Sandy Dowling has eaten all over the world and cooks global cuisines — French, Italian, Thai, Bavarian. But none tops the fruits of a Rogue Valley summer.
"If I could have just one thing to eat," says the chef, "it would be a perfectly ripe and juicy Forty-Niner peach, picked warm from the tree, on a hot August afternoon."
Letting the juices just run down her chin would be a bonus, says Dowling.
Owner of Central Point's The Willows, Dowling described the sweet sensation last year at a party for her 40th wedding anniversary, where a guest asked other celebrants if they could eat only one more meal — a last supper, so to speak — what would it be?
Last suppers have cropped up more often as dinner-party conversation since the 2007 release of Melanie Dunea's "My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals."
"It's so hard," says Dowling.
She loves antipasto, especially Portland chef Vitaly Paley's cured meats with a few home-cured olives.
For appetizers, Dowling thinks of fresh Thai-style summer rolls filled with cold Oregon Dungeness crab, somen noodles, cucumber and fresh shredded mint.
The salad would pair her garden-fresh baby greens with roasted hazelnuts and fresh blackberries, all drizzled with blackberry-hazelnut oil vinaigrette.
Dowling couldn't wish for a better main course than husband Joe's rib-eye steak perfectly grilled to medium-rare with a risotto of wild Oregon lobster, morel and chanterelle mushrooms and grilled baby asparagus.
Dessert is the toughest choice of all for the chocolate-loving chef who also favors lemons, berries, nuts and all pies and pastries.
"But if I have to choose just one thing, let it be that amazing hazelnut-meringue raspberry-mousse torte at the Jacksonville Inn restaurant, made famous ... over 25 years ago! It's still on their menu and still a little bite of heaven!"
Heaven also comes in summer for Talent chef Charlene Rollins, co-owner of New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro.
"You can just say, 'tomato toast with corn and green beans.' "
"When conditions are right," Rollins says, she and her family eat the combination all summer.
And the right conditions don't just entail sunshine and warm temperatures, she says.
"You not only have to grow the — usually Purple Cherokee — tomato, so you can pick it at just the right moment," says Rollins, "but you have to have a lot of them because every tomato is different and there's a lot of luck involved, so you just have to keep trying."
Some of the simplest foods are the easiest to love, says the James Beard Award-nominated chef. And some of the most fundamental techniques, she adds, are the hardest to do "just right."
After just blanching some green beans (not too small, not too big) and sauteing them with garlic in olive oil, Rollins cooks corn just until hot in unsalted water. Aioli and garden-fresh basil accent the tomatoes layered on 1/2- to 5/8-inch-thick, toasted slices of New Sammy's Cowboy round loaf. Seemingly straightforward, says Rollins, "the bread is almost as challenging as the tomato."
"If the bread isn't pretty close to perfect (thin, crisp crust; moist, open crumb; wheaty aroma; just a touch of sour), you have to wait for another day."
New Sammy's sees plenty of those days all year, but particularly in summer. Diners may get a tomato bread pudding or more "constructed" item, says Rollins, but tomato toast is "ubiquitous" behind the swinging kitchen doors.
"We all eat it, and my son was brought up on it."
Brought up in Los Angeles far from the family farm, chef Jeff Shepherd marveled at the industry of his grandmother, Zelma, and the diverse productivity of her two acres in Mousie, Ky.
"She even taught me how to temper the moonshine she sold on the side," says the owner of Lillie Belle Farms in Central Point.
In the mornings, Shepherd helped pick peas, cucumbers, corn, strawberries and beans from the garden. Afternoons were time for putting up chow-chow, pickles and strawberry jam. The day's reward was a supper of fried chicken with fresh vegetables, mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy.
"She taught me which chicken to choose and how to kill it, clean it and cook it to perfection," says Shepherd. "She would soak the freshly killed chicken in buttermilk overnight, flour it and fry it slowly in rendered bacon fat until crisp and tender."
Bacon fat also factored into his grandmother's handmade biscuits, rivaled for fluffiness by her potatoes mashed with buttermilk. Gravy, of course, was made with chicken drippings, milk and flour.
Shepherd last tasted his grandmother's chicken in 1979 on a summerlong visit to the self-sustaining farm. Zelma Shepherd died in 1990 at age 83 but left a culinary legacy to her grandson.
"I inherited her cast-iron skillets and have made a few attempts," says Shepherd. "But hers was the best I have ever had.
"I mean, if this is my last meal on my bucket list, who cares if it kills me?"
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.