Monthly Archives: September 2014

Ground-To-Table

A friend was telling me that she went to a special event at a restaurant in late August and the dessert that was served was Apple Crisp. I’m sure that this Apple Crisp was delicious, but it just makes me wonder. Did the restaurant not know it was late August? Even supermarkets have a section of local produce, and produce purveyors for restaurants have an abundant supply of seasonal fruits.

I have always been a proponent of eating seasonally and locally, long before it was a trend. And before that, it was just what people did, without thinking about it. My grandmother’s garden in central Jersey overflowed with carrots, celery, strawberries (real ones, not the kind that are huge and white inside), tomatoes, peppers, basil; she had a sweet cherry tree, a sour cherry tree, a pear tree, an apple tree, a grape arbor, even a well. Every year, she would preserve the tomatoes so that she could make gravy (that’s Italian-American for tomato sauce with lots of meat) all year round. Other than that, the fruits and vegetables were eaten when they were ripe and ready. The point is we ate cherry pie only in the spring, because that’s when there were cherries on the trees. We actually looked forward to the beginning of June, because we would pick the ripe cherries, bring them to Grandma, and she would make us a pie. Then we wouldn’t have them again until the next June! The thought of it! No instant gratification? All I can say is, that cherry pie tasted really good.

Right now the farmer’s markets are abounding with a myriad of fruits and vegetables – September is truly the best time to frequent them, in my opinion. My sous chef Amanda and I make weekly trips to the farmer’s markets in Ramsey and Hoboken, and we also make a weekly trip to a wonderful fairyland-like place called Abma’s Farm in Wyckoff, N.J. (http://www.abmasfarm.com) You drive down a long residential road to get to Abma’s, then cross a mini railroad track, drive up a hill and arrive at the farm, a very picturesque little place where you can even visit the chickens, turkeys, goats, sheep, and cows. Since Amanda and I are both city girls, Abma’s is a real treat for us.

Heirloom and Beefsteak Tomatoes at Abma's Farm

Heirloom and Beefsteak Tomatoes at Abma’s Farm

Jersey tomatoes are in full effect, so to speak, and Abma’s has lots of them. I buy beefsteak tomatoes for our “Italian BLT”, which consists of our own grilled sourdough bread, warm crispy pancetta, homemade roasted garlic mayonnaise, and ripe beefsteak tomatoes. Tomato and Basil Crostata, something I’ve been making for years, is adapted from a wonderful recipe by Giuliano Bugialli. Tomatoes are cooked with aromatics- celery, garlic, onion, basil, parsley, and carrots- until everything is very soft, then baked in a tart crust with Parmigiano, topped with thinly sliced tomatoes- its really very lovely. Also, at this time of year when tomatoes are really over-abundant, I like to make a sweet tomato preserve. The tomato, as we all know, is actually a fruit, and thus marries well with sweet ingredients like citrus and vanilla bean.

Tomato and Basil Crostata

Tomato and Basil Crostata

I’m a very lucky girl, because every year I get to go to the beautiful town of Castiglione del Lago in Umbria, Italy, and hang out with my friends Gerri and Jack, who own a small cooking school there called Cucina della Terra (http://cucinadellaterra.com). I’ve taught baking, dessert, and chocolate classes there. They have a wonderful program set up where the students, all lovers of Italian food and wine, spend mornings and afternoons visiting vineyards, sheep farms and beautiful hill towns, go hunting for truffles, pick olives, and the like. Gerri and Jack know everyone that’s food and wine related in the area, and often have some local expert come to the school and prepare something or give a talk about gelato, or lake fish, or whatever. Then everyone cooks a big meal with local fish, game, produce, and cheese, and we sit down to a fantastic dinner with wine from the vineyards we’ve visited. (Yes, I know, it’s a really tough thing to have to experience!)

In any case, one day, a guy named Sal from Sardinia (where they know something about sheep) showed up with a huge metal pot of warm ewe’s milk. He proceeded to make different kinds of pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) and then, finally, he made fresh sheep’s milk ricotta from the whey that was left from making the other cheeses. Since the ricotta is a fresh cheese, we were able to use it right away and I made these ricotta fritters. They’re pretty simple and fun to make, if you don’t mind deep-frying. I serve them with the sweet tomato preserves. Another sweet/savory treat, they work well as a snack or a dessert- this time I’m giving an actual recipe for the preserves!

Ricotta Fritters with Sweet Tomato Preserves

For the fritters:
2 eggs
2 tablespoons sugar
½ vanilla bean, split and scraped
½ lb. fresh ricotta cheese
Grated zest of ½ orange and ½ lemon
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2/3 cup all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
Canola oil for deep-frying

  • Place the sugar in a medium bowl and rub the grated zest and scraped vanilla bean seeds into the sugar with your fingertips. Add the eggs and whisk the eggs and sugar together.
  • Whisk in the ricotta and the citrus juice.
  • Sift the dry ingredients together and stir them into the egg mixture.
  • Let this mixture rest in the refrigerator for about a half hour.
  • Pour the canola oil 1-2 inches deep into a heavy wide pot. Heat the oil to 325F.
  • Drop spoonfuls of batter into the hot oil and fry a few minutes on each side. The fritters should be golden brown. Drain them on paper towels and serve warm, with the tomato preserves on the side.

 For the preserves:

2 ½ lb. ripe tomatoes
2¼ cups sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
½ vanilla bean
¼ teaspoon salt

  • Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for 30 seconds.
  • Drain in a colander under cold running water.
  • Peel the tomatoes, but don’t remove the seeds.
  • Chop the tomatoes coarsely.
  • Put the tomatoes with their juice and the remaining ingredients into a large heavy pot.
  • Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently.
  • Cook until the desired preserve-consistency is reached. The mixture will look translucent and will be quite syrupy, with most of the liquid gone, when it’s ready. Towards the end of the cooking time, very frequent stirring will be necessary to prevent burning on the bottom of the pot.
  • Spoon the preserves into a jar and chill until ready to serve.
  • The preserves will keep several weeks in the refrigerator.

Ground-3

Fresh Figs

I once ate an entire kilo of figs while sitting on an outdoor staircase in Montmartre in Paris. It was late summer and the open-air markets were overflowing with ripe, gorgeous fruit. When fruit is perfect, I find it totally irresistible.

I was in Paris at that time because I had been doing a short “stagiaire” (apprenticeship) at Rostang, a Michelin two-star restaurant. I realized that the Parisians revere and respect fruit as much as I do, because the last dish that every diner at the restaurant received was a bowl of cherries. The cherries were from Limousin, an area known for that fruit and they arrived at the kitchen directly from the orchard in baskets. We would wash them and deliver them to the table at the end of the meal, after dessert and coffee. (Very few fancy restaurants in the U.S. would ever have the nerve to do anything this simple and lovely. Diners here almost always receive a platter of complicated petits fours at the end of a meal, which I, for one, am always too full to look at, let alone eat.) In any case, those cherries were so dark and plump and bursting with juicy cherry flavor, the customers ooh-la-la-ed themselves into a fruit ecstasy, leaving the restaurant in a very happy state.

But back to the figs. Figs are what I would call a special fruit. For me, along with olives, they symbolize the Mediterranean. If you love figs, you are probably pretty passionate about them. They’re absolutely perfect if you eat them right out of their little baskets, like I did in Paris, or better yet, directly from the tree. My grandma, who grew up on a farm in southern Italy, used to say that purple figs were donkey food – she and her family would only eat white figs! Personally, I’ll eat any variety of fig and enjoy it as long as it’s ripe. The soft, squishy texture of ripe figs along with the pleasant, slight crunch of their small seeds adds to the uniqueness of the fruit. There are several varieties of figs, distinguishable by color: purple, brown, green, white- each one a little different from the next.

In addition to eating them, I do, of course, cook and bake with figs – I really can’t get enough of them – but I tend to treat them simply and honestly and let the inherent flavor and texture speak for themselves. I think that if you are excited about an ingredient, you treat it with respect and create dishes that highlight it, rather than use it in a way that masks its uniqueness. In late summer and early fall, figs are pretty plentiful in markets in the northeast (although they never seem to be cheap). While occasionally blurring the lines between sweet and savory, or creating a dish that has a balance of those elements, figs are a good ingredient choice since they are delicious when complemented by honey, brandy, citrus, vanilla, almonds, walnuts or chocolate. But they also pair well with savory ingredients like cured or air-dried meats, balsamic vinegar, cheese, chicken and duck, or wild game.

Since figs have a slight strawberry-ness to them, the combination of strawberry and fig is very nice. Try serving a slice of toasted or grilled plain poundcake with a little mixture of sliced figs and strawberries. Toss the fruit with a little vanilla sugar and let it macerate for few minutes beforehand. A spoonful of mascarpone or crème fraiche is perfect with this. I also enjoy the combination of figs and espresso- I often serve espresso gelato with honey-roasted figs.

I make a crostata (the Italian version of tart or pie) with a walnut crust topped with fresh purple figs drizzled with honey, the pinkish interiors making a lovely pattern- it’s very simple and delicious. If I have a surplus of figs, I like to make preserves. Green figs are perfect for this, with orange or lemon added. I cut the figs in half and weigh them, then add half that weight of sugar. I add a couple of oranges or lemons, quartered. I put everything in a large heavy pot and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mixture has thickened to a nice preserve consistency. I realize I am very haphazard about this but it’s so easy to do- you just have to stir a lot towards the end of the cooking time. And I’m not that picky about the preserve having a very jelly-like texture.

Fig, Walnut, and Honey Crostata

Fig, Walnut, and Honey Crostata

I also like to oven-roast fresh figs, cut in half and drizzled with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The following recipe, using oven-roasted figs, is a nice accompaniment to a cocktail or glass of rose. Figs with prosciutto are a natural combination, but I also love them with bresaola, the Italian air-dried beef. The rich texture and deep, almost peppery flavor of the bresaola are a nice counterpoint to the fresh delicate figs.

Fig 2

 

Crostini of Fresh Figs, Bresaola, and Ricotta

For 8 hors d’oeuvre size servings

8 fresh figs, any variety
16 smallish paper thin slices of bresaola or prosciutto
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons fresh ricotta cheese
4 slices bread, halved (I used ciabatta, although almost any bread will do- whole grain is nice with this too.)
3 tablespoons toasted chopped hazelnuts, walnuts, or almonds
Fresh oregano, thyme, or rosemary, coarsely torn or chopped

  • Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  • Cut figs in half, placing them cut-side up on a lightly oiled or parchment-lined baking sheet.
  • Drizzle the figs with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. Roast for 10-12 minutes, or until figs have softened but not lost their shape.
  • Meanwhile, brush the bread slices with a little olive oil and lightly toast them in the oven.
  • Spread a layer of fresh ricotta onto each bread slice.
  • Top with a few fig halves or quarters, and a few pieces of bresaola or prosciutto.
  • Sprinkle with chopped nuts and the herbs. If desired, drizzle a little more balsamic vinegar on top.
  • Serve at room temperature. (These can sit a while before serving.)
  • Note: If you are a vinegar enthusiast like I am, fig balsamic vinegar is the obvious choice for this dish. It is available at lots of places, but I get mine at Kalustyan’s at 123 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.