Thursday, August 31, 2006

Seaside Sandwich

I can now wholeheartedly recommend eating a meatball sub while sitting near the ocean, though you might have to be careful to make sure the thing doesn't blow away.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Clock Is Ticking

Since I'm at home and Margy commutes to an office, I try my best to have a handle on dinner by the time she gets home.

Not tonight.

Not only was I running late in my attempts to prepare a pretty time-consuming dish for a weeknight, but I also had a last-minute handicap, thanks to ShopRite: I was dealing with almost two pounds of improperly cleaned squid.

ShopRite is my squid destination, and this marks the second time in a week I've had a problem. Well, the first time wasn't really a problem per se -- they were just out of the stuff, and I respect that. But tonight I had to spend valuable time slicing the eyes from the tentacles and pulling the quills out of some of the bodies. All the while I'm thinking, Who the hell did this job, a kid off the street? Clearly the person had never handled squid in his or her life, and I was paying for it, literally and figuratively.

So Margy basically walks in to find a mess. No intoxicating cooking aromas, just me, elbow deep in a pile of squid and in a foul mood. I poured a glass of wine down her throat to help buy me some time.

For her part, she was an angel. She could sense how stressed I was, and so, as hungry as she was rapidly becoming, she never really let on. We cleaned up and did all the dishes while the squid, which by now I had stuffed, was simmering away on the stove. For my part, I rushed things a little, turning off the heat well before I would have preferred.

That meant the squid was a little tough, but it was by no means a disaster. And I'm still excited enough about these wonderful cherry tomatoes we're growing that their presence in my squid stew was enough to keep me from the dark side. They went in whole, just a few minutes before serving, and once again they were like little bombs of flavor, exploding with the sweet and tangy essence of tomato.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Whole Hog

I had a gig in the meatpacking district, and Margy met me after work for a little pregame BBQ at the Hog Pit.

Ah, the Hog Pit. The warm, almost melting cheese biscuits started us off right. We tried to resist eating them all before our entrees arrived, but we mostly failed.

I had a rack of pork ribs with panfried corn and cabbage with bacon. (Call that a piggy exacta.) Margy had a pulled pork sandwich with black-eyed peas and mac and cheese. Somehow I ate all my ribs, but Margy, even after working pretty hard, had enough meat left over to essentially make another pulled pork sandwich.

Ah, the Hog Pit.

Monday, August 28, 2006

My New Favorite Mexican Restaurant

Tonight I realized my dream of eating a nice dinner in an NYC bodega.

I had read about little Mexican grocers and delis that have a tiny kitchen in the back, but I had never been to one. Indeed, this place, a hole in the wall on 10th Avenue, was exactly that -- shelves of canned goods and fridges full of beer and soda in the front, then in the rear about eight or ten stools and a little window leading to a kitchen. Stevesie brought us there -- me, Macca, and Looch, on our way to take a rock and roll cruise around Manhattan -- and he did the honors of asking, in Spanish, if it was okay to drink beer with our tacos. It was.

The tacos were two bucks apiece. I had one with roast pork and one with chorizo and potato, and both were delicious. Macca and Looch found that two between the two of them wasn't quite enough, so Looch went to the counter for a second course and designed her own creation, which she had to repeat a couple times to the woman taking her order. Potato and jalapeño taco, she said, and that's what she got. "I think this is the hottest thing I've ever eaten," she wheezed, as her ears turned red and her eyes began to fog over. I'll try one of those next time.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Boil and Eat

When we got back from our shower jaunt, we were looking to have the simplest possible dinner. Luckily, a few weeks ago one of my mom's English-as-a-second-language students had dropped off two bags of frozen homemade Chinese dumplings, one for my sister and one for us. Mom's student had heard my sis was a big dumpling fan, so the larger bag was for her. But when sis rolled through town from Vermont and stopped by for her stash, she took one look at the enormous supply intended for her and said, "I'm taking the small bag."

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Showered with Shrimp

Margy had to head south a bit for her sister's baby shower, and I tagged along to hang with the fellas.

It was a good time. I got to hear funny anecdotes about topics I don't often contemplate, like golf and shotguns, and then the menfolk reconnected with the ladies in the name of hauling all the gifts into the minivan. It was all very traditional and domestic, and doing a little bonding with Margy's family was a nice way to spend the day.

For dinner we headed to the home of Margy's other sister, the nonpregnant one (who's spent plenty of time with child in her day; she has three kids). We drank tasty white wine and munched pretzels with an amazing wasabi mustard, and then we had grilled shrimp.

Margy's brother-in-law made the shrimp, and they were delicious. He marinated them in, I believe, soy sauce and rice vinegar, adding a good shot of chili sauce, and then skewered them with pineapple and zucchini. I chatted with him while he did the grilling. A while into the process, as I stood in the kitchen and watched smoke billow up from under the closed grill lid outside, I was worried that the shrimp would overcook, but since I use charcoal it's easy for me to forget that a gas grill can take a little longer. As it turned out, everything was cooked perfectly -- the shrimp had some char, the zucchini were tender, and the pineapple was still firm. To make things even more outstanding, Margy's sis put out a big bowl of cheesy grits that she made in the rice cooker that we gave her last Christmas. I had thirds on those.

Friday, August 25, 2006

They Never Run Out of Pork

I went to ShopRite thinking Thai squid stir-fry.

Alas, no squid to be found. The seafood guy told me to check the freezer case, saying sometimes when they run out of squid behind the counter they'll grab a box of frozen squid and put it out and no one knows the difference. I almost caved, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I figured if I were throwing a bit of squid into a dish along with other stuff, it might be okay just this once, but I had planned a squidcentric dinner, so I'd just have to move on.

Sticking with the general strategy, I bought a few boneless pork chops. I sliced them into strips and stir-fried those. I basically made a Thai-style curry without the coconut milk... and without a few other admittedly important items that I didn't have, like lemongrass. But still, grinding up a paste of chilies, cilantro, garlic, ginger, shrimp paste, and spices got me almost all the way there, and as long as we weren't expecting absolute authenticity (as if), all would be well.

My tasting panel -- Margy -- passed me with flying colors. She appreciates a good shot of heat, and this dish had it. Plus we tend to like anything that gives us a reason to snip some little purple-green Thai basil leaves off the plant we've been tending to so lovingly all summer.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Backup Plan

We had nothing in the fridge, and I just didn't feel like going to the store.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Bumper Crop

These cherry tomatoes that we've been growing are tiny wonders, and they're coming hard and fast now.

The trick is to barely cook them and let them keep their tangy flavor and plump juiciness, so for this pasta sauce, just like the last one, I threw them in at the very end. First I crisped up some pancetta in a tiny bit of olive oil. Then I removed the pancetta to drain, adding a little more oil and some garlic and herbs. All the while I was cooking the pasta, and when it was almost done, back into the oil went the pancetta, and then I threw in the tomatoes to let them get hot.

Wow, growing your own food. Ecco il contadino!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Feed Us Well and All Is Forgiven

Margy and I love Katsuhama in NYC. What's not to love in a restaurant that specializes in deep-fried pork?

Tonight the service was terrible, and you know what? I didn't mind. We were one of maybe five tables, but we couldn't get our waiter's attention to order another beer. No problem; I just sipped at Margy's remainder until relief finally came. When the food arrived and we noted the absence of the little Japanese pickles that accompany the entrees -- even though the next table had them -- we had to ask for some. That's cool; seconds later we were nibbling away. And my ego can handle having a waiter assume I'm unfamiliar with basic food vocabulary.

Me: How's the prawn katsu?

Him: Prawns are shrimp.

It's not like we were kept waiting for hours or were served cold pork. In fact, I'm not even officially complaining that the first words we heard upon entering the restaurant were, "You're looking for sushi?" See, Katsuhama doesn't serve sushi, but I can't really blame the host for presuming that every non-Japanese person who walks through the door expects to see sushi on the menu. I'm sure it becomes exhausting to deal with that on a daily basis.

Anyway, part of the charm of the place is that it doesn't try to mimic most Japanese restaurants in the States by offering an enormous blanket menu. Katsuhama specializes in the fine art of greaseless frying, and to achieve such a high standard, focus is essential. It's hard to be all things to all people.

I'm just saying that every other time we've been to Katsuhama we've noticed a very friendly, capable staff, and this was a notch below. Whatever. I'm one of those diners that can easily ignore shoddy service as long as the food is good (and as long as we're not paying ridiculous prices to eat it).

And again, at Katsuhama the food is great. I tried the pork-and-prawn combo, which was the first time I'd deviated from the straight-up pork cutlet. I was elated. See those shrimp-looking things? Those are prawns.

Monday, August 21, 2006


I'll grill a burger on the deck in the dead of winter, but a decent ear of corn waits for no one.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Salty-Sweet Relief

I'd gone like four or five days without eating any Asian or Asian-inspired food, and that's long enough.

Trout teriyaki would fix all that. As I marinated the fish and got the grill ready, I gathered every kind of allium I could find, all from the farmers' market -- red and white onions, garlic, shallots -- and simmered them slowly in teriyaki sauce until everything had melted together into the ultimate condiment. I also tried a recipe from The Japanese Kitchen for eggplant with miso, which turned out great.

The trout skin, my favorite part of the fish, stuck to the grill as usual -- the reason why I usually opt to use the broiler -- but I was able to spin the grill rack around to get the skin away from the flames, and then I just carefully peeled the skin off. This was a happy little accident, as rather than scorching or even destroying the precious outer layer, I got to enjoy perfectly crisp, just-this-side-of-too-burnt skin. I don't think Margy minded that I kept most of it to myself. She had plenty of other things to keep her busy.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Times Three

Margy and I drove out to the country for our pal Ads's party, where the penne and sausage and peppers were in no short supply.

There was lots of good food, including corn and cucumber salad and ingenious little pretzel chips that I couldn't stop eating, even after the key lime pie.

Now, it should be noted that Ads has triplets, age almost-three. It should also be noted that Ads and his wife have basically fallen into a whole triplet community, where everything is times three, and that four triplet families were represented at the party. (Actually, five families were represented, but one couple was savvy enough to ditch the trips and come alone.)

Basically, Ads's penned-in back yard was like a triplet ghetto -- the place was lousy with kids who look alike, not to mention parents who exist in a permanent state of befuddlement. Had all the offspring been smart enough, they could have staged a revolution... and won.

But everyone, nontriplets included, had fun. The kids jumped on a trampoline, the parents drank beer and listened to disco. As night fell, a pickup band struck up in the garage. Ah, the country.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Garlic Waits to Pounce

I was in Park Slope for the day, and my boy Joe and I went out for a little Latin bistro action. I was still flying high on Babbo fumes, so I wanted to keep things modest. I ordered an empanada and a watercress and avocado salad. It was the perfect light meal. But then...

I just don't like raw garlic, and the salad dressing was full of it, invisible though it was to the naked eye. I don't mind this so much while I'm eating, but twelve hours later it really starts to get old.

Margy didn't want to go near me. Can't say I blame her. Next time I'm asking for oil and vinegar.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


I had always wanted to try Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo, but I put it off.

It's not like we visit places of that ilk very often at all. But we allow ourselves the occasional splurge. Anyway, I can always justify these things as "research."

It was Bill Buford's book Heat that did it. Buford, once a full-time writer and editor for The New Yorker, wrote a profile on Batali and eventually found himself sucked further and further into the world of the kitchen staffer, to the point where he spent lots of time working at Babbo, as a prep cook, grill cook, and pasta guy. I'm a somewhat suggestible person, so by like page twelve I was thinking, Margy and I have to eat at Babbo. So I made a reservation, and then I got excited.

My biggest fear was that we'd be arriving several years too late. Since he opened Babbo in 1998, Mario has been spreading himself a little thin. (Okay, maybe that's the wrong term.) He's got several other restaurants -- though supposedly Babbo remains the most "Molto Mario" of the bunch -- plus his surely time-consuming Food Network gigs, which include my favorite television show, Iron Chef. In short, he's a star. I figured he'd be nowhere near Babbo on the night we went, but that's how things go. (Turns out I was correct.) From reading Buford's book I understood that Batali is present in Babbo's cooking even though he's almost never present in Babbo's kitchen.

To our great delight, the restaurant did not disappoint. Far from it. Every dish was wonderful. Even our table was primo. Now, for some couples such a table would have led to an immediate request for repositioning, but not for Margy and me. No, no -- we sat pretty much right outside the kitchen, where the action is.

We watched a huge number of runners bring out plates, always serving an entire table without making anyone wait while others' dinners grew cold. We caught a peek at most of the dishes, and we played little games like guessing which of the dark-suited staff was really in charge (besides co-owner Joe Bastianich, that is, who was clearly the top dog in the dining room). We got to sit right by a big round center table where servers and other workers would carve meat and fillet fish. This was an unexpected source of fun, because there was far more bumbling going on than I would have expected, as not-so-highly-skilled workers (some were better than others) tried to use a spoon and fork in one hand, like they were playing the marimba with doubled-up mallets. Only the marimba was a delicate whole fish, and the mallets could easily shred it. We watched them sweat.

Again, beginning with the complimentary chickpea crostini that started our meal, every single thing we ate was fabulous. And, no holds barred, we ate a lot. We opened with grilled octopus that was meatier and more tender than any I've ever had and was dressed with a limoncello vinaigrette (ah, Mario). Another starter was marinated sardines with caramelized fennel and lobster oil -- firm, briny, delicious.

Then came the pastas. We couldn't resist ordering Babbo's famous beef cheek ravioli, which were filled with a beautifully molten meat mixture and topped with a ridiculously rich sauce made with squab liver. For good measure, some black truffles were shaved on top. It might be uncool for me to admit I usually don't love truffles, but tonight I began my conversion to the truffle way. Our other pasta was equally magical -- black spaghettini with rock shrimp, crumbled Calabrese sausage, and green chilies. Wow. I had read that Batali thinks of pasta accompaniments as condiments rather than sauces, as do Italians in general, and this really illuminated that point. The noodles weren't swimming in anything. They were dressed with some oil, and the other ingredients formed exactly that: a condiment, to encourage and support rather than compete with the pasta.

Oh, and then just for the heck of it we had some duck, a confit leg topped with a sliced breast. The duck was set on a delightful bed of barleylike grains that was fragrant with cheese and studded with lima beans. Golden beets adorned the plate. By this point Margy's hearty appetite was waning, so I stepped it up and devoured the duck. I thought for a second about surrendering, but thank goodness I pressed on; I would still be kicking myself now had I left even one bite.

We finished our amazing northern Italian pinot noir (or, according to its German-speaking label, brauburgunder), and then a stiff sip of grappa prepared us for dessert, which arrived right as Spike Lee walked by on the way to his table. We had Mario's signature saffron panna cotta, which was served with stewed apricots and apricot sorbet. Awesome. And of course we had the zeppolini, little round donuts that were crisp and lighter than air. Those came with three sauces: chocolate sauce, peach marmelata, and something with honey.

Despite all that food, we felt great on our way out. We'd honestly done more damage last night with all those damn tortilla chips. Babbo, bless its lardo-wrapped heart, is still committed to doing things right, and there's no sign of that changing anytime soon. Bravissimo.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Breasts Aren't So Bad

We have a special dinner planned for tomorrow, so this morning I told Margy that tonight's meal would be a meager affair. Why stuff ourselves two nights in a row?

But then my plan just kept getting more and more ambitious, to the point where we had something of a feast on our hands. Oops.

Basically, I was going to grill chicken breasts, period. (I figured skinless, boneless breasts are the last thing we'd ever order at a good restaurant, right after sweetbreads, so there was no danger of repeating ourselves. Then again, a good restaurant wouldn't even have skinless, boneless breasts on the menu.) So I made a marinade a few hours before dinner, to give those bland little pieces of white meat a flavor boost. Into a Ziploc bag they went, along with ground chipotle, lime juice, garlic, ginger, some assorted spices, and a splash of sake.

And then, to go with the chicken, I made guacamole, using amazing sweet red onions that we found at the farmers' market. The more I think about it, this wasn't so much a true feast as it was simply a more full-flavored meal than I'd initially planned. Our critical mistake was eating a bag of tortilla chips with the guac before the chicken was even done. Double oops.

In the end the full-flavored Tex-Mex-style marinade opened my eyes to the potential pleasures of chicken breasts, which we usually use only for breaded cutlets. I was impressed that they remained juicy after coming off the grill, and I look forward to slicing up the leftovers and making chicken sandwiches.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

More Lentils

Lentil soup with friselles. A match made in Italian-American heaven!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Sausage Sandwiches

I took the last of the delectable New Haven sausages (brought to our VT party by my uncle and spread around a bit by my mom), grilled them up, and threw them in sandwiches. I included our version of peppers and onions, which I made with superhot chilies instead of bell peppers.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Where's the Capital of New Jersey?

For weeks we'd been hearing, through my mom, that there's an even better Asian market in the area than the one we usually patronize.

This information came from two of Mom's Chinese students. We heard about better products, superior produce, a finer seafood counter. We had to find the place. We set out on one of New Jersey's most "Jersey" roads, a tricky-to-negotiate east-west extravaganza peppered heavily on both sides with Pier Ones and Home Depots and White Castles. We were looking for a place called Capital, and our eyes were peeled.

We found nothing of the sort.

We drove through town after town, and I was pretty sure we had somehow missed the place. And then we saw a big sign: Asian Food Market. As I pulled in, I noted to Margy the absence of the word Capital, but then again there were a few Chinese characters on the sign, and maybe they said Capital.

So we bought some stuff like ginger candy, Chinese eggplant, Japanese cucumbers, and, of course, shrimp with the heads on, one of my favorite staples of the Asian seafood counter. The squid looked nice, so I got two of those as well. Margy saw some heat-and-eat udon in the refrigerator case and suggested we grab a package. A meal was beginning to take shape.

Inspired by last weekend's Japanese feasts, I thought I'd whip up a bowl of dashi, the broth made with kombu seaweed and bonito flakes that is the foundation of so many different Japanese dishes. It might be blasphemous, but I threw some shrimp heads in with the seaweed just to let some of that nutty flavor seep into the stock. I left the heads on about twelve shrimp and peeled the rest. I cleaned the squid -- something I hadn't done before -- and I have to say I enjoyed the process. It was much more pleasant than cleaning, say, a chicken. The little quill just popped right out, and the guts were quite innocuous. I opened up the bodies and cut them into large pieces, which I scored with a knife on both sides so the pieces would stay more or less flat on the grill.

I marinated the squid and the heads-on shrimp in soy sauce, sake, and sugar, adding a blast of chili sauce to the squid for a change of pace. Then I grilled it all. Meanwhile, I had the stock strained and simmering, and a few minutes before serving I added the peeled raw shrimp, the squid tentacles (all two of them), and the udon noodles. Once the shrimp were cooked through, I ladled broth, noodles, shrimp, and squid tentacles into bowls and arranged the grilled shrimp and squid on top.

I'll admit I felt proud of myself. The precooked noodles left something to be desired, but the rest was pretty magical. The smokiness of the bonito flakes in the broth was bolstered by the char on the grilled shrimp, and the tinge of heat from the squid was a fun little surprise now and then. We might not have found Capital, but the Asian Food Market proved a worthy substitute.

Postscript: But where is Capital? It doesn't exist. I did some serious detective work, starting with Google results that suggested there's no market by that name in the area. Then, after calling my mom ("You went to the wrong place, but I've never been to Capital, so I can't tell you exactly where it is") and getting even more frustrated, I found out that the place I was looking for is actually called Captain something-or-other, and I'm almost certain Margy and I passed that one on our quest. Next time, we'll be stopping in.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Shumi Shows Me the Way

Sushi-loving New Jerseyans, take note: Shumi, in Somerville, is awesome.

Yes, it occupies a couple of modest windowless rooms at the back of a small, charmless office building, but that's where the criticism ends. The food is wonderful. On our first visit, Margy and I sat at the bar and let the chef feed us what was best that day. We cut no corners and ate a lot, and the bill was pretty big. This time, we sat at a table and ordered from the menu, and though we didn't get treated to things like a progressive tuna tasting from lean to fatty to superfatty, or a few pieces of "the best part of the salmon," we cut way back on the expense and still got to enjoy the freshest, most perfect fish we've been able to find in NJ.

In terms of the nigiri sushi, the tuna and yellowtail were tender and flavorful. At lots of middling restaurants, the fish will have only one of these characteristics, at best, though I find texture to be a little more reliable than flavor. For instance, there's a place in our town where the fish is fresh and usually pretty tender (at least the items that are supposed to be tender, as some things should be firmer or chewier). But the flavor: nonexistent. Last time I ate there I ordered a bunch of different fish, and not one of them brought my mind to the sea. Not one. I won't go back. Conversely, you'll sometimes find, say, a piece of yellowtail that actually tastes like yellowtail, but then you're still chewing it three minutes later.

Shumi finds the balance, seemingly without trying. My guess is that the chefs have a trustworthy supplier and know how to choose the best specimens on offer -- I assume it's as simple as that. Here the most fun part of our nigiri assortment was a little mackerel medley. That's straight-up, sardinelike mackerel (top left), milder Spanish mackerel (top right), and melt-in-your-mouth Japanese horse mackerel (middle right, with a dollop of green topping, which I believe was scallion and ginger). Everything was perfect, and our pieces of spicy squid tentacle sushi (top middle, just below the two mackerels) were the ideal end note, though of course we couldn't resist a little mochi ice cream for dessert.

Go to Shumi.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Ode to Summer Vegetables

I was a guest of the Maccadonaldi West and had a nice dinner of hot dogs and burgers, plus signature Maccdonaldo (West) baked beans and this fine summer medley of roasted green beans and cherry tomatoes. Half the table was age eleven or under, and our skilled hostess said she knew she could at least count on me to make a dent in the vegetables. She was right.

Before dinner I got treated to an impromptu keyboard concert based around a single composition, that enduring little ditty "Ode to Joy." One kid would start to play it -- with either one or both hands, depending on her piano-lessons status -- and before she was able to cycle once through the melody she would be pushed away so one of her sisters could show off her talent. And on it went. They did a nice job. Little did I suspect it at the time, but this concert was actually more exciting than the one the McD brothers and I attended after dinner, a middle-of-the-road jam-band affair that was long on uninspired I'm-playing-scales soloing and short on decent songs and pleasant surprises. Perhaps a little "Ode to Joy" jam would have helped.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Fingerlings to the Rescue

As I pan-fried this Atlantic salmon, my goal was to really crisp up the skin, and on that count I succeeded. But the sauce I made -- with shrimp stock, white wine, and a bunch of assorted herbs -- was a little too bland to stand up to the rich fish.

Margy was a good sport and reassured me, but I was still annoyed with myself for missing the mark. Luckily, grilled fingerling potatoes saved the day. It's a good way to cook small potatoes on a hot night -- just season them, put them on the grill over indirect heat, cover the grill, and then after a while move them so they sit right over the coals, which will brown them up a bit in the final stage. You could accelerate the process by par-boiling the taters, but if you're doing other things and can wait half an hour or so, they're best grilled raw. The longer they're on the grill, the more smoky flavor they take on. Just make sure they're on the small side, or else you'll either wait forever or slice into some pretty firm potatoes.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Hello, Beans

The noteworthy thing about tonight's turkey keema, besides the fact that we ate it with warm tortillas, which is pretty damn fun, is that the meal marked the emergence of our crop of long beans. That's right -- I was able to harvest five whole beans, and since those suckers really are very long (18 inches, I'd say), five was just about enough to get us our vegetables. They were so fresh that they only needed to be boiled for about a minute, and they stayed bright and crisp. As with our tomatoes, we were struck by the beans' clear, delicious flavor.

I can't stop fantasizing about having a huge vegetable garden. Maybe someday.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Prime Meridien

Margy and a pal had an after-work dinner at the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridien Hotel. Mmm, mmm!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Our Garden Grows!

Margy and I have a tiny yard out back, and each year our garden has become more ambitious. Last summer we had a potted sungold tomato plant, which would yield, oh, about three grape tomatoes a week. We also grew green beans, at an equally stingy production rate.

But this June Margy put in a proper garden bed, and it's made a big difference. It contains two cucumber plants and three tomato plants (two sungolds and one that produces little red guys), plus some "hot" peppers, which so far have been disappointingly mild, and a bit of parsley. We also have long beans and assorted herbs growing in pots and little plots around the place.

All summer I'd been waiting to get a good cache of tomatoes so I could make a clam sauce like ones we had in Naples, where the tomatoes are cut in half and added right at the end, so they get hot but don't break down much. That day finally came.

It's amazing to note the difference between tomatoes you grow yourself and ones that have traveled from great distances to reach the supermarket. There's no comparison in terms of flavor and freshness. Our little specimens explode in a tangy burst of tomatoness, and that characteristic held up in this sauce. But even supermarkets can get some good stuff at this time of year, so I recommend throwing a bunch of halved tomatoes into any oil-based pasta sauce for a colorful change of pace.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

And on the Second Day They Ate Soba

Our little visit with our friends was rapidly turning into a parade of culinary delights.

Margy and I arose in our lovely little guest cottage, plunged briefly into the lake, and then arrived at the main house for a breakfast of omelets (the husband of the couple had picked up the wrong kind of bread, so his wife had to quickly find a substitute for her planned French toast) and fruit. Did I say idyllic? It really was.

Then we cruised around town, took another swim, and -- bammo -- it was time to eat again. Our friends made a great team as they prepared this wonderful lunch spread. Clockwise, starting with the large bowl: Soba noodles, homemade plum wine that was brought up from the basement to be sampled for the first time (light and delicious), shredded shiso leaves and sliced myoga bulb, purple-flecked seaweed strips, wasabi, shitakes, grated mountain yam (which had a slightly gluey yet delightful texture), and dashi-based broth.

We were instructed to mix the other ingredients into the broth and then slurp away at the noodles. It's funny, but we just couldn't nail the slurping part. I certainly gave it a shot, but I guess that after spending most of my life trying to make less noise while eating, it was sort of hard to go back. I did make a few sucking sounds, I'm sure, though Margy was totally silent.

Needless to say, it was a memorable weekend. My only hope is that we're invited back. First, though, I'd really like to treat our Japanese pals to a hearty bowl of risotto alla pescatore, to try, if only in vain, to return the red-carpet treatment that they gave Margy and me.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Lakeside Dining

This was a real treat: Margy and I were hosted by a couple of friends for an idyllic afternoon-evening hang by a clear, peaceful lake. Sometime before dusk, the food began to appear -- a long, leisurely Japanese feast that lasted until well past dark. Whenever we felt the urge between courses, we just jumped in the water.

It really is the perfect arrangement, grilling and eating on a dock by the lake. Our friends told us they're the only ones who do this on a regular basis -- people sunning and swimming on the other docks that dot the little lake's perimeter always head inside as dinnertime approaches.

We started with a bowl of dried daikon and shitakes, followed by a vegetable salad with soy dressing. Margy and I brought a few cucumbers from our garden, and those were served simply, with just a little miso paste for spreading. Then the grill was fired up for a rousing round of shrimp and scallops that had been marinated in a soy-sauce-based mixture. I'm not normally wild about scallops -- cooked ones, anyway; I love them as sushi or sashimi -- but I couldn't stop eating these. They were meaty and charred and a little sweet, and they went down like candy.

Then came rice balls with shiso leaves, which we wrapped in seaweed and tore into. Again, I got ahead of myself and ate three of them. I couldn't stop! And then came the soy-ginger marinated chicken. Wow. It was bliss. The beer and wine flowed along with lots of fun little conversations, and there were plenty of laughs. Before the final course of grilled corn, Margy and I eased ourselves into our gracious hosts' old-fashioned wooden canoe and did a nice lap around the lake, followed -- naturally -- by a quick swim.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The (Almost) Perfect Steak

I have a confession to make: This is the most expensive steak I've ever bought. It's an Angus porterhouse, and I got it at my beloved butcher shop, which is admittedly a pretty swanky joint. I even let the guy talk me into a bigger one than the steak I first pointed at.

Anyway, my parents paid for it. They had given Margy and me a gift certificate to this meat haven, and I'd been waiting for a splurge to use it. My $8 parcels of pancetta can be paid for out of pocket; I'll let the folks take care of the $25 slab of beef.

As I lit the grill, I was nervous. It's not like I was trying to cleave the Hope diamond, but I really didn't want to ruin our porterhouse. It was so much bigger than the other steaks I'd cooked that I wasn't exactly sure how to adjust the grilling time. In the end I probably left it over the coals for a minute or 90 seconds too long, but it wasn't a big deal. Actually, I was letting my mood turn dark, but Margy came in and rescued me. "It's perfect!" she said as I sliced it. "What are you talking about?"

It was an almost ridiculously fine specimen. I dare say I might not have been able to ruin it if I tried; it was that tender and juicy. It had taken on a nice crust, and any pieces that were cut near the bone were spot-on medium-rare.

My advice: Next time you're going to cook a steak, step it up a bit -- it's worth it. Life's too short for second-rate meat.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Shadowy Dumplings

I'm not even sure what we're looking at here. This was Margy's "business" dinner at her favorite Tibetan restaurant, the hip, low-lit downtown source of those delicious steamed momo dumplings.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Real Deal

Lombardi's never lets you down.

Okay, that's not entirely true. It lets you down sometimes. I've been quite disappointed with the pie on occasion. After all, it's a delicate balance between a zaftig slice and one that's just plain enormous, and Lombardi's has been known to tip the scales on the excessively doughy side. A bit of end crust should be a modestly sized handle with which to grab the pizza; it doesn't need to be the size of the restraining bar on a roller coaster.

But on the other hand, Lombardi's gets lots of things right. The sauce is fresh and tangy and bright, and the hot-as-hell oven knows how to scorch the crust in all the best ways. Bubbles abound, rich pockets of mozzarella pop out here and there, and sometimes you find the perfect crunch.

This pie rocked, despite having a few roll-bar crusts. It had better have rocked, because I was enjoying it with my friend the extreme-metal drummer, and he doesn't like things that don't rock. In fact, this Lombardi's pizza might have inspired some of his finest work, because at his show after dinner he pulled off feats of power and speed and sheer madness that are almost certainly impossible on an empty stomach.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Back on the Chuck Wagon

Well, our vegetarian days didn't last long.

I probably would have grabbed some salmon or something, but we had fresh-made sausages from New Haven that wanted to be eaten (my uncle had brought them to VT for my mom, and a few of them trickled down our way). It would have been a shame to just throw them in the freezer. So I browned them up, made a quick tomato sauce, tossed in the sausages, and it was time for dinner.

I'm happy to report that after a really slow start our basil plants have rebounded and are now growing out of control. A few leaves scattered on top of the sauce were delicious with the tomato and sausage.