In Season

In summer, vegetables rule. In fact, incorporating a bit more produce into the seasonal menu doesn’t have to be a challenge to non-vegetarians.

When I first started cooking some 34 years ago, I would go into panic mode if someone coming to dinner said they were vegetarian. Did I really know enough to make an interesting meal for someone who ate mainly vegetables? Experience has taught me that vegetables are kind to cooks, and a stroll through a good produce market assuages any feeling of inadequacy.

Unless one wants to go to ridiculous lengths to impress a vegetarian (who ever heard of a snobby vegetarian, anyway?), the simplest preparation of fresh produce is usually the best way to go. After all, is there anything better than some butter melting over freshly cooked corn, or a drizzle of fragrant olive oil over some thickly sliced tomatoes?

Over the years, my cooking has gradually included more vegetarian dishes, as the produce available has become more varied and certainly more enticingly fresh. Ongoing research in science has swung back and forth over everything we consume from carbohydrates, sodium and meat to chocolate and wine, but it has never been anything but positive about vegetables. If there were labels that indicated calorie and nutrient content attached to the fresh vegetables we ate, we’d all feel so pleased about doing ourselves a favor with each mouthful. Consider the healthful nature of some vegetables: Tomatoes burst with vitamin C and cancer-fighting nutrients, and research shows that the concentrated goodness of tomatoes improves upon cooking them. Leafy greens have always been touted as an important contributor of fiber, vitamin C and calcium—what a package. And the darker the leaf, the more nutritious. For instance, given the choice between a head of iceberg and a bundle of arugula, go for the darker-toned latter.

Cooking for a vegetarian should not strike fear into the heart as it once did mine. In fact, we should all do ourselves the lifelong favor of incorporating more of a vegetarian’s eating habits into our own lives. It’s easy. Now’s probably the best possible time to start, when late summer produce is at its peak, including everyone’s favorites like squash, beans, peppers, eggplants, corn, glorious varieties of tomatoes, and fresh herbs like sage and basil, cilantro and oregano.

A simple rule to follow when omitting meat or fish from a meal is to make sure there is balance. For instance, a soup and a couple of feather-light salads will provide variety, but not comfort or substance. While it might be all you need for a light lunch, it would probably leave your dinner friends feeling rather empty. Include in the menu a starch, or at least a ‘heavy’ vegetable such as broccoli, eggplant, cauliflower or lentils to even out the meal.

I have included my favorite soup and salad recipes here to celebrate our long, hot summer days: salads light and crisp, and soups infused with the richness of the season’s harvest.

Enjoy these lazy days with some Virginia bounty, its flavors magnified by late-summer sun.

All recipes serve 4 to 6 people.

FRESH CORN SALAD

4 corncobs

2 seedless cucumbers

1/2 cup grated unsweetened coconut

1 cup frozen shelled edamame soybeans

1 cup alfalfa sprouts

1 bunch fresh cilantro (use leaves with a little stem)

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon poppy seeds

1 jalapeño or other hot green pepper, sliced

Dressing:

1 tablespoon ponzu dressing (available at most good grocery stores)

juice of half a lime

1/4 cup sesame oil

salt and cracked pepper to taste

Mix dressing ingredients well, and set aside. Boil the corncobs in plenty of salted water. When cool, shave off the kernels with a sharp knife beginning at one end and slicing through to the bottom. Save the kernels. Skin the cucumbers, and cut into small dice. Mix corn and cucumbers with the frozen edamame, alfalfa sprouts, coconut and cilantro (the edamame will thaw in the preparation process). Pour the dressing over all, very sparingly.

In a heated skillet, pour in the oil, and drop in the poppy seeds. When they begin to pop in the heated oil, add the hot pepper slices and the cumin seeds and sauté for about a minute. When the pepper mixture has cooled, toss together with salad thoroughly.

ROASTED SUMMER SQUASH AND GARLIC SOUP

2 pounds of your favorite sweet summer squashes; try sunburst, golden Italian, white, yellow or butternut

1 whole head of garlic

1/2 cup finely sliced brown onion

1/4 stick butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/2 cups whole milk

1 1/2 cups water

1/4 cup dry sherry

1 bay leaf

salt and pepper to taste

Wash the squash and pat dry. Depending on the squash you chose, either leave skin on or peel a squash like butternut with a tougher skin. Loosely wrap in aluminum foil, and place on a baking tray. Without peeling the garlic cloves, wrap the whole head in foil and place on the tray with the squash, and roast in a medium oven, about 350 degrees, for about three hours. Remove from oven and cool. Chop the squash coarsely, and remove seeds if using a squash with inedible seeds, such as pumpkin. Squeeze the dark, caramel-like garlic paste out from its skin and reserve. Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add olive oil and sliced onions and, when golden but not brown, add the garlic and squash. Stir briskly until all the ingredients are well coated in the butter mixture.

Pour in the water and the milk, and bring to a boil. When boiling, immediately turn the heat down for the soup to simmer gently. Add the bay leaf, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Remove the bay leaf, and pour the mixture into a blender and process until smooth. Return to the pot, bring to a gentle simmer again. Right before serving, add the sherry, stir and check the seasoning. Serve warm, with crusty bread.

You could cook this soup in a more straightforward way, just chopping the raw vegetables and throwing them straight into the onion/butter mixture. By roasting the garlic and squash first, your soup goes from good to sublime, acquiring a nutty, smoky flavor.

TOMATO AND LENTIL SOUP

2 pounds very ripe red tomatoes of your choice, chopped into small dice

1 small can tomato paste (6 oz.)

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely sliced

1 large brown or purple onion, finely chopped

1 cup red lentils

2 teaspoons cumin powder

1 teaspoon pepper

2 1/2 liters (2/3 gallon) water

2 tablespoons cooking oil

salt to taste

Heat oil in a pan, and add cumin powder, onion, garlic and ginger. Stir well, until onion is soft. Add the lentils and stir until nicely blended. Add chopped tomatoes to the pot. Pour in the water, add the tomato paste, and stir well. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to a gentle simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, and then add the pepper and salt to taste. Remove from the heat when lentils are soft, about 10 minutes. Optional: Add two potatoes, cut into tiny dice, to the soup. Serve warm with a topping swirl of sour cream or yogurt.

FRESH SAGE PESTO WITH PISTACHIO NUTS

2 cups fresh sage leaves, washed and dried (do not use the older, tougher leaves and stems—they can make your pesto bitter)

1 cup good olive oil

1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup pistachio nuts, shelled and loose skin removed

salt and pepper to taste

Blend all of the ingredients together until smooth. Stir some through a bowl of hot, freshly cooked pasta and serve warm.

Save the leftover sauce in an airtight jar after pouring a film of olive oil over the surface, to prevent the sauce from drying out.

PERSIAN ROSE SALAD WITH YOGURT DRESSING

2 fresh roses in full bloom

1 cup fresh dill tips

1 cup fresh oregano leaves

1/2 cup fresh green scallions, finely sliced

1 cup fresh mint leaves

2 firm green cucumbers

1/2 cup pistachio nuts, shelled

Dressing:

1/2 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

juice of one lemon

salt and pepper to taste

Whisk dressing ingredients until light and well blended, then store in the refrigerator until ready to use. Wash the roses thoroughly, and pluck the petals off. In a bowl, mix together all the green leaves and petals, reserving a small handful. Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise and remove the seeds, then julienne. When ready to serve, toss the dressing with the salad, add the pistachio nuts and then sprinkle with the handful of saved salad ingredients.

Special thanks to Jo and Rob Pendergraph at Manakintowne Specialty Growers for supplying herbs and location. Serving pieces except tomato and lentil soup bowl are from J. Taylor Hogan, Libbie Avenue, Richmond. Squash and garlic bowls are Vietri Fresco Dot, pasta plate is Vietri Fresco, and rose salad and corn salad are on Vietri Cioccolata.

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