Seasonal change has always had a powerful effect on me. It influences my mood, my wardrobe, my activities and especially what I choose to eat. On the one hand a bowl of hearty beef stew satisfies my winter palate, whereas the earthy, grassy flavor of asparagus perfectly matches the taste of spring. And though summer offers a myriad of choices, nothing defines it better than sinking my teeth into the sweet and fleshy tomatoes of early August when they reach their peak ripeness. But when autumn arrives, my taste buds crave the sweet, nutty flavors of squash – butternut or acorn. Their warm color and smooth texture suits this transitional season that prepares us for the long, cold months ahead.
I feel lucky to live in a part of the world that allows me to experience seasonal change. Despite a winter that overstays its welcome and a spring that comes and goes in the blink of an eye, the Chicago area allows all the seasons to have their “day in the sun” (pun intended).
In my next series of posts, I turn to these ever-changing seasons and focus on what they mean to me: the recipes that leap from my files, the holidays and events that never fail to inspire me to host friends and family, and the climate quirks particular to the seasonal character of life in the Midwest United States.
As I embarked on this assignment, I came across a poem I wrote about the seasons many years ago. I am usually alerted to the change of season by the how daylight subtly metamorphoses and was inspired by that observation when I wrote this.
Seasons of Light
The light catches you first
Signaling in the nuances of a season about to change
Spring’s light teases
Kaleidoscoping from shadowy grays to soft pastels
Flirting with the clear blues of summer
Summer’s happy hues glisten
Bringing bold, bright even brilliant radiance
To a season of magic and sparkle
But oh, the light of autumn
Constantly adjusting and refining its focus
Revealing the warm and quieter tones of maturity
Winter’s light fools
Juxtaposing crystal clear with dim and somber
Turning us inward to a more personal world
(Nancy Brussat, 1993)
In this first chapter I begin with summer. It’s warm temperatures and long, sun-drenched days bring with it magic and brilliance. Technically, Summer begins at the solstice on June 21st and ends at the equinox on September 22nd, but for the purposes of this blog I used a less formal definition. My summer season begins on Memorial Day and ends on Labor Day, covers the months of June, July and August (and a few days of May and September).
Until I lived in England, the summer activities I usually participated in were mostly casual – picnics, grilling, hanging at the beach, camping, hiking and the like. But living just outside of London for four years gave me a new perspective on summer – especially the month of June. June in England – or THE SEASON as it is known there – is anything but casual. The calendar is packed with sporting spectacles, music festivals, outdoor entertainment and more. And unlike the summers I spent in the Midwest, most of British events of June are formal, like the Glynbourne Opera Festival held in a lovely country house in East Sussex where the official dress code is black tie (and exceptions are not tolerated).
But England’s most famous June events are the Henley Royal Regatta (a famous rowing event held on the River Thames), Wimbledon (the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in the world) and Royal Ascot (a week of elite horse-racing always attended by royal family), all of which I was lucky enough to attend when we lived there. Although the Regatta and Wimbledon no longer have the strict dress code that they did years ago, there remains a certain English expectation of “appropriate” dress that most attendees follow. Clothes like ripped jeans and too-brief tank tops are universally frowned upon.
Royal Ascot on the other hand, still has a strict dress code, particularly for those invited to the Royal Enclosure where the royals sit: Queen Elizabeth II when I was there, and now King Charles III. Here gentlemen must dress as they did at the turn of the century following a code established by Beau Brummel, a close friend to the Prince of Wales and infamous dandy of the early 19th century. Morning Dress – a short jacket with tails, a waistcoat and formal trousers – is still required in the Royal enclosure and must also include a top hat, a tie (playful is ok, cravats are not!) and black shoes with socks. I love it! Who would wear a waistcoat and top hat with shoes and no socks?
Women’s fashion for the Royal Enclosure also has rules: dresses must be of modest length and women’s heads must be covered by a hat or a headpiece which has a base of 4 inches or greater in diameter. Such detail! Do they actually measure?
I loved the whole “pomp” of it all and though I was never invited inside the Royal Enclosure, I played dress-up with the best of them. Actually, many people did, no matter what enclosure they had access to. I remember very little about the races themselves. For me the horses were nothing but a distraction from the fashion show and the anticipation of catching a glimpse of the Queen. Oh, the fashion! Ascot is THE event of the season and one that remains synonymous with elegance and class. For me, just viewing the spectacular sea of women’s hats – from gorgeous to totally outrageous – was an event in itself.
One of the first parties I had after I moved back to the U.S. was an Ascot party. Even though there would be no horse racing or Royal Enclosure, everyone I invited came prepared to have a “grand old English time”. A few had actually attended Ascot with me during their visits to England, so I knew at least those guests would get into the fun and pomp of it all. And they did – especially my close friend the late Janet Alms who absolutely adored England. She came to the party decked out in a lovely pink flowing dress and matching hat and rarely faltered from speaking with an affected “upper crust” English accent which always sent me into fits of laughter. Like most divas, she could really lay it on!
We began our Ascot party outside our Glencoe home with passed appetizers served with a choice of either a glass of Champagne or a Pimm’s Cup, a refreshing English gin-based cocktail that has been around since the mid-1800s. It consists of Pimm’s No 1 gin, lemonade, cucumber peel, fresh mint sprig and orange slices.
Later we adjourned to the dining room for dinner which began with Vichyssoise, a chilled potato and leek soup which has French origins but is very popular in England. This was followed by Grilled Salmon with Cucumber Dill Salad (blog “My Journey into the Kitchen “Teatime, Top Hats and Tradition”), a typical English summer dish. Dessert, of course, was the only fruit that matters during the Season, strawberries. Heart-shaped, plump and bright red, they are the prime ingredient in many different desserts, but most popular at these events is the very simple dish of strawberries and cream. I decided, however, to give my version an Italian slant. I tossed the strawberries with balsamic vinegar and a little black pepper, and instead of whipping cream I used whipped mascarpone, a soft Italian cream cheese. This recipe was based on a similar dish I had in Milan during one of Italian journeys.
Balsamic & Black Pepper Strawberries with Mascarpone Cream
2-quarts strawberries, rinsed, hulled & sliced thick
4 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
½ cup mascarpone
¼ cup powdered sugar
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Toss the strawberries with sugar & balsamic and toss gently
Allow the berries to macerate for about 15 minutes
Make the Mascarpone Whipped Cream
Place mascarpone in a bowl and use an electric mixer to soften it.
Add powdered sugar and continue to mix
Pour in heavy cream and continue to mix with an electric beater until mixture forms stiff peaks
Add the black pepper and toss to coat
Put into 8 individual bowls and add a large dollop of Mascarpone Whipped cream on each
The highlight of the summer season in the U.S. is of course Independence Day or as it is known colloquially, the Fourth of July. These celebrations, as we all know, are almost defined by being casual. Parades and fireworks displays can be found in every town and village across America. I had never been a fan of parades – too crowded, too noisy – until I had children. Seeing a parade through the eyes of a child is a totally different experience. The bright mosaic of anticipation and excitement spread across their beaming faces makes every loud noise and elbow jab worth it.
Large crowds and traffic jams are also a part of the Fourth of July’s legendary fireworks displays. As spectacular as they can be, it is often difficult just making your way into a park to find a small piece of unoccupied grass where you can spread your blanket and watch the colorful explosions that both light up the sky but would often cause me to cover my ears to block out the noise. I was happy to be a part of this noisy festivity back in my high school days, but as I got older, I began to prefer a more controlled environment.
Probably the most memorable Fourth of July I had as an adult was one spent on the rooftop of my son’s lower Manhattan loft where he, his wife Angie and a few friends watched the city’s incredible pyrotechnics show launched from 5 barges on the East River. It is the largest Independence Day celebration in the country and one of the greatest events of the year in New York. It was truly spectacular, especially because we were elevated above the chaos below. Ours was a very exclusive, private viewing.
I have also enjoyed the fireworks festivities in my own backyard during the years I lived in north of Chicago. Our house was very close to Lake Michigan – just feet away from the beach where the fireworks were launched – so whenever I had a Fourth of July Party, guests could view this dazzling display while comfortably sitting in one of my lawn chairs sipping a glass of chilled white wine. So much more civilized!
Because I had this evening of built-in entertainment, I hostessed many Fourth parties those years I lived in Glencoe, whether it was just family, friends or the Convito staff…or often some combination of all three. Most often I served grilled hamburgers and hot dogs (the American classic) along with a wide variety of salads – most of which I had created for Convito (more Italian). One that was always on my menu was a salad I named Red, White & Gorgonzola. This recipe came about as a result of a call I received in the summer of 1983 from the Chicago Sun Times newspaper asking if Convito featured anything special for Independence Day. They wanted to print a Convito recipe in their food section.
At the time I had nothing in particular that screamed Fourth of July, but I had learned from my friend and fellow restaurateur, Leslee Reis, that whenever the press called for anything – say yes – even if you don’t have what they’re asking for. Just tell them that you’re busy at the moment but that you’ll call them back shortly. “Then get your ass in gear and go make something up”. Press, I had learned early on, is incredibly important for the success of the restaurant business! Getting your name in the newspaper reminds people that you are still around.
And so, I quickly came up with what I called “Red, White & Gorgonzola (gorgonzola being the blue). It is a salad we make to this day. Simple, but delicious…and appropriately named. I have recently revised the recipe because back in 1983 good tomatoes were difficult to find except during the summer months. But now with delicious grape tomatoes available all year long, I replaced the beefsteak tomatoes in my original recipe with these firmer, less delicate tomatoes allowing Convito to make this salad at other times of the year. Recently I have also added farfalle pasta to make it a little more substantial.
Red, White & Gorgonzola
(Serves 8 – 10)
4 cups farfalle pasta cooked al dente
3 pints grape tomatoes, cup in half lengthwise
4 cups mozzarella balls cut in half lengthwise
1 cup red onion, thinly sliced into half rounds marinated for at least an hour in olive oil
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
Mix all the above together.
½ cup olive oil
½ cup red wine vinegar
salt & pepper to taste
¾ cup gorgonzola
Mix the olive oil, vinegar and salt & pepper together with a wire whisk. Add the gorgonzola and continue mixing with the whisk. Do not completely emulsify the gorgonzola – small pieces should remain.
Fold the dressing into the salad
The true meaning of Independence Day is often forgotten in all the hoopla and noise of this holiday. But not so with my sister Joan. She made a point of reading the Declaration of Independence each Fourth of July. I was lucky enough to be witness to her recitation during the two summers we both visited our other sister Karen and her husband Jeff in Connecticut. Right before we sat down to a delicious dinner of grilled bratwurst, potato salad, baked beans and cole slaw, Joan read aloud this document upon which our country was founded (and the very reason we celebrate the Independence Day). I must say it was quite moving and extremely thought provoking. A discussion followed about the meaning of “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that “All Men are created equal,” about what those words meant then and what they mean today.
A summertime staple for this Wisconsin girl were bratwursts. Southern Wisconsin where I grew up has a heavy German heritage, so this dish was a mainstay for my family. I always like them accompanied by a sauerkraut garnish. Jeff and I are huge sauerkraut fans (we could both eat it straight of a the jar) but my sisters find it “too sour” and are not fans. One year I decided I would make a version that even they would like. I sauteed a LOT of onions until they were caramelized then mixed them with the fermented cabbage. I was right, they both liked this kinder, gentler version. The caramelized onions add a certain sweetness cutting down on the very sour and what they described as “funky” taste of plain sauerkraut, while enough of the REAL sauerkraut taste remains for those of us who like that sour taste. Actually, a lot of people I know have become sauerkraut converts once I share with them this recipe.
1 large onion cut in half then sliced into thin half rounds (approximately 2 ½ cups)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 x 24 ounce jar of sauerkraut, drained
Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and sauté for 15 to 20 minutes stirring frequently until golden brown. Add drained sauerkraut and mix with the onions. Sauté 2 or 3 minutes until heated through. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Note: If mixture seems too dry, you can add a little broth or just plain water.
The abondanza of summer produce is a critical element of Summer cooking. No matter where you live these days, there is usually a marvelous selection of fruits and vegetables at local farmer’s markets. My two seasonal favorites are tomatoes and corn, and though today they are available year-round, they are never as good as they are during this peak season. In Chicago, fresh-picked corn from local growers can be found starting sometime in July. Tomatoes start to appear around the same time, but the really wonderful ones don’t arrive until late Summer.
Tomatoes are actually a part of my diet every season of the year and I probably eat some form of them every day. Whether it’s in their plebian form of ketchup (which I love); in the canned variety (for tomato sauce) or tomato paste (which I use as an enrichment in dishes like beef stew); or in their natural glory in salads, they are ever-present. But never have I found a fresh tomato in the grocery store in any season of the year that comes close to the taste of a fully-ripened, locally-grown market tomato. All that these “peak” tomatoes require is a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a tiny bit of salt.
Another dish I make only during the summer season is a multicolored tomato caprese salad using heirloom tomatoes – all in different colors, different flavors and textures. Given their more delicate nature, heirloom tomatoes have a much shorter shelf life than hybrids, so I am very careful in my selection and use them immediately. I layer each slice with fresh mozzarella, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar (a high quality one) and a basil leaf or two and then sprinkle a few different colored grape or cherry tomatoes around the periphery. It makes for a gorgeous first course – a kind of simple, but “show-off” dish. (Italian Journey blog – Campania II “Rugged, Rock, Robust”)
Even though Convito makes three different “basic” tomato sauces – hearty tomato, tomato with wine and tomato basil – I still like to make my own using red, ripe summer tomatoes. Sometime in August, I buy a large basket of Beefsteak tomatoes (or sometimes Roma – whichever looks best and ripest), blanche them in boiling water, peel and seed them, then put them through a food mill to separate the seeds and skin from the flesh. Next, I pour this tomato puree into a large saucepan along with a little chopped onion, olive oil, fresh basil and salt and pepper. I cook the sauce until thickened and then pour it into individual containers, many of which I freeze to use in the coming months. When I eventually defrost and reheat the sauce, I always add a little more extra virgin olive oil. Many people want to cut down on the olive oil, but to me (and most REAL Italians), a good olive oil can make all the difference in a good sauce. It acts as an emulsifier and will help the sauce cling to the pasta. And most importantly, it lends a lot of flavor to the sauce! I usually serve my sauce very simply atop fresh pasta and finished with some julienned fresh basil and – of course – freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano. Voila. Totally simple, totally delicious, and hands-down one of my favorite meals! With bread and a glass of wine, what’s not to like?
Corn is another of my favorite summer foods. A fresh ear bought at a farmer’s market in peak season is sweet and buttery soft. As a teenager I clearly remember looking forward to my father bringing home a sack full of corn purchased from a farm stand just outside of the town I grew up in – Janesville, Wisconsin. So, for the months of July and August my mom would prepare beautiful, yellow corn to go with whatever meat she was cooking for dinner that night. To me it was always the star of the meal. Ears of corn can be steamed, boiled, grilled or roasted but my mom usually boiled hers – a method I prefer to this day. However, I have had some delicious grilled corn at my son-in-law’s house.
My recipe is simple: bring a large pot of water to a boil, husk the corn & remove the silk, put them in the boiling water, cover, wait until water starts to boil again, turn off the heat and cook for about 7 minutes.
On many of those same days I was enjoying the corn my father brought home, I was also working in the fields detasseling what was called “field corn” – corn grown primarily for livestock feed and other uses. Piling into the back of a truck with a bunch of other sleepy teenagers at five in the morning was not exactly my dream, but it was the best paying summer job that most of us could find. So, while I shuffled through endless rows of wet, damp stalks removing the pollen-producing tassels from each earn, I didn’t really think about the fact that I was performing a critical form of pollination control (I learned later that this task was crucial in preventing unwanted pollination so that the plants could produce pure hybrid seeds). Instead I just concentrated on the money I was making and daydreamed about the sky-blue angora sweater I would buy as soon as I got my first paycheck.
Summer is also about cooking outdoors, no matter what the weather. Whether it’s a beautiful summer evening or a sweltering afternoon, there is something glorious about cooking outside. Somehow whatever food is being cooked always tastes better.
Today grilling outdoors is second nature to most Americans, but in reality it only became popular in the 1950’s. Who knows why exactly, but it must have had something to do with our collective exhaustion at being cooped up indoors for the winter. After cooking over a hot stove for months on end, everyone is excited to get outside, and enjoy the distinct taste of a grilled steak, bratwurst or even the lowly hot dog. Magically, the grill with its smoke and char breathes new life into everything that is placed on it.
Though grilling looks easy, I have come to realize that it isn’t. Knowing when a chicken breast or piece of fish has reached perfect “doneness” is an art that I never acquired given my limited experience at the grill. When I was younger, grilling was the exclusive domain of men. It always seemed a little odd to me, but as I became responsible for putting a meal on the table every night of the week, I realized I loved the help! I had millions of other responsibilities, so assistance with any part of the meal was most welcome (though at the same time, I did miss out on learning the important points of becoming a true grilling guru).
All that said…in our family I must admit that it is indeed a male who I consider our expert griller and whom I would always turn to for advice should I ever attempt grilling in the future. My son-in-law Rob Warner (also the professional photographer responsible for all the food photos in my blog) always begins with the basics: he starts with a very clean grill, makes sure it is hot, and never neglects to oil and care for the grates. But what still seems like alchemy to me is how he always knows when a chicken breast or piece of fish is perfectly done, wonderfully tender and totally delicious. Rob has generously shared with me his recipe and though he makes many different versions, this one is his “go-to”.
Rob Warner’s Marinated Grilled Chicken Breasts
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
½ tsp kosher salt (or pink Himalayan salt)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon premium soy sauce
½ tsp lemon pepper seasoning
½ tsp smoked sweet Spanish Paprika
1 tablespoon Grey Poupon Dijon mustard
½- ¾ tsp chopped garlic
Wash chicken breasts under water and pat dry with paper towels, then place in a gallon plastic zip lock bag.
Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a bowl, then add to the plastic bag making sure each breast is thoroughly coated and place bag in refrigerator for 4 to 6 hours.
Turn grill on to 375 to 400 degrees.
When warm, spray grill with olive oil and place breasts directly over hot part of grill.
Cook one side for 6 minutes. Turn over and cook for another 4-5 minutes. Use an instant-read thermometer to check if the breast is done (it should read 165 degrees) or make a little cut into the middle to check that it’s just about opaque in the center. Every grill is a little different, so these times may vary (the thermometer is your best friend here!)
Remove from the grill and let chicken rest for for 2 to 3 minutes before serving (this keeps the juices from running out when sliced open).
Inevitably we always reach Labor Day, which marks the end of this glorious season. It is time to pack up the swimsuits and beach towels and bring out the lunch boxes and light cardigans. Even if you no longer go to school or have kids that go to school, the end of summer always reminds me of the excitement I felt of getting ready for a the school year – new clothes, new teachers, new books. I so looked forward to going to the local school store to pick out all the supplies I would need: pencils, paper and books that would lead me down all kinds of new paths.
Both the beginning and the ending holidays of the summer season – Memorial Day and Labor Day – are usually celebrated outdoors with grilling or picnicking. But in late May and early September the weather can be iffy in the Chicago area and I have planned many a party that either had to be moved indoors or where I had to share my own sweaters and jackets to keep the guests warm.
However regardless of the weather, we usually went ahead with grilling outside even if we did the eating indoors. Whether it was a simple meal of hamburgers and hot dogs, or something more discerning like bacon wrapped pork tenderloin or Asian kebobs, my meals always included some sort of potato salad. I have created so many different ones for Convito’s market selection that I could always vary the type and select a recipe that complimented the main course. One of my favorites and most adaptable recipes follows.
Mama’s Potato Salad
(serves a crowd – cut in half to serve 8-10)
5 pounds yukon gold potatoes – skin on cut into ¾ to -1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons dried marjoram
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons pepper
2 cups diced pancetta
1 ½ cups red onion, chopped
2 cups sun-dried tomatoes chopped julienned
4 cups arugula, loosely chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
In a large mixing bowl, combine the potatoes with the olive oil, marjoram, salt and pepper, making sure the potatoes are mixed well.
Spread potato mixture evenly on a large baking sheet. Roast in oven for approximately 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool.
While potatoes cook, warm a tablespoon of olive oil in a small fry pan over medium high. Add pancetta and onions, and cook for about 20 minutes until crispy. Let cool. Cool then mix with the potatoes.
¾ cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
Mix all together and add salt & pepper to taste.
Mix potatoes with sun-dried tomatoes and arugula. Add dressing and serve.
It has been said that the one constant in life is change. I don’t always welcome all of life’s changes, but when it comes to the seasons, I do. Saying goodbye to the lazy days of summer – walks along the beach, basking in the sun, eating heavenly juicy ripe tomatoes and sweet, tender corn-on-the-cob – was never as difficult if I thought about what lay ahead in Fall. It became an opportunity for a fresh start where I felt energized noticing the leaves change and the sky becoming a different color. It was a perfect time to plan something new and something where I could incorporate the upcoming seasonal elements – the food, the weather, the holidays – into whatever might inspire me – a dinner, travel plans, a walk by the lake, my writing.
And so here I toast the end of summer with a very delicious, very summery cocktail, one my grill-master son-in law likes to make, his Mango Margherita. Mangos are best in the summer and are known as the “King of Fruits”. Rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, they taste fresh and sweet – just like the season they most happily represent!
¼ cup coarse salt spread out on a plate
8 limes (7 juiced, one cut into 4-5 wedges for garnish)
1 -16 oz bottle of mango juice Rob likes (Mango 100% Juice smoothie from Trader Joes)
1 Tbsp organic light or blue agave
½ Tsp kosher salt
Grand Marnier liqueur
Reposado or Blanco Tequila (brand of choice)
Large cocktail large shaker with a strainer
Rub lime generously around the rims of four 6 oz. chilled margarita glasses to moisten and dip into the Margherita salt. Place several ice cubes in each glass to keep cold.
In the cocktail shaker place the salt, agave, lime juice (7 limes) & 10 oz. of the Mango juice.
Stir ingredients together then add a 10 oz. cup of partially crushed ice into the shaker.
Pour in 3 oz of Grand Marnier and 7 oz of Tequila, put the top on the shaker and vigorously shake ingredients together for 15-20 seconds.
Drain any melted ice from the glasses and strain the cocktails into each glass. Garnish with a lime wedge. Enjoy !!
We toast to you summer. It was a good run! So…thanks and goodbye! See you again next time around!