It’s the last day of August, and my summer garden is looking ragged. The ongoing battle with Johnson grass is over and I’ve surrendered: a thick border now entrenched along the fence row, and tall clumps reside undisturbed among the tomatoes and wax beans.
Arugula, long since bolted, has reseeded, trying to bully its way up through the weeds. One by one flourishing squashes have collapsed, victims of those dreaded borers. Two large tomato plants yellowed and died, seemingly overnight, the reason unknown.
Nonetheless, my visits remain fruitful and full of wonder. My stand of Mexican sunflowers continues to put out astonishing blooms in copper, bronze, and blazing yellow, even when their primary heads are bare, petals dropped, seeds picked clean by feasting goldfinches.
The slow-growing Italian roasting peppers are showing streaks of bright red, their fiery signal for harvest.
A few heavy rains have inspired the tomatoes to produce again, although not in the gargantuan sizes of July, and their skins are a bit tougher.
And my lone eggplant, which weathered an early onslaught of flea beetles, is forming plump white and purple streaked fruit. Sweaty, dusty, but excited, I return home with my pouch filled with just-picked things for dinner.
What to make?
Today’s recipe comes from my cookbook: Caroline’s Warm Eggplant Salad. It uses my garden spoils so well! I’ve embellished only slightly–having found a genius idea in the Farmer’s Market issue of Cooking Light (June 2014).
Chef Deborah Madison shared a simple beefsteak tomato salad with fried tomato skins. It’s those fried skins that caught my attention. They are easy to prepare, and add a welcome bite as a garnish-a clever use for these late summer-tough skinned “maters.”
After you plunge your tomatoes in boiling water, quickly cooling them in an icy bath, you slip off the skins. Your tomatoes are ready to cube for the salad. Dab the skins dry and pan fry them in a small amount of oil. They’ll become like thin glassy pieces of cellophane, crisp–and when drained and salted–almost “bacony.”
Even without the fried skins, the salad is simply delicious. A splash of sherry vinegar (a nice change-up from balsamic or red wine,) minced garlic and salt coax out the sumptuous tomato juices. Chunks of roasted eggplant gain a rich brown crisp, and soft sweet flesh.
If you’d prefer this to be vegan, omit the fresh mozzarella. I like the extra meatiness the cheese brings. It turns the salad into a one-dish meal, especially if you serve it with crusty bread to mop up all those lush juices.
I haven’t tired of the tomatoes—not yet. In fact, knowing that their time is waning makes me savor them all the more. The seasonal shift is soon to come.
WARM EGGPLANT-TOMATO SALAD WITH FRIED TOMATO SKINS
adapted from Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook
1 large eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil
Coarse kosher salt and black pepper to season eggplant
5 ripe heirloom tomatoes, skins removed* and cubed
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup fresh mozzarella, diced
*Recipe to follow
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl combine the cubed eggplant with the olive oil in a large bowl and toss well to coat. Spread the eggplant out on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper. Bake for 12 minutes. Turn the eggplant over and bake until soft, with browned edges, about 12 minutes longer.
While the eggplant is cooking, toss the cubed tomatoes, minced garlic, and chopped basil together in a large salad bowl. Add the extra-virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar along with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Toss gently to blend.
Allow the eggplant to cool slightly, about 5 minutes. Add warm eggplant to the tomato mixture and toss. Let this sit at room temperature for about an hour before serving to allow the flavors to marry.
Right before serving, fold in the diced fresh mozzarella. Garnish with fried tomato skins and serve.
FRIED TOMATO SKINS
from Deborah Madison for Cooking Light
5 heirloom tomatoes
1/4 cup vegetable oil
kosher or sea salt
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Core tomatoes; discard cores. Place tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds. Plunge tomatoes into ice water; drain. Peel; arrange skins flat on a jelly-roll pan. Cut peeled tomatoes into 1/2-inch-thick slices; arrange on a platter.
Heat 1/4 cup oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of skins to oil; cook 2 minutes or until crisp, turning occasionally. Drain on a paper towel; repeat procedure with remaining skins. Discard oil in pan. Sprinkle skins with 1/8 teaspoon salt.
Every element of this savory summer tart appeals to me.
The crust, made with whole wheat flour and olive oil, is rustic, free-form and forgiving.
Inside is a layer of ricotta, scented with lemon zest, nutmeg and thyme, generously spread across the base.
Coins of zucchini, (that ubiquitous summer garden veggie I am ever seeking another way to cook,) ring the top.
A drizzle of lemon agrumato imbues the squash with piquant citrus oil.
The pastry bakes beautifully, surrounding the creamy filling and vegetables with a rumpled golden crust.
And, whether sliced warm from the oven, or carved cool the next day, out of the fridge, it is delicious.
The recipe comes courtesy of Adri Barr Crocetti, whose Italian-centric blog will captivate you with its authentic preparations and stunning photography. When I first read her post about this crostata back in May, I knew that I would make it.
It was just a matter of time.
All summer, I’ve had most of the necessary ingredients in my pantry, and an abundance of those prolific squashes from my garden. The only thing I lacked was Lemon Agrumato–a special oil from Abruzzo where olives are stoneground with lemon.
Serendipity and luck–a friend gave me this bottle for my birthday.
While it is not a true agrumato–it doesn’t indicate that on the label–it does impart a pleasing citric essence to the otherwise peppery nature of the olive oil.
Adri tucks cubes of pancetta between the zucchini slices, and I can well imagine the luscious sweet-salty bites those bring to the tart.
But, I live with a vegetarian. So I strew Sun Gold cherry tomatoes–halved—over the top.
LEMONY ZUCCHINI RICOTTA CROSTATA adapted from Adri Barr Crocetti
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup plus 2-3 tablespoons cool water
Place the flours, fine sea salt, baking powder, and nutmeg in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse twice to combine. In a measuring cup combine the olive oil and cool water. Begin to pour the liquid slowly into the processor as you gently pulse then run the machine.Remove the feed tube from the processor, and with the machine running, slowly add all the liquid. Process until the ingredients are well combined, and come together into a mass.Turn the dough out onto the counter, knead and form into a disc shape.Wrap in plastic and allow the dough to rest for at least 30 minutes.
Note: You may make this up ahead of time, refrigerating the plastic-wrapped dough overnight.
15-16 ounces whole milk ricotta, drained for at least 4 hours*
Extra virgin olive oil
2 bunches green onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped thyme (or lemon thyme) leaves, plus whole sprigs to garnish
Grated zest of 1 large lemon
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2-3 medium zucchini, sliced into 1/16-inch coins
Lemon Agrumato Extra Virgin Olive Oil
* To drain the ricotta: line a strainer with cheesecloth and place over a large bowl, or set a large sieve over a bowl. Put the ricotta into the sieve, cover and refrigerate to drain for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Pour 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil into a skillet set over medium heat. Add the sliced green onions and a pinch of fine sea salt. Sauté over medium heat until soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Transfer the onions to a small bowl.
Place the drained ricotta (discarding the separated whey) to a medium bowl. Fold in the chopped thyme, lemon zest, ½ teaspoon of fine sea salt, ½ teaspoon of black pepper, and ground nutmeg.
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water
Beat the egg and water together in a small bowl. Set aside until time to brush onto the pastry.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. If you have a baking stone, place it into the oven on the middle rack.
Dust your counter with flour. Unwrap the dough disc and roll it into a 14″-15″ circle. Slide the rolled out dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Spread the ricotta mixture over the circle of rolled dough, spreading it evenly, leaving a 1-inch border. Sprinkle the sautéed green onions over the ricotta. Arrange the sliced zucchini over the ricotta, and top with slices of cherry tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Finish with a drizzle with Lemon Olive Oil.
Fold the border over the zucchini, crimping it to make a circle. Brush the egg wash over the pleated border. (You will not use all of the egg wash.)
Slide the crostata and parchment from the baking sheet onto the preheated baking stone. (Or simply bake on parchment lined baking sheet. Bake until the crust is lightly browned and the zucchini is cooked, about 45 minutes. Allow to cool on a rack for 15 minutes.
Cut into wedges and serve.
Amish Paste, Red Pear, Roma
When I was planting my garden earlier this spring, I included, on a whim, one plant from each of these meaty oval-shaped tomato varieties.
I figured, if they produced, they would be good for making thick red sauces, even ketchup.
And, boy, are they producing! Each week, for the past month, I’ve been harvesting an abundance of the brilliant red orbs, turning them into sauces and salsas.
But my new favorite way is this slow roasting method, introduced to me by Joy Martin.
Joy is a master gardener, and I would extend that master descriptor to cook and baker. She is also one of our devoted Third Thursday potluckers. You’ll find several of her recipes, including the one I’m about to share with you, in my cookbook.
Slow roasted tomatoes. That may not sound exciting—don’t we roast everything these days?—and the recipe is deceptively simple. It’s the slow slow roast, coupled with a seasoning of olive oil, fresh garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, and sugar, that yields surprisingly complex, intensely savory-sweet tomatoes, with deep, rich umami taste.
A cautionary note: Don’t leave out the sugar. I resisted sprinkling it over the halves at first, but in combination with the salt, the sugar coaxes out the maximum flavor.
Look! They are glistening jewels. They taste like the sun.
You’ll find numerous uses for them: placed onto grilled bruschetta, dropped onto a rosemary cracker, tucked into a toasted BLT, tossed in a fresh pasta.
Or, do as we do: eat them out of the jar.
Around my house, we call ‘em tomato candy!
JOY’S SLOW ROASTED TOMATOES (TOMATO CANDY)
2 pounds Roma tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, minced or shaved
Olive oil (about 1/4 cup or so)
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh oregano or thyme
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise and place into a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish, or on a baking sheet in a single layer, skin side down. Distribute garlic evenly over the tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil and generously sprinkle with oregano, salt, pepper, and sugar. Bake for 2 to 3 hours. After cooling, place the halves into jars, and pour over herbed olive oil and juices collected in the sheet pan. Refrigerate until ready to use.
As a first time author of a cookbook, having just passed a milestone birthday, I have found myself in a reflective mood. I’ve been thinking about my culinary evolution, how I got here today, how I’ve grown up and grown in the world of food. It had a shaky beginning: a girl, born in New York, who didn’t care for most foods at all.
Moving to The South made a big impact. It took time, but I came to embrace its culinary ways. There’s a real focus on vegetables that we never experienced up North.
The climate supports a greater variety, that alone surprised me. I had never seen or tasted okra, crookneck squash, pole beans, yellow wax beans, collards, turnip and mustard greens, October beans, or purple hull peas.
Have you heard of purple hull peas? These are tender pulses belonging to the family of Cowpeas, Vigna unguiculata, whose relatives include black-eyed peas, crowders, lady peas, and field peas. High in protein (24%) and easy to grow: they actually thrive in poor soil, and hot, dry conditions.
Their history in the South has dark roots in slave trade. Their seeds were brought on ships, along with enslaved West Africans to the Caribbean and eastern Atlantic seaboard. Rejected by the Europeans as poor man’s fodder, fit only for cattle, they acquired the name “cowpeas.” Little did the Landed Gentry realize all the good they were rejecting.
Make no mistake, the lowly legume has far-reaching benefits for man, animals, and plantlife. Easy to grow and prepare, the peas are delicious. They are high in amino acids, lysine and tryptophan. According to Cooking Light’s notes on healthy living, they are among the foods that will help insure better sleep. (Ahhhhh.)
And, used in crop rotation, cowpeas infuse nitrogen in vast quantities into the soil. That’s important, as corn, for instance, consumes nitrogen greedily. (NOTE: read Dan Barber’s book, The Third Plate–which goes beyond “farm-to-table” detailing an integrated model for vegetable, grain, and livestock production that is truly sustainable.)
As a picky child, I did enjoy corn on the cob–what self-respecting kid doesn’t? Once you got through the task of shucking (and avoiding any green worms!) the prospect of eating it was as fast as a plunge in the kettle of boiling, lightly salted water.
There’s nothing as blissful as sitting on a back porch stoop, chomping on an ear in the summer, hands and face sloppy with kernels, spurted “corn milk” and butter .
But until I came to Nashville, I had never eaten fresh fried corn–cut from the cob, scraped and skillet-simmered in butter and water. More a technique than a recipe–this is not “creamed corn.” No cream, milk, or flour.
I learned about the pure pleasure of this dish at my first restaurant job in the late ’70’s at a Southern style “Meat-and-Three” called “Second Generation” run by Anna Marie Arnold. Anna grew up cooking with her mother, first generation founder of The White Cottage, a tiny yet legendary eatery that vanished–closed and bulldozed in the ’90’s, when a city bridge had to be widened.
Silver Queen was the favored corn of the day–a small kerneled white corn that had candied sweetness.
A delectable summer combination.
One of the shifts in my “food evolution” is using local ingredients in classic recipes. That practice makes good sense, but I didn’t awaken to that sensibility until more recent years. Nonetheless, a creamy risotto lends itself readily to accepting these Southern staples in the stir:
Purple hull peas, cooked in onion, garlic and red pepper
Sweet Corn, cut and scraped from the cob
Short-grain Rice, cooked in tomato-vegetable broth
The tomato-vegetable broth is key too. Certain ripe tomatoes have high water content. When you cook summer tomatoes to make sauce, or chop them to make salsa, if you strain the pulp, you’ll have a lot of remaining juice, or “tomato water.” Use it, in combination with vegetable broth (made with trimmings of carrots, celery, onions, garlic)
Stir—stir—stir. It can be a meditative process. You might find yourself reflecting on your own life in food!
As the rice becomes plump and savory, releasing its starch into the broth, a seductive creaminess results. Fold in the corn and its scrapings, and finally the purple hull peas, along with the “pot likker” in which they were cooked.
Garnish with fresh thyme, if you like, or a few curls of pecorino romano.
But it is not necessary–the risotto is rich with flavor, and wonderful texture. Enjoy it with spoon, to capture every luscious bite.
SUMMER RISOTTO WITH SWEET CORN AND PURPLE HULL PEAS
3-4 ears fresh corn
1 pound purple hull peas (weight is unshelled)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, slivered, divided
2 medium onions, chopped, divided
1 chili pepper of choice, split in half (cayenne, serrano, jalapeno)
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 tablespoons butter (may use oil to make this vegan)
1 1/2 cups short grain rice, like Arborio or Carolina Gold
8 cups tomato-vegetable broth
salt and black pepper to taste
Cut the corn from the cobs, scraping the cobs for extra “corn milk,” into a bowl and set aside.
Shell the purple hull peas, rinse, drain, and place into a bowl. Set aside.
Place olive oil into a 2 quart sized saucepan on medium heat. Add 2 cloves slivered garlic and 1/2 onion, diced, into the saucepan to saute for 2 minutes. Add chili pepper, purple hull peas and enough water to cover the peas by 2 inches. Season with a little salt and black pepper. Increase the heat to bring it to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes, until peas are tender, yet still firm. Let the peas cool.
Place tomato-vegetable broth into a saucepan and warm.
In a large heavy duty pot, (such as an enameled cast iron Le Creuset) melt the butter over medium heat. Add remaining diced onion and minced garlic. Saute for a minute, then add the rice. Stir until the grains are well coated.
Begin adding the broth, a cupful at a time, stirring the rice, watching it plump up from the savory liquid, monitoring its creaminess from the released starch.
This process will take 30 minutes: stirring, pouring in more cups of broth, stirring, stirring, but I do not constantly hover over the pot. I’ll turn my attention to making salad, slicing tomatoes, visiting with my friends…
At the 20 minute mark, fold in the corn. Stir stir stir.
At the 25 minute mark, fold in the cooked purple hull peas. Stir Stir Stir.
At 30 minutes, turn off the heat. Taste for seasonings. Serve
I’m not one to boast, but the scores (hordes, legions, truckloads) of plump, ripe, succulent tomatoes that I’ve been picking from my little garden have afforded me bragging rights.
Never–and I really mean NEVER–have I had such success.
Biggest Juiciest Tomatoes EVER!
Check it out—this handful is more the norm than the anomaly.
My friend Kimmie, an avid gardener who follows the Farmers’ Almanac, tells me that it is because I planted them in alignment with the full moon.
I checked back on the calendar, and why, yes, I did. Unintentionally.
Bill speculated that it is because our winter was extra cold, killing off the destructive insect larvae and/or fungus-mold-rot starters hidden in the soil.
I figured the damp spring got our plants off to a terrific start in making blooms, and now that the hot summer days are here, they are bearing beauteous fruits.
And, maybe, it was just time.
Bill’s dad, who was a dedicated farmer by profession, always said you could count on 1 great growing year in 7. Maybe this is that year.
Whatever the case—and I suspect it is a serendipitous confluence of all these factors—I am the happy harvester of Cherokee Purples, Lemon Boys, Sun Golds, Black Krim, Amish Paste, Bradleys, German Pinks, Teardrops, and one other heirloom variety whose clever name escapes me.
We’ve been eating them all ways—caprese, savory tart, pasta sauce, on sturdy bread swiped with mayo—but this salad, a featured recipe in my cookbook, has been favored both at the dinner table, and in my cooking demonstrations.
Cornbread Panzanella is a Southern take on the much loved Italian bread salad. The season’s bounty of ripe sweet tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, and sharp red onion are at the heart of each version. But, instead of using hunks of leftover, stale rustic bread, you make cornbread croutons. (Hint: the cornbread is the only part of this dish that requires turning on the oven. Everything else is either chopped or whisked!)
Instead of tossing the vegetables and bread cubes in a red wine vinaigrette, you make a tangy buttermilk ranch to coat the mixture.
It works beautifully.
After chopping the tomatoes, you put the chunks into a bowl and sprinkle them with salt to coax out their juices. When you toss the mixture with the herbed buttermilk ranch,(enlivened with lemon, flat leaf parsley and scallions) those juices meld with the dressing, creating a luscious rose-tinged sauce.
That soaks into the cornbread croutons, which you’ve toasted to a toothsome crunch. There’s a marvelous combination of textures and tastes.
You could add bits of bacon or pancetta, shavings of parmegianno-reggiano, or a good sharp white cheddar, if you wanted to make it “meatier.” But this big tomato salad makes satisfying summer meal, just as it is. The bread salad theme can be expansive: this BLT version from Cooking Light is mighty tempting.
It has been fruitful outside the garden too–busy promoting the Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook. It’s been getting great reviews, I am happy to report, and I’ve been compiling the blogpost and articles here. I appreciate everyone’s kind words and support.
1 1?2 cups cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 large eggs
1?2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a baking sheet.
In a large bowl whisk together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Whisk in the eggs, melted butter, and milk until well incorporated. Do not overbeat. Pour onto the baking sheet.
Bake until set—golden brown—about 20 minutes.
Allow to cool. Cut into cubes and spread out onto a lightly oiled baking sheet.
Toast for about 15 minutes. Allow to cool.
Makes 2 cups.
HERBED BUTTERMILK RANCH DRESSING
1?2 cup buttermilk
1?2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 green onions, chopped finely, tops included
1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1?2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1?4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of black pepper
In a medium bowl combine the buttermilk, mayonnaise, lemon juice, green onions, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper. Whisk until smooth and creamy. Taste for seasonings and adjust. This will keep, refrigerated, for a week.
Makes 1 generous cup.
1 1?2 cups diced Bradley tomatoes
1?2 cup peeled, seeded, and cubed cucumbers
1?2 cup sliced red onion
1?2 cup chopped fresh basil
Salt and black pepper to taste
In a large bowl combine the tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, basil, salt, and pepper. Add 2 cups of cornbread croutons. Pour the Real Ranch Dressing over the croutons and toss well. Serve immediately.
Cool mornings, steamy afternoons, with isolated downpours daily,
have been the recipe for a lush, dense, almost tropical backyard,
and a happy garden plot:
Chest-high tomato plants are laden with the promise of abundance;
Prolific golden-bloomed squashes double in size overnight, hidden under their great leaf umbrellas;
Aggressive cucumber vines amble over stakes and wires, ever-seeking new places to latch on and climb.
June is done. Summer is here in full regalia.
And, the cookbook is out! Between tending my garden and teaching teen cooking camp, I’ve been making presentations–in book stores, at two restaurants, our farmers’ market, on local television: demonstrating recipes, reading, signing, answering questions, telling our story. The response has been wonderful.
And, it is just the beginning.
In the meantime, I wanted to check in with you and share a recipe. This one is of the quick-and-easy variety: a kind of potato salad (I know, another potato salad recipe?)
New potatoes and string beans are dressed in a Greek yogurt sauce folded with charred red onions. There’s something about it that harkens to old school tastes in an appealing way–however updated. The combination of sea salt, cayenne, a dash of Worchestershire sauce with those crispy onion pieces in thick yogurt cream reminds me of “French Onion Dip.” Only I think you’ll find this one to be much, much better—and certainly healthier.
Stirred into a mixture of petite new potatoes (still slightly warm!) and whatever young string beans you can find (I am partial to yellow wax beans.) the charred red onion dressing (and, yes, it doubles as a dip. Get out your sweet potato chips!) creates a delicious picnic side dish. It is a different take on potato salad.
And goodness knows, as long as there are potatoes and ingenuity, there will always be yet another take on potato salad. Embrace variety!
Thank you all for your interest in and support of my cookbook.
For those of you who have asked “How Can I Buy It?”
Here are the possibilities:
Online at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Books-a-Million (links are upper right on this page)
In Tennessee: All of the SAM’S CLUBS are stocking the book.
In Nashville: These independent booksellers: Bookman Bookwoman Books in Hillsboro Village and Parnassus in Green Hills.
You may also ask your local bookstore to order the book for you.
Garden New Potatoes with Yellow Wax Beans and Charred Red Onion
1 1/2 pounds new potatoes, halved or quartered depending on size
1/2 pound yellow wax beans (or young green beans), ends snapped
charred red onion dressing (recipe below)
Place potatoes into a large saucepan and cover with water. Add a pinch of salt and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Simmer and cook until tender—about 12 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Fill a skillet with water, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Blanche the beans in batches (do not overcrowd) for 3-4 minutes.
Fill a bowl with ice water. Plunge cooked beans into the ice water bath to chill and stop the cooking.
In a large bowl, fold the potatoes, beans, and charred onion dressing together until well-coated. Serve room temperature or chilled.
Charred Red Onion Dip/Dressing
adapted from Cooking Light
1 cup chopped grilled red onion
1 cup plain lowfat Greek yogurt
1/4 teaspoon Worchestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut the onion into chunks and place onto a baking sheet. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt. Roast until the onion edges become dark brown and crispy.
Remove from oven and cool. Chop coarsely.
Combine the onion with the remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl. Stir until well combined.
Some plants suffered mightily at the hands of this extreme winter. All over town, rosemary, the size of bushes, died in single digit freezes. Fig trees still look skeletal, no promise of buds yet. But winter’s harshness seems to have brought about an unforeseen benefit for others. Dogwoods, redbuds, crab apple, cherry trees have burst out in vivid profusion. Thickets of narcissus, tulips and iris are in glorious bloom.
It has been hard on our farmer friends. John’s strawberry crop was threatened by an April 15th freeze. Thank goodness he got all the plants covered with plastic the day before–a trying task for sure. Tally notes that her rows of spring vegetables are coming along…however slowly. In comparison to years past, everything is delayed by at least three weeks.
But, I am heartened by warmer days and blooming trees. Soon, plantings of beautiful lettuces will be big as bouquets.
Already, feathery leaves and tender spears are emerging in asparagus beds.
There was a time when you only ate asparagus in season. Over the past two decades or more that shifted, with the globalization of commerce, and produce from far-flung places got shipped in. Asparagus in December! Tomatoes in February! I am glad that we are returning to the practice of eating seasonally. We appreciate the fruits and vegetables all the more, at their peak, in their time, grown in their locale. Indeed, they taste better.
A long time ago, (pre-globalization!) I remember a very fun Asparagus Dinner that I attended, actually helped prepare. It was hosted by our friend Lanny, who lived in a decrepit warehouse on Second Avenue near Nashville’s riverfront. Lanny was a graphic artist, stained glass craftsman, Karman Ghia mechanic, architectural antique collector, consummate barterer and all-around wheeler-dealer.
His warehouse home/studio was a remarkable chaotic assemblage of these passions. You never asked where he got any of it, but, be assured, there was a story behind it all. Curiously, in one of his deals of the day, he had acquired 8 big bundles of freshly cut spears. Soon to follow was the call for Asparagus Dinner. About a dozen of us showed up to wash, peel, trim, snap, steam, blanch, and stir-fry the formidable stack.
This was sometime in the early 1980’s. Our menu reflected the cooking tastes of the time. I remember some of what we whipped up: old school hollandaise sauce to nap over steamed asparagus, creme fraiche-dill sauce as a dip for blanched-chilled spears, and a creamy pasta primavera sort of dish laced with crabmeat. I remember that it was all delicious, this asparagus feast.
With asparagus as the centerpiece, we celebrated spring.
Today, I am offering two asparagus suggestions, both of which have a more modern spin: An asparagus salad dressed in gorgonzola vinaigrette, and asparagus roasted with a Persian-spiced pistachio blend. I love how different they are from each other: Cold and hot, pungent and fruity, crisp and toasty. For my friends who are not in love with asparagus officinalus: the gorgonzola dressing is delicious on salad greens alone—and the spiced pistachio would be just as incredible roasted onto cauliflower!
Wishing you all the flavors of young spring green things!
ASPARAGUS AND SPRING GREENS WITH GORGONZOLA VINAIGRETTE (adapted from Cooking Light)
1 bundle fresh asparagus (about 1 pound), cleaned, trimmed, and cut on the diagonal into thirds
2 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
2 tablespoons minced chives
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola, divided
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 pound mixed spring lettuces
Fill a large skillet or pot with water. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt and bring to a boil on medium high heat.
Plunge in the asparagus pieces and cook for one minute–no more than two minutes (depending on how fat or thin the spears are)
Drain and place into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and set the bright green color. When well-cooled, drain the spears and set aside.
Make the vinaigrette:
Place 1/4 teaspoon salt, minced chives, white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, lemon zest, black pepper and 1/4 cup gorgonzola crumbles into a medium mixing bowl. Whisk until well combined.
Place spring greens, asparagus and pine nuts into a large bowl. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss until all ingredients are well-coated. Sprinkle with remaining gorgonzola crumbles and serve.
ROASTED ASPARAGUS WITH PERSIAN-PISTACHIO COATING
1 bundle asparagus spears (about 1 pound) washed, dried, and trimmed
1/2 cup toasted pistachios, finely ground
1/4 cup sumac (available at ethnic markets)
3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Drizzle olive oil (2-3 tablespoons) onto a baking sheet. Lay the asparagus spears onto the pan and roll, coating the spears with the oil. Add more oil if needed.
In a small bowl, mix the finely ground pistachios, sumac, thyme, salt and pepper together. Spread this mixture over the asparagus.
Place into the oven and roast for about 15 minutes. Spears will be tender-crisp and the nut mixture will be toasty.
In the case of potato gnocchi, I have felt like I’m on a quest for something elusive. Once, a long time ago at a restaurant that no longer exists, I had a sumptuous plate of hand-formed dumplings, pillowy-light bites cloaked in garlicky brown butter sauce: a pleasure to eat. In the wake of that ethereal meal, I would often order potato gnocchi when I’d find it on a menu. Just as often, I would wind up disappointed. The dough was either gummy, or the restaurant had used something pre-fab, vacuum-sealed in a box, a factory line of same-shaped dumplings that cooked up rather dense and chewy. Blecch. No, thank you.
This fall, I had lunch at an eatery in downtown Franklin called Gray’s on Main. They offered a potato gnocchi dish where the dumplings were tumbled with Brussels sprouts, parsnips, and pancetta in a butter sauce. Ah! These cushions of potato had golden butter-crisp exteriors gleaned from a final spin in the skillet. That contrast made them exceptional. At last, I had found the elusive!
Before it vanished.
Their house gnocchi plate is no longer on the menu.
The solution: it’s time to learn to make them myself.
There’s an aspect of gnocchi-making that reminds me of biscuit-making. With a terse list of ingredients, it is not just the quantities of potato, flour, salt and pepper, eggs–or no eggs—that distinguishes the outcome. It’s the process–the light hand in forming the dough. Fluffy biscuits and pillowy gnocchi have this in common. You want to mix and fold the dough deftly, quickly, but not handle it too much. Overworking is what causes that unpalatable toughness.
Indeed, it a matter of practice: Learning the feel of the dough, that “right discrimination” that informs your hands and brain that, yes! this it. This has the right consistency.
The kind of potato you use is critical. Waxy reds or new potatoes won’t work. The humble Russet, boiled in its jacket, peeled and run through a ricer or food mill is The Way. Eggs or no eggs? I have found recipes espousing either. Rachel writes that the Romans prefer the dough with: sturdier in the boil and pan. Head north of The Eternal City, and gnocchi di patate are made without.
While I was mixing up the riced potatoes with flour, I could feel how an eggless dough would work. But I ultimately added the eggs.
It makes a richer dough. And, as I wanted to finish the gnocchi in the skillet–get that lovely crust—using eggs made good sense.
Divide the dough into quarters, rolling each one into a ropey length. After you cut them into little pieces, you’ll roll and press each one with a fork. My gnocchi look a little wonky, I know. No worries. They still tasted delicious. I’ll get better at forming them, with practice.
There is little doubt when they are done—the dumplings will rise to the surface after a couple of minutes in the rolling boil.
Look at these plump dumplings! At this point, they would be delectable, plunked into a red sauce. We are taking it another step:
Pan-seared in a skillet with a saute of shallots and parsnips in butter, topped with a few curls of shaved Parmegianno-Reggiano.
Elusive no more.
PAN-SEARED POTATO GNOCCHI WITH PARSNIPS
adapted from Julianna Grimes at Cooking Light
4 medium Russet potatoes, scrubbed
2 medium parsnips, peeled
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting, rolling out dough
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4-5 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup diced shallots
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/3 cup shaved Parmegianno-Reggiano
2 green onions, finely sliced for garnish
Place potatoes and parsnips into a large saucepan and cover with water. Place over medium high heat. Cover and bring to a boil. After 12-15 minutes, remove the parsnips, which should be tender but still firm. Set them aside on a plate to cool.
Continue boiling the potatoes until they yield to a fork–another 15 minutes. Drain and allow the potatoes to cool. Peel them and run them through a potato ricer or food mill (with a shredder-ricer blade) into a large bowl. Season the riced potatoes with salt and black pepper.
Sprinkle the flour over the potatoes and rapidly mix by hand. Add the lightly beaten eggs. Mix well to incorporate the eggs into the mixture, but do not overwork the dough–otherwise it will become dense and tough. The dough will actually have a light airy feel to it.
Dust your work table with flour. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into a long rope. If the dough becomes too sticky, dust it with a bit more flour. Cut the rope into bite-sized pieces. You may then roll each piece gently with the tines of a fork to make the distinctive indentations—but you don’t have to.
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil on medium high heat. Drop the gnocchi in, a dozen or so pieces at a time. You don’t want to overcrowd them. Gently swirl them around in the boiling water so that they don’t stick to the bottom. They will cook quickly.
After a minute or so, they will rise to the surface. Allow them to cook another minute, and then scoop them out with a slotted spoon or skimmer. Place the cooked gnocchi in a large bowl.
Slice the cooled parsnips into bite size pieces.
In a large skillet set on medium heat, melt the butter. Saute the diced shallots until translucent. Add the parsnips and thyme. Continue to saute for 2-3 minutes. Remove the mixture. Increase the heat to medium high and add a layer of gnocchi to the skillet. Sear the gnocchi until they are nicely browned on one side and remove. When all of the gnocchi are browned, toss them with the parsnip-shallot mixture until well combined.
Portion into warm bowls. Sprinkle each with shaved Parmeggiano-Reggiano and sliced green onions.
Serves 4 as main dishes, 6 appetizer/first course
It was more than my hope, it was my intention to have numerous posts this month. The kitchen muse thought otherwise. What a spate of not-quite wonderful dishes and complete duds the past two weeks!
The first was the worst: my glaceed chestnuts. Mealy and a misery. Ugh. A chuck into the trash bin was all they deserved, with no looking back.
Next up, Maggie and I made panettones. What an involved fun project! We ordered the special baking forms and Fiori di Sicilia extract. I candied orange, grapefruit, and clementine peels. Maggie made the Biga, or starter.
As the breads baked, they imparted incredible aromatics but they lacked the distinctive soft, spongy texture that makes them a pleasure to eat. Maggie and I both plan on turning that misfortune into panettone bread pudding.
More yolks? A better rise? I will rework the recipe, and try it again. Practice! Failing that, I will respect that most Italian households with accomplished cooks in the kitchen still purchase their Christmas panettones from their local bakers.
And lastly, something went awry with the beautiful Linzer cookie recipe that I found here. The crumbly dough would not roll out. I’ve since figured out what I did wrong.(I used frozen raw egg yolks—but I should have added 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar to the 4 yolks before I froze them. Then, they wouldn’t have been gummy.) I rescued that though, by baking the cookies in individual petite tins in a variety of shapes, and filling them with raspberry preserves.
Okay, The power of threes–three up, three strikes, three outs. Let’s hope this spell of funky kitchen karma is over.
In the meantime, I want to share a successful recipe that you’d be pleased to serve during the holidays. It’s vegetarian; it’s gluten free, and will serve a crowd. It’s even got the Christmas colors going for it: roasted tomato-sweet red pepper sauce and fresh spinach-laced ricotta are spread between thick roasted slabs of eggplant. It is not eggplant parmesan. It’s not lasagna either. There’s no pasta–the eggplant takes the place of the noodles. The best part: it is simply delicious.
I’ll be back soon, with other good things, I promise.
I wish you beneficent times in the kitchen. May the muse smile upon your efforts.
ROASTED EGGPLANT “LASAGNA”
Like most lasagna recipes, there are 3 easy steps to the recipe, before you assemble the layers.
RED SAUCE: Sweet Red Pepper-Tomato
4 large red bell peppers, each cut in half, stemmed and seeded
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and black pepper to sprinkle over the vegetables
28 oz can whole plum tomatoes and sauce
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the red bell pepper halves and onion quarters onto a baking sheet. Coat with olive oil (about 3 tablespoons) and sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Place the canned plum tomatoes and their sauce onto a separate baking sheet. Drizzle with remaining oil. Season with salt and black pepper. Place both baking sheets into the oven. Roast for 15-20 minutes, until the red bell pepper skins are blackened and blistered. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. When cool enough to handle, peel the pepper skins and discard.
Combine the roasted red bell peppers and onions with the roasted tomatoes into a large saucepan. Using an immersion blender, puree them together until smooth. You may add a little water–start with 1/2 cup—-if the mixture is too thick. Taste for seasonings and adjust as needed.
“GREEN CHEESE” Spinach Ricotta
1/4 pound fresh spinach leaves
1 pound whole milk ricotta
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
Place all of the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse until all of the spinach is finely chopped and incorporated into the ricotta. The mixture will be creamy green.
3 large eggplants
2 cups shredded cheese: 1 cup mozzarella, 1 cup sharp white cheddar
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Slice the eggplants lengthwise, about 1/2 inch-3/4 inch thick. Lay the pieces onto a baking sheet and sprinkle with kosher salt.
Allow them to “sweat”—about 15 minutes—-then gently dab the water droplets with a paper towel.
Drizzle both sides of the eggplant with olive oil and place back onto the baking sheet. Place into the oven and roast for 15 minutes.
Remove, and using a metal spatula, flip the eggplant. Roast for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Keep the shredded cheese handy for the assembly.
Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
Coat the bottom and sides of 2 casserole pans with olive oil. Ladle a generous spoonful of red sauce onto the bottom. Cover the sauce with a layer of eggplant, followed by a layer of spinach-ricotta, and a sprinkle of shredded cheese. Repeat the process: red sauce, eggplant, ricotta, shredded cheese.
Baked uncovered for 25-30 minutes, until the casserole is bubbling hot. Let the eggplant lasagna sit undisturbed for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Light. This is the challenge, this time of year.
Daily, my work alternates from the kitchen to my home office perch; each space has walls of windows to keep me in tune with the rhythm of the day. Lately I’ve been caught off guard, absorbed by testing recipes, cooking meals, or writing articles, only to look up and find myself shrouded in darkness. The hours move so rapidly, yet I think I’m keeping up.
Suddenly, the curtain drops. Night is here. At 4:45!
Some days I fret at my missed opportunities of sunlight, the better photographs, the lifted spirits. I tell myself–tomorrow, tomorrow—although we know, headed into winter, that each tomorrow means even less.
Moving deeper into the season, I have to capture that light in other ways.
Some mornings Bill and I rise very early, drive to Warner Park, and hike the 2 1/2 mile trail that loops around the wooded hills. Wearing headlamps, we begin in pre-dawn darkness, and find our way along the craggy path. Sometimes I’ll hear the who-who of owls call, or the rustle of a wild turkey flock on its own forest trek. Sometimes I’ll see a set of headlamps on the trail ahead of me, only to realize that it is a set of glowing eyes. A deer!
After thirty minutes of so, we turn off our headlamps. The world is dim, almost colorless, but visible. And then, sunrise.
Ah! Surrounded by hickory and beech trees, their leaves already yellow, we become enveloped in shimmering gold light.
Light and Balance. We need these in the food we eat too.
Today I am sharing two light and leafy recipes–one is a salad, the other cooked greens. Both autumn dishes help to balance out the heavy, hearty fare that defines the approaching holiday season.
I have been relishing fennel, its crunch and lively anise flavor enmeshed in a salad of Honeycrisp apples and clementines. My new favorite! This is a salad of fresh contrasts, melding sweet, peppery, citric, licorice and pungent tastes, with no cooking required. Just skilled prep—apples cut into thin batons, clementines peeled, sectioned and sliced, fennel and red onion almost shaved. Liberally season with salt and black pepper, which will help each element release its juices. Add salted Marcona almonds and your choice of a salty blue (gorgonzola, maytag, danish…)
The dressing is basic. Use a good olive oil—this beauty is from my friends’ biodynamic farm in Tuscany near the Tyrrhennian Sea—and a shake of white balsamic vinegar. As I have learned from Rachel in measuring this, use the Italian sensibility: “q.b.” quanto basto-–what is enough—in other words, use your good judgment.
A member of the chicory family, escarole is a beautiful and mildly bitter green that resembles leafy lettuce. Its core leaves, small and delicate, are ideal in a salad. But the whole head, sliced into ribbons, yields to heat readily, collapsing into a great delectable sopping mound. It makes a sumptuous side dish on its own, or can be spooned over rice or pasta. Served with beans or cornbread, it becomes an Italian dish that has migrated to the South.
In this pot, reds complement the greens. Red onion, red wine vinegar, and a handful of currants to bring pops of sweetness to the dish. You may use golden raisins in place of the currants; either dried fruit will gain a jewel-like glisten in the saute.
I could tell you, “Be grateful for your greens!”–because I am really reminding myself of the same.
Enjoy them chilled crisp in the salad bowl, or braised supple in the Dutch oven.
Enjoy your time with loved ones.
In this season of indulgence, enjoy some time of light and balance.
HONEYCRISP APPLE-CLEMENTINE-FENNEL SALAD
1 Honeycrisp apple, cut into small batons
3-4 clementines, peeled, sectioned, and cut into pieces
1 fennel bulb , shaved or sliced thinly
1/2 medium red onion, sliced thinly
1/2 cup Marcona almonds
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/2 pound mixed leaf lettuces
Place the prepared apples, clementines, fennel, and red onion into a large chilled bowl. Add the almonds and blue cheese crumbles.
Sprinkle the salt and black pepper over the salad ingredients, followed by the olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. Top with mixed lettuces.
Toss the salad gently but thoroughly, so that the myriad ingredients are well-dispersed and the lightly coated with the oil and vinegar. Taste and adjust for seasonings.
Makes 8-10 servings
WILTED ESCAROLE WITH RED ONION, GARLIC, AND CURRANTS adapted from Cooking Light
5-6 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup sliced red onion
3 cloves minced garlic
2-3 dried red chiles
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3-1/2 cup dried currants
1 large head of escarole, leaves washed and sliced into 1/2 ” thick ribbons
2-3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Place a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the olive oil. Stir in the red onion, garlic, and dried red peppers. Season with salt and saute the mixture for 2 minutes. The red onion will become translucent. Add the dried currants and saute for another minute.
Add the escarole ribbons. Stir and fold them in the red onion mixture. The heat will cause the escarole leaves to collapse and wilt. Add the red wine vinegar. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Allow the escarole to braise for 5 minutes.
Makes 8 servings