Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures.
Irish soda bread on its way up North with Noah.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Make This Salad....NOW!

Last night, I was helping clean up after yet another end-of-school-year party. And, yet again, I found myself shaking my head as the poor host of the party freaked out about the trays and trays of leftover watermelon that had taken over her kitchen counters.

Watermelon always seems to put us in that position. Here is this amazing, crunchy, sweet, thirst -quenching gift from the earth and time after time, it ends up being the last girl left on the dance floor. It has two strikes against it, I think. First, it's always competing with some summer treat that's downright sexier, say a strawberry shortcake or, in last night's case, a cherry vanilla sheet cake with my son's entire Mudcats baseball team scanned onto the top of it. Second, there's just so freakin' much of it. Frankly, I think that if it came packed as tiny little balls in those precious little plastic containers that usually hold raspberries and ransom-like price tags, watermelon would go like hotcakes. I also think that most of us don't know what to do with watermelon other than slice it and serve it, so people get just plain sick of the stuff.

As I stuffed leftover hamburgers into a Ziploc (with plans to win big with my dog back home), I told my watermelon-panicked host exactly what she should do with the stuff. After she heard my description of a watermelon, feta, and tomato salad, Amy's lip curled ever so slightly and she said ever so politely, "could that really be good? It just sounds so weird."

I thought the same thing when my girlfriend Pat brought this amazing dish to a picnic three years ago. I took one look at the funky combo of ingredients and visibly wrinkled my nose. But Pat promised that if I just gave a taste, I’d be won over instantly by the unexpected yet tongue tantalizing contrast of juicy, sweet, crunchy fruit and creamy, tangy feta.Not only was she right….she was onto something. Over the course of that summer, the feta/watermelon combo (in a wide array of variations) showed up at at least four dinner parties I attended. And each time, guests were slow to try it yet quick to finish it. I spent last summer whipping up my own versions and conning my friends and family into giving each a try. Sometimes I used blue cheese instead of feta. Sometimes I added a sprinkle of cayenne to spice things up. On occasion I added thinly sliced red onion or some mint from my garden instead of basil. Black olives were also a nice touch. Mostly, I just tossed the watermelon, tomato, basil, and feta together with some olive oil, vinegar, salt and cracked pepper and called it a day. And every single person who tried these salads became a fan. My sister Jamie went so far as to declare I was a genius. (I didn’t bother correcting her.)

Try this recipe. Experiment. You’ll love the way the watermelon and tomatoes mingle together. And your body will love the fact that both watermelon and tomatoes pack a serious punch of Vitamin C, the antioxidant lycopene and a whallop of summer flavor at a pretty low caloric cost. Following is a good basic blueprint--- make as much or as little as you want but think in terms of about a 2/3 watermelon to 1/3 tomato ratio. (is ratio the right word here? Whatever.) Eat this salad promptly—time is not its friend.

2 1/2 cups seedless watermelon, in 3/4-inch cubes

1 1/2 cups ripe gorgeous tomatoes, cored and cut into ¾- inch chunks

1/2 cup crumbled feta (French, Greek or Bulgarian are tastiest)

Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine or sherry vinegar
Pinch cayenne (highly optional)

1/2 cup basil, torn, chopped or cut into chiffonade

Toss the watermelon, tomato, cheese, and basil into a pretty bowl. Add olive oil and vinegar directly to bowl. Toss gently. Add cayenne (if using), salt and pepper to taste. Toss again lightly. Do not refrigerate. Serve within 30 minutes.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

DO try this at home: Dovetail's Savory, Sweet, Buttery Crunchy Corn Scones

It was my mother's birthday recently. And as usual, my sister and I were tearing our hair out (at the last minute, of course) about a gift. Something for the house? Jewelry? Clothes? After 7 decades on earth, Carol's cup has long since runneth over. Photos of the grandkids? Hate to say it, but they're just not as cute as they used to be. A weekend away with the two families? The whoosh you're hearing is the sound of wind blowing through my very empty wallet.

So we decided on lunch. Not with all the eye-rolling preteen grandkids. Not with the Blackberry wielding son-in-laws. Not even with obstreperous grandpa. Just mom and her two daughters (who still roll their eyes but have improved somewhat over the years.)

I took the day off from work and we met at Dovetail, a tiny hideaway on 77th, right off Columbus, that I had been eager to try. It was that kind of gorgeous NYC spring day where everyone was out, the flowers were riotous, people were even smiling. So I was a bit dashed when I trounced into the restaurant and found it to be not only darkish and spare (it almost had the feel of a sushi place), but nearly empty. Was it the economy? Was this more of a winter spot?

Couldn't quite figure it out but my worries soon flew away. The $24/pp prix fixe meal we had was not only a great deal, it was so inventive and delicious, I cleaned every plate brought to me--from the beet salad with horseradish, pears, and ricotta cheese to the milk chocolate panna cotta with lemon curd and vanilla chantilly. What made the meal even sweeter was the service--I swear I don't remember the last time a restaurant in the city made me feel so welcome and appreciated as a guest. I suppose it's the proverbial silver lining to this grim recession. Just before leaving, I told the maitre d' what a wonderful time we'd had and how crazy I was for the cornbread they had served: It was that perfect balance of salty-sweet, crunchy and tender, buttery and fragrant. I was thrilled when he appeared a few moments later with the recipe. As we strolled through Central Park afterwards, I could barely wait to get home and give these babies a go.

I tweaked the recipe just a tiny bit Borat would say....."Great success!" I've made these a bunch of times and find them addictive. My boys love them for breakfast as well as for snacks. They were a hit with parents at ballgames, too. This is sort of like a recipe for scones--but don't be afraid that it calls for rolling out dough: If that really freaks you out, just pat the dough flat with your little ol' hands before you slice it into wedges. One more thing: I tend to mix about 3/4 tsp. of dried, crumbled rosemary into half of the dough since I love rosemary in my cornbread. I leave the other blob of dough plain because, well, my boys aren't quite there yet.


Dovetail Cornbread

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cup coarse cornmeal ( not mandatory but it does make for a toothier texture. I buy Indian Head brand and can usually get it at ShopRite. You can probably find something similar at Whole Foods, Kings, or other high end or specialty markets.)

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 1/2 tsps. baking powder

1 1/4 tsps. baking soda

1 1/4 tsps. salt

1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese

2 sticks cold, cubed, unsalted butter

1 cup buttermilk

For brushing on top:
1/2 cup heavy cream

In a food processor using the steel blade: Mix flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together with a quick whir. (If you are adding rosemary to the whole batch, you can include the rosemary here with the dry ingredients). Add butter cubes and pulse into dry ingredients until butter is reduced to small, pea-sized pieces. It should look like very coarse meal. Pulse in buttermilk JUST until dough forms. Add cheese and pulse a couple of times, just until cheese is distributed. Dump lump of dough onto a lightly floured work surface and divide in half. Place each blob of dough onto a large piece of plastic wrap, slightly flatten each into a disc with your hand. (If you are adding rosemary to only half of the dough you can sprinkle rosemary over one of the flattened blobs at this point, fold it over once or twice, and flatten it again. Don't handle too much because you want the butter to stay cold.) Wrap up each disc and stick in fridge for about an hour or longer.

While dough is chilling, line two or three cookie sheets with parchment (if you for some reason consider yourself unworthy of parchment, butter and flour them.) Pour about 1/2 of a cup of heavy cream into a bowl. Pull out a pastry brush. Go find a rolling pin if you have one.

Preheat oven to 350. Flour work surface. Don't get all dramatic about it, but take out one of the discs of dough, unwrap. Sprinkle the top lightly with flour and, lay plastic wrap you just took off the the dough on top of the disc. Quickly just roll the disc into a circle about 7-8" inches across and 3/4" thick. Cut like a pie into eight wedges and place wedges a few inches apart on parchment-covered cookie sheet. Brush each with heavy cream and sprinkle not too shyly with salt and, yes, pepper (trust me!). Repeat this whole process with the next blob of dough. If just one half has rosemary in it, you can sprinkle a little rosemary on top of the wedges along with the salt and pepper so the kids will know to avoid them.

Bake about 10 minutes, turn cookie sheets. Bake 5-10 minutes or more, until the cakes are golden brown. This will all depend on how hot your oven is. You want them to be as crispy and brown as possible without burning on the bottom, so be careful. Serve and devour warm if you can. They're also pretty darned yummy at room temp.