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 www.localfoodswheel.com .
I find leeks the most user-friendly of the alliums. They don’t burn my eyes like onions do, aren’t a lot of work for little meat like shallots, and don’t make my fingers smell for days like garlic. It’s true that they don’t store as well as onions, but if you’re a regular farmers’ market shopper, you can pick up leeks each week and keep them in the fridge for when you need them. Some people think they are a lot of work to clean, since they often have dirt stuck in their inner layers. This is due to the growing method. Leeks lie buried in soil as they grow, which blocks the sun from getting to the developing stalk, keeping the white portion long and dense. Cleaning is actually quite easy: Cut away the root end and the green, tough upper portion, then slice the remaining portion so it forms rings. Put these in a big bowl or pot of water and agitate with your hands to loosen the soil, which then falls to the bottom. Carefully lift (don’t pour!) the leeks out of the dirty water and drain in a colander. (It’s nice to pour that water over the plants in your garden, returning the bits of soil to the earth.) Leeks are wonderful in soups, frittatas, quiches, risottos, and braises. They go wonderfully with greens, roots and tubers, meats, rice, eggs, and almost any green herb, but especially thyme.
Praise the lard! I am so grateful that lard is finally losing its decades-long reputation of ill repute and regaining its rightful place as a delicious, versatile, and highly nourishing fat. When lard comes from pastured pigs that are outside in sunlight, it is an excellent source of vitamin D—a vital nutrient we are almost all deficient in. Lard’s high smoking point makes it an ideal fat for any high-heat cooking, and it has replaced olive oil in my house as the fat of choice for sautéing and pan-frying. A frequent dish in my house is cubed Yukon gold potatoes slowly pan-roasted on the stovetop in a cast-iron pan with plenty of lard and ghee. Sprinkled generously with sea salt, these browned potatoes are equally good at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They are so easy to make that my two-and-a-half-year-old has already mastered it. Well, almost—I cut the potatoes: A half-inch dice works perfectly. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche!
Although there are many varieties of winter squash out there, the ubiquitous butternut squash remains my favorite. This is due, I am sure, to my laziness and impatience: butternut is the easiest to peel. Just cut off the top and bottom of the squash, getting rid of the stem and “butt” ends. Then cut the narrow seedless neck into one- to two-inch-thick rounds. Set these flat on the cutting board and cut the peel off quickly with a knife, using six or eight cuts straight down, making a kind of polygon out of the round. You lose some of the flesh this way, but butternut is inexpensive and plentiful, so I don’t fret—it will all go to the compost anyway. Then tackle the round, seedy part by cutting it in half down the middle and scooping out the seeds. Set these flat-side down to cut off the peel, then chop the big pieces into the size you need for cooking. Harvested in autumn, squash keeps well in cold storage, and farmers continue to bring it to market throughout the winter months. Many of us tend to stick to more conventional preparations of squash, such as turning it into a puréed soup, roasting it, or making a gratin. But I’ve been having fun lately using it in more exotic recipes, such as in an Argentinian stew called locro, where it combines with beef, corn, and potatoes; an Indian dish that balances the sweetness of squash with the fragrant seeds of cumin, nigella, fennel, and fenugreek; or a khoresht (Persian for stew), that pairs it with lamb and lime juice. This vegetable is just amazingly versatile and nutritious, making it a great food value.
I happen to believe that every head of cabbage desires to become sauerkraut. If you will only just take the time to shred it, salt it, and put it in a jar or crock along with some of its vegetable friends, you will help it fulfill its noble destiny. Still, cabbage will happily settle for quicker and easier preparations. It loves to be sliced thinly and then sautéed in plenty of fat (lard, perhaps?), then braised with a splash of liquid (chicken broth or even water), a pinch or two of a fragrant seed like caraway, dill, or cumin, and plenty of salt. Cook until it melts in your mouth. The cabbage will be perfectly content with such a scrumptious end, and forgive you readily for not fermenting it. What cannot be forgiven, however, is turning up your nose and remembering only the smell of cabbage being over-boiled in water, or the taste of a thoughtless slaw dripping with commercial mayonnaise. If these are your associations, you owe it to cabbage to give it a better chance.
Plucked live from the chilly Pacific waters off our regional coast, Dungeness crab is just the thing for a special, seasonal feast. A dinner party with plenty of boiled fresh crabs needn’t be complicated: lots of melted butter, a big salad, a few boiled potatoes, and some crab crackers should do it. Of course, a bottle of wine or artisanal brew wouldn’t be amiss, either. For an easier (if pricier) feast for a special guest, buy lump local crabmeat already pulled from its shell and make a platter of crab cakes: almost everyone loves them, and few justify the indulgence.
I think of kiwifruit as the strawberries of winter. Their flavor is, to me at least, surprisingly similar. A native of China, the kiwi is in fact a berry that grows on a vine and does well in many parts of Northern California (try the ones from Four Sisters Farm, or harvest your own at Swanton Berry Farm). I don’t do anything fancy with them: I just slice them and eat them. If I have the time and inclination, I peel them, but not always. The skin is often thin and delicate enough to eat, and it can be fun to eat a whole kiwi out of hand, skin and all.
A homely vegetable, celery root is like a handsome prince trapped inside a frog. Cut away the gnarly outer layers, and you’ll find flesh inside that can be starchy like a potato, sweet like a carrot, and savory like celery, all at once. Delicious roasted (just cut into chunks and toss with fat on a sheet pan before putting in a hot oven), or steamed and mashed with plenty of butter, it stands alone as a side vegetable. It is also delicious in soups and braises: Try it in pot roast or any kind of soup with a European flavor. Cream of celery root soup is divine.
Cream of Celery Root Soup with Leeks and Lard
2 tablespoons lard
2–3 leeks, sliced into rounds
1–2 celery roots, peeled and cut into ¾-inch cubes
1 bouquet garni (an herb bundle tied with string) including a bay leaf and any or all of the following: a sprig of thyme, a sprig of sage, a sprig of parsley, a rosemary stem
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup yogurt, buttermilk, half-and-half, or whole milk (or ½ cup cream or crème fraiche)
Salt and pepper to taste
Crème fraîche or cream
Finely minced rosemary, thyme, sage, or parsley leaves (or a combination of these herbs), or a grind of black pepper
Wash leeks by immersing in water, pulling apart, and agitating, then lifting them out of the water with your hands carefully, leaving the dirt behind.
Heat the lard in a medium-size soup pot. Add the leeks and sauté until tender. Add the celery root, chicken broth, ½ teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Add the bouquet garni and bring the pot to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce heat and simmer until the celery root is fork-tender.
Turn off the heat and remove the bouquet garni. Purée the soup with an immersion blender (or in a blender or food processor), adding the yogurt or other dairy, and more salt and pepper as you blend. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
Serve in a shallow bowl with a dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of herbs or black pepper.
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
Line drawings are by Sarah Klein (sarahklein.com) with coloring by Maggie Gosselin.