If you are going to try cooking without a net (or written recipe), now is the time to do it. Or at least now is the time to do it in the parts of the world where it is summer and there is abundant, fresh, local produce to be had.
Marketing departments want you to believe that summer is almost over so that you will stock up on school supplies and buy new fall (or even winter) wardrobes, but there are still almost seven weeks of official summer left. Seven weeks! And the end of summer actually means the height of harvest for some crops.
One of my favorite summer dishes is the delectably simple insalata caprese: layers of ripe tomato, fresh mozzarella, and leaves of fresh basil drizzled with a little something -- usually balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but I tend to just go with Kalamata olive oil and skip the vinegar, but each to his own. I slice the tomatoes, grind just a little bit of high quality salt over the slices, and let them sit for a few minutes before I add the basil and mozzarella. Tomatoes *love* salt, but just a touch. Fresh, ripe tomatoes are delicious on their own, it's true, but a hint of salt really opens up the flavor without making them taste salty. (Reading Salted by Mark Bitterman opened up a world of salt possibilities. It's amazing how varied one little compound can be.)
I wasn't quite organized enough to make the mozzarella myself, so I bought it at the grocery store, but the basil and tomatoes came from local farmers. As I was eating, all I could think was "When real food tastes this good, why did I ever eat processed junk?" Sure, the industrial food is convenient, and I am quite certain that it is specifically designed to be addictive, but I also believe that real, fresh food (even if it is not necessarily local -- I do love avocados, which definitely don't grow around here) has the power to break that addiction.
But I digress.
This past weekend it was finally cool enough to do some canning, so on Saturday I stopped at a roadside stand selling pickling cucumbers, and yesterday I made pickles. I had a good handful of fresh dill left over, and I bought a bulb of fennel at a farmers' market, so I decided to try an improvisational version of what I refer to as "green soup." "Official" green soup is actually split pea, fennel, and spinach soup from Vegetarian Times. I didn't have split peas or spinach, but I had a bunch of frozen summer squash I have been wanting to use up, so the recipe went something like this:
2 small leeks, halved, rinsed, and sliced crosswise, about 1 cup, maybe a little less
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
10 or so grinds each of salt and pepper
1 medium bulb of fennel, leafy fronds removed, but stalks included, 1 - 1 1/2 cups
4 containers mixed frozen summer squash, probably 5 or 6 cups
The handful of fresh dill left over from making pickles, chopped
Some other miscellaneous seasonings I thought would be a good idea - Sunny Paris and Pasta Sprinkle
Enough homemade turkey stock to cover the lot, somewhere in the vicinity of 4 to 6 cups
I used to be obsessed with measurements, but the more that I cook, the more I learn that it is about proportions and balancing flavors -- not to mention adjusting to taste.
I sauteed the leeks and garlic in a little olive oil for a few minutes over medium heat, adding the salt and pepper along the way. The fennel went in next, and a few minutes later the squash. I heated the turkey stock to a simmer before adding it to the pot along with the dill and other seasonings. Then I brought everything to a boil and lowered to a simmer. After about 30 minutes of simmering, I pureed the whole batch with the fabulous immersion blender and let it simmer another 30 minutes or so.
At the risk of sounding synesthetic, it *tastes* green -- fresh and summery and bright and naturally sweet.
After dinner last night, I have just enough to cover lunches for the entire week, and I think that I will try a different sort of topping or additive each day and see what happens. Last night -- a few dabs of sour cream. Today - magic cheese. Tomorrow -- perhaps a squirt of citrus or some fresh tomatoes. From there -- who knows?