The ABCs of Veggies: Heat-of-the-Summer Farmer’s Market Ideas
By Carol Ritchie
In the heat of the summer, there are often two things on people’s minds: 1) summertime fun before it’s back to school for the kids, and 2) enjoying cool and refreshing meals. These daily activities often go hand-in-hand. With plenty of hot grills sizzling with burgers and steaks, and barbecue aromas wafting through the neighborhood, we tend to look for refreshment in crisp salads, cool side dishes and thirst-quenching drinks. The bounty of fresh summer produce leads us in the right direction for the flavors we desire.
As we start to think about getting the kids back to school, it’s a good time for our own lesson, a primer in the choices we have for great meals from the farmer’s market. It’s all about finding fresh foods to enjoy while the heat is on, and throughout the coming school year. In the last issue, we explored “The Fruit of the Earth.” Now we’ll explore the wonderful world of vegetables. So let’s all head back to school for “The ABCs of Veggies.”
A Green Leaf World
As we begin our journey across this great land, charting our course through the wide, wonderful world of vegetables, just like a great meal, we’ll start with the most widely available fresh vegetables: leafy greens. From lettuce to spinach, collards to kale and sorrel to grapevine leaves, these green-leaf vegetables range from crispy and crunchy to delicate and soft, with a full range of flavors. The quick-prep choice is a cool summer salad, but many of these leaves offer great taste and nutritional value from light cooking. Mustard, turnip and beet greens are also great choices for a quick-cook, vitamin-and-mineral-rich, side dish.
For a more biting and intense choice, look to cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi and red cabbage. The flavors are unique and the preparation is often simple. Serve broccoli and cauliflower florets raw with a ranch dressing dip, or steam-cook and serve with a cheese sauce. Cabbage is cool and crunchy in cole slaw. For a gourmet touch, try braised Brussels sprouts served with balsamic vinegar. Cruciferous—it’s not about spelling; it’s about smelling, eating and enjoying!
Not a Square Root
Dig deep to get to the root of these vegetables: potatoes, carrots, turnips, beets, sweet potatoes, parsnips, rutabagas, radishes and celeriac. It’s easy to count how many ways these roots and tubers add flavor and nutrition to meals. The younger vegetables are quite sweet; the older vegetables are quite starchy. These are all very dense and hearty vegetables, and lend well to many cooking techniques, including roasting: cut into bite-size pieces, scatter in a single layer on a large baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with a favorite dried herb blend, and roast in the oven until cooked through and tender to the bite (about 20 to 30 minutes at 375°F). Lots of flavor plus good nutrition plus hearty texture — root vegetables are awesome — it all adds up.
From This Seed
Nothing speaks summer dining like fresh corn and green beans. Seed vegetables and edible pods — like the variety of peas and beans — are sweet when young and best enjoyed soon after picking. And the same applies to fresh sprouts and cobs of corn. Corn-on-the-cob is easy to toss on the grill. Beans, such as lima, fava or edamame, and sugar snap peas or snow peas, are great in fresh salads. Toss a combination of lightly cooked fresh beans, peas and corn (cut from the cob) in a large bowl and top with a favorite vinaigrette for a quick summer salad.
The Study of Fungi
There is a fungus among us — thousands of them — mushrooms are everywhere! It wasn’t all that long ago that if a recipe called for mushrooms, the cultivated white mushroom was a cook’s only choice. While cultivated mushrooms are still the most common found in supermarkets, a wide variety of exotic wild mushrooms are also readily available for exploring tastes of the world. Try chanterelle, shiitake, porcino, puffball, black trumpet, golden oyster, wood ear or morel in a wild mushroom risotto. Or for the next grilling session, throw a few marinated portobello caps on the fire for a great, meaty mushroom treat.
You say tuh-MAY-toh, I say tuh-MAH-toh … (Well, actually, I say tuh-MAY-toh, too.) In a similar debate, today’s inquisitive cook might question whether a tomato is a vegetable or a fruit. In botanical terms, the history books put tomatoes, eggplants and peppers in the fruit category, though nowadays they are all commonly considered to be vegetables, from the market’s produce section to the curious cook’s dinner table. To further confuse the matter, cucumbers and okra are pods — pods that fall in the fruit category. And then there’s the avocado. Vegetable or fruit? (It’s a fruit, but usually enjoyed like a vegetable!) Call this interesting category of “vegetables” anything you’d like; I’ll just say they are all delicious and perfect for my vegetable-garden-fresh Gazpacho (see recipe).
The mighty gourds rule the land! From the exquisite summer zucchini, pattypan and yellow crooknecks, to the majestic winter acorn, butternut and pumpkins, squash is a year-round favorite. The summer varieties are quick and easy to prepare for a sizzling summer side dish. Simply slice and sauté in a few teaspoons of olive oil, add a few chopped fresh herbs (basil, oregano, savory or thyme), and serve with a favorite pasta or next to a perfectly grilled steak. Try spaghetti squash as a substitute for pasta. When roasted, the thin strands of the flesh are delicious when topped with pasta sauce. Also look for the mild-flavored chayote. It can be cooked like the summer squash varieties, baked like acorn squash or sliced and served raw on salads.
Once Upon a Vegetable Stalk
Swiss chard, celery, fennel, bok choy and asparagus. These are all vegetables that spotlight the stem of the plant. Firm, crisp and crunchy; the best texture for fresh and lightly cooked preparations is always when the plant is young. Older stalks can become quite fibrous, so a thorough trimming or peeling of any tough portions is necessary. The leaves of these vegetables are also quite delicious, but usually require separate preparation from the stems so that they don’t overcook. Enjoy chopped stalk vegetables in stir-fry dishes, sautéed side dish preparations and fresh from the garden. And live happily ever after!
Allium: An Element of Flavor
Everything — well, almost everything — tastes better when touched by allium: onions, garlic, shallots, leeks and scallions (green onions). All are known for the seasoning qualities they offer for many main dish meals. Often chopped and added at the beginning of cooking, these strongly flavored veggies add a variety of intensely interesting tastes — from mild to pungent — to dress-up a dish for any dinner table. But they are periodically served — and quite delicious — on their own. I mean, onion rings … without the onions? I don’t think so!
A Taste of Geometry
A shape and flavor like no other — the artichoke stands alone! One of the most interesting of all vegetables, this edible thistle consists of stiff, thorny-tipped leaves, internal hair-like fibers and a thick, tough stem. How it came to be known that the soft base of the leaves and the central choke — the artichoke “heart” — were indescribably delicious must have been a remarkable discovery.
To prepare one of these amazing giant flower buds, cut off the stem so that the artichoke sits flat, trim the pointed tops from the leaves (it is easiest to slice about an inch off the top of the artichoke and trim the pointed lower leaves), brush the cut surfaces with lemon juice (for flavor and to prevent discoloration) and place in a glass bowl for cooking. Add 1/2 cup water and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Microwave on high for 10 to 15 minutes, until the leaves are tender and can easily be pulled from the bottom of the artichoke.
Serve the artichoke with a simple dipping sauce: 1/2 cup mayonnaise, juice from 1 lemon and 1 tablespoon capers. Pull the leaves off and dip the soft base of each leaf into the sauce. With the leaf (with sauce) between your teeth, pull gently, scraping the delicious flesh of the artichoke from the leaf. When the leaves are stripped clean and you get to the heart of the artichoke, pull out the thin, tender leaves at the base, and, using a spoon, carefully scrape away and discard the strands that cover the heart. Enjoy the entire artichoke heart with the dipping sauce. The strange, yet tasty artichoke — one of my favorite dining treats — is so fun to eat!
A Familiar Melody
Generally speaking, herbs are any plants used for food or medicine. More specifically and most often, herbs — primarily the leaves and stems — are used for seasoning culinary creations, so these diverse, flavorful plants deserve to be mentioned alongside all other vegetables. (Spices are generally dried seeds, berries, bark and roots of edible plants.) In fact, most vegetables benefit from the wide variety of herbs when cooked and/or served alongside. Traditional pairings, such as dill with cucumber, mint with peas and basil with tomatoes, are commonly known and prepared often. But let your imagination be your guide as you taste the flavors of tarragon, chervil, cilantro and sage; savory, marjoram, fennel and chives; oregano, bay leaf, lemon verbena and dill. And, of course, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Cooking with herbs is like singing a song, and by far not an impossible task to ask — vegetables with herbs are easy and quite delicious!
From Artichoke to Zucchini
The world of vegetables is indeed wonderful. With seemingly endless varieties conveniently available at farmer’s markets, produce stands and in our own gardens, we need to utilize every opportunity to enjoy these fresh flavors at the peak of each vegetable’s harvest season. Vegetables are the very best served from garden to table. Add a quick-cooking technique and an herb or two and the lesson is complete. Enjoy fresh vegetables with every meal. It’s as easy as A-B-C.
Serves 4 to 6
- 5 ripe tomatoes
- 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cubed
- 1 green bell pepper, chopped
- 1 small red onion, peeled and chopped
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup tomato juice
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Juice from 1 lemon
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Hot pepper sauce, to taste
- Julienne-cut or shredded carrot
- Chopped cucumber
- Chopped tomato
- Chopped avocado
- Chopped red onion
- Sliced green onion
- Toasted bread cubes or croutons
Drop tomatoes in boiling water for 10 to 15 seconds, remove and let cool slightly, then core (remove stem) and peel. Cut in half and gently squeeze out the seeds (and discard). Roughly chop tomatoes and place in a blender or food processor. Add cucumber, green bell pepper, red onion, celery, garlic, tomato juice, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and hot pepper sauce to the food processor. Blend to a smooth consistency, about 1 to 2 minutes. Chill soup in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Serve gazpacho chilled and let each person garnish their own bowl of soup with the desired toppings.