Monday, August 31, 2009

Pencil cases and trapper keepers

Oh boy. I suppose I let a lot of time fly by, didn’t I. I really didn’t mean to. You see, the whole summer has been lazy and slowly creeping by, but as of late, August decided to pick up the pace a bit, and slap a bunch of things on my itinerary. Just like that, without even asking.

So I’ve been meeting with sensational magazine editors, visiting relatives, pitching tents and hiking deep into the woods and working rainy weddings – all of which I will eventually tell you about, but for now, I just came to complain about the end of summer. I know, it’s pretty selfish, but if you bear with me for just a paragraph or two, I have a post about lobster in the works you can read next. I promise.

Classes, for me, officially start in about three hours. Yikes.

When we were younger, this time of the year wasn’t so bad. There would always be multiple signs that school was nearing, signs that the summer was waning and your days would no longer be comprised solely of tag and fort-building. Things like pencil cases, trapper keepers, and shiny new clothes gleaned from back-to-school-shopping always served as friendly warnings to ready us all, get us back into the September swing of things.

When you hit college, things change. School just sneaks up on you, and besides dread, you don’t really feel anything until you’re sitting in that first class back. Which for me is Restoration Literature, and I fear it’s dry. Like, really dry.

Anyway, that’s what I’m up to this whole next year, until they release me into the world for good. As I said back in April when I started Rue le Sel, the part that scares me the most is not being able to keep up once classes start up again, so I will do my best - my comment section is always open to some encouragement, too. To anyone else who is going back and got completely ambushed by the end of August as well, god speed, and I suppose you should count your lucky stars you’re not taking Restoration. Here’s to a speedy semester, but an interesting one too.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A catch twenty-two

It’s finally here. What I mean, of course, is that iconic summer heat wave that Connecticut is blessed with every summer, the one that literally melts anything and everything in sight. It has arrived, and it's dreadful.

I thought maybe with all of the rain this year it might now show its face, but I was wrong. Like a dreaded yearly visit from that intolerable relative, it showed up, once again, and it’s stayed for two days already. And I don’t know if it has a long trip back or it’s just lazy or what, but it has invited itself to stay through tomorrow. The nerve. I also don’t know what I’m going to do about cooking until it leaves.

This time of the year is tricky – there are only so many salads and cold soups you can make before you yearn for the stove, or anything cooked, really. On the other hand, it’s so hot your fingers sweat while you eat. It’s a catch twenty-two, I suppose, and I can’t wait until it’s over.

Lucky for us, the same season that punishes us with weather so hot the only comfortable thing to do is stand in the middle of a room, straddling a fan, Marilyn-style, also brings us incomparably fresh produce. So fresh, in fact, that cooking isn’t all that necessary. Come to think of it, we should probably be thankful that this stove-forbidding weather doesn’t come in the winter; there’s not a lot one can do with an abundance of raw potatoes and parsnips.

So, last night for dinner I made a quick and easy corn and tomato salad, and while I did use the stove for just a few minutes, I put my cutting board at a safe distance and armed myself with a big glass of ice water throughout the process. I was sweating by the end, I will admit, but it was worth it. And when doing anything these days will make you sweat, especially this hot computer sitting on my lap, I figured there wasn’t really an excuse not to.

Corn and Tomato Salad

2 ears worth of corn kernels
2 big, just ripe tomoatoes
½ small red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Goat cheese
Good quality olive oil
Fleur de Sel, or Real Salt

Bacon would be a really nice addition to this (unless, of course, you’re a vegetarian), I didn’t have any, so I didn’t use it, but if you do, just cook the bacon in your skillet first, then use its rendered fat to cook everything else in. Yum.

In a medium-hot skillet with olive oil, cook garlic for about 30 seconds to flavor the oil, then add in the red onion. Cook until just translucent, and then add in the corn, stirring every now and then, until it’s sufficiently pan-roasted. (This should take about 5 minutes or less – just taste it to make sure; when it’s just the slightest bit still crunchy, it’s done.)

Set this mixture aside to cool; taking it out of the skillet and onto a cold plate helps. Slice tomatoes into big, thick rounds – I like to leave them whole, but if you’d prefer to roughly chop them, that works too. When the corn mixture has cooled off, scatter it on top of the tomatoes. Finish with just a sprinkling of crumbled goat cheese.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A machine

It came! As these shipping things tend to go, it came a day later than I'd hoped, but in the end, I was patient enough.

I am now the proud new owner of a Canon Rebel Xs. It arrived yesterday afternoon right before work, so I charged up the battery while I was there, and came home to experiment. This morning, I bought some figs (mainly because they're pretty and I thought they'd make a good subject) and whipped up a salad with a goat cheese dressing. It wasn't that great -- turns out I'm not as big of a fig person as I had thought -- but that's not the point. Right now, the pictures are the point. This thing is a machine, I'll tell you, and it knows its stuff.

I'll come with a recipe soon, but for now, you just get pictures. Thanks for bearing with me and my camera experimentation. Below are two pictures of the fig salad; I threw in a picture of my porch and Pete's hand, just for good measure.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A fair warning

I come today with not a recipe, but a fair warning. You see, a new camera is in the works. A new fancy camera. So, consider yourselves warned: this site, from tonight (fingers crossed) or tomorrow on, will be irresponsibly strewn about with my attempts at photography.

I used to fancy myself an artiste, I’d say – toting my Dad’s old 35mm Olympus around our backyard, shooting Black-eyed Susans in black and white, at an angle. I spent a good deal of time with that camera, learning how to proficiently change the film, and playing around with the focus for a good part of an afternoon. Then, of course, came the age of the digital, and I was given a snazzy new point-and-shoot for Christmas one year. It had a whopping 3.2 mega pixels, and in laymen’s terms, that meant I was a big shot.

That camera, like all new age technologies, slowly depreciated, and my love of taking pictures went right alongside. I still have it, of course; it’s what I use for everything on here. But I felt that it might be time to move up. That trusty cannon, bless its little motor, (or chip, or what have you), is no longer pulling its weight.

And so it is, that a shiny Canon rebel will be arriving any day now, ready to make me look like I know what I’m doing. It’s actually refurbished – but newly shiny, I suppose. I’m hoping it will come with a little character and perhaps some well-earned experience in guiding a novice photographer like myself. We shall see. Appropriately enough, this post has no pictures: the old camera is officially in retirement. So check back often, it might be here any minute now, and help me welcome my new camera to Rue le Sel.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The first real recipe

When I was younger, breakfast was by far my favorite meal of the day. Pancakes, waffles – especially Belgian ones with strawberries on top - anything, really, I was up for, anytime of the day. All of the starchiness, I guess, really did it for me.

After a sleepover in a friend’s quaint red farmhouse one night in third grade, we woke up and tackled Sunday breakfast; looking back, nothing could have been more appropriate – we may have even collected fresh eggs for the occasion from her chickens in the backyard. She taught me how to make what was known in her family as “Grandma’s Pancakes,” a sort of crepe-like, thin, buttery flapjack that we rolled up and ate with butter and jelly. I copied down the recipe that day, in a red fancy print that I tried, with a sense of purpose, to replicate, and that became the first real recipe in my repertoire. I cooked those pancakes with reckless abandon from that day on. Grandma remained anonymous, but she, whoever she was, never went unappreciated.

On nights my brother and I were feeling adventurous, or rebellious, (or both) we would pitch a tent in our sprawling backyard to spend the night. As soon as the sun was up, I would give up my dreams of mutiny and scurry back to the kitchen to make us breakfast. Grandma’s pancakes were always on the menu – I would make them, expertly, and bring two stacked plates back to the tent for us to devour.

I am no longer pitching tents in my backyard, but I am still making breakfast. We all have to eat in the morning, and the only thing I’ve found over the years that contends with Grandma’s perfect recipe is one for buttermilk pancakes. And with my recent acquisition of a truckload of blueberries, it seemed like a no-brainer. If you leave the batter nice and lumpy, you’ll get fluffy, faintly sweet pancakes that rival pillows in texture. I like to wait until the batter is set on the pan to add the blueberries, that way I can make sure the blueberry placement is as it’s supposed to be, that is, plentiful. Or I can make shapes if I’m feeling artistic. Make these on a lazy Sunday morning, or if you can swing it, bring them to eat in a tent, preferably pitched in the backyard.

Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes
(From Bon Appetit)

1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for cooking (Note: I used salted, because that's all I had, and it worked out just fine; I used just a little less salt in the batter.)
Fresh blueberries
Pure maple syrup

Preheat oven to 250°F, and stick a baking sheet in the middle rack to keep the pancakes warm as you go. Whisk first 4 ingredients in large bowl. Whisk buttermilk, eggs, and 2 tablespoons butter in medium bowl; stir into dry ingredients.

Heat large nonstick griddle or skillet over medium heat; brush with butter. Drop batter by 1/3 cupfuls onto griddle. After you drop the batter, place your blueberries in the circles of batter, however you like. Cook pancakes until brown, brushing griddle with more butter as needed, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to oven as they are done. Serve pancakes with maple syrup, if you're traditional, or butter and sugar if you're me, circa 1995.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

20 pounds of produce

The tomatoes may be slacking this season, but you can be sure, the blueberries certainly aren’t.

I went blueberry picking with my mom just yesterday, and I can tell you, they are more than pulling their weight around here. The picking made for a small time investment, a lot of sweating, and pretty sore arms the next day, but we made it out of there with just under 20 pounds of blueberries, fresh off their bushes. And making it out of anywhere with 20 pounds of produce is my idea of a great afternoon.

While I think about what to do with all of these (I’m really wishing I bought that ice cream maker a few months ago), I’m freezing about 6 of my nine pounds. That way I’m in no rush, and perhaps I can even reach into my freezer deep in the winter and put some in my oatmeal, but I doubt they’ll last that long.

How to freeze blueberries (thanks mom):

Pick through and rinse all berries, and pat dry with paper towels. Then lay them out on cookie sheets (or even better, cooling racks) until they are completely dry. (This is important, so no ice forms around the berries.)

When dry, place cookie sheets in freezer and freeze for about an hour, or until just hard. Transfer all berries into freezer bags, squeezing out as much air as you can. My mom even suggested sticking a straw into an almost-closed bag and sucking out all of the air before you close it, but I didn’t have any straws on hand.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Anything but turn on the oven

It’s has been hot lately. H-o-t. The kind of sticky-hot that makes you want to stand with your head in the freezer, or compels you, in your non-air conditioned upstairs apartment, to sit smack on a cold pack while watching a movie. This is the kind of hot that makes you want to do anything but turn on the oven. But we all have to eat, and yogurt and salads sure do get boring after a while.

This weekend, I looked to my blender for help.

I have an interesting relationship with blended foods; drinking meals always seemed more of an activity suited to babies. I love the idea of smoothies, but I always find them a distant second to the act of chewing, reminding myself that my teeth are still firmly rooted in my mouth, ready to do their job. I come from the school of thought that believes if you have a sprightly young set of teeth, you should use them. Still, when one is faced with days this hot, there are few appliances as convenient as a blender, and, as I’ve found, no one can argue with gazpacho.

I first tasted real gazpacho only two months ago, on my trip to Europe. I spent a very brief time in Barcelona, and while there my friend Elise and I went to the same tapas place twice in a row. Their gazpacho was a pale pink soup served in what looked sort of like a lowball glass, with a hearty swirl of good olive oil, and it was fantastic. So even though the tomatoes in the Northeast are late this season, or worse, have been tragically wiped out, I decided to go on ahead without perfect tomatoes, and try and recreate this soup the best I could with some pretty good local backups.

This recipe is heartbreakingly simple; the hardest part, I found, was waiting the four hours for it to chill until I could pour myself a big mug. Cold, refreshing, and with the slightest bite of acid from the sherry vinegar, this really is the closest you can get to having august in a bowl, with tomato season in full swing or not. Eat it with a nice hunk of baguette on the side, just to remind your teeth they have a job to do.

(Adapted from

This amount makes enough for about 6, or a generous amount to have for a few days with enough to dip a spoon in it every time you’re in the fridge. If your blender is on the small side, you might need to do the pureeing in two batches.

½ cup tomato juice
1 (1-inch) piece baguette, crust discarded and cut into 1-inch cubes
7 very ripe medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
¾ medium English cucumber, peeled and roughly chopped
1 ½ cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 1/8 teaspoons Real red sea salt (kosher would work fine, too)
1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika*
1/8 cup plus 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (plus more for drizzling)

Pour tomato juice over the bread cubes in a small bowl and set aside until the bread has become reasonably soggy, about 15 minutes.

Place bread and juice into blender and puree until smooth; you might need to add a tablespoon or so of water to help the bread blend. Add cucumbers, tomatoes, garlic, salt and paprika and blend until smooth.

If you like chunkier gazpacho, don’t pay attention to this next step, but I kind of prefer a smoother soup that you can almost drink. Strain the contents of the blender through a sieve or a small-holed colander, pressing on the solids to push the liquid through. Return liquid to the blender. Add vinegar, incorporate, and then add the oil in a thin stream with the blender running.

Discard solids, pour soup into a container and chill, covered, for at least 4 hours or overnight.