Nosy Neighbor Zucchini-Parmesan Bread

I spent last Saturday channeling Gladys Kravitz. Remember her? She was the annoying neighbor on Bewitched who was the thorn in Samantha’s side, always just about to catch her doing something witchy. The day had started promisingly enough. I reprised my role as freeloading Frieda, lured Friday to my parents weekend house by the good news delivered by Al Roker; it was going to be a beautiful Saturday. I went running, felt virtuous and planned on sitting outside with a pile of magazines and my new book, and should I happen to get a little color, so much the better.

What is it they say about the best laid plans? I settled into the chaise longue with Vanity Fair to learn why I should care about Lady Gaga when the dulcet tones of Van Halen from the house to my left almost blasted me off my chair. So I went back inside, found the window with the best vantage point and stuck my head out trying to assess what the hell was going on over there. Pool party! The teenagers were very busy cannonballing, pushing giggling girls into the water and cooking hamburgers at 10:30am.
The thing was that I started the day with my ears pricked up, waiting for the noise to begin. I knew our neighbors in the house behind us were giving a Cuban themed party that evening and had invited my parents as a sign of good-will. However, I once overheard their pre-teen son say to his pal, referring to my father and our house, “That’s where the mean man lives.” This is probably because of Dad’s tendency to blast Beethoven’s 9th in an attempt to drown out the sounds of the roughhousing produced by that kid and his brother in their pool. As a rule, I hate roughhousing. When I was a child we were always told never to scream in a pool—someone could think you were drowning, a lesson these neighbor children have not been taught.

I went back to my chair accepting that this is what happens with neighbors and tried to tune the mayhem out (which kind of worked when they switched to some old Peter Gabriel, U2, and other hits from the 80’s and 90’s that a woman of my age might better appreciate). Back to Gaga.
That was until I heard an idling car and some muffled voices coming from the street that borders the house on the other side. It sounded like an FBI stake-out so I went to investigate, carrying an empty recycling bag to the driveway, to make it look like I really needed to be there, only to find two Jersey Shore cast-offs (wrong state, boys) just yakking away in their Saab. Windows down, motor on, a/c blowing, clearly they were committed environmentalists. I stared at the car with a telepathic “May I help you? Keep it moving!” They got the hint and moved it along. Okay, just a few feet down the street. I took my empty bag back to the house.
I returned to my chair in time for the sun to decide it was going to take the rest of the day off, thus inflicting another week of pallor onto my sallow face. But it was still warm and I wasn’t going to let the clouds dampen my reading plans.

Except then I heard the familiar racket and “Whoa, dude!” of the village skateboarders who seem to favor the flat, quiet street my parents chose to live on, quietly. I hate skateboarders. I hate the whooshing sound of the wheels, the sound of the silence when the skater takes the board skyward, and the sound of the two of them crashing back to earth. Back out to the street I went, armed with my best nasty lady glare, and the team of 12 year old boys scattered.
I’m beginning to feel a lot like Paul Lynde in Bye Bye Birdie and for some reason I keep muttering, “Kids! I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!” And, bringing it full circle, I just remembered that Mr. Lynde played “Uncle Arthur” on Bewitched!
To quote my mother, I was just “not having the kind of day I want to have.” I decided to fully embrace my crabbiness by making myself a dinner of pasta with crab, chili, and lemon (bonus recipe!). It was delicious and certainly put me in a better mood as did the accompanying glass of rosé and the most recent episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. And you know, when the Cuban music started it was actually really good. Loud, but good. I guess my invitation got lost in the mail.
I vowed that Sunday would be better than Saturday and when I woke up to dreary clouds I refused to let them phase me. The end of summer is always kind of strange weather-wise; you have that first flirtation with fall followed by 90 degree temps a few days later. Because I was a little jealous of people who have that seasonal “What to do with your zucchini?” dilemma I bought two squashes at the farmers market. Shockingly I wasn’t craving anything sweet (due to the generous sampling of a very nice Lady Baltimore cake from a neighbor I actually like) and searched for a savory zucchini recipe. Martha saved the day with this zucchini parmesan bread, so nice with soup for you soup-eaters or a big salad, cheesy and salty. And I spent a perfect, quiet Sunday indoors minding my own business. Mrs. Kravitz would not have approved.
Nosy Neighbor Zucchini-Parmesan Bread
From Martha Stewart Everyday Food, September 2005
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1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for pan
2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus more for pan
1/3 cup milk
2 large eggs
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 4 ounces)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
1/2 pound (about 1 medium) zucchini, coarsely grated

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan (6-cup capacity) with oil; dust with flour, and tap out excess.
In a small bowl, whisk oil, milk, and eggs.
In a large bowl, whisk flour, Parmesan, baking powder, salt, and pepper.Mix in zucchini, then egg mixture until just moistened (batter will be very thick, like biscuit dough).Transfer batter to prepared pan; press in gently. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 60 to 70 minutes (tent with foil if loaf starts to brown too quickly).
Cool 15 minutes in pan.
Turn out loaf onto a rack to cool completely.


Grandpa's Blueberry Tart

My grandfather, Sol, would have been 102 this month, had he not died several years ago at 94. I feel like I need to acknowledge that it would have been his birthday because when he was alive I forgot it all the time. I feel terrible admitting that but it’s true. Honestly, I don’t remember the birthdays of any of my grandparents and I also don’t remember the dates of their deaths. I remember that I wore a winter coat at Grandma’s service and that Nana died in December right before her 75th birthday but that’s about it. How terrible that these details have never been absorbed by my brain.

Then again, isn’t it more important to have a mind filled with snapshots of real memories? Like the time Nana put her purse on top of her car and drove off with it teetering on the roof until the honking of passing drivers got her to pull over. I thought it was hilarious but she was frantic. Or when I had a sleep-over at my paternal grandparents’ place and Grandma’s attempt to get me ready for school involved braiding my hair in such a tight, weird way that I looked like an exchange student from Eastern Europe, circa 1935. And the Sunday afternoon I found a Playboy in Grandpa Jules’ bathroom and was sure that meant a divorce from Grandma was imminent. I was nine.
Grandpa Sol was my mother’s father and he looked like the actor Robert Mitchum. He was 6’2” and a fantastic athlete. He grew up in New York City in a section of town filled with German and Irish and his boyhood pals were named Lefty, Flugey and One-Eye. I love the idea of him playing stick ball (according to him he was almost recruited by minor league baseball) in the streets while his mother yelled for him from their tenement window. I’ve made that image up but it seems right. In fact he was such a baseball fan that the day my mother was born he celebrated by going to a Giants game at the Polo Grounds and was heart-broken when his team moved out West.
When I was little he still lived in New York and basically my interactions with him involved being taken to various events—The Ice Capades, the circus, the Nutcracker. And he’d always buy me a special program or whatever souvenir he noticed me eying. That was how he showed he cared, by buying me things, whether a new winter coat or a hot fudge sundae. Emotional intimacy didn’t come naturally to him.
Years later, when he was living in Florida and I was in college, he used to leave me messages on my answering machine as if he were writing a letter. “Hello deah (that’s how he pronounced “dear”), I hope you are feeling good. Is it very cold there? The weather here is beautiful. Mother tells me you are enjoying your classes. Speak to you soon. Love, Grandpa.”
But the times we did speak it was like he had a timer next to the phone allotting a certain number of seconds per response.

“Hello Deah! How’s work going?” he’d ask.
“Oh, it’s okay but you know my boss is away and there is so much …”
“You still working in the Fisk Building? I used to have customers there.”
“No Grandpa, I never worked in the Fisk Building. I work diagonally across the street at…”
“How’s your apartment? You getting along with your roommate Amy?”
“Her name is Wendy, Grandpa and yes, she’s….”
“Your sister still dating that Chinese boy?”
“He’s not Chinese, and he’s really nice. I’m sure you’ll…”
“I’ll see you next month when we’re in town. I hope you have time to have lunch, Doll.”
“Sure, I’ll pick a…”
“Okay Deah. Love.”
It was pretty funny but also a little sad, as if he was so afraid I’d deliver a piece of serious news that he had to cut me off before he got upset. But when I think of his young life I can’t say I blame him. Stick-ball to one side he grew up so poor he told me he wore his shoes down until they had holes in the soles and would sneak rides on the trolley car because he couldn’t afford the fare. He adored his mother but he never mentioned his father to me at all, if he knew him or even had one. His world was populated by strong women. One funny thing was that the most important ones were named either Sylvia (sister, wife I and wife III) or Ethel (wife II, sister-in-law with wife I, housekeeper with wives I and II, and secretary of wife III.) But the most poignant thing of all was that, although he was naturally left-handed, he was forced to write with his right hand as was the practice in schools at the time. His hand writing literally looked like pain, awkward and slanting oddly. I can only imagine what that would do to a child’s brain.
But he was so proud of his daughter and grandchildren and was always ready with a corny joke, a terrible pun and an easy laugh. Somehow my siblings figured out if you punched "70514" into a calculator and turned it upside down it read, “hi sol.” This trick reliably cracked him up--which was slightly ironic since he also had this Rainman-like ability to multiply three digits by three digits in his head. Sometimes we’d catch his lips moving and he’d tap his forehead and say, “gotta keep the old noggin working.”I always think about Grandpa whenever I make a pie. When we were kids he would slip us $5.00 and say, with a wink, “have your pie a la mode,” at once so basic and so meaningful. It may have taken his death for me to remember his birth but to celebrate what would have been Grandpa’s 102nd birthday I made this lovely simple tart—lemony blueberries piled high in a sweet buttery crust—and shared it with my family. And of course, we had it a la mode.

Grandpa's Blueberry Tart
From Martha Stewart Everyday Food July/August 2005
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1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus more for dusting
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

6 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and dried
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
3 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a food processor, combine flour, sugar, salt, and butter; process until large moist crumbs form (dough should hold together when squeezed).
Transfer dough to a 9-inch round tart pan with a removable bottom; with floured fingers, press evenly into bottom and up sides. Freeze until firm, about 15 minutes; prick bottom of dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden, 20 to 25 minutes; cool completely.

Meanwhile, reserve 1 cup of the prettiest berries for topping.

In a medium saucepan, bring 1/4 cup water and 1 1/2 cups berries to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat; simmer, stirring occasionally, until berries begin to break down, 3 to 4 minutes.
In a small bowl, mix cornstarch with 2 tablespoons water; stir into berries in pan. Add lemon zest and juice, sugar, and salt. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer, stirring, just until mixture begins to thicken, 30 to 60 seconds. Remove from heat. Stir in remaining 3 1/2 cups fresh berries. Immediately pour hot berry mixture into cooled tart shell, and smooth with a spatula.
Scatter reserved berries on top, pressing down lightly to help them adhere. Refrigerate until cool, about 30 minutes and up to overnight.
Yield: 8-10 slices


Sweet 16 Grilled Peach Melba

The other day I spotted something on the website of the Wall Street Journal that hurtled me back in time. The headline read, “Eating Well in Historic Rouen” and all of a sudden it was July, 1981.
At 16 there seemed to be a collision in my cerebral cortex of two powerful and equally terrible forces: entitlement and ingratitude. I greeted the opportunity of spending the summer in France as part of The Experiment in International Living (sounds vaguely Dr. Mengele-esque, no?) with the eye-rolling/sneer combo that had become my go-to facial expression. Can you imagine being offered the chance now? I’d be thrilled. Well, not completely thrilled since for part of the trip I had to live with a French family and I hate being a house-guest. Anyway, our leader, a 30-something out-of-work actor, suffered through the lost passports, budding alcoholism and sexcapades specific to his 12 adolescent charges and led us on our invasion of Rouen. (I should mention that I did not lose my passport, drink to excess or engage in any questionable behavior. My loss.)
I was assigned to stay with a family who lived in an apartment above a furniture shop. There was Papa, a tailor, Maman, a saleswoman at the local branch of the Printemps department store, and Bertrand, their 16 year-old son. And because my life never looks like a movie Bertrand was not only not cute, but he also hated me. I would have hated me too since my presence forced him to relinquish his bedroom to the American girl while he slept on the living room couch. There were also a few other things working against poor Bertrand: he did not seem to enjoy bathing (which was not helped by the fact that he wore the same “Telephone” concert tee-shirt every day), he was remarkably rude to his mother, and due to an accident that was never discussed, he was missing the tip of his left index finger. I’ll never forget sitting in the back seat of their car when his mother had stopped at a red light. As soon as the light turned green Bertrand crooked his Jones Little Links breakfast sausage of a finger at her and screamed “Vas y!” (“GO!") My mother would have clocked me, but Maman just put the pedal to the metal. And did he really need to point with his left hand? If that was what my finger looked like I would have kept it in my pocket.
During the “homestay” portion of this program our American group would meet for the odd day trip but for the most part we were expected to sink our teeth into the French way of life. In my case I handled this by sleeping as late as possible to cut down on the quality time I had to spend with Bertrand. So at around 11:30am I’d emerge from my (his) room just as Maman et Papa came home for lunch. Waking up to the smell of seared beef is pretty disgusting but not as disgusting as having that be your first taste of the day. Red meat and warmed potato chips, the breakfast of champions. Again, if I hadn't been a sullen 16 year-old, I could have been enjoying pain au chocolat with the rest of France at a more reasonable breakfast hour. Because I felt about Bertrand the way he felt about me I’d usually spend the day with the girl in our group who had become my bff for those six weeks. She’d take the bus in from her “family” who lived outside of town in a cushy set-up of which I was jealous. Plus she had cool French “sisters” who each a complete set of 10 fingers.
Katy and I would hit the streets and wander around. After a tour of the Rouen cathedral, or the site where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake, we’d go to a patisserie and gossip about the other kids on our trip. There we would each get one pastry and more often than not, share a second. My favorite was the coffee flavored “religieuse,” so called because it resembles a nun’s habit. Imagine a medium sized cream puff with a smaller one sitting on top, all filled with coffee pastry cream and iced with a coffee glaze. Usually there is a ribbon of buttercream circling the seam between the two puffs, giving it the look of the nun’s collar. I haven’t thought of this in 30 years, but they were so good and should you go to France you must have one. I’m going to leave baking them to the professionals. Be warned however, by taking "sinking my teeth in" literally I gained five pounds in three weeks.
But despite my whining about my “family” there were some highlights that uncurled my top lip and put a big smile on my face: Bastille Day fireworks over the Seine that were, and still are, the best and most magical display I have ever seen, watching Prince Charles marry Lady Di on a small TV in the breakfast room of a hostel, Yeardley Smith (now better known as the voice of Lisa Simpson but then known as the girl with the funny voice who belted show tunes throughout our trip) singing “Tomorrow” as we marched around Quimper (yes, a little “look-at-me” at first but actually, she was really good), and discovering Peche Melba at a tiny beach-side ice cream kiosk in Brittany.
After reading the Journal piece I remembered the Peach Melba and realized I’ve never had it stateside. With peaches still at their peachiest I am disregarding the fact that last week’s recipe was also peach focused and am going to stay on topic. So, if you don’t like peaches, keep moving, there’s nothing to see here. This recipe calls for the peaches to be grilled but that could be accomplished by using a stove-top grill pan (which is what I would have done had I not been freeloading chez my own papa et maman who have a barbeque). The raspberry sauce couldn’t be easier and everything comes together over vanilla ice cream in a mess of sweet but tart, warm but cold. It’s delicious enough to wipe the sneer off the face of even the most ornery teenager. Bertrand included.
Sweet 16 Grilled Peach Melba
from The Food Network/Alton Brown, 2006
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3/4 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided
1 vanilla bean, scraped
4 medium peaches, peeled, pitted, and cut in half
8 ounces frozen raspberries, thawed
1 pint vanilla ice cream, for serving

Preheat a grill to medium-high heat. (Or heat a grill pan on the stove over medium-high heat)

Place 3/4 cup sugar, water, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice, and the seeds from the vanilla bean into a small saucepan and set over high heat.
Bring the mixture to a boil and boil for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add the peaches; spooning the sauce over them. Set aside.
Place the raspberries, the remaining 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, and 1 tablespoon sugar into the bowl of a food processor and puree.
Pass the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a small bowl. Cover and set in the refrigerator.

Once the grill is hot, place the peaches over direct heat and grill on each side for 3 to 4 minutes or until they are tender. (Note: I grilled an extra to be on the safe side.)
Remove from the heat to a container with the syrup and cover with aluminum foil for 5 minutes.
To serve, place the ice cream into 4 bowls and top each bowl with 2 peach halves. Drizzle each bowl with the raspberry sauce and serve immediately.


The Country Peach Nectarine Cobbler

There is something so touching about watching a child play outside on a warm summer’s evening—damp hair, pajamas, getting ready to say goodnight to the day. I found myself almost moved to tears a few weeks ago when my niece, taking her last tour of the backyard before bedtime stories, became captivated by what seemed like swarms of fireflies lighting her way back to the house. And then there was this magical moment when she shrieked, “I caught one!” Her beaming face washed away the distant memories of any crankiness that had popped up during our day and all I could do was marvel at what she had just experienced. She let the firefly go (she is more respectful of living creatures than anyone I know—gently carrying a spider outside to be with his mommy, watching an inchworm inch on by, carefully introducing her little sister to a guinea pig) but following the elation of having had a new nature experience she drifted off to sleep with a smile. Watching this entire scenario unfold I couldn’t get Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” to stop repeating over and over in my head (except I replaced “dragonfly” with “firefly”). If you don't remember the words, listen here.
This may all sound a little treacly and frankly, hearing stories about the children who are important to other people and not to you is really boring, I know. My friends used to, unwittingly, punish me with tales of their own nieces’ and nephews’ adorableness and I just didn’t get it. “Um, he’s not your kid,” I’d find myself silently saying in a less than generous snit. And like so many things, you don’t get it until you get it and now I do. I am not one to say things like, “I love kids!” Not because I have anything against children but because I feel they are people and who likes every person they meet? I like the kids I like just like I like the adults I like. My point is really more about the effect nature has on all of us: as children it is wondrous and as adults it just kind of puts us in our place, if we’re paying enough attention.
It might be surprising that I, a born and bred city mouse, am waxing on about nature but as a child I spent summers in “the country.” Those of you whose addresses include a Rural Route can feel free to mock me because my idea of “the country” was a house in a Connecticut town close enough to the city we had escaped for my father to commute back to that same city on a daily basis. But for my sister and me it was where we caught frogs in the pond, collected slugs, picked up eggs from the old lady with the chicken coops on the other side of the road, swung on a swing tied to a tree, and ran around outside in our nightgowns trying to catch fireflies of our own. I credit those summers with giving me a thick skin when it comes to creepy crawlies. I have never been freaked out by bugs, not even the stray, inevitable city cockroach and more than once have stopped myself mid-swat in order to catch a moth in a Kleenex and release it out of my open bathroom window.
Back in Connecticut, we also grew a little garden. Plucking our own perfectly red, bursting tomatoes was so exciting and when my mother added them to our dinner salad I couldn’t have been more proud. That was until I had to eat that salad and realized my six-year old palate had yet to fully appreciate the taste of off-the-vine deliciousness. So, every time Mom turned around I spit the tomato into my napkin and then surreptitiously emptied it under the kitchen table—because of course she’d never notice red dollops of seeds and skin dotting the white linoleum floor. Needless to say, she was not amused and monitored my consumption of the rest of the salad. The experience put me off tomatoes for years.
Despite this home-grown goodness, summer was a time when we had different food rules. For three months we were allowed Wise Potato Chips, Yodels and Count Chocula cereal. On rainy days you could find us in Danbury at Burger King for lunch or sipping root beer floats at A&W. I associate those things with the country as much as climbing trees, feeding carrots to the neighbor’s horse or learning to swim. How is it we decide that certain foods are “country” foods? In her first cookbook everyone’s favorite Hampton-ite, the Barefoot Contessa, suggests creating a “country dessert platter” made up of artfully arranged slices of pound cake, lemon squares, chocolate chip cookies, pecan squares, brownies, strawberries and figs. Sure, I suppose you could call those treats “home-y” or something but I don’t think they’re so specific to “the country.” I make them in my city kitchen all the time and feel no compunction to serve them with a bunch of wildflowers or nestled in a gingham lined basket.
These days summer is not about Yodels (which I don’t really like in any season), if I want a potato chip I prefer the darker, Cape Cod Robust Russet variety, and, as tempting as this act of rebellion may be, I do my best not to spit food I don’t like onto the kitchen floor. I’m thrilled that the markets are over-flowing with tomatoes and especially happy that peaches and nectarines are joining them. This weekend I made my favorite “country” dessert, a peach and nectarine cobbler. I love the biscuit topping of a cobbler, as compared to the more sugary, oaty, nutty topping of a crisp or a crumble, and I do think it qualifies as a “country” dessert—it is so easy (not to imply country folk are stupid) and fast you’ll be able to make it and still have time to catch fireflies. Just be sure to let them go.The Country Peach Nectarine Cobbler
Adapted from Bon Appetit, July 1995
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4 pounds nectarines or peaches or a mix of both, cut into 1/2" wedges
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup all purpose flour
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Ingredients-Biscuit Topping
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
6 Tablespoons sugar (divided)
1 tablespoon baking power
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 large egg, beaten to blend
3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons chilled buttermilk (or 3/4 cup yogurt thinned with 2 Tablespoons of milk)

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400°F. Toss all ingredients together in 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Bake 15 minutes.
While filling bakes, prepare topping:

Mix flour, 4 Tablespoons sugar, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Using fingertips, rub in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal.
In a measuring cup, add egg to buttermilk and stir to blend. Pour mixture into dry ingredients until batter forms. It will be stiff.
Remove fruit from oven. Drop 12 mounds of batter over hot filling, spacing evenly (four mounds down the long side, three mounds across the short side). Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar.
Bake until juices thicken and topping is golden, about 30 minutes. Cool on rack at least 15 minutes.
Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, frozen yogurt or just on its own.
Yield: 12 servings