Savoring Fall’s Bounty

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This photo is why I love shopping at the farmer’s market, specifically Chicago’s Green City Farmer’s Market. It’s not about getting bargains on fruits and vegetables – in fact I often pay more than grocery store prices – it’s about connecting with the food, where it comes from and often person who grew it.

Take the candy striped beet pictured above. I met the farmer and asked him about his variety of  beets. And with the passion of someone who loves what he does, he gladly offered to cut a beet open for me so I could see the exquisite pink and white striped interior. And isn’t it a beauty?

The farmer’s market is also where you can find squash in countless colors, sizes and varieties, unlike anything available at a store. Anyone know what this huge one is called? What about these long, thin, curly ones that look like snakes?

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Oh, and then there are these wild mushrooms that are larger than my head. They’re sold in freshly cut slices by the ounce.

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And look at these Brussels sprouts still on the stalk. While interesting to look at I couldn’t fathom getting the large stalks home so purchased a pint of spouts instead.

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I could go on about the produce all day, it’s nature at its best. Look at the size of these carrots, the varieties of chard, the brilliant colors of the tomatoes and peppers, and the centerpiece-worthy beauty of the Isaiah corn? Not to mention the bees feeding on fresh jam.

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Oh how I love visiting the farmer’s market. And while I love Autumnal flavors, I’m also quietly mourning the end of the Midwest’s short growing season. I am fortunate that the market will stick around throughout the winter at a nearby indoor location, it’s just not quite the same without these raw offerings.

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Zucchini Pesto Pasta

Zucchini Pesto Pasta

Zucchini Pesto Pasta

I was extremely fortunate to volunteer at the top food event in Chicago a few weeks ago: the Green City Market BBQ. One of the best run events in the city – and far superior to last year’s Chicago Gourmet – the BBQ features 65 chef’s from the city’s finest restaurants and sells out quickly, so while crowded it wasn’t overcrowded, and they didn’t run out of food!

Spiaggia's Crostini

Spiaggia's Grilled Zucchini & Pestyo Crostini

There were so many amazing dishes featuring exotic meats like elk and goat to  the predictable but always delicious pork belly. But it was a vegetarian offering that really stood out for me: “grilled zucchini and pestyo crostini” from Spiaggia. There was something so pleasing about the simple, fresh, bright flavors that I was inspired to try it at home. Mind you, I don’t claim to cook Spiaggia-type food (it’s one of the top restaurants in Chicago), but I did want to try my hand at reinterpreting the flavors.

My version uses spaghetti (today it was dried whole wheat but fresh would be ideal) instead of crostini (toasted bread) to make it an entree, but I think this zucchini-pesto combination would also be fabulous as a sandwich with chicken.

Pesto: lots of fresh basil Pesto: toasted pine nuts Pesto: grind pine nuts

Pesto: grind basil Pesto: drizzle in olive oil Pesto: blend in parmesan cheese

The first thing I had to do was make the pesto, an Italian sauce made from blended basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. This recipe makes much more than you’ll need for the zucchini pasta, but it’s versatile and freezes very well so definitely make the whole thing.

Next I went to work on zucchini. I used stripped zucchini that have the same flavor as regular, which I sauteed with sliced onion until both were lightly caramelized then tossed them with homemade pesto and cooked spaghetti noodles. Voila, a fantastic summer weeknight dinner.

Zucchini Pesto Pasta: striped zucchini Zucchini Pesto Pasta: saute zucchini and onions Zucchini Pesto Pasta: stir in pesto

Here’s the recipe for zucchini pesto pasta:

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Cherry Crumble: Pucker Up and Smile!

Cherry Crumble with Vanilla Ice Cream

Cherry Crumble with Vanilla Ice Cream

Do you know the difference between a crisp and a crumble? A crumble has oatmeal so it literally crumbles in your mouth while the butter in a crisp creates a “crispy” topping. True story.

I broke my own rule today. I hate when that happens but sometimes I just get caught up in the moment and then have to suffer the consequences. The rule was buying sour cherries with the intent to bake with them. I dealt with the consequences like the adult I am: suffering having to pit them, then attempting to destroy the evidence, a cherry crumble, by eating it.

Cherry crumble: sour cherries Cherry crumble: rinse cherries well Cherry crumble: remove seeds

Cherry crumble: halved and pitted cherries Cherry crumble: cherries mixture Cherry crumble: pour cherries into baking dish

Of course, there’s a story behind my cherry phobia. One of the sections during culinary school was on soups, stocks and sauces. The last day of the soup week focused on international soups and was intended to be fun. After a quick glance at the recipes I eagerly raised my hand and asked if I could make the cold cherry soup. The instructor chuckled and said “of course.” He never liked me. Seriously.

I spent the next three hours in the kitchen pitting 10 pounds of sweet cherries with a paring knife. Chef didn’t believe in gadgets so there was no cherry pitter to speed up the process.

Cherry crumble: topping ingredients Cherry crumble: topping mixed Cherry crumble: layers, unbaked

Three things came out of this: 1) my chef coat, apron and fingers were stained with so much bright red cherry juice that it looked like I’d come from a crime scene; 2) my classmate, Jonny, tried to help with a part of the recipe because I was running behind and wound up getting in trouble for doing it wrong (he still reminds me of this every time I see him); and 3) the cold cherry soup was the class favorite!

Despite the success of the soup, I made a rule never to cook or bake with fresh cherries again. Alas, I got caught in the moment at the farmer’s market Saturday morning when I saw one lone container of bright red sour cherries sitting on the Hillside Orchards table. In a moment of weakness I bought them, then had to quickly come up with something to make so I could bring it to that evening’s 4th of July BBQ. What I decided on was a delicious crumble with a juicy cherry filling that was both sweet and tart beneath a rich, crunchy top.

Cherry crumble: baked

Although it took a while to pit all the cherries (I think it’s easiest to slice them roughly in half using a paring knife, then pop out the seed), the sour cherries were surprisingly easier to pit and less messy than sweet cherries. The clear, bright, summery flavors and sheer deliciousness of the recipe has me rethinking my no-cherry policy, but only if they’re sour!

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Fava Bean Egg Salad

Fava Bean Egg Salad

Fava Bean Egg Salad

Fava beans are in season! While available dried or canned year-round, it’s a treat to find them fresh in long, thick pods. With a sweet and nutty taste similar to edamame (soy beans), favas work great in soups, with fish or lamb, and also with eggs.

That is why I thought fava beans would be a good addition to egg salad, a traditional side dish ideal for summer picnics. And what better time to make this special egg salad than for the 4th of July?

Fava bean egg salad: whole fava beans Fava bean egg salad: split fava bean pod Fava bean egg salad: blanching fava beans

Fava bean egg salad: removing inner shell Fava bean egg salad: shelled and blanched fava beans Fava bean egg salad: chopped fava beans

Fava bean egg salad has very few ingredients with one noticeable absence: mayonnaise. I decided it wasn’t necessary and a little olive oil would work just as well as a binder and be a bit healthier. I did use garlic chives, an herb that tastes just like it sounds: like garlic and chives. But you could easily substitute regular chives if that’s all that is available.

Fava bean egg salad: hardboiled egg Fava bean egg salad: garlic chives

Try looking for fava beans at your local farmer’s market. I buy mine from Nichols Farm’s booth at Chicago’s Green City Market. Garlic chives are also usually available at farmer’s markets and Asian grocery stores.

Did you know that fava beans are also called “broad beans” and “horse beans?”

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Mediterranean Stuffed Ball Zucchini with Lamb

Stuffed Ball Zucchini

Mediterranean Stuffed Ball Zucchini with Lamb

This morning I trekked to the farmer’s market in jeans, leather shoes and a rain coat. Looking at me you’d have thought it was April 1st instead of July 1st. But what I found at the market convinced me that somehow it was summer after all: zucchini, a type of summer squash!

Ball Zucchini Stuffed Ball Zucchini: baked

Every summer I look forward to Green Acres Farm’s selection of vegetables (I bought these garlic scapes from them a few weeks ago), especially their summer squash. This vendor usually has a few varieties to choose from and I like them all, but today I was most inspired by the ball zucchinis.

Stuffed Ball Zucchini: hollow with spoon 1 Stuffed Ball Zucchini: hollow with spoon 2 Stuffed Ball Zucchini: hollow with spoon 3

The plan was to hollow and fill the zucchinis in a way similar to the bison-barley stuffed peppers and stuffed buttercup squash, but this time with ground lamb, eggplant, tomatoes and a lot of fresh oregano. These Mediterranean flavors remind me of foods common in Italy and Greece creating a dish that is hearty, savory and summery all at once.

Stuffed Ball Zucchini: diced eggplant Stuffed Ball Zucchini: grape tomatoes Stuffed Ball Zucchini: fresh oregano

To complete the meal I served the stuffed ball zucchini with bulgur, a fantastic earthy compliment to the lamb and vegetables. Another way to make this dish would be to dice regular zucchini, saute it with the rest of the ingredients and serve it as a stir-fry over cooked bulgur.

Stuffed Ball Zucchini: brown ground lamb Stuffed Ball Zucchini: lemon juice over filling Stuffed Ball Zucchini: fill with lamb mixture

As for why I chose to stuff the ball zucchinis, the answer is because it’s fun!

Here’s the recipe:

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