Friends, hello. It is early September and thus the height of the harvest season in our corner of the world. And though the tomatoes are finally, finally coming on after an unseasonably cool August, I find that I’m struggling to work up the enthusiasm I typically have during this time of abundance.
Right now seems to be a time of sadness for just about everyone. Not only are people suffering in our country and of course across the world, but closer to home friends and family are coping with grief, misfortune, illness, despair and all sorts of darkness. I struggle mightily (and often unsuccessfully) not to carry the weight of the world, so at times like these I always find myself back in the kitchen. We soldier on, doing our best; no matter what, we all need to eat.
A habanero pepper plant after a rainstorm.
One of my biggest challenges in my cooking classes is providing clear, usable recipes, because more often than not, I don’t cook from them. I know well that everyone wants recipes – especially if you’re just starting out in the kitchen, recipes offer valuable handholding and a sense of regimented calm and comfort, a plan to follow. What I ultimately try to teach, however, is the confidence to cook without recipes – to improvise, to adjust, to have faith in the process and your own palate and that the end result might not be exactly what you planned but will still, most likely, be delicious. And summer and early fall are certainly one of the easiest times to cook without recipes, since you can let the produce guide you.
The before and after: shishitos raw…
…and shishitos cooked, with flaky sea salt (of course).
As for improvisational cooking from the garden: let’s talk shishitos, just for a moment. These small peppers burst onto the culinary scene some years back as an appetizer in Japanese restaurants. The tip of the pepper is thought to resemble the head of a lion, shishi in Japanese; as such, their full name is shishitogarashi but is typically shortened to shishito. They’ll eventually turn red, like most peppers if left to ripen long enough, but they’re usually harvested green, about the size of a pinky finger. No recipe needed for these: crank up the heat on a cast-iron pan, drizzle with a tiny bit of neutral oil, like canola, and toss the peppers in just until they char and soften. Serve with soy sauce and flaky salt. I leave mine pretty crunchy, but you can cook them until they collapse, too, if that’s your preference.
Cucumbers are another summer favorite; like tomatoes, the difference between harvesting your own and buying sad, bitter supermarket versions is night and day. These little ones are theoretically designed for pickling, but to be honest I end up eating most of them raw. Thinly sliced or cut into chunks, with slivers of red onion; they’re dressed lightly with rice vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Plus, any variety of bright, fresh herbs that I might feel compelled to use. Simple, fresh, crunchy, tangy and satisfying.
Unlike some, I am never tired of zucchini. Growing vegetables in our high-plains desert can be so challenging that I’m gratified by anything that produces so much for so little effort. Plus, zucchini is infinitely versatile, and it never goes to waste in my kitchen. Looking for an interesting spread for toast? Try this recipe from a talented Oregon farmer and home cook.
This summer, most of my zucchini starred in this Ottolenghi classic: lightly grilled with olive oil, then layered with fresh basil, toasted hazelnuts and slivers of Parmigiano, drizzled with hazelnut oil and white balsamic. I pretty much just gave you the recipe, but if you want more specific guidance, go here.
And these beauties? Nothing more than sliced, on a plate, with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. That’s it. Growing tomatoes in Colorado – and actually having them survive until harvest – is such a labor of love that it’s a crime to do anything more.
Take care of yourselves, friends, and make something delicious and nourishing to eat. Good food matters.