After the after-after party-

I’ve had quite the busy and momentous few weeks since last I posted! My sister and her lovely new husband threw a sweet and wonderful wedding weekend at a fabulous cabin in the Appalachian mountains, complete with beautiful sunsets, velvety-black skies perfect for lying under on the driveway while watching the meteor shower above us, wonderful time spent with both families, great company, food, and music that we danced all night to. It was a perfect and intimate wedding, exactly them.


We’ve also settled on our new digs in the meantime after an exhausting whirlwind apartment search. Just when I thought we were going to have to settle on a tiny dark shoebox, the clouds lifted and I found a place that has (wait for it ) a KITCHEN WINDOW! I know! I can hardly believe it myself! As with all urban apartments, there are trade-offs, which we are making in the form of multiple flights of stairs, but did I mention the windows? We’ll be moving in mid September and I can’t wait to get my saucepans and skillets unpacked.

Hot on the heels of that exciting turn of events, Grace visited on her way through town, our first visitor since the move. It was especially sweet since she is moving to Vietnam for a year’s adventure with the aforementioned lovely new husband and we won’t get to see her for a while. We had a wander ’round my new neighborhood and then Scott took us out for an Indian dinner in Greenwich Village. We caught up on what we didn’t have time to at the wedding and I introduced her to Italian ice and a cannoli. Seeing her off in the train station was bittersweet- although a tiny  and slightly acerbic portion of my brain was telling the weepy me that it was being made all the more poignant  by the drama of waving goodbye to a loved one in a choo-choo train station; goodbyes don’t come grander than that. I will miss her ridiculously. I’m sure we will be putting skype through its paces.

One really nice thing about the wedding was that we all cooked together, chicken and vegetable skewers, salads, corn on the cob, boiled peanuts and watermelon, sangria and my mom’s cheesecake. I made a favorite salad of mine that was really good. Here is the recipe.

Black Eyed Pea and Rice Salad

1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

2 cups cooked short grain brown rice, still warm

2 cups black-eyed peas (if canned, rinsed and drained; or fresh, cooked until tender; frozen, cooked until tender)

1 medium cucumber, peeled and diced

1 mango, diced small

1 avocado, diced

1 red onion, diced small

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 can diced green chiles or a hot pepper (jalapeno or serrano perhaps)of your choice, minced

large handful of cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

In a bowl large enough to toss all of your ingredients, mix the salt, cumin and rice vinegar until the salt has dissolved. Tumble the still-warm rice into the bowl and gently toss the rice in the vinegar until the rice has soaked up all of the liquid. Taste the rice and add a bit more vinegar at a time if needed until there is a distinct but subtle twang throughout the rice. Gently toss in the black-eyed peas.If you have flame proof hands like mine, use your fingers to lightly mix everything so the rice and peas don’t turn to mush; otherwise, a pair of forks, if wielded gingerly, should work very well. Set the bowl aside and allow the mixture to come down to room temperature.

Meanwhile, all of the other vegetables can be cut up; I like to dice everything to roughly the same size as the black-eyed peas so that no one flavor overwhelms the forkful. While a ripe and juicy mango and guacamole-ready avocado are usually preferable, in this case it is better to err  toward a slightly firmer fruit in order to keep them from dissolving into the salad. While the cucumber and onion provide the pleasant contrast of crunch and the mango and red pepper are bright notes of sweetness, the avocado should be buttery nuggets of richness in lieu of oil in the dressing.

When the rice and peas are cool, add all of the vegetables, chilis and cilantro into the mixing bowl and, again, gently incorporate until thoroughly combined. I prefer to allow the flavors to mingle for at least an hour before eating, but it will keep well for several days. Since it is most flavorful at just cooler than room temperature, it is ideal for picnics or a one-dish lunch at work.

Something to remember about the type of rice you choose: long grain rice like Basmati or Jasmine has a different type of starch than shorter and stickier rice. One characteristic of long grain rice is that it is very firm when it is chilled- almost crunchy. For this reason, I usually use short grain rice for this recipe, since it is usually eaten when at least slightly chilled. The sciencey version of why this happens is explained here.

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Spring green: Roast Asparagus

I think it is safe to say that Spring has truly arrived. Capricious weather, wildflower covered hillsides, and that brief ten minutes of overlap in the year when the hills are green at the same time that trees are in leaf – these are my first clues. But the real indicator is my insatiable craving for fresh foods like bright peppery watercress, sweet green peas, crunchy lettuce salads, and emerald stalks of asparagus. I want the unadulterated flavors of green things, no fussy seasonings or rich preparations to mask their delicate essence; if not raw, then not far from it.

photo by Israel Holby

I realize that this is hardly an original sentiment. Food blogs, websites and magazines are full of “fresh flavors of Spring” features. But, hey, I live no more than 25 miles from the feathery fronds of California Delta asparagus farms; I’m not going to eat butternut squash risotto just to be an iconoclast.

Asparagus is a vegetable that in my mind generally needs no improvement other than salt, pepper and olive oil and a quick roast in a hot oven. Remembering that water is a colorless, flavorless liquid and that most vegetables are made up in large part by water indicates to me that in order to enhance or highlight the essential flavor of the vegetable, water should be removed, not added. Hence, I roast asparagus.

When buying asparagus,  I take a minute to look the bundle over. The cut ends should not look like the desiccated grain ends of a block of wood, the stalks should be firm, smooth, and evenly green, and the tips should be largely intact tight buds. I usually trim the ends just above the white part of the stalk and don’t bother to peel any further north than that. Rinsed and dried, the stalks are laid in alternating directions on a sheet pan to allow as much surface to touch the hot pan as possible. Drizzled with olive oil, then shaken around to coat and then salt and peppered, these beauties are ready for a blistering hot oven, about 425°.

I keep an eye on them. Since asparagus varies so much in thickness, I don’t have a set time to roast them, but I look for the color to be brilliant green with a few edges just beginning to crisp and brown in the heat. I want the stalks to still be firm enough not to double over when I pick one up.

And that’s it. Bright, sweet and juicy, they need nothing more done to them. I’ll be virtuously devouring these naked (the asparagus, that is, not me) for weeks before I even think about dipping them in Hollandaise sauce or wrapping them in prosciutto. It’s fresh, brilliant Spring on a plate.

Cauliflower mac and cheese

The more perceptive reader may have concluded rightly that I am a fan of cheese. In fact, while we were in the Netherlands and Belgium, it wasn’t the chocolate shops that I wandered blissfully through, eyes alight, heartbeat elevated! The scope and variety of cheese was a revelation- aged Gouda, epoisse, geitenkass both young and old- and I happily tasted my way through.

While a simple homemade macaroni and cheese is bliss, this is a recipe that makes it into a little more of a rounded one-dish meal. I recommend a snowy night, a fire in the fireplace, and a bottle of dry white wine to go with.

1 head cauliflower

2-3 slices of bacon cut into ¼ inch strips

2 tablespoons flour

¼ cup Marsala wine

½ teaspoon salt, plus salt to cooking water

1 ½ to 2 cups milk

4 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese and Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese

6 ounces of macaroni, penne, or whatever tube pasta you like.

Preheat the oven to 350°

Fill a big pot with salted water and get it boiling over high heat.

Break the cauliflower into florets. Add it all at once to the fiercely boiling water and then bring the water back up to temperature. Cook the cauliflower for about 1 minute, just until it is still a bit crisp. Drain it into a colander very thoroughly. Remember, water has no flavor, so you don’t want the cauliflower to water down the sauce. Leave it in the colander to finish draining while you busy yourself with the rest of the dish.

Alternatively, the cauliflower can be broken up and roasted in the oven for about 20 minutes. This takes longer, but has the benefit of concentrating, intensifying, and sweetening the cauliflower’s flavor.

In a heavy saucepan or large skillet, cook the bacon until it is crisp and browned. Then remove it from the pan and drain it on a paper towel.  Leave about 1-½ tablespoons of bacon fat in the skillet and sprinkle the flour into the pan, stirring to form a roux. Cook, steadily stirring, over medium heat until the flour becomes fragrant and golden brown. Pour in the Marsala wine and stir it into the roux. It should foam up and hiss and sizzle; reduce until almost all the liquid is evaporated and the flavor is concentrated.  Slowly whisk in the milk, stirring to remove any lumps. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.  By this, I mean that your spoon should have a coating of sauce that does not immediately fill in the track left when you run your finger across it.  Taste for salt. Remove from the heat and stir in the grated cheese.

Cook the pasta to slightly underdone in salted water. Drain it thoroughly. Add the cauliflower and bacon to the pasta and stir them together. Pour the cheese sauce over and mix gently, until all of the pasta and cauliflower is enveloped in the creamy, cheesy sauce.   Bake in a buttered ovenproof dish at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes until the sauce is bubbly throughout. I use a dish with low sides to up the crusty golden brown top to creamy luscious interior ratio. Grate a little bit of cheese over the top and return to the oven until the top is melted and golden.

Please don’t feel bound by my cheese recommendations- I recommended a couple of readily available favorites. Fontina, or Gruyère melt beautifully and are full of flavor. My only caution is that milder cheeses such as Monterey jack, Colby, or mild cheddar may not offer enough to give the sauce the flavor desired.