On the First Cool Evening

Some nights my body is so weary I almost forget about my love of food and wish there was a microwave dinner I could heat up. Then I remember that it’s not a microwave dinner I want at all, just the ease of it. I love my box of vegetables and my piles of produce from the farmers’ market, but they are undoubtedly more work.

There was food in the fridge that Chimp had made, so without the energy to cook I ate pasta, chickpeas and tomato-zucchini stew without ceremony. As badly as I felt, I decided I deserved extra cheese on my dinner. A lot of extra cheese.

I closed up the house at around 7 p.m., with the temperature starting to drop. Tonight’s the first night that turning the oven on has felt like a welcome idea. I put some figs in to roast, and pulled from the refrigerator the bag of shelling beans I got from John on Saturday. I sat down to get them out of their pods.

He had told me there were three types; I put three bowls in front of myself. I quickly found three types, then four, then five; I incorporated two similar types into one bowl, then two into another.

The pods were of varying maturities. Some peeled open easily and the beans fell into the bowl almost without effort. Others I had to pry open with great attention. Every so often I misjudged the amount of force needed, sending a loose bean careening into space in a grand arc. The cat watched one fly and sniffed it on landing. It was swiftly deduced that it was clearly not cat food nor a cat toy and it and subsequent missiles were disregarded.

I combined one batch of beans with another, coming down to two bowls. Eh, I figured, even if they have different cooking times and some get softer than others, they’ll still look pretty together.

The warmth of the oven began to reach my spot at the table, warming my back. I sat shelling, aware of the darkness gathering outside and the rising smell of the roasting figs with a sweetness like a batch of molasses cookies.

The beans went in a bowl and the pods went in a growing pile. I thought for a long time about a friend struggling with a still-evolving problem and the difficult decisions that lay ahead. I thought about how much more pleasant it is to think on others’ troubles than your own, and how much easier it is to solve others’ problems in your mind than your own.

The last of the pods snapped open, I looked at the two bowls. I decided the difference between them was not really important. I combined them into one.

I got up and took the figs out of the oven and watched their edges curl around their flesh as they cooled.

I decided I would cook the beans plain, with butter.

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Radish, Cucumber, Onion & Chickpea Salad with a Lemon-Parsley Dressing

Frankly, given how often I make this, it’s hard to belive it hasn’t made it to the blog before now.

This is one of my favorite dinner salads. We make it in spring, when the first radishes appear, along with green onions and green garlic. At that time of year, it tastes like a spring tonic after a winter of cooked green vegetables. The salad gets a rest during the height of the summer when the heat is too much for radishes here, and then it returns with the fall crop. This time of year, we use mature onions and garlic, and it’s a reminder that the days are starting to gather in.

Part of my love for this salad is that it’s super-easy – if the chickpeas are already cooked, it’s just a little chopping and getting the dressing ingredients into the food processor. Sometimes I’ll toss a little cooked grain into this salad – bulghur is my favorite, but quinoa or millet or even some cold brown rice would be nice. I do that – as I’ve mentioned before – because the grain picks up the dressing nicely and also gives the salad a bit more heft and a pleasant chewiness.

We had this with Yukon Gold potatoes from our CSA box that I roasted with olive oil and tossed with lemon juice, parsley and garlic after they came out of the oven. They were the sweetest-tasting white potatoes either of us had ever had.

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A Different Kind of Fried Green Tomato

Well, no, those aren’t particularly green, are they? They do look suspiciously red. (They were green when Michele sold them to me on Saturday; I just didn’t get to them fast enough and they reddened on standing a few days.)

That’s not what’s different about them, though.

Though I’ve had some food blogs put me in their Indian category when linking to me (I consider it an undeserved honor), I’m as pale as a marshmallow. I’m not Southern either – yes, I grew up in Virginia, but Northern Virginia, the D.C. area, which is a different state entirely from Virginia Virginia, the rest of the state. I sometimes tell people I’m from the “Fake South.”

Despite that, somehow this Indian-by-Southern food hybrid arose in my kitchen and has developed into one of our favorite summertime treats.

Most fried green tomatoes are made with cornmeal and use egg to bind the coating. These are made with chickpea flour, also known as gram flour or besan, which is a wonderfully versatile ingredient. In this dish, it fries up on the outside of the tomatoes with a smooth, crunchy (not gritty) crust, and it doesn’t require the slices to be dipped in egg before the batter is applied – which means they can be made vegan. (You can do fried green tomatoes without egg, but there is significant trouble in convincing the cornmeal to stay attached.)

I laced this chickpea flour batter with aromatic cumin, coriander, cayenne and ginger. The result is something like pakora, the Indian batter-coated vegetables or cheese – but I’ve never seen a tomato pakora.

They’re simultaneously crunchy, juicy, salty, tomatoey, spicy – and all-around delicious.

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Emerald Beaut Plum Crumble

So, besides the salad already mentioned, here is where many of those green-skinned Emerald Beaut plums ended up. Surprise! They’re yellow inside! Don’t they look nearly like peaches, as yellow as they are? It’s only the lack of any red coloring around the pit cavity that gives them away as plums.

Chimp and I made a double batch – two 8×8 pans – of plum crumble at the start of the week; I took one of the pans down to the office on the day of a meeting and we kept the other one to enjoy ourselves.

This recipe became a major favorite of mine last summer, when we made at least four double recipes of it with large quantities of fruit left over from photo shoots. It’s adapted from the July/August 2006 Cook’s Illustrated, where it was originally a recipe for peach crumble (having tested multiple varieties of all three fruits in this recipe, sometimes in combination, I can vouch that plums work equally well, as do nectarines).

What I love about this recipe is that it makes a massive amount of topping – none of this little-bit-of-crispy-stuff-on-top-of-a-whole-lot-of-fruit problem. There is at least as much volume of crunchy, crumbly topping as fruit, and it’s like a miracle – you just pulse it up in the food processor, spread it out on a sheet to bake, and when it comes out, it’s made itself into all these little cookielike nuggets with bits of almonds in them. I have seriously considered just making the topping, rolling it out into shortbread cookies and forgoing the fruit altogether.

So there is a two-step baking process here – bake the topping, then place it on the fruit and bake the fruit – but it is entirely worth it. I use white whole wheat flour and I think the extra nuttiness makes for an even better end result than when I first made it with unbleached. After all, crumbles often have whole oats in them, so why not a whole-wheat flour?

We went ahead and peeled the plums on this occasion, but if you’re not fussy and the fruit isn’t fuzzy, I don’t think that’s even absolutely necessary.

Oh, and a tip – if you are baking and you find yourself with stone fruit that is clingstone, as we did on this occasion, don’t wrestle with trying to cut wedges off the pit. Instead, set the fruit on its stem end (on its head, basically) and cut down both sides of the pit to cut the cheeks off. Then cut off the other two sides that are left, then the little bit at the tip. You’ll lose a little bit that sticks to the pit, but that’s always the case with clingstone fruit, and cutting it that way is safer than trying to knife and extricate all those little wedges away from the pit while holding the slippery piece of fruit in one way or another.

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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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Red Leaf and Basil Salad with Emerald Beaut and Moyer Plums and a Fig-Balsamic Vinaigrette

As I have all these Emerald Beaut plums to enjoy, I thought I’d better get on to finding other ways to enjoy them besides out of hand as a snack.

So, as a result, here is a green salad with them, some Moyer plums, which are a purple-skinned and dark amber-fleshed prune-type (the elongated kind) and some ingredients from my little herb garden around the patio.

My basil went in late this year – early June, I think – but no matter, it’s August now and it’s lush and beautiful. I planted seven kinds, which is more than I can possibly use in the kitchen, but the joy is not just in eating it, but also in sweeping my hands across it and raising a delicious cloud of scent, or bringing a bouquet to a friend to enjoy, or just looking out the kitchen window at it.

This summer I planted Genovese, ruffled, purple, cinnamon, lemon, lime, and mini-basil. Though I’d grown some of these before, the lemon, lime and cinnamon were all first-timers for me this year. I’ll pass on the lemon next spring – it smells, in an unfortunate way, like lemon furniture polish – but the lime and cinnamon are definite keepers. I didn’t plant any Thai basil this year – I couldn’t find any seed as late as I got started – and I’ll definitely trade out the purple one I grew this year for that. The Thai had a far better flavor.

Anyhow, my thinking on this dish was that the sweet plums would like the herbacious anise notes of the multiple basils’ flavor, especially the cinnamon one, and would work well when married with a sweet dressing. I took cuttings from my Genovese, ruffled, purple and cinnamon basils for this salad.

My original inspiration, actually, was this Plum Caprese salad (and I have enough plums that I still might make that) but decided to take it in a green salad direction to use the lettuce I had at hand from our CSA box.

For the dressing, I threw caution (or at least the Proposition 65 warnings) to the wind and made a vinaigrette with some 10-year-old balsamic vinegar, sweetened with Black Mission figs (from Marchini Sisters at the farmers’ market) and with a touch of cinnamon and anise to match up with the basil. If I had had a shallot or two in the house, I might have added a sauteed shallot or two, but not having any, I made an allium-less dressing for once. I did garnish the salad with some garlic chive blossoms from the garden, though. They’re tiny and cute, but they’re like that little cartoon character that knocks the big guy flat – they pack a garlicky punch.

While I was working on this, I used one of my favorite dressing-making tips I learned more than a decade ago from my friend Ana, a CIA grad who is a dressing master (mistress?): when you’re tasting dressing as you’re making it, don’t taste it on a spoon – because you won’t be eating it from a spoon, will you? Dip a lettuce leaf (or whatever green or other item you’ll be using it on) and taste it that way. That’ll tell you what your end result will actually be like, and you won’t have one of those "but it tasted great in the kitchen" moments at the table.

And when all was said and done and it was plated, Chimp gave it all an enthusiastic review. On the Chimp Scale for Dressings, he said the fig balsamic ranks even with his longtime favorite Whole Foods Red Pepper Ranch. I thought that was high praise. I usually choose the dressing flavor, as I’m the one making it, and my favorites are garlic-herb-oil mixtures, but I should probably, to be fair, set aside my love for those once in a while and indulge his preference for a sweeter dressing more often.

Continue reading “Red Leaf and Basil Salad with Emerald Beaut and Moyer Plums and a Fig-Balsamic Vinaigrette”

A Whole Box of Emerald Beauts

This is one of the truly great things about living in Fresno. I can get a whole box of Emerald Beauts right from the source.

Joan Obra mentioned these in her article on plums in this week’s Fresno Bee food section – and they’re worth mentioning.

Green plums – and yellow plums too – have a tough time of it. I guess you could say – wait for it – it’s not easy being green.

(Groan, right? I’ve recently been watching old Muppet Show episodes on DVD and have suddenly realized what a debt I owe to the humor of the Muppets, especially Fozzie Bear – and that that might have something to do with nobody likes my jokes.)

Whether it’s the effect of primeval human conditioning (“hm, those green berries hurt my stomach last time”) or just that they look different-than-most, green and yellow plums get passed over because people assume they’re not ripe, or because they assume that because they’re green or yellow they must be tart and unpleasant-tasting. It’s not true – green plums and yellow plums can be just as sweet when ripe as a black, red, or purple plum.

And for these guys especially, that “not sweet” assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Underneath that dusty-looking green skin, they have a golden-yellow flesh and are regular old sugar bombs, even when they’re pretty firm.

The dusty-looking stuff is called bloom. It’s a natural wax the fruit produces while it’s growing; grapes do the same thing. Different varieties produce more or less of it. It washes off really easily, and your skin’s natural oil will pick it right up when you touch the fruit, leaving a print where your finger was.

When you see a box that looks like this, you know that the fruit’s been specially picked and handled. The only way to keep the bloom looking this pristine is to pick the plums with cotton gloves, not wash them, and pack them – again, with gloves – straight from the picking bins.

Plum bloom is, in all seriousness, one of those little things that makes life worth living, as far as I’m concerned. Rub a bloomy plum gently against your lips the next time you get a chance. Okay, do it in private if you have to, but do it. It’s like a kiss from the fruit; it’ll make your day if you have a sensual bone in your body.

So – I have to make a plan this weekend. There’s way too much stone fruit at my house right now – here’s a picture from earlier today of what was hanging around besides the roughly 12 lbs. of plums above.

The peaches have now been dispensed with – they were baked this evening with cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, a splash of lemon juice and a little brown sugar, and eaten unadorned, warm from the oven – but the Moyer plums (the oval ones) and the Royal Diamond plums (the round ones) remain, as do these Emerald Beauts.

Stay tuned for recipes, hopefully, or just me being knocked down by a tide of ripening plums.

(Or if I keep the jokes at the caliber above, by them being hurled at me.)