Monday, June 30, 2008

A Hail. A Farewell.

Afternoon, pals. It feels like a good time to collect my thoughts on some good folks.

Firstly, Tim Russert. I feel a little lost without him. I was in love with the idea that political information was brought into our home by a truly good person and a dedicated, generally objective journalist (J- that is not an oxymoron.). He will be missed deeply far and wide, including right here at Blushing Hostess.

Secondly, Scotty Schwartz. I don't know this guy from a hole in the wall but I love the man shamelessly. Who is that guy? What's he been doing with his life? You're wondering, possibly.

This is Chef Schwartz's little haven in an old beachy town, Fernandina Beach, Florida. 29 South, where they have at length searched for local green farms with whom to partner, where they keep family businesses in business, and not least of all, where they cure their own meats. Now, I know what you're thinking: I love the guy because he can cure meat since I am still digging out of the embarrassing, nearly blog-ending adventure with The Brisket That Would Not Die. No. He's not some kind of mystic to me (ah, okay, maybe a little), he's just one of the good guys.

I don't care who you are, if you put a whole restaurant staff into cars every Monday and send them all over the Southeast to pick up nearly-retail priced family produced food and you write all their names on the menu of the best restaurant in a good section of the world thus sending them more business, and if you then so lovingly attend every piece of food you serve as though it were your own child and still have time to support the slow food movement, you are in good with me. And tomorrow, I will totally get over all the tomato skins in the shrimp and grits which is really the only downside I can see to this guy, his restaurant, his food, and his thinking.

Eat Scotty Schwartz's food: Good, and good for families. But make a reservation, when you're a good guy, people follow.

I am pleased to welcome 29 South to Blushing Hideouts list of reccomendations.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bread and butter

Join us today at Blushing Hostess Entertains as we cover the manners and service of bread and butter.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Spring's last breath

Spring is through. I always wish I could push back the doors on that season. I am never sorry to see winter collapsing into the ground before me, always relieved to know a new start is on the way. Is it ever hard to see your new start heading south, huh? All of a sudden, we are in full-bore vegetable crop maintenance, bargaining with the Gods of good green growth to end the eight kinds of pestilence we have already fought since the planting started, and wishing like hell we could hang on to everything about spring: The smell of young, newly cut grass. The nip in the air as you tuck your jacket close to your neck in the evening, knowing full well it may be the last time for a while that you will be in need of a coat. And lingering on the bridle paths of our precious North Salem just taking in the lush haziness of the beginning of another perfect New York summer.

Before it slips through my fingers once again, I need to retreat with you back to this past March when I wrote about the frustration of having no young Vidalia onions in our northern stores, and the disappointment I found in not being able to recreate the recipe for braised spring Vidalia in The Gift of Southern Cooking.

This is to advise you I found the onions, unbelieveably, in the last breath of spring at the local farmer's market. When I saw them, I was pleased and a little sad. I knew I would only get to do this once this year as the onions came an went in a late spring breeze. It had better be an onion dish to end all onion dishes. That, and it is Miss Edna's recipe after all, I do not want to fail her even now so long after she has departed.

I should tell you now what I should have before. The truth is, I don't really dig onions as a dish (creamed pearl onions having done me in at age five). You will get no argument from me on the importance of the onion in bases and for flavor. If I was to come to like them at all, I knew this had to be left to a simple but masterful cook who really understood the ingredient in order to make it great. I have never been disappointed in Miss Edna's leadership. Alas, only in the complete lack of of ability to get my hands on her ingredient list at times.

You are hoping for my recipe card, maybe? The best advice I can give is to buy the book. It will last you longer, serve you better, and touch you deeply more often than any other book on your cooking shelf.

When you do get it, you might like to scribble in the margin of the recipe that a touch more butter and 1 tablespoon (give or take) finely minced fresh sage make the dish transcendent. What a fool I've been. I love onion dishes. I would eat these every day. Twice.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Betrayal. Blackmail. Extortion: A test of survival skills

My friend Dan is the kind of guy who has a sign only visible to lunatics, maniacs, and aliens which I surmise must read something like, "Say anything to me and I will understand." People approach him and interact with him in unusual ways. I might even say batty, daffy, and bizarre. He accepts everyone and strangers feel comfortable letting it all hang out around him. It is uncanny.

I have long admired Dan for his big-hearted goodness. This universal understanding of every brand of winner and loon is not in my personality profile. I have watched him and tried, as he does, to respond to every remark with generosity and with a diffusing yet still careful sense of humor. But if someone said they wanted to take me home, wrap me in a blanket, and feed me legumes, I would not know the noble road. I would not have the joke. But Dan. Had he been at dinner...

At an old but upscale sea-side shack at the beach, a man sat down at the table behind us. I noticed him because he looked a bit harried. Also, his hair was dyed a dark color unnatural even for his dark complexion. Men who dye their hair are concerning. I observed these things in the way a person does who would forget them as fast as they noted them and never think of them again. However, he was not through with his first impression.

It wasn't long before the man turned around to our table and interrupted our conversation forcefully and with a thick but discernible accent, demanded of anyone who would answer, "How do you spell 'betrayed'?" I was stunned for a moment. Imagine all the questions a gentleman turning to another table in a restaurant might ask. If there is a list somewhere, how to spell something must be Number 38,000. And how to spell that word in particular, must be 62,000.

Someone at the table piped up, spelled it, and all of us, eyes quizzically moving from one person to the next for their expression, returned to our meal.

It was not long before the man behind us was having a conversation with his server. It became apparent he was asking her to define betrayal for her. Moving on, they landed on a new word he might be describing, "Oh," she said cheerfully, "You mean like blackmail. Okay, yeah, I'll spell it for you."

So when the same man turned back to our table again, I said more loudly than I should have maybe, "If your next question is how to spell 'AK-47' then you can turn back around."

I am eating lobster on a summer day with a table of people I adore. Would you? Could you? Keep your crazy to yourself? And BTW, asking for help with extortion via text message, even if you are heartbroken, is a pretty big leap of faith even if Dan is sitting behind you. What should I say? "Move over, you are not spelling that correctly. I'll do it. 'Betrayed' and 'Or else' should be followed by exclamation points or no one will take you seriously."

Look, it's like this. If you need to blackmail someone, chances are the signs you were on a weedy and inadvisable path were a-ways back and the situation is now singular enough to transcend spelling. This is so far past small talk. There is little an adept hostess can do to be helpful. Well, there is always one thing. Why not have a very stiff drink while we wait for the SWAT team?

1 cocktail, in a tall old fashioned glass

2 teaspoons granulated sugar
4 lime wedges
2 1/2 oz cachaca

Muddle the sugar into the lime wedges in an old-fashioned glass.
Fill the glass with ice cubes. Pour the cachaca into the glass. Stir well.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Pieces of ourselves

There is an old tradition regarding dishes brought to your home with gifts of food and how they are to be returned. I don't pretend to know where it originated but I was recently reminded of this, one of my favorite giving traditions, when our neighbors came for dinner and brought over some gorgeous caramel tarts the lady of the house had made.

Time is in such short supply for many now that they have handed their domestic skills off to Dinner Done!, Merry Maids, and the corner laundry. Consequently, it never goes without notice when a guest has made something themselves. I sigh just a little when desserts are produced from a Harris Teeter bag. Not because I don't understand, because I miss your Pumpkin Bread, or your Mama's shortcake, Grandpa's zinnia's, or Tommy's wind-knot bracelets. I wish for both of us the days when you could labor over something which brought so many smiles could return for you. Slogging away on the corporate ladder is necessary for reasons far beyond livelihood, but the thing you created with your hands is no less necessary or rewarding. Too often balances are off-struck and we cannot force our days to realize accomplishment in all the areas in which we feel talented and rewarded. Now we have an opportunity, nearly a responsibility, to turn that around.

The neighbor I mentioned, she is a talented artist, baker, and neighbor. She and her husband are are salt of the earth, the kind who will knock on your door at 2 am if they hear something concerning. Two other neighbors are gifted gardeners, especially with fruit trees. They can also renovate rooms of their home on their own and be good friends too, the kind who cut your grass when you need a hand, and the kind who bring you baskets of lovingly grown fruit from their own garden. In one glorious week, my kind neighbors brought pastry and show-stopping beautiful mountains of fresh fruit. I don't know what I did to deserve any of these gifted and skilled friends, but I know I am the lucky one in the deal and I am not taking any chances.

We ate the caramel tart. It was a lovely afternoon snack with tea or formula (in the baby's case). And like a hot wind through the kitchen, the fruit was preserved two days later in an effort to hold on to the vibrancy of its color and the gifts of this bright season.

Receiving and enjoying these things was made so much more perfect because lovely people had put their personal stamp on them. This got me in thinking about returning things (baskets and dishes in this case). And the tradition of never returning a vessel empty.

Sometimes, if there has been a funeral or a shower and dishes have been tagged with names on the underside (the only circumstance in which it is good manners to turn a plate over), returning a dish full may seem an overwhelming task. Trust me, it will be a good distraction in either event. Look, you need not hand yourself off to the zany-plan leprechaun on your left shoulder who has you baking twelve quick breads to place in wrapping color-coordinated to the dishes. Come on back to me, Dinner Party Host. Let's take a deep breath together.

Think of the things you do well, the things you prize, then translate: If you have a way with tea roses, put each one in a flower tip, tie a ribbon around it and place it in the pan with a note no bigger than a business card. It might read, "Bit of cheer for you. With many thanks..." You choose elegant stationary and have artful handwriting, send me a note. I save all the actual hand-written cards I get, they have become too few. A few of your Grandmothers precious spice cookies in simple parchment with a note in each dish would be a nice touch. Some piece of yourself should travel with the dish. So look for yourself now and figure it out before you are pressed.

Think that dish does not mean much to a friend? On the day of my Grandfather's funeral, one of my Grandparent's oldest friends approached my parents and asked if she could have one of Grandmother's dinner plates to keep (she preceded him to the grave). My mind went to some painful place at that moment: In short order, tears would surely still roll down our cheeks as the last of my Grandparents worldly possessions were packed and passed on to my parents.

Before my thoughts could complete the painful Why? question working it's way to the fore, she said she had a plate from each of her friends who had passed away. She hung them above the kitchen table in her home so she would know some part of their worlds, their kitchens, their history as friends, mothers, and wives would always be there to warm her and her family. She knew all the plate patterns by heart because she had many times returned them home with a bit of pie or a few slices of cake to thank her guests for being a generous friend.

So, you ask, what was in the dishes I returned? Buttercream cake with lemon filling for my baking neighbor, and the Greyston Bakery's Earl Grey Tea Cake for the gardeners who grew the fruit which went into the cake. From my talents to theirs with my great thanks.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Change is affirming

I have a confession to make. I drive a good many of my friends straight up the wall because I don't dig Italian restaurants, per se. Before you suffocate me in a red, green, and white tablecloth, hold on. Geez. Let me explain.

There are a few really authentic Italian places around lately in which I turn up. Also, there are and have been a few swank joints I can stomach, no issue: Campanga, Da Silvano, and Babbo to name a few. Generally, they are run by people from, or trained in, places like Campanga, Florence, whathaveyou, and run by people with names steeped in the more authentic American-Italian food experience like Bastianch and Batali.

That said, if you mean to slap a mealy piece of parm on my plate and with a new Chianti and call that my dinner, you will find my chair vacant and the drapes at the back of the dining room dancing in the breeze next to an open window. Call me at Fiamma, I was probably hungry, but not hungry enough to eat cardboard and sand.

This became the situation after I began traveling to Italy and discovered, to my initial confusion, the stuff they fed us at John's Best was not the Italian food of Italian people in Italy. It was better, fresher, and far more varied in style and influence than repetitive Little Italy menus ever revealed. I never looked back.

It was then that I gave up chicken parm (not a deep struggle). I also axed several similar preparations known to be French (Paillard) and German (Schnitzel). Now you know it was not limited to Italian restaurants. They were fried, sickeningly thick, and bland. Enough was enough.

However, Robin Miller caused me to rethink my parm position when she wrote this recipe. I can't get behind her on coating anything in oats not for love or good health. But let's face it: When she replaced the flour and egg dips with a brush of fruit preserves as a stick surface, the woman became a genius. Lighter, freshly flavored, but still crunchy, my, that was nifty. But, a little on the pedestrian side for this household, I'm afraid. We need big punch in the flavor. Not even the corgi will eat something not properly seasoned.

I have undone and redone her here but I think the sauce gribeche-like accompaniment saves any remaining potential the cutlet could taste like cardboard. Look, I won't take chances with dinner: Slap it with a sauce finished with a tiny bit of fat and you've got the dinner equivalent of a bet on Secretariat.

Crunchy Orange Spiked Chicken with Orange Rice Wine Reduction
Adapted from this Robin Miller recipe
Serves 4

This dish went to the table this evening with couscous studded with toasted almonds and tiny pieces of dried apricot. Along side was a light salad of mache with the stand-by shallot Dijon vinaigrette (stay tuned).

You can place these cutlets on a cake cooling rack to bake them and they will be more crispy (a cooking method I prefer for anything crusted and baked). Though, they may arguably also be a tad drier.

For the cutlets:
1 cup seasoned bread crumbs, preferably fresh
4 large boneless chicken breast halves, (split if they are not already)
1/2 cup orange marmalade
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly spray a baking sheet with canola oil.
Place the bread crumbs in a shallow bowl and place them next to your poultry cutting board.

Trim away any remaining fat. Working with one cutlet at a time and using a spoon, coat each cutlet in marmalade thoroughly (if you have some thicknesses of jelly or rind, it is fine) and then coat thoroughly in bread crumbs, placing each completed cutlet on the oiled sheet. Season lightly with salt and pepper on the upside.

Bake for 20 minutes. If you like them to be golden and crunchy, once they are cooked, place each side under the broiler until they are golden.

Orange Rice-Wine Reduction
1/2 cup orange juice, preferably freshly squeezed
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1 tbls. honey, more to taste
1/2 tsp. butter

Into a small heavy sauce pan over medium heat, place the orange juice and rice wine vinegar. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to low and cook until the mixture is reduced by half, About eight minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the honey and stir quickly until the honey is dissolved. Taste. If you prefer the sauce sweeter, add more honey. Once you are satisfied with the flavor, add the butter and stir until melted and completely combined.

To serve:
Slice your chicken cutlets horizontally into bite-sized pieces and fan on your serving platter. Spoon a very light drizzle of the sauce over the center of each piece. Place remaining sauce in a vessel and serve with a sauce spoon along side the chicken.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The end of the evening

In my mind there is a dossier in regard to how every room a home in should look and feel. The dim light of an immaculately clean kitchen in the evening and the low hum of the dishwasher running may be my most favorite bastion of orderliness.

That is the low light of perfection for the part of me that is a cook and hostess. If I roll back over the importance of all the gleaming dark kitchens in our past, it has to do with watching my Mother, Grandmother, and the uunforgettable hostess Katherine Gottsegen (author of Cooking is an Act of Love, neighbor, mentor, friend to a curious young hostess-in-training), sailing through the hostess' myriad tasks and finishing victorious: Every guest glowing. The last click of their pumps against the floor came as they checked the silver service was cared for and there were no remaining dishes. Skirts swishing behind them, the dim light signaled the hostess duties had concluded. It never occurred to me it also meant the party was over: All I knew was that they had perfected another evening. More on this over at Entertains, I promise.

There has long been a respected rule about organization with regard to kitchen clean up in our home: The chef's knife, once cleaned, is left on top of the cutting board at the center of the kitchen island. While it is common to see such a gesture between apprentices and master chefs at the beginning of prep or mise en place (oringinally a French prep concept of all things in their place which deems a kitchen ready to cook: Everything washed, cut diced, sliced, butchered, and placed in the order in which the chef moves - to oversimplify.) it may not happen often at home.

My husband watched that knife wielded with love (and at other times every other emotion a person feels who returns to a place to ease something inside themselves), went into the kitchen late at night over the years. He always picks up that heavy piece of carbon steel and moves it back to the waiting board. That gesture has always been important to me. It makes me feel everything is in place and I can begin anew. It completes the restoration of my santuary every evening. The smallest of gestures speak the loudest, no?

Make this with your knife. It is far and away one of the simplest salads or dips you will ever put on a table but is has been the most beloved by our family since I discovered it.

Avocado Salad
Serves 4 as a salad course, 10 as a dip

If the corn grilling step is too much, I assure you that it will bring as much joy with raw or left over corn cut from the cob, even 1 cup of canned corn. But if you can, pick perfect summer fresh and ripe items for your first try so you understand how perfect this easy combination is.

2 ears corn
Kosher salt and feshly ground black pepper
2 ripe avocados, peeled, pitted and diced
1/2 red onion finely diced
1 lime, juiced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Place husked and cleaned corn directly on a medium flame grill for 8 minutes on two sides (sif you will). Remove from the grill and cut the kernels off of the cob. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Serve as you wish.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Here's where I cry just a little

I had the best intentions of posting a lovely almond cookie recipe today which has been ready to go for a while and mentioning the bitterness surrounding the dearth of toasted coconut almond fudge gelato everywhere. There is a world-wide cost crisis with almonds, one foodie told me. No way. Is it just the almonds, Mrs. Clueless, or are lots of people struggling to put food on the table and gas in their SUV's at the same time? Surely not! Pish-aw, we'll muddle through! It's just an almond crisis.

I will tell you about the cookie as planned. You're not just here for me to wax nostalgic about some guy who might have cancer, right? Even if he is the best kind of guy?

Now, the cookie. A guy sitting to my right at Esca in New York one evening turned out to be a foodie devoted to Chef Batali. He whipped out an impossibly slim and glamourous writing utensil and, in perfect architectural block print, wrote down a recipe on his cocktail napkin. He handed it to me, placed his pen back in the breast pocket of his Hugo Boss and left (to return to the Bat Cave). That guy was nuts or else Mario Batali is. It was a recipe worthy of the Blue Willow Inn Cookbook: Not meant to make food. Meant to drive you into an asylum. It went something like this: Grind the almonds, add very little butter and sugar. Mix, bake, and proceed to the medication line. Won't work, I don't care what Bat Man says. At least he was accurate. I found the cookie recipe on the internet credited to the Chef. It's not looking good for the chef's sanity: Ever eat dry sand? Here's your chance.

The recipe below will work like a charm however, and you'll be out of the kitchen in a shake. You'll need some almonds to grind down to flour or some almond flour. Go to Trader Joes or an organic store or the nut isle of the supermarket and grind it down, takes a second. Or don't. I am preoccupied and cannot possibly find a way to creatively mention the health benefits of almonds at the moment. Or to discuss how very wise hostesses make sure the baked goods go into the oven as late in the day as possible before hosting a dinner party, to allow the scent of fresh pastry to waft through the air when the front doors are opened to guests. Look, I can't. Another time.

I am itching to shift gears here.

Paul Newman is a good man. Maybe the best. Yesterday it slipped out that he has an undisclosed cancer. Here is a real Bat Man. A guy who saved the world for you and I and we hardly knew it. He was an organic-food-for-children philanthropist before it became popular. This man built farms, huge, green, happy affairs for stricken kids. He gave more money than most will ever dream of to charity. He made more, he gave that away too. The arts, the kids, the athletes, I tell you, he touched millions of lives far apart from his movies. He and Joanne Woodward make more difference in one day than most do in three lifetimes.

It'll be great if we can make one for him. Hope for him in whatever language or faith you know that he'll live on to do what only he can. I know he can't be spared forever, none of us can. But if there can be a hold out, Paul Newman should be it.

I was seven years old when I met him for the first time. At our stables' first horse show under his ownership. He and his family are good horse people, but they are even better humans. I am certain the prayers of the horse community and the food community (he owns Dressing Room, in Westport, "Our Mission: We believe that the food we grow and cook -- in the place that we call home-- defines who we are.") are with him tonight. Send yours too, will you?

Not Mario Batali's Almond Cookie
Bastardized from this Mario Batali recipe, sadly
For Paul Newman
Makes 2 dozen cookies

1/4 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, very softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup almond flour, or the same amount made by processing almonds into flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten soundly
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Garnish: a few slivered almonds on top just before baking

If you are using whole almonds, put them in the food processor and pulse them down until it becomes like a powdery sand.

Then you get a bowl, medium is fine, or use your stand mixer, but really, if your butter is very soft, you needn't. Into the bowl place the stick of butter, sugar, almond flour, salt, and the beaten egg. Use a wooden spoon or the like (or your stand mixer, if you really must), to mix all of these ingredients to smooth, it will take about 2 minutes, be patient, it is a thick dough. Add the extracts and stir again just to combine. Put the bowl in the fridge overnight to allow the butter to firm up again.

The next day, preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly spray two cookie sheets, non-stick is best (spray them anyway). Bake for about twelve minutes, until the sides of the cookies are just golden and the tops set. Cool ten minutes on the baking sheet, remove with a spatula to a cooling rack or large platter, eat as soon as you can handle. Or, wait, if you must.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


This morning, when coffee and the New York Times hit my place at the table I was relieved for more than just the jolting dose of caffeine: The Dining Out section of the Times includes a subject which will become more important to every home soon, if it has not already. As you know, we prefer to "discuss" and "suggest" here at Blushing Hostess, it is preferable to lecturing. Vegetables growing in every yard is our double-dog secret goal on this blog, second only to the recipes to support your crop.

That probably does not surprise you as there are more subliminal messages about growing your own food here than product punches in Talladega Nights. We have been committed to this sort of growing (and African Violets) for generations as a family. There are small and large food yielding operations at all of our family homes: Some of us are variety growers, some herb and greens, some still thinking their preferences through.

I would like to tell you this is a wholly organic pursuit: This growing for our families and those of others who need the produce. But recently, two of the patches in question were crippled by dire pestilence and the experts hereabouts nixed my organic growing initiative: Higher yields mean more food. That will make a difference to another person down the line possibly. Consequently, we fought blight here with the chemical equivalent of nukes last week. Most of the plants are beginning to crawl back now. Unfortunately, the kales and lettuces are history but we've time there to begin again. The point is, grow food. Use chemicals if you truly must but be sure they are the sort that can be removed, not the sort that alter the plant from the outside all the way in.

In school when I was a child, Mrs. Finnegan had us place seeds in Dixie cups with a bit of soil from the school yard and a hole in the bottom for drainage. We placed our cups on the sunny window sill in the classroom and watered those seeds dutifully each day. It was amazing how quickly and surely they grew. Considering the amount of stuff Home Depot would have you believe you need to buy in order to get a seed to grow and flourish, it is even more impressive! Home Depot was not even a glimmer to the credit card companies then.

It will take a bit of effort, true. It will take next to no money to get a small patch started for yourself though. You can buy seedling plants (and for tomatoes, you should, they are really difficult to start) or go a less expensive route and buy seeds. Or, go an even less trod path and develop your own seed collection: Having squash for dinner (cheap and easy, try it)? Save the seeds you scoop from the centers, clean them off a bit, place them on a baking sheet, and leave them in the sun for a few days. Now you can start your own seed company. Don't say I never gave you business advice.

Don't believe me? I am still conducting this experiment because it is easy (I'm busy) and straightforward (little cups can be found everywhere) and because I need to prove it to you in order to be encouraging. You can do this, okay? Please try for me, it's about getting good green food into little bellies, and that should be Job 1.

Start small, a border garden, possibly. These are squash borders, rather than flowers. Vibrant, yes?

This is dinner.
Now, take a break. Go to Starbucks and get yourself a latte (I like skinny hazelnut) and look in the basket at the front of the store. They give out their used coffee grinds as fertilizer for free. Now your garden is fertilized, for free. Turn your free grounds into the soil. Water daily. Watch your dinner grow.

If you are really on the ball, you can compost all organically occurring kitchen waste (egg shells, coffee grinds, vegetable peels, etc.) into a pile in a corner of the garden. Allow it to decompose for a season and them pull it down and turn it into the ground as well.

I am finished discussing for today. Keep the Host and I apprised of your food growing progress.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Hostess first, citizen second

I wish I could tell you there has been little excitement afoot and therefore, I have had no reason to bounce about my part-time neighborhood like a cleaning, landscaping, entertaining butterfly. But one thing, in the world of a feverent and slightly neurotic hostess, always leads to another and there is forever another moment when I am in grave jeopardy of going from The Hostess to That Hostess.

It has happened again. Look, I am no pretender to Martha's throne. I set out to tell you the way it really is in gracious homes. And I think you understand now, between my lectures and the kind interludes of The Dashing Host from over by the blender, that it is a lot more ironic, preposterous, boozy, and amusing than Martha has allowed you to believe. I hope you can actually see the enormity of the potential silliness in the domestic operation of a well-appointed home. I hope all that helps you, in some small way, to appreciate what happened Friday afternoon and not to hold it against me. This blog occurs with a purity of soul, and it is that same purity which helps to me be a good, if somewhat focused and inadvertent, neighbor.

For sometime I have been grousing about the condition of lawns. Not to you, but in general, you see. Weedy, over-grown, senselessly marginalized pieces of greenspace are on my list of most aggravating visual circumstances. Indeed, right here in our fine neighborhood, we have one of those crazy houses which looks not unlike a modern adaptation on the haunted houses of old black and white movies: Only sparse patches of grass here and there and always untamed dot a small yard which once held careful plantings inside borders, all of which the earth is reclaiming at an alarming rate. This ratty space is punctuated with the occasional shrub allowed to roam out of control into bushy masses the landscaping equivalent of Rorschach figures. If I were the one to whom this landscape test is being administered, I would guess the full effect of the yard was meant to be an abstract comment on one person's best guess at what the garden in front of Satan's house looks like: Welcome to hell, ya'll.

My landscaper and I have been focused on this den of yard-keeping iniquity for a while now. We stand on my lawn, talk about the health of the grass and eventually our glances stray towards that yard across the way. We speculate on how things go down hill, "Something must be going on, keeping them from it." He says. "I hope she's alright," I say, assuming the young lady of the house must be in significant distress to allow the yard to creep into devilishness that way. I make a mental note to offer to help if I see her about and hop back to the window washing. That pattern continued for a couple of weeks. Until Friday.

It was then that I was getting the baby into the car to buzz over to the beach when, with no warning what-so-ever a woman (tall, comely, not unpleasant to behold) walked with great determination up the drive. Down on the road, a white truck followed her from drive to drive. I assumed, with great annoyance, that she was soliciting for my money or soul, neither of which is welcome here, on Friday or any other day.

She was not; she was a reporter from the evening news she said and showed me her identification. I asked what I could do for her. "Just wondering," she said with some tentative ring to her voice, "if you wanted to comment for the news on your neighbor being arrested?"

"Good Lord!" I exclaimed. Mostly, because I am from Bedford and people go up for white collar tax crimes there left and right but it would be tasteless to get hauled in on a real criminal matter. Unacceptable! I thought to myself. "Who was arrested?"

She gave the name and then pointed at the home. The House of Satan's Fern Garden.

"Oh!" I exclaimed once again and before I was able to stop myself, "I just wish she would mow her lawn!" tumbled past my teeth and out into the air.

My first concern should have been for whomever the devil-gardening thief had victimized now! I should certainly have been a bit less focused on her lack of home-keeping and hostessing abilities and exercised a bit more empathetic and civil mindfulness. Not the case, I am afraid.

Indeed, I leapt into the car and began calling everyone. Relived, on the one hand, that the aesthetic offender was identified and quickly rounded up into lock up where she hopefully will not be the one charged with tending the prison's kitchen garden. And disturbed on the second hand, after all, now what was to become of that unyielding patch of horticultural agony?

Oh, dear. It was not until much later in the day that I discovered what the indictments are for. They have nothing to do with gardening (the Homeowner's Association seemingly having a good deal less pull with the local law-making bodies than I assumed).

It is so much like Bedford here in so many comforting ways. Dealings with the law can still be just as civilized. Why, I can hear Dori's voice ringing now, "Federal agents executing a warrant next door. I'll get the cocktails!"

Here is a heart healthy salad (for the bloggers at Heart of the Matter) to go with crow, if you happen to be dining on the same meal I am:

Fresh Field Pea and Brown Rice Salad with Chile Pasilla Vinaigrette
Serves 6

For the salad:
3 cups fresh field peas
4 cups water 2 cups brown rice, cooked
1 cup cojita cheese, crumbled
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

In a wide deep skillet over medium heat,, place field peas and water. Season with salt and pepper, and cover. Cook about half an hour or until peas are softened when tasted. Drain the mixture off in a colander with small holes or a large strainer. Place in your serving bowl, toss with cooked brown rice and crumbled cojita cheese.

For the Chile Pasilla Vinaigrette:
1 dried chile pasilla, soaked in a cup of boiling water for 5 minutes
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon oregano
6 juniper berries, crushed
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

Remove the stem and seeds of the chile. Chop the chile roughly and place in the small bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic, oregano, juniper berries and pulse until combined and only a few small pieces remain. Add the vinegar and mustard and process again until the mixture is smooth. Add the honey and quickly pulse to combine. Taste, add more honey to your taste and season with salt and pepper.

To assemble: Pour the vinaigrette over the tossed salad and combine. Serve warm or, even better, chilled. Garnish with a bit more crumbled cojita and fresh oregano.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Ghosts in the pesto

A short and bouncy tale from the Land of Before (aka, New York City, 2006):

Two years ago in Manhattan, on a 100 degree summer evening when the buildings seemed to become oases and then melt before us, Dori, Rebecca, and I were on a food trek. These things start and end with no plans. But you see, they have never failed to yield some of the Greats in our food pursuits in our fine city. Among the best, and the one my mind returns to often, was a dinner at Bouley Test Kitchen where we were served blanched asparagus with a parsley pesto.

This dish is the phantom I will chase for all my days. Never again has asparagus been so pleasing on a plate, like ten willowy bright green columns. Every tiny leaf intact at the tips. Peeled ever so gently at the same height of circumference around the stalk. The sauce is a haunting apparition each time asparagus appears before me: I can still feel it on my tounge, completely processed and refined in a processor, light, bouncy, full of citrus and something sweet along side something earthy.

I have my suspicions about this "pesto". No question it was parsley that took the center stage but having attempted several versions of this now, parsley (from my own patch, from the organic market) does not alone provide the punch that dish possessed. Fifty seconds of research and twelve minutes of sitting back in my chair with my assumptions for company leads me to two possibilities after last night's little pesto adventure: First, some of the parsley pesto recipes you will find on the internet include basil. I did not taste basil in that Bouley dish (Dori and Becca will have to confirm this). Therefore, in these trials I continue to avoid adding basil because the best part about the pesto was that it was an unexpected hit and basil would have been noticeable, expected, and played. Secondly, after buzzing walnuts into last nights remarkably pleasant (but still miles off the mark) pesto, I don't believe there were pignoli or walnuts in the thing. It may have been something more difficult to pinpoint because we might not recognize it, having little experience with this particular class of Potential Suspects.

In future trip-and-falls through the Bouley recreation forest of fervor, I will try my hand with alternative oils: Avocado and pistachio. I will also have to think about the brightness again, here I used a Reims Chardonnay Vinegar to bring the pesto up but it occurs to me now, some interesting thing might occur with a sweet citrus: meyer lemon?

In the meantime, this pesto, straight out of the garden behind the house, is fabulous. Without the vinegar, I used it to grill corn going into the corn, poblano, and cohita grilled salad. With the sweet vinegar, it went (of course) over the roasted asparagus (I was too caught up with Life to deal with blanching). This makes about a cup and a half and will keep in the fridge for a few days. You will use it all over the place and it is a more cost-effective alternative than a basil pesto in these lean times.

Parsley Pesto
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

Use this mixture to marinate veggies on the grill, dress your pasta, pasta, potato, and bean salads, or to use as a bread dip. Add a good, sweetly pleasant vinegar and use it as a dressing for salad or grilled or roasted veggies. I am certain you can find a thousand other uses beyond these...

1 cup parsley, leaves only, stems discarded
1/4 cup walnuts, toasted
2 tablespoons lemon zest
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons grated fresh parmiganno regianno
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon good quality honey
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil

Into the bowl of the food processor, place the parsley, walnuts, lemon zest, garlic, and parmiganno. Process until all ingredients are in tiny pieces. Add the honey, salt, and pepper. With the machine running, begin to slowly drizzle in the olive oil in a steady stream until it is completely combined and the mixture is smooth.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Photogenic? No. Good? Yes.

Right off the bat let's understand that I am not the biggest hummus consumer. If there is a fan club, I won't be Googling it (Now is a good time to ask if you have set up your Google reader page so you can keep track of me? It is super easy and it makes reading fifty blogs a day a whiz.). The caveat is that I like food that works for its keep, which this dip/ spread generally does. It is a form of hummus I suppose, but it doesn't bother me.

You know, its like anything in life, the better the ingredients you put into it, the better the product they turn out. The same goes for the kitchen staff at the club yesterday who elected to use bad, stale croissants and pastries for the social tea: What you put in is what you will get out in terms of attendance. I don't need to pay for bad pastry, I am learning pastry in this forum and so I have plenty on hand, albeit never stale. Mr. Bourdain, take note...

I dreamed this up while someone was screaming at me, admittedly not my most creative environment, but I can work under pressure if I need to. I hope you use it in good health for good health. If you love Indian food, this is right up your alley. While it is not the biggest looker in photography, it is very tasty, just warm and deep on your palate. A nice place to begin a light supper.

Spinach, roasted garlic, warm masala spice dip
Makes 2.5 cups

As long as you drain the spinach completely, you can add a great deal more which would be even better for your bod. Whose bod doesn't want better, huh?

1 15.5 ounce can chickpeas
1 small head garlic, roasted
1 cup chopped frozen spinach, thawed and drained
1 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted
1 teaspoon Garam Masala
1 teaspoon hot smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup plus two tablespoons best quality olive oil

Into the food processor, place the chickpeas, roasted garlic cloves, spinach, cumin seed, garam masala, hot paprika, sea salt, and pepper. Pulse for 20 seconds (large pieces may remain). Turn the processor on and through the feed tube, drizzle in the 1/4 cup of olive oil until ingredients are combined to the consistency you prefer (I like mine a bit chunky.) Transfer the mixture to your serving bowl. Pour the remaining two tablespoons directly over the top. Serve with pita chips.