— a pandemic pantry post —
8 WAYS TO DELIGHT IN SUMMER & FALL’S FRUITS AND VEGETABLES;
YES, EVEN (ESPECIALLY) NOW
I have been thinking a lot this year about something Annie Dillard wrote: “How we live our days is how we live our lives.”
For reasons you know as well as I do, these, the days of 2020, have been filled with fearsome challenges and mighty uncertainty, both immediate and long-term. All the better to eat as well as we can.
Naturally, this era stirs up in us what-iffing; there are so many truly dreadful possibilities these days. It’s easy to give over to fear and despair, but is it helpful? For, these are our days at present. What will we do with them?
And, taking Dillard’s observation a step further, since each of these days constructs part of our existence as a whole, making conscious choices is essential. I ask myself, over and over, Do I want my life to be squandered, however understandably, in the state of fear and despair? I do not, however justified it might be. How about you?
And if how I live my days is how I live my life, it becomes my responsibility to keep finding ways to love life fiercely. Both my own life and life generally. No matter what new outrage the news brings; no matter what floor seems to have fallen out below us. Not instead of taking what action I can social justice-wise, but along with.
I have come to feel that to look the scary stuff straight in the eye and take action when possible, yet maintain equipoise and cultivate joy, appreciation, gratitude may be the largest and most robust form of resistance there is, and certainly it strengthens any other kind of working for change we may do.
So. Here is a major way I practice celebratory eyes-open resistance.I love and am loved by other people. I notice the natural world and its wonders, from a wasp pollinating a zinnia to a sunset. And I participate deeply in this world by, yers, going to demonstrations, registering others to vote, writing letters, giving money… AND by cooking, eating, and gardening.
I dare you: watch the news and be happy anyway. Work to alter things, but love anyway. Cook, and eat, anyway.
Especially, given the bounty of this time of year. Even this year.
About one week into August, I notice that first shift in light presaging coming fall. Though still so very hot (record-breakingly so, frighteningly so), the wheel is turning, as it always does. Summer’s lease, as Shakespeare reminded us, hath all too short a date.
But before the decisive turns marked by the autumn equinox and then first hard frost, we have the great, grand last hurrah of late summer gardens and farms and markets, followed by the fall harvest.
Twice this last week I have made okra: once the classic fried variety, and once the even-better Greek-Style, slow cooked and carmelized with garlic and tomato (I do green beans in a similar fashion, and sometimes zucchini).
Night before last, we had fresh corn fritters. And I continue to do my hot weather classics, too, potato salad (with homemade tofu mayonnaise) and…
But wait. I get ahead of myself here. This post is a round-up, offering links to many my best height-of-summer, pending-fall recipes.
Because in hard times, if you school yourself to celebrate anyway — and yes, with vegetables and fruit, in the kitchen and at the table, and yes, every day (perhaps not the whole day, but at least a few minutes of it) — you are nourished and given pleasure and beauty, deliciousness and connection with the earth and those who grow things on and in it.
And that, my dearest dears, is a mighty antidote to despair.
Because however logical it might be to despair, if you give over to it, you disempower yourself and the bad guys win. And we can’t have that.
What we can have, instead, is a good dinner.
IF YOU THINK YOU DON’T LIKE OKRA / IF YOU THINK POLENTA IS GREAT BUT A HASSLE TO PREPARE
My Greek-Style Smothered Okra has made many a convinced okra-hater come over to the side of passionate okra-love. You’ll also find directions for using this same basic approach tweaked for using with green beans and summer squash.
These recipes are all vegan.
One of the dinners I most love this time of year is small piles of thoughtfully prepared assorted summer vegetables (like this okra), surrounding a grain or pasta dish. And one of the easiest and most crowd-pleasing of these is my oven-baked polenta/grits.
If you love polenta but are tired of going stir-crazy and having it stick to the bottom of the pan and make big hot burning bubbles as it cooks — this polenta/grits method is revolutionary, a true game-changer.
IF YOU WANT TO DISCOVER A WHOLE NEW WAY TO LOVE TOMATOES
And then, there are tomatoes.
If you’ve been glorying in them as is and are ready to try something new that still leaves them deliciously raw, try Banadora, a salad that hails from Uzbekistan.
The juiciness and dense umami intensity of perfect summer tomatoes, or even the more so-so ones often labeled “slicers”, leap into deliciousness in a whole new way, with herbs and scallions and a little heat.
SO GOOD! Don’t miss it.
AND PRETTY SOON, YOUR FARMER’S MARKET WILL BE OVERFLOWING WITH GREEN TOMATOES
What should you do with them? Of course, you can fry them.
But better yet, try my Fabulous Green Tomato Mincemeatless (the link here is to a site called Veggie Table; the recipe is mine, used with permission). People who love mincemeat tell me it is the best they have ever eaten; people who hate mincemeat tell me it is the only mincemeat they have ever enjoyed.
Truly, you will be ecstatic to have this on hand come Thanksgiving.
Plus, it’s not just for pies — it is delectable as a filling for sandwich bars — you know, the kind with oatmeal and brown sugar above and below a fruit filling. I have used my mincemeat in trifle, too, and shortcake style, between split biscuits and dolloped liberally with whipped cream (dairy or coconut).
IF IT’S STILL TOO FREAKING HOT AND YOU WANT SOMETHING THAT’S COOL, MAN, AND SO EASY: MY CUKE SOUP HAS YOUR NAME ON IT.
I make this, summer after summer, not just by the quart, by the gallon. I am sure I sip or spoon a bathtub’s worth most Julys and Augusts. I often bring it to potlucks or serve it to friends at hot weather dinners.
It is almost always extremely well-received (except for the very occasional person who dislikes the acidic tang of non-sweet yogurt, or who can’t wrap his or her mind around cold soup).
To me and most people, though, it is just the ultimate in refreshing, summer-food supreme. Green grapes add sweetness; mint gives it exuberant zing. So here you go: Chilled Cucumber Soup with Mint.
And easy? You can’t get easier. It’s all done in the blender or food processor; not so much as a burner gets turned on.
And, if you happen to have grown cukes in your own garden, you no doubt have an insane amount of ’em — they, like their kin zucchini, are scary in their generosity. Well, this is the perfect way to enjoy them.
BUT: FALL’S ON THE WAY. PUMPKINS AND SQUASHES AND GOURDS, OH MY!
The winter squashes, firm and with those sweet interiors, bright-orange carotene-rich— – they are already here and more are coming. With their sometimes speckled, sometimes striped, sometimes mono-colored exteriors, and shaped like turbans and dirigibles, these cucurbits are almost as decorative as they are delicious and nutrient-packed.
Peeled, steamed, and made into a thick puree, they are a mind-bogglingly good side dish, just as they are. This same puree is great for filling pies sweet (think traditional pumpkin pie) or savory (swirl in sauteed onions and chile and perhaps a bit of cheese).
Too, remember them if you are making a mixed vegetable, or vegetable and bean, spicy curry — their sweetness can mellow a dish that might otherwise be a little too kick-ass for some tastes, and, left in noticeable chunks and cooked until tender but not disintegrating, those colors shine: visually autumnal, what with the orange of the squash and the yellow of the turmeric.
But somehow I always land on squash soups, like this one: Winter-Squash Soup with Ginger-Apple Salsa.
SWEETS FOR THE SWEET: END-OF-SUMMER BERRIED UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE, AND MY MOTHER’S MARVELOUS BAKED APPLES
As I write this in late August, the local strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries have already come and gone, but the blackberries, shiny blue-black (but purple in their juice), and very tart, are in full abundance.
I have made this simple, showy Mixed Berry Upside-down Cake with blackberries alone, and it’s fab that way. And keep this recipe handy for November and December, too; it is also superb with cranberries.
But no one who keeps any kind of an eye on health allows themselves cake and high-sugar confections on a daily basis. Instead, those of us who try to balance eating wisely with eating deliciously and satisfying a sweet tooth look for desserts that will please both the inner saint and the transgressor.
Charlotte’s Baked Apples, the recipe of my my late mother, is one such sweet. I make this at least a couple of times a month, November through March. I usually do it simply, but sometimes I glaze it with other fruit (like blueberries, shown here). Several variations are part of this recipe.
No matter how I do it, my mother’s baked apples never fail to please and comfort me and those it is my privilege to feed. I am asked for this one often.
HOW DO I PUT IT ALL TOGETHER?
Two last links for you — two dinner menus that incorporate some of these recipes and offer a few more, most items perfectly suited for this moment. One is Dinner at the High Noon of Summer, while the other is a Dinner after the Fields Were Mown.
The recipes in this story are from “Bean By Bean: A Cookbook: More than 175 Recipes for Fresh Beans, Dried Beans, Cool Beans, Hot Beans, Savory Beans, Even Sweet Beans!” (Workman, $17.95)
Crescent is the James Beard Award-winning author of eight published cookbooks. She is also a Google “culinary celebrity”, answering the week’s most Googled cooking questions with short videos, such as this one.