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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chef Dan's Ultimate Summer Caprese Hamburger!

Yesterday I finally went out and did some weeding, and discovered that, lo & behold, our new raised box garden of tomato plants had gone Absolutely Berserk! Chef Dan has made several tomato harvests, but this time I carried in bowls of them! Romas, & Grapes, & Big Boys, & Early Girls, & Cherries, in all their different sizes & shapes & reds and oranges! Picked two tiny hot peppers, too, and bunch of basil, and I've been joyously eating Insalata Caprese ever since! Like much of Italian cooking, a classic Caprese Salad is deceptively simple to make and depends TOTALLY on the freshness and quality of the ingredients. Do NOT attempt this with a cardboard-sour Wal-Mart tomato that ripened in a truck somewhere & that rubbery WM mozzarella! But Sam's Club actually has Great mozzarella (Bel Giosa), and some darn good Italian olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and so if you have a sun-ripened garden tomato or two (or 200, as we're now hitting Peak Tomato Production Season here in Landgraff, WV...), and a windowsill basil plant, (or access to a farmer's market), you can do this! You can jazz it up, as I am wont to do, with capers, or tiny bits of hot pepper, or a few salty Greek olives, but the classic tomato slices + mozzarella slices + basil leaves, drizzled with really good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, is marvelous. You can toss it all together in a bowl, or create a gastronomic work of art by fanning the tomato & mozzarella slices around the plate & artfully drizzling the balsamic vinegar & olive oil over them, but no matter what you do it's pretty darn wonderful stuff! For me, this salad is the tangible, edible definition of Summer, and there are few things more pleasurable than sitting on the Elkhorn Inn's front patio in the afternoon sun with a bowl of Insalata Caprese made with a bunch of different tomatoes still warm from the sun, getting up periodically to pull a few more basil leaves off one of our plants to toss into it...  Chef Dan then took it one step further and created the Ultimate Summer Caprese Hamburger: a mixture of ground pork and beef , plus a chopped onion, the patties are browned in a cast-iron skillet and then topped with a garden-fresh tomato slice, leaves of basil, & a slice of creamy mozzarella, and then drizzled with olive oil & balsamic vinegar!  SO good!  The other day we made a roasted tomatillo-tomato salsa, another incredibly simple summer thing to do with that surfeit of garden produce that hinges on the freshness of the ingredients. We first roasted the quartered tomatillos in a cast iron pan (and yes, if you can't grow them, you really Can buy fresh tomatillos at Wally World: they have a leafy covering you remove before cooking them, at which point they look like green tomatoes), along with some halved garlic cloves, fresh hot pepper slices, and a handful of tomatoes. You want them roasted with brown bits, as that gives the salsa a great smokiness, and it's easy-peasy to do it quickly in a cast-iron pan. Toss it all in the food processor with a mess of fresh cilantro, another handful of fresh, uncooked tomatoes, the juice of at least one lime, and a bit of Kosher salt, and blend it to a nice, coarse "salsa" consistency. This is a "living" recipe: add more tomatoes, hot peppers, cilantro, garlic, or salt  to taste. Homemade salsa tastes like NOTHING you can buy in a jar, and it's not only great with corn chips, it's wonderful over rice or pasta, and as a sauce to pour over a meat loaf before you bake it... (I was Never a fan of meatloaf until Chef Dan made a Three-Meat-Loaf the other night. Using ground venison, pork, and beef, mixed with a fresh tomato salsa-like sauce, and then baked with a topping of more of the fresh tomato sauce, this loaf was SO tender, juicy, and tasty, that it knocked my "foodie" socks off!)  Once you make salsa it will spoil you, however, and you will shy from the bottled stuff & cringe at the tinned glop doled out at most "Mexican" restaurants! We had THE best Salsa Crudo in a little patio restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico last year, and it was basically and simply finely chopped fresh tomatoes, cilantro, & lime juice... I think the best summer recipes are truly simple- they're all about enjoying goodies from the garden, as fresh as possible. And with the plethora of garden bags, boxes, and other above-ground planters available now, you can truly have a veggie garden anywhere- even in an apartment! I have always been a fan of eating what's in season, as, to me, grocery store tomatoes in the winter have the taste and texture of cotton wool. (To be frank, most of the veggies one buys at the "big box" stores & Super Centers taste like cotton wool no matter when you purchase them; Agribusiness now breeds for "beauty" and longevity, and definitely not taste). So be warned- once you harvest and eat your Very Own Tomato you will Never want to eat a grocery store tomato again!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

First Tomatoes, Wild Blackberries, & Venison Ragu...

I haven't posted in a bit as I have been working for FEMA as a Community Relations Field Specialist here in McDowell County, WV for last two weeks as part of the Disaster Response Operation for the June floods. This is the first time I've worked for FEMA "at home" in McDowell County, and I am TRULY getting know my own county- and it is HUGE!! For the last 8 years I've basically let Chef Dan play Chauffeur Dan, and ferry me around and around and up and down the narrow, winding mountain roads of our southern WV mountains, frankly because winding Route 52 scares the poopies out of me- even as a passenger! But I, a.k.a. "weenie girl", have just spent the past 2 weeks driving 10 hours a day on Routes 16, 7, 103, & 161, and Route 52 now looks like a fabulous piece of cake!  There are stretches of it where even I can almost make 50 mph! Once you do Those Other Routes, with 12% grades, hairpin "switchback" turns that MUST be taken no faster than 3mph, giant coal tucks that come whipping around those curves at you in your very own own lane, ramps you have to enter from the opposite side of the road (on a curve, no less), guys passing you on a double-yellow because they think they've been reincarnated as Dale Earnhardt, roads with no center line because they're too narrow for one, and entrances to residential areas that literally drop off the highway into seeming nothingness, and do them on patched (& sometimes semi-paved) roads with no "pull-over" space, no guard rail, & a 1000 feet down the mountain, Route 52 looks like a Super Highway!  Whoo-whee, baybee!  So far I've been to War, Davy, Gary, Sandy Huff, Squire, Bishop, Newhall, Cucumber, Coalwood, Capels, and Carswell Hollow, as well as nearby Northfork, Keystone, Eckman, and Welch. I've been to places where the blacktop REALLY ends, kids, with more to come, and by the end of this operation I WILL KNOW MY COUNTY AS WELL AS DAN DOES! I have a prayer in Hebrew that I recite each and every time I turn on the engine, and I say it unfailingly many, many times throughout the day... but, surprisingly, I'm finding (most of) the driving almost fun, and it's certainly an adrenaline booster! But at the end of the day, when I pull into our parking lot, I am Knackered! In addition to this, we have guests at the Elkhorn Inn every day, all month long, so Dan has been pulling "double duty" all day while I am out FEMA-ing; at the end of the day I change out of my FEMA uniform & become the Inn's hostess again!
About two weeks ago we harvested The First Tomato Of The Season- a landmark event for gardeners the world over, I think:

We served most of it in a salad for Elkhorn Inn dinner guests- who were delighted! We're now harvesting those candy-sweet grape tomatoes, and there's lots of green tomatoes ripening, and little tiny peppers on the pepper plants! The weather has been Gorgeous- 90 degrees & sunny- and I had a day off last week, so Dan & I, in True McDowell County Fashion, got on my ATV, and set out to pick a few early wild blackberries! We got enough to eat our fill and bottle some up in brandy, but most of them need another week or two to hit Blackberry Perfection:

The photo below was taken at the gas station in Welch:

And then I came home the other day to find Chef Dan in the kitchen up to his elbows in... venison. We often pass "road kill" on Route 52- pets, as well as wild animals, who've been hit by cars and trucks- and it never fails to shake both of us up- especially, interestingly enough, US Army Retired Hunter Dan, who one might think would be inured to Everything by now. I passed the body of a car-hit deer on the way home, and then another one was hit just up the road from us. When Dan drove to Welch a crowd had gathered around the animal, who had a broken back and was clearly suffering. When Dan came back, an hour later, the deer was still there, barely alive, and still suffering; apparently no one had the guts to do anything but watch it suffer. Dan called McDowell County 911, but both they and DNR were too busy to deal with it (in other words, to shoot it and put it out of its misery and dispose of it properly), so 911asked Dan if he could handle it, and said that if he could, we could have the meat. And so he can and so he did. It shook him up, because it's been a few years since he'd had to do something like that, but he was able to do it. And then, amazingly, he professionally butchered and processed it, and by the time I got home it was well on its way to becoming venison pate and an amazingly delicious venison ragu sauce over linguine...  The man's skill-set totally stuns me, day after day... 
When you see meat in the supermarket, sterile slabs of red wrapped in plastic that don't look anything like an Animal, you may be able to pretend that you're not really eating a (delicious) animal that was once alive. If you grow up and live your entire life in cities, you may be able to keep pretending that throughout your entire life. But to be truly human we need to periodically jolt ourselves back into reality and remind ourselves that humans are animals too, carnivores who eat other animals, and that our dinners of lamb chops, ribs, bacon, and steak don't grow on the "meat tree" neatly wrapped in Styrofoam trays, and Mrs. Paul's Fish Stix don't sprout fully-formed from the Wal-Mart freezer compartment by magic. That it is wrong to stand around and watch an animal suffer until it dies, and both senseless and hazardous to let it rot on the highway or draw wild animals in to residential areas to feed on it. In other words, to think about it all, at least a bit. As humans who often pride ourselves on being at the "top of the food chain", we owe at least that to the rest of the chain. I have a Real problem with people who differentiate between "cute" animals (deer and lamb, for example) and "ugly" animals (beef and chicken, for example, or birds and fish and shellfish that aren't mammals and don't have those big, liquid Bambi eyes)- professing (usually vociferously, and sometimes violently) that it's wrong to kill one and okay to kill the other. Survival of the cutest? To me that smacks of Nazism and I find it totally sick. Me? I'm a carnivore. I smoke, I drink, I wear fur, I eat meat, and I eat what I shoot.  
Visiting friends in Wyoming, I once commented, as we drove past a particularly picturesque herd of cattle, "How pretty!" "And good eating, too!" was the response. And so they are!