Seven Stars of Summer
By Jessica Prentice
Jessica Prentice, Maggie Gosselin, and Sarah Klein created the Local Foods Wheel to help us all enjoy the freshest, tastiest, and most ecologically sound food choices month by month. Here are Jessica’s seven summer favorites. You can learn more about the Local Foods Wheel and the group’s other ventures at localfoodswheel.com.
I can’t wait for green beans to come into season, and once they do, I eat lots of them! I rinse them, snap off the stem ends, and give them a simple sauté-steam: Heat some butter or olive oil in a skillet, add the beans, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then pour in a splash of water and pop on a lid so they steam for a few minutes until tender. Add a chiffonade of fresh mint at the end for a light and fresh effect; or go the other way and add an abundance of garlic to the fat at the beginning for an intense and savory side dish. Our markets also carry yellow and purple snap beans, and it’s lovely to do a mixture of two or three colors together.
While avocados are available year-round, summer is when you might find some that are grown locally. These are generally on the smaller side and may take more time to ripen, but if you get them at their peak moment, they are delicious. I will eat them any which way: spread onto toast in the morning, cubed and added to salad, mashed into a simple guacamole on tacos or quesadillas, or just cut in half, pit removed, sprinkled with salt, and eaten with a spoon right out of the skin.
Harvested locally at its fragrant peak in June, lavender comes in many varieties, including some that are more herbal and less “soapy” in flavor so they’re good for culinary use. Some lavender farmers who sell the herb fresh and dried at the market also bring lavender hydrosol (also known as lavender water), which is made in small stills that extract the essential oil. At Three Stone Hearth, we’ve been using these hydrosols to create a line of lacto-fermented honey coolers, which warm the cockles of my locavore heart. Made of raw local honey, whey from local Straus yogurt, filtered water, and a pinch of sea salt, and flavored with the locally distilled aromatic hydrosols, this is the closest you can get to an indigenous soft beverage in our overly civilized society. When I get home late on a summer evening, lavender is the flavor I crave to help me make the transition from workday to a good night’s rest. It somehow combines in one delicious glassful the soothing qualities of an herbal tea, the complexity of a fancy cocktail, and the relaxing scents of a lavender bath. Aahh . . .
I know summer is really here when I see blueberries at the market. You could say I’m a minimalist, a purist, or maybe just lazy, since I rarely do more than simply rinse the berries, put them in a bowl, and then eat them with my fingers one after the other. If I’m trying to dress them up for company, I’ll serve them in a pretty dish with a pitcher of cream and little else. As the short blueberry season winds down, I buy extras and put them in the freezer to enjoy at other times of year, and I’m always glad I remembered to do it!
We are blessed in the Bay Area to have many ecologically oriented ranchers raising beef cattle close by and bringing 100 percent grass-fed beef to our markets. Many consumers are stepping up to support these ranchers by joining their meat CSAs or taking the opportunity to save money by buying a quarter or half an animal that was harvested on the farm itself—arguably the most humane option. “Grass-fed” refers to the meat of animals that are never sent to a feedlot, but rather fed on pasture and hay until the time they are harvested for market. As a cook, the main thing to know is that grass-fed beef is less marbled with fat than grain-fed, and so it fares better with less cooking than you might be accustomed to. Grass-fed ground beef is easy and affordable and a great place to start. Mix it with salt and pepper, form into burgers, and grill or pan-fry for that satisfying classic.
Mulberries are extremely delicate and nearly impossible to transport, which explains why this legendary fruit is very rarely found at market. If you want to get your hands on some, poke around and you might be lucky to find a feral tree or one in a neighbor’s yard that’s producing abundantly. However, you’ll have to come at the right time to harvest them, since you will be competing with the birds. There are two main types—red and white—and both are edible, delicious, and nourishing. White mulberries are considered therapeutic in traditional Chinese medicine. Eat them fresh, freeze them, make a syrup, or cook with them. This is one of those rare chances to forage from the landscape and get something that just can’t be found on the market!
If you are not used to considering cactus pads as food, think again. Nopales are delicious, and with their unusually high concentration of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, they’re also very nutritious. Nopal cacti thrive in our climate and many people plant them in their gardens. The young pads are harvested easily with a knife, but make sure to wear thick gloves, since the tiny spines will be painful if they get into your skin. You’ll need to remove the spines before the pads will be edible, so keep the gloves on (or use a pair of tongs) as you cut away the spines with a pairing knife or the tip of a vegetable peeler. (Or skip all the work and buy de-spined nopales at a market.) One nopal pad goes a long way. Slice or cube it and then simmer in water for 10–15 minutes. Strain well, add some salt and a squeeze of lime and you’ll have “nopalitos,” a delicious addition to tacos or other Mexican dishes. Try bringing nopalitos to a summer potluck, or bring raw nopales pads to throw on the grill at a party. They are a great conversation piece!
Tacos with Grassfed Beef, Nopalitos, and Avocado
Beef and nopales are delicious together. In this recipe, the beef preparation should be on the drier side, making a nice balance for the mucilaginous and slightly tart nopalitos.
For the nopalitos:
1 nopal cactus pad, de-spined and cut into ½-inch cubes
Sea salt to taste
Juice of ½ lime
2 teaspoons olive oil
For the beef:
1 small onion, minced
2 tablespoons bacon drippings, lard, or olive oil
½ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
⅛–½ teaspoon chipotle powder or cayenne, to taste
1 pound ground grass-fed beef
1 chicken liver, finely minced*
1–2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
½ teaspoon Eatwell Farm smoked chile salt, Allstar Organics Applewood smoked salt, or regular sea salt
For the lettuce filling:
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of ½ lime
¼–½ teaspoon sea salt
1 small head iceberg lettuce, finely shredded
½ bunch fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
For the tacos:
8 large corn tortillas (I like Primavera’s)
2–3 avocados, cut into cubes and put in a bowl
You can add any of these to the taco bar, but be careful not to lose the nopalitos in an overabundance of toppings or flavors.
1 jalapeño chile, minced and put into a small dish
Sour cream or crème fraîche
Crumbled queso fresco (or grated cheese of choice)
Minced red onion or scallions
For the nopalitos: Cover nopal pieces with fresh water and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes, then drain through a strainer. Cover with fresh water and bring to a simmer again, cooking for another 5–8 minutes or until tender. Drain again and return nopales to the pot. Toss with olive oil, lime juice, and sea salt to taste. Keep covered and warm.
For the beef: Melt bacon drippings (my preference) or other fat in a skillet. Add onions and sauté, stirring, for 1 or 2 minutes. Add oregano, cumin, and chipotle or cayenne and stir. Add ground beef, liver, garlic, and salt. Cook, breaking up the meat and stirring, until no pink remains. Cover and keep warm.
For the lettuce filling: In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the egg yolk, olive oil, lime juice, and sea salt Add lettuce and cilantro and toss. Set aside.
For the tacos: Heat the tortillas by putting them directly over the gas flame turned to medium low and flipping them with tongs when they get hot on one side and begin to scorch just a bit. You can also heat them in a tortilla pan, which I would especially recommend if you don’t have a gas stove. Keep tortillas warm by wrapping them in a cloth napkin as you take them off the burner.
Put the warm tortillas, warm beef, warm nopalitos, bowl of lettuce filling, and the bowl of fresh avocado cubes out on the table along with minced jalapeño, sour cream or crème fraîche, grated cheese, tomatoes, onion, and whatever strikes your fancy. These are great served with Mexican rice and refried beans, too! Each person makes his or her own tacos with the fillings offered.
Serves 3 (or 4 if served with accompaniments like beans and rice).
*Note: Whenever I make ground meat dishes at home, I add a minced chicken liver. It lends a subtle depth of flavor, but the main reason I do it is nutritional: liver is a powerhouse of nutrient density. I use an ice cube tray to freeze chicken livers: Put each one in a separate depression, then wrap the tray in a plastic bag before placing it in the freezer. Whenever I want a liver, I just pop one out like an ice cube, and within a few minutes it is thawed just enough to mince easily. This is a great way to sneak liver into the diet of a child or someone who dislikes the taste of liver. (I have one of each at home!)
Jessica Prentice is the author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection and co-founder of Three Stone Hearth Community Supported Kitchen in Berkeley. www.threestonehearth.com.