A Simple Little Summer Dinner

Part of what I love about cooking is attempting to answer the question, "What can I do with these ingredients?" in continually new and different ways.

When you eat strongly seasonally, you are almost forced to get better at painting with the colors you have, as there’s not as much cross-pollination to be done.  While asparagus might be nice with a glaze of fresh tomatoes, when there’s asparagus, there are no local tomatoes, and when there are tomatoes, there is no local asparagus.  So asparagus gets tossed with green garlic, and tomatoes, like these, get a partner of roasted onions.

It’s more challenging to come up with new answers to what’s for dinner with a smaller palette, but there’s a certain comfort to it too.  Once you’ve learned the rhythm of a place’s harvests, you come into the same progression every year, and the same items make their regular appearance and then disappearance at the same pace.

I find it tends to raise a little nostalgia – each food’s arrival makes me think of arrivals past: what I was doing last radish season, last cherry season, last tomato season, last pomegranate season – and how I and my life have changed in relation to each of those times.  It’s a bit like having two dozen New Years Days a year.

So what can be done with the same old tomatoes and onions, now that late summer is here?

This week, I had a pint of cherry tomatoes in the CSA box.  Their tart-sweetness is great for salads, but I especially love them rolled around in a hot pan with a little oil and then smashed a bit to release their juices.  They’re stronger-flavored than big tomatoes, and that plus their high skin-to-flesh ratio gives an unexpected flavor and texture to a cooked dish.

My inspiration for this dinner was a panir kebab I ate years ago at an Indian restaurant in Chicago.  While obviously there are no kebabs in sight here, I wanted to capture the flavor I remembered of flame-roasted onion and crispy-outside chewy-inside cheese seasoned at the table with fresh lemon.  I was also in the mood for curry spices, but not in the mood for something long-simmered – I wanted something very fresh-tasting.

So I broiled then roasted the onions, gently fried the panir (don’t try to speed it up by frying over a high heat – it’ll both stick and get tough – low and slow is the key to cooking cheese successfully), slumped the tomatoes in a little of the panir-frying oil along with some garlic, ginger, cumin and coriander, and finished it all with a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a hit of cilantro.

And not only was it good, it was a snap – it took me longer write this up than it did to cook it.    

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A Rare Treat: Bellwether’s Carmody Reserve

11323527020This past Saturday at WFM, I got chatting with the folks at the cheese counter here in Fresno, as I am so often wont to do.  Some of them know I am a former WFM cheesemonger, and will kindly go out of their way to be sure I hear about new arrivals.

That’s how I got turned on to Bellwether Farms’ Carmody Reserve.  The cheesemonger (I know her by sight but haven’t noted her name, embarrassingly) offered me some, and it had clearly just been cut and was in beautiful shape – I know I might not get another chance to try it in as perfect condition.

I didn’t know a thing about it, so I didn’t know what to expect when I put it in my mouth, but I was delighted to discover that it has caramel-like aged Gouda notes, a pleasant sharp tang, and a lovely nutty aromaticity as it warms to body temperature.  I took it home and we enjoyed a bit of it last night along with a potato, green bean and Puy lentil salad with fresh basil and a sherry vinegar and olive oil dressing.

When I went to look up more information about the farm (which is in Sonoma), I found the image of the cheese that is included above left (I borrowed it from Bellwether’s website).  When I saw the image, I was a little puzzled.  The wheel I tasted and bought from was far more aged-looking than the one pictured at left – it had a carameled yellow flaky interior with a shining, burnished exterior, and a slightly concave top and bottom – not at all like the cream-colored paste and flat top and bottom of this cheese. 

The reason I had originally headed for the website was that the label had just said "rennet," and the Whole Foods people didn’t know offhand what type it was.  I had taken a chance that because the cheese was domestic it was probably microbial rennet and therefore suitable for vegetarians.  Having looked for that information on Bellwether’s website and not having discovered it, I dropped them a line to ask this afternoon.  I received a reply back within an hour or two – on a holiday no less – from cheesemaker Liam Callahan.  Here’s what he wrote:


I am glad you enjoyed our cheese.  We wound up aging that cheese much longer than normal because a large pre-order was canceled by another customer.  In our Raw Milk Carmody and all of our cow milk cheeses we use microbial rennet.  In our sheep cheeses we use a veal rennet.

Thanks for writing,
Liam Callahan
Bellwether Farms

So if you are in Fresno, I strongly suggest you take advantage of this rare treat – a little bit of misfortune for Bellwether Farms has been resolved in a really delicious manner, and you can benefit: hie yourself to the cheese counter at Whole Foods and snap up some extra-aged Carmody Reserve.