Caprese, mon amour

Probably the best thing about summer cooking is that it takes so little to make something wonderful.
Think about it.
Winter revolves around generating heat, warming yourself over the hot oven, roasting tubers and boiling soups, glutting on fat and starch and heavy cream.
Chicago’s long, ragged season of frost lasts for nearly six months and the summers are short, and often brutally hot and humid.

I don’t want to bother with an oven right now. So, it’s a good thing I have a long, varied playlist of salads in my mental repertoire. I am so good at combining raw vegetables and fruits that I even considered becoming a raw vegan at one point! Seriously. And with all this juicy, summertime produce laying around, why bother messing with perfection?

I think a nice Caprese salad is just about one of the best things ever thought up by the human mind. Shakespeare? Meh, I could take it or leave it, but bring on the Caprese!

All you really need to make a delicious caprese salad are the following ingredients:
Really good heirloom tomatoes, bright red and at their peak of ripeness.
Really good mozzarella, not the spongy, block kind of processed mozarella, but real, honest-to-goodness, soft mozzarella packed in brine.
Really good basil, I prefer large leaves, deep green and fragrant.
Really good olive oil, extra virgin, preferably cold pressed, with a lovely greenish-yellow sheen and a buttery flavor.
(P.S. Spectrum makes the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted in my life).

Cut the tomatoes and the mozzarella in thick, hearty slices. Alternate tomato slices with basil leaves, then mozzarella slices. Sprinkle with sea salt and coarse black pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
I think the best way to enjoy caprese is while reclining, on a beach, or in a hammock or the sunny greenery of your own backyard.

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Picture Perfect Picnic

It started with cherries.
I wait all year for them. I lurk around the produce stands waiting for that inevitable splash of red, because in my neck of the woods, they only come around for a few months in the early summer and then like a lovely apparition, they are gone. It was while walking through the park on my way home from the grocery store, that I realized the day was calling for a picnic. Finally, all of the trees were in full bloom, the sun was in full shine, the weather was cool and perfect.

But these cherries, these perfectly ripe, sweet little jewels, they needed to be devoured outside, in the open. These cherries were calling for a day just like that particular day when conditions were perfect for sitting on the damp grass and falling asleep under a spreading oak.

I’m lucky to live right next door to a little slice of country in the urban jungle. Our neighborhood park is mostly golf course, and the local little league team uses up most of the field for weekend tournaments, but we do have some lovely trees and a few secluded spots tucked behind fences. What better for an impromptu picnic than sandwiches and ripe cherries? I got the victuals together while Chris finished his work for the day, egg salad sandwiches on rye, pickles, marinated mushrooms and of course, the cherries. I poured some French rosé I had on hand into a plastic jug and Chris grabbed a novella he’d been wanting to read and we trudged off for an afternoon of al fresco lunching.

And ahhhhhh, what a fantastic time it was. We have not been avid picnickers, but there was something about the breeze, the sun and the distant squirrels bounding about that made everything taste like a memory or a dream. I remembered cold lemonade on a hot day, sprinting after my friends in a game of canonball, irrepressible laughter. That’s how I feel about picnics.

I might as well include a recipe while I’m at it, although I don’t know why anyone would need a recipe for egg salad. It’s not something I eat all of the time,
because it’s packed with fat and cholesterol, but every now and then I get a craving for a good ol’ fashioned egg salad sandwich.

Classic Egg Salad for Two
3-4 eggs, hardboiled
2 Tbsp mayo of choice
1-2 tsp capers
1 tsp dill
2 tsp dry mustard
1 chopped green onion
pinch of celery salt
swish of pepper

Mash the egg with a fork and mix with remaining ingredients.
I made the sandwiches in the photos above with arugula and sliced tomatoes. They were ridiculously good.


I think Chris would agree, we need to go on more picnics.


The Chicago Dog

Can you believe I’ve lived in Chicago for nearly two years and have never managed to eat a Chicago dog?
It shouldn’t be a surprise to people who know me personally, but I’m not much of a meat fan.
Hotdogs especially make me suspicious. Aside from a brief period in my pre-kindergarten years when I enjoyed noshing on uncooked weiners straight from the package, I have largely managed to avoid most tube-shaped, processed meat products. You just never know what’s in those things.
Since I don’t have a natural appetite for hotdogs, I have never stood in a two hour line outside Hot Doug’s or gone for a late night, drunken, catcalling, weenie-fest at The Weiner’s Circle, nor have I ever grubbed at Chubby Weiner’s in Lincoln Square, a corner store bedecked with a giant, cartoon hotdog outside it’s entrance. I feel like I’m missing an essential Chicago experience.

Chicago loves hotdogs and it’s hard to blend in and pretend to be a true Chicagoan when you don’t partake.
So in the spirit of getting to know my new hometown a little better, I’ve decided to finally try out the Chicago dog, sans the actual dog.

But first, a little background: Chicago hotdog lore has the Chicago-style hotdog originating sometime during the Great Depression around the famous and now non-existent Maxwell Street Market. Nowadays, there are hotdog joints galore and a particularly cult-like following for the hometown favorite.

The ingredients, listed in topping order, are:
1. poppyseed bun
2. yellow mustard
3. two tomato wedges
4. a dill pickle spear
5. chopped white onions
6. pickled sport peppers
7. neon green sweet relish (which is somewhat difficult to find outside of Chicago)
8. a sprinkling of celery salt
9. Never, ever, ever ketchup

When it’s all said and done it should look a little something like this:

Technically, a Chicago dog is made with a Vienna beef hotdog, but the results are easy enough to replicate using a faux-dog. As a side note: my favorite brand of fake weenie is Lightlife Smartdogs, I find them eerily realistic in texture and flavor.

So what did I think of the famous Chicago dog?

Amazing!

Really. I grew up eating hotdogs with mustard and ketchup and maybe, if things got fancy, a little relish. Most of the time, we didn’t have buns and used a folded slice of bread, resulting in a soggy doggy mess. The Chicago dog is a revelation. With two, ripe tomato wedges, I honestly didn’t miss the ketchup and that’s saying something because I’m a ketchup fiend. I don’t really understand the aversion to ketchup in Chicago, it may have something to do with this particular type of hotdog pre-dating the corn syrup sweetened Heinz ketchup we all have come to love.
I had a hard time tracking down “sport peppers,” and I had to settle for pepperoncini instead. Why did it take me so long to put hot peppers on a hotdog? Genius!
Yes, Chicago gets props for it’s salad-dog, as I like to call it.

Just be careful and make sure you have a plate conveniently placed directly below the fist that’s stuffing the dog in your mouth, otherwise you’ll probably have to change your shirt.


Conjuring Spring

Cold and Rainy. That’s Chicago in April and it’s so not fair. I read that my old hometown Phoenix, Arizona was approaching its first 100 degree temp. I’m kind of jealous. Six months of unrelenting cold weather has practically broken my spirit. I just want a little bit of sunshine, the teeniest bit of warmth. It doesn’t help that my Chris is studying abroad in Germany for the next two months and will miss the season completely. Spring is on its way and I’ll just have to enjoy it by my lonesome.

There’s something about spring, isn’t there? It’s a time for return, a resurrection from the agonizingly long winter. Everything sparkles with the glow of new life as trees begin to bud and blossom and baby birds chirp from their nests. I’m bursting with excitement for the warm days ahead. I can’t wait for the fresh produce and farmers’ markets waiting around the corner. Until the sun starts shining, I’m going to have to settle for a little spring in the kitchen.

Citrus always reminds me warm weather. Just close your eyes and think about lemonade, sweet navel oranges, bright green limes. Oh, can’t you just feel the summer sun bristling against your skin? I am trying, really trying to get there in one piece. So here’s a pasta salad I made the other day, because pasta salad reminds me of picnics and picnics remind me of summer. I’m always amazed at the wonderful things that can be done with a single lemon, some olive oil and fresh herbs. I used orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, but really any pasta will do.

Lemon Basil Orzo Salad
1 cup of orzo pasta
Juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½-1 tsp sea salt
1 large clove garlic
2-3 sprigs of fresh basil
1 small tomato
1 tsp coarse ground black pepper
3-4 stalks of asparagus

In a quart size pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Add the orzo and cook for 5-7 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the orzo, it should be slightly al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water.

Cut the asparagus into quarters and blanch in boiling water for 1 min. You don’t want to boil the asparagus. Plunge into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. This will make the asparagus nice and crisp.

For the dressing: crush the garlic clove with the sea salt until there is a fine pulp. You can do this with the back of the knife, or use a mortar and pestle. In a small dish or bowl, add the lemon juice and continue crushing. Slowly add the olive oil while mixing.

Slice the fresh basil into strips and add to the dressing.

Chop the tomato into large chunks.

Mix all the ingredients and top with pepper. Serve on a bed of fresh spinach. (You can double the dressing recipe and dress the spinach for extra zing.)

I am convinced that by making this dish I am effectively expunging all traces of winter from my kitchen. This pasta salad will make the seasons finally change, the cold winds will blow far out over the sea, the heat will settle over my tiny corner of the city, and I will finally have a sunny day.
Let’s hope it works.