Deconstructing the Perfect Summer Salad

Over the summer, I put aside my cookbooks and let nature inspire me when I visit at my local farmers market ( and our beloved neighborhood farm stand operated by the Butynski family).  My usual strategy at the farmers market is to make a exploratory pass around the stands to eye this week’s seasonal goodies, then I begin to mentally combine this and that to make a few complete dishes or entire meals.

I try to be creative, and mix colors and textures to my best seasonal advantage. While I enjoy doing this, it may be a futile exercise ( so too, I have learned, is too-much fretting about what plants to put together in a flower garden ) because Mother Nature has seen to it that seasonal, local vegetables almost never miss when combined together.

For instance, the veggies in these pictures became a beautiful, colorful and delicious salad that I made to go with dinner that evening. In fact, the salad was so beautiful that I decided to turn it into dinner by embellishing it with a little local goat cheese and some thin strips of a maple-cured ham steak that we bought from Hollister Hill Farm in Vermont and grilled to give it a nice ‘char’ around the edges.

I drizzled richly-textured Olivar de la Luna extra-virgin olive oil http://www.cooksshophere.com/products/oliveoil.htm over the salad to conteract the slight bitter-bite of the radicchio and finished with a few splashes of  La Masia Rioja red wine vinegar http://www.cooksshophere.com/products/vinegar.htm and a scattering of crunchy sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

Here’s what I bought: squeeky-fresh snow peas, a trio of yellow, orange and red heirloom carrots, radicchio, and fresh-dug red and white onions. I also purchased a small head of cabbage which I used to make a delicious, colorful coleslaw that featured the trio of carrots, red onions, chopped walnuts and some tiny Turkish golden raisins.

Daylilies and Farmers Market

Cucharamama, Hoboken, NJ

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We finally had the time on this recent trip to NYC to cross over to Hoboken and have dinner in Maricel Presilla’s South American restaurant, Cucharamama. After the huge article about her that just ran in a recent issue of Gourmet magazine we were sure that we not be able to secure a reservation, but we did, for Sunday night.

The restaurant was smaller than I had imagined, but ample outdoor seating increased the capacity. It had been a hot day and was a warm evening. We had just wrapped up our tea seminar and day at the Fancy Food Show, so we were in the mood for air-conditioned comfort. The interior of the restaurant is dimly lit and softly decorated in warm, inviting earth colors. It gave us just the relaxing space we were looking for.

Cocktails were in order, and their listing offered many choices of Daiquiris with several types of rum: aged, white, and Venezuelan; a classic Pisco Sour, which features a choice of Pisco: pure, aromatic or acholado; classic drinks like  Mojitos and Caipirinhas; and drinks with alcohol and fresh tropical fruit juices.  The bar is located along the wall in the center of the restaurant, and two bartenders were kept quite busy all evening.

As we sipped our drinks, we began the serious business of ordering our food. We went right to the wood burning oven selections, and decided on the following from the listing of starters and main courses:

  • Chorizo Argentino con Pimentos y Cebolla:  Argentinean sausage with rosted peppers and onions, and Argentinean red Chimichurri sauce
Chorizo Argentino con Pimentos y Cebolla

Chorizo Argentino con Pimentos y Cebolla

  • Camaromes Tatacua, Salsa de Aji Panca: shrimp in Panca pepper sauce
Camarones Tatacua, Salsa de Aji Panca

Camarones Tatacua, Salsa de Aji Panca

  • Tamal de Maiz Tierno con Tocino: fresh corn tamal with marinated and roasted slab bacon
Tamal de Maiz Tierno con Tocino

Tamal de Maiz Tierno con Tocino

  • Pechuga de Pollo Asado al Horno de Lena en Salsa de Calabaza y Mango con Boronia: boneless chicken breast in Peruvian abodo, pumpkin and mango sauce, ripe plantain and eggplant puree  ( sorry, no picture ! )

All of the food was excellent and the flavors were true, clear and spicy without being overly hot. No one dish shouted above the others, so the dishes complimented one another quite nicely. Each dish was nicely sauced and was accompanied with salsa or more sauce for those of us who cannot live without sauce. During the evening, many singles and couples came in and sat at the bar and had a drink and a plate of something to eat.  How I wish there was such a place where we live !

My only regret was that we were not with more of us at our table so that we could have tried more tastes of this lovely food. We passed on dessert, had a little nightcap, and then decided to bask in the glow of a great dinner and hired a cab to take us back to Manhattan. Yes, silly I know, but we could just not imagine jingling and jangling our way back to the Waldorf on the hot and nasty subway ( requiring walking and changing trains in two places ) after such a nice meal. Such are the moments of celebration !

My Favorite Thing /2009 Summer Fancy Food Show NYC

lovely cheeses

We have been attending the Fancy Food Show for close to 30 years, which means that we were building our specialty food business and learning about all of the wonderful foods that many of us now take for granted through the amazing years of the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.

These were  glorious decades for specialty foods, when wave after wave of imported foods came to our shores for the first time. Also, we food lovers were exposed to a new kind of cookbook back then that featured ‘authentic’ recipes from the cuisine of another country. These cookbooks were written by knowledgable writers who lived or had studied and trained in the country about which they wrote, and knew of what they said. Their emergence set the bar for required expertise in food writing since those days.

Restaurants, too, came alive during these years, offering us dishes that many of us had never tasted before, with ingredients that were new and exciting to our palates. Becoming a chef became a popular notion, and the era of the celebrity chef was upon us. Cooking school attendance swelled. Food surrounded us and as a nation we embraced it. The new breed of restaurant thrived and specialty foods that once resided in a sphere ‘above the norm’ slowly became ingrained into our lives all across the nation.

Who can remember, for example, that it was only in the early 1980’s that Italian sun-dried tomatoes and pesto first appeared on the shelves of specialty food shops in New York ? Indeed, Americans are savvier about food today than we were 30-40 years ago. Not always savvier regarding nutrition, or how to eat a balanced diet, or in steadfast concepts of eating fresh foods in season, or even where many of the foods in the grocery store comes from, but savvier in regards to being able to navigate our way through sophisticated restaurant menus and know the ingredients that the dishes are comprised of.  Similarly, truffles, once rarified and only of importance to haute gourmands, are now familiar to all foodies thanks to affordable ingredients such as truffle butter, truffle salt and truffle oil.

Now awareness of foams and emulsions are sneaking into the vernacular, even among those who have not yet actually encountered them.  We are no longer a ‘naive’  food nation and there is no going back.

French Perigord black truffles

French Perigord black truffles

The Fancy Food Show has been instrumental in making ‘special’ foods and ingredients accessible, and for introducing legions of specialty food retailers, chefs, cooking school teachers, private chefs, etc, to a wider palate of foods and ingredients than most of us grew up enjoying.

This year marks the 55th Anniversary of the Fancy Food Show. Those of us who attended the show before it permanently moved to the Jacobs Javit Center can remember a much smaller show with far fewer items and vendors. French food was the only major foreign influence, and German marzipan was cutting edge in confectionery circles. The show as held in the old Coliseum building ( now the site of the upscale Times Warner Center ) and in several hotel locations near Columbus Circle. And attendance was light.

Each year the Fancy Food Show grows larger, thanks in part to an increasing presence by foreign vendors who bring their products here for the first time, and American companies who are trying to find a toehold in the fickle American marketplace. Every show still manages to feature new cheeses, meats, ethnic ingredients, spices and condiments that are new. Retailers like ourselves try and determine which products are right for our shops and which ones will have the most mouth-appeal to our customers.  The tables have been turned over time, and the once fearsome French food producers have been eclipsed by the domination of the suave Italian importers and exporters.

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yummy whole roasted Porchetta

This year, one of my favorite new products was roasted, de-boned, salted and spiced, hormone-free, small Kentucky pigs ( with head attached ) that I sampled from Porchetta Primata, Birmingham, AL.  These artisan porchettas are for sale to any deli, restaurant, take-out food shop, etc, that wants in on the ‘pork’ craze that is sweeping our country. Porchetta is well known to those who have traveled through Tuscany in northern Italy. Many good farmers markets usually feature a skilled counterman who slices thin slabs of hot, juicy ‘porchetta’ right off the beast as everyone around hungrily watches. No other sandwich is as good as a freshly-made, hot and juicy porchetta sandwich, and no other food at the farmers markets draws such a crowd !

This year we did not notice any clear trends, but there appeared to be an abundance of snack foods, bottled beverages of all stripes and bake-off cake, cookie and bread mixes, and ready-made sauces. And, the show would not be the show without the handfull of goods that we find useless and un-appealing, over- packaged and over -priced and generally unnecessary.

Bob’s seminar on Fundamentals of Specialty Food Retailing went we,, as did our jointly-presented tea seminar. We delivered a hearty quantity of background information about the six classes of teas ( including slides from our trips to Japan and China ) and then tasted seven  teas with the group. Everyone left well watered, on time , and with all questions answered.

me speaking at our Tea Tasting Primer

me speaking at our Tea Tasting Primer