Friday, July 25, 2008

In Love with the Love Apple

We Still Love Them, But Know Your Source!

Lycopersicum Esculentum or “edible wolf’s peach” is a favorite of almost everyone. Our English word tomato is derived from the Nahuatl word, tomatl, and the tomatl hails from South America, where it was originally found in the vicinity of what is now Peru. Europeans took tomatoes home with them in the 1520s and the rest is history. The “pomme d’amour” is now dearly beloved by both epicureans and good ol’ boys and girls on both side of the Atlantic.

Americans tend to think of tomatoes as a universal ingredient in Italian cuisine. Not true of course, and the use of tomatoes in Italian cuisine is usually defined by regional traditions. Grown in the hothouses of the European wealthy as an ornamental annual, tomatoes were first enjoyed as cuisine in Italy and the southern Mediterranean. The northern Europeans considered the fruit poisonous, probably because of its kinship with the deadly nightshade plant. The foliage of the tomato plant is toxic however. Tomatoes are members of the Solanaceae family which also include other benign relatives such as the eggplant and potato.

The recent outbreak of the bacterial infection Salmonella which was first associated with some tomatoes has been very disturbing to me. Although hot peppers may now be the culprit, it is now even more important to be absolutely sure of your source for fresh tomatoes and other produce. Local organic farmers in areas not associated with the outbreak are the safest providers, unless you are able to grow your own, which have the most succulent flavor anyway.

Serving temperature was a big concern to the legendary Julia Child. She called tomatoes “a persnickety being” in her book “The Way To Cook,” published by Alfred A. Knopf.
She goes on to declare, “The sad fact is that tomatoes are permanently traumatized if they remain for more than a few hours at temperatures lower than 55 degrees, whether in the field or in storage. Afterward, they may turn red, and their interstices may fill with jelly, but their flavor will never develop that real taste. When fully ripe, tomatoes still do not like a cold climate. Store them at 55 degrees (like wine) at cool room temperature, since they lose their flavor when refrigerated.”

Did You Know?
Tomato skins can be tough and juice and seeds can dilute the flavor in your recipes.
Avoid this problem by skinning, juicing and seeding your tomatoes by using these techniques.
Skinning: Dip tomatoes into a pan of boiling water for a couple of minutes and then plunge them into ice water. The skin will split and can be easily removed with the blade of a paring knife. Remove the core with the tip of the knife or a tomato shark.
Juicing and Seeding: To do this quickly and effectively, peel and core fresh tomatoes
(as explained previously) and cut into quarters. Over the sink or a bowl, hold the outside of each quarter against your palm and dig your fingers into the seed chamber and squeeze gently. The pulp is then ready for chopping or other preparation.

Did You Know?
Leeks are often very sandy and must be carefully cleaned before use. Remove wilted or yellowed leaves from stalks and slice leeks in half lengthwise. Then cut the leeks into ¼ inch thick pieces. Soak the pieces in a large bowl of cool water for 10 to 15 minutes, and then remove them carefully so as not to stir up the sand that has settled in the bottom of the bowl. Place the leek pieces in a colander and rinse very thoroughly. Allow them to drain for a few moments. Then pat dry with a paper towel or spin dry in a salad spinner. Cleaned, dry leeks may be chopped further, if desired.

(*Available at Avanti Savoia,

Yields: 6 Servings
12 large ripe tomatoes ( 7 cups finely chopped )
2 large stalks celery (2/3 cup chopped)
6 cloves garlic, minced and mashed
2 medium leeks (2 cups chopped)
2 Tblsp.extra virgin olive oil Fruttato Intenso by Marcinase*
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. thyme*
1 tsp. oregano*
1 tsp. fennel seeds*
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
2 tsp. (or to taste) Sel Gris sea salt*
Pinch sugar
1 cup dry red wine
½ cup chicken stock

Peel, juice, and seed tomatoes. ( see previous instructions ) Chop by hand or puree in food processor. Set aside.
Remove strings from celery and chop. Chop leeks and wash. ( see following leek info )
Heat Marcinase extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet and add garlic and leeks. Cook over a moderate heat 3 or 4 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add celery and cook 5 minutes more.
Add tomatoes, bay leaves, thyme, oregano, fennel seeds, cayenne pepper, sea salt and sugar. Simmer for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Add wine and chicken stock. Cook 20 to 30 minutes more, check for seasoning and serve with pasta or as a sauce for seafood, chicken or veal.

Yield: 8 Servings
6 large tomatoes, oven roasted with peels removed
4 bell peppers
4 cucumbers, peeled
2 stalks celery, strings removed
4 whole green onions
3 cloves garlic, minced and mashed
1 medium hot, pickled jalapeño
2 Tblsp. parsley, freshly chopped
1 tsp. oregano*
1 tsp. black peppercorns, coarsely ground*
1 Tblsp. sweet paprika*
1 tsp. (or more) Tabasco sauce
3 cups spicy tomato juice
Juice of ½ lime
Juice of ½ lemon
2 to 3 tsp. of fine Sel Gris salt from Artisan*
¼ cup Sherry Wine Vinegar *
2 Tblsp. extra virgin olive oil from Avanti Savoia*
½ cup bread crumbs (homemade if possible)
¼ cup whole cilantro leaves, stems removed (for garnish)

1. To Oven Roast Tomatoes: Heat oven to 500 degrees. Place washed tomatoes on
baking tray and broil under hot broiler for about 5 minutes until skin blackens
some what. Remove tray from oven, remove skins and stems and set aside.
2. Chop each vegetable by hand or in a food processor. Combine with other
ingredients and chill 8 hours.
3. Serve in chilled bowls garnished with a few handfuls of cilantro leaves. .

Yields: 1 1/2 -2 cups
6 ripe tomatoes, peel, core, juice and seeds removed (see instructions)
2 cloves garlic, minced and mashed
2 Tblsp. Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 tsp. black peppercorns, coarsely ground*
¼ cup Gold Medal Balsamic Vinegar from Giuseppe Giusti*
2 Tblsp. extra virgin olive oil from Cassini*
2 tsp. (or to taste) fine Sel de Mer Sea Salt from Artisan*

1. Chop tomatoes very coarsely and place into a food processor. Blend 10 slightly
and add other ingredients. Taste for seasoning and pulse blend for a few
more seconds, do not over process as the dressing should be chunky.
Enjoy these recipes with the best summertime tomatoes available, but with an awareness of the origin complications that may be associated with the Salmonella outbreak.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Gone to Texas Part III


The Texas wine industry has come a ways in the last couple of centuries and the Texas hill country north of San Antonio (and west of Austin) is considered the heart of wine production. For more Texas Wine Trail Information, call 866.621.9463. The 22 wineries claim some 5 million visitors a year and many have not only tasting rooms that offer sales of their wines but lots of examples of other Texas products as well. Three wineries were all that we could squeeze (no pun intended) into our schedule. Two of the vineyards are open to the public, while the other is one of our Avanti Savoia suppliers of wine oriented products.

Leaning Oaks Vineyards located in Spring Branch, is owned by Anthony and Leatine Fasano. Leaning Oaks is responsible for a line of excellent wine conserves, sauces and marinades and their newest addition, a cocoa / spice rub. These are all- natural products made with wine but containing no alcohol or refined sugar. These are delicious sauces and conserves, not as sweet as you might imagine and so perfect with meats, cheeses and other savory combinations. On our recent visit with the Fasano’s, they made sure that we had an ample opportunity to sample their products with an assortment of cheese and crackers. We particularly enjoyed their newest sauce, Chardonnay Dressing and Marinade as a dip with fresh snow peas. The springtime weather was made even nicer by sitting amid their rows of grapevines sharing a glass of Leaning Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve 2006. This was one of the better red wines that we tasted on our trip, so it is even more of a shame that it is not yet available commercially.

Not far “up the road”, between the towns of Stonewall and Fredericksburg, we made a stop at the tasting room of Becker Vineyards. The tasting room is situated in reproduction of a 19 century German style barn at which visitors can sample the various wines made at the winery. They also boast a 3 acre field of lavender that is available for sale in potpourris, sachets, soaps, oils and other products. Overnight accommodations can be arranged on premise at their Homestead Bed and Breakfast.

The next stop was the charming town of Fredericksburg in Gillespie County. The hill country west of Austin and north of San Antonio has been the home of prosperous German settlers since the 1840’s. A fact reflected by the classic stone masonry and hearty German cuisine. I always enjoy hearing “Willkommen!” spoken with a Texas accent Founded by 19th century German emigrants, this picturesque community is home to wineries, bakeries, restaurants, museums, shops, a vibrant art scene and some 350 Bed and Breakfasts.. It is well worth a visitor’s time just to explore the historic neighborhoods to appreciate the wealth of German influenced architecture. The “doll house” like appearance of the Sunday Houses is especially appealing.

Our first stop was the Fredericksburg Winery located on Main St., in the middle of the “downtown” business district. There at the tasting bar a member of the Switzer family will guide you through sampling of their extensive wines. They will answer your questions and insist that you taste the wines from the dry to the sweet in order to fairly evaluate each. Their line of jellies and other condiments are worth tasting, we really liked the Mesquite Smoked Mustard.

Main Street in Fredericksburg is notable for its impressive width, a leftover from the days in which the settlers had to have room in which to turn around their teams of animals. Now, as then it is the center of the town’s business life and a good bit of it can be reached by walking. We enjoyed a stop at Fromage du Monde, where it seemed only natural to shop for a bit of delicious cheese to go with one of the wines we had purchased earlier. There are a number of restaurants to choose from, including several German. At the recommendation of a couple of business people with whom we had spoken, we choose Der Lindenbaum.

Der Lindenbaum Restaurant is located in an historic (and beautiful) limestone building. The interior is cozy and comfortable. We settled into a table and over a glass of Riesling and a German beer decided on the Jagger Schnitzel and the Pfeffersteak, which were both quite good. The entrees were accompanied by German potato salad, sauerkraut and a spiced red cabbage. We particularly enjoyed the red cabbage and noticed a framed letter on the wall from Ladybird Johnson expressing her appreciation of the dish as well. Although there were definitely mixed reviews on the web, we had a very pleasant experience with their take on Texas-German cuisine.

As we prepared to make an early departure the next morning we did not take the time to eat a real breakfast. Instead, we grabbed a couple of pastries and a loaf of Dark Bread at the Old German Bakery. Checking the web we again found mixed reviews but we must say that even though we did not order from the menu, our pastries were really good!

Our early departure from Fredericksburg that morning was in order to visit one the truly spectacular sights in all of the hill country, Enchanted Rock. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is located north of Fredericksburg on the border between Gillespie and Llano counties. It was acquired by the state of Texas in 1984; although I had been exploring the area some 10 years before that when it was still in private hands. The “Rock” is a pink granite batholith covering 640 acres and rising 425 feet above ground. In the old days the only paths were footpaths unlike the marked paths now provided by the state. It was following one of these “marked” paths that eventually delivered us to a deer path going wherever it is that deer go and had the effect of turning a projected 1 ½ hour walk into a 4 ½ hour trip that included some fairly serious climbing. We weren’t exactly lost, but it was a long and hot adventure to say the least. It was also a fantastic opportunity to see the remarkable rock formations and plant life up close.

Our plan was to visit Enchanted Rock in the morning and then drive to the Ft. Worth/Dallas area and have dinner with my Aunt and Uncle early that evening. We had hoped to have a relaxed and scenic ride from the hill country to the Metroplex area. Our timing was disrupted by our extra hours hiking and we found ourselves trying to make the journey simply as quickly as possible. Lunch became a matter of practicality, and while zooming along looking for something quick and easy we happened onto to Ma & Pa’s Diner (325.372.4035) in out of the way San Saba, Texas. Because of the hundreds of acres devoted to growing pecans, the area is known as the “Pecan Capitol of the World” and we found that reflected in the awesome pecan pies offered at Ma & Pa’s.

My wife, Gail noticed the sign for the diner first and her intuition told her “this is the place”. It is definitely an unremarkable building, but Gail was sure it was the kind of authentic local cooking that we so much enjoy finding. She was right. We had our hearts set for a cheeseburger; we had been in Texas for over a week and had not yet had the chance to indulge ourselves. The description of the burger on Ma and Pa’s menu caught my eye immediately. The promise of a Jalapeno Sourdough Bun was the kicker. We placed our order, out they came and wonder of wonders, the promise was fulfilled. Big delicious buns; huge, juicy, irregular, hand shaped patties all added up to a loaded cheese burger full of fresh flavor. We were so pleased to find food so honest and so good.

A peak into the kitchen continued our delight in the cooking at our unpretentious little find. We spied a counter full of enticing pies cooling from the oven. “Mile-high” is certainly an over worked term, but these pies were indeed big, tall and beautiful. They also have a exceptional line of Jams, Jellies, Preserves, Spreads and other goodies made by Larry’s sister Sylvia Daves of Pflugerville, Texas (Treasures Past & Present.) By now, it was time to introduce ourselves to Larry Daniel, the owner. After accepting our compliments, Larry went on to share with us the story and history of the diner owned by him and his wife, Charlene.

Larry explained that the “Ma and Pa” were his parents, the late J. Lee and Lorene “Kewpie” Daniel. Kewpie raised 6 children and like so many of her generation, was known for her “table laden with delicious food and desserts.” The family has even published a cookbook of their Mother’s favorites, entitled Kewpie’s Recipes & More. “Kewpie” was the nickname given to Mrs. Daniel because of her interest in collecting the famous dolls. Her legacy is ably carried on in her family’s food business and commitment to quality. We did purchase one of those beautiful Pecan pies to share later with more members of my family and were gifted by Larry with several of his miniature pies for the road. Ma and Pa’s Diner was such a happy way to wind down a very happy vacation.
We did finally make it to My Aunt Betty and Uncle Ray’s for dinner that evening, although very late. Graciously, they waited for us and we enjoyed two very short days in their family’s company before at last it was time to return home. Beautiful weather, great food, amazing geography, Texas hospitality and the genuine warmth of my relatives’ affectation made us so grateful that we had “Gone to Texas!”

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Gone to Texas Part II


San Antonio is located about 80 miles southwest of Austin, but it is well worth the effort to make a little detour on the way and visit the historic community of New Braunfels. Founded by German settlers it is located in the heart of the Texas Hill country. The little town has interesting hotels, restaurants and plenty for visitors to do. We felt that we had to make a stop at New Braunfels’ Naegelin’s Bakery, because it is 139 years old and the oldest bakery in Texas. Try their sausage or fruit Kolaches as well as their famous strudels. A cup of coffee and a treat from Naegelin’s will be just about right to help you finish the journey to San Antonio.

The Alamo City is one of the great tourist destinations in America. Downtown San Antonio profited greatly from the improvements left from their World’s Fair held in 1968; most notably, the charming Paseo del Rio or Riverwalk. Although the Riverwalk was designed in 1929 it was the renovation for the Fair that made it the magnate for visitors that it is today. The length of the Riverwalk is crowded with a warren of eateries and watering holes. One can hear a wide range of live music ranging from Mariachi bands to excellent jazz. Hotels and beautiful Cypress trees line the banks; one ancient titian is reported to be three hundred years old. One of the most pleasant ways to see the sights is by taking Rio San Antonio Cruise. The cruise lasts for about 40 minutes and includes a really informative narrative while you float along 2 ½ miles of the river.

We did make a food stop at the Casa Rio Restaurant, were we once again were tempted by the chili, which we found excellent. Do stick with a cold cerveza and skip the sangria. Schilo’s Delicatessen is not strictly speaking on the Riverwalk, although it is right around the corner on East Commerce. Established in 1917, it is a San Antonio institution serving German Deli food and pitchers of their glorious homemade root beer.

Mi Tierra Café y Panderia (Bakery) should be at the top of anyone’s restaurant list while visiting San Antonio. This San Antonio landmark has been serving Mexican food since 1941. The restaurant is located within the old Mercado and shopping can still include clothing, leather goods, paper mache’ art, blankets, and pottery. Mi Tierra is open 24/7 and is often the last place to visit after a night of revelry in the city.

We began with a Margarita and their Botanas platter of assorted appetizers. We especially enjoyed their assorted nachos and the refried beans. I was determined to sample the Enchiladas de Polla en Mole. Chicken Enchiladas in Mole Sauce which is a rich dark brown sauce that contains some dark chocolate. It doesn’t much taste like chocolate but it does taste wonderful. My wife opted for the Menudo, a beef tripe stew that is famous in the Southwest, among other things for being something of a hangover cure. Does it work? We didn’t have the necessary buzz going to be able to test it, but the locals swear by it. More because it was there than because we were still hungry, we did order the Vanilla Flan and Dulce de Leche Cheesecake. There also literally dozens of Mexican pastries and candies that you may order from their Panderia (bakery). In my many years of visiting San Antonio I do not believe that I’ve ever missed the occasion to dine at Mi Tierra.

Millions of tourists visit and most make a stop at the Alamo- its real name being the Mission San Antonio de Valero. It is one of five historic Spanish missions laid out over about an eight mile stretch of the San Antonio river. These Franciscan missions were not in the strictest sense just churches, they were walled communities. They became small Indian towns, complete with bastions of fortified towers. The missions in some cases had small living quarters built in the walls themselves. There were churches within the complexes of course. Today those historic sites are still active Roman Catholic Parish churches, as may be noted by service schedules and worshipers quietly praying even in the midst of visiting tour groups. I love visiting these old missions, there is always something soothing and serene about them. I have thought many times about how far away from their home these Franciscans were and the challenges they must have faced bringing their religion and culture (for better or worse) to the new world. It was the missions in the southwest that first introduced viticulture to America because of their need for wine for Mass.