Musings on Avocados and the Great American Southwest

I’d like to begin this week by talking to you about avocados. No, they’re not local of course but they are rather delicious and they just may help me to make a point.  While out west over the last month something very peculiar happened as I spent a week in Phoenix at the American Culinary Federation National Convention and the following week traveling around Arizona with my two children, Coburn and Marcella. (Editor’s Note: While Chef Jay is too modest to mention it here he was inducted into the American Academy of Chefs while at the ACF National Convention. Congrats, Jay!) The last time I was out there was 1995 with my young family and the kids were too young to remember much of anything let alone the fact that my youngest, Marcie, was presently in the womb.

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Our intrepid Chef Jay with his kids Marcie and Coburn at the Grand Canyon

As you may recall from previous blogs, I began my career as a young chef out west in the eighties after culinary graduation here in West Virginia and it has always held a very special place in my heart. So we felt it was high time we revisited the beautiful state again now that the children were old enough to appreciate the natural beauty and history of this classic southwestern territory. I won’t carry on too much about how wonderful the trip was but something stood out in my mind very much as we traveled about and that was avocados! I know, really Jay? How could one be so emphatic over something like avocados?

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Beautiful melon carvings presented by Chef Jay at the ACF National Convention! The rest of today’s pictures are of competition dishes presented by various chefs at the convention. Scrumptious, yes?!

Please let me tell you. What I instantly noticed was that the avocados tasted better and fresher than the ones we get here in the east, imagine that! Everywhere we went the flavor really stood out! Could it possibly have something to do with the fact that they’re all very local out there? Duh! Of course one would expect them to be fresher but the flavor was extremely pronounced, more so than I ever would have expected.  I had actually forgotten they tasted that great and I eat them all the time! I suppose as a chef I shouldn’t have been so surprised, nonetheless I was ecstatic and the kids didn’t have any problem eating Mexican or southwestern everywhere we went.  So, what does this have to do with a blog for local gardening and the Bridgeport Farmers Market? You’ve probably already figured that out but let me remind you why so many of us are so enthralled with all the wonderful products that fill the tents among the markets when we begin to see the fruits of labor from all the various farmers in our area. Local products not only taste better because they’re fresher and haven’t been traveling around (who knows how long) on their journey to us, but when they’re grown and harvested under natural and or organically processes they are nutritionally better for us as well. Kind of makes sense doesn’t it!

I’d like to share another example that I experienced several years ago in the mountains of North Carolina. I was very fortunate to have been one of the few chosen clients of a little operation known as Charlotte’s Greenhouse. Charlotte and her daughters supplied me for many years with the most incredible lettuces, herbs and flowers one could imagine. One season after cleaning up the kitchens from our New Year’s Eve Party I realized I had an extra case of their lettuces leftover in the walk-in cooler so I intentionally left it thinking it would be interesting to see how long it would last. Setting it in the rear corner of the cooler and basically ignoring it for three months. At that particular facility we closed down the kitchen for the winter season and during that period I became Food & Beverage Director for one of the local ski resorts. It was a nice break by the way, I just hate skiing! Ha! Anyway, much to my amazement when I re-opened the kitchen on March 1st the lettuces looked fine and there was no visible deterioration as far as I could tell. Were the heads fresh, how could they be? But yet they looked fine.

What did this tell me? It made me realize first just how fresh the product I was getting form Charlotte was but it also made me wonder how old the lettuces we buy in the grocery stores are when we finally get them and how long they had been in storage or traveling around the country side. Could these things affect the flavor, or rather how much do they affect the flavor? Hence the correlation with the avocados, right! Interesting to ponder to say the least, wouldn’t you?

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You folks don’t need me to tell you about the benefits of using fresh ingredients and local products that’s evident in just about every health article you read these days.  Not only are the nutrients more prevalent in fresher products but now they’re telling us that we’re losing more nutrient value form our fruits and vegetables by cooking them than we ever imagined as well. I’m sorry to say it but it’s not like we can blindly follow what the FDA tells us is it? It’s up to us as individuals to not only find out what we believe is best for us but to also inform the folks that toil over producing our foodstuffs just what it is we want and expect.

A little communication’s all we need to get the world back on its feet again! Don’t we wish!

We can also factor in the belief that when we buy local we’re taking better care of ourselves and also reinforcing and supporting our local businesses. It’s very easy, if you ask me, to convince yourself that it is in our best interest to invest in the community in which we live and raise our families. Wouldn’t you say?

 

Bridgeport Farmers Market vendors offer a tremendous variety of local produce, proteins, crafts and value-added products week after week, even through the winter months. As most of you know we’re open 10-2:00 Sundays at Charles Pointe in Bridgeport. Please join us to support community and the good folks that care about what we feed our bodies and minds with.

Hope to see you there! Enjoy the recipes below and click here for a printable version!

Bonne cuisine!

Chef Jay

 

Tomato Pie

1 Pie shell, par-baked (five minutes only)

1 Large yellow tomato

1 large red tomato

1 Tbs. Chopped Basil

2 teas. Extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, finely diced

2 oz. shredded Mozzarella

1 oz. shredded Romano cheese, Parmesan or Asiago

Sea Salt & fresh cracked black pepper to taste

1/4 cup Italian breadcrumbs

Get all things in place: (Mise en place)

1) Make the pie dough, bake five minutes and chill

2) Dice the onions and sauté with the olive oil, reserve

3) Chop the basil and mix with the onions

4) Shred cheeses

Method:

Core the tomatoes, cut in half and slice into 1/4 inch slices. Sprinkle Mozzarella evenly, covering the bottom of the pie shell.

Season the tomatoes with sea salt before arranging them neatly into a circle in the pan, also alternating with the red and yellow. Depending on the size of the tomatoes it may require a little more.

Gently lift the tomatoes to sprinkle the onion and basil mix thoroughly throughout the slices.

Sprinkle breadcrumbs and Romano cheese evenly over the surface of the pie. Cook approximately 45 minutes @ 350 F      Cool to room temperature and serve.

 

Spaghetti Squash Casserole

  •  Wash spaghetti squash and cut in half lengthwise. Remove seeds with a large spoon.
  • Season inside of squash lightly with salt and white
  • Place squash inside-down on roasting pan lined with paper and drizzle a small amount of water onto pan, not covering the bottom but providing the pan with moisture.
  • Roast @ 350 approximately 50-60 minutes depending on size of squash.
  • Remove from oven when cooked but still firm. Invert squash so they will cool off quickly.
  • Using a large fork carefully scrape out the cooked strands of squash and reserve in a large bowl.
  • Season with salt, white pepper, dried or fresh basil, chopped garlic and olive oil.
  • Mix in (rinsed) seedless diced tomato and a small amount of heavy cream and grated Parmesan cheese.
  • Top with a small amount of Parmesan cheese and bake approximately 30 minutes or until lightly browned and hot throughout.

 

*Chefs Note: The heavy cream is not necessary but certainly makes it richer. I also like to drizzle a little white wine in the roasting pan at the beginning as well.

 

Gnocchi di Spinaci con Ricotta

2-1/2 cups Ricotta

1 bunch spinach

1 cup flour

2-1/2 cups fresh grated parmesan

4 egg yolks

10 mint leaves, minced

PINCH grated nutmeg

Salt & freshly ground pepper

8 Tbs……………………………………………………. butter

10 small leaves sage

Drain ricotta in cheesecloth lined strainer, set over bowl and refrigerate overnight.

Cook spinach briefly and chop, then use mortar and pestle to grind to a fine paste.

Add 2/3 cups of the flour, 2 cups parmesan, egg yolks, ricotta, mint, nutmeg and salt & pepper to the bowl and mix well.

Using 2 small spoons shape 1 Tbs. of mixture into an oval, then gently slide off spoon onto a floured surface. Repeat.

Add to simmering water in 2 batches; cook approximately 2-3 minutes

Sauté in sage butter and serve

Chefs Note: there are of course many ways of shaping gnocchi and any fashion will certainly work. I like rolling the mixture gently into a 1-1/2 inch wide log and then cut them with a dull knife or bench scraper, pinching as you cut, release and roll. This gives them that conch shell sort of bottom.

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