this is farm to table: preparing food in the middle of a farm
This week I did something I have never done: I gave a cooking demonstration in the middle of a farm field. McGrath Family Farm in Camarillo, California was the farm.
McGrath has been a food supplier of mine for some time and I use their organic produce for my clients as well as my family. While I have cooked/given classes in a variety of kitchens – in two countries – teaching in the middle of a farm field amongst the tomato vines with summer-like weather and an ocean breeze was a first for me. What a day !
Under open tents with the dirt below our feet we focused on three seasonal items: heirloom tomatoes, lima beans, and haricots verts. It was a beautiful way to be connected with our food. It was the very definition of farm to table.
Heirloom tomatoes are too precious and beautiful to collapse with a heat source. The best heirloom tomato preparations take advantage of their meaty, colorful flesh as well as their size and shape. As such, we used heirloom tomatoes in tartares, salads and farces (stuffed). One of the many items we prepared was a quick panzanella.
Panzanella is Italian, not French (but I imagine that the name itself gave it away).
My daughters and I pass a portion of our summer in Provence, about thirty minutes from the Italian border, where tomatoes are THE thing. There is not a meal where you do not have fresh tomatoes in some fashion. They are so delicious that little needs to be done to them…a little sel de Guérande and olive oil from Les Baux and you are good.
I do not have to tell you how the French feel about bread (…um think Marie Antoinette). It is customary to buy bread fresh each day. When the French can weave bread into le repas (the meal), such as a pan bagnat or something en croûte (wrapping various food items in puff pastry or dough), they do.
Day-old bread does not go to waste but is used in a variety of ways: pain perdu (French toast which is a dessert for the French, not petit dejeuner), day-old croissants baked with grated cheese, bread crumbs for farces or gratins, and croutons. So given Italy’s proximity, Provençal tomatoes, and the French affection for bread, it is not surprising that Panzanella made its way to France, particularly in the south.
This week I had planned to do something entirely different but the heirloom tomatoes currently filling the markets are too beautiful to ignore and they will be gone soon. The purple and green Thai basil with its delicate pink flowers was also too inviting.
The great thing about Panzanella (besides its taste) is that it showcases heirloom tomatoes with very little else to detract from their taste or color.
I like to make garlic croutons with day-old bread and then use a very light vinaigrette to marry the bread and tomatoes. That way the bread has a roasted garlic flavor which combines well with the hydrating tomatoes and peppery basil. This is a quick go-to salad that you can embellish as you wish (add haricots verts or shallots, for example). For me, the less ingredients the better but I do like to add the little Niçoise olives
After the class on the farm, I was delighted to meet many of those who attended. Personal stories of how people came to be there that day and learning of their connection to the farm and/or cooking made the day all the more wonderful. It was not only the food we prepared that was organic, it was the collection of us out there on the farm making meals and talking about food which made for a very special and genuine (you could say “organic”) experience.
à table (come to the table)
3 cups stale French or Country bread (or a demi baguette), cut into 1 “cubes
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
4 beautiful fresh heirloom tomatoes, diced
3 tablespoons quality olive oil
1 tablespoon quality red wine vinegar (or white balsamic)
fresh basil leaves (as needed)
sel de Guérande (to taste)
Niçoise olives (optional)
- Make Croutons. Place the bread cubes in a bowl. Add garlic, olive oil, and salt. Toss bread in the oil and garlic. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Place in an oven preheated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake until golden brown. You will smell the garlic. Remove from the oven and let cool. These can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container.
- Make Dressing. Place vinegar in a bowl and whisk in olive oil.
- Toss. Place the tomatoes and croutons in a large bowl. I like to make sure that there is slightly more tomatoes than croutons (some people like more of an equal ration). Add basil. Add olives (optional). Add dressing. Toss. Season with salt (use quality sea salt if you cannot find sel de Guérande) to taste. Let set for at least 30 minutes (tomatoes are best served room temperature) until the croutons absorb the tomato juice.
bon appétit !