Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Recently, for the first time ever, I hosted a family cookout in my backyard. Because I lack some of the prerequisites for cookout-hosting (namely, seating) it was BYOC. The "C" stands for "chairs." This was not a highly premeditated event. Until the last minute, it was unclear how many of my family members were going to show, and the cloudy weather eventually gave way to intermittent rain. Despite these factors, the cookout was a raging success, due in no small part to the grill-masterly contributions of my sister Anna's boyfriend, Phil.

The grill is a bit of a blind spot for me. I don 't have a whole lot of experience grilling meat, although grilled meats number among my favorite foods under the sun. Grilling involves mastery not just of cooking technique (marinating, direct vs. indirect heat, lid up vs. lid down) but also of a whole new apparatus, one that lacks the ease of use and technological gee-whizzitude of my fancy gas stove. I know vaguely of things like chimney starters and smokers but haven't the first notion how they are put to use.

Phil is a Marine and Ultimate Fighting enthusiast (not just as a fan - AS A PARTICIPANT) who lives with my sister and her numerous lizards and her pit bull. No flies on him, as they say. He showed up at my house on the day with coolers full of spice-rubbed and marinated meats as well as three grills to add to my one. You can see the array of grills pictured above. The low quality of the photos reflects the poor light - cloudy day, remember? Phil manned all four grills for at least six hours, cranking out two flavors of wings, two flavors of ribs, regular burgers and turkey burgers with feta and spices mixed into the meat. The magnitude of the grillmastery cannot be understated. You can see some of the glistening trays of pork above.

Besides the venue, I provided dessert (more on this in Cookout! Part 2) and my sister made a scrumptious salad featuring chives from her garden, and bottled drinks were procured from the Carniceria Guanajuato. SIDEBAR (if I were David Foster Wallace, this would be a footnote): In case you didn't know, Mexican Coca-Cola is made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup, it comes in glass bottles that say "Refresco", and it tastes better. The new "Pepsi Throwback" is just a Mexican Coke wannabe, although I admire the sentiment behind it. That and a bunch of Jarritos in an ice-filled cooler are my new Essential Cookout! Ingredient.

My grilling learning curve is steep. Midway through the Cookout! I had to replace the gas tank on my grill, which I had never done before and figured out how to do under the proverbial gun without anything exploding. Emboldened by the success of the Cookout!, I am hatching still more grilling adventures for the summer, all the while trying to eat healthy per husbandly request. How will these two seemingly-dissonant desires collide? Stay tuned, intrepid CWTD reader(s).

Monday, June 1, 2009

First Pesto of 2009!

The tableaux you see above depict our family's first pesto feed of the year. Sadly, the basil is from neither our yard nor the farmer's market, but from Whole Foods. However, there is something indisputably springy about a big-ass green bowl of noodles with garlicky pesto all over it. Usually, spring-type pasta recipes turn me off a little; they seem naked, just pasty white noodles with a pea or piece of lemon zest here and there, but pesto definitely sauces the pasta. With some really good Parmigiano-Reggiano grated on top, there is just about nothing better.

I have a history with pesto. It's the first thing I learned how to cook that didn't come out of one of my mother's cookbooks. When I was fifteen, I spent a few weeks living with my aunts Eileen and Jean in Washington, D.C., soaking up every little detail of their relatively sophisticated and citified lifestyle. I listened to all their old vinyl records and ate their delicious cooking, which was (and still is) simple and based on fresh ingredients. This was a bit of a revelation to me. One day, Eileen showed me how to make pesto with basil she had growing in her own yard. I'd never had any pasta sauce besides Prego, and the flavor was like nothing I'd ever tasted before - fresh, bold, and addictive. The recipe came from her own wee paperback edition of Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook, and that summer Eileen bought me my own copy, which you see above. It's still my go-to pesto recipe and as you might expect, the cookbook automatically falls open to that page.

For a while, I used to make and freeze the "base" for pesto every summer when the basil was fresh and dirt-cheap. I could then thaw it out in the winter, add cheese and butter and have fresh-tasting pesto all year round. Once when I was in college, some disgruntled roommates encountered my frozen dark-green bricks in the communal fridge and, not knowing what it was, thawed it all and washed it down the drain. I have not forgotten this. Vengeance will one day be mine.

Marcella Hazan's Pesto Recipe:

2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic
2-3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/2 tsp salt

Combine the above ingredients in a food processor. In a separate bowl, put:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons Romano

Add the contents of the food processor to the bowl and mash it all together with a fork. That is your pesto! This is enough for one pound of pasta. Mess around with the amounts if you like; I usually use a little extra basil and cheese and skip the Romano unless I have it on hand, and sometimes go easy on the garlic (it's VERY powerful in this recipe). To make freezable base, make this as far as the butter-and-cheese part and stop.

LE SECRET: Pesto turns pukey brown pretty quickly after you make it. Avoid processing (or blending) the ingredients until the last possible moment. If you want to use my SPECIAL TRICK, buy some vitamin C powder from your local natural pharmacy or Whole Foods and add a half teaspoon to the recipe. This is referred to as "citric acid" on ingredient labels; it can be used to keep pureed bananas or cut apples from turning brown and doesn't change the flavor if used in small quantities. A jar of it is a bit pricey but lasts for-freakin'-ever and will keep your pesto greener longer.