When the summer garden produces, cooks count their blessings


July 22, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff

We dream about summer's lush bounty all winter long, counting the days until juicy tomatoes, sweet, sweet corn and oodles of zucchini and peppers bring happiness to our meals.

Now, as the waves of produce roll in, we wonder what in the heck are we going to do with all of Mother Nature's largess?

It's no wonder a holiday was created for the overload. Called "Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor's Porch Night," the Aug. 8 celebration - started in Mount Gretna, Pa., by gardener Thomas Roy - is catching on quickly around the nation.

Even cookbook author James Peterson recalls a summer in Tuscany when "baskets of giant club-shaped zucchini" donated by a farmer led his housemates to rebel.

"Determined not to let any of this wonderfully fresh food go to waste, I set out to cook zucchini in every way I could think of," he writes in "Vegetables" (William Morrow and Co., 1998). "I ended up desperately begging the gardener to take some of the monsters home to his wife."

Not that zucchini is the bad boy of vegetables. It's merely symbolic of the profusion of produce that is screaming for our attention - now.

But savvy chefs know that too much of a good thing can be a good thing. They offer simple ways to capture seasonal flavors without too much fuss.

"Everybody is always looking for the fad," says Deborah Madison, author of "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" (Broadway Books, 1997). "It's the one time of the year you don't have to do that much."

She recommends making batches of basic tomato soup. "It's pure essence of tomato," she says. "I consider it a treasure."

Savor the soup now. Or seal it in plastic bags and stack in the freezer for dreary January and all year long, Madison says.

She also is a fan of succotash made with fresh corn off the cob. It's nothing like what comes out of the frozen box, she assures.

"The real secret is to use the [corn] scrapings," Madison says of the milky remnants that can be pared off after the corn is removed. Use the naked cob for soup stocks, she recommends.

Peterson also leans toward homemade tomato soup. "We had it out of the can," he recalls of his childhood days.

Now Peterson simply peels, seeds, chops and stirs tomatoes for a wonderful soup. With toasted croutons and cubes of bacon, it can be served hot or cold with a swirl of tarragon cream, he says.

"I go nuts for tomatoes," says Peterson, a New Yorker who also likes to toss chopped, seeded tomatoes dressed in olive oil with fresh mint or marjoram instead of the usual basil.

Peterson, who plans to feast on plenty of corn on the cob at Cape Cod this summer, shares his favorite cooking technique: Steam shucked corn on the cob in 1 inch of water for about 7 minutes in a tightly covered pot instead of waiting forever for a big pan of water to boil for the corn.

Cindy Wolf, executive chef and owner of Charleston in the Inner Harbor East area, offers her own corn method. She likes to roast corn in the husk in a 350-degree oven for 25 minutes to 40 minutes until done. The husk gently steams the corn, she says.

And despite our love affair with corn on the cob twirled in dripping butter, more and more cooks are slicing the plump kernels off the cob, chefs say. "It's more refined to cut it off," Wolf agrees.

She is another supporter of summer succotash. Use fresh limas, roasted corn, diced cucumber, a touch of butter and salt and pepper for a memorable melange, she suggests. Wolf often grills seasonal vegetables, she says.

Mark Hofmann, chef at Rockwells Grille in Timonium, favors using the season's available produce in various condiments. He often dresses up grilled fish and meat with such accompaniments as curried zucchini salsa; corn, leek and potato hash; or tomato chutney.

"They're simple and add a twist," Hofmann says. "Summer vegetables are so much more flavorful."

Summer Tomato Soup

Serves 4 to 6

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup diced shallots, 8 to 12

5 pounds ripe, red, juicy tomatoes, rinsed and cut into big pieces

salt and freshly milled pepper

Melt the butter in a wide soup pot over low heat. Add the shallots and let them cook while you prepare the tomatoes. Add the tomatoes to the pot along with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 cup water. Cover and cook for 3 to 4 hours. Give the pot a stir every now and then as you pass through the kitchen to make sure the tomatoes aren't sticking, but if you've used juicy ones there should be plenty of liquid. Pass the tomatoes through a food mill into a clean pot. You should have a quart of soup. Taste for salt and season with freshly milled pepper.

At this point, you can do several things. You can serve small bowls of the soup just as it is, or you can add a few tablespoons to a cup of cream to make gorgeous cream of tomato soup. You can swirl in a tablespoon of butter flavored with shallots and dill, pesto or basil puree. And if you long for texture in your soup, you can add a few delicate cubed croutons crisped in a little butter. This is also exquisite chilled, served with creme fraiche or diced avocado and lime juice

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