Saturday, September 29, 2012

Imagine You Are Frederic Church

Imagine you are Frederic Church.  You come from a rather well off Hartford, Connecticut family who is able to indulge your interest in art by sending you, at age 18 (in the 19th century), to study with the great painter, Thomas Cole in Catskill, NY.   You become enamoured with the mountains, the river (the mighty Hudson) and the light.   After your career as an artist has become established you buy a farm in Hudson, NY, get married and start a family.   Eventually you purchase the hilltop above your farm,  and build a castle-like home - at the direction of the English architect, Calvert Vaux (one of the architects of NYC's Central Park) - that is an homage to your extensive travels in the Middle-East.   Your wife, Isabel, names the eclectic pile, Olana - the Latin name for the Persian, place.



The view from Olana is extraordinary.  On a clear day, from the bell tower, you can see four states; New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Church's homestate, Connecticut.   Olana is all about the view.  It inspired countless Church paintings.   The inside of Olana is a paen to Church's collecting habit and his love affair with color and pattern.   Even his kitchen pantry constantly changed with displays of the offerings from his gardens.  Still does.

You too can experience a taste of what Church knew and loved by attending OLANAFEST on Sunday, October 7th.    Beginning at 5:30, 10 of the most renowned chefs (pictured above, Laura Pensiero, chef/owner Gigi Trattoria and Gigi Market, Rhinebeck and Red Hook) of this part of the Hudson Valley will be offering samples of their wares with food inspired by a Church painting of their  choice.

Come, breathe in the view.   Imagine what Church saw the first time he climbed up that hill and looked out across the river and saw the spot where he first came to know the area, the home of his mentor, Thomas Cole.  I hope that your breath is not stolen.

SUSANSIMONSAYS:  Next Saturday, October 6th, The Book Tent, at the Hudson Farmers' Market  will host The Fabulous Beekman Boys who will be signing copies of their book, "The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook" just for you.   Cheese!, in the tent just next door will be selling the Beekman Boys famed goat's milk cheese produced at their farm, Beekman Farm in Sharon Springs, NY.   I know that it will be a busy weekend in the Hudson Valley.  You can enjoy all the events and buy fresh produce and watch the leaves turn colors right in front of you.


Monday, September 24, 2012

A Craving for Prosciutto

I can't believe that I've lived in Hudson for almost 10 months and it's taken up until last week to finally check out the Italian Market in town.  I had an overwhelming craving for prosciutto.  Usually I save up all my Italian deli needs for when I go into NYC and can shop for them at Russo's on 11th street in Manhattan - as I have for decades.  It's difficult to venture out of your comfort zone.  But I did - because I had to.  It's fresh fig season. Fresh figs and prosciutto are an ideal match.  Fortunately, the Italian Market had a selection of both imported and domestic prosciutto.  I bought a quarter of a pound of imported San Daniele prosciutto and found enough slices to make several meals with them.

When a paper thin slice of sweet-salty prosciutto wraps itself around a plump, moist sugar-sweet fig you'd think that they've been going steady for ages. They have.  And, right now you can find fresh figs in most local supermarket aisles.  I found a box of perfectly ripe Mission figs (the dark ones) at the Pricechopper.

 One day I breakfasted on a piece of toasted quinoa bread that was covered with the exceptional Kate's Homemade butter- made in Maine - found on the shelves of Hannaford's (because they are a Maine company too)  topped with halved figs and draped with prosciutto.  A perfect, way to begin an early autumn day.

   Some people, obviously more elegant than I, ceremoniously peel their figs.  I do not.  I like the contrast of color provided by the deep purple Mission figs and the rosy-pink prosciutto.

I'm very fond of the many recipes in both Spanish and Portuguese kitchens that combine fish or seafood with pork products - ideally, cured pork products.  Whether it's  Spanish trout with jamon de Serrano or  Portuguese clams, potatoes and spicy chorizo sausage, these dishes articulate the genuine flavor and texture of the main ingredients; soft, glistening, melt-in-your mouth fish with aromatic, toothy pork.  Throw in some potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, fresh herbs and spicy peppers and you've got this...
It all began with those slices of prosciutto waiting for further instructions.  I purchased a beautiful piece of fresh, gleaming white cod from Lick (yes, Lick - get on their fish order list), picked up some new, fingerling potatoes, and tomatoes from the Hudson Farmers' Market , and I had some garlic, and some Thai hot peppers and fresh thyme from my own little garden.


Here's what I did:
.   Parboiled the potatoes until a tester easily passed through them.
.   Sauteed finely chopped garlic and hot peppers, and fresh thyme leaves in a generous amount of olive oil.  Add the juice of a lemon.
.   Added the parboiled potatoes to the oil and tossed then around until they were coated with the olive oil mixture.   Removed from the heat.   Removed the potatoes from the oil and add to a baking dish.
.   Placed the cod fillets in the oil mixture and turned them over to coat them with the mixture.  Wrapped prosciutto slices around the fillets to fully enrobe them.
.   Pushed the potatoes to the sides of the baking dish and placed the cod in the middle.
.   Placed sliced tomatoes on top of the cod.   Drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.  Sprinkled with flaky sea salt.   Placed sprigs of fresh thyme over all of it.
.   Baked at 450 degrees F. for 15 minutes.  Served immediately.   Although, it does taste pretty damn good leftover, and chilled because the dish juices turn into a kind of aspic from the natural fish gelatin and prosciutto fat.



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Reasons to Celebrate

With the past few gorgeous sunny, warm, days, and sometimes teeth-chattering evenings, it's been very easy to forget the tortuously hot, sticky summer we've left behind.   And, of course, in this  socially busy Hudson Valley the temperate climate has made celebratory events even more special - and certainly more comfortable.

Last weekend my friends, Chris & Bert gave a dinner in the old barber shop building on their property.  Ostensibly the dinner was part of Chris' birthday festivities but it also feted the delightful bridge that we walk over from summer into fall.   Yes, dear readers, it's a HAPPY NEW YEAR!

In 1929 a barber from Queens, NY, in search of a new life and way to support his family after the great crash bought a west-facing property in Ghent, NY, at the bottom of  hills that slope enough to allow a gracious spot for the sun to melt out of sight, where my friends now live.  He became a dairy farmer and didn't give haircuts a second thought.  That is until the old Ghent town barber shop came up for sale.  The dairy farmer bought the shop and moved it to his farm.  From time to time he gave an occasional haircut.   When Chris and Bert became the owners of the property they repurposed the shop into an outdoor/indoor dining room - the site of wonderful parties.   Like the one I attended the other night.

Guests arrived at dusk in time for a cocktail and a round of hors d'oeuvres passed around by Chris and her daughter, Hannah.  Fresh figs warmed just enough to allow the blue cheese atop them to melt; little squares of pissaladiere, and sugar-sweet Hudson Valley tomatoes with mozzarella.   When the sky turned navy blue, sprinkled with 30- and 40 -carat stars, we helped ourselves to a massive buffet of food set out by chef Bert:  salt and pepper-rubbed fillet of beef grilled over hickory chips( which gave the beef a smoky, nutty flavor), red and golden beets salad -simply dressed, grilled jumbo shrimp - simply prepared, roasted corn and red pepper salad, a gorgeous mosaic of red, purple, green and yellow tomatoes -dressed with extra virgin olive olive and salt, stuffed peppers, and a white bean and broccoli rabe salad made by cooking the soaked beans in rosemary-infused water then tossing the cooked beans together with extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, lots of freshly ground black pepper, whole cloves of roasted garlic, and blanched, chopped broccoli rabe.

With our plates loaded, we went into the candle-lit barber shop, found our assigned seats and sat together at a long, white-cloth-covered table decorated with bunches of early autumn flowers; dahlias, roses, limelight hydrangeas, punctuated with a few wild flowers sitting in various cut and molded glass celery servers.  The rafters of the shop were hung with baskets and vintage signal flags.  and then we ate, and drank, and had very interesting conversations with our neighbors.  It was grand.

Dessert arrived a few hours later.   We were each given a plate with a slice of Chris' chocolate cake, her ricotta cake with my plum sauce  and Bert’s tarte tatin – which he made at the last minute thinking that we might starve without it!  And he was right – we needed that fruit-filled flaky, buttery pastry, all caramelized- taste in our mouths as a way to end the meal.

The next day, the sun shone on the remains of a splendid evening.  See the streamers from the previous eve's crackers hanging off the rafters  and spilling into empty glasses.  

Last weekend a curious wedding was  celebrated in downtown Hudson.  It was the wedding of  two businesses, Verdigris and The Chocolate Bar.  They moved in together (!!!) and their marriage was feted at the former business' home at 135 Warren Street with wine, Prosecco, tea and glorious cakes made by Regina Simmons: white wedding cake with layers of white peaches and white chocolate creme chantilly, and a black and white layer cake filled with chocolate mousse dotted with crushed chocolate espresso beans.   May they, and you enjoy many happy years sipping tea and chocolate, and eating (and buying) chocolates and pastries at Verdigris.

SUSANSIMONSAYS:  Apples and pears are filling the produce bins at farmers' markets and roadside stands all over the northeast.  Lots of recipes to come.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cooking by the Book #1

I've been happy to have been able to curate and coordinate The Book Tent at the Hudson Farmers' Market for this past summer.  Every Saturday, at The Book Tent, which sits right along side all the
other market vendors (under a tent), we hosted cookbook authors who signed copies of their latest works and answered queries from curious shoppers.  The authors braved the elements; pouring down rain and incredible heat - and sat, and smiled, and signed.   Last Saturday we welcomed Ted Allen, the host of the Food Network's most popular program "Chopped".  Ted is not just a host who was hired because of his dazzling personality - he's the real deal.  He is a knowledgeable cook, and a student of food.  All of this is reflected in his latest book, "In My Kitchen".  A good read, it's full of      information filled  headnotes and sidebars, & it contains  100+   recipes brimming with combinations of ingredients destined to make a good dish. In a way it's an old fashioned cookbook arranged by chapters  that begins with  Starters and ends with Desserts, and Breakfasts and Brunches - you, know instead of by color, or place where the author found the recipe, or by cooking pots and pans, etc.    Ben Fink's  wonderful, natural light photographs complete the book.

As I drooled over each recipe, description and photograph I realized that I had all the ingredients required to make one of the book's appealing recipes.

Ted says, "This is a peak-of-summer southern French classic and a great way to showcase tomatoes and zucchini when they're abundant.  Besides height-of-season produce, the key to the success of this dish is draining some of the vegetable juices so the gratin isn't watery."    Well,  it just so happens that we seem to be be at the peak of tomato season right now in the Hudson Valley and there are still plenty of zucchini around.  I did tweak the recipe just a bit.  Sometimes the ingredients you  have don't have exactly the same properties as the creator of the recipe used.  Keep your eyes open and use common sense. As you can see from my photograph my finished dish didn't exactly match Ted's.   But the flavor was just as expected (summer in St. Tropez?).  A cup of breadcrumbs and a cup of grated Parmesan cheese were listed for the topping. It was way too much.   I used half of what I had mixed and put the other half in the freezer for future use.     However, I give you Ted's recipe verbatim:

1 pound zucchini, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch rounds
1 pound yellow squash, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch rounds   (I used 2 pounds of zucchini)
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 1/2 pounds heirloom tomatoes, preferably a mix of red and yellow, sliced into 1/4-inch slices (I used red, green and purple)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon thyme leaves, chopped (I used tiny fresh leaves, left unchopped)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup dried coarse bread crumbs
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1.   Put the zucchini and squash in a large bowl and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the salt, tossing a couple of times as you sprinkle so all the pieces get seasoned.   Dump onto a large cooling rack over kitchen towels (or straight onto the towels), and let drain 45 minutes.  Press the top with additional towels to dry the surface.
2.   Meanwhile, arrange the tomato slices in one layer on kitchen towels and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt; let sit for 30 minutes.  With additional towels, lightly press on the tomatoes to remove more juice.
3.   Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan or large gratin dish with the butter.
4.   In a large saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over low heat, add the onion and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook until soft and golden, 25 minutes.
5.   In the gratin dish, layer the zucchini and squash, sprinkling with half of the thyme, half of the garlic, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil.  Spread the onions evenly over the squash, and then layer the tomatoes, overlapping slightly, to cover.  Sprinkle with the remaining garlic, thyme, and 1 1/2  tablespoons olive oil.  Bake, uncovered for 35 minutes.
6.   In a medium bowl, blend the breadcrumbs and Parmesan.  remove the pan from the oven, and increase the oven temperature to 450 degrees F.  Sprinkle the veggies with the Parmesan topping.  Return the gratin to the oven and bake until the top is browned, up to 10 minutes, and serve.

I had some of the leftover gratin for lunch, baked with an egg on top.

SUSANSIMONSAYS:   Here's what I had for breakfast one day recently:  sliced green zebra tomatoes sitting on top of toasted and olive oiled pain ancienne topped with a poached egg.  And, a glass of iced coffee.  Here, in my house, it's still summer by day - even if it's definitely autumn at night.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

End of Summer? Not Quite.


Oh yes, Labor Day is the other bookend that holds up the summer season. So, the hot weather and outdoor fun is somehow meant to  end just because the calendar says Labor Day?   Who told Mother Nature that?   Actually, for me it's now that really feels like summer.  The Columbia County Fair with it's animal exhibits - including some very chic sheep dressed in hoodies designed to keep their newly-shorn fur clean and tidy for competetion, demo derby, cattle roping contests, recipe contest, midway with rides - including a small Ferris wheel whose evening rotations perfectly captured that big old blue moon suspended in the inky sky - and stall upon stall of fried foods including a particularly tasty blooming onion - but, how do they make fried Kool Aid - spoke mid-summer to me like nothing else.  Maybe because it hasn't become a Labor Day habit with me yet.

The Hudson Farmers' Market is positively exploding with produce.  Bright, ripe sugar-sweet tomatoes are practically begging to made into BLTs, salads, and sauces.  There are mountains of melons; watermelons both pink and yellow, cantaloupe, and honeydew.  There are green and yellow beans waiting to be pickled with fresh dill.  There are many varieties of eggplant that need to made into ratatouille to put in the freezer to take out for a surprise side dish next winter or roasted and made into baba ganoush to spread on toasted pita to eat while drinking a fine cocktail.   Eger Brothers out at the junction of routes 9 & 23 has quarts and bags of all kinds of plums, early apples and pears, melons and a good selection of vegetables.  Both markets have buckets and buckets of flowers whose colors; magenta, orange's orange, taxi cab yellow, grapey purple and sky blue, almost blind you with their intensity.

 I'm energized.   I want to cook again - because although the days are still warm, even hot, the evenings cool down and being in the kitchen doesn't seem to be hellish anymore.

Some friends came over for  Labor Day dinner.    I made one of my favorite summertime salads which only works when you can get a local watermelon, juicy and sweet, and ripe, and still warm-from-the-sun tomatoes.   As I mentioned the tomatoes, right now, are so sweet from ripening in the hot summer sun that the acid and texture that they normally contribute to the salad has been replaced by the sorbet-like watermelon.    I cut the watermelon into chunks, cut the tomatoes into wedges, added some crumbled feta cheese, freshly chopped mint (chocolate mint from my mini garden) and tossed it  with very peppery extra virgin olive oil, a few drops of vin cotto and some brown rice vinegar.   The fruits quickly released their juices which made for delicious sipping the next day along with the leftover salad.

The day before the dinner I made polenta with cornmeal from Wild Hive Farm - who are now a full-on presence at the Hudson Farmers' Market -  and added the kernels scraped from 2 ears of corn, butter and grated Parmesan cheese to it.  I poured the mixture into a loaf pan, covered  the surface of the polenta with plastic wrap and let it set overnight in the refrigerator.    I released the polenta loaf onto a cutting board and made 3/4-inch slices which I wanted to grill.  And my friend, James who has more patience than I tried to grill it but it just didn't work the way it has for me in the past.  I think that the polenta was too wet.   You really want a stiff, coarse polenta for it to get charred on the outside and stay soft and creamy on the inside.  The otherwise delicious Wild Hive cornmeal may not be the right texture for grilling.   I tell you all of this because the recipe is a good idea and makes for a great sidedish for a variety of mains.   We ate the polenta, warm and misshapen, which tasted good - just not what I had planned.
The grilled chicken however was exactly as planned.    Slice boneless, skinless breasts of chicken into approximately 1-inch by 2-inch pieces.  Add them to a mixing bowl.  Add freshly ground white and black pepper, red pepper flakes, ground cumin, dried thyme leaves all tossed together and moistened with a neutral oil like canola.  I let the chicken marinate overnight - but it can be flavored a few hours before grilling with the same results.    I brought the chicken to room temperature, added salt then cooked each piece over a hot grill for a minute or two on each side.  The spicy chicken was served with a cooling-down, ersatz remoulade sauce made with good quality commercial mayonnaise, ketchup and sweet cucumber relish.

I'm plum crazy about Italian plums.  I like them slightly stewed.  Then I like to search for things to eat with them.  With yogurt and granola for breakfast.   With sliced salty-sweet prosciutto and a crunchy baguette for lunch.  And for a special dinner dessert, smothered on top of a cheese cake.  
I make an Italian-style cheese cake that's not very sweet.  The topping provides all the sugar you'll need.

Obviously you can use any topping that you like for the cake.  This recipe comes from my book, "The Nantucket Holiday Table" ( Chronicle Books, 2000). It has a cranberry-beach-plum topping.  You can
use strawberries, blueberries, peaches or nectarines as a topping.  You know what to do.
Serves 10 - 12   (keeps very nicely in the fridge for days - so you can slice off a bite as you like)

For The Topping
2 quarts Italian plums sliced in half, at the crease, pitted
3/4 cups port wine
3/4 cup light brown sugar
4 whole cardamom pods tied up in piece of cheesecloth
juice 1/2 lemon

For The Crust
2 cups crushed graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted

For The Filling
 1 pound cream cheese at room temperature
1 pound whole-milk ricotta
1/2 cup sour cream
10 eggs
2  teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1.   Make the topping: In a large saucepan over medium-high, combine the plums, port, sugar, cardamom and lemon juice.  Simmer until the plums are soft and the whole mixture has turned deep purple, 15 - 20 minutes.   Remove from heat and let cool.  Remove the cardamom.  Refrigerate until the cake is served.
2.   Make the crust:  In a bowl, combine the cracker crumbs, sugar, and melted butter.  Stir to combine.  Firmly press the mixture into the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan.  Set aside.
3.   Make the filling:   Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F.   In a large bowl, combine the cream cheesse, ricotta, sour cream, eggs, and vanilla extract and stir vigourously.  Pour the mixture into the pan and bake for 1 hour, or until the top is slightly brown and the edges are beginning to pull away from the side of the pan.
Refrigerate the cake for at least 12 hours before serving.  to serve, release the cake from the pan.  Place on a platter and cover the top with 1/2 of the plums.  Let the juice drip down the sides.  Use the remaining plums to top individual servings.

While I love the cooler temperatures that come with autumn - I haven't finished making food with summertime crops.

SUSANSIMONSAYS:  NOT TO BE MISSED.  Ted Allen, host of the the Food Network's most popular program, "Chopped" will be at the Hudson Farmers' Market Saturday, the 8th from 10:30am - 12:30pm signing copies of his new book, "In My Kitchen".