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Marian Burros's Farro Salad with Tomatoes and Corn

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There's nothing quite like escaping to a peaceful island that's bursting with colorful blooms, edged with turquoise coves and populated by a night-time chorus of frogs that sing as cheerfully as birds do. Bermuda was glorious and entirely different from what I expected. Mostly unspoiled and cooled by the ocean air, it was a dreamy place for a wedding.

And so we saw Betsy - my first roommate in New York and the woman who introduced me to late-night fries at Big Nick's on the Upper West Side, joined me for weekly French Kiss dates on the couch, left used tea bags in the sink on a daily basis, held my hand and dried my tears through the worst break-up of my life, cleaned the apartment when it was her turn whilst listening to Les contes d'Hoffman, tirelessly counseled me into better jobs and better relationships, and was one of the best friends I could have ever dreamed of - marry her Scottish sweetheart.

(Funny how those tea bags used to drive me batty. Now that Betsy lives in London, I kind of miss their reliable appearance in my sink.)

Our main source of calories this weekend were far too many rum swizzles and Dark 'n' Stormies, with a few French fries, some conch fritters and wedding cake thrown in for ballast. Oh sure, the ceilidh dancing might have burned through a bit of it, but since we fueled our way back to the dance floor with even more of that delicious Gosling's rum, Ben and I teetered back to New York, swearing up and down to fast our way to purification as soon as possible. Never mind the fact that I find those kinds of hysterical promises entirely impossible to keep.

Luckily, I never find it a chore to eat whole grains and vegetables - in fact, it's often a relief when I'm not feeling pressured to put a "square meal" on the table with a meat and starch aligned just so on the plate. Then I can get away with a meal cobbled together from the various greens and grains nestled away in my fridge and cabinets, as Molly so beautifully described the other day. And if I'm lucky, some inspired combination will find its way into my heart and become a total, full-blown addiction.

Last night? I was very, very lucky indeed.

In my clippings stash, I found a gem of a recipe from a Marian Burros article about whole grains that was published almost three years ago. Deceptively simple, it calls for cooked farro studded with corn and tomatoes, then tossed with a deliciously acidic dressing and a medley of of springtime herbs. Trust me when I tell you that you when you start eating this stuff, you most definitely will not be able to stop. Lukewarm or chilled, eaten at the dinner table or on a picnic blanket, as a meal all on its own or as a supporting actor in a potluck - this dish is going to become your best friend this summer.

Instead of soaking my farro overnight, as Marian instructs, I soaked it for 30 minutes, drained the grains, put them in a pot with cold water, brought the pot to a boil, lowered the heat and let the farro simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered, until it was tender. In the meantime, I quartered cherry tomatoes, drained a can of corn (I'm not buying cobs until they're for sale at the Greenmarket - it's my motto), chopped herbs, and whisked together the dressing. Then I drained the farro and let it cool for a bit before stirring it into the bowl of corn and tomatoes.

The still-warm farro bloomed open the flavor of the herbs, while the vinaigrette mellowed the toothsome grains. The corn popped sweetly under my teeth and the slivered almonds added a toasty crunch. Piled into a bowl and eaten with a fork, the salad was chewy and sweet, herbal and acidic. The fresh, bright flavors were a revelation. So good that I felt my alcohol-soaked veins wilt with gratitude. So good that I found myself nibbling surreptitiously at the serving bowl after I finished dinner. So good that I hid the leftovers from Ben so I could eat them for lunch today.

Maybe I have a problem? I don't care. You won't either, once you start eating. My name is Luisa and I'm a farro salad addict.

Farro Salad with Tomatoes and Corn
Yields 3 or 4 servings as a side dish

1 cup farro
2 ears cooked corn or a can of corn niblets
16 cherry tomatoes, quartered
4 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
4 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Place farro in a small bowl with water to cover. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rest overnight on countertop. When ready to cook, drain farro, and place in a small pan with water to cover. Bring to boil, and cook for about 10 minutes, until tender.

2. Scrape kernels from corn, and place in a bowl large enough to hold all ingredients. Add remaining ingredients, and mix well. When farro is cooked, drain well, and toss with other ingredients. It is best served at room temperature but can be chilled.


Cherries and Rice

I broke down yesterday and, sustainability be damned, bought a pound of California cherries. I couldn't help myself, really. The cherries were piled high on the fruit stand, taunting me with their ruby glow, and I knew it'd be a while yet before our local cherries hit the markets. I'd been walking under the midday sun for a while and all I could think of, as I gazed at the display, was that cold, clear flavor that cherries have when they pop in your mouth.

(Eating cherries makes me think of sitting at my mother's kitchen table in our old apartment in Berlin. My memory says that it has to be warm out, because that's when the local cherries are always for sale, and it should be late - way past dinner, because cherries are such a good late-night snack - but the sky is still light. Northern Europe is nice that way. As long as it's still light out, the birds stay awake and sing in the trees. So I sit at the table and crunch my way through a handful of just-chilled cherries while the birds chirp away and the light filters through the leaves of the tree outside our long kitchen windows. I guess that's how cherries are meant to be eaten. There' s just no other way.)

Back in New York, I brought my three dollar sack of cherries to the office and popped one, then another in my mouth. I closed my eyes as I chewed and imagined myself back in our old kitchen, listening to the birds, with cherry juice squirting inside my cheek and my mother at the counter. Just then, as these things are wont to happen, the phone went and my mother's voice rang out on the other end of the line. We hadn't spoken in almost a week. As I listened to her say hello from her balcony, my mouth full of cherries, I could hear the Berlin birds chirp in the background. Just as they were supposed to.

It was such a silly little moment and it felt like pure magic.

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It's been another quiet week in my kitchen and it's kind of making me crazy. I'm dying to try Amy's pavlova and Florence's rillette sandwich and I'm flirting dangerously with buying an ice-cream machine and soon enough my CSA will start up again and I'll have vegetables coming out of my ears (I can't wait), but right now I'm struggling to even get an egg fried for dinner. And I know you don't want to read about that.

But I do have to tell you that I'm currently reading Nigel Slater's genius book, Real Fast Food. Do you know why Slater's such a genius? Two reasons:

1. Because, as a food writer, he manages to make everything he writes about sound delicious and perfect and exactly what you should be eating for dinner. Whether he's writing about fish stick sandwiches or broiled chicken breasts, Slater whets my appetite like no other person I know.

2. He legitimizes almost anything for dinner. Sauteed mushrooms on toast? That's dinner. Melted Gruyere cheese spooned over boiled potatoes? That's dinner. Canned sardines, brown bread and mustard? That's all there is for dinner, and it's perfect. Your larder is a veritable treasure trove when Nigel's telling you what to cook.

And so, as I read tonight that sometimes plain white rice can be served as a main course "if you are feeling decidedly delicate", I realized that the half-empty pot of day-old rice in my fridge actually could serve a purpose, instead of just taking up space there until I felt strong enough to throw out the leftovers and use the pot for something useful again. I wasn't feeling decidedly delicate, rather robust to tell you the truth, but I didn't have time to cook and there was very little else in the house otherwise. With Nigel's wise instructions in my head, I forked the cold rice into a bowl, ate the still-fragrant, tender grains and felt very happy and nourished indeed.

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Tomorrow morning we're off to Bermuda for my friend Betsy's wedding, where there will be kilt-clad Scots, a lot of men in knee-length shorts, and a very beautiful bride. I can't wait. Happy Memorial Day, everyone! May your barbecues be smoky and your beers cold.


Donna Deane's Curried Chicken Salad on Naan

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Subpar curried chicken salads have practically become a bad dining cliche. Texturally questionable meat, possibly some raisins (truly a horror), all bound up in loathsome mayonnaise and then folded into a cold, inflexible flatbread wrap (tomato-flavored! or perhaps spinach, for health. Am I the only person on this planet who thinks those things should be abolished forever?). What you're left with is a gloopy, chewy nightmare of a lunch. Just thinking about it makes me a little queasy.

So why would I even entertain the thought of making something like that for dinner?

I'll tell you: the L.A. Times Encore feature. I'm totally in love. The editors find older recipes in the archives and put them back online for a repeat. Something about being featured a second time convinces me that the recipe must have really been good, that it's important I pay attention this time around, and not dismiss something as grody as a curried chicken salad sandwich with a wrinkled nose and an impatient click of the mouse. Would Donna Deane lead me astray, twice? I should think not.

So after cuddling a delicious little baby for a few hours after work, I headed to the grocery store, head awash in a fog of happy hormones (what is it about those little feet and fuzzy heads?), and bought chicken legs, lemon grass, fresh naan (now available at Whole Foods!) and limes. A promising start to the meal, I thought. At home, chicken legs poached in boxed chicken stock doctored up with chopped lemon grass, while I stirred together plain Liberte yogurt with lime zest, juice and curry powder, and tiny dice of red pepper, celery and scallions.

When the chicken had cooled, I pulled the meat off the bones, folded it into the tangy yogurt sauce and piled the salad onto the warmed naan. A few chopped peanuts went on top (I eschewed the cilantro, oh, and the sliced lime for garnish - it was a plain old weeknight, after all) and the soft, warm naan rolled easily around the cool, faintly spicy filling. It was a bit of a mess to eat, but the pillowy bread was a lovely counterpoint to the silken salad and the occasional crunch of peanut or pepper. Ben ate two of the sandwiches, stopping only to say happily, "this is exactly what I wanted for dinner".

Sometimes, satisfaction comes so easily.

Curried Chicken Salad on Naan
Serves 4

2 whole chicken legs, about 1 3/4 pounds
4 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup chopped lemon grass
8 ounces low-fat plain yogurt
2 teaspoons chopped lime zest
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 cup sliced green onions
1/4 cup diced red bell pepper
1/4 cup diced celery
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro plus 8 whole sprigs
1 teaspoon salt
4 pieces naan
1/4 cup chopped salted peanuts
1 lime cut into wedges for garnish

1. Place chicken legs, chicken stock and chopped lemon grass in a medium saucepan. Bring the stock to a gentle simmer over low heat. Poach the chicken for 30 to 40 minutes until cooked through. Remove from the stock and cool. Remove the skin and bones and shred the meat into bite-sized pieces.

2. While the chicken is cooking, stir together the yogurt, lime zest, lime juice and curry powder. Add the green onions, red pepper, celery, chopped cilantro and salt. Gently stir in the shredded chicken.

3. Place the naan in a 350-degree oven on the rack and heat until warm but still flexible, 1 to 2 minutes. Do not allow it to crisp.

4. Place each piece of naan on a plate and spoon one-half cup of chicken salad on top. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon chopped peanuts and lay 2 sprigs cilantro on top, extending out the sides. Roll the naan around the filling.


Where I've Been

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I'll tell you where: on the inside of a karaoke bar in Koreatown and in the company of some mighty fine women, one of whom is getting married in a few weeks, requiring an entire weekend of hijinks all over town and far too much alcohol so we could send her off in style.

(It's not a proper bachelorette if someone doesn't end up on the floor of a BYOB karaoke bar, or? I didn't think so.) (For the record, that someone wasn't me. I swear!)

There was also a delectable birthday brunch at Pylos in the East Village (cheap, cheerful and very cool to boot) for my sweet Gemma, who is preparing for the arrival of one very small child, some might call it a baby even, into her own home in a matter of (gulp) days.

So, in between afternoon champagne and (DAD! Don't click on that) Ducky Doolittle, there was a pregnant belly to be petted and padded laundry baskets to be discussed. You know it's been a good weekend when you cover both crotchless panties and nursing bras.

In the course of the weekend, I spent time with many of my girlfriends here - women I met in college freshman year and women I've met along the way since arriving in New York six years ago. In the four minutes of (relatively) sober solitude I had this weekend, all I could do was marvel at just how fantastic they all are.

I'm so lucky to have them in my life.

(Pardon the long silence. It's hard to believe, I know, but there was precious little cooking in between all of this madness. Pouring myself a bowl of cereal while breathing through the DT's was as close as I got. And though I cooked us a square meal last night, the only thrilling thing about it - well, other than the taste - was that it came entirely from the Greenmarket. Am I a total food geek for being kind of excited about that? Meat, starch, veg - it was all local. And delicious!)


Sara Jenkins' Penne with Sheep's Milk Ricotta and Mustard Greens

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Family is everything, isn't it? After all, I'd be nothing without my mother's love and my father's devotion, that's for sure. And I'd go very hungry indeed if it wasn't for the presence of my Sicilian uncle in my life.

Without him, I would have never known the pleasure of tiny cockles stewed in tomato sauce and eaten with a toothpick on New Year's Eve, or the glory that is a perfectly stuffed and battered fried zucchini flower. I ate my first raw oyster at his behest (though it didn't exactly - er - go down as it should have, and the humiliation of that moment still stings a bit), consider my best spaghetti dinners to be the ones that I learned by watching him (and, by extension, my aunt - who is no Sicilian, it's true, but a gifted cook and exacting taster nonetheless), and I still know absolutely no one who can clean artichokes as well as he can and perform the kind of culinary magic with them that he's capable of (fried, braised or stewed - they are incredible).

Now that the rigors of adulthood and certain geographical realities prohibit me from seeing my family as often as I'd like, the wonder of email and the Internet keeps us linked even when we cannot be together. So when my Sicilian uncle read that I'd finally found Giovanni Rana's pasta around the corner here, it reminded him to tell me about his latest discovery.

Aren't you glad I'm the generous, information-sharing type? It was Pasta Setaro - an artisanal pasta made in Campania and sold (oh so luckily!) right around the other corner here, at Buon Italia. I hided myself over to get a kilo of penne and a wedge of imported ricotta Romana for the dish I'd been eager to make for years, since I first spied it in the New York Times Magazine, in a profile of Sara Jenkins (chef and daughter of Nancy Harmon Jenkins).

Sara has you boil pasta while you wilt pungent mustard greens in olive oil and slivered garlic. When the pasta is cooked and the greens are sufficiently wilted, you stir a goodly amount of ricotta into the greens, off the heat, and add the drained pasta. A plentiful shower of Parmigiano tops the dish. If you've never had sheep's-milk ricotta, trust me when I tell you that there is absolutely no way you can substitute the supermarket version here. You'd be disappointed in the mediocrity of the dish and you'd resent me. Do your best to find imported ricotta from Italy for this recipe. I'm not sure it's worth trying with anything less.

(An aside for those of you who live in New York: I recommend a visit to A Voce where Andrew Carmellini serves Sardinian ricotta as an appetizer. It's worth the trip, the expense, the everything.)

(Oh wait, and another aside: my absolute favorite spaghetti-with-ricotta dish is even more delicious than this one and is quite easy to make. Make a simple tomato sauce (by browning a clove of garlic lightly in olive oil, then adding pureed tomatoes of the highest quality possible and simmering them until the flavors meld, adding a pinch of salt and a few leaves of fresh basil - that's it). When you dress your cooked pasta with the tomato sauce, add a dollop of good ricotta, the best you can find. Mix the whole thing together, and top, if desired, with grated Parmigiano. It's bliss, this dish, I guarantee it.)

I loved Sara's mustard-green pasta, not just because it was light and healthy and flavorful and just plain good, but because it reminded me of my family and, by extension, the happy summers of my childhood. My taste memories are among the strongest ones I have, and yet it always surprises me just how instantly a mouthful of soft cheese can catapult me into my grandfather's dining room, thousands of miles away. (When we were little, my cousins and I were allowed to sprinkle sugar on the spoonfuls of ricotta on our plates. The crunch of the sugar crystals under my teeth along with the faintly chalky texture of the pale, smooth ricotta was total sensory bliss. Now that we're grown-ups, we eat the ricotta plain and savor its delicate complexity. But I cannot wait to teach my children to eat their ricotta the way I used to.)

Living so far away from people I love is no picnic. But it is a deep, abiding comfort to find their presence so readily in my home when I get into the kitchen to cook the way they taught me to, with the ingredients that flavor their lives and my own. In a month, I'm taking Ben with me to Italy to see my family and show him the (real) tastes of home. I am counting the days and I know he is, too.

Penne with Sheep's Milk Ricotta and Mustard Greens
Serves 4

Sea salt
1 pound penne or maccheroni
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
2 large bunches mustard greens (about 12 ounces each), stems removed, cut into 2-inch strips
6 to 7 ounces sheep's milk ricotta, run through a food mill (about 1 3/4 cups)
Parmigiano-Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a rolling boil. Add the pasta and cook until tender but firm at the core, about 8 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the garlic and cook until golden.

2. Add the mustard greens and about 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water, just enough to steam the greens. When only a little liquid is left in the pan and the greens have wilted, remove the pan from the heat and add the ricotta, stirring with a wooden spoon until the cooking liquid is removed.

3. When the pasta is done, drain it, add it to the sauce and fold everything together. Sprinkle with a handful of grated cheese and fold together again. Season to taste. Serve with more grated cheese on the side.