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Salad days

Some days, you just want a salad. And sometimes, those some days are every day, especially when they fall near the end of June, and when the thermometer outside is stuck at the “hot and sticky” mark, and when you’ve been in the process of moving into a new apartment for, oh, the past ten of them. Around here, those are the kinds of days that we’ve been having. Salad days, or sort of.

Regular readers will know by this point that Brandon and I eat a lot of salad. Between the two of us, we could keep a small farm in business. The first meal that we ever shared was a salad—of shredded baby bok choy, ramp leaves, and avocado, to be precise, with a baguette and a disk of Mt. Tam on the side—and since then, it’s become a regular habit. Most of the time, in fact, we don’t so much cook together as assemble. This could be a bit disconcerting for two people who claim to be decent cooks, but really, it’s not bad. Come summer, food is best with minimal fussing, anyway, and no matter the time of year, a good salad is nothing to scoff at.

So for the past several days, we’ve been letting our salad tendency run amok. Since the night of Brandon’s arrival, we’ve been busy moving into a new apartment—or a little house, really, with an office for me and a workbench for him—and in our honor, Seattle has pulled out all the stops where sunshine is concerned. It’s a blessing, I guess, but of the very mixed variety: it’s been h - o - t hot, all-caps HOT, no air-conditioning hot, hot as in Kool & The Gang’s “Too Hot.” I mean hot. It’s sweaty, dirty, nasty stuff, even before all the boxes and the bags and the dust. It’s the sort of thing that screams for salad and beer.

And so we answer—or rather, Brandon does. While I open the beers and set the table, he starts to work on a salad that, he tells me, has been a standby in his repertoire for a while. It could hardly be simpler: chopped romaine, cherry tomatoes, a palmful of paper-thin red onion slices, and a crumbled chunk of Greek feta. The dressing, too, couldn’t be easier—just lime juice, olive oil, garlic, and salt—but from there, it’s alchemy. What results is bright, kicky, and laced with garlic, a spark to liven up romaine’s cool, watery crunch.

All told, a bowl of this stuff is almost as refreshing as a dip in the pool: cold, a little puckery, now-creamy, now-crisp. And with only minimal assembly required, it’s the IKEA bookshelf of the salad world, you could say. Trust me, after the past few days, I know plenty about both.

Summer Romaine Salad with Lime-Garlic Dressing

I’m not normally a fan of romaine, but this salad has made me reconsider. Put together the light, bright crunch of romaine with the light, bright flavor of a lime-based dressing, and you’ve got a proverbial match made in heaven. To this, you could add nearly anything, but we keep it simple with a few halved cherry tomatoes, some red onion, and a handful of tangy feta. It’s a stripped-down, slightly tweaked Greek salad of sorts, but better: cool, easy, and just the thing for a hot summer night.

For dressing:
3 Tbs plus 1 tsp fresh lime juice
5 Tbs good-tasting olive oil
¼ tsp minced garlic
1/8 tsp fine sea salt

For salad:
Romaine lettuce, washed, dried, and cut with a chef’s knife into rough ½-inch strips
Cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
Slivered red onion
Greek feta

First, make the dressing. In a small bowl or jar, combine the lime juice, olive oil, garlic, and salt. Whisk until emulsified, and set aside.

In a salad bowl, combine romaine, cherry tomatoes, and red onion in whatever proportions you like. Toss with dressing to taste, and top with plenty of feta. Serve.

Note: Dressing keeps, covered and chilled, for up to a week.


To Brandon, with nutmeg

There is only one thing that I need to say to convey the state of myself and my kitchen, and that is this: Brandon is boarding a plane to Seattle tomorrow with a one-way ticket. Oh, baby.

It was not quite a year ago today—about 51 weeks ago, to be precise—that I first introduced him here, served up with a side of nutmeg muffins. Sometimes I forget how improbable our story is, and how uncertain it could have felt—because it didn’t, and because we made it possible. I remember telling someone, shortly after I met him, that Brandon was like magic, that he could make things happen. He does, every day. He reminds me of something that my mother once told me about my father: that one of the things she loved about him was that she could learn so much from him. I know what she means.

I used to think that I had a good dowry: I can roast a mean chicken; I make a delicious chocolate cake; I can quote Minor Threat and Lionel Richie; I can find my way around Paris and Oklahoma City; and I stand to someday inherit a stunningly ugly ceramic boar that my father swore is worth a lot of money. But when Brandon gets off that plane, he brings with him more than I could have ever thought to want or to be. There are his cold soba noodles with that spicy peanut-and-citrus sauce, his well-drawn espressos, and his skill at sneaking bags of salt-and-vinegar potato chips into the grocery cart when my head is turned; the sweet smell of his conditioner, his dark curls, and his eye for vintage champagne glasses and $30 KitchenAid mixers; that Caetano Veloso song he always sings in the shower, the crease in the top of his nose, the way he throws his head back and laughs when he tastes a mouthful of something good. There’s the way he ties his shoes, just like my dad; his saxophone named Ella, his homemade salsas and pizzas and beer; the horrible mess he makes of the kitchen counter, and the way he once spelled out my name in leftover pizza dough while I sat on the couch, unsuspecting, watching Six Feet Under and ignoring him. There’s his chana masala, his compassion and his snark, and his love for my father, who he never met. There’s the mischievous look in his eye when he turns to me at midnight and asks if I want a chocolate malt; the radishes and the butter and the salt; and the way he asks me to marry him, over and over, almost every day.

Oh, baby. You give me so much to be grateful for. Thank you. Thank you for you, and especially for loving me even when I cry over brownies and then try to give you the silent treatment. You know how I feel about brownies, and about you. I’m so glad that I get to love you every day.

Nutmeg Doughnut Muffins
Inspired by Columbia City Bakery, Seattle, WA, and adapted from Kathleen Stewart of the Downtown Bakery & Creamery, Healdsburg, CA

The only thing better than a wonderfully food-obsessed New Yorker is a wonderfully food-obsessed New Yorker who lives in Seattle, and the only thing better than a nutmeg muffin is a nutmeg doughnut muffin. Oh baby, indeed. These are exactly what they sound like, and better: something akin to doughnut batter, but baked, brushed with butter, and rolled in powdered sugar. They may look a little rumply and worse for the wear, but with their light, fragrant crumb and fried-but-not flavor, this is one very holy union of muffin, doughnut, and cake. It’s one of those recipes to write with permanent ink into your “special breakfast” repertoire. It’s for Brandon.

For muffins:
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 ½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
Scant 1 tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
¾ cup plus 1 Tbs whole milk
2 Tbs buttermilk
1 ½ sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup plus 2 Tbs granulated sugar
2 large eggs

For topping:
4 - 6 Tbs unsalted butter
1 ½ - 2 cups powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and set a rack to the middle position. Spray a standard-size muffin tin with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg, and whisk to mix them thoroughly. Set aside.

Combine the milk and the buttermilk in a measuring cup, and set aside.

Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or, alternatively, in a large mixing bowl with electric beaters nearby), and beat on medium speed for a few seconds, until the butter is soft and creamy. With the motor running, add the sugar in a steady stream. Continue beating, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice, until the mixture increases in volume and lightens to pale yellow. It should look light, fluffy, and wonderfully creamy, like frosting. This could take a couple of minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until they are just combined.

With a wooden spoon, mix ¼ of the flour mixture into the butter mixture. Add 1/3 of the milk mixture. Continue to add the dry and wet ingredients alternately, ending with the dries. Mix until the dough is smooth and well combined, but do not overmix.

Divide the batter between the cups of the muffin tin. Bake until the muffins are firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25-32 minutes.

When the muffins are cool enough to handle, prepare the topping: melt the butter in the microwave or on the stovetop, and pour the powdered sugar into a deep bowl. Using a pastry brush and working one muffin at a time, lightly brush the entire outside of the muffin with butter, and then roll it in the powdered sugar. Shake off any excess, and place the finished muffins on a rack or serving platter. Serve.

Note: These muffins are best on the day that they’re made, but they’re still awfully good on the second day—much better than the usual day-old muffin or stale doughnut. And for those who like advance planning, also note that this batter keeps, covered and chilled, for up to three days.

Yield: 12 muffins


The fourth color in the rainbow

The most depressing meal of my life was white and yellow. That’s all I remember. As someone who spends her free waking hours trying to capture in words the look, taste, and texture of her food, I find this a little embarrassing. It tasted pale, and that’s the most I can say. Maybe it involved sticky rice and a crookneck squash, or a pallid filet of plain, white-fleshed fish. Maybe it was a stir-fry constructed on the color palette of a daisy. Evidently, its details were not memorable, nor delicious. It was nearly nine years ago, a dinner in the dining hall of my freshman dormitory, and I guess that alone should tell me something. But still, all I remember is the white and the yellow, pale and pasty, and the sour taste of my disappointment as I stared at it, still hungry. And maybe that’s for the best.

I’m certainly not the first person to trot out the old we-eat-with-our-eyes adage, and anyway, I’m not always sure that it’s true. But on days like today, I really do think that it’s all in the color. Or that’s what I said to myself when I sat down to a plate of broccoli rabe, cooked just to tender and a shiny emerald green, piled atop two pieces of garlic toast.

Even up here in the Pacific Northwest, where real summer is still on its way, the browns and oranges and dingy whites of winter are giving way to a whole spectrum of pinks, peaches, reds, and greens. I may be the only person out there inclined toward color-coded food cravings, but I swear, sometimes a body just wants something green. This has nothing to do with nutritional value, or at least, not on the surface. This is not about diets, bikinis, or Shape magazine. This is about the shape and flavor of the fourth color in the rainbow: grassy, earthy, and herbal.

This is about a green that’s sweet and garlicky with an aftertaste of heat, heaped into a tangled topknot on a slice of toast. Broccoli rabe is not a summer vegetable, per se, but there was a pretty bunch in the market this weekend, and well, I had a craving. It’s a funny, hybrid-looking thing, with a wild look that sits somewhere between broccoli floret and shiso leaf. But once blanched and sautéed with lots of olive oil and garlic, it tames to a delicious, pungent, and lightly bitter flavor, not entirely unlike Swiss chard or kale. Drippy with olive oil and its own cooking juices, it calls for a plate under the chin and a napkin in hand. And it tastes of nothing but green—which is to say, not pale, and certainly not depressing.

Broccoli Rabe Toasts with Olive Oil, Garlic, and Red Pepper
Adapted from Gourmet, April 2006

This is one of those lots-of-bang-for-your-buck numbers. If you have even a bachelor pad pantry, you’re most of the way there: just buy a bunch of broccoli rabe, put a pot of water on to boil, and all you have to worry about is your impending garlic breath. This Italian-flavored recipe can feed two to four people, depending on portion sizes and the number of bread slices you choose to use. I made a light lunch—with leftovers for tomorrow—out of two heaping toasts, a grapefruit, and some chocolate, but more greens-wary souls might prefer a smaller serving as a starter, or served alongside a meaty main course.

For the toasts:
A few slices, about 1/3 inch thick, from a long, crusty, country loaf
Olive oil
1 garlic clove, halved crosswise

For the broccoli rabe:
1 lb broccoli rabe, large stems discarded and the remainder coarsely chopped
3 Tbs good-quality olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, sliced
1/8 tsp dried red pepper flakes
3 Tbs water
¼ tsp salt

Preheat the broiler, and fill a large saucepan or Dutch oven about 2/3rds full of salted water. Bring it to a boil over high heat.

While the water is heating, prepare the toasts. Place the slices of bread on a baking sheet, brush both sides of the bread with oil, and season them lightly with salt and pepper. Broil the bread about 4 inches from the heating element, turning the slices halfway through, until golden, about 3 minutes total. Gently rub both sides of the bread with the garlic. Discard the garlic, and set the toasts aside.

When the water comes to a boil, add the broccoli rabe, and cook, uncovered, until tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Drain the broccoli rabe into a colander, and press it gently to remove any excess water. Set it aside.

Wipe the pot clean, add the oil, and warm it over medium heat. Add the sliced garlic and red pepper flakes, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is golden, about 2 minutes. Taking care to avoid hot oil splatters, add the broccoli rabe, water, and salt, and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, about 2 minutes.

Divide the warm broccoli rabe over the toasts, and serve.

Yield: 2 to 4, depending on the number of toasts and the appetites around the table


I do, deviled eggs

I’ve been mum lately, I know, on the whole marriage thing. I stirred up a ruckus, and then I went silent. But you should know that I haven’t changed my mind, and that most of the time, my feet aren’t cold. I won’t be picking up my petticoat and fleeing for the hills with my maiden name still intact. What’s been keeping me quiet is something much more predictable: I’ve been planning.

Since the afternoon of our engagement, when we strolled Brooklyn in the late sun, squinting at the strange new ray of light from my ring finger, we’ve been planning what I call a big party with a ceremony on the side. We knew that we wanted a summertime setting, but seeing as it was already late March, that made timing a little tricky. We didn’t want to rush. We wanted time to play with the details and, most importantly, to enjoy each other in the process. We’re also picky, and being picky is most pleasant, I find, when you’re not in a hurry.

So with all that in mind, and with historical weather data on our side, we have set a date and, so far, a few key details. We will be married on July 29, 2007, in a smallish town outside of Seattle, on the coast. Our ceremony will take place in a park by the water, with dinner a short walk away. I will come down the aisle on my mother’s arm, swathed in twenty strapless yards of Chantilly lace. And then there will be deviled eggs.

I love deviled eggs. They may be a stale stowaway from the 1950s and the ugly stepchild of every family barbeque, but damn it, I do not care. When properly made, there is no two-bite package more perfectly suited to a summer day than a cool hard-boiled egg white with a creamy filling. If you feel any degree of fondness for egg salad, it’s pure hypocrisy to diss the deviled egg. Rich with mayonnaise, tangy with mustard, and with a spicy, tingly edge, it’s the lowly egg’s best shot at becoming something fancy—America’s answer, I suppose you could say, to the French soufflé.

And these days, that something fancy can be pretty fancy indeed, with toppings that go beyond the usual dusting of musty paprika. A deviled egg with caviar is a nice surprise, or smoked salmon or a little bit of curry. I’ve even seen them breakfast-style, with shards of bacon and fine, crispy breadcrumbs. What style we’ll serve at the wedding is still to be determined—and we do, phew, have fourteen months to decide—but what I made this weekend was awfully nice.

A messy union of Americana and classic French cuisine, this deviled egg is fitted with a saucy hat of crabmeat ravigote, a cold sauce with—depending on who you ask—a mayonnaise or vinaigrette base flavored with fresh herbs. The sweet, mild flavors of crabmeat and egg are a natural pair already, but combine them in a cloud of mayonnaise shot through with summer herbs, and you’ve got something worth planning for—even fourteen months ahead.

Deviled Eggs with Crabmeat Ravigote
Adapted from Jeff Tunks and Chris Clime of Acadiana

I first tasted a version of these eggs at Washington, D.C.’s Acadiana, a “contemporary interpretation of a Louisiana fish house” that happens—full disclosure!—to be co-owned by one of my brothers. I may be biased, but I think these are uncannily good deviled eggs. If you should someday happen to find yourself near our nation’s capitol, go to Acadiana and order the trio of deviled eggs—but until then, make them yourself.

My first attempt at adapting the recipe yielded a deviled filling that was a tad too loose, as evidenced in the photographs above. I have adjusted the quantities below for what I hope will be a slightly more firm filling. Be sure to use good mayonnaise—preferably homemade—and buy the freshest crab possible.

4 large eggs
1 Tbs Dijon mustard
1 tsp Tabasco sauce
1 tsp Worchestershire sauce
6 Tbs good-quality mayonnaise, divided
2 ounces fresh lump crabmeat, such as Dungeness
1 tsp diced shallot
½ tsp minced garlic
½ tsp minced fresh thyme
½ tsp minced fresh Italian parsley
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
Finely chopped chives, for garnish

Fill a medium saucepan with water, and bring it to a boil. Place the eggs in the boiling water, and cook them for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, pour out the boiling water, and immediately run cold water over the eggs to cool them and stop the cooking process. When the eggs are cool, carefully peel them, and slice them in half lengthwise. Gently remove the yolks, and place them in a small mixing bowl. Set the whites aside.

Using a fork, mash the yolks well. Add the Dijon mustard, Tabasco sauce, Worchestershire sauce, 3 Tbs of the mayonnaise, and a pinch or two of salt. Whisk the mixture until it is creamy. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as necessary. Carefully spoon or pipe the yolk mixture back into the egg white halves.

In another small bowl, gently stir together the crabmeat, shallot, garlic, thyme, parsley, vinegar, and the remaining 3 Tbs of mayonnaise. Mix well. Divide the crabmeat mixture among the egg halves, and garnish with chives. Serve immediately.

Yield: 8 deviled eggs