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Tastes Like Summer
Hot weather stirs memories of childhood summer meals, and three recent cookbooks help bring those flavors and feelings up to date

By Laura Leon

In the midst of a muggy summer, I think back to the meals my mother prepared a generation ago on days like these. I remember her padding barefoot around the kitchen, tanned and sexy (even after nine pregnancies) in a 1940s-style one-piece bathing suit and a Lily Pulitzer cover-up. Her hair would be held back with a headband or scarf. She smelled of sunlight and baby oil. Our house, kept dark and shuttered in the summer months, was cool. Mom would deftly rinse lettuce leaves plucked from our garden, skin cucumbers and shuck ears of corn brought in that hour from my grandfather’s farm. In July and August we ate vegetarian meals, which she, a product of the hot South, believed refreshed your body temperature. Besides, it was cheaper.

Sometimes we ate dinner outside at the picnic table, but usually, to avoid the heat, we’d plop down at the kitchen table, a bouquet of garden flowers an incongruously elegant touch atop the plastic checkered tablecloth. At any rate, the food—bountiful salads, steaming corn on the cob, creamy frittatas or simple pastas, and sliced vegetables dressed with drizzles of olive oil and topped with roasted garlic and fresh herbs—tasted crisp and impossibly delicious. Oh, to bottle those memories . . .

My kitchen, which in colder seasons gives way to roasts, stews and the like, in summer fills up with vegetables—often too many vegetables, the price paid by being unable to negotiate hard judgments (now, how many meals are we cooking in the next four days?) at the local farmer’s market. While nothing beats the simple goodness of, say, a gorgeously ripe tomato, sliced and served with good-quality olive oil, a dash of kosher salt and a sprig of fresh basil, the “mom” in me longs for meals that have a traditional center point, which doesn’t necessarily have to be meat or fish. So I’m constantly on the lookout for inspiration, a search that has lead me to some interesting summer-related cookbooks.

Take, for example, last summer’s Forever Summer, by Nigella Lawson, a handsome hardback that features exquisite color photographs, including shots of Lawson cupping bulbous vine-ripened tomatoes at her ample bosoms, naughtily nibbling on a hunk of what looks like fried fish, or lapping her pink, cream-dappled tongue at an equally pink- and pearl-colored ice cream cone. Lawson has taken the food TV nation by storm, with a chatty, blowsy style that seems tailor-made to appeal to the same people who are cowed by the brisk efficiency and can-do attitude of Martha Stewart. Indeed, Lawson studs nearly every recipe with statements assuring her readers that they can make changes at will. “You don’t have to serve this . . .” she writes, referring to spiced pink soup, and I can’t help but think, “Of course I don’t have to, Nigella,” but Lawson’s readers and viewers seem to take great comfort in getting such permission. Occasionally, however, even the domestic goddess can turn brusque, as when she writes, “You can fry or broil these eggplant or just blitz them in the heat of the grill: I really don’t care.”

In Forever Summer, Lawson chattily invokes not necessarily July and August but warmer climates whose food can be enjoyed or whose ideal can be daydreamed about throughout the year. Her philosophy: “I shop and cook much as I eat, with greedy opportunism.” Indeed, throughout the book one can’t help but notice the superlatives she uses to describe nearly everything. Recipes must fill her with “impatient, evangelical enthusiasm” before she shares them with her readers. In what I’d bet is a first for cookbooks anywhere, the word “twee,” in many variations, figures strongly here, as does “fiddly,” her word for anything that requires a modicum of preparation. For example, she describes the crostini del mare, baguette slices topped with chopped mussels, clams and herbs, as follows: “And yes, they’re fiddly, but so very, very good.” Five pages later she writes about salt-cod fritters: “I can’t pretend these aren’t fiddly to make, but they aren’t hard.” And, “Fiddly they [rice paper rolls] may be, but I think they must be one of the easiest recipes to make in the whole book.”

Thankfully much more to the point is High Heat, which also came out late last summer, by Waldy Malouf, an early advocate of using high cooking temperatures, along with an enhancement of rubs, herbs and spices, to bring out the most delicious and fundamental flavors of any food. Unlike Lawson, whose cookbooks are primarily about her, Malouf accompanies each recipe with a straightforward, informative-yet-brief description that often dispels an initial misgiving about a potential ingredient pairing. For instance, he explains his roasted butternut squash and pear soup as follows: “Although you might think that the pear, squash, and crystallized ginger would make for a pretty sweet soup, dry white wine and spicy fresh ginger temper this tendency. Instead the flavors are savory and mellow with a hint of spices, while the garnish of candied ginger adds just the right spark.” This sort of discussion engages the reader/cook much more so than, say, Lawson’s declaration that she “recently emerged from a complicated and long-standing love-hate relationship with eggplant.”

Malouf, assisted by the able food writer Melissa Clark, recognizes that some readers might prefer oven roasting to grilling, for whatever reason, and so he has provided in each recipe the method to do both. He does not, apparently, feel any need to emphasize that readers do not need permission to make their own choices in the matter. Whereas Lawson often utilizes fanciful-sounding ingredients like sultanas (raisins) and encourages her readers to find a good fishmonger, Malouf tends to stick to ingredients more readily available. Tarragon vinegar (used in roasted chicken with tomato and tarragon) and globe artichokes (stuffed with pine nuts, herbs and garlic) are among the more exotic foodstuffs listed. Recipes like chicken with grainy mustard, almonds and thyme, or striped bass with oregano and verjus, and spicy potato salad with sweet and hot peppers, have a purity and intensity that make you linger over the summer table, savoring every morsel.

And then there’s Fresh Food Fast: Delicious, Seasonal Vegetarian Meals in Under an Hour, which was written by Peter Berley with the assistance of the presumably busy Melissa Clark. Too often, I’ve found vegetarian cookbooks to be sensually unappealing and either philosophically self-righteous or bereft of any of the joy that should come through cooking and eating: “I am now going to sit at my humble table and think pious thoughts, while I eat brown bread and lentils.” Berley brings a very welcome approach to vegetarian cooking, especially summer cooking. Maybe it’s the way he separates each season into a series of menus, offering for summer appealing pairings like Asian cucumber salad with Thai-style tofu and vegetables in spicy coconut broth with jasmine rice; or bruschetta with goat cheese, olives, tomatoes and thyme with lentil and corn salad with sweet peppers and coriander. Just reading these words makes my mouth water, and sends my fingers searching for pad and pencil in order to scratch a grocery list. The book, which features glorious photography, handy market and equipment lists and remarkably simple game plans, is among the easiest and already one of the most used cookbooks in my kitchen library.

Since purchasing the book recently, I’ve cooked my family several of Berley’s summer menus, including black bean and zucchini quesadillas with chilled cucumber soup with mint; cucumber salad with spicy corn frittata with tomatoes and scallions; cracked wheat with tempeh ratatouille; and whole grain pasta with salsa cruda and white-bean-and-arugula salad with lemon dill vinaigrette. Aside from a lot of chopping and dicing, these meals came together with such simplicity, and satisfied mind and spirit. Even my middle son, the one we have had to bribe to try fruits and vegetables, devoured these dinners without any prompting.

Let’s face it, cookbooks—vegetarian or otherwise—are sort of like porn for those, like me, who are obsessed with great food and cooking, so pictures and photographs and just plain good writing are essential to the experience. Cookbooks aren’t just about translating a recipe to table; they’re just as much about providing a platform for thought, daydreaming and brainstorming. They contain ideas (aka recipes) one can mull over, then and throughout the day, until it’s time to hit pan to flame and get the meal done, when, hopefully, you’re freed up mentally and creatively to take what you’re read and go with confidence. This is a primal urge throughout the year, but in summer, it’s truly essential. And its what makes High Heat and Fresh Food Fast such handy companions not just for evoking, but actually creating sensations like those remembered from my mother’s summer kitchen.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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