Summer ends when the season ends, some time in the midst of every September. The 22nd? 21st? The sun crosses a time line and the word ‘summer’ is an afterthought, yet for most people, Labor Day signals the official end of the best season Minnesota has to offer. I’m more optimistic. I like to step outside the box, and while others are saying ‘Fall’ when school buses roll down the streets again, I’m still crowing ‘Summer’. I will gracefully extend my white flag of surrender to that mentality, that a season can be marked by milestones instead of days on a calendar, while I straddle the seasons, try to push summer to extend just a bit farther.
It’s not hard to do when a plate of this Roasted Ratatouille is staring back at you, loaded with late summer tomatoes softened to a deeply flavorful mass, chunks of hearty zucchini and eggplants so perfectly round and unblemished that they look false and plastic, yet yield to a tender flesh so delicious it makes your eyes roll back. I can have my face in Summer, my cheeks enjoying the warmth of the days, while my head and heart charge towards Fall, cool air, a warm humming oven and a comforting meal when the air chills and sweatshirts come out.
This dish, once again as is the case with so many in my adult years, was not something I’ve loved forever, and maybe that’s part of it’s appeal. My Mom used to make Ratatouille when I was young, and my sisters ate it but it always turned me off completely. That which held ruby red tomato and a vegetable with the word ‘egg’ in it just sounded like it would be horrible. I was a picky child mostly due to texture issues, as I have learned; foods like mushrooms, tomato, squashes of all kinds and especially eggplant (an egg? a plant?) are now foods that sweep themselves across my plate on a regular basis, bursting with flavor when once they would make me shudder. I’m so glad to have grown up to learn of their wonder.
Roasting vegetables is quite possibly my most favorite way to eat them, except for right off the vine. With an enormous bounty of fresh from the Farmers Market zucchini and onions, and the aforementioned eggplants, along with the fattest and juiciest Black Krim heirloom tomatoes to come out of my tiny postage stamp garden, this dish was so loaded with flavor that it made my eyes water in joy. Tomato flavor intensified from the heat of the oven, while the eggplant and zucchini became tender-crisp and then just to make it more interesting, I mix everything together and let it sit overnight in the fridge, just to tease a bit more flavor out, a deeper marriage of September’s taste of the vine. The bowl needed nothing else; no salt or pepper, no added oil or seasoning. Topped with the amazing find of crisp strips of chive thrown on top of the vegetables on a whim, it was a dish that slowly spread a Cheshire grin over my face with each bite.
What a personality too. There’s no stodginess involved here, no set way to consume such a meal; we ate this mixed with pearl couscous (because I am, truly, having a love affair with those tiny grains of pasta) and we ate it atop heady and aromatic polenta studded with corn kernels and flecks of fresh herbs. It would be just at home too, stuffed inside a crisp and warm baguette, layered with provolone cheese for an incredible, messy delicious sandwich. Serve it on rice, or with a simple risotto. Warm it slightly and place it on garlicky crostini for a hearty appetizer or light meal. Or toss it, chilled, with greens and a shower of fresh grated asiago cheese for a salad unlike any other. Mix it with pasta, please; make sure you add a good turn of hard cheese. And if you find yourself late at night, in the kitchen with a fork in hand, a few dips in to the bowl while no one is watching is ok too.
And are you like every other gardener in the state- a pile of chives growing in your garden that you don’t know what to do with? I foolishly planted chives many years ago, which went to seed without me doing anything about it (big, BIG mistake) and now, well now I am fighting off chives with a blowtorch practically, and did you know that if you pluck them they just grow faster? Neither did I, but I’m learning that the hard way. Another thing I learned about chives is that you can blast them to kingdom come with Round-Up, but the little buggers just come back, shiny green and taunting. I’ve learned to hate chives, but a handful of them tossed atop these roasting vegetables made for a crispy and delicious garnish that just might make me a bit softer towards this evil relentless herb. Surprise awaits in the strangest places, doesn’t it?
Roasted Ratatouille with Crispy Chives
2-3 medium tomatoes
1 large eggplant
3-4 small zucchini or yellow squash (2 if they’re larger)
1 large red onion
3 garlic cloves
A generous handful of fresh chives
Olive oil, sea salt and fresh ground pepper
Preheat your oven to 400°. Slice the tomatoes into quarters and place on a baking sheet. Drizzle with about a tablespoon of good olive oil, sprinkle with a bit of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Place pan in hot oven and roast, watching carefully, until the tomatoes begin to soften and the skins wrinkle. You want them to retain much of their shape, but release some of their luscious juices. I don’t roast them for more than 10-15 minutes at that temp. Remove the pan and allow them to cool, then slip the skins off.
Dice the zucchini and eggplant, slice the onion and crush the garlic, placing all of these on two baking sheets. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil, add salt and pepper and roast until the vegetables begin to soften, about 15 minutes. Stir carefully, then return pan to oven for about 10 more minutes. Scatter chives over the top of the vegetables, then roast about 10 minutes more, or until the chives are crisp and toasty, but not black and charred. Remove pans and allow vegetables to cool.
In a large bowl, combine tomato (with any juice from the roasting pan), eggplant, zucchini, onion, garlic and about a third of the crispy chives, reserving the rest for garnish. Gently mix together (I like to use my hands to avoid breaking everything down), taste and season with more salt and pepper if desired. The ratatouille can be eaten as is, warm or at room temp. For deeper flavor, chill the mixture overnight, and allow to warm to room temp the next day before serving.
One night last month, amidst the gorgeous August that made it’s way in to Minnesota and on a night that seemed as supple as velvet, I was home by myself, bored and restless. Feeling the urge to experiment with some of the food laying about the refrigerator, I poked through the stuffed bags from the Farmers Market, eyeing the three overflowing bags of chard.
I’ve been crazy for chard. Really crazy. Thankfully, this is a good thing. It’s not like an addiction that’s harmful, unless you can OD on vitamins. My blood won’t be anemic any time soon. And after this particular evenings playtime with my food, I was excited to share my findings so I propped up the computer on the island and found my voice to tell you this story.
This is the second time making an amazing Panzanella salad that I’ve groaned in disappointment when downloading the photos.
I struggle with photographing ‘busy’ dishes; ones where a wide array of ingredients take center stage. I look down at it, my breath catching because it’s so lush and lovely, then after the fact, when the memory card is emptied, I curse it under my breath. There just doesn’t seem to be a way to capture the ‘Too Much’ principle of what’s happening in the bowl.
This one came as close as I could…..
….but even this doesn’t tell you how beautiful this salad turned out.
It’s September, a glorious intro to the month has occurred with incredible weather; warm sunny days and cool nights that hint lightly of the coming Fall. The markets are staggering under the weight of the season’s bounty, and it just boggles my mind what farmers are bringing with them each week. I am so easily overwhelmed by the loaded tables as I wander up and down the rows at my favorite location, checking out quality and price, eyeing the vendors, wondering how much they’ll haggle with me. Three baskets of zucchini for the price of two? How much is left in your truck? If I buy 4 sweet gypsy peppers, can I get a few small, tiny ones thrown in for good measure? After many visits, and lots of questions, you know who’s willing to negotiate with you. You know their faces, worn and tired and overwhelmed themselves; you know who just wants to move the bounty and who isn’t willing to budge. And it never hurts to ask. The worst they do is shake their heads and tell you ‘No’ and then you move to the next table, to the farmer watching you closely, who possibly heard your request and is more than willing to compromise. In fact, she’s already reaching for what you want, naming her price. In the last 15 minutes of the market time, you just never know what you can get away with, and it’s always fun to ask.
I’m always on the lookout for something different each week I wander those open air aisles. I gravitate towards that which looks odd or different. While others may grasp basket after basket of beefsteak tomato, I’m the one reaching for the Carolina Gold- a bright orange variety that’s less acidic than it’s red brethren. I look for cherry tomatoes in a rainbow of colors- orange, yellow, white, black- and am drawn to those tables. I don’t want convention. I don’t want the norm. I want something that will dance on my tongue and stretch my imagination, colors that cross the entire spectrum, foods that wake me up. I’ll bypass the standard cuke in favor of an heirloom Lemon Cucumber, round and crisp as an apple. Sweet Yam Leaves? They taste like mild spinach, says the farmer, and she laughs as she warns me ‘Be careful if you buy them; they’re going to become your favorite green!’ and she’s right. I go back, time and again to her table, buying two enormous bunches at a time until she’s past the prime of these sweet, tender and delicious greens, shrugging her shoulders at my request. ‘Next year’ she assures me, and my mouth grimaces. That seems so far away already.
The variety in this Panzanella salad isn’t much out of the ordinary, unless you look below the surface. It’s still tomato, and dried bread, but in this case, it’s a loaf of sesame semolina bread that I made without adding the salt, rendering it just out of the palate’s acceptance. The remainder of it was doused with a heady olive oil, redolent of fresh herbs and crushed garlic, then slowly baked in a moderate oven until the cubes were solidly dried out. A basket of the aforementioned colorful cherry tomato went in to the bowl, to soak in to the bread alongside grilled zucchini and eggplant. A shower of fresh green herbs and an hour on the counter top and whether or not it was a beauty that I captured with my camera or not, when it entered my mouth it was perfect.
Perfect because it’s September and it tasted like sunshine. Perfect because I did little to it besides grill a few vegetables and make sure the seasoning was right. It doesn’t need much, if anything, and when pointing the camera at it, a bowl full of the bounty of a season, it was almost too much to capture, like the very season itself. I couldn’t take just one photo to explain September, as much as one taste of this dish could never justify it’s contents. The season is like one long explosion of sight, smell and flavor that refuses to be held down, caught on film or chronicled on paper. It can only be experienced, like an open air market, like a fresh tomato off the vine, still warm from the sun and bursting through its skin. It bucks explanation, and convention. But it never disappoints.
Does one really need a recipe for Panzanella? Good croutons, whether from scratch or store bought is the key, along with perfectly ripe, juicy tomato. Beyond that, it’s up to your imagination. Use good sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, add a few splashes of a good olive oil and use a gentle turn of a rubber spatula so you don’t break everything up too much. Serve it over greens, if you wish, or add more chopped vegetables to make it heartier, like my version, and that of my friend Laurie, who has an amazing and colorful Panzanella on her site as well. Indulge in the bounty of September, and there will be no disappointment.
If you’re in need of a true recipe, with proper proportions and everything, my inspiration for this Panzanella came from The Kitchn, and their recipe for Panzanella with Roasted Squash and Tomatoes
For more inspiration and recipes utilizing Summer produce, check out my friend Jen’s blog too. Her post on Easy ‘Summer’ Meals has a lot of options.
I came away from a long visit to the Minnesota State Fair this year with two prominent thoughts:
#1- The absolute BEST way to attend such a gastronomic event, where most everything is deep fried, with enormous portions, not so very healthy and most always made with meat is to go with a big group of like-minded friends so you can share all the gustatory delights and not leave feeling bloated and ill.
#2- I went to the Fair, knowing all the above regarding the food offerings and I ate everything that I felt like eating- including meat- sort of as a means to remind myself why I prefer to fill my belly with healthy and nutritious foods instead of the crap that often constitutes the American diet.
And that night, after sharing in the consumption of fried cheese curds, an Asian style pork burrito, fried pickles, cajun french fries, honey sunflower ice cream, sweet corn ice cream (FOUR portions shared between six of us- wow, so darn good), falafel, gyros and a strange but satisfying vegetarian dish that included lentils, rice, pasta and fried onions, I went to bed with aching legs from the 7 hours of walking, and woke in the night with a fully expected belly-ache. And I mean a raging hurricane of complaints from the tummy, saying over and over and over again “What did you DO to me!!!???”
I mean, four months is not a lot when compared to a lifetime in terms of good eating. But four months IS a lifetime though, because really, it took me only two days at the start of those four months to realize that changing the eating game for me was really beneficial. And it doesn’t take but one day of eating lousy to send my body back into a whirlwind of pain and suffering. It’s that easy, and your body is pretty good at reminding you of what happens when you feed it junk. My poor belly whirled and twisted, like an angry toddler with flailing fists as if it just couldn’t believe what I’d done to it.
The harder part however, was fighting off the urge to continue eating more junk, despite the protesting belly. It was like a switch was flipped in my head, a switch that said ‘GIMME!!‘ with red-hot intensity, to grease and fat. One day of eating poorly and I suddenly was flooded with urges for food I hadn’t regularly eaten in years. Mike made oatmeal for breakfast and I couldn’t eat it. With my tummy still doing cartwheels over the previous days intake, a bowl of something warm and healthy was the last thing it wanted, but really what I was craving was a huge carb and fat feast the likes of which I haven’t consumed for a long time. I drank a protein shake instead and that sort of helped, but I still fought off intense cravings for junk all day long. By late afternoon, I gave in and devoured a partial bag of chips that was in the cupboard, then by dinnertime my stomach was pleading with me to give it something green and chock full of vitamins. I can’t recall ever feeling so desperate for something healthy. Ever. With my mind and body at war over the onslaught, I was disoriented and restless, feeling depressed and scattered. It was eye-opening and somewhat scary how quickly all that junk food took over my mind and belly and fought for domination.
But I am nothing short of stubborn.
And my belly and mind can try and fight for domination over my heart and common sense but it won’t work. I knew what I needed and thankfully, it was all right there in the kitchen. A bag of chard, the remains of a container of cherry tomatoes and a can of great northern beans and soon I was happily consuming something green, sending my belly the message that those cries for help had been heard.
I even included the colorful and crunchy chard stems in my meal.
Tossed with a bit of oil and dusted with salt and pepper, I roasted this batch of stems until they were tender and nicely chewy, giving a pleasant added texture to the soft earthy chard. The stems are a really nice touch to any medley of roasted vegetables, especially tiny red potatoes and fresh carrots and they are rich with chard’s lush, dark flavor. This dish is quick to come together, making it a cinch to readily step up and cure what ails you, whether it’s a gastronomic overload of wanton delights or just a stressful, busy day.
Simple Chard Sauté
1 bunch chard, stems removed
1 15-oz can Great Northern beans, rinsed well
1 small leek, split, washed and sliced thin
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes
Wash the chard leaves thoroughly and spin them dry. To make them easier to cook and eat, rough chop them into manageable pieces. Wash the stems, trim the ragged edges and chop them in to bite sized pieces.
In a medium skillet with a lid, heat a small amount of oil and add the leek and chard stems. Season with a bit of sea salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chard stems are tender and the leek is browned slightly, maybe 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for a few minutes, until the mixture is very fragrant.
Add the chard leaves by the handful, stirring the leaves to begin wilting them. Continue adding leaves and stirring until they cook down to a manageable size. Add about 1/3 cup of water to the skillet, stir in the beans and tomato and then cover the skillet. Allow to steam over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes undisturbed. Remove the cover, season with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper.