Saturday, August 29, 2009

Not quite yet......

The mark of the calendar; the back to school sales; the disappearance of apricots all let me know that summer is on the wane. I have to start to brace myself for the pull of a wool sweater and the carving of a hard-skin squash. But of course, as I am never ready to give up the drenched wonder of summer I get a tad melancholy thinking of its demise. I am looking at the early arriving sour apples and still tender celery root cursing their presence fruitlessly begging them not to take-over. I know I will have to say good-bye to sweet corn, and ruefully stare at a supermarket’s display wondering how I am going to make dinner. Though I should not be so dramatic as I still have ahead of me persimmons, quince, Brussels sprouts and pumpkins to excite my senses and fill my plate.

The prognosis is terminal and it is guaranteed that winter’s repose is bound to happen – it is not here yet.

I find solace in the plentitude that while it lasts, is all around me. The market is still allowing humorously shaped ripe tomatoes, snap-crackle-pop string beans and an inventory of growing preserves. My freezer is starting to complain of limited space and my refrigerator shelves are lined with jars of various brine suspended treats. There is no need to prematurely bemoan the end of summer. Just because the summer rental is near expiration I must remember Mother Nature is not a tenant and does not abide by man’s contrived calendar. So, I will fully appreciate the remaining brilliance of the season and will not pack away my beach gear so quickly, and shall plan my next al fresco dinner (remembering to bring a sweater).

Melon Sherbet – yields approx. 2 quarts
1 cantaloupe (about 2 pounds)
1/3-cup peach schnapps
1 can sweetened condensed milk

Peel the cantaloupe, and cut in half. Scoop the seeds right into a sieve that is sitting over a bowl. Press on the seeds to release the juice into the bowl. Discard the seeds, and pour the juice into a blender along with the peach schnapps.

Roughly chop the cantaloupe, and place in the blender along with cantaloupe juice. Process the fruit to a puree. Add the sweetened condensed milk and mix to thoroughly incorporate.
Place the cantaloupe mixture into the freezing compartment of an ice cream maker, and freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

oh, happy days

..........on my knees, digging
..........a garden full of abundance
..........a basket full of thanks

Charred Eggplant – serves 6
2 medium eggplants (about 1-1/4 pounds)
1 medium onion
3 garlic cloves
2 green Thai chilies (seeds removed to lower heat)
8 lime leaves
8 curry leaves
2 black cardamom
1-teapoon black peppercorns
1/2-teaspoon cumin seed
2-tablespoons grated ginger
2-teaspoons coriander
1/2-teaspoon salt
2-tablespoons canola oil
1-pound tomato - diced

Over a flame char the eggplants until slightly soft. Split in half and remove the eggplant meat. Roughly chop the eggplant meat and hold to the side.

In a blender puree the onion, garlic, chili, and lime and curry leaves, cardamom, peppercorns, cumin, ginger coriander and salt to a smooth paste.

Heat a 10-inch sauté pan over a medium heat, and the oil and spiced onion puree. Cook the mixture for about 5 to 10 minutes stirring frequently. Mix in the eggplant and the tomato, and cook an additional 15 minutes.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Seasons to Taste 3

I have over the years met a few people who claim they don’t eat tomatoes. Incredulously my immediate reply has been, are you allergic? I could not imagine any other reason not to be completely in love with these summertime seductresses. I have waited ten months for an acceptable tomato to cross my path and when those sun-sweetened gems arrive I want them clinging from every fork-full. There is no doubt that in my world the tomato is an enthusiastically welcomed kitchen guest.

Like most of us, except those few, I am putting tomatoes into every dish everyday while the season lasts. Currently, they are potentially found tossed in a corn salad; mingling with charred eggplant with chilies, or simply sliced then dusted with sea salt and a lacing of olive oil there exists no greater pleasure. My yearning for that sweet-tartness out lives its season, and no grocery can fool me with their “vine ripened” display. There is a tremendous need to supply myself with a wintery fix of these love apples.

Now, that we are a few weeks into the season here in the northeast I have started prepping for a February dinner. Already, in the refrigerator sits a jar filled with oven-dried cherry tomatoes. It is easy to pull off. I line a baking tray with random herbs stems, and covered with a thick layer of kosher salt. Then lay the cherry tomatoes on the bed of salt, and into a 175-degree oven for 10 to 12 hours. The shriveled tomatoes are transferred to a sterilized jar, and fully submerged in olive oil. Covered tightly and stored away in the refrigerator until – usually some rice biriyani calls them into action.

I grew up on garlicky pickled green tomatoes that I love and have been known to put up. Last year, I decided to pickle not the super, hard green ones but ones that were verging on ripe. These not-quite-ripen pickled tomatoes don’t give the mouth crunch one has come expect. Though their sweet-salty-sour complexity layer beautifully on a Thanksgiving weekend turkey sandwich as well as add a bit of zing to a slow roasted pork shoulder.

Of course, in my freezer will reside, by the end of summer, a minimum of five one-gallon freezer bags filled (color coordinated) with tomatoes. Whole with nothing done to them except allowed to ripen to their peak of fabulousness waiting…. these suspended glories will only be good for soups, sauces and stews but who cares they beat any canned variety I could find. Keep your San Marzano and give me a peaking, local tomato that never saw a chill before meeting my freezer, and I will give you August in January.

I think if we got those no-thank-you, I’ll pass tomato haters, and let them experience the tomato’s seasonally truest nature we might be able to convert them. I have never found a mealy, flavorless tomato pleasurable either.

Pickled Green Tomatoes
1/2 cup kosher salt
2 cups water
3 cups distilled vinegar
3-1/2 pounds green tomatoes - washed
2 heads garlic – cut in quarters
1/4 cup dill
1 whole nutmeg
2 teaspoons whole black peppercorn
1/2 teaspoon whole caraway seed

In a 1 quart pan bring the salt and water to the boil to dissolve the salt. Pour in the vinegar and remove from the heat. In a clean gallon jar snuggly place the tomato, garlic and dill. Sprinkle the spices into the jar and pour over the vinegar solution. Make sure the tomatoes are completely covered by the vinegar solution. If not add a additional vinegar to cover. Place a piece of plastic wrap over the mouth of the jar and screw on the lid. Place in the refrigerator for 8 weeks.

Monday, August 17, 2009


The brilliant light of a pristine August morning and the rubbings of the cicadas is the alarm that happily stirs me from a summer’s sleep. As kid it was a signal that I had another day ahead of me at the pool practicing my diving – envisioning myself an Olympic driver weighted down with metals. I was the first one through the turnstiles each morning and one of the last to leave. I burned calories all day long and yet I remember not a single thing about lunch. I cannot imagine I allowed myself a hotdog stripped with astringent yellow mustard but then I do not recall a soggy tuna fish sandwich shoved into a brown paper bag either. There definitely was a lunch. I mother might not have been particularly strict about breakfast, but lunch and dinner were musts. During the school year I have clear recollection of a various sandwiches: bologna with cheese, cream cheese and jelly, egg salad with celery. Each one of these sat on the bottom of the bag secured in its spot by the weight of an apple -- but not in summer.

My first real understanding and anticipation of the seasonality of food came during those chlorine washed days. The thick cut glass bowl that held the fruit my mother purchased on her thrice-weekly grocery forays was typically filled with bananas, apples, pears and oranges – from late July through August they had a usurper. On those warm days lolling on the chaise after a few hours of fantasy swim practice I knew the piece of fruit I was going to find, the plum. I can fully taste the juices of the Santa Rosa plum that was a constant resident of my mouth for a few fleeting weeks. Those along with the Italian prune plum were my favorite seasonal guests. I loved the tart-sweetness of the firm crunch of the Santa Rosa and appreciated the easily removal pit of the Italian.

I still get excited when I start seeing plums showing up the difference now is I am eating only local plums and the selection has broadened to included shiro, sugar, damson, elephant heart and green gage.

Believed to have originated in the region of southwestern Russia and the Caspian Sea these multi-colored fruits need to fully develop their sweetness on the branch. Once plums are harvested they will not continue to develop sugar though they will soften – we frequently confuse decomposition for ripening. The premiere eating variety has to be the green gage with its light celadon skin and yellowish meat. It has one of the lowest acidity levels that permit its sweetness to shine through. Though it is the red and black versions from Santa Clara that reins supreme in the United States (from a commercial production standpoint).

With the excitement I embraced the arrival of this stone fruit with my diving I resigned myself to the return of flattened sandwiches with the return of the first day of school.

Plum filled Raviolis – yields 10 servings
1-1/2 pound plums – pits discard; chopped
1 vanilla – split in half lengthwise
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg - beaten
4 ounces (1stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1 package of wontons

Place the chopped plums, vanilla bean, lemon juice, wine and 1/4 cup of sugar in a 1 quart pot. Over a medium low flam cook the plum mixture for 20 minutes with a lid slightly askew. Discard the vanilla bean and allow the mixture to cool completely.

Place a tablespoon of the plum mixture in the center of a wonton skin. Lightly brush the edges with the beaten egg and place another square on top. Pinch the two pieces together making sure to squeeze out any air pockets. Continue with the remaining wonton skins.

Heat a 10 inch sauté pan over a medium heat with 2 tablespoons of butter. Once the butter starts to get frothy add in the raviolis in two patches. They can be tightly packed, but should not overlap too much. Cook the raviolis for 4 to 5 minutes, and gently mix in cup 1/4 cup orange juice. Transfer to a platter and sprinkle with some of the remaining sugar. Wipe out the sauté pan and proceed with the second batch. Serve immediately.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Chiming in......

The need to survive brought out not just my sarcasm, that became a coping mechanism for me, but this scrappy kid had survival skills that were able to feed that sharp tongue. You see, my mother had a stroke when I was just ready to stand that left a household of five hungry on many levels. I my talents – I could dance with Gene Kelly like athleticism: smile a big toothless smile that guaranteed a hug, and I could cook.

I am the only child amongst my siblings that was not happy with the endless supply of chips a’hoy cookies that were offered to quell our requests. I had more specific cravings: perfectly brunt Munster cheese, Green Goddess Dressing doctored with sour cream, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco for my potato chips or a bowl of pre-risotto made from pastina with butter and pepper. Luckily, for me, I was able to fill these needs, and quickly found out my sisters really wanted more than chocolate chip cookies as well.

It was typical for me to make my after school snack, and then head down to our den. There lost in the big black leather recliner I would watch my afternoon television block. Four ‘clock on channel eleven Batman and his young sidekick foiling the outrageous plans of the Joker, Penguin or Cat Woman with a zap, bloop, zing in any given episode. Then at four thirty on channel thirteen I watched the only idol I have ever had – Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Julia Child kept me in rapture, and encouraged me to explore my innate culinary skills. Egg-drop soup, not-so-French cheese omelets and celery canoes filled with cream cheese and radish oars became part of my afternoon munching.

When my sixteenth birthday came up it generated no grand party for my coming-of-age happened, prematurely, three years earlier. What I was offered was dinner at a restaurant of my choice. Now, I know my dad, and I did not think he had Lutece or the 21 Club on his list of possible candidates but they were on mine – by sixteen I was a well-established food snob with definite opinions but no budget. In order to avoid being disappointed I decided to make dinner for everyone. Without hesitation my offer was taken up and the night set. My mother promised we could eat in the dining room and said she would set the table with her china and crystal, which never happened without company being in attendance.

I headed to the public library to research my menu, and for the first time in my life the Dewy Decimal System made sense to me -- engrossed in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volume 1 I set my menu that I thought my small screen food mentor would approve of. We would have cream of broccoli soup; veal chops with sautéed mushrooms accompanied by braised leeks, and salad with homemade vinaigrette. Dessert was blissful for everyone, but me, a chocolate mousse with massive amounts of hand-whipped cream. I have never liked chocolate but it showed up at every birthday celebration of mine. I would have to wait another twenty-four years before I had a non-chocolate birthday dessert with my family, but that is so another tale.

The meal came off smashingly laid out on a dining room table beautifully dressed in a freshly pressed cloth and candles twinkling just like we were eating out. I don’t remember the kitchen looking like a tornado ran through it or my Mom doing anything but hovering lovingly as I put the whole night together.

Many years later I was flattered to be invited to a small dinner with my childhood hero, which let me know I had arrived. I relayed the story of my juvenile endeavors to Julia, which prompted a smile and a really welcomed hug. I might not have ended up a dancer but my spirit on that night waltzed with absolute grace.

Sautéed Leeks - serves 6
6 leeks
1/2 cup Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3/4-cup water
1/2-cup olive oil
Salt and pepper

To clean the leeks cut them in half to just above the root base. Under running water wash the leeks to dislodge any dirt. Then cut the leek into two halves.

Heat a sauté pan to very hot, and add a tablespoon of oil. Place the leeks in the pan in one layer and sauté to lightly color. Reduce the heat to medium low and pour over the Champagne vinegar and water. Cook the leeks for 15 minutes until tender covered. Remove the leeks to a platter, and in the sauce pan whisk in the mustard, salt and pepper. Then whisk in the remaining oil. Then drizzle the warm sauce over the leeks. Serve either hot or room temperature.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


I am a simple man give me an ear of girthed, August corn, and I have a to meal.

When did we go completely awry with corn? It has been know to the European since their first landing in the New World and quickly spread around the globe. It’s adoptability lead not only to its transportation but its transmutation. From off the cob to flinty varieties best for gruels to sweet nibblets corn can feed almost any craving. Industrialization has definitely taken one of the staples of the native pantry, and made it a global additive.

Right now, as corn reaches its zenith I am eating cobs like an old typewriter moving across a page; stripping the kernels for a salad; never discarding the cobs for there is a stock in there; even using the fresh husks to wrap fish before grilling. I do not need a laboratory and PhD to show me the full potential of corn – one bite does that.

I remember my first truly fresh ear of corn: I was performing the recalcitrant tween on a six-week cross-country tour with a group of other eastern kids. A stop in Kansas yielded my first successful robbery – I snagged an ear of cob out of the field. I had only had corn when I mother would cook it for a half-hour in a large pot of water splashed with milk and seasoned with sugar. And, I thought I liked corn. Fresh off the stalk this was a transformational moment, and upon returning home I tried to talk my mother out of technique in favor of a gentler method – but, alas to no avail. To this day, even with the accessibility to white and bi-colored varieties she cannot let go of that over-boiled presentation of what for me should be served raw.

Corn-ade – yields apprx.3 quarts
6 corncobs (corn kernels used for another dish)
1-cup sugar
5 limes – juiced

In a 4-quart saucepan bring 3-quarts of water to the boil with the corncobs and sugar. Then cover the pot and simmer the mixture for 15 minutes on a very low heat. Remove from the heat and allow the liquid to cool – about 15 minutes. Remove the cobs and stir in the lime juice. Chill the corn limeade completely and serve in tall glasses over ice.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Seasons to Taste 2

I am fully in the throes of starting the restocking of my urban larder. There are pickled: garlic scapes, carrots, spring garlic bulbs and watermelon radishes hibernating in the back of my refrigerator until they get stirred by the first frost. They are the first briny residents of the back wall – an Italian style garden mix and a spicy turnip are still to come plus I am sure a few surprises. Desiccating herbs are wafting through salts and sugars diverted from a summer picnic.

Though today I am preparing vinegar. Right now, as I walk through the market every fruit vendor have a basket filled with over-ripe, too-bruised-to-sell fruits waiting to be taken back home and thrown into the compost heap. These peaches, plums, cherries, blueberries are potent possibilities that cannot go to waste. There was a slew of last of the season sour cherries at my favorite orchard farmer’s stall that where too long gone to even pretend they could squeeze into a Black Forrest Cake, and that is where I came in. I saw two clear options: put up my Cherry/Ginger Cordial or make vinegar. Currently, I don’t have any pure grain alcohol in the house (I need to go to New Jersey or Connecticut for its an illegal sale in New York) so the choice was inevitable.

For this particular vinegar I am going with white distilled vinegar and infusing it with a jubilee of cherries. All that wonderful cherry juice will mellow and inform the otherwise harsh distilled vinegar. Though when I am making herb infused vinegars I start with remnants of wine – do keep reds with the reds and whites with the whites. I seek the most over-grown, woodiest herbs hoping that the bacterium that facilitates the conversion to vinegar is present. Stuffed into a sterilized jar covered with a cloth it sits for a few months transforming before being strained. One hopes that yeast drops in and that the bacteria, Acetobacter, feasts on the sugars in the wine turning it sour. These home cured vinegars are great for dressings and cooking but I would never use them for my pickles for I cannot be sure if its acidity is high enough (4%) to safely preserve.

At a minimum take some good vinegar and slide in your favorite herbs, and return it to the cupboard – within a few weeks you’ll have a designer fragrance. Don’t be limited to the usual let your imagination and nature co-mingle.

Cherry Vinegar - yields approx. 2 quarts
1 pound cherries
1 quart white distilled vinegar

Wash the cherries well and. Place the cherries into a 3 or 4 quart glass jar (pits and all), and gently crush them with a ladle. Pour the vinegar over the cherries and seal tightly. Place in a cool, dark spot for a month. During the second week open up the vinegar and with a large clean spoon push down on the cherries - this helps release a bit more of the their flavor. Reseal and let sit for the additional two weeks. Strain the vinegar through a clean coffee filter or a few layers of cheese cloth into clean glass jar and store in the refrigerator. It will last months.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Seasons to Taste

I was not raised in a house where certain summer weekends meant securing peaches in clinging syrup, wedging cucumbers into jars with copious quantities of dill and garlic or simmering tomatoes in order to relive again with spaghetti and meatballs. No, preserving meant a freezer full of meat (a half of cow was order bi-annually) and a pantry crammed with tinned-you-name-it vegetables. A taste of the seasons is not something I ruminate about with nostalgic pining. Though as an adult with innate food snobberies I’d long for the return of an herb emanating a scent; melons that actually delivered some flavor, and if the heavens were indulgent, a tomato.

It does not matter how many options are available during the winter to us more often then not there is a failure to please. In order to stave off going culinary-postal I have started preserving June, July, August, September in jars and bags in the refrigerate, freezer and cupboard. All my notions and potions are dear contributors to the foods I make the rest of the year. Beyond the flavor that is trapped rests the memory of the day it went into the jar.

One of my favorite things to do for the past few years has been desiccating herbs and edible flowers in salt and sugar. I was watching a documentary on mummies and while the process of mummification was being expounded I was struck with the thought that the salts used had to have captured fragrances – this is the reason I deduct cable. My first attempt of burying lavender blossoms in salt yielded a perfumed salt that found a home on pork chops with caramelized onions and any vegetable I was cooking. Rose petals (organic only, please!!) covered in sugar added a delicate note to every cake and cookie batter it found itself in. One of my favorites has to be loveage that was allowed to wither up in the depths of a jar of salt. Given loveage’s intense celery-esque bouquet it created the most sensational celery salt that has become my go to seasoning. There has been summer savory, tarragon, and lemon verbena in salt; orange blossom, lemon basil and hyssop informing various sugars.

When putting up these aromatic seasoning moments always use a coarse salt and sugar. I place a layer of the salt or sugar on the bottom of the jar and then layer with herb and salt ending with layer of salt on top. Store with a tight fitting lid in a cool, dry spot for a few weeks before using. With the sugars I have kept them coarse as well as place the entire lot in the food processor and have ground them to fine powder -- baking sometimes requires a more finessed sprinkling.