Didja notice I skipped a week of Vegetarian Dinners That Don’t Suck? Forgive me. It’s summer, and we wrapped up the school year with a two-night camping trip in the Sierra foothills, came home for two nights and went camping again. So last week was a wash. Camping with two small kids is no small feat, it turns out, and the first trip was sort of medium successful. S. loved the tent, but also decided to wake up at two a.m. and harass me and his brother for three hours the first night. We managed to pick the noisiest campsite on the entire gorgeous lake. The people next door were jerks. Etcetera. But it was still lovely to swim, and the days were hot and dry and spectacular.
Funny story: we rented a Jetta to get up there, since our car is on the fritz, and we had so much stuff that the kids could barely see out the front. There were duffels and coolers and sleeping bags at their feet and between them and everywhere. So when we arrived and B was hauling things out of the car, he asked, “what’s in this giant bag?”
By the second trip, we had our systems down (Read: brought fewer stuffies) and it helped that camping up in fancy Healdsburg on a friend’s parents’ property was more like glamping. A pool, a lot of floatation devices, some imbibing, kids running wild?it all made for better sleep, easier days, and more fun. And we had really delicious, easy food both nights, big old communal dinners that are just what summer is all about.
Herewith, my last vegetarian dinner that doesn’t suck, a delightful and easy summer meal that’s always a crowd pleaser.
This recipe is a combo of something I?ve been making for years and an amazing uncooked sauce my sister-in-law J?yep! The one with the chickens and the Gado Gado?made for me once.
3 very large ripe tomatoes (heirloom or beefsteak), or the equivalent (several different colors looks nice)
1 cup or so beautiful sweet yellow or orange cherry tomatoes
1 bunch fresh basil, chopped
2 T. capers
1-2 cloves of garlic
1 container little fresh mozzarella balls or equivalent amount of another melty cheese you like: ricotta salata, brie, etc.
A fragrant peppery green extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Maple syrup, agave, honey, or sugar (optional; see Note)
Grated lemon rind (optional; see Note)
1 pound of pasta, gluten-free or regular (fresh pasta would also be divine)
Chop heirlooms into various sizes and shapes (all within the realm of bite-sized) and place in a bowl. Halve the cherry tomatoes and add them, too. Squeeze through a press (or mash with the side of a knife) the garlic and add that, along with the chopped basil, the capers, salt and pepper to taste, and a generous glug of olive oil. Toss gently, let sit for 15 to 20 minutes, then taste again. You want a nice mix of garlicky, salty, tangy, and sweet. If the tomatoes are too tangy, you?ll need to soften the flavor with a little bit of sweetener. If they?re very sweet and you want more tang, go ahead and grate in some lemon rind.
Add your mozzarella or cheese of choice, sliced in half, and let marinate for another 15 minutes or while you?re cooking your pasta.
Cook pasta until al dente in salted water. Toss with a bit of olive oil and your sauce. Correct seasoning and serve.
Note: You can actually marinate the tomato mixture for hours on end and leave in on the counter with a cloth over the bowl. I would still add the cheese towards the end, but do give the cheese a little time to absorb delicious flavors. This can, of course, also be made without the cheese for a vegan dinner.
A word on gluten-free pastas, for they are not created alike! Hands down, the best one is Jovial brand. That is all.
We went to Ben’s sister J’s last weekend in the 90 degree heat to check in on her beautiful and quirky property in Sonoma. We met her in Santa Rosa at a farm where a lovely woman named Vivian raises chickens. Little Sammy immediately availed himself of the flock, grabbing whichever bird would let him near. That kid is so fearless?at two, Leo sure wasn’t picking up any chickens (he wasn’t even at nine). Emus ran around the back of the farm and we bought two dozen gorgeous pastured (chicken! Not emu!) eggs to take home.
At J’s, there were fawns to feed with bottles, more chickens, including three temperamental and hysterical roosters, a pond with bright little fish, and a hose?oh my! Sammy watered for hours on end, and since their property is fed with a spring, we didn’t even feel too guilty about it.
And there was Gado Gado for lunch.
I already had Gado Gado on the brain. I was thinking how all of my recipes so far have been pretty homey, not “company stuff,” as they say. But with its gorgeous layers and colors, the Indonesian dish Gado Gado is the kind of vegetarian dinner you could serve when you want to make a big deal out of someone. Gado Gado is versatile, it feels a bit exotic, it’s a great way to put to use any veggies you’ve got, and it’s delicious. It’s also gluten-free (as have been all of my recipes so far) and good for vegans if you omit the eggs.
Note that my interpretation of Gado Gado is probably not authentic. (Someday, I’d like to go to Indonesia and eat the real thing.) And like last week’s recipe for tofu, this recipe is more of a concept than a firm list of ingredients and techniques. But that’s what I love about it: the possibilities really are endless.
A note on amounts: I’m sorry not to be firmer in the amounts below, but this dish depends a lot on how many are coming and how big their appetites are, as well as on what’s in your fridge. If I only have three potatoes for my family, I’ll supplement heavily with a sweet potato and a few carrots. Half a cucumber is fine if you also have some beautiful spring onions and a handful of cherry tomatoes. Etc.
A variety of cooking vegetables, chopped into large-ish bite-sized pieces (potatoes are classic; I have also used sweet potato, carrot, cabbage, greens, etc. Try for a mix of colors and flavors. At J’s we did potatoes, purple sweet potatoes, and large chunks of green and purple cabbage)
A variety of raw vegetables, including cucumber, lettuce, tomato, bean sprouts, green onions, green beans, pickled anything, more cabbage, etc., chopped into large-ish bite-sized pieces (at J’s we had tomatoes, cukes, lightly dressed baby bok choi, pickled carrots, green onions…)
Rice (traditional is sticky rice in a banana leaf! I always just make a pot of jasmine in my rice cooker and call it a day. J made a brown sticky rice, which was delicious)
Baked or fried tofu or tempeh (a block/package will serve four; you can also buy already marinated, seasoned tofu and use that?or, omit it altogether)
1-2 hard boiled eggs per person
Peanut Sauce (recipe below)
To make Gado Gado, prep your veggies: cut everything into bite-sized pieces and get the steamers going. Note that while it’s tempting to just throw everything together, the beauty in this dish is when all the vegetables form a mosaic on your platter. So resist the urge to skimp on pots and pans and neatly separate all your veggies. (This way, too, you’ll be sure that your sweet potatoes are not mushy while your carrots are still hard.)
While your potatoes and similar are steaming away, beautifully wash and prep your raw veggies. Boil your eggs, fry your tofu, and prepare your peanut sauce and rice.
When your cooked vegetables are cooked and your raw vegetables are beautifully chopped, get out your most beautiful platter and arrange everything. I like to pile like with like around the plate, making a rainbow of colors. Serve your rice on the side. You can either drizzle over some peanut sauce (and pass more at the table) or serve the sauce in a pitcher for everyone to help themselves. Either way, be sure to have plenty of peanut sauce.
As J says, without the sauce, it’s just a pile of vegetables.
Serve with hot sauce, too, for those who like it spicy!
Peanut (or Almond) Sauce
This is a recipe I love from Cynthia Lair?s fabulous cookbook Feeding the Whole Family. I *always* double it.
? cup creamy peanut or almond butter
2 teaspoons maple syrup
2 Tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon or more grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon sriracha or similar hot sauce (or to taste)
1/3 cup of water
Put all ingredients in a saucepan over low heat. Whisk until the sauce is smooth and warm. Thin with water as necessary.
Love peanut sauce? Make Bathing Rama, too: noodles or rice, fried tofu, a big pile of spinach or other cooked greens, all drizzled with the sauce. Yum.
The other day in the car we listened to this Robot or Not podcast about whether it’s better to have changing seasons or nice weather all the time. The New Englander in me immediately said “seasons,” though if I’m honest, I haven’t terribly missed those frigid Februaries and wet Marches too much since I moved West. (Fall colors, on the other hand? My tragic lost love.) I think the thing about living in a place like northern California, where the temperature changes maybe 25 degrees max, all year, is to be super in tune with the small changes: the few fall colors we get? Oh how I appreciate them. That chill in winter, when it’s below 40 in the morning? I’ll take it. And what passes for summer, and me having had the wherewithal to get up at six a.m. to write for an hour in that clear morning light FOR THREE WEEKS STRAIGHT NOW?
Yes, yes, yes.
Right now, in early June, we’ve got the warmest weather we’ll see all year?until late September, that is, when we get a second stretch of heat. In the middle? Fog. So when we have these warm summer days, it’s important to seize them:?the late light, the abundance of flowers, and mostly, the many fruits in our amazing garden.
And in the stores, already, blueberries and peaches and nectarines and basil like you wouldn’t believe.
So I have to admit that while?I was all about meal planning and being organized and cooking ahead?and while overall this has been such a smart move?lately I’m into the easiest and loveliest of summer meals: a salad, an artichoke, a protein, a pile of rice. I’m stocking my kitchen with summer’s bounty, tons of which comes from my very own garden, and then I’m seeing what happens next.
It’s kind of like writing a poem. A summer one.
Speaking of which: I’ve got a mini book tour going! I read in Santa Barbara last week, and I’ll be in Davis, California, tonight. Next week, I’ll feature at the Voz sin Tinta reading series in San Francisco. Over the summer I’ll hit Portland, Maine, and I’m hoping for the other Portland in the fall. You can stay up to date on my comings-and-goings on my new Little Prayers Book Tour page.??
And if you wanted a copy of my book and haven’t yet gotten one, The Bookmobile is coming! I’ll be signing and sending books in the month of June. Drop me a line via my contact page for details.
And wherever you are, enjoy a gorgeous summer meal. (Unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, I suppose.)