On your plate at their peak

David Tanis / New York Times News Service /


Published Aug 27, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

NEW YORK — We are led to believe that summer produce is available all summer long, but in truth it arrives piecemeal. Yes, there are early ripening fruits and jump-started zucchini, new garlic and the first green beans that are in the market in June. But it's really not until mid to late August that simply everything appears in magnificent abundance.

Now is the time, people, and it is glorious. Only now do we see incredibly colorful eggplants and long-awaited tomatoes that actually taste like something. At last, sweet peppers grown outdoors! Corn! Melons! The mere sight can make a cook giddy.

And it's more than just good looks — these babies are undeniably tasty after so many weeks of soaking up sunshine. It doesn't get much better than this, at least until this time next year.

I wanted to celebrate that freshness with a little dinner party, or maybe a big one. And I was inclined to banish meat altogether. With this kind of summer produce, it won't be missed.

So, here is the menu: four savory vegetable dishes and a fruity dessert. I designed the recipes for six, but they can easily be scaled up for a larger crowd. You can prepare this as a summer buffet or as snacks for a cocktail-type affair, but it works equally well for a sit-down meal.

As an hors d'oeuvre, it's sweet corn blini, little dollar-size pancakes made with cornmeal and fresh corn. You prepare the batter ahead and griddle them at the last minute. (For that matter, even if you cook them in advance, they won't suffer much when reheated.)

I am a fan of eggplant soup, and this one is a winner, creamy-textured and bright tasting. Charring the eggplant gives it a smoky flavor, but as opposed to some rustic versions, the soup has a smooth texture and a lovely pale color. It gets a good squeeze of lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of the Middle Eastern spice mixture za'atar, made with wild thyme and sesame, now widely available. Make sure to choose small, firm eggplants.

A salad of stellar tomatoes is essential, and this one has a distinctly niçoise profile. Thick slices are arranged on a platter, then topped with a garlicky chopped olive vinaigrette and colorful halved cherry tomatoes. A flourish of anchovy plays against the sweet ripeness, and scattered basil leaves are decorative as well as edible.

For something with a bit more heft and a satisfying main-course feeling, I stuffed extra-small bell peppers with a mild feta cheese and baked them with a generous handful of herbaceous breadcrumbs.

As for dessert, custardy chilled panna cotta satisfies like ice cream, but doesn't melt, and so is easier to serve. The addition of coconut milk and cardamom is a nice twist, and juicy berries and nectarines, with a hint of ginger, a delicious accompaniment.

Recipes

Feta-Stuffed Peppers
Makes 6 servings.
6 1-inch-thick slices day-old French bread, crust removed
3 TBS olive oil
3 garlic cloves, grated
3 TBS chopped parsley
2 tsp chopped thyme
1 tsp chopped rosemary
1 oz grated Parmesan
Salt and pepper
6 sm sweet peppers, about 1 lb
6 oz mild feta cheese

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut bread into 1-inch cubes and pulse in food processor in batches to make coarse, soft crumbs. (It should yield about 3 cups.) Toss crumbs with olive oil and spread on a baking sheet. Bake, stirring frequently, until crisp and barely browned, about 15 minutes. Put baked crumbs in a bowl and add garlic, parsley, thyme, rosemary and Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper and toss well to combine. Set aside.

Cut peppers in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Place in a low-sided baking dish in one layer. Season cut side lightly with salt. Fill each pepper half with 1⁄2 ounce crumbled feta and press in cheese with fingers. With a spoon divide the seasoned crumbs evenly among the pepper halves.

Bake for about 30 minutes, until crumbs are golden and cheese is softened. Serve warm from the baking dish.

Sweet Corn Blini
Makes about 30 blini.
1⁄2 C flour
1⁄2 C cornmeal
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 TBS sugar
2 C corn kernels, from about 4 ears corn
1 egg, beaten
1 C thick plain yogurt, plus a few TBS milk if necessary
8 TBS melted butter, plus more for greasing griddle
Salt and pepper
1⁄4 C creme fraiche
2 TBS snipped chives for garnish

Put flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and sugar in a mixing bowl. Grind 1 cup corn kernels to a rough puree in a food processor, then add egg and yogurt, and pulse to mix. Add corn mixture to flour mixture and stir together until just mixed to make a thick batter. Stir in 4 tablespoons melted butter. Set aside for 5 minutes. Thin with a little milk if necessary. (Batter may be prepared several hours ahead.)

Warm remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add remaining 1 cup corn kernels. Season with salt and pepper, then cook for 1 minute or so to heat through. Keep warm.

Put greased griddle or cast-iron pan over medium heat. Using 1 tablespoon batter, make pancakes about 21⁄2 inches in diameter. Cook for 1 minute, until bubbles appear on surface and pancakes are lightly browned. Flip and cook for 30 seconds more. (Be sure to keep heat moderate or else the pancakes will blacken.) Pancakes may be cooked in advance and reheated.

To serve, place 3 hot pancakes on small plate. Top with spoonful of cooked corn and some of the butter from the pan. Drizzle with creme fraiche and sprinkle with chives.

Tomatoes Niçoise
Makes 6 servings.
1 sm shallot, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, grated
Salt and pepper
2 TBS red wine vinegar
3 TBS olive oil
8 anchovy fillets, 2 finely chopped and 6 for garnish
2 TBS roughly chopped black niçoise or oil-cured olives, plus whole olives for garnish
6 sm red tomatoes
12 cherry tomatoes in assorted colors
1 TBS small capers, rinsed
12 basil leaves

Make the vinaigrette: Put the shallot in a small bowl. Add garlic, salt and pepper and cover with red wine vinegar. Macerate 10 minutes, then whisk in olive oil, chopped anchovy and chopped olives.

Cut each tomato crosswise into 2 thick slices. Place slices on a platter in one layer and season with salt and pepper. Season cherry tomatoes with salt and dress with vinaigrette. Spoon evenly over tomato slices.

Top each tomato slice with half an anchovy filet, then sprinkle with capers. Garnish with basil leaves and whole olives. Serve at cool room temperature.

Coconut-Cardamom Panna Cotta
Makes 6 servings.
For the panna cotta:
11⁄2 C half-and-half
1⁄4 C plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 cardamom pods, smashed
1⁄8 tsp salt
1 C coconut milk (unsweetened)
11⁄2 tsp powdered gelatin
For garnish:
1⁄2 C blackberries or raspberries
2 tsp sugar
1⁄2 tsp grated ginger
2 sm nectarines or peaches, optional

In a small saucepan, warm the half-and-half over medium-low heat. Do not allow to simmer. Add sugar, stir to dissolve, then add cardamom and salt. Turn off heat and let cool. Stir in coconut milk.

Put gelatin in a small bowl and add 2 tablespoons cold water. Let dissolve, about 5 minutes, then add to half-and-half mixture; stir well. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a pitcher. Pour mixture into six 4-ounce ramekins or custard cups. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours. (May be made several hours or up to a day in advance.)

Put berries in a bowl and sprinkle with the sugar and grated ginger. Mix gently and macerate 10 minutes. Add slices of nectarine or peach, if desired. To serve, run a knife around edge of ramekin, then invert ramekin over dish. Shake gently to unmold. Surround panna cotta with fruit, or serve in ramekin with fruit on top.

Smoky Eggplant Soup
Makes about 6 cups.
2 lbs small firm eggplants
5 TBS olive oil
2 C sliced white or yellow onion
Salt and pepper
6 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch cayenne
6 C chicken broth or mild vegetable broth
3 to 4 TBS lemon juice
1⁄2 tsp lemon zest
1 TBS za'atar, available in Middle Eastern groceries
2 tsp chopped parsley

Poke 2 or 3 holes in eggplants with a paring knife, then place on a baking sheet under hot broiler, about 2 inches from flame. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes, allowing skins to blacken and char. Turn and cook on other side until eggplants have softened completely, about 4 minutes more. Set aside to cool, then remove and discard skins and roughly chop eggplant flesh.

Meanwhile, put 3 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy-bottomed stainless or enameled soup pot over medium-high heat. Add onion, season generously with salt and pepper, and cook until softened and beginning to color, 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic, cayenne and reserved eggplant and cook 1 minute more, then add broth and bring to a brisk simmer. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Check seasoning of broth and adjust salt.

Puree soup in batches in blender. Strain through fine-meshed sieve and discard solid debris and seeds. Add 3 tablespoons lemon juice to pureed soup and taste again, adding more as necessary. Soup should be well seasoned and rather lemony.

Mix lemon zest with remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil for garnish. Ladle soup into small bowls, topping each bowl with 1 teaspoon lemon oil, 1⁄2 teaspoon za'atar and some chopped parsley. May be served hot or cold.