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