seasonal eating

Bacon Awe

 
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This all began with the cancellation of Sunday waffles.

I bought two pounds of bacon in preparation for one of our regular rounds of Sunday Waffles. That’s a gathering we often host for friends and neighbors: we provide the skyscraper of waffles, scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, and strong coffee, not to mention a backyard trampoline (for the kids) and leafy deck to eat on, and our guests bring themselves and a bowl of fruit. But a couple weekends ago we were at the ready to host, groceries bought, linens washed, and then our friends cancelled due to a fever in their house.

Over the course of the next week I found myself working around the log of bacon. Meaning a crisped slice found its elegant way into just about everything. I am already working through our steady harvest of garden vegetables: tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, and didn’t realize how a bit of bacon could transform these vegetables and their dishes continuously.

I get it, bacon is already adored enough, but it’s a food I never really gave stature too. And now…and in summer of all seasons.

Bacon on top of homemade pizza with fresh tomato and zucchini—check. Bacon added to garden vegetable frittata—check. Bacon tucked in to tangy potato salad—check. Bacon peppered over green bean casserole—check. Bacon slipped in to a wild summer minestrone—check. Bacon to crumble over crunchy green salad with fresh corn—check. And so very many BLTs, what can I say. An ode has begun shaping itself.

This unexpected suitcase of bacon has positively surprised me by repeatedly smiling on my seasonal fare. We love these vegetables on their own (a warm handful of cherry tomatoes) and giving them center stage during their season (penne with seared zucchini). But bacon comes in like a little rouge on the lips, gently sharpening these already lovely things.

Tzatziki

 
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It’s time. Harvest. My arms overfill each time I walk through the vegetable garden, which is each day. It’s that time of year, when everything is voluptuous and a bit wild. A short row of bush beans is excitable and wishes me good luck with all the beans. Constellations of cherry tomatoes in and around each bed; they hide too. The zucchini, well you know. Peas, I can’t keep up and now most of you are swollen on the vine. But I love it. Beets and their greens, kale soldiers, chive fountains, basil and mint draping over it all. My favorite garden motion, tugging the hair of the carrots and twisting them up and into the lit world.

And then there are the cucumbers. Only a single plant this year, since I have learned that one happy cucumber plant can get overwhelmingly fruitful. Now that it’s mid-August our vine produces at least a single cucumber each day; that’s a lot of cucumbers, even for a family that loves them. Beyond pickling and slicing them into salads, I am always looking for ways to make most of our cucumber harvest.

Tzatziki, a cucumber and yogurt sauce, does the seasonal trick, since most of the foods (like grilled fish or meat, or fresh vegetables) it pairs well with are the foods of summer. Rooted in Greece, tzatziki is a traditional accompaniment to falafel, gyros, kabobs, baked potatoes, vegetable and pita platters, and is a refreshing partner to spicy dishes. If anything, this dish is fun and uplifting to pronounce.

I encourage you, especially this time of year, to build your meals around these seasonal aspects. Build around a seasonal sauce, such as this one. Why not?

Tzatziki

Makes about 2-3 cups

MARKET LIST

1 large English-style cucumber
Kosher or sea salt and black pepper
2 cups Greek-style yogurt (thick, and preferably whole-milk)
1-2 garlic cloves
Fresh lemon juice (1 tablespoon)
Fresh mint or dill (about 2 tablespoons)
Sugar
Extra virgin olive oil (optional)
Ground paprika (optional)

Salting Cucumber

Peel, seed (if necessary), and dice 1 large English-style cucumber. Place the cucumber into a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and sprinkle over 1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt. Let the cucumber sit for 15-30 minutes, allowing the salt to draw the moisture (and any bitterness) out.

Meanwhile, stir together in a medium bowl: 2 cups Greek-style yogurt (thick, and preferably whole-milk), 1-2 garlic cloves (minced or finely grated), 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, about 2 tablespoons of fresh mint or dill (chopped), a pinch of sugar and a twist of black pepper.

Coming Together

Once the cucumber has relaxed pat it dry with paper towels, or gently squeeze it in a paper towel, removing any excess moisture. Stir the cucumber into the yogurt mixture and taste for further kosher or sea salt, or any other flavors. To serve, drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil (optional) and dust over some ground paprika (optional). Serve immediately, or chilled from the fridge.

 

Stripped Down

 
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A piece of writing in a mainstream food publication struck me as truthful this week. It asks the question, are we losing our appreciation for subtle, delicate flavors in the current sea of flavors that are bright and bold? We are inundated with spicy, salty, sweet condiments but more than that, there is such competition to arouse our palates by food manufacturers for instance, and restaurant chefs. We’re growing accustomed to flair, and are increasingly hypnotized by variety. With that, it is getting more difficult to appreciate naturally delicate, or pure and or old-fashioned flavors.  A stalk of spring-grown asparagus grilled or blanched without dressings or a slice of just-picked cucumber or melon can resonate on the tongue and remind us just how delicious unadulterated food can be. 

Spring is the right season for considering this. It is the season for stripping down food to its essentials, for simplifying, and moving away from the multi-layered and rich flavors of winter. Lightly dress an arugula and cress salad, poach a chicken breast, make a clean and brothy pea and ham soup or a hard-boiled egg just dusted with black pepper. This is the way to approach spring eating, but even outside of spring it’s a good exercise in simplifying and noticing. Seasonal foods are wonderful at giving us this opportunity since they are already at their peak in flavor (and nutrition) and need little or no dressing up. In spring we look for greens of all kinds, asparagus, ramps and green garlic and spring onions and chives, and radishes for instance; look for those in your local market and see how they qualify as fast-food, in the best possible way.

 

Enter Fall

 
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White Bean & Autumn Squash Soup

Serves 6

Canned beans are such an important staple for many of us, including our family from time to time. But stay with me here while I speak the gospel on using dried beans. Dried beans are cheap, offer abundant variety beyond the familiar, and have far more character in flavor and texture than canned beans. If you can find some time on the weekend, or put to work the pressure cooker or crockpot, it really is well worth the effort. And this is a chef note, but when the bean in question is a recipe feature, in a recipe that has so few ingredients, it should be as quality as is possible.

 

MARKET LIST:

1 cup of dried white beans (for instance, cannellini or navy)
OR two 14 oz. cans of white beans
Bay leaf
Kosher or sea salt and black pepper
2 yellow onions
1-2 tablespoons of a cool-weather herb (such as parsley, thyme, sage, or rosemary; alone or in combination. If using dried herbs, just cut the amount in half)
Medium-sized autumn/winter squash (refer to notes and variations)
Chicken stock, optional
Refer to notes and variations

 

The Night Before

Add 1 cup of dried white beans (for instance, cannellini or navy; look below for using canned beans) to a large bowl, covered by 2 inches of fresh water. Let that rest overnight. (A tip: you can always double, or triple, the amount of beans this recipe asks for, and freeze the remaining beans in their liquid to use for future recipes.)

Stovetop

If you are using canned beans, you can skip to the next paragraph. When you’re ready to cook the next day, drain the beans, add them to a large saucepan or pot, cover again with fresh water by 2-3 inches, and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil, and then simmer, for at least 45 minutes, or until just tender, skimming off any scum that develops with a spoon. Towards the end of cooking, add a good pinch of kosher or sea salt.

Soup Pot

Slice thinly 2 yellow onions by cutting them in half lengthwise, removing the skin, and slicing into half-moons. Finely chop 1-2 tablespoons of a fresh cool-weather herb (such as parsley, thyme, sage, or rosemary; alone or in combination. If using dried herbs instead, just cut the amount in half). Put your favorite soup pot on a medium heat, and when it is warm add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add your onion, half of your herbs, toss and cover with a lid, allowing your base to sweat and break down completely. (Make sure that your onion isn’t browning too quickly, or burning; turn your heat down a bit if need be.)

Sturdy, Sharp Knife

Meanwhile, ready a medium-sized autumn/winter squash. For a wide or round squash cut it in half, from top to bottom, but for a tall squash, such as butternut, cut it in half at the equator. Remove and discard the seeds (unless you’re keen to roast them later). Take one half of your squash, face down on the cutting board, and carefully slice/peel the skin off from top to bottom; do the same with the other half. Chop your squash into cubes. Stir into your cooked onions, along with another good pinch of kosher or sea salt, and cook for 5 minutes.

Tying it Up

Drain your finished beans, retaining all of their liquid. Stir this bean broth into the squash, covering by 1-2 inches. (If there isn’t enough bean broth to cover by that much, then add further water or chicken stock.) If using canned beans, drain and rinse two 14 oz. cans of white beans, and simply add fresh water and/or chicken stock by 1-2 inches. Bring to a simmer, and cook until the squash is almost tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in your beans, the remaining herbs, another good pinch of salt and pepper. Check to make sure all is tender and adjust the seasoning if need be.

NOTES & VARIATIONS

  • Use your favorite variety of autumn/winter squash. Butternut is ubiquitous, and delicious. Some of our favorites are in the buttercup family, such as kabocha and red kuri. Try a new, or unusual one, if you’re in the mood for an adventure.