Thursday, April 11, 2013

Spring Has Sprung Across the Land and In Our Kitchens

After record chilly temperatures in March, April has ushered in record highs this week as spring fights is way past last winter’s lingering oppression.  Yesterday saw 83 degrees here on Long Island and a close friend of mine reported 87 degrees in Virginia today.  Everyone sought an excuse to welcome the change, from swapping out jeans for shorts to popping open the moon roofs to rushing jubilantly to the home centers to contemplate garden plans.  While I was spurned to pull out short sleeves and open the windows to let the spring breezes drift through my home, my thoughts naturally also turn to the light and colorful fare of warmer days ahead.  How are you celebrating the arrival of spring weather? 

Many households opted to take their meals out on the deck for the first time after being sequestered in their homes for months by old man winter.  Leaving the heavy, multiple course meals behind, it can be truly relaxing to bring only a one-dish meal in a bowl and a glass of your favorite libation outdoors and dining with the sun’s rays basking on your face and gentle springtime breezes brushing past your shoulders.  There is something about spring air that invigorates us all and reenergizes us after our long winter doldrums. 

Some folks fired up their grills for the season’s premier barbecue, even if evening temperatures dipped enough to prompt having dessert around the patio fire pit.  As I browse recipes from summers past and become reacquainted with the vast array of incredible salads to accompany all of Brian’s grilling projects, I begin to ponder which one I’ll kick off the barbecue season with.    

Speaking of dessert, others indulged in a preview of summer’s favorite: ice cream.  Whether stocking up on Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey or visiting a local ice cream parlor for a sundae with all of the trimmings, everyone looks forward to dipping their spoon into the creamy sweet treat.

With baseball season underway and our local beaches and farm stands soon to be bustling with summer activity, warm weather dining generally becomes less complicated.  The fare can be prepared as simply or as complex as you like, depending on whether you’re hosting a weekend barbecue for friends or choose instead to stay an extra hour or two on the beach.  Steaks, sausages, hot dogs, burgers, fish, seafood, chicken, duck, ribs and pork chops can all be grilled with simple marinades or a brush of barbecue sauce.  Even a pizza can be created on the grill.  Most vegetables can be grilled as well with little more than a coating of seasoned oil.  Best of all, anything at all can star in a salad bowl, from vegetables, greens, beans, pasta, olives, cheeses, eggs, meats, chicken, duck and shellfish.  Anything goes with a salad, so it’s so easy to conjure up your own creation.

The best quality about cooking in the summer is the freshness of the produce.  Whether you boast a green thumb and grow a cornucopia of bounty in your backyard garden plot or you let your local farmers do all of the work, local vegetables and fruits offer a freshness and color that cannot be matched by supermarket specimens.  My annual anticipation has commenced as I count down the weeks until my local farm stand reopens for business to fill up my shopping basket.

In the meantime, I did create a flavorful one-dish meal this week.  I created a panzanella salad, which is an Italian bread salad traditionally made by Italian peasants to utilize day old bread and ripened tomatoes.  I took it a step further and added some protein to transform this colorful dish into a main dish salad sensation.  All that was needed besides the serving bowl and our plates and forks was a bottle of wine and the glasses.

Main Dish Panzanella Salad

1 large loaf of Italian bread or ciabatta
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons premium quality balsamic vinegar
Black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
3 ripe vine tomatoes, coarsely chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 yellow bell pepper, coarsely chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 hothouse cucumber, halved lengthwise, then sliced crosswise
½ large red onion, chopped
¼ pound pitted kalamata olives
10 basil leaves, thinly sliced
1 pound mini balls of fresh mozzarella (boccaccini)
½ pound imported prosciutto de Parma

Cut the loaf of bread in half.  Standing each half on its cut end, slice off the thin outer crust on all sides  (you can set these aside to turn into breadcrumbs in the food processor for another use).  Cut the bread into 1-inch cubes.  Heat four tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the cubes of bread and sprinkle generously with salt.  Toss and toast the bread until all sides are golden brown and crispy.  Remove from heat and set aside.
Whisk together the nine tablespoons olive oil, the vinegar, garlic, Italian seasoning, ¾ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper.
In an extra large bowl, toss together the tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, onion, basil, olives, mozzarella and the dressing.  Toss in the bread and toss well to mix.  Transfer to a large serving bowl.  Roll up each slice of prosciutto so that each roll looks like a cigar, and arrange the rolls decoratively (such as the appearance of spokes on a wheel) on top of the salad.  Serves 3.

*Note: you can substitute any Italian cold cut of your choice, such as capicola, salami, mortadella or ham cappy.

Food for Thought
In just a few more weeks, local farm stands will offer the first spring harvest’s culinary gems.  Watch for fresh spinach, strawberries and asparagus. 

Enjoy spinach as the palette of a salad studded with bacon, hard-boiled eggs, bell peppers, kalamata olives and sliced white mushrooms.

Try whipping a container of mascarpone cheese with ¼ cup of heavy cream, ½ teaspoon of vanilla and a teaspoon of sugar and then serving dollops of this mixture over bowls of halved strawberries.  Read more about strawberries and also try a recipe for a salad that showcases a combination of both spinach and strawberries.

After lobbing off the woody end of the asparagus, lay the spears in a single layer across a baking sheet.  Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Roast the asparagus in the oven at 450-degrees for 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, whisk together 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons of lemon-infused white balsamic vinegar.  Transfer the cooked asparagus to a serving dish, drizzle the vinegar mixture over them, season with additional salt and pepper as needed and sprinkle with some finely chopped fresh parsley.

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