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!”
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.
I’ve heard that trying to please everyone, as a general life strategy, may at best lead to disappointment and, at worst, failure. Eek.
But what if, say, without even trying, you just happen to please everyone? Hmm.
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.
About this time last year I discovered a most-delicious salad, a Greg and Lucy Malouf creation, a mixture of green olives, walnuts and pomegranate seeds tossed in a spicy, sweet, salty dressing, a combination I find irresistible.
It’s light. It’s fresh. It’s just the sort of thing we all found ourselves craving about three hours after our Thanksgiving lunch when we found ourselves back in the kitchen, hungry once again, faced with so many delectable options, but scrounging for something else: something crisp, something raw, something juicy.
To say that the move north — from the weeks of packing to the two-day drive to the week of unpacking — has taken a toll on the children’s diet would be an understatement. There has been too much takeout, too many salty snacks, too many drive-thru visits. And I fear there has been irreparable damage: A few days ago when I pointed to a bunch of carrots in one of Graham’s favorite books, he, with complete confidence, identified them as, “hotdogs.”
Oiy. In this season of vegetable bounty, there is no excuse. I immediately set to work making a pasta sauce — sauce counts as a vegetable, right? — I learned years ago from The Tra Vigne Cookbook, a recipe Michael Chiarello learned from Jacques Pèpin. In the book, Chiarello pairs the sauce with stuffed chicken thighs and notes that any leftover sauce can be used to poach fish roulades, no doubt a suggestion made by Pèpin.
But that the sauce can be used for such a preparation gives you an idea of its consistency: it’s watery. And while I have always loved its fresh, clean flavor — there are no onions or garlic or crushed red pepper flakes (all of which I love) — these days I like it better when it’s cooked down even further until nearly all of the water evaporates and the tomatoes and bell peppers and basil reduce into a sweet, summery concentrate.
Last summer I discovered eggplant caviar, a dish made from peeled eggplant roasted in a foil-covered pan, a preparation that, with minimal oil, produces the creamiest lightest flesh imaginable. Seasoned with fresh herbs and macerated shallots, spooned over grilled bread, this mashup makes a wonderful summer hors d’oeuvre.
This year, I’ve been using my grill to make the eggplant caviar, and I think I might love it even more. After reading about charring whole, unseasoned eggplants over coals or in the oven seemingly everywhere I turned — in Mark Bittman’s Flexitarian column, in Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem, and in the book I always rely on this time of year, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables — I had to try the method myself.
Remember last week when I brattily exclaimed, “I want one!” after seeing my auntie Marcy’s Lifefactory glass bottle? Well, guess what? I got one. And guess what else? I have one for one of you, too, and I couldn’t be more excited.
Upon returning from Albany, I started researching Lifefactory, and it came as no surprise that one of the company’s co-founders, Daren Joy, is an award-winning designer and architect. In a video on the site, Daren briefly discusses his design process and observes that “there is a connection that gets formed almost immediately,” noting that people “know they love [the bottle] right when they first touch it.” Perhaps my reaction wasn’t so bratty after all: the instant desire to have one was simply the sign of successful design.
As I suspected, I am loving my Lifefactory glass bottle. After a week of heavy use, I have yet to open my shoulder bag to find my phone lying in a pool of water — success! — and I have yet to find myself at the sink trying to scrub away a fungal smell from the opening — success! The glass delivers such a clean, pure taste. Moreover, thanks to the silicone sleeve, the bottle has survived several crash tests — the kids are as drawn to the bottle as I am — down our asphalt driveway.
I arrived at the Albany airport to find my auntie Marcy waiting at baggage claim ready to snatch Wren from my arms and to feed me, as always, immediately.
She led me to her car, and before I could even buckle my seatbelt, she had pulled a ball jar filled with cucumber and green grape gazpacho — one of my favorites — from a cooler and handed me a Lifefactory water bottle — I want one! — filled with ginger-mint-and-orange-flavored water.
Feeling nourished and ready to face the task of the day — find me a place to live — we zoomed off in Marcy’s mobile spa, equipped with coolers holding bowls of quinoa and mango salad, a brown paper bag sheathing a loaf of Shelburne Farms chili cheese ciabatta, and a little baggy holding rice crispy treats for dessert. My auntie spoils me.
I returned home to a heat wave craving nothing more than this cool summery meal. As I mentioned, this white gazpacho, loaded with dill, is one of my favorites. I find nothing more refreshing this time of year, and had I not been so worried about disappointing some of you, I would have shared this recipe ages ago. You see, some of you may be turned off by the zing of the raw garlic. One clove imparts an amazing amount of bite, and while you certainly could leave it out, I fear something would be lost without it. While variations of white gazpacho can be found all over Spain (so I’m told), raw garlic (along with the stale bread) seems to be a constant. This soup makes a wonderful first course, especially when every sip is accompanied by slivers of toasted almonds and sweet grapes.