Monday, August 31, 2009

Vacationing at Home (or that other word I refuse to say)

Dear Boo,

Here's something I hate: The term "staycation". It's a totally bogus concept made up by a bunch of marketing executives to convince poor saps who can't afford to go on a vacation to spend money anyway, in the vain hope that they can convince themselves they're having just as much fun as they would have if they'd gone to the beach, or the mountains, or Paris. Naturally, I am one of these saps. The Boyfriend and I had planned to possibly go to Florida this weekend to visit some of his family, but time and money squashed that plan rather quickly. We'd talked about going to the beach nearby, but Tropical Storm Danny put that kibosh on that too. So we were stuck. I refused to breathe the word "staycation", but let's face it. That's what it was.

We tromped out in the rain to BAM to see the fabulous (500) Days of Summer, produced by our incredible cousin! So good. Had some lunch. Had some coffee. And decided on dinner at home. I had some tomatoes and zucchini from the farmers market and planned my meal around that.

yes, that knife says "cheese." got a problem with that?

Bon Appetit recently had a feature online on 25 things to do with a fresh tomato in this season when basically, that's all we should be eating, for every meal (yes, it included your favorite vodka-spiked cherries). On the list is a recipe from Michael Symon (sassy picture, eh?) for a salad his mother has made since he was a kid. It sounded like everything I like in a summer salad: fresh, colorful, crunchy, tangy, cheesy, herby...mmm....

And the zucchini--well, I've been kind of obsessed with sauteed squash with garlic, oil and red pepper all summer, so that was a no brainer. I thought I'd add some shrimp, but when I got to the fish counter at Whole Foods, these little buggers were staring me down. How could I say no?

Don't look at me like that.

With a nice piece of Midnight Moon goat gouda, a bowl of peppadews, and a cold glass of prosecco, I could have sworn we were having cocktail hour on our beachfront deck.

....Well, maybe not. But it was lovely. And though I still abhor the term, it did get me thinking about how to conjure up the vacation spirits when you're a few hundred miles and dollars and raindrops away from where you'd like to be.

Here are some humble suggestions:

- Make a meal using the freshest ingredients you can find. I know, I know, you've heard it all before, but really it helps. There's no better way to invoke the season, and fresh flavors = summer = vacation.

- Set your table in an unusual spot. Don't sit where you eat dinner every other Tuesday night. Spread a blanket in the livingroom and eat picnic style. Move your kitchen table into another room, by a window with a different view. Hell, fill your bathtub and eat 'poolside'--it's really none of my business.

- Dress for dinner. Doesn't have to be formal, just clean. You'd probably shower and change your shirt for a dinner out, right? Themed costumes also acceptable at your discretion. Again, not my business.

- Add something new to the menu, something you don't normally buy. The sardine substitution, while it's wreaked absolute olfactory havoc on our apartment, was an exotic (for us, at least) and summery change. It's something I'd order out on a vacation dinner, but never tried at home. It made me focus more on the presentation of the dinner and made both of us eat slower and appreciate the meal more (if only to avoid choking on tiny bones). As if--gasp--we had paid someone else to prepare it for us.

- Have cocktail hour. Make individual cocktails and don't guzzle them. Pretend they cost $12 each. Buy a nice slice of cheese or proscuitto and some melon. Eat it at least 30 minutes before dinner. Don't rush.

- Change your soundtrack. We dug up some old CDs that had been relegated to the back of the dusty album binder and put them on in a random shuffle. It shifted the whole mood. If only I could have eaten my meal blindfolded, without fear of stabbing myself in the cheek, it might have really convinced me we'd skipped town.

- Make this salad. Gorgeous summer in a bowl.

Staycation Salad. Okay, yes, I said it.
(adapted from Michael Symon)

1 half red onion, shaved thinly
1 lb heirloom tomatoes, cut in chunks
1 red pepper, chopped
1/3 cucumber, sliced
1 cup kalmata olives, pitted
1/4 cup chopped mint
1/4 cup chopped basil (recipe calls for dill but I used this instead)
1 cup feta, crumbled
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 c red wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Soak the onion in ice water for 10 minutes. Cut tomatoes into bite sized chunks and set aside. Drain the onion and pat dry. Place the garlic, a pinch of salt, and the red wine vinegar in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil onto the mixture while whisking. Then add the onion, red pepper, cucumber, pitted Kalamata olives, and the herbs. Let that marinate for 15 to 20 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and feta. Add salt and pepper to taste, and possibly a dash more vinegar. Place on a large platter and serve immediately. Serves about 4.

Two days later and our apartment still smells faintly of sardines. I'm trying to think of it as a souvenir from our weekend getaway.


The Mouse

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Warming the Houses

Dear Mouse,

A wise woman said to me recently, "Friends are the family you choose for yourself."

Not that there's anything wrong with family. Sisters in particular! Sisters who are also Friends. (Whew.) This was just on my mind this weekend as a theme of sorts emerged: House Warming.

As nuts as that may sound in mid-August - why, WHY would anyone want to even suggest making their home warmer? - it just so transpired that both I and my friend (who I'll call Helena, after her role in our Maine Midsummer) moved into new homes this past week. They were sort of Big Moves for both - her first into NYC and my first out of Manhattan since coming here. Although I will certainly miss living below you & the Boyfriend! I am over the moon about my new lovely neighborhood and hobbit hole apartment nestled in Sunnyside (could there be a happier name??), Queens, just off the Bliss Street (yep, there it is) stop.

There's a sort of beautiful paradox around the housewarming idea. Your home is something that is for YOU - it's personal, possessive, boundaried: my room, my door, my kitchen, my plumbing issues. But there's a real human need to acknowledge that space by inviting others into it who don't live there... as if a home is not a home without the blessing of community.

Now before you protest, no, I have not yet had an official housewarming, and when I do, you will be there. Making treats for me. But on Sunday afternoon A-Mac stepped up as inadvertent housewarmer (by way of coming over with some stuff I left at her house). She showed up with the traditional bread and salt (in a grinder! i love that) and some plum jam (nontraditional but delicious). It made me think (again, always) about food as the language of connection, about what an integral part it plays in every ritual I can think of.

I baked a blueberry coffeecake (in August, yes) which made the wee kitchen smell divine and homey, and we ate slices of it in the back garden while the afternoon turned golden and a breeze ruffled the tomato plants. (Did I mention the back garden?) I had to laugh that the only thing I needed were the blueberries, since the day before the move I had arrived with a preliminary suitcase full of spices and flour. Priorities.

(By the way, shopping in local grocery got me really excited for future meals: arepas, several kinds of chorizo, all the goya products you & the boyfriend could want. Should I pick up a carton of sazon?)

The night before had found me in Brooklyn for what turned out to be the impromptu housewarming dinner at Helena's new place. Since our friendship basically began around a roast chicken, it was a given that we would cook. However, a concession was made to the sultry weather when we decided to commit to a cold menu. For the second time this month I put together Chase's "Shrimp in a Bath of Raspberry Vinegar and Mint" from the Open House Cookbook. Which is described (because I know you're waiting for it) as "the perfect way to infuse irresistible jumbo shrimp with the sparkle of summer"(yes that was from memory. Happy?) Seriously though, I can't recommend this highly enough for an easy summer showstopper. A bag of frozen shrimp, two kinds of vinegar, some mint leaves, and you're the hit of the season. Start early, though, because it really is all about how long it sits in its dressing (should be 3 hours min.)

On the table also were H's salad of cucumber, tomato, and "goat feta" (all from the Park Slope Farmer's Market) (wow) and a peruvian roast chicken ordered at the last minute (ok, we caved) to round out the meal. Dessert: cherries, strawberries, ice cream and a dessert trick I learned from you, Mouse: a plate of sliced fresh figs w/ricotta cheese, drizzled with honey.

(Yes, there were other people there eating, in case you were wondering.)

I did eventually leave my house on Sunday to meet a friend and go to the The-Ay-Tah. The Fringe show we saw: Meh. Dessert: Meh-morable.

strawberry-rhubarb tart @Balthazar, where I'd never been before - how is that possible?

You could say that had nothing to do with house warming (it didn't), but afterwards it was sure nice to come home.

The Boo

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Stuffin' it to the Man

Dear Boo,

I realized with mild horror the other day that the summer is past its peak and I have not in any way, shape or form, taken advantage of the bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables that make this season so worth the broiling, sweating, huffing and puffing and cursing. I had a package of ground beef from our friend Jake over at Dickson's Farmstand Meats, and was seized with the urge to make stuffed peppers. Stuffed Peppers. Why, you might ask? (And I did.) Never before have I made stuffed peppers and what on earth possessed me to choose this dish as my return from a cooking hiaitus, I have no idea. But once I got it in my head, it just wouldn't let go. I pored over every back issue of Gourmet and Bon Appetit I own (and the Boyfriend will tell you that's quite a lot) in search of the perfect stuffed pepper recipe to satisfy my craving. I looked through my cookbooks, searched online, finding recipes from Martha, Emeril, and random bloggers. But none were my perfect recipe. None were exactly the combination of flavors I sought. What was I to do??

And then I realized, in a stroke of self-empowerment, that I didn't need no stinkin' recipe! Why lower my expectations just to fulfill the prescribed rules and regulations of someone else's idea of the perfect stuffed pepper? Why not turn that paradigm right on its head and create my own! It was liberating. Now, I've cooked without recipes before--its what I do most of the time, but something about this felt different. Stuffed peppers are a staple, and one I've never made, at that. "Lots of REAL cooks have already written recipes for stuffed peppers! Just WHO do you think you ARE??", the devil on my shoulder cackled. I felt like a cowboy. Or Ben Franklin.

Did I succeed? Well, to an extent. Did I reinvent stuffed peppers? Not at all. But did I create exactly what I had in mind and was unable to find in someone else's definition of this dish? Yes! And it was outstanding, if I do say so myself. Real summertime comfort food. Flavorful, colorful, with the kind of rebellious, free-thinking attitude we could all use a little more of. Or at least, I could. In short, these peppers taught me to shirk convention, go my own way, stick it to the man, and trust myself. No small feat (or feaSt, for that matter).

Mouse's Very Own Stuffed Peppers:

(note: Most of the recipes I found had more of an Italian or Eastern European bent. These peppers have more of a latin flair to them, combining flavors from arroz con pollo, with a little kick from chipotle and poblano. )

1.25 lbs ground beef
white rice (1 cup)
4 red bell peppers
1 poblano chile
1 yellow or vidalia onion
1 Cup frozen peas
1 small jar pimentos
1 can tomato sauce
1 can chipotle peppers in sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c olive oil
1 (scant) packet Goya sazon
1.5 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
pinch of sugar
dried oregano
salt & pepper to taste
Italian parsley
goat cheese: optional

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

For tomato sauce: sautee 1 clove minced garlic in 1 turn around the pan of olive oil until fragrant, about 40 seconds. Add 1 can of tomato sauce. Season to taste with salt, pepper, a pinch of cinnamon, a pinch of sugar, and a slightly bigger pinch of dried oregano. Bring to a simmer. Add about 1 tablespoon, adobo sauce from the chipotles. Simmer a couple of minutes, then remove from heat.

To prepare peppers: wash and dry well. with a sharp knife, cut in a circle around the top of the pepper. Take hold of the stem and twist, removing top and core of pepper. Discard along with any leftover seeds and spine of peppers. Dab olive oil onto a paper towel. Wipe oil on outside of pepper. Sprinkle inside and out with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Make filling: Cook 2 Cups of white rice according to package instructions. Set aside.

Season beef with salt, pepper, perhaps a bit of garlic powder, and whatever else you like. Brown in a large pan. Once lightly browned, add garlic, chile, onion, 1 Tablespoon chopped chipotle pepper, and stir over medium heat. Spoon in a few tablespoons of tomato sauce, and if you're not afraid of a little MSG, add a scant packet of goya sazon. Mix in enough rice to make a good meat to rice ratio. Towards end of cooking, add 1/2 Cup (or to your liking) frozen peas, and 1/4 Cup (or so) pimentos, and the red wine vinegar. Taste again for seasoning.

Thoroughly cover bottom of a glass baking dish with tomato sauce. Spoon filling into peppers. Top peppers with a couple of spoonfuls of tomato sauce. Stand upright in pan. Bake in oven 30 minutes. If tomato sauce is thickening or evaporating more than you like, add some water or chicken stock to pan.

Spoon tomato sauce around peppers on plate. Delicious with a bit of goat cheese mixed in or on the side. Next time a crust of bread crumbs and goat cheese might send this over the top. Serve with salad.

(salad: mixed greens with balsamic-sauteed yellow squash and zucchini, pepitas (roasted salted pumpkin seeds) or sunflower seeds, and a balsamic vinaigrette.)

Fight the power.


The Mouse

Friday, August 7, 2009

Ceci n'est pas Dinner Theatre (The Boo Goes to Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant)

Dear Mouse,

Where to begin. I think I may have found our calling, or at least a place we might want to live.

Wikipedia: " 'Avant-garde' represents a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm. "

Two nights ago -if this all in fact did happen - I spent a couple of wild hours at the Soho Think Tank Ice Factory Fest, in and under the company/spell/grip/menus of the one and only "Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant".

"This Is Not Dinner Theatre", they tell you during the opening number, and it ain't, despite the fact that they sing, dance, improvise, play live music, tell a story, and wear insane costumes while serving you a five course meal. Anyone hoping to dine in peace on mediocre food while watching a coherent, traditional musical safely behind a fourth wall, steer clear.

Now despite knowing almost everyone in the cast, I had been unable to get anyone to tell me just what the hell this evening would involve. I only knew that it would combine my greatest loves: Theatre, Food, and possibly some 80's rock. They had me at "complimentary ice pops."

In the spirit of the thing, I think I'll let Allen Ginsberg describe my evening. Take it, Allen.

i saw the best minds of my generation definitely not starving, but certainly hysterical and/or naked, at least one guy anyway, running past my table chased by twin sexy nurses

i saw a drunk british rock star in black speedos and a green kimono pouring bourbon and cream all over himself and into a big bowl of fruit salad to the strains of "You Really Got Me Now", after which we all ate pound cake w/blueberries & mascarpone which was delicious and I never found out what happened to the salad

i saw scantily clad men peeling various fruits in a synchronized ballet. well done there.

i saw a man with a rifle take down a woman wearing antlers and drag her through the tables to eviscerate her before our eyes...
oh the humanity, and then we all ate a delicious watermelon/feta/mint salad...

...which was served in gloved handfuls by the twin sexy nurses, directly onto our plates. Ooh la la.

i saw the ohio theatre on wooster street transformed into a glittering banquet hall complete with chandeliers, long communal tables, glitzy stage areas on both ends, an open, working kitchen area and seriously the coolest centerpieces I've ever seen:

i saw tables full of audience -- oops sorry, 'customers' --oops, sorry, 'honored guests of miss conni' - who had been strangers a moment before, wearing name tags like "Mr. Donut" and "That's What She Said", ladling soup for each other, pouring sangria, passing plates of meatloaf sandwiches and pesto pasta salad, and laughing. A lot. Even this guy: He warmed up by the end.

i was reminded, again, of how both the performing arts and the culinary arts have the power to create community, bring people together, and evoke simple joy.

i was among those who were taken aback by the cooks coming out of the 'kitchen' to share delightfully inappropriate personal histories with us before we could even get into our gazpacho

i saw bee costumes, bear costumes, dog costumes, chicken costumes, and antlers. i saw baton twirling and leg lifts. I heard live piano, upright bass, cello, violin, and washboard.

i wore this name tag: Um, it's pronounced "Sweet Bucket".

i saw, possibly for the only time in my life, an entire company of actors make a strangely moving exit through a giant refrigerator door into blinding white light.

Conni's usually operates in venues that have kitchens, but they did a great job with a cold menu. Gazpacho=mm, super garlicky. Using gemelli in the pesto pasta salad (mm)=nice touch. Was not over the moon about the cold meatloaf, but maybe I'm used to the turkey version I"ve been making? The watermelon salad was the winner!! So good! And everyone seems to be making it right now (including me, but Conni's was way better). I got the impression that the production actually really wants you to like the food and have a good meal, and we all did. In the end it's a whole experience, spectacle, sensory overload, ceremony, a big in-joke that includes you... a party. It's not meant to be Meaningful, and so it ends up being kind of... meaningful.

Somehow, by the time dessert is over and the guy in the giant dog costume says:

"Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying... nothing"

I have to say there actually was a hush in the room as we all thought about it, forks in hand... and then, collectively, I think , decided that that was just fine. As long as we can all have pound cake and bourbon cream along the way. As long as there is song and story and you can wave your lighters. As long as music and food and silly outfits can loosen us up and make us love our neighbors, there's a reason to go to The Restaurant.

I'm going back for seconds.

The Boo

"Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant" closes tonight, and is sold out anyway, but they will be at Joe's Pub, cooking up a hot meal for you on Monday, Oct. 12.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jersey Shore, Fo Sho

Dear Boo,

We did it!! The Boyfriend and I actually packed up our bags, booked out from work and auditions, dropped a scary chunk of change, and took off for the open road. Cape May was the destination. Goals: sand, surf, seafood, rest, and some QT with my cutie. tee hee. Mission? Mostly accomplished. I've gotta say, and it is with a heavy heart that I do so, that we didn't eat that well!! I'll say this was half our fault, for not planning ahead and making reservations and trying to cut financial corners, thusly ending up picking restaurants while hungry, based on what would feed us fastest. Also, as the Boyfriend pointed out, our approach was all wrong. We'd figured seafood was the way to go, this being a shore town and all, when I think really we should have just gone with what was recommended and looked good. Because ultimately, the seafood we had just wasn't all that. I repeat: this may have been partially our fault.

Regardless, we had a great time. Cape May is a amalgam of ornate Victorian homes, tree-lined streets, miles of wide sandy beaches, cobblestone paths, soda fountains, wildflowers, and your typical shore fare of ice cream shops, arcades, bikini stores, mini-golf, and bars with names like "Cabanas" (yes, we went there). I gotta say--and you KNOW how I LOVE me some Jersey--you can restore Victorian mansions, build first-class hotels, keep the shoreline pristine, charge $30 a plate for dinner, but I'll be damned if this ain't still the JERSEY SHORE. If you knowwhatimean. And I think you do.

The Best Parts:
The Humphrey Hughes House. We picked it fairly blindly, and our hosts reminded me at every stage of booking "Le Petit Room" that the room was VERY small. I was a little afraid we'd end the weekend hanging ourselves from the pipes in a converted broom closet under the stairs in a psychotic episode of claustrophobia. I should have known, coming from a small Manhattan apartment, that the room would be just our size. Yes, the Boyfriend is a large person and could have used a couple of extra feet at the foot of the bed, but aren't you supposed to cozy up when you're away for a weekend? The location is perfect--half a block from the beach, and just a block or two in either direction to all the dining and shopping and ice cream action you could want. The owners were friendly but not in our face--another fear with bed & breakfasts. We were shown to our room and upon closing the door, burst out into giggles and whispers. There's something about a B&B that just makes you feel like you're doing something you shouldn't be.

The breakfasts. Lucky for us anti-social folks, in the warmer months breakfast is served on the porch at tables for two. I particularly liked the carved sweet potato figurines--one morning a cockatoo, another a goose. The Boyfriend particularly liked the extra baked goodie brought around to our table every morning. Here's something interesting--I've always thought there was something wrong with me that I have SUCH a hard time waking up in the morning, no matter how early I go to bed. Turns out, when I have to be at breakfast at 9 or risk missing out on a hot apple turnover, I rise and shine, singing like a dove. Fascinating.

The bedside sherry in our room. Such a lovely touch, especially when you can drink it after dinner in a rocking chair, on the wraparound porch, with the salty beach air tousling your hair.

Porches are also good for drinking prosecco or having an evening snack of complimentary port with pretzels and homemade cookies. Not that we did that or anything...

Frozen Custard. Need I say more?

The day the skies chose to open up in cascading buckets, we made our daytime activity a trip to The Lobster House--the one place we had to drive to all weekend. While it didn't blow us away (perhaps this was our fault as well as we should have just stuck to the lobster), there were a couple of standouts. The bread. An entire loaf, served warm, crusty on the outside and dotted with poppyseeds, onion, and salt crystals, it made a mockery of the tiny cutting board it was served on, held in place by a steak knife. That's whati'mtalkingabout.

And the steamed clams were just perfect. You know how I love food that comes with dipping sauce.
The beach. Most delicious of all.

The sunset from Sunset Beach. Walk to the end of the promenade and you're at the very tip of Jersey where you can see the sunset which is hard to catch here on the East Coast. The Boyfriend will tell you we missed the actual sunset but as far as I'm concerned, pink and orange clouds + twilight= sunset. harumph.

Back to reality. Sigh. At least I've got the complimentary Humphrey Hughes House Cookbook to comfort me. I hope it can teach me how to make a sweet potato giraffe.


The Mouse

P.S. We also really liked listening to the free blues show at The Boiler Room at Congress Hall, and dinner at Gecko's, but I have no pictures. Guess we'll have to make another trip. The things we do for art.

P.P.S. If you're going to Cape May, I'd also recommend staying at our friend's great house right on the beach, the May Caper. I hear there are margaritas on the porch if you're lucky...