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.
Living in Southern California there is one condiment I crave, I especially crave it during the summer when the tomatoes are fresh and plentiful. That treat is Pico De Gallo or Salsa Fresca, the fresh chopped tomatoes, crisp chopped white onions, jalapeño chili’s, fresh squeezed lime juice, a good handful of chopped cilantro and a touch of salt and pepper. Bring on the margaritas and a big bowl of fresh made tortilla chips, this has to be my favorite summer meal. Yes, a big bowl of pico de gallo some chips a margarita and a book will happily satisfy me.
When I make my homemade salsa I always try to choose my home grown beefsteak tomatoes. Their thick and dense flesh can hold up to the other layers of ingredients with out breaking down into a mushy pulp. From time to time I do experiment and so far the other tomato varieties I have tried are: Brandy Boy, Celebrity, Super tasty, Sweet Seedless and my second favorite next to Beefsteak is Early Girl. That tomato is a touch on the sweet side and when you are using a good amount of Chili in your salsa that sweet can help cut the heat.
I remember watching an episode of Alton Brown’s Good Eats TV show that was all about the Scoville scale and how it is used to measure heat in chili peppers or spicy food. Sit back and be amazed; a sweet bell pepper is measured in at 0, jalapeño at 8,000 and the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion registers at 2,000,000. YES!!! 2,000,000 you read that correctly. However, according to The Guinness Book of World Records in 2012 the Carolina Reaper measured in at 2,200,000. Back to Alton Brown, he tested all sorts of cool your mouth down aids such as; water, chips, bread, corn and beer- ALL FAILED! The two that did not fail were a glass of milk and a glass of sugar water, now the next time you want to tempt your taste buds into a fiery rage or put your body into a bit of gastronomical hell ask for a glass of water and add 3 sugar packets to it and give it a good stir, then ask for a glass of milk too, you will need it. But there is a secret when you drink the milk DONT SWALLOW, just spit the milk out. The fat in the milk will carry a good portion of the oil from the chili thats now imbedded in your tongue away. The sugar water, drink after the milk it will help the residual burn.
Here is a word of caution about fresh made salsas I am sorry to say, but between 1998 and 2008 the reports of food born illness rocketed and unfortunately, fresh made salsa was to blame. You need to keep this condiment cold so what ever bowl you are serving it in have another bowl under it with some ice and always throw out any that has been left in the bowl, its contaminated, throw it away please. Remember the potato salad sitting in the sun food sick story? Guess what it was not necessarily the mayonnaise- it was the onions and potatoes sitting there with their sponge like broken cell walls collecting air born bacteria and happily growing it in the mayonnaise because that salad was not kept on ice to stay in the safe food temperature zone. Lesson one and always #1 keep onions covered and cold all times once you have sliced them. Don’t believe me ask Mr. Google about the medicinal qualities of onions and how they have been used over the centuries to pull bacteria from wounds.
Ok science side done back to the flavors of salsa fresca. In the past I was nothing but a purest; tomato, pepper, onion, cilantro, lime juice, S&P. However with age, time and creativity I have added ingredients such as; mangos, avocados, peaches, cucumbers, roasted corn, zucchini, mint leaves, basil leaves, shrimp, blueberries and the list goes on and on. This salsa is exactly what you add to your guacamole recipe, or grill up a batch of tequila-lime chicken then top this salsa over it and garnish with cilantro. Add it to a pot of fresh made white rice; add it to your Mexican lasagna or keep it traditional with a bowl of good quality tortilla chips. However you choose to enjoy fresh homemade pico de gallo salsa remember to keep it cold and if you can grow a few salsa tomatoes in your garden this season please let me know what you used your tomatoes for. I’m off to make a batch of salsa I’ve gotten very hungry all of a sudden and I just picked a few lovely bright red tomatoes from my garden this morning, take care.
Pico De Gallo
3-4 pounds tomatoes, large or small heirloom or not, use what you like
1/2 of a small red or white onion, chopped into very small pieces
1 small jalapeño pepper chopped, or more depending on heat preference
1 large handful of chopped cilantro
1/2 of a lemon juiced or ½ a lime juiced
Salt and pepper to taste
Roughly chop tomatoes, onions, and jalapeño peppers.
Add all ingredients to the food processor.
Pulse until desired consistency.
Keep the bowl with the salsa in it on ice, serve with fresh corn or flour tortilla chips, enjoy.
Last weekend I visited my local farmers market. I needed to stock up on a few items and I wanted to see and share with you what was in season. I live in a small beach side community about one hour north of Los Angeles. Our area is known for its rich top soil and long standing farming families, some of which I am lucky enough to be related to. These men and women work tirelessly day in and day out to feed our community, as well as working with distributors to ship our County’s bounty all over the United Stated and the World.
Strawberries grown on the Oxnard plain make the long journey to Japan, South Africa and even Russia.
Citrus grown in Santa Paula, Piru, Ventura, Oxnard and Ojai become treasured sunshine jewels to those in Alaska, Canada and even England.
Root vegetables grown in Camarillo, Ojai and Somis sometimes grace the plates presented by famous chefs at the Oscar after parties, Governors Balls and even meals served at the White House.
Flowers from the Ventura County fields and green houses find their way as part of the New Years Day Celebration on floats for the Tournament of Roses Parade held in Pasadena, California.
Sometimes the season is truly giving with crops of artichoke from Somis, Ojai and Moorpark. But usually we receive our artichoke crop from the Monterey County area.
I hope these photographs inspire you to get out tomorrow and visit a farmers market or farm stand near your area. Go meet the farmers, taste their food and better yet buy their food. Help keep farmers farming! This profession is a treasured way of life that is in trouble due to lack of water in some areas, restrictions and regulations and the growing number of imported fruits and vegetables .
I don’t know a farmer around that does not like a thank you, in fact they love it. All a farmer truly wants is good weather, water, a market to sell his or her product to and some simple thanks for all their hard work; especially the hard work of their farm hands and managers that make their profession and way of life possible. Have yourself a wonderful weekend, I hope the sun is shining and the temperatures are not too hot for you. I would love to hear about why your area Farmers Market is special, I’m always up for a road trip you never know where I might show up next.
Citrus and Fennel Salad
2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, fronds saved for garnish
2 oranges; blood orange, Valencia orange or navel orange
2 tangerines; murcotts, Dancy, golden nugget or Yosemite
1 shallot minced
zest of one lemon
zest of one orange
1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves
4 tablespoons of olive oil or citrus infused olive oil
2 tablespoons of citrus vinegar, champagne vinegar, pineapple vinegar or pear vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste
juice from 1 lemon
Place the thinly sliced fennel in a large bowl along with the oranges, tangerines, shallots, zest and fresh thyme. In a mason jar or small bowl add all the dressing ingredients and shake or mix well, pour dressing over the salad and toss gently. Arrange on a platter and garnish with the fennel fronds.
Serve with a very cold, crisp Viognier wine or sparkling water with citrus slices.
On Sunday I spent a few hours in my garden getting the next round of late summer early fall seedlings planted. What I added to the raised to beds were pole beans, kale, beets, squash, herbs and spinach. The weather was gorgeous, high 70’s lots of sun, no humidity, a cool breeze and no fog which in Ventura, California summer is usually known for fog, lots of fog. I came into my kitchen to make lunch and there they were three picture perfect grapefruit just screaming “Make me into a cocktail!”
A few weeks back a group of girlfriends and I ate brunch at Azu Restaurant in Ojai, California. I ordered the salmon cake eggs Benedict that had a meyer lemon hollandaise sauce- if you are ever near Ojai I highly suggest this restaurant for brunch, the outdoor covered patio is tranquil with its large urn water feature, shaded peaceful nook areas and lovely crisp white tablecloths and simple floral centerpieces. Elizabeth, one of the owners at Azu is a friend of mine, she suggested that I order a salty dog with my brunch choice. What was in it exactly I had to ask? Well, it has fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, gin or vodka and a salted rim. With a smile on my face I told Elizabeth yes, please I will take one! That cocktail complimented the briny and perfectly seasoned salmon cake and the tart yet sweet grapefruit juice matched the creamy meyer lemon citrus hollandaise.
So remembering all the flavors from that brunch, I sliced up a few Snow White tomatoes from my garden then tore a few pieces of fresh mozzarella and dressed it with a home made reduced Modena balsamic vinegar that I had infused with rosemary and garlic. I juiced the grapefruits and added it to my glass that was packed with ice and had a perfectly salted rim, then I added a good splash of Deaths Door Gin. The tart, salty and sweet grapefruit juice added a deeper layer to the sweet fruity flavor of my small cherry sized yellow tomatoes that were still warm from the sun. But the big surprise was how well the cocktail and the reduced vinegar worked with each other, the rosemary and the tartness of the vinegar blended and complimented maybe even enriched the juniper berry, coriander and fennel in the gin. Next time you are at the store pick up a few star ruby or ruby red grapefruit, salt your glass and squeeze the juice over crushed ice then add a good quality vodka such as Grey Goose or a good quality gin like Death’s Door Gin. Welcome in summer and enjoy sitting in the shade of your backyard or garden while eating a fresh tomato salad, you can not go wrong.
Fresh Made Salty Dog
1. 2 ounces of gin or vodka
2. 4 ounces of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
3. kosher salt with a bit of grapefruit zest mixed in
4. Collins glass
1. You will need a Collins glass, and slightly wet the rim. In a small saucer or bowl place the kosher salt and grapefruit zest in it and mix well. Take your glass and roll the wet lip of the glass in the salt mixture until it is well coated, shake off the excess salt. Fill glass with ice and add vodka or gin and grapefruit juice, with a spoon give it a gentle mix and serve.