Monthly Archives: August 2013

Three things (delicious summer food edition)

peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall...

Yes, so, kind of ridiculous to try passing this off as another three things post when most people over the age of about six can clearly count (at least) 20 items here. But hey, I’m talking about tomatoes and corn and peaches! All is forgiven? Moving on.

1) Delicious summer food we’ve made and gobbled down recently:

Fresh corn cakes from David Lebovitz. We topped them with a fresh corn and tomato salad (see below), chèvre, and eggs over easy. Leftovers kept well in the fridge and were delicious reheated in the toaster oven.

Bangain bharta. This is a traditional Punjabi dish made with charred eggplant, tomatoes, and lots of good spices, and I’m putting it in our rotation until there are no more tomatoes and eggplant. So good. We ate it over brown rice and topped with a dollop of plain yogurt and scooped it all up with Camille’s naan, which we made with lard we’d rendered from our own pastured pigs. If you eat and have access to real lard, I heartily recommend that substitution. This particular version was shared with us by a CSA member a couple years ago.

Pasta with let-my-eggplant-go-free! purée from Francis Lam. (Thanks, Molly!) One of those awesome kitchen alchemy recipes, where simple ingredients combine and go BOOM! I would only like to say that after about 12 years of trying, I can say with certainty that I really, really, really don’t like whole wheat pasta. I think I’m going to stop trying. I suggest white pasta here, which, for flavor and texture reasons, will really let this sauce sing. Might even make my own next time.

Fresh corn and tomato salad. No real recipe here, and it changes some every time we make it, which is a couple times a week at least. Shave the kernels off an ear of corn, chop a couple hefty handfuls of cherry tomatoes, chiffonade some basil, squeeze in some lime juice, salt to taste. Scale up as necessary. I love it on top of brown rice and black beans (try Molly’s quick black beans with cumin and oregano) and topped with a fried egg, or on top of those fresh corn cakes above, or straight from the bowl. I bet it would be good in a tortilla soup too.

Cream of tomato soup. I had the Campbell’s stuff often enough as a child, usually with grilled cheese, and while I didn’t have to force it down, I didn’t really understand the fuss. Now that I make my own I sure do. I love Marion Cunningham’s recipe in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. The ingredient list is quite short so the quality of the tomatoes matters enormously. If you’re using fresh tomatoes, make sure they are dead ripe, and make sure you love how they taste raw. You can also fix a slightly lackluster tomato soup with a big spoonful of tomato paste. Canned tomatoes are also an excellent choice here. I’ve seen lots of versions out there made with stock, which sounds good too and would be perhaps a little less rich than the one we make. I’m also tempted to try a version with roasted tomatoes.

One-pan pasta from Martha Stewart. I followed this recipe nearly exactly (just subbed our homemade chicken bone broth for half the water) and while it was delicious – I adored the sauce that forms from the tomato juices and pasta starch – next time I will use all broth and will double or even triple the tomatoes. Edited to add: I can’t wait to try the farro verion of this from Smitten Kitchen. Could something this tasty and easy also be a bit more nutrient-dense?

2) Delicious summer food I love but have somehow not yet made this year:

Cultured salsa from Nourishing Traditions. I can’t even begin to explain how good this is. Get yourself some whey (I just strain it from full-fat plain yogurt) and hie thee to your kitchen! It should last for ages in your fridge only it won’t because you will eat it all in two days, and that’s if you don’t have company.

Braised okra with cherry tomatoes, which I wrote about last week.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s sweet corn polenta with eggplant sauce. Polenta made with fresh corn! It’s a little labor intensive but very straightforward. And the eggplant and tomato sauce is good on everything. I put it in a savory galette once with some chèvre and should really do that again.

Tomato and cheddar pie. This one requires a little planning: the biscuit dough for the crust needs to chill for an hour, and the tomatoes need to drain for 30 minutes.  But otherwise it comes together quite easily. The crust is quite forgiving. Once I was a little short on flour, and the dough seemed a sticky and hopeless mess as I eased it into the pie pan.  But it baked up beautifully, and didn’t get soggy even after a day in the fridge. And seriously: tomatoes, mayonnaise, cheese, biscuit crust? Need I say more?

Tomato cobbler with blue cheese biscuits from Joy the Baker. Everything about this is amazing. The flavors are assertive but perfectly balanced – I recommend all spices and seasonings in the called-for quantities.

Peperonata. Sweet peppers cooked long and slow, with some capers, red wine vinegar, and herbs tossed in at the end. This is ostensibly good with many things – I imagine it would taste great alongside almost any kind of meat, on crostini with some soft tangy cheese, mixed into hot or cold pasta, on top of polenta, maybe folded into a frittata – but I wouldn’t know because we always eat it straight out of the skillet.

Pomodori al forno from Molly Wizenberg. You cook roma tomatoes low and slow and then marinate them with garlic, parsley, and olive oil, before serving them with goat cheese and sliced baguette. This stuff would make you very popular at a brunch and would also make a very fine (and messy!) start to a summer dinner party, but again, I’m only guessing, because I pretty much eat this standing at the counter with the bowl of tomatoes, a hunk of bread, a tub of cheese, and a knife.

Gordon’s Cup, also from Molly. Gin! Lime! Cucumber! Salt! Do it!

Peach pie. I do make a mean pie. ‘Tis the season!

3) Delicious summer food I have never made (so please share your recipes with me!):

Tomato jam


Tomato sauce for putting up. I’m happy to freeze or can. I make sauces from canned and fresh tomatoes all the time, but I’ve never done it in storage quantities. Maybe I should just make more, and freeze it, but I still feel on the lookout for something really worth all that peeling and seeding.


Corn ice cream!

And that’s a wrap.

What about you? What are you eating these days? And can you help me with that last section?

Confessions of an okra lover, part the first

Okra blossom

Okra/Abelmoschus esculentus Moench. Virginia, August 2012.

My husband says I can get nostalgic about a paperclip, and he’s not far off. Something I’ve been missing like the dickens this summer? Okra. Oh man. It was a star crop for us at our old farm. I never ate it growing up except under great duress, but seven years on Virginia farms turned me into a card carrying okraphile. I guess there are northern varieties (farm and garden friends, please chime in and tell me what they are!!), but we don’t currently grow them at this farm. My husband tells me he’s been seeing some at market – it’s reasonable to ask him to bring me home five pounds next week, don’t you think?

The rest of this post is another that first appeared on our farm blog – hence the references to our being Southern farmers and to a time and place when we grew lots of this little emerald wonder. The recipe at the bottom, for braised okra with cherry tomatoes, is what I would be making this very second if I still had a 200-foot block of okra (or even just a plant or two) a short walk away. It’s dead easy and, more to the point, one of my very favorite things to eat ever. The original post also included recipes for the other things I love to make with okra: lacto-fermented okra pickles, our favorite fried okra, and my husband’s gumbo. I’ll probably bring them on over here too, soon enough.

(Insert Wayne’ World Scooby Doo ending sound here. Boom! It’s two years ago, and you’re sitting on our back porch in Virginia sipping a beer while I finish cooking dinner.)

Confession: we are vegetable farmers, and we are Southern, and until recently I just didn’t like okra very much.  It’s not that I found it offensive exactly. I was always happy enough to eat it in my husband’s gumbo, where, in his deft hands and alongside a rich roux and some smoky spices, its infamous slime is somehow alchemized into a velvety sauce. In a gumbo the okra itself almost disappears, which makes it quite easy to tolerate.  I also tried frying it, over and over again.  It was always okay.  It was certainly pretty to look at, and I felt I must be doing my body a favor by eating it, even if I had to choke it down.  I always felt virtuous eating okra, but I never had very much fun.

With apologies to the many awesome lunch ladies I have known, I am pretty sure the cafeteria at South Columbia Elementary School in Martinez, Georgia, circa 1984, is to blame. I remember dreary piles of the stuff, breaded and steamed and slumping forlornly, almost apologetically, in its compartment of the brownish melamine lunch tray. I looked at its dusty breading and its drab interior, utterly unconvinced, and occasionally gave it a nudge with my fork.  It yielded immediately, like pudding, and slid right back off the fork.  We got off on the wrong foot, okra and me, and I’m afraid now that I wasted more than twenty-five years holding a grudge.

Because this summer?  I’m on an okra bender.  I’m not sure what changed for me, exactly. We’re growing okra again after a hiatus of several years; perhaps I see those gorgeous plants with their flowers like delicate ivory trumpets and I just want to do right by them.  Maybe something clicked for me when my husband said, “I love okra because it’s the most vegetable-y of our vegetables.”  He’s right: when you cook it right, okra’s flavor is green and clean and bright, the very essence of fresh.  Maybe it’s because now, as a mother, I don’t want to waste any more time being virtuous.  What I want is joy at the table, a strong body and a curious mind and an open heart, a rich family life. I swear I’m finding all that in okra.

Some quick notes, and then a recipe.

Storing okra: Keep your okra in a plastic or paper bag in the fridge, unwashed, and use it within a few days.

Using okra: Please don’t bread it and then steam it. You could steam it very gently, just till bright green and still with some snap to it, and then eat it warm, drizzled with butter and a squeeze of lemon juice, or chilled, dressed with a bright vinaigrette.  Try it breaded and fried, braised, pickled, skewered and grilled, in stews, in curries, in place of squash or zucchini in ratatouille.

A word about okra slime: In Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Deborah Madison writes, “Okra is slimy, and rather than try to ignore this fact, perhaps it’s best just to admit that’s how things are.” Maybe that’s what changed for me this summer.  I’m not trying to wish the slime away anymore.  Instead, I’ve learned how to make it work in a dish’s favor.  In our favorite fried okra, it binds with a cornmeal and parmesan coating to create a perfect golden crust.  In our okra and tomato braise, it thickens the juices of burst cherry tomatoes and makes the most lovely sauce.  And of course it’s essential for thickening up gumbo.  Maybe thinking about it this way will help you, too.

chooks and okra

Braised Okra with Cherry Tomatoes
(serves 4-6, unless you eat like we do, in which case: serves 2)

This recipe comes to us from our friend and former CSA host Noell. Don’t be fooled by its apparent plainness: this belongs in everyone’s summer arsenal.  It’s amazing eaten straight from the skillet, and pretty darn good eaten straight from the fridge as well.  It’s wonderful on top of quinoa and other grains, and it makes a great wrap or burrito filling.  Every time I take a bite I grin.

Quantities are approximate.  Use roughly equal amounts of okra and cherry tomatoes, and garlic to taste.

1 lb okra
1 lb cherry tomatoes
3-4 cloves garlic (or to taste), chopped
olive oil, salt & pepper

Warm a few tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Meanwhile, trim off the okra stems and then slice in half lengthwise, or slice into 1/4-inch rounds.  When the skillet is ready, add the okra and the chopped garlic.  Saute for about 10 minutes, flipping occasionally, until the okra begins to brown.  Add the cherry tomatoes, and salt and pepper to taste, and cover.  Braise 5-10 minutes, checking every few minutes.  The dish is done when most of the cherry tomatoes have burst.

Braised okra with cherry tomatoes


Russian sage

There’s something restorative about waking up in a gabled room, particularly if that’s not where you usually wake up. On Saturday I woke a little before 7 to rustling woods, sunshine spilling through the small window at my feet, and the smiling brown eyes of my three-year old, who was standing next to the fairly tall bed where I’d spent the night. I grinned back at him. “Let’s eat something,” he said. So I climbed from under the heavy quilt and together we padded down the creaky stairs. I’d stayed up past 1 catching up with an old friend who was moving halfway across the country the next morning, but there was something about that sloped roof – it was the best nearly-six hours of sleep I’d gotten in months.

I made some coffee and poured the boy a bowl of cereal, and together we sat in a comfortable silence on the couch, breezes blowing the lace curtains across our shoulders. If anyone out there has a three-year old you will especially appreciate the sweetness of those quiet moments. He asked the occasional question – “Did you get a good night’s sleep, Mama?” “My footie pajamas are getting kind of small, huh?” – but mainly he stretched out with one foot on my lap and one foot on of the back of the couch and the cereal (no milk) on his belly, munching away.

A little later later the first of the others appeared in the kitchen. She poured herself a cup of coffee and together we three made our way down the back porck steps and across the yard. We paused to let the chickens out before winding on through dewy grass and gnarled apple trees, already heavy with green fruit, to the river. We’d walked the same path the night before, after a day of steady heavy rains, and found the river rushing and brown and clawing at its banks. This morning it was still fast and high, but a bit of pebbly beach was visible, and the water was clear. We sipped our coffee, and talked a bit, of crayfish and road trips and first gardens, and the boy threw sticks and stones into the wild current.

Later it was just me and the boy again. I sighed a little, feeling deeply at peace and missing our old farm. But mainly I rolled up my pants and kicked off my sandals and talked with my boy. I loaded his hands with rocks, and pointed out a slug making its way down a sycamore trunk, and tried skipping a few stones across the rapids. We stayed there an hour at least, nothing wrong in the world, not that morning. I knew it and hugged it to my chest to remember.

Later still, when three people and their luggage and a cheerful Golden Retriever had piled into one car, and we into another, and we had all pulled away from that red house in the woods, I thought about it all – running wild through a May thunderstorm in the middle of the Pacific fifteen years ago, drinking tea and dreaming big in Kyoto and Vancouver and Boston and New York and Portsmouth, that New Year’s Eve when we opened our champagne with a hammer in my parents’ driveway, that balmy May Sunday when she married us under the ash tree in front of 200 friends and family on hay bales, the graduations and jobs and relationships we’ve celebrated, the Big Decisions we’ve mulled over long distance, years too out of touch, years that brought us back together – I thought about it all, just enough to remember my own bigger picture, and I drove.

(joining Amanda at The Habit of Being)





Fridge pickles!

Fridge pickles!

Tara mentioned making fridge pickles from a recipe I posted on our farm blog a couple summers ago, and that got me to thinking it makes sense to migrate some of those recipes over here, to this blog that’s not a food blog.

I blogged for our farm, sporadically but earnestly, for four years, and there’s a lot of history there. I’m still not quite sure what to do with it all – it really doesn’t make sense to continue paying for the site. The land that we farmed is becoming something else. We’re not quite sure what, yet, but our story there is (nearly) over. On the other hand: it’s our story! I’m not sure what I want to do with all those pictures and words.

These pickles are part of that story. When it comes to putting food by, what I am is a master dabbler. Sure, I know a heck of a lot more than I did in my city days. I make jam every once in a while, but I freeze it every time. I am always happier when I can dig into lard I made from the fatback of our own pigs instead of reaching for supermarket butter. I do know how to make bacon and yogurt but I only do it sometimes. I think I am fondest of lacto-fermenting vegetables in small batches – it’s quick and easy and delicious and yay for living foods! But beyond freezing bone broth and freezer-friendly produce, none of this is an integral part of our kitchen year.

It’s not that I lack for excellent organic produce (umm…), and it’s not that I lack for inspiration. My kitchen bookshelves are really something to behold, and there are so many great online resources. There are questions of time, of priorities, of honestly assessing how much you can fit into a day, of choosing between sterilizing jars and snuggling up on the couch for another round of George and Martha. But the real stumbling block, for me? I am a big honking extrovert. I play very well with others and get pretty lonesome standing all alone at the stove. I need a class – and, dare I say, homework. I need to blanch the peaches while a mama friend gets the jars ready and our boys stir in the sugar. I need people.

I actually have a lard rendering date next Tuesday! That makes me smile so much I think I might march on down to the old milk room in the lower barn to see if there are any returned cucumbers from yesterday’s market. Cucumbers fresh off the vine are ideal, of course, but the point here is to make something delicious instead of letting something waste. And these fridge pickles? They do the trick.

As I said in the original post on our farm blog, these are a great beginner pickle for the curious-but-intimidated, but they’re also a really tasty way to work through a glut of cucumbers when you don’t have the time or the inclination to can. They are always good.

chooks in the cukes

Fridge Pickles
adapted from Donalyn Ketchum

Crunchy, garlicky, and just sour enough, we can’t stop reaching for these. Pour a simple brine of water, vinegar, and salt over cucumbers, garlic, and herbs. Leave the jars alone for a few days … and voila! Pickles! They aren’t canned, so they need to be stored in the fridge. They’ll keep at least a couple months in there – if they last that long. Makes 6 pints or 3 quarts.

For the brine:
2 quarts water
1 cup white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup canning or pickling salt (kosher salt is also fine, but may result in cloudier pickle brine)

For the pickles:
Cucumbers, enough to fit snugly into your jars, washed well and sliced into spears
Garlic, 1-2 cloves per pint jar or 2-3 cloves per quart jar, smashed and peeled
Herbs (dill is classic; we also love thyme), 1-2 sprigs per pint jar or 2-4 sprigs per quart jar, rinsed well

Clean your jars thoroughly with soap and water. They do not need to be sterilized.

Combine all brine ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil. Stir occasionally to be sure the salt dissolves completely. While the mixture is coming to a boil, prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Place a smashed garlic clove or two in the bottom of each jar. Add the sprigs of your chosen herb.

Fill the jar the rest of the way with cucumber spears. Really cram them in there – otherwise some spears will float above the brine when you add it, and this can lead to premature spoilage.

Add another smashed garlic clove to each jar – wedge it down between some cucumber spears so it won’t float when you add the brine.

Pour the simmering brine over the vegetables, being sure they are completely submerged. If your brine isn’t simmering, bring it back to a simmer before pouring it over the vegetables.

Put a lid on each jar.

Leave at room temperature for 2-3 days (less time when the weather is very hot, more when it’s cold) and then, if you can stand it, put them in the fridge for an additional 1-2 weeks.

We usually break into the first jar right away but give the rest of the jars the additional slow fridge fermentation before eating them.

Neat little windrows

Rudbeckia bud

Black-eyed Susan/Rudbeckia hirta. New York, July 2013.

On Sunday we mowed the back lawn. It’s a gently sloping patch, roughly triangular, less than a quarter acre in size, limned by our house, a large block of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, and a very old stone wall spilling through a tangle of poison ivy, catnip, and multiflora rose into the marshland I have to come to love.

We’d ignored the mower for a month at least in favor of things like slow father-son oil changes, dinner on the deck, parenting thises-and-thats, and general weekend puttering. (We met seven years ago almost exactly. This is the first time in our life together that we’ve had Saturdays like people mean when they talk about Saturdays. We have taken to puttering like you don’t even know.)

And so when those mower blades tamed who knows how many kinds of grasses and sedges, they also took down cheerful shocks of black-eyed Susans, hundreds and hundreds of red clover heads, regal stands of Queen Anne’s lace. Knapweed, fleabane, cinquefoil, white clover, yarrow, chicory, Carolina horsenettle. So many more I don’t know yet.

I ran out and picked a fat bouquet and stuffed it in a green glass pitcher and then leaned on the deck railing, frowning a little. I do prefer this midsummer jungle to the neat little windrows the mower left behind.

But then again.

A tiny storm of seeds and insects billowed behind the mower as the grasses and flowers fell, and the barn swallows began to swoop, ever opportunistic and efficient. It was hard to stay sad, smelling that fresh cut grass. I lifted my chin from my palms and went back down to the lawn and took the clothes off the line. I buried my face in the pillowcases and t-shirts like I do every time, never not grateful for the way they smell like beach towels and bathing suits draped to dry on beach chairs in the summer sun in Cape May when I was 12.

Volunteer sunflowers are unfurling below the birdfeeder. The cherry tomato plants are teeming with ripe fruit, enough to sell out of 200 half pints at market and still have my fill any time I fancy. I’m putting them in a simple corn and tomato salad, and on top of pizza, and I should roast and freeze a mess of them, but mainly I just want to stuff my face.

Which is all to say: all those flowers were going to die soon anyway, weren’t they? With or without my moping. I am happy to be here, now.

bee, knapweed

Black-eyed Susan

Carolina horsenettle

spider, knapweed