May 28, 2015

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Dear friends,

My tomato plants are outgrowing their greenhouse seed trays on the sidewalk where I plopped them last week. One has even produced a cranberry-sized green tomato. I gotta get those suckers in the ground if I want to gorge on sliced tomatoes with olive oil and basil this summer.

But why wait? Last week I found a way to eat out-of-season tomatoes without gagging. Yes, I’ve discovered the holy grail of year-round tomato pleasure: Grilled Caprese Salad. And you don’t even need a grill! You can nuke the tomatoes in the microwave and the salad is just as juicy and delicious.

The recipe was born of desperation.  A grill was the only heat source for the cooking class I led last week at Crown Point’s annual plant sale. The topic was vegetables and herbs. I needed some unique grilled vegetable recipes – ones that weren’t all over the Internet. The problem was, the vegetables I wanted to talk about weren’t in season yet.

I figured I could make a decent tomato, mozzarella and basil salad if I grilled the tomato to intensify the pallid, off-season flavor.  I didn’t figure it would taste as delicious as it turned out. The smoky flavor of the halved and grilled plum tomatoes, and the slightly melted mozzarella (from the residual heat of the tomatoes) gave a great new twist to the popular salad. To bump up the basil flavor, I drizzled the salad with basil vinaigrette.

A couple of days later I didn’t feel like grilling but wanted to use up the leftover tomatoes, mozzarella and basil before they went bad. So, what the heck, I layered the sliced tomatoes and mozzarella and nuked them just until the mozzarella began to melt. Then I drizzled the salads with leftover basil vinaigrette and added a pinch of sea salt and some shredded basil. Wow. Microwaving makes the tomatoes exceptionally juicy and vastly improves their flavor. The soft, melty texture of the mozzarella is interesting, too. Tony couldn’t get enough.

Whether you grill or nuke this salad, use meaty, fresh plum tomatoes instead of globe tomatoes. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise for grilling and in ¼-inch-thick lengthwise slices for microwaving.

GRILLED CAPRESE SALAD WITH BASIL VINAIGRETTE

Basil Vinaigrette:
•    2 tbsp. white or red wine vinegar
•    1/2 tsp. Dijon-style mustard
•    8 to 10 large basil leaves
•    1/4 tsp. salt
•    Few grinds pepper
•    1 clove garlic
•    1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Salad:
•    8 medium-sized plum tomatoes
•    12 slices (about 1/8-inch thick) fresh mozzarella, about the diameter of a plum tomato
•    Coarse sea salt
•    Shredded fresh basil for garnish

For the Basil vinaigrette:

At least an hour in advance (several hours is better), combine vinegar, mustard, basil, salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to chop. With motor running, drop garlic clove through feed tube and process a few seconds until chopped. With motor still running, slowly pour oil through feed tube, processing until smooth. Store at room temperature for up to a day. Refrigerate leftovers, bringing to room temperature before using. Makes about ¾ cup.

For the salad:
Build a medium-hot charcoal fire (or pre-heat gas grill) and soak a handful of hickory wood chips.

Cut tomatoes in halves lengthwise through the blossom scar. With your finger or thumb, strip out and discard the seeds and any pulp. When the coals have ashed over, toss some wood chips on the coals. Place tomato halves on the hot grill directly over the coals and close lid, making sure vents are open. Cook for about  5 minutes, until tomato has grill marks. Open lid and turn tomatoes over with tongs. Cook on other side (lid open) until that side begins to char and tomato has softened but is not totally limp.

Remove tomatoes from grill and while hot, fan 4 tomato halves on each of 4 salad plates, interspersing tomato halves with mozzarella slices. The tomato slices should lean against one another to help retain enough heat to partially melt the mozzarella. Spoon some basil vinaigrette over each salad and sprinkle with sea salt. Garnish with shredded fresh basil. Makes 4 servings.

Note: To microwave instead of grill, cut the tomatoes lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Fan on 4 microwave-safe plates with mozzarella slices and microwave on high power just until edges of mozzarella begin to melt. Continue as with recipe above.

TIDBITS

“I thought this would be Mustard Seed “lite” but it’s not,” a friend said as she steered me through the cool new store in Highland Square in Akron. This was Nancy’s second trip, my first, and I was wowed. I was impressed with the spacious main floor which houses the groceries, deli, bakery, wine shop and everything else the Montrose store has, only sexier. With its cement floor and industrial-looking shelves, the long-awaited Highland Square store has a hip, urban vibe.

Then we took an elevator to the second floor and I was bowled over. A sofa and easy chairs are  arranged around a fireplace. A glassed-in area offers outlets and quiet space for computing. Bartenders pour beer and wine behind a sleek counter that doubles as a busy juice bar.

The real star, though, is the food. You line up (and there will be a line) to place your order at the bar, perusing a menu while you wait. Then you find a seat indoors or outside on the huge deck that wraps around two sides of the market, offering tree-top views of Market Street in the front and Portage Path on the side.

The food is delivered to your table quickly, although it would be worth even a long wait. It is restaurant-quality, and much better than the prepared café foods at EarthFare and Giant Eagle Marketplace, both of which I like. In quality and flavor the food is more West Point, with a dash of cool.

I changed my order three or four times before I got to the front of the line. It’s that kind of menu. I’ll go back for the avocado BLT on toasted Italian bread, the truffle fries with truffle aioli, and the Anti-Inflammatory Salad – organic kale, spinach, herbs, pineapple, blueberries, pumpkin seeds, tamari almonds and turmeric-ginger dressing.

I almost ordered the brown rice and refried bean quesadilla with tomatoes, scallions, black olives, Cheddar, mozzarella and grilled chicken. Ultimately I settled on a quinoa Bowl with vegetables, chicken and green curry sauce. I could have chosen brown rice instead of the quinoa, ginger-lime broth or Thai peanut sauce instead of the curry, and marinated tempeh or salmon instead of the chicken.
The food is not inexpensive – my Bowl was $14 – but it is fresh and delicious.

Check it out.

Rhubarb it up:
One Ohio crop that wasn’t hurt by the late spring cold snap is rhubarb. Boy, is there a lot of it.
At my favorite roadside stand on Copley Road in Copley, the broad leaves have grown as high as a man’s waist. The rhubarb there is selling for $1.50 a bunch, which is a bargain compared to prices in stores.

Visit my buddy at 2198 Copley Road or find another grower for your rhubarb fix.

On Copley Road, look for the small signs beside his driveway that read, “$2.50 Fresh Eggs ” and “$1.50 Rhubarb.” Go before 4 p.m., ring the bell and then holler, because he may be around back.

New blog:
Stephen Michaelides, retired editor of the Cleveland-based Restaurant Hospitality magazine, has begun an ambitious and literary blog, Greek Columns, about – mostly — the restaurant industry. The guy can write. Check it out at http://www.greekcolumns.us.

MAILBAG

From Barb:
Thanks for your memories and the history of the West Point Market. The words “rare gem ” accurately describe that store. Shopping in that store was a great experience offering unique products and food items. The store will be missed by many!

From Kate:
Thx for your reflections (on West Point Market). We so agree the store declined after Russ (left). What’s great is Whole Foods Market!!!! How did we luck out? C. U there.

Dear Kate: I like Whole Foods a lot, but I’m worried the store will take business from our own locally owned Mustard Seed Markets.

From Eric:
I worry where I will find quality prime-grade meat! We had Schlachter’s Fine Meats in Cincinnati. I know good beef when I taste it. For those in the know, we all worry what will become of us without West Point Market.

Dear Eric: Try Kirbies Meats & Catering Stow (http://www.kirbies.com/specialty-foods-and-services/butcher-shop), whose co-owner, Kirbie Burns (with son, Kris), was a meat-cutter  at West Point Market and patterned his full-service butcher shop after the store’s meat department. Kirbies is among a shrinking number of fine butcher shops in the Akron area.

From G.H.:
You echo my sentiments exactly with your thoughts on West Point Market. It’s just devastating to me that they’re closing and, even if they open a mini-WPM, it won’t come close to a full service store like it is now. I can’t imagine Russ Vernon ever selling out, both to his customers and his employees. I’ve often told friends that WPM was a major reason I could never move out of the Akron area and I was quite serious. The store made me a much better cook with readily available hard-to-find ingredients.

Some years ago I needed fenugreek for a recipe which I couldn’t find anywhere.  I went to WPM and they didn’t have it so I asked Russ about it. He was very concerned and within a week he had it there for me and has carried it ever since. Service like that has been lacking since Russ retired but it was still a great shopping experience every time I walked the aisles, picking up items otherwise unavailable try out. It will certainly be a sad closing.

Dear G.H.: Your letter is a fine tribute to a store so many of us love. Thanks for sharing.
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