Digging the Local Bounty: What to cook with summer's fresh fruits and veggies

Head to the farmer's market or open your CSA box (that's Community Shared Agriculture) and be inspired by the amazing fresh produce available from local farms.





By CINDA CHAVICH


Summertime, and the plant-based living is easy.

It’s a veritable candy store for vegetable lovers — island fields filled with juicy strawberries and sweet corn, blushing new potatoes, baby squash, yellow beets and every kind of leafy green you can imagine.

Drive the back roads of the Saanich Peninsula and Cowichan Valley to cherry-pick your favourite fresh fruits and vegetables right from the farms, or meet the growers at the weekly farmers markets held across the region.

There’s been a big uptick in demand for fresh local food over the past year. And if you were lucky, you’ve sewed up your weekly fresh produce supply with a CSA subscription box.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, a system that lets farmers benefit from an early-season shot of capital and guaranteed sales by selling direct to consumers.

You buy an annual or seasonal CSA box subscription, paying the farmer up front for a weekly box of fresh produce. It’s a great way to insure your pick of the seasonal crop.

“As a farmer, I have a lot of gratitude for our CSA customers,” says Heather Stretch of Northbrook Farm who, along with two other female farmers, is part of Saanich Organics, a business that sells organic produce collectively through farmer’s markets, direct-to-restaurant sales, and a popular residential box delivery program.

“It’s important for us to have that certainty that the product is sold before planting it.”

This year, the box program was sold out even before a seed went into the ground, she says, a function of a pandemic that saw more people cooking at home, and more islanders thinking about local food security.

“At the beginning, I think people were worried about food shortages,” she says, “but I don’t think its coming from fear anymore. People realized there actually is great local food being grown right here at home.”

Stretch, who grows a variety of vegetables and has a U-pick blueberry orchard, says a typical mid-summer CSA box might include kale, beans, cucumbers, salad greens, onions, summer squash, lettuce and blueberries. Later in the season, carrots, beets, jalapeno peppers, garlic and plums may be part of the mix.

Local farmers grow Japanese turnips, pac choi, kohlrabi, eggplant, Brussels sprouts and parsnips, too.

The beauty of the CSA box is the ever-changing selection of produce, a surprise when you pick it up at the farm or have it delivered to your door. Every box includes about eight different items, based on seasonality and monetary value of the products, says Stretch, and, as a CSA box customer, you’re first in line for the week’s harvest.

“If we’re short on something, we think of our CSA customers first,” Stretch says, noting a Saanich Organics box might also include produce from other smaller organic growers.

Beyond boxes, you can use the new online ordering platforms created by Moss Street and Esquimalt markets to pre-order produce from growers that’s curated for pick-up at the markets, or arrange delivery from a variety of Cowichan Valley farms using the Cow-op online market.


FARM TO TOP TABLES

Chefs have long understood the importance of forging relationships with local growers to get the freshest, tastiest food on the plate.

Robert Cassels, the chef/owner of Saveur Restaurant, buys vegetables directly from local farms for his seasonal menus. Whether it’s the Sun Wing Farm tomato jam on his burgers, a concentrated carrot juice emulsion, or a complete plant-based tasting menu, Cassels loves to create inspired new combinations with his root-to-shoot vegetable cuisine.

His vegan fried mushroom crackling, and dehydrated radish and carrot top kimchi powder, require a multi-day preparation process. But some dishes are simple, like shards of shaved asparagus in a minted truffle dressing or blanched greens in chilled summer soups.

“My favourite thing to do with vegetables is to smoke them,” says Cassels, describing the smoked beet puree that gives his beet dish a meaty note, reminiscent of bacon, or his popular smoked tomato vinaigrette made with roasted garlic and basil. Recent menu items include duck spring rolls with smoked beet and wild elderberry "nuoc cham", and Metchosin pork belly with basil miso and preserved lemon “gremolata” in smoked turnip broth. Wild mushrooms get lots of love, too — crispy fried and pickled chanterelles, lion’s mane, puffed wheat berries with chanterelle butter, fermented mushroom powder, and Parmesan black truffle foam.

The trick to creating great vegetable dishes is treating vegetables with the same care and attention afforded more expensive proteins, he says.

“We make a mixed vegetable top kimchi, ferment it and then dehydrate to a powder to create a seasoning, loaded with umami,” he says. “Many cooks will take a lot of time and stages with meat — brining, braising, pressing — we do the same with vegetables.”


USE IT UP

While the first line of defense with farm-fresh vegetables is a big mixed salad — there’s nothing quite like the flavour of freshly-picked greens, ripe tomatoes, sweet corn, French radishes and garden peas — you can cook any of these tasty treats, too.


A big chef's salad featuring roasted vegetables, fresh garden greens, beets, cucumbers and pesto.

Heather Stretch tells her customers to be adventurous and try new vegetables, noting any vegetable can be “boiled, roasted or shredded into a salad.”

I would add grilled, sautéed or stir-fried to that list. Think about the “mother recipes” that you can tweak by swapping out the vegetables and herbs, whether it’s a quiche, omelet, risotto, soup or savoury vegetable fritter.

If you have a spiralizing tool, it’s easy to turn a windfall of big zucchini, carrots or rutababas into vegetable “noodles” to add to salads or simply sauté with butter and garlic.


A simple spiralizing tool makes vegetable "spaghetti" for salads and sautes.

Or simply roast the vegetables that are overwhelming your fridge or getting a bit squidgy, either alone or en masse, on a big sheet pan. Start by cutting or slicing vegetables, tossing them with a little olive oil and seasoning with salt, pepper or other herbs and spices. I especially like to roast tomatoes (to serve on crostini toast with a slather of pesto or mayo or ricottoa and basil), or create a Mediterranean couscous bowl, topped with roasted cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, onions and peppers, topped with hummus and tzatziki.

Cooking ripe fruits, especially berries, is a great way to save them when you have an abundance, too. Think about simmering berries into a simple sauce with a bit of sugar, to top your morning yogurt or pound cake, or combining them with apples or peaches in a fruit crumble.

Bake that windfall of summer fruit.

While you can store some vegetables in the refrigerator or a cold cellar for weeks — including cabbages, turnips, and roots like beets, potatoes and carrots — many vegetables and fruits are perishable. Pickling or fermenting is a good way to deal with a windfall of summer produce, and making old-fashioned vinegar and fruit shrubs is an option when the orchard overflows.

Spinnakers has shrubs on their cocktail menu — ginger, blackberry, raspberry, and rhubarb shrubs — and adds these local flavours to their line of sparkling waters and sodas.

So get creative and enjoy the bounty of summer in a box!


RECIPES:

MULTI-GREEN PESTO

I like to whirl up arugula, fresh herbs, and any fresh-from-the-farm greens (even turnip and radish tops) into a unique pesto-style sauce to stir into hot cooked rice, risotto, Israeli couscous or pasta, slather on a pizza or sandwich, or combine with sour cream for a dip or baked potato topper.


4 cups greens (any combination of arugula, radish tops, mustard greens, basil, mint, kale, spinach, turnip greens, chard, carrot tops)

½ cup shredded cheese (parmesan, feta, asiago, gouda)

1 garlic clove, peeled

¼ cup toasted nuts (almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, pecans)

1/3 cup olive oil

¼ teaspoon salt


Quickly blanch greens in boiling water for 10 seconds, then refresh in cold water and drain well. This sets the colour.

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse to chop, then puree.


Store pesto in a jar in the refrigerator, with a layer of olive oil on top to preserve. May also be frozen.


ASPARAGUS RISOTTO

This risotto recipe uses asparagus, but you can also add peas, spinach, sautéed mushrooms, roasted peppers, sausage and/or shrimp. From The Waste Not, Want Not Cookbook by Cinda Chavich.


1 pound asparagus

4 cups chicken broth

pinch of saffron threads

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 1/2 cups Arborio rice or medium-grain white rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh herbs (optional)

1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese

freshly ground black pepper


Snap off the tough ends of the asparagus, cut off tips and reserve. Slice stalks on the diagonal.

Heat chicken broth to boiling. Keep warm. Crumble the saffron threads into broth.



In a large sauté pan, heat the butter and olive oil. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat until tender. Stir in the rice and cook together for a minute.

Add the wine and stir until absorbed, then ladle in a little hot broth (about 1/2 cup) and simmer until the liquid is absorbed, stirring often. Continue adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time until it’s absorbed, and cook, stirring often, for about 10 minutes. Add the asparagus stalks and the herbs, if using. Add broth, stirring, until the rice is al dente (still slightly firm), about 10-15 minutes longer. The risotto should be loose but not soupy.

Add the asparagus tips and continue cooking until the rice is just tender, adding broth as needed to keep the mixture creamy.

Stir in 1 cup (250 ml) of the Parmesan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, topped with remaining Parmesan. Serves 2 heartily as a main dish, or 4 with other courses.

TIP: For a brilliant green risotto lightly steam half the asparagus stalks and purée in the food processor or blender with 2 tablespoons of butter. When the rice is almost tender, add the asparagus puree. You can also try this technique with fresh or frozen green peas and fresh mint, or spinach.


LEMONY STRAWBERRY PAVLOVA

The lemon custard tempers the sweet meringue in this version of classic pavlova. You can top your pavlova with any seasonal fruits or berries. Try a mixture of strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, or ripe peaches or plums.


4 eggs, separated

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 cup sugar, divided

1/3 cup lemon juice

2 tablespoons minced lemon zest

1 cup whipping cream (or plain Greek yogurt)

4 cups ripe strawberries, sliced (or other berries/fruit)


Line a cookie sheet with parchment and draw a 9-inch circle (or eight 4-inch circles for individual pavlovas).


Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites, vanilla, cream of tartar and salt at high speed until soft peaks form. Add 1 cup of the sugar gradually, a tablespoon at a time, with the mixer running and beat until the whites are glossy and stiff.

Using the parchment as a guide, spoon the meringue onto the baking sheet. Mound it higher around the edges, forming a bowl in the middle for the lemon custard.

Preheat the oven to 200ºF and bake the meringue for 1 hour, until crisp. Turn off the heat, leaf the oven door ajar and allow to cool in oven.

In a saucepan, whisk the egg yolks with remaining 1/3 cup of sugar and lemon juice and heat over low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick and smooth, about 5 minutes. Stir in the lemon zest and set aside to cool.

In another bowl, use an electric mixer to whip the cream until stiff. Fold the whipped cream into the cooled lemon custard, just to lighten it. Alternatively, simply combine lemon custard with yogurt to create a sauce.

Just before serving, fill meringue(s) with lemon cream mixture and decorate with fruit.

Serves 8.


SPICY ZUCCHINI AND ONION FRITTERS

These Indian-inspired appetizers are easy to make — add any fresh vegetables to the tasty pakora batter (slivered carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, cabbage, etc.).

From The Waste Not, Want Not Cookbook by Cinda Chavich.


1 cup chickpea flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon each: ground cumin, coriander, cayenne and turmeric

salt and pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

¼ - ½ cup water

1 medium zucchini, cut into julienne strips

1 medium onion, cut into thin slivers

2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped

2 cups canola oil for frying


coriander chutney (for serving)


Combine the chickpea flour, baking powder, spices and cilantro. Add the vegetables to the dry ingredients, tossing to coat.

Drizzle in a little water, mixing with your hands, just until the batter comes together enough to hold the vegetables into a loose mass (you don’t want a runny batter – it should be quite dry).

Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat. When the oil is sizzling (about 350˚F), add battered vegetables to the oil, a small handful at a time. Cook in batches, to insure the oil remains hot. Cook the fritters slowly, until golden brown (if the oil is too hot they will be gooey in the centre). Drain fritters on paper towels and keep warm in a 200˚F oven.

Serve hot with chutney.

Serves 4.



ZUCCHINI GRATIN

A savoury pie for summer lunch or supper — serve this pretty vegetarian dish warm or cold.

From The Waste Not, Want Not Cookbook by Cinda Chavich.


1 large onion, thinly sliced

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

½ teaspoon sugar

3 pounds small zucchini, sliced

6 Roma tomatoes, thinly sliced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup bread crumbs

1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese

½ cup shredded Pecorino cheese


In a sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the sliced onions and cook for about 10 minutes, until soft and beginning to brown. Reduce heat to low, cover pan and sweat 10 minutes. Remove lid and sprinkle with sugar. Continue to cook, stirring, until onions are nicely caramelized. Set aside.

Drizzle a teaspoon of olive oil into a shallow gratin dish and arrange 1/3 of the zucchini in the dish, overlapping in concentric circles. Top half of the caramelized onions. Add a layer of sliced tomatoes, a third of the minced garlic, a little thyme, salt, pepper and about ¼ cup of bread crumbs.

Repeat layers twice, ending with ½ cup of crumbs and the remaining 1½ tablespoons of olive oil.

Bake in a preheated 350ºF oven for 1 hour. Drain any excess liquid, top with cheese and bake another 20-30 minutes until bubbling and browned.

Served 4.


Copyright Cinda Chavich


This feature originally appeared in YAM magazine