Early Summer Cooking
When the seasons change, I think it's harder to cook. It doesn't matter if we're going from summer to winter or back again, it's the transitions that make me inevitably suffer from both boredom and an inability to switch kitchen gears.
Some of my problem is that seasonal ingredients arrive gradually even if the seasons themselves do not. It's not like a department store that will abruptly swap out cashmere for cropped pants in a single day. Instead grocery stores take weeks to move from mangoes to asparagus to cherries. Plus the weather affects our appetites; for example, I'll think differently about what I want to cook and eat if I'm wearing a coat, even if artichokes are piled high and cheap. All this only gets more confusing because extreme weather now seems to be the new normal.
But summer in New York has unofficially arrived so this past weekend I went looking for some fresh cooking ideas. I began with a visit to the huge Greenmarket at Manhattan's Union Square. It was Friday morning so there were fewer farmers than at the big show on Saturdays, but it was a gorgeous day and the farmers' stands were generous with early crops like pale and tender lettuces, spicy baby arugula, fat pods bursting with sweet peas, fragrant spring garlic and onions, stacks of pink rhubarb, dark green spinach and other leafy greens, and one farmer's bouquets of tiny red beets that were no bigger than gumballs. Plus the there was pork, chickens, eggs, ostrich, and cheese, including splendid ricotta from Dancing Ewe Farm. And lots of flowers, maple syrup, honey, and potted herbs.
Once home I turned to my recipe notebooks for more inspiration. I keep these six binders, each filled with a variety of recipes torn over the past 15 years from magazines or printed from web sources or given by friends. Some are old favorites, like a piña colada sorbet made with coconut milk and pineapple juice, and a dozen recipes for gazpacho that I mix and match every summer once tomatoes are at their best. I also like to browse these notebooks because of their randomness: I've categorized the binders in a predictable way, one for meats, another for seafood, a third for desserts, etc. But otherwise there's a discovery-inspiring chaos to them: a half dozen recipes for daubes will be followed by chilled summer soups, and ways to cook asparagus will be mixed in with celery root and flageolets.
Occasionally I think I should scan the pages, upload everything into one of those hyper-organized recipe computer files, and make an index. But I know that if I did, I'd miss the pleasure of turning the 3-hole-punched pages, many of which are stained and ripped, with notes scribbled about changes I've made in their making, or the names of those for whom I cooked a dish.
Helped by having just come back from Union Square where I bought spring garlic, two pounds of rhubarb, local peas, and a big container of sheep's milk ricotta, my notebooks did give me ideas for things to cook as summer becomes official. See our links for recipes:
- Risotto With Fresh Garden Peas (not to make on a steamy, humid day but when we still catch a cool one and want another way to enjoy sweet peas)
- Arugula, Walnut and Warm Goat Cheese Salad
- Pasta With Ricotta And Spinach
- Roasted Asparagus With Lemon Dressing
- Crab Cakes With Spicy Mayonnaise
- Cold Soups: Sorrel, Asparagus, and Cucumber Yogurt
- Anything made with ramps, spring onions, and spring garlic, including pestos, stir-fries, omelets, roasted shrimp, and potato salads
- Radish sandwiches and salads, and radishes cut into matchsticks and added to slaws
- Spinach Gnocchi With Ricotta
- Watercress salad made with peppery cress tossed with cubes of roasted sweet potatoes and dressed with your favorite balsamic vinaigrette and a crumble of feta cheese
- Pork Ribs: I have no grill but I use either my oven at a low temp or my slow cooker (better on a hot day) to slow cook ribs that I finish under the broiler
- Tacos: Made with whatever salad greens I have, thin slices of early summer radishes, plus either fish, chicken, or sliced leftover flank or skirt steak.
- Rhubarb Desserts: We have a favorite recipe for Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie but other choices could include Rhubarb Cobbler or Crumble, Rhubarb Crumb Bars, or a simple and luscious Rhubarb Fool that's made by layering rhubarb compote with yogurt or whipped cream
As summer begins, sometimes all it takes thinking about a dormant craving, something that we haven't eaten in six months, for the habits of winter cooking to recede. In a few weeks this list will adjust and as rhubarb drops off, sour cherries and apricots will take its place. Same for sorrel and peas being replaced by basil and of course, tomatoes.
If you live in the northeast and are due to get your first CSA shares, you might have some early disappointments because of this spring's heavy rain. My favorite Greenmarket farmer told me last week that his first crops, some of which had to be replanted for all the rain, will be nearly a month late coming to market. I told him we all would wait and wished him well since he's in such a vulnerable line of work. He's still optimistic for a bountiful harvest.
Last week I wrote a guest column at TheKitchn.com on the topic of cooking from a CSA share. Whether this is your first year as a participant in Community Supported Agriculture or you're more experienced and still looking for ideas, see the link below for some of the lessons I learned from my CSA experiences. If you're unfamiliar with TheKitchn.com, I'm happy to introduce you; it's the always-inspiring cooking section of the excellent web-based Apartment Therapy, led by founding editors Sara Kate and Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan. Thank you, Sara Kate for making me feel so welcomed and introducing The City Cook to your readers.