This is the time of year food lovers live for.
The corn is sweet and fresh and plentiful, the tomatoes are ripe and hang heavy on the vine, and the zucchini is so abundant that it threatens to overtake the garden.
They are the foods of summer, the best that nature has to offer, and they all are in season at the same time.
Corn, tomatoes and zucchini make a classic flavor combination, with a rounded taste that is bright (from the corn) but earthy (from the zucchini). The three vegetables go so well together that they form a single identifiable flavor. Call it “cotozu.”
But don’t call them vegetables, as I just did. Technically, tomatoes and zucchini are both fruit, and corn is a grain. But they are cooked and eaten and treated like vegetables, so vegetables it is. At least informally.
Corn, tomatoes and zucchini — cotozu — could form the base for any number of dishes. Lay a piece of grilled chicken on top of it and serve it with rice, or do the same with spicy sausage. Paired with eggplant, it becomes an American spin on ratatouille. Or cook it down and use it as a topping for pasta, particularly if you have onions or garlic on hand.
I decided to make it in ways that especially highlight the cotozu flavor, starting out with a topping for pasta: Shells with Summer Squash, Corn, Beans and Tomato.
For such light and summery ingredients, this makes a surprisingly hearty dish. Beans (I used pinto beans) add protein, so it is suitable for a delicious vegetarian main course. Basil — a recurring theme with many of these dishes — and a topping of Parmesan cheese provide a delightfully sunny flourish.
And it all comes together in an unexpectedly short time. In fact, the longest part of making it is the preparation. Once you have diced the zucchini, minced the garlic, grated the tomatoes, sliced the kernels from an ear of corn and cut the basil leaves into slivers, the rest is a breeze. And actually, you can do all the prep work while waiting for the water to boil for the pasta shells, and you can cook the other ingredients in almost the time it takes for the shells to cook.
Same ingredients, different prep
When you combine the same three primary ingredients into a relish, the result is dramatically different.
This time around, tomatoes, corn and zucchini pick up sweet-and-sour notes from rice-wine vinegar mixed with brown sugar and a little salt accompanied by an olive oil that has been infused with garlic, ginger, mustard seeds, black pepper and cumin. Those spices add an exotic touch of heat that is emphasized with as much or as little minced fresh jalapeño as you like.
The flavor is remarkably refreshing and fun; it can be served as a counterpoint to any grilled meat or any sort of seafood. It would also go well with the earthy taste of beans, or even hard-cooked eggs. Or you could try it as a salsa, a little something different to serve with tortilla chips.
Because this relish is essentially uncooked, its colors remain bright and vibrant. So you can make it even more appealing by using different-colored heirloom tomatoes and by mixing yellow summer squash in with the zucchini.
Worth the extra effort
Somewhat more effort is needed to make Corn, Tomato and Summer Squash Soup, but as is often the case, the effort is worth it. The soup is almost ridiculously healthy and low in calories (only one tablespoon of olive oil for about 12 servings), and with all of the amazing ingredients of the summer, it is guaranteed to taste great.
Once again, it is preparation of the ingredients that takes the effort. Cooking the soup itself is a snap.
The recipe requires roasting a mild pepper — you could use peppers out of a can, but with everything else so fresh, it just seems wrong. Then you have tomatoes to peel, zucchini to chop and kernels of corn to slice off the cob. You also have to chop an onion, garlic and an entire cup of basil. A lot of knife work goes into this soup, but once you taste it you will forget all about the effort.
The most elegant use for tomatoes, corn and zucchini that we found is the enticing (but misnamed) Squash and Tomato Pie, which isn’t a pie at all. It is more of a casserole — it doesn’t have a crust — consisting of layers of zucchini and summer squash, corn cooked with red onions, tomatoes and Fontina cheese, all topped with a mixture of seasoned breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese.
It makes for a beautiful presentation, and, of course, the aroma that fills your house as it bakes is marvelous. But it’s the taste that matters most. So, how does it taste?
In a word: sublime.