As you all know, I adore my apartment, it is a part of me, I am not me without it. I’ve been in my apartment for seventeen years. I used to live in the building next door, but the first time I walked into my apartment I knew I was home. Deeply, importantly home. It is a major testament to my amazing Charming Suitor that he understands this about me, forgives me for the parts of it that defy logic, and embraces my need to be in this space with a generosity of spirit that is extraordinary and makes me adore him even more.
It is a wonderful place to live. It isn’t, as I have mentioned before in one or two posts, perfect. The kitchen could use a major overhaul, to eliminate the 1976 linoleum flooring that never looks clean, the ghastly dark country kitchen cabinetry, the Formica counters, the dated tile backsplash, the almond colored sink. Ditto the bathroom, where one can currently see the formerly thought to be extinct “corner tub”, designed apparently to bathe mostly people the size of Oompa Loompas or smaller, and same lino/formica/cabinet combo as the kitchen. It has radiator heat, which can be inconsistent, and makes things a little dry in the dead of winter.
However none of these is anything more to me than the tiniest little nuisance, because I revel in the high ceilings and original 1906 Victorian trappings of lavish moldings and hardwood floors and beautiful built-ins. My dining room can seat 20 comfortably, 24 in a pinch. It has a ridiculous amount of storage. It’s one tragic flaw is the lack of both central air conditioning, and an electrical fuse system strong enough to accommodate more than one running AC window unit at a time. This means running the unit in the living room all day long, then turning it off and turning on the one in the bedroom for sleeping.
In Chicago, there is often some relief from the heat, so really there are maybe a total of 25 days a year when the apartment is really hot anywhere the AC isn’t. This means when I have summer houseguests during those days, they are sleeping with fans. It also means that cooking anything for any length of time makes the kitchen unbearable.
Charming Suitor had a birthday last week, and to celebrate we went to Northern California. For the big event, we went to The French Laundry for the single most incredible meal, either of us has ever had. (Many apologies to Grant Achatz and the team at Alinea, which has held my top spot for the past three years…it is a close second, but French Laundry has moved into the lead.) Both of us have wanted to eat there since it opened, it is a Foodie Mecca, after all. Being able to experience it for the first time together was very special for both of us. And we were struck by how simple Thomas Keller’s preparations were, highlighting the impeccable ingredients with minimal manipulation. We were totally blown away by how he seemed to make things taste like the best version of themselves, the celery tasted the most celeryish of any celery I ever ate. The apricotiest apricots, the lambiest lamb, the butteriest butter.
Both CS and I are trying (when we aren’t on vacation, that is) to eat healthy and stay on our programs. And in this heat, appetites are lessened and the desire to stand over a hot stove is minimal. He has had a very busy time at work, and so yesterday I wanted to do three things…I wanted to make him a really special dinner at the end of his long day. I wanted to eat healthy and highlight great ingredients in small portions in homage to Thomas Keller. And I wanted the entire menu to be eaten chilled, so that it was refreshing.
I hit the store to get inspiration, and the following menu came about…
Earlier this week I had read about this refresher over at A Cozy Kitchen, and wanted to try it. I cut the sugar in half, because I wanted more taste of cucumber and not just sweet, plus I wanted to be sure we were eating healthy. It was so easy to make, and utterly delicious. Great by itself, great with a splash of club soda, I will be making this one a lot!
Adapted from A Cozy Kitchen, who adapted it from Sunny Anderson
2 large seedless cucumbers
¼ cup sugar (I used demerara)
2 cups water
Peel the cucumbers, and reserve the peelings. Dice the cucumbers. Bring the sugar and the water to a boil in a 2 quart saucepan, and let the sugar dissolve. Add the cucumber and cook over medium-high heat until tender, about 8-10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir the reserved peels back in. Blend everything together until smooth, using either an immersion blender (my go to!) or a regular blender.
Set a fine mesh strainer over a bowl, lined with cheesecloth. Pour the mixture into the strainer, and move the pulp around to drain the juice. Hold the cheesecloth over the strainer and squeeze out all the excess juice. Chill the juice until cold, about 1 hour, and then serve over ice. Add a splash of club soda or sparkling water if you like. Or use it as a mixer for gin or vodka.
After our little beverage break, it was time for our progression of little chilled plates…
STACEY’S PERFECT CHILLED PEA SOUP
Essentially the essence of peas. And the easiest thing in the world. No cooking, which is great on a hot day!
1 bag frozen petite green peas, thawed
1-2 c cold water
Salt to taste
¼ c Greek yogurt (I use the 2% with no problem), you can substitute crème fraiche or sour cream
Tender leaves from the heart of one head of celery
Put the peas either in your blender, or in a tall vessel appropriate for your immersion blender. Add 1 c of cold water and blend on high until very smooth. If it is too thick add more water to a good consistency. You can eat it like this if you want a soup with some texture, or do what I did and strain it for ultimate smoothness. Taste for seasoning, it should just need a pinch of salt to bring out the pea-ness of the peas. Chill at least 2 hours. Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt and a sprinkle of celery leaves.
WATERMELON MOZZARELLA SALAD
2 c seedless watermelon, cubed in one inch cubes
12 buffalo mozzarella bocconcini, or one ball of buffalo mozzarella
Five large leaves of fresh basil
1 T honey vinegar (if you cannot find honey vinegar, mix 1 t honey into 1 T white wine vinegar till dissolved)
1 T green lemon oil, or a fruity extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Halve the bocconcini or cube the ball of mozzarella, and toss gently with watermelon so as to not mush the fruit. Tear the basil roughly and sprinkle on top. Drizzle with the honey vinegar and green lemon oil and season with salt and pepper.
CHILLED CORN ON THE COB WITH MINT SALT
Corn is in season, and as much as I love fresh sweet corn dripping with butter, I wanted to see if I could come up with a chilled way to eat it on the cob. One of my go-to dinner party dishes is caramelized corn with fresh mint, so I know that corn and mint are good friends, so I thought I would blend fresh mint into salt for seasoning the chilled corn. But I needed a way to get the mint salt to stick.
White truffle oil seemed to be an inspired choice!
4 ears fresh sweet corn, steamed and chilled
1 T salt
1/8 c fresh mint leaves
1 T white truffle oil (or extra virgin olive oil)
I whirred the mint and salt together in my handy dandy mini chopper
but you can do it in a mini-prep food processor or just mince the mint as fine as you can by hand and blend with the salt. Brush the ears of corn lightly with the white truffle oil and sprinkle with the mint salt. A little goes a long way with these flavors, they are better if they are subtle so the sweet delicious corn stands out.
NOTE: The Bay of Fundy Sea Salt in the pic is from Salt Traders, my new fave place to get specialty salts...they have flavored salts (herbs and vanilla and other really cool combos), black lava salt and pink himalyan, unique products like the delicate and crunchy Bay of Fundy salt I used here, and flaky salts, not to mention an amazing smoked salt! And they are my only source for the rare Comet Tail Pepper which I adore. They also have cool flavored sugars. Check out their stuff here.
BASIC NICOISE SALAD
I love Nicoise salad, especially when done in the classic way, which is without any lettuce. And I leave the hard boiled eggs off because 1) I hate them and B) we didn’t need the extra calories. Feel free to gussy it up however you like, it is a great place to start.
8-12 small new potatoes
1 can solid white tuna packed in water (more delicious and classic packed in oil, but it wasn’t indulgence time)
8 oz green beans, trimmed
2 T red wine vinegar, plus more for drizzling
Extra virgin olive oil
Handful of olives, I use Ceringnola or Nicoise, but use what you like
1 T nonpareil capers (the little bitty ones)
1 T minced chives
Salt and pepper to taste
Put the potatoes in a saucepan and cover by two inches with cold water. When the water boils, put the trimmed beans in a strainer over the potatoes and put the lid of the pot on top, and let steam 2 minutes. When cooked but still a little crisp, remove the strainer and run cold water over them until they are no longer warm. Toss with a little olive oil and salt and pepper to taste and cover and put in the fridge. Continue to cook potatoes over high heat until tender when pierced with a fork (and do use a fork and not a knife, a knife is sharp and will give you a false sense of done-ness). Drain and let cool slightly. While still as warm as you can handle, peel them and place them in a bowl. Toss with 2 T red wine vinegar and sprinkle with salt. Cover and put in refrigerator.
Put can of tuna into fridge until time to assemble the salad.
Halve the potatoes and place a small mound on each plate. Place a small pile of green beans next to the potatoes, and a half a can of the tuna nestled amongst the potatoes and beans. Slice the olives and put on top. Drizzle a little red wine vinegar and olive oil over the whole plate, and sprinkle with capers and chives to taste.
CHEDDAR AND FROZEN BLUEBERRIES WITH BISCOFF PASTE
I love a cheese course and so does CS, and the one we had at The French Laundry was mind-blowing, a soft creamy cheese served with tiny marble potatoes, slivers of beets and a few leaves of braised Swiss chard served with a Dijon sauce and walnut bread. INSANELY AMAZING. I was not going for that, but wanted to continue the chilled theme, and have a little sweetness at the end of the meal. I recently bought a new ingredient, Biscoff Paste, which I thought would be great with an aged sharp cheddar I had in the fridge. And for the chilled element? Frozen blueberries. Turned out to be a really great combo.
If you don’t want to order the Biscoff paste (I think you should, it tastes like those delish spice cookies you get sometimes on airplanes, only the texture of peanut butter. Move over Nutella.) simply add about ¼ t of cinnamon to 1 T of creamy peanut butter to mimic the flavor.
I put about ½ c fresh blueberries, washed and tossed with 1 t sugar, in one layer on a small sheet pan and froze them for a couple of hours, then stored them in a Ziploc until it was time to use them.
I put a smear of the Biscoff paste on the plate along with a slice of the cheese and a small pile of frozen blueberries on the side. Every possible combination of flavors was great, and the frozen blueberries were really refreshing.
It was so much fun to make this meal for CS, even more fun to eat it with him and reminisce about being at The French Laundry. And it was great to challenge myself to come up with some fun new refreshing dishes for the dog days of summer!
The whole meal, all 6 courses….only 667 calories per person! Mostly vegetables and lean protein, with some small accents of healthy fats to round it out.
Delicious AND virtuous!
Hope you are staying cool…if you’ve got a great hot weather recipe or tip for staying cool, please share!
Yours in Good Taste,