Bob Audette joined the military and saw the flavors of the world.
He grew up in New England, where his "meat and potatoes" household menu happened to include lots of clams and lobster. But his Chelmsford, Mass., roots didn't prepare him for the thrill he experienced when discovering his first Thai food.
It was in Germany, while Audette was serving in the Air Force. The German food – jagerschnitzel, sausages and so on, was tasty – but his first taste of Thai was startling.
After he returned to the States, Audette – The News' August Cook of the Month – dabbled in cooking, following Graham Kerr ("The Galloping Gourmet") on television. But his "tipping point," as Audette put it, came in France. In 2000, he was part of an Air National Guard unit supporting the no-fly zone in Iraq. He and fellow service members were billeted in an off-base hotel.
"One night we're in a restaurant and eating squab. I'd never had it before, and it was delicious," said Audette, now the Air National Guard's retention manager at the Niagara Falls air base. "The hotel – for five bucks you got half a duck in mushroom sauce and wine. We were walking around Marseilles, there were vendors selling sea urchins that they'd cut the top off of. It was very good."
Audette had seen cuisine that moved him to create his own.
"I'm not sure I like their politics," he said of France, "but I love their culture."
So as he and wife, Carrie, raised their six children, Lauren, Lindsay, Bob, Camille, Kirsten and Cassidy, Audette cooked. To feed his family – and for fun.
"I remembered a soup he did ages ago, a fresh mushroom soup," Carrie said. "He put a bowl of fresh cut rosemary next to the soup, and as you sat down to eat the soup he poured boiling water over the rosemary, and you got the taste, the scent of rosemary – the coolest eating sensation I've ever had. You weren't eating the rosemary, but you were enveloped by its scent."
Audette paused. "I honestly don't even remember it," he said.
He has had ducks hanging in his kitchen to dry, with fans blowing.
"That's one area where I wish I could get better," he mused. "I cannot get my Peking duck where I want it."
There was the time he told friends to bring a few bottles of wine to the cottage, so he could match them to food. They thought he meant two per person, not couple, and ended up bringing 16 bottles. Instead of making eight dishes as planned, Audette made 15 dishes.
"The problem with going out with Bob [to restaurants] is not that he complains," Carrie said, "but he always knows how he could make it better."
His Thai watermelon soup started as a recipe from the Internet, but Audette has made it his own. The first time he made it, he was suffering through beastly heat in North Carolina. His response: cold soup.
"I love cold soups," he said. "I love cold corn soup; I've got a peach gazpacho that I do."
He boosted the Thai accent with Thai-flavored olive oil from Tuscany on Main. "In North Carolina, good crab meat was available," he said. "Here I wasn't happy about the quality, so I opted for lobster."
On the other hand, his farmers' market salad is barely a recipe, except for the vinaigrette.
"It's really just an homage to the great summer produce that our local farmers grow every year," he said. "Everything on this plate is from the East Aurora Farmers Market, the market at the corner or the cart across the street," (except the Kalamata olives in the vinaigrette, he allowed).
The vegetables change week to week throughout the season, he said. "I employed four techniques – sautéing, steaming, roasting and grilling. You could choose to just grill, or just roast them. Don't be afraid to experiment. There are no rules."
Still, recognize that, except for the vinaigrette, the only seasonings are salt, pepper, and extra virgin olive oil, he said. "Let the ingredients shine."
> Thai Watermelon Soup with Lobster
5 cups coarsely chopped ? seedless watermelon
1 fresh finely sliced ? lemongrass stalk
3 tablespoons finely ? chopped shallot
1 1/2 tablespoons finely ? chopped, peeled fresh ? ginger
1 tablespoon finely ? chopped garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, ? preferably Thai Chili ? Olive Oil
1 to 2 small hot peppers, ? such as Thai or serrano, ? finely chopped, including ? seeds
2 limes, 1 juiced, and 1 ? reserved and sliced into ? wedges when served
3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1- 1 1/2 pound lobster, steamed ? and meat removed
1/4 cup finely chopped ? fresh cilantro
1 1/2 tablespoons mild olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Lime wedges, for serving
Puree watermelon in a food processor until smooth, checking for seeds as you go and transfer to a bowl. (Don't wash your food processor yet.)
Discard 1 or 2 outer leaves of lemongrass and trim root end. Thinly slice lower 5 to 6 inches of stalk and then mince finely.
Cook lemongrass, shallot, ginger and garlic in oil in a saucepan over low heat, stirring, until aromatics are pale golden, about 5 minutes. Add about one-third of watermelon puree and simmer over medium heat, stirring for 5 minutes.
Remove watermelon mixture from heat, then transfer to blender along with hot peppers, lime juice, and salt and blend until smooth. (Use caution when blending hot liquids).
Add remaining watermelon puree and blend briefly. Season soup with more hot peppers, lime juice, and salt if desired, processing if necessary. Pour soup through a sieve or fine mesh strainer into a bowl, pressing on and then discarding any solids. Chill soup, uncovered, about 2 hours if serving cold, or reheat in cleaned saucepan.
Toss lobster meat with cilantro, oil, and salt. Allow flavors to marry for an hour or so in the refrigerator. (You can also use good crabmeat.)
Divide lobster among 4 soup bowls, mounding in center, and pour chilled or hot soup around it. Serve with lime wedges. Should make 4 first-course servings.
> Farmers' Market Salad with Brown Butter Kalamata Vinaigrette
For the salad:
Peel and cube beets, brush with olive and and roast at 350 degrees on a bed of salt for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, sauté the following with olive oil, salt and pepper, separately: chopped Swiss chard, until wilted; halved leeks, until slightly blackened; and trimmed green beans.
Steam wax beans until just slightly crunchy.
Grill sliced Spanish onions, white eggplant, zucchini and patty pan squash, brushed with olive oil, salt and pepper. Grill corn in the husk, then slice from the cob. Add heirloom cherry tomatoes, sliced in half.
For the vinaigrette:
4 tablespoons salted butter
1/3 cup white balsamic ? vinegar
4 tablespoons extra virgin ? olive oil
8 Kalamata olives, coarsely ? chopped (optional)
Melt the butter over medium heat; cook until it begins to darken. Add the vinegar and combine. Remove from the heat. Add the olive oil while vigorously whisking/blending. Add olives, if using, and combine gently.
Pour over salads and serve.
> Bob Audette
Residence: East Amherst
Mouths to feed: 7
Go-to instant meal: Grilled pizzaGuilty pleasure: Lobster, steamed clams, drawn butter