There’s one place a cook can never hide anything, from skill to freshness of ingredients – in a simple dish. There is nowhere to go if its wrong. Everything hinges on a good ingredient, and quick simple preparation. No sauce, no spices, no heaping pile of herbs, to bury it under. Just the food. Unfortunately, somewhere we, as a country, lost our way and only in recent years discovered the joy of being a ‘locavore’.
One of the reasons food tastes better in season is because it’s local and allowed to get riper on the plant, tree, or vine. Peaches, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes, melons, green beans, corn, you name it and fresh picked is amazing. My mom taught American history and I can remember her telling us early settlers would have huge pots of boiling water at the edge of the fields to immediately cook the corn, because the sugars turned to starch so quickly and changed the flavor. Yeah, it really does matter. Who knew we were ‘locavores’ before there was such a thing? At the time, everyone was a ‘locavore’. The very fact it’s named speaks volumes about how much our food supplies have changed over the years.
Millions of people today don’t have the chance to get fresh picked fruits and vegetables, especially home grown. It’s not like city high rises come with big gardens. I was lucky, my dad loved to grow food. I was always more of a flower person, but even I grew tomatoes, bush beans, zucchini, and spinach. There is simply nothing like picking tomatoes and just standing in the garden with fruit still warm from the sun in your hand, and biting into it. You immediately start picking up the differences in flavors of each variety and the huge gap between ‘store bought’ and ‘grow your own’. Best apple pie I ever made was from these smallish apples of unknown variety from the tree in our yard and every year I put up 32 quarts of spiced pears from our over productive Bosc pear tree.
Not all veggies are easy to grow. Corn needs multiple rows, or circle planting, to get the pollen spread. You can’t plant members of the extensive cabbage family in the same place each year. Tomatoes also need rotation or extensive soil amendments. Spinach, lettuce, cabbage (including broccoli and cauliflower) do best in cooler areas. Corn, tomatoes, green beans, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant all need lots of sun and water. Blueberries and raspberries need pruning and proper support – and often netting to keep birds from eating everything. No, gardening isn’t just toss the plant in the ground and water when you think of it. It takes a lot of work and is anything but cheap.
Many of us have neither the time nor the space for our own gardens, or the skill sets and patience to keep them properly. Local farmer’s markets are a treasure trove of locally grown food, and all you have to do is drive there. Commercial farms must grow produce that can withstand the rigors of transport and storage, not to mention a fairly long shelf life. Engineers customer design seed to produce durable, stable produce – and they sacrifice the single most important factor – taste and very often texture to improve durability and maintain an appearance. Local farmers grow tastier foods and pick them close to their peak flavor.
As we all too slowly move into spring (ASPARAGUS!), get local stuff whenever you can. Farmer’s markets often don’t open till late June, so try and find a farm stand for early stuff like asparagus, broccoli, spinach and other cool weather veggies. The taste is just so much better. Vegetables should be firm, crisp, and juicy. Fruits should SMELL like fruit. The beautiful box of strawberries – big, perfect, and red, that have no smell, will have the taste and texture of cardboard. Raspberries, blueberries, same thing. Just sniff the package. No strong fruit scent, no sale. Even melons, sniff them – well, not watermelon, the rind is too thick, but cantaloupe and others should SMELL SWEET and smell like the fruit. You’re better off with frozen berries than fresh ones that look great and have no flavor.
Vegetables should be firm, not flexible. Green beans are meant to SNAP when broken, not bend. Corn – the best eating corn IMHO being Silver Queen – a sweet white corn with a fairly short season – or, butter and sugar corn – a yellow and white hybrid with a much longer season, should have very firm kernels tight to the cob and the crowns rounded with moisture that spits when you break the skin. The lack of a full ear of kernels usually indicates lack of water in the growing season. It’s not awful, but make sure what’s there is in really good shape. Cook and eat it fast, and always cook with sugared water, not salted. Same for peas, even if you buy frozen (the one veggie that’s usually a far better choice frozen than fresh), use sugar. Why? Corn, peas, carrots, and onions, especially pearl onions, have high sugar content. In short, they are SWEET. They can get tough if cooked with salt, so add a couple of tablespoons of sugar to the vat of water you boil to cook your corn in and use unsalted butter then salt as you eat. Amazing flavor. Remember, these are starchy vegetables because their natural sugars covert to starch after they’re picked – and it happens fast, so try and get the freshest you can.
Tomatoes are the quintessential summer food. For many years feared poisonous because it’s related to belladonna, tomatoes are a native American favorite. Italian food as we know it today owes a lot to Mesoamericans, along with potatoes, corn (maize), and such diverse things as cashews, pecans, wild rice (a seed), peanuts, other goodies. Columbus may not have found the gold. silver, and spices he sought, but the food alone would end up feeding millions.
I can make a meal of good bread, fresh tomatoes sliced and salted, maybe with fresh cucumber, and some cheese. What a great meal on a hot day with fresh lemonade. When I’d go up and see my dad during summer and early fall, we ‘d go pick our meal from his garden – corn, tomatoes, green beans, and walk in the house where I cook it while he grilled steaks. As often as not, we’d pig out on all the fresh vegetables and forget the steaks, using them for sandwiches the next day. Since I often stopped at a neighbor who sold fresh raspberries by the pint from an old card table with an honor jar for paying, we’d have just fruit and ice cream for dessert. It was incredible. I never had better in a five star restaurant.
One of the early vegetables, along with spinach, is asparagus. Now asparagus requires a LOT of work to establish, but once set, beds yield for 20 years or more. It’s inexpensive and plentiful. Good, fresh asparagus does not need sauce, and it shouldn’t have shades of grey going on, or be so hard it’s like wood. To keep bitterness away, get out the vegetable peeler and peel the skin. Yup, sounds silly, but tastes great. Learned that trick over 40 years ago watching one of the early cooking shows on PBS and never stopped using it! I never use some custom asparagus pot to cook it either – who has room for all that crap? Get out the 12 inch skillet with a glass lid, arrange the spears no more than two deep, add a LITTLE water (quarter inch max), a dash of Kosher salt, and steam quickly – shaking the pans to move the spears around. Another trick learned from PBS – The Galloping Gourmet, I think. Cooked asparagus should be bright green and barely fork tender when done – depending on thickness, 5 minutes or less. No hollandaise, it’s unnecessary, and personally, I think it ruins good asparagus. Use a little squeeze of lemon or some lemon zest if you like.
Now spring and Easter always meant a ham dinner for us. I had an aunt born in April who requested the same dinner every year, ham, homemade scalloped potatoes, baby peas, and for dessert, rice pudding with apricot or raspberry sauce, brown sugar shortbread, and cranberry orange nut quickbread. With drinks, I usually made spanakopita turnovers with phyllo dough, fried zucchini with a honey mustard dip, and usually one or two other special requests.
Fourth of July was grilling time, usually game hens or chicken, cold tri-color macaroni and shrimp salad with a yogurt and mayo dressing studded with pieces of green and red sweet peppers and bits of sweet onion and sprinkled with slivered green onion, a big plate of garden tomatoes, early corn if it could be found, and for dessert a huge deep dish blueberry cream tart made with fresh Jersey berries.
August was steaks, tomatoes, steamed (on the grill, wrapped in foil) new potatoes with sweet onions, corn on the cob, and whole green beans. Dessert was ice cream and fresh fruit, usually peaches.
Come early September another aunt chose her birthday menu and she liked pork loin. We’d have corn on the cob and tomatoes again because we wanted all we could get before they stopped being available. Pan roast new potatoes with onions with rosemary, carrots, and steamed broccoli.
Later in fall I’d cook the meat outside as long as I could before putting the Webber Kettle and hardwood charcoal away for the winter, but all the rest would be done inside. Apples wrapped in pastry would show up, or a big pan of apple crisp. Through all those months, the meat was enjoyed, but sometimes forgotten while we wallowed in the seasonal fruits and vegetables we’d be doing without in winter. Yes, imports keep fresh food in our markets year round, but its no match for locally grown in flavor or texture and you pat dearly for lower quality.
OK, how did I learn all this? Well, gardening I learned from Dad and extensive gardening books. Cooking from books. Yes, Mom was a brilliant teacher and thought Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was a gift from God. All her cakes were born in a box. No, I did not learn to cook from Mom.
In learning to cook, I read many books about food, the ones that were most helpful were ones that explained HOW food cooks and WHY you do things a certain way. When I was really young, A&P offered the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cooking. Tall, slim hardcover books that were filled with photos, instructions, great reference materials on everything from varieties of apples (and what they are best used for) to basic how to cooking techniques. It was a surprisingly well done series that I own to this day. Naturally, I had The Joy of Cooking, but it was Vincent and Mary Price’s A Treasury of Great Recipes that really got me going. Their own recipe for Chicken Sweet and Hot, modified by me (as most are), became a family favorite. For learning how to make all kinds of desserts, no one does a better job with detailed instructions than Madia Heatter. Her Book of Great Desserts proves that easy can be amazing, though her Black Velvet Cake was amazing – and took considerable time, patience, and skill. I’ve been collecting and using regional cookbooks for years. The Romagnolis Table is just excellent for Italian and their rolled, stuffed veal breast recipe is amazing, one of my all time favorites.
Cookbooks focus on fresh ingredients. In simple dishes, like scalloped potatoes, you have little room for error. No, scalloped potatoes are NOT born in a box. You use thin skinned new potatoes, waxy and very firm, peal them, slice them, DRY EACH SLICE, and the hard part is done. Butter a large shallow baking dish, finely mince some shallot, place potato slices overlapping slightly in the dish, sprinkle with shallot and bits of butter, salt, and a few grinds of pepper, if desired. Repeat for no more than 4 layers. Heat 2 parts heavy cream and 1 part whole milk with sliced garlic. Strain over the potato layers and bake at 400F till brown, bubbly and the potatoes are fork tender. The trick? THINLY SLICING AND DRYING THE POTATOES! Yup. Simple as that and using heavy cream with higher solids than milk. You need to get rid of all that water, so you need to peel and slice quickly, never put them in cold water, have the warm cream mix ready and – BAM – scalloped potatoes. Some like to layer grated Gruyere in the middle and on top and finish with a touch of nutmeg (technically Potatoes Dauphinoise). I prefer not to, but go with your choice. It needs no starch to thicken it, and the waters cook off and natural potato starch with thicken what’s left. There’s not a lot of ‘sauce’, nor is there supposed to be.
Is there any dish easier than baked potato? Apparently, we’ve had a whole generation grow up thinking baked potatoes get wrapped in foil. NEVER, EVER WRAP A POTATO IN FOIL TO BAKE IT! Baked potatoes should be light and fluffy, the skins crispy and tasty, it should not be hard inside! Wrapping potatoes in foil leaves the insides, hard, wet, and blah. They need to release steam as they cook to have the right texture and flavor. A good baked potato doesn’t need piles of sour cream, cheese, chives, bacon or anything else. When the potato comes out of the oven, split it open while piping hot and release any additional steam. Here are simple directions for the perfect baked potato. Get long Idaho russet potatoes that are heavy and firm and free of eyes. Scrub them well under cold water and dry completely using paper towels. Now use a very thin, sharp knife or meat fork and pierce the potatoes through on both sides multiple times so all the steam (natural water content) can escape. Rub the skin with a little olive oil and set the potatoes on the rack in a HOT oven, about 375-400F for an hour to 90 minutes depending on size. Immediately split open and let additional steam escape. Fluff up the filling with a fork and add butter, salt and pepper to taste. My parents would cut the potato in half, scrape out the soft inside, let us add the butter and salt or gravy we wanted and put pats of butter in the crispy skins. We weren’t allowed to eat the skins till after we ate our vegetables. Would we eat fast! The skin is the best part!
Other tricks? How about tomatoes? NEVER REFRIGERATE TOMATOES! It causes irreversible chemical changes that dramatically lowers and changes the flavor profile. Never buy tomatoes offered for sale from a refrigerator case. You’re better off with quality canned tomatoes to make sauce than crappy fresh one. Peaches – ok, here’s news, fresh peaches, once picked, don’t ripen, they rot. That’s why they get soft. Buy ripe local ones and do the sniff test. It they don’t have a strong peach scent, they’ll be tasteless. Never use sweet onions in long cooking dishes like soups and stews. Sweet onions have a very high water content, which is why the spoil, unlike long keeping Spanish and yellow onions. They literally disappear in long cooking dishes and the their very mild flavor just won’t stand up. They are perfect for salads, quick saute’s, even for doing foil wrapped steamed veggies on your grill – a place I use them all the time. But you need to use different ones for cooked foods. Corn on the cob – you need a big pan of water that you sugar as it boils, drop in the ears of corn, time maximum 5 minutes, remove the corn and eat immediately with butter and salt. No, you don’t wait for the corn to boil again, it’s cooking in the near boiling water and fresh corn stays sweet and crunchy, never mushy. The longer you cook it, the mushier and strong the flavor. Overcooked corn is the most common bad food served in restaurants – along with undercooked veggies that frankly would taste better if cooked a bit longer.
Fresh food, plain and simple. It will be the best you have all year and is worth the effort to find. It will be the food experience of your life. Try and find a good source for crusty bread with a dense, moist interior, a formerly common product now scarce as hens teeth. There is just no substitute for good bread, the perfect foil for summer tomatoes. Maybe salt, pepper, butter (I only use unsalted, but my brother thinks it ‘tastes funny’. Actually, it tastes like BUTTER!), or sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice, that’s about all fresh fruit or veggies need. The flavors are intense – and amazing. And unforgiving of over-cooking or mishandling. That’s it. No elaborate sauce, no complicated preparations needed, no fancy pans or advanced cooking skills. Now go out and learn how to be a ‘locavore’ and enjoy the simple pleasure of plain, delicious food.