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July 2006

Dakota Weiss's Tuna Carpaccio


Despite the incessant rain over New York City, last night's dinner called for something light and colorful and nutritious: a counterbalance to a weekend of baked beans and chocolate, and the perfect dinner-for-one. The recipe comes from the chef at Jer-ne in Marina del Rey and was printed in an LA Times article about the beauties of shaved salads by Leslie Brenner.

I'm adore shaved salads - fennel and celery root and cabbage and carrots: the list of raw vegetables that benefit from being sliced paper-thin and dressed with nothing more than olive oil, lemon juice and salt goes on and on. But the idea of pairing fennel with watermelon and raw tuna was something new to me and just the ticket for a one-plate meal.

I sliced two ounces of raw tuna, then drizzled them with lemon oil and piled shaved fennel on top. Mimicking the coral fish, thinly sliced watermelon was arranged on top of that. More lemon oil was drizzled all around, and I sprinkled flaky Maldon salt over everything to give it some edge. My plate looked gorgeous - restaurant food in my very own kitchen.

But sadly? It tasted totally insipid. The delicate tuna flavor disappeared entirely behind the fennel, and the watermelon was so thin that the fresh crunch and refreshing taste was gone a millisecond after each bite. And why did Weiss use lemon oil instead of lemon juice and oil, which would have provided some much-needed tartness?

The idea of using watermelon in savory dishes is lovely - I remember first trying a salad of watermelon, sliced grape tomatoes and feta, all bathed in a sharp, citrusy vinaigrette a few years ago (at The Red Cat? I think), and being totally blown away by the combination of textures and flavors. But this tuna carpaccio was a total snooze, even if it was the prettiest thing I ever did put together for dinner.

James Beard's Baked Beans


To those of you who have a waning interest in my childhood and how it came to be that I spent much time in Germany with my mother and yet also a large amount of time in Massachusetts with my father, let me tell you that it's far too complicated and long-winded to explain on a blog, and a food blog at that, but that it is thanks to this schizophrenic, bi-continental upbringing that I have an equal appreciation for spaghetti al pomodoro and a can of baked beans. Separately, of course.

When I lived with my father in Boston, he had a weekly repertoire of dinners up his sleeve, including spaghetti with my (maternal) grandmother's tomato sauce, Moo Goo Gai Pan from Golden Temple on Beacon Street, and canned baked beans with a pile of broccoli alongside. To this day, I consider baked beans with broccoli to be one of my comfort foods, something to be eaten when nothing else will do. I'm never too picky about the brand of beans I buy, though I end up veering towards Heinz's Vegetarian Beans, if only because there's something so appealing about the green-and-purple label.

In March, Amanda Hesser printed James Beard's recipe for baked beans as an accompaniment to Tucker Carlson's journey down memory lane to the time he spent working at the B&M plant. Every weekend since then I thought about making the beans, but realized I didn't have the requisite 11 hours to do so. Until this weekend, when rain and an out-of-town Ben kept me indoors to finally slog my way through the entire (gulp) fifth season of Six Feet Under and have Beard's beans bubbling away in the oven simultaneously.

There's not much to the recipe besides a lot of patience. You soak dried pea beans for hours, then boil them, then layer them with an onion and spareribs and a molasses-dried mustard mixture in a pot to cook for several more hours in a low oven. Because I figured I might as well gild the lily, I also made my very first batch of true Southern cornbread in my cast-iron skillet (thanks to Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking). It may not be how my father served his beans, but some things have to change over time, no? The beans were good, and even better the next day. The cornbread, so salty and plain compared to that Northern stuff I'm used to, was the best thing to eat crumbled with the porky beans (a slice drenched with maple syrup was delicious, too, and very Little House in the Big Woods).

But as I ate and sobbed my way through the final few episodes (I mean, seriously. Best Show EVER), I realized that even though the bean recipe came from James Beard and was Slow Food incarnate, I kind of preferred the processed version, the one that takes me three minutes to prepare and is an instant time machine to another part of my life. And that's really okay. It was sort of satisfying to figure that out (a lot of deep thoughts this weekend, I know. Forgive me, I was a little PREOCCUPIED WITH A FICTIONAL FAMILY'S DEMISE).

After all the Fishers died and I washed my face and cleaned myself up, I went back into the real world to meet a lovely group of bloggers, organized by Sam. We ate far too much chocolate and talked and laughed. It was so lovely to meet everyone. Thank you, Sam, and Happy Birthday!


Lisa Ades' Syrian Beef Kebabs

I'm kind of a sissy when it comes to grilling. Growing up in Germany, having a barbecue always seemed so utterly and entirely American. After all, the Americans did it best: juicy burgers with their toasty buns, spicy chicken slathered in barbecue sauce, gooey marshmallows falling off of scavenged twigs. My family in Italy would grill from time to time - a whole fish in a wire basket, perhaps, or a few slices of bread to be rubbed with garlic and drizzled with oil - the original and inimitable bruschetta - but that was about it. And even then, the grill was in the province of men. My imposing Sicilian uncle would take care of the fish, and our Milanese friend Giancarlo would stand over his grill and toss toasted bread back at the dinner table for us to dress.

In America, too, grilling and manhood seem inextricably bound - in fact, it often seems to be the only place where men feel truly comfortable when cooking. Get a group of people together for a summer barbecue and the men will always end up standing around the grill, giving each other terse "suggestions" for how to get the fire going. I let this behavior intimidate me over the years. I convinced myself that I didn't really care much for grilled food anyhow - a saute pan was good enough for me! But somewhere in the back of my brain, I suspected that if I could wrestle my way to the front of the grill and master that sucker, it might well be worth it.

For the past year, I've been lucky enough to live in a ground-floor apartment with a patio and hence a grill. It's a bit of a sad-looking grill, lopsided and with a tipsy-looking ash-collector (erm, that's what I call it. I may be mastering the grill, but that doesn't mean I know the lingo), but who cares about looks when it comes to grilling? I didn't need some fancy-pants grill selling at Williams-Sonoma for 500 dollars (for some reason, a Southern twang just crept into my interior monologue - let's ignore it and move on). What I did need was a grill brush to swipe off a year or two of heat-fused proteins and grit, and a recipe that sounded so mouth-watering it would propel from my safe place of non-grilling existence to the wild life on the other side.

I purchased the grill brush for little more than four dollars at the Chinese-run restaurant equipment store around the corner from my office, along with some fierce-looking skewers. I was in business. Last summer, Julia Moskin wrote about multi-cultural grilling and included several recipes for kebabs that sounded utterly delicious and not too difficult. The recipes included lovely little salads to be served alongside the kebabs, which totally charmed me. For a catch-up dinner with some girlfriends on Wednesday night, I chose to make a Syrian recipe for beef kebabs spiced with onions and cinnamon and allspice, to be stuffed along with a citrusy salad into a grill-warmed pita. Are you hungry already?

The recipe called for ground chuck to be mixed together by hand into a "paste" along with spices, chopped onions (I used shallots), tomato paste, lemon juice, and pine nuts. I was then to form the meat around flat skewers - but this didn't quite work. If I lifted the skewers, even carefully, the molded meat would just fall off. What worked better was forming the meat into sausage shapes with my hands, and then thrusting the skewer through each one. I chilled the raw kebabs for an hour, then went to work getting the grill to light.

Anticlimactically, the briquets we had lying around the house were the quick-start ones, soaked with lighter fluid. All I did was touch a match to a pile of them and they went up in flames. Thrilling! About 10 minutes later, the grill was ready, so I oiled the rack, laid the skewers down carefully over the hot coals and heard the meat sizzle. Turning the skewers and kebabs 7 minutes later proved a bit difficult since I was wielding a spatula and oven mitts (not to mention my nerves were getting in the way), but all I needed was a bit of practice. When the meat was cooked through but still juicy, I threw a few pitas on the grill and we sat down for dinner.

We split the pitas and filled them with the juicy meat - sweet with spice, flame-smoked - and lemon-and-oil slicked romaine and cucumbers. The sandwiches were delicious - alternately warm yet cooling, crusty and fresh. The lemony salad was the perfect foil for the hearty meat - in fact, I filled my pita mostly with salad, and had just a piece or two of meat stuck in. We ate with our fingers, always satisfying, and felt the night set in around us. I think I could get used to this outdoor-cooking thing.

Frankie's Spuntino's Wine-Stewed Prunes and Mascarpone

Seeing this recipe printed in the New York Times made me jump with joy (well, really I only sort of leaned forward in my ergonomic office chair and squealed - under my breath - but you get the point). Because if you haven't been to Frankie's Spuntino in Brooklyn or on the Lower East Side because you live outside of New York (which, frankly, is the only excuse you'd have for not having already dined at these places), now you too can enjoy one of the most understated and yet delicious desserts I've had at a restaurant in a long time. I'm so happy for you!

At a recent girls dinner there, we plowed through the menu - feasting on perfect little salads and steaming bowls of meatballs with sauce, all mopped up with the crustiest, chewiest bread imaginable. None of us had room for dessert, but we couldn't resist ordering one plate of stewed prunes - with several spoons. Gumming around happily on that one plump prune per person, we were the picture of contentment. The sauce was so fruity and nicely spiced that I figured the recipe would be far more involved than just a bit of wine, some sugar and a cinnamon stick.

But I was wrong! You take a bunch of prunes (just buy a Sunmaid package - they're moister and softer than at any gourmet store - take my word for it), and dump them in a saucepan with some sugar, some wine and a cinnamon stick (I halved the recipe), bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat to let it all simmer together until the sauce has reduced to a thin caramel. You smear a bit of mascarpone on a plate, top it with a few prunes and drizzle the wine reduction all around. I let my batch reduce a bit too much, but the flavor I'd so admired at the restaurant was there, in my very own kitchen.

I love it when restaurateurs get it: that good food is simple food and vice versa. The smooth blandness of the mascarpone was a nice foil to the prunes - texturally and flavorwise - and did a nice job of gussying up what is essentially a no-fuss dessert. After all, there are only five simple ingredients in the whole dish. I actually find this to be quite a rich little end to the meal, so I'd serve a lot less per serving than the Franks do - maybe just three prunes per serving instead of six, but you know your guests better than I do.

Wine-Stewed Prunes with Mascarpone
Serves 6

1 pound pitted prunes (about 40)
1¼ cups sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
2½ cups dry red wine
2  8-ounce containers mascarpone

1. Combine prunes, sugar, cinnamon and wine in a pot over medium-high heat. When mixture boils, reduce to simmer and cook 45 minutes, until liquid has turned to syrup.

2. Remove from heat, and rest at least 15 minutes. Spread a mound of mascarpone on each serving plate, top with 6 prunes and drizzle with syrup. Serve immediately.