Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Fruits Of Labor

"The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze."
-   John Updike, September

Labor Day has come and gone.

Labor Day wee
kend has always represented the end of summer to me; practically if not technically. As a child in Manhattan, this weekend meant the sad end of the old year and the beginning of a new one; even more so than New Year's Eve in January, which always felt more like the end of the Christmas season than the beginning of anything new. It was back to school, to regimented hours, to the end of summer's sweet liberty. Yes, for me, Labor Day always rang the death knell of all the long lazy days spent reading, daydreaming, and wandering through a nearly empty city enjoying all the parks, museums and other amenities that New York had to offer a curious child with a hunger for everything, including food. 

In the summertime, street vendors with ti
ny carts that rang little bells to announce their presence offered delights like Italian frozen ices, Puerto Rican piraguas which are shaved ice snow cones filled with exotic syrups like guava, tamarind and guanabana (my favorites with just enough sweetness to make them palatable but a touch of sourness to make them refreshing on sticky 95 degree, 95 % humidity days) as well as coconut ices called coquitos which were creamy frozen concoctions much more pure in their essence: fruit granitas rather than the sugar-laden frozen ices, and there was, of course, the Good Humor and Mr. Softee trucks with their sweet musical melodies resounding through the streets who were welcomed by the neighborhood children during the dog days of summer like conquering heroes freeing the wretched and oppressed.

I still remember lapping up those Mr. Softee soft serve frozen custard cones, one lick at a time, trying to make it last as soon as possible without having that tower of spiral cream melt into a puddle in my waffled cone. And Good Humor! Those chocolate eclairs, strawberry shortcake, toasted almond works of art. I never took my eyes off those bars as I ate them. I would stare at the cross-section of every bite mesmerized by their beauty. All those layers of flavor so beautifully delineated and contrasted by color and texture. It was like a miracle on a stick.  All of this wonder ended come September. Strange child that I was, I lamented Labor Day. It seemed less like a holiday and more like a threat for further oppression.

As an adult now living in San Francisco, the advent of Labor Day has come to mean something quite different. The strange confluence of nature with its Bay Area topography makes San Francisco's weather from late May to early September the greyest, coldest, gloomiest, 55 degree and foggy time of the year; as can be attested by any tourist who had the misfortune of coming here during the summer months and took home a pair of sweats with "San Francisco" emblazoned on them as unintended souvenirs. Mark Twain may never have said the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco, but I can guarantee even he would have felt his arms break out in gooseflesh on a brisk August morning and likely was grateful for that first September warm spell. 

Rather than marking the end of summer here, Labor Day represents its beginning. The sunniest, warmest weather of the year in San Francisco starts now and ends the first days of November. Labor Day now means to me the best of summer's produce: yummy, ripe, amazing heirloom tomatoes in all shapes & colors, avocados, peaches and figs. While we chill in San Francisco during the summer months, the surrounding areas north, east and south of us are sweltering in the more typical summer heat producing lush fruits that are just now at their most abundant and ready to be harvested, and more importantly, eaten. A loaf of bread, a slice of fruit, some lush creamy cheese and a few swills of something white and chilled set the tone for warmer days and longer nights. It's a different type of creamy beauty from my old Mr. Softee days as a child, but it is just as satisfying to the hungry soul. 


"Lord, it is time. The summer was very big. Lay thy shadow on the sundials, and on the meadows let the winds go loose. Command the last fruits that they shall be full; give them another two more southerly days, press them on to fulfillment and drive the last sweetness into the heavenly wine." 
-     Rainer Maria Rilke

Yes, Rainier, quite right. It is time to enjoy the fruits of every California farmer's September labor... 

Here's my suggestion:

Bruschetta with Caponata, Burrata and Prosciutto Crisps

  • The Italian verb "bruscare" means 'to roast over coals' and "brusciare" means 'to burn or toast,' which is how the first bruschetta was made. The noun bruschetta is derived from these verbs although modern style bruschetta is often made from bread grilled in a skillet or baked in an oven until hard and dry. If you order bruschetta in Italy, you will likely be served one piece of crusty, lightly toasted Italian bread slathered with olive oil with a clove of garlic on the side. However, if you order bruschette, the plural of bruschetta, expect a plate of bruschetta with a variety of toppings. Toasting the bread on the grill gives it a particular fragrance, but with an oven or a broiler you can obtain the same good result.

  • Although all accounts of bruschetta's origins trace it back to Italy, the exact region and year of its birth are murky. Ancient Romans reportedly used to test the quality of freshly pressed olive oil by smearing it on a piece of fire-toasted bread for tasting, a custom that is now common in all major olive-oil producing regions of Italy, specifically Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria. Certain accounts claim the oil-soaked bread was rubbed with a clove of garlic to bring out the flavors of the oil. Other historical accounts of bruschetta claim it evolved from people trying to revitalize stale bread by soaking it with olive oil.

It's believed that this "poor man's food" was born as a snack for the workers in the fields. It was prepared with homemade, sometimes, stale bread, and flavored with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and tomato. These are the basic ingredients of bruschetta. However today, the ways to prepare it and variations in circulation are truly endless.

For a proper preparation of bruschetta it is necessary to slightly grill or oven-toast the surface of the bread, taking care that it remains soft inside.  
For best results, use an authentic Italian bread, the more rustic the better; ciabatta is a good choice. Acceptable substitutes include French baguette or any hearty bread with a chewy body and porous texture that toasts well. Toast the bread on both sides to avoid sogginess. Use the highest quality virgin or extra virgin olive oil to impart the bruschetta with the best taste.

These slices of bread should be fairly thick, surrounded by a quite hard but crunchy crust, with a soft, white crumb, and small and regular cavities (suitable to absorb the oil). These, once grilled, although well seasoned with oil, will be stiff and easily manageable. It 's a bread that stays good for a long time and so it is ideal to be used to prepare this dish, even if it's not freshly baked. If you consider that in the past, especially in very poor rural areas of Italy, often one had little more than this, it is understandable how bruschetta often became a full dinner and not just a snack or appetizer.

Note: Burrata is fresh mozzarella with a harder exterior shell and creamy curd interior mix of cream and curd. It has a very short shelf life of about 2-3 days. If you can't find burrata in your market (Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Safeway or other specialty grocers usually carry it) substitute fresh buffalo or fresh cow's milk mozzarella from Italy or a good fresh creamy ricotta from your local dairy farmer, a creamy goat chevre would also work well; otherwise, skip the cheese because Polly-O while ok on a pizza will not be good under the caponata.  
Caponata is a Sicilian dish made with eggplant, tomatoes, capers. Traditional recipes add the raisins. I don't.  T
he etymology of the name is not entirely known. Some suggest it derives from the Catalan language, others that it comes from the caupone, the sailors' taverns. The dishes described by Wright would suggest that in the past the Sicilian dish was similar to the Genoese capponata
This recipe would actually work well over any pasta. 

  • 1 fresh loaf of Ciabatta or other country-style Italian bread, sliced into 1" thick rounds, or a French baguette sliced through its median line into halves
  • 1 lb. of fresh burrata, left at room temperature (for at least an 1 hour)
  • 1/3 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 lb. of very thinly sliced prosciutto
  • 1/2 large onion, sliced & cut into fine dice
  • 1/2 large red pepper, cut into strips then chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed then minced
  • 2 Japanese eggplants, cut into 1/2 inch dice, erring on the side of larger dice if in doubt
  • 2 zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch dice, same size as eggplant
  • 1 tablespoon italian tomato paste
  • 2 lbs. of heirloom or roma tomatoes, stemmed, seeded and cut into small dice (or 28 oz. can of plain crushed tomatoes)
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup fresh calamata or black olives, pitted & roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of capers, drained
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 handful of fresh parsley, minced
  • 3 sprigs of fresh oregano, leaves only, minced
  • 10 large basil leaves, thinly julienned
  • 1 pinch of herbes de provence (optional)
  • freshly ground salt & pepper to taste

1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Fire up grill.

2) Heat a large saute or braising pan to medium high. When hot, add half the olive oil letting it heat up for a few seconds then add onions and 1 grind of salt & pepper mill.

3) Saute onions for a minute then add red peppers & garlic, lower the heat to medium and add the eggplant followed by the zucchini, stirring to coat vegetables evenly with olive oil & aromatics. I
f the eggplant has absorbed the oil in the pan and still appears dry add additional olive oil one tablespoon at a time until the eggplant appears moistened.

4) Now add the red pepper flakes & herbes de provence, gently stirrin
g until fragrant (10 - 15 seconds) followed by the tomato paste. Coat the vegetables with the tomato paste and let the mixture cook for 2 minutes until paste loses its raw color.

5) Add the tomatoes, gent
ly stirring to completely incorporate, then add the parsley, oregano & olives. Lower heat to low. Allow the sauce to cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to insure that sauce does not burn. When sauce has thickened, add lemon juice, capers & half the basil, stirring gently, careful not to break up the eggplant or the zucchini. Taste sauce. Add salt & pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and let cool or keep at the lowest simmer possible and cover pan with lid to keep warm.

Caponata can be prepared & refri
gerated after cooling up to 4 days in advance then either reheated or served at room temperature.

6) While sauce is cooking, place prosciutto slices on a baking sheet that has been covered with either foil or parchment paper. Bake prosciutto uncovered in middle rack for 5- 7 minutes until crisp. Do not let it burn. When prosciutto is crisp, remove from oven & let cool. When cool, crumble each slice into small
er pieces like large bacon bits. Set aside in a small decorative serving bowl.

7) While prosciutto, cools lightly brush bread slice on both sides with remaining (or additional) olive oil and place on grill. Grilling both sides about 45 seconds or so each side until bread is warm & has grill marks. (Alternatively, place bread on a heated pizza stone or directly on oven racks and toast under the broiler.)

8) Now assemble the platter: On one 
very large or two smaller platters, place a bowl filled with the caponata & a serving spoon in the center, the burrata with a serrated cheese knife, the prosciutto bits in another bowl, the remaining basil and the bread slices around the perimeter. Have each guest serve himself. Take a slice of bread, top first with the cheese, then the caponata, sprinkle with the basil & the prosciutto. Mangia!!!


Paulina said...

Hi there! I came across your blog and really enjoy reading it - these recipes also look amazing. I was hoping I could reach you via email to ask you a couple of questions, could you please let me know where to reach you? Thank you!

Lori Gomez said...

Hi Paulina, thanks for reading, and for the kind words. Feel free to ask me here. I welcome questions and discussion about food. Your comments/questions go directly into my gmail. Have a lovely day!