Friday night our friends Scott and Carolyn joined us for dinner. Carolyn is a vegetarian and I always welcome the challenge because I usually include meat or fish in some way.
On the one hand I thought it would be easy because as vegetables go, this is peak season. On the other hand, many of the great veggies of the season do not require much preparation. We had the first cantaloupe and the first watermelon of the CSA season. We had tomatoes, cucumbers, and lots of greens, all of which could easily be set out with no preparation. But the whole point of being a chef is the preparation!
So I prepared a menu based on the summer’s freshest veggies, some whole grains, and some creative ways to showcase them.
The menu was:
Watermelon Sangria Cocktail
Chilled Green Vegetable Soup
Whole Grain Croquettes with Salsa Fresca
Seared Fresh Cantaloupe with Fresh Mint and a Honey-Butter Glaze
The salsa was the first order of business because it would need time to mix flavors. The preparation is simple, cut the veggies all to the same size and season. In this case the veggies (and fruit) included blueberries so that would be the size of everything else. To that I added red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh basil, a Serrano chili, red wine vinegar, lime juice, and olive oil. I seasoned with salt and pepper and stirred every 15 minutes or so to mix the flavors.
For the Watermelon Sangria Cocktail, I pureed half a seedless watermelon and strained the juice. I added this to a bottle of dry white wine, a cup of vodka, a half cup of triple sec, and served it over ice garnished with fresh mint. It had the flavors of summer, a nice kick, and was very refreshing!
The Chilled Summer Greens Soup was made in several steps. First I simmered fresh kale and chard in vegetable broth. This took about 5-10 minutes but softened the greens and mellowed the flavors. I removed the greens and simmered spinach in the same broth for about 3 minutes.
Two things preserve the bright green color that is so important to the soup. The vegetable broth was heavily salted. This would not go into the final soup but draws out the green color from the greens. As each was finished, I removed the greens to ice water briefly which locks in the bright green color.
I also sliced a large zucchini crosswise and browned the slices in olive oil with herbs de Provence and sea salt.
All of the greens and the zucchini went into the food processor. As it pureed I added a chopped juicy tomato. The greens when concentrated like this give a heavy earthy flavor and need a light and acidic counterpoint. The tomato lightens it up but at this time of year they are not very acidic. I added balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, fresh parsley, basil, and thyme. To get the texture and color I wanted I added a ripe avocado and a cup of heavy cream. All of this took place in the food processor. The final addition was a special one, truffle oil.
Truffle oil is not cheap, but a little goes a long way. In this case it was the perfect addition to this dish. I served the soup garnished with fresh mint and a dollop of greek yogurt. In truth there was so much to this soup it could have been a small dinner by itself with a crusty loaf of bread and a nice white wine!
The Whole Grain Croquettes are a great base for all of this fresh and colorful food. The combination of grains is not critical, but in this case I used cooked chickpeas which I mashed with a potato masher, and to that I added cooked millet which gave it an interesting look because millet looks like little round seeds. I also added some cooked brown rice for variety. I mixed these all in a bowl with a couple beaten eggs, lots of chopped parsley, some fairly heavy seasoning and breadcrumbs. I mixed them all up in a bowl as I would hamburgers and made them into small hockey puck shaped disks. They were about an inch to an inch and a half thick.
I heated olive oil in a skillet (just enough to cover the bottom) and waited for it to get hot to the point of smoking and then put the croquettes in the oil. Not only did the hot oil make them sizzle loudly but it also gave then a crisp browned exterior. I basically cooked them like hamburgers and halfway through flipped them.
These were served with the salsa fresca over the top and the combination was satisfying and delicious!
The last dish was the Cantaloupe with Fresh Mint and Honey-Butter Glaze. This would have been a great dessert but I chose instead to serve it with the meal. (Next time I would serve it with some ice cream as dessert).
The cantaloupe was a little early as I wouldn’t expect melons before August but this one came Wednesday with the weekly CSA bag and was so sweet and concentrated with flavor it was spectacular.
To prepare it I peeled and cut up the melon and tossed it with a large handful of fresh chopped mint. In a skillet I melted a couple tablespoons of butter and whisked in a couple tablespoons of honey. I added the cantaloupe and stirred them together. It did not take long for the melon to brown and you have to watch it so as not to burn the honey but because of all the sugar, it browns nicely and creates a delicious glaze.
By leaving the cubes fairly large (about the size of strawberries) there was still lots of sweet melon and the glaze did not overshadow the flavor of the melon. The combination of the butter, the caramelized honey, and the fresh aromatic mint made the perfect companion to the cantaloupe’s great natural flavor.
The real star of Friday’s dinner was Mother Nature and the time of year. Many thanks to my friend Carolyn for keeping my vegetarian skills honed! Scott if you’re still reading, you were fun too!