Caprese salad, the beautiful Italian dish meaning “Salad of Capri.” By far you cannot find a salad any simpler that this fresh and flavorful creation. Thick slices of fresh mozzarella, garden grown tomatoes, lush green basil leaves and then add a little salt, pepper and some olive oil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar too. I asked my friend Francesco who owns Sapssos Cucina Italiana what is it about this creation that honestly makes my eyelashes flutter and my bellyache with hunger pains? It is because Caprese salad resembles the colors of the Italian flag: red, white, and green. What Italy is all about is there on your plate.
Oh he’s right, the creamy mozzarella cheese, you can taste the fresh milk and its silky texture just melts with every bite you take. The sweet and acid burst of flavor from the seasonal tomatoes, honestly this salad is the reason why I grow so many varieties of tomatoes in my garden. I want to know is the Roma or Beefsteak the perfect tomato for this dish or is the Japanese Pink, Brandywine or possibly the Black Truffle tomato? Right now all my tomatoes are still slightly green and not quite ready for the salad bowl, however your area farmers market should have some beauties!
I believe this salad should start a meal, an antipasto, not a side dish to be added to your plate and not as an end of the meal; this is where your feast needs to start. Have a simple bowl of al dente pasta with a bit of shaved parmesan cheese and olive oil then to drink a lovely Chianti my pick would be Gaetano D’Aquino Riserva 2010 I promise your lunch or dinner will be perfect. Make sure to use a sharp knife when chopping the basil it will keep from bruising the basil leaves and the slices of tomato need to be on the thicker side I like a 1/2 inch slice. If you can find it purchase the mozzarella in a long log shape or the small mozzarella balls that is packed in water for freshness, sometimes they are packed in olive oil with herbs and spices- thats a good option too.
All of this has made me very hungry and I have the perfect tomato sitting in my fruit basket that is calling to me. Oh I forgot please, please, please I beg you- do not store your fresh bought or picked tomatoes in the fridge. That will ruin them. They like fresh air and room temperatures maybe put an unripe peach next to it and watch the magic that happens as the tomatoes helps ripen that peach in a matter of days. Food is magical, not only on the science front but on the sheer magic it holds and its ability to awaken senses you never knew were possible. To the Italian creative genius that coined this salad, I thank you, my taste buds thank you and my wonderfully hungry belly thanks you too.
In my family, I have a countless numbers of cousins (over 500) some are older and some are younger, but I love giving the title of Aunt or Uncle to the cousins that have touched my heart, my Uncle Dusty was one of those very special people. Born Harvey Rhodes in 1918 he became the one and only love of my Aunt Patricia. My Aunt Pat is on my Mother’s side of the family tree, my Grandfather (moms dad) was my Aunt Pat’s Uncle. My Mom and Aunt Pat grew up as “sisters” so it was only natural for my sister, Elizabeth and I to call her “Aunt”. Good lord I hope that made sense.
Every summer when my sister and I were growing up our Mom would pack our bags and the car up for the long 7-hour drive from Ventura to Sonora, California. There, on Old Phoenix Lake my Aunt and Uncle had a 5 acre piece of land with a beautiful home, garden, boat dock, geese, ducks, swans, deer, squirrels and freedom. I could be so free up there in that red clay dirt and that tulle lined bank. There was not a summer that went by with out the fishing tournament or the canoe floating book reading parties but the best part to me was the cooking. My Uncle being Italian had many, many recipes but my favorite one was basic and simple pesto pasta. My Aunt Pat was the Chef of the family, she took his directions/recipes and gave every dish her personal touch and love.
Their garden was massive in size it had to be 100 feet long by 20 feet wide with this 12’ tall protective deer fence. Inside the fence grew basil plants as high as your waist 10-20 of those graceful and peppery fragrant plants grew. Next to those were the rows of good sweet summer white corn, on the far right side were the most beautiful rose bushes (over 25), my Uncle planted all of those for my Aunt and they were stunning. Through the middle section was the prize of the garden, the tomatoes: cherry, Roma, beefsteak and some wonderful heirloom variety. The job my sister and I were tasked with after breakfast while we were visiting was to get our garden pails and go harvest the tomatoes. As we were walking out of the house I would swipe the saltshaker and tuck it into my pocket. Through the gate into that garden we would go, we harvested tomatoes until our pails were full and when the heat of the morning finally got to us we would dump one of those tomato filled pails into our outstretched shirts. That empty pail was filled with water from the garden hose, there we would sit down in the middle of the basil plants and secretly eat the tomatoes and watch the garden snakes slither by. The procedure was this; wash the tomato in the water, sprinkle the salt on the tomato, wrap it in a fresh washed basil leaf and repeat about 100 times. Then re-pick some tomatoes and take them into the house. There was something about those fresh picked sun warmed tomatoes, the juicy and bursting sweet like sugar taste and that smell, the unmistakeable woodsy, sweet, fresh tomato scent. I can truly say a fresh picked tomato from the garden is one of my favorite flavors and scents.
Meanwhile in the kitchen, my Aunt would have the big oversized pasta pot on the stove bubbling away with a good handful of salt and long glug (her measurement) of olive oil in it. She would then add the cut angel hair or small egg noodle pasta to the boiling water. While it was cooking away the food processor was brought out and handfuls of freshly picked and washed basil leaves would go into the bowl. Warm toasted pine nuts sat in their bowl along with fresh crushed garlic, grated parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt and pepper. The blades started to spin and in went the ingredients- to this day there was never a recipe card it was all done by memory. The pasta was drained and cooled, then a bit of olive oil added with that a light toss or two with the pasta forks. Then the magic started to happen which always seemed to coincide with a S.F. Giants baseball game being on the radio or TV. Small scoopfuls of that fresh made pesto were added to the cooled pasta and the big wooden pasta forks were used to toss it around. Next, a handful of forks were placed out on the counter, one for each of us. Throughout the day we were allowed to take a taste and add a little of this and a little of that, it was a family made dish. My addition was always more olive oil, my sister was more cheese, and my Uncle was salt and more pesto. After a few hours it was perfect and into the fridge it went. We ate that pasta for the next 3 days weather with breakfast; lunch or dinner it was a staple and something I always looked forward to.
My Uncle Dusty gave me one of the most precious gifts and that was his time. My parent’s divorce truly crippled me, I was 7 when it started and I was 13 by the time it was over. Just getting away and escaping to a place where freedom was the everyday norm healed and rebuilt my soul. On the lake at sunrise with my Uncle I learned the art of tying on a hook. I learned to trust and quiet my breath, I listened to the water, birds and that special sound an early morning crisp breeze makes through the long and bending tulle reeds. I also learned how to throw up over the side of the boat the first time I had to clean my own fish; hey I was 7 years old, forgive me. I was taught to fish only what was gong to be eaten and to return the prize winning bass back into the water because if they had lived that long and gotten that big they were important to the lake and not our dinner plate. My uncle shared the lessons of classic music with the great like Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong. I think if there was ever one music genre I could not live with out hearing it’s the Big Band Era music and I owe that all to my Uncle. I learned how to keep score while listening to his beloved New York turned San Francisco Giants baseball games. You want to know something amazing? In his storage are binders and binders of hand written score cards for every game ever played, his father started it and he continued it- I’m not kidding every game.
Dusty gave big enveloping hugs and lifted you off the ground with them, that honestly meant more to me than anything, I was loved and safe that’s all that really matters, right? Nightly slide shows were shown, I traveled from China to Brazil to Kuala Lumpur to Italy to England to Hawaii to Alaska to Argentina the Bahamas and then to the Mediterranean- I loved those nights! I was lucky, I went to his Lion Club meetings and learned the art of making good Cioppino. It was all about the fresh clams, muscles, shrimp and white fish, wine, small wooden boat oars to stir the giant pots and all the tall tale stories that went with it, those were absolutely priceless moments in my life.
Every evening 5 o’clock was cocktail time out on the deck of the house overlooking the lake there I was schooled on the proper amount of bourbon or scotch to be poured over crushed ice and then the fun part! My job was to insert the gas cartridge to the seltzer water bottle, bubbles, bubbles and more bubbles flowed in the water. For us kids we had our cocktails too- apple fizzy water. A cocktail glass filled with crushed ice, apple juice and seltzer water. I would prop my feet up on the deck to mimic my mom and sip my drink and watch the sun set on that lake along with all the days fun.
This is a post I could let go on and but that’s where my Uncle will always be with me, in my heart, my food, my stories and somewhere on a lake quietly fishing the day away. Thank you for your love, compassion and lessons Uncle Dusty and above all thank you for always welcoming me into your home every summer when I was growing up, you just let me be a kid and play the summers away. I love you and I will miss you very much.
Cheers to a full and wonderfully lived 96 years of life Uncle Dusty!
3 big handfuls of Basil leaves, washed and leaves plucked from the stems
4 Garlic cloves
¼- ½ cup Parmesan cheese, fine graded
Salt and pepper- to taste
½ cup Toasted pine nuts
½- 1 cup Olive oil
Set your food processor up using the chopping blade. Place half the basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil into the container. Pulse this a few times, about 30 seconds, the pesto will be chunky, not smooth yet. Add the rest of your basil leaves and then pulse for an additional 30 seconds. Look at your texture if it is too chunky or grainy pulse a few more times and if needed, add a bit more olive oil. Add in the grated cheese, salt and pepper to taste. You can add a bit of lemon juice if you would like. Continue to pulse until desired consistency is achieved. Use right away or store in the fridge in a container with a tight seal. You can also freeze pest for up to 6 months.
In a few weeks I will be traveling back up to Sonora with my Mother, sister and my two youngest children for a visit to Old Phoenix Lake. I will be taking many, many pictures and posting them here on my blog and my Facebook page. You will see my favorite candy store in Columbia, the little stores in Jamestown then the small and quiet town of Sonora, the college where my Uncle was the first President. The quaint museum that my Aunt and Uncle donated thousands of hours to, the small pottery stores, the unique mountain book shop- everywhere I grew up you will see. I feel its the best way I can honor him, its the best way to heal a very sad heart.
My husband has a folder in his mind titled “Kate comfort food.” My red beans recipe is in the top 10, maybe top five. Simple yet flavorful food can bring comfort to a stress filled day or warmth on a cold night. Yes, it does get cold in Southern California- I promise. I have discovered a secret in the preparation and cooking process of red beans, let’s say it lessens the tummy issues and I’ll leave it at that. The secret is the overnight soaking water and the first boil. It is nontraditional-but it works ** see recipe.
My earliest memories of red beans were with my Poppa, Charles Mathson Slaton he was born in Macon, Georgia in 1918 truly an amazing and talented man who I miss dearly. We would go to a small diner where he would order us a bowl of RBR with a side of cornbread. I would get this giggle and laugh going and then my mouth would start puckering due to the heat of the Andouille sausage_ it’s flavorful spices and smoke honestly was and still is my favorite part.
The vegetables in this dish are not many- simply green bell pepper, onion and celery-always referred to as-the Trinity. Poppa would say “Bug” (ref #1) the way to a man’s heart is in these three here vegetables and he pulled a few of them out of the bowl and onto a plate: green bell pepper, onion and celery. “If you use these in your food you will find a good man.” Guess what, in all my years of making red beans I never made them for someone that I was dating, I have only made them for my husband. Poppa was correct.
The first time I made my red beans and rice for my soon-to-be husband he was going through particularly tough time. He had just lost his father to cancer; and, he was back from his deployment in Iraq. Steve was in a lost spot and honestly I did not know what to do. Then I remembered feeding helps those who need comfort. Off to the store I went to get: smoked ham hocks, spicy sausage, red beans and the trinity. Overnight the beans soaked becoming plump and full, in the morning out came my two tried-and-true, battered and banged up orange colored Le Creuset French Oven. The first French oven had the beans simmering away,the second was used to sauté the remaining ingredients. The sweet smell of onion, thyme, bay leaf and garlic started to wrap their fragrant hands around him-coaxing him to ask what was I making. “It’s red beans, it’ll make you feel better, I promise.”
Soon the smoky ham hocks were added and the spicy sausage, by then Steve had moved into the kitchen with me, watching what I was doing quietly sitting there reading his book being comforted by the smells of simple, good food. The beans were added to the sautéed vegetables along with chicken stock, the lid was placed on and the French oven then I slid it to a back burner for its low heat simmer.The pot for the rice was on the stove gently bubbling away. Next the oven was set to 400°F; and, my 60 + year-old Lodge cast-iron 10″ inch skillet was placed in that oven to heat up with a good tablespoon of bacon drippings. Just when the cast iron and bacon fat was good and hot I took it out of the oven and poured my sweet cornbread batter into the pan, its like a sizzling kiss of love that hot bacon fat makes the perfect crisp outer crust to any corn bread recipe.
It’s now 10 years later and I look back on that dinner, I remember seeing a moment of peace, comfort and healing. I don’t know why but somewhere in the soaking, boiling, simmering, stirring and tending to, love was so gently infused into that meal. Still to this day his face softens, his shoulders relax and his smile returns whenever he smells my red beans slowly cooking away on our stove.I hope you find comfort in this recipe I also hope you giggle a bit at the spice it has too.
Poppa’s Red Beans
1lb dried red kidney beans
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
5 cloves of garlic crushed
2 ribs of celery, chopped
2 medium sized ham hocks
1- 1 ½ pounds Andouille sausage, cut into rounds
3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
2 cups stock (chicken, pork or vegetable)
4 cups water
Creole seasoning to taste
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons grape seed oil
1 tsp baking soda *
Sort and rinse your kidney beans then add to a large pot or bowl, fill with enough cool water to have at least 2” space between the beans and the top line of the water. * tummy helper #1 add 1 teaspoon of baking soda to the water mix around and leave to soak overnight. At least 12 hours.
After overnight soak drain and rinse the beans very well. Place beans in a French oven or large pot and cover with cool water. Place the pot on the stove and use a low flame to simmer the beans. About 1 hour.
While the beans are half way through their simmer in your second pot add your oil and heat the pot on medium. When the oil glistens or has that heat ripple look, sauté the onions and garlic until soft and translucent. Add the celery and bell pepper, about about 5 minutes then add the thyme, bay leaves, ham hocks, sausage 4 cups water and 2 cups stock. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer.
Drain your tender beans and rinse very well * secret #2. Add beans to the simmering pot and slowly cook for 2 to 3 hours. At the 2-hour mark check the beans to see if they are soft and creamy then taste, add your creole seasoning and any salt and pepper that is needed.
Serve over a bowl of light and fluffy white rice and enjoy or simply on their own.
Reference #1 my full name is Kathleen but I was called Katie as a young girl and “Katie Bug” was my nickname; but, my Poppa called me bug for short.