“Big Three” Vichyssoise

Summer is a strange time for soup. Yes, the need for a vegetal base in most means the potentials for flavors are as wide ranging as your harvest (or, let’s be honest, your farmers’ market or produce section), but there’s that whole hot food in hot weather issue that sometimes turns us off. I know that I, at my most overheated, want only cold salads, grilled meat, and an adult beverage.

Fortunately for us, and for this project, there are some soups designed to combat the heat problem, in that they are traditionally served cold. It’s a strange sensation if you’ve never tried one – the first time I had a cold soup, I found myself blowing on the spoon a few times before tasting, because even though I knew it wasn’t a hot liquid, my body was so programmed to treat it as such that I couldn’t overcome the instinct.

It’s possible that the best known, or perhaps most popular, cold soup is gazpacho, but since we just talked about tomatoes, and since the tomatoes I’ve seen at the market in the last few weeks haven’t quite been at their peak, I’m waiting till September, our hottest month in Southern California and therefore the best time to have this cold, raw, bright blend waiting for me in the fridge. Instead, I’m taking us in an unlikely and humble direction: let’s talk leeks and potatoes. It’s a little strange that these two wintry vegetables are the star players in one of the best known cold soups, but maybe it’s a subtle nod to wish fulfillment: if you find you want things to be cooler, then you are lusting after a season half a year away. Vichyssoise, this chilled reminder of cooler times, is the creation of chef Louis Diat. While working at The Ritz in New York in the early 1900s, Diat made a soup that reminded him of a simple bowl his mother used to put together when he was a child in France, but decided to serve it cold with a sprinkling of chives on top. The resulting concoction can be served chunky or pureed, hot or chilled, but as Diat popularized, ice cold and velvet smooth is the most common.

Most recipes are very simple. So simple, in fact, that cooks tend to add and tweak and substitute to make the finished product… what? More interesting? More original? More publishable, I suspect, without leaving the same old classic, unadorned team assembled. Butter. Potatoes. Leeks. Broth or water. Cream. Chives. Sometimes onion bolsters the leeks, various combinations of seasoning are added, and one intriguing option I saw used buttermilk at the end for tang. Differentiations lie in the quantities of the two star players – is it leek-led, or potato heavy? – the amount of broth and of cream, and the thickness of the finished product. To make mine, I turned to the internet and found, among a wealth of potentials, three that looked straightforward, fairly traditional, and from recognizable names. Then I realized all three authors’ names started with B, and I was stuck – the wordsmith in me loves the “rule of three,” and when your sources are Brown, Bittman, and Bourdain, how can you alter course?

There are a few differences in quantities and in seasoning options between these “big three,” but the basics are there. Alton Brown suggests Yukon gold potatoes, which I was pleased to see, since so many other recipes don’t specify. The biggest difference, interestingly, was in cooking time and dairy additions. Bourdain and Bittman sweat their leeks for only a few minutes; Alton (I just can’t call him “Brown”) goes for almost a full half hour. I erred on his side, since really, it’s a lot of leeks, and there are so few ingredients that we need to develop flavor somewhere.

I debated for a few minutes deglazing the limp, pale pile of cooked leeks with a few glugs of vodka to play with the potato idea, but ultimately decided against it, and wound up with a pot of sippable silk that needed only the traditional sprinkling of chives to make it interesting (well, N. thought it also needed a few additional grinds of pepper, but that’s him).

Two possibilities if you wanted to fancy this up. As we ate, unsurprisingly, we noted how this soup is on some level just really, really loose mashed potatoes spiked with onion flavor. To that end, we thought about the possibilities of baked potato toppings: imagine a bowl of creamed potato velvet topped not only with chives, but crumbles of crisp bacon, shreds of sharp cheddar, maybe even a dollop of sour cream. This would add some textual interest as well as other flavors, since I’ll admit a small bowlful of this is all you need – more than that and it runs the risk of monotony.

The other option plays into my bibliophilic considerations above. Small bowls are one thing, but what if you wanted to serve this as, say, an hors d’oeuvre option at a summer soiree? Imagine a cold, very lightly spiked soup in tall shot glasses, served on a shallow, ice-packed tray. You would need only to add a half cup or so of vodka to the concoction, before the long simmer if you want to eliminate the bulk of the alcohol, after if you want this to be a boozy option.

Like many thick soups, vichyssoise is even better on day two than day one, and conveniently, it takes no additional preparation since you don’t even have to reheat it. That said, the onion flavor from the leeks gets progressively stronger as the soup sits, so by day four it is pretty allium-heavy. Also convenient, though this is traditionally a cold soup, it is also delicious served warm, so if you can’t handle the cognitive dissonance, or your last weeks of August are looking chilly, this remains a viable option.

 

“Big Three” Vichyssoise
Serves 4-6 as a main course; 8-10 as an appetizer
About 60 minutes, plus at least 2 hours to chill
4 tablespoons butter
1 pound leeks, white and pale green portions only, split vertically, cleaned, and sliced thinly into half-moons
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound potatoes, preferably Yukon gold (3-4 small), diced
1 quart low sodium chicken or vegetable broth, or water
1 bay leaf
pinch nutmeg
½ – 1 cup heavy cream
additional salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon very thinly sliced chives

 

  • Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat, then add the leeks and the ½ teaspoon salt. Turn the heat down to low or medium low and allow the leeks to sweat, not brown, until very soft; about 20 minutes.
  • Add the potatoes, the broth or water, the bay leaf, and the nutmeg, cover, and bring to a boil over medium or medium-high heat. Once boil is attained, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the potato cubes are soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • When the potatoes are tender but not quite disintegrating, turn off the heat and VERY CAREFULLY puree either with an immersion blender or in a regular blender. If you are using a regular blender, blitz only small batches at a time and cover the top of the blender with a kitchen towel as well as the lid – pureeing hot liquid can cause spurts and small “explosions.” Get the mixture very, very smooth.
  • If you are feeling fussy (I was), pour the pureed liquid through a sieve or colander back into the cooking pot and return the heat to low. Add the heavy cream (start with ½ cup – we found we didn’t want more than that) and heat through. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to your liking. Sometimes cold food needs more seasoning than hot food, so you can be a little aggressive, especially with the salt. Potatoes can take it.
  • Transfer the smooth soup to a mixing or serving bowl and serve immediately, if you want it hot, or chill until quite cold: at least 2 hours.
  • Just before serving, sprinkle with chives.

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Panzanella Toasts

The word “panzanella,” to an American, probably conjures thoughts of two ingredients: bread and tomatoes. Sometimes onion, cucumber, or various herbs join the party; I’ve even added a mix of lettuces and some white beans to make it a more substantial dinner. But the “pan” part of the panzanella is the most important: at its heart, this is a bread salad. As every blogger will tell you (which I learned this morning when I did this very thing,) if you look up panzanella and its history you will learn that this is a charming, rustic way of ensuring day-old bread doesn’t go to waste. You’ll also learn, interestingly, that tomatoes are not part of the original dish. Panzanella is an old salad, eaten and beloved before tomatoes made their way across the Atlantic. The original vegetable paired with the rehydrated bread in this salad was the humble onion. It is esteemed enough and beloved enough that it has found its way into Early Modern poetry; Emiko Davies provides a particularly nice overview of the salad and its literary as well as dietary record.

So, I’m all for food history – I think it’s important to know where dishes come from and who moved them along from what they were to what they are, and I agree that it’s especially crucial to not hide the cultural complications involved in a dish – barbecue removed from its African American roots, for example – but… onions and bread, with some vinegar and perhaps additional greens… just needs some help. Tomatoes are such a convenient addition because they contribute a punch of acid that the vinegar picks up and heightens. They also add juice to the mix, so that the bread gets flavored as it softens thanks to the reintroduction of liquid. Besides, it’s summer, and to me, few things are as summery as a tomato (maybe a crisp, effervescent rosé with a squeeze of lime, but then, no one’s saying you can’t have one or two of those alongside this salad).

There are two general ways of dealing with the bread in a panzanella. One is toasting it, to emulate the dry staleness that is traditional but also to prevent it from disintegrating when dressed. The other is to give it a short bath. This works best with dry, day-or-two-old Italian bread – your standard baguette will break down immediately. I had such a baguette, so I was going to be broiling, not bathing. Panzanella is typically served as a salad, but given that I was already going down the toasting route, I thought about changing the format entirely: rather than a big bowl, why not a layer of crisp toast, topped with chopped vegetables and herbs, so the juice of the tomatoes and vinegar and cucumber soaked down into the bread? The interior of each slice would soften but the bronzed top would retain a bit of crunch to stand out against the rawness of the vegetables. And since we were already far from tradition, why not some meaty chunks of kalamata, a few capers, mixed herbs, and a sprinkle of feta to top the whole thing off?

The final combination of ingredients whizzes like pinballs around your mouth: tomatoes with their sweet tang. Briny salt from olives and capers and cheese. Watery crunch of cucumbers. The bitter, grassy edge of chopped parsley. Sour vinegar, and the unobtrusive richness of olive oil holding everything together. The toast gets rubbed with garlic while it is still hot – because why not? – and the dish becomes something you could offer up at a party as essentially the messiest crostini ever, or pile into a wide, shallow bowl as the main event of a light dinner when it’s too hot to think.

One planning ahead note to consider: this dish is best when it has had time to sit for at least two hours, as the juices of the vegetables, helped along by the salt you’ll add when you mix them together, start to pool and collect, giving you an intensely flavorful dressing to soak into your toast slices. Your best option, then, is to mix it up and toast the bread slices in the morning when it’s cool, then stow the vegetable mixture in the refrigerator for the day. Or, if you are a plan-ahead-er, make the salad the night before, and toast your bread on the day you’ll be serving. When you’re only about half an hour from dinnertime, pull the vegetables back out and let them sit on the counter, just to wake the flavors up a bit – cold tomatoes, unless they are blended into gazpacho or juiced and shaved into a savory granita, are nobody’s darlings.

Panzanella Toasts
Serves 2 as a light dinner; 6-10 as an appetizer
20-30 minutes active time, at least 2 hours resting time
1 pound cherry tomatoes – I like a variety of colors for a prettier presentation – halved or quartered, if large
1 cup chopped cucumber
½ cup finely sliced green onions (2-3)
½ cup chopped kalamata olives
2 tablespoons capers
½ cup basil leaves, rolled and sliced into ribbons (chiffonade, if you’re fancy)
2 tablespoons other mixed soft herbs of your choice, such as parsley, dill, chives, etc.
2 tablespoons cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar
¼ cup olive oil + 1-2 tablespoons or olive oil spray
salt and pepper to taste
About ½ of a baguette, cut into half inch slices
1 garlic clove, halved
½ cup crumbled feta cheese

 

  • Combine all vegetables and herbs in a large bowl, toss lightly to combine. Add the vinegar, then the olive oil, and toss again. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour and a half, though longer is better to collect more juices.
  • About half an hour before you are ready to serve, take the vegetable mixture out of the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter, just to take the chill off.
  • To make the toasts: heat the broiler on high (you can also use a toaster oven for this) and arrange the slices of baguette on a tray in a single layer. Spray or drizzle them with the remaining 1-2 tablespoons olive oil (you’ll likely use less than this if you are spraying), then sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Broil until evenly golden and crunchy, then remove from heat.
  • As soon as the toast is cool enough to handle, rub each piece with the cut garlic clove, then set aside until ready to serve.
  • To plate, arrange half of the toast slices on a platter or on your plate – a shallow bowl is also nice for this. Scoop big spoonfuls of the vegetable mixture onto the bread slices, including any juice that has collected. Scatter the crumbled feta over the top, and dig in.

Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundae

As I type this, I am sitting in my parents’ backyard, at a table in what I’ve been calling their “redwood grove,” sipping a glass of prosecco and thinking about vacation. I think there are a few different levels of vacation, and with them come differing levels of indulgence. The good old “staycation,” a concept that has been around for decades but which only became an official word in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010, seems to call for something humble – homey – perhaps a slice of pound cake with some berries or a smear of jam and not much else. A heavy-duty vacation – the kind that requires airline travel or a passport – requires something more indulgent. On a voyage up and down the East Coast that N. and I took a number of years ago, we unexpectedly ended up in a first class train cabin on a leg from Boston to New York City, and as we sat back and wondered at our luck, an attendant suddenly, unexpectedly, dropped off two gleaming glasses of lush, impossibly light chocolate mousse. That’s a big vacation dessert. Indulgent. Rich. Not the first thing you’d choose from a cookbook. Big vacations are opera cakes and crème brûlée and napoleons.

But there are also in between vacations: those that require only a day trip, or when you lie around in your rented beach-house-for-the-weekend with no agenda besides thinking all day about what will be for dinner, and then scrapping all your plans and going to get tacos instead. There are the ones that consist of living with friends for a week because you only get to see them once a year, or dropping by the family’s house for a few warm evenings to shake off the spent semester, or grabbing a hotel room unexpectedly because the glory of the afternoon wore on so long you can’t bear the idea of the drive home, and besides, you’re on vacation.

This dessert is for one of those in between kinds of vacations. The idea came from Judy Rodgers’ red wine figs in her Zuni Café Cookbook, a thick tome spilling with interesting combinations that I’m still working my way through, and a garam masala laced bowl of walnuts I whipped up for a last minute happy hour a month or two ago. The result is a glorious trifecta of textures and temperatures: ice cream, chewy figs steeped in warm, orange-spiked red wine, and toasted walnuts tossed in spiced honey. It’s a very adult sort of sundae – no sprinkles, no bright berries, no whipped cream or chocolate of any sort. Yet it’s also indulgent – wine-drenched figs intense enough you’ll only want a few, and warm walnuts dripping with honey, so reminiscent of baklava, slowly melting the rich, cold, sweet ice cream underneath. And if you are lucky enough to choose an ice cream that is studded with dozens of tiny, crunchy seeds scraped from that precious pod, well, all the better.

And now that you have this on a Monday, you’ve got something to dream about (and get going: the figs need a few days to steep and soak up that wine) until you get to your weekend, and whatever kind of vacation it holds.

Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundaes
Makes 4 sundaes
About 40 minutes active time, plus at least 2 days for figs to steep
For Drunken Figs:
1½ cups red wine
2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
2 bay leaves
1 strip of orange zest, about half an inch wide, taken from stem end to navel end of orange
8 ounces dried black mission figs
1-2 teaspoons honey
For Honeyed Walnuts:
1 cup walnut halves or pieces, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons honey
¼ – ½ teaspoon salt (we found ½ teaspoon was right on the edge of being too much)
½ teaspoon garam masala
To serve:
Vanilla bean ice cream, about two scoops per person

 

  • To make the drunken figs, heat the wine and orange liqueur in a small saucepan with the bay leaves and boil until it has reduced to ½ cup. This will take around 20 minutes.
  • While the wine reduces, stem and halve the figs (cut from stem end to belly end to expose all of the seeds) and place them in a 2 – 4 cup vessel with a tight fitting lid. Add the strip of orange zest.
  • When the wine has reduced, stir in the honey, then pour over the figs and zest. Cover and shake, “leave to swell for a few days,” shaking periodically (for me, this ended up being 2 days), then refrigerate until ready to use. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.
  • To make the honeyed walnuts, preheat the oven to 300F and scatter the walnuts on a baking tray. Bake until lightly browned and fragrant; 10-15 minutes. While they toast, combine the honey, salt, and garam masala in a small bowl with a whisk. When the walnuts come out of the oven, immediately scrape and pour the honey over them and toss to coat. The hot walnuts will heat and thin the honey, making it easier to combine.
  • To serve, place two scoops of ice cream into a dish of your choice. Scoop and drizzle about ¼ cup of the walnuts over the top, then add 5-6 fig halves plus a little remaining liquid, if there is any. Eat immediately.

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Corn and crab chowder

I realize, now that summer has fully reared its head and you probably have a fan pointed at you while you read this, that soup is likely not high on your “most wanted” list, particularly not a thick soup – verging into chowder territory – intended to be served hot, possibly with fresh, warm bread on the side. But I owed you a soup for June (yeah, moving. What can I say?), and corn was fresh and sweet and on sale, and this batch of soup was really. really. good. Maybe file it away for a cool weekend on the coast, or a last harvest end-of-summer reminder. Or maybe just sweat.

I think it’s easier for me than for other sorts of writers to answer that perennial “where do you get your ideas?” question, since my answer is “from everything I eat!” and “from most of the television I watch!” This soup has its foundations in two other steaming bowls: the corn chowder in a bread bowl from the French Market at Disneyland, and a now-unfortunately-defunct grocery store treasure: the “Cravin’ Crab and Corn Chowder” from the little soup kiosk at Safeway, a delightfully sinus clearing spicy bowl my mom used to stock in multiples. This one combines an old Dorie Greenspan recipe from Bon Appetit magazine and one of Kenji Lopez-Alt’s from Serious Eats, then hangs around my brain long enough to pick up some ideas gleaned from various food television shows, resulting in a substantial soup rich with corn flavor, studded with sweet, starchy kernels and plenty of crab meat, topped with a fresh salad of more corn – raw this time – more crab, mixed with enough herbs and lime juice to give it kick, that can either sit atop the soup for occasional sampling, or be stirred in last minute. It could easily take wafers of jalapeño or fresno chili, in both the soup and the topping, and it is as completely at home in a hollowed out boule of sourdough as it is in a gleaming white soup bowl.

The attraction of Greenspan’s recipe was the extra step of cooking the corncobs – devoid of their plump, shiny kernels – in the milk that becomes the “broth” of the soup as a method of injecting extra corn flavor. Lopez-Alt does this too, but uses broth instead of milk and steeps rather than boils. When you strip kernels off of a cob, there is usually a good bit left behind – both the bases of the kernels and the corn “milk” that they release when cut into. Extracting that flavor along with some spices in the same way you might, for example, steep shrimp shells or even tea, ensures a more flavorful liquid base.

I wanted mine really packed with corn, and determined that despite earlier considerations about swirls of heavy cream, or miniscule cubes of potato, all this really needed besides the seasoned base was onion, celery, a bit of butter, and some water to thin it without masking the flavor of the corn. This meant that the soup itself might be on the thin side, so I followed my Lopez-Alt’s idea of pureeing a quarter of the finished product to add thickness. This, along with a little bit of flour cooked down with the vegetables, led to a perfect consistency: not so thin that it would seep into our bread bowls, but not so thick that it was more like spoonfuls of sauce than of soup.

The coup de grace of the cold corn and crab salad on top was a surprise to N., but we both really liked it. You can leave it just atop the bowl, so your spoon can dig out bits of it and control the quantities in each bite, or you can stir it in, so you end up with different textures of corn and a little additional herby kick that remains fresh, since it is only warmed by the residual heat of your bowlful, rather than being actually cooked for any length of time. You could use jumbo lump crab if you’re fancy, but I went with claw meat because I was being cheap economical, and we were both satisfied with the flavor.*

If you are doing bread bowls as serving vessels, may I make the following suggestion? Before serving, spray the hollowed insides of the bowls with a little olive oil spray and brown them under the broiler for a few minutes. I know, more heat in your already-too-hot-summer-kitchen, but it helps them hold up against the onslaught of liquid and contributes a lovely toasty flavor. If you really want to treat yourself, once you’ve sliced off the “lids” of each bowl (reserving the interiors for bread crumbs! Maybe for this!), slather them with soft butter and sprinkle on a little salt and some finely chopped mixed herbs, and settle them under the broiler for a minute or two as well. The butter sizzles and browns and the herbs char just a little bit, and you have a kind of giant soup crouton, far more interesting and certainly more indulgent than oyster crackers, with only a little bit of extra effort.

I know this puts me behind in our soup calendar, but next month I am going to try to catch up, and finally give you what the season requires: cold summer soups. Like last week’s salmon, these will cook early in the day, if at all, then slowly deepen and meld in flavor as they hang out in the fridge, waiting to cool you down at dinnertime. But next week, as we careen frantically into August, I vote we pause just a moment for dessert.

*another idea that would, perhaps, give you the most bang for your buck in terms of price and impression, would be to use 4 ounces of claw meat to stir into the soup, and 4 ounces of jumbo lump for the salad on top.

 

Corn and Crab Chowder
Serves 4-6
35-45 minutes
4 ears corn, husks and stems removed
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped white onion (about 1 small onion)
scant ¼ cup chopped celery (about 2 ribs)
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup water
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill
1 teaspoon lime zest
1-2 teaspoons lime juice
Optional: wafer-thin slices of jalapeño or fresno chili
8 ounces crab pieces, picked through for shell or cartilage fragments. I used claw meat, but you could use jumbo lump instead, or even a combination of the two as noted above: claw meat to stir into the soup, jumbo lump to serve on top
salt and pepper to taste
Bread bowls to serve, if desired

 

  • In a pot, bring the milk to a bare simmer. While you wait for it to heat, remove the corn kernels from the cobs by standing each ear on end, holding the remains of the stem tightly, and cutting straight down close to the cob with a sharp knife, rotating the cob between each cut. When the milk just reaches a simmer, add the stripped cobs, the coriander, the bay leaf, and the thyme sprigs. Turn off the heat and cover the pot, leaving it to steep while you prep and cook the vegetables, or for at least 20 minutes.
  • In a large skillet, heat the 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat, then add the onion and celery with a pinch of salt and sweat them until translucent and tender. Add all but ½ cup of the corn kernels (reserve that final ½ cup for the corn and crab salad on top), stir to combine, and cook another 5-7 minutes until the corn is just tender. Once the vegetables are all tender and sweet, sprinkle on the 2 tablespoons of flour and stir or whisk to distribute it evenly.
  • Strain the cobs and whole spices out of the milk they’ve been steeping in. Add the milk to the vegetable mixture a little at a time, stirring or whisking as you do so. (I found I wanted to cook the soup in the pot, not the skillet, so I poured the milk into the same 4-cup measuring cup I’d used to add it in the first place, scraped all the vegetables into the pot, then slowly poured the milk back in. Adding liquid to solids rather than vice versa minimizes the chances of flour clumps.) Stir in the 1 cup water as well and bring the whole thing to a simmer. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes with the lid off, stirring occasionally to prevent a heavy skin from forming on the top.
  • While the soup cooks, make the corn and crab salad. In a small bowl, combine the reserved ½ cup of kernels with the chopped chives, dill, lime zest, lime juice, and slices of chili, if using. Add about 4 ounces of the crab meat and gently stir to combine the salad. I didn’t think it needed salt or pepper, but you might, so season according to your palate.
  • Once the soup has simmered for 10 minutes, remove about ¼ of it and puree it until fairly smooth using a handheld or standard blender (be very, very careful when blending hot liquid, as it can “explode” out the top of your machine). Add the puree back into the soup along with the remaining 4 ounces of crab meat and stir to combine and distribute. Heat through, if needed. Taste for seasoning; we found we wanted a little salt and plenty of black pepper.
  • To serve, ladle the soup into your desired serving vessel – either a standard bowl or a hollowed out and lightly toasted bread bowl (see suggestions for toasting in the post above the recipe) – then mound up a few tablespoons of the crab and corn salad right on top. Garnish with a final sprig of dill or length of chive, if desired.

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Melinda’s Perfect Oven Poached Cold Salmon

A few weeks ago I attended a retirement luncheon for a now-former colleague (there are a lot of now-formers here lately, aren’t there?) at the home of one of her friends (and one of her now-former colleagues!). Our hostess made, among other perfect, not-too-heavy dishes for quite a warm day, a cold side of salmon so buttery and moist and perfectly cooked that a day or two later I had to email her to find out how she had done it.

Imagine my delight when, rather than a quick overview or an inexact “oh I just…” response, she sent me a page long, detailed explanation of both how she’d prepared the massive six pound piece of fish for that day, but how she does so when she’s only making a portion or two. Every step was well explained and justified, and she also told me where she gets her fish (a bit pricey for me at the moment, but maybe someday).

Because salmon is delicious cold, and because the actual cooking phase for this dish only takes about half an hour including the time spent preheating the oven, it’s a perfect dish for summer, when you don’t want to be cooking anyway (well, unless you’re me), and you can take care of the house-heating portion in the morning and stow the flaky, fatty main course in the fridge for the rest of the day.

My hostess explained that she disguised a few cracks that formed during cooking with cucumber “scales,” and this struck me for two reasons: one, wouldn’t it be gorgeous to plate more of the filet with vegetable scales of different colors – green from cucumbers, florescent pink and white from radishes, maybe even yellow from baby golden beets – and serve a fish still enrobed in imitation of its original form? (Answer: yes, and a Google image search puts my meager shingling skills to shame.) Second, the idea of vegetables atop the fish made it seem only a step or two away from a salad. To complement the “scales” and disguise any possibility of dryness caused by potential overcooking, could you add a brisk, herby lemon vinaigrette right at the last minute, drizzling over fish and vegetables alike, and thus layer on one more fatty component to ensure moistness?

I decided to find out. Following my foolhardy practice of testing out new recipe ideas on guests, I determined to showcase M.’s fish – with a few of my adjustments – for some friends joining us for a weekend dinner.

If you like salmon at all, you have to try this one. The pan, lined with aluminum foil for ease of fish manipulation and clean-up, preheats with the oven. Wine, garlic, lemon slices, thyme, and a few cubes of butter make the fragrant bath this cooks in, and though they lend subtle flavors, the star remains the salmon. The high heat of the oven does the job quickly, but the liquid bath means the method of cooking here is somewhere between steaming and poaching, which keeps the flesh of the fish tender and – not to overuse that word my former college roommate castigated as “too descriptive” – moist throughout. Slapping the fish straight onto the hot pan before adding the liquid and aromatics means the skin sticks to the hot surface, and when you remove the fish later you can peel the flabby skin right off along with its foil lining with little trouble.

What you are left with under all that, once it has cooled and you’ve meticulously shingled on some bright, thin vegetable slices (or not – up to you!) and then drizzled the whole thing with a bright, herby lemon vinaigrette, is a filet that is just cooked through, so the fish doesn’t so much flake as it does sigh into tender, buttery layers. Cold, you can taste the richness of the fish but the whole thing still feels light, and if you’ve been wise enough to plan out the rest of your dinner with make-ahead options, you only have to leave your guests for five minutes while you sweep into the kitchen and emerge with a gleaming, laden platter they will exclaim over (and, if you’re anything like me, immediately try to recreate!)

And if all that’s not enough for you, should there be any leftovers, stacked onto some soft, fresh slices of French bread that you’ve liberally spread with mayonnaise, or salted butter, or some whipped cream cheese, they produce a perfect lunch the next day that gives you enough strength to face the sink full of dishes that is the worthwhile consequence of every dinner party.

Melinda’s Perfect Oven Poached Cold Salmon
Serves 4-6
Prep and cooking time: about 30 minutes before, then another 15 after chilling, to decorate
Chilling time: 2-6 hours
For the salmon:
1½ pound filet of salmon, skin on
1 cup dry white wine
6 cloves garlic, lightly smashed
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 small lemon, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small chunks
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
For the “scales” and vinaigrette:
About ½ a cucumber, skin on, cut into very thin slices
2-3 radishes, cut into very thin slices
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon minced chives
1 tablespoon minced dill
1 tablespoon minced parsley
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
additional dill, to serve (optional)
lemon wedges, to serve (optional)

 

  • Preheat the oven to 425F with a foil-lined cookie sheet inside. As soon as you turn on the oven, take the salmon and wine out of the refrigerator to warm up a bit for more even cooking.
  • When the oven is preheated, remove the pan and carefully place the fish skin-side down on the hot foil. Pour the wine over the fish, then scatter the garlic, lemon slices, thyme sprigs, and butter on and around the fish. Sprinkle salt and pepper onto the fish, then carefully slide the whole pan back into the oven.
  • Cook in the 425F oven for 12 minutes, or until the fish reaches and internal temperature of 120-125F. It will be pale pink with some white splotches, and look slightly fatty on top. Remove the whole pan carefully from the oven and set on a wire cooling rack. Immediately, using a large spoon, baste the salmon with the cooking liquid, then let the whole thing sit for 10 minutes.
  • After 10 minutes, baste again, then drain off the liquid. Lay a cooling rack top-side-down over the top of the salmon, then, holding both cooling rack and cookie sheet, carefully flip the whole cookie sheet over (it’s a good idea to do this over the sink). The salmon will now be top-side-down on the cooling rack. Remove the cookie sheet and peel back the foil a little at a time – the salmon skin should stick to the foil and come off cleanly (mine stuck in one place and necessitated a little cajoling).
  • When the skin and foil are removed, place your serving platter serving side down over the top of the salmon (so the bottom of the salmon is on the part of the plate that will be facing up). Carefully, holding both serving vessel and cooling rack, invert so the salmon and the serving plate are now right-side up. Remove cooling rack.
  • Cover the platter, salmon and all, with aluminum foil and refrigerate until cold.
  • 30-45 minutes before you intend to serve, remove the salmon from the refrigerator. We want it cold, but not chilly. While you wait for it to climb a few degrees in temperature, prep the cucumber and radish slices and make the vinaigrette: in a small measuring cup, combine the lemon zest, minced chives, dill, and parsley. Squeeze in the 2 tablespoons lemon juice, then whisk in the ¼ cup olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside until needed.
  • To decorate, shingle the sliced cucumbers and radishes over some or all of the fish in a pattern you like – you can see what I did above, and the internet has, as always, many gorgeous alternatives. If you wish, arrange some bushy dill sprigs in the corner of your platter and pile some lemon slices on them for diners to choose at their whim.
  • Just before serving, drizzle the fish and its vegetable “scales” with the lemon vinaigrette, using a whisk or a fork, if needed, to distribute the herbs evenly (they may come out in little clumps). Serve with a large fork or a wooden spatula.

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The Adele – limoncello spritzer

Hi friends. Remember me? I promise I haven’t forgotten about us. I’ve just been… busy.

A week or two ago N. and I were talking about explanations our students give for their absences, or for requesting extensions, or for missed work, and it led into a discussion of the difference between reasons and excuses (which dovetailed into me raging against one of the judges on the Food Network show Chopped for calling a contestant’s explanation that the plate she wanted to use had been taken by someone else an “excuse” he didn’t want to hear). We decided it was, in some senses, a matter of semantics, and that in many cases it was too bad that “excuse” has taken on such a negative connotation. In thinking about how I’ve effectively abandoned you here, I do have some reasons for my absence, but I’m now approaching the point where they are fast becoming excuses, in all the negative ways we usually think of the word. I moved. (True, but we unpacked the kitchen and the computer with my photo editing software almost two weeks ago.) It’s hot. (Yeah, but it wasn’t last weekend or the weekend before that.) I’m tired. (Not so tired that I can’t teach, and grade, and whip up dinner, but tired enough that staging ingredients and capturing the right angles feels like a pretty steep mountain to scale around 4:30 in the afternoon.)

In the end, it doesn’t matter, because what’s important is getting back to it and making an appearance, right? So here’s mine. In the steaming slick of the weekend, peeking around the ragged corners of my own laziness reluctance summer schedule, I figured I could manage a cocktail.

This drink is in honor of my now former neighbor, the “now former” part of which saddens me greatly. Before the move, we were in the habit of having monthly happy hours with one set of neighbors, taking turns hosting an evening of snacks and drinks and music and conversation. It was a lovely way to end the week, and a great excuse reason to resupply the cheese drawer. A former bartender, A. always impressed me with her imaginative cocktail ideas (and got me hooked on vodka tonics – how did it take me until my mid-thirties to discover this dangerously refreshing option every single bartender in the country knows how to make?). It was always a different drink, always something slightly unusual (amaretto and almond milk, anyone?), and she always had the ingredients for it chilled and waiting. For our final happy hour as neighbors, despite not having a great deal of time to plan (packing – you know how it goes), I wanted to have something special to offer her, and it turned out to be this, a drink she liked so much I decided to make it again, and again, and name it after her.

Apart from our neighbors, the other thing I’m going to miss about the house we no longer live in is the lemon tree in the backyard. It wasn’t a standard Eureka or Lisbon lemon (the varieties most common in the standard U.S. grocery store displays), but it wasn’t quite a Meyer lemon either – the skin and pith were sturdy and thick, and they grew to larger sizes than the grocery store offerings (and man were they full of seeds, a feature I’m currently taking advantage of by sprouting and growing a few of my own). The first winter we lived there, I used the tree’s bounty to make limoncello, a lovely bottle I forgot about in the back of a cupboard and allowed to steep much longer than suggested, producing something tooth-achingly sweet and far too strong to be sipped. Over the five years we lived in the house, I slowly worked on that one bottle, adding it to desserts and drinks when a boozy kick of lemon seemed right. As moving day approached, I had only a few shots left in the bottle. To enjoy the sunshine of those lemons as long as possible, the day before we left I stripped the tree of every ripe lemon I could reach (don’t worry, there were still plenty for the new tenants… assuming they have a ladder…). To my dismay, this recipe uses the very last of these.

This is no great revelation, I’m afraid (after I made you wait for it for a full page to finally find out what’s in it!), but it is a perfect, and perfectly easy, cocktail for the season. It uses the very last drops of my limoncello, the very last slices of the last lemon I brought from the old house, and a simple fizz of seltzer water to top it up. And as I sipped it this weekend in my hot, still backyard, still scattered with the detritus of the week’s airborne celebrations (fireworks leave a lot of garbage behind!), it remained a lovely way to close out the week: fresh, bright, not too sweet, just the right subtle tickle, as we plow full swing into summer.

The Adele
Makes one (but so easily multiplied)
These are my quantities of preference – you can, of course, adjust to your own tastes, making the drink stronger or weaker, more or less citrusy, as you prefer.
3-4 ice cubes
1 ounce limoncello
1-2 lemon slices or wedges
5-6 ounces seltzer water (don’t use club soda – it contains sodium)

 

  • Place the ice cubes in a red wine glass (with a big bowl and a tall stem)
  • Pour in the limoncello and add the lemon wedge or slice(s), squeezing to release juice if desired
  • Top up with seltzer water, stir gently, and enjoy.

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