The Fat of the Land

Category: Eating

The Onion Cleanse

 

Onion

 

When you picture a purifying post-holiday meal, you probably imagine clear, nourishing broth studded with vibrant greens. Perhaps visions of juiced vegetables dance in your head, endive and citrus salads, cholesterol-taming oatmeal breakfasts. But you probably don’t have a single fantasy about storage onions, that commoner we must resort to in the heart of winter when the juicy sweet onions of summer have withered away. Because the onion has been synonymous with the kitchen for so long—bound together by that time of day when you wander to the counter and begin slicing an onion before you fully know what you want to cook—it has become all but invisible.

Storage onions are so familiar, so basic, they seem squeezed of every last drop of intrigue. Yet they maintain the astonishing power to make (most of) us weep. For me, slicing an onion is nearly torture. About halfway through, my eyes sting so intensely I can’t see anymore. Once, while prepping an onion-heavy dish, a UPS guy showed up at my door—no time to wipe away the evidence, I answered with tears streaming down my face. He paused, I didn’t see the point in explaining, so we made our brief exchange with me looking like I’d just returned from euthanizing a beloved pet.

Still, I’d never given onions a serious thought until I tried growing them. I assumed that something so cheap, so unexceptional must be a piece of cake. But, no; from start to finish, onion cultivation requires finesse, experience, well-crafted patience.

For starters, their seeds are slow and, if you choose to go this route over buying onion sets at a nursery, they must be planted now—months (of watching and watering and coddling) before you will transfer them to the garden. Transplanting is pleasant enough if you are the sort that enjoys removing a hair from a wet finger, as fingers often are in an Oregon spring. And then, right when you think they’re safely tucked into the soil, a playful crow or scrub jay comes along some dewy morning and pulls them all back out, just for fun.

If you persevere—replanting, providing even moisture, keeping the soil cool with mulch, fighting back the weeds that will bully your babies into weaker versions of themselves—and those onion threads grow, finally, into succulent greens, you’re a third of the way there. From this point on, timing is everything: when to bend the tops over to prevent the growth of a flowering stalk that would deplete bulb quality, when to cut off watering to thwart fungal rot, when to dig the bulbs for optimum flavor and storability, how long to cure them, and, at long last, where to store them until you’re ready to let them toy with your emotions one last time on the cutting board.

Onion struggle, however relentless, is worth it. Whether your toil is seed-to-kitchen or simply the sort an unsuspecting UPS guy stumbles upon now and then, the humble onion pays back threefold. All onions contain a range of vitamins and phytonutrients (chemical compounds believed to be responsible for the low disease rates associated with plant-based diets), with the highest levels occurring in pungent storage onions. Sweet onions (think Walla Walla or Vidalia) contain about an eighth of the phytonutrients present in a storage onion. Quercetin, the onion’s most prevalent phytonutrient, is the object of studies investigating its promising ability to prohibit certain cancer cell growth and prevent some of the factors that contribute to heart disease.

Best of all, we know that these beneficial compounds, mysterious as they may otherwise be, aren’t damaged by exposure to heat. Roast away! Sauté your heart out! Put them in almost everything! Cooking tames their offending heat and brings out the sweetness that was waiting underneath. Since the phytonutrient content is denser toward the outer rings, peel conservatively and consider saving the skins (curiously, the most nutritional part) to steep in your next batch of soup stock.

Onions are rarely the star of the show, but this is perhaps their greatest attribute. The more onions you eat, the more benefit you get—in the form of vitamins and phytonutrients, of course, but also in the practice of preparing simple and satisfying meals. They are the first thing in the pot, the foundational ingredient that blends and balances and buoys. They are the kitchen’s best dancing partner, its most fervent soccer mom. And since starting with onions usually means building with other whole ingredients, they dare you—air filled with their enigmatic fragrance—to add more, to cook.

 

Caramelized Onions

Nothing transforms a pungent storage onion so completely as this simple recipe. Though there are many ways to char an onion, this low heat, hour-plus simmer will coax out and deepen all of the onions’ sugars, resulting in a surprisingly sultry ingredient that makes everything taste better: pasta, pizza, soups, sandwiches, omelets, bean dishes, polenta, you name it.

Makes 1 1/3 cups

Ingredients:

2 pounds storage onions (5 or 6 medium), sliced evenly to 1/4-inch thickness
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Heat the oil in a skillet with deep sides or a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions, turning to coat them with the oil. Cook, stirring every few minutes, until they have released their juices and begin to really sizzle against the bottom of the pan, about 20 minutes.

2. Turn the heat down to low or medium low, depending on your stove, and continue to gently cook the onions, stirring every ten minutes or so, while they begin to turn golden brown, then walnut brown, then deep chocolate brown. The cooking will take between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on how deeply caramelized you would like them to be. When the onions are done, splash the pan with a tablespoon of water (for more flavor, use stock or wine); stir until the liquid is reduced and season with salt and pepper.

3. Caramelized onions will keep a week or two in the fridge, or can be frozen for up to three months.

Recipe adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy.

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Fall Squash

Winter Luxury

Though they require all of summer’s sunlight and heat to reach maturity and are ready for harvest by September, we call these starchy inflatables winter squash, a nod to the tough, waxy skin that keeps them edible well into the rainy season. Delightful in their diversity, fall harvested squash are the perfect vessel for our transition from fresh produce to storage foods. Like painted gondolas, we let them carry our imaginations to a time when the days are short, the kitchen is cozy, and the scent of oven-roasted squash fills the air with opulence.

As a gardener, what draws me to winter squash is not just their bright colors and curving shapes (which, like most shoppers, is what makes me to want to buy one), but their patience. Arriving after months of demanding harvests—vegetables that ripen with relentless immediacy and must be used within the week—it is lovely to set such beautiful artifacts aside, to be allowed to wait.

The majority of the winter squash varieties that come to market not only allow delayed gratification, they prefer it. Though squash selection increases in abundance with each October week, it is not until winter that most will be at their prime. Belonging to a subcategory of the squash family known as Cucurbita maxima (‘max’ for short), the kuris, kabochas, hubbards, turbans, bananas, buttercups, sweet meats, marina di Chioggias, galeux d’Eysines, or Queensland blues are best once they’ve been cured. This simply requires stashing them in a corner of your kitchen where they can quietly continue to metabolize their starches into sugars.

The curing process deepens and sweetens a max’s flavor, increasing its nutritional value in tandem. If you’ve brought a max home from the market already this fall (when, it’s true, you have first dibs and the best selection), you’ll be rewarded with an inimitable winter delicacy—but only if you resist the urge to slice it open just yet. Like fine wine, a max’s most complex and interesting flavors continue developing long after harvest. Keep it on the counter another month or two, enjoying its oddness, the conversation it makes with the onions and bananas, the jokes it would tell you if you’d only listen. Arrange a few on your kitchen table where they will lend the whole room a tangible rusticity, painted, as it will suddenly seem, like a Flemish still-life. Whatever their presence gives you, let it linger—untouched—until at least December.

In the meantime, there are plenty of squash that need eating. True autumnal squash, the pepos (Cucurbita pepo) have thinner skins and a disposition that fades into mediocrity by true-winter. Delicata, spaghetti, acorn, carnival, sweet dumpling—these small, easygoing squash are at their peak flavor and texture right now. Summer falling into autumn is a pepo relay: zucchini, crookneck, and pattipans (also C. pepo) pass the baton to their starchy siblings. I find it useful to think of pepo “winter” squash this way—sugary amplifications of their green summer sisters, rather than something altogether different.

And then there is the most famous pepo of all, the one that signifies, in the symbolic language of seasonal decorations and latté flavors, that fall is here. A walk through my neighborhood betrays their numbers: pumpkins (vegetable, paper, and plastic) guard doors, stoops, and windows; cheerfully declaring that this shortened sky, this ground painted in leaves, this cool sunlight is theirs. And we give it to them gladly—cut with spooky hieroglyphics, worn as costumes, baked into muffins and cheesecake and pie. Coincidentally, the time of year we most associate with pumpkins—October and November—neatly matches their prime-eating window. If it’s the right time to put a pumpkin on the porch, it’s the right time to eat a pepo.

But skip the baked jack-o-lantern this year. Bred for girth and thin, easy-carving walls, they make poor cooking pumpkins. ‘Sugar pie’ is the standard baking pumpkin at market—small and sweet as its name, sugar pie flesh has enough flavor and density for muffins or quickbreads. Serious pie bakers will want to snatch up a ‘winter luxury’ pumpkin. Renowned for their smooth, bright pulp and concentrated flavor, these medium-sized, dusty orange pumpkins are coated in a charming netted patina, making them as lovely to look at as they are to eat.

Of course, you can eat any squash you pick up at the market right away, but knowing when they will taste like the best version of themselves makes for better pies, sautés, soups, and roasts, and, if you’re exploring new varieties, better first impressions.

Never made a pumpkin pie from scratch? This excellent step-by-step guide from Seed Savers Exchange will get you off to a good start!

Lime-a-tillo

IMG_8812

Anywhere outside of Central America the tomatillo is little more than an afterthought—something we have come to know through globalism and restaurants brave enough to affront our rutted palates with the unfamiliar. Even its diminutive name, meaning ‘little tomato,’ suggests it came second, though most archeologists believe the tomatillo was cultivated by ancient Mesoamericans long before its world-famous cousin.

Roughly the size of a cherry tomato, cloaked in an attractive, lantern-shaped husk, the tomatillo looks almost like a tomato, though hold a tomatillo in one hand and a cherry tomato of the same size in the other, and you will begin to feel the difference. With drier flesh, the buoyant tomatillo seems less substantial. Take a bite of each. Unlike a tomato, whose juices ooze with concentrated flavor compounds and sugars, a raw tomatillo comes off as overly lean—bitter acidity and merely a hint of sweetness.

Cook that same tomatillo in a small amount of water or on the grill and its sharpness mellows, cell walls bursting open, releasing pectin that thickens the tartly sweet juices into syrup. The tomatillo, parading as simple and slight, creates its own luscious sauce with only the application of heat. Its vegetal, citrus-infused flavor cuts through lipids like a cool breeze on an August afternoon, explaining the tomatillo’s common association with fatty taco fillings or buttery guacamole.

That the raw tomatillo seems to the tongue like a lime in a poorly executed tomato costume is no coincidence. Lime flavor is dominated by acidic compounds, which occur mostly as citric acid, with ten-percent dashes of malic (from the Latin word for apple; associated with tart things like rhubarb and sour candies) and succinic acids, both of which add to the fruit’s complexity (and are nearly absent in lemons). Tomatillo acidity is primarily citric and malic, a combination that lends its flavor that lime-without-the-peel quality; lime flavor, in its fullness, is a cocktail of acidity, sugar, and aromatic compounds released from the skin.

In traditional Mayan and Aztec cuisines, tomatillos played the role of a pre-Columbian citrus. It’s hard to imagine a plate of Mexican food without that quintessential slice of lime, but citrus trees hail from Asia and did not reach Central America until the 16th Century. The acidic resonance between tomatillos, a long-time staple, and limes, introduced (along with other citrus varieties) by Spanish conquistadors, may explain why these cuisines took to limes much more so than lemons—it was familiar; they already knew what to do with it.

One pre-Columbian use of the tomatillo was to tenderize meat. Stewed with chiles and perhaps a handful of quelites (wild greens, such as purslane or amaranth leaves), tomatillo acidity softened lean cuts the way citrus juice will. Remnants of this technique are evident in dishes like Chile Verde (pork braised in green salsa). Tomatillos perform similar to (and likely predate the use of) lime juice in various salsas, invigorating avocado’s heaviness in a well-balanced guacamole, or kicking up the acidity of chile- and tomato-based salsas.

Although the temptation to toss tomatillo husks out the back door to tumble around the yard like balls of lace must have been irresistible even to the Mayans and Aztecs, their most enterprising cooks discovered arguably better uses. It turns out, for reasons I could not find a definitive explanation of, tomatillo husks contain a leavening agent. Used to improve breads and tamale dough, water boiled with ten or so tomatillo husks somehow imparts masa with a fluffy lightness the way baking soda does in modern recipes. Many sources attribute this to the husk’s acidity. Since the water-husk infusions often (but, tellingly, not always) cite the inclusion of a particular kind of alkaline mineral salt called tequesquite, the basic idea is that the salt and the husk react something like baking soda and vinegar.

In an interesting exchange I found between a Mexican food blogger and the scientist-author Harold McGee, McGee explains that the chemistry of this theory doesn’t pan out. Prepared as an infusion, the gas release that results from the contact between the alkali and the acid would occur during the boiling process, meaning that the fluff-producing magic would extinguish long before it is added to the masa. McGee postulates instead that the leavening could be the result of pectin and other thickening agents; released from rigid cell walls by boiling (with or without the alkaline salt), they might lend enough elasticity to the dense dough to allow air bubbles to expand during cooking.

With no more than a high school chemistry course under my belt, I have nothing to add, except another comment I came across a few times on unrelated sites. Though I hesitate to call it a “tradition” without further evidence, it appears that several Mexican grandmothers have been known to boil tomatillo husks with cactus paddles in order to reduce the paddles’ slime (something akin to okra’s). Sounds like magic, but maybe the slime isn’t disappearing, just thickening, in which case, Harold might be on to something.

So the next time you take home those ‘little tomatoes,’ don’t think tomato at all. Think lime and lightness and silky rich sauce, maybe even husk and all.

Holy Trinity

holy trinity

When summer turns down the heat, when it can no longer cloak the edge of winter with its sweet, delicate fruit and easy freshness, we must remember again how to cook. Not that we haven’t cooked all summer—there have been sautés, fresh sauces, crowded grills—but the flavors have stayed so available, so forthright, we haven’t needed to add much more than salty cheese, a dousing of vinaigrette, a sear on the grill.

End-of-summer produce is a sultry lot; what was bursting with readiness is now reserved, its proteins and sugars turned meaty or starched in a way that implores the coaxing of a low flame. Our kitchens, too, are suddenly more habitable, their corners cooled by night’s deeper chill, asking, finally, for the symphonic perfume that comes from roasting. It seems right, this pair: a ready kitchen, vegetables seeking warmth.

What you can draw from one gently cooked vegetable—say a tomato, thick slices roasted into candy—expands exponentially when you combine it with a companion or two. These trinities (sometimes duos or quartets) live at the heart of almost every cuisine. They make the stitch between cooking and culture.

Take sofrito, paella’s backbone and the base of many Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American soups, stews, and rice dishes. Cajun and Creole cooks call their sofrito the Holy Trinity, a trio of onion, celery, and green pepper finely diced and cooked until they sit in their own luscious sauce, ready for the next layer.

They go by different names, but all of these trinities are holy in their own rite, balancing sour and sweet, aroma and spice in a way that may best be summed up by the Italian word agrodulce. A mix of agro (sour) and dulce (sweet), agrodulce, at its most basic, is a sauce made of vinegar and sugar. But it also runs through a sofrito, where the acidity of a tomato meets the sweetness of roasted garlic, onion, and red pepper. Add zucchini and eggplant and you have ratatouille. Take away all but the tomato and onion, add ginger and coriander, and you have an Indian chutney. Give that chutney a couple spoonfulls of peanut butter instead of coriander, and you are on your way to Tongolese azi dessi.

Some trinities are strongly aromatic, such as German suppengrun (literally, “soup greens”), where carrots and leeks lend their earthy sugars to celeriac’s musk; or the French mirepoix—onion, carrot, and celery—offering the root vegetables’ subtle dulce a clean, cutting bitterness in lieu of overt acidity. Italian soffritto is more like mirepoix than its Spanish counterpart, starting with the same onion-carrot-celery base and adorning it with garlic, flat-leaf parsley, fennel, or cured meats. Szechuan cuisine’s holy trinity of ginger, garlic, and chile peppers marries sour and sweet with spice, as does the simplest Mexican rajas—strips of poblano peppers and onions slowly cooked in oil until supple and melded.

This kind of submission is what makes a trinity holy—the melting away of individual identity to become something if not greater, than at least unmistakably different than the sum of its parts. It is a way of cooking that does more than pair compatible flavors; it transforms them. But don’t go looking for texture, don’t expect crust or crunch. A good holy trinity is about softness, about giving up.

And so it is with end of summer vegetables; after months of freshness, I yearn for something deeper, something willing to fade into the background. This year, my trinity of choice is eggplant, tomato, and onion. I stew them slowly in a Dutch oven on the lowest heat, salted judiciously, oregano or thyme for character, a pinch of sugar and a dash of white wine for body. And because it is the last chance (or nearly so) for many other delicious things, from that rich, silky base I build.

Perhaps I’ll strip an ear of late season corn, its sugar becoming starch, adding creamy thickness and a pleasing pop to the stew’s texture. I throw in peppers, sweet or hot, for their meaty softness; Romano or green beans, less tender now than a month ago, which hold their shape after an hour’s simmer, absorbing the sauce and giving back supple firmness, something to chew on. Maybe I’ll cube that zucchini, a little spongy in the center, all the better now to absorb, to give.

You can keep going, adding what you like. Give it a grilled fish, a plate of pasta, a mound of polenta. Dip flatbread in it. Smother it with cheese. Bake it under a blanket of oiled breadcrumbs. Spread it on a sandwich with salami, a sausage. Make a crazy pizza topping out of it. Try it on ice cream. It doesn’t matter, because it takes its perfection with it. You’ve made something whole and, dolloped here, spread there, it stays that way.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Eggplant Sauce

(adapted from Plenty)

With the addition of onion, softened just before the eggplant, this is the basic sauce I can’t get enough of right now. I cook it longer than the recipe suggests, about forty minutes on a low flame for complete melding.

Serves 4

2/3 cup vegetable oil

1 medium eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice

2 tsp tomato paste

1/4 cup white wine

1 cup chopped peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned)

6 1/2 tbsp water

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp sugar

1 tbsp chopped oregano (or 1 tsp dried)

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry the eggplant on medium heat for 15 minutes or until nicely browned. Drain off as much oil as you can and discard it.

2. Add the tomato paste and stir with the eggplant, cooking 2 minutes. Then add the wine and cook another minute more.

3. Add the chopped tomatoes, water, salt, sugar, and oregano and cook for an additional 10 or more minutes to get a deep-flavored sauce.

4. Serve on its own as a side dish, with pasta and a sprinkle of parmesan, or over a bed of soft polenta (feta–stirred into the polenta or crumbled on top of the sauce–makes a great addition).

Tales from the Sweet Pepper Patch

Jimmy Nardello

Say the word pepper and one of two things likely comes to mind: the table shaker filled with black and gray dust, and the flamingly red and famously spicy crop we either crave or avoid, depending on our culinary disposition. Thirdly, some of our minds may drift to that molar of a fruit, glossy and green as spring grass: the bell pepper. In a typical North American produce aisle, it (and its yellow, orange, red, and purple siblings) is the sole pepper not relegated to the ‘ethnic’ produce section and the only one I tasted until a shamefully late age.

I grew up in the Germanic and Scandinavian influenced cuisine of the upper Midwest, but that is not an entirely sufficient explanation. Peppers, imported to Europe from the Caribbean and Central America by Columbus and his successors, spread widely through the well-established trade routes of the time, each culinary tradition choosing what they liked from the pepper’s plentiful genetic archive. Though northern Europeans are certainly not known for their peppers, they ate them, more often as dried powders (paprika) or as immature (green or yellow) fruits.

I blame my pepper ignorance on my own singular obsession with the green bell—something of an anomaly in the pepper world, their mild, watery profile and crisp texture yield easily to bolder flavors. I used them often as a budding young cook in the few recipes I’d successfully mastered. It took a lot of practice to build the confidence needed to branch out, and until then I had no reference point for the nuance and diversity of pepper flavor, no clue at all as to what I was missing.

The first pepper that really stumped me was the Jimmy Nardello. It turned everything I thought I knew about peppers inside out, hung it to dry under an unfamiliar and illuminating sun. These skinny things, bright and lustrous red, looked like a sleeve of capsicum fire. “They’re not hot,” I was told, but my eyes, after years of dedicated chili pepper avoidance, refused to believe it. I cooked a few up, alone in the frying pan as I was instructed. Their thin walls softened quickly, their delicate skin blistered into oil-crisped bubbles, their sizzle unleashed soft, cherry-scented steam.

They were not hot. What spice they had was the citrusy kind, pinching their expansive flavor with compassionate sharpness. The rest was full-throated, candy sweetness and a quality of fruit deeper and darker than the best tomato. That enlightened moment led to many other fried Jimmies, to pickled Jimmies (my favorite), to roasted and grilled Jimmies. My freezer always has a bag of sliced raw Jimmies to add to off-season sauces and stews.

Jimmy Nardello himself would also dry his family’s now famous pepper, strung and hung in the shed for winter the way his mother, Angela Nardiello, likely taught him. Inheritor of her family’s slender red frying pepper, she brought its seeds with her when she immigrated from the southern Italian town of Ruoti to the United States in 1887. Jimmy was her fourth son and the one, if legend holds true, that was most interested in gardening. He kept the family pepper alive until he died in 1983.

Lucky for us, Jimmy shared his beloved peppers with the newly founded Seed Savers Exchange not long before his death. In the subsequent thirty-two years, they’ve become something of a cult sensation—seducing gardeners, small-scale growers, and in-the-know home cooks and chefs with their alluring set of traits. As easy and productive in the garden as they are quick and straightforward to prepare, I was not the first to be swayed by a single bite.

I have made other discoveries since then. Red bell peppers, with their diluted sweetness and juicy flesh, have nothing on the pimiento. A pepper type usually associated with Spain or the Southeastern United States, these plump, round fruits (also called cherry peppers) have unusually thick walls for their size, their flavor a mix of Jimmy Nardello richness and caramelized sugar. Though they are traditionally dried and ground into sweet (or smoked) paprika, they are one of my favorite peppers to eat raw.

Then there are the roasting peppers, Italian in origin (going by the name Marconi), perfected most recently by Oregon’s Wild Garden Seed, with bold names like ‘Stocky Red Rooster,’ or ‘Gatherer’s Gold.’ Bred for oven and fire roasting, they peel with relative ease, leaving behind meaty strips of tender, delicious flesh. Northern gardeners appreciate their ability to ripen in quantity despite a climate that is not always accommodating to this tropical native.

My favorite pepper color is now red, though the realm of the sweet pepper is host to many flavorful greens. Shishito, small frying peppers with undulating walls are best sautéed whole with oil and salt, and make a delicious drinking snack. Yellow wax peppers (also called banana peppers)—looking like a pale yellow, bulked up Jimmy Nardello—are tangy and bright, good raw or cooked, though if you’re expecting something mild, don’t confuse them with their spicier look-alikes, Hungarian Wax or Pepperoncini.

I was a toddler when Jimmy Nardello died, but I get to smell his kitchen each time I fry up a batch of the slender, transcendent peppers that bear his name. I still cook green bells when a favorite recipe calls for them, though I find myself delighted more often by the more particular pepper personalities, the ones that shine like a badge of someone else’s devotion and perseverance. Through flavors we can travel, and in this endeavor, the pepper—hot or sweet—is a vehicle so precise it can deliver us (whether we know it or not) to one family’s garden, terraced more than a hundred years ago at the ankle of Italy’s boot.

Melon’s Savory Side

Proscuitto e melone

This summer delicacy is best when sliced and served unadorned at the height of ripeness. Perhaps because it is so perfect alone, the melon’s reputation as a desirable ingredient doesn’t reach much beyond fruit salad and sorbet. Melon also seems rife with limitations—loose (and in the case of watermelon, watery) flesh, nearly cloying sweetness, and delicate floral qualities that, added up, seem to repel the idea of any course but dessert. However, melons do have an ambitious and intriguing savory side and, given the right kind, will even take a little heat. Try one of these techniques to explore a world beyond the melon ball.

Add some salt to its sweet.  Melon’s pervasive sweetness seems made for salty accouterments.

  • Try tossing cubed watermelon with feta cheese and mint (link to recipe)
  • Combine honeydew with cucumber, feta, and dill (link to recipe)
  • Treat yourself to the classic Italian appetizer, prosciutto e melone, which is delightfully easy to make as long as you have some thinly sliced prosciutto lying around (link to recipe)
  • Don’t be afraid to substitute other cured meats for the prosciutto: crispy fried pancetta, strips of bacon, or even a slice of salty cheese all make delicious pairings

Give it some heat.  Melon’s juicy texture and ample sweetness are the perfect companion to capsicum heat.

  • Sub watermelon for tomatoes in a fresh salsa (link to recipe)
  • Marinate cubes of watermelon in sriracha vinaigrette for a spicy and satisfying snack (link to recipe)
  • Forego the stove on a hot summer evening with this refreshing—and picante—melon gazpacho (link to recipe)

Think inside the spice box.  Salt and pepper aren’t the only game in town when it comes to seasoning melons.

  • Make a refreshing cold soup, like this masala-spiced, Spanish-inspired gazpacho (link to recipe)
  • Treated more like a sweet potato than a dessert fruit, a quick caramelizing sear and toasted caraway seeds make cantaloupe seductively savory in this simple and delicious preparation—try subbing cumin seeds for a variation on the theme (link to recipe)
  • Melons make a great substitute for mango in this cantaloupe cardamom-spiced lassi (link to recipe)

Go green.  Sweet, juicy melon makes a accompaniment to spicy greens, such as arugula, cress, frisee, mizuna, or baby mustard.

Give it grill marks.  A brief spell on the grill adds smoky, caramelized depth to melon sweetness.

  • Make this smoked paprika dusted grilled cantaloupe (link to recipe)
  • Throw a few watermelon slices on the grill to eat plain as a smoky alternative to the picnic classic. Or, why not make it a cheeseburger? (link to recipe)

Summer’s Sweetest Bite

Melon

If summer could be concentrated into one single dish, it would be a wedge of dripping red watermelon. The flavor equivalent of jumping into a lake—cool, refreshing, slightly vegetal—watermelon is an antidote for hot days. Blue whale of the fruit world, it takes a village to eat a full-size watermelon, so we gather around them at picnics, potlucks, and parties. I, for one, never tire of the show: the huge green fruit, the big knife, the rocking, the crack as it splits, the smell of cucumbers and sugar, the firecracker red.

Most of the year, I avoid melon—those ubiquitous fruit salads that adorn lunch and brunch plates year-round—because the fruits must be picked under-ripe in order to survive the journey from Central America and California. Melons get their sugar on the vine; while some of their flavor components continue to develop after they’ve been harvested, they don’t get any sweeter. Melons picked with shipping and storage in mind are soulless things—watery, rigid, and bland.

Member of the cucurbit family, melons are cousins to squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. Although the exact location varies by species, melons are generally believed to have originated in Africa, where they were one of the first domesticated plant foods (they have been in cultivation for an estimated 7,000 years). From there, they spread by human dispersal to India, the Mediterranean rim, the Middle East, and Persia, and, slightly later, to China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Eastern Europe.

Ancient people dined on melons for some of the same reasons we still do today. Seventy- to ninety-percent water by weight, melons are like botanical pop cans, and those ancestral species had a knack for drawing water up from underground springs, imbuing it with flavor and (a few) calories, and storing it safely within an orb of thick waxy skin. Their presence signaled an invisible oasis, and their tart flesh offered desert people a much-needed source of hydration.

The first melons were not sweet, and thus were treated more like vegetables in the various culinary traditions that adopted them, cooked in stews or sliced and served raw as a salad, dressed with spices and vinegar. Over time, sweet-fleshed mutations appeared and growers began selecting for this appealing trait.

With sweetness also came fragrance. Italian orange-fleshed melons grown in the papal summer residence of Cantalupo were favored by generations of popes and their gardeners, a popularity that traveled to other outposts of the Catholic heirarchy. These cantaloupes, as they were called, reached their pinnacle in the Provencal village of Cavaillon, which became famous for melons that exuded fragrance as thick and floral as jasmine. These unique melons still stir feverish mania among Cavaillon locals and visitors alike. Known as Charentais melons, a name that clings to them from a stint in the slightly more northerly region of Charente where this particular melon strain was purportedly first developed, their heart will always belong to Cavaillon.

In our country, cantaloupes are a far cry from their European brethren. The variety we know as cantaloupe is not even in the same botanical group. An orange-fleshed muskmelon, American cantaloupes can also be sweet and fragrant, but they often aren’t, for reasons of distribution and storage. That makes the farmers market the best place to buy top quality melons—the sort that made generations of pharaohs, emperors and kings want more, and captivated the tastebuds of three continents long before the Old World bumped into the New.

Though most of us have gorged on countless melons without hesitation or thought, knowing how to shop for one is not as intuitive. Rough-skinned types are easier: since they “slip” from the vine once their sugars are fully developed, they should not have a stem (if so, they were picked to early). The stem end should be fragrant when sniffed, the skin below their bumpy reliefs a pale tan, not green. Watermelons and honeydew offer fewer clues, as they do not slip from the vine or exude fragrance outside their rind. Look first for the “ground spot,” the discolored area where the melon was in contact with the soil—it should be pale yellow, not green or white. Then, give the fruit a sturdy knock. If the sound seems to travel back to you from inside the fruit (implying hollowness) the flesh is ready; if the thud stays right where you’ve knocked it, pass that melon by.

All melons benefit from a day or two’s rest on the kitchen counter. Although they will not get any sweeter, other components of the melon’s flavor (and nutritional value) continue to develop at room temperature. Don’t store them in the refrigerator (it’s too cold to allow flavor components to synthesize) until you’ve sliced them open, at which point they’re ready to chill a bit before eating or to store for a few days, if they last that long.

Calabacitas

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For most gardeners, the story of Cucurbita pepo varieties grown for their immature fruits generally goes like this: as the plants’ lobed leaves quickly grow to jungle-proportions, you eagerly anticipate the first yellow-orange blossoms, watching for their green, finger-shaped fruits, delighting as they begin to appear in abundance. But after a few copious weeks, you start to wonder how you will keep up. You feel the panic of fruits, heavier now, piling up on the counter; the weariness of repetitive sautés. It is about this time, when your sarcastic remarks about ditching a bag on your neighbor’s doorstep begin to take on a tone of intention, that some well-meaning person suggests, “Time to make zucchini bread!”

While zucchini bread certainly makes zucchini taste more like cake, it is not the most efficient way to rid yourself of a bumper crop. Most recipes call for a mere cup or two of grated zucchini—amounting to one moderately sized fruit—along with which you must eat an entire loaf of sugary bread. No, zucchini and their entourage of summer squash, the most efficient of garden producers when measured at a rate of bulk to time, demand an equally efficient cook.

We are used to seeing zucchini, cocozelle, pattypan, summer squash, crookneck and the like through a European lens. Zucchini itself is an Italian word, and the Italians maintain a long-standing love affair with these tender, somewhat watery, mildly bitter summer fruits, one that has resulted in a litany of recipes whose scope and skill implies a culture familiar with zucchini’s infamous profusion. Italian recipes don’t skimp on the zucchini, putting its sometimes-challenging texture front and center more often than not. Indeed, zucchini are often billed as an Italian invention, a claim that is partially true.

Zucchini belongs to the colorful and diverse tribe known as Cucurbita pepo. Thicker-skinned ancestors of the modern day zucchini likely accompanied Columbus when he returned from his Caribbean voyages. The curious vining plants with gourd-shaped or pumpkin-like fruits passed through horticultural circles and were grown, along with tomatoes and eggplant, as ornamental curiosities by a population uncertain of their edibility.

Ethnobotanists theorize that C. pepo’s native range stretched from Central America along the Eastern Seaboard north to Quebec. Archeological evidence dates the domestication of C. pepo as far back as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. The first cultivated squash were likely grown for their gourds—the fibrous, bitter flesh ignored for the watertight vessel it left behind. The next phase of selection probably focused on the gourd’s seeds—a calorie-dense, storable food—and eventually on the starchy flesh of mature fruits.

Finally, the indigenous people of Central America and Mexico (and those of the eastern U.S., where it is believed C. pepo was domesticated contemporaneously) began to breed, through careful selection, a squash whose immature fruits were fine-textured and mild. Enter: calabacita, the Mexican name for zucchini-like immature squash fruit. To say the Italians invented zucchini is true—Italian gardeners fervently selected for the smooth, dark-green-skinned fruits we mean when we use the term ‘zucchini,’ as well as striped, fluted fruits known as cocozelle—but only if you ignore the thousands of years of indigenous selection that occurred long before Christopher Columbus was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes.

With a long history of cultivation inevitably comes generations of experimentation in the kitchen. Though they rarely make it onto the menu of a typical north-of-the-border restaurant, calabacitas are a mainstay of traditional Mexican cuisine. Ubiquitous in stews and sautéed in endless variation, calabacitas make easy companions to any of their Mesoamerican sisters—beans, corn, tomato, eggplant, peppers—many of the same vegetables we associate with Italian zucchini.

While the calabacita is, technically, a specific summer squash variety (it often appears by the name ‘gray zucchini’ in U.S. seed catalogs), it’s close enough to European-bred varietals like true zucchini, cocozelle, and crookneck that they make a fitting substitute. At heart, all summer squash are all calabacitas—Mexican zucchini. My favorite variety is Costata Romanesca, a firmer-fleshed, nutty cocozelle type that is a prolific producer, keeps some firmness when cooked, and is still tender enough to eat even when my neglected fruits have grown a foot long. I have one plant in my vegetable patch, enough to keep me busy for months.

This year, I’ll skip the zucchini bread in favor of dishes that embrace calabacitas’ abundance and heritage—holding onto Old World favorites like zucchini and ricotta pie, fritters, quick tomato and zucchini stews with Parmigiano cheese, ratatouille—while exploring their New World roots by pairing them with chiles, lime, cream, cilantro, avocado, cumin. No zucchini gardener should ignore a promising lead.

Zucchini, Mexican Style

Work your way through these recipes and you’ll soon have a feel for the humble zucchini’s agility in Mexican cuisine. When shopping for summer squash, choose medium-sized fruits (baby zucchini tend to be bitter and bland) with smooth, shiny skin that feel firm and heavy in your hand. Don’t limit yourself to the standard dark green zucchini—try striped cocozelle, frilled pattypan, warty crooknecks, yellow straightnecks, or even the delightful ‘Tromboncini’ (an immature gourd with delicate, nutty flavor whose firm, dry flesh needs light cooking to soften).

Zucchini and Corn with Cream: This classic southwestern side dish, also called Calabacitas, is deceptively simple: its straightforward ingredient list transforms into flavor big enough to be the main course. (Link)

Zucchini and Avocado Salsa: Capitalizing on raw zucchinis’ ability to draw fresh flavors into its crisp-textured flesh, this salsa makes for a refreshing side salad as much as a healthy dip. (Link)

Pork with Zucchini and Corn: Hearty and satisfying, this traditional stew is a perfect one pot meal. (Link)

Grilled Mexican Zucchini Boats: Inspired by elotes—Mexican grilled corn flavored with chili powder, lime, and mayonnaise—this easy preparation replaces the corncob with zucchini boats for a quick summer dinner. (Link)

Squash Flower Soup: Zucchini blossoms are a gardener’s delicacy, picked when their flavor is most potent—before the late morning sun begins to whither them but after pollinators have had a chance to visit. This soup highlights squash blossom fragrance in a quick-cooking, rustic vegetable stew. (Link)

Apricot Jam

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Though I grew up eating it, I never thought much of jam. Unaware that there was anything else, most of the jam I’d eaten until I was seventeen was the store-bought variety—overly jelled, painfully sweet—and I stuck almost exclusively to raspberry, on toast or a peanut butter sandwich. The summer before my senior year of high school, my parents took me to Europe. Our first stop was Paris, a city of which I was instantly enamored and where I first fell in love with jam.

The store was Fauchon, a luxury grocer whose shelves were lined with finely crafted sundries. We had come for the tea (my mom was a tea fanatic and had read about their legendary selection), but as I wandered the sparklingly exotic aisles, I found myself in front of a wall of jam jars displayed like fine crystal. A rainbow of jewel-tones, their labels read off flavors I’d never dreamed of: strawberry with rose petals, raspberry and litchi, bergamot marmalade, apricot and vanilla bean.

My mom found the jam, too, and picked up a number of jars to take home. I chose apricot and vanilla bean for our hotel breakfasts and picnics in the park. When trying a jam for the first time, you could do worse than to spread it on a Parisian croissant, as we did with that apricot jam. The texture was plump and saucy, not stiff as I was used to, and it dribbled into the folds of my croissant like honey. It tasted of sunshine, the sort that radiates from a field turned late-summer gold, vanilla’s woody nectar giving legs to the fruit’s buoyant acidity, all of which faded into honeysuckle sweetness that lingered in my mouth with the aroma of warmth and hay.

Each of the Fauchon jams we tasted were this way, like a story in a bottle whose prose we savored until we’d scraped every last bit from the side of the jar. I make my own jams now, but I had never come close to a Fauchon jam until this one. As I stirred its bubbling sauce for the first time, I found the fragrance vaguely familiar; and when I tasted a spoonful, I knew why. I was there again, sitting on the fire-escape balcony of a tiny Parisian hotel, experiencing a world outside of my own for the first time, bombarded by its sounds and smells and strangeness, completely mesmerized by its jam.

Apricot and Vanilla-Bean Preserves

From Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff

Makes about 5 Half-Pint Jars

3 pounds ripe apricots, halved and pitted (no need to peel)

½ cup rosé or white wine, or 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1½ cups sugar

2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise

  • Prepare for water-bath canning*: Sterilize the jars and keep them hot in the canning pot, put a small plate in the freezer, and put the flat lids in a heat-proof bowl.
  • Cut the apricots into ¼-inch slices. Put the apricots, wine, sugar, and vanilla beans in a wide, 6- to 8-quart pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, then continue to cook until the juices are just deep enough to cover the apricots, about 5 minutes.
  • Pour the mixture into a colander set over a large bowl and stir the apricots gently to drain off the juices. Return the liquid to the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil, stirring occasionally, until the syrup is reduced by about half, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Return the apricots and vanilla beans and any accumulated juices to the pan and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring frequently, until a small dab of the jam spooned onto the chilled plate and returned to the freezer for a minute becomes somewhat firm (it will not gel), 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and gently stir for a few seconds to distribute the fruit in the liquid.
  • Ladle boiling water from the canning pot into the bowl with the lids. Using a jar lifter, remove the sterilized jars from the canning pot, carefully pouring the water from each one back into the pot, and place them upright on a folded towel. Drain the water off the jar lids.
  • Remove the vanilla-bean pods and ladle the hot jam into the jars, leaving a ¼-inch headspace at the top. Slide a piece of vanilla-bean pod into each jar so that it’s visible from the outside. Use a damp paper towel to wipe the rims of the jars, then put a flat lid and ring on each jar, adjusting the ring so that it’s just finger-tight. Return the jars to the water in the canning pot, making sure the water covers the jars by at least 1 inch. Bring to a boil, and boil for 5 minutes to process. Remove the jars to a folded towel and do not disturb for 12 hours. After 1 hour, check that the lids have sealed by pressing down on the center of each; if it can be pushed down, it hasn’t sealed, and the jar should be refrigerated immediately.

* This recipe may also be bottled without water-bath canning for storage in the refrigerator (it will keep for about 4 weeks) or freezer (it will keep for a year).

Simple Food

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Yesterday I spent three hours making beet burger mix. The said mix currently waits in my refrigerator for a busy evening when it will feel deliciously effortless to throw a couple patties in the hot skillet and sit down to a satisfying meal minutes later. What I know at this point is that those six patties took an average of thirty laborious minutes each: simmering the dry beans, cooking the brown rice just so, roasting then peeling then shredding then squeezing the beets, pulverizing oats to a fine flour, caramelizing then deglazing onions, processing some but not all of the beans, mixing the lot together in a bowl where it must sit (must!) for at least twenty-four hours before its burger magic can be activated. And although they come with many glowing recommendations, I don’t yet know how they’ll taste.

It was about the time that my hand was stained past my wrist in crimson beet juice, as I worked to release as much moisture as the recipe implored, that I had the thought of a simple hamburger (I am not vegetarian, though I do have a fanatical love of beets). My mind conjured the beefy kind of burger that has only salt and pepper mixed into its ground, maybe a few snippets of chives, then onto the grill it goes, onto the grilled buttered bun a few minutes later, a squeeze of mustard and a smear of mayonnaise, maybe a slice of tomato or onion, though all I really must have on my burger is pickles and a crisp lettuce leaf. How much better than that, I thought, could these beet burgers be?

It’s all a matter of perspective, of course. For a vegetarian who likes beets, the appeal is obvious. For those who enjoy a grilled patty of ground beef, three hours of work to create an approximation, even for a beet lover, does seem to beg the question: why bother? Why not throw a few slices of lightly oiled and salted, market-fresh beets onto the grill, let their sugars caramelize in the smoky heat, and call it a night?

Without a doubt, I love elaborate cooking. I do not flinch at a recipe, such as my sister and I tackled last Thanksgiving, that requires many hours of peeling and processing roasted chestnuts just to make a little wisp of a cake that is devoured in less than thirty minutes. I love cooking all day, making it all from scratch, watching the minutiae of an extravagant meal unfold and relishing each step like the lines of an exhilarating book.

But summer makes me sluggish in the kitchen. It’s a good thing that hot weather and vegetable bounty come hand-in-hand, because even the thought of a simple soup has me hesitating, weighing the costs of discomfort against the gains of pleasurable flavor. Summer’s mostly sweltering kitchen (you may have already deduced that my house has no AC) adds to the cost, and the plethora of fresh, flavorful produce detracts from any benefit complex cooking may offer.

So it is with simple food that I while away my summer. Nearly half of our cooking takes place on the grill, our summer oven where we roast every kind of vegetable, cook flatbreads and pizzas, sear peaches or pork chops, and occasionally throw down a patty of ground beef, all without raising the temperature in which we must attempt to sleep.

Indoor cooking amounts to variations in chopping, tossing salads, simmering grains, steaming spuds, or briefly sautéing sweet chunks of summer squash and fresh onions. Summer’s flavors are uncomplicated and light. Too much flame or fuss makes their perky crunch go soft. My goal in the kitchen is not to transform, but to preserve—with the judicious use of salt and pepper, citrus or vinegar, and aromatics from the herb patch—all the delicate, inimitable flavors that the sun and soil and farmhands have already cooked up.

Simple Technique: Here’s a roundup of recipes to help you perfect the basics of simple summer cooking.

Grilling – Become a meatless grill-master with this A-to-Z guide to grilling vegetables

Chopping – Cook with your knife to make this refreshing Chopped Salad with Feta, Lime, and Mint

Steaming – Make a Summer Aoli Feast to celebrate the lightly steamed flavors of peak-season market veggies.

Sautéing – Master the art of the simple sauté with this easy to follow guide.

Pickling – Employ brine, your refrigerator, and time to soften and season your favorite summer vegetables. Check out this simple method of making fridge pickles without a recipe.

Raw – Stick with the flavors nature’s made, then ribbon, rice, puree, or toss using this basic guide to raw cooking.

(For those who’d like that beet burger recipe anyway, you can find it here.)