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!”
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.
Every spring this happens: I blink, and rhubarb season passes. And in one second, my to-make list of rhubarb recipes dissolves, my thoughts shifting to stone fruits and no-cook dinners and popsicles. Before we know it, it will be the Fourth of July, and I, my mother’s daughter, will be declaring summer over. Ugh, depressing.
I think I might, however, have a solution to these time-passing-too-quickly woes: rhubarb schnapps, a mixture of chopped rhubarb, sugar and vodka, the cheapest you can find, Nigella insists. Sounds like a win, right?
Let’s hope. Unfortunately, this is another one of those recipes whose success I cannot guarantee. In six weeks, I will report back, but as with the lemons, won’t it be more fun come mid-July to open our Mason jars together?
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.
Tired, pale, wrinkled — it’s a sad lot of vegetables gracing the farmers’ market tables these days.
But I’m not judging. Those very three words came to mind as I looked in the mirror this morning. I could use a little help right now — some sun, some fresh air, spring — and so could those vegetables. And I’ve got just the thing.
I will consider this post a success if, by the end, one of two things happens:
1. You feel inspired to tackle Moroccan cooking, immediately buy a tagine, preserve and then purée a batch of lemons, find a source for ras-el-hanout, and, in the short term at least, join me on a tagine-making bender, throwing any and everything possible into your new favorite kitchen tool.
2. You move to Schenectady so you, as I, have a Moroccan pantry in your backyard, a supply of Aneesa’s ras-el-hanout, preseved lemons, tomato jam, parsley chermoula, all of which make throwing together a Moroccan feast as effortless as popping a frozen pizza in the oven.
Either outcome will be a win for me, especially number two — perhaps we could meet for lunch? — but let’s start from the top.
Scenario #1. If you are more inclined to stay where you are and take a stab at tagine-style cooking…
…first disregard everything you know about braising, which typically calls for searing meat then finishing it in a covered pot with a small amount of liquid. Tagine cooking in essence is braising but there is no initial browning, no deglazing of the pan, no multi-step process. Everything gets thrown into the tagine at step one and forgotten until step two, at which point your food is cooked and you, pita bread in hand, are ready to attack it.
I left Tara Kitchen on Saturday afternoon, my belly filled with chicken and preserved lemons, my bag with jars of harissa, tomato jam, and ras-el-hanout. I had just spent two hours learning about Moroccan cooking, scribbling notes while sipping on mint tea, assembling tagines, photographing each step, savoring every bite and finally departing, only hoping my brain might retain a fraction of what I had learned, already regretting not having purchased a tagine.
But before returning home, I had to swing by the Co-op for one thing — a bag of frozen peas and carrots — an integral mix in Tara Kitchen’s chickpea tagine, a dish I would make at home later that evening. Aneesa Waheed, the owner of Tara Kitchen, takes pride in the simplicity of the dishes she serves and noted as class began that all of the ingredients she uses can be found at any market. Her chickpea tagine, a slightly sweet mixture of vegetables and dried fruits mixed with chickpeas and her homemade tomato jam, is one of my favorites.
Never would I have guessed that such a flavorful mixture — a vegan, nut-free one to boot — could be so simple to prepare, but as I learned in class, this is the beauty of tagine cooking. Aneesa fell in love with Moroccan food for this very reason: she could throw a handful of ingredients in a tagine, set it on the stove, go take a shower, make a few phone calls, and return to a steaming hot, delicious and satisfying dinner. And while the success of the finished tagines certainly depends on the sauces and spice mixtures that have been prepped in advance, I can attest to the simplicity of the tagine-making process.