Tomato, Basil, Mozzarella

It has been done to death. Caprese salad that is. But there’s a reason it appears on nearly every restaurant menu come summertime: It’s so unbelievably good. I promise I’m not trying to bore you. I just have have a few things to add, in an effort, I hope, to maximize your tomato-eating experience this summer.

1. Tomatoes. I’m sort of stating the obvious here, but likely the tomatoes you pick up at your local farmers’ market will be superior to store-bought varieties. This past Sunday at the San Clemente farmers’ market, I learned from one of the Carlsbad farmers that the darker tomatoes tend to be sweeter. The man wasn’t lying. The tomato pictured in the upper left corner of this photo was the sweetest and tastiest of the bunch. It reminded me of a variety I discovered last summer, back in Philadelphia, called Black Prince, which I loved for the same reasons.

2. Fresh basil. Nothing like it. So fragrant. So sweet.

3. Mozzarella. I hate to be a snob, but buffalo mozzarella is so good, and there’s really nothing like the imported Italian varieties. However, as we are all so aware of our food miles these days, we can make smarter choices. I just discovered this Bubulus Bubalis mozzarella, which is made in Gardena (near L.A.) from the milk of water buffalo grazing in Northern California, if I understood the story correctly. Anyway, it is exceptional. And for Philadelphians, Claudio’s mozzarella is wonderful. (For all of you in between CA and PA, I wish I could give you more direction. Alas, my knowledge extends only to two places.)

4. Salt. Invest in a small tub of nice salt, like this one pictured below. I use it only on special occasions, like when I’m salting tomatoes or salting avocados or salting butter spread onto bread. So, basically I use it every day. My sister found this little tub in France earlier this summer but any variety of nice sea salt will do. (If you can’t resist this precious container, you can buy it from Salt Works.) And don’t be afraid to give the tomatoes a real sprinkling — I swear it makes them sweeter not saltier. Really.

5. Olive Oil. With good tomatoes, a drizzling of extra-virgin olive oil is the only dressing needed. I have yet to add a splash of vinegar to my tomato salads this summer. Though a splash certainly wouldn’t hurt. And it does make a nice little sauce to soak bread in.

6. Preparation. Try cutting your tomatoes into irregular shapes as opposed to thin slices. They look prettier; they’re easier to eat; and the tomatoes taste better, too. Really, they do. Cut the mozzarella the same way. And when you arrange it all on a platter, don’t toss it around to much. Just sprinkle the tomatoes and cheese with salt; tear basil leaves over the top; drizzle it with oil; and serve.



Two very hot peppers, cherry tomatoes, one heirloom tomato and a few very tired sprigs of basil picked from my garden. Yay, the tomatoes are turning red!

I am particularly enjoying the dark red heirloom tomatoes. They are sweet and delicious. I found these along with Bubulus Bubalis mozzarella at the Santa Monica farmers’ market this past Wednesday.

Melon & Cucumber Salad with Mint Vinaigrette


So, I sort of have this habit. I tend to add cheese to every salad I make. In large quantities. And often nuts, too. And maybe dried fruit if I don’t have any fresh on hand. I tend to turn salads into mini meals themselves, even when, as I often am, just serving them on the side.

For whatever reason, I refrained from adding more than what was prescribed in this recipe: melon, cucumber, lettuce and a mint vinaigrette. And I’m so glad I did. This salad does not need anything else. It is light, refreshing, summery — perfect as is. Thank you Sarah Cain at the Fair Food Farmstand 2,378 miles away in Philadelphia for supplying such a wonderful recipe in the weekly “At the Farmstand” email.

Now, for my friends out there looking for simple recipes, this one is for you. If you can chop up a melon and a cucumber, you can make this dish. The dressing is made right in the jar, which means no whisking and minimal cleaning. I love it, and you will too.

The dressing for this salad is made right in the jar: Equal parts vinegar and oil along with a pinch of sugar and salt, a dab of mustard and tons of mint and parsley combine to make a bright and flavorful dressing.


Cucumber And Melon Salad with Mint Vinaigrette

Recipe Courtesy of Sarah Cain, Supervisor of the Fair Food Farmstand in Philadelphia
Great with a grilled meat, especially lamb.
Serves 4

½ cup of extra virgin olive oil

½ cup of best white wine vinegar (I used rice vinegar and loved it.)
½ teaspoon of dijon style mustard

3 tablespoons of finely minced fresh mint

1 tablespoon of finely minced parsley

big pinch of sugar

big pinch of salt

2-3 cups mixed honeydew, cantaloupe and watermelon, peeled, seeded and diced

2 cups mixed greens

1 English cucumber, diced

1. In a jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the dressing ingredients.
 Shake like crazy. Let stand a room temp for 40 minutes to meld the flavors.


2. Meanwhile, combine the melon, greens and cucumber in a large bowl. (I also added some more mint and parsley (roughly chopped) to the salad.)

3. Shake the dressing vigorously before pouring just enough to moisten the chunks of melon, greens and cucumbers.

4. Serve.

Favorite Summer Salad: Shaved Zucchini & Pecorino

There’s something about the combination of raw (or briefly blanched) and young (or thinly shaved) vegetables with Pecorino Romano cheese that I find irresistible. Which vegetables meet this criteria? I can name only a few — asparagus (shaved), fennel (shaved), fava beans (briefly blanched) and summer squash (julienned on a mandoline) — but many more exist. When fresh, these vegetables need little more than salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice — no cooking is necessary (with the exception, of course, of the fava beans).

After discovering this zucchini salad last summer, I prepared it often, and on more than one occasion, made myself sick to my stomach. I think raw zucchini might be a little harsh on the stomach? Don’t let that deter you, however. Just a little warning.

Now, why Pecorino over Parmigiano? Parmigiano Reggiano would be a fine substitute, but there’s something about Pecorino that I’m really liking these days — I think it’s its saltiness. Cut it the same way as in the fava bean and pecorino salad: Stick the tip of a big chef’s knife right into the block and twist until nice chards break from the block.

Zucchini and Pecorino Salad
Serves 2 as a side dish

1 zucchini, about 8-inches long
Pecorino Romano cheese, to taste
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, halved

1. Shave the zucchini on a mandoline into thin spaghetti-like strips. Place in a bowl. Stick the tip of a big chef’s knife into a wedge of Pecorino and twist until nice chards break from the block. Add to the bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle olive oil over the mixture. Squeeze with lemon. Gently toss and serve.

Fava Bean and Pecorino Salad

I cook fava beans once a year. When I spot the first of the season at the market, I fill up a bag, take them home and set to work, peeling, blanching and then peeling again. I open Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables and weigh my options: purée them and stir them into risotto or eat them raw with prosciutto and Pecorino. I’m sorry, but anything that calls for two peelings is not going into my blender. And so, I eat the fava beans raw, tossed with olive oil and lemon juice and mixed with parmesan or Pecorino. And I don’t share them with anyone because the two pounds I peeled yields only enough for a small snack. But they are so good. Definitely worth the double peeling. At least once a year.

OK, so I’m being a little dramatic, but seriously, fava beans are a lot of work. I will cook them more than once this year, and I will share them, but I will cook them only at opportune times, like when I invite friends over who have small children with little fingers who will work swiftly.

With this salad, I like the Pecorino to be in big chunks. I’m a big fan of shaving cheese with a peeler or with a sharp knife, but with this salad I use a different technique: I stick the point of a large, sharp knife directly into the block of Pecorino and twist. It breaks into nice, flaky shards. Parley is a nice addition to this salad, but not critical. And a finely chopped shallot or red onion is also a nice touch.

Fava Bean and Pecorino Salad
Serves 4

2 to 3 lbs. fresh fava beans, shelled
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
4 oz. Pecorino Romano
extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 2 lemons
finely chopped parsley

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the fava beans and cook for one minute. Drain, then plunge the beans into an ice bath and let cool. Drain again. Peel the beans and place into a mixing bowl.

2. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Break the Pecorino into big chunks and sprinkle them into the bowl.

3. Drizzle olive oil over the mixture and toss. Sprinkle with lemon juice to taste. Add the parsley, toss again, and serve.

Blood Oranges and Ettinger Avocados

OK, I know, my consumption of oranges and avocados is getting out of hand. What’s pictured below is just my mid-morning snack. Ben drew the line last night before dinner. He told me he was starting to get “freaked out.”

To be fair, let me put his comment in context. For the most part, we have been eating the widely recognized Hass avocados — the dark, rough-skinned variety. Last night, however, I changed things up a bit and pulled out the Ettinger avocado I had purchased at the Sunday farmers’ market. A woman working at the Eli’s Ranch table told me Ettinger avocados have a “buttery texture” and “a pine nut flavor.” They also look like ostrich eggs, which I believe is what freaked Ben out.

I told Ben to look away as I sliced into its flesh. I didn’t want him to lose his appetite. Once on the plate, sprinkled with a little salt, however, these avocados look just like all the others, and Ben could eat his meal in peace.

Blood Oranges. Since reading a post in Matt Bites about a blood orange and campari cocktail I have been wanting to a.) make the drink and b.) experiment more with blood oranges. I have yet to make the cocktail but I have been eating my fair share of blood oranges. Mixed with avocados, sprinkled with sea salt and drizzled with olive oil, they make a yummy, simple salad or, as I mentioned above, a nice mid-morning snack.

Last night, I made a vinaigrette using the juice of two blood oranges, shallots, olive oil and salt (using the same method described on the sidebar below) and tossed it with arugula and shaved parmesan. Yum.

That’s all for now. I will try to refrain from mentioning oranges and avocados in the near future.

A Simple, Yummy Snack
Serves 1

1 avocado
sea salt
2 blood oranges
good extra-virgin olive oil

1. Cut the avocado in half. Remove the pit. Scoop out the flesh. Cut into large chunks. Place on a plate. Sprinkle with sea salt.

2. Slice off the ends of each orange. Using a sharp knife, slice off the peel, removing as much of the pith as possible. Cut the orange into large chunks and add to the plate of avocados. Season with a touch more salt.

3. Drizzle with olive oil. Eat.

A crate filled with Ettinger avocados. OK, so they don’t really look like ostrich eggs, but they are significantly larger than Hass.

Garlic-Cheese Butter & A San Clemente Sunset

I’m becoming a real purist. I have now renounced fake butter, a big deal in the Stafford household. I mean Ben and I practically fell in love over a tub of Brummel and Brown. Not really, but for many years, this butter-like spread, made with yogurt, was a staple in our refrigerator. Toast at breakfast and warm bread at dinner always received a dab of Brummel and Brown, its unfailing room-temperature texture convenient and its health claims welcome.

So what has inspired the sudden shift? I know, I know. I mention Michael Pollan in every other entry. His latest book, however, has really influenced how I shop and what I eat. And for the better. Butter is really good.

Until today, never had I read the ingredient list printed on a tub of Brummel and Brown. Here it is: water, vegetable oil blend (liquid soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil), nonfat yogurt (cultured nonfat milk), salt, gelatin, vegetable mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, (potassium sorbate, calcium disodium edta) used to protect quality, lactic acid, artificial flavor, vitamin a (palmitate), beta carotene (for color).

Now, let’s review a few of Pollan’s eating algorithms as outlined in In Defense Of Food:

1. Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
2. Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.
3. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A.) unfamiliar, B.) unpronounceable, C.) more than five in number, or that include D.) high-fructose corn syrup.

Brummel and Brown fails on every account except 3-D. Now, the tablespoon of Brummel and Brown I spread on my toast every other day likely wasn’t going to kill me. And maybe none of these ingredients is actually that bad for me. But do we really know? A tablespoon of butter on my toast surely won’t kill me — we’ve been eating butter for over 4,000 years (according to a quick google search). So why should I eat partially hydrogenated soybean oil (a trans fat*) and soy lethicin when I can eat cream? I prefer to eat cream, the sole ingredient in a batch of unsalted butter.

Because I have failed to write up an extensive entry on In Defense Of Food, I have enclosed a link to my notes, if anyone cares to learn more about the book.

*Brummel and Brown explicitly states on its tub “No Trans Fats,” but an asterisk leads to a qualification based on FDA labeling regulations related to fats: Less than one gram of fat is declared 0 grams per serving.

So, on Sunday at the San Clemente farmers’ market, when Jordan Stone of Delaney’s Culinary Fresh asked me if I was “anti-butter” I shook my head “no” and began sampling. My favorites included sun-dried tomato asiago, basil parmesan, and garlic asiago, a tub of which I ended up taking home. Spread onto warm bread, this butter, flavored with roasted garlic, Asiago cheese, herbs, lemon and sea salt, makes the Stafford household very happy.

Contrary to how it may appear, I am not a sales rep for Delaney’s Culinary Fresh. Just a huge fan. I’ve now used several other products including the artichoke tapenade (as an hors d’oeuvres with a baguette), the sun-dried tomato marinara sauce, and the basil Asiago sauce (for an instant dinner with garlic-basil spaghetti). Yum!

This is the sunset Ben and I enjoy every evening from our apartment. Just kidding. It’s the view from The Beachcomber, a great motel in San Clemente. Each room has a mini kitchen. Come visit!

Roots of Change Meeting & More Arugula

Before I moved out to California, Bob Pierson, director of Farm-To-City, told me my new state would be decades ahead — agriculturally speaking — of the East Coast. While I have been amazed at the number of farmers’ markets out here, only after yesterday am I beginning to understand what he meant.

You see, despite the obscene amounts of avocados and oranges I’ve been delighting in, I’ve actually spent the past month feeling proud of Philadelphia and the diversity of local foods available to those living in and around the city. While the farmers’ markets run only from May until December, Philadelphians can shop year-round at the Fair Food Farmstand and have the option of joining buying clubs during the winter. As I mentioned recently, I lived ten blocks away from a source for local grass-fed beef, lamb and pork, raw milk, raw-milk cheeses, nitrate-free bacon, fresh chickens, eggs and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

I have encountered no such stand or source like the Fair Food Farmstand in my time thus far on the West Coast. Now, I could eat sautéed Swiss chard, mustard greens, kale, etc. mixed with rice and parmesan every night. However, I do have a husband to feed, and my recent dinners, I suspect, have left him wanting. The last time I made a meatless dinner, Ben said, “Mmmm, this is delicious,” and he cleared his plate. About an hour later, he was scrambling eggs and scouring the fridge for a morsel of protein to add to the pan.

So, I ventured down to San Diego two days ago to attend a Roots of Change meeting in search, I’ll admit, of meat. I wandered into the room, spotted the legendary Melanie Lytle and claimed a chair at her table. Before long, I saw the California Bob Pierson had described.

Like many people across the country, Californians are concerned about the current state of our food system and the future health of our communities and planet. These worries foremost, believes Larry Yee (County Director), are driving the “food revolution.”

People partake in this revolution in countless ways: by using reusable shopping bags at the grocery store; by boycotting bottled water; by shopping at farmers’ markets; by joining CSAs and buying clubs; by shopping for humanely raised meats; by purchasing organic and locally grown foods.

California, I learned, has taken this effort to the next level: Roots Of Change has drafted a comprehensive plan to create a sustainable food system in the state of California by the year 2030. This plan demands the collaboration of food producers, food distributors, businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, foundations, etc. As Yee noted, a sustainable food system — not just a sustainable agriculture system — is the goal of this ROC initiative. In a state where many people with diverse interests coexist, an “enlightened leadership,” says Yee is critical to the success of this project.

Yesterday, I learned a lot about my new state and, in particular, San Diego County:

California is:

• the nation’s most populous state; the nation’s largest food producer; and the world’s 5th largest supplier of food and agricultural commodities.

In San Diego County:

• there are more organic farms than any other county in the country.
• 63% of the farms are 1 to 9 acres.
• 92% of the farms are family owned.
• 22% of the farms are Native-American owned.

California, many of the speakers noted, is the most important agriculture place on Earth. With its countless forward-thinking foundations and entrepreneurs, California sets the trends for the world.

About half-way through the meeting, Michael Dimock, (President of ROC and MC of the event), passed the mic to the crowd.

• Naomi Butler, a nutritionist with the County of San Diego, stressed the importance of getting food into our school systems via garden and farm-to-school programs. We have to start, said Butler, “by changing the taste buds of our kids.”

• A young, private chef emphasized educating children on these matters because “they are the future.”

• Others inquired about increasing points of contact — farmers’ markets, co-ops, distribution centers, etc.

• One chef noted, “We have particular issues down here,” referring to the unique problems facing San Diego County. She worried about the welfare of the Spanish speaking community — how are we going to deal, she wondered, with immigration?

• One woman noted the number of farmers that will soon retire (a nation-wide reality) — what will happen to their farms?

While the challenges are vast, the bottom line, as Eric Larson (Executive Director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau) concluded, is straightforward: profitability. If farms are profitable, they’ll stay in business. Farmland is expensive in California and in a globalized world, small farmers face serious competition.

I drove home from the meeting feeling slightly overwhelmed, but understanding this: We have a lot of small farms in San Diego County. These small farms use organic and sustainable techniques. Our health as a community rests on the survival of these small farms. And the survival of these small farms demands the work of many hands.

I feel a little embarrassed knowing I had ventured down to the meeting primarily to learn how I could find meat for Ben and me. There are far more important issues to tackle, namely getting good food into schools and low-income communities. Alas, I am inspired by the many people involved in this daunting task, and hope to play a role in the ROC’s effort. Want to pitch-in? Join the ROC Leardership Network.

As I mentioned in my last post, the farmers’ market arugula has been delectable, tasting particularly spicy. This bunch comes from Don’s Farm in Wildomar, CA (purchased at the Sunday San Clemente farmers’ market … shocker). As Don calculated my total, he looked a little nervous, apologizing for some of the dirt, explaining he had pulled the arugula out of the ground in complete darkness at 4:00 that morning. Don had nothing to worry about — a quick soak in cold water removed any lingering dirt. Besides, for greens this fresh and tasty, anyone can live with a little dirt.

I find a simple lemon vinaigrette to be the best dressing for arugula, (a deduction likely influenced by my love for Melograno’s arugula and prosciutto salad). I don’t have a precise recipe for this dressing, but I follow Alice Waters’ method as described in Chez Panisse Vegetables. She begins many of her vinaigrettes by macerating finely chopped shallots for about 20 minutes in either citrus juice or vinegar. She then adds salt, pepper, sugar, maybe mustard (I don’t have my book on hand to verify), finishing each dressing by slowly whisking in extra-virgin olive oil. It could not be simpler.

Arugula, Orange & Avocado Salad
Serves 4

1 shallot, finely diced
1 to 2 lemons, depending on size
sugar, to taste
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
extra-virgin olive oil

1 to 2 heads arugula
2 oranges
2 avocados
Parmigiano Reggiano,
shaved

1. Place the shallots in a small bowl. Squeeze the lemons over top, removing any seeds that fall in. Let sit for 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the salad: Place the arugula in a large bowl filled with cold water to soak. Peel the oranges, removing sections from the pith if desired. Slice the avocados in half; remove the pit; scoop out the flesh; and slice into strips or dice into cubes. Set aside.

3. To the bowl of shallots, add a ¼ teaspoon of sugar, a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Slowly whisk in the oil. The mixture won’t totally emulsify. Taste, adjusting seasoning as necessary (with more sugar or oil, for example, if the mixture is too tart).

4. Drain the arugula and spin dry. Place the arugula in a bowl. Top with the oranges and avocados. Add dressing to taste. Toss gently. Divide among plates. Top each salad plate with a few shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano.

French Onion Soup

So, I’ve found something else I’m going to miss about Philadelphia. On Monday, my sister and I met for lunch at Rouge where we enjoyed the crusty rolls served with sea salt-speckled butter and the French onion soup topped with Gruyère and provolone. These cheeses blister over garlic croutons insulating the delectable onion broth below. And the crusty bits clinging to all sides of the goblet-like bowls are irresistible.

While I can’t say I’m a French onion soup connoisseur, I have ordered my fair share of this bistro classic, including five bowls this week alone, a spree that began last Saturday up in NYC. A.O.C., the adorable Greenwich Village restaurant where I sat with two friends for a few hours, set the standard, one so high I feared no place in Philly could equal. And for the most part, the soups I sampled confirmed my worries. At both Brasserie Perrier and Caribou Café, the soup had not been thoroughly heated before being topped with the crouton and cheese and thrown under the broiler. Both should have been sent back to the kitchen.

My weeklong onion-soup bender also inspired me to make my own batch, which to my surprise and delight was very simple. I opened Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud Cookbook, a book I have not used once, but has now piqued my interest. The success of French onion soup, says Mr. Boulud in his notes preceding the recipe, depends on cooking plenty of onions “very, very slowly until they are soft, sweet and caramel colored,” and deglazing with white wine, which adds the necessary “touch of acidity.”

My onions cooked for about an hour and I used a mix of Sherry and Madeira because I didn’t have any white wine. I also used homemade chicken stock, which Mr. Boulud describes as “rarely the star player,” but whose “supporting role can elevate just about anything.” I would agree that a homemade chicken (or beef) stock makes all the difference in this soup.

While any ovenproof bowls will work, it’s fun to eat this soup out of the traditional crocks. I found mine at Kitchen Kapers for $7.99 each. Fante’s and the Philadelphia Bar & Restaurant supply shop at 5th and Bainbridge also sell these vessels.

French Onion Soup
Serves 6

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds yellow or Spanish onions, peeled, trimmed and sliced thinly
1 clove garlic, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 cup dry white wine or Madeira or Sherry
Herb sachet: (2 sprigs Italian parsley, 2 sprigs thyme, 8 peppercorns and 1 bay leaf, tied together in a cheesecloth)
2 quarts homemade chicken stock
1 mini French baguette
2 cups Gruyère or Swiss cheese, coarsely grated
4 to 6 sprigs parsley, leaves finely chopped

In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the sliced onions and garlic to the pot, season with salt and pepper, and cook stirring regularly, until the onions are a deep caramel color, about 30 minutes to an hour.

Dust the onions with the flour and cook, stirring for about five minutes to toast the flour and rid it of its raw taste. Add the white wine and cook, stirring until the wine almost evaporates completely. This happens almost instantly.

Add the herb sachet, the stock and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and let simmer 40 to 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350ºF. Slice the baguette into one-inch thick rounds. Place rounds on a baking sheet, and toast in the oven until lightly golden, about 10 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and let cool.

Preheat the broiler. Taste the soup. Add more salt and pepper if necessary. Remove the sachet and discard. Ladle the soup into individual ovenproof serving bowls. Cover each with two baguette rounds. Top each generously with the grated cheese. Top each with a pinch of chopped parsley. Place bowls on a baking sheet and place under the broiler. Broil until the cheese melts. Serve immediately.

Homemade Chicken Stock
Yield = 1 gallon

4 lbs. of chicken legs
2 carrots, peeled, cut into large chunks
2 ribs celery, trimmed, cut into large chunks
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
1 leek, trimmed, split lengthwise, and washed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 bunch Italian parsley

Place the chicken in a large stockpot. Cover with 2½ quarts of cold water and bring to a boil. Skim off scum that rises to the top. Simmer 10 minutes, skimming regularly.

Add the remaining ingredients to the pot and simmer gently for three hours, skimming as necessary. Drain the stock into a colander set over a bowl. Allow the solids to drain before discarding them. Strain stock again through a fine-mesh strainer. Transfer to storage containers and chill in the refrigerator over night.

The next day, scrape off any fat solidified at the top of the stock. Freeze stock indefinitely or keep in the refrigerator for four days.

Mache and Persimmon Salad

I cannot believe it, but today my blog celebrates its one-year birthday. Exactly one year ago today, I wrote about quince membrillo, a sweet paste commonly served with several Spanish cheeses including Manchego, Roncal, Idiazabal and Zamorano. This past week, I introduced two good friends and their family members to membrillo and the tradition of eating membrillo with sheep’s milk cheeses. My friends, Emily and James, married in Cyprus July 18, celebrated their marriage stateside this past Sunday in Chapel Hill, and in the days leading up to the festivities, we enjoyed many delectable dinners together commenced with this classic combination.

While in North Carolina, Emily and I spent a good hour one day touring around a gourmet food shop, A Southern Season, where I found among many goodies a large selection of Cypress Grove cheeses (Cypress Grove makes Humbolt Fog). Being vegetarians, James and Emily try to eat cheeses specifically made without rennet, a coagulating enzyme made from the stomach of calves. Many, if not all, of Cypress Grove cheeses are made with a vegetarian rennet, including a yummy sheep’s milk cheese called Lamb Chopper, which we savored with the membrillo. We actually enjoyed the fruit paste with all of the cheeses — Brie, Morbier, Tomme de Savoie — we ate this past week, but the Lamb Chopper-membrillo combination proved the best of all.

My week in North Carolina to say the least was memorable. By the end of each day, my face hurt from smiling and laughing so much — I lived with James’ family for the week, a family of four funny children, two entertaining parents and two wonderful dogs. We played Scrabble and ping pong, watched Mostly Martha and Grizzly Man, took walks with Molly and Sally (the dogs), and generally just enjoyed the time spent together with good company.

On one of the first nights of my visit, we also enjoyed thin slices of Fuyu persimmons with all of the cheeses. Fuyu persimmons make a nice seasonal addition to many dishes, including salads and paninis. Available from September through December, persimmons peak in November, perfect timing for the Thanksgiving Day feast. If you’re sill searching for a first course to prepare for Thursday’s meal, try this salad — elegant, seasonal and delectable — a festive addition to the Thanksgiving Day table.

Mache and Persimmon Salad
Serves 4

2 small shallots
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon sugar
½ teapoon kosher salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Fuyu persimmons
4 oz. piece of Parmigiano Reggiano
8 oz. mache
freshly ground pepper

To make the dressing, whisk the shallots, vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, sugar and salt together. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly to make an emulsified dressing. Set aside.

Cut the ends off each persimmon. With a paring knife, slice off the skin, removing as little flesh as possible. Using a mandoline, cut each persimmon into thin slices. (Alternatively, slice thinly using a sharp knife.) Set aside

Using a peeler or a knife, shave thin long strips off the block of Parmigiano. Set aside.

Place greens in a bowl and toss lightly with the vinaigrette. Divide the slices of persimmon evenly among the plates. Top each with a generous handful of greens. Top with the cheese shavings. Crack pepper over each salad and serve.

Thai Pumpkin Soup with Sweet & Salty Pumpkin Seeds

So, it finally feels like fall outside, which is great, although my apartment feels like an icebox. Phil, my lanlord, won’t turn on the heat for weeks, so I guess I better get used it. My neighbor upstairs has been roasting a turkey all day just to heat up his apartment. Fortunately, I won’t have to take such extreme measures — I have quarts of this spicy, pumpkin soup on hand. Although this soup hardly resembles the pumpkin soup I first became addicted to — ABP’s, served in a bread bowl — pumpkin soup in any form always reminds me of college and of fun trips out to eat with roommates and teammates when the dining hall’s fare just wouldn’t cut it. I love pumpkin soup.

This recipe has been adapted from one I saw recently on Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks.com. Almost any winter squash can replace the pumpkin, and when I make this soup again, I will use a red kuri squash or a hubbard squash, the varieties that a woman at the Fair Food Farmstand recommended I use. (While I was shopping, I was determined to use only pumpkin for my pumpkin soup.) I did, however, roast a red kuri squash next to the pumpkins to compare flavors, and ultimately found the red kuri squash to be tastier than the pumpkins. But for a recipe like this, with lots of added seasonings — Thai red curry paste, coconut milk, ginger — a more mild-tasting squash such as a pumpkin works fine.

Next pumpkin recipe: Pumpkin Ravioli with Crispy Sage and Brown Butter Sauce … so yummy!

Thai-Spiced Pumpkin Soup
Yield = 2½ quarts

2 sugar pumpkins*, about 2 lbs. each
olive oil
kosher salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, roughly chopped diced
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
1 can unsweetened coconut milk, (13.5 oz.)
cilantro, optional
spiced pumpkin seeds, optional
*Winter squash such as Hubbard, red kuri or butternut make fine substitutes for the pumpkin. Two sugar pumpkins yield about four cups of flesh.

Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Cut each pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds and discard. Drizzle about a teaspoon of olive oil on a baking sheet. Season inside of pumpkins with salt and place cut side down. Roast for about 45 minutes or until a knife inserts easily through the skin into the flesh. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.

Meanwhile in a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter. Add the onion and ginger and cook over medium heat until translucent and tender, about five to 10 minutes. Season with salt to taste. Add the garlic and sauté for a minute longer. Add four cups water, one tablespoon of the curry paste, the coconut milk and one teaspoon of salt, and bring to a boil.

When the pumpkin has cooled, scoop out the flesh and add to the pot (there should be about four cups of flesh). Return mixture to a boil and let simmer 10 minutes. Using an emersion blender, purée the mixture until smooth. (Alternatively, transfer to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.) Taste mixture, adding more salt if necessary and the remaining tablespoon of curry paste if desired. Return to stove to heat through if serving immediately, or let cool completely before storing. Serve with chopped cilantro and spiced pumpkin seeds.

Sweet & Salty Pumpkin Seeds
Yield = 1 cup

¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 cup pumpkin seeds

Combine sugar and salt in a large bowl. Set aside. Pour oil into a nonstick sauté pan and turn heat to high. Add nuts. Sauté until nuts begin to pop violently. After three to four minutes, when half of the nuts have turned golden brown, turn off the heat, transfer nuts to the bowl with the sugar-salt mix, and toss to coat. Transfer nuts to a fine mesh strainer and shake excess any coating off. Line a sheet pan with foil and spread nuts across it to cool completely. Store in an air-tight container.