Fennel is a new addition to my local farmers market. That’s the great thing about the rise of these local markets. Customers ask, farmers grow. Last year, it was a few experimental bulbs, this year it’s big bins of them. When I saw them last year, I was quick to pick up as many as I could and start experimenting. I love adding fennel to the vegetables that start a soup or casserole or sauce – a bit in with the carrots, celery and onion. It adds an interesting undernote. But I had never really ventured into featuring fennel as a main ingredient until I found it tender and fresh and fragrant on the farmstand.
I have had a roasted fennel gratin at a restaurant that was basically wedges of fennel tossed in olive oil with a shower of breadcrumbs. Not interesting enough for me. The recipes I looked at were mostly similar and the ones with cream sauce seemed to have a lot of cream sauce – the fennel would be swimming. So I fiddled around for what I was imagining. When I have the freshest fennel, I want to highlight its unique flavor, so I ignored recipes that had additions of mustard, onion, garlic and shallot. I want the bracing flavor of fennel to really shine. A touch of the acid tang of white wine complements the fennel and a slight dusting with salty Parmesan rounds it out. Cooking mellows the fennel, rendering it sweeter but still with that special flavor.
This dish is lovely. I’ve eaten it on its own with a chunk of bread, but it pairs so well with a grilled steak or a delicate piece of fish. The smell of sliced fresh fennel is spectacular.
Creamy Fennel Gratin
I prefer the Parmesan and breadcrumbs to be very fine, like a light dust on top of the gratin. I grate day-old bread on a fine grater.
6 cups thinly sliced fennel (see note)
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon flour
½ cup white wine
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tablespoons chopped fennel frond (the feathery leaves)
¼ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
¼ cup fresh, finely grated bread crumbs
salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter an 8 by 8 inch baking dish
Cut the thick stalks and fronds form the fennel bulbs and remove the tough end and any tough, blemished outer leaves. Slice the fennel bulb thinly using a mandolin or the food processor, about 1/8 inch thick.
Melt the butter in a saucepan large enough to hold the sliced fennel. Whisk in the flour until you have a smooth, pale paste. Pour in the wine and heavy cream (measure them together in the same jug) and whisk until the sauce begins to thicken. Stir in one Tablespoon of the chopped fennel frond and cook until the sauce is thick and coats the back of the spoon. Stir in the sliced fennel and a few generous pinches of salt and stir to coat. Scrape the fennel into the prepared baking dish and spread it out into an even layer.
Mix the breadcrumbs, parmesan and remaining chopped fennel fron together. Sprinkle evenly over the top of the gratin. Bake the gratin for 30 – 40 minutes until a knife slides easily into a piece of the fennel. Serve hot.
Serves 4 – 6
Note: I created this recipe to make the most of fresh, young tender fennel. I use about 6 bulbs that are pale green and about 4 inches across. If you use the mature, white fennel common at grocery stores, you will probably need about 3 bulbs. The young fennel can be sliced right through, but the larger white bulbs need to be halved and the triangular hard core cut out. The large bulbs may need a longer cooking time as well.
I’ve been making this dish for years, decades if I’m honest. I really thought it was my own unique creation, and I patted myself on the back for its genius every time I made it. It’s been my date night dinner, my decadent solo treat and my impressive meal for friends. I made it in my first apartment kitchen and shared it with my first house roommate. It dates, for me, to a time when anything with brie seemed sophisticated and gourmet, before I had stretched my culinary wings too far. But I just realized, when developing it and photographing it for The Spoon, that it’s not my recipe. It’s from the classic Silver Palate Cookbook, which I have had for years. My favorite recipes in the book are marked and stained – but oddly not this one. Oh, I’ve changed it up a little to suit my tastes, but it is definitely from the cookbook. Recipes do that, they travel and share and move and become part of a family or a personal legend. I love looking through community cookbooks from different eras and different regions and finding the same basic recipe, maybe with a different name or spelling. That’s one of the many magical aspects of cooking and feeding friends and family, the community built around good food. And by the way, I also recently realized that I’ve been taking credit for Nigella Lawson’s lemon linguine for some time now too.
This really is the joy of summer in a delicious, creamy pasta dish. And it’s quick to put together – just a bit of chopping. Sweet cherry tomatoes really shine in this dish, with the nice firm bite preserved. The simple sauce smells wonderfully summery and the brie melts and coats the pasta, making a rich and decadent cream sauce without the work and kitchen heat.
Tomato, Brie and Herb Pasta
Adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook
1 cup fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
¼ cup fresh oregano leaves, loosely packed
2 cloves garlic
1 pound cherry tomatoes
1 pound Brie
¼ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 pound linguine or spaghetti
Finely chop the basil and oregano and place in a large bowl that will hold all the cooked pasta. Put the garlic through a press, or finely chop it, sprinkling a little salt over it during the process. This helps mellow the garlic, you don’t want big chunks.
Cut the tomatoes in quarters, or chop them smaller if you’d like, and add to the bowl. Scrape the rind off the cheese – you don’t have to be too precise about this, just do your best. A serrated knife and cold cheese helps. Cut the brie into small pieces, or pull it apart with your fingers, and add to the bowl. Pour in the olive oil, add few good pinches of salt and grind in some fresh pepper. Stir everything together, cover the bowl and leave at room temperature for a least an hour, but several hours is fine. The tomatoes will release their juices and the cheese will become meltingly soft.
When you are ready to eat, bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the package directions until al dente. Drain quickly, then pour the hot pasta over the sauce in the bowl. Leave to sit for a few minutes to melt the cheese and heat the tomatoes through. Toss the pasta and the sauce together until the pasta and tomatoes are well coated. Salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.
Classic zucchini bread is a summer staple for anyone who has a garden or frequents the farmers market. I always seem to have one extra zucchini lying around. But I find the typical spiced zucchini bread recipe, though delicious, a little heavy in summer, so I adapted a classic English lemon drizzle bread recipe to include zucchini in cute little mini-bite form. These little gems have the summery fresh taste of zucchini and mint nicely balanced with lemon zest and juice. The muffins themselves are not too sweet, but the zippy, sugary glaze adds a nice touch. Using granulated sugar gives the glaze a little crunch. I grate the zucchini, with the peel intact, on the fine holes of a box grater – thickly grated zucchini turns out too stringy and overpowers the light taste.
Zucchini Lemon Gems
For the muffins:
1/2 cup canola oil
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
Zest of 1 lemon
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tablespoon fresh chopped mint leaves
1 cup grated zucchini (about 1 medium zucchini)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the glaze:
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
5 Tablespoons granulated sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease 30 mini-muffin cups.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs then stir in the oil, sugar and buttermilk until well blended. Add the lemon juice and zest, the zucchini and chopped mint. Stir until blended. Add the flour, baking powder and salt and stir until just blended, with no streaks of flour left.
Spoon the batter into muffin tins, filling them almost full. I think these are cute with a little overflow, and that creates more surface for the sweet sugar glaze. Bake for 10 – 12 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
While the muffins are cooking, mix the sugar and lemon juice for the glaze in a small bowl. The sugar should not dissolve completely.
Leave the muffins to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then remove to a wire rack set over paper or foil to catch drips. Stir the glaze to blend, then spoon it over the muffins while they are still hot. Cool the muffins and enjoy!
Makes 30 mini-muffins
I was standing in my kitchen, on a Saturday after my farmers market run, putting everything in its proper place while I made my plan of attack for the day. Stacked up on the counter were a dozen ears of corn, destined to be blanched, stripped and frozen in little baggies. Next to that was a lovely bag of freshly ground Delta Grind grits, also destined for the freezer. It was such a lovely tableau. As I went about my business, peeling tomatoes for tomato butter, soaking field peas to be pickled and starting a batch of peach-basil jam, with fig, bourbon and vanilla bean jam already simmering in the crockpot, I just kept thinking about that corn and those grits and how good they would be together. I decided I’d whip a batch of plain grits and stir in some kernels for dinner. But as the day progressed, I just kept thinking there must be some really creative way to meld the flavors. As I peeled peaches, diced onions, chopped basil, shucked corn, I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I went to the freezer to make room for my next additions and realized I already had quite a lot of corn in there, so maybe I should whip up a batch of fresh corn buttermilk biscuit dough for the freezer. That’s when it hit me. My secret to those lovely biscuits – pureed fresh corn – would add that layer of corn freshness to a pot of grits. I was right. I started with a small portion, just to serve myself, and frankly ate that for dinner with some field peas the next weekend, and another night as well. So I set to work refining and codifying the recipe, and here it is.
These grits have the wonderful, soft creaminess you look for in grits, with that lovely texture and bite that comes from traditional stone-ground varieties. I highly recommend you seek them out. Adding the pureed corn to the cooking liquid creates a sweet, fresh undertone that is bright with corn flavor. The kernels stirred in cook just enough to release their own sweet secret, while adding an extra layer of texture and bite. Serve these for breakfast or as a side to a roasted or grilled pork loin. And I can’t help think these would make a truly special base for shrimp and grits.
Fresh Corn Grits
4 ears fresh corn, shucked and silked
1 ½ cups whole milk
2 cups chicken broth
¼ cup butter
1 Tablespoon salt
1 cup stone ground yellow grits
Butter, for serving
Cut the kernels off two cobs of corn and place them in a blender with 1 cup of the milk and blend to a fine puree. Really give it some time in the blender; you want it as smooth as you can make it. Pour the puree through a strainer into a large Dutch oven, pressing to get out all the liquid. Stir in the remaining milk, add broth, butter and salt and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Be generous with the salt, it is hard to get grits properly salted after they are cooked. Whisk the grits into the boiling liquid, reduce the heat to medium low and simmer stirring frequently. Cut the kernels off the remaining 2 cobs of corn, and stir them in while the grits are cooking. Cook, stirring frequently to keep the grits from sticking until most of the liquid is absorbed and the grits are tender, but with a little bite. Be careful while you are stirring, grits spit, so stand back aways.
Serve immediately with a good pat of better melting over the top.
Serves 4, or 6 as a side
It’s no secret that I love the farmers market. My Saturday morning trips followed by a day of canning or putting things by, are the highlight of my week. I am so inspired by all the produce and the people who love food. And I have found it is an amazing source of advice and ideas, from farmers and customers alike. I cannot count the number of times I have been standing at a booth, ogling the farm-fresh beauty, when a conversation starts about the best ways to make use of the produce. Farmers always have great ideas and, of course, know their stuff, but once you start talking recipes, other people are bound to join in. That’s where this recipe comes from. I was eyeing some gorgeous zucchini, and asking the farmer for some ideas on how to use it when she started reeling off onions in butter, sliced tomatoes, a little sugar. Another customer chimed in with the oregano, and yet another talked about making with all overlapped slices – and that she had a casserole dish that she thought of as her zucchini dish because she makes this so often in the summer. A further discussion ensued about sliced verses cubed versus wedged. Clearly, this is a recipe a lot of people know, but the first time I ever came across it was that day at the market. I scribbled down some notes (on an egg carton because that’s all I had), picked up a basket of zucchini and went to work.
My conclusions are the result of experimentation and all that advice and discussion. I prefer wedges of zucchini and tomato because it’s attractive and a little bit different, and I think they retain a touch of firmness. I chop the onions instead of slicing, which makes the dish a little easier to eat and serve, and I use a generous amount of oregano from the garden instead of any dried version. The brilliance of this is that it is not messed about with. Fresh vegetables and herbs, a little bit of sugar to bring out the natural sweetness, and a small shower of parmesan cheese. No cream or breadcrumbs or unnecessary thick globs of heavy cheese. Just simple and beautiful and summer. Oh, and now I carry a notebook and pen in my market bag.
Baked Zucchini and Tomatoes
I truly recommend using a wedge of good Parmesan and grating it directly over the vegetables. It melds beautifully without overpowering. The pre-grated stuff doesn’t do that.
2 Tablespoons butter, melted
1 medium sweet onion, chopped
3 medium zucchini
2 medium firm tomatoes
2 teaspoons sugar
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
2 Tablespoons butter
¼ cup parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Pour the melted butter into a 1 ½ quart baking dish (square or rectangle is best) and swirl to cover the bottom. Spread the onions over the butter.
Slice the stems off the zucchini, then in half, trying to make each half about the length of the tomatoes. Cut each half into quarters. Cut each tomato into eight wedges. Arrange the zucchini wedges and the tomato wedges in rows on top of the onions in the baking dish. Evenly sprinkle the oregano over the vegetables.
In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, salt and pepper. Sprinkle over the vegetables. Thinly slice the remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter and arrange over the vegetables. Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake for 25 – 30 minutes. The vegetables will have softened a little and released some juices, but will still be a bit firm. A knife should slide easily into a zucchini wedge. Sprinkle the cheese over the hot dish.
Serves 6 – 8
Field peas are one of my favorite things about summer. I freeze them in little baggies to pull out at the height of the winter blahs to remind me of the warmer months. I always seem to remember them as warmer months, not miserable, stifling hot and humid. On Saturdays, when I am cooking and putting by my farmers market purchases, I put them on to cook with some piece of pork, garlic or onion and let them bubble away while I work. But I also love them chilled in salads, so I decided to work on a pickled relish that would hark back to those fresh summer salads, chock full of farmers market ingredients, with a nice vinegary zing.
The peas need to be of roughly the same size. I have found that tiny lady peas turn mushy and disintegrate, while larger butter beans are unevenly pickled. Crowder, whippoorwill and the darker peas tend to turn the brine an unattractive color. You could add some zipper or cream peas, as long as they size is right. If you like a little spice, very finely dice a jalapeno or two and add to the mix, or put a whole hot chili in while cooking, then fish it out before canning. You could also add a pinch of dried pepper flakes.
Pickled field peas are a great relish beside roast pork, but also make a great dip for corn chips. In the middle of winter, you can pretend it’s summer by serving a scoop of this pickle in a lettuce cup as a salad. Pickle black-eyed peas alone, and you have a perfect hostess gift for New Year’s, or a special treat to serve for good luck.
Pickled Field Peas
2 pounds fresh field peas, all about the same size – purple hull, pink-eye, black-eye or a combination
1 large Vidalia onion
2 green bell peppers
1 red or orange bell pepper or 1 pimento pepper
3 cloves garlic
2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
4 Tablespoons canning salt or 3 Tablespoons table salt
1 ½ teaspoons dry mustard
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Put the peas into a large bowl of cold water and leave to soak for about 10 minutes. Finely dice the onions and peppers (I use my as-seen-on-TV onion chopper to speed things up). Finely dice the garlic.
Skim off any floating peas, then use your hands to scoop the peas out of the water and place them in a 5-quart Dutch oven. Let the water drip through your fingers leaving any debris and dirt behind. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, just until slightly soft, but still with a bite. Drain, rinse and return to the pot, which you should wipe out first to remove any scum.
Add the onions, peppers and garlic to the peas in the pot and stir well to distribute evenly. Pour in the vinegar and sugar, stir well then add the salt, mustard, paprika, celery seed and pepper.
Bring to simmer over medium high heat, reduce the heat to medium and simmer, at just a gentle bubble, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. While your peas are cooking, get a boiling water canner or big stockpot of water going. Here are step-by step instructions for processing jars. When the peas are almost ready, pour some boiling water over the lids of the jars to soften the seals and set aside. When the cooking time is up for the peas, immediately scoop into sterilized canning jars. Top with a little extra brine to cover, leaving ¼ inch head space. Dry the lids with a clean paper towel and place on the jars. Screw on the bands, then process the jars for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath. Refrigerate any extra peas, and discard any extra brine.
When the jars are processed, leave to cool on a towel on the counter.
The processed jars will keep for a year in a cool, dark place. Don’t forget to label your jars!
Makes about 7 half-pint jars
Maque Choux distills the essence of summer into every bite. Admittedly, its first attraction may be the fun name. Pronounced mock shoe, it is a corruption of a French word or an Indian saying, or just straight up Acadian, depending on whom you ask. It is a traditional Cajun dish which occasionally makes it onto the menus of New Orleans-style restaurants, but more often than not, as some dressed up, modernized version – with herbs, no bacon, named heirloom tomatoes. All of which is fine, but when you stop de-constructing and re-constructing and cook up a big, simple skillet-full, the very taste of ripe, sweet summer corn and fresh, juicy tomatoes is so clear, I don’t see why we need to mess about.
Like classic Wash Day Beans, this is not a quick, lightly cooked preparation. The slow, mellow braising of corn kernels with onion brings out a sweet richness that will make you think someone snuck in a dash of sugar while you weren’t looking. Salty smokiness from good bacon and a touch of sweet-tart freshness from full, ripe tomatoes round out one of my favorite expressions of summer’s bounty. Serve maque choux beside a hearty piece of grilled meat, but I’ll be honest, I usually eat it by the bowlful all on its own, maybe with a biscuit to sop up the juices.
Maque Choux (Cajun Stewed Corn and Tomatoes)
6 strips of bacon
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
6 ears of fresh corn, husked and silked
2 large or 3 medium tomatoes, chopped, juices reserved
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the bacon into small pieces and cook in a large, deep skillet with a tight fitting lid until crisp. Remove half of the bacon to paper towels to drain, leaving the rest in the skillet.
While the bacon is cooking, cut the kernels from the corn and scrape out as much milk as possible. Lower the heat on the bacon grease, add the onions and green peppers and stir to coat. Cook for a few minutes, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. When the onions are beginning to soften add the corn and stir to blend. Scrape in the chopped tomatoes and their juices, stir well and bring to a bubble. Lower the heat to a simmer, cover the skillet, and stew for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. If needed, add a dash of water here and there to keep things from sticking. Maque Choux can stand up to longer cooking if you get distracted and can be gently reheated a few hours later.
Serve warm, with the remaining bacon pieces sprinkled on top.
Aioli is the creamy, garlicky mayonnaise of Provence, traditionally made in a mortar and pestle. But the food processor makes this a quick, easy delight. Add a hit of fresh basil, and it is a fresh summer tomato’s best friend. Good on a simple sandwich or just spread on a thick slice. It also makes an amazing dip for a beautifully colorful display of summer vegetables.
I know you will be tempted, but do not skip the step of blanching the basil. It brings out the flavor of the basil, and prevents it from turning black and unattractive when being chopped. I find it easiest to leave the leaves on a stem and simply dip it in the boiling water. And the pot isn’t dirty, just rinse it out. I use a mix of olive and canola oil, because I find that using olive oil alone masks the fresh basil flavor.
Fresh Basil Aioli
1 stem of basil, with at least six big leaves
1 small clove garlic
1 Tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup canola oil
Bring a small pot of water to a boil. When it is at a nice rolling boil, dip the basil stem in and count to 20. You’ll start to smell a nice wafting basil fragrance. Pull it out, then place on a paper towel and squeeze out the moisture. Pull off six large leaves and place in the bowl of a food processor.
Put the garlic clove through a press, or very finely chop it with a sharp knife, pressing it to almost a paste. Place it in the food processor with the basil, add the egg, lemon juice and salt. Pulse until the basil is chopped and the mixture is creamy. Turn the processor on and drizzle in the oils (measure them together in one measuring jug). Process until the mixture is creamy, thick and emulsified. You will actually hear the food processor change sounds from smooth blending to a wet slapping sound.
When the aioli is thick, scrape it into a container, cover it tightly and refrigerate for at least two hours to firm up and allow the flavors to meld. The aioli will keep covered in the fridge for three days.
Makes 1 ¼ cups
Wash Day Green Beans in progress
Wash day beans are an old tradition, one that has taken on many forms in many places. The story goes that laundry day was once a week, usually a Monday, back when doing the wash meant heating up vats of water on an old wood stove to dump in the wash tub, then scrubbing the clothes by hand on that old washboard. The practical housewife was not likely to plan an elaborate meal to add to her work load, but the menfolk who spent the day laboring in the fields still needed a hearty meal. So, with the woodstove already fired up, our smart lady would put a pot of beans with some piece of meat on the back burner to simmer away while she got on with the washing. As I understand it, this is the origin of red beans and rice and many other slow-simmered bean dishes, and the tradition of eating red beans and rice on Monday still persists in Louisiana and around the South. But for me, wash day beans always conjures up this classic, old-fashioned sweet and tangy green bean dish. I buy gorgeous green beans at the farmers market, or pole beans take to this method wonderfully.
I have often thought that the tendency in the modern kitchen for quickly cooking vegetables misses a real trick. “Crisp-tender” is the buzzword for vegetables now, but the common assumption that vegetables cooked long and slow are overcooked is a shame. There is a transformative point in the cooking when the beans turn into something magical, wholly apart from their quick-cooked cousins. I attended a food conference recently where John Egerton, a master of Southern cuisine and cooking, stated that “slow-cooked green beans get a bad rap.” I couldn’t agree more. And it had me rushing home to rustle up some wash day beans.
Wash Day Green Beans
I usually cut the beans into pieces about 2 inches long for ease of eating, but it is not necessary. These shrink and turn a deep, mellow green.
12 strips of bacon
6 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
6 Tablespoons sugar
2 pounds of fresh green beans, washed and trimmed
Ground black pepper
Cut the bacon in to small pieces and drop into a large skillet with a lid, preferably black cast iron. Cook the bacon until it is crispy, then remove to paper towels with a slotted spoon to drain. Take the bacon drippings in the skillet off the heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. If you add ingredients while the grease is hot, everything will splash and sizzle and burn.
When the bacon drippings have cooled off, add the cider vinegar and the sugar and return to medium high heat. Stir until the sugar is melted. Add the green beans and about ¾ of the bacon pieces and stir to coat. Cover the pot, lower the heat and cook on low for 2 – 3 hours, stirring occasionally, until you are ready to serve.
Sprinkle with ground black pepper and the remaining bacon pieces. Serve immediately.
Serve 6 – 8
Simple, delicious spring vegetables really just need the simplest of bright accompaniments, and this dip really hits the bill. It is tangy with lemon and perfectly creamy and even has a sunshine-y yellow hue.
I love this at room temperature as a dip for lightly steamed asparagus spears or artichoke leaves. Put it can also be spooned over as a sauce. And its uses go far beyond that. Spoon it over grilled chicken or steamed fish. I love the use of meyer lemons with their sweet-tart flavor. This sauce, with the citrus and the wine, is puckeringly tangy. If you use regular lemons, reduce the amount of juice by a couple of Tablespoons.
Meyer Lemon Chiffon Dip for Spring Vegetables
1 large shallot, diced
1 clove garlic, diced
Leaves from 2 rosemary stems
½ cup freshly squeezed meyer lemon juice
1 cup white wine
1/3 cup heavy cream
6 Tablespoons butter
Place the shallot, garlic and rosemary leaves in a saucepan and add the lemon juice and wine. Give to a good stir, then bring to the boil over medium-high heat. Boil gently until the liquid is reduced to ½ cup. Stir in the heavy cream and cook until the liquid is reduced a bit more and the sauce is thickened.
Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl or measuring jug and pour the sauce through, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Wipe out the pan and return the sauce to it. Place over low heat and whisk in the butter ½ Tablespoon at a time, letting each piece melt before adding more.
Transfer to a small bowl and let it come to room temperature. You can serve this hot as a sauce.
Makes about ½ cup dip