So Long, So Long (summer’s hold is fleeting)

Every late summer for the past several years my friend, Judith, has invited me for a day of produce shopping at her favorite local farm stands.  Late summer most years means the end of August, the height of tomato season.  Tomatoes on pizzas, in salads, with basil and fresh mozzarella, chopped up for spicy salsas, added to cooked sauces– I’ll happily daydream away the hour’s drive to Concord thinking about every which way I will prepare and eat my tomato haul.  This year, however, Judith and I didn’t get our trek planned until mid-September.  The tomatoes by then were on the wane, yielding center stage at Hutchins Organic Farm to their apples, squashes, dark leafy greens, and various root vegetables.

It was September 20 and summer may not have officially ended according to my calendar, but summer, my friends, was over for me.  In an instant.

I love everything about summer:  the heat, the beach, long days unhindered by a school schedule.  I love watching my skin bronze up, as unpopular as that may be.  I love shorts and sandals and being freed from bundling in layers of sweaters and scarves and gloves and fleece.  I really love summer produce: the first tender lettuces, early peas, beans, strawberries, blueberries, yellow and zucchini squashes, cherries, plums, peaches, butter and sugar corn.

And tomatoes.

I have a very basic, near primal love for vine-ripened garden tomatoes, probably because the sharp vegetal smell of one just picked can transport me to an exact spot in my childhood backyard and those truly carefree hot days.  That smell is better than any time machine promises to be; it’s my very own buttery Madeleine.

That may be why, in my mind, I have long thought of my shopping trip with Judith as “the tomato trek.”  We’ve gone to Hutchins and Verrill farms where they have every size and shape and hue of heirloom tomato, and I’ always go home with loads, sometimes too many to count and too many to eat, a number edging into that danger zone of watching some of them turn into fruit fly fodder before I have a chance to incorporate them into meals.

Alas, the only tomatoes I brought home on the 20th were a pint box of deliciously sweet yellow cherry tomatoes and three yellow slicers from Hutchins Farm.  Not my usual cull, far from it, because there was hardly a tomato to be had.  Hardly any familiar summer produce at all.

And although Hutchins Farm’s bin after overflowing bin of kale, chard, cauliflower, broccoli cabbage, potatoes, and onions took my breath away, it was not in the best way at first.  Suddenly I was standing face to face with change, seasonal change, a change I had purposely avoided thinking about because leaving summer behind made me sad.  Gone were the big, fresh, tomato-driven salads and the zippy peach salsas I like to serve with our dinner salmon and the fresh corn kernels I love to toss into a side dish of toasted bulgur wheat.

Meaning, really:  gone the warmth and ease of summer, something I find so hard to give up, even for a crisp and colorful New England fall.

Although time seemed to stand still as I looked around me, I don’t think I had stopped in my tracks at the farm stand for more than a few seconds before I felt my attitude begin to turn over, slowly, like a car’s engine finally catching on a cold day, but turn over it did.  Okay, I said to myself, you’re here with a good friend and it’s a beautiful day. You’re surrounded by beautiful food grown by thoughtful people– Jane, allow your attitude to change with the season.

That barely perceptible self-tweak was all I needed to nudge me into fall.  That, and the bounty of the farm stand.  Food and the excitement of working with it can usually hasten my attitude adjustment.

I began anticipating cooler days, not loving the inevitability but not fearing it either.  I would accept that the fresh, light, clean flavors of summer were moving aside to make way for fall’s winy, spicy, complex ones.  Salsas would be yielding to stews, grilled meats to braises, citrus notes to complex peppery-anise-musky ones– food to keep us warm from the cold, and a more complicated kind of cooking that would help to give shape to the impending longer, darker days.

Summer’s foods and preparations – slicing a tomato, tossing a salad, shucking corn, lighting a last minute barbecue grill – unchain us from the kitchen a bit, afford us some freedom to experience the weather and every second of daylight.  Cool weather cooking reins us back in as we spend time peeling and cooking root vegetables or sautéing down sturdy greens.  The roasting, braising, stewing, assembling casseroles, simmering pots of soup or spaghetti sauce of fall and winter give us just that little extra challenge.  Cooking like this requires creative thought and time, lots of both, for planning, preparation and execution.

But what better opportunity than a cold, short weekend day (or any day of the week), a day so cold and dark that you’d rather be inside than out, for cooking?  Sure, you could get lost on the internet for a couple of hours, or you could hunker down in front of the TV…but why not flex your creativity muscles in the kitchen instead?

In the middle of Hutchins, finally freed from my expectations, my creativity went into overdrive:  kale and meaty mushrooms could be turned into a ragout, white turnips roasted with fingerling potatoes alongside a fresh chicken, cauliflower pureed into a creamy curried soup, rutabagas mashed and used as a bed for saucy braised short ribs.

The rutabaga actually was my best inspiration that day.  Above their wooden crate was this sign:  “Rutabaga, the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables.”  Meaning, I suppose, this yellow turnip gets no respect. Turnips white or yellow are humble and unassuming, so lowly in fact that they are often passed over for showier offerings with better names.  Now that’s a shame.  The next time you pass a rutabaga in your market, pick it up.  If you’re lucky enough to find an organic one it won’t be waxed and its skin will feel soft and appealing, not rough and gnarly as you might expect.  Let it’s hint of apricot yellow flesh make you pause, as I did, to consider how delicious it could be when mashed with butter, salt and pepper, and served with your favorite fall stew.  Rutabaga makes a peppery and slightly sharp alternative to mashed potatoes, holding its own with bold favors.

In the end I didn’t make stew.  A few days after bringing home the rutabaga, I looked at it resting in the fridge and thought immediately of duck.  Sliced medium rare duck breast served over the mashed yellow turnip with some kind of dried fruit sauce (dried cherry and port, as it turned out, cherries being the fruit on hand) served on top.  Maybe a side of braised chard with crisped bacon.  The final dinner, a collaborative effort, was even better than I imagined it would be, full of assertive flavor.  And the turnip was the star, ready for it’s close up, humble no longer.

Not humble but incredibly easy to make.  Here I offer three purees (or mashes) – rutabaga, cauliflower, white bean – for the fall and winter dishes you come up with.  All make a nice change from potatoes, so have fun experimenting with them, mixing and matching with different meat or vegetable dishes.

Mashed Rutabaga

  • 1 medium rutabaga, quartered
  • 1 Tbsp. softened butter
  • salt and pepper to taste

With a paring knife, cut off the outer skin of the rutabaga about ¼ “ down into the flesh to remove all the fibrous parts.  When each quarter has been peeled, chop each into eighths and place the pieces into a saucepan filled with cold water to cover and then some.  Salt the cold water, cover the pan, and place over high heat to bring the water to a boil.  Once boiling, crack the lid a bit and reduce the heat so the water comes to a steady simmer.  Simmer rutabaga pieces until very tender when pierced with a fork.  This will take anywhere from 25-35 minutes.  When tender, drain the rutabaga, reserving some of the cooking liquid in a bowl or glass measuring cup.  Return drained vegetable to the still hot pan, add the butter, and begin mashing pieces with a fork.  Taste for saltiness, then add salt and pepper to taste.  Using an electric hand mixer beat the rutabaga a bit longer until a bit fluffy.  Unlike mashed potatoes, rutabaga will not get very smooth.  But if it looks a bit dry, thin out with some of the reserved cooking water.  Can be kept over a low flame or a double boiler for a while as you assemble the rest of your meal.

Cauliflower Puree

  • 1 head cauliflower, 2 to 2 1/2 pounds
  • 1 quart chicken or vegetable broth, or water
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • salt and pepper to taste

Pull the leaves off the cauliflower, quarter it, and remove the wedge of core in each section. Separate the florets into smaller, regular pieces (about 1 1/2 inch) and put them in a saucepan. Cover with broth or water (I like the extra flavor of the broth, but it’s not necessary), and cook for about 15 minutes, or until you can poke a paring knife into the stems and and still feel a little firmness there.  You do not want mush, so start checking at 10 minutes. Stir the cauliflower well a few times so that it cooks evenly.  Drain, reserving the cooking liquid in a small bowl or glass measuring cup.  Put half of the cauliflower into a food processor, add about ¼ cup of the broth to it, then process until smooth.  Add the rest of the cauliflower on top, another couple Tbsp. of the broth and purée again,  stopping to scrape down the sides of the work bowl and stir the purée a few times.  Add more liquid only if needed.  The goal is smooth and silky with some body, not soupy. When you have the desired consistency, taste for seasoning then process in the butter and any needed salt and pepper through the feed tube. Again, this can be kept over a low flame or a double boiler for a while as you assemble the rest of your meal.  (Depending on what you serve with it, a pinch of curry powder or some grated parmesan cheese can also be added when processing with the butter.)

White Bean Puree

  • 1/2 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 good sized sprig of fresh rosemary
  • 2 15-ounce cans* cannellini (white kidney beans), rinsed well and drained
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Add beans, carrot, and rosemary to the saucepan along with the chicken broth. Set over medium heat, cover and bring to a simmer.  The goal here is not to cook the beans (they are cooked already), but to soften the carrot and rosemary. When simmering, keep covered and reduce heat to low.  Stir and check often over the next 20 minutes.  When the carrots are soft and the rosemary leaves are falling off the stem, remove from heat.  Puree mixture in processor or with a stick blender right in the pot. If this seems thick, you may thin it with extra broth.  Return to saucepan if necessary, taste, and correct seasoning with salt and pepper.  Drizzle top with olive oil but do not incorporate it at this point, cover, and keep puree warm over a double boiler until ready to serve.  Stir in olive oil just before serving.

*You can of course use dried beans that you have soaked overnight then cooked and drained.  You’ll need about 4 cups cooked beans.

©2009  Jane Ward