Blu Aubergine Blog

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Citrus

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Normally, at this time of year, the citrus season is winding down. But with the numerous nor'easters to hit us in late March, a lot of the U.S. still looks like it's in the throes of winter. The especially awful flu season this year has run unabated, too, so our need for the Vitamin C that citrus provides is still as relevant now as it was in mid-January. Sigh.

Still, the days are thankfully longer now that we've sprung forward, and at least with April's approach, we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. But for now, the variety of citrus fruits available to us is a great bridge to get us from cold months and snowy storms over to budding life and milder weather. Citrus just tastes like the sun, doesn't it? And I've found that using it in unexpected ways, in both savory and sweet dishes, allows us to sprinkle a little sunshine throughout our meals, throughout our weeks.

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We've long had winter access to Florida and California citrus (I'm partial to Florida, as I'm an east coast gal myself). My father occasionally sends me "care packages" of wooden crates filled with grapefruits and oranges, salve for my soul during my months of harsh hibernation in Manhattan. I eat these out of hand, or scoop out the sections of a grapefruit as a mid-morning snack. But I also use the grapefruit (ruby red, mmm) in my work, like in the homemade grapefruit-rosemary sorbet that I paired with the pine nut tart at left.

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A close sibling of the grapefruit in use and flavor is the pomelo. It's more dry than the grapefruit, so the sections peel out with less mess. And the actual pieces of pulp are large and pull apart easily. Pomelo is used in a lot of southeast Asian cooking, often paired with savory and spicy dishes like the spicy grilled river prawns and pomelo salad I once ate poolside in Bangkok. Pomelos are also a part of the Vietnamese salad with shredded chicken and cabbage that I love so much -- it's often replaced by grapefruit here in the States, but the original uses pomelo. Other large citrus that we use mostly for their skin or rind or juice -- and really, above all, we often use their scent -- are the citron, bergamot, calamansi, ugly fruit, and the etrog. Since we're focusing on what we eat and drink from the citrus species, we'll skip the details on these guys. They do provide the flavor for some delicious drinks, liqueurs, and vinegars however. Another time, another post.

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In Italy, I look forward to two types of citrus showing up in the markets. One is clementini, or clementines, which always signal to me the approach of the winter holidays. Christmas in Italy means that pretty much every household has a gorgeous painted ceramic bowl full of clementini on the kitchen or coffee table. The second type of citrus I pine for until winter is the Sicilian blood orange, known as arancia rossa in Italian. Their flesh ranges in color from fuchsia-tinged bright orange to deep, dark magenta. These sweet, barely-acidic babies become happily ubiquitous at the end of the calendar year and throughout winter. They're in salads -- particularly those of Sicilian origin, like the blood orange-fennel-olive salads I love at this time of year. They're in desserts. They go into spremute, or freshly-squeezed juices sold in bars and in markets all over Italy. They're also great paired with prosecco, for a gorgeously colored aperitivo cocktail that's better than any mimosa you've ever experienced.  

They're squeezed into vinaigrettes and made into sauces -- they happen to pair really well with steak fish to brighten a typical white wine sauce. They're an unexpected touch anywhere you'd normally use lemon or regular orange. They're delicious seared on the grill and paired with pork or duck. They're also great candied, dipped in chocolate. The possibilities are pretty endless, actually. And they're accessible now that they've become popular in the U.S.

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And then we have the other categories of orange-skinned citrus. Mandarins and tangerines are often slightly sweeter versions of oranges, larger than clementines but just as delicious and versatile. They're great paired with pomegranate in a spremuta, and my vendors in Campo de' Fiori in Rome have been selling these alongside their market stall now for years. Of course, the smallest of all these orange cousins is the kumquat -- a slightly tricky fruit, but one that can actually be eaten whole, peel and all (these are thin-skinned little guys), and do really well sliced and cooked in a sugar syrup so they're softened, half way to marmalade. 

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This kumquat syrup can be made into a compote with the addition of other fruits, it can be made into a chutney with spices and some savory elements, or used as a flavoring syrup with an herb or two to be used as the base for a cocktail or to be topped off with sparkling water. Kumquats also do well included in other dishes like the composed salad here, with shaved fennel, beets, wild asparagus, avocado, and sunflower seeds on a bed of Greek yogurt. Other varietals of orange-skinned citrus like the satsuma, the tangelo, and various cross-breeds have been flooding the citrus market in recent years. I try to sample these fruits when I see a variety I've not yet tasted, and I have to say I've liked just about everything I've tried.

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When it comes to a delicious acidic kick in cooking, limes are probably my star ingredient. They bring ceviche to life, they cut the richness of grilled meats in Mexican tacos and fajitas, they are pivotal in Southeast Asian marinades and dips, and they're the perfect finishing agent for freshly cooked seafood and freshly grilled veggies like corn on the cob -- I love smothering corn in a miso-lime butter. Limes are a must on any cocktail bar (dark and stormy, anyone?). Lime is also a wonderful ingredient for desserts. 

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A truly well-made slice of key lime pie is hard to beat. The key limes are deliciously tart and work well in tropical cuisine that matches the environment in which they're grown. Lime sorbetto is ultra-refreshing. And lime curd is delicious, and pairs well with berries, like in my raspberry-lime-ginger tart at right. We're now starting to see the availability of other varieties like finger limes in specialty markets these days. These are to regular limes what pomelos are to grapefruit, and are excellent when the pulp is used in savory preparations. Kaffir limes are amazing, particularly in southeast Asian cuisine, but they're relatively dry and so are best used for their aromatic zest and above all, for their gorgeous fresh leaves. Nothing, for me, compares to the flavor kaffir lime leaves impart to curries and stews and soups. And dried limes are a big part of the flavor profile in Persian cooking, a cuisine I love and am learning more about all the time.

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And then, of course, we have the lemon. I could write an entire post alone on lemons -- and I will, at some point. Having honeymooned last year on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, we walked through a pergola of lemon trees just to get from our suite to breakfast each morning in Anacapri. My friends had luscious lemon trees in the back yard of their B+B in Puglia. Even my friends with more than a corner of terrace space in Rome have citrus trees. And I've used lemon leaves in my cooking as well - they're great for wrapping things in and grilling. The amazing Italian lemons themselves go into everything from a light salad dressing to sauces for seafood to desserts and cakes and gelato and sorbetto and mmmmm, granita. They are served alongside tea (tè al limone) as well as a bistecca alla fiorentina. But lemons from all over the world help to add flavor to marinades and ceviches and meringue pies and tarts and candies, and anything at all that needs a little brightening of flavor.

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They are a part of the sgroppino, an after-dinner drink which I've already highlighted on this blog here: http://bluaubergine.blogspot.com/search?q=sgroppino -- but it's so delicious it's worth mentioning again. And the lemons of the Amalfi coast have long donated their rinds to the best cause of all: limoncello.  What lemons have added to our world of drinks alone makes them worthwhile! Limonana, the Israeli slushie drink of lemon and mint, is a refreshing glass of wonderfulness, improved upon by the addition of a little vodka. And the coccolimone drink and grattachecca sold on the streets of Rome in warm weather are a revelation.

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With the creation of the meyer lemon, which is a cross between a lemon and an orange, we have a best-of-both-worlds situation which allows us an interesting, mellowed citrus flavor to utilize in both sweet and savory. Lemon bars are given a tweak, and meyer lemon curd adds interest to the coconut cake and chocolate tuile at left. They're great in sauces and to make an aioli ethereal. Grilled and squeezed on seafood, they lend amazing dimension. There's very little a regular lemon can do that a meyer lemon won't improve. Give them a try the next time you find them in the market. In fact, pick up as many citrus varieties as you can get your hands on, then store them in the fruit bin in your fridge, and go in search of recipes that utilize these wondrous, versatile fruits. They'll help you bring on the spring!

 Haricots verts with almonds, beets, and orange supreme

Haricots verts with almonds, beets, and orange supreme

 Branzino topped with meyer lemon aioli, over roasted artichokes and sea beans

Branzino topped with meyer lemon aioli, over roasted artichokes and sea beans

 Moroccan honey-citrus cake, orangeflower citrus, roasted figs, sweetened yogurt

Moroccan honey-citrus cake, orangeflower citrus, roasted figs, sweetened yogurt

 Lemon sole over beluga lentils and wilted chard, roasted citrus beurre blanc

Lemon sole over beluga lentils and wilted chard, roasted citrus beurre blanc

 Southeast Asian style soft-shelled crabs with citrus-cucumber nuac mam, citrus segments and butter lettuce

Southeast Asian style soft-shelled crabs with citrus-cucumber nuac mam, citrus segments and butter lettuce

 Rustic Italian flourless lemon-almond-poppyseed cake, four berry sauce, lemon sugar whipped cream

Rustic Italian flourless lemon-almond-poppyseed cake, four berry sauce, lemon sugar whipped cream

 

 

 

 

HOLIDAYS: Passover + Pesce en Saor Recipe

Venice: La Serenissima, the only city in the world with streets of water, where we're made to slow down the pace. It's home to delicious seafood and fresh veggies pulled from and grown in the briny waters of the lagoon. And, it's the birthplace of the term ghetto (based on the Venetian dialect term for foundry, original site of the neighborhood that became the ghetto...also gettare in Italian means to toss aside, throw out, which is essentially what happened to the Venetian Jews).

This ghetto was created for Jews in the 16th century and has morphed into terminology for an area into which a specific ethnic or racial group is pushed, isolated. This original ghetto separated the Jews from the rest of the Venetian population, but it also allowed, on some level, for the city's Jewish population to insulate itself and strengthen its traditions, though perhaps not into a singular Venetian Jewish community -- as evidenced by the five different diminutive synagogues in the neighborhood, catering to Italian, German, Levantine, Portuguese-Spanish, and French Jews practicing in Venice. 

Venice was truly a city at the crossroads of the spice trade and was the hub of trade routes between the east and the west for centuries before the ghetto was created. Jews were a vibrant and integral part of trade and banking for centuries in the middle ages and early Renaissance, and then once the Inquisition started driving Jews out of Spain and Portugal, many settled in Venice, and its Jewish population grew. So, on March 29th, 1516, the Venetian Jewish ghetto was established, more or less to keep the Jews "in check." Their movement about the city was limited and there were curfews set in the evenings, as entry points on the water were blocked and guarded by Venetian security men in boats. And while this was certainly oppressive and limiting, Jewish cuisine in Venice still flourished. So much of what we think of simply as "Venetian food" or "Roman specialties" or "Sicilian cuisine" originated in the kitchen of Jewish Italians. Artichokes, eggplant, and squash and pumpkins are all examples of food items that were not eaten by non-Jews, even up until the 19th century in many cases. Now it's difficult to imagine Italian cuisine without these items.

One of the signature flavor profiles of typically Jewish-Italian dishes is the element of sweet and sour, or agrodolce, in Italian. This comes from the pairing of vinegar and sugar (and honey well before sugar was widely available in Europe). The use of vinegar to preserve food is a classically Jewish one, because no work is allowed to be done on the sabbath, so all the food for sabbath meals needs to be prepared in advance -- and so the dishes are often served cool or at room temperature, having been cooked the day before. This happy coincidence allows for the flavors to develop, resulting in an even-more-delicious dish eaten a day or two after it was prepared. The sugar added to the vinegar is simply to cut the acidity of the vinegar (or citrus juice, or wine). Pesce en saor is Venice's shining example of a practically-conceived dish in the Jewish cuisine canon, going mainstream (pun intended). 

This dish is often made with sardines and called sarde en saor -- it's on most Venetian trattoria menus -- but it can be made with any fish fillets, really, though more oily fish like Spanish mackerel are suited to the sweet-and-sour preparation (they're also good for you, with lots of Omega-3s). A typical pairing would be with polenta, soft if you're making it and serving right away, or made a day in advance, cut into squares, and either served cold or grilled before serving. The addition of carrots and celery is optional, as is the choice of red or white onions. But the raisins and pine nuts are key to matching the sweet and sour flavors of the dish, and add texture and interest. it's the perfect make-ahead dish for Passover, and serves as an interesting substitute for gefilte fish on the American/Ashkenazi Passover table. Try it this year -- you may do as the Venetians have done, and incorporate the dish into your personal repertoire of favorites. HAPPY PASSOVER!

PESCE EN SAOR

 

(6 servings)

1 whole fish (about 2 pounds), cleaned, or 1.5 pounds fish fillets -- Spanish mackerel is a nice choice

½ cup red wine vinegar

3 tbs. sugar

1 onion, thinly sliced into half moons

2 small carrots, thinly sliced into a thick julienne or shavings

1 celery stalk, sliced into thin Vs

½ cup toasted pine nuts

½ cup raisins, plumped in hot water

6 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil

salt & pepper to taste

 

- In a small bowl, stir together vinegar, sugar, pine nuts, and a little of the raisin plumping water. Set aside.

- Warm 2 tbs. of the olive oil in a large saute’ pan over medum heat. Sprinkle the fish with salt just before placing it in the saute’ pan. Saute’ until golden brown. Flip and brown on the other side.

- Remove fish from pan, add 2 more tbs. olive oil, and saute the onions and carrots an celery in the pan until softened, about 4 minutes.

- Add the vinegar mixture, cover, and cook over medium heat until the fish is done – about 10 minutes for a whole fish and 5 minutes for fillets.

- Transfer to a platter and serve warm or, better yet, the next day at room temperature.

 

* This dish pairs really well with polenta squares, grilled or pan-seared.

 

 

 

 

Posted by Dana Klitzberg at Friday, April 22, 2016

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Winter Veg

We're still suffering through winter weather (yes, snow in New York City today, people!). But the cold outside doesn't mean we can't enjoy some wonderful produce -- and specifically, winter vegetables -- indoors in our kitchens. There's beauty in their variety of flavor but also in their shapes, sizes, colors, and uses. It's never been easier to "eat the rainbow" of colors in vegetables alone, and many of these items are hearty enough to make into a soup, to pair with the rich meat stews of the season, or to skip the meat altogether and enjoy these gifts of nature on their own as a substantial, diet- and environment-friendly alternative to animal proteins. Below are some great options, as well as some ideas as to what to do with these wonderful winter veggies:

- Radicchio tardivo: This elegant, elongated variety of radicchio di Treviso comes from northeastern Italy around the town of Treviso in the Veneto. It has slim leaves that are white and tipped with burgundy, a result of a second "forced" growth process when the harvested heads are placed in growing tanks with flowing water for a second growth; they're then harvested late (hence "tardivo"). Their crisp, bitter leaves are a thing of beauty, and work especially well in dishes of the area, like a risotto or pasta with radicchio, gorgonzola, and walnuts. This veg is great grilled, or oven-roasted with a little balsamic and a sprinkling of sugar to take away the bitter edge. It's also great in a winter salad with endive and perhaps some kale or watercress.

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- Celery root, or Celeriac: This is quite literally the root of celery, but as a root vegetable it's got a bit of starch to it. You can slice into matchsticks to enjoy raw in a salad, or cook it with a potato or two to make a healthier, lower-carb version of mashed potatoes
(trick: the lack of gluten in the celeriac makes its substitution for mashed taters a great healthy upgrade, and you can put it in a food processor for a smooth puree without the gummy mess of potatoes alone). This also means it makes a fabulous soup -- it's great comfort food in cold weather, especially with some fried leeks and a drizzle of maple syrup on top.

- Cauliflower: Much has been made lately of the previously-lowly, pale head of cauliflower, and with good reason. This pallid cruciferous vegetable is actually really healthy for us, and is incredibly versatile. Cook the florets as is traditional and you can toss them with pasta, pine nuts, and raisins in olive oil with a splash of wine and you have a great pasta dish, Sicilian in origin. Pulse in a food processor and you have gluten-free couscous. Roast whole in the oven rubbed with olive oil, salt, and spices, and you have an excellent main course meat stand-in (You can also slice the cauliflower into "steaks" and serve vegetarian versions of steak preparations: cauliflower au poivre, anyone?).

- Broccolo romano, or Romanesco: This is what Romans refer to simply as a "broccolo" -- they think the dark green version that is our standard is "broccolo siciliano" (Sicilian broccoli). This is a popular side dish in Rome, cooked until meltingly tender in olive oil, with garlic and peperoncino. Mammamia! It's also tossed with pasta, and served in the disappearing-but-traditional Roman soup, broccoli ed arzilla made with stingray and roman broccoli in broth -- really delicious.

- Winter squash: This family includes butternut, spaghetti, acorn, delicata, and on and on. Roasted with just a drizzle of olive oil, a few cloves of garlic, and a sprinkling of sea salt, winter squash are healthful and a great substitute for potatoes alongside proteins. They can be pureed into amazing soups. They can be roasted alongside other vegetables. They can become filling for pastas like ravioli. Spaghetti squash can be served like its namesake pasta, in place of the pasta itself! And delicata squash can be served skin-on, for extra ease in prep...and extra fiber. These nubby veggies are versatile and amazingly delicious, and even the seeds should be saved, cleaned, and roasted to make into a healthy snack, to sprinkle on salads, to grind into a pesto...even to candy for dessert!

- Brussels sprouts: These mini-cabbages named after a Northern European city (still a mystery) have caught on again since the "new" century, and have become a ubiquitous side dish in restaurants from Manhattan to Minneapolis. And good for them! Because they're very good for us, another cruciferous veggie full of fiber and vitamins. I make mine with pancetta, shallots, balsamic or sherry vinegar, and a touch of honey -- and they're a perennial Thanksgiving favorite.

- Cabbage: Big brother to the brussels sprouts above, cabbage is another healthful, incredibly versatile veg. There are many varieties, including regular green or white cabbage, red cabbage, and savoy cabbage with its slightly curlier, thinner leaves. Cabbage can be shredded and eaten raw, as in cole slaw, or cooked, as in stewed cabbage (I like mine sweet-and-sour, like they make it in central Europe, stewed with some vinegar, salt and sugar). It can be fermented and transformed into kimchi, or simply eaten as part of a salad. It can be stuffed with ground meat or vegetables and stewed for stuffed cabbage or other savory packets or spring rolls. It's also great in a simple soup with a veggie broth, brightened with the acidity of a splash of vinegar. 

- Beets: Another underdog root veggie we root for (food pun!), the beet was and is still "having a moment" on menus across America. These former outcasts have experienced a renaissance, and I'm happy about that, because they're gorgeous and packed full of vitamins and antioxidants, and they make a great soup (borscht), a great salad ingredient, and a great side dish.

They're a substitute for the deep ruby color of raw beef, so vegan tartares now have new life. They can be golden or fuchsia or swirly candy-cane colored (chioggia beets), they can be sliced thinly or fried into chips or served julienned in a salad with lots of carrots and pistachios and fresh herbs and warm spices like cumin and ras-el-hanout...They pair really well with those carrots, but also with goat cheese and ricotta cheese, with nuts and herbs, they're great dressed with vinegars or with sweet-sour pomegranate molasses or silan date syrup for a Middle Eastern-North African vibe, and they're great in Central and Eastern European preparations, with dill and meat and potatoes and flaky smoked fish...they're as versatile as they are pretty, and as inexpensive health powerhouses, they can't be...well, you know...

Enjoy the healthy vegetable variety that comes with the winter season, and get your fill while you can!

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Cranberries

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Cranberries

I've always loved the taste of cranberries. At the age of 6, I was a precocious little thing, turning my nose up at orange juice (what kid doesn't like OJ?) and requesting cranberry juice of my inevitably surprised servers at diners and delis everywhere. Our family vacation destination each August for my entire childhood was Cape Cod, and I think I especially loved our time there because cranberry products were everywhere: cranberry juice was de rigeur at pancake houses all along the Massachusetts coast, and cranberry fudge was a local delicacy we could really only find on the Cape. And speaking of Cape Cod, when I got older (though let's be clear, not old enough), cranberry juice was my mixer of choice with vodka, for a Cape Cod or a Sea Breeze.

Then, a few years after I became of legal drinking age, Sex and the City hit New York and the world, and you can bet I was slugging down Cosmopolitans in 1999! I even brought the drink to Rome, where I taught bartender friends how to make the perfect Cosmo -- though it was a challenge at the time.

You had to really hunt to find two of the key ingredients: cranberry juice and limes (times have really changed in Rome since then -- I like to think I had a hand in the availability of cranberries and limes thanks to my persistent bugging of market owners all over Rome's center!).

It's back in America where cranberries have a real history. They're a perennial holiday favorite, starting off the season with cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving -- and they've been around for centuries. In the 1672 book New England Rarities Discovered, cranberries are described as a "sauce for the Pilgrims, cranberry or bearberry" (bearberry because bears ate the berries)..."that grows in salt marshes that are overgrown with moss. The berries are of a pale yellow color, afterwards red, as big as a cherry...with sower [sic] astringent taste...They are excellent against the Scurvy...The Indians and English use them mush, boyling [sic] them with sugar for sauce to eat with their meat..." And so not much has changed since then. The classic sauce is wonderful -- simply the berries cooked with sugar until they burst. I sometimes like to add orange zest and a little port to add a sophisticated touch to my sauce, but for the most part I like the cranberries to speak for themselves. 

In 1787, James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson while he was stationed in France, asking for background information on constitutional government to use at the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson obliged, sending Madison several books on the subject and asked in return for distinctly American gifts that he missed (foodie that Jefferson was): apples, pecans, and yes, cranberries.

In the U.S., Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries, with over half of American production. And yes, Massachusetts is number two. My native New Jersey is number three in the country (making NJ not just the garden state, but also the bog state, apparently!). Small volume production occurs in Argentina, Chile, and the Netherlands, in the "old world." 1816 marked the first commercially grown cranberries in the States in East Dennis, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. When cultivated, cranberries are grown on low trailing vines atop great sandy bogs.

Nutritionally speaking? Raw cranberries have plenty of vitamin C, dietary fiber, and the essential mineral manganese. They're also a source of polyphenols, currently under active research for their cardiovascular benefits, their cancer-fighting agents, and their capacity to bolster the immune system. Cranberries have been valued for decades for their ability to help prevent and treat urinary tract infections.

Recent studies have also suggested that this powerful berry may promote gastrointestinal and oral health: its phytonutrients are effective in lowering unwanted inflammation, and this extends specifically to the stomach, colon, and the mouth and gums. This miraculous little native American berry may even help aid in recovery from stroke, and lower LDL and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. Clearly, the cranberry packs a powerful, healthful punch!

I even add the berries to my beautiful, red-and-green holiday brittle, using shelled pistachios and dried cranberries as the chewy, crunchy bright spots in the caramelized sweetness of the brittle itself. What's most important? Get creative! Use cranberries where you might have used raisins, cherries, pomegranate, figs, nuts, marmalade, maple syrup, orange or apple juice...the possibilities are practically endless. I've known since the age of 6 that cranberries are delicious -- and now I know, we know, that they're also a smart food choice. Eat, drink, and be berry!

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Dana Klitzberg at Wednesday, December 23, 2015

QUICK BITE: Easy Labor Day Salads

Heirloom yellow, green, and red tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, mint, microgreens, and toasted pistachios

Even though Labor Day weekend stretches into September this year, the heat is on and it still feels -- at least according to the mercury -- like we're in the middle of summer. And since we're celebrating Labor Day here in America, the last thing anyone wants to do is labor over a meal. Certainly, slaving over a hot stove is out of the question. But Americans love to grill, and the perfect accompaniment to grilled meat and seafood is a great summer salad.

And sometimes, salads are a great substitute for protein-heavy summer meals, as the main course. Composed salads are comprised of elements other than just greens and a few simple vegetables, plated together. Sometimes, there are no greens whatsoever. But even green salads can be elevated to another level with an interesting dressing (replace red wine vinegar with sherry vinegar, add a touch of dijon or miso, use walnut or hazelnut oil instead of olive oil).  Whether the salad is an accompaniment to burgers or steaks or lobster or grilled fish, keeping things cool with vegetables tied together with a great, bracing vinaigrette is the easiest, healthiest path to a delicious meal this Labor Day weekend. Herewith, some inspiration for delicious summer salads that require very little work -- and just some assembly, in many cases. Here's to a relaxing, labor-free Labor Day weekend: enjoy! 

Classic tuna Nicoise salad with grilled fresh tuna

Burrata, heirloom tomato, white peach, basil and mint

Classic iceberg wedge salads with blue cheese, bacon, cherry tomatoes and chives

Watercress with herbs, plums, red onion, and peanuts in Asian dressing

Heirloom tomato, radicchio, and grilled peaches

Mixed lettuces with broccoli, fresh apricot, and pomegranate

SEASONAL FOOD: Watermelon

When I think of late summer, the dwindling heat of end-of-August, I think of lazy days by the pool, happliy exhausting days on the beach, and backyard barbeques in the 'burbs. All are heavenly. And what food best represents these languid last days of the hottest season of the year? For me, the answer is simple: watermelon

The watermelon is the edible fruit (botanically speaking it's a kind of berry called a pepo) from a vine-like flowering plant that hails from southern Africa. Its cultivation harks all the way back to the second millennium B.C., in the Nile Valley. Watermelon seeds were found at the tomb of King Tutankhamun, and the fruit is mentioned as a food eaten by the ancient Israelites while in bondage in Egypt. The fruit was cultivated on the Indian continent by the seventh century, and had spread to China by the tenth.

China continues to be the world's largest watermelon producer, by a lot, today -- they account for about 50% of the world's production. It was the Moors who introduced watermelon (and a whole slew of other great things!) to Europe; evidence suggests that it was cultivated in southern Spain, in Cordoba and Sevilla, in 961 and 1158, respectively. From here its cultivation spread throughout Southern Europe, and by the 17th century, watermelon had become a fairly widespread garden crop on the European continent. We have the European colonists, and their slaves, to thank for the introduction of watermelon into the U.S. and the New World in general -- Spanish settlers in Florida in the late 16th century, on up to Massachusetts, and later Peru, Brazil, and Panama. Today, the fruit is grown in 44 U.S. states, with Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, and Arizona leading the charge. The largest melon on record, however, was grown in Tennessee in 2013, weighing in at a heaving 350.5 pounds!

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Nutritionally speaking, watermelon isn't vitamin or nutrient-dense in the classic definition of the terms. But the beauty is this: it's 91% water, contains 6% sugars, and is low in fat and calories, so for the caloric intake, it's a decent source of fiber and vitamin C. But new evidence suggests that watermelon has several additional nutritional and health benefits. Watermelon flesh is quite high in carotenoid phytonutrients, specifically lycopene, and has been moved up to the front of the line, alongside tomatoes, in recent studies on high-lycopene foods. What does lycopene do? It's especially important for cardiovascular health. Bone health, too.

It's an antioxidant and contains anti-inflammatory properties, so it potentially fights off all kinds of disease and inflammation that is the breeding ground for disease and chronic illness. Recently, scientists have become interested in the high citrulline content of the fruit as well. Citrulline is an amino acid generally converted by our kidneys into arginine, another amino acid -- which helps improve blood flow and general cardiovascular health. There's also hopeful evidence that this amino acid conversion process might help to prevent fat buildup in fat cells by blocking a particular enzyme activity. Things are looking up for watermelon fanatics!

Watermelon and cucumber salad.JPG

As for watermelon preparation and ways in which to enjoy the fruit, other than slices out of hand? It's actually incredibly versatile in both savory and sweet preparations. Watermelon "steaks" work well on the grill, even as served with grilled meats. One of my favorite summer dishes I've prepared in recent memory is a sort of riff on a Vietnamese pork chop dish.

I marinate thinly-sliced pork chops in a fish sauce, soy, and rice wine-based marinade, then toss them on the grill and reduce the marinade for a sauce. I serve them on a bed of greens (watercress is my favorite) with fizzled shallots, cilantro, watermelon cubes, and pickled watermelon rind. The combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures is heaven! 

Of course, simple preparations like my watermelon-feta-mint skewers and "cocktail sandwiches" is an easy snack. And there's this snack in salad form -- a dish that's become somewhat ubiquitous on menus in urban centers and beach locales all over. But it's still delicious and refreshing, particularly on a hot August day.

I like my watermelon salad with arugula and/or microgreens, salty feta (but not too much), and a kicky rice or sherry wine vinaigrette. Add some jalapenos and I'm even happier.

Mint is a must, cilantro is a bonus. Sorrel is a nice variation. Watermelon pairs nicely with cucumber (technically another member of the melon family), and both take well to heat -- as in the spicy kind, from hot peppers. This is true even in cocktails. We all know the trick of a hollowed-out watermelon with vodka-soaked melon balls, or "tapping" the green rind and turning the watermelon shell into a keg for cocktails. These are fun ideas, no doubt. But fresh-pressed watermelon juice with your liquor of choice and additional goodies makes for a sophisticated cocktail, without being hokey. 

Ditto the pulverized flesh of the melon. And for dessert, or a drink, or a cocktail-dessert hybrid? Freeze the pureed watermelon pulp to make granita, the Sicilian shaved ice and the world's original slushie frozen treat. Just add a bit of simple syrup to the pureed melon -- equal parts sugar and water, heated and cooled -- if it needs a little added sweetness (though ripe melon should be plenty sweet on its own). Pour into a tray or pan and pop it in the freezer, periodically mashing it up with a fork when it starts to freeze. Scrape, and serve. Here, liquor is optional, but ooooh, is it a good choice! It's the quintessential summer food, in any of its forms. Enjoy the season!

RECIPE: Ribollita (Tuscan minestrone bread soup)

There are few things better on a bitter cold day, or evening, than a bowl of ribollita, the cool weather Tuscan bread soup. It's made with a Tuscan minestrone base, to which stale bread is added -- preferably the tasteless, salt-free crusty bread that became a staple in Tuscany when an overwhelming majority of citizens refused to pay a steep salt tax. It's even been used to clean precious frescoes in Tuscan churches, as its texture is similar to a sponge (its stand-alone taste is fairly similar, too). 

How is a Tuscan minestrone different from your average minestrone, you may ask? It shares all of the basic vegetables, like celery, carrots, and onions, of course. But Tuscans, like their mangiafagioli (bean-eaters) moniker suggests, often add cannellini beans to dishes, for added heft, starch, and protein.

Their minestrone is no exception, so they use beans to replace the tiny pasta tubes that the rest of the Italian peninsula uses. They also add Tuscan kale (or lacinato), what in Italian is called cavolo nero (black kale) or cavolo laciniato (fringed kale). This is sliced or hand-torn into strips that get thrown into the minestrone, adding color and great nutrients and fiber to the soup. 

The thing that turns Tuscan minestrone into ribollita (which literally means "re-boiled") is the addition of bread. The Tuscans are a thrifty bunch, not ones to let bread go to waste simply because it's stale. So they have a series of bread-thickened soups in their culinary repertoire to make the most of it. Ribollita is the wintry version, and it's one of my all-time favorites. It freezes well, so you can make a huge pot of it during, say, a February snowstorm. You can eat it until (and if) you get sick of it, and freeze the rest for another blustery night.

RIBOLLITA

(Serves 4-8)

6 TBS. Olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1 onion, chopped into medium dice

1 carrot, chopped into medium dice

2 stalks celery, chopped into medium dice

3 cloves garlic

2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans, drained

4 whole peeled tomatoes or 1 15-oz. can peeled tomatoes

8 cups vegetable stock or chicken stock

1 sprig fresh rosemary

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bunches chopped cavolo nero (black kale)

1 small loaf Tuscan (unsalted) or crusty peasant bread, preferably a day old

1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese

Salt & pepper to taste

- Warm 6 TBS. of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it's hot, toss in the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic. Sprinkle with a dash of salt and pepper and cook, stirring so the vegetables don't stick, until they're softened, about 5 minutes.

- Add the tomatoes and beans, stir and cook for 2 minutes. Add the broth and the rosemary and thyme, and cook for 15-20 minutes, so the flavors meld.

- Add the kale (and remove the herbs if you'd like), and stir to blend. Add salt and pepper to taste.

- Tearing the bread with your hands into bite-sized chunks, slowly add the bread to the broth, mixing to absorb the bread every 10 pieces or so. You may not use the whole loaf, but you may. The consistency should be a thick porridge. Let the soup cook another 15 minutes or so, simmering on low, so the bread breaks down and becomes integrated into the soup a bit. Taste to adjust for seasoning.

- To serve, ladle into bowls, drizzle generously with the highest-quality extra-virgin olive oil you can find (Tuscan is most relevant here), and sprinkle with grated parmigiano cheese.

Note: Like most soups, this one is even better the next day, or even the day after that. Since it's ribollita (re-boiled) anyway, it keeps very well for several days in the fridge, or for 2 months in the freezer.

QUICK BITE: Salmon with Mustard Cream Sauce

It's been a long winter. Yes, the understatement of the year. I'm writing now in New York City, where it's a cool 33 degrees and almost April. This makes everyone in the city a little stir-crazy, itching for the thaw of spring weather and fresh green anything. Personally, I've had it with "restorative" soups and stews, braised meats and root vegetables galore -- much as I love these items in the thick of winter's cold. So, what to make when the mercury says it's still winter but our hearts, minds, and palates are aching for spring? Salmon with mustard cream sauce is the perfect "bridge" dish between the seasons. 

We all know by now that salmon boasts lots of Omega-3 fatty acids and that it's one of the most healthful varieties of fish to consume. A tangy mustard-cream sauce is a classic accompaniment that really brightens the fish and cuts its strong flavor and richness with zing. Adding a bit of freshly chopped dill to the sauce is a classic herbal touch, though not necessary. Pairing the fish with some winter veggies -- we do have to clear out our fridges of beloved winter greens somehow, don't we? -- grounds the meal in the now while we look towards the coming spring with open arms (and full bellies!). Roasted beets, sauteed brocoletti (with plenty of garlic and chili pepper), and a long grain and wild rice combo are the perfect sides to make this a well-rounded dinner. A mix of color is the easiest way for you to create a balanced meal without much effort.

How to make the sauce? Simple. You can use the same pan you use to cook the salmon.

First, heat some olive oil in a saute' pan (nonstick is best). Sprinkle the salmon fillet with plenty of salt, and place in the pan. Note: if you have the skin on the fillet, you can place it skin side down in the pan first, to crisp it up. Otherwise, put the top side down.

Second, sear for 3-4 minutes on the first side so it releases from the pan easily. Flip, and cook on the other side for another 4 minutes or so. Salmon is best served medium-rare to medium (if you like it cooked through, you can place in a 350-degree oven to finish).

Third, remove salmon fillet from pan, and pour about 1/2 cup heavy cream into the pan. Add 1-2 tablespoons of grainy dijon mustard, and gently whisk to mix completely. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the sauce thickens a bit. Add salt to taste, and if you're adding chopped dill (chives or parsley work well, too), do that at the very end. Mix, taste for seasoning, and then  pour the sauce around the salmon fillet and any sides you like. Come spring, this salmon-and-sauce works extremely well with simple seared asparagus, as in the photo above. 

Enjoy, and here's to a tasty, soon-to-arrive SPRING!

RECIPE: Mid-Winter Grain Salad

This has been one loooong winter for the United States, and it's been a freezing, incredibly snowy one for those of us in the Northeast. I've been cooking lots of soups, and will continue to do so, and to enjoy their warming comfort until I can no longer stand to ladle a spoon of hot broth to my lips (a word to Mother Nature: that day is coming soon!) And I love my seasonal winter foods and comfort meals -- stews, roasted meats, root veggies, a nice afternoon tea with accompanying biscuits. But to brighten up my winter repertoire, a seasonal mid-winter grain saladis just the thing to give my palate a much-needed lift.

To start: pick a grain. I chose bulgur wheat here, as it's inexpensive, nutritionally sound, and one of the many bags of grains I had on hand in my pantry. Bulgur wheat has already been parboiled and dried when we purchase it, so technically it doesn't need to be boiled again to be reconstituted. But one excellent trick I've learned over the years, to add flavor and zing to this grain and eventually the dishes in which it ends up, is to cook the bulgur in a juice that will add flavor and color to the grain when it's cooked. Here I use a beet-carrot-green apple-lemon freshly pressed juice to give the wheat character and a bright color, not to mention added nutritional value as the grain absorbs the juice.

A second element that makes this salad soar is its use of various textures. The grain itself is nutty, chewy. Most grains are. I add crunch with a small dice of celery and green apple. Ditto the pomegranate arils. A softness comes from the roasted cubed butternut squash.

The third element is flavor. There's a great interplay between nutty (the grain) and vegetal (celery, parsley), sweet (the squash) and sour (pomegranate, apple). The vinaigrette, which contains rice vinegar as well as lemon juice, brightens everything with an acidic kick. The beauty is that the elements can be substituted and played with, according to what's on hand and what's in season -- and of course, what you like. 

I often add some red onion chopped finely, or shallot. I also sometimes add nuts for additional crunch, like pine nuts or chopped pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, or walnuts. And in spring and summer I add seasonal veggies and fruits, swapping out the butternut squash for zucchini or asparagus or cherry tomatoes, the pomegranate for summer berries or stone fruit. Parsley can be substituted by abundant summer basil, and so on. And the vinaigrette can be played with, so instead of rice vinegar, use white balsamic, or raspberry vinegar, or sherry vinegar. Use avocado oil, or try pumpkin seed oil with pumpkin seeds as the nut in the salad. Use your imagination! And enjoy a healthy grain salad, mid-winter or any time. 

MID-WINTER BULGUR WHEAT SALAD

1 cup bulgur wheat

2 1/2 cups beet-carrot-apple-lemon juice

1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed into 1/2-inch dice

1 green apple, chopped into 1/4-inch dice

1/2 cup pomegranate arils

1/2 cup celery, chopped into 1/4-inch dice

1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1/8 cup rice vinegar

1 TBSP. dijon mustard

2 TBSP. ponzu

1 TSP. lemon juice

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

- Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F. Place the diced butternut squash on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and drizzle with olive oil, and toss with hands to coat evenly.

- Roast the butternut squash in the oven, tossing occasionally to cook evenly, until browned and starting to caramelize on the outside, about 30-45 minutes depending on the power of your oven. Set aside to cool.

- In a pot, bring the bulgur wheat and juice to a boil and cook covered until fully absorbed, about 8 minutes.Dump in a bowl and set aside to cool.

- Whisk together rice vinegar, dijon, ponzu, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. In a slow stream, add the oil and whisk to emulsify. This is your vinaigrette.

- Once the bulgur and butternut squash cool, mix together in a bowl with the celery, pomegranate, green apple, and parsley. Toss to mix.

- Drizzle the vinaigrette on top and toss again to mix.

*This salad is delicious right away, but as it sits in its dressing, the flavor improves, making it another example of a dish that gets better with age.