Friday, July 30, 2010

Cucumber Salad

Cool as a cucumber…and on the hottest of summer days, a refreshing and cool treat is hard to pass up. Thinly sliced, set on ice, and seasoned with a dash of basil, salt, and pepper, this easy breezy salad is sure to be a hit at your table…it is at this Farmer’s table!

With summer in full swing, produce is bountiful and delicious, and sometimes, the best way to enjoy the bounty is through a simple yet very elegant salad. Shallots or Vidalias make for lovely complements to this dish and a bath of white balsamic vinegar is the perfect dressing. I sweeten the vinegar with “just a spoonful of sugar” and this step actually adds a depth of flavor and volume as well, contrasting the bitter, salty, and tangy of the onions, cucumbers, and vinegar. If you love onions, go with Vidalias…if you like onions, stick with shallots for a milder flavor – it’s a winner either way. A few leaves of basil, shredded or julienned add that marvelous dose of flavor that only fresh garden herbs can…the small leaves of African Blue basil are tres magnifique yet any good basil will do!

This strikingly beautiful dish has a special place in my heart, for it is one of the first things I ever learned how to prepare. The soft green and cool white of the cucumbers, their opalescence of sorts, the ice chips, the crisp onions and sharp vinegar made for a sensual dish - engaging sight, smell, taste, and touch. Here’s a reflection of memories on cooking as a child with Mary…

“Since a vegetable garden can feed an army, our neighbor told us we could pick all we wanted. Besides my own petit jardin, the other residents of our bucolical world would have gardens for gathering.

Mary would gather us under arms or skirts, depending on how old we were, and traipse across the road, field, or yard to pick vegetables. We would pick squash, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini. Even though we’d start early (by children’s standards), eight-thirty or nine, the heat and humidity would commence their cadence, leaving us sweaty and sticky and me a little grossed out by the rotted squash blossoms that had adhered to our already clammy fingers. Have you ever smelled a rotten squash or zucchini? You’d remember it too.

Daddy came home for lunch most days, so we would “help” Mrs. Mary prepare the midday meal. I am sure that we had to be nuisances to her in the kitchen, but she was always keen to give us a special task to occupy our minds and hands—tasks that engaged my curiosity in the kitchen, allowing me to gain a culinary education from the likes of Mrs. Mary, Mama, and Mimi.

The cucumbers would be sliced quarter thin and soaked in vinegar. Sweet Vidalia’s, a dash of sugar and some ice chips complete this cocktail of tangy, sweet, and sour delight. Mary would carve the corn from the cob and fry it: the starchy kernels would yield their juicy cream. Butter, salt, and pepper complete the dish as only that hold trinity can. Browning the onion first, Mary would then sauté the squash with the former triumvirate. A good meat and biscuits completed the meal. Not that any of this is romantic or extraordinary, but simple and elegant meals that are nostalgic epicenters of my life.”

Cucumber Salad

***Cooks Note…just double if your crew becomes a crowd…this will feed several folks.

3-4 small cucumbers, sliced “quarter thin”

1 small Vidalia or a couple small shallots

¾ cup of white balsamic vinegar

Teaspoon of sugar

Salt and Pepper to taste…freshly ground preferably

Handful of ice chips

  • Slice the cucumbers into thin discs.
  • Slice onion or shallot into thin pieces or strips
  • Dissolve sugar into vinegar over medium heat or in the microwave.
  • Pour mixture of cucumbers…salt and pepper to taste.
  • Add a few ice chips to chill the salad…serve cold and ENJOY!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Peaches and Blackberries…To Everything there is a Season

A major aspect of the garden living lifestyle is the understanding of each season’s produce. In a culture where summertime fruits are available in winter, I feel that a true garden lifestyle is marked by the gardener’s knowledge of “in season” produce for the freshest garden experience possible. Having an understanding and knowledge of your garden and the land’s timely bounty is a must for garden living, for the rewards of this understanding are delicious. For this Farmer, knowing when peaches, blackberries, and other seasonal delights are at their finest is a memorable stopping point on the garden living journey.

As a Georgia boy, I have grown up under the shade of pecan groves and amidst the rows of peach fields. In fact, the Peach County line is only a stone’s throw from my home. Growing up on a farm lent the opportunity for an education with nature as professor, learning in relation to the seasonal and native crops perennially noting the time of year.

Each season is marked by its produce in my mind, a marking that has imprinted itself into a garden living mindset and thus lifestyle. I know we’ll have blackberries in late spring and summer, followed by peaches, watermelons and wild plums, muscadines and scuppernongs in late summer and into fall and finally pecans in the year’s latter months. From the brambles and briars yielding scores of deep purple blackberries to the fields laden with peaches, I have come to rely and respect nature’s bounty for its simplicity, its flavor, and beauty.

Meals and tables will be adorned with dishes themed with the seasonal offerings from our fields and gardens. Cobblers, sauces, jams and jellies, conserves, crumbles and chutneys will grace our tables and tongues with seasonal splendor. Peaches and blackberries, ever so versatile, will comply with any of the above delicacies and are my favorite summer delights.

Bowls of peaches or blackberries are strikingly elegant and simply beautiful. Tiny boughs of blackberry tucked into arrangements or alone in a jelly jar make for delightful bouquets. Yet, one of the most intriguing and attractive elements these fruits offer is their color combination and thus visual complement.

Peachy pink fuzz, delicately orange, bodes for a contrast with the richness of aubergine, a depth of purple beyond grape or amethyst. Thrown together in a cobbler or together as salad, the two make for a salient display of nature’s beauty. A garden lifestyle is enhanced with combination of fruits from the garden or local fields as sustenance and décor, thus making them a mainstay for your table and home.

Though an entire peach orchard may not suit your garden, seek out your local grower and brush up on the different varieties of peaches. White Peaches are succulent and sweet. Their “season” marks one of my favorite weeks of year. Lighter colored skin and “meat,” these champagne tinted peaches are more so floral tasting than “peachy” and are totally interchangeable with their yellowy flesh cousins in recipes. These peaches are just stunning and simply elegant in a dish and a highlight during peach season.

As for blackberries, a garden can boast a blackberry patch with ease. Many newer varieties are more fastigiated or columnar in growth, not crawling all over the garden. Cultivars from ‘Black Butte’ to ‘Black Satin’ have become readily available to gardeners and growers alike. Yet, discovering a favorite patch at the edge of a wood or along a fencerow may be my favorite method for blackberry cultivation. Picking blackberries with my sisters in the early summer is a welcomed memory, especially knowing that the fruits from our forages would be Mimi’s Blackberry Jam or Blackberry sauce for fried pies and fritters.

Garden living, whether the plot is yours or that of a friend, is a life enriched by nature’s bounty. Let alone a source of sustenance, fruits from the garden provide beautiful reminders - in silver bowls, earthen dishes, and baskets alike – of the season on our tabletops. Arrangements brimming with blackberry stems or branches of peach blossoms can be quite elegant and a welcome invitation for garden living. Take note of your surroundings and enrich your home, table, and garden with the lovely specimens nature provides – especially when the specimens can be turned in to jelly and cobblers!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pound Cake

Just the mention of my favorite cake and I’m ready for a piece. Not a huge fan of icing or frosting, my traditional birthday cake is always a pound cake, plain and simple.

Sour cream, cream cheese, chocolate, fruit flavored and even rum pound cakes abound in the culinary world. As a fan of most all of these very simple, very elegant, and VERY delicious cakes, the plain ol’ pound cake or whipping cream pound cake just might be my favorite… sour cream and cream cheese respectively in the top three. Mama made this one as is her custom for my birthday…or any other time I pester her enough so she’ll cave in a make me one!

The basis is the same. A simple cream (sour, whipping, or cream cheese) that combines with flour, butter, and sugar to make the perfect consistency of cake – augmented by a note of pure vanilla. Even a scraping of vanilla bean adds the slightest of flavor and visual delight to the cake and whipped cream dollop. Though, for my first birthday, I managed to actually sit in a bakery cake piled and piped with sugary icing and eat my way out of the Sesame Street cake; yet, I developed a love for the goodness that is simply pound cake. Flavor, yes, a major factor, but also for versatility is why this cake is so dear to my heart.

As a June baby and Georgia boy, peaches are de rigueur for this time of year. And what better way to enjoy a fresh peach than with a dab of whipped cream, a sprig of Kentucky Colonel Mint and a slice of pound cake? The theme continues as plums, strawberries, and blueberries wax and wane throughout the season. Apples, applesauce, and pears are perfect with pound cake in the fall, as are pecans that can dress up the cake in late autumn and into winter. The neutrality of this cake is what truly endears the dessert (or breakfast or snack) to my heart. The elegance that is a simple flavor combined with seasonal offerings – that is a winner in my book.

Make and bake yourself and your family a pound cake and find out for yourself why this Southern staple is so – plus, there is nothing better than a warm-from-the-oven pound cake with a quick swab of butter…oh my my!

Mama’s Pound cake (Basic Whipping Cream Pound cake)

***Cook’s note…Mama sometimes follows a series of pound cake recipes from a wonderful cookbook that is a perennial favorite in Perry, Mrs. Nelle Tuggle Shelton’s cookbook, Treasures from Home. Mama has made pound cakes so often through the years that her recipe can vary, and each pound cake is often a new, delicious creation! Sour cream or cream cheese makes a super pound cake, but one will need to follow those type cake recipes…it’s not a simple substitution for whipping cream. Oh the chemistry of baking!

    • 6 large eggs, room temperature
    • 1 stick of butter, room temperature
    • 2 ½ cups of sugar
    • 1 tsp of vanilla
    • ½ cup of Crisco
    • 3 cups of plain flour
    • ½ pint of whipping cream

Cream the shortenings (butter and Crisco) with the sugar until they are fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating each egg well into the batter.

Sift the flour and begin alternately adding it with the cream into the batter…start with flour and end with flour.

Add the vanilla.

Pour the batter into a buttered and floured tube or bunt pan and bake at 300 for one hour and fifteen minutes in a COLD oven…no pre-heating. Cook for another fifteen minutes at 325 to brown the top or until a wooden skewer inserted comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool for a few minutes…turn upside down onto a plate…use another plate to turn it back up…the actual top of a pound cake can be a debate…I like the top that was the top in the oven. Enjoy!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Herban Cookin’…and Grillin

One of this Farmer’s favorite meals is a basic meat, veggie, and salad trio dolled up and flavored for the season. With summer in full swing, fresh herbs are abounding in the garden and flavoring my favorite basic meal with seasonal flair.

Basil...what a delicious flavor, smell, and plant in general. There are as many types of basil as you could ever imagine. ‘African Blue’ is one of my favorites for its small leaves, intense flavor, beautiful flower, and fabulous fragrance. With basil bolting, blooming, and bursting in the garden now, I’m using it now as my herb de jour.

Pairing well with lemon, garlic, and chives, I concocted a vinaigrette of the aforementioned herbs and fruit for a salad. This dressing fares well as a fresh condiment for the grilled chicken. I like to weave my flavors throughout my meal thus carrying a theme from course to course. With herbed vinaigrette on tap, an herb infused marinade for the chicken was in store.

With a family split down the middle of white and dark meat eaters, I just make it easy with the boneless thighs and breast tenderloins. I marinate them in my herb concoction that is very much akin to the vinaigrette. Basically taking the vinaigrette and adding soy, sesame oil, more basil, thyme, and chives, I soak the chicken as long as I can and grill it for that perfect complement of fresh tastes and char grilled flavor. What is it about a man and his grill? The food just tastes better and it gives us boys a chance to play with fire – ha!

On to the potatoes! The baby Yukon Gold potatoes are so tender and delicious. Quartering them and tossing them with red onion and Vidalias makes for the perfect side. Garlic, olive oil, sea salt and pepper make for the perfect flavors, only perfected by a dose of garden goodness – rosemary! Sprigs and tiny woody stems of rosemary fill the house with the divine aroma of said herb and onions, roasting and caramelizing into a delicacy of delicacies. Trust me, you probably will not have any leftover, but IF you do, save them for the base of a soup or the filling for an omelet. Rarely do I have any of these rosemary roasted potatoes left over. Whatever is in season can be roasted with the potatoes…asparagus and carrots in early spring, tomatoes and zucchini in summer, and squashes and sweet potatoes in autumn and winter. Fresh from the farm Vidalia onions and some red onions for color were apropos for this garden meal.

This is hands down one of my favorite meals for its simplicity, elegance, and garden infusion. I hope garden living is a part of your repertoire. Allow this summer to supply your garden and kitchen with herbs a plenty! From this Farmer’s garden, kitchen, and table…enjoy!

Herb Vinaigrette

***I don’t really measure for this, so these measurements are an approximate.

  • ½ cup of white balsamic vinegar
  • ½ cup of olive oil
  • Tablespoon of chopped or minced garlic
  • Tablespoon of Dijon mustard…this emulsifies the solution.
  • 2 tablespoons of chopped basil
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped chives
  • Juice of three lemons…Meyer preferably
  • Salt and pepper to taste
How easy is that? Rosemary and thyme work well as does parsley…this is your basic vinaigrette and you can sway it toward the season with the herbs you choose.

Chicken Marinade

***I use the same ingredients but add…

  • Half a cup of sesame oil…this is strong and tenderizing…great flavor depth
  • Sesame seeds…dust the tops of the meat with these.
  • Quarter cup of soy sauce
  • A dash or two of Worcestershire
  • The lemon rinds which I grill with the meat for essence and to release their oil
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