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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Grape Expectations

It makes me happy when fresh table grapes start popping up at the farmers' market. They have no pretense or high-falootin' calling.  They are what they are...delicious table grapes.  Right now,  fantastic varieties of grapes spill out of  baskets and crates from a few market vendors. Recently, Boyds Orchards offered pint baskets of adorable champagne grapes. Delicate. Perfect. Sweet. Bound in little clusters, the little grapes exploded like tiny juice bombs.

While the  early season pink Reliance grapes have come and gone, this past week Elmwood Stock Farm had gorgeous seedless blue-purple Mars grapes and seedless green Marquis grapes.

"Try one", she said. Like warm sun-kissed tomatoes, they were fabulous.  Delicate and soft skinned, they didn't snap and squirt like thick-skinned refrigerated supermarket grapes. They  quietly popped and gently melted in my mouth, subtly tasting  like the vines that nurtured them.

Like summer corn, fresh lima beans, heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, okra, or Casey county cantalopes, I wait for the arrival of fresh Kentucky  grapes. When they finally appear at the market, I scoop them up like mad. After snacking on them for a while, tossing them into salads, or freezing  them to chill glasses of crisp white wine,  
I roast them.

Roasted Champagne Grapes...with stuff.

I methodically made a very basic pot of polenta. (4 cups vegetable stock, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 cup polenta)  After stirring the polenta for about 25 minutes to cook out the moisture, it naturally started  to spit and plop like a gurgling cornmeal volcano.  I pulled it from the heat before adding 1/2 cup mascarpone cheese, 1 cup grated parmigiano reggiano, and 1/2 cup minced fresh paresly. While the polenta was still pliable, I poured it onto a plastic-lined sheet pan, smoothed it out, covered it tightly, and tossed it into the refrigerator to set up.

After tossing  beautiful clusters of Black Corinth champagne grapes with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh thyme, I roasted them in a 400 degree oven until they started to burst, collapse, and caramelize, about 35 minutes.

While the grapes bubbled away in the oven, I sliced the chilled polenta into triangles and sauteed them in olive oil  until they were golden brown.   I topped the warm triangles with thinly sliced aged gorgonzola piccante and let their slight heat gently wilt the cheese.

I tumbled the roasted grapes onto a large platter, finished them with fresh thyme, and nudged the cheesy polenta toasts to the side before finishing with minced fresh parsley and aged balsamico di modena.

While the sauteed polenta triangles provided crisp neutral bases for the  the wilted gorgonzola,  the aged  balsamico di Modena  cut through its pungent creaminess with specks of tart sweet acidity.

The  roasted grapes were key. While some of the grapes caramelized and broke down, others remained whole and plump, creating contrasting textures and layers of natural sweetness from their cooked concentrated sugars.  Paired with the gorgonzola and polenta, the popping grapes added a mellow wet balance to the whacky flavor combinations.

Simple table grapes and cheese.
With a little sass.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Food With A View

On a painted sky
Where the clouds are hung
For the Poet's eye
You may find Him
If you may find Him.

On a distant shore
By the wings of dreams
through an open door
You may know him
If you  may
  -Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Drenched in quiet revelry, Michael and I lost ourselves on the beach, in the water, in the sand,  in our books, in the wind, and in the silence. While secret tides swept our thoughts far out to sea, we melted into the wet sand like sunken castles, losing  ourselves in each other.

On a distant shore.
On a painted sky.
Lost at sea.

Beach life.
Seven days.
Small kitchen.
No shoes.
No car.

Emerald water.


Before holing up in our beach shack, we hit the liquor store, a roadside farm stand, and the best local boat-to-market fresh seafood place in town.

During the day, we jammed on sweaty sunblock-seasoned chips, cookies, pretzels, and sandwiches.  At night, after sunset, we cooked and ate ridiculously  fresh seafood.

Red Royal Shrimp.

With a very short season, Red Royals are harvested in the deepest waters of the Gulf of Mexico. When I saw them at the fish market, I thought they were already cooked.  They looked like enormous bright red steamed shrimp. Gorgeous. We picked up a pound...with heads attached.  I had plans.

I didn't have a bamboo steamer basket or a colander, so I lined a skillet with lettuce leaves, sliced onions, sliced lemons, parsley, black peppercorns, and minced garlic.  I placed the gigantic Red Royals on the lettuce leaves, dusted them Old Bay seasoning, and drizzled 1/2 cup white wine under the lettuce leaves.  After cranking the electric burner on high heat until it glowed like lava, I clamped a lid on the skillet and slid it over the molten heat. After 10 minutes, I pulled the big Reds from the heat, showered them with fresh parsley, poured goblets of wine, and brought the steaming shrimp-filled skillet to the table.

The heads. When we snapped off the heads, head-juice squirted and splattered everywhere. Michael's pristine white t-shirt was covered with specks of grainy gray head-juice. Hysterical. After the initial beheading carnage,  I carefully snapped off the remaining beady-eyed heads, sucked them dry, and swallowed the stuff.  Fabulous.  The soft brackish brainy bits  tasted like shrimpy tomalley, the livery green goo found in the body cavities of lobsters. G-spot. Dripping with edible gunk,  Michael graciously and generously offered me his shrimp heads. I sucked them all, mopping up any puddles with plain white bread.  Cook's treat.

With the  heads snapped, dispatched, and sucked, we dove into the meat. Incredible. Unlike any shrimp we've ever eaten, they had the texture and sweetness of very rich lobster meat.  We had little cups of horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce that we left untouched. It would have been sacrilege to muck up such delicate sweet meat.

Fed by the silt-laden water of the Apalachicola River, slate-gray Apalachicola Bay Oysters are considered to be plump mellow delicacies  Yep.

I ate my fill of them on the half shell doused with horseradish, cracked pepper, Tobasco, and sherry vinegar before poaching the remaining oysters in chicken stock. After infusing 3 cups of chicken stock with garlic, ginger, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, and ground white pepper, I steeped the oysters in the simmering stock until the edges started to curl (about 3 minutes), and ladled them into bowls  garnished with juliienned carrots, red bell pepper, scallions, sliced lemons, drops of toasted sesame oil, and frozen Sriracha drops. A beachy oyster riff on hot and sour soup. Crazy.

I kept it simple. After preheating the oven to 350 degrees, I prepped new potatoes for roasted  Hasselback (accordion) potatoes by slicing the potatoes at very thin intervals (1/4 cm) along the length of the potatoes while leaving the bottoms intact. After brushing them with melted unsalted butter, I slid the slivered potatoes into the oven to  roast for 30 minutes.

While the potatoes baked, I layered foil packets with julienned carrots, onions, gorgeous grouper fillets, sliced lemons, fresh dill, salt, and pepper. After drizzling olive oil and white wine over the fillets, I sealed the packets, placed them on a sheet pan, and slid them into the oven alongside the potatoes to bake/poach/steam for 15 minutes. During the last 8 minutes, I tossed seasoned pencil thin asparagus onto the sheet pan and let everything rip while we toasted the bright constellations with another glass of wine.

After removing the steamed grouper from the packets, I poured the "pan sauce" over the fillets, drizzled parsley butter over the Hasselback potatoes, and tumbled the asparagus to the side.

With hints of lemon and dill, the grouper was moist, buttery, and incredibly fresh. It tasted like the sea.   Clean. Bright. Simple.
No mess. No fuss.


Beach life.
Beach food with a view.

and happy.

Friday, August 3, 2012


Casey County Black Brandywine tomato water 
for aspic.                                                                                                                                                  


Boyds Orchards Champagne
Grapes, skillet-roasted with
caramelized pearl onions,
roasted pearled couscous.


Elmwood Stock Broccoli
Tempura with lemon orange


Wednesday, August 1, 2012


They took me by surprise. Lined up side by side on an unadorned McMaine Farm table, baskets of gorgeous marble-sized sun gold tomatoes and baby okra nubs basked in the morning sun. They were perfectly paired.  I could taste them. I could taste stewed okra and tomatoes. Crazy. Kismet.

I took a fresh twist on an old southern classic.

Okra and Tomatoes.

I sauteed 1/2 cup of thinly sliced onions until they started to caramelize before adding 2 minced garlic cloves.  Before the garlic browned, I deglazed the pan with 1 cup chicken stock and let it reduce by half before adding a pint of whole sun gold tomatoes, salt, pepper, and fresh thyme. To add a hint of heat without killing it with fire, I tossed a large whole serrano pepper into the skillet.  When the stock came to a boil, I reduced it to a simmer, covered the cast iron skillet, and let the tomatoes rip until they collapsed from the heat, about 15 minutes.

After removing the red pepper, I added an additional 1/2 cup chicken stock, tumbled the okra  into the orange tomato stock, tossed in a few thinly sliced lemons, covered the skillet, and braised the okra and tomatoes for 15 minutes before sliding them from the heat to rest.

For contrasting texture, I split a few of the larger okra pods, cranked a smaller cast iron skillet over high heat, and blistered them until they were crisp and charred.

After spooning the lightly stewed tomatoes and okra over scallion-studded long grained rice, I finished them  with the  blistered  okra , fresh  sun gold tomatoes, and fresh thyme.

Because I left the tiny okra nubs whole, goo wasn't a factor. While the charred okra added crunch,  the braised tender nubs snapped and oozed delicate seedy flesh that swirled through the tangy sweet tomatoes, grounding them with familiar okra earthiness. The sliced lemons were key. With bright undertones, their subtle acidity balanced the extreme sweetness of the tomatoes. Fantastic.