CELEBRATE LATE SUMMER WITH PANZANELLA

It happens to me every year around this time.  I start getting tired of summer produce.  (I feel guilty saying it; please understand.)  But I’m not yet willing to switch to apple pie, apple quick breads, and everything and anything made with cinnamon.  So this morning I glanced (with just a hint of annoyance) at the lineup of produce on my kitchen counter from yesterday’s farmers’ market and wondered what to do with it all.

Here’s yesterday’s catch:

one truly masterful, locally made 3-grain French Country Batard
several varieties of heirloom tomatoes, including heirloom cherry tomatoes
one small, dirt-covered red onion
one big bunch of bright-green basil, since my own is raggedy this late in the season
one bottle of white wine crafted by a local vineyard

In summer I always have on hand great-quality EVOO*, and red wine and balsamic vinegars, so I decided to make Panzanella, the one summer salad I haven’t already put together.  The beauty of this recipe is that you can use any quantity of the ingredients you wish, and you can add or subtract the extra ingredients to your liking, since no one likes to be told what to do this late in the summer!

Basic Ingredients:

mixed varieties of summer tomatoes
boule or baguette of whole grain french or other rustic bread, cut into bite-sized chunks
EVOO
good quality red wine or balsamic vinegar, or a combination of the two
red onion, sliced and halved
fresh basil, julienned, chopped, or torn
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method:

1.  Cut the bread as directed above.  To add some crunch, you can toast it by sauteing it in EVOO over med-low flame for 5-10 minutes. Un-toasted bread, on the other hand, works well to soak up the oil, vinegar, and tomato juices, so it’s your choice.  One or two-day old bread is preferable but not necessary.

2. Assemble all ingredients. Let sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes to blend flavors.  (Sip some of the wine while waiting.)

3. Here are some add-ins that work well: crumbles of cheese such as feta, goat, or ricotta salata, calamata olives, quartered beets, slices of white nectarines or peaches, kernels of left-over fresh corn, stripped from the cob.

* EVOO is the abbreviation of Extra Virgin Olive OIl

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THREE GIFTS FROM IRENE, OR WHY I (SORT OF) AGREE WITH GLENN BECK

I’ve never been an admirer of Glenn Beck.  In fact I’ve never agreed with one word or thought that has emerged from his paranoid, oddly-emotional and sorely misguided head.  He’s been more of a laughing stock for me than a real person with anything remotely valuable to add to the conversation.  But I have to admit that he did, accidentally, start me thinking the other day in an unexpected way when he pronounced that Hurricane Irene is a blessing.  Allow me to explain.

Yesterday I was still on vacation with my family in Nantucket.  While waiting for the ferry to carry us back to the mainland (two days early due to the storm), I decided to glance at the news online. This headline caught my eye: “Glenn Beck calls Hurricane Irene a blessing.”

Normally I would have seen Glenndo’s name and scrolled right by, since I pay no attention to his wacky ideas which are always abhorrent as well, but since Irene was the flavor of the day, I read the clip.  Afterwards I shook my head in disgust and muttered the usual to myself: “What an idiot.”  Then I decided the story was amusing and served it up to my family with an extra helping of disdain in my voice, just in case they didn’t already know my feelings about the man (fat chance.)  We enjoyed a good chuckle over him together.  Here’s the edited clip:

Glenn Beck, ex-Fox News host: Hurricane Irene is a ‘blessing’ from God

BY ALIYAH SHAHID
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER

Saturday, August 27th 2011, 11:46 AM

Glenn Beck called Hurricane Irene a 'blessing' on Friday.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Glenn Beck called Hurricane Irene a ‘blessing’ on Friday.

The conservative radio host is calling Hurricane Irene and this week’s East Coast earthquake a “blessing” from God.

Beck argued on his show that the events would teach people to be prepared for natural disasters. He told his audience that for years he has been urging Americans to stockpile supplies for the inevitable “global disruption in food.”

He continued, “People have made fun of me. That’s fine, I don’t care. I’ve been telling you, ‘Don’t be in a panic situation.’ If you’ve waited, this hurricane is a blessing. It is a blessing. It is God reminding you – as was the earthquake last week – it’s God reminding you you’re not in control. Things can happen. Be prepared and be someone who can help others so when disaster strikes, God forbid, you’re not panicking.”

 Now of course I disagree with his ridiculous incitement to stockpile against a fictitious food shortage and/or Apocalypse, but the idea that Irene could be a blessing lodged in my brain as securely as a wooden peg in a lobster’s claw, and stayed there.  Back home today, while making the rounds to stock up on a few items, I felt tempted to join the nervous frenzy surrounding me. (A woman pushing a shopping cart into the grocery store shouted at a young man in front of her to get out of the way, then rammed into him with her cart screaming, “Move! A hurricane’s coming!” No apology was offered.)  As I roamed the packed parking lots and noticed everyone carrying jugs of water, I noticed my heartbeat start to quicken and my mind start to race to tomorrow and the storm ahead.  I was starting to enter emergency mode.

But then I remembered some of the central teachings of yoga, which I am trying to incorporate into my life.  These are the following three ideas.  Irene has helped me to remember them.

1. We are not in control.  Sure we can take measures to prepare, to keep safe and fed, but we cannot control nature. We cannot control the future.  Feeling like we can is folly. We can control only ourselves and only in this very moment, this very instant.

2. We need to stay in the present moment.  Are we safe right now?  Are we free of hunger right now?  That’s all that matters. A famous philosopher once said, ” the future is made up of the moment that just passed.”

3. While chaos swirls all around us, we need to be the calm in the center of the storm. In yoga, this translates as the ability to hold an uncomfortable pose and breathe calmly through it even though every bone and muscle inside you is screaming “abandon ship!” This is why we practice difficult poses: to know that we can survive and stay calm inside when all hell is breaking loose outside.

So I am grateful for Irene and see her as a blessing. She has provided me another chance to test my inner strength and beliefs against the chaos swirling around me.

I never thought it would be possible, but now Glenndo and I actually agree on something. Sort of.

LAST GASP OF SUMMER?

I’m still mad at the mums.  (See post of August 17, 2011.)  Therefore, in one final attempt to put them in their place until at least the middle of September, I am making a white nectarine salad today for lunch. It will include ricotta salata, fresh basil from my herb garden, and (take this, mums!) NATIVE heirloom tomatoes and slivers of NATIVE red onion. I am hoping this will be just the thing to ward off their evil grip on my awareness.
We’ll see.

WHITE NECTARINE SUMMER SALAD

Slices of white nectarines (or white peaches, your call)
Slices of native tomato, preferably heirloom
Thin slices of red onion
Fresh basil leaves
Ricotta Salata, crumbled (feta would also work)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
EVOO
Fresh basil leaves

1. Assemble first set of ingredients.
2. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (seems counterintuitive for a fruit salad, right?)
3. Drizzle with EVOO and scatter basil leaves.
4. Scoff at mums.

Watermelon with Mint, Lime and Feta

Yesterday I noticed Mums smugly sitting outside the door of Stop and Shop.   I refused to even glance their way. How dare they remind me that Fall is on its way? Completely ignoring them, I strode in and bought the ingredients for a sweet, cool watermelon salad that, once assembled, pretty much screamed “It’s still summer!” at the mums down the street.

That’ll show them, as my dad used to say.

Watermelon with Mint, Lime and Feta

Grocery list: (ignore the mums if you see them)

Cubes of Watermelon
Feta Cheese
Kalamata olives (I prefer Sclafani brand)
Red onion, thinly sliced

EVOO
Chopped fresh mint
Lime

Place the first four ingredients into a salad bowl.  Drizzle with EVOO.  Add chopped mint, then squeeze lime over all.  Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for a few minutes to blend flavors.  Savor with the knowledge that living well is truly the best revenge.

The Aha! moment

Early Sunday morning I awoke to the sound of raindrops dancing lightly on my roof. Stretching out in bed, I thought, “perfect morning to stay in bed with a mug of coffee and a book.”  My husband (a thousand blessings on his head) gets up early every morning like clockwork and starts the brewing. I hoped that this morning would be no different, and fortunately it was not.  I was able to follow the trail of aroma into the kitchen, pour a steamy mugful, and return back to bed.

As I settled under the covers, I took a few sips of the rich Espresso Roast and opened to my bookmarked page in Blood, Bones and and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton, restauranteuse of the popular and critically acclaimed  Prune in New York City. I didn’t realize what was in store for me as I read the next few pages. I followed along as Hamilton described the first time she entered the building that would later become Prune:  (Emphasis and ellisions mine)

When I opened the door on the…walk-in refrigerator, I was hit by a blast of fetid warm air coming from decomposed lamb shanks and chicken carcasses.  There were legions of living cockroaches…And yet, even with the cockroaches crawling over bread baskets and sticky bottles of Pernod, I could see that the place had immense charm.   There was an antique zinc bar… that had been salvaged from a bistro in France …The floor, under all that sticky rat excreta, was laid with exact same tiny hexagonal tiles that had been on the floor of a creperie in Brittany where I had worked...I knew the space was exactly “me”….I knew exactly what and how to cook in that kind of space, I knew exactly what kind of fork we should have, I knew right away how the menu should read and how it would look handwritten, and I knew immediately, even what to call it…

I had no idea how to open a restaurant…  I had never even been the sous chef of a restaurant….But once back in my apartment, I felt very nearly combustible with something I could not tamp down with any blanket of reason or logic …I doodled menus.  Pulled some plates down from my own stack and set a mock table….I cranked the stereo with songs I fantasized would bust out of the speakers at my new restaurant…I sprawled on the couch in my bare feet, staring into the middle distance, and wondered how I might serve walnuts from the Perigord and a small perfect tangerine…”

As I read these pages, I recognized that the feeling Hamilton described was one which I had recently experienced.  I felt this way while I was creating this blog!  It felt at the time, and continues to feel tingly, exciting, familiar and yet brand-new. Above all, it feels so “me”.

So I wonder if you’d be kind enough to share an Aha! moment of your own. You know: That certain moment when you felt almost hit over the head with a recognition of something or someone so familiar, so right, so uniquely you. And when you think about it, do you get teary as I do or does something else tip you off ?  Finally, do you think that recognizing these moments as “Ahas!” makes them richer?

Mango Summer

Have you noticed that mangoes are  everywhere this summer? Mango sorbet, mango smoothies, and now even mango Juicy Juice! Just like when I was pregnant and suddenly started seeing pregnant women everywhere, once I took notice of the mango products on every shelf and offerings of it in one guise or another on every menu, recipes for mango dishes started coming at me right and left.  Finally, during the last heat spell, I gave in and decided to try a recipe for mango salad that mysteriously appeared in my own recipe book–the one where I write down or paste in my favorites. I have no idea when I might have pasted it there or where it came from.

I didn’t really think I would enjoy the salad very much; in fact I sort of hoped I wouldn’t. Never having been a big mango fan myself,  I was looking forward in a weird sort of way to confirming my somewhat nasty thoughts about this odd-flavored, sometimes mushy-textured and weirdly-colored fruit.  (There is such comfort in our familiar opinions, and I’m not talking only of mangoes!)  But once the ingredients were assembled and left to get acquainted for a while in the fridge,  right with my first bite I knew my old prejudice had to go.  These flavors were so zippy and the cold temperature so refreshing I had to admit  the salad was good. Very good.  So good I ate it two days in a row for lunch, and then made some jasmine rice to accompany it for dinner.  Even better!  The sauce is light, slightly sweet and slightly hot, and after you dig into the salad and pour it over the rice, you too may have to admit that sometimes the old prejudices just don’t serve.

SUMMER MANGO SALAD

Serves one. Recipe may be doubled or even tripled. You’ll want to: it’s that good.

1.  Gently mix together the following:

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1-3 mangoes, cut into bite-size chunks
1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
2 TBS mint, finely chopped
1 TBS fresh cilantro, chopped

2.  Assemble the dressing: (NOTE: this makes more than enough dressing for both the salad and to pour over the rice.)

1/2 cup bottled mango juice or “nectar” (available in most supermarkets. I like the Hero brand)
1/2 cup Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
2 TBS fresh lemon juice
2 pinches clove powder (if you only have whole cloves, you can smash them with the flat side of a knife blade, or use a mortar and pestle)
1 tsp coriander powder (see note above re: making clove powder)
salt and pepper to taste (don’t skimp!)

3.  Pour some of the dressing over the salad. Be careful not to saturate it.  Let it sit while you make the jasmine rice (readily available, just follow package directions.) When the rice is done, the flavors in the salad will have blended and you will be ready to serve.

Any leftover salad can be eaten refrigerated over the next few days, or diced smaller into salsa and served with tortilla chips, or served over grilled fish. Extra sauce is a perfect marinade for chicken or pork.