Monday, October 24, 2011

UnRecipe: Summer Retrospective and a Hearty Welcome to Fall

It of course comes as no surprise to anyone that summer has Peaced-Out. The golden hues of autumn are literally setting the trees ablaze in color, there's a distinctive nip in the air, and I spent part of this past weekend covered in dirt and smelly stuff, putting our vegetable garden "to bed" for the winter, turning and amending the soil with our collected compost for the year and planting what I hope are the last of the future spring bulbs I had on order. Digging around in the dirt and causing mass hysteria to the local earthworm community, I thought of the summer goodness we were able to enjoy, from our own garden as well as our CSA Box o' Mystery Goodness (which I believe will continue through winter, but no idea what we'll be getting beyond mountains of kale).

Peach and nectarine crostata - farewell, Summer! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Some of the last truly summer dishes I made this year included making some desserts with what felt like the swan song of stone fruit from our CSA delivery and enjoying fresh heirloom tomatoes from our own garden. We received a bunch of peaches and nectarines in one delivery, but you could tell they were pretty firm, you didn't get a heady scent from the fruit implying ripeness and probably picked early, before they could get super-sweet. I know you can bag-ripen the fruit and let the sugars develop further, but I was also getting ready to head out of town and didn't want to be wondering what to do with several pounds' worth of super-ripe fruit before getting out of Dodge. Desserts are some of the best ways to use a surplus of fruit, and the underripeness I think helps with baking, as there's not too much excess liquid and the dessert isn't overly sweet. I made two things, a regular pie and a crostata, sort of a rustic cross between a pie and a tart. I had too much fruit to pile into a single pie, and most pie dough recipes provide enough to make two bottom pie shells. I like crostatas as they're desserts you can make in a pinch, with just about any fruit, and it's meant to be imperfect, since you're not using any special dishes or molds to make it. You literally roll the pie dough flat, lay your filling evenly in the center, leaving enough room to fold the excess perimeter of dough over to create a barrier to hold everything in. Brush an egg wash or some milk on the exposed dough and sprinkle with some large sugar crystals to give it sparkle before baking it off. Not that pies are particularly fussy, but crostatas are even more easy and basic, and the finished dessert literally frames the fruit filling, so it truly celebrates your ingredients.

Stone fruit celebration - desserts with the last of the summer goods - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I know everyone loves the pretty lattice-work of a classic pie. I've done it a few times and it's lovely. But lately I really like seeing the fruit in a pie, so I skip covering it up and just make a crumble crust to top the pie. I use oats, sugar and some flour (basic fruit crumble topping; can use from any favorite recipe), which help give it a little crunch along the top, it helps absorb extra liquid from the fruit, but you still see the filling in all its rustic glory. I also don't trim off the excess overhang when you lay the bottom shell into the pie pan. I just add the fruit filling and take the excess dough and fold it over, so it keeps the fruit contained along the edges and you keep that unfinished, rough-hewn look. When you brush it with some milk or an egg wash, it browns nicely and helps keep the shape of the pie slice when you cut it, just like with the crostata. Again, it's that whole rustic, unfussy look I've been gravitating towards. It's due in part to a bit of laziness and a desire to see the ingredients and know what you're eating.

Enjoying tomatoes in the raw or slow cooked - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I got really excited when I harvested this year's tomato crop. And I mean REALLY excited, because were I to be judged as a fit garden-mommy, the Garden Protective Services would have to step in and haul my precious veggies away. I was a baaaaaad garden mom. I picked out several different heirloom tomato plants of all sorts and sizes, getting several from the local farmers markets. I got varieties like Early Girl, for its fast maturation, some smaller varieties like a cherry-sized Black Krim, as the wee ones usually can be harvested earlier, and some other ones that had equally short maturation periods as we already knew the summer would be a short growing period. I had all these good intentions, got the soil all ready for tomatoes since the plants can be a bit of a drain on nutrients, but when the heat of summer really hit, I admit, I got lazy with watering and for all intensive purposes, I didn't deserve to harvest anything. Granted, I didn't get a booming crop of ripe tomatoes, but I got enough, including one big fat red heirloom, to make a couple of sauces and get a nice summer salad. The Garden Gods smiled upon me with amazing kindness!

I don't know if it's normal to pair fresh tomato with canteloupe, but I really wanted to enjoy the big red heirloom tomato in its raw, fresh goodness. I sliced the tomato and shuffled it with slices of fresh canteloupe that came from the CSA. A sprinkle of salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar was all it needed, and I layered it with crumbles of goat cheese. It was sort of a riff on the traditional Caprese salad, minus the fresh mozzarella and basil, but the canteloupe's sweetness was so nice with the fresh tomato and the tangy flavor of the vinegar and cheese.

I roasted the rest of the tomatoes I had, making a Bolognese style sauce with some other CSA vegetables, which topped roasted portobello mushrooms. That wasn't meant to be a particularly fancy dinner, I just had a wicked craving for lasagne one night, didn't want to get filled up on pasta, so made a hearty sauce that could go on a big mushroom and shaved a pile of Parmesan over the whole thing. This was around the crunch time of getting work done before leaving town -- dinners during that time are like an epicurean version of Gone in 60 Seconds, where instead of boosting cars, I'm busting out fast-paced meals that are using up whatever's in the fridge and can be good next-day lunches the Mister can bring to work.

Even if we weren't struck with a spoil of summer's bounty, we enjoyed every bite! - Photos by Wasabi Prime 

As with most things, you never get to enjoy your own party, and our meals and desserts using the last of summer's sweet goodness were fleeting and I probably didn't enjoy as much of it as I'd have liked. A combination of being rushed before a vacation and the ingredients being in short supply were the dueling culprits. The crostata was given away to a friend for a game night. The pie was really good, and I had a couple of slices, but I knew the Mister appreciated the sweet treat even more, so let him whittle that down. I took my lion's share of the fresh tomato and canteloupe salad, but that was the last of the large ripe tomatoes. But I'm not sad about not having weeks worth of summer's fresh bounty on our table. I've had this discussion with others before -- while the downside of cooking with whatever's in season means you are at the whim of whatever's fresh, even if there's not much of it, but the upswing is of course you make the most of every bite, however fleeting.

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