July 19, 2009


This woman has set kitchens on fire. Literally.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but one of the reasons Eileen didn’t cook much until her mid-20s was that as a kid she set her parents’ stove on fire during an ill-fated
attempt to make Rice Krispies Treats. Subsequently, she says, she was branded the “ditz” who wasn’t allowed near the kitchen. Her sisters were the ones who baked cookies after school and learned how to get a chicken in the oven for dinner.

But ever since she took a stab at linguine with clam sauce when she was 24—“You can’t fuck it up if it’s got butter and garlic!”—Eileen has been a total kitchen dweller. She bakes coconut cupcakes and makes her own pulled pork for parties. One of her favorite meals is a traditional (i.e. early) Sunday dinner. “When I was a kid, we’d come home from church, take off the pantyhose, and have a big meal. It was great,” she says. Eileen’s an experimenter, but as the parent of a picky eater, she’s also realistic. Case in point: her “cold pantry.” She tries to set a block of time aside, say on a weekend afternoon, and make a collection of simple dishes—things like hummus, tuna salad, egg salad, carrot salad. She stores them in the fridge for easy dinners. “Let’s just say I used to read Gourmet,” Eileen says. “Now Every Day Food is my bible.”

Eileen moved to
Brattleboro from San Francisco seven years ago. Since then she has had a second child, become an elementary-school librarian, and come to the sad, sad realization that the Mexican food she remembers from California just isn’t going to happen the same way here in Vermont. And so, as an alternative, she recently turned to Spanish cuisine.

We're talking gazpacho and patatas bravas, to be specific. Wearing pink lipstick and a vintage thrift-store apron and brandishing a handful of beautifully twirly garlic scapes (for both the soup and an aioli for the potatoes), Eileen steers me to the stove, where she’s heating up a skillet of oil. “I’m generally not a fryer,” she says. But her kids are visiting their grandparents, so she’s got room to experiment, make a mess, and not contend with eaters more selective than she.

Yet who in their right mind would say no to what is essentially a chunky french fry dipped in garlicky mayonnaise? I could eat a LOT of these. Seeing that I’m in the presence of a woman wearing pink lipstick and a pretty apron, though, I refrain from embarrassing myself. The gazpacho is the perfect antidote: fresh, salad-y, just a little sharp from sherry vinegar.

Family dinner entrée? Not at Eileen's house. But she thinks eating together as a family is overrated, anyway. “As long as you curl up and read together every day, she says, “you’re good.”

4 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
most of a hothouse (Kirby) cucumber, chopped
half a red onion, chopped fine but not minced
2-3 whole garlic scapes, chopped (remove the outer papery skin from the bulb)
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar (or to taste)
handful of stale white bread chunks (optional, for a thicker soup)
Salt and pepper to taste

If you’re using the bread, whiz it in a food processor to make crumbs. Set aside. Into the processor put the tomatoes, the scapes, and half the pepper, cucumber, and onion. Puree. Stir in the rest of the veggies and the oil, vinegar, bread crumbs, and salt and pepper. Serve cold. Goes great with chunks of avocado and/or grilled shrimp on top.

[Patatas Bravas]
1 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes
Oil for frying (Eileen uses half olive oil and half vegetable oil, with a touch of avocado oil thrown in)

Boil potatoes whole until tender. Drain and slip the peels off when they’re cool enough to handle. When the
potatoes are completely cool, cut into one-inch chunks. Heat a half-inch of oil in a cast-iron skillet over high heat until it shimmers. Place potatoes in oil and fry until golden brown and crusty, about 5 minutes, turning them over carefully—you want to keep them whole. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Salt to taste. Serve hot.

[Easy Aioli]
3/4-1 c. Hellman’s mayonnaise
2 garlic scape bulbs, chopped fine (remove outer papery skin from the bulb)
Spanish paprika and salt to taste

Mix everything together. That’s it. (This is a “blob” sauce for dipping, Eileen says. If you prefer a thinner sauce for drizzling over the potatoes, add a little lemon juice.)

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