by: Chef Jim Berman
The most vibrant aroma of summer comes not from the barbecue, but from the garden. Few can quibble that the verdant smell of tomato leaves rubbed against your canvas gloves or wafting scents from just torn oregano leaves does not define summer. Or plucking the swelling cantaloupes from their viney entantanglement in the patch just by the shed isn't a rewarding culmination of all the sun's hard work. Summer and, more particularly, the harvest is the decisive time to bask in the aroma of a hard season's labor; digging in the cool soil, planting row by row, watering and watering and watering. And, alas, the breaths of beautiful flavors carry on a faint breeze to awaken our sun-baked senses. The return is immeasurable and the rewards insurmountable. A window-box hobbyist delights in plucking a few leaves or two of sweet basil as the John Deere-driving, acre-tilling farmer relishes his work, all the same. We come to find that the best harvest is that which is given away. There are tomatoes aplenty adorning windowsills from Providence to Portland that came not from the back yard that they overlook, but from a door, a block or a half a town away. And they always taste best. So those wonderful aromas that begin in the garden make their way into kitchens onto picnic tables and surrounded by eager devotees of the bounty.
We all have a favorite rite of summer fare. There is always Grammas Ethyl's Fried Green Tomatoes. Can't forget about ol' what's-his-name's Green Beans with Red Peppers. There is a favorite for one and all. Like Charlie staring into the candy store window, we wait and watch and wonder when, exactly that time will come when the brown paper bag comes strolling down the street hoisted by its proud grower full of that heralded corn. Or squash. Or beets. And then the culmination of growing and toiling (and even some drudgery) would come to the table.
For me, it was always dropping in on my neighbor at a meticulously planned time, just to offer my surprise and awe over the basket on basket of fuzzy peaches. The yellow jackets had already had their fill of the not-quite-ripened fruit and the slat-woven baskets were outside the back door of Mr. Freeman's house that I would start to watch for activity. I would look to see if the aluminum folding ladder was still tied to the side of the garage, knowing that when it came down from the paint-stripped siding, so did the peaches. Of course, I could always ask Mr. Freeman for a peach or two, but it was much more fun (and rewarding) to pop in and offer my assistance at stabling the ladder or bagging up the peaches. Because, I knew I would be part of the distribution process. We would pack the brown, juice-stained grocery bags bulging with peaches into a wagon turned newspaper delivery cart turned peach distribution vehicle and travel up one street and down the next. We made our rounds to older folks that Mr. Freeman had come to know and, had come to know him very fondly just around the same time of year, time and again. I would get the nod and the approving grin giving me the "oh, what a fine helper you have there." After what seemed a lifetime of pulling that wagon up and down hilly terrain, we would arrive back at Mr. Freeman's house. One bag left.
"Well, I suppose you might as well help yourself, if you like," he would say "if, of course, you think yer mum might like some of them."
"Are you sure? I mean, if you think you need them&" my voice would fall off, knowing full well the deed was done and the reward was mine!
"No, go on. Take 'em home. Yer mum might want to fix a pie."
"Thanks, Mr. Freeman. I bet she'll really like them."
And, in an instant I was gone. I did not, could not, waste a moment of the time the peaches had been off the tree. At a ripe old age of 8, I knew that peaches were peaches, and that there was some care to be taken. After all, if they were off the tree, how much longer can they stand the heat?
The bag, some bugs and a peach pit or two and a dirty kid made its way into the kitchen. There was no denying my mother was great at making things for dinner. Usually, what she made most were reservations. It was always worth the effort to ask about a peach pie, just to hear my mom say that the only way to make peach pie was to use peaches out of a can. I figured she was right; every time I had peach pie at one of the fifty or so restaurants we frequented, the peaches were always something that did not resemble Mr. Freeman's peaches. And, of course, mothers know everything. I would take a peach to my room with a bowl of cereal drowned in whole milk. Cereal, after all, counted as dinner when the car was already in the garage. I would dunk my peach, bite after bite, into the fat-laden milk to enjoy my primitive form of Peaches 'n cream. I would flush the cereal, since cereal is no good when it is soggy and drained of all its life-giving milk. It was not until quite some time later on a trip to Baskin Robbins Ice Cream with my little league team, the Reds, that I discovered Peaches 'n Cream ice cream. The problem, though, is that ordering Peaches 'n Cream with your little league time is far from the right thing to do. I made note, however, that it was available and upon my next solo outing, I would indulge.
As I grow, so do my tastes and my wanton desire to relish items fresh from the garden, mine or from a neighbor's. This year's hot, damp growing season has been fruitful. More accurately, it has been cucumber-ful. Cucumbers are much like rabbits let loose out of the hutch; every time you turn around there are more. Neighbor Tom and I have swapped many crops. His Swiss chard is picked at just the right time and the squash blossoms he generously shares with us are fantastic dowsed in a light batter and quickly fried. This year's bumper crop of cucumbers proved to be more than we could both handle. Comical, really. We bellied up to the table with a friendly rivalry of who was going to bring the most outlandish cucumber dish to the table. The catch? Our respective families could be none the wiser of what we were doing. It evens the tables, if you will. Cucumber after cucumber made its way from stubbly-skinned vine- dweller to kitchen. The sweet smell of the often freshly peeled cuke was masked only by the sweet smell of victory for the cook that was to take home the Golden Greenie award. Tom's confidence ebbed when my crew voraciously lapped up Chilled Cucumber Soup with Blueberries and Sour Cream. But, I, too was taken aback in a wash of loosing the prize when his mignons were contented with Steamed Salmon wrapped in Cucumber 'leaves' and Dill, served with a sauce made from a puree of the cucumber's seeds, cilantro and crem fraiche. In the end, it was a draw. Tom and I relinquished to a split decision, merely for the sake of not subjecting our families to any more cucumbers. Actually, 'relinquish' is a misnomer. We were subject to banishment by our families if so much as a single cucumber was brought within 20 yards of our respective houses. Now our unsuspecting neighbors fall prey to the feral cucumbers, left upon doorsteps under the cloak of darkness.
We did come up with some sweet smelling recipes. One such creation used no fewer than three ingredients from the garden. The best part of making this particular dish is that my hands would absolutely reek of summer. I was never quite sure if I should wash my hands or to try to bottle the scent so I could reminisce during the garden-less winter.
Minted Cucumber Salad
4 Medium cucumbers, straight from the vine
4 Plum tomatoes
¼ Cup, mint leaves, picked from the stem and well rinsed
¼ Cup, Red Wine Vinegar
¼ Cup, Your choice of oil; I like canola, but that's just me - I'm cheap
Generous amount of salt (sea salt is trés chic these days, so go for it)
Take the tips off of the cucumbers and peel the skin from cucumbers. Slice in 1/8-inch rounds and set aside in a large mixing bowl. I rather like the "squish" the seeds make. If you do not share my affinity, split the cukes lengthwise and drag a teaspoon down the interior to remove the 'pulp'. Slice the tomatoes in the same manner and add to the cucumbers. Slice the mint chiffonade-style into thin ribbons and add to the vegetables. Toss with the vinegar and oil. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Since pretty much everything is fresh from the garden, it is best when served immediately. There is a lot to be said about the just-picked flavor of tomatoes and sweetly aromatic mint.
You do not need me to yak on and on about summertime cooking. You have done more than your share this summer. The barbecue still holds some heat from the last cook out. The great big pot reserved for making tender the local corn is still sitting sink-side. And the cast iron skillet is resting from last week's fried catfish. But, hesitate not about striking a path straight for the garden and skipping the heat altogether. Relish the sinking sun, dwindling 100-degree days and the few remaining 10 dozen or so cucumbers that have yet to make their way from the garden.