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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!

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