Time to put away the fondue pots, tapas crockery, and sushi mats. There's a brand-new entertaining theme taking over in cities from coast to coast: farmers market dinner parties. The idea is to prepare meals using locally produced, seasonal foods.
Can it really be true that what was a normal way of life during my Southern childhood has been repackaged as a novelty? The absurdity of such modern notions struck me as I swept up the shattered remains of tomato plants that had dangled upside-down over the back deck for months, only to crash-land.
It is time to get back to our roots. Right-side up, that is.
So I had friends over for something akin to a Sunday-night Alabama dinner in August. I invited them early in the evening to allow enough time to enjoy one another's company and still be home at a decent hour on a work night.
"It'll smell like a Southern house when you get here," I promised one of the guests, a New Orleans native.
Before the meal, I offered fried okra, also known as Southern popcorn, as a cocktail nibble instead of relegating those delectable pods to side-dish status. For a first course, I arranged baby lettuce hearts on individual salad plates and topped them with feta cheese and a mixture of crushed Purple Cherokee tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. Basil-marinated chicken breasts and salmon fillets were the main-course proteins. But there were so many vegetables, the meal would have been ample enough without them.
In fact, the menu reflected summer's produce highlights: heirloom tomatoes sliced and slathered with Boursin cheese and creme fraiche; a succotash of snap beans, corn, kale, and beet greens (never throw those out); fried corn; and a salad of beets, cucumbers, and yellow sun-drop tomatoes. Nectarines from Reid's or Toigo Orchards, both in Pennsylvania, took the place of the Chilton County peaches I might have used in Alabama to fashion the dessert, a take on creme brulee.
In deference to a vegetarian guest, I left the chunk of salt pork out of a green bean dish, but I couldn't bear to omit bacon from the fried corn. (By the way, it's called fried, but it's really sauteed and slow-cooked.)
Corn and tomatoes were mainstays at almost every meal in the summers of my youth. Menus fell into place depending on what came off a truck or got dropped off by neighbors who, Lord knew, had more tomatoes than they knew what to do with.
Even my grandfather and father, who ordinarily didn't participate in things culinary, made exceptions where corn was concerned. They would regularly return to their respective homes with paper sacks full of Hickory King, the beloved variety of corn back then. My grandfather would get up at dawn to buy it at the curb market, which was nothing more than a few random farmers selling crops out of their pickup trucks on a downtown street.
My version of a curb market takes place at a park in Washington on Saturday mornings. There are maybe 10 vendors at this producer-only market, but they are all choice. On a recent outing, it was easy to satisfy the Southern angle of my menu.
To a Southerner living up north, few sights are more welcome or less likely than a farmers market table filled with fresh okra, so I owe a debt of gratitude to Richfield Farm of Manchester, Md.
With okra, bigger is definitely not better. As I picked through pints and rearranged them to winnow out the large, stringy, pithy pieces and replace them with delicate smaller pods, a Jamaican customer lamented behind me, "You took all the good ones!"
Her mood lightened when I pointed out a large box of yet-to-be-displayed goods underneath the table.
"I'd have done the same thing," she assured me. "They're hard to find. Besides, sharing is overrated."
At $9 for three pints (barely a pound and a half) of okra, nostalgia was going to cost me. By the time I loaded up on wax and green beans and heirloom tomatoes, my bill there approached $40. Adding two whole chickens, a slab of bacon, and some produce from Truck Patch Farm (New Windsor, Md.), little gem lettuce, nectarines, and bunches of basil from Reid's Orchard (Orrtanna, Pa.), and tangy feta cheese from Keswick Creamery (Newburg, Pa.) brought my total outlay to over $90.
I had $40 in my pocket.
Not a problem. As many farmers markets do these days, mine accepts debit cards. Does food from the farmers market cost more than food from the grocery store? Yes. But do I have to trim and/or waste half of what I purchase at the farmers market, or throw anything out because it looked OK but had no taste? No.
That last bit is crucial for a summertime meal built on the integrity of its ingredients. Plus, simple recipes with relatively few ingredients make a happy host. I prepared the nectarine brulees, succotash, fried corn, beet salad, tomato crush, and basil puree a day in advance. The same-day work involved little more than grilling the chicken, prepping the sliced tomatoes, frying the okra, and some reheating. That meant the kitchen stayed fairly cool, a bonus on a sweltering day.
Two other bonuses: the opportunity to show off beautiful serving bowls and platters, and the leftover value of the foods they contained. Tomatoes with Boursin cheese, as it turns out, are revelatory on a lunchtime BLT. For dinner over the next few days I made penne pasta with basil grilled chicken, green beans, corn and greens tossed in a sauce of Boursin, creme fraiche, and chicken broth. It earned raves from my partner.
But the highest compliment came from my New Orleanian friend at my dinner. As I handed her a glass of wine in the kitchen, she looked up and sniffed around, sensing something familiar.
"Is that okra?" she drawled. Another few sniffs. "And corn?"
"Yes on both counts," I said.
She sighed and smiled brightly. "Oh, it smells just like home."
That's just what I wanted to hear.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 1/2 cups packed basil leaves
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Finely grated zest of half a lemon (1 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon water
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves, preferably with the first wing joint attached), about 10 ounces each
1. Fill a small bowl with ice water and an ice cube or two. Bring a small saucepan of water to boil over medium-high heat. Turn off the heat, then add the basil leaves and stir until they have wilted. Drain, then plunge the leaves into the ice-water bath to stop the cooking. Drain.
2. Have ready a large resealable plastic food storage bag. Combine the blanched basil, salt, lemon zest, pepper, and water in the bowl of a mini food processor or blender; puree until smooth. Use the puree to slather each chicken breast half on both sides. Place them in the plastic bag; seal and refrigerate for several hours or up to overnight.
3. Prepare the grill for direct and indirect heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the cooking area. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 4 or 5 seconds. Lightly coat the grill rack with oil and place it on the grill. Arrange the chicken breast halves skin side up on the indirect-heat side of the grill grate. Cover the grill (vents open) and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, until the interior temperature of the chicken registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove the grill lid and place the pieces skin side down over direct heat to crisp the skin and give it some char, which will take only a minute or two.
4. Cut each breast in half; transfer the chicken to a serving platter; cover loosely with aluminum foil and let the chicken rest for several minutes before serving.
Notes: Blanching the basil before pureeing it helps retain its bright green color. There is enough liquid in the basil and the chicken to act effectively as a brine, infusing flavor.
Because the chicken breasts are not immersed in an acidic liquid, they can endure an overnight basil bath in the refrigerator. But it is better to marinate the chicken breasts the morning of the day you plan to serve them.
Per serving: 252 calories, 38 grams protein, no carbohydrates, no sugar, 10 grams fat, 107 milligrams cholesterol, 357 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Makes 8 half-cup servings
5 medium (1 pound total) beets
3 medium (1 pound total) pickling cucumbers, peeled and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
1 cup sun-drop (yellow) tomatoes, cut in half
1/4 small red onion, cut into very thin half-moon slices (1/4 cup)
1/2 cup seasoned rice vinegar Leaves and tender stems from 3 or 4 stems cilantro, chopped (2 tablespoons)
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
1. Have ready a bowl of ice-cold water. Trim any beet stems to 2 inches and leave the roots intact. Wash the (unpeeled) beets well, then place them in a large saute pan. Cover with salted water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook for 30 minutes or until they can be easily pierced with a knife. Drain and submerge in the cold water. The skins and root ends will come off easily. Discard the beet tops with stems; cut the peeled beets in half vertically and then into 1/2-inch half-moon slices.
2. Combine the beets, cucumbers, tomato halves, onion, vinegar, cilantro, salt, and pepper in a large bowl; mix well. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed before serving.
Notes: You can use golden beets or a combination of gold and red ones for this salad. The red ones will color the other ingredients in the salad, but that's OK.
The salad can be made (and refrigerated) a day in advance.
Per serving: 47 calories, 2 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, no fat, no cholesterol, 189 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6 half-cup servingsEndTextStartText
1 1/2 pounds fresh young okra, stem ends trimmed, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices (about 3 cups)
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 cups canola oil, for fryingEndTextStartText
1. Place the okra in a 1-quart plastic food storage bag. Add the cornmeal, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and the pepper; seal and toss the okra to coat evenly. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes at room temperature to release its moisture.
2. Heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Line a medium bowl with several layers of paper towels.
3. Pour the okra into a strainer and shake (over the sink) to remove any excess cornmeal. Distribute the okra evenly in the hot oil. Use a long spoon or tongs to make sure all the pieces are submerged, then cook undisturbed for at least 5 minutes. Do not stir until the cornmeal coating has set, then fry for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring gently and occasionally so the okra gets evenly browned and cooked through. The okra flesh should be a dull greenish brown when done; if the color looks bright, the okra is not done. Remove from the heat.
4. Use a slotted spoon or skimmer to transfer the okra to the paper-lined bowl. While the okra is still hot, season it with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Note: Fried okra is best served right after it's made, but it can hold in a warming drawer or in a 180-degree oven for 30 to 60 minutes, placed in a paper-towel-lined bowl.
Per serving: 121 calories, 4 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 4 grams fat, no cholesterol, 402 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 8 half-cup servings
6 ears corn, shucked
2 or 3 slices (uncooked) bacon
4 large shallots, finely chopped (1 cup; may substitute red or yellow onion)
1 teaspoon dried thyme (may substitute 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
Chopped chives, for garnish (optional)
1. Use a serrated knife to cut the corn kernels off the cobs. Place them in a large bowl, breaking up any connected kernels with your fingers. Use the blade of a utility knife to scrape the cobs into the bowl of corn, releasing the pulp and milky liquid they still hold (to yield about 6 cups).
2. Line a plate with several layers of paper towels. Place the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook until crisp, then transfer to the lined plate to drain. Coarsely chop the bacon. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the skillet. Heat it over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 or 4 minutes, until lightly golden; while stirring, dislodge any browned bits on the bottom of the skillet. Add the corn, thyme, salt, and pepper to the pan; stir to combine. Add the water and reduce the heat to medium-low; cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, until the liquid looks lightly thickened rather than watery. Add the bacon and, if you'd like extra richness, the cream. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring as needed, for 5 to 10 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated.
3. Transfer to a serving bowl; sprinkle with chopped chives, if desired. Serve hot.
Notes: Scraping the cobs to release the milk and starch hidden there is the key to this dish. Use yellow, white or bicolor corn; the fresher and sweeter the better. The dish can be made (and refrigerated) up to 2 days in advance. Reheat in the microwave or on the stovetop until heated through.
Per serving: 158 calories, 5 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, 6 grams cholesterol, 390 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.