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so sweet from ripening in the hot summer sun that the acid and texture that they normally contribute to the salad has been replaced by the sorbet-like watermelon.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.
PORT WINE AND CARDAMOM STEWED PLUMS CHEESECAKE
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
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.