The debate rages on about whether or not fats or carbohydrates are responsible for America's collective heft. While the experts duke it out, setting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid on the firing line, one thing remains clear: It's still a good idea to eat your fruit and vegetables.
And now is the time -- the moment we've waited all summer for -- when mounds of locally grown produce deluge our farmers' markets and greengrocers. Backyard gardens brim with more than we can possibly consume. And even grocery-store chains proudly post handwritten signs that say "local" in the produce section.
The robust offerings of late summer and early fall are upon us. That means eggplants, zucchini, red peppers, sweet corn, shell beans and tomatoes galore in heirloom varieties that bring a riot of colors and shapes to the farm stand.
Soon the first root crops of the season will appear: new potatoes, baby beets, turnips and parsnips, knobby celery roots and sugar-sweet carrots. They'll be followed by the mighty crucifers -- cauliflower, kale, cabbage and brussels sprouts -- and winter squashes.
Fruit trees, too, are no slouches in the late-summer harvest department. Glorious peaches and nectarines will give way to pears and apples, while the berry bushes -- golden and red raspberries, blackberries -- come into their own.
For this fleeting moment, a cornucopia of fresh, healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables is ours for the asking. What to do with the bounty? A handful of recently published produce-centric cookbooks offers recipes worthy of the season.
Heading the list is Deborah Madison's Local Flavors (Broadway Books, 2002, $39.95), a paean to farmers' markets across the country. Madison, best known as the author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and The Greens Cookbook, visited more than 100 farmers' markets in the course of her research. She says there are nearly 3,000 such markets in the United States today, up from just a handful 25 years ago.
According to Madison, this trend is revitalizing local food cultures endangered by the seasonless march of produce shipped to supermarkets year-round from growers around the globe. Happily, increasing numbers of people are paying closer attention to where and how their food is grown, which makes buying produce directly from the farmer who grew it a reward in itself.
The recipes in Local Flavors are roughly divided into botanical families and regional seasons. They are colorful and earthy. In the corn-and-beans section, Lazy Corn Stew With Taxi and Sun-Gold Tomatoes will become a favorite on many family tables, as will the heady Peach Shortcake on Ginger Biscuits in the stone-fruit chapter. Madison's Savory Eggplant "Jam" With Cumin and Coriander and her Big Tomato Sandwich will be hits at any fall picnic or potluck.
With bushels of ripe peaches and nectarines at the ready, and an array of fall fruit on the way, the timing couldn't be better for Alice Waters' latest tome, Chez Panisse Fruit (HarperCollins Publishers, 2002, $34.95).
Waters is, of course, a guiding light in contemporary American cooking, known for her passion for sustainable agriculture and her French sensibility in the kitchen. Her recipes, divided by type of fruit, are elemental, meant to bring out the essential flavor of an ingredient. The fruit -- whether winter's tangerines, late-spring's cherries or early-fall's raspberries -- must be at its peak for these recipes to sing.
Waters' Melon Gelato, for instance, is little more than pureed melon -- only a perfectly ripe muskmelon or cantaloupe will do -- incorporated into a base of eggs and cream. Her baked pistachio-stuffed nectarines have only a dollop of custardy spongecake crumbs and a splash of muscat or Sauternes to set off their lush flavor. The recipes -- some 200 strong, including main dishes with meat -- are deceptively simple. And yet, the results are inspired, offering revelations about the flavors of common fruits.
Fruit, beautifully illustrated with colorful linocuts by Patricia Curtan, is a companion to Chez Panisse Vegetables (HarperCollins Publishers, 1996, $32.50), which remains in print and is an equally worthy addition to any kitchen library.
Elegance is the stock in trade of Guy Martin, a Michelin three-star chef who presides over the kitchens at the historic Grand Vefour in Paris. His lavishly illustrated new book, Vegetables (Ici La Press, 2002, $36), captures the reverence in which seasonal ingredients are held by the French. Inventive combinations abound, yet the final dishes retain a delightful simplicity.