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 http://www.davidlebovitz.com/ 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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ireland, Once A Week

A finished loaf cooling
For me, making bread has to be the most "zen-like" experience that I can actualize in my little world. Taking flour, water, a leavening agent and creating something that I could live on indefinitely, in a myriad of ways, is probably the most purifying experience in the kitchen. It is so simple and rewarding, yet nothing evokes more incredulous "oohs and ahhs" as when you deliver a loaf of your own homemade bread to a friend.
I remember making basic white bread with my mother as a boy. Standing next to her on my little stool and mimicking her floured hands pushing and pulling the dough back and forth, slapping it onto our oak counter top in the pantry and the flour speckling the air. What fun it was to be able to punch something and get away with it in front of my mother, laughing together side by side. It is a memory I re-create once a week in my kitchen, although with an even more simple technique and recipe.
I discovered this bread maybe 15 years ago now, while viewing on a television program, someone who has become one of my "Guardians of Kitchen Divinity" (although she will probably never know it), Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. Simplicity. Common Sense. Freshness. These are the words that I have learned from her and only hope to achieve and be able to convey to others. Everything that comes from her hands seems so easy and it is. That is the sign of someone I want to learn from and how they become one of the guardians I channel while in the kitchen.
(Whole Wheat & Unbleached Flour with Salt)
6 plain ingredients and a basic, no-fuss technique that creates a lovely bread for toast, a sandwich or just the perfect means to carry butter and jam. I make mine in a large bowl so as not to have flour all over my counter top.

(Proofed Yeast with Molasses and Water)
Everything is contained and tidy. A neat freak? No, just something I learned from Ms. Allen and never forgot. It helps to blend it all together into a somewhat orderly, yet shaggy mass.
Mixing by hand to get the right consistency
This is a bread that you can alter by adding a handful each of toasted walnuts and golden raisins for serving cheese upon, or a handful of oat bran and/or wheat germ for that ever-so-healthy toast and to balance out the misaligned sweet cream butter that you have slathered on top. It is a bread to experiment with if you have ever been afraid to attempt making your own bread. Dont' listen to those that say that bread is temperamental and difficult. Too often our lives are ruled by "Them". Be fearless in your kitchen. I'm giving you permission.

(My Lunch. Sauteed Red Peppers on top of sliced Cucumber wtih Tuna and Red Onions)
Irish Brown Bread
(Adapted from the Ballymaloe Recipe)

2 tsp. Dry Yeast
1½ Cups Warm Water (105-110ºF)
2 Tbl. Molasses
3 Cups Whole Wheat Flour
1 Cup All Purpose Flour
2 tsp. Salt

Butter an 8” x 4” (1 lb.) loaf pan. Preheat oven to 450°F.

Add the molasses to a bowl and mix well with the warm water. Sprinkle the yeast on top and mix well. Leave for 10 minutes in a draft-free spot until bubbly.

Mix the flours and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture. Combine to form a thick batter for about 1 minute, until it begins to leave the sides of the bowl cleanly and forms a soft, sticky dough.

Place the dough in the prepared pan and cover with a dish towel. Proof until the dough is ½“ above the top of the pan or has doubled in size, about 25-30 minutes.

Bake in the preheated oven for 35 minutes and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.

Let the loaf cool for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to complete the cooling process.

Friday, June 10, 2011

An Abundance of Blueberries

Blueberries on my board
With the blueberries abundant, I can't resist buying several pints to play with. A few of these deep sapphire gems are made into Blueberry Chutneys to transform a humble roast chicken, duck or pork loin from the simple to simply stunning. Naturally, Blueberry Jams are put up as well to spread onto my toast and French toast. Some end up frozen on a parchment-lined baking sheet and then placed into zip-lock freezer bags once they are completely frozen for later uses, such as my Aunt Doris' Blueberry Pie that I tasted on my first trip to Maine as a boy. I tell this story often, but I can never pop a blueberry into my mouth without thinking of that time. With her down-home Maine accent she asked, "Joe, have another slice of blueberry pie?" "Oh, Aunt Doris I can't. I'm so full." Looking at me over the top of her horn-rimmed glasses, she said with that dry Maine sense of humor that I love so much, "Ayuh, watchin’ ya girlish figyah?"  Aunt Doris and Blueberries always go together in my mind.
The following is a recipe I’ve adapted for all times of the year, but I especially like it in the Summer as a foil for berries and stone fruit of all kinds. Try it with lime zest and topped with grilled pineapple in the Summer with barely whipped lime-scented cream. Absolutely incredible and the possibilities are endless. It’s quite a simple cake and I’ve given you variety by adjusting the citrus to your liking at the moment.
The finished cake simply dusted
Lemon Olive Oil Cake

1½ Cups Unbleached All Purpose Flour
½ tsp. Baking Powder
½ tsp. Baking Soda
¼ tsp. Salt
3 Eggs, large
1 Cup Sugar
¾ Cup Plain Yoghurt
3 Lemons, zested*
¾ Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil**

Preheat the oven to 325°F with the rack positioned in the center. Lightly oil a 9-inch springform pan and prepare a parchment circle for the bottom and oil that as well within the pan.
Stir the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.
With a stand mixer or hand mixer, beat eggs and sugar on high speed for 5 minutes or until pale yellow and thickened. Add yoghurt and zest and combine well. With mixer on medium speed, add oil in a quick, steady stream. Reduce speed to low and gradually add flour mixture just until blended. Be careful not to over beat the mixture or the cake will become “tough”.
Pour batter into the prepared pan. Bake until cake is golden and center springs back to the touch. The edges will have pulled away from pan, 40 to 45 minutes. When done, turn off the oven and open the door with the cake resting on the rack for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and continue cooling on a cake rack. Cool completely before serving.
* 2 Oranges may be substituted for the lemons. Alternately, 4 limes zested works well too or any combination.

Jam and Vin Santo

1 Pint of Blueberries, washed and picked over
1 Tbl. Jam or Preserves of Your Choice
1 Tbl. Vin Santo or Brandy

Toss all of the ingredients together and serve on top of slices of Lemon Olive Oil Cake, pound cake or with Greek yoghurt.
Simple Goodness

**Choose a mild tasting olive oil. Something delicate, velvety with a low acidity, like an Espuny from Spain. I buy mine at Williams-Sonoma.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In the Fields with my Father

Why does food evoke so many memories? It must come from some primal sense aroused from ancestors past. Maybe those same relatives begging for the smell of that ragu that they passed down through the centuries. Or perhaps they are wanting for that tender bite from a scone warm from the oven slathered in that perfect sweet-cream butter with a sticky crown of homemade marmalade. My food memories seem to be protected by these ancestral souls that I'm made of. The bitter, the burnt and botched all seem to have disappeared only leaving room for those that are important for me to recall and savor. I've heard that it is impossible that I can remember my father's 40th birthday cake while lying on the counter as a baby during his party. No, I wasn't the next course, but it is the earliest I can recall and it is tied to food. Fast forward to a misty Sunday in Spring a few years later. Early Spring in California, sitting in the front seat next to my father in our Ford Country Squire station wagon and hearing him say, "This is a good spot". "Good for what?", I asked. (Little did I know that a lifetime later I'd recreate that same memory in the vineyards of Tuscany on a gravel road with my friends Pat and Wende and new friend Judy Witts-Francini, the original Divina Cucina from Florence,)

Mustard Greens in the distance of the Tuscan hills
But, as usual, I get carried onto another subject and digress. My father led me through what, in my 8 year old mind, were just wet weeds when he said to me, "These look good ". "What looks good?" "Mustard greens. See the ones that look like little stalks with no flowers yet? Those are the tender ones Joey. Those are the ones that aren't old enough to be bitter. We'll pick only those". And so we did. Two big, brown grocery bags full. Driving home with my father whistling and me wondering why we were going to eat "weeds" for our lunch. We pulled into the driveway and entered the house through the garage door, plopping our bounty onto the counter to show my mother all that we had picked. "Oh, you two have been busy", she said while washing them in the old aluminum colander with one of its three feet missing. The large soup pot was brought out onto the stove and coated with olive oil. Mom sliced some garlic and that unforgettable pungent scent began to fill the kitchen as it was tossed into its hot bath.  Our "weeds" were added and the sound I now describe as the "crowds roaring with pleasure" began when their damp stalks hit that sizzling fury. The cover was added and a few moments later mom lifted the lid to give them a quick stir, anointing them with that touch that I still see when my hands stir a pot. "Almost ready" she would say as dad cut the Italian loaf that he had picked up earlier when he had tip-toed out of the house before anyone else was up to pick up some forbidden donuts for breakfast. The greens were now lifted from the bowl and as if by magic all that we had picked had dwindled down to just a few cups of wilted, dark green strands bathed in oil and speckled with slivers of garlic. We ate quietly sniffing from the steam rising from our bowls. The final reward being the soft bread soaking up the juices left behind.
I'm now brought back some forty-plus years and another lifetime later. Those memories of that Sunday ingrained and held so close and comforting within my head.  Food for me is, not only trying to replicate those memories to some extent, but to create new ones that might be remembered and shared with a friend or two. It's the family that we've come from and the family we've collected along the way. In Italy, I learned a saying that describes what I feel when I'm laughing and eating with family or friends around the table, "A tavola non si invecchia" or loosely translated as, "At the table, no one ages". That's what food is about for me. That is why I chose to start my blog with a simple recipe from my life and that morning in the fields with my father.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Spring Arrives with Tender Greens

Mustard Greens Sautéed with Garlic

½ lb. Mustard Greens*, tough stems and center ribs discarded
   and leaves coarsely chopped (4 cups packed)
1 Tbl. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Garlic cloves, finely chopped
¼ tsp. Red Chili Flakes
Cup Water

Blanch mustard greens in a 4-quart heavy pot of boiling salted water 1 minute. Drain greens in a colander and return pot to burner over medium high heat.

Add oil to the pot and when it begins to shimmer add the garlic and chili flakes. Stir until the garlic begins to turn golden, about 30 seconds. Add greens and water and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
*Note – If using young, tender greens there is no need to blanch. Broccoli Rabe, Collard Greens or any other greens may be cooked in the same manner.

Spring Vegetables Come Forth

It's so beautifully arranged on the plate - you know someone's fingers have been all over it”.  ~Julia Child

   I knew that quote would bring a smile out, but when you think of it truer words were never spoken. There’s too much fussiness in food when you go out to eat and those that try to replicate that fussiness at home only set themselves up for disaster and disappointment. There is absolutely nothing better than Fresh, Local, Healthy, Well-Prepared food that is shared with family or friends without someone’s fingers all over it and the only judgment from it all is whether to have a second helping or “well, maybe just a little bit more”. Spring begins with the emergence of the vegetable kingdom coming to life in preparation for the Summer onslaught. The beginnings of a bounty filled with all of the freshness and flavors peeking through the soil begging for something new and different to exhibit their tastiness. Or, the familiar and comforting simple pat of sweet-cream butter sliding down into a warm pool mingling with the crunch of a fine flaked salt. Peas will be eaten raw, in salads, or cooked with herbs and greens. Asparagus asserting their place on the plate in a multitude of dishes, whether lightly bathed in a new sauce, steamed with a twist of a blood orange or covered with a delicately poached egg accented with crushed pink peppercorns. Lettuce and Spinach are waiting to be dressed in the latest and greatest from those fashionable New England cooks so handy with their imaginations fresh from the farm. And so they shall.