Mirror Contributing Writer
Well it’s official. The current heat wave is expected to last until October. According to the experts, California’s natural air conditioner, our friend the marine layer, is being displaced by hot desert winds from Mexico combined with moist sea air from the gulf of Baja, resulting in unseasonably hot, muggy weather conditions. For those who want to avoid their ovens, there is a wealth of delectable summer vegetables that do very well in a large pot on the stove.
You can make a cookbook-free summer stew similar to ratatouille – that pan-European dish that combines the best of mid-summer’s heat-loving vegetables. Take your onions, peppers, garlic, summer squash, eggplant and tomatoes and make great batches of this lovely stew to eat hot, cold, over pasta or rice, or simply all by itself. The one key technique to follow (and it is simple to do) is to cook the vegetables separately and combine them with the tomatoes for the final simmer. Start with peppers and onions and some olive oil; cook them in your stew pot until they are soft and fragrant but not cooked to completion. Remove them, add more oil if necessary, then add summer squashes. There is such a variety to choose from, and they are indescribably delicious; from the lovely round ones that come in striped green and brilliant yellow, to the heirloom zucchinis to the crooknecks, starburst and any others that appeal to the eye. Cook them with some garlic, remove them and set aside.
Then begin with the eggplant. This summer, Weiser Family Farm has brought in some pretty purple and white striped oval eggplant along with some large, lobed and bulbous, lavender and white Rosa y Bianca. Peacock Farm has a large selection as well, of the slim Japanese and Chinese varieties, as well as the snow-white “egg” plant. These newer varieties have denser, lighter flesh than the large Italian purple globe eggplants, so they do not absorb as much oil when they cook. Toss these around as they soak up the cooking oil and must keep moving to avoid scorching. They will begin to look soft when it is time to take them out. Then put all the veggies back in the pot and top with lots of sliced fresh tomatoes – again the summer heirlooms have begun to arrive at the market and your selections are bountiful. You can pick a color theme – green, gold, red, variegated – or simply combine whatever you have at hand. Proportions are not important – everything melds nicely as the stew simmers, covered, for about half an hour, or longer if you forget to check. The texture and character of the individually cooked vegetables is maintained by using this cooking method, so that each bite brings you multiple flavors and taste delights. As for seasoning, aside from some nice coarse salt and pepper, nothing else is required. Like all stews, this one is better the second day, and so on until it is gone.
Other finds at the market are some nice, large tomatillos at Tutti Frutti. Tomatillos are fairly rare at farmers’ markets, probably because many shoppers do not understand them. Tomatillos resemble small, round tomatoes except for their distinctive tissue paper outer skin, which is discarded before cooking. Tomatillos are usually used for making salsa. They are boiled, drained and mashed with some hot peppers, onion and garlic and used for “salsa verde.” The heat of salsa verde depends on the variety and amount of hot peppers used, and the flavor is distinct. Also at the market you will find some nice okra – mostly the green variety but there is some of the occasional red. Okra is very adaptable to stews and simmers, and has that distinctive slimy texture that is very pleasant when combined with other vegetables and served as a stew or as an accompaniment to rice or pasta.
As summer marches on, be aware that the heat will be causing havoc with tender fruits like peaches and, soon, grapes. Let you farmers know that you appreciate their efforts at growing, harvesting and transporting these delicate items to market for you, and buy and cook lots!