I once was served for dessert, a plum, sliced and arranged beautifully on the plate with nothing else. This was shortly after moving to Napa. The restaurant was Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley. I was with my wife and a friend who was visiting us.
We had enjoyed a wonderful meal at the more casual bistro dining room upstairs and had declined dessert in favor of coffee before the drive back to Napa. The kitchen, however, wanted us to experience one more burst of flavor to bring our dinner to a proper finale. So they sent out the plum. It was perfect.
This single plum was so incredibly redolent with flavor, so bursting with sweet, soft flavors and tantalizingly balanced by the slightest acidity. It was ripe but still firm and toothy. It was an eye-opening, palate-awakening, soul-uplifting experience for a food lover who had just moved from Milwaukee to Napa.
Unfortunately, all kitchens are not alike. My wife and I dined this past week while traveling and ordered the “heirloom tomato salad.” What arrived was a mushy mess of flavorless chopped tomatoes with some dressing. Not fresh. Not what we’ve come to expect from heirloom tomato varieties. This is not a restaurant review, so I’m not naming any names.
My point is that some foods are so naturally delicious and satisfying that a cook need not do anything more than slice and serve. Personally, I love to cook, love to produce large, exacting, complicated dishes. Yet sometimes there really is nothing better than a simple loaf of sourdough bread with some local olive oil. There are so many flavors, aromas and textures in that simple combination that it can be as satisfying as a multi-course meal.
To me, this is part of the aura that surrounds a good farmers market. When I browse the rows at the Napa Farmers’ Market, I love to look and touch and smell, to talk to the farmers about what is happening in their fields, to hear about how the season is developing. And I like to be on the lookout for that perfect plum or that sun-ripened tomato that will be a complete dish all by itself.
As it turns out, plums are coming into season now, but each week brings new arrivals. Come on down to the market, search for your perfect plum, and serve food in your home that would make Alice Waters proud.
Farmers Market Chef Demo: Chef Mauro Pando of Grace’s Table will demonstrate a recipe at the Napa Farmers Market on Saturday, June 24, at 11 a.m. The demonstration is free and recipes will be provided.
Pasta with Mushrooms and Greens
This is one of my favorite Monday night dishes: simple, refreshing and delicious. It’s quick to prepare, you can easily scale it up to have leftovers, and you can find many of the ingredients at the Napa Farmers Market. In a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to serve an heirloom tomato salad along with this pasta.
Simply slice the tomatoes, salt lightly, drizzle with olive oil and a bit of balsamic vinegar, and top with cracked black pepper. In the meantime, a slice of sourdough bread dipped in olive oil should be all you need.
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
Red wine, optional
Soy sauce, optional
1 pound spaghetti
3 bunches hearty greens, such as kale, spinach or collards, center rib removed
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh chives
Cracked black pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Warm 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook until they turn translucent and begin to caramelize. Add the mushrooms, garlic and a dash of salt. Cook until the mushrooms are tender and darkened. For more richness, add 2 tablespoons red wine and a couple of dashes of soy sauce. Add a squeeze of lemon.
Add the pasta to the boiling water.
Add one-third of the greens to the mushrooms. As soon as they wilt down, add another third. When those begin to wilt, add the remainder. Add another squeeze of lemon, season with salt, and continue cooking until the greens are just wilted. Turn off the heat and drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil.
When the pasta is al dente, drain it and transfer to a large serving bowl. Using tongs, stack the greens on top of the pasta. Add the chives to the mushrooms and then spoon the mushrooms onto the greens. Be sure to bring plenty of pan drippings along. Crack fresh pepper over the entire dish and serve.