Ricotta Tartines

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Early last summer my 16-year old daughter introduced me to tartines, those classic French open-faced sandwiches that suggest a vibrant fruit tart but with vegetables. I had taken her to lunch at a nearby café to celebrate the start of her summer vacation. As she scanned the menu, she pointed to a section labeled “Tartines” and mentioned that her high school French class had talked about them a few weeks earlier. She then launched into an enthusiastic explanation of how they are made.

I was reminded of that day a few weeks ago when I was browsing recipes in the New York Times and ran across a David Tanis column on the subject. In Grilled Cheese? Try a Tartine Recipe Instead, Tanis describes tartines as similar to a small pizza made of toasted bread, cheese, and any number of savory toppings. He also observes that tartines are a popular menu item in tiny neighborhood cafes and bistros in Paris presumably because of their convenience.

This got me to thinking about how tartines could be a great weekday option for busy families. They can be prepared on the fly and customized to fit both the time of day and individual preferences. Cleanup is minimal since they require the use of only a few dishes. Most importantly, everyone can participate in their preparation, even the kids.

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Late Summer Vegetable Sauté

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Ask most people what makes their favorite food appealing, and they’ll describe its delicious flavor or rhapsodize over its mouth-watering aroma. For many, food’s appeal is measured largely in terms of taste and smell.

Texture, on the other hand, usually receives less attention. It’s true that a few foods are touted for their creamy consistency, with yogurt being one such item that comes to mind. But, really, when was the last time you were tempted to eat a food (processed snacks aside) based on how it felt rather than tasted?

Take fresh corn, for example. Every year as piles of freshly picked ears start to appear around the country, lovers of all things corn find any number of ways to highlight its seasonal sweetness. Joe Yonan of the Washington Post finds it goes perfectly as the headliner in a simple pasta sauce. Melissa Clark of the New York Times uses it to flavor ice cream. Even my favorite radio foodie program, the Splendid Table, re-aired a story recently explaining the genetic basis for why different strains of corn display differing levels of sweetness.

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Creamy Corn Soup

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Corn is one of those vegetables that shines in any number of recipes. Whether eaten straight from the cob, seasoned with only some salt, pepper, and butter, or mixed with other colorful ingredients to make a summery salad, corn is a true culinary star.

Yet despite this virtuosity, I have never seen corn play the leading role in a soup. Of course there’s corn chowder, a chunky soup that most would agree is hard to resist. But that’s an ensemble performance in which the corn has to share the stage with potatoes, milk and often a bit of bacon. No, the soup I’m talking about is one where corn is the soloist, the lead performer, the headliner in a one-person show of edible hits. And in this particular performance, it seems that corn is a perennial no-show.

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Picture Books, Farmers Markets, and a Peach and Blueberry Crumble

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Until I became a parent, picture books were definitely not on my list of interesting reads. I think it’s because as a so-called grown-up, I assumed that books that depended largely on pictures to tell their stories were dull and simplistic, appealing solely to the youngest among us.

And then I had children, and like most of my prior assumptions about being a parent, my assumptions about the appeal of picture books flew right out the window. A picture book, I quickly learned, is a magical combination of words and art that can stir the imagination of any age.

One picture book that I especially loved to read to my daughters was Katie and the Sunflowers by James Mayhew. It features Katie, a little girl of about six, who decides to visit the art museum with her grandmother after rain washes out their plans to spend the day gardening. Upon entering the building, Katie is immediately drawn to the warmth and sunniness of paintings by the artists Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gaugin, and Paul Cezanne. In fact, Katie is so captivated by their works that she soon climbs inside several of them. The charm of Katie’s antics as she plays with, and runs from, the characters in the paintings is matched only by the beauty of the book’s illustrations. Its pages glow with the reds, yellows, blues and greens that were so beloved by the artists whose paintings Katie unabashedly explores.

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Roasted Green Beans and Red Pepper with Harissa and Pistachios

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Have you ever wondered why some cuisines feature spices more prominently than others?

I think of this question whenever I’m eating at the home of my mother-in-law, who was born and raised in the former Soviet Union. Dinner at her house nearly always includes traditional family favorites such as pelmeni (a type of stuffed pasta similar to ravioli), salads made with various root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, and beets, for example) in a mayo or sour cream-based dressing, chicken cutlets (patties of ground chicken bound with egg and fried in oil) and smoked and preserved fish, all seasoned primarily with salt, some pepper, and occasionally a few herbs such as dill and parsley. But spices such as paprika, nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom, and cumin? Never heard of ‘em!

In contrast, other cuisines that I love are practically defined by their reliance on specific, often indigenous spices. True Mexican food (not Tex-Mex) is spiked with chiles, both fresh and dried, as well as cinnamon. Thai cuisine is redolent with lemongrass, galangal (a root related to ginger), and Thai bird chiles. Star anise, ginger, and Sichuan peppercorns shine in the regional cuisine of China’s Sichuan province.

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