Local Abundance

If April is the cruelest month, perhaps May and June are the most confusing, at least when planning dinner. Why this should be is something of a puzzle. Since so many vegetables and fruits are in season and seafood is plentiful, one could reasonably assume that this time of year is a cook’s paradise. And it is. But that’s the problem: there are simply too many choices. When faced with so many options, we’re often just overwhelmed and suffer a form of paralysis.

Still, dinner comes once a day, and since we love to eat, we need to resolve our dilemma. For gardeners, choice is mostly dictated by abundance. Their decision involves what to do with all the tomatoes or zucchini or cucumbers. For shoppers,  it’s what to buy. Everything looks so good at those farmer’s markets, so the temptation is to take home some of everything and then figure out what to do with it.

The four recipes this month draw on both the garden and the sea. Three of them make liberal use of garlic and olive oil, two include shrimp in the ingredients, one features tomatoes, there are also artichokes and fennel. As we move into the summer season, my preference is for foods that can be cooked in advance and served at room temperature. All of these dishes fall into that category. And all go splendidly with a chilled bottle of dry rosé.

Stuffed artichokes are a delicious staple of New Orleans cooking, a contribution of Italians to the multi-ethnic Creole repertoire. My recipe doesn’t hew strictly to that version, but it shares enough common ingredients – bread crumbs, olive oil, garlic, Parmesan – to be instantly recognizable. If the artichokes you purchase still have a length off stem attached, don’t discard it. Cut off the peel and thinly slice the interior. Eat it raw sprinkled with salt and lemon, accompanied by oil-cured black olives, thin slices of Parmesan, and crusty bread.

Fresh fennel is a vegetable primarily associated with Italian cooking. For those who haven’t eaten it, it is very different from fennel seeds, which come from a different plant. The vegetable is very mild, almost sweet, and it lends itself to a variety of preparations, including raw salads or crudités. Braised in white wine with olive oil, anchovies, garlic, and red pepper, and garnished with feathery fennel fronds and Parmesan – well, it is simply divine.

There was a time when tomatoes Provençal showed up on menus everywhere, and for good reason. They are a superb accompaniment to grilled meats. With both tomato season and grilling season upon us, it seems like an opportune time to revisit this dish. It’s one that is very simple, easy to make, and a fine addition to summer meals.

The last recipe is for a shrimp spread that couldn’t be simpler to make. Served in a crock with crackers or croutons, it is a nice accompaniment for cocktails or chilled wine. Mascarpone, a fresh Italian cheese, called for in the recipe, while once difficult to find, is now widely available in supermarkets.

Cooking tip
To punch-up flavor in any shrimp or seafood dish, replace salt with ground, dried shrimp. For example, you could make the substitution in this month’s recipe for artichokes stuffed with shrimp or in the shrimp spread.

Braised Fennel With Garlic & Anchovies

    2    fennel bulbs
    ¼    cup olive oil
    4    cloves garlic, sliced
    1    cup dry white wine
    ½    teaspoon crushed
        red pepper
    4    anchovies
        Coarse salt and freshly
        ground black pepper
    ½    cup chopped fennel fronds
    ½    cup freshly grated Parmesan

1. Cut off stalks at the bulb. Reserve fronds. Cut a thin slice from bottom of bulb and trim any brown spots. Cut bulb lengthwise into quarters, remove core, then cut into thin slices. Wash and drain..
2. Cover bottom of large nonreactive skillet with olive oil, add fennel, garlic, wine, red pepper and anchovies. Mash anchovies into a paste with a fork. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender – about 20 minutes. Remove cover, increase heat, and cook until liquid has evaporated. Turn off heat.
3. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with fennel fronds and grated Parmesan. Serve hot or, preferably, at room temperature.
Makes 4 servings

Shrimp Spread

    1    cup cooked and peeled
        small shrimp
    ½    cup mascarpone
    1    tablespoon lemon juice
        Coarse salt and cayenne
        Hot sauce

Place shrimp in a food processor fitted with the steel blade and pulse until finely ground. Add mascarpone and lemon juice and process until well blended. Season to taste with salt, cayenne, and hot sauce. Pack in a serving container and chill. Serve with crackers or croutons.
Makes about 1 cup.

Tomatoes Provençal

    4    medium tomatoes
    4    cloves garlic, minced
    4    teaspoons chopped parsley
    4    tablespoons breadcrumbs
    2    tablespoons olive oil
        Coarse salt and freshly
        ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and oil the bottom off a baking dish.
2. Cut off tops of tomatoes and save for another use. Invert and gently squeeze tomatoes to extract their juice. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt and grind over some black pepper.
3. Combine garlic, parsley and breadcrumbs in a small bowl. Divide the breadcrumb mixture among the tomatoes and drizzle with olive oil.
4. Bake until tomatoes are softened and tops are browned, about 20 minutes.
Makes 4 servings.

Artichokes Stuffed With Shrimp

    4    artichokes
    1    lemon
    1    cup cooked and peeled
        small shrimp
    4    cloves garlic, minced
    ¼    cup chopped parsley
    ¼    cup chopped mint
    1    cup breadcrumbs
    ½    cup freshly grated Parmesan
        Coarse salt, cayenne and
        freshly ground black pepper
    2    tablespoons freshly squeezed
        lemon juice
    1½    cups olive oil, divided

1. Fill a container large enough to hold the artichokes with water and squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Cut off the stem of the artichoke and remove several layers of the large tough leaves. Rub all cut surfaces with half a lemon to prevent discoloration.
2. Using a large knife, cut about 1 inch off the top of the artichoke, leaving a flat surface. Spread the artichoke open and, using a spoon, remove the choke. Place artichoke in the acidulate water and repeat with the others.
3. In a mixing bowl, combine shrimp, garlic, parsley, mint, breadcrumbs and Parmesan. Season to taste with salt, cayenne and black pepper. Add lemon juice and 1 cup of olive oil. Mix well and adjust seasoning.
4. Invert and squeeze artichokes to remove water and place in a nonreactive pot large enough to hold them upright. Spread open the tops of artichokes and and pack them with the shrimp mixture.
5. Pour water in the pot to come halfway up the artichokes. Add some salt and ½ cup olive oil. Place a square of wax paper on top of each artichoke and cover the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until artichokes are tender, about 20 minutes.
6. Remove artichokes and place in a serving dish. Serve hot, at room temperature or chilled, accompanied by lemon wedges.
Makes 4 servings.



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