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Seasonal Pantry: Summer cooking is not that hard


Summer cooking is easy, or it's easy if you pay attention to the season. Dessert is the simplest of all, as nothing is better than a perfectly ripe peach or a wedge of delicious watermelon. If you feel like getting fancy, grill a fig. Summer tomatoes don't need much to make a delicious appetizer or salad, summer pastas can be prepared in the time it takes to boil water, and you can make great summer sandwiches with little effort: Grate some zucchini, toss it with minced garlic, pile it on a piece of bread, top it with cheese and you're in business.

Still, most of us don't cook this way and I'm not sure why. Is it that year-round availability of almost everything has made us lose touch with the seasons? Has the Food Network beaten us into submission before the "real" cooks, those chefs who compete with each other by concocting elaborate and often outlandish dishes?

Even as "farm to table" becomes a mainstream buzz term nearing clich?status, many of us seem to puzzle over how to put dinner on the table in the middle of the year's most abundant season.

A few days ago, I heard a well-known talk-show host talk about how completely useless she is in the kitchen and can do little more than microwave a boneless skinless chicken breast. I wanted to cry. And then I wanted to fly east, find her house, knock on her door and announce, "I'm here to help."

It simply shouldn't seem this hard, because it isn't.

If you already shop primarily at farmers markets, I understand that you are part of the choir and that we're all singing the same song. But many of us need a nudge or a reminder, so here it is: If you don't have a garden, shop first at the farmers market or farm stand nearest you. Don't take a list. Instead, let the market tell you what to buy. Right now, it's saying tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, garlic, basil and melon. It's saying green beans. These foods don't need a lot of preparation and they don't require lengthy cooking. That will come later, when it's time to preserve some of the fall's harvest to enjoy during the lean seasons.

For now, it's summertime and the livin' is easy.

One of my favorite Greek cookbooks is "Flavors of Greece" by Rosemary Barron (Morrow, 1991). This recipe is adopted from one she included in the book and describes as being at the center of every taverna table when tomatoes are in season. It is the sort of salad you can enjoy daily, without ever growing tired of it.

A Traditional Greek Salad

Makes 4 to 6 servings

6 medium backyard quality tomatoes, cored and peeled

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

1/2 teaspoon sugar

6 to 8scallions, white and green parts, trimmed and very thinly sliced

1/3 cup chopped Italian parsley

18 pitted Kalamata olives

3/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled

2 tablespoons Greek oregano (rigani) or other dried oregano

1/3 cup robustly-flavored extra virgin olive oil

— Juice of one-half lemon

Cut the peeled and cored tomatoes into wedges and arrange on a platter. Season with salt, pepper and the sugar, cover lightly and set aside for 1 hour.

To complete the salad, scatter the scallions and parsley over the tomatoes and top with the olives and feta. Add the oregano, olive oil and lemon juice, season lightly with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

I've been making a version of this sandwich for too many years to count, ever since it was first handed to me while I was doing a cooking demonstration at the Santa Rosa farmers market. A farmer made it, walked over, took the spoon out of my hand and drizzled some of the sauce I'd just made over the sandwich. It was extraordinary and unforgettable. I've adapted it over the years and like it best with the zucchini and cucumber sliced into the thinnest possible ribbons.

Farm Market Sandwiches

Makes 4 servings

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons butter

6 garlic cloves, minced

2 anchovy fillets, minced

1 zucchini, trimmed

1 Armenian cucumber, trimmed

4 sprouted-wheat hot dog buns

8 French breakfast radishes, very thinly sliced

1 small red onion, sliced into very thin rings

2 medium golden tomatoes, cored and sliced (through the equator, not the poles)

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

In a small saucepan, combine the olive oil, butter, garlic, and anchovies, set over medium-low heat and simmer for 3 or 4 minutes. Set aside and cool slightly.

Using a mandoline with a thin slicing blade, cut the zucchini and the cucumber into long, thin ribbons. Set aside.

Open the hot-dog buns, toast them lightly in the oven, and use a pastry brush to coat both sides of the bread with the olive oil mixture. Top the bottom half of each bun with ribbons of zucchini and cucumber, followed by radishes, onions and tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and spoon some of the remaining sauce on top.

Serve immediately or wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap until ready to serve.

Roasted peppers and roasted tomatoes are traditional throughout the Mediterranean. In some regions, hot peppers are included. The recipe is quite flexible and you should adapt it based on your preferences.

Roasted Sweet and Hot Peppers and Tomatoes, with Garlic & Vinegar

Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

4 to 5 jalape?s or serranos

3 to 4 sweet red peppers

3 to 4 sweet green peppers

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

6 to 8 ripe tomatoes

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

10 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/3 cup red wine vinegar, medium acidity

3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use a paring knife to remove the stem and seed core of each pepper and to cut each pepper in half lengthwise. Put the peppers in a large, shallow baking dish, add the garlic, drizzle with a little of the olive oil and toss to coat the peppers well. Cut the stem ends off the tomatoes, put them in a second shallow baking dish, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with a little olive oil.

Bake the peppers until their skins blister (they do not need to turn black), about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, cool and use your fingers or a sharp paring knife to pull off the skins. Cut the sweet peppers into ?-inch wide strips and cut the hot peppers into very thin julienne. Put the peppers in a shallow serving bowl and pour any pan juices and the garlic into the bowl with them.

Bake the tomatoes until they are very soft and beginning to brown, about 30 to 35 minutes, stirring them every 10 minutes or so. Remove from the oven and let cool. When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, slip their skins off and add them, along with any pan juices, to the peppers; use a wood spoon to break up the tomatoes.

Add the vinegar and the parsley, toss and let rest for 30 minutes before serving.

Store in the refrigerator, covered, for up to a week.

Variations:

Serve hot, over thickly sliced Italian fontina, with grilled hearth bread alongside.

Add 1 teaspoon ground cumin with the vinegar and parsley.

Add 2 tablespoons of capers with the vinegar and parsley.

Use poblanos in place of the sweet peppers; use 3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro and 1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano in place of the parsley.

For a refreshing summer salad, toss the peppers and tomatoes with a wide, flat pasta, such as cencione or lasagna noodles broken into 2- to 3-inch pieces.

For a delicious main course, serve over creamy polenta.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM.

E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.