Monday, August 29, 2011

Francis Lam's Perfect Five-Minute Raw Tomato Pasta



Need I say more?

This is the month tomatoes storm the markets. Plump, rainbow-colored tomatoes complete with wrinkles and crags and warpy misshapen stems. Sweet as candy. I have eaten so many tomatoes this month—hungry for them always, trying to appease my craving before they’re replaced with the apples and squash of autumn.

I’ve roasted them, simmered them, sliced them and served them with mozzarella, basil and a sprinkle of salt.  I’ve eaten them in sandwiches and in salsas. But I’ve found myself coming back to the same recipe a number of times this summer: Francis Lam’s Perfect Five-Minute Raw Tomato Pasta. Generally, I cringe at recipe titles that use words like “perfect,” or anything resembling a superlative. But I’ll let this one slide, because Francis… this man doesn’t lie.

My father and stepmother came over for dinner last Sunday. It had been a crazy week, one in which time swung around and trickled away, warping and rolling like desert tumbleweed. Sometimes I feel like life is moving too quickly, and other times way, way, waaaaay too slowly.

In any case, I didn’t begin to cook dinner for my family until only a few minutes before they arrived. I chopped up the tomatoes, plunked them in a bowl. I topped them with a layer of arugula, and then one of thinly sliced red onion. I boiled the pasta and heaped it on top, letting it sit for two minutes to take the raw edge off the onions and just barely wilt the greens. I then tossed the whole lot with Parmesan cheese and piled it onto the waiting plates. Dinner was served.

Francis Lam’s Perfect Five-Minute Raw Tomato Pasta
Serves 2 – 4

I used a combination of local red vine and colorful heirloom tomatoes for this recipe, as well as a pint or two of cherry tomatoes. The more colors the better; I like a rainbow of a dish. But if you don’t have a really great selection of tomatoes—ripe and juicy and sweet—I’d recommend making something else. The tomatoes make this dish.

2 ½ pounds tomatoes (the riper the better, colors are key)
2 loose cups arugula
Scant ¼ cup shaved red onion
1 pound linguini
Olive oil, to taste (your best kind)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Red wine vinegar, a glug or so
Parmesan cheese

Chop the tomatoes into ½ inch pieces and put them, with all their juices, into a large bowl. (A very big bowl.) Season with salt and pepper, and a splash of olive oil. Stir and taste. I added a splash of red wine vinegar. Francis says this is optional, but I love that added bright tang.

Bring a big pot of water to boil. Add some salt, and then the pasta. Stir.

While the pasta cooks, lay the arugula on top of the tomatoes, and then layer the slices of red onion on top of that.

When the pasta is done, drain it and dump it straight into the bowl. Leave it there, untouched, for 2 whole minutes. Grate the cheese while you’re waiting. Now, stir it all together, add the cheese, and taste for salt and pepper. Serve.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Upcoming Events

A quick note on some upcoming events for Season to Taste:

First, I’ll be at the Boston Public Library next week! On Wednesday, August 31st at 6pm, as part of their Author Talk Series. Boston friends: I’d love to see you there.

And then in September… I’m crossing the pond. I’ll be in London the second week of the month to promote the UK version of Season to Taste, which is published by the excellent folks at Portobello Books. Among other things, I’ll be doing a reading at Clerkenwell Tales on Tuesday, September 13th at 6:30pm. I could not be more excited for the trip. I’ve never really been to London before (no, I won’t count the field trip I took with my high school marching band…). If you have any recommendations for things to do, see, or eat, pass ‘em along!

(For more, check out the events section of my website. In the next couple months I’ll be doing readings in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Danvers, Detroit, and New York City!)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Soaking Them In

Last weekend we went to visit my dear friend Sarah and her husband, Joe. They live in a beautiful apartment overlooking the choppy water of Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. 

I wanted to sit down and write more about that weekend. About the local burgers and beer. About the mountain we hiked, and the sandwiches we ate while sitting on the bare rock face of its summit. About the boat ride, the swim, and the comfort of old, old friends.

But now that I’m sitting here, my fingers on my keyboard, my coffee cup rattling with ice, my schedule semi-cleared, all I can think of is how much I want to curl up on the couch and read a novel.* This summer has been all about producing words, maneuvering words, constructing sentences and watching them fly away. (Book, blog, freelance, day-job, press.) I’ve loved it. Every bit of it. But right now I’m tired. So instead of producing more words, I’d like to take a brief moment and simply soak them in.

*Look at Me. (I’m on a Jennifer Egan kick.)

Monday, August 08, 2011

Wedding Cake II

The first time I baked a wedding cake, I was in the middle of writing my book. I had been playing the role of a hermit, in fact, up at a writer’s residency in Woodstock, New York. Three days before the wedding I drove to Boston, baked the entire cake at my mother’s house in one go, and then transported it to Maine on my own. (Oy!). That cake was for Ashley and Colin, two of my dearest high school friends. It was four tiers of dense almond cake with layers of lemon curd and blueberry jam, frosted with a swiss buttercream. There were some dicey moments in the course of its construction, but I won’t hold back: it rocked.

The second time I baked a wedding cake was last weekend. I baked this one over a couple of days—kitchen-time found after work, sandwiched among a handful of interviews about my book, and readings done plum across the state. What was I thinking? Who knows.

But I made this cake for the sister of another good friend of mine from high school, who likewise was married in Maine. I used the same almond cake recipe, except this time with layers of fresh strawberries and strawberry jam. I was more careful in my frosting, and used equipment a (tiny bit) fancier than a butter knife and my hands. I had Matt, who was in Afghanistan during my first wedding cake extravaganza, to help me transport the frosted layers north. Boom.

Though it means that I don’t have a new recipe here for you today, I’m glad that I repeated many of the elements of my first cake in my second. Making a wedding cake with limited time and a home cook’s equipment? It’s doable but, man, it’s also hard. Not hard in a heavy lifting or a cost cutting way, really. I struggled more with the volume. A wedding cake takes a lot of eggs, butter, and sugar. It takes a lot of time.

And the trouble with time? With time, I’ve learned, comes attachment. With every additional minute that I spent coaxing 14-inch cakes to bake in even lines, frosting not to curdle, and strawberries to balance just so, I became more and more invested in the life of this cake. And by the time I arrived in Maine, unloaded the layers, cut the dowels, and constructed the tiers, a lot of minutes, hours and days had ticked by. When I finished the second bout of frosting and my consequent painstaking progress in leveling and decoration, this cake felt like more than a cake. It was a living thing, an extension of my body, a 60-pound baby spun from my own hands.

Kind of like my book.

I thought about this a lot last weekend. Because as I baked my first wedding cake, I was in the middle of writing my book. I was buried in outlines and research; I had no idea where it would go. Back then, it was all about the creativity. It was all about forging new paths ahead. I was living in a miniscule studio in Brooklyn, had a boyfriend fighting a war in Afghanistan, and was using 14 pounds of almond paste to create a wedding cake in my mother’s kitchen with nothing but a couple recipes and a half-baked plan. If I could make and transport that cake, then of course I could finish my book. It was all about magical thinking. What surprised me is that it worked.

During this wedding cake experience, however, my book was done. More than done. It launched itself out into the world two months ago, a little living thing that I spun from scratch and then let go. I’ve struggled with the indisputable fact that so much about publishing is luck and circumstance, that way more is out of my control than I’d like. I baked my life into a narrative. I frosted it with reportage, chapter structure, and so many words. Then I put it on a platter and sent it out to be served.

(Don’t get me wrong: Season to Taste has received some wonderful press. The events I’ve done, the responses I’ve gotten, and the people this book has touched leave me both honored and proud. It’s just all outside of my control.)

But when it came time to serve this second wedding cake, a series of circumstances conspired to form a distinct possibility that it would not be displayed at the reception before it was cut and devoured. That no one would see the constructed tiers, the smoothed out frosting, the strawberries balanced around its rim. Normally this wouldn’t bother the baker, as the baker is not usually present at the ceremony and reception. But I’ve known the bride and her family since I was a kid, and it was a delight to be present throughout.

So I found myself standing on the porch of the farmhouse where the wedding took place, thinking about my cake. I could see the White Mountains in the distance, and the falling evening light. Why become so attached to something, some inanimate thing, when its course is left so up to chance? Why did I stress about the structure, the flavors, the timing of each and every piece when it was always possible that it could just languish in the house?

Later, when the sun had set, the temperature dropped, and with mosquitoes suddenly buzzing around our necks, Matt and I carried the cake out on a big wooden plank down to the tent filled with guests. With the help of the caterer, we cleared a spot on the table and let it sit. “The wedding cake!” I heard a little girl yell from across the dance floor. Some things are out of my control, but others, with a little effort, exist completely within.