Summer Vegetables

Heirlooms

In this high season of summer, it’s natural to write about what’s inspiring right now. Mostly summer vegetables and beautiful gardens. Squash, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers.

Summer squash, tomatoes and eggplant are delicious in a simple layered dish cooked quickly to keep the kitchen cool. Layer with rich cheese, dust with panko and parmesan, and voila – you have dinner!

Summer squash

Puree fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers to make a delicious gazpacho. Season with a chili and garlic, and drizzle with good olive oil and sriracha for a cool, filling drink or soup to start your meal. 

For a little more complicated squash dish, my favorite:

Sweet peppers

Summer Squash Cheese Custard

2 large yellow squash, sliced into ½-inch rounds (about 4 cups) 

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped 

1 large clove garlic, chopped

3 ounces goat cheese or other cheese, grated

¼ cup cornmeal 

2 eggs, beaten 

1 cup milk 

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, plus sprigs for garnishing 

1 teaspoon kosher salt 

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Steam the squash until tender. Saute onion and garlic until tender. 

Drain squash. Add all ingredients to a blender and puree until smooth. Pour into an 8-by-8-inch baking dish or 6 individual ramekins that have been coated with cooking spray. Bake at 400°F for 40 minutes (35 minutes for the ramekins) or until golden brown on top. Serve warm or at room temperature.

K.I.S.

Lettuces and chard

Keep It Simple (the implied other S is for stupid which I don’t think is nice or appropriate).

I’ve been overwhelmed recently with the intensity of some recipes, mostly because they complicate cooking. The other day a recipe crossed my desk from one of the blog sites I visit. It sounded like a delicious dish. But it had twenty-three ingredients! I immediately dismissed it, but then went back to it and realized that it was mostly a list of seasonings. The actual food ingredients were only three.

I understand that when publishing a recipe it’s important to list everything that will be used. But so often a huge list is discouraging. And I want you to cook! So, I like to keep my recipes as simple as possible, with whatever fresh ingredients you can manage to get or grow. 

Grilled asparagus

Fall and winter chilis and stews certainly call for a more extensive list of ingredients, but summer is a time to simply roast or grill a zucchini and sprinkle with parmesan, slice garden tomatoes and douse with balsamic, grated garlic and torn basil leaves, or toss fresh roasted asparagus and eggplant cubes over hot pasta. 

Butter lettuce getting ready to bolt

In my garden, lettuce is bolting so I harvested all that was left, and after offering some to neighbors, made a saute of lettuce and onion served over rice. Yes, you can cook lettuce. 

Sauteed lettuce over rice

4 cups of torn or chopped lettuce (or any green – kale, chard, turnip) – This sounds like a lot but it cooks way, way down

1 T. sesame oil or olive oil

2 T. chopped onions

1 c. cooked rice (or any cooked grain – bulgur, quinoa, farro)

Seasonings of choice:

I like spicy so I use sambal olek (garlic-chili paste), maybe some hoisin sauce, soy sauce. I also like to finish off with a couple of tablespoons of greek yogurt or sour cream to make it creamy.

Start with a large pan because of the bulk of the lettuce. Saute the lettuce in the sesame oil, stirring frequently until it is wilted. Stir in the rice and seasonings and heat gently. Stir in seasonings and sour cream if using. 

Rhubarb

Rhubarb flowers – you don’t have to remove them

Rhubarb buds actually begin appearing at 40 degrees, so it’s exploding into growth right now. I planted it last year and it’s taking off in the garden now. The best part is that it takes little care to grow as long as you give it plenty of room, and the stems can be harvested sometimes until mid-summer. Some rhubarbs have red stems, but the most common type has green stems. Both have the same taste. You can purchase roots at garden centers, or you can beg a division from someone who has a healthy plant. I’ve been known to haunt abandoned farms to dig divisions.

Rhubarb at the farmers market

Harvest while the plants have robust stems and put the excess in the freezer. Simply chop and put in a freezer bag for use in rhubarb bread and cakes. When stems become slender, stop harvesting and wait until fall. It’s not necessary to remove flower stalks from plants.

Packed with Vitamins A and C, calcium and potassium, the stems are absolutely delicious simply stewed with a little sugar and spooned on top of oatmeal or ice cream. Just remember that the leaves are not edible and can give you a pretty good tummy ache.

Rhubarb bread is a favorite in my house, and I like to combine it with apples for an extra burst of flavor.

Rhubarb streusel bread (can be made into muffins as well)

1 1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1 egg
1 c. buttermilk
1 t. vanilla
2 1/2 c. flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 ½ c. fresh or frozen sliced rhubarb or a combination of rhubarb and grated apples

Note: if rhubarb is frozen, thaw and let drain, discarding the liquid

TOPPING:
½ c. sugar
¼ t. cinnamon
1 T. cold butter

In a mixing bowl, combine brown sugar and oil. Add egg, mix well. Beat in buttermilk and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt; stir into brown sugar mixture just until combined. Fold in rhubarb. Pour into two greased 8 x 4 loaf pans or greased muffin tins.

For topping, combine sugar, cinnamon and butter until crumbly; sprinkle over batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 60-65 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks. Cut with serrated knife.

Cooking for two

I’m trying hard to remember to cut recipes in half. There are only two of us, and I hate throwing food away. Making potato salad for only two people with no leftovers may seem counterproductive, but just how often can you eat from that big bowl of potato salad before you don’t want to see potato salad again for a long time?

Tossing food is not only a waste of the food, but a waste of the time it took to prepare it. It’s nice to have leftovers but sometimes leftovers just make me tired. 

I admit to borrowing recipes that sound good, and I have a hard time remembering to halve everything while cooking. So whenever I use someone else’s recipe, I immediately change the ingredients to half of what is called for and make a note that I did it. It’s really easy to ruin an entire dish by forgetting to cut something in half. Like the salt. And it’s a simple thing to convert a recipe back to feed four people. 

Easiest pasta ever

Pasta with roasted tomatoes

Easiest pasta ever!

When all you can get in the grocery at this time of year are winter tomatoes that look pretty pathetic, don’t give up on tomatoes. 

Quarter two tomatoes and toss with a few slices of onion, a smashed garlic clove, and a solid drizzle of olive oil. Roast in a 375 oven in a sided broiler pan or jelly roll pan for about 3-35 minutes. When cooled somewhat, roughly chop, season to taste with salt and pepper and toss with hot pasta. Top with fresh parmesan and serve with crusty Italian bread and a fresh salad for a tasty, easy meal.  

A riff on the recipe: roast any other vegetables that sound good such as eggplant or summer squash.

Creamy vegetable soup

Asparagus soup drizzled with sriracha

Now that spring vegetables are beginning to appear on grocery shelves and at farmers’ markets, it’s a great time to resurrect a recipe for a light cream soup. Add a fresh salad of spring mix with a homemade vinaigrette and a slice of crusty Italian toast and you have a winning, quick spring-infused meal. 

We seem to have an abundance of fresh asparagus available in North Carolina, so besides simply roasting it in olive oil, this week I made pasta primavera with the tips and then used the stalks in a creamy asparagus soup. 

It’s so easy, quick and light, and remarkably satisfying. Don’t be put off by the word “cream” if you are counting calories, because there are many ways to make a creamy soup without cream. I made mine with richly flavored homemade vegetable stock and thickened it with a bit of flour. Of course, the richness of cream is sometimes worth the indulgence. 

Once you make the easy base, the choice is yours as to what vegetables to add. The key is to cook the vegetables until soft then puree. Many don’t need further seasoning than salt and pepper but use your creative hand to make the soup Italian flavored with oregano and basil, curry-flavored by adding a tablespoon of red curry paste, or Tex-Mex with chipotle and cumin. Give it a middle eastern flair with chopped mint and feta as garnishes. 

  • 2 T. butter or olive oil
  • ¼ cup chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 T. flour
  • 4 c. broth (chicken or vegetable)
  • 2 cups vegetables of choice (see note below)
  • ½ c. half-and-half, rice cream, coconut milk or pureed cannellini beans (completely optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter or oil in a large saucepan. Add onions and garlic and saute until tender. Sprinkle with flour and stir briefly. Add broth, whisking as you pour it in. If it’s too thick, add a bit more broth or water. Add the vegetables and saute until tender. Remove from heat and puree with a hand blender. You can puree until smooth or leave it somewhat chunky. Stir in half-and-half or another cream if you wish and season to taste. Pour into bowls and garnish with garlic croutons, scallions, feta or goat cheese, parmesan. I like to add a spoonful of harissa for spice. 

Note: suggestions for vegetables are endless. Raid the crisper drawers or freezer and come up with your own combinations. Frozen vegetables can make a really quick soup. Add mushrooms, spinach, carrots and skip the puree step for a delicious chunky soup.

  • Fresh or frozen peas and chopped carrots
  • Tomatoes and basil
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage
  • Corn
  • Edamame
  • Peppers and carrots
  • Eggplant
  • Zucchini
  • Beets
  • Pumpkin or winter squash

Here’s a secret – make a creamy base from rice: 

1/3 c. medium or long-grained white rice

3 c. broth, chicken or vegetable

Film a deep saucepan with olive oil, add the rice and cook for two minutes, stirring. Add the broth, reduce the heat and simmer until the rice is soft with most of the liquid, about 25 minutes. 

Transfer to a blender or use a stick blender and process until the sauce is smooth. Use as a substitute for cream or milk in any cream-based recipe.

Homemade Vegetable Stock

It’s cold outside, making me want to stay indoors even if the sun teases me to come outside. So, I’ll stay cozy and warm inside and make a big pot of vegetable stock. There’s nothing like a pot of stock bubbling away on the back burner to fill the house with good smells and portend a great soup.

I’ve made it habit of putting all of my vegetable trimmings into a bag in the freezer instead of the compost. Onion and garlic skins, kale and chard ribs, celery and carrot root ends. The only thing I’ve found that doesn’t work well is potato peelings. But sweet potato peelings are a delicious addition. When the bag is full, I put everything into a large pot, toss in a few herbs, and fill it with water to cover the vegetables. One of my secret additions is parmesan rind. My local grocery packages the ends after they cut away the sellable part, and then they are tucked away for sale in the cheese bin. These rinds add a delectable richness to the stock.

I put the pot on a low simmer for several hours. Once cooked and cooled, I strain it into freezer containers and have a delicious base for just about any type of soup.

Frozen blocks of stock for the freezer

Because this stock is well-flavored, it easily replaces the chicken stock that so many recipes call for. My stock is never exactly the same because the mix of vegetables changes. Beet and red chard tops make it a rich purple color. But it is always good, and easily adaptable to almost any soup or stew.

Give it a try – it will make your winter days a bit more enjoyable and the sky’s the limit as to the dishes to use it in.

Stock, mirepoix (carrots, celery, onion, garlic) in the slow cooker

Lentil soup for two

½ medium yellow onion, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
1 medium celery stalk, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ c. dried green or brown lentils
1 c. diced tomatoes (fresh or canned)
2 ½ c. stock (homemade if you have it, canned if not)
¼ teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

Film a heavy-bottomed pan with olive oil and add the onion, celery, carrot and garlic. Saute until soft, about ten minutes. Add the oregano and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the lentils, tomatoes and stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 45 minutes until the lentils and vegetables are tender.

Put about half the soup in a blender and pulse until creamy. Return to the soup and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve drizzled with olive oil, sriracha, harissa or your favorite flavoring. You can also top it with grated cheddar and/or sour cream.

To slow cook, put all ingredients in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 7-8 hours or on high for 5-6 hours, until the lentils are tender.

Riffs:
Add 1 T. chiles in adobo and ¼ t. cumin
Add ½ c. homemade or commercial pesto
Add ½ c. finely chopped kimchi
Add any cooked sausage of choice

Spunk up vegetables with spices

Why would we eat bland food, except in the case of stomach troubles, imprisonment or mom punishment?

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

As a child, I was made to force down boiled brussels sprouts and steamed broccoli. For some reason, it didn’t occur to my mother to season with anything but salt and pepper. It took me a while to get back to eating both of those vegetables.

I will probably catch flak from readers who really do love the flavor of steamed broccoli for dissing it. But why not give it a squirt of lemon or a dash of sriracha?

So many of my friends (and my husband) are working toward the life change to a plant-based diet. Not just a new year’s resolution, but a permanent life change. A change like this is hard, but there are ways to make the transition easier and so much more likely to stick.

It’s true that vegetables don’t have the natural umami flavors of meat, but there are countless ways to make steamed broccoli and boiled carrots delicious and satisfying. Sauces are one tool, and they don’t have to be high fat, high calorie. Herb mixes are other tools.

Herbs for Mediterranean herb mix

You can buy many herb mixes ready-made off the store shelves although you may need to visit higher-end groceries to find some of the more exotic ones. Or you can mix your own. I grow herbs and chile peppers and dry them all summer. Then I mix my own mixes. It’s so easy to simply toss a tablespoon of homemade Italian seasoning into a marinara sauce.

Try to avoid ready-made packets, like spaghetti and chili mixes because they often contain ingredients that you may not want. For example, Lawry’s spaghetti sauce mix has these ingredients: “Modified Food Starch, Sugar, Salt, Onion, Mushrooms, Garlic Powder, Spices (Including Paprika And Parsley), Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Whey (Milk), Natural Flavors (Beef And Pork), Cheddar Cheese (Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Torula Yeast, Citric Acid, Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate.”
While these are not inherently bad ingredients, why not make a cleaner simple Italian mix of oregano, basil, marjoram, paprika and garlic?

The ethnic aisle in the grocery is my favorite place to browse. Mose ethnic cuisines have intriguing spice combinations and sauces. My latest love is Za’atar seasoning which is made of thyme, sesame, sumac and sometimes cumin and coriander. I love this sprinkled on roasted potatoes and chicken, and used to season minestrone for a change from traditional Italian seasoning. I was able to buy a big package at my local grocery.

Here are some sauces and herb mixes to bring your cooking up to the highest standards of flavor and healthy eating. Most are readily available in the grocery. Have fun shopping!

Sauces:
Moroccan harissa
Japanese miso (white and dark)
Korean Go-chu-Jang
Indian garlic curry paste
Thai red or green curry paste
Thai sriracha sauce (try mixing this with coconut milk for an astounding sauce for roasted broccoli)
Mexican salsas (way too many choices here)

Spice mixes:
Indian garam masala
Spanish sazon
Creole blackening
Italian
Mediterranean
Mexican adobo
Jamaican jerk
French herbes de provence

Roasted Potatoes with Za’atar – Warm, comforting and full of umami flavor

For two:
Preheat the oven to 425. Peel (or leave the skin on) and cube 1 pound of potatoes (Yukons or golds work well). You can also quarter small red potatoes. Rinse in a colander and roll dry on a dishtowel. Drying them off makes the oil and seasonings stick.

Toss with 2 tablespoons of high-quality olive oil, salt and pepper, and a tablespoon of Za’atar or any other seasoning mix. For spicy potatoes, toss with chile oil in place of the olive oil.

Prepare a baking dish large enough to hold the potatoes in one layer with a film of olive oil or cooking spray. Place in a cold oven in the bottom third of the oven. Roast for about 20 minutes, stirring and turning them once at the halfway mark.

Eggplant hummus

I went diving into my freezer last night, hoping for inspiration for dinner. My freezer is full of surplus summer vegetables, and I need to start clearing it out. During my freezer dive, two packages of frozen roasted eggplant slid out. I love eggplant, and always seem to have too much during the summer. So, I grill or roast it, peel and then freeze it. So now I have two packages and need to figure out just what to do with them. 

Baba ganoush is a standard dish made with pureed eggplant, and I decided to do a riff on this – sort of a cross between baba ganoush and hummus. I scrounged around a bit more and found some frozen cubes of pesto, and found a partial container of ricotta in the fridge. 

So, unlike traditional hummus which is made with chickpeas and tahini, I combined eggplant, some tahini and ricotta in the blender. I seasoned it with pesto sauce, garlic, Aleppo pepper, smoked cumin and olive oil. Voila! A delicious dip for raw vegetables like cauliflower and carrots, wonderful slathered on toast with avocado for a savory breakfast, or as a smoky bread spread for a tomato and cheese sandwich. 

Eggplant hummus on a bagel

Basic Hummus (substitute at will!):

2 cups chickpeas (or cannellini beans, black-eyed peas or roasted eggplant)

1/2 c. tahini (or walnut or hazelnut butter)

1 T. lime juice

1 t. cumin

1 clove garlic

1/4 t. cayenne

Olive oil

Salt to taste

Blend all but the olive oil. Gradually add enough olive oil to make it creamy but not runny. Season with salt to taste. Refrigerate for the flavors to blend and serve at room temperature. 

A few fun combinations:

Black beans with sour cream, cumin, garlic and chopped chipotle chiles in adobo. Serve with tortilla chips or toasted corn tortilla wedges

White beans with almond butter, roasted peppers, roasted garlic. Serve with pita chips or toasted baguette slices.

Black-eyed peas with crumbled crisp bacon, sweet onion and sweet peppers. Serve with cornbread squares

To traditional hummus, add chopped roasted red peppers, a couple of tablespoons of cooked pumpkin or butternut squash or sun-dried tomatoes.