I can’t believe summer is almost over…I was just getting into it! Fortunately, like all the rest of you ‘in the know’, ‘Indian Summer’ has arrived bringing with it the best weather of the year. As far as produce is concerned, the season is winding down fast. Luckily, there are a few summer items that are still at their peak. You need to get them on your menus NOW! Here is what’s on my list to over-indulge in before it is too late.
“You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto
Let’s call the whole thing off”
Either way you say it, there is nothing like a good tomato. In a salad, on a BLT or topping a big juicy BBQ’d burger, they scream summer. Tomatoes arrived a little late this year, but they are at their peak now. They will last as long as the weather stays warm, so start getting your fill while you can. If you grow your own, good for you! (Call me!) If you’re not into gardening, it shouldn’t be too hard to find some good ones…just make sure to look for “locally grown”. One of my all-time favorite salads that feature tomatoes is ‘Insalata Caprese’. To me it is one of those ‘perfect recipes’ that is both simple and satisfying. Because this salad is only as good as the tomatoes you use, I wouldn’t dream of making it unless tomatoes are in season. This is no time to cut corners, so you will also need to get the best cheese you can find and break out the good oil and vinegar. I usually use ‘Italian Mozzarella di Bufala’ which is made in Italy by happy Italian water buffalos. It cost a bit more, but I think it is worth it (and so are you). I also enjoy some balsamic vinegar on mine, which is something you probably wouldn’t find if you were having this salad in Capri (but that’s just how I roll). Aside from that addition, I never stray from the classic presentation. Here is my version of this timeless classic.
- 4-5 ripe tomatoes
- 1 ball of Mozzarella di Bufala
- Basil leaves, sliced in a chiffonade, or whole
- Olive Oil
- Balsamic vinegar
- Kosher salt
- Fresh ground black pepper
Slice the tomatoes into 1/4 inch rounds and arrange on a platter. Slice the mozzarella into 1/4 rounds also. Arrange the cheese and tomatoes on the plate so that they overlap each other. Sprinkle on the basil (either cut or whole). Drizzle with olive oil followed by the balsamic vinegar. Finally, add some salt and freshly ground black pepper. It is now ready to eat.
Tip: If there should happen to be any left-overs (but there usually isn’t), remove the left over cheese (save for another purpose), and place the tomatoes, oil and vinegar in a blender, and blend for about a minute. This makes a great salad dressing for later.
Corn is usually available all year, but it is really good in the summer. The reason for this is that the sugar in corn starts to turn to starch as soon as it is picked. Getting it from the field to the table as fast as possible is important. There is a saying about fresh corn that goes something like this: “If you picked the corn after you started boiling the water, you picked it too soon”. Ask your produce person where it came from and when it came in…make sure it was that day (and the store kept it cold or on ice). In the bay area we are getting most of our local summer corn from Brentwood. Local fresh corn is going to be good whether you boil, microwave or grill it. Just do me a favor…if you boil it, remember that three minutes is all you need, then take it out of the water. Leaving it in the water too long will make it lose its flavor and freshness. I have been enjoying corn all summer in numerous ways. My new favorite is ‘Mexican Style’ which is grilled and slathered with a dressing that consists of mayo, sour cream, cheese, chili powder and lime. It isn’t low-fat, but it is so worth the extra calories.
Mexican Corn on the Cob (Elote)
- 4 ears corn
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1/4 cups sour cream
- 1/4 cup freshly chopped cilantro leaves
- 1 cup freshly grated Cotija cheese (feta will also do)
- 1 lime, juiced
- 1/2 teaspoon Ancho chili powder, (plus more to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (plus more to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
Mix together the mayonnaise, sour cream, cilantro, lime juice and chili powder in a bowl to combine and set it aside. Husk the corn and remove the silk. Grill the corn over a medium hot grill turning frequently until there is some charring and good even grill marks (8-10 minutes). Remove the corn from the grill and brush with the dressing. Sprinkle with grated cheese, and serve with additional chili powder, salt and lime wedges.
Basil is available all year long. Off-season basil is flown in from Mexico and is pricey for the small bunch you usually get. The basil we have now is locally grown, abundant, fresh and more flavorful. Basil is only happy in the ground, on a plate, or in your stomach. It hates to be cold or wet, which is why it is so hard to keep for long in the refrigerator. The best thing to do is grow your own if you can. If that isn’t an option, buy it fresh and use it all right away. If you need to buy a whole bunch when you only need a pinch, I have a great suggestion for what to do with the leftovers…PESTO (I bet you knew I was going to say that). Even though it’s a bit labor intensive to make, it is oh so worth the trouble. Pesto will last for a few days in the fridge, and keep even longer in the freezer. Believe me, when you finally get around to using it, you will be so glad that you took the time to make it. Your homemade pesto is so much better than the tubs you buy in the store. For one thing, you are going to use really good olive oil, as well as REAL parmesan cheese and fresh basil…how can you go wrong? If you’ve been reading my blog there is a chance that I have already talked you into getting a mortar and pestle; if I was unconvincing, a food processor or blender will do…(sigh). You can find a gazillion recipes for pesto that vary wildly in proportions of oil to basil to cheese, etc. It all depends on different factors such as how small the leaves are, how tightly packed the basil is and so on. I usually like to add cheese and butter to my pasta so I don’t put as much oil and cheese in my pesto as some people do, but what you do is up to you. This particular recipe is for making it with a mortar and pestle. If you aren’t using one, just put all the ingredients in a processor and grind away. If I’ve talked you into making some pesto, keep in mind that in addition to pasta it is also delicious on pizza, crostini, potatoes, vegetables, and gnocchi or for garnishing a soup. OK…here’s my recipe for pesto.
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 cups loosely-packed basil leaves
- 1/4 cup olive oil (the best you can find)
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
Start by mashing the garlic and salt together in the mortar. Chop the basil a bit then add to the mortar, pounding away as you go. Once it is fairly even, add the olive oil a little at a time, while continuing to pound and mix. Add the toasted pine nuts, and cheese and pound them until they are well incorporated. Use it right away. It can be kept a day or two in the refrigerator, or freeze it if you need to keep it longer.
A note on pine nuts: prepare yourself for sticker shock if you haven’t bought pine nuts in a while. The price is staggering. Poor crops, increased demand and the ever-popular climate change have added to the steep prices. Keep your unused investment in the refrigerator or freeze them so they don’t go bad.
It pains me to say this, but I thought this year was one of the worst peach seasons I have seen in a long time. I’ve tried to find out why, but no one could give me a good answer. The standard reason is that the “weather conditions were unfavorable”. Fruit trees do better when they have a cold winter, which we never got last year. I was also talking to a produce buyer who told me that many old-time ‘stone fruit growers’ in California have sold off their properties because their kids don’t want to follow in their parent’s footsteps. This is resulting in the dwindling presence of the small growers that always seemed to grow the tastiest fruit. This late in the summer you really can’t find many good peaches from California…they are DONE! The good news is there are still some good peaches coming from Washington State. My favorite grower is Pence. I have been enjoying their peaches for years and I look for them every summer. If you are buying peaches, taste them first and be sure to ask where they come from. There will probably be some good ones from Idaho before it is all over as well. My favorite way to enjoy peaches is to just bite into them. The second way to enjoy them is flavored with a little ‘Grand Marnier’ and spooned over some vanilla ice cream. Cookies come as an optional accessory. Here is the recipe…it is about as easy as it gets.
Peaches and (Ice) Cream
- Vanilla ice cream (my favorite is Marianne’s)
- 1-2 peaches per serving, peeled and sliced
- 1-2 tablespoons Grand Marnier per serving
- 1-2 teaspoons sugar per serving
- Squeeze of lemon (approximately 1/8 of a lemon per serving)
Peel and slice the peaches and put into a bowl. Sprinkle with sugar and add the Grand Marnier and lemon juice. Mix thoroughly and refrigerate until you are ready to serve. It tastes better if the peaches sit for a while soaking up the flavor (and booze) but not for too long; a couple hours before dinner is fine. When it is time for desert, spoon some ice cream into a bowl and top with the peaches. Serve immediately along with some cookies (if you are so inclined).