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At the risk of sounding like a one-trick pony, we had another fun weekend up at the lake this weekend.

In what’s supposed to be an annual event, but doesn’t always happen, our lake plays host to the New Jersey power boat races, which draws racers from all over North America.

Since we’re heading into our fourth summer up there, and have missed this weekend on occasion, it was our first time seeing the event live. And it’s a pretty amazing event, lasting two days. The boats are built like race cars with carbon fiber restraints that keep the drivers safe in case of a crash. As you can imagine, having 2-5 boats on the water at a time makes a ton of noise.

But it’s pretty fun to kick back with a beer or two and watch the event. Since the races were happening right in front of our house, we got to view them from every vantage point, including up on the porch…

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…and down on the dock.

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I mixed up a batch of Micheladas, my first time giving the recipe a try, and although it wasn’t Rodney’s favorite cocktail, I’m totally hooked. Definitely my new summer drink.

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Although the girls lost interest in the boat races pretty early, I had two other viewing companions…

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If I were to characterize my style of cooking, I’d say that it’s influenced by the Mediterranean, from Italy, France, and Spain in the West, as well as Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, and Lebanon in the East. Although I love Asian food, I admit that I’m still intimidated by the ingredients. But I did recently buy my first tub of Korean Gochujang paste, so don’t count me out just yet.

Having traveled through Western Europe, I’ve been fortunate enough to eat an authentic Pan Bagnat in Nice, fresh lemon gelato in Amalfi, and a spicy chorizo tortilla in Southern Spain, but for those countries in Eastern parts of the Mediterranean, I’ve had to make do with restaurant meals, or tried to replicate the flavors at home.

Someday I’ll visit in person, but until then, I have a decent selection of Middle Eastern-themed cookbooks that have shared the ingredients and tools essential to this region’s cuisine. Some of my favorites include “Falling Cloudberies” by Tessa Kiros, Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Plenty”, and Claudia Roden’s “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food”. I could fall asleep reading them every night; they’re the kind of books that take me to another world and send me off to sleep with dreams of rosewater, almond cakes and baklava.

Although I’ve grown to love Middle Eastern food, it wasn’t a food I grew up eating. There was a time in my life when my knowledge of Middle Eastern cuisine extended to two items: hummus and pita.

While I’d eaten the occasional falafel, I’d never actually tasted hummus until I got to college. In retrospect it was a pretty horrible version, but like pizza, even bad hummus is still decent.

In our campus’s main dining hall The Ratty, my girlfriends and I would eat it every night for dessert, thick chalky lumps scooped onto plates and attacked with a army of baby carrots. We’d wander up to the salad bar en masse, once prompting group of guys to yell out “FRESHMEN!!!” Those frat boys, ever the pranksters. Yes, we were Freshmen and highly identifiable as such, but I’d like to see what those guys are up to now. Sitting in basements with thinning hair and watching ESPN.

It’s possible that some of them are making hummus too. A friend’s husband once made me Smitten Kitchen’s ethereally smooth hummus, removing the skin from every last chickpea. I was thankful. And for the record, he doesn’t have thinning hair.

When I started to cook, I realized how easy it is to make hummus at home, and began to make it often, flavoring it with various spices, pickled jalapenos, or even vegetable purees.

As I became more comfortable with hummus, I extended my reach, venturing into the world of Middle Eastern salads, including tabbouleh, and one of my favorites, fattoush, made with bits of fried pita. The recipes differ, some versions are made mostly with chopped herbs, and others use torn greens as I did here:

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redmustardgreens

I don’t often cook with mustard greens. Like collards, I often see them in the store and bypass them for the kale and chard. But I love their peppery bite, particularly this beautiful red variety that I found at the farmers’ market. Surprisingly, given its spiciness, the kids were into it.

ME: What is this guys?

LAUREN: Mustard greens.

ME: YES!

SAM: Mustard greens?

ME: Yeah.  What does it look like to you? 

SAM: Looks like leaves.

ME: [to Emma] Here.  Ssssh.  Don’t get upset.  Ok.  Guys, we’re not playing tic-tac-toe right now.

LAUREN: You’re X and I’m O.

ME: Ok, we’re going to put those down for a second.  Ok.  Guys, I’m sad that nobody’s listening to the mystery food conversation. Who wants to smell it?

EMMA: Me.

LAUREN: It smells like mustard.

ME: Here, I’m going to smell it with you guys.

EMMA: It’s mustard greens.

ME: Yeah, it is mustard greens.

SAM: One of the leaves is curling up right now.

ME: Sometimes you can break it in half right in front of your nose and you can even smell it better that way.  Watch this…..What does it smell like?

LAUREN: Mustard still.

SAM: This tastes like leaves.

ME: It does taste like a leaf, doesn’t it?

LAUREN: Oh, yeah.  Oh my God it really tastes like —

SAM: I’m only tasting it a little bit.

ME: What do you think?

LAUREN: The inside tastes good.
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We were out for dinner a few weeks ago and the topic of the lake came up, and “yes, the boat is in the water, and oh, the kids will love it, we MADE AN HERB GARDEN!” and suddenly we had 15 people planning to descend on our little home.

Which always makes me happy and gives us an excuse to use our 10+ beds (two rooms have bunks and trundles, please erase any mental pictures of a castle on a hill).

But the best part about hosting for a weekend is that I have every excuse needed to spend 2 days in the kitchen preparing food.

And of course, hunting and gathering at the Union Square Farmer’s market for some treats beforehand.

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When we got up to the lake on Friday evening, the kids were eager to check out the herb garden, which despite my black thumb, has grown more lush by the minute.

I realized quickly that animal-shaped watering cans are the key to child labor, and put them to work doing all of the weeding and watering while I oversaw the process with a glass of white in my hand.

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We’d just finished watering the herbs when storm clouds gathered above and drenched us with rain while the sun continued to set over the Appalachian trail. It was our first sun shower together, such a beautiful moment.

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Rodney and I got engaged the Spring before we started business school and the time seemed ripe for a trip. With a small window between work and the start of school, we decided to pack up our bags and head to Europe. We spoiled ourselves by starting our trip in Spain, hitting Barcelona first, and then making a short stopover on the islands of Mallorca and Ibiza. We got into the usual kind of trouble over there, riding scooters on highways and staying up until dawn. I’m still thankful that we survived those few days, even if my camera didn’t.

From Barcelona, we traveled by overnight bus to France, where we met my parents who were living in Nice for a month. This all sounds very Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous, and I promise you that it’s not. This was the one time when the stars aligned and multiple family members somehow ended up on the same trip of a lifetime in the same area, at the same time. This will never happen again. Or maybe it will if we actually do become rich and famous.

To celebrate our pre-dawn arrival, my step-dad met us at the bus stop and hustled us back to their apartment where we were met with an impressive spread of French cheese, salami and duck terrine.

As you can imagine, we ate like gluttons; so much so, that Rodney and I made ourselves sick and had to spend the next day in bed suffering from severe gastrointestinal distress. Too much raw milk cheese isn’t always a good thing.

Fortunately, after our week of binge eating in France, we were on our way to the Liguria region in Italy. Our plan was to hike through Cinque Terre and get healthy again with a mix of salads, fish, and lotsa lotsa pesto.

If you’re a fan of pesto, there is no better place to eat this stuff than in Liguria. Pesto is religion here, with shriveled old Nonnas duking it out for bragging rights over who makes the best version.

With our bellies full of pesto, we headed south to Amalfi. Like our experience in Mexico, we didn’t know where we’d be staying, but hoped for the best, and ended up finding a gem of an apartment with a roof deck facing the Mediterrean. Our place was and run by a mother/son duo, both of whom loved gelato and neither of whom spoke a lick of English.

As you would expect, they grew basil on their doorstep. More pots than I could count, so heisting a few leaves here and there was a no brainer. 

We split our roof deck with another apartment, and thus found ourselves sharing dinners and conversation with an Australian couple who were visiting from the city of Adelaide.

“I dated a guy from Adelaide, he’s an actor, I met him on my study abroad in Sydney” I once mentioned. “Name is Damon Gameau.”

As luck would have it, their daughter was at a party with Damon when her parents called to check in. As heard from our side of the phone “Lovely time in Italy, beautiful villa in Amalfi, staying next to a gal who said she dated an actor from Adelaide. Yes, his name’s Damon Gameau. Oh you’re at a party with him! Well tell him that we’re with Jessica! His old girlfriend from Sydney.”

There was a lot of “what a coeencidence Muriel” kind of stuff before the daughter said “hold on Mum, I’ll go and tell Damon”.

A minute passed, and the daughter came back on the phone to report that Damon had never heard of me.

I don’t know how you can forget a girlfriend of 6 months, but apparently it can be done. We went on a mini vacation together. He introduced me to homemade carbonara and Tim Tams. We used to drink white wine in our cramped garden in Coogee Beach. We were in a house fire together. How can one forget these things?

So I dusted off my pride, and focused on the pesto. Because, what’s more important in life, amnesic ex-boyfriends who didn’t use enough shampoo…or pesto?

Exactly.

And here’s a little secret that I’ve learned in the past year or two: pesto can be made with just about any green. And basil, though I love it, needs to be treated with care or it can turn dark.

So my favorites lately have been of the more….exotic variety. Arugula pesto, carrot top pesto, radish green pesto, kale pesto. Name the green, you can make it into pesto.

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My go-to combo is usually garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese, and pine nuts, but I’ve discovered recently that pumpkin seeds make a fine substitute for nuts for our nut-allergic friends (our daughter included).

You don’t even need a recipe for pesto, although I’ve provided one below – just blitz the garlic in a food processor, add everything but the olive oil and pulse to a paste, and while the motor is running, add enough oil until you hear it slushing around loosely. Season to taste.

So whether you’ve signed up for a CSA and are preparing to get overwhelmed with greens this summer, or you (like me) can’t bear to throw away the beautiful vegetable tops that so often become compost or trash, I hope that this gives you some inspiration to get your pesto on. Enjoy!

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