Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Picnic Farewell to the Saratoga Racing Season

It was an impromptu gathering of friends to celebrate the end of summer and a chance to hang outside watching beautiful thoroughbred race horses thunder past us. Our venue was the historic Saratoga Springs Race Track. on Labor Day, the last day of the summer racing season. The racetrack offered free admission for that day, which was a nice bonus. Dan and I went early in the morning to claim a picnic table at The Top of the Stretch (where the horses make their last straightaway sprint to the finish line) by draping our tablecloth on a table near the fence. Next time I will leave the vase of zinnias home, which, though it was kind of a classy addition, invited pesky yellow jackets and wasps to our table.

Husband Dan used to go more often in his youth and we were astonished at how many years had passed since we had attended the races. Neither one of us is much of a gambler, but it is always a fun time because the people watching is superb. You'll see fashions aplenty from nattily dressed and hatted ladies strolling through the clubhouse to cigar-chomping OTB regulars perusing the racing papers with great intensity.

We arrived early and brought our picnic fare and feasted like kings. The weather cooperated with sunshine and not too much humidity, though when the track guys came around in their track misters, we did enjoy the spray of water on our faces turning like sunflowers in the light.

Our friends brought a splendid array of delicious foods. We ate some luscious lemony deviled eggs (I'll have my friend Ellen's recipe posted up soon), rice and pasta salads, gazpacho, cheeses, fruit, and other edibles, all packed up in various non-glass containers as per track rules). Then there was this luscious cold zucchini salad, inspired by one of Laurie Colwin's essays from her book "Home Cooking".

You start with a platter of fried zucchini.

I used three largish zucchini, which kept me stationed over a large cast-iron frying pan for a good while the day before. I breaded my zucchini with a mixture of brown rice flour and chickpea flour. They were moist enough after slicing to not require any eggy painting to make the flour adhere. After I drained and cooled these fried zucchini slices, I layered them with dabs of an 8 oz. log of goat cheese, chopped parsley and basil, and sliced bits of a 12 oz. jar of roasted red peppers. Salt and pepper went between the layers, they got a splash of olive oil and vinegar and that was a wonderful salad that was delicious at room temperature the next day and kept well under the hot temperatures during our al fresco track picnic.

Now, to focus more attention on Colwin's delightful book, Home Cooking, which is the featured selection for Cook the Books, the online foodie book club started by me, my buddy Deb of Kahakai Kitchen and my buddy Jo of Food Junkie, Not Junk Food. This book was published in 1988, and has been in my home library since shortly thereafter. Colwin was just a bewitching writer; she was witty, self-deprecating, passionate about the things she loved, and her descriptions of dinner parties (even the ones that went awry) are mouthwatering.

My favorite essay is entitled Kitchen Horrors, and I can read and reread this comic chapter and still chuckle out loud. There are so many disasters described in its pages, but none more hilarious than the strange English dessert Colwin attempted to make for an Easter dinner, called Suffolk Pond Pudding. It involved a sugar-encrusted lemon atop some butter and sugar, wrapped in a suet crust and then steamed in a kettle for FOUR HOURS. Well, that's enough description for me, and I certainly wouldn't want to have to ingest it, but Colwin sallied forth and when she produced her dessert, the comments on its appearances included suggestions that it looked like a baked hat and the Alien. The taste produced further editorial commentary: "This tastes like lemon-flavored bacon fat", "I'm sure it's wonderful, I mean, in England", and the straight-forward "This is awful". Ha!

Sadly, Colwin died at the tragically young age of 48 from a heart attack (her descriptions of her go-to comfort food, rosti, may have been a complicating factor), so there are not many other Colwin titles to read through, though there is a sequel to this book, More Home Cooking, to look forward to.

My zucchini salad was inspired by an essay in Home Cooking, entitled Red Peppers. In it, Colwin describes a favorite dish from an East Side restaurant that she didn't get to often enough. It involved layers of sauteed zucchini slices and pimento strips garnished with olive oil, fresh garlic and lemon juice, which sounds great too.

Deb is hosting this current round of Cook the Books, so be sure to check back at our book club website after the September 24th deadline to see Deb's roundup of all the Home Cooking posts.