Saturday, July 16, 2011

Something Green

It's been in the mid to high 90s almost all week. My apartment is cool but it's still too hot to feel like cooking. I don't want anything remotely heavy. I don't even want mayonnaise on my sandwiches. I have very little interest in eating meat or even eggs. I barely recognize myself.

While I don't know what is wrong with summer food Lucy (no eggs?!), I do know that all she wants to eat is salads. Crisp vinegary dressings. A light hand with the olive oil (if not the butter - never). Wine with ice. A very, very cold gin and tonic. And vegetables, vegetables, vegetables.

Here are three salads that I've made this week. Two are cold and one is also good warm. All are good for hot days. And don't worry, I won't be this salubrious forever. Summer has to end, and anyway I had an omelet for lunch today.

Green salad with goat cheese

This is my standard salad that I make all the time so I haven't bothered to photograph it. I sometimes add chicken that I've cut into cubes and sauteed in olive oil and cumin. This is a great addition and makes the cheese go all melty, but it's not essential. Adding the cheese and/or chicken ups it from side dish to potential dinner.

The Whole Foods on P Street has incredible rolled goat cheese with oil and herbs. It is obviously from goats who have subsisted on nothing but organic heirloom vegetables and champagne while frolicking in fields with views of lakes. It's basically goat cheese crack. If you can get something similar, be sure to use the herbs and oil from the cheese in your dressing, because they are like crack too. In any case, don't buy the ready packaged goat cheese crumbles. They are just not the same. Get real cheese and cut it up.

This is just a matter of cutting veggies and putting them in a bowl, then tossing with dressing. Here's what I use:

Lettuce blend of your choice
Ripe avocado
Goat cheese cut into bits

A few tablespoons good olive oil (supplement the oil the cheese was packed in)
About 1/4 as much good white wine vinegar (I don't like dark balsamic in general and I think it might be too harsh for this salad, but go ahead if you like it. White balsamic is great, though - in this and every context)
About 1 teaspoon dijon mustard

I didn't make big salads for the longest time because it's so difficult to make a salad for one person. Most vegetables are just too big, and even using only one of each kind makes more than I want. Also, leftover salad that gets soggy with dressing is really unappetizing. The obvious solution is to only dress as much as you're going to eat at one time, but it's kind of hard to dress an individual portion of salad (I hate dressing that's just dribbled over the top and not mixed in).

My solution is that I'll make a big salad, then put just as much as I want for dinner in a bowl. When I dress it, I toss it with my hands. It's easier to control in a small bowl than salad tongs, and if your hands are clean and you're the one eating there's really no reason not to. Plus, it's fun! Then you can save the rest of the salad for lunch the next day and dress it right before you eat it.

Baby Artichokes and Pasta 

I love chokes. Whole wheat pasta is great here, and Michael Pollan told me to eat it. Actually, all these salads are pretty Michael Pollan-approved.

4-5 baby artichokes
2-4 garlic cloves
Whole wheat pasta
1/2 tablespoon butter
Olive oil
White wine
Crushed red pepper
Parmesan cheese

1. Peel off the outside leaves from the baby artichokes and cut off the stems and tips of the leaves. Peel off more than you think you should or they will still be spiky. Cut lengthways into fourths.
2. Heat the olive oil and butter in a pan and add the baby chokes and some white wine. Sautee on medium heat until soft, adding more wine if necessary. Salt to taste and add crushed red pepper flakes.
3. Meanwhile, cook the pasta. When both are finished and chokes are soft, mix together. Top with parmesan. Eat cold or warm.

Addendum: I used the rest of my baby chokes a few nights later, sautéing them the same way but eating them with quinoa. I cut them width-wise rather than length wise, and it was way better! Less chance of chewy leaves when they're in little rounds and strips. 

Green Bean and Potato Yoghurt Salad

This I completely made up. I love potato salad and mayonnaise is awesome but it was just too heavy for this weather. I also love tzatziki and raita and really any yoghurty sauce - this version is one I make for salmon but I eat it with anything (the tzatziki version has garlic and lemon juice, the raita version has no dill and instead cumin.) When I was falling asleep the other night I realized that it could be a great binder for a potato salad as well, and much healthier than the traditional mayo.

I actually started thinking about this recipe when pondering some green beans I needed to use and deciding what to eat with them. It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to cook the potatoes. I've had this yoghurt sauce with latkes before and it's one of my favorite combos, but although I cook my latkes with very little fat, the egg and bread crumbs still up the heaviness more than I wanted. I decided to roast the potatoes in olive oil and salt, and threw a few garlic cloves into the pan. The potatoes still stuck too the pan too much, and I'm not sure why, but they tasted good.

Green beans
One large potato
2 garlic cloves
Olive oil
About 1/2 cup plain yoghurt
1/2 cucumber, peeled
A few tablespoons chopped dill
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 400. Chop the potato into approximately 1" cubes. Oil a roasting pan and toss in the potatoes and garlic cloves. Salt. Roast, stirring occasionally, until they brown, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
2. Trim green beans and cut to 2". Steam and set aside to cool.
3. Finely chop or cuisinart cucumber and dill. Add yoghurt and vinegar, and salt to taste.
4. Mix all ingredients together in a big bowl, squeezing in the soft roasted garlic as well.

This was my breakfast this morning. Winning! 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Feed a Cold. Keep Feeding.

I went up to my parents' house for the Fourth of July weekend and came back down with a cold that rendered my mom and dad both mildly inconvenienced and seems to have completely incapacitated me. I stayed home from work on Wednesday and came home early on Thursday because I hadn't had any Sudafed and I found that I couldn't read. Then I feel very deeply asleep and was woken up my my now-recurring nightmare, people knocking on my door very loudly to show my apartment when I'm sleeping.

Anyway I was a little burned out and then a lot sick so I've been lying on my couch and watching TV this week instead of cooking and posting. I'm going to try to get this post in before the Sudafed kicks in and I become illiterate again. That's right, it works both ways. 

I don't know what comfort food is to you, but for me it fits into two categories: 1. Things that are warm, carbohydratey, and cheesy and 2. Things I eat on holidays. The first category includes macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches. The second category includes turkey, stuffing, fajita night and potato latkes. 

I should explain about my holidays. 

In the beginning, little ones, there was still some semblance of Christian tradition in my family Christmas. We left cookies out for Santa and the reindeer, we put a star on top of the tree. A few times in Botswana I mercilessly directed a ridiculous nativity scene that served no purpose except to allow me to tell other people what to do. Baby Jesus was played by my stuffed pig. It didn't last long, though. By the time my sister and I were in junior high, we all stuffed each other's stockings, and the star on the top of the tree had been replaced by some sort of bird. Half the time we were in Botswana and just stuck a tree branch in a buffalo skull that we spray painted (it sounds a lot more heavy metal than it was). We always make fajitas for Christmas Eve dinner, and we spend almost all Christmas day cooking. It's a good tradition. 

The other tradition was one I started by myself, and for this, little ones, we must return again to the early days of elementary school. During December when I was in first grade, one of the class parents came in to teach us all about Hanukkah. It was supposed to be educational and teach us about other cultures. Honestly, I don't know why they bothered since I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and every other kid in my class was Jewish, but that's what they did. Anyway, we discussed the festival of lights, we played the spinny top game, we sang that song about the spinny top that I WILL NOT type because I'm on too many drugs to have that crap stuck in my head, and we ate those theoretically chocolate coins. And then they gave us pencil erasers shaped like menorahs* and then - THEN - they brought out the latkes.

This was in the stage of my life when I thought I didn't like potatoes (I know), but the latkes were like a glorious dream come true. Oniony, salty, crispy at the edges, they were like what French fries dreamed they would someday become. Plus, they served them with sour cream. I could die in a large pile of sour cream. If I hadn't been so attached to the bird on top of my Christmas tree and if the spinny top song had been a little less annoying (don't say the word), I'm pretty sure I would have converted. 

Anyway the point of this convoluted personal history is that by the time I reached 'adulthood' I was less (which is to say, not at all) invested in the spiritual aspect of holidays but fully dedicated to the family, tradition and food aspects of holidays. For years I begged my friend Dan, who was there that fateful day in first grade, to teach me how to make latkes. I NEEDED them. Then on the first night of Hanukkah this year, I realized that a) I wasn't living in a dorm and was, for the first tine, allowed to have candles and b) it was time to do something about the latke deficiency in my life. I grated some potatoes, mixed some stuff together, threw some butter in a pan, lit my candles, and called all my Jewish friends to wish them a happy holiday. 

So I celebrate Hanukkah now. I fully plan to confuse the shit out of my future children and/or in-laws. 

The great thing about not observing any of the actual religion aspects of holidays, though, is that I can make up whatever I want to go with them. Brisket for passover? Sure, pass the bread! Goat for Ramadan, without all the fasting nonsense!** Once I even cooked my latkes in bacon fat, and ate them with cucumber-dill-yoghurt sauce

It also means I can make latkes in the middle of July because I have a cold and they are delicious, and because I have figured out the laziest way ever to make latkes that are still awesome. Basically I'll just make one giant pancake in the pan, sort of like a hash brown hybrid, and cut it in half.*** Dinner, DONE. 

Instead of messing around with a cheese grater, I use my baby cuisinart. I grind up one potato (don't bother peeling it, we're lazy, remember?) and part of an onion and plop it in some cheesecloth in a bowl. Then I squeeze out some of the juice, and mix in bread crumbs, salt and egg. Then I dump it in a hot pan with some butter and flatten it out. Latkes get a bad rap for being unhealthy, but I don't use that much butter and I've never had a problem with it sticking. Then you're just eating potato, egg, and a bit of bread - and what's so bad about that? Especially if you cut it in half.***

Pay attention, because my flipping technique is not for the faint of heart. By this I mean it's easy enough to do that you can handle it even if you're hyped up on Sudafed. Just in case here are handy instructions and diagrams. 

First, put all the potato mixture in the hot pan and squash it out to fill the pan. Cook on medium heat browned on one side - you can go by smell or by lifting up one corner. 

Slide a plate on top of the pan and put your hand on top of it. Carefully invert the pan. 

Slide the pancake back into the hot pan and re-squash it. 

Repeat as necessary until browned on both sides.

I still can't breathe through my nose, but I'm now in enough of a cold and food coma that I'm incapable of proofreading what I've just written. It will have to wait until tomorrow. 

*I remember this because I decided to see if pencil erasers worked on the blackboard. I knew they weren't supposed to, it was an experiment. Anyway the parent who did the presentation took me aside to explain to me that they weren't used for that, and I told her I knew that, and she gave me that look like, sure you did. 
**Totally doing that this year. 
***Eat the whole thing. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Beef Redemption

When I got back from work on Thursday the meat vapor smell was out of my apartment. I skimmed the top of the beef stock (which still smelled kind of gross to me), set aside some for the beouf, and put the rest in ice cube trays.

There isn't much to say about this boeuf borguingnon recipe except that it's easy and always works. It's fragrant and subtle, and a winter dish that you can make in the summer. It's not as heavy as it seems. I had a great time making pasta and sauce and pizza and ravioli a few weekends ago, but by the end I was done. I love you, Italy, but we need to take a break. My cooking heart belongs always and forever to France.

Here is what you do:

1. Preheat oven to 425. Cut up an onion into largish slices (my mother uses pearl onions but I like it better with slices). Also slice 4-6 brown mushrooms.

2. Cut about a pound of chuck into cubes. It has to be chuck, which is fatty enough to almost dissolve in the sauce while you cook it slowly.

3. Brown the chuck in bacon fat and olive oil in a large casserole. You can use butter if you want, but it's easy to reserve bacon fat: every time you make bacon, pour the fat off into a can or other container and stick it in the freezer. See? Easy. Then you can gouge bits out with a knife when you need to use it.

4. When the meat is browned, dust it with about 2 tablespoons of flour and put it, uncovered, in the oven for about 8 minutes, stirring halfway through. Remove and reduce heat to 325.

5. Got that? Reduce heat to 325. I only put this step in because that is exactly what my mother did the first time she gave me this recipe. Thanks Mum.

6. Add salt, pepper, and some thyme, and cover with a mixture of beef stock and red wine. Cover the casserole and put it back in the oven. Reserve some wine for yourself. Go watch something trashy.

7. The beef will cook for about two hours, which will make your whole house smell awesome and not like damp cow, but scented, winey, delicious cow. In the meantime, saute the rest of the onions and mushrooms in a bit of butter and olive oil until soft. Add them to the borguignon just before serving. They will kind of melt into the sauce and be delicious, though maybe not the most photogenic.  Usually I have it with pasta, but that was a lot to take on for a weeknight.

I'm not going to lie and say that I noticed the difference when it was made with home made beef stock. I am not going to really lie and tell you that it's totally worth making your own beef stock if you have no ventilation. I also noticed no difference with homemade chicken stock, though I know I really should. June is over now, and I will probably go back to buying stocks in juice boxes, and bread (though I am going to reattempt that soon) and pasta. That's okay. The experiment has served its purpose: good food, new challenges, and exploration.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Meat Vapor (or, I WANT AN EXHAUST FAN)

It’s almost the end of June, and I’ve kept my rules pretty well. I broke them when I went to San Francisco, once or twice when there was free food, once when I forgot my lunch at work, and once when I had a crappy day and ordered takeout because I realized that EVERYTHING would be instantly better if I had lo mein (this turned out to be true). Otherwise I was good.

I know this sounds like a lot of cheating, but actually it was pretty challenging. No running downstairs for lunch, which meant no failing to plan ahead. No throwing in pasta with vegetables when I hadn’t shopped. No getting hungry at work and stopping for a granola bar. Only when I was severely hypoglycemic did I permit myself to get a snack that I hadn’t made – and although I get hypoglycemic pretty often I only had to resort to this once. Plus, I learned a lot. By taking a step back from the things that I habitually cook, I started that much closer to the real origin of the ingredients.

There is one very important thing, though, that I haven’t attempted. My mother makes the best boeuf bourguignon ever, and I make it all the time. It is my comfort food. But it requires beef stock. I knew that if this was to be a real experiment in making everything that I usually make from scratch, I needed to make beef stock, and for this I needed bones. So on Tuesday I turned the opposite way down Massachusetts Avenue and headed to Eastern Market.

Here’s the thing about chickens and cows: cows are bigger. I made chicken stock out of a whole chicken, but the cow legs they had at Eastern Market were the size of clubs. The guy behind the counter was deaf and crabby but when I very timidly asked if he had any that might fit in a stock pot he cut one up for me with a very large whirring contraption that I didn’t really want to look at (still afraid of my mandoline). I headed home with some veggies and my soup bones.

The Joy of Cooking had a recipe for browned beef stock, where you first roasted the bones with some onions then boiled them. This sounded good, and it only needed to simmer for 30 minutes. I figured I would roast them, then go up to my sister’s for dinner, then come down and boil. I threw them in the oven and took a shower, then read the rest of the recipe. It said to boil for the 30 minutes, add lots of veggies, and boil for 6 to 8 hours.

I feel like I do this a lot.

I threw the roasted-ish bones in the fridge and decided to deal with them on Wednesday.

I figured it out when I got home today. The next recipe (for slackers' beef stock) said that you should boil the unroasted bones for about two hours with various vegetables. The vegetables included tomatoes, which surprised me a bit but then made sense when I thought about it more. I didn’t have tomatoes but I threw in whatever I did have and ignored the rest, which means I put the bones in a pot with an onion, herbs, salt and pepper, and water, set to simmer, and periodically skimmed off the foam forming on top. Things were going well. I did laundry.

About an hour and a half later I went downstairs to get my laundry out of the dryer. Now, I know I mentioned that I don’t like raw chicken, but I have absolutely no problem with raw beef. I love beef. I love steaks and I love the way beef smells when it’s cooking. However, making stock from giant cow leg bones does not smell like the beef cooking that I know. It smelled like boiled, dead, damp cow. Which, of course, it is. However, much like the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water, I had not noticed the smell until I walked in after getting my laundry. When I entered the apartment it was like someone had hit me full in the face with a piece of boiled, dead, damp cow. It was steamy. Steamy with meat vapor, and it hit me right in the back of the throat.

It was late, and I had a very long day. “I HAVE TO MAKE THE MEAT GO AWAY,” I said very loudly to no one in particular.

I strained the beef through cheesecloth into a mixing bowl. This was unpleasant and intensified the dead damp cow smell. I threw away the bones. I put the mixing bowl in the fridge. I washed all the dishes, the counter, and the floor (don’t ask). I took out the trash. Then I opened the windows onto the damp, non-meaty DC night and positioned my fan in the living room facing outward so that it could pump the meat vapor outside.

Right now I’m just really hoping this goes away before I try to sell some of my furniture, or wear some of my clothing. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

Lazy Weekend Soup

Sometimes when I take on cooking projects they go nonstop until I'm tired and cranky and covered in flour or something. Sometimes they take shape slowly over the course of a weekend. This weekend was like that, and I will illustrate it here.


10:22: I am very, very deeply asleep and involved in a complicated dream with multiple plot lines when someone knocks loudly on my door to show my apartment. Oops. Moving on. Made eggs and bacon and a shopping list before starting the Quest for Local Tomatoes.

12:30: Arrived at 14th and U farmers' market. No tomatoes. Hopped on metro.

1:15: OMG it's the Eastern Market flea market day! I'll just wander for a few minutes.

2:30: Okay I'm back. Looking for tomatoes now. Found a monster one! Passed it by in favor of smaller ones that will roast in the same amount of time. Also got rosemary, basil, wine, radishes, blueberries, and some pottery. 

3:00: Back at apartment. Time to roast the tomatoes and do something about the fact that my apartment is filthy. Watch TV.

3:44 (sitcom episodes are 22 minutes only and therefore fit very well into the breaks you should always work in for yourself every weekend): Sliced tomatoes and crowded them into pan with unpeeled garlic, olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt. Put in oven. I also hung the herbs from my kitchen island so they could dry like they do in real people's kitchens. 

4:00: I should really clean my bathroom.

4:22: Actually cleaned bathroom.

4:45: Tomatoes are done! Left them out to cool. Took another break.

6:00: Sauteed herbs in olive oil to make herb oil.

6:15: My sister came down to visit! Had cocktails. Ate ALL the blueberries. The tomatoes were cool and the skins peeled off really easily. Squirting the roast garlic out of the skins is one of the best things ever and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

At this point, it's totally okay if you get distracted and leave the tomatoes in their pot overnight. 


10:09: I should really get up. Omelet. 

11:30: Pureed tomatoes. The recipe I was using didn't tell me to puree them until they were smooth but I like smooth tomato soup so I did. The next step was adding cream, but I don't have room in my fridge for my big stock pot and I didn't want to leave something with cream in it out all day so I didn't do that yet. 

11:45: Cleaned kitchen. Left all kitchen contents on floor while counters dried.

12:45: Gym and grocery run. You see, normal-people activities can also fit into weekend cooking projects. 

3:00: Returned. Put kitchen back together. Made bread dough. I wasn't able to incorporate quite all the flour into this. The dough is supposed to be sticky, so every time I kneaded it to stickyness I added a bit more flour and worked it in. Then I left the dough to rise in the bathroom (warmest place in my apartment). Then I took another break.

3:30: Dusted, vacuumed, mopped, showered. This only took about an hour.

5:45: Reformed bread dough into loafish shape and set to rise again.

6:00: Brad came over for dinner! Bearing tonic water. Cocktails. We baked the bread into a nice little round that looked nothing like the picture. I brushed it with my herb oil from the day before. When it baked it just had a sort of dimple in the middle instead of a doughnut kind of hole, but that was okay. It wasn't nearly as fluffy as I thought it should be but Brad thought the fluffiness was acceptable. 

When the tomato soup was simmering I added the cream, salted to taste, and kept it warm until the bread was ready. This is what it looked like:

We still don't know what the Uzbeks eat with their bread. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bread: A Love Story

I think I mentioned earlier that the last time I tried to make bread it turned out fairly brick-like. I ate it toasted with lots and lots of butter but David told me it tasted like cardboard. I don't know about this because to me it tasted like butter. 

It was really pretty shitty bread, though, and I haven't tried again. Thus the last few weeks have been hard for me because bread is one of the best things in the world. I think I could give up rice and pasta if I had to, but I don't think I could ever give up bread. Every weekend lunch at my parents' house consists of country bread or baguettes and an array of cheeses, pate, fruit, and whatever leftovers we have around. When I was little my dad would pull over next to the French bakery near my house, hand me exact change, and instruct me to go inside and say, "One baguette, please," to the girl at the counter. For some reason I was incredibly afraid of getting it wrong so I would never say anything else but those exact words with the exact inflection. Every week I stood at the counter saying "One baguette, please" like some sort of weird French parrot.

I love pita bread and tortillas and those fun little breakfast pastries from all those different places in Europe and ohhh I loooove naan. You can add anything you want to bread. Olive bread and rosemary bread are the best kinds but really the possibilities are endless. You can make garlic bread or sweet bread or seed bread, and you can eat it warm with the little swirls of steam coming from it, and then you can make TOAST. 

I think it's really interesting that every culture has some sort of bread, mostly because the idea of bread is so unintuitive to me. Who was the first guy who said, "Hey, let's take this fungus and put it in our food and then the food will be all light and puffy"? Honestly, he kind of sounds like a dumbass. When I was a kid someone told me that yeast were little animals that made the bread rise. I was an almost absurdly logical child and I don't know if anything has ever confused me so much (except maybe the line in Elton John's 'Crocodile Rock' when he says he was "dreaming of my Chevy and my aubergines." THAT messed me up for a while.) I don't know if I would have been less confused if whoever it was had told me that yeast were fungi or if it was just a conceptual problem with the idea of making bread, but I do know that this was a significant flaw in the story. Yeast are not animals, and confusing animals with fungi is kind of disturbing in a creationist sort of way. Even at a young age I think I would have been skeptical if someone told me mushrooms were animals.

In any case, though, my bread-making history hadn't been great, and this weekend I was determined to try again. A coworker recommended Tartine Bread as a good book about how to make bread, so I googled it.* Martha Stewart had posted this recipe.** The key to good bread, it says, is getting your 'starter' going and then 'feeding' it (here we are back in the yeast-are-animals camp again) for three weeks. If you're REALLY impatient, you can start after five days.

What the fuck, Martha.

I had wanted to make my bread this weekend so I decided this afternoon that I would just run the starter for two days to see how it worked out. I invited my friend Brad over for dinner on Sunday and told him we could always order a pizza.

When I got home I re-read the recipe. Yeast -  the fungi or animal variety - wasn't even an ingredient! Then I remembered that I have read about these starters. You let them sit for weeks while the flour pulls yeast and other things from the air to make the bread rise. Each region can have a specific taste. It's actually pretty cool, and why San Francisco is known for its sourdough. Apparently the air in the Bay Area has a particular concentration of sourdough flavors. 

But I realized that I live in a hermetically sealed (at least in the summer) apartment and, even if I didn't, the starter definitely takes longer than forty-eight hours. I needed a new recipe. Still shy from my cardboard bread experience, I googled 'fluffy whole wheat loaf' and came up with a lot of recipe sites I don't trust. I added 'Food52' (which I trust) to the search and found this recipe for Tashkent Non, an doughnut shaped Uzbek bread.

Nice whole grains? Check.
Fluffy looking? Check.
Randomly ethnic? CHECK.

Problem: 9:00 on Friday night (yeah, I'm too tired to go out) and I wanted the Uzbek bread NOW. 

I know how this story ends. I decide I'll make whatever it is even though I don't have time, and then it will be 1 AM and I'll be all GODDAMNIT MARK BITTMAN with granola all over my kitchen

This is why this is only a planning post and not an actual cooking post: personal growth. Stay tuned for Uzbek bread and tomato soup this weekend. 

P.S. I'm nervous about doing it in my apartment in the middle of a city, but I am going to try the starter thing this summer, probably at my parents' house (surprise, Mum and Dad!). Make me do it if I forget. 

* I don't post recipes directly from the books I own because I don't think it's fair, but if I don't have a book I will search to see if anyone else has posted something from it before I buy it. Often people publish things with permission, or it's on google books, or I can't afford new cookbooks
** She says she has permission but we all know Martha's a little shaky on the ethics. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thinking about Food

When I cook I rarely measure and I almost always modify, but I usually do, in the basic sense, follow recipes. I pretend I'm at a point where I can just throw ingredients together into something amazing, but I'm not quite. Food52 messes with me a little because I desperately want to win one of their recipe contests but the recipes have to be original. This is harder for me. The things that I 'make up' are usually pretty similar to the recipes that I've read in a book or a blog or something by my BFFs forever at The New York Times dining section. The contests are a good reason to get out of my comfort zone.

The rare times that I do completely make things up usually start with a craving for a region or an ingredient. Sometimes it takes me a long time to place what it is I'm in the mood for. Sometimes I just walk around the supermarket or farmers' market and think about what tastes good and looks good and reminds me of what I want to eat, or where I would like to be. Walking to or from work, when I'm not wondering what trashy TV I'm going to watch that night, thinking something like, "Wow, it's easy to get to work when I actually leave my house on time," or pondering how great life will be when I have my own band, I'm contemplating how this cheese will go with those vegetables, what herbs I would use if I were in Provence, or whether I have enough cumin at home for chicken masala (I never have enough cumin at home).

This week Food52's contest was to make a picnic food. I wanted to make a tart, sort of based on my recent experiences with Gruyere and tomato tarts and the big kale and sausage one. I wanted a French vibe, but I liked the creaminess that ricotta added to the kale tart, and I had some left over. I was also thinking about pesto and how happy basil and tomatoes are together. I thought about these combinations all through my bus ride back from the airport on Monday and in my cubicle on Tuesday, and by the time I went to the store after work I had formed a vague plan.

I was picking out salad greens when I saw the tomatoes. They were conventionally grown, and from Maine, but they practically glowed in the store. When I approached them I could smell them. I have been waiting all summer for tomatoes I can smell. I bought about ten, feeling slightly guilty about the distance they traveled. But there are a lot of wonderful smells in the world in front of which I am powerless (roses, hardware stores, libraries) and fresh tomatoes are one of them.

I cuisinarted basil and Gruyere into crumbs and mixed them with ricotta and an egg. After I blind baked the tart shell I layered tomato slices, then cheese mixture, then more tomatoes. The basil and cheese mixture was so bright green.

I think next time I would add more Gruyere, and toast the pine nuts on top. But it was pretty damn good. You can see the whole recipe here. I'll be eating it for lunch all week.