Summer's Onslaught

Saturday, July 26, 2008

This may be the week. More stuff is pouring into the kitchen than we can possibly put on the menu each night. Blueberries, blackberries, peaches, figs, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and myriad herbs. Things appear and disappear from the menu nightly. Two days of figs bellevue, then a week with none, but there a few figs left to make fig ice cream. One day the green bean vinaigrette has field peas as well. Blackberries or cherry tomatoes all over everything. Heirloom tomato plates, now as inescapable as pork bellies, show up almost every night until Betsey needs to visit family in California. Then maybe it morphs into sliced red tomatoes with a big dollop of mayonnaise. Beverly Dixon shows up with a weird new squash.

This has been a pretty good season, particularly when you consider last summer, but the present heat may put an abrupt end to the blackberries . Up until now they have been absolutely bounteous. There were so many at one point that we even made infused vodka, which is now available at our bar. I still know one spot where they had already plumped up before the heat, but really hot weather for some reason, can cause them to ripen unevenly. This makes them very hard to pick. I was ambushed once again by my friends who had earlier been cooing over honeysuckle. They came rushing up in alarm recently as I was clearly getting all the fruit, but they were just as quickly repelled by briers and mosquitoes. It was all so unfair. Speaking of unfair, I was dismayed to discover that the honeysuckle seems to be rallying for another bloom. We'll see if there's really going to be enough to bother with. Everybody has a fig tree and this year's crop appears to be mammoth. We're just at the beginning, but I'm hoping to be able to have all our favorites on the menu for a spell.

I'm using tomatoes everywhere. One favorite recipe is baked tomato soup. It's good because you can use all the ugly ones, all the ones that are getting too soft, all the excess and all the trimmings from the tomato plate. I save up all this stuff for a day or two, then bake them slowly and tightly covered with cloves of garlic, saffron, orange peel, and a big handful of fresh basil. When everything has cooked to pieces, I puree them in the food mill, chill and add salt and cream. It's like some fabulous tonic. We serve it with fresh popcorn. As I worked in my own little garden this morning I rustled against some of the tomato plants which then released their fragrance into the hot air. I love this smell. It reminds me of a million past summers.

posted by Bill Smith at 7:10 AM 1 comments

Tomato Sandwiches

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Years ago, I was a guest on WUNC's The State of Things. I don't remember the topic that day, but as it was in mid summer, I took a big bag of tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread as a present for the staff. It was an afterthought. I usually take something to interviews and events if I have time. Apparently, after I left a small riot ensued. Ever since, on some Monday in mid July, I show up at the studio with a bag of these sandwiches. I throw them in the front door and jump out of the way- just kidding folks. I also take a bag of them out to my publisher, Algonquin Books . I use them at work sometimes as little hors d'oeuvres for old friends and once, last summer I piled a bunch of them into the shape of a birthday cake for a friend's party. Jean Anderson reprised the recipe (if you can call it that) in her new book A Love Affair With Southern Cooking . Jean received a James Beard Award this year for this book.

About the mayonnaise. My great grandmother insisted on Hellmann's. She thought it more refined. Many Southerners take issue with this and insist instead that Duke's is the only acceptable choice. I've gone round and round on this with friends like John Shelton Reed. After a lifetime of Hellmann's, Duke's seems too sweet to me, but I refuse to get really worked up about this. People should suit themselves. We're talking about lunch , not a historical re-enactment. I always salt my sandwiches as well. Some people don't. As for the type of bread, people seem to be less opinionated. I used to use only Pepperidge Farms thin sliced white sandwich, but that loaf is a little narrow for big tomato rounds, so I've switched to assorted grocery store loaves of late. I was surprised, this week to discover that freshness does make a difference with this bread. I had always assumed that it was immortal due to additives, but I got to compare a loaf that was a few days old with one that was fresh. There is a difference, although it is hard to describe, because I'm not sure that the fresher one was any better, and when the sandwiches are properly soggy, the difference vanishes.

Early on, I had mentioned the guy who lived in the hut beside the junkyard. I met him when I was picking honeysuckle. We would chat from time to time and one of our conversations was about tomato sandwiches. It was May and we were both looking forward to them. We talked about having a tomato sandwich supper in July, but now he's gone. The little lean-to is still there, but no sign of him. I used to see him around town on his bicycle, even before we met, but no sign of him of late. I always notice grown ups who travel exclusively by bicycle. I hope he's ok.

posted by Bill Smith at 5:07 AM 4 comments

Charmed in Louisville

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The chandeliers at the Hotel 21c sing and ring bells. Holograms of eyes stare back at you from the mirror and when you are at the urinal you suddenly wonder "Am I supposed to be peeing on this?" In other words our hotel was PeeWee's Play House meets the Whitney. I was in Louisville, Kentucky for the summer field trip of The Southern Foodways Alliance. The members from there were our hosts and they showed us a real good time. The focus of the meeting was Bourbon, but we learned a lot about other things as well. There is a fair amount of small sustainable farming and there are restaurants that support it. There is impressive local cheese. There are good, hot new places to eat and there is an equally good collection of places that have been there for years that people love. I was introduced to Benedictine spread and Jezebel sauce. I was treated to the best, best ,best ever Old Fashioned made by Preston and Julian Van Winkle, pere et fils , of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery from their family recipe. I wish I hadn't been reminded about how good good Bourbon can be.

We had great tomatoes several times, once simply sliced at the Pendennis Club and another time pureed into a new twist on gazpacho at Lilly's. Lunch at the Seelbach Hotel included a sweet green pea soup made doubly delicious by the inclusion of rice (from Anson Mills) croquettes and diced green tomato pickles. There was a fabulous multi-coursed prix fix at Edward Lee's 610 Magnolia (whose kitchen may be smaller than mine, but then they're only open three nights a week). And let's not forget the strawberry rhubarb breakfast pies from Lynn's Paradise Cafe , please see photo left

Perhaps my favorite among favorites was a visit to Muth's Candies , a fifth generation candy maker that still does everything by hand. The place is tiny- only four or five workers, and they make dozens and dozens of different candies. Every single thing they make is delicious. Products range from a fantastic popcorn peanut brittle to the signature Modjeska, a marshmallow caramel dream named for a Polish actress from the Belle Epoque.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, pork ribs have returned to the summer menu, and Lord, the tomatoes...

posted by Bill Smith at 7:00 PM 1 comments

The Habits of Blackberries

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Agriculture is never quite the same from year to year. Between the drought and the late frost, last year was spare. This summer, even though we are always on the edge of another drought, has been good. In the last week or so we have begun getting tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash in sufficient quantities to be useful in a restaurant. I've switched from picking honeysuckle flowers to picking blackberries. I've actually been doing this since I was little. My great grandmother would make a pie if I brought her four cups of them. Then, just like now, I would pick along the railroad track. Blackberries like the edge of a clearing. This week they started ripening in earnest. I get the kitchen up and running, fill my berry pitcher up with ice and beer and walk over to where the railroad track meets the cement plant. Seven o'clock is the best time. The heat is starting to break and the sun is less direct, but there is at least an hour of good light left. On an evening last week I looked west down the tracks where the sun was just setting. It was huge and red and looked like a poster for Serengeti National Park. There were mosquitoes and it was still hot. I stopped a minute to take it all in. I think that that was the best beer I've had in years.

Blackberries tend to grow in clusters of six to eight. About a week before the whole bunch begins to ripen, one berry at the end of each bunch suddenly plumps up and is ready. It's as if they send out a scout or something to check out the territory. There are patches of berries all over the neighborhood and they are all in different stages of ripening. Those that can get sun from both sides sometime during the day are first. Then there is a place with fairly dark shade. They are much slower, but because their spot stays damper, the fruit is much larger. There is one spot where the vines poke up through what appears to be an old driveway. They get great sun but the hot concrete beneath them prevents them from getting very large and juicy. They also come in last.

A few observations. Blackberries take on a certain luster when they are just right. It's hard to describe, but try to imagine something black being translucent. Right after they pass this point, the luster dulls but they will still be good for a day or so. They will come away in your hand without much effort. After a lot of rain, they can absorb an excess of moisture watering down their flavor. If a whole cluster is ripe, put down your pitcher or bowl and hold your open palm underneath it before you start to pick, In clusters, the berries on the bottom ripen first and the motion of picking can cause them to fall of their stems and be lost. When you think you have picked everything in one spot, move a few steps to the left or right, but keep your eyes on the same place. Invariably many more ripe berries will reveal themselves. Always wear long pants and long sleeves, or you will be scratched to ribbons by the thorns. Thornless varieties have been developed for cultivation but it seems to me that the fewer the thorns, the more sour the berries. June bugs love blackberries. And they are dark and shiny, too. Sometimes when you reach for a berry, you get a June bug instead. It is like one of those joke shop electric handshake trick rings.

Presently, blackberries have replaced strawberries in Donna Florio's buttermilk sherbet recipe. It is really fantastic. I have several other favorite blackberry recipes, but this week I'm off to Louisville for a Southern Foodways Alliance conference on whiskey, of all things. When I get back, look for some doubling up of blackberry desserts-perhaps rum babas or Madeira sabayon sharing the menu with the sherbet.

posted by Bill Smith at 8:39 PM 0 comments

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