When the Summer growing season finally arrives in Alabama, I always look forward to the fresh, local, and sustainable produce that´s always readily available. When I was a child my father Sidney Vizzina and my mother Gretchen Vizzina always had tomato plants and cucuzza growing in our back yard.
Everyone in our family played a part in growing process of our garden that always produced the most amazing fresh fruits and vegetables. I realize now that the tomatoes were always so sweet because they were grown and seasoned with love. My parents, now in heaven, are smiling down on me because of my hard work and dedication, whether it´s teaching at Samford University, volunteering at Jones Valley Teaching Farm or adopting a school as part of Michelle Obama’s Chefs move to school program or mentoring culinary students from local high school or culinary schools. The inspiration of a family garden was rekindled when I visited my friend and cousin George Sarris´ village in Greece. I asked George why the farmers left the leaves on oranges and lemons, and he explained to me it was so people would know how fresh the fruits and vegetables were.
After I returned home from Greece, I had the pleasure and the honor to be the Executive and general manager in charge of planning and cooking the Royal Brunch for Prince Edward and Miss America at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Westmoreland. Remembering the values and principles of what my mentor Frank Stitt instilled in me it was my pleasure to source and hand-pick each local item by hand. I was lucky to be able to reflect on and pull from so many values and life lessons I learned from when I was the Chef de Cuisine at Highlands Bar and Grill. I Have been trying to share these values with the rest our community. I have been on a mission the last few years to share what I learned. It was nothing less than a spectacular brunch featuring all our local and seasonal ingredients. It was truly an honor to work with my friends from Highlands Bar and Grill and my team members from Campus Dining at Samford University.
After the brunch I was driving home sipping a glass of ice tea when I saw that there was a pickup truck full of gardening mis en place. What is one to expect at this point? Low and behold it was Mathew King building and planting a garden my wife was to give me for our 10th anniversary. I was fortunate enough to have my own garden this year, a surprise made possible by my loving wife, Carolyn. My son Christopher who is now seven years old was able to watch these beautiful fruits and vegetables grow from seeds to ingredients on our table.
God, Slow Food and family are three things we as a society have started to stray from and a garden brings all of these together for a family to enjoy. One thing all families can agree on is the abundance of vine ripened fruit and vegetables that are readily available, none of which is more important and diverse than the tomato, whether its heirloom, roma, or grape. Its many varieties and its versatility make it a staple in southern cuisine. With my Sicilian background, I am more than a little familiar with this fruit. One thing I love to do on a hot summer day is to make a chilled tomato soup called gazpacho that is not only refreshing, but utilizes many of the different vegetables you can find in the garden. I like to take what I have learned from my background and add lots of fresh basil, oregano, and aromatics to the dish, making it fresh and satisfying. One of the reasons that I like to make a gazpacho is that none of the ingredients have to be cooked. You can get the whole flavor of the tomato without cooking it down, and the raw zucchini, squash, onions, and peppers give it a nice bite.
As a person who embraces family and community, one of my greatest concerns is right out of my back door. The Current mindset of an average American is a lifestyle that revolves around hectic scheduling. This includes everything from work, to kids, to our dining room table. Most Americans do not have or make the time to prepare at least a couple of home cooked meals a week. It seems like our family meals revolve around various delivery chains, flash fried buckets of chicken, or the leading fast food burger joint. I would like to invite people to learn just how simple and satisfying a good home cooked meal can be. Most importantly, these meals are much more healthy. As a society that lives on convenience, we are conveniently getting more and more unhealthy. With the ready availability of "fast" food, I´m choosing to slow things down a bit and get back to the basics. These basics are available to all. I encourage you all to look up SlowFoodBirmingham.com and see how you can make you and your family slow food members. With the fall rapidly approaching, I am looking forward to what Alabama, and I, can offer to my family and yours and dinner time. Ciao! I´ll see you at your local farmer´s market!