Sunday, August 29, 2010

An old-fashioned kind of girl

Friends are over for a meal on this summer afternoon, and we start with cocktails on the front porch. I guess you could say I'm an old-fashioned girl -  I like front porches and drinks served in Grandmother's cut glass tumblers.

It's a lucky thing I've planned ahead and have a jar of bourbon and fruit on its way to becoming Southern Succor. For six weeks, fresh peaches and lemon peel will soak in Kentucky bourbon, the infused mixture will then be strained and combined with simple syrup and aged for two more weeks. This ambrosia can be served in a myriad of ways - on its own, in cocktails, in grown-up ice cream desserts, or as a glaze for grilled meats.

  southern succor peaches

 Southern Succor
adapted from "American Home Cooking" by Cheryl & Bill Jamison

6 peaches, peeled and chopped into chunks

Zest and juice of one lemon

750 ml bourbon whiskey

2/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup water

1. In a large glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, place peaches, lemon zest and juice. Cover with whiskey, seal jar and place in refrigerator to steep for up to six weeks.

2. After six weeks, open jar and strain out the fruit and zest. Press lightly to get all the good stuff out, but not so much as to push the fruit into the liquid. Discard the fruit. Pour the liquid back into the jar.

3. In a saucepan, combine sugar and water and bring to a boil. When sugar dissolves, cool syrup to room temperature. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then cool to room temperature. Add the sugar syrup to the bourbon, return to the refrigerator and let age for another two weeks before using.

The peachy bourbon may be between steps 1 and 2, but is still delicious in an old-fashioned, the legendary first drink to be called a "cocktail." It's sweet and fruity, and just perfect for viewing the sunset from the front porch.

Joey's Old-Fashioned

Joey is a mixologist and philosopher and this is his version of an old-fashioned, with the exception of the lemon - he uses orange. Because he lives in the South, he'll sometimes finish the drink with tea instead of water.

In an old-fashioned glass (a short tumbler), place maraschino cherries, a wedge of lemon and a teaspoon of sugar. Muddle. Pour 2 ounces of peach whiskey, then a splash of water. Stir and garnish with lemon and cherry.

 drinks pitcher
Text & images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

old fashioned

Just a note on the top picture, found in my grandfather's photo albums. There are no identifying notes, but I love the picture, the way they're dressed -  his long legs and 28-inch waist, the flip of her skirt and the way her head leans into him. The kicker, though, are the feet - I have a spectacular weakness for spectator shoes - and the way they're crossed in opposite directions. I think of the couple as Gatsby and Daisy, which is appropriate for this story, since Daisy Buchanan was from Kentucky, home of some fine bourbon whiskey.

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Try this sausage and veggie sandwich

Ukrainian Sausage and Tomato Sandwich by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 My kids are crazy for this sandwich, a discovery made while researching a social studies project. We found the recipe in an internet search for Ukrainian cuisine and it's been requested again and again. This sausage sandwich is tasty and packs well for office brown-baggers and school lunches. It also features the surprising addition of sliced cucumbers for crunch instead of the usual iceberg lettuce. The original is served open face, but I like having a lid - consider it cook's choice.

Ukrainian Sandwich

1 pound turkey kielbasa, sliced

4 ounces cream cheese

2 ounces butter, softened

2 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

2 loaves soft French bread

1 cucumber, peeled and sliced thin on the bias

2 Roma tomatoes, sliced thin

1. In a skillet over medium heat, cook sausage slices until they are browned. Remove to a paper towel and drain.

2. In a bowl, mix together cream cheese, butter, minced garlic and salt and pepper to taste.

3. Split baguette in half and spread butter mixture evenly across each half. Layer sausage slices, cucumber and tomatoes then grind more black pepper across top. Place lid on sandwich and press firmly together. Wrap sandwich tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Slice before serving.

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Uptown Sweet Corn Soup

I'm a fan of all things summer and this year, all things corn. Corn fritters, corn cakes, Granddaddy's bacon fried corn, corn on the cob, roasted corn, need I go on? All have made an appearance in my kitchen this past month. Looking for a recipe for corn soup, a friend sent me a first-class recipe from Atlanta restaurant 4th and Swift. I cannot believe that it calls for 10 ears of corn - that is intensely cornular. I'm going to gather up all the CSA and farmer's market corn that I can find and make this amazing soup. 

4th and Swift’s Summer Sweet Corn Soup
with Lump Crab, Chives and Old Bay

10 ears of sweet yellow corn

1 Vidalia onion, peeled and finely diced

3 teaspoons vegetable oil

About 1 quart vegetable or chicken stock

1 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Garnish: lump crabmeat, fresh chives, creme fraiche, Old Bay seasoning

1. Remove corn kernels from cob and with the back of the knife, scrape the cobs to release the corn "cream." Discard the cob.

2. Bring a large sauce pan or frying pan to low to medium heat and add oil. Sauté the corn and onions  but do not allow to brown. Cook for four minutes.

3. Add half the stock and bring to a simmer. Turn off and let it cool down a bit.

4. Scoop most of the corn into a blender with a ladle and add more stock if too thick. Fill blender to below fill line, approximately half way. This may require two batches, depending on the size of your blender.

5. Add heavy cream, place the top on the blender and cover with a towel. Carefully pulse on low at first to get started safely, then puree at high speed until velvety smooth.

6. Strain soup, return to stove, bring to simmer and serve. Garnish with jumbo lump crab, fresh cut chives, a dollop of crème fraiche and a sprinkle of Old Bay seasoning. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Food Blogs 101

If you've harbored the notion of starting a food blog,or you may have a food blog that you want to take to the next level, then check out the Food Blog Forum coming to Atlanta September 11 at the Shed at Glenwood.

The day-long seminar will cover topics such as building a food blog business, food styling and food photography.The first part of the day will focus on the business of blogging, and the afternoon will focus on food styling and photography with live-shoot, according to its website.

Highlights will include:

Building a Personal Brand by Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen and cookbook author Virginia Willis.

Brands and Bloggers - How to effectively work with brands and navigate the FTC guidelines - James Andrews and Lauren Thomas, Everywhere, social media agency for Macy's Culinary Council.

Building a Dream Career - How do you design a food career of your dreams? Learn what stops most people from forging ahead and how to overcome. Scott Hair of Steamy Kitchen.

Working with Media Outlets Partnering and writing for media publications. John Kessler of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Blogging Business Strategies How to work with ad networks by Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen.
Plus food photography gear and hands-on practice with White on Rice Couple Todd Porter and Diane Cu.

Tickets are $120 for the forum. For more information, check out

Monday, August 23, 2010

Eat a Peach

Glass peach at the Atlanta Botanical Garden by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 In 1970, when I was a young girl in tri-colored Keds and slip-down pigtails, my family packed up the blue Chevy station wagon and moved from Texas to Gaffney, South Carolina. I think my parents first saw that ferrous red clay and thought they had come to the jumping-off point of the earth. They were both Southerners, but city folks - Dad from Birmingham and mom from genteel Nashville, they weren’t prepared for the Mayberryness of upstate South Carolina, but it grew on them, so much so that 30 years after we moved away, my mom still has her copy of the Gaffney phone book tucked away in her desk.

Gaffney had about 20,000 citizens then, living in communities with names like Grassy Pond, Macedonia and Corinth. We lived in a new neighborhood, Rutledge Acres, bordered by farms, just off the frontage road, in a brick ranch house on Westland Drive. A neighborhood with lots of kids who rode their bikes on the looping street that was ideal for an after-dinner stroll.

Gaffney is known for more than red clay - it’s in the Piedmont, the Italian phrase for "foot of the mountains," with climate and soil ideal for growing peaches. In my biased opinion, the best peaches in the world are grown there.

Growing up in Gaffney, Sunny Slope Orchards was the king of the peach business. On dusty summer evenings, my parents would load us kids into the station wagon for a trip to the peach shed to buy a crate of just-picked and processed tree-ripened peaches. To this day, I remember the hum of the machinery, the oppressive summer heat and the smell of just-washed peaches. Do you think that peach in the grocery store smells like heaven? Imagine a shed with thousands of peaches - unbelievable - the sweet aroma of the fruit was overwhelming.
An Italian family, the Caggiano's, owned Sunny Slope, (and still do, although the business is now consolidated in Bridgeton, N.J.). The vintage fruit label on the crate features a racing car with the script "V. Caggiano & Sons." I took a peach crate with this label with me to college:

  sunny slope

During peach season, we’d go to the Little Moo Dairy Barn - I’m not making the name up, it’s the ice cream shop of my childhood - and I’d order a Peach Parfait in a plastic cup with a removable bottom. Layers of soft-serve vanilla ice cream and juicy peach chunks, topped off with whipped cream and a cherry. If you wanted to save the last few bites of the ice cream, you could remove the bottom, put it on the top and prop the container in the freezer.

There was one other way to eat a peach, and every person should have this memory: standing barefoot on the front porch with a ripe peach in your hands, biting through the suedey skin to the soft flesh underneath, the juice forming rivulets down your arm and dripping on your toes. You know what you do, you reach your tongue out and lick that last little drop of your chin. Oh, that was good. One down, a bushel to go.

Peaches by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

To showcase just one recipe with peaches, I decided to go all Harvest Gold '70s and make a version of a company’s coming dish - Peach Pizza. It’s a sweet brioche base with sliced peaches, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and baked.

This is more of a breakfast or brunch treat than a dessert. The brioche is delicious, but if you’re not a baker, buy a package of puff pastry, roll out one piece, cut out a 10-inch circle, brush with melted butter, top with the sliced peaches, sugar and cinnamon and bake according to package directions. The result will be crisp and delicious.

peach pizza
Peach pizza by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 Peach Pizza

Yield: 4 Pizzas

1 cup whole milk, scalded

2/3 cup unsalted butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

3 eggs, beaten

1 package instant yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

6 cups flour

1/4 cup butter, melted

3 pounds peaches, peeled and thinly sliced

Sugar, for sprinkling

Cinnamon, for sprinkling

 1. To scald milk: Pour milk into pan and turn heat to medium. As the milk heats, look for a ring of bubbles around the perimeter. (Don't walk away from boiling milk - over-boiled milk is absoslutely the worst pot to clean.) If a skin forms, stir it into the milk. Remove from heat, add butter and let cool.

2. When the milk mixture cools to slightly warm, add sugar, yeast, salt and eggs.

3. Using a heavy-duty mixture, pour in milk mixture then add flour, 1 cup at a time, mixing until dough is soft, but not sticky.

4. Switch to a dough hook and knead dough for a couple of minutes. Remove dough from bowl, coat the interior of the bowl with oil, return the dough to the bowl, flipping the dough until it is well-coated. Cover with plastic wrap, set in a warm place and let rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

5. Punch down dough, knead a couple of times, then divide into four balls. Shape each ball into a round and place on lined baking sheets.

6. Preheat the oven to 350°. Brush melted butter over the dough and cover with peach slices. Brush more butter over the peaches and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes.

7. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or yogurt or whipped cream.
Text & images © 2010 Lucy Mercer.

The blown glass peach in the first photo is by the Cohn-Stone Studios on display through October at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

The recipe is adapted from

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Cook and Her Books First Ever Giveaway!

I'm partnering with online retailer for a giveaway to the loyal readers of A Cook and Her Books! Are you in the market for a Dutch oven or new knives or perhaps need a new cutting board? To enter, it's very simple, just click on have a look around, then return to this post and leave a comment about what you would buy if you won. One entrant will be chosen at random to receive a $40 gift card from CSN! Let me hear a big Woo-Hoo!

The contest will remain open for one week, through midnight, Saturday, August 28. One entry per person. I will email the winner with the happy news!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Flippin' for Flip Burger

Bread & butter pickles
Turkey burger in a lettuce wrap (above)
The Butcher's Cut

Flip Burger on Howell Mill Road takes the idea of a hamburger and flips it on its bun. The menu includes a Southern burger with fried steak and pimento cheese and green tomato ketchup - juicy and messy and wonderful. Other standouts - the turkey burger in a lettuce wrap a big, happy Atkins-friendly homage that doesn't look like health food. The Butcher's Cut featured onions, bleu cheese, red wine jam, and frisee. Really good - especially the red wine jam. House made bread and butter pickles are the kind your grandma would make for the state fair (if you had such a grandma) - crisp, sweet and sour. My tablemates also enjoyed appetizers of fried okra with sriracha ranch - the okra was sliced lengthwise and fried in a tempura batter. No grease to be found and absolutely delish. The French fries were memorable, especially so with the housemade ketchup and mayonnaise.

Flip is famous for milkshakes, but we were being girls and decided to pass on the shakes, but my next trip I plan to order the burnt marshmallow Nutella shake...and nothing else. Well, maybe some of those okra fries and a side of pickles. Mmmmmm.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Blueberries: Get 'em while you can

I love fresh Georgia blueberries. Tart and sweet, they're a perfect topping for a granola parfait or for eating out of hand or, for the ambitious, a blueberry pie. Here's a recipe from Chef Ricardo Ullio of Atlanta favorite Sotto Sotto, that teams fresh Georgia blueberries with arugula and almonds. A winning combination, especially for my friends with arugula in their CSA boxes.

 Rucola and Mirtilli Salad, from Sotto Sotto

Serves one

1 cup small-leaf arugula

1/4 cup ripe blueberries

1 tablespoon julienned almonds, toasted

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano

In a small bowl, toss together the arugula, blueberries, almonds, lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Combine gently. Serve on a small plate and blanket the salad with the shaved Parmigiano Reggiano.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Granddaddy's Cast-Iron Skillet Fried Corn

Corn by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

One of the distinctive characteristics of living in the New South, cookie-cutter suburban Atlanta, is that the Old South, the rural, hardscrabble life that James Agee and others wrote about is never far from view. Reminders can be as vivid as the tar paper shack I drive by on the carpool run - rusted refrigerators and livestock in the yard, enclosed with a barbed wire fence. Or it can be the cast iron skillet that I keep on my cooktop, ready to fry up a pan of corn the way my granddaddy did. Used to be every family had a cast iron skillet, just as dear and useful as a family bible.

I wish I could say that my seasoned cast iron skillet is an heirloom handed down through the generations.  The truth is, as a newlywed 20 years ago, I paid $20 bucks at Wal-Mart for a Lodge chicken fryer skillet - it's a little bit deeper than a standard skillet, seasoned to a midnight black patina. I keep it on the stovetop so it's handy for vegetable sautes, tomato gravy, pineapple upside-down cakes and biscuits. (I save chicken frying for my enamel cast iron Dutch oven - less splatter.) And fried corn. This is not deep-fried corn, just the Southern term for fresh corn cooked in bacon fat, thickened with flour and seasoned with cracked black pepper.

Now, my family loves roasted ears of corn on the cob and I've been known to turn out a corn salad or two, but if I'm going to write about what's true in my heart, I have to tell you that the best corn I ever ate and later learned to cook was the skillet fried corn turned out by my paternal grandfather in Alabama. I guess I can say that Granddaddy was an ornery old cuss - a grumpy old man who handed out Kennedy half dollars to his grandkids before settling in his recliner with a Bud in his hand, ready for an afternoon of Auburn football.

Well, that’s one memory, I do have another, better remembrance -  Granddaddy cooking fried corn in his cast iron skillet. Each summer the extended family would gather for a meal in the dining room of the house in Birmingham, grateful to escape the Alabama heat and ready for a feast. The oval, cherrywood dining table would be covered in a white linen cloth and loaded with the platters and bowls of Grandmother's bone china. The menu was  the same for each gathering - sliced ham, sliced tomatoes with mayonnaise, potato salad, devilled eggs (Hellmann's mayonnaise being something of a religion in my family), green beans cooked with ham, and Granddaddy's skillet fried corn. The corn, creamy white and rich with bacon fat, was pretty much my favorite thing on the plate. I remember once my mom asking Granddaddy how he made his fried corn and he smiled, actually smiled, and said you gotta use white corn, what folks called field corn, and a cast iron skillet.
corn in skillet
Corn and cast iron skillet by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

When I eat my granddaddy's skillet fried corn, I can’t help but think of the Gudger family in James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” - the sharecropper family in rural southern Alabama in 1936. Their house smelled of “corn and lard” and when I fix my own version of this dish, I remember the families whose lives depended on corn, for their livestock and themselves. My grandfather wasn’t a sharecropper, but he came from humble beginnings, and I guess he knew a thing or two about putting together a belly-filling meal on the fly.

skillet fried corn
Skillet-fried corn with bacon by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Skillet Fried Corn with Bacon
I make this in summer, and I try to use a variety of corn - yellow and white. Gardeners will tell you that Silver Queen is the best, so if you see it, be sure to bring it home.

4 slices bacon

6 ears corn, shucked

½ medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons flour

Water, about a cup, maybe more

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. In a cast iron skillet, fry bacon until crispy. There are two ways to accomplish this: 1. Messy: on stovetop, fry for about 20 minutes. 2. Not so messy: in 350° oven for about 25 minutes. When bacon is crispy, set bacon strips on paper towels to drain and pour bacon grease into metal container.

2. While bacon is cooking, prepare corn. Remove the corn from the cob thusly - hold cob upright and with a sharp knife held parallel to the cutting board, cut the kernels off one “side.” Place cob horizontally with the flat, cut side on the cutting board and slice off kernels, rotating cob. Do not discard cobs - you will use them in a minute.
corn cut
Cutting corn by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
3. Place skillet over medium heat and add two tablespoons bacon grease to pan. Add onion and saute until softened. Add flour and cook for a couple of minutes. Toss corn kernels in pan and saute. Take each cob and hold upright in the center of skillet. With the back of your knife, scrape the corn “cream” into the pan. Now you can discard the cobs. Stir.

4. Add water slowly to pan while you stir, until you get the desired consistency. I prefer thicker but some may like it thinner, like a chunky gravy.

5. Crumble bacon and stir into pot or top individual servings.

Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.
"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" is by James Agee with photographs by Walker Evans and published by Houghton Mifflin. It's a challenging read (at least for me), but if you love the South and the English language and compelling photography, it will reward.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Creamy Grits are a Satisfying Go-With

Creamy Grits by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 Let's be clear: I was born in the South, I live in the South, and I will love grits 'til my dying day. Growing up, quick white grits with a puddle of butter were a Sunday morning treat alongside scrambled eggs and bacon. My husband introduced me to his ritual of crumbling bacon into the grits for a salty, smoky crunch.

Before the girls came along, I would come home some nights, dead tired from work, put on jammies and fix a bowl of grits, sprinkle them with shredded Cheddar cheese and eat them in front of Thursday night's Must-See-TV. These days, I still turn out grits for breakfast, but I've expanded my options and use grits the way Italian cooks use polenta - as a foil for rich stews such as ratatouille.

Here's my recipe for creamy grits. You can use regular quick grits (never instant!), or the sunny yellow grits made by Dixie Lily.

Creamy grits

2 cups water

1 cup chicken broth

1 cup milk

1 cup grits

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cheddar cheese, cream cheese, butter and other goodies, p.r.n.

1. In a medium saucepan, preferably nonstick, combine all liquids and place over medium heat. Slowly whisk in grits. Bring to a simmer, whisking occasionally, and cook until the grits are smooth and free of lumps.

2. Stir in cheese, if using, and butter and seasonings. Serve with breakfast or as a base for ratatouille.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer's Best Stew: Ratatouille

Ratatouille and creamy grits by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I've returned to the kitchen, my source for solace in the late summer. The light through the window is changing, it's amber coming through at a different angle, backlighting the spider web on the porch.

Spider web by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

My soul seeks comfort food, but my warm house isn't quite ready for day-long braises and Dutch ovens bubbling over with stewed chicken and bready dumplings. Ratatouille, thick with chunks of eggplant swimming in fresh tomato, I've found, speaks to my soul and lets me walk away from the table without needing a starch-induced nap.

Eggplants by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

There are at least two approaches to preparing ratatouille: the one-pot method, where each item is chopped and added to the pan gradually. This yields a tasty, but homogeneous stew. My preferred method requires roasting some of the vegetables, namely the eggplant, to give some textural variety to the final product. My recipe is evolving, first with the boilerplate recipe in the "Gourmet Cookbook," now tweaked by Francis Lam’s primer on (previously published at It is, to use Lam’s phrase, so good you’ll want to punch a hole in the wall (but please, don’t, somebody‘s mother will have to fix that.)

Redneck Ratatouille
I tend use whatever quantities of these vegetables I have on hand, given the general guidelines in the recipe. I’ve used roasted Poblano peppers and assorted banana and chili peppers instead of or in addition to the bell peppers. Just be mindful of the heat factor when cooking with the spicy peppers.

2 medium eggplant, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces


1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

3 large onions, peeled, halved, each half cut into 4 wedges

2 medium zucchini, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces

2 medium yellow crookneck squash, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces

4 large tomatoes, cored and chopped

2 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)

2 bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces

A handful of fresh basil

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

1. Eggplant prep: follow this step only if you have the large globe eggplants which tend to be bitter. If cooking with the smaller Asian eggplants, proceed to the next step. Set up a colander over a larger bowl and place eggplant in colander. Pour out about a tablespoon of salt onto the eggplant and toss. Let eggplant drain for about 30 minutes.

2. In a large oven-proof pot, preferably one with a lid, pour in all but about 3 tablespoons of oil and turn heat to medium. Add garlic and onion and bring to a bubbling boil. Let cook for about 30 minutes while you prep the remaining ingredients. Don‘t walk away, because, you know, it‘s a pot of boiling oil.

3. Heat oven to 450 and get out a half-sheet pan or a large cast-iron skillet. Pour eggplant and squash and zucchini out onto the pan (you may need to do this in batches), pour remaining three tablespoons oil and some salt and pepper on the vegetables and set in oven to roast for about 30 minutes. You’re looking for a touch of caramelly brown on the edges of the veg, not blackened.

4. Ok, now we have a pot of boiling oil and alliums on the stove and a pan of roasting squash and aubergine in the oven. It’s time to turn your attention to the tomatoes. In a food processor, puree the tomatoes and peppers. Add to the onion and garlic oil and continue to cook for another 30 minutes. Optional: if using tomato paste, you can add it to the pot with the tomatoes and peppers.

5. When tomato/onion/garlic/oil mixture is a rich red color, add in roasted squash/zuke/eggplant. Taste mixture for seasoning, then add salt, pepper and basil.

6. Turn oven to 300 and set Dutch oven with stew inside. Let ratatouille cook for at least one hour, and several more if you can. Remove pot from oven and let cool.

I serve ratatouille at room temperature over a bowl of creamy grits. Other choices are pasta such as rigatoni, or couscous, or polenta.

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Food of the (Greek) Gods: Briami

Tomatoes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The conventional summertime cooking wisdom is to avoid heating the kitchen, instead creating salads and sandwiches that require little or no actual cooking, such as last week’s Salon Kitchen Challenge for light tomatoes. That approach leads to some fine eating, but every cook knows that the glorious tomatoes of summer sometimes need heat to turn them from nominal to nom nom phenomenal.

Enter briami, Greek roasted vegetables, a concoction of tomatoes, onions, zucchini and potatoes smothered in boo-koos of olive oil, garlic and herbs, then set in the oven to roast to umami-inducing perfection. With zukes and the sometimes addition of eggplant, this dish seems rather ratatouille-like. But that is a vegetable stew, best when the items are cooked separately then combined for a long oven braise. This dish is every bit as satisfying as ratatouille and easier to prepare - everything goes in the oven at the same time, heats up together and fills your abode with the intoxicating aroma of garlic and onion and herbs.

tomatoes zukes

On the hottest day of the year, when it's 100+ degrees in the shade of the mimosa and the briami is in the oven, my house smells like heaven - garlic, onion, tomato and basil heaven. The smell is divine, but the best part is (naturally) eating the roasty, toasty tomatoes and vegetables, Parmesan bits and herbs. The tomatoes roast and concentrate and mingle with the oil to create a kind of sauce for the other vegetables.

This dish has many fans and I think it’s because of the combination of potatoes and fresh tomatoes, taken interplanetary with melted cheese and herbs. I use basil, but you could also employ oregano and thyme, and other tomato-friendly herbs from the garden. I'm a fan of lovage, when I can find it, which some describe as having a celery kind of taste.

The recipe is adapted from my friend Evelyn who lives in Athens, Greece, and publishes her recipes at Recipezaar. She uses Greek cheeses like kefalograviera or myzithra, but recommends Parmesan as a substitute.

Briami by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Briami (Greek Roasted Vegetables)
 serves 4 as a side dish, two as a main 

4 medium tomatoes, diced into 1-inch pieces

2 zucchini, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces

1 medium onion, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces

3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces

½ head garlic, cloves smashed

2-ounce Parmesan cheese, cut into 1/2 inch chunks

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup water

Herbs such as basil, thyme, oregano and lovage, roughly chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 425º. Line an aluminum half-sheet pan with foil and spread out vegetables and chunks of cheese. Combine olive oil and water and herbs and then pour over all. Season with salt and pepper and toss until thoroughly coated. Place in oven and roast for at least an hour, stirring every so often, just to monitor that all is cooking evenly. Your house will smell unbelievably good at this point. If your windows are open, expect neighbors to drop by. Small children will ask what you're cooking and will probably beg a sample. Pets will be driven mad by the aroma of garlic.

The oil soaks up the flavorings and the water steams the vegetables. I served this over bow-tie pasta; couscous would be nice as well. If you must have protein, a white-fleshed fish simply prepared would be delicious, or maybe some leftover cold roast chicken or perhaps sausages on the grill.

Leftovers, should there be any, can be turned into breakfast (or lunch or supper) hash. Just chop the vegetables a bit, cook in some water in skillet (goodness knows, there should be enough oil left over). When it is warmed through, crack an egg or two into the bubbling mixture, cover and let fry until desired doneness. You will need to plow the lower 40 after such a meal, but it will be ever so worth it.

Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

This recipe is adapted from Evelyn/Athens Recipezaar.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ah, Sunflower

We planted sunflower seeds in the flower bed this spring. In the heat of the summer, when I walk by, William Blake's words come to mind.
"Ah! sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

"Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire;
Where my sunflower wishes to go."
Don't even get me started on the tiger exhibit at the zoo...

Sunday, August 1, 2010

True Love and Home-Grown Tomatoes

There's an old Guy Clark song about home-grown tomatoes that is stuck in my head.

"Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes,
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things that money can't buy -
That's true love & homegrown tomatoes."

Back when the world was young, I was a gardener and like many gardeners, I prayed for summer rains, juicy homegrown tomatoes and raised garden beds. A few years of vegetable gardening on my hands and knees, combined with successive drought years, cured me of these grand illusions and I got a CSA subscription instead. For those who don’t about a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription, it’s kind of like the best of the farmer’s market packed up just for you each week - including homely home-grown tomatoes - without all the work.

My biggest and best garden was the summer that I was expecting my first daughter and the nesting urge manifested in the garden - I planted 30 pepper plants, 60 tomato plants, countless cucumbers and zucchini, corn, green beans, pumpkins, watermelon. There was just one little problem - my due date was July 21, right at the height of harvest. When friends and family came to our house to visit the baby, we instructed them to go into the garden and take everything they wanted - ripe tomatoes - Big Boy, Better Boy, Green Zebra, cherry tomatoes, yellow pear tomatoes; cukes and zukes as big as Louisville Sluggers; bell peppers; jalapanos; scotch bonnets. Everything went somewhere else - as new parents, we were too discombobulated adjusting to a baby to deal with a vegetable garden, too.

In the intervening years, I've played around with a garden, but not too seriously. Until last year, Georgia was in a severe drought and growing vegetables with water restrictions wasn't really viable. This summer, I’m a gardener again. In a spot by the house that gets full sun and blistering heat, my husband built raised beds in a structure that he calls the Ultimate Garden Tub - three sections, each containing a tub filled with soil, and irrigation to boot. My husband is the kind of guy you can give a box of toothpicks to and he’ll create a scale replica of the Taj Mahal. In the spirit of the second part of the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” he took three Harvest Gold hexagonal concrete bathtubs and built a surround for them, adding irrigation and posts for a trellis (that's phase II).

ult garden tubb

The raised beds limit my seedling-shopping splurges, which is a good thing. Here are the tomato and pepper plants - we’re looking at another few weeks ‘til harvest.

tub garden

One of the glories of summer tomatoes, homegrown or farmer's market, is using the fruit in a light tomato pasta. Chopped beefsteak tomatoes, creamy Fontina cheese and basil from the herb bed are tossed with warm pasta. One pot and one bowl, light cooking and housekeeping.

sauce before pasta
Spaghetti with Summer Sauce
I adapted this recipe from a clipping from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the summer of 1995, three years before the summer of Laura. I know the year because of the Alka-Seltzer coupon on the back that expired 7-16-95. I used three beefsteak tomatoes in this recipe - they totaled 2 1/4 pounds. 

3 large, ripe tomatoes, cut into rough chunks
8 ounces fontina, cubed
½ cup rough-chopped basil, plus more for garnish
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound spaghetti
1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. In a large shallow bowl, combine the tomatoes, fontina, basil, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Put this together an hour before you plan to eat and set aside at room temperature.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta 8 to 10 minutes, until al dente. Drain the pasta and toss with the sauce. Season with salt, pepper, red wine vinegar and additional basil. Serve at once, sprinkled with grated Parmesan cheese.

summer spaghetti

Text and images © Lucy Mercer, 2010, unless otherwise noted.
Video via Youtube.

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