Recipe: Sun Tea

Sun tea is one of those things I plum forgot about for years. But I wanted to make iced tea the other day and didn't feel like turning on the kettle, seeing as my kitchen was already 90°F.

Then I remembered sun tea.

To make it, you leave tea bags in a clear glass jar filled with water in a warm and sunny spot, like a porch or a window sill. A few hours later, your tea is brewed. The water never gets hot enough to over-brew the tea, so it won't taste tannic even if you leave it in the sun all day.

I made some with a single green tea bag in a small jam jar, then poured it over ice and added a tablespoon of ginger syrup. I think it's my new go-to drink for the rest of the summer.

5 Great Food Gifts for Hosts and Hostesses

Food gifts are one of the best ways to thank a host or hostess. Over the years I've received a few that were memorable, thoughtful, useful, and just plain fun. Here are five of them:

1. The Norwegian National Invention. When friends from Oslo came to visit, they came bearing their national invention: a cheese slicer. It's the kind of cheese slicer that's shaped like a pie server, only it has a sharp cutout along the base of the triangle. Glide the slicer along a piece of cheese, and a neat slice slowly emerges on the serving area, which you can then gingerly pick off with your fingertips. It doesn't take up much space and always reminds me of my friends. I like that it's special from their country, and yet not a crazy contraption. It's useful (and not all "special little tchotchkes" are).

2. Homemade jam. I'm a glutton for jam. I eat it by the spoonful. I slather it on bread, toast, graham crackers. I spoon it over yogurt and ice cream. When a friend came to visit with a little jar of homemade strawberry jam tucked into her suitcase, I was giddy. Similar to the cheese slicer, it's small and doesn't take up much space at all in a tiny New York apartment, and it's useful. Jam is a winner as a simply gift for a host or hostess, but it's extra special when it's homemade.

3. Coffee (or Tea). No guest will ever be turned down from my doorstep when they show up with a bag of good, strong, fresh roasted and ground coffee. If you know your host or hostess is a coffee drinker, spend $10-$12 for a pound of good coffee. Or, if you drink coffee but your hosts do not, bring whatever good coffee you like (see no. 10 on this list) so it'll be on hand in the morning when you need it, in addition to another gift that's a little more tailored to your hosts. Likewise, if you or your hosts are tea drinkers, good quality tea is always appreciated. Its long shelf life helps, too.

4. Salad servers. Another useful and fun item that doesn't take up too much space is a set of salad servers. We just got a new set from a couple who are visiting this summer. They were in Africa not long ago and picked up these gorgeous wooden salad servers that are decorated with tiny beads on the handles. One of the friends grew up in South Africa, so again, I like that this gift reflects something about him and his homeland. And I can never have too many salad servers.

5. Rosemary or other herb plant. Two years running, my mother has given me a rosemary plant in the shape of a Christmas tree sometime in December, when I invariably invite her and the rest of my family over for Baking Day. Both years I killed it before May, but hey, I tried. Unless your host or hostess has severe allergies or tends to kill plants (in my defense, I have a dozen other plants that are healthy and thriving!), a simple potted herb plant, for about $4-$10, makes a great little gift.

Recipe: Watermelon Icy 3 Ways

This week I hosted dinner for six, despite the Singaporean weather conditions in New York right now. It's been in the high 90s°F and low 100s°F (that's 36-38°C) with outrageous humidity for days. Needless to say, I knew everyone would be thirsty.

So I thought back to my trip last year to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. There were fresh or frozen fruit drinks everywhere: smooth blended mango, creamy banana, frothy coconut, mildly tart dragonfruit. My mouth is watering just thinking about them. One of the prettiest drinks, though, was watermelon with its deep blush.

Before everyone came over last night, I ran out and bought an 18-pound watermelon. Lugging it against my abdomen (and thinking, "Even twins wouldn't be this heavy in the womb!"), I carted it home, hacked it up, and put as much as I could fit in a blender, about a quarter of the melon. I sliced some pieces to eat immediately, cubed another quarter of it and tucked it into the freezer, and put the rest in the fridge.

Whatever fit in the blender was whirred into liquid oblivion. I added a few tablespoons of syrup (sugar water) and poured a few glasses over ice.

A bottle of St. Germain (a sweet elderflower liqueur) near my side, I asked Boyfriend to try boozing one up. Delicious, but a little too sweet.

The pureed watermelon had more pulp than I expected. Bits of roughage slide around on your tongue and teeth as you sip. If I had been cooking a mire elegant dinner, I might have strained it, but on a night too hot to do more than set out ingredients for make-your-own burritos and simmer a pound of black beans, rustic but cooling beverages were just fine.

Today, I returned to the pile of watermelon in the freezer, determined to get an even icier drink out of it. Because the frozen chunks would need more liquid to blend, and because I wanted to add another flavor to the drink, I made some ginger syrup and added a few tablespoons for every two cups of blended watermelon.

Watermelon Drink, Straight
Serves 4
4 cups seedless watermelon, cubed
simple syrup to taste

Blend watermelon and one or two tablespoons simple syrup (or sugar dissolved in a little warm water) in a blender until smooth. Pour immediately over a lot of ice.

For a smoother and more elegant version, strain the beverage before serving. Garnish with mint, basil, or a lime twist.

Elderflower and Watermelon Icy
Serves 4
2 cups seedless watermelon, cubed, fresh
2 cups seedless watermelon, cubed and frozen
4 oz St. Germain

Blend both fresh and frozen watermelon in a blender until smooth. Stir in St. Germain. Serve immediately.

Watermelon Ginger Icy
Serves 4
2 cups seedless watermelon, cubed, fresh
2 cups seedless watermelon, cubed and frozen
1 oz ginger syrup

Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth. If the frozen watermelon is stubborn, add a little water or simple syrup to get it to move. Taste to adjust sweetness and bite or flavor of the ginger, adding water, simple syrup, or more fresh watermelon if the ginger flavor is too strong. Serve immediately.

Recipe: Ginger Syrup

Ginger syrup punches up cocktails and frozen drinks, and it's a cinch to make. Here's how:

Ginger Syrup
1 cup fresh ginger, washed with peel intact and roughly chopped
1 cup sugar
3 cups water

Roughly chop, bash, and smash the ginger by hand or in a food processor until it is thoroughly beaten up.

Place all the ingredients into a heavy-bottomed pot. Bring the mixture to a low boil over a medium flame, then turn it down to a simmer. Let simmer uncovered for one hour.

Strain twice, and let cool in a thick-glassed jar. Store chilled.

Smarter Kitchen Design

MOMA kitchen exhibit 2010, New York Times
Last year (2010), the Museum of Modern Art explored the ultimate kitchen design. The exhibit was called Counter Space, and it featured a model kitchen kitted with efficiencies the likes of which I had never seen. Every element in the room found a logical and ergonomic place: a warming chamber attached to the side of the oven to take advantage of the heat that's already there; plate racks that double as drying racks; flour, sugar, and spices could be stored in small pull-out drawers, each labeled with the name of the ingredient. The twist? This ideal and modern kitchen was designed in 1926-1927!
"Frankfurt Kitchen," as its known, was the creation of an architect named Grete Schütte-Lihotzky. "In the aftermath of World War I," MOMA explains, "thousands of these kitchens were manufactured for public-housing estates being built around the city of Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany."

Image by Yana Paskova for The New York Times.

It makes me batty to know that someone figured out how to put together a kitchen in a way that makes sense, and we're not doing it today.

Lately, I've been looking at apartments and condos because I'm thinking about moving house soon, and I wouldn't mind finding a place with a kitchen that's so poorly designed that I wouldn't feel bad gutting it and starting over. What would I put in my ideal kitchen? I've been thinking about it, and here are some of the features I'd want:

  • as in Frankfurt Kitchen, I'd want to store my plates in a rack doubles as an air dryer, positioned next to the sink
  • sink with two basins
  • detachable faucet head so I can remove it and fill a pot that's on the counter or stove
  • marker board for writing notes, either on the wall or as the front of the refrigerator
  • a new and powerful oven hood (I'm forever filling my kitchen with smoke)
  • a window or skylight that can open
  • shelving for potted herbs near both the sink (for watering) and window (for light)
  • a warming chamber attached to the stove
  • compost bin
  • a space in the refrigerator that can safely hold a half-empty bottle of wine upright
  • a gray water system and compost bucket
  • expandable counter surface, as in a table leaf (no matter how ideal my kitchen space, it's inevitably going to be somewhat tiny, but that's the price I pay for living in New York).
I'd also ideally like for no cupboard to be higher than a foot above my head. My current kitchen has ample storage space, but it extends about four feet higher than the top of the refrigerator, so it's complete inaccessible unless I climb up on a stool. Other shelving in my kitchen is just barely within my reach, but I'm five-foot-eight. My shorter friends and family can't reach the wine glasses, mixing bowls, or mugs.
Name-brand appliances aside, what would you put in your ideal kitchen, and how would you design it smarter than what's common now?

Design Changes to Blogger, and to My Blog

Google Blogger got a total makeover, and in testing some of the new features, I accidentally redesigned my own site and committed the changes (there's no undo button). I've been waiting to redesign this site, but I was hoping to make a more gradual transition. So my apologies for the abrupt new look! Hopefully I'll spend some time this weekend tweaking to get it just right.

What Defines Your Cooking Style?

My sister and I were talking about a close friend of mine, and she asked if I thought my friend was a good cook.

"Yes," I said. "She's a great cook, but her style of cooking is remarkably different from mine. If she and I make the exact same thing, hers will taste totally different. Her style isn't something I could replicate."

"What do you mean?" my sister asked. "How?"

"I guess when I cook, things taste fresh, bright, vibrant. I tend to make things that come together quickly," I said. "But I also rush things. I get impatient, so I like to make food that comes together quickly. But my friend usually cooks things that take longer. She's really good at coaxing out deep flavors from a longer cooking process. She makes an incredible soup every winter, and a killer roast chicken. She also makes anything with long-cooking grains taste amazing."

Later, I thought about it more and realized that I also tend to use high-acid ingredients, like vinegar and fresh lemon juice, late in the cooking process to further make flavors pop. And even when it comes to baking, I'm more likely to look for recipes that can be taken from start to finished in an hour. While I have cooked and baked plenty of recipes that take days rather than minutes to make, they're not recipes that I naturally I gravitate toward.

I think that even very experienced and avid home cooks don't spend a lot of time thinking about their style of cooking. They usually think more in terms of proficiency level. Either you have or your haven't made souffles yet. Either you do or you don't feel comfortable working with gelatin. I never thought much about my own style of cooking until I was asked about someone whose style is radically different from my own. It was only then that I could see what made my cooking taste the way it does.

What defines your cooking style? Have you ever thought much about it? I'm sure there are other factors that influence one's cooking style, from the base ingredients people choose to what kitchen tools you consider basic and every day. For example, I don't own a wok or a mandoline, so I'm not making a huge array of dinners that would come together in a snap if I had. And if you do use a mandoline regularly, you probably also use quick and fast heat because all your ingredients will be sliced thin and won't hold up to longer cooking.

Farmer's Market Opens in Astoria: Greenmarket NYC at Socrates Sculpture Park

Last weekend, Boyfriend got a new bicycle and we finally did our first ride together. We started at our house in Astoria and took the waterfront down to Long Island City, over the Pulaski Bridge into Greenpoint, and down to McCarren Park, which is the border area between Greenpoint and Williamsburg.

Seeing Astoria by bicycle, in the summer especially, gives it an entirely different feel. The Queen's side of the route runs along Vernon Blvd., with views of Manhattan and Roosevelt Island almost the entire way. Parks line the waterfront, too, with huge family gatherings and cookouts every weekend that leave you gliding through the wafting smoke of grilled meats and a gentle cloud of curry.

Midway between Queens and Brooklyn is Socrates Sculpture Park. It's a strange park with modern and sometimes rather ugly sculptures, which change every year. When we first moved to Astoria, Boyfriend and I explored it once and decided that although we loved the view and some of the weirdness about the park, it just didn't warrant going back very often.

So when we biked past the park last weekend and saw a new Astoria farmers' market had open, we finally had a real reason to return.
(See Harris Graber's photos of the Socrates Greenmarket on opening day on Flickr.)

Yesterday, we did some shopping. It's still a relatively small market, but there were at least eight vendors, and most of them had vegetables. One honey seller, one bread baker, and one winery were there, too. We got a basket of strawberries ($6) that taste bright and jammy, only without the sugar. We also found some sizable bok choi ($4 per pound), a vegetable that has so much more flavor and tenderness when bought from a local farm rather than a supermarket. (Commercial produce is usually picked early so that it's firm and holds up during shipping and shelf-time, which is in part why local stuff usually tastes better and has more nutritional value. Some people can't always taste the difference with every food, but with bok choi it's noticeable.)