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