Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Fig Tree is Working!

Late last October, I raced around getting ready for a 3 week trip to France. I got the house vacation-ready, paid bills online, halted the mail, packed, got some Euros and sent my itinerary to my family. The day I was leaving, I gave the yard a last look and I gasped. I forgot to plant the fig tree!

I'd bought a 4' tall Brown Turkey Fig in Pineville and it reminded me of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. I was told to plant it before November, so on October 31st, an hour before I left for the airport, I dug a hole in the hard red clay, and tried not to get myself dirty.

When I got back late November, the leaves had fallen off, and all that was left was a scraggly brown stick for a trunk. I watered it, apologized,  and told it that I hoped the winter wouldn't be too bad. Joe Savino, my sweet elderly neighbor up in Long Island City, NY used to wrap his fig tree in burlap, and put a blanket and a big bucket over the foliage to keep it from being exposed to the ice, snow and below freezing temps. In Autumn, Joe would wait for me to pass by the bench in front of the dry cleaners where he'd sit with his lifelong friends, and he'd hand me a small brown paper bag filled with sweet, ripe figs. So thoughtful! I'd get some prosciutto and melon, and sip some red wine in front of the fireplace. Wow! When my commute home became less predictable for him...I could either take the subway or ferry and it changed my walk home...he'd leave the bag inside my storm door. Between Joe and my 2009 Fig Awakening in Tuscany, I've dreamt of having my own tree.

As I put away the shovel on October 31, I was a little worried for my little tree, but I didn't wrap it for the winter. I'm 12 hours south of NYC, we had just 3 icy days, and Spring weather arrived here by late February.

9 months later---a very healthy and happy tree!

I've been watering the stick since late November and it seems quite content tucked back against the fence, getting sun for most of the day. It could grow 20' tall and 8' wide, so I'll be watching it to see where to prune as it matures.

I didn't think I'd get viable fruit this first season, but I saw a handful of green figs last week! I thought that birds or bees would nab them before they had a chance to ripen.

I tugged gently on them today, and 'harvested' (!) my first little batch of 5 figs---perfectly ripe and sweet!!!

I fought the urge to pop them right into my mouth. I was inspired, so for lunch today I made a version of a Grape & Fennel salad that I had this week at a Greek restaurant. Theirs was pretty good, but it was lacking protein and depth of flavor. This is what I came up with and boy was it GOOD! I think I'll have it for dinner, too.

Baby Spinach
1/2 Fennel bulb, with a few fronds reserved for mincing
Grilled chicken breast, sliced
Figs, sliced
Ricotta Salata cheese, crumbled (mmmmm...salty and tangy)
Lemon vinaigrette

For this salad, I prefer a rounder flavor than raw fennel, so while the chicken breast was on the grill, I drizzled some olive oil on sliced fennel (on a piece of tin foil) and grilled it for just a few minutes. Don't roast the life out of it~~you want to maintain the crisp texture.

Just toss all the ingredients together in a bowl, and you'll have a salad that's the perfect balance of sweet, salty, crunchy and citrus-y.

The Greek restaurant's version does not add chicken, and they use raw fennel, grapes and some sauteed shallot. The figs don't need competition from grapes! I actually like mine better...and nothing beats picking figs from my very own tree. Thank you Joe Savino and thank you Italy for inspiring me!

Basil Pesto

My fescue lawn has gone dormant for summer, but the rest of the "softscape" is thriving in the hot, humid Southern summer. The crape myrtle is blooming, the chocolate vines are climbing, the fig tree is healthy, the maples, hollies and boxwood are hearty and the herbs in my 4 "kitchen garden" containers are happy. They're so happy, the herbs are outpacing my cooking. I keep up with the mint, parsley, chives, tomatoes, thyme, dill and rosemary. I need to find some uses for the sage...but it's more of an autumn taste for me! The basil, however, is growing very fast!

Every few weeks I make a batch of basil pesto...three 1/2 pint containers...enough for me and a little to give away.

My go-to recipe is Ina Garten's homemade pesto from the "Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics" cookbook.

Homemade Pesto (makes 4 cups)

1/4 cup walnuts (I use pecans, as I'm allergic to walnuts)
1/4 cup pine nuts (I keep them frozen, so I toast the pine nuts and pecans lightly to release the flavor)
3 tbs chopped garlic (9-10 cloves)
5 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups good olive oil (by that Ina means extra virgin olive oil. She favors Calif, I use Italian or French)
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Here's the process and some pix from the batch I made today. It takes 30 mins, and most of that time is spent picking the leaves!

Clean basil by removing any tough stems and swirling leaves in a bowl of water. Spin dry in a salad spinner.

Place the walnuts (or pecans), pine nuts and garlic cloves in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process for 30 seconds.

Add the basil leaves, salt and pepper.

With the processor running, slowly pour the olive oil into the bowl through the feed tube and process until the pesto is finely pureed.

Add the Parmesan and puree for a minute.

Serve or store the pesto in the refrigerator or freezer with a thin film of olive oil on top.

The olive oil on top prevents the pesto from turning black!

Ready to serve, to store or for gifties ;-)

Dale's tip--if you want to take the "edge" off the garlic, roast a whole head in the oven, then add the mellow cloves to the food processor.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Behold the Love Apple

The Love Apple....La Pomme D'Amour. The French are so a lyrical name to the simple tomato in the 16th century. The tomato, it seems, was thought to be an aphrodisiac.

My own love affair with the tomato began in my early teens. The pivotal tomato memory came when my father picked a Beefsteak from our garden, and made the simplest sandwich for the two of us. He toasted white bread (in the mid 70's no artisinal bread had yet found its way into our kitchen) slathered on some Hellman's mayo, thickly sliced the mildly acidic, juicy, pulpy fruit, and sprinkled some salt and freshly ground pepper. It was dang simple, and totally delicious.

For lunch today, I was down to the last pieces of Sesame Ezekiel bread...the 2 heel slices. I'd used up all the avocados and I ran out of roast turkey. Must. Go. Food. Shopping. What to have, what to make? I had one perfect tomato left from a run to Poplar Ridge Farm in Waxhaw last weekend, and there was a bit of fresh basil pesto in the jar. Ahhhh!

Perfection on a summer Sunday.

Prior to growing cherry and beefsteak toms in our garden in the 70's, I was exposed for the most part to tomatoes in jarred spaghetti sauce (it wasn't called pasta back then...), pizza sauce, and the anemic hothouse "cherry" and basic salad varieties in the supermarket.

I can remember going to a gas station in the Italian section of Glen Cove, Long Island NY and at the side of the building, seeing tables full of tomatoes drying in the sun. Outside! At the gas station! It was my first look at what I later knew to be sundried tomatoes. I didn't come from an ethnic/traditional cooking family...are you getting that sense?! I'm Irish/German with a few other sprinkles and there are no recipes that have been handed down.

My curiosity was piqued, and the summer of my junior year in high school I walked the half-mile up to Filasky's Farm and asked for a job, but only if my sister could have one, too. We were hired (sister, sight unseen!) and I spent the next few summers and heaven! I have no idea what I was paid. I was hot, dirty and tired in the best way and I was handed a wad of cash at the end of every weekend. I saved it to buy extra clothes and supplies for college and for gas money. Fred and Jack Filasky grew some veggies and pumpkins on the farm, and sourced the rest from Eastern Long Island and the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, NYC. Their wives Joanie and Johanna were colorful characters, working the registers. The colors were so much brighter than the produce at the grocery store! I learned about squash blossoms, beets, kohlrabi, soft Boston, Bibb and red-tipped lettuces, cheese pumpkins, local strawberries, silver queen corn, patty pan, Hubbard, acorn and spaghetti squashes, baby zucchini (oh, you saute and enjoy them before they grow into baseball bats!)

But, I digress!  Of course there were gorgeous tomatoes. They were just called "local tomatoes" not "heirloom."  Whether you're former US Vice Prez Dan Quayle and want to tack an "e" on the end of tomato"e" or a farmstand customer who asked me for the end of the day, they taste great no matter who you are, how you spell it or how you say it.

Yellow beefsteaks from the North Fork of Long Island

My farmstand days morphed into Farmer's Market shopping forays when I moved to NYC in 1986. I lived in Gramercy Park and the Union Square area to the southwest was considered dangerous and druggy. During my time there, new buildings cropped up, the park was scoured, and the Union Square Market was born. Quite a transformation. It was wonderful! Flowers, cheeses, eggs and milk and fresh veggies from Upstate, Long Island, New Jersey, Pennyslvania and Connecticut.

I left NY for good in 2010, when the Farm to Table and Slow Food Movements were in full swing. Unfortunately, timing is everything, but the South was beckoning. There was even a farmer's market on Saturdays one block from my house in Long Island City. Green roofs became popular and a rooftop farm was growing in Brooklyn. The 'nose to tail' concept took hold and young people started butchering as a career. They are half my age, so I can say "young people" now! Canning and preserving had a resurgence in popularity and I was enjoying the farminess within the city. The New Amsterdam Market opened under the FDR Drive near the South Street Seaport.

In a city where I unconsciously held my breath for 20 years to survive the olfactory assaults of the streets and subways, I especially loved the scent of the herbs that I grew in my "postage stamp yard" in LIC.

The herb garden in the 40' x 14' postage stamp. My big, fragrant rosemary plant, sage, basil, tomatoes, parsley, chives and mint.

I love to make centerpieces from the garden and to bring herb bouquets as a hostess gift.

Whether they're roasted, toasted, skewered, pureed, sauced, souped, sliced, baked or fried...Yum!

Nearly 40 years after my tomato awakening, through the seasons and some moves, I've continued my love affair with real food by joining the Slow Food movement here in North Carolina. I'm enjoying the farmers markets, farm dinners and potlucks.

I attended Slow Food Charlotte's "3rd Annual Love Apple" dinner last night in Waxhaw, NC. It was flattering that among the beautiful tomato breads, gazpacho, curried chicken with green tomatoes and apple, red tomato rice, panzanella salad, tomato spice cake (!), Greek salad, bloody mary's, Tomato/Corn/Mozzarella/Avocado Salad with Basil Pesto Vinaigrette went over well, and the bowl was emptied. The recipe follows:

Tomato, Corn, Mozzarella and Avocado Salad with Basil Pesto Vinaigrette

For the salad:
10 ears fresh corn (silver queen preferred, yellow corn is ok), kernels removed
1 lb fresh mozzarella, cubed (or use the small round balls!)
4 medium haas avocados, diced
1 1/2 pounds cherry or grape tomatoes
A few quartered pieces of yellow and red heirloom tomatoes

Method: Remove corn kernels and discard cobs. Saute corn in a saucepan with 1tbs unsalted butter, and some S&P...for a few minutes to get rid of the raw taste and bring out the sweet flavor. Toss the mozzarella with 1tbs basil pesto, for taste. Toss all the ingredients into a big bowl. Chill for a few hours. Dress the salad right before it doesn't get soggy! Season with S&P to taste.

For the dressing:
1 tbs prepared or fresh basil pesto
1 tsp granulated sugar
4 tbs red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp ground sea salt + 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
A few tablespoons of minced flat leaf parsley and fresh chives

Method: Whisk above ingredients together, then keep whisking and stream slowly 1/2 cup good olive oil.

Oui, pomme d'amour!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Small Southern Cities and Towns

I visited Columbia, South Carolina in February. The city slogan is "Famously Hot" and it was nice to feel the sun and 70 degree temperatures. I don't think I'd hazard a summertime trip, though. It's a small city, with a Governor's Mansion, municipal buildings, USC--home of the Gamecocks, and two areas that are undergoing gentrification---the Vista and Five Points.

I'm no stranger to gentrification...having lived in Long Island City, NY for 20 years. My neighborhood was called an "industrial backwater" (by outsiders) for years...but we were the ones with low taxes, the view of the NYC skyline and a 5 minute commute into Midtown Manhattan! "Everyone" has figured it out though, and now there are dozens of shiny condo and apartment buildings, and thousands of young professionals, and baby strollers replacing the dwindling (mostly) Italian population. In "up and coming" neighborhoods like mine was in Hunters Point, LIC, I like to look for the vestiges of signs with no area code, business names stenciled onto the sides of brick buildings, etc...

My favorite sign of my old neighborhood. Still in business, and they have a wooden water tower on the roof. They 'refused' to sell, so the old building is tucked between luxe condos.

Columbia, SC has a bit of that flavor, albeit on a smaller scale. There are art galleries, walking paths along the river, coffee and cupcake shops, antiques shops, restaurants and bars in restored railroad buildings and warehouses...but I wasn't moved to take pictures of those.

Here are some random snaps from that weekend.

On another short roadtrip, I spent two days in the Grover/Shelby, NC area in March via a Living Social Deal...and though the B&B wasn't to my liking, the other guests were fun and I enjoyed walking around and seeing a very small town, through the lens. Here are some snaps:

Really?! The Yard of the Month Award??
A name you can trust? I hope they don't manufacture signs.

One stop shopping: Nightcrawlers, tanning, cigs and ice!

Livermush. It's what's for dinner.

Keys to...Memories of France

A bunch of rusty keys caught my eye at the Montreuil-Bellay brocante (flea market) in the Loire Valley, France last Fall. I didn't bother to haggle...the price was 2 Euros. I didn't know what I was going to do with them. But, I had to have them. 
Rusty junk priced at 2 Euros each

The brocante is in the shadow of Chateau de Montreuil-Bellay, built almost 1000 yrs ago. Imagine the locks in those old doors!

Back home, I decided to strip off the rust and old paint, and display the keys in shadow box frames.

Use Naval Jelly to strip, and wear gloves and a mask...the jelly will burn your skin.

I liked what I had...different shapes, sizes and degree of paint left on.

I Googled the words and came up empty. Perhaps a manufacturer in Paris?

I laid all the keys out and decided to use all but 2 of the tiny ones. I might wear them on a necklace. I sprayed them with polyeurothane to retard future rusting.

Buy felt and shadowbox frames from a craft store. I found what I needed at Michael's.
Arrange the items on felt, and secure with clear craft glue.

Let the glue dry behind the keys--I waited 24 hours. Cut the felt to fit, carefully attach the felt/keys to the backer board with spray mount glue.

Et voila!! A little bit of art, with some nice memories.