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Alan Tangren: The summer garden’s bounty

Alan Tangren

Dear Alan: My home vegetable garden is overflowing with eggplants, tomatoes and squash. I’d like some ideas on how to use them all.

Alan: When the summer garden is in full production, it’s nearly impossible to put all to good use, even after sharing with friends and neighbors. Fortunately, summer vegetables are easy to cook, and some are even better raw.

And with summer squash, you can even eat the flowers! Squash plants have separate male and female flowers. The male flowers produce the pollen, and the female flowers produce the babies.

The blossoms can be simply dipped in beaten egg and then semolina flour or cornmeal before shallow frying. Or they can be stuffed with seasoned ricotta and simmered in a broth with basil and tomatoes or corn.

Squash themselves are flavor magnets. Slices of any summer squash can be quickly sautéed in olive oil with garlic, onions and herbs to make a versatile side dish. Squash cooked in this way can also be added to pasta or risotto, or used to make frittata.

You can also make a simple gratin of zucchini, sliced and covered with cream and Parmesan, baked to a crusty brown.

Make a refreshing summer salad with squash sliced across or lengthwise and salted lightly, then drained. Dress with lemon juice, pepper, fresh herbs such as basil and mint, and a good amount of olive oil.

When I have perfectly ripe tomatoes from the garden, it is so easy to just slice them onto a plate, sprinkle with salt and add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Of course you can elaborate with minced shallot, basil and olive oil if you wish.

During hot weather you can make a simple sauce for pasta with fresh tomatoes. Simply cut out the stem end and dice the tomatoes. Mince a couple cloves of garlic and chop plenty of basil or Italian parsley.

While the pasta is cooking, heat a good amount of olive oil in a sauté pan. When the oil is hot, add the garlic, and immediately add the diced tomatoes, being careful of spattering. Add the chopped herbs and some salt, and cook for a minute or two, to just warm the tomatoes through. Remove from the heat and add the pasta when it is al dente.

You can also make a very easy and rustic sauce in the oven. Cut the stems out of 3 or 4 ripe tomatoes and cut the tomatoes into quarters or thick wedges. Place in a baking dish with some sliced garlic and torn basil leaves. Sprinkle with salt, drizzle generously with olive oil and bake at 350°F. for 30 to 40 minutes. Toss with cooked pasta and top with fresh-grated Parmesan.

If you are fortunate enough to have a good crop of eggplant, be sure to harvest the fruits in their prime. Pick eggplant while the skin is still shiny, before it turns dull. Overripe eggplant will have tough seeds and bitter flesh.

The easiest way and my favorite is to grill eggplant. Cut into 1/3-inch slices, brush with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and place over a medium hot grill. When well marked on one side turn and finish cooking. Serve with some fresh chopped herbs, especially basil.

Eggplant can also be baked, stuffed or braised; sautéed in olive oil or breaded and fried, the classic treatment for eggplant Parmesan. You have to be careful when frying, because eggplant is such a sponge for soaking up oil.

Asian eggplant are especially good sliced, grilled and served at room temperature as a salad, served with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and basil.

Globe eggplant are the ones to use for roasting whole and scooping out for soup or eggplant caviar.

All eggplant are ideal partners for other Mediterranean flavors and ingredients. Combine with garlic, anchovies, olives, roasted peppers, basil and tomatoes.

With those companions, use eggplant in hors d’oeuvres, vegetable salads and antipasto. Try eggplant fans with the thinner Asian varieties or in a layered gratin with zucchini and tomatoes over a layer of sautéed onions.

No, I did not forget ratatouille, the iconic Provençale vegetable creation, ideal for combining all of the summer’s bounty.

Like any recipe with many followers, there are many ways to make this. Julia Child was uncomfortable with cooking the eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions and tomatoes all together. She cooked each vegetable separately, to make sure each was treated well, and then combined them.

I have to agree, but I like to grill each vegetable (except tomatoes), then cut them up and combine to simmer briefly with garlic and basil. But I can understand the cook everything together camp’s insistence on making a dish that melds all the flavors.

Who is right? Just remember that any ratatouille seems better the next day.

Grilled Ratatouille

1 medium globe eggplant

2 onions

3 zucchini

2 red bell peppers

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

4 cloves garlic, sliced

4 tomatoes, cored and diced

1 small bunch basil, chipped

Cut the eggplant into 1/3-inch thick slices. Cut onions and zucchini into ¼-inch slices. Core and trim bell peppers, cut into strips. Lay out vegetables and brush with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Prepare a medium hot grill. Grill vegetables, turning as each becomes browned, until tender. Let cool slightly, then cut into large dice.

Place a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add about 1/8-inch of olive oil. Add the sliced garlic and sauté for a few seconds without browning. Add the diced tomatoes and cook for a few minutes, until tender and juicy.

Add the grilled vegetables and the basil. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil.

Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at alan.tesskitchen@gmail.com

When the summer garden is in full production, it’s nearly impossible to put all to good use, even after sharing with friends and neighbors. Fortunately, summer vegetables are easy to cook, and some are even better raw.
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