After such a long and unpleasant winter, I’ve been really, really savoring the return of warm weather. The twiggy trees outside our apartment are now lush with foliage, the sun is up when we awake and its light lingers in the sky long after we’ve arrived home from work, and laundry goes so much faster since sweaters and jeans have been replaced by tank tops and light, swishy skirts. ‘Tis the season of sunglasses and short haircuts and flip flops and farmer tans (the only kind of tan I get, thank you).
But above all else, ’tis the season of local produce, each week appearing in more abundance and variety at farmers markets around the city. And though leafy greens tend to be the very first fresh items available, the truest harbinger of the coming summer bounty is the mighty asparagus spear.
These tender shoots are the rock stars on the local produce stage, producing a short-lived but iconic album every year to their adoring fans. For a brief moment, there is a glut of asparagus, piled high on market tables for eager customers to sort through, seeking the perfect stems. And then, just as suddenly, the harvest is over. This year, during these short lovely weeks of asparagus, I stumbled across this simple recipe that has quickly become my favorite.
My grandmother, who I’ve talked about quite a lot on this site, passed away this week just a few days before her 97th birthday. She was an inspiration to me in almost every way that affects this blog: canning, gardening, cooking, and even just appreciating the delight of fresh, homegrown food. She always insisted that the best recipes were the simplest ones, and that “modern recipes” just had too many unnecessary ingredients. I frequently watched her shake her head and scoff at magazine recipes bedazzled with so many obscure herbs and spices that you’d hardly be able to taste the feature of the dish (let alone afford to make it). Since she was renowned for what she could do with food from seed to table, I usually find it’s best to heed the advice she seemed to live by: grow food, buy fresh, cook simply, and savor the resulting meal.
To honor my grandmother, I want to share with you some of the simple, basic recipes that I rely upon heavily in my daily cooking. I admit, I feel both ridiculous for sharing them and also ridiculous for keeping them from you for so long. Sometimes it’s hard to decide what to share here in this space, and I often think, “nah, they don’t wanna hear about this, it’s nothing fancy.”
But then I remember that many of these dishes have entered my kitchen in only the last few years: why should I assume that they are already in yours? It seems unfair to keep them to myself. Plus, while I’m sure we all love the idea of elaborate culinary projects resulting in surprising and impressive dishes, my guess is that most of you (like me) are ultimately just trying to put dinner on the table every night without relying on a microwave dinner or a frozen pizza. For me, having an repertoire composed of simple, savory dishes is the key to making this happen.
This is one of my favorite side dishes both in flavor and style, it goes well with just about anything, and it starts and ends with a bunch of carrots. Though many of us get our carrots mostly in the form of stripped-down nubbins that appear on veggie platters at office parties, this dish uses the whole thing. For this particular dish, I like to use the thinnest carrots I can find.
Summer produce is just the best, isn’t it? Each week, I have to hem and haw and force myself not to buy everything I lay my eyes on. It’s so easy to literally have my eyes bigger than my stomach… or my weekly menu.
But squash is something I buy every week when it’s in season. Sometimes zucchini, sometimes yellow squash, mostly both. And most summer meals in our house, coincidentally, contain these delicious and prolific veggies, so I try to mix it up and try new methods to cook them. This one is one of my new favorites.
Adding a bit of parmesan and pepper to thin strips of squash turns them into long, skinny chips of a sort. To help with that long and skinniness, I use a mandoline, a tool that I resisted for years (why not just use a knife) but now adooooooooore.
With both colder weather and a bothersome chest cold arriving in the last couple of weeks, I’ve craved almost nothing but soup. I know many of you live in areas where it’s still a bit too balmy to day dream about tiny basins full of steaming soup, but bear with me. Your cooler weather will arrive soon enough, and when it does, you need to be ready to make this incredibly incredible soup featuring a vegetable almost as synonymous with autumn as king pumpkin: the butternut squash.
I won’t lie to you. Butternut squash is only something I’ve come to appreciate very, very recently. I don’t remember eating it much as a kid; we tended to favor summer squashes in my house. So when a friend brought me a bowl of butternut squash soup (in the worst days of my cold) I admit: I was a bit nervous. But after one spoonful, I became keenly aware that I may have been missing out on a vegetable that is practically given away at the farmers market, easy to store for long winters, and downright delicious.
Yes, that’s a coffee table on a tenth-floor oceanfront balcony.
Yes, that’s homemade breakfast.
We just got back from a fabulous weekend at the beach, a weekend filled with sand and sun and all other manner of beach-y fun. But I also couldn’t resist the opportunity to utilize the full kitchen in our room. Unsure of what this little kitchen might keep in its cupboards, I packed, um, one or two essentials and tossed them in the car with my swimsuit and flip flops.
And to cook? I didn’t really have any meals in mind, but I filled a cooler with a smattering of ingredients anyway and put them in the car along with my box-o-kitchen-gear.
It turned out that breakfast on our first morning there was a great time to cook (Brad sleeps in like a champ). Based on the ingredients I had, I found two tasty latke recipes, which sounded so good I decided to combine them. I love a good potato pancake, and adding zucchini (first of the season!) seemed like an excellent idea. After I had set my heart on these little cakes of joy, I discovered one flaw in my plan: I had forgotten the box grater.
No grater! I know I unloaded it from the dishwasher, how did it not make it into the box!?!? After maniacally opening every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen in search of cooking utensils (and finding only a spatula, a can opener, and a corkscrew), I tried to regain control. This was no big deal. Surely I could figure out how to fry some dang vegetables into a patty without the comfort and ease of my trusty grater.
Luckily I had not forgotten a big sharp knife. After much, much, much chopping, breakfast was near! Without long shreds of potato and zucchini, I was a little nervous about the patties holding together. How could these little chunks of vegetable adhere to one another strongly enough to become a latke? But miracle of miracles! Eggs and flour came to the rescue (as usual), and with some careful, two-spatula flipping, these little pancakes came out golden-brown, crispy, and full of flavor.
I’ve enjoyed latkes before with a little sour cream, but I did not have any in my tiny arsenal of ingredients. I did have cream, though, and after a few minutes of vigorous whipping and a dash of salt, I had just the dollop I was looking for. Thank goodness I didn’t forget a whisk.
And then breakfast! Enjoyed in the warm May sunshine and a salty breeze.
And with one hell of a view.
Makeshift Zucchini Latkes & Savory Cream Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, both here and here
For the Latkes
1 1/2 c zucchini, finely chopped or grated
2 c potatoes, finely chopped or grated
3/4 c onion, finely chopped or grated
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 c flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp lemon juice
canola oil for frying
Slice zucchini in half length-wise and scoop out seeds with a spoon before chopping or grating. Finely chop or grate zucchini, potatoes, and onion and combine in a strainer. Squeeze out as much liquid as you can through the strainer. Pour vegetables into a large bowl and add garlic, egg, flour, salt, black pepper, and lemon juice. Stir until thoroughly combined.
In a large frying pan, add canola oil until the bottom is coated and heat over medium until oil glistens. Once oil is hot, carefully scoop a heaping tablespoon of the vegetable mixture into the pan and flatten with the back of the spoon. Use spoon to tuck stray pieces of potato or zucchini up against the latke if needed. Add three or four spoonfuls to your pan, depending on the size, to cook multiple latkes at once. Allow latke to cook for 2-3 minutes. Use a flat spatula to carefully lift latke from the pan. Then, have another spatula on hand to flip the latke onto, then returning it to the pan to allow the other side to cook. I found I had fewer tragedies using this method rather than flipping the latke with one spatula. Once both sides are golden brown and crisp, remove latkes to a plate lined with paper towels.
Serve hot with a dollop of savory cream (see below) for dipping.
For the Savory Cream
1/4 c heavy cream
dash of salt
Pour cream into a bowl and whisk/beat until cream has thickened to the point where it holds a soft peak. I found that returning the cream to the fridge every few minutes (mostly when I had latkes to flip) helped to keep the cream cold enough to hold shape.
Once cream has thickened, add just a little bit of salt to taste.
I’ve been making a lot of soup lately. I crave it when it gets cold, when it gets cloudy, or when I just want to eat the embodiment of warmth and comfort.
Do you know the story of Stone Soup? An old folk tale that varies from culture to culture, the story centers around a traveler who arrives in a small village seeking food. At every door he is turned away as the villagers attempt to protect their meager pantries. The traveler then asks, quite simply for a stone and a kettle so that he might prepare a delicious soup.
Curious, the villagers slowly emerge from their homes and begin to offer small ingredients that will improve the soup: a bunch of carrots, an ear of corn, some grains of pepper. In no time at all, a hearty, filling soup feeds not only the traveler but the entire village, and the modest contribution of each villager yields an excellent meal for everyone.
I hate getting sick. Stuffy head and achy muscles and sore throat. No fun.
Less fun two weeks after seeing Contagion. No joke. Have you seen that movie? Scary.
But as much as being sick makes me not want to cook, I crave soup like crazy when I have a cold.
And there’s nothing quite like homemade chicken noodle soup.
I don’t want to mislead you. This soup has lots of chicken stock, yes, but no chicken meat. Why? Because I don’t like it in there. I don’t know why. Never have. My mom used to strain chicken noodle soup so that the little pinkish chicken pieces got caught in the strainer and I was left with warm, savory broth. Am I the only one?
Both the unofficial end of summer and the unofficial start of my favorite season, it heralds new school years, last summer hoorahs, and whispers of the beautiful autumn to come.
I haven’t quite felt that first breath of fall though. Yes, fall squash and small pumpkins are beginning to appear at the farmers market and the sun is setting noticeably earlier, and the campus at Duke is crowded once more now that the full student body has returned. But it’s hot. And still quite sticky. And still quite green.
But do you know what I’m talking about? That moment when you feel the spark of the season, any season really. I get it before the holiday season too, when something shifts either in nature or in me (or both, more likely), when I say yes, the season is changing. And also before the spring, a first warm day, watching naked brown trees burst into brilliant green or delicate blossoms seemingly overnight.
Any day now, I think fall will arrive for me. In the meantime, this dish is a fantastic way to celebrate late summer produce and puts a whole new spin on one of my favorite vegetables.
The Durham Farmers Market often features the recipes of local chefs on Saturday mornings, but for some reason I hardly ever find myself there at the right time. A couple weeks ago though, I arrived just as the cooking began, and her key ingredient? Okra! The final product was dolled out in paper cups to the hungry crowd, and after two bites I knew I had to make some for myself.
As a kid, okra fresh from my grandparents’ garden heralded the end of summer. Shopping for school clothes, first days of school, and a nip in the rapidly cooling autumn air.
That is soooo not the case in North Carolina.
Okra is everywhere here at the peak heat of southern summer. Every season, I look forward to these weird little pods more than almost any other produce, and baskets of them have been overflowing at the market since the middle of June.
And since I’m a grown up (ha) and can buy whatever food I want thank you very much, I eat okra at least a couple of times a week.