Archive for the ‘Salad’ Category

Mutiny on the Bounty

Suburban bounty

Suburban bounty

I am convinced that the compulsion to plant a garden and grow things is hard wired into us. Is this a good thing? You tell me. Growing things requires an array of talents. For some the talent lies in acquiring the needed real estate. For some the talent lies in understanding what plant life needs so that it is properly nurtured. It is a wonderful thing to be able to walk outside of one’s door, snip a few things, and feed soul and family.

You’d think Mother Nature could have made it a little easier. I know that gardening as represented by Ina Garten on TV—that brand of gardening where you grab a shiny little pair of clippers, sweep through a pair of French doors into your garden (“Isn’t it faaabulous?”) and end up with pesto –is a fiction drawn by the video editor’s magic wand.

Real gardening is that little patch of dirt you cleared away in the back yard. That little three-by-three square next to the fence where you got the dirt under your fingernails, sprinkled in the seeds from their skinny paper envelope, that sandy oasis in a desert of concrete that you checked on and fussed over each day for weeks, practically willing the first shoots to peek through the dirt. My Aunt Sarah had a garden like that, and the bounty was celebrated and boasted about and washed and eaten with relish…or as relish.

I do not make this statement from first-hand knowledge. I am a city dweller and as such my horticultural endeavors do not extend far beyond a small juniper tree that sits in my kitchen window. Mr. Juniper Tree, whose specialty seems to be looking pretty, will not be brewed for homemade gin, and is resolutely not staying for dinner.

Still, there comes a day early in the August of each year when the bounty of my non-city dwelling friends’ gardens appear on my kitchen counter. I am blessed. I am also compelled to ask, “How many damn tomatoes can I eat?”

I take comfort in knowing that the tomatoes in their tattered ShopRite bags appear before me because the people who grew them asked that same question. I am therefore, the beneficiary of bounty overrun. The tomato equivalent of the bargain book aisle at Barnes and Noble. I am the vine-ripened “Mikey likes it!” The average suburban tomato vine is seemingly so abundantly fecund, that I often feel people who want to plant a garden should get the same warning as the little kid who keeps asking Mom and Dad for a puppy: “It’s not just for Christmas, it’s for every day.”

If I were a member of a previous generation I would likely be readying canning jars and the related equipment needed to “put up” the tomatoes for winter. Back in the day that was how you ate tomatoes in the dead of winter. But I am a child of the space age: I can get anything I want, any time I want it. So the question is: what do I do with all these tomatoes now? Tomatoes look grand on my kitchen counter for a couple of days, but beyond that I’ll need to write place cards for the fruit flies that will start feasting on them. I have to act now. Or as my Aunt Sarah would have said, “RIGHT now.”

(Aunt Sarah, who is no longer around to defend herself, would nevertheless agree that she was successful at growing tomatoes not because of a green thumb but because the vines were intimidated by her.)

One of the reasons people grow their own tomatoes is that they usually do taste better than the ones you buy in the supermarket. This is mostly true, so for the first few days I eat sliced tomatoes with a few crackles of sea salt, and herb and garlic goat cheese—my preference because I find mozzarella a bit bland and goat cheese is easier on my stomach.

After I’ve had enough of sliced tomato salad, I make sauce—or gravy, as my Italian friends call it. This requires a bit of refined technique and the proper ingredients. Feel free to use this technique when cooking anything Italian. It starts with a generous dose of garlic, really good Extra Virgin Olive Oil, fresh oregano, a piquant, crumbly, Parmesan cheese, and, the most important item of all (and this is indispensible): Sergio Franchi. If listening to him sing “Volare” and “Quando, Quando, Quando” doesn’t put me in the right mood, doesn’t make me feel Italian, then I skip the project and have Chinese food. What can I say? The man was a god.

After I have made sauce—uh, sorry, gravy—I move on to a savory Tomato Tart. This is humble, farmhouse-style convenience food: make it Sunday, and you can eat it cold from the fridge for the rest of the week.

If I have been lucky enough to have been the recipient of cherry or grape tomatoes, then this confirmed old teetotaler reaches for the vodka bottle. I don’t know what it is about them, but I seem to sleep very well after eating cherry tomatoes that have been marinated in vodka. This was a party hors d’oeuvre standby about twenty years ago.

But for pure versatility Tomato Cobbler or Tomato Crisp is, I think, the best way of finishing off the tomato bounty. Of the two the cobbler is the more labor intensive, but, for your trouble, is also more satisfying. This is really just a bigger version of grilled, breadcrumb-topped tomatoes. I bake this in a soufflé dish. Toss four or five quartered tomatoes with some minced garlic, a bit too much grated Parmesan cheese, a few snips of fresh oregano, and salt and pepper into the dish. Top with some biscuit dough for a cobbler. To make it a crisp, omit the biscuit dough and substitute a generous handful or three of cracker crumbles mixed with just enough softened butter so the crumbles hold together in loose clumps. Bake in a hot oven until the top is browned and everything is bubbly. Easy, yes?

The fun there is experimenting with different kinds of crackers, although if you are a hopeless snacker (like me) you’ll end up eating the crust and realize that you are losing interest in the tomatoes.

And after all those tomatoes, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, should it?

•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

“Tweet a mio per favore”

“…and she asked for refills.”

Caesar Salad

Still life with croutons

Have I mentioned that during a previous century I worked for a time as a waiter? There is something profound about the experience of waiting on others. Some people believe that this kind of work prepares you well for life and the workplace as a whole, and that everyone should do it for a while. A debatable point, yes, yet I think I tend to drift to the side of those who think everyone should do it for a while. Lindsay Lohan would sober up in record time if you slapped a visor on her head and put her in charge of a McDonald’s fryolator.

Lest you think I am slighting McDonald’s, I hasten to add that a former boss of mine outside of the restaurant business spent several of his teenage years working in a McDonald’s, and he was a fine boss indeed. I’ve always wondered how many of the qualities that made him such a good boss were the result of his time slapping patties on the grill.

Waiters bear witness as otherwise intelligent, educated, seemingly mature adults revert to bratty, child-like behavior (and that’s before cocktails). It can be a rueful revelation about the human condition. But there’s more to it than that. The bratty, immature behavior of those folks who have been celebrated due to their supposed culinary skills is perhaps even more of an eye opener.

In other words: your waiter is getting it from both sides. If the customers are at times unpleasant, some chefs are truly Nasty to the point of being abusive (the capital “N” is not a mistake). There’s something life altering about being yelled at by someone who looks like they showed up for work in grease-stained pajamas. Exaggerating? I think not.

One of the fine establishments at which I worked (I will withhold names to protect all parties involved) was famous for its elaborate selection of cheese, and one of the waiters found himself elevated into the role of the cheese steward. This role was similar to that of a sommelier. Sounds good in theory, although in practice this poor guy often became the chef’s whipping boy, a performance often repeated loudly and within clear earshot of the customers. It wasn’t directed at me, yet it still made my skin crawl.

Then there are the squeezes.

Waiters often find themselves squeezed firmly in the no man’s land between what chefs are willing to do for their customers and what the customers want, a/k/a, “No substitutions.” All parties blame the waiter.

There’s also bad management: seating an entire restaurant at the same time results in all orders being sent to the kitchen at the same time, which results in very slow service as the kitchen struggles to keep up. All parties blame the waiter.

Excuse me, but I thought time healed all wounds? It has been many years, and yes, I think I still sound a little bitter. Ah well, don’t cry for me; I am all smiles. You may have deduced from this harrowing tale that I bend over backwards to treat waiters well when I eat out. I do, although I am keenly attuned to poor service, and my practiced eye knows when it is the waiter’s fault, versus when it is the kitchen’s fault. I know enough to be a danger to my own enjoyment of the meal. My dirty little secret? I am not an enthusiastic eater-outer.  And I now have bad feet.

I was a crummy waiter (pardon the pun); my mind was often elsewhere, so take what I say with a grain of salt. In the meantime, here’s a funny story (ya got a minute?):

I was working a lunch shift the day after Broadway’s TONY awards.  This was a casual restaurant that attracted a surprising number of celebrities. You name ‘em, they ate there. Who should I find at one of my tables but two of the talented, celebrated actresses who had lost the previous evening? Perhaps a planned victory lunch gone awry?

I greeted them by asking, “But it was an honor just to be nominated, right?”

My props to them for restraining themselves from pummeling me about my person. Yes, sometimes it is the waiter’s fault.

One of my favorite tasks as a waiter was table side service. The reasons for this were twofold. First, the customers were hungry, happy I was there, and often engaged me in polite conversation. Second, I enjoyed making Caesar Salad, especially when I could leave a tiny bit for myself. Some nights I must have reeked of garlic. Caesar said it best, “Veni, Vidi, I ate the salad.”

And yes, one skill I took away from my waiter years is the ability to make a good Caesar Salad–at least I think they’re good, although I’ll be the first to admit that I belong to the school of “the more garlicky and parmesan-y the better.”

Caesar Salad seems to have supplanted the old wedge of iceberg with blue cheese I remember from my childhood as the salad that must be on every menu. The trouble is that the bottled, gloppy, mayonnaise-based dressing that is used is often not very good. REAL Caesar Salad–made to order from fresh ingredients–has freshness, lightness, and a bit of zing that the kind made with pre-made dressings can’t match.

Since you rarely—if ever—see the tableside version anymore in restaurants, may I recommend it as a make-at-home treat? No special tools are required, in fact, I, Mr. Kitchen Aid Devotee, discourage their use when making Caesar Salad. Two forks and a little technique are all you need. Mashing all the ingredients in a bowl with the two forks actually does a better job than a food processor or blender.

Let me address two things that may give you pause: anchovies and raw egg. Anchovies? Buy the quality kind in the glass jar. They’re not “hairy” and are much less salty than the cheap canned kind. (Mine came with a little fork to pull them out of the jar. Who doesn’t like a free utensil?) Raw egg remains a reasonable concern what with the recent problem with salmonella. If you can find pasteurized eggs, use those. Even easier is to use Egg Beaters. I know purists may take offense at this, but Egg Beaters are made from eggs, are pasteurized, and will lend a glossy richness to the emulsion similar to real eggs.

Finally keep in mind that this is an easy recipe, yes, but one that lives or dies on the quality of all the ingredients. Use good Parmesan cheese, not the deservedly maligned kind in the green shaker bottle. Buy the plainest croutons you can find, or even better, toast your own in the oven. The overly seasoned kind will overwhelm REAL Caesar Salad. (Yeah I know–sounds like Martha Stewart. But heck, I’m not asking you to bake the bread from scratch.)

Here’s a bit of celebrity gossip you won’t find on Page Six, in the Enquirer, Star, or at Perez Hilton. You’ll only get this kind of info here gang, so buckle your seat belts:

Barbra Streisand likes ginger ale with her lobster.

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Click here for the recipe for REAL Caesar Salad.

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Follow ButterFlourBlog on Twitter
Archives
Categories