Fresh From the Garden

This is a wonderful time for eating from Louisiana gardens, either yours or someone else’s. Farmer’s markets are overflowing with delicious vegetables and fruits, making decisions about what to buy and cook more difficult than usual. But what a pleasure it is to wander leisurely through the market, while working over in your mind what you will do with all the bounty in front of you. Using what is fresh and in season is the very essence of good cooking.

Those fortunate enough to have their own backyard gardens know well the joy of an abundant harvest. Shopping in a farmer’s market is not the same as growing your own food, but when we arrive home laden with bags of fresh produce we face a challenge familiar to all gardeners: What can we possibly do with all those vegetables?

That’s a wonderful dilemma after a winter as cold and miserable as the one we had this year, but it does mean that it’s time to get to work in the kitchen. With the heat of summer coming on, this is a good time to cook up a variety of vegetable dishes that can be refrigerated, ready to form the basis of quick meals and impromptu snacks. For those who freeze or preserve foods for the future, the coming months are a prime time to be in the kitchen making the most of the harvest.

Globalization has almost obliterated the notion of seasonal foods. Since we can buy fruits and vegetables from distant countries when they are not available locally, we have lost a vital connection to the cycles of nature, as well as the periods of feasting and fasting that characterized agrarian societies. Farmers and gardeners retain that harmony with nature, and given the current fashion for eating locally grown foods, even urban dwellers can regain some of what has been lost. Whether the current enthusiasm for eating locally is merely a passing fad or a more permanent change remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, many children have little or no acquaintance with fresh foods. Their diets consist mainly of fast food and processed products that come from a package or a can. Hopefully, with the proliferation of farmer’s markets, community gardens and school gardens, that will change, if even on a small scale. Two friends who spearheaded a garden project at a New Iberia elementary school report that the students there will eat anything they grow themselves. That is one of the most optimistic things I have heard in a long time.

Peach And Pepper Jam
This bracing jam will perk up your morning toast or biscuit. As a condiment, it is particularly good with pork.

1 1/4 pounds peaches, stoned, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup water
½ cup sugar
½ cup lemon juice
1/4 cup minced jalapeños, or to taste

Combine all ingredients in a heavy pot and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 25 minutes. Adjust seasonings. Makes about 1½ cups.

Lemon Mayonnaise
This tart mayonnaise will whet an appetite jaded by summer’s heat, whether served with artichokes, spread on a sandwich or served with cold poached fish. Making your own mayonnaise is not difficult. As you slowly add oil to the egg yolks, be sure that the two are forming an emulsion. If in doubt, stop drizzling oil and just whisk from time to time.

4 large egg yolks
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

In a mixing bowl, beat egg yolks, salt and lemon juice with a wire whisk until pale yellow and creamy. Continue beating with whisk, while slowly adding olive oil, a drop at a time in the beginning. As the mixture emulsifies, increase slightly the amount of oil you are adding, while continuing to whisk, until all the oil has been added. Add lemon zest. Transfer mayonnaise to a bowl or storage container, cover and refrigerate. Makes a bit more than 1 cup.

Spicy Artichokes With Lemon Mayonnaise
Artichokes are made for hot weather. They can be cooked ahead and served cold or room temperature with a mayonnaise or vinaigrette.

2 tablespoons Cajun/Creole seasoning
1 tablespoon hot sauce
1 lemon
4 medium artichokes

Fill a large pot with one or two inches of water; add Cajun/Creole seasoning and hot sauce. Place a steamer rack in the pot.

Remove large outside leaves from artichokes, cut off the tips of remaining leaves with scissors, peel stems, and cut about ½-inch off the top of each artichoke. Rub each cut with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Squeeze remaining lemon juice into pot. Place prepared artichokes on steamer rack, stems up, cover pot and steam for about 25-30 minutes. When done, leaves will come off easily when pulled. Remove artichokes with tongs and place on a rack to cool. Serve room temperature or cold with lemon mayonnaise (recipe follows). Makes 4 servings.

Peach Vinegar
This vinegar will mellow and become more flavorful as it ages.

1 large peach, stoned, peeled and sliced
1 cup cane or white wine vinegar

Combine peach slices and vinegar in non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat. When cool, transfer to jar or bottle. Makes about 1 cup.

Twice-Cooked Green Beans With Red Bell Pepper
Cooked this way, green beans are very flavorful, both crisp and chewy at the same time. The diced red pepper adds a colorful note.

1 pound green beans, trimmed
1 red bell pepper
¼ cup olive oil, divided
Coarse salt

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add beans and cook until just tender. Drain beans in a colander and place under cold running water to cool. Drain beans thoroughly, then dry with a clean kitchen towel.

Stem pepper, remove seeds and ribs and dice. Simmer in 1 tablespoon olive oil for a few minutes.

Preheat broiler. In a mixing bowl, toss beans with remaining olive oil. Spread beans on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with salt. Broil beans, turning occasionally, until lightly browned. Serve beans sprinkled with diced pepper. Makes 4 or more servings.

Tomato Bruschetta
Improvisation is the word for this tasty snack or appetizer. Good bread is imperative, but you can dress these tasty toasts as you please. If you love garlic, rub both sides of the toast with garlic; if you like, you can add some fresh basil to the tomato. But excess is no virtue here. Don’t lose sight of the fact that this is a simple and earthy preparation that shouldn’t be gussied-up too much.

4 thick slices French or Italian bread
4 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 ripe tomato
Coarse salt

Toast bread on both sides. Rub toasted bread with garlic and drizzle with olive oil. Cut tomato in half and squeeze out the juice. Chop tomato and spread on toasted bread. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Makes 4 servings.

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