Thursday, August 25, 2011
Over the course of the summer, I’ve tried to enhance our household joie de vivre by re-focusing our kitchen once again on unpretentious classics. And this word bears repeating: classic. This means we’ve sought only fresh local ingredients and then prepared them in timeless ways.
And I suppose this is all motivated in part by the fact that I’m continually appalled by the abysmal state of cookery in most cities across the United States. And this covers the entire spectrum: from quick serve casual to casual family-style restaurants all the way to gastromique fine-dining, I’m continually underwhelmed, to whit, recently I was in Milwaukee having lunch at what was billed as ‘fresh European café’ only to find myself being given salad dressing in a pouch and Neste pre-bottled tea! Come on, folks; is it really that much to expect fresh salad dressing and freshly brewed tea, especially in a European café?
And much of this malaise is, I believe, the result of trying to continually re-invent the wheel in an effort to bring flavours from every corner of the globe into one kitchen and then say this is genuine progress and convenience. But this isn’t all that necessary, friends.
The ‘European café’ patted itself on the back for offering me ginger, chipotle, saffron dressing and a tea that had at least thirty-five ingredients. But when I hear the words ‘European café’, I think of classically prepared fresh dishes – say, for instance, field greens with dijon vinaigrette and fresh goat cheese or a simple freshly-baked baguette with a thin layer of butter and prosciutto. Heck, even a hot dog could be counted a classic in the appropriate setting. But instead I got pre-washed lettuce (think plastic taste) with a packet of dressing! From all such calamities, save us O Lord!
But the story doesn’t end there, dear ones.
After lunch I found myself in a lovely market acquiring fresh heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, and a few other twists. If you’re reading this and predicting an Insalata Caprese recipe is forthcoming, you’re right!
However, this is my own take on the classic, supplanting the traditional DOC Mozzarella with feta and adding pine nuts for additional depth. I’ve served this as a main course, but it really is best as a hearty starter (not pictured above).
Charleston’s Caprese Salad
4 large heirloom tomatoes (choose a colourful medley, opting for gold, orange and reddish varietals. This salad begs for heirlooms only; trust me. And don’t store tomatoes in the fridge.)
1 container heirloom cherry tomatoes (again, a mixed assortment is best; however, simple tear drop grape tomatoes will work, too.)
4 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
3 TBSP aged balsamic vinegar (Fini brand is the gold standard of vinegar)
Fresh cracked pepper
Maldon sea salt flakes (order from Amazon or any reputable purveyor)
8 TBSP crumbled Feta cheese
8 TBSP fresh basil (cut into 1/8 inch strips)
6 TBSP toasted pine nuts
Toast the pine nuts in a small sauté pan over medium heat until slightly browned on all sides (continually shake the pan to avoid burning). Set aside to cool.
Slice the tomatoes into ¼ inch slices, discarding the portions of the tomatoes closest to where they were plucked from the vine, which can be too tough for enjoying. Slice the cherry tomatoes lengthwise in half. Fan the sliced tomatoes out on the plates you will use for service. I like using long rectangular plates for this dish; the round objects set on a rectangular background make for a stunning visual presentation.
Combine the balsamic vinegar and olive oil in a bowl and mix till well-blended together, and using a spoon, ladle the balsamic mixture evenly over each tomato.
Sprinkle the fresh basil evenly across the four plates. Do the same with the feta.
Top each tomato with just a tiny dot of pepper and a few crystals of Maldon before evenly sprinkling the pine nuts on top. Serve immediately.
A Final Word
The summer of classic cuisine hasn’t been an end in and of itself; rather, this has been the summer of back to the basics of classical Christianity as well. And this is a fine thing because much of what is out there is not really Christian discourse at all. Much of what passes for modern-day Christianity is nothing more than a hodgepodge of ancient heresies rebranded and let loose once more.
Consider just one prevalent example: how many times have I heard someone say (usually a self-professed Christian no less) that all religion boils down to being nice and trying to live a morally upright life, whatever that is.
It is precisely this type of worldview that robs Christianity of its heart of mercy, love, Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection and grace. Tell me anything, but don’t tell me the Lord of the whole universe – the Great I Am – came to earth for any other purpose than to save me and restore the Divine Image. All other speech is simply poppycock, dear ones.
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their excellent book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers have done a great job explaining this phenomenon, even giving it a catchy moniker – moral therapeutic deism, which, after interviewing thousands of American youth, was the catchphrase they adopted to encapsulate a cosmology that chose to eschew classic Christian doctrine in favour of one that says the supreme aim of life is to be good, nice, and fair to each other. Can you say yuck or what?
Post-modernity has been able to cast off what adherents consider the shackles of classical – and, in their view, repressive – Christianity by telling a tall tale of man, who, according to Victorian poet William Ernest Henley, speaks softly to himself: ‘I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul’. But woe is he who lifts up himself, says a poor saviour from Nazareth.
If you’re looking for pure, unadulterated classic Christian doctrine, look to the same old story of God and sinners reconciled and the great ‘Jehovah of Thunders’ (Kipling), whose Kingdom has come near!
Now, you could point out – if you’re overly scrupulous – that I, too, have abandoned the classic caprese and, therefore, have overthrown my very own aim of restoring classical cuisine from the get go. But hold on; my recipe is true development, that is, augmentation, not subtraction. My construction flows from the original, but doesn’t overthrow its core – those being, tomatoes, basil and cheese.
Likewise, anything that flows from a Christ-centred worldview is simply an outward manifestation of the pre-existent reality that God Himself is revealed in the face of Christ, that is, any outworking in the Christian’s life that makes the world think we’re really nice and all that is really just an affirmation of Our Lord’s own words, ‘I am the vine and you are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothing’.
In other words, if you really feel like being nice and morally upright, good on you for bearing fruit that pleases your Heavenly Father. But woe to all of us who take all the credit. This fruit is only the result, not the source of our joy. We mustn’t forget this! So, yes, our Christianity is free to evolve as long as it lifts up its unchangeable source, God revealed in Christ who came to save, not so we could be 'nice'.
Okay, I’m rambling, so let me simply leave you by reminding you of two things: first, don’t accept the notion that food has to be overly complex to be good, and, secondly, don’t think for one second that classical Christianity is anything else other than the story of Jesus Christ, the friend of sinners, who came to earth to restore, heal and save us.