By Patricia Lee Sharpe
These are the glory days for the Farmer's Market in Santa Fe. It's chilly at eight in the morning when the market opens. Jacket weather. And there was ice in the folds of my newspaper when I retrieved it from the driveway one day last week.
But the sky was already blue when I reached the Market, and the sun made everything look so promising, cooking-wise, that I wanted to snatch it all up. I’m a carnivore, and fairly unapologetic about this proclivity, but I’m helplessly addicted to vegetables, too. I can’t resist them, even in the supermarket with the overhead pipes spewing a disgusting cold mist over everything green. When I’m confronted with the real thing, mere hours its living connection with the earth that nurtured it, I become a ravenous locavore. Uncontrollable.
And how could anyone resist these last fruits of the season? Tomatoes, some grape-like, some surely weighing a pound each, all red, red, red. And a precious few baskets of raspberries. And bunches of beets, deep red violet. And ristra-strings of hot peppers so intensely aflame with color that my inner Carmen wanted to break into a flamenco on the spot. Not to mention the orange carrots and pumpkins and the golden squash and the slick green chiles still waiting to be roasted. And the purple fingerling potatoes and the dark satiny eggplant. And the pearly white Vidalia onions. And the garlic that comes wrapped in its own white tissue, like a gift to chefs. And skinny green beans. And vases of zinnias and cosmos and marigolds. Plus apples, of course. Macintosh. Rome. Delicious. Apples by the pint, by the peck, by the bushel, their skins taut with juiciness that spurts down your chin if you don’t bite carefully, which reminds me of the inimitable taste of just pressed apple juice, set out in little cuplets. To tempt you to buy a bottle. Or two.
Talk about cornucopia! These final weeks of summer vegetables are like the finale at a fireworks display, all the more glorious because the program is almost over. And so, as I walked through the market this morning, exceeding my budget as usual, I gloried in the color, but couldn’t help thinking of the killer frost that’s due any night now.
Among other delights, including a week's supply of leafy salad mix and a mammoth cauliflower I intended to curry, I bought several pounds of tomatoes, not at all sure what I’d do with them, except that I'd have to do it fast, because they couldn't get any riper without going bad. Still, I had to have them. There's no such thing as a surplus of vegetables in my house.
Once I got home with my booty, the fate of the tomatoes had already been settled: soup. What's more, I decided, I’d make the soup, for the first time in my life, without cracking a recipe book. Slapdash cook style.
Actually, it was a matter of trying to remember a formula I’d already felt the need to improvise last year when I discovered a peculiar and apparently invariable pattern among tomato soup recipes .The hot soups all wanted cream. The cold soups didn’t. And—here’s the nearly unanimous and criminal part!— most recipes called for a tablespoon or more of canned tomato paste as well as fresh tomatoes. Intensity at the cost of authenticity? No way, I decided. Why disguise the flavor of fresh tomatoes at the peak of perfection? Ditto for the addition of cream, plus this: why pile on the calories?
Anyway the recipe I’d come up with was so simple I did indeed remember it perfectly. Better yet, anyone can follow it without a lot of finicky measuring. Start with three pounds of tomatoes (so you’ll wind up with enough soup to make the effort worthwhile). Chop a medium onion and a big stalk of celery and fry them in any oil you want (I use olive) until they’re soft, which means the onions are translucent. It wouldn’t hurt to add a small clove of garlic, diced, a couple of minutes before the frying’s done. If you decide to skin the tomatoes, cover them with boiling water, briefly, to loosen the skins, but you don’t need to. You’ll be blending the soup before you’re finished. Anyhow, dice the tomatoes and toss them into the pot with the sauteed onion, add a quart of chicken stock and boil until the tomatoes are soft.
After the tomato mixture cools a little, blend it until it’s less than perfectly smooth. (I like it with a little texture.) Then add another quart or two of chicken stock (I make my
Fresh beets are also in season now. Nothing’s easier to concoct than picked beets. Boil them until they’re tender, peel them, slice/dice them and dump them into a container with a tight cover. If you have four medium beets, you might chop a small Videlia (or other sweet onion) finely and add it to the beets. Now grind in some black pepper, more if you can’t live without it, less if you aren’t a pepper freak, as I am, and measure in about two tablespoons of vinegar. Balsamic works well, but my current favorite is a pear vinegar. You can also add four or five whole cloves—and, maybe, a small bay leaf. When you’ve finished with the spices, cover the container and give it a good shake, to make sure that everything is properly introduced to everything else, and set it in the fridge to cool. Oddly enough, pickling in vinegar doesn’t interfere with
the earthy flavor of beets that haven’t been kept in storage for months—although by February I for one will be pretty glad they keep so well.
Now to some sassy, freshly uprooted carrots: here’s a quick and easy ginger carrot salad that (I think) is original with the slapdash cook. Talk about simple! Grate a couple cups of carrots (coarsely) and combine them with a tablespoon (more or less) of very finely minced ginger. Black pepper is de rigeur, of course, since this is my recipe. Now add a tablespoon of olive oil and some really nice vinegar. Maybe a tablespoon—or more, if you enjoy the tart and sour end of the flavor spectrum. Once I tried a fig vinegar. Complex and interesting. (If you like, you can add some finely diced onion and/or green pepper when you make this dish again.)
As for that cauliflower, I used a recipe that called for a medium (grated) onion, 1 tbs. crushed ginger, 1 tbs. crushed garlic, 1 tbs. black poppy seeds, 1 tsp. cumin seeds, ½ tsp turmeric and 1/4 tsp red chili powder. I fried the seeds in 4 tbs. oil til they popped, added the onion and garlic and fried ‘til the onion is brown, then add the turmeric and chili powder. After 30 seconds, I tossed in the cauliflower florets, along with ½ cup water, and cooked it covered for no more than 10 minutes (advisable if you don’t want to end up with a soft and soggy mess). The recipe called for a half cup of peas and other variants suggest potatoes as well, but I didn’t have either. The cauliflower was delicious on its own, so to speak, given all the spices.
In mid-summer, I’m perfectly happy with a meal of tomato soup, beets and carrots teamed with corn on the cob. However, since the corn season is over, I opted, this week, for baked chicken, flavored with tarragon I scissored from the plants in my garden. Doing it this way works well: lay the chicken on a few sprigs of tarragon (or rosemary) and stuff the rest under the skin. As for the curried cauliflower, I served it with a chicken korma and rice.