Thursday, July 24, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: July, Week 4

Summer can be a tricky time for the appetite. Though I may be smitten with all the gloriously colorful and fragrant produce now coming into season, I often find that the hot weather -- or exhaustion from all the work needed to preserve the food -- curbs my appetite significantly.

It's a time of year when simplicity rules. Salads and raw foods tend to rule the day, given the ease of preparation and the benefit of avoiding the stove or oven. Many days I'll come home from work, nosh on a cracker or two before starting in on prepping vegetables for canning or freezing, and then just pick a vegetable from the refrigerator and prepare it as simply as I can. Somehow, delaying my gratification through preserving food often helps me eat far less now to save it for later.

Not always, though. After all, I have to keep up my energy and strength to keep working in a hot kitchen, right? So some evenings I will move beyond eating lettuce out of hand and actually dirty a pan or two to get a decent meal.

While I often fall back to an easy pasta dish -- and I did make both pasta and pesto this week -- I'll share with you one of my other summer standby meals:

My beloved cast iron skillet gets a workout at other times of the day than just showing up for morning pancakes. And while I've been known to make a meal of hash browns alone (or topped with yogurt or chutney), I also like very quick and easy vegetable pan-frying.

Zucchini slices alone, thinly cut from a small and tender squash and sauteed in olive oil until soft and browned, make a beautiful, simple, satisfying meal. Pan-fried potatoes, with their crispy edges and salty bite, help ease the occasional cravings for potato chips. But when you throw the two together, dinner gets even better.

For dinner this evening, I sliced part of a zucchini and one large red potato, both from this week's CSA share, and fried them so quickly on the skillet that they were more seared than fried. Both vegetables had a raw snap to them in many places, but that added to the fresh intensity of the flavor, as if I'd hit the Lost Chord of culinary delights. Seasoned solely with salt, pepper, and dried oregano (also from my CSA), they would have made an ideal meal on their own.

But then, you see, I had this beautiful little Rutgers tomato from my garden, sitting by its lonesome on the counter and looking oh so ripe. So I sliced it and added it to the plate, as darkly red and silkily tender as velvet. It's been a while since I had a real fresh tomato, but the first one of the season never fails to stop me in my tracks and to impress me with its pure tomato essence.

A meal like that -- simple, small, fresh -- made the perfect interlude between preparing cherry tomatoes to dry and blanching and freezing yellow beans. I don't need much to keep going, but I do need something to make it all worthwhile.

It's good to get away from recipes in the summer and to approach fresh produce on instinct, asking yourself what would make that ripe vegetable taste as much like itself as possible. Chances are, you won't need to do much at all with it, either in cooking or seasoning.

So go. Take a break from putting up food for the winter. Sit back and enjoy something light and fresh. Save the fancy stuff for later.

And enjoy.

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