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September 2010

Toast and a Summer Break


It's finally cooled off in Berlin, which means that we can sleep under thin coverlets at night again, that big puffy clouds float past my little office under the eaves at a rather brisk clip, that I can enjoy hot tea in the mornings once more, and that I don't have to drink an icy glass of milk for dinner but can actually cook a pot of spaghetti, with sauce. Two burners, going at once! That's rather nice. Our tomato plants on the balcony are finally bursting with little red fruits. At first I could just pluck one or two off and rub them against my pant leg before popping them in my mouth, but now there are handfuls going in salad bowls. It's intoxicating - though I swear I'll never live in a house, I often find myself dreaming of vegetable gardens these days.

Another thing I'm obsessed with lately is the "Cooking From Every Angle" column on Food52. It is crammed with interesting little snippets and delicious ideas. I daresay it's my favorite thing about that site - every time I scroll through the column, I can hear my stomach growl. It makes me want to buy spices at a furious clip, replenish my cluttered utensil drawer with clever tools, stew fish in tomato sauce for a spaghetti dinner and freeze tiny berries in lemon-flavored ice cubes. But the thing it makes me want to do most is eat toast.


Not just any toast, mind you. But toast spread with mustard mayonnaise and topped with mashed avocado. It is my new lunch. It is what I think about when I go grocery shopping for boring things like plain yogurt and face cream. It is what I crave when I open the refrigerator door. It is all I'd like to eat right now.

There's barely a recipe. You mix together equal parts smooth Dijon mustard and mayonnaise and spread this on a piece of hot toast. (I like to toast toast until it's quite well-done and crunchy. What's the point of flabby toast?) Then you take half an avocado, scoop it into a bowl, sprinkle it with Maldon salt and a few drops of lemon juice and mash it with a fork until it's tamed but not entirely creamy. I rather like those bite-sized pieces of avocado to remind you of what you're actually eating.

This gorgeous green-yellow mash then is gently spread to the edges of your mustard-mayo spread toast. You can plop this on a plate and sit down at your table to eat it, or you can lean yourself against the kitchen counter with a hand cupped under the toast to catch crumbs as you eat. Whatever you do, don't plan on sharing the other half of the avocado with anyone. Halfway through one toast, you'll already be on to toasting the second piece. Then the avocado will be gone and you'll be licking savory mayonnaise off the corners of your lips and plotting just how many avocados you can eat in one week. As it turns out, quite a few.


If you tire of this delicious meal, though I don't see how you could, or if you're allergic to avocados or just rather interested in eating something slightly different every once in a while, this is another open-faced sandwich lunch I've taken to like a house on fire lately: spicy salmon mash on toast. Is that what I'm calling it? I guess it is. There: Spicy Salmon Mash on Toast. You take a can of wild salmon - preferably printed with some kind of logo attesting to its sustainability or inclusion in the Marine Stewardship program - and drain it, then flake the fish into a small bowl. Into this small bowl go equal amounts of mayonnaise and Sriracha sauce - I use somewhere between half a teaspoon and a teaspoon of each. Mash everything gently together with a fork, taking care not to entirely liquefy the salmon; you want some integrity left in each bite. Then, once again on very crispy toast, you pile the pink flakes as high as you'd like to go.

Important here is something cooling to offset the spicy salmon - I find three very thin cucumber slices to do just the trick. They are like mini air-conditioners for your palate and crunch ever so agreeably along with the rather velvety fish. Then there's the rough rasp of the toast and you've got a symphony of textures enlivening what you thought was going to be a delicate, little luncheon-for-one.


I thought this was strictly girl food, to be honest, only something to be eaten at home during the day on a break from work. But then I made it for lunch the other weekend, when there was nothing else in the house and it was too hot to think straight, and it turns out that men like this, too.

I got greedy at the market this week and even though we're leaving for Italy tomorrow, I came home loaded down with bags of local zucchini and sour cherries, mini-Roma tomatoes, sweet and juicy, and soft-skinned local apricots. And, most precious, four ears of sweet corn, an unusual sight in Berlin. Alright, unheard-of, really. I boiled two ears for lunch and ate the first one sprinkled with lemon juice and cayenne pepper, like an Indian friend of my father's once taught me how to do. The other I ate more prosaically with sweet butter and great flakes of salt.


It made me miss the Union Square farmer's market and those shimmering hot New York afternoons. Florid Manhattan sunsets and my friends. My Berlin corn was less plump and juicy than my beloved New Jersey corn. Faintly bitter and a little bit tough. Sort of like Berlin itself, I guess.

Then I stewed a pot of apricots, inspired by Rachel, and it made me think of my aunt's apricot tree in Italy and how much I can't wait to be there, which is good because it is high time, I think, high time that I take a break and unwind. I've had a few too many nervous nights lately, a little too much fear and loathing surrounding the writing of this book of mine.


So, to that end, friends, I'm going to be taking a little break from here. I hope you don't mind, but I need to unplug, as overused as that term may be, and get out of my head for a little bit. Focus on the beach and weeding rapacious baby acacia seedlings out of my mother's property, pray to the mighty fig tree that its fruit might ripen a month early, drink a bitter Italian cocktail at sunset in town while munching on a salty piece of rosemary pizza, and take walks before dinner with friends, my feet crunching over dry soil and wild mint.

I'll be back soon: if I'm brave, in September, and if I cave, before then. Either way, I'll return with delicious things to share. Until then, have yourselves a bunch of wonderful Augusts. Hold on to these days. Soak them up. Eat as much corn as you can, and fresh berries, and great big slices of watermelon. Go to the beach and stay too long. Take walks in flip flops at dusk. Photograph the way summer light falls on your living room wall. And remember what Longfellow once wrote: 

Then followed that beautiful season,
Called by the pious Acadian peasants the Summer of All-Saints!
Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape
Lay as if new-created in all the freshness of childhood.
Peace seemed to reign upon earth, and the restless heart of the ocean
Was for a moment consoled.  All sounds were in harmony blended.
Voices of children at play, the crowing of cocks in the farm-yards,
Whir of wings in the drowsy air, and the cooing of pigeons,
All were subdued and low as the murmurs of love, and the great sun
Looked with the eye of love through the golden vapors around him;
While arrayed in its robes of russet and scarlet and yellow,

Bright with the sheen of the dew, each glittering tree of the forest

Flashed like the plane-tree the Persian adorned with mantles and jewels.

See you soon, folks.

Reality Check


I sometimes get the impression that people think I can do no wrong in the kitchen. That my pasta's always al dente, my cakes always risen, my eggs always fluffy. Folks, let me tell you: no one, but no one, is immune to the kitchen disaster.

See this towering beauty of almond meringue, gooseberry-studded whipped cream and yellow cake? Baked in the wee small hours Sunday morning before a 50th wedding anniversary party for my dearest friends in the whole world attended by all their friends and family as well as a woman who regularly wins baking contests in her home state of Hessen? It was, in a word, raw on the inside. Raw. Raw. Raw.

As in, uncooked batter. As in, inedible. As in, DISASTER.

I almost melted into a puddle of shame. I almost let it ruin my day. I almost cried. And then my friend gave me a steadying hug, helped me saw off the top part of the meringue, scooped out the raw innards, and glued the good parts of the cake back together (after all, there was all that nice whipped cream and fresh gooseberries and meringue and toasted almonds). Then we put the surgically-enhanced cake back on the buffet table along with all the other home-baked marvels and you know what? It was the first cake gone.

So next time you find yourself whisk in hand, lower lip trembling, in front of a kitchen disaster, just remember: you're not alone! And there's got to be a solution somewhere. Even if it means throwing it all in the bin and ordering pizza.

Happy Monday!

Barbara Kafka's Moroccan Tomato Soup


Quick, quick! There's a break in sight. The temperature's 10 degrees cooler than it was yesterday. Now's your chance. Swing on your bike, get to the market. Buy a couple of pounds of tomatoes, the redder the better. Do you have parsley or cilantro? Good. Fennel or celery? Only if it's lying around in your crisper, don't bother buying more. Ooh, there's the Turkish bakery stand selling small loaves of its soft, chewy pide bread, the black nigella seeds on top the best part. Sure, get a round of that, too.

Bike home again, bag swinging against your legs. A cool breeze might even form. Soak it all in, tomorrow you'll be hiding indoors again.

At home, pull out your mother's food mill that you believe is older than you. Try to mill the first chopped tomatoes, turn the handle jankily, feel your temperature rise, give up. Your fuse is too short these days, forgive yourself. So the recipe says to peel and seed the tomatoes. Doesn't Barbara Kafka know that tomato seeds are sometimes the best part? Go about chopping the tomatoes by hand. Peel a few with a y-peeler, then stand around chewing on tomato peels for a bit. Lose interest in the peeling. That's alright. Some days, a recipe is just there for inspiration.


Put a bunch of spices to warm in a pan. Oh! There's that little frying pan you thought you'd lost in the move! Sitting right the frying pan drawer. Oh well, sometimes you look for milk in the fridge for half an hour before realizing it's right in front of you. You're supposed to add garlic, but for some reason there's none in the house. This must be the heat, you figure, addling your mind. Who doesn't always have a few cloves of garlic lying around? Okay, so you use a shallot finely diced instead. This turns out to be more than fine, delicious even.

Paprika, cayenne, cumin - hot colors fusing together into a muddled brown, the kitchen filling with fragrance. Even though the recipe says an immersion blender is too much, you use an immersion blender, just a few pulses, to chop the tomatoes a little more. You leave it chunky, though, just as Barbara says to, and stir in the spiced shallot. Forget about the celery, or the fennel, which was your inspired idea for a celery substitution. Who wants to chop anything more than a few tomatoes? Not you.

In goes a little vinegar, a squeeze or two of lemon, chopped parsley because cilantro is too hard to find and did you already mention your short fuse? Be kind to yourself today. A few stirs with the spoon and soon you're sitting at the table, slurping spoonfuls of cold soup, dunking Turkish bread into the bowl. Who cares that you gave up with the tomatoes after about five and that the spice mixture is meant for over two pounds? This means the soup is humming, the spices vibrant in your mouth and throat. Maybe it's a little too strong, but it doesn't really matter. You eat in big spoonfuls anyway, grateful for the kick of flavor, the faint numbing of your lips. You feel your inner temperature, the knot of frustration and the sweat at your temples subside.

Tomorrow will be hot again, there might only be salads and cold yogurt and more complaining on the horizon. But today you have cold Moroccan tomato soup, a faint breeze and that will have to do.

Moroccan Tomato Soup
Serves 1
Note: The original recipe is here and is probably far more balanced and mild than what I ended up with. I practically licked my plate, though. Below will serve one person in need of something cool, spicy and calming for lunch in an irritatingly hot clime.

1 shallot, minced fine
2 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
Large pinch of cayenne pepper
4 teaspoons olive oil
1.5 pounds tomatoes, cored, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup packed chopped cilantro or parsley leaves
1 teaspoon white-wine vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1. In a small saucepan, stir together the shallot, paprika, cumin, cayenne and olive oil. Place over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

2. Put the chopped tomatoes with their juice in a large bowl. Pass an immersion blender through once or twice, leaving most of the tomatoes still chunky. Stir in the cooked spice mixture, the cilantro, vinegar, and lemon juice. Taste for salt. Eat immediately.

Heat Wave


I remember one August in Berlin many years ago, my mother and I came back from visiting our family in Italy and had to turn the heater on. It was that cold. In August! Things have, uh, changed in northern Europe over the past 20 years. Currently, Berlin is in the grip of a heat wave - meaning we've got temperatures hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit and have had them stuck there for days now.

I know, I know - New York and the whole Eastern Seaboard have humidity that we blessedly do not. But come hang out in my attic apartment and feel the hot air licking your legs like a Sicilian scirocco and tell me where you'd rather be: here or in a good old North American movie theater, where the air conditioner is cranked up to Wintry Storm and you're wrist-deep in popcorn.

Or maybe that's just where I'd rather be.

I've beaten a hasty retreat to my mother's apartment, taking a sharp knife and some tomatoes with me. That's about all I can stomach in this heat. But look what I found on the way! My very first transcribed recipe, for crostata. I'd learned how to make it from the teenaged daughter of our friend Maria one summer and after returning to Berlin, I'd written down the recipe for my mother's friend Joan. I must have been around seven or eight years old at the time. She's kept it all these years.

"Later EAT!" I love that.

So I have a few questions for you, friends. Can you cook in this heat? Or do you just survive on cereal and cold milk? If you can cook, what are you making?

And also, what's the first recipe you remember learning? The first thing you were taught to make? For me, it was that crostata. I remember feeling the oily, smooth dough beneath my fingers, the cool roughness of the wooden countertop, the smell of my aunt's oven as it heated. What was it for you?

Nancy Harmon Jenkins' Pasta with Baked Tomato Sauce


Dear, sweet, gentle reader. It is taking all of my mental and most of my physical capacity to endure life until tomorrow night when Germany plays Spain in the semi-finals of the World Cup. If you've been following along, and I sure hope you have (the drama! the intrigue! the exhilaration!), you might have caught drift of the way the German team is playing and though I've been a devoted fan since the age of five, when a sticker of Rudi Völler in all his permed and mustachioed glory found a permanent home glued to the underside of a shelf positioned right above my bed so that I could see him before I went to sleep at night and first thing when I woke up, I have to say it's never been this much fun to watch them play. And how they have played!

Anyway, since you come here for food and chat and not sports commentary, I will do my very best to keep my nerves to myself, but I'll just say it's hard, okay? It's hard! You should see my cuticles. My new gray hair. Me muttering to myself before I go to sleep at night. "They'll be okay without Müller, right?" "Maybe David Villa will get the stomach flu." "Four goals against Australia! Four goals against England! Four goals against Argentina!" "Please, psychic octopus, please be wrong just this one time."

It's exhausting.

Food and chat, woman! Focus. Okay.


So, the other day I was thinking about spaghetti. I think about spaghetti a lot, you know. Maybe because I'm half-Italian. Maybe because we eat it multiple times a week. Maybe just because it's good. Who knows. I was thinking about spaghetti and how I go through phases with spaghetti sauce. Like, there were a good two years where my favorite tomato sauce involved canned cherry tomatoes, a small can of tuna and a garlic clove. I made it over and over and over again until I could no longer look at tuna the same way again (good thing, too). Then I had a thing with Marcella Hazan's tomato-butter-and-onion sauce. Over and over and over again, until it started tasting like tomato soup to me and I had to take a break. Then there was the sauce made with sliced zucchini simmered in diced tomatoes (Muir Glen, I miss you!), particularly delicious with grated Parmigiano - I do believe that one lasted the longest. But my first love, the tomato sauce that started the obsessive sauce-making, well, I had managed to banish it from my memory so entirely that when it popped back into my head the other day, I almost jumped.

That tomato sauce, made of little cherry tomatoes halved and baked in the oven with a cheese-breadcrumb topping, was one of the four pillars of my diet during my first years in New York. I made it All. The. Time. I found it in the Best American Recipes cookbook from the year 2000 and I committed it to memory. My roommates were obsessed, my faraway boyfriend smitten. It was fast, it was cheap, it didn't dirty many pots, and it was delicious. Best recipe, indeed.


But as these things go, I overdid it. I made it one too many times, relied on it too much for weekly nourishment. I started getting tired of halving those little tomatoes, making sure their perky little faces faced the right side up in the baking pan, getting the sprinkle of breadcrumbs and cheese just right. One day, I moved on. (What came next? Olives and capers with peeled plum tomatoes, I believe. Oh...that was a good run. Don't forget the parsley.) So on that I forgot all about my beloved baked tomato sauce, until I was lying around thinking about spaghetti sauce the other day, probably in an attempt to distract myself from the terrifying prospect that was the Argentina game, because why on earth else would I have needed distraction?


Focus, woman. Fo-cus.

I went through my old recipe binder and sure enough, there was the recipe, lying sweetly in wait to be welcomed back into the fold again. And really, it is so good. The tomatoes, roasting under their garlicky-cheesy cap, collapse and go all sweet and sticky. The breadcrumbs get toasty, the cheese melts and browns, the garlic infuses everything with this savory, mouthwatering scent. You mash everything together loosely, adding some olive oil for moisture and aroma, and torn basil leaves for flavor. Then in go the cooked pasta (penne are nicest, I find, but spaghetti works wonderfully, too). You can dish it up into plates, then, or, if you're eating alone just fork it up out of the serving dish (the little crusty bits in the corners are especially good). And that's it. Obsession-worthy, no?


Almost enough to distract me from the game taking place just a short 27 hours and 8 minutes from now. Almost. So now if you'll excuse me, I have some incantations to do.


Pasta with Baked Tomato Sauce
Serves 4

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound very ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup plain dry breadcrumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano
2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino (or, if you don't have this, just more Parmigiano)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound dried penne or spaghetti
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, torn

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with one-third of the oil. Place the tomatoes cut side up in the dish.

2. In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, cheeses, and garlic and toss with a fork to mix well. Sprinkle the bread-crumb mixture over the tomatoes, making sure that each cut side is well covered with the crumb mixture. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until the tomatoes are cooked through and starting to brown on top, about 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until al dente. Time the pasta so it finishes cooking about the time the tomatoes are ready to come out of the oven.

4. When the tomatoes are done, add the basil and stir vigorously to mix everything into a sauce. Drain the pasta and immediately transfer it to the baking dish. Add the remaining olive oil and mix well. Serve at once.