Local food

After six weeks of unrelenting heat and scorching sun, the lawn is as good as dead but the garden is vegetable heaven. Pole beans — especially the purple-streaked rattlesnakes — are my favorite crop so far this season. The trellised vines are lush and pretty and produce handfuls of beans every day. We’ve picked half a dozen fat, pickling cucumbers (first two pounds are now hot and sweet refrigerator pickles) and scores of tiny sungold, red plum, and black cherry tomatoes.  The cilantro has gone to seed, which will yield a full jar of coriander once it’s dried and toasted.

Rattlesnake pole beans

Clockwise from top left: Opalka tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, coriander seeds, bell pepper

July sees our perennial flowers at their best, too.

Rudbeckia, coneflower, coreopsis, and lobelia


Hot, sultry, and downright oppressive, July has but one redeeming feature: vegetables.  (No, make that two: vegetables and peaches!)  And that bountiful summer harvest is all the sweeter when it comes from one’ s very own garden.  Yesterday’s haul from my modest vegetable patch was the inspiration for this fresh and colorful three bean salad.  Long, slender French gold beans, plump and juicy rattlesnake beans, a few early tomatoes, a fat red onion, and a handful of herbs made planning dinner easy.  A grilled flank steak and cornbread from the freezer rounded out the meal without heating up the kitchen.

Three bean salad with tomatoes and herbs

Serves 6

1/2 lb. green beans, cut into bite-sized pieces

1/2 lb. wax beans, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 lb. tomatoes, chopped (and seeded, if you like)

2 stalks celery, chopped

1/2 red onion, finely chopped

1 15-oz. can red kidney beans or chickpeas, rinsed and drained

10 fresh basil leaves, torn or chopped

10 fresh mint leaves, torn or chopped

3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

3 tbsp. red wine vinegar

Pinch of sugar

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Cook green and wax beans in boiling, salted water until just tender, about 2 minutes.  Drain, run under cold water to stop the cooking, and drain again.

Combine beans and remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  Toss.  Let salad stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes before serving.

The vegetable garden is humming along nicely, producing a bounty of fat, sweet sugar snap and shell peas, peppery mache, and tender red and green leaf lettuces, plenty for salads every day. Our pole beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes are in bloom. There are ripe black raspberries to pick each morning and the resident squirrels are feasting on our strawberries (next year I will wrap the barrel in chicken wire). There are mountains of cilantro and mint and a steady supply of creeping thyme and oregano.

Clockwise from top left: sugar snap peas, mache, pole beans, leaf lettuces

Clockwise from top left: potted tomatoes, strawberries, cucumber blossoms, black raspberries

Flowers are in full bloom along the front and side fences. Finally, my novice landscaping efforts are starting to pay off — next year, the perennials will be large enough to divide and replant in new areas of the yard.

Clockwise from top left: coneflower, pineapple mint, potentilla, rudbeckia Indian summer

Sweet corn, juicy tomatoes, smoky bacon, and fragrant basil make a superb summer salad.  Serve with grilled chicken, fish, or steak and crusty bread for sopping up the juices.

Summer succotash

Makes about 7 cups, serving 6-8

4 thick or 6 thin slices bacon

1 1/2 lbs. fresh shell beans in pod (or use 1 1/2 c. shelled, frozen lima or soybeans)

1 small sweet onion, finely chopped

Kernels from 4 ears fresh corn (about 4 c.)

1 1/2 lbs. tomatoes, seeded and chopped

10 basil leaves, thinly sliced

2 tsp. apple cider vinegar

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Cook bacon in a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat until crisp.  Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.  If you’re using fresh beans, shell them while the bacon cooks.  If you’re using frozen beans, pour a kettle of boiling water over them to thaw, then drain.  Place beans in a large mixing bowl.

Pour off all but 2 tbsp. fat from skillet, raise heat to medium-high, and cook onion and corn with a pinch of salt until just tender, about 4 minutes.

Add onion and corn, tomatoes, basil, and vinegar to bowl with beans.  Crumble in bacon.  Toss well, taste, and season with pepper and additional salt, as needed.  Serve immediately.

Planting is nearly finished for the season in our ever-expanding herb and vegetable (and as of this year, fruit!) garden.  It’s been a busy month.  To last year’s perennial herb patch of mint, sage, and lavender I added oregano and lemon thyme.  An especially sunny spot along a side fence is now home to a black raspberry bush (coming soon to keep it company:  a strawberry barrel!).  And we installed a second, 4×6-foot vegetable bed, terraced below an identical bed built last year in the sunniest corner of the yard.

Clockwise from top left: pineapple mint; black raspberry; lemon thyme; sage & mint

I planted the first vegetable box with English and sugar snap peas, three kinds of pole beans (French gold, rattlesnake, and purple), red and green leaf lettuce, mache, dill, red and white onions, and white radishes.  The second box has basil, parsley, cilantro, pickling cucumbers, red bell peppers, and 6 tomato plants (black cherry, sungold, san marzano, sweet plum, and two heirloom varieties).

Clockwise from top left: cucumber seedling; peas; lettuce; beans, radishes, onions, dill

And aside from a bunch of daffodils that never bloomed, this season’s perennial flowers are off to a delightful start.

Clockwise from top left: creeping phlox; armeria red ballerina; bachelor's button; wildflowers salvaged from a 2009 preschool potting project

Packed into my garden among the winding cucumber vines and towering tomato plants, basil is taking over.  I’ve tried growing this quintessential summer herb in years past without success.  Instead of producing full, lush bouquets, my young plants grew spindly and yellow, yielding barely enough leaves for one insalata caprese.  This year, I learned the secret to an ample basil harvest:  regular pruning.  To get your single-stemmed, young basil plant to branch out, pinch off the top set of leaves and few inches of stem just above the second set of leaves.  As the plant grows, it will branch from the pinch point.  Once the new branches each have a few sets of leaves, you can pinch their stems in the same fashion.  This produces a large, bushy plant that you can harvest at will — just make sure you always pinch off stems immediately above a set of leaves.

What to do with the copious fruits of my new-found knowledge?  Versatile, freezable pesto is an obvious choice.  We have no pignoli or Parmesan in our now nut- and dairy-free household, so I gambled that a simplified version using just basil, garlic, olive oil, and salt would be good enough.  Indeed it is!  What my sauce lacks in the earthy richness of the original it makes up for with a bright, peppery zing.  Use it in any way you would use traditional pesto — with pasta and grilled, sauteed, or fresh vegetables, on pizza, with chicken, or drizzled over thickly sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese.

Basil-garlic sauce

Yield:  Makes about 1 c.

8 c. fresh basil leaves (from 2 fat bunches), loosely packed

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

Combine basil, garlic, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.  With machine running, slowly drizzle in oil.  You want a loose and spoonable — but not excessively oily — consistency.  If puree is too thick, add a bit more oil a tablespoon at a time.

Basil-garlic sauce keeps for up to 5 days in the fridge, or about 3 months in the freezer.

We ate it this week tossed with pasta, chicken, and cherry tomatoes from the garden, and on a pizza with sauteed zucchini and red onions (add fresh ricotta or mozzarella, if you like).

I’m not an impulsive person by nature, but take me to a farm stand in mid-August and I get as wide-eyed and flush-faced as another woman would stepping in front of a sale rack full of shoes.  Before my brain has caught up to my eyes I’m loading my basket with all manner of freshly-picked produce.  It’s not until I spread my haul out on the kitchen counter that I start thinking about what exactly I’m going to do with so many vegetables.

This weekend, it was a 10-lb. crate of glossy, red plum tomatoes — for $6! — that bewitched me.  The sturdy, relatively dry-fleshed plum varieties (Roma and San Marzano are two) are better for cooking than salads, so after two pizzas and a batch of oven-dried tomatoes, I turned the remaining 6 lbs. into sauce.

Making sauce from fresh tomatoes is a bit more work than making it from canned — you have to blanch and peel them first — but the results are ethereally light and sweet and well worth a bit of extra effort.

Fresh plum tomato and basil sauce

Yield:  Makes about 2 qts.

6 lbs. plum tomatoes (about 2 dozen big ones)

1/4 c. olive oil

1 yellow onion, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes (or more or less, to taste)

Two handfuls fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Using a sharp paring knife, score an X in the bottom of each tomato.  Blanch tomatoes in boiling water for about 90 seconds, then drain and immediately plunge into a large bowl of ice water.  Slip skins off tomatoes, peeling from the scored end toward the stem end.  Core and finely dice.

Warm a large pot over medium heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add onion.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened and just starting to color, about 8-10 minutes.  Add garlic, pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt.  Cook, stirring, for another minute or two.  Add diced tomatoes and another pinch of salt, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook gently for about 10 minutes, until tomatoes are soft and somewhat collapsed.  Stir in basil, season with black pepper and additional salt if necessary, and serve.

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