Fresh from the garden
By CYNTHIA SHIFRIN
Mercer Island Reporter Columnist
September 29, 2010 · Updated 2:00 PM
Fruits and vegetables taste their most divine when freshly picked. If you’re fortunate enough to have your own vegetable garden, you know the big difference in fresh taste. I find that more and more of us are planting home vegetable gardens, discovering new things to grow each year. The next best thing to growing your own is purchasing your produce at the farmers market, where many of the fruits and vegetables have been picked as early as that very morning.
There’s a wonderful feeling that I get at the farmers market from viewing all the fresh produce and other wonderful items proudly displayed by local farmers and vendors. Besides it being a charming Sunday experience and a fun way to run into friends, shopping at the farmers market is also a wonderful way to support small local businesses and benefit from fresh food items in the process.
The odd weather pattern we had this summer caused those of us with vegetable gardens to fear that our tomatoes would never ripen. I planted a lot this year and for most of the summer just stared at a garden filled with green tomatoes that I sweet-talked to almost daily, lovingly reassuring them that they could ripen. I was not alone in my concern. Pretty soon, recipes started popping up about how to cook all these green tomatoes that we were seeing way past when they should have turned. Fortunately, even late this month, I’m still going out to the garden to pick beautiful and wonderful tasting tomatoes that don’t care if it’s fall; they’re still ripening into a bright, beautiful shade of red.
I love to use fresh tomatoes in sauces for pasta, but find that they taste the most delish when eaten raw, either on their own or mixed in a salad. One of my favorite ways to serve tomatoes is in a caprese salad, which pairs them with fresh basil leaves and fresh mozzarella cheese, layered together and dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, seasoned simply with salt and fresh ground pepper. Not only does this salad taste delicious and make a very appetizing presentation, but it’s a sure thing to prepare, even for the cooking-intimidated. Heirloom tomatoes are a favorite choice for this salad, but you can use whatever version you prefer or have available.
4 medium vine ripe tomatoes
16 to 20 large fresh basil leaves (tip: don’t refrigerate; they will last longer stored at room temperature)
14 ounces of high quality fresh mozzarella cheese (in the large ball-shaped form)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste
Slice the tomatoes and the mozzarella cheese into approximately ¼-inch slices. Layer the tomato slices with the cheese and a leaf of basil in between; repeat to fill the plate. Whisk the olive oil and balsamic vinegar with the salt and pepper; adjust seasoning to taste. Drizzle the dressing over the salad. Serve with a side of wonderful French bread.
Corn is always such a favorite vegetable, loved by all ages. After all, how can something so sweet and starchy in the vegetable category not be fabulous? Most of us even look forward to corn being in season, locally, in late summer. I encourage those with vegetable gardens to plant corn next year if you haven’t already. I was thrilled that the corn I grew for the first time came out tasting deliciously sweet with the largest kernels that I had ever seen. The ones from the farmers market are equally as wonderful.
Eating corn hot right off the cob with melted butter and salt will always take first prize for the best way to eat it, but fresh corn is always fabulous, no matter how it shows up. I add corn to enhance other dishes that I prepare and use it as often as possible when it’s fresh and in season.
Cornbread and corn muffins are a delicious complement to soups and salads and make a yummy snack with a favorite beverage. Adding fresh corn kernels to the batter adds great taste and texture. The challenge for me has been to find a good cornbread or corn muffin recipe that is moist and has a depth of flavor. I’ve gone through my own disappointments from dry and boring cornbread recipes. I’ve come up with one that’s made more interesting with the addition of a few other vegetables you can find fresh at the farmers market.
Cynthia’s Corn Muffins
Yields about 15
1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
1 cup yellow corn meal (medium ground)
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (or more if you want a real kick of heat)
3 tablespoons honey
½ cup butter (1 cube melted and cooled)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1¼ generous cup buttermilk
½ cup green onions (the white and the green parts thinly sliced)
½ cup fresh red pepper (finely chopped)
1 ear corn (kernels removed, about 1 cup)
1 jalapeno chili (seeds and stem removed and finely chopped)
1/3 cup toasted shelled pumpkin seeds, also referred to as pepitas
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees with the rack placed in the middle. Grease a muffin pan or use muffin liners. Place the flour, corn meal, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cayenne pepper in a large bowl and whisk together well. In a medium bowl, place the chopped green onions, chopped red pepper, kernels of corn, chopped jalapeno and pumpkin seeds, then mix well. In another medium bowl, beat the eggs with the honey, cooled melted butter, vegetable oil and buttermilk, and whisk together well. Add the liquid ingredients to the flour and corn meal mixture and stir just until blended. Don’t over mix. Add the vegetable and seed mixture, and stir in only until incorporated.
Fill muffin sections or liners to ¾ full. You will have extra batter for a few more muffins. Bake for 16 minutes or until the tester comes out clean. Allow to rest in muffin pans for 5 minutes, then remove and cool on a rack. Serve with butter and sliced sharp cheddar cheese or honey.
Enjoy! I hope to see you at the Island’s wonderful farmers market in its remaining few weeks of being open.
Cynthia Shifrin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (206) 232-3722.Contact Mercer Island Reporter Columnist Cynthia Shifrin at email@example.com or (206) 232-3722.