Tomato Season

First Big Tomato!“There’s only two things that money can’t buy – true, true love and homegrown tomatoes.” – from Kevin West’s Saving the Season, a cook’s guide to home canning, pickling, and preserving

We picked the first giant, juicy yellow tomato from our garden last night and sliced it into a caprese salad while it was still warm from the sun.  My daughter remarked, “Don’t you love the way your hands smell when you’ve just picked a tomato?” “One of life’s great pleasures,” I replied.

This is barely a recipe it’s so simple!  When ingredients are this fresh, almost nothing needs to be done.  Here, the tomato’s sweet acidity is balanced by creamy fresh mozzarella then finished with fragrant, spicy, basil and a drizzle of best quality extra virgin olive oil.

Caprese Salad

serves two

  • two large, ripe homegrown or farmers’ market tomatoes, sliced to desired thickness
  • 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, sliced to same thickness as tomatoes
  • washed and dried leaves from 2 stems of basil, sliced into thin ribbons*
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  1. Divide tomatoes and mozzarella between two plates, drizzle each with a tablespoon of olive oil, top with basil.  Sprinkle liberally with kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

*Chiffonading basil: Stack several basil leaves on top of one another and roll lengthwise into a cigar.  Slice across the roll to create thin ribbons.

Chocolate Cherry Ice Cream Sundaes with Bourbon Whipped Cream and Toasted Pecans

DSC_0513So I’ve been a little obsessed with making ice cream this summer.  It started several months ago when I stumbled upon the Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home cookbook and realized I could make her insanely good Salty Caramel Ice Cream rather than pay $11 a pint for it at our local specialty foods store.  I bought the book, went straight to the grocery store for the ingredients, and immediately dragged our ice cream maker out of the basement (you know the one – the one we all got as a wedding present but never used?).   Then I remembered the bowl had to chill in the freezer for 24 hours.  Ugh.

It was worth the wait.  All who tasted agreed it was one of  the best ice creams they’d ever had and so began my obsession.  After making many batches using her recipes (Maple Walnut, Lemon Cream, and Coffee are some of the best) and researching other methods, I’ve begun experimenting on my own.  This creamy, rich Chocolate Cherry Ice Cream is definitely one of my favorites.  I used the recipe for roasted cherries from the Jeni’s cookbook as roasting intensifies the cherry flavor and creates a thick, delicious, not-cloyingly-sweet syrup that layers into the chocolate ice cream beautifully.DSC_0504I really wanted to poach the cherries in bourbon first so they would taste like an Old Fashioned, but I wanted the kiddos to enjoy the ice cream too, so I decided to make bourbon whipped cream.  You MUST try this.  Seriously.  And don’t forget the chopped, toasted pecans – their rich, salty, buttery goodness will give your sundae the crunch it needs.DSC_0450If you don’t have an ice cream maker or the time to make it, you can buy a good quality chocolate ice cream and top it with the roasted cherries and syrup along with your bourbon whipped cream and pecans.  It’s all good.

Chocolate Cherry Ice Cream Sundaes

Chocolate Cherry Ice Cream

makes 4 cups of ice cream

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped or chips
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups roasted cherries and syrup (recipe below)
  1. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside a gallon-sized ziploc bag.
  2. Place first three ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat and stir until thoroughly melted.  Turn off heat.
  3. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until creamy.
  4. Slowly add 1 1/2 cups of the chocolate/cream mixture to the egg/sugar mixture, whisking as you go.
  5. Stir this mixture back into the sauce pan, stir in vanilla and salt, and heat on low until thick and creamy, about 2 minutes.
  6. Pour mixture into ziploc bag and seal completely.  place bag in bowl of ice water and leave until chilled completely (about half an hour), adding ice if necessary.
  7. Pour mixture into frozen bowl of ice cream maker and churn until super thick.
  8. Spread one-third of ice cream mixture into your 1 quart container.  Add half of cherries and syrup.  Spread next third of ice cream into the container, and top with the second half of cherries and syrup.  Spread last third ice cream on top and freeze, covered, 5 hours or overnight.
  9. Assemble your sundaes: Place a generous scoop of ice cream in each dish, top with copious amounts of whipped cream, and sprinkle with plenty of warm toasted pecans.

Roasted Cherries

from the Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home cookbook, makes 1 1/2 cups

  • 2 cups pitted fresh cherries
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Stir all ingredients together in a 9 x 9 in square baking dish.
  3. Roast for 30-45 minutes until juices are thick, stirring every 15 minutes (it took mine just over 30 min).
  4. Let cool and refrigerate until cold.

Bourbon Whipped Cream

  • 1 cup cold heavy whipping cream
  • 1/4 cup superfine sugar
  • 3 tablespoons bourbon
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Place cold cream in the bowl of an electric mixer and whisk on medium-high until cream begins to thicken.  Add sugar, bourbon, and vanilla and whisk until soft and fluffy.

Toasted Pecans

  • 1 cup pecans
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  1. Place roughly chopped pecans in a non-stick skillet with the salt over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until nuts are warm, fragrant and toasted.

Assemble your sundaes: Place a generous scoop of ice cream in each dish, top with copious amounts of whipped cream, and sprinkle with warm, toasted nuts.


The Gifts of Grief

ImageMy hope is that someone experiencing love and loss will read this and feel comforted and less alone.

It has been almost 6 months since my mom died and though I’m better,  I am still sometimes oppressively racked with grief.  It doesn’t render me incapable of experiencing joy as it did those weeks following my loss, but it has fundamentally changed how I live my life.

Horrible:  I felt guilty for not being who I was before the loss – my normal adventurous, glass-half-full self.  I loathed bringing anybody down and acting happy felt suffocatingly disingenuous.  So rather than choosing to work out with friends, go out to lunch, or attend get-togethers, I ran to the lake alone, skipped out on parties, and got into my pajamas embarrassingly early. When grief took over, the want-tos were a struggle.  And the have-tos?  They were damn near impossible.  (The truth is, all of these things still sometimes happen.)

Also horrible: I am frustrated because I feel that my grief is not commensurate with my loss.  This is how I would have imagined feeling had I lost a child.  After all, shouldn’t I have been more prepared for this?  She had been sick for a long time and even if that weren’t a factor, losing a parent is the natural order of things, isn’t it?  So when grief settles in, I sit in my self-imposed, emotional solitary confinement, knowing the sadness can’t possibly make sense to others.  It barely makes sense to me.

But here’s what’s not horrible:  Grief has been a great sieve, sifting out the tiny grains of unimportance and retaining in its mesh what is real.  This analogy came to me years ago when I was dealing with a different loss, but the feelings that propelled it quickly vanished and I was back to life as usual.  This time, I don’t know how long it will be before I am “back to life as usual”.  And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

And here, the gift:  Those who have reached into my dark microcosm and shared laughter and tears or offered a powerfully simple “thinking of you” have taught me one of life’s greatest lessons – that real love steps forward, not back.  And I will forever carry that with me.

A favorite song by a favorite artist, perfectly encapsulating right now.  Click to listen:  In Repair

An Unforgettable Night at NEXT

Image 10Last night, I had the extraordinary experience of dining at Next for a best friend’s 40th birthday celebration.  19 courses, 3 1/2 hours, rare wine pairings.  I am exhausted and bleary-eyed (we were at the 10pm seating, finishing at 1:30am) but I must get the words down while the night is fresh in my mind.Image 3Next, created by Chef Grant Achatz (of Alinea fame) and his business partner Nick Kokonas, is unlike any restaurant in the world.  The cuisine is changed entirely every four months (“A Tour of Thailand”, “Belle Epoque”, “Kyoto”, and wild game focused “The Hunt” are past examples) and you must purchase tickets through Next’s website rather than call and make reservations.  Tickets sell quickly.  An entire four months can sell out in mere minutes!  Serendipitously, the birthday girl is vegan, Next’s exploration of vegan cuisine fell on her birthday month, AND she was able to acquire tickets.

The inventiveness, the art, the execution – all of those elements are still floating around in my head.  It was as if we were wandering through an enchanted forest, stumbling upon Lilliputian-sized food placed on lichen-dotted rocks, floating in ponds and teetering atop branches.Image 5The two photos above illustrate how even lighting and shadows play integral roles in the theatrical experience that is Next.  (You’ll have to excuse my bad iPhoto shots – I wish I would have had my good camera, but I didn’t want to spoil the mood or drive my tablemates crazy.)  Below, sourdough crackers dusted in green tea powder pose as edible tree tops.  The crackers were used to scoop up roasted avocado spiked with fried kale slathered on a rock (seen in the following image). Image 9Image 8My absolute favorite bite of the night was the tempura swiss chard with douchi (a fermented black soybean concoction) seen below.Image 6And the wine. Oh, the wine!!  The Gramont Nuits-Saint-Georges (a 2009 pinot noir)- served with the divine mushroom course –  was truly one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted.  The curry roasted cauliflower with naan (below) was another favorite. Image 2Next would not have been the unforgettable experience it was without the skilled, knowledgeable, tireless waitstaff (a special thank you to  Dave for putting up with my eight thousand questions!).  Thorough without being pedantic, they presented the 19th course (and 7th wine pairing) at 1:15am with the same level of enthusiasm as the first.Image 11ImageTo answer a few questions you may have:

  1. Yes, even the three non-vegan meat lovers were thrilled with dinner.
  2. No, we did not leave hungry.
  3. And yes, we were smart enough to arrange transportation home.

Next’s next menu is Bocuse d’Or, based on the prestigious international cooking competition held biannually in Lyon, France.

Next is located at 953 West Fulton Market in Chicago.  Click here to register for tickets.

First Harvest

veggies copyThe cold temperatures of spring and early summer gave our garden a very slow start.  Despite a 24′ x 8′ bed filled to the brim with plants and seedlings, we’ve only had lettuce and herbs to enjoy.  Until now!  Seemingly overnight, bright pink tops emerged at the base of radish greens, several teeny tiny green beans exploded into full size, and sweet banana peppers grew almost too big.  The ‘sun sugar’ yellow cherry tomato plant (one of eight varieties I planted) gave us our first tomatoes of the season, reminding us that a homegrown tomato is one of nature’s greatest delights.  And yes, I should have let the radishes grow a little longer, but I was itching to pull something out of the dirt!creamy basil avocado dressingI sliced up all of the veggies along with a handful of mixed fresh herbs, then tossed the salad with this Creamy Basil Avocado Dressing.  (I also drizzled some over grilled salmon, which was crazy good!)

Creamy Basil Avocado Dressing

makes 1 1/2 cups

  • 1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1/4 cup parsley leaves
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 jalapeno (seeds and membranes removed), chopped
  • 1 small ripe avocado, seeded and peeled
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup light sour cream
  • 1/2 cup light mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  1. Place all ingredients in a blender and blend on high until dressing is smooth and creamy.

recipe and photos via the aesthete and the dilettante

A special thank you to my son who patiently taught me how to add text to photos.  Extra allowance this week, Little Man!