Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Farewell to Summer That Hits the Spot

Although the first official day of fall does not come around until September 22, the rapid approach of Labor Day signals that summer is coming to a close. The children return to school, the days grow shorter, the beaches start to vacate. Although we can enjoy barbecues as late as early November, the holiday weekend is a chance for one final gathering outdoors with family and friends to celebrate the end of summer. If you reflect on your favorite activities from the summer and choose a perfect spot for your festivities, you can create a perfectly elegant setting, and a short but well-thought out menu that will not have you laboring on Labor Day hardly at all.

First, say to yourself "Keep it simple, but nice." When we used to host any kind of party at home, I was always so stressed out as I scrambled to prepare several different appetizers, at least two salads plus at least two more side dishes, and two or three different desserts. I spent more time in a cooking frenzy and very little time actually having fun with my guests. We also had a tendency to try and invite all of our friends at once, which made the event even more hectic and more challenging for socializing with each and every one while trying to juggle platters and drinks. I lived and learned, and now I impart this life's lesson unto you. You can make more of a lasting impact if you stick to a much shorter menu, but make the few things really impressive. The choices may not please everybody you know, which brings us to the next simplicity. Keep the gathering small. In addition to yourself and your significant other, two to three couples, or three to five close friends, on the guest list is enough to share an enjoyable time without being overwhelmed. Finally, have a theme. In this case, in expressing a farewell to breezy summer days, think back and recall what you enjoyed doing the most over the past two to three months. Here are a few ideas to ponder.

I personally love the beach. Maybe you were among those who blissfully spent hours on the sand and in the surf till the sun went down. A beach party might be just the thing for you. Find a beach that permits campfires or grilling, then host a seafood bake. Have guests contribute different seafoods (clams, lobsters, mussels, etc.). You provide the other ingredients that go into the pot of this traditional New England fare: small potatoes and fresh corn on the cob are the basic classics. You can find recipes for all different variations of clam bakes on Add to that the ingredients to mix up some sea breezes to sip while the food is cooking. Dessert can be a cheesecake from a really good bakery or, if you have a campfire going, you can all have some fun making s'mores over the flames. That's it. Three menu items, a fun way for you and your guests to all participate in dinner, all against the gorgeous backdrop of a sunset over the crashing waves.

Long Island is the place to live if you own a boat. If you spent your happiest weekends - and a few stolen "sick" days here and there - on the deck of your boat cruising to Fire Island and back, a boat picnic is a fitting tribute to summer's end. Again, a simple and short menu, think water. How about a Mediterranean repast? A hummus, eggplant dip or spinach dip are all easy to make. Whichever you choose, accompany it with some pita chips (also a snap to make). A nice bottle of Italian or French (or Long Island!) wine will be a nice accompaniment to this starter and can take you and your guests through dinner. Follow up with a Mediterranean seafood pasta salad, such as pasta with shrimp, cucumbers, red onion, plum tomatoes, crumbled feta, parsley and a lemon dressing. If one of your guests has impeccable taste, assign him or her the task of visiting their favorite bakery to pick up some good bread to have with the salad and a nice fruit tart for dessert.

For you hikers out there who like to wile away the day taking scenic walks through various parks, pick the most scenic site of your favorite park and have a simple picnic. Put together some traditional Lobster roll sandwiches, buy some high quality potato chips to accompany them. Bake up some cookies which travel well. Marinated vegetable salad is perfect for a picnic, it doesn't contain mayonnaise and can be served at any temperature. It's easy to make too: just cut up various summer vegetables, place them in a roasting pan, toss with salt, pepper and olive oil, and roast them for 20-30 minutes at 450-degrees. Once they have cooled to room temperature, toss them with a balsamic vinaigrette. This can be made a day in advance. Assign one guest to make a pit stop at a farm stand for some big, juicy fresh local peaches; have another guest visit a well stocked beverage store for some good craft beer to wash it all down.

I know some of my friends enjoy contemplating life as they toil in the soil of their beautifully planned gardens every summer. If you're one of these creative individuals with a gorgeous floral backdrop to be proud of, here's your chance to show it off one last time: the garden party. If you also grew a vegetable garden, use some of those vegetables in your menu. The above-mentioned roasted vegetable salad would be a good way to showcase your eggplants, zucchinis, tomatoes and peppers. A nice idea is to arrange a huge platter with a salad Nicoise, a traditional French salad platter featuring tuna (prepare a grilled tuna steak for each guest, or you can use salmon if you don't like tuna), small potatoes, string beans, tomatoes, black olives and hard boiled eggs. Be creative, that's just the basic salad, don't be afraid to play with it by adding your own personal touches when it comes to additional ingredients. The only other thing you'll need is dessert. Try extending your creativity toward some elegant ice cream sundae combination.

For traditionalists who vow to make summer's final curtain call a big backyard barbecue bash with a big family and lots of kids, that's great too. If you live on Long Island, definitely consider starting with a traditional summer seafood appetizer, such as baked stuffed clams or clams casino, both easy to make. Burgers would be a good choice for the menu, have two ideas in mind: plain ones for the kids with fussy tastes, and create something really elaborate for the adults. Let your imagination take you where you want to go. I love blue cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato on a burger. Swiss, bacon, grilled red onions and mushrooms are another great combination. Accompany that with a salad which works well with the burgers, a unique potato salad with interesting ingredients in it, or a southwestern salad with black beans, corn, peppers and avacado with a chili-lime vinaigrette. For dessert, set up an ice cream sundae bar with two or three flavors of good quality ice cream, two or three homemade sauces, and a variety of toppings. That's a sweet summer's ending that the kid in all of us can have a lot of fun with. If you wish to make it even more fun, offer a prize to the adult who unveils the most original and best sundae (such as a bottle of wine) and also a prize to the kid who shows the most creativity (such as a gift card to Toys R Us).

However you choose to bid farewell to summer this holiday weekend, be sure to have fun doing it. The above ideas are just a spark to get your creative thoughts flowing with the confidence that it doesn't have to be so overwhelming that you feel overworked, overextended, and going so crazy that you can't enjoy any social time with your guests. These are your friends, or your family. It's all about the bonds you share with them. They are the stars of the show, the menu items are the costars. If you choose a location which holds the meaning of summer for you, that perfect spot will be the perfect stage. Since you'll need only a handful of place settings, abandon the paper plates and plastic cups. If your party is at the beach, on a boat or in the woods, naturally you don't want to risk your Royal Doulton either, but set an elegant table nonetheless. If you can splurge, pick up some placemats and cloth napkins in a color that works with your theme, and use real dishes, glasses and flatware. Add some embellishments to the table by putting some summer flowers to good use and arranging some lit candles for mood lighting. By planning your meal and keeping it small, you'll be able to cook fewer things and place the effort into making much more impressive dishes because you'll only have to concentrate on two or three menu items rather than a dozen, and this will also allow you a few splurges on the ingredients. By keeping the guest list more intimate, you'll be able to share the stories of the summer past and catch up with one another. Have a camera within arms reach, and you'll be able to capture memories of that enjoyable Labor Day party of 2009 to look back upon with a smile for years to come.

Happy Labor Day, enjoy!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Pantry Police

In my last blog I wrote about procuring your produce from the farm stands to enjoy maximum freshness and peak flavor from the season's fruits and vegetables. Several readers found my words to be encouragement for them in their quests to eat healthier. We hear so much in the media with regard to eating more organic foods. When it comes to produce, we really do not need pesticides in our diet, and so produce which is grown organically should not contain these things. Produce in any case, organically-labeled or not, is still much better for you when it is purchased and consumed fresh rather than when using canned versions. Simply put, it is a better quality food. With regard to meats, naturally the sound of "grass fed" beef sounds far more appealing than beef which was fed questionable diets, growth hormones and antibiotics. Thanks to increasing awareness, we know to buy free range chickens and Nieman Ranch beef. Once again, a better quality food. Fruits, vegetables and meats only account for three of the food groups which we take in daily, however. What about the rest? In fact, looking deeper, what about the manner in which all of our foods are prepared at home?

Does healthier eating and higher quality cooking stop with the produce and meats? What about your pantry? When you bake a cake or cook up an Italian pasta dinner, are you using the best ingredients? Even when you indulge in a snack, have you read the ingredient label? Perhaps you have tried and given up when half of the listed ingredients were vaguely reminicent of some formula from your high school chemistry course, a distant forgotten memory which you would prefer not to invoke.

The first thing to always consider when stocking up your pantry is quality. One way to clue yourself in to quality choices is to visit various gourmet and specialty food shops. Generally, in order for a big corporation to achieve high-volume production and yield hefty profits, short cuts have to be taken when manufacturing the product, and thus quality is compromised. Popularity of a product or brand name increases that likelihood. Our mega supermarkets stock these products in high volume because they too are only seeking a profit and thus must cater to the masses. While the trend is improving and many people are in fact turning their interests toward better and more varied foods in their diets, the majority in this country still just doesn't get it. They were raised on the flavors of salt, sugar and artificial flavors. They have no interest in trying new foods or darkening the doorway of a specialty food shop. They stick to the supermarkets which fill their carts and their pantries with all of the big corporate names and their bodies with artificial colors, artificial flavors, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenized fats, monosodium glutamate, polysorbate, and sodium, sodium, sodium! The smaller shops, which cater to cooks and foodies, stock the good stuff. Let's take vanilla extract as an example. Why would anyone use something labeled "Imitation Vanilla Extract"? We have all seen it, we all know the bottle and the brand and even the label colors because until the food revolution, it graced the baking shelves in all of our pantries. Why imitation, why not the real thing? Thankfully, the real thing is now a very real option. I have yet to find it in the supermarket, I have to buy it in a gourmet shop. Vanilla extract should be labeled Madagascar Burbon Pure Vanilla Extract, and the brand of choice is Niesen Massey. For my Long Island friends, you can find it in Le Gourmet Chef in the Tangier Outlets and in the Williams-Sonoma stores. Another example would be balsamic vinegar. The best brands are generally not stocked in the big chain supermarkets. There are several high quality brands whose flavors are exquisite, including Fini, Manicardi and, my personal favorite, Delavignes which I can only purchase on-line. For olive oil, one taste test featured in Bon Appetit magazine several years ago resulted in Colavita Extra Virgin (first cold pressed, words you should look for on the label) being the better one available in just about all supermarkets. I agree, this is what I use for cooking and often even in salad dressings. For a superior experience however, some gourmet shops feature tasting bars where you can sample some of the best olive oils from Italy, Spain, France, Greece, etc. These I would recommend that you keep stashed, for use solely when dressing a salad or dipping bread, as the full flavor experience will be lost in the high temperatures of cooking. To sum up this point, the best quality ingredients tend to be those which are not big name factory brands.

Secondly when filling up your pantry shelves, read the ingredients. The general rule of thumb is this: less is more; the fewer ingredients that are used, the less processing was done to the food and therefore the better the quality. Even when you want to open up a bag of potato chips, buy the best. The biggest names contain the lengthiest ingredient listing of chemically created additives. Terra brand contains potatoes, oil and sea salt. It tastes more pure, more like a lightly salted potato, and even delivers that satisfying crunch that you won't get from the tissue paper-thin, salt-laden broken chips in the popular brand. Buying stock for those quick soups and stews? Kitchen Basics has an ingredient label listing all of the things that you would put into a stock if you were making it yourself, and not a single thing that you would not add. Try to avoid buying "flavored" items. Buy the plain couscous and add your own seasonings. It really doesn't take up that much more of your time and the flavor will be more true to what you want. Usually flavored stocks or rices only amp up the salt, and the so-called roasted garlic flavor does not taste like any garlic that has ever exited from my oven. Sometimes you can actually sense a chemical-like taste in these flavored renditions ... yuck! How lazy can anyone be not to want to add their own herbs or spices into some plain breadcrumbs? Keep a well stocked spice rack filled with good quality spices (I like Spice Islands, McCormick Gourmet line and Spice Hunter) and you can flavor anything you want with as much or as little seasoning as you crave. Buy fresh herbs, as the ones found in the spice section lose their flavors quickly, and who knows how long that jar of parsley flakes has been sitting on the supermarket shelf? Better yet, if you have a sunny window in your kitchen, grow your own herbs which you use the most often, you cannot buy fresher than that and herbs are foolproof to grow.

Stay away from artificial and processed foods wherever possible. I cannot fathom why anyone would insist on buying the day-glow orange plastic-wrapped, plastic-tasting and rubbery-textured stuff referred to by one big corporate giant as American "cheese". You know, that stuff will keep in the fridge for six months? Ever wonder about that? By definition, American cheese, even the better deli brands, is not cheese; it's processed scraps of cheese by-products, the refuse, like dyes, emulsifiers and stabilizers. Next time you make a grilled cheese, try making it with a good Swiss cheese such as a Gruyere, Ementhaler or Comte from a cheese shop. Alternatively, using a good cheddar with some bacon and tomato will be a revelation when you bite into that sandwich. Another one I get a kick out of is the so-called grated "Parmesan Cheese" in the green can, found on the dry goods shelf of the supermarket. Salted sawdust, I say! No good Italian cook would be caught dead with that in their kitchen. No, it has to be Locatelli or nothing else, found in the cheese section (imagine that!).

There are exceptions to every rule in life. There are some known name brands which have earned reputations of quality. One is Ghirardelli. If I am given the choice for my afternoon chocolate indulgence of either a few Ghirardelli squares or a bag of Hershey's miniature milk chocolate bars, I'll pick the Ghirardelli every time. Having had chocolates from some of the finest chocolatiers in Paris, I can honestly say that Hershey's tastes like ... well, let's just say that it doesn't make the grade when it comes to tasting the way good chocolate should. Therefore, Ghirardelli cocoa powder and baking chocolates and chips are what I bake with, as well as Lindt, another name in chocolate which actually does deliver quality. A few other big name items which I must confess to buying would be Hellmann's mayonnaise, Celestial Seasonings herbal teas, Bumble Bee tuna (the gold can albacore) and Jif peanut butter.

The last piece of advise to eating better: make your own dinner. Once you have stocked up your pantry with quality ingredients, you can feel good about preparing dishes yourself using those carefully selected items. Next time you or your child has a craving for a macaroni and cheese dinner, make it yourself. Leave the suspiciously orange product in the blue box on the supermarket shelf and instead buy some whole milk, some pasta, butter - real butter, please, not the so called healthy-substitute; they may boast being lower in cholesterol, but they are unhealthy in other ways, the proof's in the label - and a block or two of good cheeses from the cheese shop. It's such an easy thing to make and you'll know exactly what you are eating, no PhD in chemistry necessary. Even the simplest of dishes can be so much better tasting when you use the best ingredients. Making a sandwich? Pick up a loaf of freshly baked bread from the bakery, slice it thick and lightly toast the slices in the oven if desired. That will make a winning sandwich every time, so much more satisfying and better for you than that squishy stuff you buy in the supermarket that you can easily squeeze into a ball and throw around for your cat or dog to fetch. Need lettuce for that sandwich? Try using Bibb lettuce instead of iceberg which has very little flavor. Is the sandwich a BLT? Buy thick-cut bacon and vine tomatoes, or better yet, local tomatoes from your neighborhood farm stand. The simplest little improvements like these enhance the quality and dining experience of your finished dish. You will feel so much better in the knowledge that you made good choices when making your food purchases and then created the dish yourself.

Eating better doesn't have to be extreme, nor does it necessarily have to mean eating "organic" all of the time. Just follow the government food pyramid guide when planning your menus, and use common sense when choosing your staple ingredients or snacks. Ask yourself two questions. Are the ingredients listed on the label things I would use myself? Can I find a better version of this at the local (bakery, cheese, gourmet, Italian) shop? It is perfectly okay to allow yourself indulgences, such as a snack of potato chips or a few chocolate truffles; just be selective in which brand you buy. For those who live here on Long Island, some great shops to peruse through and stock up include Fairway Market (Plainview, also in Manhattan), Village Cheese Shop (Mattituck and Southampton), Aiello Brothers Pork Store (Centereach) and Uncle Giuseppe's (Nesconset). For those who are interested in organic pursuits, there is Wild By Nature in East Setauket. Happy shopping!

This concludes your introductory education in quality control at the pantry police academy. Now go out there and eradicate those quality-compromised foods from your kitchen at once ... and the only mace you'll ever need in in this quest is the one found on the spice rack.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Get Fresh with the Farm Stand!

A perfectly timed topic for my first blog: your local farm stand. August starts the peak of summer harvests and so now is the time to support not only your health and your appetite, but your local growers as well. The government food pyramid recommends consuming three-to five servings of vegetables and two to four servings of fruits daily. That's a lot of produce. What better way to take in all of those vitamins than to seek out inspiration at your local farm stand?

Here on Long Island, farm stands are plentiful all over eastern Suffolk County. Some areas in the country have farmers' markets instead, where local farmers come together to sell their freshly picked produce. Some of these local venues also have displays of honeys, jams and preserves made by local growers. Driving along the north fork of Long Island, nestled among the wineries, are farm stands which beckon us with their colorful cornucopias of mouthwatering fruits and vegetables. The abundance of color showcased through the summer and fall seasons make for beautiful scenery and then, ultimately, a treat for the senses as the produce makes its way to your table that evening. Hierloom tomatoes in an array of sunny colors, golden summer squash, bright green cucumbers, ruby red strawberries, sapphire blueberries, striped watermelons and gorgeous purple eggplants enhance any summer barbecue menu alongside the local corn, perhaps the biggest draw for the farm stands every year. In the fall, the displays turn to the flame orange hue of pumpkins, plus various apples and pears, and squashes of every shape, size and color to embellish your autumn table.

Fresh produce is best, and you cannot buy fresher than at your local farm stand. The produce was just picked and brought directly to the stand, unlike the produce you see in the supermarkets which have traveled sometimes far distances to get there. Fruits and vegetables are also at their peak - that is, at their best for flavor and texture - at different times. For example, you can purchase tomatoes all year in the supermarket, but in the winter months they are quite lacking in flavor and their color is less than appealing. Try a tomato at the peak of the summer tomato season, from a local stand or from your own backyard garden, and you will see and taste the difference. Eat with the seasons, and enjoy the best of the fruits and vegetables that the season has to offer. For those of you who may live in areas where your only shopping option is the supermarket, practice the same strategy. Take advantage of asparagus, peas, strawberries and spinach in the spring, enjoy tomatoes, summer squashes, cucumbers, berries and melons in the summer, and shift your repertoire of cooking to highlight butternut squash, apples, pumpkin and pears in the fall. Whether from a farm stand or the supermarket, try to make your purchases every two to three days as opposed to once a week. A zucchini which you brought home yesterday will certainly be fresher than one which was purchased six days ago. When you come home from shopping, refrain from tucking your produce away in the refrigerator. Instead, display it in a decorative basket right on your kitchen counter, where it won't be forgotten and will serve to inspire you when it's time to cook.

If you are one of those individuals who is daunted by a the appearance of a whole, fresh vegetable, unclear of how to approach it for preparation, relax ... you're bigger than the vegetable and you're the one armed with a knife! My belief when it comes to vegetables is that simpler is better. My favorite way to cook many vegetables is so easy and really brings out the best flavors of the vegetables themselves. You will need only three things from your pantry: good quality extra virgin olive oil, salt and freshly cracked black pepper. If the vegetable is one which needs peeling, such as butternut squash, do so with a vegetable peeler. Then cut the vegetable into one to two inch chunks and place them into a roasting pan. Drizzle generously with the olive oil, sprinkle with the salt and pepper, then give them a toss to coat all of the vegetable with the seasoning. Roast in a 450-degree oven for about 30 minutes (a little longer for very hard vegetables like butternut squash, beets, sweet potatoes or carrots, a little less for softer ones like zucchini, eggplant or yellow squash). That's it, it doesn't get any easier than that. If you want to add another facet of flavor, you can add a few cloves of sliced garlic to the vegetables before tossing them with the oil-salt-pepper mixture. You can also roast combinations of two or more vegetables mixed together, such as eggplant and red bell peppers or zucchini, yellow squash, red onion and red peppers. Grilling vegetables is another option. You can either thread the chunks of vegetable onto skewers, or cut the vegetable into slices instead of chunks to lay directly onto the grill. As the vegetables cook on the grill, brush them frequently with a mixture of olive oil, salt and pepper, plus a little lemon juice or balsamic vinegar (this acidic addition helps to cut into the oil and prevent flame-ups from the grill, nobody likes burnt vegetables!). Another way to easily eat your vegetables is encouraged by the heat of summer. Summer is salad season, and when it comes to salads, anything goes. Cole slaws, tossed garden salads, cooked-then-chilled roasted vegetable salads and even pasta salads with added colorful peppers and red onions are all refreshing ways to get your nutrients when the mercury rises.

So many people find fruits boring, particularly in this country where people are raised on sugar highs from processed sweets on a daily basis. In many European and Asian countries it is perfectly acceptable to place a bowl of fruit on the table for dessert. I enjoy a luscious home-baked cherry clafoutis, pumpkin-nut bread or apple pie as much as anyone and I do make these things occasionally. In between these treats however, I say nothing beats the tasty, juiciness of a big, fresh, ripe farm stand peach in the summer. Try it sometime. Another option is to cut up different fruit combinations and enjoy them as a fruit salad. Honeydew and blueberries work well together, as do pineapple, strawberries and blueberries, and of course combining four different varieties of berries is always a palate-pleaser.

With such an abundance of fresh produce available to us, there really is no excuse to ever present a dish of warmed-up frozen vegetables to the dinner table. The only time I ever use frozen vegetables is when I need them for an ingredient in a pasta, soup or stew recipe, and therefore the only frozen vegetables in my freezer are peas, corn and pearl onions. I have even abandoned keeping frozen spinach on hand, because to cook up a package of fresh spinach is so simple and quick and tastes much better. Canned vegetables should be left on the supermarket shelves altogether, no exceptions; most of the nutrients have dissipated from them. Whenever possible, most vegetables and all fruits should be enjoyed fresh. So go ahead, go get fresh with your local farm stand and help support your local growers. Getting in your daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables has never been so easy and so appetizing.