Summer’s bounty

by Margi Lenga Kahn, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Nothing recharges my love of cooking more than a trip to the farmers market. Ripe peaches and blackberries, a rainbow of sun-warmed tomatoes, eggplants and onions, peppers in flavors from sweet to spicy, fresh-picked corn. It doesn’t get much better than that. Indeed, my enthusiasm often overrides my judgment, and I return home with way more produce than we need.

But it’s summer, and the essence of summertime for me is great food prepared quick and easy. So what if you have to invite family or friends over for an impromptu dinner to share the bounty? Purchase or bake some fresh bread, open a bottle of wine, and throw together a feast celebrating the peak flavors of our summer harvest. Here are some ideas and recipes to get you started.

Peaches

ADVERTISEMENT
Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Biting into a just-picked sweet juicy peach is divine, but there are other sweet and savory ways to enjoy them. Try combining two peeled, cut-up peaches in a bowl with two tablespoons each of chopped red onion and chopped cilantro, and optional minced jalapeño pepper for additional flavor. Toss the mixture with the juice of one lime and season it with salt and pepper. You can serve the salsa as a dip for tortilla chips or spoon it onto grilled chicken or fish. For a tasty and colorful salad, mound the salsa on a bed of lightly dressed lettuce and garnish it with chunks of fresh avocado.

For a quick and elegant dessert, lightly brush pitted peach halves with some melted butter, sear them on the grill or in a hot pan, and serve the peaches alongside a scoop of ice cream. Or top the peach halves with a dollop of whipped cream or a spoon of mascarpone cheese. You could also fill the peach cavities with fresh blackberries, sprinkle with sliced almonds, and drizzle with honey.

And for a breakfast peach treat, suggests Kathy of Kamp’s Orchard in Golden Eagle, Ill., make a breakfast smoothie by combining a cup of cut-up peaches, skin on, one- half-cup almond milk, a handful of fresh spinach, and a tablespoon of ground flax seed in a blender or food processor-a delicious and nutritious start to your day.

Onions

While biting into a raw onion doesn’t bring quite the same degree of satisfaction as biting into a peach, onions are perhaps the most versatile and flavor building ingredient year-round. During the summer, however, farm-fresh sweet red and yellow onions, which have lower acidity and shorter shelf life than the onions we buy at the grocery store, offer exceptional culinary options. Caramelizing these onions brings out their natural sweetness and can be used as a filling for omelets or enchiladas; a topping for a pizza, pasta, or bruschetta; as part of a mélange of other sautéed vegetables, such as zucchini, squash, garlic, fennel, and eggplant; and a delicious condiment for hot and cold sandwiches, especially one spread with Dijon mustard and grilled with fontina or cheddar cheese- divine.

To caramelize onions on the stove, simply heat a large pan with a tablespoon each of butter and oil. Add peeled, thinly sliced onions (they cook down a lot so be sure to use at least one large onion) and sprinkle with a pinch of sugar. Cook uncovered over medium heat about five minutes to soften. Reduce heat and continue cooking onions for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions will turn a lovely golden brown and almost lose their shape when ready. Remove pan from the heat and season onions with salt and fresh ground black or white pepper, to taste.

To caramelize onions in the oven, peel and quarter the onions and place them on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and scatter fresh thyme sprigs (or dried thyme) and whole unpeeled garlic cloves among the onions. Sprinkle with coarse kosher salt and bake in a 425-degree oven for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden brown.

Pickled red onions can spruce up any sandwich or salad. They also taste great on top of bruschetta, along with herbed goat cheese or white bean puree. Stored in a jar in your refrigerator, pickled onions will last three to four months. And, of course, if you’re not a fan of pickled onions, just have them raw, finely sliced or diced. These milder, fresh sweet onions will add a pleasant jolt of flavor to just about anything.

Tomatoes

Ah, the ecstasy of the homegrown tomato. These summer gems bear little resemblance to those mealy, tasteless things in the supermarket produce section the rest of the year. Every glorious variety of summer tomato at your local farmers market has the power to transform any salsa, soup, salad, sandwich, tart, pizza or pasta into an epicurean delight.

A good tomato does not require a lot of fanfare. Keith Biver, of Biver Organic Farm in Edwardsville, loves a tomato sandwich-just sliced tomatoes on Vienna white bread lathered with good mayonnaise. I prefer a dollop of fresh basil pesto on my tomato sandwich. For another take on the tomato as sandwich, brush a slice of hearty sourdough bread lightly with olive oil, toast it in the oven, and rub the cut side of a tomato on the bread until it turns red. Sprinkle with salt and enjoy.

Remember, don’t refrigerate those farmers market tomatoes. Refrigeration destroys both the texture and flavor. If your tomatoes get too ripe to enjoy raw, coarsely chop (leave cherry and grape tomatoes whole) and briefly sauté them along with some onions, garlic, and any fresh herbs to make a delicious sauce for pasta, pizza, or chicken. Or place the tomatoes in a pan, toss with olive oil and fresh herbs, and roast them for just 4-5 minutes in a 450- degree oven. Season mixture with salt and pepper, pour over cooked, drained pasta that has been tossed with olive oil, and top with lots of freshly grated Parmesan or asiago cheese. . The sauce can be refrigerated for 3-4 days or stored in the freezer indefinitely.

If your tomatoes aren’t ripe, place them in a brown paper bag or wrap them in newspaper. Keep the wrapped tomatoes in a dark area at room temperature until ripe. Remember that the best tomatoes will feel heavy for their size and will be free of bruises or mold.

Eggplant

While most of us think of eggplant as a vegetable, it is actually a fruit and, like the tomato, is part of the nightshade fruit family. Unlike many other fruits and vegetables, however, eggplant tastes better cooked. That’s because cooking allows it to absorb the flavors from the herbs, seasonings, and oils with which it is prepared. For vegetarians or vegans, eggplant is a “meaty” substitute that is both filling and nutritious-a good source of potassium and folate.

To salt or not to salt, that is the question. Some believe that salting a raw eggplant and allowing it to “sweat” before cooking, removes the bitterness, and keeps it from absorbing too much oil. My thinking goes this way: Use only the freshest eggplant and don’t fry it. Instead, grill, broil, or sauté it with other cut-up vegetables. While at the Clayton Farmers Market last weekend, I ran into Dr. Connie Gibstine, who was buying a white eggplant at the Veggie Boy Produce stand. Connie told me that she planned to grill seasoned slices of the eggplant and then sprinkle with feta cheese and some chopped basil. My mouth was watering.

One of my family’s favorite ways to enjoy eggplant is roasted whole. To roast an eggplant, put it directly on a hot grill or on a foil-lined pan under a broiler. Rotate it with tongs every few minutes until the skin has blackened on all sides and the eggplant begins to collapse. This usually takes 10 and 15 minutes. Then carefully transfer the eggplant to a dinner-sized plate, cut it open lengthwise and pull it apart, leaving the bottom skin attached. Drizzle with a tablespoon of tahini (ground sesame paste, available at most grocery stores) and sprinkle with one peeled and finely minced garlic clove, a half of a minced raw or roasted red pepper, and one chopped raw tomato. Add a dollop of yogurt, a drizzle of olive oil, and scatter fresh chopped herbs, such as oregano or basil, on top. Place in the center of the table with a spoon and invite guests to top their sliced bread or toasted pita with this ambrosial concoction.

I could go on and on. I just love the cornucopia of fresh produce at the farmers market. I invite you to share some of your favorite ways to use summer produce by e-mailing me at the address below. I will try to include some of your ideas in an upcoming column. Bon appétit!

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of three. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]