31 August 2007

Cooking Fresh Experiment: Summertime Foods

Picture caption: Me in Revolutionary Attire

I came away from my vacation in Nova Scotia with a new mission. I wanted to integrate the natural world even more strongly into my daily life than I had been. Nova Scotians appear to be quite ahead of their U.S. cousins with regards to recycling, organic foods, and environmentalism. It's likely that because they have so much under-populated nature left to preserve that they simply aren't as blase as, say, New Yorkers or Marylanders.

Summer in Maryland is difficult weather for me because I don't feel so well in humid and hot climates. I feel languid and irritable. I needed to seek foods that are refreshing, cooling, and easy to prepare with little energy. As I planned my summer cooking strategy I made a trip to a local library to conduct some research on preparing seasonal recipes -- that is, meals prepared with local produce that is currently fresh and in-season.

I set my goal to make at least one seasonal meal each week, using local and fresh ingredients whenever possible. My experiments have yielded some recipes that I plan to use in summers to come:
  • Chilled Red Pepper and Tomato Soup with Cucumber Herb Salad by Chef Annie Wayte (see below). I really thought this was very successful and easy as far as soup preparation goes. Delicious and different from gazpacho. At my husband's request and in the interests of shorter prep time, I didn't strain the resulting soup, but left it the consistency of stew.
  • Fennel Salad with Mustard Dill Dressing by Chef Annie Wayte (see below). I had never seen a fennel bulb before and had to ask the Whole Foods stock clerk where to find it. The bulb is very much like celery and tastes richly anise, even more so than the fennel fronds I'm used to using in recipes.
  • I asked my mom for her delicious Celery Seed Cole Slaw recipe, which is not the mayonnaise-laden slaw, but a oil and vinegar slaw. It's tastes lighter which is good for humid weather.
  • I made a huge batch of Salsa Fresca. The gardeners of the historic site where I work said I could help myself to the bumper crop of tomatoes, chili peppers, and jalapenos. (Hey, there have to be some perks when working for a non-profit!) Even after my husband and I wolfed much of the salsa down with southwestern main dishes, I still had almost a full mason-jar's worth left to give the gardeners in thanks for their hard work tilling the soil the eighteenth-century way. I'm currently drying the remaining chilis. I have learned just why people have to can their produce when they have too much of it.
There are several local farmer's stands just south of Annapolis and I can also get some local produce or organic produce at Whole Foods. Rumor has it there's a farmer's market in Edgewater on Thursday evenings, but I still need to investigate. I'm concerned that by the time it might take to drive there after work, won't the best produce be gone by 5:30?

My library had a fabulous cookbook which I highly recommend to anyone else attempting seasonal cooking in North America: it's called Keep It Seasonal: Soups, Salads, and Sandwiches by chef Annie Wayte. What I like about this particular cookbook is that I'm not the kind of cook who likes to spend hours slaving in the kitchen. I rarely have time, especially in the workweek to create labor intensive meals. Plus my charming husband prefers simple foods, particularly sandwiches and often salads. Soups, well that's another matter, he likes the thick "stew" variety whereas I'm more flexible in that regard. I like the ingredients she chose, many of which are easy to come by in my climate. She offers recipes for fresh cooking in four seasons. The winter chapter is especially enlightening, because she focuses on root veggies and beans, plus a range of citrus fruits to keep you feeling sunny even during the darkest months. I find her approach refreshing; the ingredients simple and not difficult to find; the recipes easy to follow; and the variety of foods to try in each season inspiring.

I tried several other cookbooks that claimed seasonal affiliation in the titles, but found the actual list of ingredients to be not precisely seasonal. There are also regional cookbooks for seasonal foods in the Southwestern U.S., California, etc. which would be wonderful resources for folks in those areas. I took a Southwestern cooking class about five years ago at L'Academie de Cuisine from Susan Belsinger. Now I've adopted southwestern cooking my personal speciality. Many of the recipes from Susan's class are classic summertime fare. I also have a particular fondness for Mediterranean cooking and Spanish tapas dishes, so I recently hunted for books with those cooking styles.

My favorite tapas restaurant of all seasons is Jaleo. It's a Washington, D.C. institution by now and it's made Chef Jose Andres well-known. Jaleo's food is really that good, especially the paellas, patatas bravas, gambas al ajillo, and seafood dishes. I've rarely had any tapas there that did not suit my taste buds. Chef Andres also opened other branches of Jaleo in Maryland and Northern Virginia. He also has Cafe Atlantico in DC where I recently dined for DC's Restaurant Week. Scrumptious! Mr. Andres has a cookbook called Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America that I may purchase in the coming months.

The main results of my experiment in the past month has been confirmation that I can, in fact, live more seasonally by eating available local and organic foods. I feel better and am less bothered by the heat when I'm eating fresh, summertime food. I think we spend so much of our time today changing our environment to suit ourselves that we forget that not too long ago people did not have opportunities to consume any foods they desired in any season. The local economy and finances of some meant they needed to grow their own food and eat what was available. Choice has spoiled us. Foods that are cheap, easy, and fattening shorten our lives and expand our waistlines.

I plan to continue my seasonal cooking experiment as fall approaches. That should not be difficult for me, since I love the fall and I love the aromas and flavors of harvest veggies and fruits. I can hardly wait!

Do you have any favorite seasonal recipes? Any favorite summertime comfort foods or cookbooks? Please share your thoughts with me by posting a comment.


  1. That is so great and you look so cute. There was recently an article on Home Town annapolis about a modern twist on historical cusine.http://hometownannapolis.com/food1.html

  2. I also make the effort to eat seasonally, and there's a recent book by Kentuckian Barbara Kingsolver on the subject: "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life." I have not read this yet, but it's on my list. She and her family went whole-hog, so to speak, and spent a year eating nothing that didn't come from her own garden/farm or within a certain radius. Gardening has definitely helped me understand seasonal foods so much better. I do grow some of my own produce, and I'd love to do more. There's just nothing like getting a tomato right off the deck when it's still warm from the sun.

    Just last weekend I had a wonderful fresh food experience. I went to visit a friend who has a large veggie plot. He had cut up some cucumbers and put the slices in water in the fridge. We sat at his kitchen table with the cucumbers and a shaker of salt, eating and chatting for ages. I don't like summer heat, but if summer gives me good times like that, I'll take it!

    This fall I'm looking forward to visiting a local orchard again for some fresh apples. Unfortunately, this spring we got hit with a freak cold snap which froze off a lot of apple blossoms. They're predicting a much smaller crop this year.

  3. Hey Maria,
    Here is the information about the farmers market I use to attend when I lived in Maryland.
    Anne Arundel County Farmers' Market
    Annapolis: Riva Road & Harry S. Truman Parkway
    Saturday: 7:00 a.m. to Noon April 14 - September 22
    Tuesday: 7:00 a.m. to Noon June 12 - October 9
    Sunday: 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. July 2 - September 3
    (Fall/Winter Hours: Saturday 8:00 a.m. to Noon September 29 - December 22)
    Contact: Bobi Crispens 410-987-6034

    They had pretty good stuff and they were just down the road. Also here are two great websites. This one is the state of Maryland agriculture page there are great links to all sorts of farm resources.
    Also one of my favorites is Localharvest.org they bring together information on small farms, organic produce, and farmers markets.
    I see you decided to dry the Jalapeno's. Probably your best bet. I'd look into a water bath canner there cheap especially if you are going to start doing some of your own canning. I've done about 150 jars this summer of blueberry, raspberry, and strawberry jam. Three great books about preserving through canning, drying, and freezing are:

    Ball Complete book of Home Preserving.

    Perserving Summers Bounty

    The big book of Preserving the Harvest
    and the Better homes and Gardens home canning cook book.
    To name a few.
    Great post. I miss tomatoes and peppers. Although I'm picking blackberries out of my own yard so that helps.

  4. A tip of my cap to monkeyspinner, natalie, and gourmetsailor for your insights.

    It's really a good feeling to know what I write can generate varied and interesting comments.

    Apparently Anne Arundel Farmer's Market is not as active as it was while you were living here, gourmetsailor, and I've heard that the selection and number of vendors is down. The South River Colony's market may be better--not sure yet.

    Thanks to all of you for your weblinks and book references.


  5. You're so topical! Check out this recent piece on cnn.com:


    It's about something that will probably become known as "the 100 mile diet."

    Oh, and I forgot to mention before that I love the picture! :-)

  6. I strongly recommend Marian Morash's Victory Garden Cookbook. It has been a standby in my kitchen for at least 20 years. Organized alphabetically by vegetable it gives an overview of seasonality and how to buy and store, then has recipes for each that range from light to hearty. This is the book to have when you come home from the farmer's market with a couple of baskets full of what was good that day.

    Anne Sommerville's Fields of Greens, from her famous San Francisco vegetarian restaurant, is fussier and, well, lush, I think. Being to the oven born myself, I use her yeast-raised tart dough and put together all sorts of vegetable tarts.

    Don't short yourself on herbs, both fresh and dried. Whatever you have, they liven it up. Thick slabs of yellow and green summer squash can be brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with rosemary and oregano, then grilled. This time of year, oversized summer squashes are a market bargain, often priced below the small ones. Big squashes can be cut in half lengthwise, the seeds scooped out, and stuffed with whatever strikes your fancy. Maybe a coarse mince of fresh tomato and lightly sauteed onion with a drained can of cannelloni beans and basil. (Then bake until the squash is tender.)

    If you can get that wonderful purple Thai Basil, make a roullade of flattened boned, skinned chicken thighs, very lightly sprinkled with cinnamon and rolled with the chopped basil. Nestle into a baking dish, brush with toasted sesame oil, cover with foil and bake at 375 until done through (about 45 minutes) pour off the liquid into a saucepan, bring it to a simmer and reduce until you like the flavor, then add a splash of whatever wine you're having to drink with this dish. I originally formulated this with beef flank steak, trying to copy a dish from a Vietnamese restaurant, but it has taken on a life of its own.

    Don't forget to make Rat Stuff once in a while. Rat Stuff is not Ratatouille, but is inspired by the concept. This is how I deal with what's left in the vegetable bin on Monday nights, Tuesday being the day the greengrocer delivers. Begin with a mirepoix of aromatics sauteed in olive oil: garlic, onion, celery. Gradually add whatever other vegetables you have, starting with those that need longest cooking. This week's rat stuff had two small zucchinis, three ears of sweet corn (kernels cut off the ears and milk scraped out), about a cup of green beans, a green sweet pepper, one and a half tomatoes. When everything is in the pan, reduce to a low simmer, add a generous teaspoon of Herbes de Provence, and let it gently cook for about twenty minutes. Gavin baked oatmeal bread and the two together would have been a good dinner, but I also sauteed some fish because the vegetable-hating youngest child has recently added white fish to his list of approved foods.

    Really, my mind is drifting off to deeper autumn, when it really feels good to have the oven on. We'll talk vegetable tarts then!

  7. Dear "Oven-Born" Tish:

    Very kind of you to take the time to comment and offer me your wisdom of the kitchen in what must be a busy time for you, seeing the boys back off to school.

    I looked at the Victory Garden Cookbook at a bookstore over the weekend and have fallen in love with it. I've added it to my holiday wish list. The organization system by vegetable is extremely helpful. Sometimes I never know what I can do with the odd combination of veggies that turn up. Midwesterners like myself who were raised before organic gardening was mainstream, find their meat-and-potatoes cooking methods a bit lacking on vegetable creativity. The Rat Stuff concept is brillant. I must try this. I'm not much of a domestic goddess, and yet my house never lacks in olive oil.

    My local Whole Foods now carry herbs grown right here in Annapolis, including to my delight, Thai basil. I am very much a spice girl (note the lower case letters!).

    I look forward to a lesson in tart-making, perhaps as the autumnal equinox approaches.