Monday, July 16, 2012

Tri-State Day Trip, and A Welcome Gift from a Stranger

With each day spent living in Hudson I've grown more smitten with its location.  It's practically tucked into the point where New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut meet. Adventures abound.  The other day, in 50 short minutes I drove through two states, New York and Massachusetts, to reach my final destination in the third, Connecticut.  It's uncanny, but true that although these states are attached to each other with no visible boundaries the character of the landscape changes as soon as you pass by the individual state's "Welcome to..." sign.  This is most decidedly evident when you enter Connecticut from Massachusetts.

I was invited to visit my friends, Louise Fili and Steve Heller (his daily newsletters, The Daily Heller and The Nightly Heller are endlessly entertaining and the information within will make you feel smart and informed) at their lush Litchfield County property.  Their house had its start as an Agway corrugated metal barn and all new additions were built to appear as if they were part of the original, including the silo shaped two-story master suite - designed by the late architect, Mark Foster.

The property is filled with Louise-designed flower gardens, a vegetable garden (mostly enjoyed by the chipmunks) a small orchard and the center-piece/ conversation piece, the GLACIAL ERRATIC - the rest of which has slipped down to "somewhere in Long Island" according to Steve.  It took me a few minutes to get it.  Here is this remaining bit of the ice age where, according to my friends, the property's former owner used as  wine-making platform.

Louise, besides being the world's best designer of food packaging and restaurant logos - you must check out her website just to see her latest, and stunningly beautiful, designs for chef Marcus Samuelsson's new line of tea - is a wonderful cook in grand Mediterranean-style.  Louise is an ardent - no, not a strong enough word - is an uber-Italophile. In fact part of our friendship is based on the fact that we speak Italian to each other - and sometimes play Scrabble in that language.   Her choices for the lunch that we shared were the just the kinds of things you might eat on a warm summer afternoon under a pergola in the country outside of Florence, Rome, Genoa, Venice, or Milan - you know, anywhere in Italy. 

Sweet, winy fresh figs wrapped in salty-sweet prosciutto; tender, saffron-laden risotto cakes - made with Marcella Hazan's recipe for risotto alla Milanese which  were formed into patties, covered in breadcrumbs and a few fresh thyme leaves, then gently sauteed in a bit of olive oil; a insalata Nizzarda - Louise's version of the classic salade Nicoise made with freshly poached tuna, cucumbers, tomatoes (from her garden), olives and hard-cooked eggs; and Marinated Eggplant from one of everyone's favorite cookbooks of the 1980s , Viana La Place & Evan Kleinman's Cucina Fresca.  And, all the way from Hudson, The Red Barn's sweet potato chips.  We finished the meal with strawberries macerated in red wine and a bit of sugar served with "bird food" (mixed nuts and seeds held together with honey) bars.  Beverages included sparkling water water, sparkling pink lemonade and chilled Campari - we each made our own versions of a mixed drink with different combinations of the selection.   Beautiful rosy drinks - all of them.
I'll bet you didn't even notice that this whole meal was lactose-free and gluten-free.  And who missed anything?  To the contrary.   Deliziosissimo!

MARINATED EGGPLANT  from Cucina Fresca (Harper & Row, 1985)

Serves 4

1 eggplant
coarse salt
olive oil for frying
1 bunch fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
 Cut a slice off the stem and blossom ends of the eggplant. Cut length-wise into thin slices, about 1/4-inch thick.  Lay out the eggplant slices on paper towels and salt generously.  Let stand until beads of water appear on the surface.  Dry the eggplant with additional towels.  Heat a non-stick skillet over high heat.  Pour enough oil into the skillet to just cover the bottom.  Fry the eggplant slices at moderately high heat a few at a time to avoid crowding the pan.  The slices should brown quickly so that they do not get mushy.  As the slices brown, remove them from the pan and place on paper towels to drain.
In a glass or enamel baking dish, make a layer of eggplant slices.  Sprinkle some of the basil, garlic and vinegar over the eggplant slices.  Make another layer of eggplant slices and repeat sprinkling with herbs and vinegar.  Refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for several hours, preferably overnight.  The marinated eggplant will continue to improve in flavor for several days.

The day before the heavenly Connecticut adventure I was, as is my habit, pursuing the Saturday morning Hudson Farmers' Market - and keeping an eye on the Book Tent's (see link for future schedule) author  - when a stranger, to me, a man, approached me with a bouquet of vegetables wrapped up in damp newspaper (the Arts section of the New York Times - if you were wondering) and a printed sheet of paper somewhat describing the most unusual selection of the group.  "I want someone who appreciates food to have these," he said.  "They're from my garden".  I unwrapped the paper to find frisee - a highly-flavored, slightly bitter salad leaf, purple and green string beans, and the mystery ingredient which my donor called "strawberry spinach".  Thank you.  As soon as I got home I Googled "strawberry spinach" and found hundreds of recipes for salads with strawberries and spinach - but nothing that resembled the misshapen little red globes attached to sparsely-leafed branches that I was gifted.   I referred to the sheet of paper that was part of the gift and found the botanical name of the  plant is chenopodium capitatum which is more commonly known as blite goosefoot.   Yeah sure, when was the last time you bought a bunch of blite goosefoot?  Further exploration led to the discovery that quinoa, the high-energy grain is also chenopodium (quinoa).  Feeling confident that this was truly an edible plant I popped a few of the berries into my mouth.  They were surpringly pleasing.  Dare I say they tasted like fresh, juicy quinoa?  But what to do with them?   I didn't dare cook them for fear of loosing their saturated red-orange color and perhaps disintegration of their shape and flavor.  So, I made my own kind of salade Nicoise because the other ingredients suggested it to me.   I thought about adding tuna, as in the real version - but when I thought about those berries - there was all the protein you might need.

I made a dressing with a bit of prepared mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, and fresh lemon juice to contrast the bitter leaves.  I added blanched beans - the purple ones turn dark green when cooked - and tossed everything together with some chopped Kalamata olives. Garnished it with tomato wedges and covered the salad with the strawberry-like fruits and enjoyed one of the most unusual, and unusually good salads that I've eaten in awhile.  Thank you stranger  - whose name I later discovered is David.  He pulls up his station-wagon every Saturday on the south-east side of market offering the harvest of his garden.

SUSANSIMONSAYS:  There's plenty to do in Hudson this coming weekend.  Two outstanding events include Severine von Tscharner Fleming signing copies of a book that she edited, "Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers' Movement" in the Book Tent at the Hudson Farmers' Market. 10:30am - 12:30pm.

and a wine and chocolate tasting from 5 - 7 pm, #1 Warren Street next door to The Chocolate Bar.  Fortunately these two events don't compete. You can do both.

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