simple summer panzanella

Oh, summer. You are an expert wooer. Just the minute I want to hate you, while I’m pushing up another hill on my bicycle, sweat dripping down my neck while I slap a bug off my face, you hit me with a gorgeous sunset over wildflowers, the kind that makes me pull my massive camera out of my backpack, right there on the trail, while I literally gasp out loud.

You know just how to do it. Alongside a sticky night, in sidles a conversation about scraping snow off your cars. Just after a crazy rainstorm, there’s a farmers market packed with produce. On a lazy Saturday afternoon at home, you have me roasting grape tomatoes from a local farm.

slicing tomatoes

There are those who hate you, Summer, those who are immune to all your charms, who—very fairly—cite heat and humidity and insects and all that comes with those things, from big hair to body odor to incessant scratching of ankles, and I listen to them, I do, but look, between you and me: it doesn’t matter.

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to summer!

fresh tomato

It’s been a hot summer. H-O-T hot. It’s been hot here in Chicago, on sweaty bike rides and walks; hot in Raleigh, North Carolina, by the pool and at farmers markets; hot in Ohio; hot in Nashville; hot in St. Louis; hot everywhere I’ve gone. I’ve sweated through clothes and on furniture, felt skin stick to leather seats in my car, walked into buildings for the sole purpose of feeling their air-conditioning, started keeping deodorant in my purse so I can apply it multiple times a day.

You could say I’m experiencing summer this year, really experiencing it, and listen: it’s not always comfortable.

And yet.

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Mama’s Meat Sauce

Mama's Meat Sauce

I come from a long line of women who can cook: My great grandma, I’m told, made legendary pasta. My grandma rolled her own cannoli shells. My mom, a woman who loves to say, Oh, it’s so simple (particularly when her only daughter asks for clarification on some new recipe trick), has a vast cooking repertoire that ranges from bakery-worthy apple strudel to hot chicken curry just the way my dad likes it.

And as with a lot of things in life, I feel there are different ways to approach this kind of heritage: Embrace it. Or resent it.

homemade meat sauce

I’ll let you guess which way I tended towards for most of my childhood and only say this: it’s amazing how we can turn blessings into curses, how we can choose to be intimidated by that which can help us grow. You may call it perfectionism; I call it ugly.

It’s like, say, when you have the opportunity to start working from home: This is such an obvious good (especially as it is the thing—the very thing—you have wanted and worked towards for years!), yet you can let yourself see it as a bad (citing all the potential problems/risks, from insurance to pay to the way it feels to step into the Unknown).

That same vice that makes you see the negatives in one situation will make you see the problems in others. But I’ve been thinking. Maybe the parallel works both ways? Maybe by learning to embrace a heritage of good home cooks, for example, you step towards learning to embrace everything else. What do you think?

I’m starting with this meat sauce.

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because it’s not about that (chicken with tomatoes and simple salad)

lunch with Kim

I wish I were better at having people over.

Did you know etiquette suggests things like this: “Set the dining table the night before and cover it with a bedsheet [because] it is too nerve-wracking to do this an hour or so before your guests arrive”? I’d like to respectfully suggest that it’s too nerve-wracking to be that well-prepared. I am much more likely to be the person running to the grocery the morning of, picking up a bottle of white wine for the chicken recipe and some Parmesan (scratch that, I grabbed Pecorino) for the salad, laying out a tablecloth and slicing up the bread while also stirring the couscous and snacking on dark chocolate, and then, just when I’m standing over the stove, ready to put the raw chicken in the pan, the doorbell rings.

It’s a funny thing, being reunited with someone who used to know you, after years of living separate lives, and Friday, the first day of 2010, my old roommate Kim was at my door, which I answered with my apron still on, out of breath, hugging her and then leading her to the kitchen. She’d remember better, but I think my first few words were something like, “How are you? Did you have any trouble getting here? So, seriously, how do you catch up with someone you haven’t seen in almost six years? I want to know everything! But first, I have to grab something,” after which, I fell up the stairs.

Thankfully, Kim’s a better sport than an etiquette guidebook would be, and she not only stood right next to me while I pounded chicken cutlets, sauteed garlic in olive oil (then adding tomatoes until they puckered, at which point they’re set aside), added sage leaves and laid the flattened, floured chicken inside the pan in two separate batches, but she also helped, particularly when I added the white wine and tomatoes back into the pan, which sent bursts of steam and sizzle into the already-hot and windowless kitchen and I near panicked at the certain fear I must have been putting in her about lunch. I hate that I get so flustered, but if I had to do it, I am glad it was with her.

chicken with tomatoes

So back to the chicken: I owe the original recipe to Sarah of In Praise of Leftovers, a site I very much love to read, and she had adapted it from a cookbook by Tessa Kiros (the same woman who wrote Falling Cloudberries, whose milk-honey-and-cinnamon ice cream I enjoyed so much).

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Happy Jack Eats: Tomato, plain and tall

I am particularly excited about today’s guest post because Jacqui isn’t just one of my favorite food bloggers—she’s one of my favorite writers, one of my favorite eaters, one of my favorite people. She also lives very close by, so I get to hang out with her sometimes, and that’s very fine.

Before I start rambling on about food, I’d just like to thank Shannalee for inviting me into this lovely space she has. If you don’t know her personally, you probably should, because she really is one of a kind. The kind that you can meet just once and know that yes, we’ll be good friends, I can tell.

Now, about these tomatoes.

tomatoes

They were from my future sister-in-law’s garden, and as soon as I laid eyes on them, I knew we’d be friends, too. These were not your perfectly round, fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand, flawless tomatoes that shimmer in piles at the grocery store. No, these were large and awkward, so wide that they curled up at the ends, as if trying to look like any other tomato but failing miserably.

I couldn’t help but think of someone very tall who slouches in order to appear shorter. And I thought that that’s a shame because no one should have to hold back from standing tall and proud, just to fit in with everyone else. I hate to sound cliché and tell you that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, but when cutting through those tomatoes, it just couldn’t get much simpler than that. The flesh was bright and meaty, almost sighing with relief as juice spilled across the cutting board. As if they had been holding back so much and finally had a chance to give.

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the whole truth

tomato on vine

This is going to seem like a terrible story to tell on a food blog, I mean, on this food blog, the one where I’m always saying we should embrace new things and shake food preconceptions and, Hey! You have no excuse not to try this!, but I’m going to tell it anyway, because if there’s one thing I want this place to be, it’s honest, and I think it’s time I was.

From where I sit tonight, with a cup of decaf green tea at my side, I have to tell you this uncomfortable fact: I have a sensitive stomach.

I’ve hinted at it before, even come right out with it when we talked about vegan ice cream, but I’ve never really given you the background, and seeing as that full story is how I first met my friend Nealy in grad school and the kind of thing that comes in handy when another friend gets diagnosed with colitis, as one did recently, I figure you might want to hear it, too. Maybe you know someone like me, or maybe you are someone like me.

tomatoes

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meant to be

making ketchup

Up until about the middle of January this year, it had never occurred to me that one could produce ketchup in any way other than, well, walking into the local Dominick’s and grabbing some.

Then Kelly of wonderful Eat Make Read posted her version of a recipe from Saveur. This, in addition to sending me promptly to the store to buy my own copy of the issue, which was dedicated to home cooks, got me curious.

Around that same time, my friend Kelley (different Kelley, she with an e and of banana bread fame) and I had started reading a book together. (All right, full disclosure, we actually ended up reading different books but by the same author, Jefferey Steingarten.) She was making fast headway in hers, but it took me a few months to reach even the middle of mine, where he would discuss, it turns out, the subject of ketchup, in great detail.

And that was not the end.

See, when I’d read Steingarten’s ketchup chapter last week, it was just a few days after I had also seen, over at Endless Simmer, a post by my blogging friend Nick of Macheesmo. He wrote, if you can believe it, an entire post in defense of—what else?—ketchup.

Now, I don’t know what your feelings are on this thing we call fate (or as some like me might say, providence or even sovereignty). Probably these are questions best considered when one watches last week’s episode of LOST, I know, but, honestly: How can you look at those top three references—all of which took place within the same two-and-a-half-month span and after a lifetime of no such thing—and not see what I see: I was meant to make ketchup.

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