weather stirs memories of childhood summer meals, and three
recent cookbooks help bring those flavors and feelings up
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.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
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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.
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
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!
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..