Like a Damn Handful of Money
Tomato and Mayo Sandwich, Chef Erick Williams, Virtue
Erick Williams had hoped for a warm and sunny spring, “Because I love strawberries and if you don’t get a hot spring, you don’t get those good strawberries,” he says.
Well, the hot spring didn’t happen. So now Williams is hoping for a hot summer. “Why? Because I love a good, sweet, vine-ripened tomato,” he says. “And for that, you’ve gotta have a lot of sun.”
In Mississippi, where many in Williams’ neighborhood used to live, hot summers pretty much guarantee homegrown tomatoes of this kind, and putting those beauties between two slices of white bread, with a little Duke’s mayonnaise and some salt and pepper, makes a sandwich people go on and on about. “The elders in my neighborhood talk about a tomato sandwich like they’re talking about a damn handful of money,” Williams says, laughing.
“My mother grew tomatoes,” he says. “There were always some in the windowsill during the summer. Warm and sweet, with just enough girth to them that there’s a snap when you bite into the skin. First memories like that, they just sear nostalgia into your brain.” Williams grew up eating tomatoes on Wonder bread. Today he likes them best stacked on slices of a brioche Pullman loaf. “So the bread stands up like Wonder bread, but has the extra richness of the egg yolk in the dough. The mayonnaise? It still has to be Duke’s.”
Down by the River
Lamb Neck Guisado, Chef Carlos Gaytan, Tzuco
When Carlos Gaytan woke up one recent sunny morning, he saw a post from a childhood friend: a picture of a beautiful dried chili and meat stew. “I have a group of friends from my hometown, Huitzuco,” says Gaytan, “which is in Guerrero, Mexico, near Acapulco. Everyone in the group is sprinkled all over the U.S. now, but we keep together on social media, and one of them posted a picture of the stew he was making; I had to make it again!
“Just making this, the aromas bring me back to the mountains. We used to go to the rivers there during the summer and my mom would make this dish to bring along. We would swim all day long. When we got hungry, we’d sit on a rock and eat this. It is, very much, my summer comfort food.”
Called guisado, the dish is a braise of lamb neck with chilies, onions, garlic, spices and tomato. “After you brown the peppers and meat, you deglaze the pan with a little white wine and add potatoes with their jackets on. The potatoes soak up all of the flavors—it’s just so good!” Gaytan says.
Everything Made with Love and Butter
Cucumber Salad, Chef Kevin Hickey, The Duck Inn
Kevin Hickey grew up on the same street and about a block down from where he operates the Duck Inn in Bridgeport. “My mother grew up about two blocks south, and dad, six blocks west,” says Hickey. “So, we were all very close.”
Throughout his childhood, Hickey’s grandmother was a good cook, who “always had something going on the stove. She had a big sign on the side of that stove that explains, “Everything here is made with love and butter,” and, we’re sure, some homespun ingenuity. “When grandmother made spaetzle, she would get a large empty can and punch some holes in it, and then my grandfather would take a clothes hanger and twist it around to make a handle,” Hickey remembers. “I can still see her pouring the spaetzle dough into the can, where it would drip down into a simmering pot of hot water.”
Talking summer comfort foods, Hickey flashes on his grandmother’s cucumber salad. “Growing up, we always had Sunday dinner at grandmother’s house. No matter what the main course was, there would always be an ice-cold, crunchy, cucumber salad on the table. Sliced cucumbers, onion, vinegar and salt. And she used to absolutely bathe it in sour cream.”
For his version of the summer refresher, Hickey uses Persian cukes, or the hothouse English variety. “And I don’t peel mine. I simply slice them, put them in a bowl with salt, pepper, onions and a vinaigrette made with extra virgin olive oil, white balsamic or champagne vinegar, a tiny bit of garlic, a good amount of lemon juice, sometimes a little shaved fennel, and whatever the best onion is at the time.” Instead of the bath of sour cream, Hickey tops his salad with a big scoop of full-fat, no-sugar Greek yogurt. “But a spoon of crème fraiche, any sort of fresh farmers cheese, or labna would be great with it—even a chunk of fresh feta,” he says. To keep the salad from going soggy, “This really is something you want to make right before you serve it, ice cold.”
Tomato Tart and Roasted Apples, Chefs David and Anna Posey, Elske
David Posey’s mom Gunde came to the United States from Denmark and brought with her a talent for cooking fresh vegetables and fruits. Growing up in Pasadena, California just north of of Los Angeles, David remembers Gunde going to the farmers market for the fresh, multicolored tomatoes she would make into a summery tart topped with a freshly torn salad of basil leaves, herbs or lettuces.
“Basically, it was just a simple pate brisee dough, either in a tart pan, or freeform like a galette, spread with a little mayonnaise, topped with a sprinkling of cheddar or some other salty cheese, then the fresh tomatoes shingled over the top and baked,” says David. “When Anna and I make it, we lightly cook the tomatoes, to dry them out so they’re not so wet when you bake the tart.”
“We make the mayonnaise fresh, with roasted garlic and sherry vinegar,” Anna adds. “And top it with herbs from our patio garden. Just last week, we planted anise hyssop, a couple kinds of basil, nasturtiums, mint and wood sorrel.”
For Anna, who loved playing at her grandmother’s old farmhouse in Red Granite, Wisconsin during the summer, memories of the little red apples that came ripe in the summer make her summer favorite roasted fruit. “She had three or four apple trees, and the one dessert my grandmother would make was from those summer apples, cored, filled with butter cinnamon and sugar and baked until they were really custardy. I loved them.”
Served with a pour of fresh cream or scoop of ice cream, they also remind Anna of a dessert Gunde liked to make: “It’s called Rødgrød Med Fløde, just fresh berries or apples, cooked with a little sugar and cornstarch until jammy and then served with light cream. Gunde made it for us the last time we were in California, and for me it was an instant sentimental flash to the custardy baked apples of my childhood.”
Some Like it Hot
Chicken Biryani and Grilled Tri-Tip, Chefs Vinod Kalathil and Margaret Pak, Thattu
“Grilled tri-tip steak to me is like, ‘Ahhh!’ Family time, summertime, a feeling of celebration, and my childhood home,” says Margaret Pak, who grew up on California’s central coast in the small farm town of Santa Maria. “We lived on the outskirts, across the street from cattle ranches. The air smelled of rich dirt, cows and fields of produce—cabbage, broccoli, strawberries. We used to play in around the eucalyptus trees at the winery down the street, and there was a llama farm nearby too. Making the tri-tip takes me back. It was something first my mom, then my dad, and then I would make, on the charcoal grill, set up in the backyard patio.”
Simply rubbed in a spice blend she still gets from hometown purveyor Susie Q’s, Pak marinates the tri-tip in the spices with a little lime juice overnight, then sears it and lets it slow cook on the grill.
For Vinod Kalathil, growing up in Kerala, India, favorite summertime comfort dishes are hot and spicy, so hot summer months here get the same treatment.
“When it’s hot, you eat the spiciest things you can, along with hot drinks, because those are the things that actually cool you,” says Vinod.
One of Kalathil’s favorites? The extra-special chicken biryani which brings him back to his earliest food memory.
“When I was in kindergarten, a teacher who lived near our house was home sick one day,” says Kalathil. “That day at school, the other teachers were having some kind of celebration, including chicken biryani. Now you have to understand where I was as a child, even though my parents were both doctors and well off, chicken was very hard to get, and was considered a delicacy.
“So as I was getting on the school bus to go home at the end of the day, one of the teachers came out with a packet of the biryani for me to deliver to the teacher who had missed the party,” Kalathil recalls. “So, there I was, sitting on the bus, holding in my hands this incredibly fragrant packet of beautiful biryani.”
Every block of the journey, the fragrance got more and more tantalizing, and finally a decision was made: “I went straight home, and said to my parents, ‘Look what the teachers gave me! This beautiful biryani.’ We ate and enjoyed it, and that poor teacher had none. When she returned to classes, and was asked, ‘Did you enjoy the biryani?’ She had no idea what they were talking about, and the truth came out,” Kalathil says, laughing. “I wasn’t punished—everyone just thought it was hilarious.”
Kimchi is Comfort
Cucumber Quick Pickle, Chef David Choi, Seoul Taco
“Comfort to me is kimchi. Approaching the summer, I’ve been pickling stuff here, things that will last well, because you want to limit the number of times you go to the store,” says Choi. “I’m making a lot of this cucumber kimchi, which I learned from my grandmother. There is really no right or wrong way to do it, how sweet or spicy or funky you want it to be is up to you.
“I probably started making this when I was in college in Springfield, Missouri,” says Choi. “There was absolutely nowhere to get kimchi there, so any downtime I had I would go to my grandma’s to make it.
“She was always in the kitchen, and always asked me to help. Unlike cabbage kimchi, which we made in such large batches the tub was the size of a kiddie pool, for cucumber kimchi, we’d just stand at the counter,” he recalls. “She’d slice the cucumbers really thin, put them in a bowl and then add a kimchi paste of Korean red pepper flakes, garlic, ginger, fish sauce and soy sauce. Then she’d add vinegar and sugar. I watched her doing this hundreds of times and use the same method. You don’t have to let it sit long, just a couple hours in the fridge to make sure it’s nice and cold. And when I serve it, I put fried shallots on top.”
Spinach Ricotta Gnocchi, Chef Dario Monni, Tortello Pasta
Ask Dario Monni about his favorite summer comfort food, and he immediately thinks back to Venice and the tiny light-green spinach and ricotta gnocchi his mother would make.
“When I was a child in the summer, I would wake up and see her, covered in flour, holding these beautiful red eggs to make pasta,” says Monni. “I liked watching her rolling each of the tiny dumplings in her hands, seeing the little balls come up like mini-soldiers lined up in rows. She would make hundreds of them.”
Monni’s mom bought her ricotta from a small town near Venice. Mixed with Parmigiano Reggiano, and spinach that had been cooked, blotted and cooled, she added salt and pepper and just a tiny bit of flour, to be shaped, steamed and served in a light butter sauce.
“Those colors—that taste and texture, mean summer to me. It’s funny, if you say ‘gnocchi’ here, people think ‘heavy,’ but these were nothing like that! They were light, tiny little clouds. She made them so often, she knew just the right proportions without ever having a recipe written down. I keep practicing, but it takes a lot of time and trial to get it perfect. I hope one day to make them like my mother did.”
Tangy Textured Potato Salad, Chef Trevor Teich
With a mom of Irish heritage and an Austrian dad, Trevor Teich says, “If there wasn’t some kind of potato going on the table, it wasn’t a meal.”
Fried, mashed, baked or boiled, potatoes went with everything—especially good with the family’s special occasion favorite: Wienerschnitzel. As a kid, Teich enjoyed using the meat mallet to pound chicken, or pork, or veal flat enough to fry up a good schnitzel. Dipped in seasoned eggs and breadcrumbs, the schnitzel then went into a pan of hot fat. “You laid it in there, shook the pan, and then flipped it,” Teich says. “One of the key signs of a perfectly cooked schnitzel is that the outer coating will soufflé—or puff up. We all learned how to make them,” he says. “They’re a little time-intensive, so it helped take the burden off my mom.”
During the summer, Teich’s mom made potato salads with traditional Midwestern stylings. “Mayo, mustard, some chives and spring onion, that sort of thing. But I personally prefer a potato salad with more texture, tang and no mayo.”
To make his, Teich cooks up a batch of fingerlings, or some other tiny potato, and adds a whole lot of texture and tartness: tiny pickled pearl onions, a small jar of whole-grain mustard, thin-sliced celery, red onion, scallions and parsley. For richness, there is cooked and crumbled bacon, plus hard-cooked eggs, sliced into quarters. Pulling it all together, he tosses the salad in a vinaigrette of olive and peanut oil, lemon juice, white wine vinegar, sherry vinegar—and, for a little salty spike? A splash of fish sauce.
Buttermilk Country Cornbread, Chef Lamar Moore
Growing up on Chicago’s West Side, Lamar Moore spent a lot of time with his grandparents. Afternoons, while his grandfather made a one-pot goulash of chicken neckbones with potatoes, celery, onions, carrots, “and any herbs he could find,” Lamar says his grandmother would busy herself making cornbread to go alongside.
“It was simply white cornmeal, eggs, dried-evaporated milk powder and lard,” says Moore. “Sometimes, she’d get busy doing something else in the kitchen, and the cornbread would get burnt on the edges. When that happened, she’d crumble it into bowls, pour some buttermilk and sugar on it, and my brother and I would eat it with spoons.”
The flavor was so good, Moore says, that he patterned his restaurant’s Burnt Buttermilk Cake on it. But at home, Moore likes to make cornbread he’s perfected to include buttermilk in the batter, serving it with whipped honey butter.
“You have to bake it in a cast-iron skillet that you’ve heated with a little fat in the bottom—that makes the crust crisp up when it hits the pan,” says Moore. The stiff, rich batter includes a choice of butter or shortening, with both flour and white cornmeal, buttermilk and a splash of molasses in the mix. It bakes up into a corncake that’s a full four inches tall, with crispy outside edges and a tender, inside texture.
“I learned a good portion of my recipes from my grandmother, and my version of this one is a summer favorite,” says Moore.
Lamar Moore’s Buttermilk Country Cornbread
2 cups white cornmeal
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup pure cane sugar
6 teaspoons baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup, plus 2 teaspoons lard, butter or vegetable shortening, divided
2 teaspoons molasses
2 whole eggs
2 cups buttermilk
For Honey butter:
1/2 cup softened butter
1/4 cup honey
Mix well, keep at room temperature
Method: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in butter with two forks, a pastry cutter or your fingers until mixture is crumbly with a texture like damp sand.
In a separate medium mixing bowl, beat egg until frothy. Stir in buttermilk and molasses. Add wet mixture to the dry mixture, stirring just until blended.
Place remaining 2 teaspoons fat in cast iron skillet and put skillet in oven. When oil is shimmering and skillet is very hot, add the batter to the skillet.
Bake cornbread 25 to 35 minutes, until center springs back when pressed, and toothpick comes out clean when inserted into bread.
Serve hot with honey butter.