There are so many ways to get access to some of the spectacular foods in season at the peak of summer, which is right now. Maybe you’re lucky enough to be able to walk into your garden and pick what you need for dinner. Maybe tonight’s the night you pick up your CSA share to bring home and unpack. Or maybe you’ll visit a local farmer’s market this week or weekend (see photo above).
If there ever was a season to change up the shopping routine, this is definitely it. I cook and eat seasonally - it’s how I was raised - so this time of year I skip the usual suspects that are “year round” foods - the bananas, the spinach, the celery and the waxy cucumbers. This is the season when I do the bulk of my “shopping” from my CSA share, the farmer’s market and my little herb garden.
That means right now I am eating Colorado peaches, loving the white nectarines and the apricots, and making a weekly splurge on a carton of fresh blueberries. I can’t get enough of the perfectly ripe tomatoes - my latest favorites are Sungold cherry tomatoes - and I love the thin skinned “pickling” cucumbers, which taste so much more like a cucumber than those boomerangs from Mexico ever will. I get the freshest sweet corn I can find at the Saturday market - picked that same morning - and I eat it until I’m totally sick of it. But I’m not there yet.
The best of the season is still rolling in and I’ll happily avoid the grocery store as long as possible, only stopping for fruit and extras when needed. While I can, I’ll be grilling eggplant and peppers; throwing kale, chard, cukes, cabbage and mint into my green juices, and eating fruit so good I’ll want to cry. I’m freezing sweet corn and soup stock for winter, and brining pickles to eat daily from the crock. In a few weeks it will be time to can tomato sauce, make pesto and dry herbs. (I’ll be teaching a two-part Preserving, Canning and Freezing class next month if you’ve been wanting to try any of this).
So how will you enjoy these wonderful foods?
2 teaspoons coconut oil, butter or olive oil
3 organic eggs
1/2 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
big handful kale, stems removed and roughly chopped
1 little yellow summer squash, halved lengthwise and sliced into half-moons
8 cherry tomatoes, halved
several leaves of fresh basil, roughly chopped
small handful fresh parsley, roughly chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 oz chevre, crumbled into large (1/2”) pieces (preferably from Singing Hills Goat Dairy)
Heat a large, heavy skillet or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add oil, onions, garlic, kale and squash when warm and sauté until golden, about 4 minutes. Crack eggs over kale mixture and let cook for a few minutes, then toss to scramble. Season with salt and turn eggs one more time. Remove to two plates, season with pepper, sprinkle with chopped tomatoes and herbs and dot with chevre. (Cheese is optional - there is really a ton of flavor in here already). Serve immediately.
On our last night of a wonderfully relaxing two week holiday in Colorado, my refrigerator looked just like it should before we take off for the long drive back to Minnesota: empty. What I did have on hand was a dozen local and truly free-range organic eggs, organic flour, a big chunk of Parmesan, a roasted organic sweet potato, homegrown garlic (thanks Mom and Dad!) and a great neighbor, Kim. What Kim had was a pound of her freshly made organic fromage blanc - a fresh cheese that is similar to ricotta - as well as a big handful of fresh rosemary clipped off of her plant and a chunk of Pecorino Romano. She also had salad greens to share with our meal.
Together, the ingredients combined to make two kinds of freshly made ravioli - the fromage blanc/parmesan/rosemary ravioli and a sweet potato/parmesan ravioli, which I cooked and then tossed in a sauce made with 4 heads of chopped garlic, olive oil, and sea salt, then topped with fresh Parmesan, a little fresh rosemary and a pinch of Aleppo pepper. The fromage blanc ravioli burst in the mouth with salty, tangy, juiciness that contrasted nicely with the earthy sweet potato-stuffed ravioli.
These resolution-busting ravioli were not gluten-, dairy- or calorie-free, but they were local, homemade and organic - and utterly delicious. Even better was sharing the decadence in our cozy cabin with dear friends for a great send-off and a wonderful reminder of all things that make for a perfect meal: simple food, incredible ingredients, and the company of those you love.
Fromage Blanc Ravioli
1 pound fresh pasta dough, rolled to the second to thinnest setting
1 pound fromage blanc or organic ricotta
1 organic egg yolk
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine all of the ingredients and taste for salt and pepper; adjust if necessary. Fill each 2 1/2” x 2 1/2” ravioli square with 1/2 tablespoon filling; brush the edges with water, top with a second square and press to seal. Set aside until all of the pasta squares are filled. Boil the ravioli in salted water until they float, about 1 minute. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a pan of sautéed garlic in olive oil. Toss and serve immediately with freshly grated Parmesan, a little chopped rosemary and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Serve with a crisp white wine, like an organic Grüner Veltliner, and a big green salad.
No matter which end of the trend you fall on when it comes to choosing to eat more local and seasonal foods, I think more of all of all good - in fact, I think more talk and action around all of it is great. Local foods are fresher, having traveled fewer distances to arrive on our tables, have higher nutrient values having spent less time in transit, they come from local growers who live and work in our economic region and contribute to the health of our communities, and most of all - they taste better. Taking a step toward choosing more foods from local sources couldn't be easier or more delicious than right now.
At the heart of it, eating seasonally means preparing vegetables picked at their prime in way that makes the most of their flavor and freshness by simply elaborating on the perfection that’s already there.
Lately the corn has been so good - both in Minnesota and in Colorado. Sweet, juice-filled and loaded with flavor, local sweet corn is still without any starchiness or toughness to the kernels. As part of a healthful diet that is loaded with a wide variety of colorful vegetables, corn is a delicious addition to celebrate the height of summer flavors.
To find the best sweet corn from a local stand or at the farmer’s market, ask the farmer when it was picked - you'll ideally want corn that was harvested within the past 24 hours for maximum sweetness and tender kernels. You don’t need to peel back every cob to get the best pickings - rather, gently squeeze the cob through the husks to feel for bruising or denting in the middle of the cob. I don’t worry about imperfections at the top of the cobs - once peeled back those can easily be cut off before preparing.
Once you get your sweet corn home, one of the easiest ways to prepare it is to simply pan-fry the freshly cut kernels in the best organic butter you can find, seasoned with a little sea salt and some fresh basil: it couldn’t be easier or more delicious. Enjoy it alongside your meal along with a big, fresh green salad and a plate of perfectly ripe locally-grown tomatoes drizzled with great olive oil and you’ve got the makings of a fantastic, seasonally-maximized dinner. Enjoy!
Fresh Summer Sweet Corn in Butter with Basil
kernels from 5 ears of sweet corn, preferably organic
3 tablespoons best-quality organic butter
several pinches of fine sea salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
freshly ground black pepper
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat and add butter. Allow the butter to melt and brown slightly. Add corn kernels and sauté for 4 minutes, or just until warmed through and hot. Season with sea salt, fresh basil and black pepper. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
With such a cool, rainy spring, I’ve been extending my soup season much longer than usual. I love soup anytime – it’s a filling, naturally low-calorie and vegetable packed food. Instead of hearty soup this time of year, I aim for light and bright – focusing on what tastes best during spring cleansing period when we naturally crave lighter foods with inherent detoxifying properties.
Root vegetables are still available – and they can bridge the season from winter to spring vegetable dishes beautifully. I was craving the flavors of this soup a few weeks ago when I had Israel on my mind. Four springs ago we made a trip there to visit dear friends, and were treated to a grand tour around the small country. After one excursion, we returned to find that Grandma, who had generously offered to babysit, had also prepared a delicious borscht for us. It was a perfect soup - flavorful and bright, whether eaten plain or topped with crumbled hard-boiled egg, dill, diced potatoes, pickles and a little dollop of yogurt.
With that in mind, I created this quick beet soup. Beets are a lovely food – earthy, naturally sweet and mineral-rich – as well as a being a wonderful tonic for the liver. It’s a good idea to take a little extra care for our livers this time of year since they’ve (most likely) had a busy season cleansing our bodies from winter excesses of rich foods, alcohol, and sugar from the holidays that started at Thanksgiving and lasted up through spring. Beets are rich in folate and potassium as well as the antioxident betacyanin, found in deep red color varieties of the root. Betacyanin is one of the antioxidents that is especially important for cancer prevention, especially colon cancer. Beet roots also contain a little discussed nutrient called betaine which is important for cardiovascular health by helping to reduce homocysteine, a protein that can build-up in the blood and contribute to heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases. Beets are great eating year round - whether shredded raw, roasted, or steamed - and added to salads, eaten as part of a roasted vegetable plate, or juiced with other fresh vegetables.
In this case, I was in the soup mood. For this recipe, adding a potato to the soup gives it a little more body, while garnishing it with fresh basil gives it spring-like and optimistic nod to summer. Use any tender herb that’s coming up in your garden, though - anything fresh will taste delicious.
If you happen to make this soup in the weeks to come, be sure to save the green tops from the beets to use just as you would kale, chard or spinach – it’s delicious simply sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil while providing a phenomenal source of iron, calcium and magnesium.
Spring Beet Soup
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 large beets*, scrubbed, trimmed of tough peel
1 small Yukon Gold potato*
1 medium carrot*, scrubbed and diced
1 large leek*, white and tender green parts only
2 large shallots or 1/2 sweet or red onion*, chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
4 cups (one quart) water
freshly ground black pepper
large handful fresh basil (or fresh parsley, oregano, marjoram, dill, or tarragon), chopped just before serving.
Heat a medium saucepan or soup pot over medium heat. When it is warm to the touch, add the oil, leeks, shallot and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes until tender and starting to color. Add beets, potato and carrot, season with 1 teaspoon of sea salt, and continue to sauté, stirring occasionally, for an additional 5 minutes.
Add the water and stir with a wooden spoon to release any browned bits of potato that have stuck to the bottom of the pot. Bring the soup to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat, and to allow to simmer for 25 minutes. Season to taste with additional salt and freshly ground pepper, add fresh herbs and serve immediately.
What’s standing in the way between you and a good dinner most evenings? If you’re like most people, you’ll say some combination of time, expense, lack of skills and a shortage of ideas.
So, what can we do about it?
We can’t get more time in the day, but we can free up more available time by simply shifting our attention. Maybe it doesn’t exactly mean killing your television, but by turning it off or allocating more time to making real food we have the potential to have a real impact on our health. One of the best things you can do for your health and the health of your family is to make it a priority to prepare real, whole foods meals with nutritious ingredients that are organic, locally and sustainably sourced as much as possible - this week, next week, and all year.
Why cook? Because you were born with one amazing machine, my friends - emphasis on one - and the best way to fuel your machine is with nutritionally-dense real, whole foods. Period. We may get extra chances now and then to clean up our act and shift our eating style, but most of us wait until something drastic is staring us in the face to make those tough decisions about doing the best thing for our bodies. (Nutritionally dense foods are essentially foods or ingredients that are as close to their original state as possible as when they were grown or harvested - unprocessed, unrefined, and with a correspondingly high nutrient value.)
You may need a few more resources to help you on your way if you’re ready to get started right now. By asking friends whose healthy lifestyle inspires you to share a few recipes, subscribing to pra approachable food magazines like Real Food or Whole Living, taking a cooking class, or following a healthy food blog, you’ll get access to new ideas and tested recipes to start moving in the right direction of learning how to prepare great food.
To keep things affordable, consider shopping for staple items in bulk at a co-op grocery or at most grocery stores. Foods purchased in bulk allow us to buy more without paying extra for packaging, plus we contribute less garbage to the waste stream and we can buy just what we need, eliminating excess food being thrown away or not used. To save money while keeping it local, shop for pantry basics when they’re on sale, sign up for a CSA share this summer and plan to frequent a farmer’s market throughout the growing season to make use of fresh foods while they’re in season. Learn how to preserve foods for later – by freezing or canning fresh foods when they’re at their peak of flavor and nutrition – to eat fresh and locally on a budget throughout the year. If your family eats a lot of meat, consider sharing a portion of a large animal to freeze to have access to top quality, ethically-raised meats without paying the highest prices in the grocery store.
No matter what, using any of these thoughts to help shift us toward adopting a more nutritious way of eating will have us spending more time in the kitchen. That’s not a bad thing. The kitchen is typically the heart of any house, so let’s bring it to life and start cooking up some better stuff for our bodies with the goal of simply living better.
Curried Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup
adapted from the Cafe Brenda Cookbook
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red onion, diced
6 - 7 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1.5 tablespoon curry powder
1 cup carrots, diced
1 jalapeño, minced (optional)
1 cup red bell pepper, diced
5 cups sweet potato (choose one with deep orange flesh), diced
1 14-oz. can organic coconut milk
2 cups dried red lentils, sorted and rinsed
8 cups vegetable stock or bouillon
juice of one lime
1 bunch cilantro, minced
Sauté red onion, garlic and ginger in olive oil for 15 minutes in a large soup pot. Add curry powder, hot pepper, carrots, bell pepper, and sweet potatoes. Sauté another 5 to 10 minutes.
Add coconut milk, lentils, and the stock. Simmer, covered, until lentils are done and sweet potatoes are tender, approximately 45 minutes. Add lime juice and cilantro and serve.
To make this in a crockpot, prepare soup on the stove through the addition of adding coconut milk, lentils and the stock, then transfer to a crockpot on low to cook for 6-8 hours. Reduce stock by 1 cup and add lime juice and cilantro just before serving.
A bounty of vegetables from Gracie's Garden in Ely, MN – August 2010
Yesterday, columnist Mark Bittman announced the end of his weekly “The Minimalist” column in the weekly Dining section of the New York Times. I’ve enjoyed Mr. Bittman’s column for the ease and sense of “no big deal” with which he approaches everyday cooking – while paying attention to details and great flavors all at the same time. I’ve also admired his shift in direction towards eating more plant foods in his own diet by adopting a "vegan until 6" eating style on an earth conscious as well as health conscious premise, and sharing that story through his column and most recent two books, Food Matters and Th≠e Food Matters Cookbook.
An occasional feature of The Minimalist was to produce a big list of super fast, tasty, and 3 ingredient “recipes” – again, aimed at encouraging people to cook more often and to dispel the myth that great tasting food has to be complicated or too long to prepare.
With this blog, I pay homage to The Minimalist by keeping this short, and by making a short list of my own based on all of the things that are close to my heart: eating more vegetables and fruits, increasing the nutritional value of what we’re putting in our bodies every day, and keeping things delicious and interesting.
So here it is – 21 ways to boost the nutrition on your plate. Why 21? Because it’s three weeks of good ideas - and hopefully enough time to turn some of these new ideas into lifelong nutritious eating habits. Some of these may seem obvious, but on the other hand; some ideas may not have occurred to you yet. Either way, I encourage everyone to keep up the good work – and to keep striving to make your way of eating even better.
21 Ways to Eat More Plant Foods (and Boost the Nutrition on Your Plate)
1. Keep a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter so that fruit is always visible and accessible for snacks.
2. Thaw frozen organic blueberries or organic mixed berries in a glass jar in the fridge; add to breakfast oatmeal, use for yogurt topping or as smoothie ingredient.
3. Chop up vegetables at the beginning of the week and refrigerate in an airtight container for easy, affordable snacking.
4. Pack a piece of fruit and a mixed container of veggies every day - for snacks, for errands, and to eat with lunch.
5. Add greens to your fruit smoothies.
6. Add greens to your pizzas.
7. No matter what you’re eating for dinner, add a salad with 1 or two extra (colorful) veggies on it and add a side vegetable (corn, potatoes and green beans don’t count).
8. Make sure that at least 1/2 – 3/4 of your plate is green and colorful.
9. Stir a green leafy vegetable into your favorite soup - escarole, chard, spinach or kale are all good options.
10. Choose a different colored fruit for every snack.
11. Put vegetables on, under, and in between your sandwiches.
12. If you’re eating an egg, have it with vegetables.
13 Make your next batch of homemade mac and cheese with half pasta, half cauliflower.
14. Better yet, make your next batch of homemade mac and cheese with all cauliflower!
15. Eat fruit with nut butter for your own “power bar”.
16. Make your own batch of dried fruit and seeds for your “energy snack”.
17. Switch to dipping your hummus, guacamole, baba ganoush or yogurt dip with sliced vegetable “chips”.
18. Blend fresh spinach into your hummus or yogurt dip.
19. Eat your cheese or nut butter with an apple instead of crackers.
20. Eat a main dish salad once a week for dinner and use protein for your topping, not the main course. (2-3 times a week in summer!)
21. Count your veggie and fruit servings every day for a week to get used to the idea of how much to consume.