Summer’s coming to a close, and before it does we wanted to give you a peek into our backyards, our kitchens, and our dinner plates. Summer in the Pioneer Valley is amazing, due in no small part to its bounty of fresh local food offerings — and as a team of natural products aficionados and organic food champions, it just might be our favorite time of the year. Here’s what we’ve been picking, sauteing, and enjoying these last few months.
Tomatoes: A Love Language
I married into tomatoes. My mother-in-law Jan is a great gardener, and behind her house, up on a hill in the woods of Northfield, Massachusetts, are several garden beds.
Last year, those beds were full of flowers, grown for our wedding. The years before, and this year again, they’re dedicated to tomatoes. Maybe some other vegetables, sure, but mainly tomatoes.
It’s a community crop long before my husband and I are the lucky recipients — Jan’s close friend Tom is passionate about growing, and cultivates a wide range of heirloom tomato starts. Every season, he provides a wide variety of seedlings for her garden. And they grow, all shapes, sizes, and varieties.
Yesterday, a new yield was dropped off for us — a boxful of golds and reds and oranges and greens, more tomatoes than we have the culinary creativity to eat all by ourselves. “I think it’s time for a tomato party,” I say to my husband, mentally adding mozzarella and basil to the grocery list.
It’s one of the great perks of our area, being surrounded by opportunities for locally grown produce. CSAs abound in the Pioneer Valley, bi-weekly farmers markets offer everything from mushrooms to freshly-laid eggs, and farm stands dot the roadside all summer.
But for me, nothing beats the tomatoes.
Don’t Settle For Inferior Toast Toppings
I am a fan of anything that goes well on toast. At one time, that included avocados, but I, like you, have forked and mushed my way through piles of avocado and spread its uninspired greenness on my multigrain — and I’m just tired of hearing about how great it is like it’s the only toast topper out there.
Sometimes, after eating “avocado toast” I would feel very alive and healthy — at others I would just feel very oily and beaten down. Luckily, I have solution to the avocado toast problem — it came to me in Brooklyn during the summer of 2009.
One of my closest friends had an apartment with rooftop access and a roommate from France; Nicolas had recently moved from Lyon and started a garden of gallon buckets on his new apartment’s roof. There were tomatoes, squash, peppers, herbs, a valiant attempt at several berries, and a few types of radish. Nicolas was a wonderful chef, though often I would catch him eating something very simple — thin slices of pink radish that he would dip into softened butter sprinkled with black pepper.
He would eat this snack at all times of day and, sometimes, even on toast. This was my breakthrough: I’ve since taken this snack idea for myself and eat it frequently throughout the summer. You may think it’s all about the butter, but the fresh radish is the real magic here.
So, do yourself a favor: find some good bread, spread on generous amounts of butter, slice your local radishes and layer them on. Finish off with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. If you must, add avocado under the radish.
Anyway you pronounce it, it’s still ridiculously rad
The signs of summer beginning are many, but what marks the heart of summer for me is radicchio. You can pronounce it correctly (ra-dick-io), but I prefer to emphasize the “ch,” so it ends “cheeo” and rhymes with my favorite Italian word ciao — but I digress.
When radicchio arrives at my CSA, I know I’m about to enjoy at least six weeks of this beautiful and surprising lettuce. My love for radicchio is tied in completely with my love for my CSA and love for summer.
Here’s why. About ten years ago, Farmer Dan who runs my CSA, tried to grow radicchio as an experiment. It flopped and all that came out were a few paltry heads. He could have quit but he tried again the next year. A little better, but still pretty pathetic. Talking to him, we both wanted to see if it could be a real crop for the membership. By the third year there were actually some nice heads, looking something like what you see in the grocery store. It lasted for about a week. Then next year 3 weeks and so on.
Every time I pick up my radicchio, I think of it as the little red head of lettuce that could. I appreciate its beauty and taste all the more knowing that it took belief and work to make it what it is. Its first arrival is usually in early to mid-July, the heart of summer, and the last of the radicchio comes in early September.
But what I love most about it is its versatile taste. It has a slight bitter taste when raw, great to add for a summer salad. It sweetens when I pour a hot olive oil dressing onto it, and it can be thrown on the grill and then sprinkled with oil after.
It’s also one of those vegetables that becomes more beautiful as you peel off the lettuce leaves, becoming more wine red as you get to the center, the white ribs pronounced and bright. Ridiculous rad-icheeo!
The bittersweet burden of being a sweet corn lover
For New Englanders, sweet corn is both a staple of Summer meals and a living indicator of the change in seasons. For me, seeing the dried corn fields of Fall brings up tender memories of taking my (now grown) children to Mike’s Maze. While I cherish these memories, I must confess that they come with a certain sadness — you see, I’m a sweet corn fanatic.
I love sweet corn and I’m convinced that we grow the absolute best sweet corn in the world right here in the Pioneer Valley. Now, admittedly, I’ve never eaten it anywhere else, but knowing that we’re ground zero for sweet corn production in New England, I feel okay making this claim anyway.
For most of my life, I was a sweet corn purest. I’d eat it completely plain; no salt or butter ever touched my perfect corn. I would daringly tell my friends, “Sweet corn from The Valley doesn’t need any accompaniment — it is completely perfect as it is.” Then, one day, everything changed.
On a trip to Portland, Maine, I stumbled on a “fast food” restaurant called b.good. b.good creates healthy, locally sourced meals. I happened to visit just as they were changing their menu options for Summer. On their menu was a dish that immediately caught my eye: grilled local corn with queso fresco and jalapeño ranch, a nod to the traditional Mexican street food elote. The purest in me was skeptical, how could these toppings — however delicious — improve upon the perfection of sweet local corn?
In one bite, my life changed; b.good’s grilled corn was magical. In that instant, I went from being a sweet corn purest to being a sweet corn evangelist. Yes! Everyone should eat sweet corn — with toppings! Fall may make me nostalgic, but I’ve got even more to look forward to when Summer comes around again.