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Orangette turns one

It all started a year ago today. I tiptoed out onto a big, black screen and tossed up a few tentative words, and 365 days, 121 posts, 1 digital camera, a crowd of faces and names, tons of trial and error, and one birthday spiff-up later, here we are. I’d spare us all the “You’ve come a long way, baby,” but really, we have come a long way, baby. For such a little blog, Orangette has been an enormous adventure.

And it would have been a very lonely, bland one without you, dear reader, and your enthusiasm, support, and—most importantly—hunger.

Thank you for coming along with me.


On reliables, rituals, and a warm corn salad

For the restless kitchen-dweller or market maven, a calendar is redundant: we tell time by flora and fauna. Each season has its reliables, its rituals: a bowl of rhubarb crumble for March, roasted asparagus for April, paunchy strawberries in May, baby lettuces in June, July’s fuzzy peaches and dusty plums, August’s homely heirloom tomatoes, October’s abundant pumpkin bread, squat sweet-potato biscuits for November, deep red Dungeness crabs in December. If left to my own devices, I’d chart the progress of the year by food alone: it’s not winter unless I’ve braised a head of cabbage; spring waits for the first English pea; and summer hasn’t really begun until I’ve felt the delicious annoyance of a corn kernel wedged between my teeth. For those of you keeping track, this last detail means that my calendar is running, oh, say, five weeks behind.

Summer snapped me to attention only last weekend—a mere forty fiery sunsets and many bare-armed afternoons after what most consider its official onset—when a tub full of just-gathered bicolor corn materialized at my favorite stand in the University District Farmers’ Market, Willie Green’s Organic Farm.

Fortunately, I’m of the school that prefers lateness to neverness. It didn’t hurt that I had a barbeque on the evening’s schedule, a handful of radishes burning a hole in my crisper drawer, a basket of flawless green beans at my elbow, and a bunch of thyme at the next stand over, but suddenly everything screamed summer—and warm corn salad with green beans, radishes, and fresh thyme.

We all have repast-related rituals to seal the season, whether it’s the first flame-grilled hamburger in the backyard; a free-form dinner of avocado, Asian pear, and Prosecco on a Manhattan rooftop; my father’s trademark potato salad in its usual red Tupperware; or my mother’s blueberry-raspberry pound cake. For me, it’s warm corn salad. I first tasted this recipe one summer at the home of a woman whose name I can no longer remember, but its flavors—simple, sweet, and earthy, laced with lime—are hard to forget, even deep into winter, when the only corn available makes a better ice-pack than meal. This is a recipe with a finite deadline, tailor-made for the time when corn is fresh and tender enough to need only the gentlest cooking, or none at all, and when green beans are slim but meaty, radishes small and mild. Delicious with almost anything, from grilled beef on down the line, it’s also substantial enough to stand alone, although surely no one would turn down a ripe tomato on the side, or a hunk of cheese and some bread.

If left to my own devices, I might stall the calendar at corn salad. The rituals of the rest of the year can wait—at least a month or two.

Warm Corn Salad with Green Beans, Radishes, and Fresh Thyme
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living

6 ears corn (about 6 cups kernels)
½ lb green beans, trimmed
2 Tbs olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
1 Tbs fresh thyme leaves
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Juice of 2 fresh limes
1 bunch red radishes, thinly sliced

Using a large chef’s knife, cut the kernels from the corn into a medium bowl; set aside. Place a medium saucepan filled with 4 cups salted water over medium-high heat, and bring it to a boil. Place the green beans in the boiling water, and cook them until their color changes from light green to a deeper, darker green, about 2 minutes. Drain them, and rinse them under cold water until cool. Cut them into 2- to 3-inch lengths; set aside.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion slices and cook, stirring, until they begin to caramelize slightly, about 5 minutes. [Do not overcook; you don’t want them to fall apart.] Add the garlic and thyme, and cook 1 minute more. Add the reserved corn, the salt, and the pepper. Cook, stirring, until the corn is hot, about 4-5 minutes. Add the reserved beans, and cook until just warm, about 2 minutes more.

Remove the skillet from the heat. Toss the corn salad with fresh lime juice, and garnish it with radish slices. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil, if you like, and serve.

Yield: 4-6 servings


On a misunderstood mousse and the girl who loved it anyway

For a good number of her formative years, my friend Jennifer was constitutionally incapable of following a recipe. It wasn’t an issue of willful aversion, nor or of culinary rebellion, but every time she tried to follow directions, something went horribly wrong. As a pre-teen, for example, Jen whipped up a batch of her mother’s famous banana nut bread as a gift for her teachers, but sadly, her loaves were destined for a different type of fame—an infamy reserved for flat, gummy quick breads entirely lacking in flour. Even cake mix was iffy: one babysitterless night, we together watched a straight-from-the-box angel food cake nearly explode in her parents’ oven. Today, after a recovery period of a decade or two, Jen has patched up her relationship with recipes, but she's still not one to follow the rules. Instead, she's built an impressive record on taking a recipe and running with it. She makes a beautiful improvised beet vinaigrette, an unusual fiddlehead fern ratatouille, and a fiery off-the-cuff chile-balsamic sauce. And, as I learned one foggy night last week in her airy San Francisco apartment, she has a rare genius for finding rogue recipes—the type that suit her best, after all—and saving them from the rubbish bin. Take, for example, her devastatingly good chocolate mousse.

A month or two ago, Jen and her husband Dave, both oenophiles with a weakness for California's small Mom-and-Pop vintners, noticed that their wine rack was looking a bit overstuffed. So they asked a handful of friends to help them “get rid” of a few bottles, and within 24 hours, they had a dozen people and a party in their living room. There were breads, local cheeses, and fruits, but to go with the reds, Jen wanted to serve something chocolate, preferably simple, creamy, and very, very dark. So she typed the words “chocolate ice cream” into Epicurious, and she promptly fell in love—with a very questionable recipe. Its ratings were solidly mediocre, its reviewers ambivalent at best. “This should not be called ice cream,” one fumed; “It doesn't come close to resembling the texture of ice cream. It's like a rich, smooth, cold fudge. I even tried cutting down the eggs and it still wasn't the right texture.” “It's like eating frozen chocolate mousse, not really ice cream,” another noted somewhat disapprovingly. This was clearly a very misunderstood, very badly misnamed recipe. What others might call a washout was exactly what she wanted. As I said, she has a certain genius.

Needless to say, the stuff is almost exactly as its reviewers described it, and happily so: a rich, smooth, frozen chocolate mousse, somewhere between gelato, frozen custard, and whipped cream, dark and complex and fearfully good.

More dense than the average mousse but with the whipped texture of a not-quiet-frozen ice cream, it is hard to pinpoint* but alarmingly easy to eat. The guests at Jen and Dave’s party had no trouble tucking it away, and last week, neither did we, even after a generous farmers’ market dinner of heirloom tomatoes with balsamic vinegar and Stonehouse olive oil; fresh gnocchi topped with morels and brown button mushrooms sautéed in olive oil, white wine, and lemon zest; and Acme pain au levain with Cowgirl Creamery cheeses. As Jen scooped the mousse, Dave poured purply glasses of delicate Homewood zinfandel port, and we sat around the candlelit table, chilly gusts of night air blowing in through the open window. Our dessert spoons sighed through the mousse, and so did we. Sometimes “bad” recipes are awfully good.

*Jen has yet to decide on an appropriate name for this recipe. She tends to refer to it as “my chocolate dessert,” “that chocolate dessert,” or “something with tons of chocolate and cream.” None of these titles, however, do it justice, and neither does an analogy we invented after a few glasses of wine: It's like Cool Whip! It doesn’t freeze solid! It’s like chocolate Cool Whip! The name I have chosen below is my attempt to strike a happy—and fitting—medium.

Dark Chocolate Mousse Ice Cream
Adapted from Epicurious

If time permits, try to make this mousse a day or so ahead of time, so that it has time to properly set up. When it comes to serving, Jen has presented it in several different ways: in bowls; in little high-ball glasses with a few fresh raspberries on top; and, for a picnic, in tiny paper Dixie cups with a dollop of whipped cream. However you choose to serve it, start with small portions; this is serious stuff. And if you want to gild the lily, a ruby or vintage port, or perhaps a black Muscat dessert wine, makes for a lovely accompaniment.

1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla
7 ounces best-quality 70% dark chocolate, finely chopped (for her most recent go, Jen used closer to 9 ounces, with superlative results)
½ cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons water
6 large egg yolks
1/8 teaspoon salt

Bring the milk, cream, and vanilla just to a boil in a small saucepan; then remove from heat and keep warm, covered.

Place the chopped chocolate in a large heatproof bowl.

Stir together ½ cup sugar with water in a medium heavy saucepan, and bring it to a boil over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved and washing down any sugar crystals on the side of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Boil the syrup, without stirring, gently swirling the pan and washing down crystals, until mixture is a deep golden caramel, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and carefully whisk in the warm cream mixture (the mixture will steam vigorously, and caramel may harden). Cook over low heat, whisking, until the caramel is dissolved.

Beat the yolks with the salt and the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar in a large bowl, using an electric mixer at high speed, until tripled in volume and thick enough to form a ribbon that takes 2 seconds to dissolve into mixture when the beater is lifted, 3 to 4 minutes in a stand mixer or 6 to 8 with a handheld one.

Add the hot caramel mixture to the yolks in a slow stream, whisking, then transfer the custard to the medium saucepan. Cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard is slightly thickened and registers 170°F on a candy or instant-read thermometer. Do not allow it to boil.

Press the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into the bowl with the chopped chocolate, and let stand 1 minute. Whisk the mixture until smooth.

Cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, about half an hour.

Freeze the custard in an ice cream maker; then transfer it to an airtight container and put it in the freezer to harden, at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours. The mousse will keep well in the freezer for up to a week. Allow it to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes or so before serving.

Yield: about 1 quart.


San Francisco: no famine in sight

I’m no jet-setter, but when it comes to planes, trains, and automobiles, I generally aim for the first, funds permitting. For someone who lives only an hour and a half by car from Vancouver, three hours from Portland, and a dozen or two (depending on your route) from San Francisco, I’ve put relatively few miles on the odometer. My road-trip record is what some might call tragic, and about a week ago, with summer in full bloom and my second-floor apartment feeling stuffy, we began to agree. So we packed our bags and crammed my old, bruised cooler against some freeway famine that was surely looming, and we sped south. It was as simple as that. First there was I-5, a six-lane concrete plain; then there were the little towns, the runaway truck ramps, the stands selling salmon jerky and ice cream; and around a corner, there was a damp, salty wind, and then the coast.

Eighteen hours, one night in a Super 8, and four score switchbacks from Seattle, we found San Francisco, all hills and fog and farmers’ markets and no famine in sight.* It's a city I've long loved, but with the proper partner, I went from smitten to very, very serious. Acme Bread to Zuni Café, we ate it up.

And thank goodness there were two of us, because sharing was a necessity if we were to have room for it all, from Aladdin Market and Deli (thank you, Hillel) to Berkeley Bowl, Blue Bottle Coffee Company, Breads of India, Boulangerie, Café Fanny, Ferry Plaza, Las Camelias, La Taqueria, and XOX Truffles; and from pain au levain to sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi, falafel, Okinawan purple sweet potatoes, coffee from Yemen, naan with shredded coconut and fresh dill, cannelés, Belgian sugar tarts, fresh morels and French macarons, agave margaritas, tacos filled with shredded chicken in a tomato and chile sauce, and the tiniest, most sigh-inducing chocolate truffles to ever cross these lips. We flitted here and there in search of this and that, meeting with such success that I believe I might have actually uttered the words, “I’m tired of eating.” But only once or twice.

No amount of food fatigue, however, could keep us from Tartine, a bakery worth a thousand miles. Perched on a street corner in the Mission District, Tartine’s walls are bulging at all hours with an eager cult following of customers lined up for morning pastries or hot, crusty country bread at four in the afternoon, or haggling for tables on the sidewalk outside. Its offerings straddle old-fashioned Americana and French country-chic, from coconut cream tarts to a cake aux olives, each perfectly messy or neat, as the case requires. Brandon flew into a frenzy the moment we stepped up to the counter, overwhelmed by the sight of an open-face croque monsieur with melting slices of summer tomato and a lemon meringue cake the size and shape of a shoebox, covered with burnished spikes. Clearly, one visit would not suffice. There was too much to taste—and to photograph. There were meringues studded with Scharffen Berger nibs, each little mountain-shaped cookie craggy and light, its sweetness delicately balanced by the light bitterness of roasted cacao beans.

And there was the lemon cream tart, a pool of puckery lemon curd in a sweet, crunchy shortbread shell,

and its frumpy stepsister, the the banana cream tart, an über-flaky crust coated with caramel and dark chocolate and filled with vanilla pastry cream and sliced bananas, the whole topped with barely sweetened whipped cream and thick chocolate curls.

We ogled the shortbread, tight-crumbed and buttery 1”-by-4”s,

and the morning buns, knots of flaky dough perfumed with cinnamon and orange. And when it came time to turn the car around, I took a bag of muesli for breakfast on the road and Brandon seared his thighs with a lapful of straight-from-the-oven country bread, possibly the best use of flour I’ve tasted anywhere: thick-crusted, with a moist, chewy crumb full of dime-sized air holes.

The hours fly by when you’re well-fed—whether in a city on the coast or in a car, or later, at a keyboard in Seattle, a crumb-filled plate at your elbow.

*There was also no consistently available Internet connection, so I appreciate your patience, gentle reader.


9 am Sunday: oatmeal ups the ante

I accepted the challenge, and I conquered: I cooked breakfast for Jimmy, the reigning king of Sunday mornings, and dear reader, he asked for the recipe. Never mind the fact that I had help (Brandon), or that the majority of the menu was decreed from above (Rebecca). I did it, and I did it my way, daring to use only the amount of butter called for—no more, no less—and tossing in a reckless amount of a “healthy” ingredient, oats. Certainly, there would be plenty of sugar and saturated fat, but this morning, we would really throw caution to the wind.

The plot was hatched a few weeks ago, when Rebecca returned from a trip to her native land of St. Petersburg, Florida, singing the praises of what she called “cheesy grits.” I came home from work one day to find a lengthy message on my answering machine, describing them in minute detail and, as you might expect, featuring prominently the word “butter.” Apparently, while in St. Pete’s, Rebecca had breakfasted each morning at a local greasy spoon, where she ordered eggs, white toast (with butter), and the aforementioned cheesy grits (butter and cheese included).* Like a woman possessed, she returned to Seattle able to speak of little else. As luck would have it—and because I too have a bit of the South in me—I had a bag of stoneground South Carolina grits in my freezer. It was as simple as that: before I knew what I’d done, I had volunteered to take the reins for our next Sunday breakfast at Jimmy’s. The only stipulation, Rebecca said firmly, was that our grits must be accompanied by eggs and bacon. So the menu was set, and I would deliver.

Now, grits are very good, and a well-scrambled egg is exquisite, but frankly, the ante needed some upping. Jimmy has within his arsenal more than a few simple showstoppers, and I was itching to show off a bit myself. The situation clearly called for a dessert course, and a revolutionary dessert at that—one that would make salt-, starch-, and sugar-loving Rebecca eat a substance not only condoned but actually endorsed by the American Heart Association.

It was a tall order, I thought, but oatmeal cookies, if big and buttery and pitched properly, might fit the bill.

And because he has uncanny timing in such matters, it would happen that Brandon came home shortly thereafter from a thrift-shopping outing with a copy of The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook and a sharp hunger for its hazelnut praline recipe. Within seconds, an inspiration was born: to make thick, chewy oatmeal cookies, slather them with creamy brown-butter frosting, and sprinkle them with crunchy caramelized hazelnuts. A few days and a bit of researching later, we hit the jackpot, and we took it to Jimmy’s as the surprise finale for our cheesy grits extravaganza.

It goes without saying that the grits were indeed good—although not as great as I’d hoped—and the eggs were nice too, big soft curds that sat up stoutly on the plate to ward off the runny, molten grits. The bacon was likewise found acceptable, with Rebecca eating the entire package, save two strips for her straight husband John, before the meal was even served. But my small, private victory came with the cookies.

Rebecca gave hers a good, solid slathering of the deeply caramelly frosting and, noting that this might be the first oatmeal cookie she’d ever agreed to eat, threw it back like a regular oat aficionado.

And as if that weren’t enough, Jimmy, always brainstorming where baking is concerned, asked if the recipe might be up for grabs. I swooned happily into my oaty crumbs and brown butter, not a bad place to land on a Sunday morning at 9 am.

*I am quite confident that Rebecca also ordered bacon, although the memory is a bit faded and the message now long since erased.

Oatmeal Cookies with Brown-Butter Frosting and Hazelnut Praline
Adapted from The New Joy of Cooking, Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, and The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook

This three-part, country-meets-city-sophisticate combination brings together complex and fragrant flavors—from brown sugar to butter, dark caramel, toasted hazelnut, and even toffee—and the textures, chew to crunch, are perfect foils. For extra pleasure, serve it as we did: the cookies on a platter, and the frosting and praline in bowls alongside. Your guests can smear on the frosting as thick (or thin, I suppose) as they like, and nobody seems to mind a little praline dust on their fingers.

For the cookies:
1 1/2 cups plus 2 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 3/4 cups quick-cook oats

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside.

In a large bowl (or in the bowl of a stand mixer), beat together the butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, eggs, and vanilla on medium speed until well blended. Stir (or gently beat, if using a stand mixer) the flour mixture into the butter mixture until smooth. Stir (or gently beat) in the oats. Do not overmix.

Cover the bowl of dough with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for one hour. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease two cookie sheets, or line them with silicone baking mats.

Use a large ice cream scoop or a 1/4-cup bowl-shaped measuring scoop to pack the dough into generous domes. Place the domes on one of the prepared cookie sheets, spacing them about 3 inches apart (roughly 8 cookies per sheet). Return the bowl of dough to the refrigerator. Bake the cookies until they are lightly browned all over and set, about 12 minutes; rotate the sheet halfway through for even browning. Remove the finished sheet to a rack, and let the cookies rest for about 20 minutes, until cool and firm. Transfer them to a rack to cool. Repeat the baking process with the remaining dough, one sheet at a time, remembering to keep the dough chilled between batches.

Serve the cookies with bowls of soft brown-butter frosting and hazelnut praline.

For the frosting:
1 1/4 cup unsalted butter (2 1/2 sticks)
2 2/3 to 3 1/3 cup powdered sugar, sifted
4 to 5 Tbs milk (nonfat is fine)
2 tsp vanilla extract

Put the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and stir until it turns a dark golden color, about 10-15 minutes. Remove the butter from the heat, and strain it through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into a large bowl to remove the butter solids and any sediment that may have formed as the butter browned. The butter should smell deeply caramelly. Set the bowl aside, and allow the butter to solidify to a soft, thick paste; this step can be sped along in the refrigerator, but be careful to avoid getting the butter fully solid. When the butter is ready, beat in half the sugar, or enough to make a stiff mixture. Alternating milk and remaining sugar, beat the frosting until its consistency and sweetness are to your liking. Add the vanilla extract. Serve the frosting in a bowl alongside the cookies, allowing guests to smear their own cookies with a healthy glob of it. Top with a sprinkling of hazelnut praline.

For the praline:
1 1/2 cups raw hazelnuts
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tbs water
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbs unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Toast the hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet for 7-10 minutes, or until fragrant. Rub the nuts against each other in a kitchen towel to remove the skins.

Lay a sheet of aluminum foil on the counter, and spray it with cooking spray. Set aside.

Slowly heat the sugar and water to boiling in a heavy medium-sized saucepan. Boil rapidly for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Remove from the heat, add the nuts, and stir until evenly coated with syrup. The sugar will start to crystallize; don’t panic.

Return the pan to medium heat to melt the sugar again and caramelize the nuts. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the nuts begin to color. Stir in the vanilla. [If the mixture begins to smoke, remove it immediately from the heat. Allow it to cool slightly before continuing.] Continue to cook and stir until the nuts and syrup turn a nice golden color. Remove from the heat, and stir in the butter.

Spread the praline mixture on the oiled aluminum foil, and let stand until completely cool. Break the cooled praline into pieces, and pulse them briefly in a food processor until coarsely chopped.

Serve the praline in a bowl alongside the frosting and cookies.

Yield: About 20 cookies


On Independence Day, and the tyranny of bad tortillas

The Fourth of July is, no question, pretty exciting. There are the parades, the loudly flapping flags, and the burgers that dribble down the inside of the wrist; there’s the candy-sweet corn and the half-melted ice cream, the cold pool, and the icy beer. And of course, there are the fireworks—including unexpected blasts from a neighbor’s backyard two days too early, a little blitzkrieg that sent me ducking and cursing skyward on my walk home from the video store. But sometimes the greatest excitement comes with something smaller, simpler, more monochromatic, and less flammable—something like, say, a stack of humble homemade flour tortillas.

This story begins a week or so ago, when I returned home from work to find Brandon stretched out on the living room floor, gently stroking my beautiful, sleek cookbook-for-the-coffee-table Saveur Cooks Authentic American. Upon closer inspection, I saw that his fingers were tracing four curvy, boldface words: New Mexican Flour Tortillas. Now, by way of background, dear reader, you should know that Brandon is a great devotee of a certain brand of ultra-fresh refrigerated flour tortillas sold at New York’s Fairway Market, and here in Seattle, he’s been just short of starving, an exhaustive tortilla search having as yet failed to yield a good local source for anything resembling the soft, chewy specimen he’s grown accustomed to. For a man who lists among his principal interests “anything with the consistency of salsa,” the scarcity of worthwhile tortillas is downright dangerous. But that afternoon, the search came to an end—and with a turning point that steered us to the only place we’d forgotten to consider, the kitchen.

Clearly, a celebration was in order, and by happy coincidence, a national holiday was strategically positioned only a few days away. With a brief strategizing session, a bit of menu planning, and a hot cast-iron skillet, we could have an apartmentful of friends and fresh tortillas, and a fireworks show to celebrate our Independence Day, an end to the tyranny of sub-par supermarket flatbreads. So it was that yesterday evening, Kate arrived at six with a bagful of guacamole ingredients; mushrooms, bell peppers, and red onion for roasting; a one-gallon tub of hand-picked raspberries; and a pint of whipping cream; and Nicho followed shortly thereafter with his lovely girlfriend Nicole, a few chicken sausages, and hard cider. Brandon and I had spent the afternoon simmering a pot of black beans with sautéed onion, jalapeño, and cumin seeds, and as the hours passed, he slaved happily away at three signature hot sauces: a fire-roasted tomato salsa, a chunky pico de gallo, and a fiery green sauce of garlic, cilantro, jalapeños, lime juice, and salt. On the other side of the kitchen, I turned to the tortillas.

With only four ingredients—flour, salt, shortening, and water—they were heartbreakingly simple to make, the dough like a silky, resilient fabric. With my mother’s old wooden rolling pin in hand, I sank into an easy rhythm: roll, cook, flip, cook, roll, cook, flip, cook.

The warm tortillas were thin and tender, crisp outside and yielding inside, with the rich sweetness of flour bound with salt and fat. We huddled around the table with a gold-tinged stash of them—soft, seconds-old, toothsome scoops for salsas and spicy tar-black beans, chunks of seared sausage and roasted pepper, creamy guacamole, and cooling sour cream.

In one little apartment in Seattle, America had a very happy Independence Day.

Flour Tortillas
Adapted from Saveur Cooks Authentic American

I’d always thought I was more of a corn-tortilla girl than a flour one, but this recipe has solidly converted me. Once you get a feel for the dough and settle into the rhythm of rolling and cooking it, you might never want to buy tortillas again.

4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 ¼ tsp salt
6 Tbs vegetable shortening (preferably a non-hydrogenated type, such as Spectrum)

In a small saucepan, bring about 2 cups of water to a boil.

In a large bowl, stir the flour and salt together with a whisk. Mix in the shortening with your fingers until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Stir in enough boiling water (about 1 ¼ to 1 ½ cups) that the dough holds together; you will want to begin by stirring with a spoon, since the water is scorching hot, but you should finish by working the dough with your hands.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead until smooth, 2-5 minutes. Do not overwork it. Form the dough into a ball, cover it with plastic wrap, and allow it to rest for 30 minutes.

Set a well-seasoned 9" cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Place the ball of dough on a lightly floured surface, and cut it into 6 wedges. Cut each wedge into 3 smaller wedges, for a total of 18 wedges. Use a rolling pin to roll out a wedge into a very thin circle—as thin as you can make it, like a sheet of fabric—roughly 7 ½ to 8 inches in diameter. When the skillet is hot but not smoking, cook the tortilla until slightly puffed, about 20-30 seconds. Flip, then cook for 20-30 seconds more, or until flecked with golden or brown (whichever you prefer) spots. Place on a cooling rack. Repeat the process with the other 17 wedges. Allow each tortilla to cool completely before stacking them.

Freshly made tortillas are soft and perfectly delicious at room temperature, but to reheat them, you can warm them briefly in a low oven. These keep well in the fridge, wrapped in paper towels and sealed in a plastic bag, and they also freeze nicely.

Yield: 18 tortillas


Suited for each other: rhubarb meringue tart

I am not, by nature, wildly energetic. I’m far from slothful—give or take a few semantic quibbles, of course—but I’ve never been one to wake up with itchy excess energy nagging to be burned. I have just the right amount of oomph to get me happily through the day, and though infamous in certain circles for my speedy stride, I’m really very good at sitting still. I’ve even been known to go horizontal—and in mid-afternoon, no less. All of this is to say that from my perspective, seated or supine, my half-sister Lisa is nothing short of superhuman.

Mother to five talented children—ages (almost-)six to (almost-)sixteen—and husband to one lucky man, she almost never stops. Whether delivering the kids to soccer, track, Little League, or soccer practice; cello, guitar, piano, or violin lessons; jazz, tap, or modern dance classes; art camp, math camp; or one of four different schools, she’s on the go, and gracefully. She’s doing laundry at 1 am, playing doubles tennis at 11, and meeting the bus at 3. But—as you might expect, given our shared paternal heritage—it’s in the kitchen that Lisa is busiest, and most astounding.

Her shelves are stacked with cookbooks and clippings, her drawers filled with gadgets and graters. She bakes quiches and lemon cakes and clafoutis; she makes Chinese noodle salads, ginger-pumpkin mousse, banana tarts, blintzes for Rosh Hashanah, and luscious Indian-style cumin chicken with buttery, onion-flecked rice. She candies orange rind and rolls her own ganache truffles. At midnight, when the house is quiet, she tempers dark chocolate for homemade almond bark. And by way of a miracle in time management, she keeps an organic plot—a beautifully manicured one—at the local community garden a few minutes away, where she grows snap peas and snow peas, tomatoes and blackberries, radishes, onions, lettuce, and asparagus, not to mention herbs and assorted flowers. And as luck would have it, when I stopped in to visit a couple of weeks ago, her rhubarb was ripe for its first harvesting. Dear reader, you know how I feel about rhubarb; it’s enough to get me downright busy in the kitchen.

So to make the most of our brief, all-too-rare, and all-too-frenetic time together, we headed home with a handful of rosy stalks. Lisa retrieved from the shelf a cookbook that, she explained as she leafed through the glossy pages, she had bought solely for one recipe: a rhubarb meringue tart. Rhubarb. Meringue. Tart. With a few notable exceptions, no three words are better suited for each other, and that’s a certifiable fact. So we sliced up the rhubarb, juiced an orange, and rolled out the pastry dough, and then, after Little League, a cello lesson, and a few miles on the odometer,

we slowed down; we sat still; we scraped our plates; we talked; and we didn't stop until nearly 2 in the morning. It was delicious.

Rhubarb Meringue Tart
Adapted from Tamasin Day-Lewis’s The Art of the Tart

Day-Lewis credits her friend and colleague Nigella Lawson with the creation of this delicate, unusual tart. It begins with a buttery shell, over which is poured a sheet of unsweetened(!) cooked rhubarb and a layer of a egg-sugar-butter batter. This base is cooked until shiny and golden, and then the tart is capped with meringue and baked until lightly browned. The result is a multi-layered tart in which the rhubarb is mellowed by the buttery crust beneath it and the sugar- and butter-rich batter atop it, and the light, sweet meringue topcoat makes a perfect foil for the puckery compote it blankets. Although the tart is best, texture-wise, about 30 to 60 minutes of the oven, it also keeps nicely and tastes surprisingly wonderful cold, straight from the fridge. Lisa and I made sure to try it both ways, as should you.

½ recipe Martha Stewart’s pâte brisée, made with fresh orange juice rather than water
2 lbs rhubarb, trimmed and chopped into roughly ½-inch chunks
Juice of ½ an orange
2 eggs, separated
2/3 cup plus ½ cup granulated sugar
2 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour
2 Tbs unsalted butter, melted
¼ tsp cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Roll out the pâte brisée to fit a 9-inch removable-bottom tart pan, and line the pan with the dough. Press a sheet of aluminum foil gently into the lined pan, and fill the well of the pan with pie weights. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet, and bake until the shell is lightly golden and set, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, discard the foil and weights, and allow the tart shell to cool.

Put the rhubarb in a medium saucepan with the orange juice and heat gently until just softened and beginning to fall apart. Remove it from the heat.

In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks with a fork. In a medium bowl, mix 2/3 cup sugar with the flour and melted butter. Add the yolks, and stir briefly. Place a sieve over the mouth of the bowl, and pour the cooked rhubarb into the sieve. Press the rhubarb lightly to drain off its juices, allowing them to trickle into the egg-sugar-butter-flour mixture. You should add enough rhubarb liquid to make the mixture into a smooth, runny paste.

Put the sieved rhubarb into the tart shell, spreading it evenly. Pour the egg-sugar-butter-flour mixture over it. Bake until golden and just set, about 20 minutes.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar, and continue beating until the whites form soft peaks. Slowly add the remaining ½ cup sugar, beating until the whites are shiny and opaque. Spoon the meringue over the baked tart to completely cover the fruit, sprinkle with a touch more sugar, if you like, and bake for 15 minutes, or until the meringue is lightly bronzed.

Allow to cool for 30 to 60 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, sliced into wedges.

Serves 6.