Summer Obsession

Out of all the food magazines out there, Food & Wine has been my favorite for more than a dozen years. So you can imagine how excited I was when the August issue arrived, with its “Vegetables Now” cover touting “25 Creative Fast & Delicious Vegetable Recipes”. So I settled in on the bus (where I do most of my reading these days) and opened up my magazine.

Watermelon and Radish Salad

They should have titled it “Vegetables Eventually,” because I had to flip through 96 pages of burgers and steak and sausages and mussels before I got to the vegetables. But before I got there, I read about Tom Colicchio’s favorite weekend recipes. I am a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I had to Google Top Chef because my knowledge of cooking competition shows begins and ends with the last 15 minutes of the season finale of Master Chef, and that was only because our friend Dave Miller was on it. Top Chef, the one with Salman Rushdie’s ex-wife. Got it.

But I do hope Tom What’s-His-Name reads this and invites me to his estate on Long Island, because I would like to personally thank him for this Thai-style radish and watermelon salad. It’s become my obsession this summer –like, stuffed pumpkin obsessed. I wanted to make it straight away. The radishes from the CSA were waiting in the crisper for me, and I spent my lunch hour collecting the herbs at Super 88. All I needed was the watermelon – not the easiest thing to schlep home on the T. With a baby.

Lilli and Rooster

I wasn’t alone in my obsession. I gchatted with Sylvie, who at the end of the chat left to cut up a melon. “Wait!” I wrote. “Did you see the new Food & Wine? There’s a radish and watermelon salad recipe that I’m obsessed with.” She came back to the screen. “Funny you should say that, because I bought this melon with that recipe in mind.”

After days of waiting and wanting, the weekend finally came, and so did a nasty head cold. I was so nervous about getting Lilli sick that I consulted my stepdad, a physician, about what to do: “Wash your hands like Lady MacBeth and wear a face mask when you’re near her.” His advice worked perfectly, but I knew that there was no way I could make the salad for our friends’ BBQ that weekend. So I put Rich in charge. “You know, dear, this recipe has A LOT of ingredients,” he said after reading the magazine. But he did it.

Finally, at the BBQ, I had a bowl of the salad – and was underwhelmed. I wished it had more punch. Maybe more fish sauce. Just a little more oomph. And then I heard hollering from across the back yard: “Oh my God! You guys, you have to try this watermelon salad! This is the best thing I’ve ever had. This salad, oh my God!” The other guests had spoken. Lesson learned: Don’t trust the girl with the cold when it comes to tasting new dishes.

A few notes: My wonderful friend Caitlyn was in from Portland last week. She lived in Thailand for five years so I had her take a look at the recipe. She said that everything about the recipe, except for the ginger, was dead on. She also made it clear that SQUID brand fish sauce is the only brand to use. Listen to Caitlyn.

Thai-Style Radish and Watermelon Salad by Tom Colicchio from August 2013 Food & Wine

¼ cup plus 2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 Tablespoon Asian fish sauce

1 Tablespoon sambal oelek or other Asian chile sauce (use the Siracha that’s in your fridge)

2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

One 5-pound watermelon – rind and seeds removed, flesh cut into 1 1/2 –inch chunks (8 cups)

12 radishes, very thinly sliced

8 scallions, thinly sliced

2 fresh hot red chiles, such as Holland or cayenne, thinly sliced crosswise

¾ cup lightly packed mint leaves, coarsely chopped

¾ cup lightly packed Thai basil leaves, torn

Directions

In a large bowl, whisk the lime juice, fish sauce, sambal oelek and ginger. Season with salt and pepper. Add the watermelon, radishes, scallions and red chiles and toss. Fold in the mint and basil, season with salt and pepper and serve right away.

Fizzy Lifting Drink

Among my mother’s many kitchen talents, right up there with her potato salad, is her knack for choosing a good melon. I have not inherited this skill, which means things are often hit or miss in the melon department. If it’s a hit, or good piece of fruit in general, I’ll call Sylvie, and vice versa. Our phones pretty much ring non-stop during stone fruit season, and yes, we have had actual conversations about: 1. Mom’s potato salad, and 2. The way she just knows when it’s a good melon.

Cantaloupe agua fresca

Last week I bought a cantaloupe. It, like the one from the week before, was pretty meh. I nibble on bits of melon while I clean it, chop it, and stash it in cleaned out yogurt containers. (Fact: Half a cantaloupe always seems to fits in a large-sized yogurt container.) This week’s melon was sweet in parts but completely dull in other bites. A decent enough snack, but certainly not call-Sylvie amazing.

Not wanting to eat the cantaloupe on its own but not wanting to toss it either, I started searching my cookbooks for a recipe. For the past few days Boston’s been in a bit of a heat wave, and heat waves just call for a refreshing beverage, at least in our house. So I opened the artisanal soda cookbook I received last year and found this recipe for fizzy cantaloupe agua fresca, which was easy, delicious and extremely refreshing.

So delicious!

Lilli was very helpful in looking for a recipe to use up the cantaloupe.

Some background on the whole “artisanal soda” thing. This year, I some used my birthday money to renew my membership to the Museum of Fine Arts and to purchase a Soda Stream. (As Rich quipped, “Who said nothing good has come out of the settlements?”) Syl has had a Soda Stream for a few years now, so when I was sent the artisanal soda cookbook last year, I passed it to her. When I joined club Soda Stream last month, she kindly sent the book back to me.

So far I have tried a couple of the recipes, with mixed results. The brown sugar banana soda needed more oomph, and although I liked the taste of the lemon thyme syrup itself, I thought it lost its zest and tasted a little musty once the carbonated water was added to it. Fortunately, this particular recipe was easy, delicious, refreshing, and make excellent use of my not-so-excellent melon.

The recipe calls for agave nectar, but feel free to substitute – a simple syrup or even a ginger syrup would also be great. Also, you don’t need a Soda Stream to use this recipe. You can use store-bought seltzer, or even still water for a more traditional agua fresca. Or you can do what Rich did with the leftover syrup when he came back from his run tonight: make a slushy with some ice and orange juice in the blender.

Fizzy Cantaloupe Agua Fresca from The Artisan Soda Workshop by Andrea Lynn

Ingredients for Cantaloupe Juice

2 ½ cups cubed cantaloupe

1 Tablespoon agave syrup

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice (The recipe book says lemon juice up top but lime in the directions. I went with lime and was pleased with the results.)

Directions

In a food processor or blender, combine the cantaloupe, agave (sweetener), and lime juice. Blend until all the cantaloupe is puréed, 1 to 2 minutes. Then, fit a bowl with a fine-mesh sieve, and pour the juice through the strainer to catch the pulp. Make sure to press the puréed fruit against the strainer to extract as much liquid as possible, and discard the pulp. (Note: If by discard you mean eat; it was light and refreshing.) Refrigerate the cantaloupe juice in a covered container (used mustard or jelly jar) for up to 3 days.

To make Fizzy Cantaloupe Aqua Fresca: Add 3 to 4 Tablespoons of cantaloupe liquid to a glass, then add 8 ounces of cold seltzer. Stir and enjoy.

Champagne Wishes and Fish Sauce Dreams

A few weeks ago, I had a quick procedure. Not a big deal, not even worth getting into the details here, but they did need to sedate me. I was a little groggy afterwards, and I was given the instructions not to drive, go to work or operate heavy machinery for the rest of the day. But when Rich brought me home from the hospital, I grabbed a canvas grocery bag from the backseat and started wobbling my way to the market around the corner.

“Um, what are you doing, dear?” Rich asked.

“I have some stuff I need to pick up,” I replied.

“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea, given your condition.”

“Oh, I’m fine. It’s 500 yards from our house, and I promise to use the crosswalks. There’s no heavy machinery involved.”

Rich soon realized this was a battle he would not be able to win, even though his opponent could barely stand up. He watched me steady myself to the end of the street, green sweatpants and all, and turn the corner.

I had had Vietnamese noodles on my mind for the past few weeks, and the chalush (an uncontrollable hankering) was one that not even a minor sedative would keep me from. The secret to Vietnamese noodles is fish sauce, which can be found in Asian markets, and more often than not, in the Asian aisle of most decent grocery stores. It’s usually made of anchovies, and is a bit akin to garum, the stinky fish sauce the Romans doused nearly everything they ate with. Hey, I said the blog is “mostly” vegetarian, cut me some slack.

And the noodles were perfect. They were exactly what I had hoped for. Looking back, I probably should have stayed out of the kitchen that afternoon, and not used the stove or a large chef’s knife. When I tasted the sauce, I thought it was too citrusy, so I stumbled around the kitchen adding a splash of mirin and a dash of soy. Of course, after a few minutes of fussing, I realized I hadn’t actually added the fish sauce; it had been measured and waiting next to the bowl. Oops. But I did succeed in the end, and somehow I managed to photograph it as well.

When Rich returned home from work that night, I greeted him with an offer of the noodles spiked with fish sauce. “Oh,” he said, “so you did end up making them.” “Huh?” I asked. “Oh, you don’t remember? When you came to after the anesthesia, you were mumbling noodles with fish sauce.”

Vietnamese Noodles aka Thai Noodles slightly adapted from Myers + Chang Thai Ginger Chicken Salad, minus the chicken salad, from Bon Appetit September 2011

Ingredients

1 Thai chili, sliced thin

Juice of ½ lime

2 Tablespoon mirin

2 Tablespoon rice vinegar

¼ cup fish sauce

¼ cup sugar

2 teaspoon. ginger, chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

12 oz. rice stick noodles

4 oz. cubed tofu

4 springs cilantro, stems included, chopped

Directions

Put a large pot of salted water onto boil.

Whisk first 8 ingredients in a small bowl until sugar dissolves. Set dressing aside.

When the water boils, cook noodles until tender, but still firm to the bite, about 3 to 5 minutes. Drain; put in large bowl.

Add cubed tofu to the noodles, pour the dressing, toss to coat, then sprinkle with the chopped cilantro.

The Orange Kind

kosher vegetarian

All summer long, I’ve picked up my CSA box at the student union here on campus, emptied the box’s contents into a large canvas bag, handed the box back to the farmer, and carried my bagful of produce back to my office. I store the bag in the big fridge in the office kitchen – after removing August’s tomatoes and peaches, natch – and at the end of the day, I pack everything into my bike basket and head home. However, the past three weeks have shown the flaw in my system, and it has come in the form of melon.

Heavy melons, I have discovered, not only make my bike ride home a bit more challenging — a good thing for my daily exercise — but they have been bruising my soft summer fruits. These are not end-of-the-world tragedies. I’ve definitely still been able to enjoy my bruised peaches. I spooned a compote of rescued peach flesh, lime juice, cinnamon, brown sugar, vanilla and a cardamom pod on top of Greek yogurt for a delightful dessert on Sunday night, for instance. But it’s frustrating, nonetheless.

Still though, just a glance towards these melons makes me grimace, as I am reminded of the poor fate of my now- injured bounty. To atone for the destruction they have wrought, I feel I need to do more than just cut them up for a simple breakfast or mundane dessert.

I just love the word ramekin

Well, I’ve come up with a solution: melon sorbet. Without realizing it, I ended up reaching for the same flavors used in this beginning-of-summer sorbet. I swear I didn’t mean to plagiarize; ginger and citrus are just really versatile.

Melon Sorbet

In terms of prepping melon, I’ve discovered the most user-friendly way is to halve it and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Place a half cut side down on a cutting board, and, using a sharp serrated knife, cut the rough skin off, starting from the top and following the rounded contours of the fruit. I did cut up the whole melon for this dish, although I didn’t end up using all of it. You’ll use about 4 cups.

kosher vegetarian

Not pictured: A serrated knife

Ingredients

4 cups of melon, prepped and cut into chunks that will fit nicely into a blender

1 cup water

2/3 cup sugar

1 Tablespoon sliced ginger

Peel of 1 lime, plus juice of 1/2 lime

Directions

  1. In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar, ginger and lime peel. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer for 10 minutes. Once it has cooled some, place the saucepan and its contents in the refrigerator until completely chilled.
  2. Puree the melon in a blender. Place in refrigerator until completely chilled.
  3. When the puree and syrup have chilled, place the puree into your ice cream maker, strain the syrup into it and add the juice of half the lime.
  4. Pour the mixture into your ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Fire and Ice

Rocket pops awaiting lift-off. Houston, we have a problem...

I had a plan for this blog post, but life got in the way. It was, and still is, going to be about paletas, Mexican ice pops which, according to a trendologist (yes, that’s an actual job) I profiled last fall, are going to be the next big thing. I hadn’t thought much about them until my neighbor told me about a paletas cookbook she’d come across. I borrowed the book, found a recipe that I wanted to make and began composing my post. I’d even made the ice pops, photographed and served them, to good reviews, as dessert last Sunday night.

But after we bid adieu to our dinner guests and as Rich was in the kitchen cleaning up, I came across this story via Facebook. Our friend Brian Levinson, one of the most important people in the world to me, had been in a horrible fire at his apartment in Queens. He and his childhood friend Eric were (and still are) in the burn unit at New York-Presbyterian hospital.

So instead of writing this blog post, we went to sleep as well as we could, and then in the morning we set out for New York City. Rich had to go back to Boston that night, but I ended up staying the week. I’d been meaning to visit Brian and other friends in New York for vacation this summer, but this was obviously not what I’d had in mind.

Now, I don’t want to be a total downer about this. Brian was in excellent spirits when we got to him and throughout the week. He basically held court in the burn unit, to the mild annoyance of his nurses, who would have preferred if he’d kept his oxygen mask on instead of cracking wise. In his honor, I subbed on his trivia team at the weekly game at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg. Our team name: Fryin’ Levinson. (We won.)

Eventually Friday came around and it was time to start back to Boston. I thought about what I’d written so far for this blog post, but, in all due respect to trendology, it seemed a little trite. Everything seemed a little trite after seeing what my friend was going through. Feeling down, I ended up wandering into the Strand Book Store before catching my bus to Boston. I hadn’t been to the Strand in years, even though it was one of my regular haunts when I lived there. Old habits die hard, and without even thinking about it, I found myself in the cookbook section. And there, tucked into the dessert section, I came across the very same paletas cookbook I’d borrowed from my neighbor. I think it was the universe’s way of calling me back to work.

So get well, soon, Brian and Eric. If you want to help Eric, who is a circus performer and doesn’t have health insurance, check out this benefit event page.

Paletas de Aguacate: Avocado Ice Pops, from Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Shaved Ice & Aguas Frescas by Fany Gerson

Gerson, one of the country’s most authoritative voices on Mexican sweets, is the owner of La Newyorkina, a Mexican frozen treats and sweets business. When I first borrowed her book from my neighbor, I made note of a few pops that tickled my fancy: spicy pineapple; sour cream, cherry and tequila. But when I saw the recipe for the paletas de aguacate, or avocado ice pops, I knew they had to be made that afternoon.

The recipe is very easy: a mix of simple syrup, fresh lime juice and avocado, all whirled up in a blender. The result is more sweet than savory, which might surprise a lot of avocado lovers out there. While most of us in the United States associate avocado with tortilla chips, avocados also have a sweet side and appear in desserts such as avocado milkshakes in places like the Philippines.

This paleta is sweet, creamy and 100% vegan.

Ingredients

1 cup water

1/2 cup sugar

2 small ripe avocados

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

Directions

Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the mixture comes to a boil and the sugar has dissolved. Let cool to room temperature.

Cut the avocados in half lengthwise. Remove the pit and scoop the flesh into a blender, along with the cooled syrup and salt. Blend until smooth, scraping the sides as needed. Add the lime juice and blend until combined.

If using conventional molds, divide the mixture among the molds, snap on the lid, and freeze until solid, about 5 hours. If using glasses or other unconventional molds, freeze until the pops are beginning to set (1 1/2 to 2 hours), then insert the sticks and freeze until solid, 4 to 5 hours. If using an instant pop maker, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Gerson claims this makes 8 to 10 pops. It made 6 in my wacky rocket ship molds.

Blast off! Get well soon, Brian and Eric.