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blog-hot brown (1)

Back in the day, a college pal we all called Kentuck introduced me to the Hot Brown—an open-faced turkey sandwich embellished with tomato and bacon or country ham, draped with a rich cheese sauce, then broiled. He was working with nothing more than a hot plate and a toaster oven, but somehow he managed to serve it with the same élan as I imagine its creator, Fred K. Schmidt, chef at the storied Brown Hotel, in Louisville, did in the 1920s, when he needed to feed famished late-night revelers after dinner dances.

The knife-and-fork sandwich became so popular, it spread to restaurants across Kentucky and the Upper South. “It’s hard to know how to classify a hot Brown in a collection of recipes,” confessed John Egerton in the masterful Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, in History. “It’s a sandwich, but not the handholding kind; with turkey and ham, it’s also quite definitely a meat dish, and it’s a casserole of sorts. We finally chose to put it with cheese dishes because of the Cheddar and Parmesan, both of which give the crowning touch to a flavorful and distinctive combination.”

There are a number of variations to choose from. Sometimes chicken takes the place of turkey. Sometimes the bacon is enrobed in sauce, sometimes it rides on top. Sometimes thin slivers of salty, pungent country ham (Benton’s, Edwards, and Kentucky’s own Newsom’s are my favorites) are a time-honored substitute for the bacon. You get the picture: Pretty much, it’s all good. What I wouldn’t skip though, is the tomato. You can still find decent vine-ripened ones around, and just a slice adds the acidity you need to balance the overall lushness.

The cheesy sauce that unifies the sandwich’s elements is a takeoff on a classic Mornay sauce, itself a gilding-the-lily derivation of a béchamel, the mother of all white sauces. In some recipes, the sauce is enriched with an egg yolk or whipped cream, but why not keep it simple? The real key to success, after all, is in the simmering, which further cooks the roux (the mixture of flour and butter that acts as a thickener), thus turning the resulting sauce voluptuous and satiny. You don’t have to tell anyone how quick and easy it is to make.

Hot Browns make an excellent brunch dish for weekend guests, but I must admit I like them best after all the socializing is over and it’s just the two of us, eating Sunday night supper in front of the television. Bliss.

Happy Thanksgiving! We are all so fortunate.

Hot Brown

With thanks to Gourmet magazine, John Egerton, and Kentuck

Depending how hungry or greedy you are, this serves two to four. Add a crunchy green salad and a glass or two of something crisp and dry, and call it a day.

1½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1½ teaspoons finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1½ cups whole milk

A pinch of cayenne pepper

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon dry Sherry (optional but adds finesse)

¾ cup grated extra-sharp Cheddar

4 slices firm white sandwich bread, crusts trimmed off, lightly toasted

½ pound, give or take, of cooked turkey breast, sliced about ¼-inch-thick

4 thin slices of tomato

8 slices of cooked bacon or 4 wafer-thin slices of country ham

1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan

1. Melt the butter in a smallish saucepan over moderately low heat and cook the onion in the butter until it’s softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes to make a roux. (Don’t rush this step; the cooking eliminates the raw flavor and pastiness of uncooked flour, and it also primes the flour particles to absorb liquid to their fullest.) Add the milk in a steady stream, whisking constantly, and cook until thick and smooth. Add the cayenne and season with salt and pepper.

2. Increase the heat and bring the sauce to a simmer; simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened and velvety, 10 to 15 minutes. Pour the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and add the Sherry, if using, and the Cheddar, stirring until smooth.

3. Preheat the broiler. Put the pieces of toast in a flameproof (i.e., not Pyrex) baking pan and top each piece with turkey and a tomato slice. Crisscross 2 pieces of bacon on each open-faced sandwich. Spoon the sauce evenly over the sandwiches and sprinkle with Parm. Broil sandwiches until sauce is bubbling and lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes.


blog-potato gratin

It’s officially Cozy Food season, and I just made one of my very favorite dishes in the genre—scalloped potatoes, or, if you’re in a more worldly frame of mind, gratin dauphinois.

What I’m talking about is inexpensive and dead simple: thinly sliced potatoes saturated with creamy goodness and typically, if not traditionally, crowned by golden-brown cheese. It couldn’t be more basic. But it all adds up to far more than the sum of its parts.

For starters, just the sight and aroma tend to rock people back on their heels, and it’s generally the first thing to disappear at a buffet supper or potluck. Because it swings from homey (meatloaf) to high-toned (standing rib roast) with aplomb, requires just a few ingredients, and embraces variation, the recipe will be traveling with me until the weather hottens up again and it’s not pitch-dark at a quarter to five in the afternoon.

The recipe below was part of the collective culinary repertoire at Gourmet. The food editors—that’s what the cooks in the test kitchens were called—were tirelessly innovative and imaginative, but they also knew they stood on the shoulders of giants. They were not only generous, but scrupulous about giving credit where credit was due.

As we noted in the big yellow Gourmet Cookbook, the genius behind this recipe is Jacques Pépin, whose technique of starting the potatoes in a saucepan of half-and-half is nothing short of life-changing. Not only do the starchy vegetable and the cream have a chance to get acquainted and intermingle a bit before they meet the heat of the oven, but the cook is spared the fuss of overlapping the potato slices and alternating them with the cream. Just tip the sludgy mixture (careful, it’s hot) into the baking dish, nudge the spuds into an even layer, and you’re good to go.

Pretty much any kind of potato will work. Yukon Golds have fine flavor and their medium starch content results in a melting, melding texture. This time around, I used local Long Island white boiling potatoes; they were almost as yielding as Yukon Golds, but held their shape better. This morning I ran out and bought another five-pound sack.

You can slice the potatoes by hand, obviously, but what really makes this recipe a snap is a Benriner, the Japanese handheld slicer. It’s made of sleek yet sturdy plastic and comes in an interesting array of pastels, but most importantly it’s cheaper and less intimidating than a bulky professional-style stainless-steel mandoline. I bought my “Little Beni” from the first American importer, J.B. Prince, years ago, and it’s still razor-sharp.

Tips and tricks: If you don’t have time to mince the garlic, simply rub a split clove around inside the buttered dish. And don’t be chinchy with the cheese. Use a good-quality Gruyère—nutty, full-flavored, and just stringy enough—and plenty of it. Oh, and don’t forget the nutmeg. The tiniest amount is the secret ingredient that prevents many a creamy sauce from tasting flat and stodgy. You’ll miss it if it’s not there.

Variations on a theme: A potato gratin is endlessly accommodating. Try cutting the spuds with another root vegetable such as turnip, rutabaga, parsnip, or my personal favorite, celery root. Leeks, sweated in butter until lissome, are another nice addition, as are nubbins of cubed ham, pancetta, or bacon. In other words, have fun. And thank you, Jacques.

Scalloped Potatoes (a.k.a. Gratin Dauphinois)

From The Gourmet Cookbook: More Than 1000 Recipes (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Serves 8

This gratin may be made a day ahead, cooled completely, then refrigerated, covered. Bring it to room temperature before reheating, covered, in a 350° oven. Any leftovers (if you should be so lucky) are delicious with a fried egg on top.

2½ pounds potatoes (preferably Yukon Gold or other boiling potatoes)

3½ cups half-and-half

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon coarse salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

¾ cup coarsely grated Gruyère

Special equipment: an adjustable-blade slicer, such as a Japanese Benriner or mandoline

1. Put a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 400°. Generously butter a 2½- to 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow baking dish.

2. Peel the potatoes. Cut them crosswise into 1/16-inch-thick slices with the slicer and put them in a 4-quart heavy saucepan. Stir in the half-and-half, garlic, salt, and pepper and bring just to a boil over moderate heat.

3. Pour the potato mixture into the buttered dish, distributing the potatoes evenly. Sprinkle the nutmeg and cheese evenly over the top. Bake until the potatoes are tender and the top is golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes. Let stand for 10 or 15 minutes before serving.

IMG_8719blog-potato gratin2


blog-shrimp creole

Photograph courtesy of Rick Ellis

Shrimp Creole. You’ll find it taking pride of place in any number of New Orleans restaurants, and south Louisiana home kitchens, too, especially on Fridays during Lent. But I love it this time of year even more, I think—its rich fullness of flavor makes it a great swing season dish. And it would be nothing without homemade shrimp stock, which is what you see above.

“Making shrimp stock is a little endeavor-ish,” said our friend Rick Ellis, a food stylist and culinary historian. “But you can freeze the leftovers.” Considering that Rick makes one of the best shrimp Creoles on the planet, I’m willing to go the extra mile.

I found it helpful, of course, to have Rick’s recipe in situ, as it were. Along with his husband, the decorator and antiquarian Thomas Jayne, he divides his time between a SoHo loft in New York and in an 1830s brick townhouse in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Last week, their welcoming spread of satsuma Old Fashioneds, pickled okra, and browned hunks of chef Donald Link’s boudin kicked off a whirlwind architectural tour of a city that is not just a miracle of survival but an unrivaled urban landscape.

Tall, handsome “too much ain’t enough” houses with wrought-iron balconies fashioned by Canary Islanders … West Indies–style plantation houses, designed to keep cool air moving … blocks and blocks of Creole cottages, with their open doors and painted shutters fastened back from the windows … often-dilapidated corner stores, which serve an extended family of regulars … café-bars, with their rows of gleaming bottles and clutch of marble-topped tables …. Where else in the world would you find offerings so varied and various? “Some cultural connections are on the surface,” said Daphne Derven, curator of education at The Historic New Orleans Collection, my new favorite museum. “But others you have to look for.”

Take the most notorious stretch in the French Quarter, chockablock with moseying bead-bedecked tourists and on-the-make hucksters, and redolent with the smells of booze, cats, drains, and humid subtropical air. “Bourbon Street is the most interesting naughty street in the world,” observed Tulane preservationist John Stubbs. “Look up and you see those nineteenth-century cornices.”

Or you may see Rick, rushing home with a fat bundle of Gulf shrimp, tightly wrapped in damp newspaper. “These couldn’t be any fresher,” he said. “And they’re heads-on—that’s the only way they’re sold at the market.” From his extensive collection of early American cookbooks, Rick knows what today’s cooks are discovering for themselves: the wonderful goodness that resides in shrimp heads. “They’re the key to a great shrimp stock,” he added, cradling his parcel like a newborn.

There are as many versions of shrimp Creole as there are definitions of the term Creole. Far too many of them are stodgy, sludgy, and/or overly spiced, but when you find a good one, you rejoice in its individual character and nuances. To my mind, what sets Rick’s apart is how balanced it is. “I’ve made shrimp Creole for years, but I’ve never written down an actual recipe until now,” Rick admitted. One influence was a recipe he found at Nola Cuisine. “It made me realize that because a shrimp stock cooks in just forty-five minutes—more quickly than, say, a chicken stock—it makes a huge difference when you chop the onion and celery, instead of simply cutting them into big chunks. You need to get the flavor out of them fast.”

And finely chopping the vegetables for the finished dish changes things up, too. “My sauce was always flavorful, but chunkier, cruder,” Rick explained. “With a finer chop, it’s still vegetable-y, but more refined. And it clings better.” Velvety, I’d call it.

When it comes to technique, “browning the tomato paste results in an incredible deep tomato flavor,” he said. “I’d never done that before, and again, it makes a difference. Most importantly, though, it’s so important to season as you go—it’s all about the layering, like an Italian ragù. You’re layering seasonings, and you’re layering cooking techniques.”

Rick doesn’t use a commercial Creole spice blend, but instead prefers to add a teaspoon of this, a half teaspoon of that, and a quarter teaspoon of sumpin else. It sounds persnickety, and I was curious about the inclusion of both black and white pepper. I know it’s common in Creole recipes, and white pepper has a sweeter afternote, but in such small quantities, can’t you skip it and use more black pepper? “Well, sure,” Rick wrote in a follow-up email. “It could be substituted. But I am fond of Paul Prudhomme‘s use of the three peppers in his cooking. He thought it was a more rounded heat.” Got it.

Shrimp and pork have a great affinity for one another, but I also wondered about Rick’s inclusion of andouille, the famous Cajun smoked sausage. It’s not what you would call traditional. “I thought it would add a bit of depth,” he said. “And it also serves to stretch the recipe, so you can feed a crowd.” When practicality trumps purism, food evolves, just like architecture.

Shrimp Creole is indeed one great party dish, and tripling this recipe will serve 18 to 25 very lucky people. Freeze any leftover shrimp stock for gumbo.

Rick Ellis’s Shrimp Creole

Serves 6

It’s fair to say that shrimp Creole is labor intensive, but just add a loaf of French bread and a big green salad, and you are d-o-n-e, done. A little satsuma juice (or other mandarin orange juice) in the vinaigrette is a very nice touch.

For shrimp stock

2 pounds unpeeled large shrimp, with heads on if you can get them

½ cup chopped onion

¼ cup chopped celery

2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 lemon, cut crosswise into slices

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

For shrimp Creole

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 ribs celery, finely chopped

1 small green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and finely chopped

coarse kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, white pepper, and cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3 tablespoons minced garlic

½ cup dry white wine

2½ cups diced tomatoes (fresh or canned)

2 cups shrimp stock (see above)

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons dried thyme

1 tablespoon Tabasco

1 tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce

Reserved peeled, deveined shrimp from making stock

½ pound andouille sausage, diced

Accompaniment: cooked white rice

For garnish:

½ cup thinly sliced scallions (green onions, in local parlance)

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

To make shrimp stock:

1. Peel and devein the shrimp, reserving shells and heads. Refrigerate shrimp until ready to use.

2. Place shells and heads in a large pot and add the onion, celery, garlic, lemon, bay leaves, thyme, and peppercorns. Add enough water to cover and bring almost to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer 45 minutes.

3. Let mixture cool slightly, then pour through a sieve into a bowl, pressing on solids with the back of a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Reserve stock. (Any leftovers may be frozen for later use.)

To make shrimp Creole:

1. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Add the celery and bell pepper, reduce the heat to medium, and season with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon white pepper, and ¼ teaspoon cayenne. Sauté the vegetables until softened, 12 to 15 minutes.

2. Add the tomato paste and garlic. Mix well and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste begins to brown. Add the wine, increase the heat to high, and cook until the mixture is almost dry.

3. Add the tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt. Stir well, reduce the heat to medium, and cook 15 to 20 minutes. Add the shrimp stock, bay leaves, thyme, ½ teaspoon each black pepper and white pepper, and cayenne to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Simmer 40 to 45 minutes.

4. Add the Tabasco and Worcestershire and season with salt. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and stir in the shrimp and andouille. Gently simmer until shrimp is just cooked through. (Be careful not to overcook the shrimp.)

5. Serve alongside a big spoonful of rice and garnished with the scallions and parsley, for brightness.



Right now, people I know are putting up preserves, reorganizing their closets, or wrangling a wayward comforter into a duvet cover. I admire their industry and foresight, but truth is, I’m more of a grasshopper than an ant. I’d rather be outside in the October sun, poking around in the garden without doing anything much except harvesting lettuce and sizing up green tomatoes for frying. We’re having a run of what my mother used to call “Champagne days”—with a high blue sky and air that’s dry and crisp, with a hint of effervescence. I don’t want to miss a moment.

Which is why so much of the cooking I’m doing is completely in the moment. Swing-season polenta is always a favorite at our house this time of year, for instance, as are fresh shell beanseggplant tian, or, if company is coming, Chicken Marbella.

And then there are Concord grapes. The cultivar was developed in the 1840s by horticulturalist and physician Ephraim W. Bull, who named it after Concord, Massachusetts. Bull lived there—his neighbors included the Alcotts, Emerson, and Hawthorne—and according to his New York Times obit (October 13, 1895), he noticed the wild vine growing by a hedgerow or fence. Its fruit was a great favorite of birds, and so Bull transplanted the vine to the rich soil near a drain from his kitchen, where, the obit writer noted, it was still growing at the time of his death.

Bull spent years experimenting with some 22,000 grape plants in order to develop the perfect, cold-hardy crop, and the genetic provenance of the Concord has long been unclear. According to any number of sources, the Concord grape was derived entirely from the wild Vitis labrusca (native to eastern North America), while others thought it was more likely a hybrid of two or more grape species. Just recently, genetic sequencing solved the mystery: As it turns out, the Concord is indeed a hybrid of V. labrusca and the European grape, V. vinifera, backcrossed with V. labrusca.

That doesn’t make me love it any less. All I really care about is that it is autumn’s juiciest fruit, and eaten out of hand, you can still taste the wild vine. I can’t get enough of its lush, intoxicating foxiness.

If I were a perfect person—or at least, exhibited some trace of antlike behavior—I would make the best Concord grape jam on the planet. But this year, we may have to be content with a sorbet that looks like purple velvet and tastes just as luxurious. Two ingredients, ten minutes active time—what is not to love? I made it after breakfast, and while it’s turning itself into something transcendent, I’ll be outside.

Concord Grape Sorbet

From Gourmet (September 2009)

Makes about 1 quart

2 pounds Concord grapes (about 2 quarts), stemmed, divided

¾ cup superfine granulated sugar

Equipment: a blender and ice cream maker

1. Purée half of grapes in a blender until smooth, then force through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, discarding the solids. Repeat with remaining grapes to yield 3 cups purée. Whisk in sugar until dissolved. Refrigerate until very cold, 3 to 6 hours.

2. Freeze in ice cream maker, then transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to firm up, at least 2 hours. Sorbet keeps 1 week.


blog-fresh figs

In September, nature has a certain magnificent unconcern. Zinnias still bloom their heads off, rising above foliage wrecked by powdery mildew. Cosmos, bearing blossoms the size of teacups on their tall, feathery stems, straggle and sprawl with abandon. Bumblebees spend hours nuzzling the dahlias, then struggle to lift off under the weight of their yellow pollen pantaloons.

And at farm stands, all hell is breaking loose. I can’t be bothered yet with the butternut squashes and pumpkins, broccoli and cauliflower, pretty as they are. Instead, I crave the succulence of late summer and early fall in the form of tomatoes, corn, and figs—fat, ripe figs. Although many fig trees produce two crops, one in early summer, and another in late summer and early fall, in general, second-crop figs are smaller and sweeter, with a more intense flavor, and whenever I see them, I pounce.

I grew up with the ‘Celeste’ cultivar—what my grandparents called sugar figs. As I wrote in an early post, Celestes are the most ephemeral of fruits, with paper-thin skin that makes them too fragile to ship.

The ones you see above, from a North Fork farmer, are a different variety, one called ‘Brown Turkey.’ They have thicker skin and a milder sweetness than Celestes, but no complaints: We ate the ripest ones—sun-warmed, cracked to bursting, and slightly sticky with juice—over the sink as soon as we got home. To bring out the best in firmer, less-ripe figs, spread them on a platter or baking sheet and leave them for a day at room temperature. Keep a close eye on them, and discard any that get moldy.

Although figs are wonderful in desserts—a cake or almond tart, say—I use them more in savory dishes, and the time-honored Italian pairing of raw, ripe figs and top-drawer prosciutto is just the beginning. Turn that concept into a salad, topping the prosciutto with arugula, nuggets of your favorite blue cheese, chopped toasted walnuts, and a tumble of quartered figs. Instead of putting the blue cheese in the salad, you could mash some into a dressing made with cream and a little white-wine vinegar, or even put the figs in the vinaigrette à la David Tanis, who fantasizes about having a fig tree right outside the kitchen door.

Another person who is passionate about figs is Georgeanne Brennan, whose leek gratin got us through a long chilly spring. Among the treasures in her La Vie Rustic online store are cuttings from the historic Sultan de Marabout fig tree in her backyard as well as a sea salt and dried fig combination that adds spark and savor to just about anything. She introduced me to the pleasures of a fig and goat cheese pizza in a cooking class years ago, and she also taught me that the way to keep fig flavor high when cooking fresh figs is to add chopped dried figs into the mix.

That trick works to very good effect in the following recipe, which is a delicious way to swing into fall. Georgeanne likes to serve the pork roast with creamed or sautéed spinach and garlic-mashed potatoes. “It’s a simple yet fancy-seeming meal,” she explained. And how.

Fig-Glazed and Fig-Stuffed Pork Rib Roast à la Georgeanne Brennan

Serves 4

Ask your butcher cut off the rib bones in a single separate piece, then tie them back on. You can do also do the job at home with a sharp knife; just keep close to the bones as you cut. A pan sauce gives this dish even more finesse, but skip that step if you like and drizzle the sliced meat with any juices left on the cutting board.

For the stuffing and roast

3 ripe figs (any kind), plus a few more for garnish

3 dried figs (any kind)

1 to 2 tablespoons brandy

1 clove garlic, minced

½ teaspoon dried sage

¼ teaspoon dried red chile flakes

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

One 4-rib pork roast, rib bones removed in a single piece and tied back on by butcher (see above note)

For the glaze

½ cup water

½ cup Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, or other dry red wine

½ teaspoon dried sage

3 dried figs

1 teaspoon honey

For the pan sauce

½ cup of the same red wine used in the glaze

1 tablespoon butter

Make the stuffing and prep the roast: Preheat oven to 475°F. Trim the tough stem tips from 3 of the fresh figs and the dried figs. Chop the figs and put them in a small bowl with the brandy, garlic, sage, chile flakes, ½ teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper. Let stand for a few minutes, until the figs soften, then mash the mixture with the back of the fork to make a paste.

Cut off the strings holding the bones onto the roast and put on a cutting board with the bone side closest to you. Rub the meat and bones well with salt and pepper, then pack it with the stuffing. Put the ribs back in place, making sure they are in the same direction as they were cut, and tie the roast with kitchen string.

Make the glaze: Combine the water, wine, and sage in a saucepan over medium-high heat and reduce to ½ cup, about 5 minutes or so. Meanwhile, trim the stem tips from the dried figs and finely chop. Add the figs and honey to the wine mixture, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer until the figs are soft and the liquid thickens and is reduced to about ¼ cup. Remove from the heat and pour through a fine sieve into a small bowl, pressing against the fruit to get all the juice out. Reserve the liquid and discard the solids.

Roast the pork and finish the dish: Place the stuffed roast in an ovenproof skillet, bone-side down, and roast 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325ºF and continue to roast, basting once or twice with the glaze to burnish, until the meat registers 140 to 145ºF or so on an instant-read thermometer (do not touch bone), about 45 minutes. Transfer the roast to a carving board, cover loosely with foil, and let rest 5 to 10 minutes while you make the pan sauce.

Place the skillet over medium-high heat and slowly add the wine, scraping up any clinging brown bits with a wooden spoon. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer about 5 minutes to blend the flavors. Stir in the butter and keep warm while you carve the roast.

To carve the roast, first cut off the strings and discard them. Gently remove the ribs and separate them. Cut the meat into ¼-inch or ½-inch slices, depending on your preference, and arrange on a platter along with the ribs. Stir any juices on the cutting board into the sauce and quickly warm it through. Trim the stem tips from the remaining fresh figs and cut into quarters. Drizzle the sliced pork with the sauce and garnish with the figs.



Our summer full of hot sunny days has resulted in fruit that’s on the small side, yet bursting with sweetness and juice. Take muskmelon, for instance—what most Americans think of as cantaloupe.

I’ll get to why in a sec, but first, you should know that a true cantaloupe (Cucumis melo var. cantalupensis) has very little to no netting on the rind. It’s commonly found in Europe, particularly France, where it’s been cultivated for 500 years or so. Heirloom cultivars such as Noir des Carmes, Petit Gris de Rennes, and Charentais (which, happily, is increasingly grown in the United States) have complex, resonant flavor and make superb dessert melons.

The muskmelon (C. melo var. reticulatus), which gets its name from the bewitching musky fragrance of orange-fleshed varieties, is distinguished by the reticulated, or netlike, tissue that covers the rind. Heirlooms include Jenny Lind, Blenheim Orange, Emerald Gem, and Anne Arundel. The last was named for the countess who married the first Lord Proprietor of the Maryland Colony, and appeared in many paintings by the Peale family (especially Raphaelle Peale) as a symbol of their Maryland roots.

As for the muskmelon–cantaloupe confusion, my go-to source for vagaries in botanical nomenclature is William Woys Weaver, whose masterful Heirloom Vegetable Gardening includes a digression on melons. “The American custom of referring to all muskmelons as cantaloupes developed in the 1880s as a marketing term for any melon shipped in crates. This usage has since spread to all parts of the country in an attempt to give the muskmelon a less awkward-sounding name,” Will wrote. “The name cantaloupe, as we use it, is the French spelling of Cantaluppi, a papal estate near Rome where the first of these melons were grown in the 1400s.”

I’ve used Will’s book as a reference for more than a decade, but only now got around to asking him why he threw melons into the mix. “There was no logical reason to leave them out,” he explained in an email. “Melons have been cultivated in gardens for thousands of years, although perhaps for some people they were viewed as the aristocrats of the kitchen garden. Not all melons are sweet and sugary: the Makataan Melon of South Africa is cooked like squash even though botanically it is a watermelon (I am growing it this year); the Akapnou Melon of Cyprus is used like a cucumber (it is depicted in Roman era wall paintings); and Vine Peach, which I think hails from India, is best used in salads and curries almost apple-like in texture.” The man is a national treasure.

By comparison, my personal experience of melons would fit in a pinhole. My grandparents always had a few melon vines—I think they appreciated their luxuriant sprawl—and muskmelons, in particular, were enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, and supper. “Just looking at a slice cools you off,” my grandmother would remark. The classic pairing of melon and prosciutto wasn’t in her wheelhouse, so to speak, but melon with thin slivers of country ham—light yet satisfying in the heat of midday—certainly was, and I love it still. Along the same lines, during my Gourmet days, executive food editor Zanne Stewart rocked my world with a mouthwatering combination of melon, Serrano ham, and arugula with smoked paprika dressing. Spanish Serrano ham has a heftier texture than prosciutto, and Surryano ham, from Edwards Smokehouse, in Virginia, is a fabulous all-American alternative.

A perfectly ripe muskmelon has an allure that captures most everyone from the get-go, and the aroma alone is enough to provoke reverie and recipes. Freshly roasted chicken served alongside chilled melon—a plateful that delivers succulence both sweet and savory—was a great favorite of my mother’s; she knew homemade rolls or biscuits would take the meal right over the top. And just last weekend, a melon’s singular intoxicating fragrance put our friend Rick Ellis in mind of a tart he styled years ago for Food & Wine. “It was so simple,” he said. “Just a thin layer of pastry cream flavored with Beaumes de Venise, topped with slices of cantaloupe.”

I conjured that golden, transcendent richness, and it stayed in my mind for days. I asked for the recipe in a subsequent email. “It’s not in my files (yikes, 25 years of collected recipes!) and not in any of the Food & Wine cookbooks I have, nor is it on their website,” he wrote back. “However, it is a straightforward recipe. A blind-baked tart shell filled with a stiff pastry cream flavored with Beaumes de Venise and thinly sliced cantaloupe fanned over the top. Serve with a glass of the wine.”

In a perfect world, I would have made this tart ahead of time so I could give you chapter and verse, but life got in the way. So here’s the deal: A blind-baked tart shell is not complicated, and I think this pastry cream recipe, which is flavored with poire William, makes a good jumping-off point for the base layer. As for the melon, your best bet is the vine-ripened fruit from a local farm stand or farmers market. Choose one that’s heavy for its size, with a small couche—the part that lies on the ground, thus is flattened and pale. The melon’s blossom end should yield to the touch and smell like the last days of summer.


blog-pasta w: summer squash

Hey, I don’t have much time this week, but I have to share this crate of zucchini and crookneck yellow summer squash with you because it made me laugh.

The zucchini are fat, glossy, and complacent—one might think they’re well aware of their come-hither appeal. The crooknecks, on the other hand, look like they want to make a break for it. Warty, irregular, and somehow yearning, they know they’re not for everybody. They’re as thin-skinned and tender as zucchini (which are actually a subset of summer squash), though, and very flavorful. I just love them.

I’m grateful I succumbed to the charms of both, for they were the foundation for a scratch supper yesterday evening, cobbled together for a pal who came into town unexpectedly. Having pesto—my go-to condiment this time of year—in the fridge was key; I generally hew to Marcella Hazan’s version.

I spent all last night thinking I’d created something sublime, but at heart I know perfectly well I am not an original cook. Late this morning, the color linocuts hanging on the wall of Susan Friedland, cookbook editor extraordinaire and all-around force of nature, jogged my memory, and I remembered where I’d first had this combination—Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’s landmark restaurant in Berkeley, California. The recipe appears in Chez Panisse Vegetables, and it is so intuitive, no wonder I thought I’d made it up. I didn’t use fresh pasta, but rather dried egg fettuccine, and I could have exactly the same thing for supper again tomorrow evening. Sounds like a plan.

Pasta with Summer Squashes, Walnuts, and Pesto

From Chez Panisse Vegetables, by Alice Waters and the cooks of Chez Panisse; edited by Susan Friedland

Trim and julienne some zucchini or other summer squashes and sauté in olive oil until tender and starting to brown. Season with salt and pepper. Cook fresh noodles and add to the pan with a ladle of the pasta water or some chicken stock; some toasted walnuts, roughly chopped; and pesto sauce. Turn off the heat and toss well, taste for seasoning, and serve with grated Parmesan.


blog-nectarine cake2

August is an edgy month, a friend just said. I’d never thought about it that way, but I know exactly what she means. Everyone is unsettled. We’re holding tight to summer, fiercely cherishing every moment, but simultaneously feeling impatient and needing to get on with things. I’ve gotten over my shock at “Back to School” ads—in fact, I found myself perusing the notebook selection at the corner drugstore with great pleasure—but still.

I suppose that is why I made this cake.

I have Bill Sertl, the former travel editor at Gourmet, to thank. He’s a true comrade-in-arms, and last week a few of us got an SOS from him—a friend of his was looking for a fruit-filled cake that had appeared, she thought, in the September 2009 issue of the mag.

She was correct. And I don’t understand how I could have forgotten about it, for it’s the ideal cake for a nonbaker like me. There are no layers. No frosting. Just an easy batter that, when scattered with nectarine slices, rises up and embraces them with uncomplicated sunny, summery warmth.

I suppose you could substitute peaches for the nectarines, but even though the two fruits resemble each other very closely, they are not the same at all.

Botanically speaking, the nectarine is a subspecies of the peach; one differing gene makes the skin of peaches fuzzy and that of nectarines smooth. That aside, nectarines typically have a sharper, clearer, altogether more urgent flavor that is just right for this time of year. I’m not making this up: According to Al Courchesne, of Frog Hollow Farm, in Brentwood, California, who produces what is arguably the most delicious stone fruit on the planet, tannins in the skin are what give nectarines their pizzazz; peaches are mellower because they have fewer tannins. The texture of the flesh is different as well: As a rule, nectarines are firmer and meatier than peaches.

The cake itself is buttery and tender, yet not too rich. A sprinkle of sugar on top gives it a beguiling crustiness, so it can support a spoonful of softly whipped cream. I have to say, though, I like it best absolutely plain. Its sturdy, forthright character means that you can forgo a fork and eat a slice out of hand, whether basking on the porch or out in the garden, watching zinnias and dahlias bloom their heads off. Nice for a lunchbox, too.

Nectarine Golden Cake

From Gourmet magazine (September 2009)

Serves 8

Active Time: 15 minutes

Start to Finish: 1½ hours

I know one-eighth of a teaspoon of pure almond extract seems like a “why bother?” amount, but almonds and nectarines (like other stone fruits) are members of the Prunus genus, and have a powerful affinity for one another. In other words, you’d miss it if it weren’t there.

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

Rounded ¼ teaspoon coarse salt

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup plus ½ tablespoon sugar, divided

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract

2 nectarines [or more, if they’re small], pitted and cut into ½-inch-thick wedges

½ teaspoon grated nutmeg

Equipment: a 9-inch springform pan

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF with rack in middle. Lightly butter the springform pan.

2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.

3. Beat butter and ¾ cup sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in extracts. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until just combined

4. Spread the batter evenly in the pan, then scatter nectarines over top. Stir together nutmeg and remaining ½ tablespoon sugar and sprinkle over top. Bake until cake is golden-brown and top is firm but tender when lightly touched (cake will rise over fruit), 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool in the pan 10 minutes. Remove the side of the pan and cool to warm.


blog-sweet corn5

“People have tried and they have tried, but sex is not better than sweet corn.”  —Garrison Keillor

Sweet corn is one of America’s great icons of summer. Harvested when the ears are tightly jacketed in green leaves and the kernels are plump with milky-looking juice, it’s piled high at roadside farm stands, and odds are you’ll see skid marks on the pavement out front.

A number of connoisseurs in my neck of the woods flock to Country View, on the Main Road in Southold, New York (just past the North Fork Table & Inn). The place’s one-stop shopping appeals to anyone who just wants to get horizontal in a hammock or beach chair and not have to worry about supper. Plus, the corn is outstanding—sweet but not sugary, with tender, juicy well-formed kernels and pure corn flavor that comes through loud and corn3

One of the things I like about Country View is that you have to know to ask for the corn. It’s not heaped out front as a calling card, but kept on a shelf near the cash register, away from gimlet-eyed customers who, ignoring any hand-scrawled signs to the contrary, strip the husks to inspect the ears, then toss the rejects back on the pile. That behavior results in ruined, unsellable corn: Once the kernels are exposed to the air, they begin to dry out (thus toughen) and lose nutrients to boot.

Removing the self-serve aspect may seem insidery and a little off-putting, but the good folks behind the counter are simply doing their best to prevent corn carnage—and more power to ’em, for I’ve never gotten a less-than-stellar ear. The fact that the corn isn’t genetically modified—and is labeled as such—is another reason I happily give them my food corn2

The way you can tell if plump, even kernels have filled out the whole cob, by the way, is to simply feel around the top of the ear through the husk. The shank (stem) end should look recently cut, the husks should be a vivid green and slightly moist, and the silk at the top should feel slightly tacky to the touch.

As to why some ears boast fat kernels from stem to stern and others don’t, it has to do with, well, what Garrison Keillor was talking about. The corn plant has both a male part (the tassel at the top of the plant) and a female part (the ear, which consists of cob, kernels that develop after pollination, and silks). Wind carries pollen from the tassel of one corn plant to the silks of another, and each of those silks is connected to a potential kernel of corn inside each ear. If pollen reaches a silk, it causes a corn kernel to grow; if a silk doesn’t receive pollen, its kernel remains small and undeveloped.

And that is why in this day and age of seedless watermelons and stringless green beans, we are still cleaning that glossy floss off ears of corn. If you are a waste-not-want-not sort of person, or have young children who would love a garden tea party (strawberry sandwiches are always a hit), you might want to make corn silk tea. In the words of my former colleague Kempy Minifie, it tastes like a summer day.

When you get your hands on really good sweet corn, it’s almost a criminal offense to overcook it. With ultrafresh ears, I simply chuck them in a pot of boiling water, wait until the water just returns to the boil, then turn off the heat and let the pot sit, covered, until the rest of supper is ready. Lately, it’s been so tender and good that I eat it without any embellishments at all—no salt, no butter, nothing.

But there are times when I want something more, something that will add a grace note to smoky, meaty ribs from a takeout joint or an old-fashioned chicken dinner, complete with snap beans and hot biscuits with blackberry butter.

The recipe below does the trick. Yes, you need a food processor, a fine-mesh sieve or strainer, a saucepan, and a sharp knife, but as the culinary mastermind Richard Olney (who would have been 87 yesterday) once wrote, simplicity can mean perfection or harmony in a dish rather than ease of preparation. In other words, it’s worth it.

Creamless Creamy Corn with Fresh Chives

From The Gourmet Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

The creaminess in this dish comes from the milky juice in the corn itself. This is the essence of fresh corn; the recipe serves four, but you might not want to share. And if you don’t have fresh chives ready to hand, don’t sweat it—shreds of fresh basil are lovely, too.

4 ears corn, shucked

¼ teaspoon coarse salt

¾ teaspoon cornstarch

Pinch of sugar (optional)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ cup finely chopped onion

1/3 cup water

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives

1. Working with 1 ear at a time, lay the cob on its side on a cutting board and cut off the kernels with a large knife, rotating the cob as you go. Transfer the kernels to a bowl, then hold the cob upright in the bowl and scrape with the knife to extract the “milk.”

2. Transfer 2 cups of the corn kernels to a food processor and purée 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the processor bowl once or twice. Force the purée through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl; discard the solids. Stir in salt, cornstarch, and sugar if using.

3. Melt the butter in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan over moderately low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the remaining corn kernels, corn milk, and water. Cover and simmer briskly, stirring occasionally, until the corn is crisp-tender, 4 to 5 minutes.

4. Stir the corn purée, then stir into the corn kernels. Bring to a boil, stirring, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently, 2 minutes. (If desired, thin with additional water.) Season with pepper and stir in corn6


blog-beach eats-1

Early in the morning, the water looks like a sheet of mercury glass. Being not exactly cool, but not hot, either, it’s an excellent time to walk the beach and think about—well, supper. It’s hours away, but still. Time rolls into itself when you are on vacation, and when a houseful of people need to be fed, it’s important to strategize, and think big.

Up in New York and New England, this usually translates to a shore dinner—briny steamers and lobsters, with their characteristic deep, oceanic tang, bolstered with sweet corn on the cob and boiled potatoes that taste like they were dug yesterday. Which, quite possibly, they were. Our friends Linda and Patricia do a slap-up job of this, giving one of the world’s most hands’-on meals real é eats1

South of the Mason-Dixon Line, however, what I crave is shrimp—local, wild, just-caught shrimp—and lots of them. I’ve written about them before, but a few points bear repeating. I find medium shrimp the easiest size to deal with, and I never fool with deveining. Especially if they’re heads-off, why breach their thin armor, exposing any more of that delicate, tender meat to the elements?

Having come from a long, distinguished line of shrimp lovers, I know to cook the shellfish in the smallest amount of water possible, covering them by about two inches. If you’ve busted loose at the store or roadside shrimp stand and bought 10 or 12 pounds, say (every self-respecting adult I know can put away at least three quarters of a pound), you’ll want to cook them in batches. As far as the seasoning goes, I like to add a quartered lemon and enough sea salt to make cold water from the tap taste like the Atlantic. If you are a fan of Old Bay, Zatarain’s, or a homemade seafood-boil blend, humor me and use a light hand. The point, after all, is the clean, briny-sweet flavor of the shellfish.

You do want to bring the seasoned water to a rolling boil before adding the unpeeled shrimp, but don’t wait until the water returns to a boil before starting the timing. Depending on the size of the shrimp and how many pounds are in the pot, I begin checking for doneness at about two minutes. Once the shrimp are a beautiful rosy-pink on the outside, opaque inside, and firm yet tender in texture, immediately drain them in a colander. Remember that they’ll continue cooking once they’re out of the water; I like to spread them on a kitchen counter covered with brown paper bags, and sprinkle with more sea salt. People should eat them hot out of the shell, with melted butter or cocktail sauce spiked with lemon and horseradish. As far as sides go, how could corn on the cob and new potatoes be bad? Butter beans and rice or grits— 2015

Then again, there’s the whole day ahead of me. I could go crabbing.

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