Whenever I visit family, I always take the opportunity to prepare at least one family meal. It’s purely a selfish act really. Not only does it afford some precious and increasingly rare family time, but also gives me the chance to cook in what is often a larger, much better equipped (with a gas range!!!) kitchen than mine. My family thinks they are the winners in this scenario, although to my crafty way of thinking, I get to have all the fun!
On many a happy occasion, cooking has been a team effort and we have found ourselves squeezing into the same kitchen working on our different dishes at various predetermined stations. The room takes on an air of supercharged energy that might be a little overwhelming for those who may not have shared a roof for twenty years! Since my family resides in three different corners of the country these “cooking-paloozas” often occur over the holidays and have been the cause of many fond, often hilarious but always beautiful memories.
On a recent trip to visit my brother and his family in Southern California, I assumed the role of “executive chef” for the day and created the evening menu. As far as I’m concerned, there is only one way to shop for produce and specialty foods so my brother, Dad and I headed out on a gorgeous Sunday morning; destination, one of the many amazing green markets that Californians enjoy. The market that we attended in Ladera Ranch was not large as some of these markets tend to be. However, the atmosphere was carnival-like and swarming with happy food enthusiasts. Shopping here is not an amateur sport as locals arrived armed with lists and baskets of all shapes and sizes to do some serious shopping in the summer sun.
Every stand was chock full of the most amazing produce, sauces, oils, pastas, cheeses and even gelato that one could possibly desire. Foodie that I am, I was like a “kid in the candy store” with my head pivoting from side to side, darting from market stand to market stand, sniffing, touching and exclaiming at an increasingly frenetic pace. As I had selected Dungeness Crab for the main course, I settled on lemons the color of the sun, shallots and garlic that I planned to sauté in butter for the sauce, a large fragrant, fresh baguette and lovely purple and red heirloom tomatoes the size of my fist. Since purchasing a whole plant was a less costly option than buying a bunch, we opted for a basil plant destined for a life in my brother’s garden and at the last minute added eight gorgeous white nectarines of softball proportion. The scent of this fruit was dizzyingly intoxicating even before the Asian woman operating the stand put knife to flesh to kindly offer me a taste. No table is complete without fresh flowers so on the way to the car; we snatched up a dozen dwarf sunflowers from the colorful array that spilled from the stand to the sidewalk.
Needless to say, this fabulous simple food hardly required much culinary skill to prepare. The steamed crab was sweet and delicious and the sliced, broiled tomatoes were both juicy and crisp with their panko, parmesan and basil topping. With such good fare available, it is hard to fathom selecting a fast food choice over these simple gifts that Mother Nature provides or treating the evening meal with any less respect than it deserves. Truly, it does not take a great deal of skill or time to cook great food.
Keeping pantry staples on hand such as good quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dressings or glazes, panko bread crumbs for veggie or fish toppings and a pepper grinder and sea salt makes food preparation a snap. Hard cheeses like parmigiano-reggiano keep very well in a refrigerated drawer for long periods of time and add an extra depth of flavor to almost anything. As you become more adventurous, experiment with different varieties of all of the above mentioned such as flavored vinegars and French sea salt or Fleur de Sel perfect for finishing grilled vegetables.
As the sun begins to set on the summer fun in many parts of the country, we Floridians begin to look forward to our favorite season with great anticipation. This fall, consider making your grill your new BFF. Simply rub your grouper or snapper or even steak with olive oil, season with salt and cracked pepper and grill. Slice squash, zucchini and eggplant lengthwise, prep in the same manner and add them to your hot grate. Our family version of this vegetable dish also includes roasted red pepper, goat cheese and is finished with a balsamic vinaigrette or glaze. This wonderful fresh food provides a meal that is beyond compare. While we struggle through the dog days of summer, think about the wonderful food options available to all of us here at our own South Florida green markets. Buy yourself a basket, set your alarm clock and get out there. Support our local growers and buy some real food. I think you will find the energy to be intoxicating, the fresh air invigorating and the food to be addicting, body and soul. The best food is “good for you food”!