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Monday, July 29, 2013

Love Apples

Pommes d' amour. Apples of love. Tomatoes. Indeed. Sometimes, I think I could dive into a drinkable sea of ripe summer tomatoes and swim through the sticky warm pulp. It's the perfect time of year for a good tomato bath. The bumper crops arrived later than usual this year because of our long wet spring. That being said, as corn trucks back into stalls at the market and plump blackberries dot almost every farm stand, tomatoes are still the jewels of summer.

A few nights ago, I threw together a heavy handed supper. While I stayed busy being busy, Michael simply peeled and sliced two enormous windowsill beefsteak tomatoes. After he topped them with small dollops of mayonnaise, we took one bite, tossed our fussy supper into the refrigerator, and ate tomatoes. Just tomatoes. Although it wasn't a new thing, it was a revelation.

Yep, it's high tide for summer tomatoes.



Raw.
I think I left the farmer's market with every known variety of heirloom tomato the market had to offer. A few of this, a few of that. A little bit of everything. I guess we could have eaten the entire basket peeled and sliced with mayonnaise, but I wanted to give them a base that didn't require forks. It's hard to swim with forks in hand.

To make life easier, I picked up a pound of fresh soft pizza dough from a local pizza joint. Without rolling it out, I pulled it by the the edges, let it dangle in the air, and allowed  gravity stretch the dough.  When it created a self imposed oblong shape, I carefully placed it onto a cornmeal dusted pizza peel and set it aside to rest. Using a very thin serrated bread knife, I sliced a variety of very ripe Black Plum, Speckled Roma, Orange Russian, White Beauty, White Peach, Green Zebra, and Cherokee Purple tomatoes.

Grilled Pizza dough can be risky business. Unless you have multiple doughs on hand, you get one shot. I fired up the grill and let the coals die down to a manageable heat level (hand over the coals for 5 seconds). After brushing the dough with olive oil, I seasoned it with salt and pepper before sliding it onto the hot grate. Moving quickly, I shifted the dough around with a metal spatula to keep the dough from sticking. When I could smell a slight char, I flipped the pizza dough, brushed it with a whisper of fresh tomato puree, and covered it with fresh mozzarella cheese. Because we have a lidless Easy Bake Oven version of a deck grill, I used our old enameled  turkey roasting pan lid to trap the heat and melt the cheese. Yeah, it was one of those skanky I-hope-nobody-is-watching moments, but it worked beautifully.
.

When the melted cheese oozed over the warm  crust, I layered the sliced tomatoes in a willy nilly pattern and scattered fresh basil over the top before seasoning them with kosher salt. While the cheese provided creaminess, the charred cracker-thin crust anchored the gushingly ripe tomatoes like crunchy delicate bruschetta. Killer.

Was it a twist on pizza Margherita or a crispy caprese salad?

Fast and fresh, it might have been a bit of both.

Cooked.
Butter. Flour. Water. Stuff.
Undeterred by my limited baking skills, I managed to pull together a savory shortbread crust for a tomato tart. After sifting 1 3/4 cups all purpose flour into a food processor, I added 1 cup ( 2 sticks) chilled cubed unsalted butter, a pinch of salt, 1 tablespoon sugar, 3 tablespoons fresh thyme, and 3/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese. I pulsed the flour and butter until it crumbed before slowly drizzling 4 tablespoons chilled water into the processor to bring the dough together.

After scraping the dough out of the processor, I shaped it into a 2 inch flat disk, covered it with plastic wrap, and slid it into the refrigerator to chill for 2 hours.

When the shortbread dough was rock hard, I turned it onto a floured cutting board and carefully rolled it into a 12 inch ragged circle, repairing cracks along the way. I carefully placed the dough over a non-stick 9 inch tart pan with a removable bottom, nudged the dough into place, and pressed it into the pan. After slicing the excess dough from the rim, I brushed dijon mustard onto the base and covered it with 1 cup of finely grated fontina cheese.

I piled the sliced tomatoes into the shell, drizzled them olive oil, seasoned them with kosher salt, and slid the tart into a 350 degree oven to bake for 35 minutes, adding a sprinkling of extra cheese over the tomatoes during the last five minutes.

When the crust was golden brown, I removed the tart from the oven and released it from the pan to cool on a wire rack.

Heirloom Tomato Tart with a Parmigiano-Reggiano Shortbread Crust. We carried it to our church potluck/picnic held on the historic lawns of the Old Episcopal Burial Ground here in Lexington.

It was quickly rechristened... tomato pie. 
My father would have been proud.

Swim.




Friday, July 19, 2013

Stick It.

The Tuesday/Thursday Farmers' Market on the corner of Maxwell and Broadway can be an overlooked little jewel. With fewer crowds than the downtown Saturday Market, it's a great way to start an early morning work day. Right now, during peak season, it's still peaceful enough to chat with vendors and neighbors while shopping locally. Granted there aren't loads of food vendors (except for Le Petite Creperie on Thursdays), musicians, or bustling patio bars serving summery cocktails. Even without those well founded perks, it's convenient, accessible, and fabulous.

While I try shop leisurely and responsibly at our farmer's markets, most of the time it doesn't happen. I'm constantly blown away by fascinating and unfamiliar stuff. Introduce me to something special and all bets are off. Reason flies out the window. Grab, go, and think about it later. It happens a lot.

It happened again this week. Grab and go. After storming the market before work, my morning rampage left me with bags full of Haney's Orchard white-fleshed doughnut peaches, Madison County zucchini, gnarly fennel bulbs from Stone Henge Farm, multicolored cherry tomatoes, purple candy onions, and plump organic free range chicken breasts from Elmwood Stock Farm.

So, how do you make an unlikely mishmash of market fruits and
vegetables play nice together? Stick them.

Makers Mark Bourbon Peach Barbecue Sauce.
I'm certainly not a pit master or a barbecue guru, but I do prefer scratch made sauces over most commercial varieties. Fire. Coals. Barbecue. After teaching the Culinary Arts Bourbon Cooking School at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival for a couple of years, I knew I could play with bourbon and fire.


I sauteed 1 minced purple candy onion with 2 minced garlic cloves in a small sauce pan over a medium flame. As the onions started to curl and caramelize, I deglazed the pan with 1/2 cup Makers Mark Bourbon before carefully tipping the pan to ignite the bourbon. When the bourbon reduced by half, I added 1 1/2 cups ketchup, 2 diced peaches, 1 tablespoon chardonnay oak smoked salt, cracked black pepper, 1 teaspoon dry mustard, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1/2 cup dark brown sugar, 1/4 cup worcestershire sauce, and 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar. I reduced the sauce to a simmer and let it plop and spit for 20 minutes before removing it from the heat to cool.

Stick It.
After cutting the tough outer portions of the fennel bulb from the root end, I trimmed away the fronds (reserved), quartered the bulb, removed the core, and dropped the quarters into salted simmering water with 4 halved purple candy onions. While they softened for the grill, I sliced the chicken breasts into 1 1/2" pieces and sliced the remaining peaches into small wedges.

With everything on deck, I poked and prodded everything onto pre-soaked bamboo skewers in alternating layers: chicken, zucchini, fennel quarters, halved onions, peaches, and tomatoes.

Fire.
When the raging fire mellowed, I seasoned the skewers and slapped them onto the sizzling hot grill. After allowing them to sear for a few minutes on each side, I basted the skewers with the bourbon barbecue sauce and let them cook until the chicken juices ran clear, about 15 minutes. When the chicken developed a slight char, I pulled the skewers from the grill and nestled them over the reserved feathery fennel fronds. Anchored by individual baby potato gratins, I finished with skewered raw zucchini ribbons and a scattering of  split cherry tomatoes.

With smoky vanilla undertones, the Makers Mark peach-infused barbecue sauce sealed the chicken with caramelized sweet zing.  While the collapsed tomatoes and melted peaches packed a fruity punch, the fennel quarters balanced their charred sweetness with a savory anise-flavored crunch. Unadorned, naked, and raw, the fresh zucchini rolls and tomatoes provided clean contrasting textures to the sticky meat, fruits, and vegetables. No forks needed.

Farmers' market on a stick.

With bourbon.

Enough said.




















Saturday, July 13, 2013

Squashed

I was 14 years old before I knew that squash was a vegetable. A vegetable. Singular.  Living with my grandparents on their Western Kentucky farm should have taught me a thing or two about vegetables. They had a huge garden located footsteps from the back door of their farmhouse. Dotted with apple trees and cherry trees, the garden was enclosed by a prickly barbed wire fence covered with tangled grape vines. I was given a very small portion of the garden to grow foot long cucumbers and gigantic melons for fun. My secret garden. On most days, between swimming in the nearby lake or fishing in the murky algae-covered pond, I had my share of real not-so-fun garden chores. While doing those chores, I must have seen yellow squash and zucchini winding throughout the dusty pathways. Yet, somehow, they never quite enjoyed the happy journey from farm to table as anything I recognized.

Pots of squash. As a transplanted newbie farm boy, I always thought that my grandmother's supper squash was a combination of mashed  garden vegetables. Heavily peppered unrecognizable squashed vegetables. Squash. At the time, it made sense to me.

Marge changed the game. Marge had a somewhat lighter approach to squash, opting to grill or saute it during the hot summer months. During the off season, holidays meals, or feast-days, she'd pull out the big guns and whip cream cheese with cooked yellow squash. It became my dish. My holiday/feast-day signature side dish. I adored it. While it's still my favorite way to eat squash, the preparation is a bit heavy handed for tender thin-skinned summer squash.

Layered Vegetable Casserole.

Whether called  a tian, tiella, gratin, or a Keller inspired confit byaldi, it was basically a simple vegetable casserole.

The Base.

To give the vegetables something to stew over, I sauteed 1 large sliced purple onion, 1 sliced red bell pepper, and 1/2 sliced green bell pepper in olive oil. After tossing a few fresh garden thyme sprigs over the vegetables, I cranked the heat to medium high, covered the pot, and let them rip.  When the onions and peppers collapsed from the steamy heat, I uncovered the pot and added crushed garlic before deglazing the pan with 1/4 cup white wine. When the wine reduced, I added 1/2 cup pureed fresh tomatoes and 1/4 white wine vinegar.


Market Vegetables.
While the casserole base simmered, I dispatched most of the vegetables quite easily with my mandolin. After
slicing Madison County yellow squash and zucchini into 1/16 inch discs, I set them aside. Because the McMaine Farm Japanese eggplants and Best Family Farm tomatoes were incredibly tender, I used a very thin serrated bread knife to slice them into uniform 1/16 inch rounds.

Ok, the assembly was a bit persnickety.  After spreading the concentrated tomato/onion/garlic/pepper puree
onto the bottom of an oven proof dish, I overlapped the sliced eggplants, zucchini, yellow squash, and tomatoes around the outer edge and worked my way into the center of the dish. I drizzled olive oil over the top, seasoned it with kosher salt and cracked black pepper, sealed the casserole with aluminum foil, and slid it into low 275 degree oven to bake fora ridiculous 1 1/2 hours, removing the foil during the final 30 minutes.

The long cook time along with the low oven temperature gently allowed the vegetables to steam/bake and melt into each other. While the flavor profile was distinctly ratatouille-ish, the addition of white wine vinegar to the underlying sweet caramelized tomato puree created an agrodulce brightness reminiscent of an Italian caponata.

Fresh.
Tender.
Un-squashed.










Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Salad Potatoes

Dressed up or dressed down, I'm a fool for potato salad. Throw in a few capers, cornichons, pickles, onions, boiled eggs, celery, or olives, and I'm a very happy camper. Whether draped in a puckery bacon vinaigrette, dressed with creamy mayonnaise, brightened with tangy mustard, or spiked with oil & vinegar, I'll eat potato salad any way I can. Take me to a church potluck and I'll head straight to the designated salad section to sample the endless variations on the humble potato salad.

While I've thrown together vats of potato salads over the years to feed hundreds of people for off-sight events, I've seldom taken the time or the effort to whip up a small batch for Michael and me.

That being said, I found myself stuck with a handful of impossibly petite Casey County new  potatoes that I picked up at the farmers' market. "Some folks like the small ones.", he said. Yep, I supposed we do because I completely fell for his subtle ruse. Sure, they were cute.  Really cute. Cute and small. Tiny. Petite. They were quite possibly the smallest potatoes I'd ever seen. While some of the larger potatoes were the size of table grapes, most were the size of garden peas. I certainly wasn't going to roast them with a big hunk of meat or mash them up for a one bite wonder. Nope.

Unconventional New Potato Salad with Lemon Chive Aioli and Pickled Radishes.

Potatoes.
After scrubbing 1/2 pound of the itsy-bitsy new potatoes with a toothbrush under cold running water, I tumbled them into a
small sauce pan and added 2 cups of cold chicken stock. I brought the stock to a boil, reduced the heat to medium, and let the potatoes ripple in the stock.  When they were fork tender (about 8 minutes because of their size), I drained them, spooned them into a small bowl, and splashed them with dry white wine while they were still warm.  I seasoned the cooked potatoes with salt and cracked black pepper before sliding them into the refrigerator to chill.

Aioli.
I love aioli. Emulsified with good olive oil instead of a neutral oil, garicky ailoi is essentially a sassy mayonnaise. Mayonnaise with attitude. I could have used a food processor, blender, or immersion blender to emulsify the aioli. I opted for an old fashioned whisk to achieve a softer and creamier texture.  Sometimes, our modern
contraptions can beat the crap out of delicate emulsions.

I had few gorgeous Home Pickins farm fresh eggs. After cracking open one of the pale blue eggs, I dropped the deeply colored orange yolk into a metal mixing bowl before adding a splash of cold water, a pinch of salt, 1 minced garlic clove, and a dash of white pepper.Whisking constantly, I added 1 cup of fruity Oliva Bella extra virgin olive oil in a slow steady stream.When the aioli started to thicken, I added 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice and 1/4 cup snipped garden chives
.

Quick Picked Radishes..
I wanted some kind of tangy crunch to balance the creaminess of the salad. In lieu of pickle relish, capers, dill pickles, or cornichons, I went with quick pickled radishes. After removing the greens and tendrils from a beautiful bunch of Elmwood Stock radishes, I cut them half lengthwise before slicing them into very thin half moons. I filled a small sauce pan with 3/4 cup white wine vinegar, 1/4 cup water, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 tablespoon sugar, 8 whole Tellicherry peppercorns, and 1 halved garlic clove. I boiled the mix to dissolve the sugar/salt combination,  poured the pickling liquid over the radishes, and set them aside to cool.

When the radishes, aioli, and potatoes were well chilled, I tossed everything together and finished with a few sprigs of fresh lovage.

Because I left the potatoes whole, the delicate skins snapped through the lemony aioli, exposing their tender flesh. While the chives added mild onion undertones, the radishes provided a biting peppery crunch. Without any actual bits of celery in the salad, the intense celery essence of the grassy lovage filled that familiar flavor void.

Light.
Fresh.
Unconventional.

I'd tote it to a potluck any day.