Food Friday: What’s in Your Lunchbox?


When I was in high school, Meg LeGros sat behind me in Latin class. She had a short, dark pixie do, and she was spritely and funny and smart. She introduced me to the lifelong joys of using a Rapidograph drawing pen, and inspired yearning for her plaid, tin lunchbox, which was retro even in the Seventies. Her cute lunchbox sat on top of her pile of books as we swotted along, droning declensions and memorizing key Latin phrases that would help us sail through the SATs.

I carried an ordinary brown paper bag for my lunch. There was never anything inspired in it, I am afraid. A cheese sandwich, an orange, some squashed potato chips. Meg, who was a junior and in a much loftier social position, and a more fashionable lunch period, probably had duck sandwiches slathered with nectar, and lavish metaphors of ambrosia and rose hips tucked into waxed paper bags. I think she ended up going to Brown.

Later on, I tried to be a little more inspired with our children, who had super cute (though never retro cute) lunch boxes, with ziplock Baggies filled with sandwiches, broccoli florets, orange slices, strawberries, and Fritos. When the Tall One was in elementary school his signature sandwich was bologna on Pepperidge Farm White Bread, with his portrait squirted out in bright yellow mustard on the watermelon pink disk of processed meat: a happy face with a tangle of yellow curls. The Pouting Princess carted an endless supply of peanut butter sandwiches with disgusting tubes of squirtable pink yogurt and shimmery packs of Capri Sun juices. Bottled water didn’t become fashionable until middle school.

We tried to be healthy and of the moment, packing vegetables along with the chocolate chip cookies. We were encouraged by the schools to bring homemade cupcakes for birthday celebrations – although the store-bought variety seemed more popular among the young. And now we would not be allowed to bring peanut butter sandwiches from home. We were just ahead of the frightening peanut curve.We have a friend who is deathly allergic to peanuts, so the peanut ban makes perfect sense. These can be scary times!

Which is not to say that your lunches, and your children’s lunches, can’t be a spritely and groovy as Meg LeGros’s! Have you seen Bento boxes? Totally adorable. Meg probably has a collection of vintage ones. Even Rubbermaid is making colorful, healthy plastic (no dangerous BPA, and they can be recycled) Bento-ish boxes. They are a nightmare to keep sorted in the cabinet I must say, but their whimsical color-coding seems to cancel the annoyance.

If you have to prepare lunches for someone, say someone in kindergarten, deposit said short person in the car seat and buzz over to the grocery story. Better yet, do it on a Saturday when the farmers’ market is open, so the child meets the farmers.

Do you want an apple picked in Galena or some peaches from Sharpsburg? You choose, tiny student. Perhaps some local strawberries? Excellent idea! Shall we try some squash? Let’s put it in the little green box! Shall we make pita pizzas or ham pinwheels? What will fit in this box? Oooh, let’s try some salsa and some artisan ground corn tortilla chips (no high fructose corn syrup, please). And a few cracker nibbles spread with some of Eve’s Cheddar cheese? How delightful! Flavored water, or tap?

And you, too, Tall Reader, you can treat yourself to all these earthly pleasures. They are not only for the young. A nice packed lunch of tasty and local treats will perk up your day considerably. You can wander away from your computer, pick up your book, sit outside in the sunlight (which will be fading soon, and you need to store some up for the winter) and enjoy yourself for once. Don’t forget to pack a cupcake – homemade buttercream is the best.

Take a little time out to plan. I know. It is difficult, but the results will be beautiful and worthwhile. There is always something to see at a farmers’ market. Buy some flowers, too. We need to brighten all the corners that we can.

For you wrangling the young ‘uns:

And for the adults:

“They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily. There was a dish of salt for everyone to dip their eggs into.
‘I don’t know why, but the meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors,’ said George.”
― Enid Blyton,

Food Friday: Back to Back Breakfasts


Let us take a page from Christmas. Don’t panic; we still have a few months to go before we start worrying about that. But summer vacation is almost over. And school is about to start. What are you going to have for breakfast Monday morning?

I suggest that a little of the planning, much like holiday prep can be applied to our everyday, real life breakfast experience. On Christmas morning we always have a couple of favorite breakfast casseroles pre-cooked and sitting in the fridge, waiting to be re-heated. And while you might not want to prepare a casserole or a sheet of sausage rolls every night, you don’t need to panic every single morning about breakfast, especially now that school is starting.

You can start off small, with a batch of Scrambled Egg Muffins (courtesy of Food52: that you bake on Sunday afternoon. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. By Thursday you’ll feel confident enough to toss frozen, home made pancakes into the microwave. On Friday you’ll enjoy revving up the blender for a healthy, brainy avocado smoothie.

There are no more leisurely summer vacation breakfasts spent contentedly reading the local newspaper at a picnic table overlooking a lake from your summer rental. You can’t look for the perfect sunrise to immortalize on Instagram any more, either. You are back in the saddle, like it or not. And some of you have young folk who need to be stoked up and filled to the brim with healthy brain food every morning.

There’s a lot going on in those growing brains, and we know that we should be doing better than a bowl of Cap’n Crunch. We want them to concentrate, remember what they are learning, and keep their energy levels up until lunchtime. It is a daunting task, particularly when we are trying to eat good, healthy food.

A lot of the prepared foods are full of sugars, fat and salt; all the scrummy things we human beings adore. But they are not very healthy for us, I’m sad to say. And look at that fourth grader, staring moodily at you across the counter. Does he really want a bowl of heart-healthy oatmeal. Again? Not likely. So consider your audience as you peruse my handy dandy sheet of breakfast ideas.

I love repetition. I can eat a turkey sandwich every day for a week. But you might be a little more normal, and like to shake things up. When you bake a sheet of twelve muffins, that might seem like money in the bank. But only for a couple of days. Don’t plan on foisting off muffins on your first grader for the next twelve days. Even if he really seems to like them on Monday, by Thursday it will get ugly. Maybe you can consult with said child, and see what his take is, and maybe the two of you can make a plan. Rapid rotation is probably key!

Most mornings I have about enough energy and enthusiasm for a slice of cold pizza and the funnies. But given the proper motivation (this list) and a calming trip to the grocery store, even you can have a variety of healthy ingredients on hand to make some tempting make-ahead, back to back breakfasts. And then you can devote your worrying to charging the iPhones, signing permission slips, finding the sneakers, getting the laundry out of the dryer, putting the dog in his crate and finding your car keys.

Maybe the two (or three, four, five) of you can make it a weekly family event. Family Breakfast Prep Time might only last for the first couple of weeks of school before it comes crashing back down on your shoulders, but it could be a pleasant time for you all. Instead of sinking onto the sofa with HGTV after dinner, maybe you can whip up a little batch of granola – which can then be a cereal base, an ingredient in a yogurt parfait, or tossed into a smoothie or made into snack bars.

I have some great memories of times in the kitchen with our children. You can’t expect every minute to go smoothly, and you have to keep in mind that their attention spans can be short (it’s all that Cap’n Crunch they used to eat). Consider it a moment of triumph when someone learns to measure a cup of whole wheat flour, or lines the muffin pan with cute, crimped paper cups without first being asked. You can teach some life skills, like how to bake bacon, or wash blueberries or peel carrots. And first aid!

You are saving time from chaos and drama in the morning, and exercising those potentially sizable and vulnerable little brains. And it is time spent away from the electronic screens! Maybe after you figure breakfast out you can all go read a little Harry Potter. Magic!

granola and muesli,
bagels and breads




Granola and Muesli


Pancakes, waffles


Pizza (I had to include it!)

Bagels & Breads

More reading…

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.”
― A.A. Milne

Food Friday: Chicken Cutlets for Your Summer Soul


I have seamlessly slalomed down the slippery slope toward summertime kitchen entrapment. Last week I let Nigel Slater convince me that it was perfectly permissible to break my golden rule about cooking in the summertime. Oh, it is fine to steam a few ears of corn on top of the stove – as long as you eat the resulting buttery-dripping delights outside on the back porch. And yes, it will not offend the Lazy Summer Gods if you bake shortcakes, because how else are you possibly going to consume all those beauteous strawberries you found at the farmers’ market? Of course you can rustle up some bacon on a Sunday morning. But that is about it. Otherwise you may only consume any coolth that comes from the freezer, victuals grilled by other people, or eat onion rings from Dairy Queen, sitting in a car, sharing them with the dog. These activities all fall within the strict parameters of Limited Exposure to Cooking During the Hot Stinky Summer.

But then Nigel Slater warbled his siren song about really good Spaghetti Bolognese, and it was downhill for my natural and formidable abilities for avoiding the kitchen. I was listening to a perfectly charming 92Y podcast with Mark Bittman and Mario Batali, which was moderated by The New York Times food editor Sam Sifton while Luke (the wonder dog) and I were working on our 10,000 steps one day last week. (So many rules and goals in the summer!) And I allowed a crazy thought to rise to my over-heated consciousness. “Huh. That sounds good. That would be perfect for dinner Saturday night!” And there you have it. Along about step 8,527 my resolve was undone. I was planning on cooking a meal, in the house, on top of the stove, in the middle of the Hot Stinky Summer.

Check iTunes for the podcast:

And I can sling the hot sauce of blame on another couple of people: Anthony Bourdain and The Wall Street Journal, to name just two. I have just started watching Bourdain’s The Layover and he waxed poetical about chicken and rice during his layover in Singapore (where Mr. Friday was visiting right at that precise moment). Rice cooked with chicken stock is a specialty in Singapore, where it is always at least 85 degrees. Certainly if cooks in Singapore can stand the constant fiery state of a kitchen, who was I to complain? And I have central air conditioning…

This is how I made the rice:
Chicken Broth , 2 cups
White Rice , 1 cup
1 tablespoon olive oil

I heat up the pan with the oil on a medium high temp, and sauté the rice for about a minute, then add the broth, and boil merrily for another minute, before lowering the heat, and covering the pan, and walking away for about 15 minutes. Give it a stir so it doesn’t stick. Keep it covered until all the broth is absorbed and the rice is tender. Serve with copious amounts of good European-style butter.

Interestingly, The Wall Street Journal supplied the idea of a summery panzanella salad. Theirs included peaches and burrata, which I thought would be an interesting summer variation on one of our favorite salad themes. I could not find burrata at our grocery store, so I used some fresh mozzarella which still tasted mighty fine and creamy. Plus I only turned the oven on for a just a wee little while, just to make the bread a little crunchier.

And dessert was strictly by the book. Yes, I whipped out the mini food processor and then the electric mixer, but I did not use any heat to the delightful Strawberry Fool, which took mere minutes to prepare. But to ensure my place in hell, I served it with a plateful of Pepperidge Farm cookies. Yumsters.

Join me in the ever capacious hand basket shooting full speed to hell. I confess well and truly, yesterday I cooked chicken and baked bacon to make my friend Chris’s world famous Club Chicken Salad. Deelightful.

Chris’s Chicken Club Salad

Serves 4

Cook 1/2 pound bacon, crisp and crumble (be sure to save the fat)
1 cup bread cubed (use nice, firm French bread – Pepperidge Farm white won’t work)
3 cups cooked chicken breast, cubed and chilled
2 fulsomely ripe tomatoes, quartered
1 head Romaine, torn (not cut) into bite-size piece

3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon capers

Sauté the bread cubes in the bacon fat, tossing constantly to toast all the sides. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. (I harden our arteries a little with some Lawry’s Seasoning Salt.) Put the chicken in a bowl, cover with dressing, add the capers and toss to coat each piece with dressing. Chill for half an hour. Arrange lettuce on each plate and mound the chicken salad on the lettuce. Crumble the bacon on top, surround with tomato quarters and top each with the crunchy, wonderful croutons. Serve with a frosty cold beer. Yummm. Perfect for picnics.

“’Come with me,’ Mom says.
‘To the library.
Books and summertime
go together.’”
― Lisa Schroeder

Food Friday: Breaking the Rules


Beware of rabbit holes. With just a flick of my iPhone I managed to destroy my strict annual summer No Cooking Rule. That’s all it took. A little idle curiosity while driving with Mr. Friday, and suddenly, on a Saturday night, I was chopping onions and garlic and tending to a pan of simmering meats and tomatoes. I had turned on the stove and was cooking. In the summer. When my default mode is to eat only cool salads, watermelon, peaches, strawberries and ice cream. When someone else tends the grill and I picturesquely sip frosty flutes of light and refreshing Prosecco. I picture myself in a nimbus of gauzy sunlight, wearing a flow-y white frock. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. And yet, it was quite fun and novel standing in the kitchen, peering into a hot saucepan, anticipating a good meal.

Quite often when I am driving with Mr. Friday I whip out the smart phone to answer life’s difficult questions. You know the kind of thing I mean, when you have to know immediately what was John Wayne’s last movie? What time is it in Sydney? Was “On Broadway” really in that old Radio Free Europe television commercial? But here was the killer; innocently I Googled “Food52 weekend entertaining”. And that’s when Nigel Slater’s Really Good Spaghetti Bolognese became part of our food canon.

We had been trying to think of something other than our usual steak or pork chops or grilled pizza to have for dinner when we would be entertaining a new friend. One of my bad habits is that I think nothing of trying new recipes on company. Which means dinner parties at our house are often fraught with peril. Sometimes things fail miserably: the soufflé falls, the cream doesn’t whip, the cake self-immolates, the risotto is runny. Luckily we usually have enough cheap white wine to gloss over any imperfections, and people have been known to return.

The Spaghetti Bolognese was a great recipe. It was a little time consuming, as the mixture needed to simmer for at least an hour to an hour and a half, but I was able to swan around and fold napkins and fluff the hydrangeas, while stirring, occasionally, and gulping down the aforementioned Prosecco. And luckily there were tasty nibbly snacks and good music. With dinner we also had bread, a little salad and bowls of sliced peaches that were lightly dressed in a snow drift of freshly whipped cream. And the summer continues on its course. Perhaps I can boil up a pot of pasta every now and then. It will keep me in practice for winter. It is good to break the rules, as they say, otherwise we would never enjoy some of the fleeting forbidden pleasures.

I always think that the folks at Food52 are the cool kids. They have excellent ideas, and are witty and irreverent. You should try listening to their podcasts, too:
They have more sources for the unusual than we basic home cooks, but we can make adjustments. My grocery store doesn’t carry pancetta, but the thick sliced applewood smoked bacon I substituted seemed to work just fine.
The comments in parentheses are mine.

Nigel Slater’s Really Good Spaghetti Bolognese

Serves 4
For the bolognese
• 4 tablespoons butter
• 3 ounces cubed pancetta (I diced 4 slices of thick cut grocery store-sourced bacon)
• 1 medium onion
• 2 fat cloves garlic
• 1 carrot
• 2 stalks celery
• 2 large, flat mushrooms such as portobello, about 4 ounces (I left the mushrooms out)
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 pound ground beef or lamb
• 1 cup crushed tomatoes or passata
• ¼ cup red wine
• ¾ cup stock
• 1 nutmeg (I used McCormack’s ground nutmeg, quelle horreur!)
• ¾ cup half-and-half or cream

For serving
• Spaghetti or tagliatelle for 4 (I used Buitoni fresh linguine)
• Grated Parmesan
1. Melt the butter in a large, heavy-based pot — then stir in the pancetta and let it cook for five minutes or so, without coloring much. Meanwhile peel and finely chop the onion and garlic and stir them into the pancetta. Peel and finely chop the carrot and celery and stir them in, too. Lastly, finely chop the mushrooms and add to the pan, then tuck in the bay leaves and leave to cook for ten minutes over a moderate heat, stirring frequently.
2. Turn up the heat and tip in the meat, breaking it up well with a fork.
3. Now leave to cook without stirring for a good three or four minutes, then, as the meat on the bottom is starting to brown, stir again, breaking up the meat where necessary, and leave to color.
4. Mix in the tomatoes, red wine, stock, a grating of nutmeg and some salt and black pepper, letting it come to the boil. Turn the heat down so that everything barely bubbles. There should be movement, but one that is gentle, not quite a simmer. Partially cover the pan with a lid and leave to putter away for an hour to an hour and a half, stirring from time to time and checking the liquid levels. You don’t want it to be dry.
5. Pour in the half-and-half or cream a bit at a time, stir and continue cooking for twenty minutes. Check the seasoning, then serve with the pasta and grated Parmesan.

“It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. ”
― Nigel Slater

Food Friday: Enjoying the Heat?


I can barely walk Luke the Wonder Dog in all this heat. We open the front door, only to be blasted backward with eyebrow-singeing heat waves. He has figured out how to walk in the shadows cast by buildings later in the afternoon, but the 11:30 walk is brutal. The sun is relentless and steadily broils the tops of our heads as we scurry around the clumps of blooming crepe myrtles, through a parking lot shimmering with heat, around the corner, through the sun-crisped weeds, trekking over the undulating brick sidewalk, and eventually pull ourselves back into the coolth of the house. The walk only lasts about 20 minutes. He lies panting on the chilly tile bathroom floor for half an hour, and I change out of my literal sweats. Again. Remind me in the dead of winter how much I enjoy summer, please.

Luckily, when I am barely strong enough to turn another page of my current mystery novel, I have a cool summer dinner strategy. I have a stash of farm-fresh vegetables, some good bread, with a couple of bottles of cheap white wine cooling merrily in the fridge. There are Popsicles in the freezer. I can check dinner off the Worry List – it can practically make itself. The trick is to acquire and actually use fresh vegetables. All too often I forget about the cucumber, and a week later I find a baggie of green goo in the bottom of the vegetable bin. It is a sad business when a cucumber oozes away.

Here is a list of summer vegetables and some staples I try to have on hand to relieve my heat prostration:

Onions (green, purple and Vidalia)
Green peppers
Red peppers
Jalepeno peppers
Habanero peppers
Tomatoes (heirloom, Roma, Campari, canned)
Zucchinis (this is summer after all, and folks will soon be piling these home-grown
beauties, anonymously, on your front porch, in the dead of the night!)
Basil, basil, basil
Lime juice
Feta cheese
Mint leaves
Olive oil
Sea salt
Anchovies (I’d rather not, thanks)
Serano ham
Manchego cheese
Bacon (because you can add bacon to just about anything and make something

And here are some lovely, cool and easy recipes. The Chez Panisse Ratatouille is listed in case you need to show off and don’t mind standing at the stove for a little while. We are having some business acquaintances over for dinner next week, so I think we will try to impress with that. But if it is too hot for me to abandon Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers with that nasty trip wire murder in Essex, I think the Little Observationist Gazpacho will fit the bill admirably. I might up the dessert ante a little bit, though, and slice some peaches over bowls of vanilla ice cream. Yumsters. I do love summer. Remind me again this winter…

We like this salad, but surprisingly, Mr. Friday (who is such a caper devotée) prefers it without the capers. You try it and let us know.
Panzanella Salad:

If you have ever longed to live a charmed life in London you should visit this highly entertaining blog: Ex-pat Stephanie travels, takes excellent envy-inducing photos, wines, dines and gets to preview the Royal Chelsea Flower Show among her many London adventures. It is one of my favorite blogs. This is a recipe she shared this week when her husband prepared Jorge’s Refreshing Summer Gazpacho:

Our super cool friends at Food52 are always looking for new and quick and tasty. We love this Fresh Hot Salsa with some warm tortilla chips and some cold beer:

It can’t get much easier or tastier than this Rachel Ray Tomato and Onion Salad:

The Smitten Kitchen even helps us combine dessert fruit with the main course, cutting down on the number of dishes to be washed and overall prep time, Chopped Vegetable, Watermelon and Feta Salad:

Slice and dice to impress with Chez Panisse Ratatouille:

“Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever . . . the cottages with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky, the little paths over the roots of the trees leading from camp to camp. This was the American family at play, escaping the city heat.”
― E.B. White

Food Friday: Festive Fourth of July Feasts


There are a couple of paths that national holiday foods take here in the United States: hidebound and family-centric, or casual and open-to-suggestion. On Thanksgiving we gather closely together inside the confines of a house to share a bounty of foods with our nearest and dearest – and every year everyone brings the exact same dishes (and baggage) to the table. Mom always brings the pearl onions. Ken always mashes the potatoes. Peter is loathe to let anyone else lovingly baste the turkey. We have assignments and mutual expectations for the annual ritual. Each year we tell the same stories, and most likely, engage in the same jawboning arguments. We get increasingly snappish with the each glass of wine. Turkey and tiffs, they go together.

The Fourth of July reliably brings back free and happy plein air-y summer memories of childhood. A general feeling of freedom and bonhomie presides over the Fourth of July. We rid ourselves of tyranny, so now, let the games begin! We’ll be eating outside, waving sparklers, cooling off with a hose and being impatient for the fireworks to begin. We play baseball and horseshoes or even croquet! We share a collective memory of sitting on a blanket, waiting for dusk to fall, trying to catch fire flies. The blanket is on the damp grass in a lumpy, bumpy field surrounded by small clusters of friends and family and strangers. There is always a baby who is startled by the unexpected noise, and then, hopefully, is charmed by the magical streaking lights in the sky. By the time the grand finale rolls along one hopes the baby is a fireworks convert. If not? There is always next year.

Unlike Thanksgiving there is no set-in-stone food item on the Independence Day menu. You can let your imagination run riotously through the grocery store aisles. Instead of staid turkey you can rustle up a veritable cornucopia of delights. You can have hamburgers, hot dogs, steak, fried chicken or brats. I daresay some folks will be grilling lamb chops, barbecued ribs or shish kabobs. And what about shrimp and paella? Opportunistic vegetarians can toss any number of veggies onto the barbie. Grilled corn! What a summer treat! Baked beans! Potato chips! Potato salad! Cucumber salad! Pickles! A clambake! Lobster! Crabs! The picnic table can be a veritable groaning board on the Fourth of July, and it is up to you to explore the possibilities! And best of all, there is no good china to wash, or silver to polish.

The New York Times has a mind-boggling array of Fourth of July food ideas:

Our clever friends at Food52 also have a compendium of inspiration:

All of our grill masters have their own secret hamburger grilling practices, but we found advice from an unusual source: Popular Mechanics!

There are some among us who dote on deviled eggs, and the Fourth of July is the perfect time to whip up a batch or two:

Here is an idea for sprucing up the corn on the cob ritual, grilling instead of boiling or steaming, and adding some lime juice and a dusting of cheese:
Or this way with ginger bacon butter!

Drinkwise, I think filling a galvanized tub filled with ice, glass bottles of Coke, a few beers, some Prosecco and a big fat watermelon is quite enough for a perfect Fourth. But you might want to try some of these festive Fourth of July-themed cocktails:

I am going to try my hand at this impressive Food52 American Flag Cake:
All I ever usually manage is a vanilla sheet cake, slathered in whipped cream and artfully decorated with a square of blueberries and some wobbly, waving strawberry stripes. It is always delicious, it is a kid crowd pleaser, and it is easy peasy, which as you Gentle Readers know, is my kitchen mantra. Yumsters!

Have a happy and safe Independence Day!
From your friends in the Spy test kitchens!

“You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.”
-Erma Bombeck

Food Friday: Easy Peasy, No-Bake Summertime Desserts


One of my favorite, best-thumbed, dog-eared, crumb-y cookbooks is Peg Bracken’s The I Hate to Cook Book. Partly because she is so funny, partly because of Hilary Knight’s charming illustrations, and partly because Peg Bracken is so right. It is stinking hot, and because we are middle class folks, we seem to think we need three meals a day to exist. Didn’t we just eat supper last night? Do we really have to cook again? Right now, I just hate to cook.

I have been running out of ideas for supper. I could be very happy with a Popsicle or two for supper at this time of year, but then I am afraid the wine to Popsicle ratio would get out of whack and I would gain a reputation. Bread and cheese would be a clever alternative, with a sliced apple or a pear, but we are being warned away from wheat flour and unless we pick those apples ourselves on a certified organic farm, who knows what petrochemicals lurk beneath the skins?

Last night we made nachos for dinner, which was a pretty basic meal. The most labor-intensive action was browning the meat, followed by grating some sharp Cheddar cheese. Dicing the onions and jalapenos required little physical (or mental) effort. Opening the can of refried beans was a breeze. And then we sat at the kitchen counter, with two candles as our gesture toward romance. We couldn’t even stagger into the dining room it was so hot, and we were worn to a frazzle.

I hate some of the magazine recipes that sound so breezy and self-assured. Especially the ones that claim that you can make them with the ingredients already in your kitchen. I once went to a highly deceptive cooking class. It claimed to teach you how to make the perfect emergency recipe, if people stopped by around the cocktail hour. You could whip this up in a jiffy with the basic stores every decently-run household keeps on hand. To which I had to say, “Ha!” If my friends stop by at the cocktail hour, they know that their best shot at getting hors d’œuvres or an aperitif would be a handful of Planter’s Lightly Salted Peanuts or maybe some aging Doritos. (These friends who stop by at the cocktail hour would be well advised to bring along some chilled, cheap white wine.) I do not keep frozen shrimp in the fridge (unless it is bait). I have never bought fois gras. Chervil? Figs? Mascarpone? I do have a large jar of capers, though. And cornmeal. And olives. OK. I could do a 1950’s relish platter. I have pickles, olives, celery and carrots. But the celery is looking a little limp…

I found this recipe while trolling around, and it could almost be classified as one you could make with ingredients on hand. Ostensibly. Raspberries are in season. Heavy cream is easily hunted and gathered. Many households stock graham crackers, although my kindergarteners are out of college right now. And chocolate chips. If you have them, great. If not, I bet this would still be divine. It is almost like a berry shortcake, but without having to turn on the oven to bake the shortcake. And it would work with different fruits, too. Strawberries, blueberries, peaches, plums. Maybe not rhubarb. But I digress.

Here is the recipe the way I found it – then I will tell you how I changed it to fit us.

No-Bake Strawberry Icebox Cake
Serves 8 to 12
2 pounds fresh strawberries, washed
3 1/4 cups whipping cream, divided
1/3 cup confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon rosewater (optional)
4 sleeves (about 19 ounces, or 24 to 28 whole crackers) graham crackers
2 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped

Take out a few of the best-looking strawberries and set them aside for the garnish. Hull the remainder of the strawberries and slice each berry into thin slices.

With a hand mixer or in the bowl of a stand mixer, whip 3 cups of cream until it just holds stiff peaks. Add the confectioners sugar, vanilla, and rosewater (if using) and whip to combine.

Spread a small spoonful of whipped cream on the bottom of a 9×13 inch baking pan, or a similarly sized platter. Lay down six graham crackers. Lightly cover the top of the graham crackers with more whipped cream, and then a single layer of strawberries. Repeat three times, until you have four layers of graham crackers. Spread the last of the whipped cream over the top and swirl it lightly with a spoon. Add a few more strawberries.

No-Bake Berry Refrigerator Cake, à la Spy

1 16-ounce container of fresh raspberries (or blueberries, or a mixture)
1 pint heavy whipping cream (do NOT use Cool Whip)
1 tablespoon (if you must) Confectioner’s sugar
Graham crackers to fit (I used about a sleeve and a half)
2 ounces Ghiradelli 60% Cacao bittersweet chocolate chips
2 ounces butter
1 splash of Bourbon or Crown Royal (This is what we used to make ganache, and we still have no idea where the bottle came from. Nobody remembers buying it.)
1 brownie pan

Rinse the raspberries, carefully.
Whip the cream until stiff. Add the Confectioner’s sugar, if you want to. The berries and the graham crackers are sweet enough, in my opinion.

Lightly slather some whipped cream in the bottom of the pan. Line the pan with 1 layer of graham crackers. You will have to break them up a little bit to fit your pan. Add a layer of whipped cream; add a layer of raspberries.

Repeat: graham crackers, whipped cream, berries. I got to about 3 layers of graham crackers, but I have a deep brownie pan. Finish off with whipped cream and a presentable arrangement of berries.

Now melt the chocolate and the butter together in a small saucepan over a low heat, stirring constantly, so the chocolate doesn’t scorch. Stir in the splash of Crown Royal, or not.

Dribble the chocolate ganache over the top of the heavenly mixture.

Pop in the fridge to cool. Then cover, and keep in the fridge for a few hours to let everything ooze and mingle and meld.
Serve. And eat deeply of summer.

“How sweet I roamed from field to field, and tasted all the summer’s pride.”
-William Blake

Food Friday: Going on Vacation Tomatoes


(I am sneaking out of town, so this is a repeat of a Food Friday column from a couple of summers ago. Enjoy!)

As we mosey into summer, we need to conserve all of our energy, and we don’t want to heat up the whole house with a wayward oven, or sweat in an embarrassing and unnecessary fashion. We are too cool, after all. We require shade and comfy pillows and a good long book.

I was trapped in the grocery store the other day by an early summer thunderstorm. The rain fell in loud torrents onto the flat roof and it felt like I was inside a steel drum. Luckily I was meandering in the produce department – which is always a great source of inspiration – and I found an artful display of fat, healthy red tomatoes. Now I don’t live near Brooklyn, so the hip, green market vibe, with young artisanal entrepreneurs growing organic heirloom tomatoes in their back yard allotments, isn’t my current shopping style. Sigh. Mostly I see bland, cotton-y, grocery-store variety, hothouse tomatoes. I am so glad it is finally tomato season and I can visit the farmers’ market on the weekend and stock up on the good stuff!

Still, these were beautiful and intriguing. Just look at those jewel tones! I brought a few home to try out with one of my favorite Martha recipes. This is one to try, and then use in the dinner menu rotation during the warm summer months. You may be tired of it by October, but that’s OK, because by then you will be eager to have sauces simmering on the back of the Aga. Now there are too many nighttime walks to take with the dog while watching the moonrise over the river, or outdoor concerts, or going downtown to eat ice cream and window shop. Get out of the kitchen! Get out of the house!

Sometimes in the summer we almost forget to eat, or are just too lazy to be creative. One of my favorite last minute meals (are there anything but last minute meals in my house?) is almost a snack. I do not suggest it for a first date. Wait until you know someone well enough to allow him/her to wipe the drip of olive oil from your chin. I take a baguette and cut it down the middle and broil the halves lightly. Once they have cooled I rub a clove of garlic over the toasted tops, generously wave the olive oil container, add tomato slices, layering them with basil from the back yard basil farm, and then I top it all with fresh mozzarella, or buratta, or feta cheese. Dizzle some more oil, pop them back under the broiler for a moment or two, and be sure the wine is nice and cold. A nice warm salad sandwich. And cold is fine, too.

Or you can chop up the tomatoes and make a bruschetta.

This next recipe requires that you boil a pot of water and cook some tortellini. And then you have to cut corn off a couple of cobs, but it is summer vacation now, and those young ‘uns need to make some memories. Send them outside to shuck some ears of corn on the back steps.

Do you remember when this seemed like an exotic and unfamiliar meal? Yumsters!

Mark Bittman, who is my new household god, has mined the mother load here, with stunning graphics. Good bye, Martha! I can’t decide what we will have tonight – the B.L.T. Style Salad or the Stuffed Tomato. Such decisions!

Martha Rose Shulman is coming in as a close second household god. This sounds divine. But I am going to wait for a rainy day, when I won’t mind being in the kitchen while baking the focaccia.

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

Food Friday: Picnic Season

FF_Picnic Sesason

‘Tis the season to skip away from the hot stove and the high maintenance kitchen to dine al fresco, lolling on the grass, longing for someone to peel my grapes, or suggest that we pose for a modern take on Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. I will be wearing a crisp, freshly ironed white Laura Ashley dress, though, with a little sprigging, and my hair will be long and luxuriant. Monsieur Friday and I will have some fine chilled Chardonnay and a basketful of sandwiches. The stream will babble and the mosquitoes will buzz elsewhere.

And we take time to thank Mark Bittman for all of these wonderful ideas which will liven up what could have been the hackneyed and the unambitious luncheon items I thought of first: fried chicken (store bought), watermelon and carrot sticks. Instead, we will have PANZELLA – to which I added a sliced peach after reading his idea for a tomato and peach salad – yumsters.

I love Mark Bittman. Even though he is intent upon helping us eat better, he recognizes the vital importance of the humble potato chip in our lives: “ROAST BEEF AND BLUE Start with whole-grain rolls. Smear blue cheese on one side and prepared horseradish on the other. Add red onion and thin-sliced roast beef, pork or lamb. Pack! Lettuce and tomato on the side. Potato chips are mandatory.” Mandatory! The man is brilliant!

And what a simple and unusual idea he has for a dessert – cornbread cubes with blueberries! “Toss cornbread cubes with blueberries, lemon juice, olive oil and hazelnuts. Yes.” And I agree. The Tall One will quite like this, if I can wrestle the corn bread pan away from him.

I printed this list of ideas for summer meals and have it on the kitchen counter so I will remember to vary our summer meals and make them a little more interesting. Be sure to keep cool this summer!

The Wall Street Journal has been a little less stodgy of late and had this divine recipe. It might be a little labor intensive for us kitchen shirkers, but it is nice to read, in a leisurely fashion, in the shade, with some nice cool lemonade:

Sarabeth’s Summer Chicken Salad
½ pound asparagus, steamed, cooled and cut diagonally into 2-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups tricolor couscous, cooked, rinsed and at room temperature
1 large rotisserie chicken, cooked and sliced (or 6 lightly seasoned chicken cutlets, sautéed or grilled and sliced
1 pound mixed greens (romaine and Boston lettuces, mixed baby greens)
1 large seedless cucumber, peeled and sliced
3 medium seedless oranges, peeled and cut into segments
1 small jicama, peeled, sliced and cut into matchsticks
1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half
4 ounces sweet pea shoots
½ cup whole almonds, toasted
2 cups Tarragon-French Sheep Feta Dressing (recipe follows)
In a large salad bowl, lightly toss the greens, cucumber, orange segments and jicama. Add the couscous. Place the tomatoes on top. Add the pea shoots. Sprinkle on the almonds. Plate each serving and top with the asparagus and chicken slices. Serve with dressing drizzled on top, or on the side. Serves six.

Tarragon-French Sheep Feta Dressing
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
3/4 teaspoon celery seeds
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
4 ounces French Sheep Feta or buttermilk blue cheese, crumbled

In a bowl, whisk together ingredients through salt and pepper. Add the cheese and whisk lightly, leaving small chunks of cheese visible. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours. Yield: 2 cups

Food Friday’s Popular Potato Salad
This is a recipe that people actually ask for – and not just because they are my in-laws and trying hard to be polite! It that constantly evolves and adapts, and each summer brings a new twist. I don’t always have green onions – Vidalias work just fine. No red potatoes? Go for Russets. A little fresh thyme? Why not? It is dependable, tasty and can be adapted and stretched to feed the masses. Just add more potatoes, and more mayonnaise. Particularly fine for large picnic gatherings. Plus you can make it in the morning, and it is just right by suppertime.
Many, many servings…

• 2 pounds little new, red potatoes
• 1 cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise thinned with milk
• 1 bunch green onions, chopped
• Sea salt and pepper to taste
Boil the potatoes until tender. While warm (but not still steaming hot – I have melted my fingerprints slicing too early and my life of crime may start any minute now) slice potatoes and begin to layer them in a large bowl – 1 layer potatoes, then a handful of green onions and salt and pepper. Pour on some of the mayonnaise mixture. Repeat. Gently stir until all the potatoes are coated. You may need to add more mayonnaise mixture when you are ready to serve, as the potatoes absorb the mayo. Put on the table and stand back – the stampede might knock you down!

“’Never plan a picnic,’ Father said. ‘Plan a dinner, yes, or a house, or a budget, or an appointment with the dentist, but never, never plan a picnic.”
― Elizabeth Enright

Food Friday: Strawberry Season


Strawberries are packed with vitamin C, potassium , dietary fiber, folate and antioxidants. Not only are strawberries delicious, they are good for you, obviously. But trust Wikipedia to suck all the joy out of something as delightful as a strawberry. A strawberry “ is not a botanical berry, but an aggregate accessory fruit”. While this information is not as quite as disturbing as looking behind the curtain and discovering that the Wizard of Oz is a merely a nice man from Kansas, it does not inspire felicity. Strawberries are exquisitely tasty, juicy, glistening, ruby-red globules of bliss which happen to healthy food. One doubts that there are many aggregate accessory fruitopians wandering out there.

These wonderful aggregate accessory fruits* abound right now, and so it is time to claim your rightful fill of them. The farm stands and green markets are groaning with the weight of so many strawberries! Hull a handful and sit on the front steps to watch the passing parade. Strawberries are the prelude to summer porch behavior.

Experiment this weekend. While it may be cliché, pop a couple of strawberries into a glass of Champagne. They will beautify that sparkling beverage. It is like algebra – you are squaring two kinds of perfection, resulting in a fizzy glass of X. Even if you are cheap like me and use Prosecco or Cava…

One day I would like to go to Wimbledon. Not for the tennis, mind you, but for the legendary strawberries and cream. The concept of strawberries and cream is genius; so simple, so pure, so divine. Sun-warmed berries are already perfection, but you can go ahead and gild those lilies, and lay on the whipped cream. Slather it on. Nirvana.

Now you can start tinkering. Take those strawberries and whipped cream, and add some sponge cake and meringues and voila – Eton Mess Trifle:

This is one of my favorite summertime dishes. Take the strawberries and whipped cream and add some simple shortcake: Taste the sweet, smooth whipped cream, combined with the juicy berries and crumbly, salty shortcake. It is time travel for me. I am back in the kitchen in the house where I grew up. The room is warm because we have had the gas oven churning away, baking the shortcakes. But I can walk away, out to the cool shady front porch, and I can sit in one of the old wicker chairs, eat my shortcake and read a book. The perfect summer pastime: literature and fine food.

A few more ingredients are required for this Strawberry Crisp, but it is easy and sweet and you don’t have to turn on the oven – one of my adult requirements for perfect summer eating:

Now some of you might be more ambitious than the rest of us. In which case I invite you to try Melissa Clark’s Double Strawberry Cheesecake recipe. You do have to turn the oven on for 30 minutes. Call me when it has cooled, and I’ll bring the Prosecco.

And finally, our friends at Food52 have a great strawberry recipe that doesn’t require an oven, just a food processor and a freezer. No wonder it is one of their Community Picks. It is a fabulous combination: simplicity and blessed coolth for our crazy, overheated world.

Years ago my mother gave me a small metal strawberry huller, which has since disappeared. Actually, I don’t think I have seen it for twenty years – never once in this house. So, as the family disappointment, I stopped hulling strawberries and merely lopped off their leafy little heads with a paring knife. You have to sit through a commercial before you can see this helpful video, so I do apologize, but it really is one of those brilliant ideas you wish you could claim as your own – using a drinking straw to hull strawberries:

*“Technically, the strawberry is an aggregate accessory fruit, meaning that the fleshy part is derived not from the plant’s ovaries but from the receptacle that holds the ovaries.[4] Each apparent “seed” (achene) on the outside of the fruit is actually one of the ovaries of the flower, with a seed inside it.”

“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields… and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
― Sam Gamgee