven. I did anyway, as I'd invited my friends Mo and Doris to dinner, but after roasting tomatoes and garlic for romesco sauce, I turned the oven dial to off. The evening's entree, freshly caught mullet from Core Sound Seafood, was going on the grill. As the air conditioner struggled to keep up with record temperatures, any additional cooking would have to take place outdoors.

Spanish cuisine was at the forefront of my brain, having fried a batch of Padron peppers earlier in the week. When I worked at Rialto restaurant in Cambridge years ago, the menu included items inspired by France and Spain, as well as Italy. Chef Jody Adams has gone virtually all-Italian these days, but it was there that I learned to make a delicious seafood paella, as well as a mean romesco sauce.

I hadn't cooked mullet before, and though I had a general sense of its flavor, I wasn't sure what would compliment it. Enter romesco, a terrific jack-of-all-trades sauce that goes with most anything.  I've served it with other fish, shellfish, meat, veggies, and perhaps best of all, smeared it on grilled bread. Though easy to prepare, romesco's taste is complex. It features tart-yet-sweet roasted garlic, tomatoes, and peppers; vinegar's acidity; the coarse texture and full flavor of almonds.

Romesco paired nicely with the fish, and grilled slices of ciabatta went quickly when spread with sauce. The mullet was fabulous, the corn soup was outrageously sweet, and glorious peaches (sliced, served without adornment) were the perfect dessert.

The next time you're unsure of what to serve with grilled just-about-anything, consider romesco.

Romesco Sauce
Makes about 3 cups

4 ripe tomatoes, cored
1 very large head garlic (I used elephant garlic, supplied by my CSA)
1 red bell pepper
1 cup blanched almonds
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 slice white bread

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Core the tomatoes and cut them in half. Place them in a roasting pan with the head of garlic, also cut in half. Toss with a few tablespoons of olive oil, then sprinkle with kosher salt and roast for 45 minutes - 1 hour, until caramelized.

Blacken the red pepper over a gas range (place on top of a lit burner, turning with tongs until charred throughout), on a grill, or in the oven. While still warm, put it in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to cool, then peel and remove seeds.

Toast the almonds in a dry skillet over low-medium heat on the range. They will smell nutty and brown slightly when they're ready, about 5-7 minutes. Set aside to cool.

When the tomatoes and garlic are done, allow to cool, then remove the skins. Put them in a food processor with the roasted red pepper and toasted almonds. With the machine running, slowly add the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar. The sauce should be thick, the almonds giving it a coarse texture. Add the bread and process. Taste for seasoning, adding salt, vinegar, or olive oil as necessary.

Romesco sauce will keep in the refrigerator for about one week.


What to do with a Padron pepper

Padron peppers were included in a recent CSA share. Small, spritely, and kelly green, the peppers stood out among the box's tomatoes and potatoes, hogging the limelight and sparking my interest. But what does one do with a Padron pepper? I hadn't a clue. Hats off to the Internet for a quick save.

Googling "Padron pepper" brought several recipes to my attention, all identical. The Padron pepper is a native of Spain, most often enjoyed as part of a tapas offering, fried in olive oil, and sprinkled with kosher salt or coarsely ground sea salt.

Ignoring the insane heat index (what to do when it hits 105 degrees Fahrenheit?), I jacked up the air conditioning, turned on the (pretty much useless) oven fan, turned a burner to medium, and placed a large cast-iron skillet on top. I poured a bit of olive oil inside, washed and dried the peppers, and layered a few paper towels on a plate. When the oil became a slick, shimmering mass, I put the peppers into the fiery skillet and stepped back — you must step back — avoiding oil splatters and splutters that cascaded from the range. The peppers blistered within 2 minutes. I turned them with a slotted metal spoon, then drained the peppers on the aforementioned paper towels and sprinkled them with salt.

Then I took a bite. Several bites. Padron peppers are fantastic. Though generally mild with a hint of sweetness, a few hot peppers lurked among the handful I tried. Prepare yourself for the occasional spark of heat. Fried Padron peppers are meant to be a small part of a larger tapas spread, so enjoy these alongside (my favorite) Spanish omelet filled with layers of onion and potato, shrimp with romesco sauce, and hunks of Manchego cheese.



Life is expensive. This week I've written checks for car insurance, car registration, and a car inspection. I've paid utility bills, bought new contact lenses, and Zyrtec for the dog. I'll drop about $2,500 for car repairs Thursday morning (good, trusty car, but it's getting old). It's also time for a haircut.

Did I mention that I'm going on vacation in 2 weeks? Lovely Northern California awaits, but it's not free.

Time to cut back in other areas. Like food. Eating out is a pretty rare event for me, but I still spend a fair amount on food — I think it's worth it to buy quality products. Happily, food is least expensive when it's in season, so my CSA produce and CSF fish are a pretty good bargain. So where to cut? I'm giving up Tofu Pad Thai from my local Whole Foods Market.

I love Tofu Pad Thai. As hard as I try to stay away from prepared foods (usually for health reasons, but also to save money), I find myself buying the stuff a couple of times each month. Red pepper flakes, cooked egg, and a snappy fish sauce give the rice noodles and tofu a clear, clean flavor and interesting texture. I find myself gravitating toward the prepared foods counter when I'm there. It's like a magnet, pulling me in and siphoning hard-earned bills from my wallet.

Not today. Today I bought rice noodles, a block of extra-firm tofu and a handful of snap peas. At home, I got to work, using the ingredient list on an old container label as a guide (though I added a few things and left others out). The results were quite good! I don't have a cost breakdown, but I'm sure my savings were substantial, which means more money for vacation. Look out, San Francisco...

Note: Use soy sauce instead of nuoc mam (fish sauce) for a vegetarian version of this dish.

Tofu Pad Thai
Serves 6-8

1 block extra-firm tofu, drained, pressed and cubed
7 oz. wide rice noodles
3 eggs
1/2 pound sugar snap peas

1/4 cup nuoc mam (Asian fish sauce)
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1 lemon, juiced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup canola oil

2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
2 jalapenos, minced
2 bunches scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry roasted peanuts

To press the tofu, place the bock between two paper towel-lined plates. The top plate serves as a weight. Allow the tofu to drain at least 30 minutes before cutting into 1/2-inch cubes.

To prepare the rice noodles, bring a medium pot of water to a rapid boil. Turn off the heat and throw the noodles in. Allow them to soften in the hot water for 10 minutes, then drain.

Whisk the eggs in a small bowl. Cook omelet-style in a small skillet coated lightly with cooking spray or canola oil. When cooked through, allow to cool, then slice into small cubes.

Blanch the sugar snaps in boiling water for 2 minutes, drain, then place in an ice water bath to stop the cooking. Drain and roughly chop.

Combine the nuoc mam, sugar, rice wine vinegar, lemon juice, and garlic in a bowl. Slowly add the canola oil while steadily whisking to create an emulsion.

Place the cubed tofu, egg, blanched sugar snap peas, and softened noodles in a large bowl. Add the dressing and toss gently to combine. Add the hot red pepper flakes, jalapenos, scallions, and peanuts, and toss again. Taste for seasoning and serve.


Okra and tomatoes

Thursday was a day off. A day filled with rambunctious (almost) 3-and-4-year-old boys, an arthritic black lab, and a bag of farmer's market okra. My sister drove down from New Jersey with her sons and dog last week, staying with my parents in Winston-Salem. I don't see them often, so a quick day trip was mandatory. After dropping off Gus Monster with a friend, I high-tailed it to Winston for the day, hanging out with crazy kids for the afternoon.

The day included play time at the pool, big wheel races down a steep driveway, and an early birthday celebration for the soon-to-be-3-year-old, complete with a bunny cake. When it was time to go, my parents insisted that a bag of fresh okra go with me. They said they wouldn't eat them before they went bad, and though I'm not certain that's true, I happily brought the green pods home.

Growing up in the South with Mississippi-raised parents, okra was a regular part of summer suppers. Dredged in four and cornmeal, the sliced pods were fried in vegetable oil until crisp, drained on piles of paper towels, then sprinkled with salt. Brown and crunchy, the fried nuggets appeared next to sliced tomatoes, field peas, butterbeans and cornbread.

I love fried okra, but I've experimented with other cooking methods since leaving home. Grilling has become a favorite, one that allows the vegetable's gentle nature to come forth. Shunned by some for a gooey interior, the fuzzy pods are really very mild. Okra pairs well with acidic players, like lemon and tomato — I combined them with Indian spices for a change of pace from the (delicious, comforting) Southern-fried version.

Between Sunday night thunderstorms, I raced to the grill with CSA cherry tomatoes and the gorgeous green okra from my parents. I tossed them all with oil, salt and pepper, tumeric, cumin and coriander, threaded on skewers, and cooked until tender. A squeeze of acid livened things up — lemon wedges were the perfect garnish.

Grilled Okra and Tomatoes 

1/2 pound young okra, pods no more than 4 inches long
cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon tumeric
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, cut into wedges

Soak wooden skewers in water for at least 30 minutes before grilling.  Preheat the grill.

Rinse the okra and tomatoes. Trim the tops of the okra pods, but leave them whole. Toss the vegetables with oil, cumin, coriander, tumeric, salt and pepper. Thread the okra pods onto skewers; repeat with tomatoes. (The tomatoes will cook more quickly then the okra, so keep them separate).

Grill over direct, high heat, turning once. The tomatoes will be done within 2-4 minutes, depending on size. Remove from the heat when the skins begin to split. The okra will take roughly 6-8 minutes to cook. Remove from the heat when the pods are lightly charred and they are easily pierced with a knife.

Serve with lemon wedges.



Heirloom tomatoes seemed to reproduce on my kitchen countertop this week. Between the entire contents of a CSA produce box (normally split with a friend who's out of town) and a boxful of tomatoes from a client's garden, supply far exceeded demand. Cherokees, green zebras and German Johnsons graced fresh green salads, topped pizzas, and played a starring role in homemade soup. Sliced, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkled with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, the ripe, fragrant fruits helped make the summer heat (almost) bearable. But eating them at breakfast, lunch and dinner wasn't enough.

It was time for tomato-onion jam.

This isn't a jam in the traditional sense. Thick and rich, it's summer tomato intensified, made even better with caramelized onion, garlic and spices. More traditional tomato jam recipes exist — they often include much more sugar and are processed in a boiling-water bath, which means they'll last up to a year.

Tomato-onion jam is a seasonal favorite, though I don't stick to a particular recipe each year. I look to my pantry, consider what flavors I'm craving, and go from there. Last night's version featured the heat of hot red pepper flakes, ginger's zing, and the earthy goodness of caramelized garlic and onion. I'm going to enjoy a spoonful with roasted chicken (served room temperature in this latest heat wave) and a spinach salad for dinner.

Smear tomato-onion jam on bread and serve with cheese, use it with roasted or grilled meats and poultry, or make it part of a sandwich. It's also pretty terrific consumed directly from the jar (this is allowed if you live alone). Consider adding ground cumin seed, cardamom, or a freshly chopped jalapeno or serrano pepper to the recipe. Make it your own.

Tomato-Onion Jam
Makes about 3 heaping cups

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, diced
1 large shallot, diced
5 garlic cloves, minced
6 medium ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

To peel tomatoes: Make a small "x" on the bottom of each tomato. Drop into boiling water for 30 seconds, remove, then plunge into an ice water bath. The skin will slip off easily, pulled from the flesh with a paring knife.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion, shallot, garlic and cook over low for about 20 minutes, with the pan covered. When the vegetables are soft, remove the lid and allow the vegetables to caramelize over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. This will take another 15-20 minutes. Add peeled, roughly chopped tomatoes, red wine vinegar, hot red pepper flakes, cumin, ginger, kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, about 15 minutes. Taste and correct seasonings as necessary.

Tomato-onion jam will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for about one week.


Potato salad and a little comfort

Last night I made potato salad — lots and lots of potato salad. Enough to feed 35 to 40 people. My creation wasn't incredibly creative or earth-shattering. It wasn't my personal favorite. It was, however, a classic American potato salad, seen frequently at summer picnics. Garnished with finely chopped celery, red onion, and dressed with copious amounts of delicious mayonnaise, it was very, very tasty.  I just hope it's worthy of the word "comforting."

This potato salad will be served at the SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals, which is like a Ronald McDonald House for families of critical care adult patients. They, too, need extended lodging at a reasonable price, a shuttle to and from the hospital, and friendly faces. They need a break from vending machines and hospital cafeterias, an opportunity to decompress and enjoy a meal with others. The house meal program provides that. Volunteers make and serve dinner an average of 4 nights a week at the SECU Family House. When my friend Jeanne asked if I would take charge of the starch one hot July night, I knew potatoes would end up on the menu.

Potatoes themselves are comforting. Plain, yes, but that's the beauty of the spud. Who doesn't love French fries, scalloped potatoes, or potato gnocchi? The humble potato is given soul with pats of butter and freshly chopped herbs, enlivened with bold spices. I needed a dish that was simple and easily identifiable, an offering that most people would enjoy and find soothing. Capriciousness was to be avoided.

Enter Classic American Potato Salad. Reheating isn't necessary. It can be made in advance. And I hope it brings positive memories to those who'll consume it: thoughts of grilled hot dogs and games played on vasts fields of grass, family bicycle rides and beach balls, squished sandwiches and suntan lotion. I hope my simple offering brings people a tiny bit of hope and a smile.

The following recipe isn't terribly exact. I kept tasting and stirring and adding and tasting again, making notes along the way, but I can't promise The World's Best Potato Salad if you follow this recipe to the letter. I can promise that it's a very good guide, a place to start— and I think that's how you should view any recipe. I did a lot of balancing between hot/bitter and sweet (mustard vs.sugar), putting in too much dry mustard initially, correcting by dissolving sugar in cider vinegar, adding more mayonnaise to round out the flavor. Homemade mayo is ideal, but I went with Duke's brand to save time (it's widely available in the South). If Duke's isn't available in your area, look for mayonnaise with very few ingredients listed on the label. You should be able to easily pronounce them all.

Classic American Potato Salad for a Crowd
Serves about 35 as a side dish

13 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons Coleman's dry mustard
3 tablespoons sugar
3 1/2 - 4 cups mayonnaise (homemade is ideal, or use a high-quality brand, like Duke's)
2 large bunches celery, finely chopped
3 red onions, finely diced
2 bunches parsley, finely chopped
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

After peeling the potatoes, check to see if they are roughly the same size. Cut any large potatoes in half - you want the pieces to be similar in size so they cook through and are done at the same time. Place the potatoes in large, heavy-bottomed pots (I used 3 large stockpots) and cover with cold water. Add a pinch of kosher salt to each pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the potatoes, uncovered, until easily pierced with a paring knife. Drain and cool until they can be handled. Cut into 1/2-inch squares.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cider vinegar, sugar and dry mustard, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Whisk in the mayonnaise (it will thin out a bit). Add the celery, onion, parsley, and potatoes. Toss gently to evenly coat, and sprinkle with a few teaspoons of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Chill for at least one hour before serving. It's nice to sprinkle the potato salad at the end with additional freshly chopped parsley for color.



Two and a half pounds of live clams. One pound of frozen peas. Garlic, onion, chopped mint. White wine. Butter. Olive oil. Combine all for a scrumptious dinner (if you are single and happy with one-dish meals) or serve as a starter at your next gathering.

I often think I should rename this blog "What Lynn Found in the Refrigerator and Freezer."

This weekend was lovely food-wise — an easy, grilled mackerel supper Friday night was followed by dinner at  French bistro Rue Cler Saturday, celebrating July birthdays with friends. Sure, I still had to walk the dog, clean the house, and try to put next Wednesday night's work lecture out of my head (I don't do well in front of groups). But I enjoyed Sunday's make-do meal. More than enjoyed — Sunday's dinner was pretty tasty.

Get ready for well-cooked peas. Accept that they won't be a fresh green color — heat takes its toll. The beautiful, bright green orbs you began with (fresh or frozen) will look past their peak, approaching an olive-y hue. Embrace the darkened pea. It is cooked through, not at all chalky, the ultimate in pea-essence. Flavor triumphs over color.

Clams, Peas and Mint
Serves 2 as an entree, 4 as a starter

2 1/2 pounds clams, scrubbed clean
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 white or yellow onion, minced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
pinch of kosher salt
1 pound frozen green peas (or fresh peas, but they will take longer to cook)
1/3 cup white wine
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup freshly chopped mint

Heat butter and olive oil in a large skillet or saucepan over medium-low heat. Add garlic, onion, and a pinch of kosher salt. Stir occasionally and cook until soft, about 12 minutes.

Add frozen green peas and cover the pan, cooking 5 more minutes. If you're using fresh peas, add another 10-12 minutes of cooking time. Add white wine, water, and scrubbed clams to the pan. Cover and cook over medium-high heat for about 6-10 minutes, until the clams open. Sprinkle with freshly chopped mint, drizzle with a bit of additional extra virgin olive oil, and serve. Feeling fancy? Garnish each plate with a sprig of mint.


Holy mackerel

Hot. Tired. Grumpy. Ready to hang out with the Gus the Wonder Dog, continue feeding my Big Love DVD addiction, and go to bed early. Lame? Perhaps, but it's exactly what I wanted Friday night. I also needed to eat dinner.

My Core Sound Seafood share arrived Thursday afternoon and CSA produce came in the night before that. Finding food wasn't an issue, but keeping my meal low key was. I'm not afraid of time in the kitchen or elaborate preparations, but hot + tired + grumpy = simple supper. The more intricate preparations I'd considered Thursday night were no longer an option.

Sleek, golden-spotted Spanish mackerel fillets and a big bag of clams made up this week's seafood delivery. Mackerel is a fishy fish, usually assertive. If it had a volume, mackerel would fall on the medium-loud end of the dial. I was (happily) surprised by how gentle Friday's mackerel was. Can you use the word gentle to describe a fish fillet? Freshness made a tremendous difference.

Grilled Spanish Mackerel with Lemon and Oregano

Rinse mackerel fillet(s) with water and pat dry. Make a few shallow slices through the skin before lightly coating it with olive oil.

For one fillet, I cut 2 thin slices from a lemon from the refrigerator, cut those in half, and  chopped a handful of fresh oregano. I stuffed the slits (on the skin side) with the herbs, then flipped the fillet and and covered the flesh with additional oregano and the lemon slices. I set the remaining 1/2 lemon aside for grilling, inspired by Mark Bittman's recent NY Times article, 101 Fast Recipes for Grilling. I let the fish marinate for about 30 minutes.

I sprinkled kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper on both sides of the fillet, then lit the grill. Roughly 12 minutes later I enjoyed an absolutely marvelous meal.

Start grilling the fish skin side down. My fillet was thin, and it was only 3-4 minutes before it was time to flip. It cooked for another minute or so before I removed it (and the half lemon ) from the grill.

A few tips:
  • Be certain the grill is hot and clean, sparing yourself the agony of a big, sticky mess. I've come close to tears when my meal clings to the grates. 
  • Oil the grill well before using. I often use old (clean) t-shirt scraps, dip them into canola oil, and rub them along the grill grates with tongs. Sometimes I'll cut an onion in half, spear it with a large meat fork, dip it in oil, and use that instead. 
  • Tempted though you may be to fuss with the fish, you only need to flip it once. Start skin side down in this case, resist the urge to poke and pry, then flip after 3-4 minutes. Allow it to finish cooking (again, let it be) flesh side down. This will only take another minute or two.
  • Before grilling the lemon half, brush the cut side lightly with canola (or another neutral) oil.



Is it acceptable to have a favorite CSA item? A reasonable person would ask, why not? A favorite vegetable is perfectly acceptable.

I was ridiculously excited about the fingerling potatoes that appeared in a recent CSA share. And I felt guilty about it. I wanted to love all of the fruits and vegetables equally. It seems unfair to like eggplant more than zucchini, melon more than onions. Less-loved produce brings to mind unloved toys that sit tangled in wrapping paper on Christmas Day, ignored while The Favorite Toy receives all of the attention.

Fingerlings are among my favorite potatoes, my culinary equivalent of The Favorite Toy. Creamy and rich, they have a dense quality the (sturdy, trustworthy) Russet doesn't share. Rummaging through the refrigerator last night, I stumbled upon a pound of fingerlings I'd set aside and promptly forgotten. Despite the heat wave that grips the east coast — we hit a record high of 101 degrees Fahrenheit — I turned on the oven, brought out my cast iron skillet, and whipped up a summer favorite: smashed potatoes with red onion, arugula, and sherry vinegar.

Adding herbs, arugula leaves, sherry vinegar, and a fruity olive oil to the potatoes soon after they leave the oven is key to the success of this dish. The greens wilt against the warm fingerlings, while the vinegar and oil soak in, adding a depth of flavor that would be lost if the ingredients are combined cold. Crush the potatoes with a masher made for the job, leaving a few clumps. It's far more appealing than a smooth puree (you're not going for silky, just mushed) and I promise, it tastes better that way.

I enjoyed my smashed fingerlings propped in front of the TV with another episode of Big Love. I'm officially addicted. Who knew the lives of polygamists in the Salt Lake City suburbs would make for such great television? I've also officially given up on the teen romance novel Twilight. I started reading it over the weekend, but can't figure out what the hype is about. I don't care about handsome vampire Edward Cullen, his cold skin, or his muscular chest. If only I could get the precious moments of my life back that I wasted on the book.

Smashed Fingerlings with Arugula and Red Onion
Serves 2-3

1  pound fingerling potatoes, rinsed
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with the back of a chef's knife
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
a handful of arugula
1/4 small red onion, thinly sliced
sherry vinegar
extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Toss the fingerlings and garlic cloves with a large pinch of kosher salt, a few grindings of the pepper mill, and olive oil. All ingredients should be evenly coated. Place in a 10 to12-inch cast iron skillet or roasting pan (a cookie sheet would also work) and cook for about 25 minutes, until the potatoes are easily pierced with a paring knife.

Remove from the oven and toss with freshly chopped parsley. Add fistfuls of cleaned arugula, a hearty splash of sherry vinegar, and moisten with a few glugs of extra virgin olive oil. Add a few slivers of red onion for crunch, and flavor. Season with salt and pepper. Enjoy warm or at room temperature.


Time for tabbouleh

I'd forgotten about tabbouleh. Not entirely, of course, but I couldn't remember the last time I enjoyed this popular Middle Eastern salad. When a friend asked if I could bring a nut-free, dairy-free dish to her annual Fourth of July pool party (nut-free and dairy-free to prevent a couple of small guests from going into anaphylactic shock), tabbouleh came immediately to mind. It fits the bill perfectly: cracked wheat enlivened with generous amounts of parsley and mint, dressed with lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil, all combined with flawless summer tomatoes.

I made a big batch of the stuff the morning of July 4. A true Lebanese tabbouleh contains far more parsley than grain, but I cheated; I tired of chopping bunches of herbs long before I reached the 5 cups required. The result was still delicious. So delicious that I made it again for dinner.

My friend Trish and I stopped by the grocery store post-pool party to pick up salmon fillets, lettuce, assorted snacks — visions of a big, beautiful meal in our heads. As the day wore on and we settled down with the first five episodes of Big Love on DVD (because I really need to get hooked on another cable TV show on a channel I don't subscribe to), Trish and I agreed that grazing in front of the TV was ideal. The salmon stayed in the refrigerator and I made a second, smaller batch of tabbouleh, brought out flatbread, cheese, and my new favorite olive, the Castellano. Spread out on the coffee table, the food was ideal. Light, great at room temperature, and easy.

Looks like tabbouleh will be a mainstay this summer.

Tabbouleh Salad
Serves 4

1 cup bulgur
2 cups water
1 bunch scallions, chopped, including part of the green top
2-3 bunches flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped
1 bunch mint, finely chopped
3 medium tomatoes, diced
2 lemons, freshly juiced
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Place the bulgur in a heatproof bowl. Bring the water to a boil, then pour it over the bulgur and give it a quick stir. Cover with plastic wrap and allow it to sit for 30-45 minutes.

While the cracked wheat rehydrates, clean and chop the herbs, scallions and tomatoes.

When the bulgur has softened, strain to remove any extra water, then fluff with a fork. Add the chopped vegetables and herbs, then dress with lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Tabbouleh is best made an hour or two before you plan to serve it, giving flavors a chance to meld and improve. Serve at room temperature.


Classic vs. wildly popular, and an awesome summer salad

My friend Mo is a big reader. Novels, non-fiction, poetry — Mo likes it all. We discuss books at work, and he very kindly brought two in for me this week. The first: Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner (with a "from the library of" sticker inside and a post-it note marking "A Rose for Emily"). The second: Twilight, which he borrowed from a friend.

Yes, that Twilight, the teen vampire love story sensation, the instant bestseller, the first in a series that spawned a succession of films. As the weekend unfolds, I face a choice: Faulkner vs. Meyer. Nobel-prize winning author vs. contemporary sensation, one of the American South's most important literary figures vs. one of Time magazine's Most Influential People of 2008 (Meyer ranked #49).

I'll make my decision later. Right now it's time for lunch, and I'm about to enjoy one of my favorite summer salads, a salad that focuses on summer fruit — using whatever is at its best — with peppery arugula and Marcona almonds. If you aren't familiar with Marcona almonds, prepare to be amazed. And addicted. Marcona almonds are ridiculously good. They are shorter and rounder than a regular almond, a little sweeter, definitely richer in taste. Imported from Spain, Marcona almonds are lightly fried in olive oil and salted. After eating the last one, I run my fingers through the empty container, coat them with whatever oily, salty goodness is left, and lick them. There, I admit it.

Today's salad features fresh farmer's market peaches and the sun jewel melon that arrived in this week's CSA box. Stripped of its bright gold skin, the pale, slightly green-hued flesh reminds me of honeydew. I wish figs were in season — they're a favorite paired with a few sprigs of arugula and sherry vinaigrette. I use more fruit than arugula in this salad; I think of the greens as a bright accent, not the star.

Marcona almonds have become increasingly popular in the States, and are usually available at Whole Foods, Costco, and Trader Joe's. If you can't find them, use toasted almonds instead.

Summers Fruits with Arugula and Marcona Almonds
Serves 1-2

Sherry Vinaigrette:

1 tablespoon shallot, minced
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
pinch of kosher salt
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Combine the minced shallot, sherry vinegar, and kosher salt in a small bowl. Whisk in the olive oil, starting slowly, gradually adding it in a steady stream. Whisk constantly to create an emulsion.


1 large ripe peach, pit removed, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 sun jewel melon, skin and seeds removed, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
a few slivers of red onion (optional)
a handful of arugula, washed and dried
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons Marcona almonds

Combine the fruits in a bowl and drizzle with a few tablespoons of sherry vinaigrette. Add the arugula and red onion (if using) and toss gently. Taste for seasoning — it will probably need a pinch of kosher salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Add more vinaigrette if necessary. Put on serving plate(s) and sprinkle with Marcona almonds.


Big summer

This is the year of Big Summer. Crazy hot temperatures hit central North Carolina in early June and let up on the last day of the month. Coupled with humidity, this is the kind of weather that renews my vow to move to the Pacific Northwest, the land of cool, green, and lush. I love Oregon. Everyone wears layers, paddles the Columbia River on weekends, and eats fabulous food from trucks stationed downtown. The pace seems slower (I know those people at Nike are getting a lot done, but walking around Portland feels better, easier, than the East Coast cities I've lived in). Life isn't sluggish or dull, but velocity is somehow altered.

I digress.

Because someplace else is always better than where you are.

Today I'm enjoying a reprise — I woke to temperatures in the 60s and a cool breeze — but the crazy heat sped up the crop cycle (so says my CSA farmer). This week's produce box included 3 different melons, cherry tomatoes, and heirloom tomatoes. After splitting the share with my friend Cathy, I brought home the ultimate small watermelon, whose flesh was the best-est of all possible watermelons. Sweet, lush, and juicy. I also brought home a sun jewel melon, which resembles a fall delicata squash and has an amazing perfume. It radiates heat and summer and flowers.

Watermelon-Tomato-Feta Salad  for dinner was a no-brainer, given my ingredients. If you haven't discovered this treasure, do try it. I don't remember exactly when I stumbled upon the glorious tomato-watermelon salad combination (it was sometime in the late 1990s, during my Boston years). I've enjoyed countless variations since then, but I'm happy with this version: ripe watermelon, gorgeous tomatoes, red onion, basil and/or mint, freshly crumbled feta cheese, a splash of vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil. Add kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, and you've captured the best of summer.

I used cherry tomatoes in today's salad, but diced regular tomatoes would work just as well.

Watermelon-Tomato-Feta Salad
Serves 1-2

1 cup cherry and/or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered, depending on size
1 1/2 cups watermelon, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, seeds removed
3-4 tablespoons red onion, diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon mint, chopped
2 tablespoons basil, chopped

Combine the tomatoes, watermelon, and red onion in a large bowl. Sprinkle with kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper from the pepper mill and toss. Add red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and feta, then toss gently to combine. You can refrigerate the salad at this point for up to and hour. Add freshly chopped herbs just before serving.