July 2009 Archives

Cooking For Others: The Naked Cook

salad ready to go, my outfit not so much
EVENT: Eating avec A/C
VENUE: Phoebe’s Apartment, Flatiron
TYPE: Casual Summertime Dinner
MENU: Squash Chips with Balsamic and Basil Drizzle; Panzanella Salad with Lemon-Basil Vinaigrette; Lemon-Garlic Roasted Chicken Breasts; Iced Basil Green Tea

A few times over the course of the last few weeks, as New York City humidity has neared 100%, I’ve found myself slaving over my small kitchen’s open flame in nothing but a tank top and underwear. This sounds attractive in theory, and perhaps if it was an apron alone, there would have at least been something classically erotic about my situation. But I assure you, there is nothing less appealing than splattering oil on bare, white legs as you sweat not just the heat but also guests who are moments away, and you debate whether or not it’s better to put on some shorts or burn the chicken.

Even as a practiced weeknight entertainer, the lack of control over life, schedule, and happiness that comes with a full time job, often leaves me, well, late. Thus was the case a few Wednesdays ago when I found myself, shopping bags in hand, racing up my three-floor walk-up, throwing a pot of water on to boil, and peeling off all of my clothes for fear of fainting into the flame.

Summer had a way of creeping up on us slowly this year, and it wasn’t until this past week that I began factoring the heat of preparation into my menus. Usually when it’s warm, if I’m cooking for just myself or a girlfriend or two, I’ll whip up a quick salad and call it a meal. But with a coffee table full of guests—guys and gals alike—it feels like kind of a poor excuse for dinner to just serve up a variety of tossed raw veggies, no matter how interesting or delicious. My solution: panzanella.

Making a salad out of carbs is an easy way to convince bigger eaters (cough cough, men) that their side dish is not a salad at all. This particular version was packed with farmers’ market-fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. More refreshing yet, I was able to toast the bread in the oven at the same time as my chicken cooked, minimizing the active work over the fire and the time my apartment would also be roasting. I let both come down to room temperature, giving me time to cool off with some of Caitlyn’s Iced Basil Green Tea, open a window, and put on some clothes.

From my kitchen, where salads get dressed even when I don’t, to yours,


*(Neurotic Post Script, from Cara: I still bear a scar on my right thigh from draining/spilling a pot of pasta water while wearing only a bikini, circa 2003. Be careful when cooking less than fully dressed!)


Panzanella Salad with Lemon-Basil Vinaigrette
Makes 4-6 servings

1 large loaf ciabatta or other rustic Italian bread, sliced
2 small cucumbers, halved, and sliced
2 large plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped (or you can use cherry)
1/2 lb buffalo mozzarella or buccacini, roughly torn into pieces
1 cup basil leaves, roughly torn
salt to taste

For the vinaigrette:

Double this recipe.

Preheat the oven to broil.

In a food processor, combine all ingredients for the vinaigrette. Pulse to combine.

In a medium mixing bowl, toss together the cucumbers, tomatoes, and mozzarella with the vinaigrette. Set aside.

Slice the bread into large rustic pieces. Lay them flat on a rimmed baking sheet and brush each slice with olive oil. Place on the top rack in the oven and toast until dark brown, but not burned.

Allow the bread to cool enough to handle. Cut into 1 inch pieces. Add the bread and basil to the bowl and toss together with the rest of the salad mixture.

Serve immediately along side the chicken.

Lemon-Garlic Roasted Chicken Breasts
Makes 4 Servings

4 large chicken breasts, bone-in skin on
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp butter, room temperature
1 garlic clove, pushed through a press
1 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine the zest, lemon juice, butter, garlic, and salt and whip together.

With clean hands, rub the butter mixture underneath the chicken’s skin so there is a thin layer. Repeat with each breast. Leftover butter can be reserved for another use.

Coat a over proof skillet with a thin layer of oil and brown the chicken over medium-high heat, starting with the skin-side down. Once both sides have been browned, place the chicken in the oven and cook until the breasts are cooked through, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Allow chicken to rest for another ten minutes or so under a sheet of foil. Serve warm or room temperature to allow you and your guests to cool.

Recipe Flash: Mediterranean Vegetable Hash

Last week, I went on an interesting date. The guy, who’s been through culinary school in France, came over to cook me dinner in my kitchen. The interesting part: He asked me to pick up an array of ingredients and then stand aside while he improvised a meal around them (much more on this soon). The fallout from this guest appearance was a small kitchen covered in dirty dishes that would take days to tackle and a refrigerator full of random excess ingredients, namely vegetables, that had fallen to the wayside in favor of French simplicity.

This hash was the concoction I made the following night with those unused veggies. I ate it alone while watching Top Chef Masters and reflecting on the meal, and on my strange, quick-fire challenge first date.

The combination of different vegetables and textures worked surprisingly well together, though perhaps, this was not so surprising, as it was the dish I had envisioned for my chef all along. Had he simply caved to the culinary pressures of the smirking blonde seated in the corner, judging him all the while, this lemon-mint hash might have had a perfectly cooked piece of lamb to go with.

From my kitchen, albeit small, to yours,



Mediterranean Vegetable Hash
Makes 2-4 servings


½ lb yellow potatoes, diced ¼ inch thick
1 shallot, sliced
½ lb zucchini (2 small-medium), quartered and sliced ¼ inch thick
½ pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
½ cup peas, defrosted if frozen
2 tbsp finely chopped mint
1 1/2 tbsp lemon juice (about ½ lemon)

Coat a large skillet with olive oil and set it over a medium-high flame. Saute the potatoes, stirring occasionally so they are able to properly brown. Once the potatoes are beginning to become brown and tender, add the shallot. Continue to sauté until the potatoes are golden brown and cooked though, and the shallot has completely caramelized. Remove the potatoes to a bowl and cover with foil.

Sauté the zucchini, adding a little additional oil if the pieces are sticking to the bottom of the pan. When the zucchini is brown and almost cooked through, add the tomatoes and continue to sauté until slightly browned.
Return the potatoes to the pan along with the peas. Cook mixture until the potatoes and peas are piping hot and cooked through.

Off the heat, add the lemon juice and mint and toss to combine. Serve alongside a grilled piece of lamb, or as is for a satisfying weeknight meal for one.

Cooking For One: Veggie Bounty

DISH: String Beans a la Marc; Parlsey Zucchini; Sweet and Sour Cabbage Salad
TYPE: Summer’s Offering Lunch

I’ve always loved the lunch buffet at City Bakery, on 18th Street, for the sheer vegetabley-ness of its offering. At any given lunch hour, you can heap creative, market-fresh salads, sautés, and greens onto your plate to your heart’s—and your diet’s—content. Sure, it’s overpriced, but it’s incredibly convenient, and keeping so many different vegetables in so many different preparations in your own fridge would be a giant pain.

Or would it?

I’ve been finding that if I buy relatively small quantities of a variety of veggies at summer’s overflowing farmers’ markets and farmstands, and then cook each into its own particular dish, stored in its very own tupperware container, by the end of the week all the containers are empty and I feel like I’ve eaten a buffet-worthy assortment of foods. I find it more satisfying, when cooking for just myself, than making one huge pot of something and eating it ad nauseum (not literally) for an entire week.

When venturing to create a satisfying vegetable “buffet” at home, there are really only a couple of guidelines to follow:

•Don’t buy too much of any given vegetable. This will prevent you from overdosing and from boredom.

•Vary the texture of the preparations. Make slow-cooked string beans and long-simmered cabbage. Make some dishes that are best hot and have others room temp or cold.

•Mix and match! Have a little bit of string beans, a little bit of cabbage salad, and then a little more of the string beans. Add some bread and maybe a little cheese, and you’ve got a meal.

•Limit each dish to a couple of veggies—no more. While hodgepodge vegetable stews are certainly delicious, it’s more exciting to pick and choose from several containers of simpler dishes.

•Remember your veggie buffet when you’re trying to think of side dishes to complement another you’re making for yourself or for others. They’re especially good to round out a small portion of something kind of heavy, like a grilled cheese sandwich.

Anyway, below are the three creations I came up with last week. Who knows what’ll transpire with my next vegtable purchase?

From my kitchen, where the buffet is personalized, to yours,



String Beans a la Marc
Makes 3 servings

Recently, my friend Marc was gleefully telling me about his favorite simple dinner: freshly cooked pasta tossed with minced garlic, salt, pepper, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and butter. The key, he said, was using both the butter and the olive oil. While he was talking, I could almost taste the deliciousness of the two fats. The next day, instead of pasta, I tossed my string beans in just this combination.

1/2 pound green beans
2 cloves garlic, pressed*
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon butter
scant 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

*if you don’t have a garlic press (like me), mince the cloves of garlic very finely. Sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt over the minced garlic and go at it again with your knife, using the salt’s grittiness to really break up the pieces.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Trim the vine end off the string beans, or trim both if you prefer them like that. Add 2 teaspoons of salt to the water, then add the string beans. Boil for about 6 minutes, until the beans have lost their raw taste but are still firm. Drain.

Immediately toss with the butter, olive oil, garlic, pepper, and Parm. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Parsley Zucchini
Serves 3

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 large clove garlic, chopped
3 medium-sized zucchini
1/2 cup of parsley, finely diced
1 teaspoon butter
salt to taste
hot pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until the garlic softens and turns slightly brown. Add the zucchini, raise the heat, and stir fry until the zucchini have wilted. Sprinkle with salt and hot pepper, add the parsley and butter, and serve. This is great eaten hot right away, but it’s also good straight from the fridge.

Sweet and Sour Cabbage Salad
Serves 3

1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 small red onion, diced
1/2 large cabbage, shredded
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cucumber, cut into thin half moons

Combine the vinegar, water, and salt in a small saucepan with a tightly fitted lid. Add the onion and cover. When you can see steam coming out through the lid, 2-3 minutes, add the cabbage, stir to mix, put the cover back on, and lower the heat to a simmer. Cook for 15 minutes, until the cabbage is quite tender. Stir in the sugar and cook for another 5 minutes.

Off the heat, mix in the cucumber slices. Cool to room temperature, then refridgerate until ready to eat.

Potluck Parties: Parkside Picnic Dinner

EVENT: Our Beloved Neighborhood Green Space Returns
VENUE: Washington Square Park
TYPE: Potluck Picnic Dinner
MENU: Pomodoro Fresco Pasta Salad; Zucchini Quinoa Salad (Sophie); Fussili with Chipotle Mexican Meatballs (Steph); Baguette and Cheese (Keith); Ben and Jerry’s on Ice (Ed)

Come summertime in New York, when you don’t have the luxury of sitting back on your white porch and watching the traffic go by, and your rental does not come with a terrace or roof deck on which to plant an illegal gas grill, the natural solution is to take your intimate, at-home dinner public. That is, to the park.

Those of us who live in the greater NYU area have been without suitable green space for some time now. While there are playgrounds a plenty, and Union Square is just around the corner, neither are places you really want lay your towel down for fear of cooties or pummelling by a wayward farmers’ market vegetable. So when the redone Washington Square Park opened its doors once again to 80-year-old Chess players, college acapella singers, and weirdos from across the West Village, my friend Sophie suggested a neighborhood picnic to those of us who just might just fall into the latter population.

Wednesday evening we gathered on a large blanket and took in the new scenery. The park renovation was worth the wait, and though the vibe had lost a little of its historical grit, it was still a worthy location to sip wine, listen to bongo drums, and cringe at the occasional pedestrian taking a full fledged dip in the fountain.

In addition to the screw-top wine (courtesy of Rodrigo), Keith graced the picnic blanket with the requisite selection of bread and cheese, while we ladies provided a trio of easily portable carb-based salads which we served on paper plates using a small garden trowel from Sophie’s apartment. It was an eclectic offering in the best sense: Sophie’s quinoa was pilfered from a weekend visit to her parents’ house; Steph’s Chipotle Mexican meatballs were no longer balls by the time she reached Sophie’s, causing some last minute improvisation, and one very delicious smoky pasta sauce; my pasta was also a product of my mother’s kitchen, carrying with it plenty of summertime nostalgia from nights in a city park not too far uptown.

For dessert, Ed brought two varieties of Ben and Jerry’s (on a block of ice). It was a bold move given the 90 degree weather, but the black raspberry chocolate managed to hold its swirl long enough for us to be suitably refreshed without the comfort of indoor A/C or a trip in the fountain.

From my kitchen, where park-side dinners refresh the New York City soul, to yours,



Pomodoro Fresco Pasta Salad
Makes 4-6 servings

1¾ lbs plum tomatoes (about 4 large), finely diced
2 cloves garlic, pushed through a press
1 tsp salt
½ tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp white sugar
½ tsp red pepper flakes
1 cup basil leaves, chopped
1lb penne rigate

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the first 6 ingredients. Allow to sit for up to an hour so the tomatoes have time to marinate and absorb all the added flavor.

NOTE: this can be done up to a day in advance.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Cook the pasta according to package direction until al dente. Drain and add to the bowl with the tomato mixture.

Toss the hot pasta with the tomatoes and chopped basil.

Best if served room temperature. Preferably, on a picnic blanket.

Cooking For Others: A Real Flexitarian

VENUE: Cara’s apartment, Park Slope
MENU: Red Wine-Braised Lentils with (Veggie) Sausage; Steamed Spinach; Whole Wheat Toast

There are dinner parties when it seems like every single person in attendance requires a different meal. As a vegetarian, more or less, I know well the shameful sense of appearing to be a picky eater, when, in fact, vegetarianism is not exactly that. I do my best to keep it separate from childish pickiness, which I depict as liking to eat only things like vanilla ice cream, skinless chicken breast, and spaghetti with butter. It’s more of a pointed preference, like preferring the ocean to a lake or the Q train to the R.

When I’m cooking for non-vegetarians, even people who claim they don’t mind partaking of the occasional veggie-centric dinner, I sometimes fear they see things a bit differently. I can be self-conscious then about what I choose to serve. I want to make sure they’re satisfied and happy, and I often wind up relying on cheese as something comparably fattening to the richest of sausages and the reddest of meats. Occasionally I’ll even punctuate my meal with a coldcut, like the ham I threw on these biscuit sandwiches. It’s all fine and dandy—really—but it can be a little heartbreaking to, say, prepare a brilliant new tofu recipe and then be hard-pressed to think of someone to invite over to enjoy it with. (Thank god, in this respect and others, for the veggie-centrism of Mag Club.)
Alex, the guest for the meal at hand, is, perhaps unusually, a bona-fide flexitarian. Not in a trendy way, and not in a meticulous way, but when I started dating him a month or two ago, I was thrilled to learn, over sushi, that while he doesn’t turn down meat, if left on his own he aims to eat simple food, veggies and grains and some fish. In other words, food that falls under the heading of Stuff Cara Eats.
So I’ve watched him eat rare steak and been ever so slightly disappointed by the fact that he won’t partake of cheese or cookies. But when it comes down to the wire, it’s nice to know that at a table laden only with pasta primavera, quinoa pilaf, or braised lentils, he won’t miss the meat.
He might, however, miss the fake meat, and in fact, he is responsible for introducing me to Field Roast’s veggie sausages (made from wheat gluten, mainly). I tried a slice once, from a dish he had leftovers of, and I was pretty impressed by the sheer tastiness of it all. With careful instructions from him to buy only the Italian or the Apple flavors, I purchased my own package of links and decided to imitate for him Phoebe’s Merguez Sausage and Lentils. I had once scoffed at the idea that it would even be worth trying a veggie substitue for the sausages in this dish. But now I was ready to make my own vegetarian rendition, only stove-top (it was hot out) and braised in red wine.
The result was a quick and easy dish, much of which could be made in advance so I didn’t have to sweat by the stove in front of my date. It oozed flavor and richness and provided an excellent bed for an inspiring fake-meat product.
One last note: Alex is a photographer and a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to his craft. That explains why these pictures are particularly well focused, colored, and framed, and also why the lentils were bordering on tepid by the time I convinced him to sit down, fill his plate, and eat.
From my kitchen, a vegetarian mecca—meatless meats and all—to yours,

Red Wine-Braised Lentils with (Veggie) Sausage
Serves 3-4

If you’re not convinced by my ode to Field Roast or my comparison of vegetarianism and subway train lines, I am sure you could make this with your favorite real-meat sausage.
1 cup dried black lentils (don’t use red lentils)
3 garlic cloves, 2 minced, 1 chopped roughly into thirds
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons olive oil
1 veggie sausage, preferably Field Roast Italian, cut into thin half moons
1 small onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
dash cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 cup red wine
Pick over the lentils for any bad ones, then rinse them in a couple changes of water. Put them in a small pot with about 2 cups of water, 1 teaspoon of olive oil, and the garlic that is roughly chopped. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then simmer, partially covered, for 25-30 minutes until the lentils are soft but not at all mushy. Drain any excess water. If you’re doing this ahead of time, refrigerate the lentils; otherwise, set them aside.
Meanwhile, heat 2 teaspoons of oil in a large, cast-iron skillet. Add the sausage and let the pieces brown and crisp. Remove to a plate and set aside. Add another teaspoon of oil to the pan, then put in the onions, sauté a few minutes, then add the carrots and the minced garlic. When everything is soft, throw in the spices and salt, cook for a minute, and put in the lentils. Cover in red wine and bring to a simmer. When the liquid is nearly completely reduced, 5-10 minutes, add the sausage back in. Simmer another few minutes until the liquid is evaporated, taste for seasonings, and sprinkle with the remaining teaspoon of olive oil.
Serve with toasted slices of fresh whole wheat bread, with simple steamed spinach or broccoli on the side.

Recipe Flash: Lemony Rice Salad with Cherry Tomatoes, Almonds, and Herbs

When I was little and had the flu, there were a few easy comfort specials I would have my mother dish up to accompany my day of “Price is Right” and dramatic suffering: strawberry Jello, garlic soup, and white rice with lemon. These days, whenever I taste a bright, lemony rice dish it always takes me back a little to the thrill of no homework and daytime television. On vacation a few weeks ago, there was a lot of the latter and, lucky for me, my mother and I made enough of this rice salad (which sat beside my salmon burgers at dinner one night) to accompany a long, drawn-out recovery—not from any particular illness, just from the trials of quarter life.

From my kitchen, albeit small, to yours,


Lemony Rice Salad with Cherry Tomatoes, Almonds, and Herbs

Makes 4 servings


1 cup basmati rice (or any long grain white rice)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small shallot, minced
¼ cup parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1/3 cup mint leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup toasted almonds, roughly chopped
2 tsp white vinegar
1 lemon, zested and juiced
3 tbsp olive oil
salt to taste

In a medium stock pot, bring 2 cups of salted water to boil. Add the rice, turn the heat to low, cover and cook until all the liquid has absorbed and the rice is cooked through, about 20-25 minutes. Using a fork, fluff the rice and allow to cool slightly.

In a medium mixing bowl, or in the rice pot (as shown below), combine the remaining ingredients and taste for seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature as a refreshing, yet filling summer side.