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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Benedict For The Soul

A couple of nights ago I made a complete shambles of our dinner.  I over-shopped it, over-worked it, and completely over-thought it.  It looked good, but it wasn't. It was crap.  Period. Michael was sweet about it, all the while pointing out the good parts.  If I remember correctly, one fork bite held one good part.
Live and learn.

To top things off, my car has been dead.  Dead as a doornail. Flat as a pancake. Quiet as a mouse. Dead. No trips to the store for last minute suppplies. No farmers market. Stranded. I simply had to make things work with what I had on hand.

Last night, I needed something comforting and easy to quell any memory and aftertaste from the previous night's disaster.
I had baby fingerling sweet potatoes from an earlier trip to the market.  Perfect starting point.  I peeled them, cut them into obliques, and pan fried  them with sliced  onions and chopped green peppers.  When they softened, I seasoned the potatoes with salt, pepper, a pinch of ancho chili pepper, and a pinch of cinnamon. I  let them rip away in the skillet until they caramelized into a sweet potato hash.
I thought eggs benedict would pair nicely with the lightly spiced savory sweet potatoes. Pantry Panic. I didn't have the correct ingredients for benedict, so I improvised.  Instead of the required english muffins I toasted sliced rounds of thick country white bread and replaced the traditional Canadian bacon with gushingly ripe sliced garden tomatoes.

I whipped up a quick blender hollandaise with egg yolks, fresh lemon juice, a splash of water, and warm melted butter.  As the potatoes finished up, I roasted  pencil thin fresh asparagus until tender and slipped four organic eggs into a gently bubbling vinegar water bath to poach. 

When the eggs set up with soft jiggly centers, I threw it all together. I topped the toasted rounds with salted tomato slices, gently rested the eggs atop the tomatoes, balanced tiny roasted asparagus tips on the yolk pillows, and poured generous amounts of hollandaise over the eggs. A final dusting of paprika (old school) and shower of snipped fresh chives finished it off.

I nestled the spice stained sweet potato hash next to the benedict towers while Michael added extra toast points slathered with butter and topped with Wind Stone Farm Ky Seedless Blackberry Jam for sweetness.  Mercy me.

When cut, the runny yolks spilled into the lemony hollandaise taking snipped chives down river.  The underlying tomatoes exploded with  sweet summer freshness, lightening the richness of the yolk river with cleansing tomato water. The spiced sweet potato hash was bold and sweet; and paired beautifully with the soft velvety eggs. A different take on hash.  

It was nice to get it right and wash away the bitter aftertaste of a meal gone wrong.

I'll have to remember the soothing power of oozing saucy soft poached eggs.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


When I was a kid living in Vienna Austria, Frau Olga would take me to the Naschmarkt every Saturday morning to shop for her cooking supplies.  Frau Olga was a big woman.  A big Czeckosloviakian woman.  Eastern Bloc big.  We would ride trollies through the tree-lined streets of Vienna until we got close to the market before walking along the banks of the Wein river to reach the market..  She clasped my tiny hand in one gigantic palm while her other arm crooked her market basket.  We strolled from stall to stall shopping for goods.  The colors of the produce and array of products always amazed me, although I was more taken by the intricately hand-painted tiny medieval soldiers sold by toy makers.  On rare occasions she would buy me one if I was a "God" boy.  It was never about shopping for me, though. We were there to buy our food.

On Saturday mornings in the fall, or after a period of heavy rain, Frau Olga would take me to the Vienna Woods to forage for wild mushrooms.  "Mushroom picking", we called it.  It was serious business for her and delightful fun for me.  We waded through leaves and shadows with gnarly sticks in hand, tipping over leaves and turning over  logs in search of mushrooms.  They sprouted in clusters, so if one was discovered, more were to be had.  Because  I was much closer to the ground, I was in charge of slicing the mushrooms from their grasp to the ground. You didn't really pick mushrooms, you sliced them from their roots. I was always covered with dirty moss when we finished; and loved it.  Permission granted to get boy-dirty.

Frau Olga knew her mushrooms. Chanterelles, porcinis, and creminis were her targets. We foraged for hours until she felt we had enough.  When fully stocked, we exited the dark forest, hopped a trolly, and returned home. She prepared her mushrooms very simply, sauteed with fresh herbs as a garnish in our nightly supper starters, consomme.  But, every once in a while they gilded her beef stroganoff.

Yesterday, I took a heartfelt mental stroll with Frau Olga through the Vienna Woods.  I foraged through the local grocery produce section, snagging fresh creminis and dried chanterelles. I wanted to use them as she had.
Not for consomme, but for Beef Stroganoff.
A lot of people assume beef stroganoff is a long simmered dish. It isn't. Last night, it came together with a quick saute.

I steeped the dried chanterelles in boiling water for 30 minutes to reconstitute, pulled them out of the water to drain, strained the liquid through a coffee filter to trap any residue, and set them aside.  After slicing a large onion and the  fresh creminis, I cubed tender sirloin steaks into 1 inch pieces.  Everything was in place.  Mise en place.
Working quickly, I seasoned the beef with salt and pepper, dredged it in flour, dusted off any extra flour, and
and tossed the cubed beef into a very hot skillet with butter and olive oil. I let the beef pieces sizzle to a dark crunchy brown to seal in the flavor before fishing them out with a slotted spoon, and setting them aside to rest.

While the oil was still screaming hot, I tumbled in the sliced onions to soften and cook.  When the onions were almost caramelized, I dropped in 2 cloves of minced garlic and a tablespoon of tomato paste. After the onions and garlic collapsed and the tomato paste cooked down, I deglazed the pan with a cup of dry white wine, letting the mixture simmer until the wine reduced by half before adding a knob of butter to melt through for richness and shimmer. Once the butter melted into the onions, I added a cup of beef stock and the reserved mushroom liquid to simmer and reduce  for 20 minutes. While the stock reduced, I brought a large pot of water to a boil, heavily salted it, and dropped in the egg noodles.
In a seperate hot buttered skillet, I sauteed the rehydrated chanterelles and sliced creminis with fresh thyme and parsley.  After the mushrooms released their liquids, softened, and caramelized, I salted them and deglazed the pan with fresh squeezed lemon juice.

When the pasta was cooked to al dente, I added the reserved beef to the reduced stock, swirled in a couple of tablespoons of sour cream, and removed it from the heat.
I plated the pasta, topped it with the sauced beef, and spooned the herbed sauteed mushrooms over the beef.  Sea salt and fresh parsley finished it off  along with gorgeous sliced tomatoes from our garden.

Cooking everything seperately before combining them was very Thomas Keller-esque.  It maintained the integrity of each ingredient before they were married onto the plate.  The stroganoff had a very intense deep complexity. The al dente pasta swirled through the sauce like ribbons, capturing the crunchy unctuous beef bits with soft grabbing tentacles. The rich sauce was a gentle barrier between  moist tender meat and  intense earthy herbed mushrooms. When all the elements combined into a single bite, is was insanely sensual. Velvety soft and intensely deep.  Crazy good.  Lick your plate good.  The lone Fresh Market buttered yeast roll was not enough bread to sop up the happiness.
Licking ensued.

 I didn't forage mushrooms from a forest. As a cautious adult, I'd be afraid to. I didn't even make the pasta from scratch. Who cared?  No One.

Inspired by Frau Olga, it couldn't have gone wrong.

And didn't.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Baby Fresh

* Baby Fingerling Sweet Potatoes braised in orange blossom honey, fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh
thyme sprigs, sliced onions, white wine, olive oil, salt, and pepper.
*Chargrilled Baby Yellow Squash bathed in fresh lemon pepper butter with fresh parsley.
*Grilled Seasoned Chicken Breasts with pan sauce.

Last night's meal was utterly delicious.  I stumbled upon baby fingerling sweet potatoes at the farmers market yesterday.  I was intrigued by their long, slender, and gangly appearance.  They barely fit the basket that encased them.  I had to have them.  The next vendor had baby yellow squash.  They were so dainty, tiny, and precious;  and in need of a home.  I bought six.  They weighed nothing.  25 cents for all six. 
Braised.  Grilled.  Dinner.

The sweet potato fingerlings were butter soft with a slight brittle snap from tender skin. They tasted so fresh and new. Each bite relished. The orange juice and white wine had enough subtle acidity to keep the flavor bright while the orange blossom honey candied them in a very delicate way.  I didn't even know we had orange blossom honey.  It was perfect.  During the hour long braise, the sliced onions collapsed into marmalade. The fresh thyme sprigs melted into the transparent glaze which allowed  the leaves to fall from their stems, cling to the potatoes, and mix with the  orange juice honey to create a voluptious sauce.  It was something.
I left enough bite to the baby yellow squash to retain a bursting mouthfeel.  Michael held each sliced baby squash on his fork tong in wonder of the tiny sweet tender seeds and pale green flesh.  The intentional char from the grill grounded the lemon pepper butter with smokiness and depth.

An unexpected fantastic accidental sauce was created  when all the juices from the orange, white wine, honey, chicken jus, olive oil, lemon, pepper, thyme, and parsley swirled into each other and puddled on the plate for a toasted bread sopper.
The vegetables were insanely good. We could not stop eating them with gutteral yelps and moans of approval. They felt and tasted like Thanksgiving side dishes in a reinvented way. Very light.  Very fresh. New. 
Yeah, there  was also grilled chicken.  Pretty great tender moist  chicken. It wasn't about the chicken, though.  At. All.

It was totally about the other stuff.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Garden Vegetable Containers

Literally. Vegetables as containers to stuff with other stuff!

I had some market vegetables poking out of the vegetable bin that I wanted to use last night before my morning jaunt to the farmers market today.  I had a gigantic green bell pepper that I stuffed  with ground lamb, garlic, celery, onion, parsley, mint, and oregano.  Pretty basic stuff.  I doused the stuffed peppers in a red wine vinegar laced tomato sauce, covered them with foil,  and cooked them until they almost collapsed.

I had fresh Silver Queen corn.  I certainly had tomatoes.  I wanted to combine them, but not in the usual manner.  I decided to stuff the tomatoes with the corn.  At first, I thought I would simply shave the corn from the cob and fill the hollowed-out tomatoes with it.  Not crazy enough.  Then, I thought corn pudding would be an interesting twist.  That would have been good.  Maybe a little dense, but still good.

It hit me.  As if a Thomas Keller coffee-table cookbook had slammed against my head, it hit me.  Corn souffle!  Yup. 
I'm not afraid of souffles.  They might be a bit fussy, but they don't scare me. The fussiness  always outweighs the gorgeous outcome.  Generally, they don't fit my cooking style.  I prefer having food braise away slowly while I drink copious amounts of wine and enjoy  aromas wafting throughout the house.  Last night, it turned out that souffles also take time to make and to bake, allowing ample aroma wafting.

I plucked two beautifull tomatoes from our tomato jungle, sliced off the tops, carefully scooped out the pulp and seeds, salted them generously, and turned them upside down on paper towels to drain.
After shaving the kernels from two corn cobs, I scraped the sweet cob milk into the bowl with the corn.  Messy, in a good way.

For the souffle base, I created a  white roux with equal amounts of butter and flour until paste-like before adding heated milk to form a loose white sauce.  When it came to a simmer, I seasoned the sauce with sugar, salt, pepper, and  dropped in the corn with snipped chives and parsley.  I pulled it off the heat to cool. 

The fun part. Before whipping the eggs white to soft peaks, I cleaned the bowl with a splash of vinegar to remove any fat.  Fat is the enemy of whipped egg whites.  Once clean, I seperated two eggs, dropping the yolks into the corn base and the whites into the bowl. I mixed the yolks with the base for richness and  whisked the whites to form soft firm peaks. 
I folded a third of the whipped eggs whites into the souffle base to lighten it before adding the base to the remaining egg whites with parmesan cheese. Using a gentle figure-eight motion, I blended it all together. Once combined, I filled the tomatoes with the airy corn  and baked them alongside the stuffed green peppers for 45 minutes until browned and puffed.

Word of warning.  Apparently, I wasn't careful enough when hollowing out the tomatoes.  One had a slight tear. Big deal, I thought.  Well,  it was enough of a tear to bring down a majestic souffle. All the way down.  I ate that one.  Michael got the perfectly risen browned one.  They tasted the same, but.........

I looked at them and thought, crap!  Side by side, they reminded me of a seventh grade photograph taken of awkward me standing next to my ridculously good looking football jock big brother. Who's the ugly duckling?

Despite the visuals, they were delicious.
The corn was sweet, light, fluffy, and rich. Perfect when combined with the sweet cooked tomatoes and their dripping juices.

Fussy?  Yeah. Trouble?  Nope.  With a bit more care, I'd make them again.

In a heartbeat.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sides: Skillet Roasted Green Beans With Orange

Side dishes can sometimes be the star attraction of a meal. They shouldn't be relegated to second tier status because of their side-ness. Most times they can enhance an entree or even elevate it. I have been known to choose or not choose a particular restaurant entree based solely on the side item served with it. Last night we had steak and lamb chops for our entrees.  Yep, both.  Michael doesn't care for lamb, so we cooked what each of us wanted to eat.  That happens a lot around here. He had a grilled marinated filet while I enjoyed blackened medium rare lamb chops.  They were good, but the skillet roasted green beans trumped the entire shooting match.

Using farmers' market green beans, I decided to adapt a recipe from The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern, a James Beard Award nominated cookbook.  The recipe is very straightforward with five ingredients.  I added two.

I didn't use flashy fussy pencil thin french haricot verts.  The Lee brothers intended the recipe to accommodate hardy meaty green beans.  So, that's what I did.
After trimming the beans and setting them aside,  I supremed, or segmented, a large naval orange over a bowl to catch the juices.

I got a cast iron skillet smoking hot, drizzled in olive oil, and tumbled in the green beans.  After sprinkling kosher salt and pepper over the top, I let them rip until they blistered and charred.  Literally, blistered.  That's the term the Lee Bros  recipe used and was the most accurate.  The blistering gave the beans a smoky undertoned bite.

I tossed the cooked beans onto a platter and sprinkled them with the orange segments. After adding 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon vinegar, orange zest, salt, and pepper to the reserved orange juice, I whisked it together until slightly emulsified and poured it over the green beans and oranges.

I added the zest of a lemon for brightness and a scant 1 teaspoon drizzle of soy sauce for deeper umami flavor.

They were outrageous! Not quite bathed in an orange vinaigrette, but reminiscent of a warm green bean salad. The smoky beans were tender, crunchy, and  nutty tasting, almost like roasted asparagus. The slight acididy of the orange cloaked the green beans with sweet softness while each supremed orange bite released  gentle pulp explosions that paired beautifully with the bold char of the beans. The lemon zest inncocently cut through the silky orange while the soy sauce provided an invisible, yet subtly present flavor boost.

Side dishes are sometimes overlooked, but never forgotten. We won't forget this one.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Got Tomatoes? Roast Them

Now that our larger heirlooms tomatoes have started to ripen and come in, our bounty of cherry and grape varieties have started to stock pile.

Last night, I decided to roast and serve them over pasta.  This really is an easy recipe.  Really.  Trust me.  I purposely chose to take it a tiny bit farther.  Beyond the senseless silliness of self indulgence, the recipe was basically roasted tomatoes and peppers over pasta; and that would be fantastic with good quality al dente pasta punching through soft sweet roasted vegetables.


I enjoy making pasta.  Period.  It just feels right to do so, especially when dealing with other great ingredients.  I made  ricotta cheese, fennel, and parmesan filled ravioli to serve with  fresh roasted farmers' market cubanelle peppers,  green bell peppers, and our container grown tomatoes.

I made the egg pasta, rolled it through a pasta machine into sheets, , dotted the sheets with  filling, topped the filling with a second sheet of pasta, cut it into ravioli, and set it aside to rest.

I halved the grape/cherry tomatoes, sliced the peppers, tossed them with sliced garlic,  olive oil, salt & pepper, and roasted them at 350 for 30 minutes until caramelized, sweet, and tender. 

While they roasted, I made  meatballs  with ground chuck, egg, minced parsley, grated onion, bread crumbs, and water for moisture.  I rolled them into golf ball sized balls, drizzled them with olive oil, and braised them along side the vegetables until just barely cooked. When firm, yet underdone, I droppped them into a sauce pan to simmer in a tomato, garlic, and white wine sauce.

When it was time to eat, I boiled the ravioli in heavily salted water until they floated to the top.  They tell you when they are are done.  They float.

While the ravioli cooked, I combined the tomatoes and peppers, drizzled them with a bit of olive oil, and set them aside. I spotted an over-ripe heirloom tomato perched on the window sill, and in a blaze of self ordained genius, split it in half and squeezed it over the roasted vegetables to brighten them with a burst of freshness.  The added tomato juice mingled with the oil to create a warm sweet tomato vinaigrette sauce.  Brilliant!.
I plated the pasta, spooned over  the sauce, and topped it with  fresh torn basil.  I placed the meatball garnish to the side with  freshly cut chives for a mild onion finish.

With my last remaining nub of parmesan reggiano, I bathed it with finely grated cheese.

It was shockingly good.  Fresh.  Deep. Sweet.  Soft.

The pasta was so light.  Like eating air. Fennel-flecked  cheese air pillows.  The caramelized tomatoes and peppers were perfectly broken down and sweet. Their concentrated sweetness resembled savory vegetable jam while still retaining a beautiful freshness. When sliced, the creamy insides of the ravioli oozed onto the plate and swirled around the transparent tomato sauce. The meatballs were incredibly moist and highly seasoned. A  hardy, yet  light garnish .When all the textures and flavors  melded together, it tasted like ridiculously fresh lasagna.  A light deconstructed lasagna.

While I try not to cook with our fresh homegrown tomatoes, sometimes I do what I have to do.

Or want to do.  Got 'em?  For super concentrated sweet tomato flavor, roast them.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Deep Fried Mac & Cheese

Yep, I went there.  By deep frying macaroni and cheese, I went to the other side of sensibility.  Actually, it made sense in a crazy kind of way.  Other people have done it.  Paula Dean, of course, has fried mac & cheese. She fries everything.  James Beard Award winner,  Alton Brown,  has his own take on it. 
Why not, then?
Leftover macaroni and cheese is usually very hard to reconstitute.  Much like Italian risotto, the next day  it is  clumpy, rock hard, and just not meltable.

Michael made his fabulous barbecued ribs the other night.  He paired them buttered corn on the cob and macaroni and cheese.  We ate all of the ribs and corn, but an entire casserole of mac & cheese  was impossible for two people to finish.  It always happens with mac & cheese. Make a big batch, love eating it, and into the refrigerator it goes to sit. And sit. It never even falls prey to my sleep eating episodes. It just sits there.
Well, last night I was determined to conquer the elusive unsolved leftover mac & cheese delimma.  The hard part was done.  I decided to use the same Italian method for Arancini di Riso,  fried risotto balls,  for our leftover mac & cheese.  I rolled the chilled sticky pasta into small balls, made holes in the center of each ball, filled the holes with extra cheddar cheese, closed the pasta balls around the cheese, and rolled them tightly to secure the cheese inside the orbs.

I set up a dredging station next to the deep fryer with three bowls containing flour, egg, and parslied panko bread crumbs.  With the fryer set at a fairly high temperature of 375, I dredged the mac & cheese balls in flour, egg,  bread crumbs, and set them aside to firm up before dropping them into the fryer to cook until golden brown and crunchy.
That was it. With plain ketchup as a dipper, they were ideal finger food served along side blazing hot chicken wings, sliced tomatoes,  and celery.

Ok , they were a wee bit skanky, but they were good!  The extra cheese oozed out onto the plate into  puddles.  Perfect cheesy puddles for swiping  the wings through before dipping into blue cheese dressing.  Messy and fun.

With a slight nod to civility, I  did shower them with fresh minced parsley.

 It was the first time macaroni & cheese didn't linger in the refrigerator in wait of a desperate pity snack.

That worked for me.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Into The Woods: No One Is Alone

Mother cannot guide you.
Now you're on your own.
Only me beside you.
Still, you're not alone.
No one is alone.
Sometimes people leave you.
Halfway through the wood.
Others may decieve you.
You decide whats good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone.
             -Stephen Sondheim

I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about my father's homestead in the western part of Kentucky since our journey into the woods last weekend.  His place and land were very similar. Hardly the Bluegrass Hamptons, but similar. His home was  way out in the country, tucked beneath beautiful tall maple and oak trees.  Instead of a babbling creek, his land nestled by the side of a lake. He built the entire house from the ground up alone, detailing it so that  it would fit snuggly into the terraine.  Last weekend, I mentioned to Harriette and Sandy how familiar their wooded retreats  felt.  They reminded me of home.  It made me feel good.  Serene.  Happy.

10 years ago on July 4th, 2000, I shaved my head and moved home to take care of my father.  He had been diagnosed with lung cancer and needed a caretaker .  I didn't want to do it.  Who would really want to do that sort of thing.  I needed to, though.  I had to.  I did.

I shaved my head as a badge of honor.  A warrior.  I was starting a new life and wanted a new me.  Armed and ready, I  packed my cute Ford Ranger truck and moved home.  We were fortunate to find a lovely woman who agreed to help with his caretaking.  We pulled shifts.  I was there Wednesday through Sunday.  She would come Sunday through Wednesday.  Every week for 6 months.  We left notes and cooked-goods for each other as we tag-teamed his care.

While I was gone, Michael took care of our things.  Our lives. Our home. He manned the ship and kept it alfoat. I was the sailor.  He kept the house going and me strong. He was a rock with his kind and unselfish spirit.

There wasn't much to do in my father's land. I knew no one except my relatives. I spent most of the afternoons out in the sun. I would back my truck into a field, unfold a lawn chair onto the bed, drink bloody mary's,  read, and catch some rays. I planted 15 flats of impatients around the foundation of his house to let  people know that he was  living  there, not dying there. Dad and I hung out together, watched a lot of television, and talked about our lives. And  I cooked.

Cooking for my father was a challenge.  He was old school. Depression era old school with three freezers full of everything.  Nothing went to waste. Nothing. The freezers were storehouses for all kinds of wonderful things. Frozen vegetables from  previous gardens, Fort Knox commissary staples, and tons of Not For Sale beef.  The freezers were frozen markets at my disposal.

He required three meals a day. Breakfasts were always an adventure.  Over time he became fond of my gussied up breakfasts, provided they were accompianied by home fries and sliced tomatoes. Peeled sliced tomatoes.  Peeling a tomato is akin to wearing sack cloth to bale hay.  His had to be peeled.  I must have peeled thousands  that summer.  But, they helped him tolerate my brie and avocado omelettes, poached eggs on english muffins, western omelettes with salsa, soft boiled egg cups,  and scrambled eggs with chive cream.  God, he was nice about it.  27 years in the army, 3 wars under his belt, and he was eating fresh avocado for breakfast.  Trooper.

Every two weeks we would make the 65 mile drive to Vanderbilt Medical Center for his chemotherapy.  Patients and nurses would comment about how tanned I was.  It never ocurred to me how gauche it was to stroll into a cancer clinic looking like George Hamilton.  My new world.  I was the only person allowed to drive my father anywhere in his big 150 Ford Double cab truck.....after I learned his driving rules.  No flip flops, unsafe. No speeding. No getting too close to the car in front. Don't ride the breaks. On and on and on.  The trips to Vandy gave us a chance to chat without much distraction.  We would stop at Baskin and Robbins on the way home for his Pralines & Cream cup treat and I would stop at any given liquor store for my weekly wine stash.  Aside from the grueling effects of the chemo, the trips to Vandy served our purposes perfectly.

Lunches were the easiest meals to throw together. Sort of.   He loved his pickled pimento loaf sandwiches. But, not just any pickled pimento loaf.  It had to come from a certain gas station sandwich counter on the other side of the county.  He swore there was a difference.  Michael and I still joke about his hand sliced pickle pimento loaf  on white bread with mayonaise and peeled sliced tomatoes. He also like salt and peppered cantelope from the Amish market.  Sometimes sardines with saltines would be stand in for the sandwiches. Lunches were effortless.

Once a week I would venture into town to buy supplies. We had very different concepts about supplies.  He wanted sardines, whole milk, fresh orange juice, saltines, Kraft Robust Italian dressing, american cheese, and the wrong kind of peanut butter.  I would arrive home with fresh parsley, fingerling potatoes, clams, bibb lettuce, Ken's Raspberry Walnut Vinaigrette, and roquefort cheese.  We did agree on the proper toilet paper, aluminum foil,  and dishwashing detergent.  Middle ground.

Suppers were our favorite meals together.They were usually heavy on the Not For Sale beef.  His favorite steaks were pettie filets broiled 3 minutes on one side and 2 minutes on the other for a perfect  medium rare. I used the ground chuck to stuff  green peppers or cabbage before baking under tomato sauce and cheese. Potatoes were  always present along with peeled sliced tomatoes. While the corn was fresh from the Amish, we would have bacon fried corn every night, sometimes with peppers or tomatoes tossed in. Sweet, crunchy and salty. He loved Tomato Pudding because it reminded him of his mother. It was a sweet tomato casserole topped with bread and cheese.  The bread would sink into the tomatoes and become pudding-like. Poor people's food, he called it.  I still make that dish. Green beans, garlic and tomatoes roasted with italian dressing was his favorite side dish from Boston Market, so that went into the supper rotation.  Tart and sassy.  I had to call Boston Market and beg for the recipe so that I could get as close to it as possible. Slowly and eventually, I introduced compound butters and marinades for steak and chicken.  He became a huge fan of steak teriyaki, which let me replace the usual tomatoes with grilled pineapple slices from time to time.  Bread was a must.  I baked bread from scratch for a while before realizing it rated an equal standing with canned biscuits.  Pick your battles.

Eventually chemo became too much for him to endure. He stopped. We stopped our trips to Nashville and our Baskin & Robbins breaks. We all readied ourselves for the long haul.  Autumn settled in.  The trees turned their vibrant patchwork colors.  His land was beautiful in the fall. Crisp and colorful. Blue skies with long shadows cast from  trees. The fresh corn  and tomatoes were a thing of the past. The flowers out front wilted with the first frost. Everything was going away.  Lost in transition.

He requested Sole Almondine for his birthday.  Never made it before. Not for me or for him. Never even knew he knew what it was. I poached it in butter, covered it with toasted almonds, and served it with fried corn, sauteed french cut green beans, and home fries. My aunts joined us for the celebration. We even had balloons. He loved it.

The cancer metastasized into a tumor on his shoulder.  That resulted in weekly trips to Bowling Green for radiation.  Those journeys were quiet and sweet. We drove back roads on the way to his treatment to prolong the trip and his enjoyment of being outside. Out of the house.  He was serene on those drives.  There wasn't much else they could do when the radiation treatments ended.  We went into a pain management mode.  Medication replaced eating and Ensure replaced my cooking.  Chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla.

He insisted we should have the entire family to his house for Thanksgiving that fall.  He said it was thier only home.  Their place to be. Uh, ok, I thought.  We'll do our best.  Thanksgivings there were always boisterous.  Loud.  Communal.  In fact, I never cooked a thing back in the day. Women's work.

That year, I cooked the entire meal.  I took our family's favorite time honored traditions and tweaked them.  I changed them.  It was my time. Like a scene from Babbette's Feast, I meticulously prepared the last supper. The turkey was brined, honey-glazed, sprinkled with fresh thyme, and roasted with turnips, onions, parsnips, garlic, and carrots.  It was a fine turkey with crackling skin and luscious deep flavored giblet pan gravy. Creamed pearl onions, my favorite side dish,  became cheesy gratine' with gorgeous pungent ripe brie.  I poached pears in red wine, split them in half, scooped out the centers, and served  Michael's mother's scratch-made cranberry sauce in the cavities, craftfully displayed on an ancient sterling silver tray.  In lieu of scalloped oysters, I opted for Oyster's Rockerfeller topped with fresh sauteed spinach, melted aged parmesan, and perched atop a bed of coarse sea salt for stability.  Briny and Brilliant. Wine and iced tea flowed.  The food was good, even if a bit unconventional.  We all were glad to be there together crammed around the table eating off of my mother's beautiful German Winter Wheat bone china.

My family loved it. I loved it. My father's seat remained empty through the entire meal.  He never left his bed that day.
Or any other.

I treasure the time he and I spent together during those 6 months.  It was hard and joyous.  We grew to respect and love each other in a new way. He was happy I had Michael to lean on.  Happy that Michael would be there when he was gone.  He respected Michael and our relationship.  I left his land and the experience with no regrets.  Not one.  I lived my life with ingregrity and helped him live and die with his.

Last weekend was a sweet gentle reminder of my time in the woods with my dad. 
Sometimes, we need  reminders.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Got Tomatoes? Try Panzanella Salad

I never dreamed we would ever grow more tomatoes than we could possibly eat.  It seemed every year we would pick them one by one as they ripened.  Not this year.  We have several heirloom varieties growing out back in containers.  In this heat, we have to water the containers twice a day.  We end up picking a few tomatoes every time we water.  Recently, our backyard groundhog has been smitten by the tomatoes, climbing the cages and pulling them off,  taking one bite, and leaving the innocent juicy leftovers bitten side up in full view for us to find.  Bastard. 
We now pick them when almost ripe and plop them on the window sill to fully ripen.  You do what you have to do to survive urban gardening.  What's next, deer?

We have eaten tomatoes every way possible.  Salt and peppered.  Sliced with a dollop of mayonaise.  Tossed raw with hot cooked angel hair pasta.  Sliced as a a side dish.  Name it, we've had it.  I haven't cooked with any yet because they are just too good right now raw and still warm from the sun. Being so sweet, they beg to be eaten in thier purest form....raw.

Last night I decided to make our tomatoes the star of the show with panzanella.  Panzanella is  a bread salad originating in the Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio regions of Italy.  Commonly referred to as "leftover" salad because day old or week old bread is used as a base for the salad.  Waste not want not.  Very simple ingredients.  Very good ingredients are key with simple preperations.

A non-recipe.  I used leftover cheese topped brioch.  I sliced the brioch into bite sized cubes and toasted the cubes in the oven at 350 for 15 minutes to lightly brown and crisp up.  I sliced two Sunsets Red Horizon tomatoes in similar sized pieces, dropped them into a bowl, and  added the toasted bread cubes, minced red onion, fresh whole basil leaves, baby arugula, red oak, frisee, baby spinach, salt, and pepper.

After drizzling 4 tablespoons of good olive oil and 3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar over the salad, I tossed it well , and let it rest for 20 minutes to combine the flavors and absorb the dressing.  Using a microplane, I finely grated parmesan reggiano over the top for a nutty salty finish

So good, fresh, and light.  The tomatoes released enough juice to mix with the bright vinaigrette, allowing the toasted bread to plump and soften.  The bitter greens and anise toned basil wilted softly around the tomatoes and bread.  Their bitterness punched back the incredible sweetness of the tomatoes just enough to balance the salad, while the bread made it hearty. Almost meaty. The toasted crispness of the bread  softened and  subdued under the tomato juice vinaigrette.

Yet another great way to savour the bounty of summer tomatoes. 
There are only two of us for our bounty.
Too many tomatoes, so little time.

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