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 www.localfoodswheel.com
I remember a story from a woman whose Italian uncle was staying with her for the summer. When she came home with a basket of produce from the market that included a cucumber, he began to berate her loudly. “Cucumber?! Why you buy cucumber?! She is a stupid vegetable! You can not cook her, and she is only water!” The woman defended herself by saying that she liked cucumbers in salads. Her uncle countered with an indignant, “But you are Italian! You are not Greek!!” Her final defense of cucumbers was, “but they’re refreshing!” I can’t look at a cucumber without thinking of this heated exchange, and imagining a headline along the lines of CUCUMBERS: STUPID OR REFRESHING? My answer tends to follow my locavore leanings: Imported cucumbers in winter and spring? Stupid! Juicy local cucumbers in summer and fall? Refreshing!
While they may disagree about cucumbers, Italians and Greeks do agree about fresh sardines. These humble little fish are prized throughout southern Europe, and with good reason: They are delicious, sustainable, versatile, easy to cook, and extremely good for us, being a rich source of the omega-3 fatty acids so lacking in modern diets. Most of us grew up knowing sardines only as little fish lined up in a flat can, or worse, simply as a metaphor for being crammed in together. We may also be phobic about bones and squeamish about heads, so the Old World tradition of serving fresh sardines whole can be a challenge. But we would all do well to get past our prejudices and learn to appreciate these little gems. Fresh Pacific sardines make a great accompaniment to summer produce, especially tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers. They are delicious on salads or on the grill, and easy to bake or fry. For instructions on filleting, gutting, and scaling, get your hands on the wonderful book Fish Forever by Paul Johnson, co-owner of Monterey Fish Market—the best East Bay source for local sardines.
In winter, I tend to reach for ghee, lard, and bacon drippings for my cooking, but come summertime, olive oil is my fat of choice for the salads and quick sautés that suit the produce and the palate. I also use it to make fresh mayonnaise or aioli. My olive oil of choice has long been the late-harvest pressing from Bariani. I’m sure part of it is the charm of the Bariani family themselves. Santa—the matriarch who sells at the Saturday market in Berkeley—and her husband raised four beautiful boys into lovely men, all of whom help on the farm. Even the one who lives in Italy comes back each year to help with the harvest. I love their oil itself for the assertive and fruity but still mellow flavor that makes it extremely versatile and gentle on the back of the throat going down. Northern California is wonderful country for growing olives, and there are lots of reliable sources around. Seek out unfiltered extra-virgin oil that is packed in dark-colored glass (which impedes oxidation).
As spring turns to summer, the garlic growing at local farms develops into the familiar bulb that so many of us know and love. Much of it gets cured until dry and papery on the outside so it will last us through winter. While garlic is good at any time of year, it shines in summer, especially when freshly harvested. It enhances all of the other iconic flavors of the season, including basil, cilantro, dill, tomatoes, green beans, and olive oil. This summer, when you see plenty of cured California-grown garlic at the market, consider stocking up. Much of the garlic we find in grocery stores in winter has traveled from Latin America or China, even though locally grown garlic can last until the green garlic appears next spring, if it’s properly stored. There’s no better time to start that cold-cellar you’ve been dreaming of!
Ripe raspberries in summertime are one of the purest pleasures I can think of. We have a few vines in our garden and my three-year-old son watches them like a hawk for the ripening berries. Undeterred by the thorns (which are much less fierce than those on the wild blackberry), he steps into the brambles to pull off the berries and collect them in a little container. Then comes the question of whether to eat them all right up or to just taste a few and save the rest to share with an expected guest or soon-to-return parent. For a three-year-old, he saves a surprising percentage, even when I encourage him to eat them right up! I feel the same way about the ones we get from the farmers’ market: There is no better way to enjoy raspberries than to just savor them, one by one, in an unhurried moment on a beautiful day.
One of the greatest culinary inventions in the history of the world is yogurt. The tangy flavor and creamy texture make it delicious to eat plain, or lightly sweetened. Try it with any of the myriad local fruits of summer, or add a drizzle of honey, maple syrup, or even blackstrap molasses. Yogurt is a great accompaniment to savory dishes, either by itself or transformed into any of the endless Middle Eastern and South Asian salads, sauces, and dips (think raita or tzatziki). One of the most common preparations of yogurt in traditional diets is to drain it through cloth until it becomes very thick. In much of the Middle East the result is called lebne, and is often preserved for the winter rolled into salted balls that are packed into jars and covered with olive oil. Yogurt and lebne are teeming with live active cultures, and pack plenty of protein, good fats, calcium, and other nutrients, making these foods nourishing staples in many parts of the world.
You’d be surprised how many plums you can find hiding in the trees that line suburban streets in the Bay Area. Many of these trees have been bred as ornamentals, with foliage emphasized over fruit. City planners prefer them because they don’t drop fermenting messes on streets and sidewalks—but they still do produce a few tasty gems. These are the things you learn when you have a fructophile of a child, who will not be stopped for love or money when he spots a purple plum hanging on a high branch over, say, a parking lot. When we can, we make good use of our long-handled fruit picker, but sometimes we have to resort to the only possible way to calm down an anxious plumaholic—the promise of a trip to the farmers’ market for a bag full of the coveted fruit. At this time of year, we’re sure to find an abundance of plums in a rainbow of colors from yellow to orange to red to purple, as well as a wide range of textures and tastes: sweet and juicy, tart and chewy. Try different varieties and you’re likely to find a few favorites! •
Making Yogurt Cream (Lebne) and Homemade Olive Oil Mayonnaise
Any yogurt can be strained into a thick, spreadable form known variously as yogurt cream, yogurt cheese, lebne, and many other names. It is a delicious substance and endlessly useful in cooking: You can substitute it almost anywhere for cream cheese, and in many recipes that call for sour cream, farmer’s cheese, or crème fraîche. You could even use it in place of chèvre, although it won’t have that goaty taste unless you use goat yogurt to start with. I like to add yogurt cream to olive oil mayonnaise to mellow the flavor of the mayonnaise and help preserve it for several weeks.
You’ll need a thin white kitchen towel, a piece of clean muslin, or a large cheesecloth folded into layers. Rinse this cloth with water, squeeze it out well, and use it to line a sieve or strainer. (The wetting isn’t an essential step, but it does help get the straining process started and keeps the cloth from absorbing a lot of whey.)
Place the sieve or strainer over a bowl, pot, jar, or large measuring cup and fill it with yogurt. Place the whole apparatus in the fridge, if it will fit, or in the coolest place you can find otherwise. Allow the yogurt to drip for about 24 hours, or until it is separated into nearly equal parts yogurt cream (in the top of the strainer) and clear liquid whey (in the catchment receptacle). If you start with 1 quart of yogurt, you should get about 2 cups of yogurt cream and 2 cups of whey. Transfer the yogurt cream to a clean jar. The whey is useful too, so pour it into another clean jar until you decide what to do with it. At Three Stone Hearth we use it as the starter to ferment the locavore elixirs we call Honey Coolers. At home I make a hair rinse with equal parts yogurt whey, apple cider vinegar, and strong chamomile tea (good for bringing out the blond!) Whey is also great for the skin and sometimes I add a bit to my bath.
When I make this mayonnaise, which is frequently, I rarely measure. I just start with one egg yolk and do everything to taste and to texture (or until my arm gets tired).
1 egg yolk (I always use eggs from pastured chickens)
½ cup local olive oil
½ teaspoon prepared mustard (or make your own by harvesting seeds from a local field and grinding them yourself)
Juice of half a lemon, or up to 1 teaspoon vinegar
Sea salt to taste
¼ cup yogurt cream or crème fraîche
Optional: Black pepper and/or other spices and herbs as desired
Optional: 1 clove garlic, minced
Put egg yolk into a small bowl. (It can be helpful to put a towel under the bowl to stabilize it). Begin whisking in olive oil drop by drop and then in a very thin stream, incorporating the oil completely as you whisk. (Use an electric mixer if you prefer.) Once you’ve got the emulsion started you can add the olive oil thicker and faster. Still whisking, add mustard, lemon juice, sea salt, and yogurt cream to taste. Add black pepper and/or any other spices or herbs as desired. To make aioli, add the clove of minced garlic at this time. Put mayonnaise in the fridge to thicken. As the olive oil gets cold, the mayo will become spreadable.
Line drawings by Sarah Klein (sarahklein.com) with coloring by Maggie Gosselin. Yogurt straining illustration by Otto Thorsen
Jessica Prentice is the author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection and cofounder of Three Stone Hearth Community Supported Kitchen in Berkeley. www.threestonehearth.com