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September 2008

Heston Blumenthal's Broccoli


I feel almost silly posting this because it's barely even a recipe and besides I should be packing instead of writing about broccoli, but I promise to keep it brief and in any case, it's such a good little recipe that I simply have to tell you about it quick quick quickly before I go.

Okay, so I have this book by Sophie Grigson lying around the apartment (Sophie being the daughter of the late, great Jane Grigson) and I'm flipping through it, wondering how on earth I'll figure out what a marrow is, oh, and a kumara, for that matter (and swedes? really? why?), when I come across a paragraph referring to Heston Blumenthal's method for cooking broccoli. Suddenly I snap to attention. Because, you see, I love broccoli, so much so that for years I ate it multiple times a week, all year long. And then I grew sick of it. Fell sick of it? It happened rather quickly is all I know. Steamed, dressed with lemon and olive oil, plunked down on a plate at yet another evening meal, oh, it was all just so boring. Good lord, I'd have rather munched on cardboard. Tragic! I know.

I mourned my lost love, wondered if I'd ever get it back. I dallied with lettuces and beets and fennel - oh fennel - but secretly I always wondered when I'd finally grow up and come home to broccoli again. And here, suddenly, the chance lay flat in my lap. A few sentences instructing me to simply scorch the stuff in a hot pan and shake things about a bit before dumping it out on a plate. It sounded...almost too good to be true. Too easy. I was suspicious.

But, of course, I needn't have been. After all, if you're a world-famous chef with Michelin stars and a television show and bestselling books and you're still doling out tips for dealing with the humble broccoli that feature nary a foam or emulsion or reduction or sous-vide treatment or sprinkling of foie gras or coating of caviar, I'll be the first admit that it's silly to mistrust you.

Okay, so here's what you do: wash a head of broccoli, or whatever comes wrapped in a rubber band and sold as one "head" of broccoli at the grocery store and lop off all the florets so that they're approximately the same size. Then peel the stalk of the broccoli, if you feel like it, (don't if you don't) and slice it into thinnish coins (1/4-inch thick? 1/2-inch is fine, too). Take a heavy-bottomed pan (something like this, perhaps) and pour a couple of spoons of olive oil in it. Set it over high heat until the oil starts to smoke and then dump the broccoli into the smoking pan all at once and cover it quickly with a lid. Cook for 2 minutes with no peeking. Take the lid off, season the broccoli with salt and pepper, put on oven mitts and grab the handles of the pot to shake the broccoli around a little bit, add a lump of butter (I used about a tablespoon) and then put the pot back over the flame, covered, for 2 more minutes. At this point, you can test the broccoli and see if it's cooked enough for your liking. If it's not, put the top back on and cook for a final 2 minutes. It should be scorched in spots and still quite green in others.

This swift, high-heat method concentrates the flavor of the broccoli, but still cooks the broccoli through so it's yielding and almost creamy. The seared spots are toasty and delicious. It's even better than the roasted broccoli at City Bakery and so much more interesting (and fast) than my old steamed stalwart. I'm not quite sure what the addition of butter does; I suppose it contributes a richness of flavor, but I think you could probably attempt this without it and it'd still be good. We dumped the broccoli into a bowl and gobbled the whole head up in a matter of minutes. Broccoli! I'm back.


I know, I know, I said this would be brief. But there's one more thing: head over here if you want to read an interview I did a few weeks ago with the folks at Cookthink who asked me all kinds of interesting questions to which I mostly just replied, "uh, tomatoes?"

Oh, and on that subject, I took a tomato canning class up at Stone Barns this past weekend, thanks to the lovely Sherri Brooks Vinton, and now I'm adequately armed to make good on that threat to can my own tomatoes, so watch this space, folks. I'm going to do it and it's going to be awesome and then you're all going to do it too. Who needs imported canned (BPA-laced) industrial tomatoes? Not us, no sirree.

And with that, I'm off. We'll be in Italy for the next ten days visiting my mother (how can it be that my grandfather won't be there? I don't even believe it): eating frosty slices of watermelon, getting books all salty at the beach, and trying our very best to do nothing else at all. We have to take two airplanes, a bus, a train, and a car to get there and even still I'm so ready that I'm practically jumping out of my skin. I'll see you all in September.




Sweet, sweet readers, how did I ever get so lucky? Oh my. I wish I could stand in front of you in person right now and give you each a big, sobby, grateful hug. Thank you for your comments and emails: believe me when I tell you that I truly felt love surround me as I read them all. I'm speechless at your empathy and generosity. I've got tears in my eyes just thinking about it.

And for the first time in weeks, this morning when I woke up so early that it was still dark out, I felt my stomach growl instead of sink with the realization of another day ahead of me. That's hopeful, isn't it? A few of you suggested a change in my daily routine, so instead of gulping down a bowl of cereal while standing in the hallway, I got up and made blueberry pancakes instead. (The daily swim will have to wait until next week when we *finally finally finally* go visit my mother in Italy.)

The pancakes weren't all that great (from the Fannie Farmer cookbook and a perfectly fine basic pancake recipe until someone came along wanting to use up random flours from her pantry, subbing Italian 00 flour and whole wheat flour for the regular all-purpose flour called for, cheeky monkey) and the blueberries all clumped together in a soggy little puddle on the underside of the pancakes, but they were warm and sweet and rather comforting nevertheless, and I ate them out on the balcony while the rest of my neighborhood still slept. Steam curled off my cup of tea and the herbs on the table moved intermittently in the early morning wind and I suddenly felt some peace.


Sadness is a bitch, isn't it? I was particularly moved by how many of you chimed in with your own admissions of struggling with it. Community, for lack of a better word, is an amazing thing and it does make a burden, any burden, easier to bear when you realize that you aren't entirely alone. Thank you, friends. I'd like to make you all blueberry pancakes and have you over to breakfast on my balcony with me.

Zuni Cafe's Zucchini Pickles


What to say, how to say it? I don't really know how to broach it. It feels awkward and out-of-place. But since it's also residing in me like a 900-pound gorilla, I don't know how to write around it anymore. I'm having a hard summer, folks. I keep waiting to get up one morning and feel like I've emerged from a strange, dark cocoon, but instead I keep waking up on the verge of tears.

Depression is exhausting and maddening, the way it niggles at everything good in your life and turns the rest into an unmanageable calamity. It worms its way inside you and takes up residence like some kind of tropical parasite, keeping you up at night while it seems that the rest of the world sleeps blissfully. Other people's happiness is both a comfort and a finger in the ribs.

It's hard to write through this fog. It's hard to stay focused, to give thanks for all the good things (and I know there are many good things), to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other sometimes. And it's not easy finding an appetite or a sense of adventure when it comes to food.


But I made pickles the other day. It seemed easy enough, rounds of zucchini peeling off my sharp knife as I stood in the kitchen, the counter holding steady against my leaning hip; a sturdy comfort. All I had to do was slice zucchini and an onion, soak them in cold water and salt, then submerge them in a nose-wrinkling mixture of sugar and vinegar and mustard seed.

I packed the pickles into jars and let them marinate in the fridge, for one night, then one week, and a fortnight. As the days passed, the pickles developed more flavor. I liked them best right away, crunchy and barely sweet, the fresh brine making me break out in a gentle sweat. But Fran ate them a good two weeks after I first made them and wrote, "The pickled zucchini are AMAZING. I want, I need the recipe. Addictions are made of that concoction of vinegar, mustard, garlic."


I don't know how to shake off what's wrong. I keep muddling forward in the hopes that the sadness will just melt away eventually. Bear with me as I figure things out, would you?

Zucchini Pickles
Makes 3 cups

1 pound zucchini
1 small yellow onion
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed yellow and/or brown mustard seeds
Scant 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1. Wash and trim the zucchini, then slice them one-sixteenth-inch thick; a mandoline works best, but a good sharp knife is fine, too. Slice the onion very thin as well. Combine the zucchini and onions in a large but shallow nonreactive bowl, add the salt and toss to distribute. Add a few ice cubes and cold water to cover, then stir to dissolve the salt.

2. After about 1 hour, taste and feel a piece of zucchini - it should be slightly softened. Drain and pat dry.

3. Combine the vinegar, sugar, dry mustard, mustard seeds and turmeric in a small saucepan and simmer for 3 minutes. Set aside until just warm to the touch. (If the brine is too hot, it will cook the vegetables and make the pickles soft instead of crisp.)

4. Return the zucchini to a dry bowl and pour over the cooled brine. Stir to distribute the spices. Transfer the pickle to jars, preferably ones that have "shoulders" to hold the zucchini and onions beneath the surface of the brine. Seal tightly and refrigerate for at least a day before serving to allow the flavors to mellow and permeate the zucchini, turning them a brilliant chartreuse color.

Amy Scattergood's Harissa


In the last week, I have eaten harissa with

boiled potatoes
stewed beans
scrambled eggs and a 3-minute egg
pasta (I know, I know)
sardines on toast.

Yes, it's true. Apparently, harissa is something that goes well with everything.

I had no idea. I really didn't. Would you know that harissa used to be something I looked at sideways, with suspicion? I would like to smack that former self of mine. How many couscous meals did I have in Paris that were simply begging to be adorned with that reddish manna? How many merguez sausages did I eat, blithely, stupidly unaware of how good they could have really been? Silly me, walking around Paris like I thought I knew what was what, eating baguettes and falling in love and living in a tiny garrett when what I really should have been doing was eating harissa.


Clearly I have some catching up to do.

I used Amy's recipe to start, but then I saw Mary's post on the same subject and decided to do a little fusing of the two. Far less garlic than Amy calls for, and cumin instead of caraway - though less because of flavor than circumstance: I don't have a spice grinder. I also lessened the amounts of spices somewhat. This harissa is hot, yes, but not too too much, and incredibly floral. Something about the alchemy between the peppers and the spices and the oil creates this wonderfully lush pepper paste that begs to be stirred into and spread onto almost everything it comes across.

One thing I have to say before you go and make this yourselves? Please buy a pair of plastic gloves. I didn't have any, and ended up deseeding the peppers with plastic bags on my hands. I looked like some kind of self-mutilating basket case. Plus, looks aside, it made deseeding - already not the best part of any day - a real pain.

Tomato-pepper harissa

Makes 1 cup

4 ounces dried chiles (I used New Mexico chiles, but you could also use guajillo chiles or an equal mixture of both)
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3 sun-dried tomatoes, dry-packed
1 large red bell pepper
2 tablespoons best-quality olive oil, plus extra for storage

1. Roast the red pepper in the oven until blistered and collapsing on all sides. Set aside to cool on baking sheet. Place the chiles in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Let rest until softened, about 30 minutes. Drain, then remove the seeds and stems from the chiles. Wear latex or rubber gloves when you do this to avoid irritating your skin.

2. Place the seeded and stemmed chiles into the bowl of a food processor with the garlic and pulse a couple of times. Add the salt, cumin and coriander. Process until smooth, pouring the olive oil into the feeding tube on top as you blend.

3. In a small bowl, cover the sun-dried tomatoes with boiling water and allow to soften, about 15 minutes. Drain. Remove the skin of the roasted pepper, and the veins and the seeds. Do not rinse under water.

4. Add the tomatoes and one-half of the roasted red pepper (reserve the rest for another use) to the chile mixture, adding a few tablespoons of water if needed to achieve the right consistency. The harissa should have the texture of thick paste. Cover with a thin layer of olive oil and refrigerate until needed.