Farmers market - inspired dishes

There is a warm feeling that I inevitably get whenever I shop at the farmers market, especially in summertime when there is a beautiful abundance of fresh local fruits and vegetables. I really enjoy talking with the independent vendors, who I find to be knowledgeable, informative and enthusiastic about what they are proudly selling.

I love to be told that the produce I’m buying was picked as early as that morning or as late as the day before. As inspiring as it is to have so many fresh items to choose from, summer is a time when most of us prefer to keep cooking simple and quick, allowing for more time to enjoy the warm outdoors and extended daylight. Besides, hot weather discourages most people from turning on their ovens. During this absolutely gorgeous summer we are having, it is only natural to want more time to sit down and relax at dinnertime, especially when eating outside. Not wanting to compromise on great taste, I’ve come up with some recipes that are easy to prepare, while still being thoroughly delicious.

There are currently many versions of plump, fresh tomatoes to choose from at the farmers market. It is a perfect time for incorporating them into your dishes as often as possible.

One of my favorite things to eat is bruschetta: a toasted piece of French or Italian bread topped with various combinations, typically consisting of vegetables, olives and cheese. I love to serve bruschetta as an appetizer and have even made a meal out of it just for myself. The popular version that I favor the most is with goat cheese, fresh tomatoes and lots of fresh basil.

Many people feel the roma tomato is the best choice for bruschetta because it has less seeds than other varieties, but feel free to use whatever kind of tomato you want; I have, and they all work beautifully. If you don’t care for the distinct tangy taste of goat cheese, it can be switched out with fresh mozzarella, shaved reggiano parmesan or a wonderful sharp white cheddar like our fabulous local Beecher’s brand. You don’t even have to use cheese if you don’t want to, but it does give the bruschetta that extra dimension of fantastic flavor. The following recipe is simply delicious and just happens to be quick and easy to prepare.

Bruschetta with Fresh Tomatoes

Serves 4

1 French bread baguette

2 very full cups of chopped fresh tomatoes (cut into tiny pieces)

½ cup fresh chopped basil

A clove of garlic (crushed and finely chopped)

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus ¼ cup for brushing on bread

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Salt and fresh ground pepper

Goat cheese (or fresh mozzarella, reggiano parmesan, or sharp white cheddar)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees with the oven rack placed on the top level. Put the chopped tomatoes, chopped basil and chopped garlic in a medium-sized bowl. Pour the olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the tomato mixture, season with salt and fresh ground pepper to your preferred taste, stir well, then set aside. Slice the bread on the diagonal into ½- to ¾-inch-width pieces. Place each bread slice on a baking sheet, then brush the tops with olive oil using a pastry or basting brush. You can also spray each piece with an olive oil spray; just make sure you are using only olive oil. Bake each slice with the oil side facing up for about five minutes or until they are lightly toasted. You don’t want them over-toasted or too dry, otherwise they will break apart when eaten.

To Serve:

Arrange the warm, toasted bread on a plate with the oil side facing up and put on the desired amount of cheese, then spoon the tomato mixture on top. If using goat cheese, I find that letting it first sit out a bit to soften makes it easy to spread on, rather than slicing it right out of the refrigerator.

Summer just isn’t summer without a lot of grilling on the barbecue. When I want to get more creative, I’ll make a sauce to dress up whatever I’m grilling. Because it’s not a marinade that the raw meat or seafood rests in, it doesn’t have to be thrown away afterwards. Any leftover sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days to be used again with something new and different. This particular recipe combines fresh local plums with fresh chilies, producing a delicious flavor that is fruity, slightly sweet, with a moderate amount of heat. Although it is fairly easy to make, it does take some time, but is truly worth it. Remember, even though I chose chicken in this particular recipe, it will work well with another meat or seafood.

Chicken Breasts with Fresh Plum and Chili Sauce

Serves 4

4 chicken breasts, preferably with skin and bone.

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

The Chicken:

Rinse chicken breasts under cold water. Pat dry and rub thoroughly with olive oil.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill on the barbecue: “slow and low,” as all the great grilling chefs advise.

The Sauce:

4 red Fresno chilies or any red chili that is on the sweet side

1 box prepared low sodium chicken broth

4 large ripe plums or 5 smaller ones

1 cup Port wine

½ cup light brown sugar, packed

Salt and pepper

Slice open and discard the seeds of the chilies, then cut into smaller pieces. Place the chicken broth in a sauce pan with the chilies and reduce the liquid in half by bringing to a low boil for about 30 minutes. While the broth is reducing, cut up the plums and discard the pits. Place the Port wine, brown sugar and plums in another smaller sauce pan and reduce the wine in half by bringing it to a low boil. When the wine has cooked down to half, blend this mixture in a blender, then put through a sieve to remove any plum skins that haven’t dissolved. When the broth is reduced to about 2 cups, strain it into a clean sauce pan and discard the chilies. Add the plum and port mixture to the broth, stir to blend and reduce the sauce more by cooking for approximately 15 to 20 minutes on medium heat, which will take it further to a light sauce consistency and also intensify the flavor. Keep warm if serving soon or store in the refrigerator for up to three days. Reheat before using.

To Serve:

Pour some of the heated sauce on each plate, place a chicken breast on top, then drizzle a little more sauce over the chicken.

Peas and corn are two other vegetables I love to eat all year long, especially this time of year, when they are locally season fresh and at their very best. The peas I’ve purchased at the farmers market are huge. Shelling them takes a tiny bit of work, but can be done ahead of time. Shelling peas is a fun way to get the children involved in mealtime preparation and are so good eaten raw. I remember as a child loving to eat peas right out of the shell. I also really enjoy sugar snap peas, which are smaller and can be eaten whole. Raw sugar snap peas are a healthy and delicious item to include in packed lunches or to use for a favorite dip.

Fresh leeks are a vegetable I’ve been singing the praises of for a very long time. I’m such a devoted fan of leeks that it surprises me how underused they are. I’ve discovered the reason for this: leeks seem to fly under the radar of other vegetables — not a lot of people notice them or are even familiar with what they are and how they taste, let alone what to do with them.

Here’s the deal: when you sauté chopped leeks and add them to rice, pasta, potatoes or another vegetable, it gives the dish an added depth of flavor; like a shallot, but not as sweet, and like an onion, only more deliciously complex. The leek contributes such an exquisite flavor on its own that it can take something bland to sublime all by itself.

The following dish is primarily a combination of fresh peas with potatoes, but I’ve enhanced the flavor with the addition of fresh leeks. Pasta, brown rice or any other kind of grain such as quinoa or wheat berries can also be substituted for the potatoes. This dish is equally wonderful served either hot or cold. When eaten chilled, it is a yummy and much healthier alternative to traditional potato salad.

Fresh Peas and Potatoes with Leeks

Serves 4 to 6

1 cup shelled fresh peas

1½ cups sugar snap peas

3 cups cubed red or Yukon gold potatoes

¾ cup leek (only the white and light green part), sliced and cut up into small pieces

½ cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons for sautéing

Salt and fresh ground pepper

Shell the fresh peas and place in a bowl. Cut off the hard ends of the sugar snap peas, leaving them whole, and add to the shelled peas. Cube the potatoes into bite-sized pieces. If you’re using russet potatoes, peel those first, otherwise leave the skin on if using another version like red or Yukon gold.

Steam the potatoes until soft all the way through, careful not to over cook, which will cause them to fall apart. While the potatoes are cooking, cut up the leeks and be sure to wash them thoroughly, as dirt can hide in their tight layers.

Sautee the leeks in the 2 tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat until tender and just slightly beginning to brown, then set aside.

Steam the shelled peas with the sugar snap peas for not more than a minute and a half or until they are bright green and the snap peas are still crisp. It is almost better to under cook them, as they continue cooking while still hot. If you are going to serve this dish cold, submerge the peas in ice cold water to stop the cooking process, then drain.

Put the steamed peas, sugar snap peas and the potatoes with the sautéed leeks all in a large bowl, then evenly pour on the remaining ½ cup of olive oil and gently toss, as you season with salt and fresh ground pepper to your preferred taste.

Corn in every form, whether fresh on the cob, popped or made into bread or muffins is a beloved, almost irresistible favorite for most everyone, especially when made even yummier with the addition of real, good old-fashioned butter. The following corn salad recipe was given to me by fellow Islander, Bobbi Chamberlin, after I tasted hers and asked what was in it so that I could make it too, which I do a lot, especially when corn is in season and at its sweetest. It is a healthy and truly delicious corn salad with just a few ingredients that complement each other well, while still allowing the corn to be the star of the show. Another one of its pluses is that it can be prepared in the morning and will still taste just as wonderful served that evening. These are the particular proportions that I use.

Corn Salad

Serves 4

4 fresh ears of corn (white, yellow or the combination of the two)

¾ cup of chopped fresh basil

¼ cup finely chopped red onion

1/3 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon white pepper (optional)

Remove the corn kernels from the cobs. I find this process to be the easiest if I break the cob in two and place the largest end firmly down on a cutting board, while securely holding the top with one hand and slicing down with a sharp serrated knife in the other hand.

The trick is to get the kernel fully removed without including any of the tough cob.

Steam the corn kernels for only a minute, then cool. You want the corn to be closer to its raw form than cooked for extra crunch. Place the cooled steamed corn, chopped onions and basil in a bowl. Whisk together the olive oil, cider vinegar, salt and white pepper. Pour the dressing over the corn mixture and toss well, then chill. One way to serve this salad individually is on top of a butter lettuce leaf.

Enjoy! And remember to support our local farmers market and take advantage of the bounty of fresh produce and other wonderful items that are sure to inspire you to create healthy, delicious and satisfying meals.

Islander Cynthia Shifrin is an avid cook, devoted mother and professional psychotherapist.

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