Thursday, September 8, 2011


If there's one thing we have in Wisconsin it's corn, sweet sweet corn. Around the middle of August the local corn comes into maturity and you can pick up a dozens ears for five bucks at roadside stands or at farmers markets. At the roadside stands there's still a trust factor present in the local countryside where the farm stands remain unattended and payment is on an honor system. There's no sweeter time then when the corn is in season. When mixed with heirloom tomatoes and a little basil the result can be a meal in itself and we take full advantage of eating as much as we can before the frost comes and the corn is gone. This is Rick's recipe for summertime corn salad:
First, when you buy your corn leave it in the husk. I don't get it when I see some harried mom standing next to the corn bin striping off the husks and throwing them away. You'd think they were paying for the corn by weight instead of by the ear. We keep our corn in the husk and roast it in the oven. We don't soak it, we don't wrap it in tinfoil, we just turn the oven up as high as it will go (500 - 550 degrees) and throw the corn, husk and all, onto the middle rack for twenty minutes. It works every time. The corn comes out hot and moist. The husk holds in the water content of the corn leaving it wet and flavorful, much better than boiling the corn and stripping out all the flavor. The only problem with the roasting method is you need asbestos gloves to shuck the corn after you take it out of the oven. It's HOT!
So after you've blistered your fingers shave off the cornels into a dish.
Then slice and dice your tomatoes. There's no reason for being neat, just cut them up as best you can. The juicier the tomatoes the sweeter they are and the messier they are to cut. Rick likes to add a red pepper to the mix, it adds another flavor pop and an extra crunch to each bite. Dump the tomatoes and pepper into the bowl with the corn then cut up some basil.
If you take the basil leaves and roll them into a doobie you can cut them quickly leaving thin stripes. The basil not only gives the salad flavor but the added color helps make the dish all the more appealing.
For a finishing touch clip some fresh chives into the dish, add a splash of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper to taste and mix the contents together.
This salad is quick and easy, just the way a summer salad should be.

We'd always admired the sunflowers surrounding a house at the corner of Sprecher and Cottage Grove Roads. It's at that point where the suburbs have temporarily stopped and the country still holds with farmlands and fields of Wisconsin agricultures. The house possesses the same indecision of wanting to be farm and suburb but unable to make up its mind. The owners have rented out small plots of land to weekend farmers tucked behind some makeshift fencing. There's a ramshackle appeal and disdain for the place and this is how there sunflowers grow, tall and mismanaged in random plots as if someone took a handful of seeds and then told them, "Good luck, you're on your own."
At the end of spring this year we were passing the house on Sprecher and Cottage Grove and saw the owners out working in their yard. They were both at the crossroads between middle age and golden years. He was a little grizzled with the hands of a workman. She was petite and Asian with a big hat to protect her from the sun. Rick wanted to ask them about their sunflowers so we pulled off the road and got out of the car. As we approached you could see a bit of trepidation on their faces but when we asked about the sunflowers they both perked up and started in on their own histories, histories of carving out a living through their hands and hard work. They'd hoped to sell the property to an interested gas company but the plan wasn't moving forward so they'd been renting the land to make enough money to see them through. Rick asked about the different varieties of sunflowers and what they did to get such huge blooms. The woman giggled and said they'd gone to the local hardware store and bought a huge bag of birdseed. They sifted out all the different sunflower seeds, it was infinitely cheaper than buying packets at a nursery and then stuck them in the ground hoping for the best. She then ran into the garage and showed us a plastic container filled with seeds. She poured a bunch into a separate container and said, "You take these. See what happens."
From tiny seeds grow giant plants. We filled the alley along the driveway at the store with her seeds and now we have a beautiful wall of sunflowers, their golden petals stretching eighty feet down the drive. It's a huge ray of sun that fills the last days of summer with its golden glow.

The Historical Society of Andes, New York used to hold a summer fundraiser where local members would hold a potluck and silent auction right around Founder's Day in the middle of August. We'd drape tables in vintage patio clothes and top them with mason jars laden with local sunflowers, delphiniums, roses and gladiolas. Hurricane shades held candles that lit the night under the canopy of white tents. The local slow food and organic food movements prepared the main courses which were set out on the buffet table next to the cash bar, Another table held the potluck appetizers, salads and desserts we all made in an effort to impress our neighbors. This was the first time I tasted watermelon salad. The character actress, Beverly Archer, owned a folk art based antique store, American Street, across the street from our store. Bev had an eye for unearthing the most astounding pieces of folk art, an ability to select the perfect wine, a creative bent for fashioning a treasure out of tossed out goods and the ability to transform simple ingredients into culinary masterpieces. I'm sure she didn't event the watermelon salad but I continue to credit her for introducing it to me.
Here's all you need to make a watermelon basket that should feed about 20 guests:
One large round watermelon
One medium sized red onion
One pound of feta cheese
Ground black pepper to taste
This is a very easy summer trick you can prepare in a very short time. The first thing you want to establish is the watermelons bottom. Set it on a flat surface and see where it seems to set without moving. Most melons have a natural underside. To help your melon out, slice a thin piece of the bottom so the melon basket will remain upright. Start to cut the handle by making a slit at the top of melon taking it almost to the mid point of the melon.
Your handle should be about 1 1/2" to 2" wide. Then start stabbing the melon in a 45 degree path from the edge of the handle around to the other side. You'll do this for both sides of the melon trying not to cut into the handle. Now pry off the excess parts of the melon. You can cut out the flesh of the melon under the handle with a knife.
Then start scooping out the rest of the flesh with a melon baller. If you don't have one use a measuring spoon. It'll work just as well. When you're balling don't go too far down. Try to stay away from cutting into the rind. When you get close stop balling and scrape down your melon walls until you have a smooth interior surface. Put your melon balls in a separate bowl.
Cut your red onion in thin slices and then quarter the rings.
Add this to the melon balls, crumble your feta into the mix, grind some pepper on top and mix. I usually end up with more than will fit into the basket so I put it in a separate container and take it along. That way I can refill the basket and keep it looking fresh for a little longer. That's it. If it's an adult's only party you can also spike the melon with a little vodka. Cheers!

Life and the way you live it is only as difficult as you make it.  Yes there are times I want to get in the kitchen, rollup my sleeves and cook a sophisticated, complicated blow you away meal.  Listen, I've even boned a duck from the inside leaving it whole and then stuffing it creating a complicated classic French "Canard Farci".  Summer food can be the simplest there is and nothing is simpler than corn, tomatoes and melon.
I've also created some fairly involved, structured floral arrangements, complete with oasis, chicken wire and floral tape but my personal choice when it comes to flowers is a simple vase or pitcher filled with one kind, one color flower.  What could be brighter or cheerier than a big fat bunch of sunflowers?


Near Juvisy, France, 1938
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Represented by Laurence Miller Gallery

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