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Monday, August 29, 2011

Watermelon Ride

My grandparent's house was nestled on a slight hill surrounded by patches of trees and rolling fields on a lake in Western Kentucky. White-washed wooden planked fences separated the main house and work buildings from the fields, creating idyllic panoramas for the property. After we moved back to Kentucky to live with my grandparents, one of the first things my father did was haul out the Bush Hog, attach it to my grandfather's tractor, and mow a large square area around a huge oak tree on one side of the house beyond the white-washed fencing. After leveling the knee high hay, he climbed aboard a riding lawn mower and mowed the same area until it resembled a well manicured lawn.  I had no idea what he was doing. I really didn't care. At the time, restless catfish jumping around our murky moss-laden pond fascinated me a lot more.

The next morning, he fastened  thick grass rope to an old tire, climbed the tree (with the help of my brother), and secured the rope over the thickest arching limb from the oak tree.  He made a tire swing.  I'd never seen one before.  Being an  eleven year old boy, it certainly grabbed my attention. I assumed he created it for me, so I happily played on the swing for several days until the catfish lured me back to the pond.  The swing hung lifeless in the tall grass  for the duration of  autumn and winter.

The following spring, he was back out there Bush Hogging, mowing, and manicuring the tire-swing lawn in preparation for an upcoming Memorial Day family cookout. During our first few years living there, he repeated the ritual twice a year for family cookouts on Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Memorial Day was the usual  pot-luck affair, but the Labor Day cookout was his baby.  After everyone gathered under the oak tree, lounging about in those old timey brightly colored aluminum folding lawn chairs, he'd light the fire and grill onion studded cheese-stuffed hamburgers and  husked-wrapped buttered field corn. Condiments, hambuger fixings, Hamburger buns,  potato salad, and his un-worldly Boston baked beans were meticulously lined up on his fold-out Coleman's camping picnic table.

Dessert was always sliced and chunked sun-kissed watermelon straight from the garden served atop leftover newspapers to catch the mess.

The tire swing was in constant use during those picnics, its rope rhythmically squeaking around the worn tree limb from the weight of the people riding it throughout the day. Summer sounds.

After a few years, the picnics slowly faded away until they stopped all together. Toward the end of what was to become our final picnic, I somehow managed to wrestle the rights to the tire swing.  Seizing the moment, I grabbed an end chunk of warm watermelon, climbed onto the tire, pushed my feet to the ground for acceleration,  and lazily flew through the air chomping on watermelon while spitting tiny black seeds into the newly mown grass. 

"You need to use these watermelons.", Michael said the other morning, referring to small yellow striped and  small red sugar baby market watermelons I had sitting on the kitchen counter.  He was right.  I'd intended to grill them or make a salad with them, but had done neither. I did need to use them.  That night, while Michael was out with friends, I took the melons on a little ride.

Watermelon Granite.

I cut the rinds from both melons and tossed them into the refrigerator.  After removing the seeds, I sliced the flesh, keeping the two melons separate.  Using a blender, I pureed each melon with fresh lime juice and 1/4 cup of sugar.  When  liquidfied, I poured the watermelon water into two separate metal containers and slid them into the freezer.

At hourly intervals, I used a fork to gently scrape the watermelon ice into incredibly fluffy  frozen watermelon crystals. After three hours, I spooned the granite into stemmed sherbet glasses with a sprinkling of zested lime. Both flavors were fabulous. With  hints of lime acidity  cutting through the natural sweetnees, the granites were light, luxurious, and refreshing. Having the mouthfeel of grown up Sno-Cones (without the straws), the tiny frozen jewels popped with familiar watermelon flavor before melting into nothing. Fun!

Watermelon Chutney.
The following morning, after cranking up on strong coffee, I pulled the reserved watermelon scraps from the refrigerator, carefully removed the green peels from the rinds, and sliced the rinds into one inch pieces. 

I minced a couple of garlic cloves, two small red bell peppers from the garden, and a small knob of ginger. After heating 3/4 cups apple cider vinegar, 3/4 cups sugar, and 1 1/2 cups water in a dutch oven until boiling, I tossed the sliced watermelon rinds, peppers, garlic, ginger and a handful of dried cherries into the rolling  cauldron.  After thuroughly mixing the the ingredients together, I turned the heat down to a simmer and let it bubble away for 50 minutes, stirring occasionally.

 After 50 minutes, the dried cherries had plumped and dyed the chutney a deep crimson red. I pushed the pot from the heat and let the watermelon chutney cool completely before spooning it into small glass jars. Just before sliding the jars of chutney into the refrigerator to marry the flavors, I gave it taste. Tart.  Sweet. Luscious.
What a ride! 

almost used every part from the  two innocent watermelons. 
Perhaps I should have fashioned a beaded necklace from the seeds.

Or shoveled them into my mouth to spit from the back deck.
 Maybe next time.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

All's Quiet...

Lately, Michael and I have been dining very simply on the home front.  After feeding a bunch of hungry folks out on the meadows of Keeneland  for two outdoor concerts featuring Tiempo Libre with the Lexington Philharmonic, we really craved quiet time at home and in our kitchen.  Sliced melons with cottage cheese and marinated tomatoes with cucumbers provided cool calm answers for quiet kitchen time.

Last night, we were ready to fire up the burners. Michael prepared his fabulous salmon cakes with hollandaise. His gentle deft hand with them always produces moist cakes with crackling exteriors.   I was excited to sit back and let him work his magic while I whipped up a side dish to accompany them.  Yesterday morning, I stopped by the market to pick up a few tomatoes. I left with a couple of heirloom  black brandywine tomatoes, baby leeks, and a bag of very ugly early season small watermelon radishes.  Aside from a couple of ears of corn, a can of cashews, and a jar of preserved lemons, the leeks and radishes were all I had to work with.

Except for a trip through an occasional salad bar, I can't remember the last time I ate a raw radish. I adore cooking and pickling them, so I decided I'd prepare both (together) to accompany our salmon cakes.  It was stupidly easy.

I scrubbed and peeled the gnarly-skinned radishes, leaving a bit of the root for interest. They were skanky ugly....until I sliced them. Wow. I was stunned.  When sliced, the cantankerous radish bulbs remarkably revealed vivid fuscia flesh softly bleeding to snow white while finishing with a slight green rim, much like....well, small seedless watermelons. Gorgeous.

After quartering and dividing the radishes into equal portions, I set them aside and sliced the baby leeks into thin diagonals.

Adapting a quick pickling method from The Lee Brother's, Simple Fresh Southern cookbook, I simmered 1 cup of white wine vinegar with 4 cloves of garlic, 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 1 teaspoon of whole peppercorns.  When the sugar and salt dissolved, I poured it over the quartered radishes, covered the container, and slid it into the refrigerator to chill.

For contrasting texture and flavor, I decided to braise the remaining radishes in butter and chicken stock.  After melting 3 tablespoons of butter in a very hot skillet, I added the sliced leeks along with minced garlic, salt, and pepper.  When the leeks softened, I tumbled the radishes into the skillet and deglazed the pan with 1 1/2 cups chicken stock. 

I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a low simmer, clamped on a lid, and let the radishes bubble away while we happily drank wine in the parlor.  After an hour, I slipped the braised tender radishes into an oven proof dish and slid them into a warm oven to hold until we were ready to dine.

After a few more slaphappy glasses of wine, Michael worked his magic with the salmon cakes. When they were perfectly crisped  until golden brown, he topped them with a quick blender hollandaise (a delicious cheat),  and  snipped chives from the garden. 

I nestled the braised radishes alongside the salmon cakes, tumbling the pickled radishes over them for a sensory contrast.

We've eaten braised radishes countless times. Since they're related to turnips, they tasted like turnips. No brainer. Last night, the braised watermelon radishes tasted like turnips jacked up on steroids. When cooked,  their raw vibrant color and crisp texture mellowed into subdued softness,  innocently cloaking the unexpected intense turnip flavor. Brilliant. The long braised leeks melted into onion candy, wrapping the bold radishes with needed sweetness.

Ideally, I should have sliced the pickled radishes a bit smaller.  That being said,  their crunchy, tart, and peppery bites  were thankful respites to the big bold turnip flavors. 

The golden crisp salmon cakes were unbelievable. Although utterly bathed with an oozing lemony hollandaise, they retained their exterior crunch while their moist salmon-flecked centers hinted with undertones of Old Bay Seasoning and snapped with bites of  minced fresh green peppers. Heaven. Michael's magic. His realm.They were his best. Period. 

Without shame, I licked my plate
completely clean.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Groundhogs & Melons

I've waited all summer for my beloved sweet juicy Casey County melons to appear at the market. Yeah, cantalope and honeydew melons have popped up at the market during the summer, but the ripest  late season Casey County melons have finally arrived.  They taste richer and  sweeter this time of year, as if bathing in the hot summer humidity while clinging to thier vines intensifies their ripening.

We lugged a gigantic Casey County melon home  from the market this past weekend. It wasn't the biggest one in the pile, but with a firm slight give to the rind, it felt the way a melon should feel. Knowing I would have melon envy, I convinced myself that the largest one was overly ripe and would've exploded with the slightest touch. We certainly didn't need that on a beautiful Saturday morning. Envy avoided.

A few minutes after unloading our market stash on the kitchen table, both Michael and I  noticed that our entire house smelled like fresh melon. Crazy.  Without even slicng the melon, it perfumed our entire  house with the scent of summer.  Michael walked into the kitchen and exclaimed, with child-like glee, "It smells like Granny's kitchen." I've nevered smelled ripe summer melons in his Granny Hallie's kitchen, but I've been in her kitchen plenty of times over the years (for every season) and could understand his joy.

The aroma swept me back to my father's summer garden.  For years, he and Marge had a gloriously huge garden.  Their house was nestled on a slight slope under a canopy of oak trees, overlooking fields that eventually spilled into a tree guarded lake.  Their 1/2 acre garden  was meticulously plotted behind the house where the gentle slope flattened out into the remaining fields. I loved that house.  Our house. During the warm summer months we'd sit on the second story open-aired deck, while gazing down onto the garden,  and eat our evening meals. My father always had a shotgun within arms reach. On most nights, a groundhog would eventually  rear his head through the cucumber rows, tomato plants, or cabbage leaves. Without a break  in the conversation, Dad would reach for his shotgun and blow its head off.

It was normal.

Aside from garden tomatoes, my father adored his fresh melons.  He always ate them at room temperature with a sprinking of salt and a dash of ground pepper. As a kid, I thought that was weird.  To this day, I eat garden melons the way he did.  Sweet salty juices with a slight peppery bite.

I'm contantly fascinated with the power of food. Familiar flavors and aromas are electric, having the power to transport us anywhere at any time.

One huge fresh market melon swept Michael back to his grandmother's cozy kitchen.

I drifted away into memories my father's garden.

With headless groundhogs 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Peel Me A Grape

My morning visits to the Tuesday/Thursday farmers' market are usually quick fire grab-and-go shopping sprees on my way to work. Sometimes, I don't even remember what I picked up until I'm home from work. This past week, I had the luxury of time. It wasn't a sprint as I strolled leisurely through the dusty gravel visiting every vendor, stand by stand. I sensed the growing season was starting the slow process of winding down. The crazy weather had taken a toll on the growers.  Their faces and voices exuded it.

My favorite Casey County vendor had baskets of teeny baby yellow squash.  When I remarked how unusual they were this time of year, he simply responded, "That patch is nothin' but dust." He wasn't selling cute cheffy baby squash. He brought what he had to the market to sell.  Purposeful neccessity.  I bought them all. The whole lot. Sweet tiny bites.

We've been away for a while on a seaside vacation. Our pantry was bare, so I needed stuff.  I think I bought something from every vendor. Too much, in fact.  Heavy bags bounced off  my knees as I meandered through the market. 

On my way out, something caught my eye as I passed by Elmwood Farm's well stocked stand. Tiny clusters of seedless Reliance grapes spilled over the gigantic basket that held them. I was mezmerized. They looked like delicate champaigne grapes. Grapes of any kind usually don't pop up at the market. They completely took me by surprize. I dropped my bags around my feet, pinning me in place, and tasted one. It snapped like a grape, but tasted like a sweet small plum. That lone exploding little bite was exactly what I was hoping to find at the market that day. I happily handed over my last two dollars, dropped a small cluster of them into one of my bags, stumbled to my car, and made my way home.

While on vacation, we devoured incredibly fresh seafood at whim. It was there for the taking and we took brilliant advantage of  it. After eight straight days of seafood gluttony, we were in desperate need of a meat intervention.  Specifically, pork. Yeah, baby.  Pork with roasted plum-like grapes. I could taste it just thinking about it.

I pulled a couple of plump boneless pork chops from the freezer to thaw while I sliced a few juicy heirloom  tomatoes, dried apricots, and onions. When the chops were completely thawed, I wrapped  them with thick cut applewood smoked bacon, secured the bacon with skewers, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and set them aside.

Using a small baking dish, I layered alternating slices of fresh black and yellow brandywine tomatoes, topping each layer with fresh thyme, salt, pepper, and pungent crumbled stilton cheese.  The cheese filled tomato stacks would have been fabulous simply dressed with a vinaigrette, but I couldn't leave it at that. Nope.  I roasted them until the cheese melted into a wonderfully smelly pungent cheese puddle while the tomatoes remained somewhat firm. I let them bathe in the fondue while I cranked a skillet on high heat to saute the pork medallions.

When the skillet was blazing hot, I added a splash of olive oil and sauteed the pork until it was deeply caramelized, about 4 minutes per side. After pulling the pork out of the skillet to a side dish, I added sliced onions to the pan juices and allowed them to sweat until translucent before deglazing the pan with 1/2 cup chicken stock combined with 1/2 cup madeira wine. After tossing a handful of loose Reliance grapes  into the sauce, I slid the bacon-wrapped pork medallions back into the skillet, topped them with the remaining grape clusters along with fresh rosemary sprigs, clamped on a lid, and carefully placed the simmering mix into a 350 degree oven to braise for 25 minutes.

After two or four glasses of wine with Michael, I pulled the pork from the oven to rest and plumped pearl couscous with slivered dried apricots  in simmering  chicken stock for about 15 minutes.

It was time for pig.

After plating the saucy pork medallions, I spooned the apricot-flecked couscous to the side, nestling  the oozing tomato stacks between the two. I dropped a few fresh grapes onto our plates and finished with snipped chives, parsley, and thyme leaves.

It was a ridiculous flavor party. There was so much going on. The sweet tiny grapes collapsed from the heat and melted into the madeira wine sauce, infusing it with additional soft sweetness. The velvety sauce napped the tender pork, enhancing its clean taste with a savory and sweet balance. Crazy. While the braised grape-clinging pork evoked an incredibly rich sleepy trance, the oozing pungent roasted stilton-tomatoes provoked mouthwatering culinary chaos. Bold.  Fabulous.

Beulah, peel me a grape.
                 -I'm No Angel

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Take The Eyes Out

After driving through Tennesse and Alabama for what seemed like an eternity, we finally arrived at our small beachside town for vacation.  Although our car was stocked to the gills with things we knew we'd need, we still had provisions to procure before settling into our quaint effciency overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

Local farmstand for produce, check.

Liquor store, double check.

Seafood market, check, check, check.
We found the most reputable fresh seafood market in town.  Reputable, because they offered boat to market fresh seafood/shellfish both retail and wholesale, meaning their product went very fast and stayed incredibly fresh.

It was insane.  The shop operated at a frantic, cash only, pace.  Money was flying over the counter like mad. Pick. Point. Bag. Pay. Leave. When they sold out of everything, they closed. It was that simple.

While  Michael and I mulled over fresh whole flounder, pompano, and triggerfish filets, a small docile asian gentleman made his way to the counter and ordered 4 pounds of colossal head-on shrimp. Wow.
As the sweet-cheeked counter clerk finished bagging his enormous shrimp, he shouted, "Take the eyes out!"

The bustling fish market became very quiet and still.

The baffled clerk looked up and said, "What?"

"Take the eyes out", he implored.


Beat. Beat. Beat.

Why on earth would you purchase gorgeous behemoth shrimp with pointed spiny heads and beady eyes if you wanted the eyes taken out?  Really?  Why? Eyeball by eyeball?  It could take hours.  We didn't have hours.

I was impressed with the clerks I've-seen-it-all-composure.  "Sir, you'll have to take care of that yourself.", she matter-of-factly replied.  Fair enough, I thought.

As she plopped the bulbous bag of shrimp onto the scale, he pleaded, "No, no, no.  Take the eyyyeees out!"  You could have heard a fish scale hit the floor.  The burly market boss slowly slithered to the counter and barked, "Sir, we do not remove their eyes here."

With utter desperation, the gentle asian gentleman pleaded, "Take the eyes out before you weigh!"

A quiet wave of understanding undulated throughout the market.

Take the ICE out. The ice. Ohhhh, the ice.
Nervous giggles.

The clerk pulled two chunks of ice from the bag, tossed them back onto the massive pile of shrimp, and weighed his ice-less bounty.  He handed over what appeared to be a few thousand dollars, snatched his catch, and scurried out the door.

"Next!", the surly market boss shouted.  Feeling a bit intimidated, I mumbled, "I'd like 2 pounds of triggerfish, a pound of head-off, tail-on 16-20 count shrimp, and 1/2 pound head-on jumbo shrimp."

Adding, "With eyes......and ice."

His stern face melted into a soft smile. "Yes, sir."

At that moment, our vacation began.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Corn Daze

We're packed for our beachside paradise. We didn't pack slacks, proper shoes, jackets, or dress shirts. We have two suitcases full of tee shirts, shorts, flip flops, and swim trunks. We plan to do nothing. Nothing,  but lie in the sun, read, swim, drink, eat, and relax.


Oh, we also have a large wicker basket filled with disposable cooking utensils, spices, fleur de sel,  kosher salt, hickory smoked salt, Himalayan salt, Australian red sea salt, black sesame seeds, Old Bay, cracked black pepper, cracked green pepper, olive oil, capers, anchovies, sherry vinegar, polenta, grits, pasta, arborio rice, and flour. Aside from a couple of beachside restaurants that we can reach strolling ankle deep in the lapping tides,  two-fisted with cups of wine and flashlights, we plan to grill our meals most nights while we're there. Peaceful.  No worries. No traffic. No waiting.

Just the crystal clear teal blue water.....and us.

Preparing for our trip was an adventure.  I wanted to clean out the refrigerator and pantry before we left. It's the classic what-my-parents-always-did-kind-of-thing to do. Leave a clean kitchen to return to a clean kitchen.  A bit neurotic, yet sensible.  I made it a game, like those shows on television that force people to use mystery baskets, secret ingredients, and time challenges to prepare a decent meal.  I used what I had on hand. Meal by meal, I've emptied the cupboards, pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. My dad would've been very proud.

The final challenge was the easiest. I simply used everything that was left for a hearty chowder. It was the perfect catch-all remedy. Chowder.  Specifically, shrimp and corn chowder.

I had four ears of Peaches & Cream corn that were incredibly fresh.  I shucked them on the back deck to avoid carpeting the kitchen floor with wispy corn silk. After shucking the corn, I stripped the kernels, used the back of the knife to milk the cob, and set it aside.

I pulled wild caught peeled and deveined Mobile Gulf shrimp from the freezer to thaw. (a happily recieved gift from my boss) While the shrimp thawed under running water, I diced red bell peppers, onions, carrots, celery, and baby new potatoes.

Mise en place.  Time to play.  I julienned 1/2 red bell pepper, snipped a few chives, and minced fresh thyme. To gild the lily, I roasted precious prosciutto strips until they caramelized into luscious salty sweet pork brittle.

Thankfully, it was time for several glasses of wine. Michael and I had to catch up on our individual days spent apart from each other.  Doesn't everyone?
I snuck into the kitchen to start the chowder base.  After that, it went pretty fast. 

I sauteed the onions, red bell peppers, celery, and carrots with fresh thyme, salt, and pepper until they softened before deglazing the pan with my glass of wine, letting the wine reduce by half before adding 1/4 cup clam juice and two cups of chicken stock.  I brought the chowder base to a boil, reduced it a simmer, refilled my wine glass, dropped the potatoes into the simmering stock, clamped on a lid, and rejoined Michael in the parlor.

When the potatoes were tender, I added 2 cups of heavy cream, allowing it to reduce and thicken to the perfect consistency.  When the creamy chowder could coat the back of a spoon, I tumbled the fresh corn and shrimp into the velvety bath to steep for 3 minutes.

I ladled the shrimp and corn chowder into deep bowls, twirled  julienned red bell peppers into the chowder, and showered it with fresh snipped chives. For crunch and saltiness, I  crumbled crackling prosciutto crisps over the silken cream.

My. My. My.

The chowder was ridiculously rich from the heavy cream.  A given. Yet, the sweet corn and tender shrimp cut through the richness with soft bursts of wet freshness. Cleansing. Fresh. The creaminess was shattered with each bite of crispy prosciutto.  They were the ultimate salty croutons. Crunchy pig. Briny shrimp. Sweet corn. Heavy cream.

We licked our bowls clean. Nothing could stop us.

Carnal Chowder.