Enjoy cooking with your neighbors

Jody’s Mississippi Caviar (black-eyed peas, tomatoes, corn, scallions, clove, cilantro, avocado, and lime juice served with blue corn nacho chips) BY JACK CLEMONS
September 5, 2011

After the recent anxiety caused by Hurricane Irene, we’re looking forward to a low-key Labor Day weekend. As you may know from your history studies, the holiday started in the 1880s as a conciliatory gesture toward unhappy labor unions after the resolution of several contentious strikes. Over time, the celebration has evolved to honor all workers for their efforts. This year, Labor Day arrives with perfect timing; recovering from the aftermath of earthquake, hurricane, tornado and flood has found all of us working hard.

The first Monday in September also serves as a farewell to summer. Community pools close, oceanside lifeguard stands empty and children prepare to head back to school. What better time to gather your friends and family to toast the memories of a summer at the shore? We’re planning a relaxing few days with our guests and in the spirit of not working, I’ve turned to my neighbors for menu suggestions. They’ve generously shared their recipes for several dishes you can prepare in advance and set aside to finish the final steps just a few minutes before serving.

Bob LaMorte and his wife Debbie are both great cooks. She’s been known to bake fresh cranberry muffins for a committee meeting – needless to say we’re delighted when she offers to host our discussions. Bob is a tinkerer; he’ll make a dish once, then try several more iterations, precisely adjusting the ingredients until he’s satisfied. I’ve included two of their recipes that fit the bill for this weekend: assemble beforehand and cook quickly when you’re ready.

The first of these is Mojito Chicken, where poultry parts are treated to both a dry rub and a marinade. By the time you’re setting the table and heating the grill, the pieces have absorbed complex citrus flavors and a spicy punch. When you remove the pieces from the heat, let them sit for a moment to cool slightly and create a puddle of lime-scented juices to drizzle over the chicken.

The second recipe is for a dish I’ve made several times: cheese polenta. Because of the two-step process, you can chill the polenta until you need to sauté the squares. You can also adjust the seasonings with the addition of minced garlic, sun-dried tomato or sage. If you have any leftovers, try serving grilled polenta squares as a breakfast side dish – a tasty change from toast.

Jody Ryan’s contribution to our menu is caviar - Southern style, not the tiny, shiny sturgeon roe. Her recipe features a type of cowboy caviar (pickled black-eyed peas). Jody’s version adds tomato, garlic, green onion, corn and cilantro to a lime vinaigrette, with the special attraction of chopped avocado. Ideally, all the ingredients would be about the same size, but I left the avocado pieces large enough for me to find them (see photo). Almost a salsa in consistency, the black-eyed pea relish can be served as an appetizer with tortilla chips, as bruschetta on toast rounds or as a garnish over grilled fish. I spread some over Bob’s mojito chicken and the flavors melded nicely.

Dessert was a bit of a challenge, as Mel Brown’s raccoon (not a pet, but a frequent unwelcome visitor) had spent the evening in Ned and Kathy Butera’s fig tree. With its original roots in Italy, this transplant has an ideal location in their yard: southern exposure for good sun, next to a walkway to absorb heat from the pavers and along the side of the house for protection from prevailing winds and late frosts. The green fruits have captured the attention of all sorts of neighborhood critters, but I was lucky enough to harvest close to a dozen fresh figs.

Since I’d neglected an appetizer, the figs were diverted to hors d’ouevres. The simplest presentation is to cut a slit in the fig and press in a nutmeat (walnuts and pecans are nice). If you already have the grill going, wrap each fig in a piece of prosciutto, thread them on a skewer and give them a few moments on the grill. Or, cut them in half and top with a spreadable cheese like chevre or mascarpone; add a sprinkle of chopped nuts and heat on a tray under the broiler or on the grill just long enough to warm the cheese. Although I’ve included an easy dessert recipe for figs, we may decide to walk to the ice cream stand - after all it’s my last chance to wear white shoes this year. Happy Labor Day!

Bob’s Mojito Chicken
3 lbs chicken parts
2 T garlic powder
1 T onion powder
1/4 t cumin
1 T oregano
1/2 t salt
1 T pepper
1 t paprika

Combine the dry spices in a large zip-top plastic bag; shake to combine. Add chicken parts and seal, leaving air to form a pillow. Shake vigorously until the chicken pieces are coated with the spices. Open and remove the excess air from the bag; reseal. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 3 hours.

1 C orange juice
juice of 2 limes
1/3 C white wine vinegar
1/4 C olive oil
1 T minced garlic

Whisk together marinade ingredients and pour over chicken in plastic bag. Reseal and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 4 hours, turning occasionally to coat all of the chicken pieces. Preheat grill and cook chicken over medium-high direct heat until golden brown and thoroughly cooked.

Bob's Cheese Polenta
1 qt chicken broth
1 C corn meal
3/4 C grated Parmesan cheese
2 T butter or olive oil

Coat the inside of a 9-by-12-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.

Whisk together chicken broth and corn meal in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over high heat, stirring occasionally. Keep mixture at a gentle simmer, stirring almost constantly to make sure the mixture does not stick to the bottom or develop lumps. Once the polenta is quite thick (about 10 to 12 minutes) remove from heat and stir in cheese. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Smooth the surface with the back of a spoon; allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Cover the polenta with a sheet of plastic wrap, patting it down to stick to the top of the polenta. Press down carefully since it might still be a little hot, and smooth it out on the top so that you have an even thickness to the polenta.

Refrigerate until ready to serve. Cut the polenta into 2-inch squares. Heat olive oil or butter in a nonstick pan; cook polenta squares, turning once after the first side becomes well browned.

Jody’s Mississippi Caviar
16-oz can black-eyed peas
1 C chopped tomato
1 C corn kernels
1 pressed garlic clove
1 bunch scallions, sliced thin
2/3 C chopped cilantro
1 avocado
juice of 1 lime
1 t cumin
salt & pepper, to taste

Drain the black-eyed peas and pour into a serving bowl. Stir in tomato, corn, garlic, scallions and cilantro. Seed, peel and chop the avocado; place in a small bowl. Drizzle with lime juice, then stir into vegetable mixture along with seasonings. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 5 hours (or overnight).

Grilled Figs
12 fresh figs
2 T butter
1 T brandy
1 T brown sugar
1 C whipping cream
1 t cinnamon
1 T honey
1 T brandy

Halve figs lengthwise and thread onto skewers; set aside. Melt butter in a small pan and swirl in brandy. Brush skewered figs with butter mixture on both sides; sprinkle cut side with brown sugar. Preheat grill to medium high and cook, cut side up, until surface begins to bubble.

Meanwhile, combine whipping cream, cinnamon, honey and brandy in a mixing bowl. Beat until soft peaks form; do not overbeat. To serve, arrange several fig halves on a dessert plate and garnish with a dollop of whipped cream.