Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ice Boxes

Sometimes I swear I'm channeling my grandmother. I am not by nature a person who loves to clean, unlike MomMom who took vacation at the beginning of the summer to take down the heavy winter drapes, wash all the windows (using Q-tips and toothpicks to get into every nook and cranny), and put up the light criss-cross curtains, bleached white, starched and ironed to within an inch of their life.

I silently chuckled when MomMom would scold me if my drawers weren't neat. I could not imagine how the conversation would go, even if someone did dare to peek into my messy dresser. How would they work the topic into conversation? "When I was snooping in Linda's house, I opened her medicine chest. Would you believe that she has expired aspirin?" Or "I just happened to be in Linda's bedroom, and I opened her underwear drawer. She doesn't iron her panties!" Neither scenario seemed likely.

However, in anticipation for the PECO pick up of our garage refrigerator, I found myself elbow deep in soapy water scrubbing down the shelves and walls, removing drawers and soaking them in a bleach solution. Who was I trying to impress? My husband walked past me and acted shocked. "Oh, I see. There was a change of plan. It's Better Homes and Gardens coming to pick up your refrigerator, not the PECO recycling crew." I wrung out my rag and saw the humor in the situation. This appliance served us well, even after it had been relegated to the garage. It was the repository for beverages in case of unexpected guests, it was the place where I would stash a pot of stock to cool quickly, it was the spot to store an over abundance of summer produce, and now I'm waiting for its removal to the refrigerator heaven in the sky.

When the refrigerator recycling truck arrived, two muscled men opened the door to make sure it still operated, then they cut the cord and carted Old Faithful down the driveway. Having a second refrigerator in the garage was the last vestige of my childhood memories of a second kitchen, where my grandmother and mother and (eventually I) would can tomatoes and peaches, where we would bake pizzelles at Christmas over the gas flame, where we would cook in the summer to keep the house cool.

It's no wonder that I was looking at my old refrigerator with my grandmother's critical eye. It's the end of an era, an age when families needed a second kitchen. With just the two of us, it was downright wasteful to run that second refrigerator, storing food that often was forgotten because of its lack of proximity to the kitchen. It was time for a change.

But maybe I should whip up one of MomMom's recipes, for old time's sake. My favorite summer dessert was MomMom's Icebox Cake.

MomMom's Icebox Cake
1 large box chocolate pudding mix (not instant)
1 large box vanilla pudding mix (not instant)
4 cups milk
1 box graham crackers.

Prepare the chocolate pudding according to box directions with two cups of milk. (I use the microwave method, but MomMom always cooked the pudding, stirring constantly over low heat.)
While the pudding is cooling slightly, place a single layer of graham crackers on the bottom of a 9x13 glass baking dish. Cut crackers to fit, and reserve any small or broken pieces.
Pour slightly cooled pudding over crackers.
Place a layer of graham crackers over the chocolate pudding.
Prepare the vanilla pudding as above. Cool slightly, and pour over second layer of graham crackers.
Crush the pieces of graham crackers (enough to make 1 cup of crumbs) and sprinkle over the top of the vanilla pudding.
Refrigerate until well chilled.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Italian Flag: Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes and Broccoli

There's nothing like vine-ripened tomatoes. You don't have to do anything to them, and they are delicious. When the farmers at the Growers Market bring their first tomatoes to town, I throw caution to the wind and indulge in a classic BLT on white toast slathered with mayonnaise. When I want to gild the lily, I make a Salad Caprese. Just cut the tomatoes into thick slices, layer them with fresh mozzarella, garnish with basil, and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. I'm partial to A Taste of Olive's Peloponnesian.

After the first flush of tomatoes, I start looking for more creative ways to use the bounty. Tonight I made the ultimate lazy summer dinner, rotini pasta with tomatoes and broccoli. It's easy to make, it's nutritious, and it's quick to clean up.

When I'm making a quick dinner, I try to get all my ingredients ready in advance. That way, I don't have to stop and start--once I put the pasta into the pot, there isn't much time for dawdling!

Here's the prep:
Start by putting a big pot of water on to boil. As you wait, chop a couple of cloves of garlic and put them in a medium bowl. Add 2-3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil (that Peloponnesian works well here, too). If you like a little heat, add red pepper flakes to taste. Sprinkle with sea salt, if desired. Cut a large head of broccoli into bite-sized pieces and reserve. Stack about 12 leaves of basil, thinly slice, and reserve. Cut 8-10 small (2 inch) balls of fresh mozzarella into quarters and reserve.

Now let's cook:
Core two large washed tomatoes and cut an X at the other end. When the water comes to a full boil, drop the tomatoes into the pot and remove them after a minute. Put them into a bowl of ice water. Peel the tomatoes and chop them into 1/2 inch dice. Add the tomatoes to the olive oil and garlic. Add salt to taste to the water, and 1/2 pound of rotini noodles to the boiling water. Follow package direction for al dente pasta (I used Barilla, which cooks up in 7 minutes). When there is 3 minutes left to the cooking time, add the reserved chopped broccoli.

Drain the pasta and broccoli when it is just al dente, but reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water. You might not need it, but if the pasta is a little dry, it's essential! Return the drained pasta and broccoli to the pot and add the tomato-garlic oil. Toss over low heat for about one minute to warm the tomatoes. If the dish is dry, add a little of the reserved pasta water. Remove from heat, add about 1/2 of the reserved basil. Toss. Put the pasta into individual serving dishes (2 main course servings, 4 appetizer servings). Top with the reserved mozzarella and garnish with the remaining basil. If you like, shave some pecorino romano cheese over the top. Serve with a green salad and good Italian bread.

This dish is open to many variations. Instead of mozzarella cheese, substitute diced pepperoni or ham. Instead of basil, use flat-leaved parsley. Instead of broccoli, try fresh peas or green beans (the peas cook in less time, while the green beans need to go into the pot along with the rotini). You can add a handful of pitted Italian olives or a sprinkling of toasted pignoli to the cooked pasta. If you have a hankering for this summer dish in February, use good-quality diced tomatoes in a can. It isn't quite the same, but it's still a quick, nutritious, easy dinner.