Only on Vacation: Salsa Fresca

August 14th, 2013 · 19 Comments · Rituals, Sides, Salads, Soup, Vegetarian

Far and away, the most beloved pre-dinner snack in our house is chips-and-salsa. Every night, while the grown-ups are do-si-do-ing around each other assembling something that resembles a meal, the kids are generally popping into the kitchen to dunk a chip into a bowl of decanted Trader Joe’s salsa (and ask, yet again, dinner almost ready? Mom? Dinner almost ready? Dad?) It would never occur to me to make that salsa from scratch. Even if the tomatoes were in season all year long, even if I had more time than the usual turbo-charged weeknight affords.

But when I’m on vacation, as I am now, it’s a different story. For as long as I can remember — pre-book, pre-blog, maybe even pre-diary — one of the first things we ever started experimenting with was fresh salsa. Even when the tomatoes weren’t perfect like they are right now, even when we had a perfectly acceptable jar of prepared stuff in the fridge, we’d make a point to chop up a few heirlooms, toss in some onion, play around with hot sauce and tomato paste and cilantro before striking the right formula. It’s so easy, in fact, that every time we make it, as we did last night, we wonder why we never make it back home. Of course as soon as we ask the question, we answer it immediately: Some things just belong on vacation.

Salsa Fresca

There’s definitely no official recipe for this, which is another way of saying that you should have some spare chips by your side so you can taste and correct as you concoct. (Chef’s privilege!) But the basic idea is this: Chop up 1 or 2 of the freshest tomatoes you can find — heirlooms are best, but really any good summer tomatoes will do. (And chop them into smaller pieces than you see above.) For every cup of chopped tomatoes, add 2 tablespoons cilantro, 1 tablespoon finely diced red onion, 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil, dash of hot sauce, salt and pepper. That’s your baseline salsa fresca, but even that is flexible depending on how juicy the tomatoes are (and how juicy you like your salsa). Once you have your base, you can add whatever you’d like: corn, chopped yellow peppers, chopped peaches, pineapple. If your tomatoes aren’t quite as flavorful as you’d like them to be, whisk a little tomato paste into the red wine vinegar before tossing with tomatoes. Serve with chips.

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Do-Nothing Dinner

August 8th, 2013 · 98 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Quick, Vegetarian

A few Augusts ago, my friends Jeni and Ben and their three kids came to visit us. They live on the Upper West Side, which is only about a 20-minute drive from my house, and yet, with full-time jobs and full-time families (their oldest daughter was about 4 which would make her twins 2, and my kids were 6 and 4), we had the hardest time coordinating get-togethers. (You know that famous New Yorker cartoon, “How about never — does never work for you?” That was us.) Well, on this particular occasion, we had by some miracle figured out a time that worked for a drive-by. It was a Saturday — couldn’t do lunch (soccer practice, naps) couldn’t do dinner (twins’ bedtime looming) so we settled on the somewhat odd, not-quite-cocktail-hour of 5:00.

“Just stay for dinner,” I told her when she called that morning.

“No no no,” she said .”Please don’t do anything.”

“But it’s no trouble.”

“Just trust me. It’s more stressful if I try to feed the kids there. Please don’t worry!”

I agreed begrudgingly. But then I hit the farmer’s market where, of course I was bamboozled by my daughters into buying a container of BuddhaPesto. The stuff is so good. I mean, so so good and leprechaun green and fresh you just can’t believe it. (The Times‘ Jeff Gordinier was similarly smitten last summer.) And, since it was August, there were tomatoes. The kind of tomatoes you dream of all year long. Striped, heirloom, green, gold, cherry, plum, little, big, blistered, exploding. The kind of tomatoes you slice at dinnertime, drizzle with a little olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt, and then back away from. Because to do anything more, to add anything else, would be to incur the wrath of the tomato gods…or me, for that matter.

The thing is, I never promised Jeni and Ben I wouldn’t cook for them. Just the kids. So at some point during the course of the family’s two-hour cameo — at which point I think every single toy in the toy box had been removed and discarded on the floor by five gleeful children  – I plopped two dinner plates on the table for the grown-ups. Spaghetti tossed with that BuddhaPesto, and slices of heirloom tomatoes (salted, oil-drizzled) that looked like they should’ve been painted by Cezanne. (I can brag about that because I had absolutely nothing to do with it. They came that way.)

You know the Virginia Lee Burton book The Little House about the cottage that stands peacefully still as construction and skyscrapers and general chaos looms all around. That’s how I picture Jeni and Ben eating that dinner. I will never forget how grateful two people could look eating the world’s simplest summer meal, as five screeching kids launched into their fifteenth game of Elefun in the living room.

Jeni tried to fight it, but was powerless in the face of the tomatoes.

“I told you not to do anything,” she attempted weakly.

“I didn’t. I boiled a pot of water. That was the extent of my cooking.”

“But you did! Look at this.”

I guess. But, I reminded her, it doesn’t take much.

Spaghetti with Pesto and Summer Tomatoes

Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup of pasta water. Toss pasta with a little olive oil while it sits in the colander. Add prepared pesto (the freshest you can find, such as BuddhaPesto) to the same pot you boiled spaghetti in and whisk in a drizzle of pasta water until it’s saucy, but not watery. Add pasta back to the pot and toss. Serve garnished with freshly grated Parmesan.

While spaghetti cooks, slice summer tomatoes onto a plate. Drizzle with a tablespoon or so of the best olive oil you’ve got, sprinkle with sea salt (and pepper, if you must) and serve alongside pasta.

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Back-Pocket Recipe: Rigatoni with Tomatoes

July 26th, 2010 · 8 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Quick, Vegetarian

When I was in my twenties, I was obsessed with Gwyneth Paltrow. I was 25 and feeling lost career-wise when she had her first real star turn in Emma. I saw the movie opening weekend and read any profile of her that I could get my hands on. Every time I finished a story, I felt like I was in 6th grade all over again — eyeing the popular girl from afar consumed by an envy I couldn’t completely understand. If only I could find a career as creative and as fulfilling as Gwynnie’s! I still had that before-30 belief that if I just worked a little harder then maybe I’d still have a shot at being a movie star and going to the Oscars in a pink Ralph Lauren frock. (Any professional achievement that happened after 30 in my mind didn’t count. At that point it seemed expected, un-special.) The fact that I could barely give a wedding toast without panicking for weeks leading up to the big day, or that I hadn’t acted since I played Adelaide in my 6th-grade production of Guys & Dolls were small details to be worked out later. (more…)

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It is So On

July 14th, 2010 · 19 Comments · Dinner, Posts by Andy, Quick, Vegetarian

The best thing we eat this summer will take us three minutes to minutes to make. It will involve only five ingredients, a serrated knife, and not a single charcoal briquette. I’m talking about the tomato sandwich. Not the bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich; not the grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich; not the tomato-mozzarella-and-basil sandwich: the tomato sandwich. Period. It is a thing of simple, summery, kid-friendly beauty: After enduring ten depressing months of the color-enhanced Styrofoam junk that passes for tomatoes at the Stop ‘N Shop, it’s like, from out of nowhere, the wind suddenly kicks up and the dark clouds part…and thank you Jesus, blue sky punches through. Tomatoes! Real tomatoes! Flavor! Texture! Sweetness! Over the course of the next eight weeks or so — between now and, say, mid-September, when tomatoes are at their meaty, juicy peak and the heirloom bin at the farmers’ market is positively en fuego – we’ll inhale as many of these as we can. Last weekend, we ate them  for lunch on Friday and Saturday, then as a quick dinner after a long day of driving on Sunday. And we ate them greedily, too, as though the supply was finite and they were about to run out—which, actually, they are. So we scarf what we can (always stopping to ask the kids as we devour them, “How good is this?”) and then suffer through the gray, mealy, tasteless months ahead…until we can do it all again. -- Andy

The Tomato Sandwich

-Country white bread
-Hellmann’s mayonnaise (yes, Hellmann’s; no other mayo will do)
-Tomatoes of various colors and varieties, sliced
-Sea salt and pepper

Take a few slices of a hearty white bread. (We like something with a little gravitas to it. We use something called, appropriately enough, Canadian White, which is available at T. Joe’s.) Toast them. Lightly coat each slice with mayo, but—this is crucial—be sure to do this while the toast is still warm. You want the mayo to get melty, you want to get the oil going, but you don’t want to mess with the awesomeness of the fruit. Now: arrange two or three slices of tomato on top of the toast. Let the kids pick the colors, mixing red, yellow and green, heirloom and non, Jersey and beefsteak, whatever. Sprinkle generously with salt and a couple of grinds of pepper. Some people also add some fresh basil here, but why risk destabilizing the atom? Why mess with perfection?

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