Monday, July 31, 2006

gifts from the Mother

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I may have to start a separate blog for food. Until that happens, I will content myself with sharing my favorite experiments here. Today’s post is dedicated to my new favorite vegetable.

Friday is usually pizza & movie night. My energy level is pretty low then, as is my motivation for ingenious culinary inventions – so I indulge in whatever frozen pizza is a) on sale and b) will fit in my small freezer. Most times, I take the pie out of the box, save the baking instructions and put it back in the freezer – that’s about the only way a frozen pizza will fit.

I digress. Duckie was exhausted on the way home from school Friday. It was bike day, and she had spent most of the day trying out other kids’ bikes – to the point where I had to peel her off a little pink bike with training wheels in order to get her in the car. She was hot and miserable, and actually said so on the way home. “I very tired, Mommy.” *sob* Had to get her home and rehydrate.

So no trip to the store for pizza. Had to improvise.

(Excuse me while I slap the shit out of my co-worker. This well-meaning lady insists on narrating her entire day to me, whether or not I appear to be busy. I do try to ignore her, because a good portion of the time I actually am busy, and the other times I have no idea what to say in response to her inane statements of the obvious.)

Summertime improvisation is actually pretty fun. Around here you can’t spit without hitting a produce stand of some kind, and I have a route of my favorites I visit every couple of weeks – based not only on price and quality, but also on whether or not I like the people running it. There are just too many stands around here to put up with assholes pushing a hard sell on food that’s about to go bad.

My cohort in food obsession here at the plant gave me a tip on a curb market in Hendersonville – it’s kind of a tailgate party for folks to sell the stuff they grow at home, without having to pay fees to a bigger stand. I got some blackberries a couple of weeks back that were disappointing at best, but that was my fault – caveat emptor and all that.

That day, however, I also scored a lovely deal on two beautiful basil plants – a gorgeous sweet and a cute round spicy. I planted them in a big pot a few weeks back, along with two falls of oregano, a purple basil, and an itty bitty tangle of thyme. The sweet’s doing the best – I can cut a good five inches off it and it grows back practically overnight. But it’s overshadowing the other ones, blocking off sunlight (literally) and kind of taking over the neighborhood. Come to think of it, I might have to harvest again tonight to give the other kids a chance. So I’ve had fresh basil to work with lately – and oh, but it’s been lovely. The difference it makes in marinara is outrageous.

Another favorite is the little farm within minutes of my house that sells its produce at a nearby flea market. (Lyda Farms, at the Rusty Bucket, in case you’re ever in town.)

I’ve developed a fondness for squash over the last few months. Zucchini works surprisingly well with eggs and cheese in my favorite breakfast sandwich, which tends to gross out my husband to no end (always a plus.) I’m still not a fan of eggplant. Something about the meaty texture doesn't appeal to me. Spaghetti squash is out of the question, for reasons that I don’t really want to share. So zucchini and yellow squash remain my favorites. (I intend to try butternut squash and sweet pumpkins this fall, too.)

But the squash table at the Lyda Farms stand is a happy riot of color – dark purple and white eggplant, small dark green zucchini, and light yellow squash. Last week I stopped by, looking for the small, sweet cucumbers that grow so well around here. I had always thought you only used those for pickling – oh, I was so wrong.

And there they were, nestled between the cucumbers and the dark green zucchini – a squash I’d never seen before, the color of a late-summer sunflower, a deep gold that I simply do not have the words to describe without resorting to Crayola names (which I flatly refuse to do.)

“Oh, my land,” I said. (Yes, I do choose my words carefully these days. “Holy shit!” would not endear me to Sally, the older lady at the stand who keeps trying to feed Duckie cookies.) “What on earth are those?” I didn’t know, but they simply had to be good.

“Those are yellow zucchini,” said the lady who was working the stand that day. (Not Sally, the other lady who doesn’t act like she’s about to burn me as a witch.) “They’re wonderful.”

And so they are. The yield is significantly lower than the green zucchini plants, so they don’t hang around long at the stand – whatever I get has usually been picked that morning or the day before.

It’s got a good firm texture like a zucchini – it doesn’t wilt under the heat like yellow squash does sometimes. The flavor is divine – it reminds me somewhat of yellow squash, to be sure, but the buttery, nutty flavor is richer and more pronounced.

You can’t buy this stuff at a grocery store – the plants aren’t common, and I imagine the lower yield doesn’t make it a worthwhile crop for bigger farms. The only place I’ve seen it in my wanderings (including the bigger farmer’s markets) is Lyda Farms, God bless ‘em.

I nabbed a couple of nice tomatoes, let them ripen nicely at home. One was apparently destined for Friday night’s supper.

Sauté a bit of garlic in olive oil. (I try not to burn it, but I don’t have much luck with garlic as a general rule.) Add the yellow zucchini, chunked. Add the luscious dark red tomato, chunked. A pinch of sea salt – not too much, because the tomato brings its own salt to the party. Some fresh-ground black pepper. Finally, just before the tomatoes start to get soft, add some chopped fresh basil from the pot out back. And try not to pass out from sheer mouth-watering bliss when the savory, sweet fragrance rises out of the saucepan. Freaking Tuscan ambrosia.

Don’t you dare drain off the olive oil. Serve the whole juicy concoction over pasta, with some parmesan cheese. It took about fifteen minutes to put together and maybe five whole minutes to eat. And all of the vegetables were grown within five miles of my house.

I wish I could have y’all over to supper sometime, just to share it.

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