Pure and Simple
Meals made with the bounty of fresh summer produce are just one of the joys of the season.
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Summer has just recently officially arrived, and already everyone is complaining about the heat and humidity. I happen to love summertime. I adore the long, leisurely days when I can kick back; chill out; and enjoy a meal, the menu for which is dictated by whatever is garden-fresh, such as berries, tomatoes, eggplant, squash, zucchini or whatever else I can find at local farmers markets. My husband sometimes will supply speckled trout, still-kicking shrimp or crabs he catches at Vermilion Bay.
Life moves more slowly in Louisiana than it does in the rest of the country. People come home earlier from work – or does it just seem so because the days are longer? Entertaining is less formal, and the days are planned not by the clock but rather by the position of the sun.
My father once told me that he liked nothing better than a summer meal. He explained his reasons while he and I drank our morning cups of coffee sitting on the wharf at our camp at Catahoula Lake. Folklore has it that the lake, situated just outside the Atchafalaya Basin levee system, was created by an earthquake. Supposedly, the quake ripped open a huge cavern about 500 feet wide, 2 miles long and more than 100 feet deep. “Cata-oula” is an Indian word meaning “lake of sacrifice.” Indians held the belief that the lake, which produces fine fresh fish and sweetmeat crabs, swallowed up an entire Indian village when the earth gave way. They also believed that the waters had magical powers, and they often came to bathe and make pilgrimages, asking the gods to keep them safe and protect them from evil spirits.
“As soon as we finish our coffee and before we have breakfast, you and I are going to pick some blackberries,” he quietly explained. “We can have some for breakfast with sweet cream, and the rest will be used for a cobbler, which will be dessert for supper tonight.”
By the end of the day, we not only had a bucket of blackberries, but we also had received (from a neighbor) a basket filled with homegrown tomatoes, eggplant and sweet corn.
When the hot and humid days roll in, I embrace the idea of gathering ingredients from the wild, my garden or the local farmers market and perhaps from the waterways, rather than from supermarkets.
Then there is the anticipation of the meal – what can I do with all of these fresh ingredients? I recall my Great-Aunt Belle, who used to tell me that when planning a meal, I should take consideration of all the senses: sight, hearing (yes, listen to the steaks sizzling on the grill or hear the chicken frying), touch, smell and taste.
With all of these memories in mind, I offer you some of my favorite summer dishes.
BLUEBERRY CREAM CHEESE PIE
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, divided
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 prepared graham cracker pie crust
4 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and picked over
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Beat the cream cheese in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the condensed milk. Add 1/3 cup of the lemon juice and the vanilla, and mix well. Pour the mixture into the pie crust, and chill until firm, about 3 hours.
Combine the blueberries, sugar, cornstarch and the remaining teaspoon of lemon juice in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, and cook, stirring often, until the juice thickens. Remove from the heat, and cool completely.
To serve, slice the pie into wedges and top with the blueberry topping. Serves 6
1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons finely chopped celery
1 tablespoon finely chopped green onions
1 tablespoon capers
3 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/3 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Creole mustard
Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl, and mix well. Cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. Serve with party crackers or toast points. The mixture can also be spooned over thick tomato slices or into avocado halves. Serves 8 to 10.
When tomatoes are in season, I serve them for just about every meal.