Monday, October 24, 2011

A Season of Change

I have to say that of all the seasons, Fall is my favorite. Could it be that the heat of Summer is over and the humidity is finally breaking? The nights becoming crisp and my favorite sweaters pulled on to ward off the chill. Maybe its the long walks, scattering a path amongst the crimson, burnt orange and golden leaves with my comfortable, old boots.
This is when recipes come to life in my mind. Awakening the senses within and creating new flavors and twist on old favorites. Fall has always been my most creative time. It's when I think of roast pork with polenta, a hearty cut of beef braised in a robust wine with rosemary and sage. Apple cobblers and pear crisps. Hearty breads studded with rich black olives and walnuts paired with a small slice of Gorgonzola. Making lists of guests to have over for an intimate dinner or two or three or more.
I've been remiss in posting lately and apologize. Sometimes paths change in life and my kitchen is following down a new path and to a new location. It's been a year for change and a season of changes. All good. All new. All fresh. And all for you to feast upon.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it's bigger and brighter and better. Classes continue at the Grange every week. If you're not receiving the latest and greatest of selections that I've posted, kindly drop me a line and I'll be happy to send them to you. I'd love to see you in person. Thank you for your continued support and following with more recipes and tastes to come,

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Culinary Inheritance, Clam Chowder

To all my faithful readers and cooks with their views, kindly forgive the lack of photos. They will follow. My kitchen is changing, as is life and I'll post them soon! ~Joseph

Long, long ago when I was not even the merest glint or gleam in the eye of any ancestor on my mother's side, the shores of some place new beckoned for something different to those that I am a part of so long ago. A new place to put down roots and explore, "set up shop" so to speak. Those same ancestors leaving England to escape persecution and settling in New England, siding with the King and then high-tailing it up to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which has to explain my love of anything British forwarded to my own karmic existence these many centuries later. When things calmed down in the newly formed United States, they crept back down into Maine and Massachusetts and lived off the land and sea to sustain their livelihoods.
As a boy, we would fly from California to Boston and then drive up to my Aunt Doris' farm in Gorham, Maine for Summer and Winter vacations. One late Summer trip, my Uncle Bud and my Father drove over to the harbor in Portland, in that old two-tone green and rust truck, to bring home some Littleneck clams, chicken (1 pound) lobsters, as well as a behemoth of a specimen who's faded claw sits proudly on my bureau as a reminder of that trip that instilled a lifelong love affair with New England. It felt like I belonged somewhere, finally. How could I know this without really knowing the family ancestry yet? Was it the "common sense" lifestyle that I experienced on the farm? Wading through the little river in the "back forty" to gather wild blueberries with my Cousin John that were to be made into my Aunt's lusciously simple blueberry pie to be eaten after all of those lobsters? Or could it have been that clam chowder? Possibly. That same shoreline recipe brought down from those ancestors so long ago waking and stirring that hidden passion that said to me, "You'll come back. We know you will."
And I did. And I still make that clam chowder when I'm alone or for company, in the same pot that my Mother used. Ladeling the milky soup into her brown and cream English china bowl on top of a handful of crushed Milk Lunch Crackers like my Father taught me. Or, if I can't find those, then some simple crushed Oyster Crackers ready to thicken my culinary inheritance.
Crackers and Bowls awaiting their chowder for my students
It's funny how if I really pay attention and if I concentrate hard enough, I can smell the salt on the wind that my ancestors experienced so long ago in this simple bowl of chowder.

New England Clam Chowder

4-5 cans Chopped Clams, drained and liquid reserved
      or 8 lbs. Quahog or Cherrystone Clams (large)*
2-8 oz. bottles Natural Clam Broth
4 oz. Salt Pork**, ¼” dice
2 Yellow Onions, medium; ¼” dice
6 Yukon Gold or Russet Potatoes, small; peeled and cut into ½” slice
1 quart Light Cream
Salt, to taste
1 tsp. Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 Tbl. Butter, unsalted; softened

Cream, Milk Lunch (if you can find them) or Oyster Crackers, crushed

Preheat large soup or stock pot over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes and then add the salt pork. Once it has rendered a few tablespoons of fat, increase the heat to medium high, stirring occasionally so not to burn and cook until it is crisp. Remove salt pork and place on paper towels to drain, discard the fat portions.

Add the onion and potatoes into the pot, season with a pinch of salt and cook until the onions are translucent, but not caramelized.

Add the clam juice, along with the reserved liquid from the canned clams. The broth should just barely cover the potatoes.  If it doesn't, add enough water to cover them. Turn up the heat and bring to a simmer. Cook the potatoes r about 10 minutes until they are soft on the outside and but slightly firm in the center.  If it hasn't thickened a bit, smash some of them against the side of the pot and cook a minute or so longer to release the starch.

Turn the heat to low and add the clams, salt pork and cream. Add the pepper and salt to taste.  Continue heating over low heat until all of the flavors have blended, about 2-3 minutes, taking care not to bring to a boil. For a slightly thicker Chowder, smash some of the potatoes against the insides of the pot with the back of a large spoon. Remove from heat and serve either in the pot or a tureen. Add butter and stir.

Place a handful of crushed crackers into the bottom of each bowl and ladle the chowder on top. Serve at once.

*Scrub clams clean. In a large pot, bring 2 Cups Water to a boil, add clams and cover, steaming for 2-3 minutes. Lift cover and stir with a large spoon. Replace cover and continue 2-3 more minutes for Littlenecks, 5-7 for Cherrystones or up to 10 or 12 minutes for larger Quahog Clams. Strain "liquor" through a fine sieve into a bowl, throwing away any unopened clams. Sieve again slowly so not to have any remnants of sand and reserve for the soup base to replace the bottle of clam juice. Chop clams for the chowder to your taste.
**May substitute Bacon for a smokier flavor.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Savoring Summer

Ready and Set for Pickling
Meandering through the back roads of Rhode Island today, time-traveling back in history to the days of homesteading and into old colonial farmsteads, showing their well-worn years and maintained through several generations still tilling the land. Cows languidly lying beneath the oak trees in the late September sun. Goats continually eating their weight in grass and brush, clearing the land. Black sheep scattering through a wind-kissed field next to the tall stalks of corn ready to be harvested from now into the early Autumn. The same feeling I get when traveling through Tuscany with my friends Pat, Wende and Judy Witts-Francini on our food tours. A lazy day spent exploring and laughing with friends that I've known now and in lives past.
Stopping at a farm with my friend Katie to buy some ears of "popping" corn that will be dry in time for a late night snack on Thanksgiving night around the table with a game of cards amongst friends. The farmer proudly displaying a photo taken from the air of their corn maze in the shape of a large and looming, yet friendly enough cow. Taking the road further we come into a town that "feel's just right". You know the feeling. A place that you know has been waiting for you to discover it, patiently by the side of that road. North Scituate. We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant, or coffee shop, or meeting place. A spot right out of a movie set, The Village Bean. Waitresses cracking their dry New England wit with the regulars who lean patiently against the counter, glancing at us "newcomers" eating our turkey sandwiches. Then, back down the road again to my friend Doreen at Pezza Farms for a half bushel of tomatoes for my upcoming "You Say Tomato, I Say Tomatl" class at the Grange. I can never resist the freshness of her produce. A few pounds of hot cherry peppers destined to be made into gifts of jam to spread on cream cheese, to glaze a chicken or pork tenderloin. But today, a quick recipe for some pickled tomatoes to peck on before dinner or to add to my martini, in lieu of the usual olive. Very simple. Very good.
Tomatoes packed in their jars

Pickled Tomatoes

2½ pints Grape Tomatoes
8 Pepperoncini Peppers, jarred
4 Dill sprigs, fresh; stemmed
4 Garlic cloves, gently smashed
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
1 Cup Cider Vinegar
1¼ Cups Water
2½ Tbl. Kosher Salt
1 Tbl. Sugar

Combine peppercorns, tomatoes, pepperoncini, dill, and garlic in a sterilized 2 quart glass jar with a tight fitting lid. Bring vinegar, salt, sugar, and 1¼ cups water to a boil in a saucepan; stir until salt and sugar dissolve. Pour vinegar mixture over tomatoes to ½” from the top and wipe rim clean.
Seal jar and let it cool completely. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.
Alternately – Process the jars, lids and rings in boiling water fully covered for 20 minutes. Remove and dry upside-down on clean dish towels. Add the tomatoes to the jars, fill with the liquid to ½” from the top, wipe rim clean for a perfect seal and top with lids. Screw on rings tightly and place in a large pot covered with water by at least 1”. Bring water to a boil and process for 10 minutes from the minute it begins to boil. Remove carefully back onto a rack and let cool for 24 hours without touching them. They’ll keep for several months this way unrefrigerated in your cupboard.

A gift for myself and my friends

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Late Summer Picnic for One

Oh don't let that title mislead you or conjure up feelings of sorrow for your dear author. A picnic, whether shared with friends, a canine pal or just by myself affords me the purest and simplest of pleasures that I can ever imagine. Something spontaneous. Impromptu. Such a magical, carefree word that is, Impromptu. What's in the cupboard? What's in the refrigerator? What kind of a feast can I produce with what is on hand? Simplicity is best, I think. Taking advantage of what the current season has to offer. Naturally, tomatoes of all colors come to mind. Some sharp, salty and piquant cheese to balance the sweet acidity of the fruit, along with the bitterness of some homemade oil cured olives. Remembrances of a lesson about olive-making taught to me by my Grandmother so many years ago in the scary basement of her house. That magical and mysterious, dusty gallon jar sitting on an old, wooden shelf by the washing machine. One trip they were green, swimming in a brine. The next, they were darker remnants of their former verdant selves. Still another trip and they were shriveled and coated in olive oil with red pepper flakes heaped in her blue and white plate, sitting on the dining room table being picked at by eager fingers.
As a boy, I was told to try everything at least once. "You never have to have it again if you don't like it.", was the familiar mantra that still rings to this day from my Mother's lips. That saying has led me far in life, especially now that I cook and teach people how to cook and experience the beauty of the process. It was also a way of her training my mind to be open to new things in this life. Try it all. See it all. Feel it all. Experience it all. Isn't that really the grand lesson to learn from the word "Life"? I think at times we travel down the same worn out food path that our eyes never look up and see the wonder that is given and surrounds us. For me, food always offers something new to experience. To see. To feel. To smell. To taste. And, even to hear. The snap of a green bean. That crunch of an apple.
Here in New England, Fall is on its way. There's something in the air. My mind is beginning to think of warming, comfort food. Roast chickens with crackled skin, braised beef in Chianti, root vegetables caramelized in the oven over high heat to bring out their natural sweetness and goodness. I assure you that I'll include more recipes with sustenance. More beef, more chicken, and more of the pleasures that our local waters in Rhode Island provide for us. Honest flavors. Simplicity and warmth. Something to take on a picnic under the shedding, multi-colored leaves with a loved one or friends.

Or maybe, just maybe you might want to indulge yourself on a luxurious, unapologetic picnic for one.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Corn, Off the Cob and Into the Bowl

Hot August memories of driving with my parents in that same Ford Country Squire station wagon to The Corn Palace to get the freshest ears that were picked that morning. My sister and I squabbling about something and my mother's red, laquered fingernails reaching to separate the two of us from the front seat, while my father bellowed, "You don't want me to stop this car do you? I will!" That was enough for the two of us to quiet down, but still glare at each other when my father wasn't looking in the rearview mirror. My mother patting her French twist hair-do to make sure that it was in place, a subtle signal for the two of us to keep quiet.
My sister and father were the "corn experts" in the family. They could detect the freshness, the sweetness and knew everything there was to picking out and buying the best ears for our dinner. When I was younger I considered corn to be solely a vehicle to sop up that precious butter that held more interest. That glistening and well-anointed cob, dripping its salty slick down my arm as I devoured those kernels from one side of the cob to the other. My front teeth acting like voracious keys on an old-fashioned typewriter carriage, back and forth, back and forth.
But, while it's gratifying to eat a buttery ear of corn right off the cob, (although now with no butter or salt, but simply a splash of juice from a lemon or lime) there is so much that I really love to do with those sweet, milky kernels once they have been freed from the ear that they had clung. No, I'm not going far back to the times of the local Pequot and Narragansett Indians and dry it, grind it in the old stone mill that I just happen to have lying about in the backyard and serve up some Rhode Island Johnnycakes. That's another lesson. Oh, I could sauté the corn in some sweet-cream butter with a few simply snipped garlic chives from the garden, some diced tomatoes and christen it with crumbs of a salty feta or a ricotta salata. Or, I could add it to my Hush Puppies that are crisp on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside, spiced with some heat from the Kung Pao peppers that I've dried and cherished from last year's garden.
I'd rather share with you a recipe that contains the ulitmate in creaminess and the maximum in flavor from each kernel (and the cob) to create a soup that is lusciously simple. My Summer Corn Soup with Tomato Gremolata. The gremolata is an accent that enlivens it more with "Summer". But, feel free to add a couple of tablespoons of fresh crab or lobster to each bowl. Sauté a few shrimp and then chop them up to sprinkle on top. Or maybe use it as a base for a chowder inspired by the unlimited imaginations that I know you have within you.

Summer Corn Soup
Tomato Gremolatta

2 Tbl. Butter, unsalted
½ Yellow Onion, medium; diced
½ Russet Potato, large; diced
Cups Milk, plus 1 Cup
1½ Cups Corn Stock* (okay, you can use veg. or chicken stock if you must)
4 ears of Corn, cut from the cob, or
     3 Cups of Corn kernels, frozen
½ tsp. Sea Salt or to taste
In a medium saucepan over medium high heat, melt the butter until it begins to foam. Add the onion and thyme; cook until the onion is translucent, about 8 minutes. Add potato, 1 ½ cups of milk and stock, and bring to a gentle simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes and add corn kernels. Cook for an additional 10 minutes.
Remove soup from stove and take out the thyme sprig. Using a hand held emersion blender, purée the soup until the corn and onions are smooth (if using a blender, work in batches, puréeing until smooth).
Return soup to a medium low heat and add salt and remaining cup of milk. Stirring occasionally, cook for 5 minutes.

Remove from stove and serve with the garnish of your choice. If the soup is too thick, thin it out with more stock.

*Corn Stock

4 Corn Cobs, kernels removed
4 Cups Water
8 Black Peppercorns, whole
1 Bay leaf, small
2-4” Thyme sprigs

In a small stock pot, add all of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Once the water begins to boil, lower it to a simmer and cover for 1 hour.
After the hour has finished, remove the cover. With tongs, take out the cobs, bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Turn heat back to high and boil, reducing to 1 ½ -2 cups. Use as directed.

Hot Summer Corn Soup with a Cool Tomato Gremolata & Sauteed Shrimp 
Tomato Gremolata

1 Heirloom tomato, seeded and diced ¼ ″
½ Cup Italian Parsley, chopped fine
½ Lemon, juiced and zested
1 Green Onion, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground Black Pepper to taste.
3 Tbl. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Mix all ingredients and set aside for drizzling on the soup.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Becoming Italian

A Bouquet of Herbs for a Friend
Once in awhile you have the sheerest of pleasures to meet someone who, as my father used to say "fits like an old shoe." Comfortable. Someone that seems you have known in a past life. Paths that must have crossed in the long forgotten mists of time. The warmth of the greeting and common interests shared and savored as you walk the cobblestone streets together. Those of you that travel with me on my tours throughout Tuscany know her and have experienced her generous and warming spirit. There can be no other accolades that describe Judy Witts-Francini enough. She is the Diva of Divina Cucina fame ( Her knowledge and insights into Italian culture, from an American perspective, literally transform you into the Italian you long to be when traveling there. One that sits down to eat with locals willing to share their passions, be they food, wine or just some of lifes simple pleasures. Sometimes all it requires is a smile shared between two people who don't speak each other's language, and yet that smile says all that needs to be said.
At the Central Market in Florence
There are no pretenses when you're with her. What you see is truly what you get. Her curiosity is infectious. Driving with her through the Tuscan hills and all of a sudden she remembers a little dairy that is making the Marzolino cheese, a sheep's milk cheese only produced in March. We drive further and stop at a local market that is held in one of the many small towns and select our produce for our meals that day. The choices are endless, but with the seasoning of a well-heeled general, Judy helps focus her little troops with a few glorious ingredients and not the entire market stall. 
If I were to come up with only one word (and that would be difficult) to describe the way Judy cooks, it would be - Simple. Simplicity of ingredients, each contributing to the ultimate outcome and complimenting one another to paint a masterpiece in taste. 
Clockwise from Top Left - Lemon Thyme, Italian Parsley, French Thyme, Sage, Rosemary, Lemon Zest, Garlic, Sea Salt
It's this time of year that I have an abundance of herbs that I begin to think of preserving for the coming months. Sage, Rosemary, Thyme. The freshness of these combined with the pungency of some garlic cloves and perhaps a little lemon zest and salt all chopped together and made into a heady melange of perfumes reminding me of the Tuscany that I love. Of the stalls brimming with the freshest produce the likes you have never seen before. The tastes given to you by vendors to feed into that complete sensory overload that you will remember and recall whenever you become "homesick" for your adopted country. An herb mix to sprinkle on your chicken or pork dishes. Maybe a baked piece of Cod or Sea Bass. Possibly some carrots pulled right from the garden, washed and tossed with some olive oil and roasted until just tender. But, most importantly, you will recall that new friend who shared this recipe with you that you swear you have known all of your life. The one who helped you "become" Italian and experience life as you know it should be lived, the Divina - Judy Witts-Francini.

The Final Chop Waiting to Dry
Tuscan Herbs
1 Cup Rosemary leaves
1 Cup Sage leaves
1 Cup Italian Parsley
½ Cup Thyme
Strips of Lemon zest
2-3 Garlic cloves, sliced
1 tsp. Salt, plus more as needed

Place the herbs, garlic and lemon zest on a large cutting board, sprinkle with the salt and using a chef’s knife or mezzaluna begin chopping until all is combined to a fine texture. About 20 minutes – really!

Once you have finished chopping and are satisfied with the degree of fineness, place in a wide bowl or on a baking sheet and leave out to dry. Depending upon the weather, this can take a few days to a week. Every time you pass by, “fluff” it and release some “Tuscany” into your surroundings. When dried, place in a jar and use to season your cooking. This mixture does not need to be refrigerated. And, remember that this mixture already has salt, so use accordingly with your recipes.

Note – Any combination or amount may be used. This is a recipe that is not written in stone and you can use what is on hand and constantly replenish what you have used.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tomatoes - Summer's Gift of a Cool Saturation of Flavor

Garden Perfection
I realize that we see tomatoes in the markets year round, but I truly believe that they are there only to serve as a reminder of what we are really waiting for, a recipe or dish made with tomatoes ripened to such perfection that the redness is not just on the surface, but infused to the core of the fruit. Until around July, the ingredient missing most in these pretenders to the throne of taste is the heady scent that only the sun can lend to the skin and flesh of a native-grown tomato that ripens outdoors. Oh sure, you can buy a "vine-ripened" imposter that has been raised in a greenhouse, bathed in warmth. But there is nothing like a locally harvested gem begging for you to taste its lusciousness and recall how Summer truly tastes. Meander and hunt for them in farmers’ markets, or beg some from a friend who grows them if you don't have a patch of your own. Look up local farms in your area that sell them and gather a few, savoring the simplicity and purity that only a tomato raised in the heat of the sun can provide. I remove the skin by plunging the tomatoes into hot water for a minute or two; it is not too much trouble to do and allows them to soak up more of the grassiness and "olive-y" flavor of a perfect extra virgin olive oil.
This simple salad reminds me of my childhood experiences of sitting around the table on a late Summer afternoon. My father breaking into a loaf of freshly baked Italian bread and the family gathered around my grandmother’s dining room table. I can still instantly recall the sight and perfume of that heavenly puddle of greenish oil and pink tomato juice in bottom of the cracked black and white bowl with the farm scene on it. I would gladly help clear the table and carry the bowl into the kitchen and drink up what was left of that mid-Summer treasure hidden from view from those still seated in the dining room. Now I am happy to eat just this as a meal in itself, especially this month when locally grown vegetables reach their zenith of flavor. Some tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, maybe a bare sprinkle of a good balsamic vinegar to wake up the palette and a scatter of fresh oregano leaves. Light and simple. Summer is at hand and the vigor and brightness that it brings to our tables can only be summed up in the simplicity of that word - Tomato.
Jewels Fit for a Crown

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Farm

I always speak of "the farm" in my cooking classes. Depending upon the context it could be "the farm" I visit most frequently near me in Rhode Island, Pezza Farms. Or, it could be "the farm" that my Aunt Doris had up in Gorham, Maine that we used to visit during the various seasons. There's a special place in my heart for farmers because of my Aunt Doris and Uncle Bud. Both up early, tending to the chickens, the cows, Liza the pig and the horses. Not to mention the fields on their 40 acres. I fondly remember visiting in the Summer and picking the small, wild Maine blueberries. And in the Winter, chopping a tree down for Christmas in the back forty and bringing it home to the family farmhouse that had been in the family for generations, trudging through the snow-covered woods with our cheeks so "Norman Rockwell-ian" rosy and then begging for one more sleigh ride, my sister and I bundled next to Uncle Bud at the reigns before we came in for hot chocolate and bed.
Yesterday, my friend Katie and I visited Pezza Farms and had a wonderful chat with Doreen Pezza. She can tell you anything and everything about growing this and that. What a font of knowledge to glean from, especially for anything that you may want to grow in Rhode Island. Within a blink of her blue eyes, she'll gather what you want, where you want to put it and how you're going to cultivate it and with such enthusiasm that before you know it "you just have to raise one of 'those' too"! Somehow you always find room. But, my main purpose was to see what produce she had to offer. The most beautiful heirloom cherry tomatoes beckoned, along with some fresh cries from gorgeous green beans. And then, in came Doreen's son with a bushel of sweet corn just picked. Well, how could I resist that? Never. The supper question was solved. Something easy, fresh, local and alright, alright...healthy.

Sautéed Cherry Tomatoes and Green Beans
Somewhat Fried Eggs

15-20 Cherry Tomatoes
1 Tbl. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Garlic cloves, small; minced
2 Anchovy Filets, packed in oil; whole
Green Beans, a good handful*
2 Eggs, large
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Italian or French Bread, sliced and toasted**

Wash and slice each cherry tomato in half, place in bowl and set aside. Preheat a medium non-stick skillet or 3 quart non-stick sauté pan over medium high heat for about 3 minutes. If you prefer a regular skillet or sauté pan, add another tablespoon of olive oil.

Jewel-like Cherry Tomatoes with Anchovies
Turn down heat to medium and add the olive oil and heat to a shimmer. Add the minced garlic, sautéing until lightly golden. Continue with placing the tomatoes and anchovies into the pan as well and cook until the tomatoes begin to soften and the anchovies begin to disappear, about 5-7 minutes. Scatter the green beans on top of the tomatoes and cover until beans begin to soften yet still retain some “bite”.

When beans have cooked, remove them from the pan and set aside. Remove tomatoes to a bowl, saving any liquid that is in the bottom of the pan. Crack each egg into the bottom of the pan in any remaining liquid and cover until desired degree of doneness is achieved.

Place a slice of the toasted bread onto a plate and spoon the tomatoes on top, followed by the green beans. Place the eggs on top of that and add any remaining pan juices. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at once.

*The amount of green beans is entirely up to you. Asparagus is a wonderful substitute as well.
**For added flavor, rub each slice with a cut garlic clove after toasting.

Apologies for the blurry photo. I was so hungry!

I had a nice chilled glass of a Semillon with this, but other balanced white wines would be fantastic with this dish as well; Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Sauvingon Blanc and the like. Just don't choose anything too "oaky".

Friday, July 22, 2011

It's Too Darned Hot!

This is the time of year that I tell myself, "Fall is the next season" to lend some sanity to a Summer in New England. The heat is stifling. Maybe if I had been raised in it I might have some form of acclimation. But truly, I've been a good boy and no one deserves this kind of weather. Why, when we are young do we not feel the fever of a burning July day (and night) so easily? Is it the amount of fat we've accumulated? The variety of medications our lovely doctors have prescribed to keep us going? Or, is it simply the age thing?
Whatever the reason, thoughts of braising, stews and hot soups fly right out the open window when I feel this way. Salads, fruit, cold soups, even simple bread and cheese with a cold, crisp hard cider or a cool glass of my favorite French Rosé wine from Provence all take precedence in my menu planning. The Early Girl tomatoes are showing up at the local farmer's markets, along with assorted heirlooms and they all beg "Pick me Joe! Pick me!"
This is the time of year that the tomato reigns absolutely supreme. The kings and queens of produce. No other time of year do they taste this good. No hot house or supposed "vine-ripened" imposters are even considered for the multitude of ideas that call. Tomato sandwiches on my good Irish Brown Bread spread simply with homemade mayonnaise. Nothing can beat the taste, bringing  back memories of picking them in the garden as a little boy with a salt shaker tucked into the back pocket of my blue, railroad striped overalls.
Jewels waiting for their setting
Today, some beauties gave me that "come hither" look and demanded to be made into a cold soup. Something that I make when even a Gazpacho seems too much to think about preparing. My simple Chilled Tomato Soup with some grilled corn, feta and (feeling very French lately...more like wishing I were there lately) dotted with a basil pistou. I hope you like it and dream about the south of France with me and the sound of the cicadas ringing though the breeze while the dogs nap silently in the shade of an old pine tree. Thoughts and tastes like these get me through these sultry days. An Fall IS the next season.
Photos will follow. I promise.

Chilled Tomato Soup
Grilled Corn, Feta and Basil Pistou

1 Garlic clove, medium
¼ Cup Basil leaves
Sea Salt
¼ Cup, plus 2 Tbl. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 ears Corn
2 lb. Heirloom Tomatoes, perfectly ripe
3 Tbl. Lemon juice, fresh
Freshly ground black pepper
½ lb. Feta cheese, crumbled

Make the Pistou-
Place the garlic, basil, and a pinch of sea salt in a food processor and puree until smooth. Add 2 Tbs. of the olive oil and mix well. Let rest at room temperature for 1 hour.

Grill the Corn-
Heat a gas grill to high or prepare a hot charcoal fire. Cut off the tip of the corn’s husks (to make it easier to remove the husks once grilled). Grill the corn in the husk for 15 to 20 minutes, giving it a quarter turn every 5 minutes, keeping the grill covered (the kernels should be cooked but not charred). When it’s cool enough to handle, remove all of the husk and silk. With a sharp knife, cut the kernels off the cob. Set the kernels aside.

Make the Soup-
Core the tomatoes and cut them into chunks. Working in two batches, put half the tomatoes in a blender with 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice and ¼ cup of the olive oil in each batch. Season with a generous pinch of sea salt and black pepper, and blend on high speed until smooth. Strain through a fine sieve, pressing on any solids to get all of the liquid through the mesh. Taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary. Chill until ready to serve.

Mix the corn and feta together in a bowl. Divide the soup among four chilled soup bowls. Spoon the feta/corn mixture onto each serving. Stir the pistou and then drizzle it over the soup. Serve at once.
A Fresh & Light Supper or Lunch

Sometimes I can't resist putting thick slice of toasted leftover Italian bread rubbed with a cut clove of raw garlic in the bottom of the bowl and covering it with the soup for more substance. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Inspiration from a Smile for a Smile

As I mentioned previously, there are people that pass through my life that, unbeknownst to them, that have given me so much inspiration. Years ago, while working in a store and setting up a display for a visiting chef who was teaching a class that evening, I had a passing, very brief conversation with him regarding his work. His passion was infectious. Mix that with his mischievious nature and I instantly connected to someone who thought as I did, that no matter what you did in life it had to be fun. He is certainly a man who takes risks in life, something that I have always believed  in. By staying in the comfort of your own little world, you sometimes miss the big picture that is waiting and ready for you on the outside. David Lebovitz is part of my "Guardians of Kitchen Divinity" list. He has what I look for when I want inspiration, Passion. Incredibly creative and daring in the melange of flavors that he plays with and underneath it all the experience that I know I can trust. David now lives in Paris and writes a successful blog and has serveral books that I continue to use and recommend to friends and students for their illumination.
The recipe I am posting today is inspired, not only from the current heat we are experiencing here in the Northeast, but by the man who stopped and spoke to me those many years ago, patting me on the head and calling me "JoJo" and sharing a moment and a smile. It's funny how a little thing so simple can make you feel so at ease with someone you hardly know. Irresistibly fresh strawberries, whether picked at a local farm or chosen with care from the market, are combined with a refreshing Summer Rosé wine, and then blended and frozen in an ice cream maker. Maybe making and sharing this recipe with your friends, family, loved ones, or all of the above, will continue that smile from David and the unknown encouragement that he gave me so many years ago.

Strawberry Rosé Sorbet
(Inspired by a recipe from David Lebovitz)

2 cups Rosé Wine
cup Sugar
3 cups Strawberries, fresh; stemmed and rough chopped

In a medium saucepan, bring the wine and sugar to a boil. Remove from the heat, add the strawberries, and let cool to room temperature. Pass the mixture through a food mill fitted with a fine disk, or purée in a blender or immersion blender as I did.

Chill the mixture thoroughly and then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why Rhode Island?

I'm often asked why I chose Rhode Island to make my home. For me the answer is simple, but to those that live here and have never traveled far from these sandy shores and rocky hills it must be unfathomable to move here from what they perceive as "paradise", California.
Too many times I'm caught describing Rhode Island as the California that existed long ago, but not that long ago that I don't remember how magical it used to be.  The valley I was born in was nicknamed, "The Valley of Heart's Delight". It was famous for it's orchards of Cherries, Apricots and Italian Plums. There were canning factories for the various fruits and vegetables that were grown there and shipped around the world. I remember going up in the hills in the Springtime and seeing nothing but a sea of pink and white blossoms coating the valley floor, like a fantasy land of pastel snow mixed with the fields of yellow mustard greens.
Santa Clara Valley with Spring Blossoms

The air was perfumed with those blossoms fresh with the dew speckled on them in the morning and drying with the sea breeze that would drift over from the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. My Mother would cart my Sister and I into her blue 1962 Chevy Nova and we'd sit in the front seat without seat belts, wondering what kind of candy we'd be able to pick out at the Saratoga Five and Dime store after we'd finished getting our groceries at the little Buy 'n Save market in town. The two butchers in the market were always laughing with their customers and one such morning I remember my Mother falling for their sign in the case next to the ground chuck that had scrawled on it, "For Sale - 1929 Henway - Mint Condition. Ask for Price". When she inquired to one of them, "What's the price for the 1929 Henway?" the butcher replied with a gleaming smile , "For you? About .39 cents a pound!" I still remember my Mother laughing at having been set-up by those two happy men. Neighbors would stop and say hello or wave from their cars as we continued on our errands.  We'd run into our friends as they tagged along with their mothers and promising to meet in the orchards near the house so that we could play hide 'n seek, climbing within their leafy branches. The mother hen and her two chicks.
Fast forward almost 20 years and the mere hint of a booming computer industry starting to arise and wake up the world. Who knew? I remember everyone crowded around a new handheld calculator, as if that was the most ingenious thing invented next to the electric light. And soon, one by one the orchards began to disappear and another canning plant moved or closed. When you drove into those hills in the Spring to see the blossoms all you saw were the burgeoning rooftops of semi-conductor facilities and strip malls in what is now known as Silicon Valley. Neighbors didn't have time for one another. Their lives became busier. People moved because the little home they bought for next to nothing in the early '50's was now worth close to a million. No one knew who their neighbors were and mega "McMansions" sprung up overnight on postage stamp-sized lots. "I've had enough!" was the motto for those of us who missed those blossoms and sweet perfumes that they created.
My ancestors on my Mother's side settled in New England back in the 1600's. The stories from my Mother and Father of Aunt Doris and Uncle Bud on "The Farm" in Gorham, Maine were idyllic to me. Coming out here as a boy and picking blueberries for my Aunt's famous pie to go with our "lobstah suppah" in the Summer and ice skating on the river at night with our flares poked into the ice in Winter. Riding in the sleigh with Uncle Bud to go cut our Christmas tree down in the back woods was something that I longed for, hoping that a life such as that might still exist somewhere, anywhere. New England always felt like home. The accents, the food and most importantly the people. Dry. Down to earth. And if they didn't like you, you knew it. No questions about that, Ayuh.
Nine years now living in my adopted state without a regret. I have relived some of those childhood memories in the food that I've made and the generous and warm people I've met. I believe we have the best of all worlds here in Rhode Island. Near to beautiful beaches and plentiful seafood. Just enough snow (okay, maybe too much at times) to make a snowman and bring out your warmest sweaters. But the season that can't be beat anywhere else in the world, hands down, is Fall. The turning of the leaves. That first smell from your neighbors chimney scenting the air on a crisp evening while walking my dog Bear.
My Boy Bear

The farms loaded with their harvests and festivals with corn mazes filled with laughing, face-painted children on a sugar high of popcorn balls, candy corn and caramel apples. The pumpkins, chrysanthemums and scarecrows decorating the yards getting ready for Halloween and that most sacred of New England holidays, Thanksgiving. Memories recalled and memories created one by one.
Most importantly it is the people I meet in the classes I teach that have become friends and adopted family that keep me here. I have found that world that California threw away. And, almost every class that I teach, I mention how important it is to patronize our farmers, eat local produce in season and dine at our incredible restaurants, foregoing the cookie cutter, pre-made "glop" that is served up in corporate-driven food chains.
One of the many farms that still exist in Rhode Island

Today I went strawberry and pea picking at a local farm in Johnston and discovered that I'm not cut out for "hard", field labor and am much better suited to my own gentle garden and cooktop. But tomorrow I'll post an inspiring recipe to celebrate the first days of Summer that I hope you'll enjoy.
As good 'ole Dorothy said as she clicked her heels three times,  "There's no place like home", and for me, my home is Rhode Island.