In trying to wrap my mind about a useful and interesting topic for this week’s column, I had a problem deciding on featuring the abundance of summer blooms showing off currently in the garden or featuring the abundance of offerings in our farmsteads and veggie plots. So, I’ll mix it up a bit.
I am so grateful to live where I can purchase locally grown and produced foods of all varieties. Fruits and vegetables of course, but also meats, cheeses and other dairy items.
It’s heartening to see so many young families working as farmers in our area. I think of the founders of Sweet Roots, Head Over Fields, The Last Resort Farmstead, Full Belly Farm, Adams Berry Farm, Fat Cow Farm, Misty Knoll Farms, Maple Wind Farm — all first-quality operations. Then there are the secondary producers of syrup, jams, cheeses, wines and spirits. I support these all and am fortunate to be able to.
One other part of this subject is the generosity of these (mostly young) farmers. They are either offering free produce to food banks, opening their fields to gleaning or sharing their farms with visitors and schoolchildren. The work is challenging, and I assume rewarding.
For my part, putting food by, as they say, has been on my schedule historically. There is something so satisfying about canning, freezing, dehydrating and fermenting the plethora of crops in order to have sustenance in the winter months.
It might seem old fashioned, but eating well has not gone out of style. And by well, I mean healthy and deliciously. On my list of yearly concoctions are jams, chutneys, frozen corn, peppers, berries, tomatoes (sauce and plain) and herbs chopped or in compound butters.
Completed dishes include soups of a variety of flavors, stuffed peppers, eggplant Parmesan, certain baked goods. I even have frozen with good results the plum torte that I make each fall.
Cooking for one brings its own challenges, and having an efficient system for freezing meals ahead becomes a blessing when you’re just too tired to cook. Plus, you have the advantage of it tasting the way you like and with only ingredients you use.
Here are a few suggestions for the freezer this time. I have covered some of my favorite canned preserves in the past (search the archives of The Charlotte News).
Roasted tomato sauce came about when those cherry tomatoes started to crowd out my counter space. It’s a quick way to salvage them and then a joy to use later. This sauce has a whole new flavor from Grandma’s Sunday sauce.
Roasted tomato sauce
In a flat, large baking pan, spread some nice olive oil on the bottom. Add your washed cherry tomatoes or cut up larger ones. Individuality is key here, but I add garlic cloves, sprigs of thyme, rosemary, basil, savory or sage. Salt and pepper are added to taste. After roasting at 350-400 degrees for about 30 minutes, depending on the amount, I blitz the cooked tomatoes in a blender or processor. Include garlic and any herbs you like (no stems). Freeze in portions for cooking or pasta dishes. Add to soups or meat sauce.
In a cast iron skillet sprinkled with about a teaspoon of kosher salt, crumble a pound of ground lamb. After browning, add one medium chopped onion and a chopped clove of garlic, if desired. Cook until onion is translucent, set aside.
In a separate saucepan cook some rice, barley or farro until tender. Amount will depend on how many peppers you are stuffing (1/2 cup, dry?). Trim four bell peppers by either cutting off tops and deseeding or cutting straight down the middle and clearing seeds and membranes, making two halves. Blanch peppers in boiling water for a minute or two and remove with tongs to foil squares for freezing or casserole dish if eating right away.
Mix the cooked, drained grain into the lamb adding some tomato product. Sometimes I make a slurry with tomato paste or add a can of diced tomatoes or even V-8 Juice. Fill the peppers with the meat and grain mixture and add more sauce or V-8 to bake.
If freezing, wrap individually in foil and store in freezer. This makes a quick dinner for one after baking (in foil) for about 30 minutes. I keep cans of V-8 on hand to use for moistening in reheating. Herbs or other favorite seasonings can be added during browning stage. To cook immediately, about 30 minutes at 350 degrees should finish the dish. Baste with juices or V-8.
Corn chowder with bacon
In a large pot or Dutch oven, sautée about four chopped bacon slices until they begin to crisp. Add a large onion or two medium leeks chopped (white parts only).
Peel and chop four potatoes such as Yukon gold and add to the pot. Mix in one quart water or chicken stock and finally add corn cut from four cobs.
Season with salt and pepper adding your herbs of choice. If fresh, use about a tablespoon, if dried one teaspoon.
Simmer until vegetables are tender. Leftover chicken or cooked shrimp can be added for more protein. If desired add 1 cup whole milk or cream at end of cooking. Do not boil. This freezes well in individual portions.
If ever there was a perfect late summer dish to take advantage of the best of the garden, it’s ratatouille. I once took an epicurean tour of Provence and in one of our cooking classes we observed the proper way to make ratatouille. The ingredients are all readily available at the moment — eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, onions, garlic, basil and tomatoes. And cheese, of course.
Our chef demonstrated by sautéing each component separately in olive oil, seasoning with salt and pepper as he moved along. He partially peeled the eggplant in strips leaving lines of peel. Then cut into cubes. He cut zucchini into similar-sized pieces and sautéed next.
Onions can be sliced or diced, your choice, and sautéed along with diced bell peppers. Tomatoes are usually skinned and seeded but this is optional and wasteful.
Gather all your partially cooked vegetables into a flat casserole dish, mixing well. Tuck several whole garlic cloves into the vegetable mix. I’d suggest adding some diluted tomato paste if you feel you need more tomato emphasis. Cover and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees until bubbly. Place basil leaves into casserole at several spots.
Usually, the grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese goes on when serving as desired. Our chef removed the garlic cloves after dish was completed. This is a very forgiving dish. No need to measure. Use what you like and in quantities that you enjoy.
Again, I remind us of Julia Child’s remonstrance against a “slavish dependence on a recipe.” I realize my recipes are not in the standard form. I tend to cook so much from the top of my head, and in the order I use things.
Hope you all can enjoy these dishes. Save something good for the snowy months.