August 2009


Nothing beats a splash of lemon on a scorching hot day.  Instead of mixing up a whole pitcher, I keep a  jar of lemon syrup in the fridge (combine the sugar syrup and lemon juice, but don’t dilute with extra water).  That way I can make lemonade by the glassful for the kids, mix it with carbonated water for myself, or shake up a quick cocktail after bedtime.

Classic lemonade

Yield:  Serves 4.

1/2 c. granulated sugar

1/2 c. water (for dissolving sugar)

1/2 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 2 large lemons)

2 to 3 c. cold water

Combine sugar and 1/2 c. water in a small saucepan.  Warm over medium heat, stirring constantly, until sugar is just dissolved.  Allow to cool slightly.  Combine sugar syrup and lemon juice in a small pitcher, then dilute with cold water to taste.  Serve over ice.

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I’m not an impulsive person by nature, but take me to a farm stand in mid-August and I get as wide-eyed and flush-faced as another woman would stepping in front of a sale rack full of shoes.  Before my brain has caught up to my eyes I’m loading my basket with all manner of freshly-picked produce.  It’s not until I spread my haul out on the kitchen counter that I start thinking about what exactly I’m going to do with so many vegetables.

This weekend, it was a 10-lb. crate of glossy, red plum tomatoes — for $6! — that bewitched me.  The sturdy, relatively dry-fleshed plum varieties (Roma and San Marzano are two) are better for cooking than salads, so after two pizzas and a batch of oven-dried tomatoes, I turned the remaining 6 lbs. into sauce.

Making sauce from fresh tomatoes is a bit more work than making it from canned — you have to blanch and peel them first — but the results are ethereally light and sweet and well worth a bit of extra effort.

Fresh plum tomato and basil sauce

Yield:  Makes about 2 qts.

6 lbs. plum tomatoes (about 2 dozen big ones)

1/4 c. olive oil

1 yellow onion, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes (or more or less, to taste)

Two handfuls fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Using a sharp paring knife, score an X in the bottom of each tomato.  Blanch tomatoes in boiling water for about 90 seconds, then drain and immediately plunge into a large bowl of ice water.  Slip skins off tomatoes, peeling from the scored end toward the stem end.  Core and finely dice.

Warm a large pot over medium heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add onion.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened and just starting to color, about 8-10 minutes.  Add garlic, pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt.  Cook, stirring, for another minute or two.  Add diced tomatoes and another pinch of salt, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook gently for about 10 minutes, until tomatoes are soft and somewhat collapsed.  Stir in basil, season with black pepper and additional salt if necessary, and serve.

There are leafy greens aplenty at the farmers’ markets these days.  It’s a little surprising — I’ve always thought of kale, collards, and the like as cool weather crops, and cook them accordingly (that is, low and slow, with lots of bacon).  I suppose the unusually comfortable July we in the northeast enjoyed this year has something to do with the extended harvest.  Thanks, July!

Of course, now it’s August, and it’s swelteringly hot and humid, and — much as I love bacon — I am not in the mood to braise anything.  My mom made a raw kale slaw with carrots and peanuts recently (from the July issue of Martha Stewart Living, I believe) and raved about it (high praise indeed since, like daughter, Mom also likes a little kale with her bacon).  It did sound interesting, so I figured I’d try a nut-free version with the enormous bundle of curly kale I’d bought just before the weather turned on me.

Thank goodness for the heat wave, because the salad is a delicious discovery!  The key to working with raw kale is to slice or chop it as finely as possible, so it’s not tough to chew, and dress it with enough fat and acid (sunflower seeds and lemon juice work nicely) to balance its natural bitterness.  I used raw sunflower seeds, toasted in a skillet, rather than the roasted, salted variety because the latter is invariably roasted in peanut oil.  If nuts are not an issue in your family, you could substitute roasted seeds for raw and skip the toasting step; the dressing will not need added salt and may not need as much oil.

Kale slaw with toasted sunflower seed dressing

Yield:  Makes about 3 quarts

For dressing:

1/2 c. raw sunflower seeds

Scant 1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil

Juice of 1 small lemon (about 3 tbsp.)

2 tbsp. honey

2 tbsp. water

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

For slaw:

1 hefty bunch kale

1/2 small head red cabbage

Fine sea salt

1 red bell pepper, cored and diced

Make dressing:

Toast sunflower seeds in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, tossing or stirring occasionally until they start to color, then often until they are nicely browned and fragrant.  Be patient:  it may take up to 10 minutes to turn the greyish, bland seeds crunchy, nutty, and brown.  Transfer toasted seeds to a bowl and set aside to cool slightly.

Combine toasted seeds, oil, lemon juice, honey, water, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth and creamy.  Add a bit more water if dressing is too thick.

Make slaw:

Wash kale and pat dry.  Remove ribs from leaves and discard.  Stack leaves on a large cutting board and, using a large, sharp knife, cut into the thinnest strips possible.  Transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Core cabbage and cut into four wedges.  Thinly slice each wedge, crosswise.  Add to mixing bowl.

Sprinkle kale and cabbage lightly with salt.  Using your hands, work salt into vegetables.  The kale will soften, release a bit of water, and reduce in volume.  Toss with diced red pepper and dressing.  Adjust seasoning as needed.

Kale slaw will last a few days in the fridge, though I like it best the day it’s made.  Serve at room temperature or chilled (but not cold).

For fall, I think a diced apple or two and a handful of currants in place of the red pepper would be lovely.

There’s a Greek church in our neighborhood that has a biannual street festival so grand you can hear it clear across town and smell it from blocks away.  It’s a magnificent spectacle, and the food never disappoints:  spanakopita, moussaka, and souvlaki, of course, as well as orange-scented, country-style sausages called loukaniko and lamb roasted on a spit and sliced right onto your plate.

The festival invariably coincides with my mother-in-law’s birthday in the spring and my father-in-law’s in the fall, and we’ve come to associate the food of the eastern Meditteranean with celebrating special occasions.  So it came as no surprise when Andy requested Greek-style chicken kebobs, grilled vegetables, and rice pilaf for his birthday dinner this weekend.

No Greek feast in our house is complete without tsatziki, a simple yogurt and cucumber sauce that’s particularly good with a grilled dinner.  The secret to great tsatziki is to draw as much excess liquid out of the ingredients before combining them (watery tsatziki is a sorry sauce indeed!).  That means salting the cucumbers and using a thick, Greek-style yogurt.  If, like me, you’re hesitant to spend upwards of four dollars on a 16-ounce container of Fage, you can fake it: spoon your usual plain yogurt (any fat content will work — 2% is my preference) into a fine-meshed sieve lined with a coffee filter (use two or three, torn open, if your filters are small) and set over a bowl.  Let the yogurt strain in the fridge for an hour or two, until thick and creamy.  It will reduce about 1/3 in volume and triple in deliciousness.  Try not to eat it all before you make the sauce — especially if it’s for someone else’s birthday.

Tsatziki with dill and mint

Yield:  Makes a little more than 2 cups, plenty to accompany dinner for 6

2 c. plain, Greek yogurt (or use 3 c. regular yogurt, strained — see instructions, above)

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced

Kosher salt

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 1 tbsp.)

1 tbsp. finely chopped, fresh dill

1 tbsp. finely chopped, fresh mint leaves

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place diced cucumber in a colander in the sink.  Toss with a teaspoon or two of salt, and let stand for half an hour.  Drain well and pat dry with a towel.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, dill, mint, and a few grindings of pepper.  Pulse until finely chopped.  Add yogurt, and process until well-combined.  Adjust seasoning as needed.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Tsatziki keeps well in the fridge for 4-5 days — spoon off any liquid that’s risen to the top before serving.

What do I do with all these leftover herbs?

Make a marinade!  Whisk together the juice of  the remaining 1/2 lemon, a few tbsp. olive oil, a few lightly crushed garlic cloves, a few grindings of black pepper, and a handful of fresh mint and dill, finely chopped.  Cut 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or try lamb) into 2-inch cubes and toss with the marinade.  Cover and refrigerate for a few hours.  Thread onto 6 skewers, season with salt, and grill over medium heat (or broil) until cooked through.

Serve with grilled vegetables, rice, and, of course, tsatziki.