vegetables

RECIPE: Watermelon and Tomato Salad

I WAS SORRY TO HAVE MISSED NEW AMSTERDAM MARKET in NYC this Sunday. The only consolation was that I was actually in farm country enjoying the harvest firsthand. 
 
 
A visit to Millbrook Market in Dutchess County is always a great way to while away a Saturday morning, tasting and chatting and filling your bags. This week, we found lots of heirloom tomatoes and had a great talk about them (and Italy) with grower Gino Ianucci. Breezy Hill Orchard (coincidentally, also a vendor at New Amsterdam Market) had perfect white and yellow peaches, and there were lovely small round watermelons (and more tomatoes) from Sol Flower Farm.
 
We also managed to nab the last peach tart from Art of the Tart—made with fabulously buttery puff pastry in true French rustic style. I’d made the mistake once before of circling the market before buying one of these confections. This time I knew to take immediate decisive action the minute I set eyes on it. 
 
Most of what we bought was devoured in recipe-free eating—tomato slices on prosciutto sandwiches, peaches any time we wanted. But I’d been hearing about watermelon and tomato salad for a while, and now I had the ideal fresh-picked ingredients. So I decided to make one.
 
 
When I first heard about the pairing I thought it sounded unlikely. All summer when I was growing up, we ate watermelon just chopped off in lovely half rounds, which would get you soaked up to the ears. (Preferably, it was eaten outdoors so you could shoot the seeds off  “to plant another watermelon” or bop your brother.)
 
But the more I thought about the textures and tastes of tomatoes and watermelons, the more I liked the sound of it. The taste didn’t disappoint—sweet and tart, crisp and juicy, all combined to make a delicious salad. Here’s how I made it. I didn’t have any feta around, but next time I’d crumble it over the salad for a nice salty zest.
 
Watermelon and Tomato Salad
 
1 cup watermelon chunks
3 medium tomatoes, cut into similar size chunks
2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp balsamic or red wine vinegar
salt to taste
 
Combine the watermelon and tomato chunks.
 
Whisk together 2 tbs olive oil and 1 tsp balsamic or red wine vinegar. Pour dressing over watermelon and tomatoes. Toss lightly. Salt to taste. Crumble feta cheese over salad.
 
Happy Meatless Monday!

Dinner Tonight: Ratatouille Niçoise

Summer vegetables are just beginning to appear at the farmers’ market—red peppers, zucchini, onions—and so my thoughts turn to ratatouille niçoise. I brought back a recipe for the Provençal vegetable stew when I lived in France for a year right after high school—and I have been making it ever since. I’d faithfully copied down the recipe while a classmate prepared it for a gang of us one evening. We’d all met in the student pension where we lived, kitchen-less, but then our friend had moved out to a small apartment—the height of sophistication I thought at the time because she could have dinner parties and serve wine (cheap, Moroccan).
 
Ratatouille is a classic garden-to-table dish so typical of Mediterranean cooking: a few ingredients, big flavors and simplicity. In cooking circles over the years, I discover there’s been quite a bit of debate—and exchange of recipes—about the best method and perfect ingredients. Julia Child, in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for instance, advocates cooking the vegetables separately before layering them in a casserole “to partake of a brief communal simmer.” What a beautiful way to put it—and I gladly follow a lot of Julia’s advice—but in the case of this rustic dish, I tend more toward the philosophy of one online commenter: “I do find it amusing that people are using recipes for ratatouille.”
 
Imagine stepping out into your kitchen garden in the middle of summer when vegetables are ripening faster than you can pick them: Gather an eggplant, a few zucchini, some onions, a couple of peppers, 4 or 5 tomatoes and a handful of herbs—whatever looks good. Stew them all up with garlic and olive oil—et voilà. Few of us have vegetable gardens in New York City, but as I selected peppers and zucchini and herbs at the farmers’ market (no local eggplant yet), I felt as close to the spirit of cooking from a Provençal potager as I could.
 
Over the years, I’ve made ratatouille hundreds of time for family and friends. I’ve made it on a Coleman stove camping on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and in massive triple quantities for potluck dinners. At first, I usually made it as a side dish, but more and more now we like it as a main course, eaten alone or with couscous or high-protein quinoa. It’s great with grilled fish. And if I’m in the mood for meat, I fill my plate with ratatouille and grill a really fabulous tasty sausage as a side. (This week it was Bilinski’s Apple Chardonnay.) These are the proportions I like best now—meat as an accent rather than the main deal.
 
Here’s the translated recipe, which I more or less follow:
 
Ratatouille Niçoise
Yield: about 8 cups
 
1 large eggplant
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, (less, if you prefer)
4 zucchini
2 cloves of garlic
1 lb ripe tomatoes
3 medium onions
2 green or red bell peppers
Salt, pepper
Fresh herbs, up to ¼ cup—basil, thyme, Italian parsley, depending on the flavors you like (I add French tarragon—a teaspoon dried or the leaves from a couple of fresh sprigs) and what’s available
 
1. Peel the eggplant and onion and coarsely chop all the vegetables (Keep onions separate.) Mince or finely chop the garlic. Chop the herbs.
 
2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan (I use a 5½-quart Le Creuset French oven) over medium-high heat. Add onions first, then other vegetables, stirring to combine them (and so they don’t stick on the bottom).
 
3. Add garlic and herbs, plus the salt and pepper to taste.
 
 
4. Lower to medium heat, cover and cook for 45 minutes, stirring from time to time, especially at the beginning. Remove lid and cook for another 45 minutes so the liquid evaporates.
 
Ratatouille keeps well and tastes even better reheated. You can also eat it cold. 

It's All Greek to Me

When I visited Titan Foods in Astoria last week, I also stopped by United Brothers Fruit Market, a wonderful greengrocer (with great prices). Until you go, this will give you an authentic feel for the place. Really.

At the Market This Week

Purslane, peppers—and peas!

 

Foraging for Olives and Feta in Astoria—and Coming Home with Way More

I went on a field trip to explore Greek Astoria this week. I’d been hearing for ages about Titan Foods—“America’s Largest Greek Specialty Food Store.” I’d even taken a virtual tour of its olive and cheese counters with Michael Psilakis, founding chef at haute Greek pioneer restaurant Anthos (and chef/owner of Kefi, Gus & Gabriel Gastropub—will Williamsburg be next?)
 
You can take the tour, too:

 
Now that I get that it’s tee-TAN foods—to rhyme with Han, as in Han Dynasty—and not tī-tn, as in “tighten,” I think I’m ready. More to the point, I have a queue of Med recipes waiting for olives and/or feta before they can be made.
 
With all the talk of how huge Titan was, I guess I’d imagined a Walmart-size Greek grocery store. Well it’s not—and that’s good thing. But with a Greek flag flying from the roof of the white stucco building and a mural of Greek monuments (think Parthenon) overlooking the small parking lot, it certainly has a presence.
 
Inside, the grocery store aisles transport you straight to the Mediterranean: rows of different olive oils in tins, grains, beans, packages of cereal with Greek labels, dried fruits, nuts, a cooler full of, well, yes, Greek yogurt. Almost none of the products here can be found at my regular NY supermarket. Even the pasta is different. The olive section doesn’t disappoint. I select some dark ones from Cyprus and Morocco—just because I haven’t tried them before.
 
 
At the cheese counter (above), which in Greece, as Psilakis points out, is really all about feta, I decide on the Arahova, a sheep’s milk feta. The EC, after some dispute, gave the Greek brine-cured cheese a P.D.O. (protected designation of origin), which means all feta must come from Greece. I learn later that Greeks apparently eat more cheese per capita than any other nation (yes, even France)—75% of it feta.
 
Also in my basket: dried apricots, orange blossom water (from Lebanon), gigante dried beans, orzo and olive oil soap. The staff I talk to are all very helpful: One man valiantly tries to explain what mastiha is—and I get that it is sweet—but I still had to look it up when I got home. I discover that the Chios Mastiha Growers Association has a whole store of mastiha products, including a cookbook, in the East Village. Clearly I’m behind the curve here; I’ll have to drop by next time I’m in the neighborhood. Maybe I’ll even be a brave taster, as my sons’ nursery school teacher used to say, and bring home a jar from Titan next time I go. Maybe.
 
Titan Foods doesn’t sell fresh produce. For that, I walk along 30th Avenue. The stretch between 31st Street and Steinway reminds me of the Italian and Portuguese neighborhoods in Toronto where the produce stands of small green grocers spill right out onto the sidewalk.
 
 
 
At United Brothers Fruit Market, I find red swiss chard—crisp and beautiful—for $1/pound; at Elliniki Agora a couple of doors down, fresh fava beans. Tinned sardines from Croatia at Cyprus Deli and I’m done. A small but satisfying haul, with a shopping list already started for my next visit.
 
Getting there: N train to Astoria Blvd or 30 Av
 
Titan Foods
25-56 31st Street
718-626-7771
www.titanfood.com
 
United Brothers Fruit Market
3224 30th Ave.
718-728-7011
 
Elliniki Agora Fruit and Vegetable
32-12 30th Ave. 

718-728-0751
 
Cyprus Deli
3410 30th Ave.
718-278-4679

At the Market This Week

Strawberries, summer squash...

 

The strawberries barely made it home from the market they were so tasty, but I still have the zucchini to work with so I plan to make Quinoa with Corn and Zucchini, one of many favorite recipes from Martha Rose Shulman, the author of Mediterranean Harvest who writes a column for the New York Times.

This is a good example of how eating the Mediterranean diet doesn’t always literally mean eating Mediterranean dishes. Quinoa (keen-wah) is an ancient grain native to the Andes. But the combination of a whole grain, vegetables and a small amount of cheese fits the bill perfectly.
 
There’s no local corn in sight yet, of course, so I’m substituting ¾ cup of frozen white corn from Trader Joe’s. I think it’s hard to distinguish from fresh-off-the-cob. (Do I hear gasps?) I only use 2 cups of liquid in this recipe; for some reason, the quinoa always ends up soggy when I use 3. And since I just made an excursion to Greek Queens (more about that soon), I have wonderful arahova feta to crumble on top.
 
Lazy Mediterraneanista sometimes makes a meal of this dish. Quinoa is a complete protein, and the different favors and textures—the salt of the creamy feta, the sweet corn, the juicy crunch of the zucchini, the nutty bite of quinoa—make it very satisfying.

At the Market This Week

Spring onions, scallions, radishes, greens...

Spring onions at 97 Street Greenmarket, May 2010 

Scallions at 97 Street Greenmarket

 

breakfast radishes and japanese turnips, Union Square Greenmarket

 

And everything you need to start your own herb garden...

Basil plants at Union Square Greenmarket, May 2010

Cycling Superfuels à la Méditerranée

Roasted Vegetables
 
 “Five great foods that can help you ride better.” Now that's a promise; I need all the help I can get—this is definitely a clip-and-save, well, download-and-print, article for me. The five foods are salmon, linguini, red peppers, sweet potatoes and berries—easy to like—and right in tune with Mediterranean eating. Then I stumble on a dinner menu that manages to combine them all (well, almost) in one big superfuel feast. (Imagine the speed, imagine the power, I fantasize to myself.) The dishes—Roasted Gingered Salmon with Mango Salsa and Roasted Root Vegetables—have great Med cred: fish, lots of veggies and fruit, plenty of olive oil, lively citrus and cilantro flavors. 
 
The source of the recipes was unlikely but somehow fitting: I came across them on VeloNews.com last summer when I was following the Tour de France. They were developed by Leah Vande Velde (wife of pro cyclist Christian Vande Velde) to feed the pro Garmin bicycling team. The VeloNews editors had a few “lost in translation” moments when they converted a recipe meant to feed the entire team to one that would serve 4 regular humans. As the editors wrote in a note: “Maybe if we were more familiar with publishing recipes, we would have noticed that 22 ounces of olive oil and 25 ounces of brown sugar were a bit much for four pieces of salmon? Maybe.” That’s been corrected. But you still have to pick your own oven temperature for the salmon: 400°F seems to work fine.
 
I throw in red peppers and sweet potatoes (and whatever else is in season) with the root vegetables. Berries for dessert, and you have all the superfuels in one meal except for the linguini. That’s a big “except” for cyclists, I know, but luckily I’m not riding some insane number of miles all over France, so I can save the linguini for another day. 
 

 

Roasted root vegetables with brussels sprouts

Lazy Mediterraneanista

I THINK ONE REASON I LIKE THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET is how simple many of the dishes are. Just a few ingredients and a few simple steps and you have dinner.

LInguini with Roasted Tomatoes from Cucina Italiana

Linguine with Roasted Tomatoes is a perfect example. Add a salad, fruit for dessert and you’re done. So simple, so pretty—and delicious, too. (I usually substitute Niçoise olives, which I buy pitted at Zabar’s, but I’m curious about the Taggiasca olives and will keep looking for them.) 

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