Before I started paying attention to local food and to cooking with seasonal ingredients, I would have categorized potatoes as a winter vegetable, miraculously growing in the frozen solid earth, harvested by farmers through layers of snow.
I never would have guessed that a potato’s peak season in colder climates is actually midsummer through late fall, and that during these months, never do potatoes taste so good. Every summer, when the potatoes start arriving in our CSA, I am blown away by their flavor, by how they need nothing more than olive oil and salt, by how many potatoes we consume as a family each week. I’ve been on such a potato bender recently I’ve had to supplement our supply at the farmers’ market, and when I was there last, I asked the woman at the Barber’s Farm table why the summer potatoes were so good. She responded: “Because they’re fresh!”
A few weeks ago, as I stood at the counter flouring, egg dipping, and breading two pounds of eggplant rounds, a little dolly screaming at my feet wanting nothing more than to be held at the height of this witching hour, I found myself asking “WHY?!” I know better than to make this sort of thing at this sort of hour. I shouldn’t be so stubborn. But a craving for eggplant parmesan left me inflexible, and I pushed on until crumbs and parmesan covered every slice, trying to stay composed through every piercing cry. Oiy.
But as soon as those rounds entered the oven, I relaxed. And this is the beauty of The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook eggplant parmesan recipe. Once the breading is done, the hard work is over — there is no standing at the oven, frying the eggplant in batch after batch. The Test Kitchen’s recipe calls for baking the eggplant on preheated baking sheets, a technique they developed to solve the oil-laden, pan-fried eggplant problem that leads to heavy, greasy eggplant parmesan. Oven-frying saves time to boot.
In April of last year, Vince Vaughn hosted SNL, and delivered a hilarious, wise and insightful monologue. After acknowledging the importance of the audience’s role in the success of an SNL show, he ventured off stage, engaged a few of the audience members, and confiscated a cell phone, noting he “believe[s] sometimes it’s better to take the memories with our hearts and minds.” He then turned to the camera to say: “That’s for all you kids out there tonight. It’s OK to put down the phone and be a part of the memory. That lasts a lifetime as well.”
I’ve thought about this monologue often since seeing that SNL episode but never so much as last week, when three hours after arriving in Minneapolis en route to a cabin in Wisconsin, I realized I had left my camera on the plane and that all of the moments I had looked forward to capturing in billions of pixels during the week with friends and family would by necessity be cemented solely into my heart and mind. I know a camera is just a thing, and I shouldn’t fret — we have our health! and happiness! — but I still have a pit in my stomach. New camera arriving tomorrow. Yay.
I have been eating raw kale salads for four years now. I remember the first one I had. I was in California, shocker, with my aunt, enjoying lunch at a place called, wait for it, True Food Kitchen. We loved the Tuscan kale salad so much that we asked the server for some details. We learned, if I remember correctly, that the kale had marinated in lemon and olive oil before it was tossed with breadcrumbs and parmesan. In 2010, eating kale raw (for many of us) was revolutionary.
I have eaten and prepared many many many raw kale salads since, and yet, not once — not once! — has it occurred to me to try treating Swiss chard, a green I seem to have on hand at all times, in the same manner. For whatever reason, I have relegated chard to the vegetables-that-require-cooking family, and just last week I learned that this placement was seriously misguided.
From beans and rice to grains and legumes to eggs and breadcrumbs to cheese and yogurt, many are the variables determining the fate of a homemade veggie burger. It’s dizzying, as maddening as trying to unlock the secret to the chewiest granola bar.
All summer, I’ve been trying to make a good one, and I’ve finally found a formula I love, the inspiration coming from a favorite fritter: falafel. If you’ve made falafel, you’re familiar with the method: soak dried chickpeas (or favas) overnight, drain them, whizz them with onions, herbs and seasonings, deep fry.
Without any binders, falafel manages to hold its shape, crispy on the edges, light and airy in the interior.
It has been my experience for years that on eves of CSA pickups, we get by with what we have, cobble together dinner with the scraps in the vegetable drawer, a hunk of bread, cheese, a tin of sardines or whatever we find in the pantry.
But this summer, I can’t keep up. Even with the children eating the green beans, a weekly ritual of chard fritters, and gratins galore, we can’t make a dent in our produce share. Every Monday is an emergency, an evacuation of what’s left, everything and anything shredded into a slaw.
The quantity of herbs heaped onto nearly every dish at every Vietnamese restaurant never ceases to amaze me. And this time of year, I crave nothing more than eating this kind of food: fresh, light, fragrant. Summer rolls lined with mint, green papaya salad speckled with Thai basil, chicken salad loaded with scallions and cilantro — oh Nam Phuong! You feel so far away.
On Monday morning I opened the fridge to find no milk, no eggs, no juice and two vegetable drawers filled with greens. We had left the house in a scramble on Friday, dropped the kids in Vermont en route to Montreal, and returned too late on Sunday evening to think about groceries.
What was on my mind, however, was unloading some of those greens before the next CSA share arrived later that evening. The stars had aligned for Swiss chard fritters, an Ottolenghi recipe my friend Dee alerted me to this winter, which, along with the prawns with tomato and feta and the almond-clementine cake, she described as “not-to-be-missed” Jerusalem recipes.
A few weeks ago I mentioned I was reading The Dirty Life. Can we pretend we’re in book club for a moment? I want to share a passage:
First, here’s the background: Author Kristin Kimball left New York City to interview a young farmer named Mark, fell in love, and shortly thereafter started a new life with him on a farm near Lake Champlain. The Dirty Life chronicles their first year at Essex Farm, which currently provides food year-round for over 200 families.
“When we would talk about our future in private, I would ask Mark if he really thought we had a chance. Of course we had a chance, he’d say, and anyway, it didn’t matter if this venture failed. In his view, we were already a success, because we were doing something hard, and it was something that mattered to us. You don’t measure things like that with words like success or failure, he said. Satisfaction comes from trying hard things and then going on to the next hard thing, regardless of the outcome. What mattered was whether or not you were moving in a direction you thought was right. This sounded fishy to me.
This conversation played out many times, with me anxious, Mark calm, until once, as we sat together reviewing our expenses, I was almost in tears. I felt like we were teetering over an abyss. I wasn’t asking him to guarantee that we’d be rich. I just wanted him to assure me that we’d be solvent, that we’d be, as I put it, okay. Mark laughed. “What is the worst thing that could happen?” he asked. “We’re smart capable people. We live in the richest country in the world. There is food and shelter and kindness to spare. What in the world is there to be afraid of?”
I loved this. Isn’t it inspiring? Discuss.
About this time last year, I learned how to properly cook quinoa, a revelation that not only gave the ancient grain a permanent spot in my pantry, but also inspired a number of grain salads I made all summer long.
While the ingredients in each salad varied from radishes and peas to cherry tomatoes and cucumbers to roasted squash and wilted mustard greens, the formula was always the same: something fresh, something crunchy, something spicy, something sweet. The dressing was simple too: extra-virgin olive oil and minced red onions macerated in vinegar or lemon juice. Cheese never entered the equation, nor was it missed.
Here, wheat berries and walnuts combine with asparagus and radishes in an addictive, chewy, crunchy, colorful combination, a simple salad to herald the arrival of spring, which at last appears to be here to stay.