Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness ~ John Keats

Royal Oak Farmers Market

Every fall at harvest time, I write about the Michigan farmers markets which are bursting with colorful fruits and vegetables.  Throngs of people converge on the markets to join in the harvest bonanza. The vibrant orange, red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, pure green zucchini, bright yellow summer squash and deep green kales, collards and chards entice the eye like a Jackson Pollock art exhibit.  My readers know how much I admire and respect the men and women who work so hard to grow this food as free from adulteration as possible.

Cinzori Farms Certified Organic Farm Okra

I’m never sure what I’ll find this time of the year at the market. The ripening of each vegetable is totally up to the predictably unpredictable Michigan weather. There are always pleasant surprises–tender young okra from Cinzori Farms one week, baby fennel from Nature’s Pace Organics the next. I realized early on in my cooking career that planning the week’s meals around seasonal crops is how life was lived before modern commercial farming–a rewarding and healthy way to nourish body and soul.

Natures Pace Organics

For me, shopping is only the beginning of the journey.  Upon arriving home, it is a pleasure to prepare dishes from vegetables harvested within twenty-four hours of reaching the market.  I then embellish the creations with tender herbs and greens right from my kitchen garden.

Kale after a Summer Rain

My dishes are prepared using simple techniques to allow the incredible flavor of each ingredient to speak for itself.  The meal reflects the colors and textures of the market and is contemplative and energizing to consume.

Heirloom Tomatoes at the Royal Oak Farmers Market

Below is a recipe good at any time of year, but best during the peak harvest of tomatoes and corn. It is a whole grain corn cake made in the style of a South Indian Uttapam or a Gujarati Poodla.

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Freshly Harvested Corn, Hemp and Chia Cakes with Fresh Tomato Relish

Serves 6

Corn Cakes

1 cup ground whole cornmeal with the germ

1/2 cup hulled hemp seeds

1/4 cup chia seeds

1 1/2 cups water

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 cup corn off the cob

1/4 cup red bell pepper, diced

1/4 cup fresh chives, chopped fine

1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

Coconut oil for cooking

For best results, mix the cornmeal, hemp, chia and water, let stand for at least one hour.   Then, mix remaining ingredients, except oil, in with cornmeal mixture.  In a preheated cast iron skillet on medium-high heat, add 2 teaspoons coconut oil and 1/2 cup batter.  Using a spatula, push in the sides to form a 4 inch disc. Cook until nicely browned and carefully turn over.  When other side is brown, remove from the pan and repeat until all are cooked. Serve hot.

Fresh Tomato Relish

Fresh Tomato Relish

1 cup yellow pear tomatoes, halved

1 cup candy red cherry tomatoes, halved

1 cup San Marzano tomatoes, diced in 1/2 inch cubes

1/2 cup tropea red onions, finely diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 red serrano chile, seeded and minced

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and allow the flavors to meld for at least 30 minutes.

Note:  Cornmeal, hemp and chia mixture can be made the day before.

Once all ingredients are mixed together, immediately begin cooking in skillet.

Best to make Fresh Tomato Relish before making the corn cakes.

I recommend Hampshire Farms certified organic cornmeal, fresh ground, whole and fresh ground.

Cauliflower with Saffron and Peas, A Super-Food Combination

Cauliflower has come into its own over the last few years.  No longer taking a back seat at the markets to colorful vegetables, it is now at the forefront, available in orange, purple and, my favorite as of late, a verdant Romanesco. Everyone from Dr. Dean Ornish to Dr. Mehmet Oz has proclaimed the value of foods with color; colorful cauliflower has joined the ranks of cancer-fighting cruciferous vegetables.  Good for the liver and full of phyto-chemicals, it is healthiest steamed or eaten raw.


Known as one of the rarest and most expensive spices, saffron is an ancient spice collected from the stamens of a crocus flower.  Traces have been found in Iranian pigments dating back 50,000 years and in ancient Minoan Thera, 3000 year old frescos of Akrotiri show women harvesting and using it. While bathing in Persia, Alexander the Great discovered saffron as a curative for the wounds of war and brought it back with him to Greece.  Cleopatra took saffron baths to increase the pleasure of lovemaking.  Recent studies have found it to contain cancer-fighting properties as well as powerful anti-oxidant compounds and Ayurveda medicine tells us it is good for the brain.  It is often combined with sandalwood paste as a topical treatment to cool the head.

Saffron is commonly used in Indian cooking where it is considered a delicacy.  Inspired by the rich flavor and creamy dishes of Kashmir in Northern India, this recipe combines the two super foods, saffron and cauliflower, into a delicious side dish.  English peas are added for color and texture and is an easy to digest protein.  The cauliflower is steamed and the peas blanched to preserve healthy properties.


Kashmiri Cauliflower with Saffron and Peas

Serves 4


Saffron-Almond Sauce
1 teaspoon coconut oil
1/2 cup sweet onions, finely diced
1/2 cup almond meal/flour
1 cup almond milk
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon sea salt


Heat oil in a 12 quart saucepan on medium heat.  Add onions and cook until clear.  Add almond flour, almond milk, water pepper, saffron and salt.  Cook until sauce thickens.  Reserve.


Cauliflower
1 teaspoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon green chilies, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons molasses
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
6 cups cauliflower florets, steamed
3/4 cup shelled English peas, blanched
1 cup cilantro, chopped


Heat oil in a skillet on medium-high heat.  Add cumin seeds and cook until brown and fragrant, then add chilies.  10 seconds later, add molasses and cinnamon. Stir in water and sea salt.  Allow most of the water to evaporate.  Gently fold in cauliflower until the florets are coated.  Fold in saffron sauce and simmer on low heat for 5 minutes.  Just before serving, fold in English peas and cilantro.  Serve immediately.

 


Bengali Charchari

“Iconic cuisine” could describe the food of Bengal. Among their many influential dishes, sweets are perhaps the most famous.  Yet, there are many preparations which have come to shape Indian cuisine as a whole.  Charchari is not merely a single dish, but a cooking style unique to Bengal.  Essentially, vegetables are cooked in a pan and covered without stirring until a close-to-burnt caramelized crust forms on the bottom of the pan, which is stirred in to finish the dish.  Unlike many vegetable dishes in India, spicing is simple, often only turmeric, chillies, salt and hing (onion-like asafetida powder).  The result is a deliciously rich tasting subji (vegetable) which can be used as an appetizer with crackers and bread, or as a show-stopping part of a bigger Indian meal.

One of my favorite cookbooks is The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Jamuna devi. She is to Indian vegetarian cuisine what Julia Child was to French home-cooked cuisine.  Her book is an easy-to-understand look at Indian kitchens.  It was written a number of years ago and is a timeless must-have resource for those who wish to cook and enjoy Indian food as it is supposed to be.  Jamuna presents a number of charcharis in the book and her description and recipe is excerpted as follows:

“Charcharis are Bengali vegetable dishes that combine three cooking procedures: boiling, steaming and frying.  Though other cuisines of the world use the same procedures, and in a similar sequence, to my knowledge only charcharis are brought to the point of charring.  During the entire procedure, the vegetable is never stirred—not even once! They are succulent vegetables, often rich and served as side dishes, but take little attention while cooking and are really delicious.

The dividing line between the cooking procedures is blurry.  In the first stage, large pieces of vegetable are gently boiled in a seasoned liquid.  Sometimes sugar, tomatoes or lemon juice is added to provide a glaze, flavor or zest in the finished dish.  In the second stage, the vegetables are steamed by the concentrated liquids barely boiling in the bottom of the pan.  Srila Prabhupad described the final stages of cooking: ‘When the liquid is absorbed, there will be a little noise, a hhhzzzz sound, and then, just as the bottom crust browns, turn off the heat and it is done.’ The pan is covered and allowed to sit off the heat for a few minutes, until the crust softens and can be easily folded into the moist vegetables.

Since this final stage of cooking delicately borders on burning, it is important to convey that it should not come to that.  No one wants to serve or eat burned vegetables.  It is essential to use a very heavy, thick bottom pan such as enamel on steel, stainless steel or, better still, non-stick Silverstone on heavy aluminum.  With good non-stick cookware and attention to heat control, perfect charcharis are possible even the first time around.”

Here is a recipe I adapted from Jamuna’s cookbook by mixing it with my own experiences of charchari.  Many years ago I was able to sample some of her cooking and the exquisite flavors of her beautifully crafted dishes have inspired me ever since. I dedicate this recipe to her and the amazing foods that roll out of her kitchen.


Baigan Aloo Charchari

Serves 6

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, peeled and minced

2 finger hot green chilies, minced

1/4 teaspoon hing (yellow asafoetida powder)

6-8 fresh neem leaves

5 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into one inch cubes

1 medium sized eggplant, cut into one inch cubes

1 2/3 cups water

1 cup spinach leaves, stemmed and coarsely chopped

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

1/4 teaspoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 inch piece of cinnamon stick

3 cloves

1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, freshly ground

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, fresh ground

1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy-bottomed 4 quart pan over moderate heat.  When it is hot, but not smoking, add the black mustard seeds, ginger and chilies and fry until the mustard seeds sputter and turn gray.  Sprinkle in the hing and neem leaves and within 5 seconds, stir in the potatoes, tossing with a wooden spoon for 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, cover and cook about 30 minutes.  From time to time, check to see if the vegetables are drying up, and adjust the heat or liquid accordingly.  When the vegetables are fork-tender, all of the liquid should be absorbed and the vegetables left sizzling.

Raise the heat to moderately high and fry, without stirring, until a slightly charred crust forms on the bottom of the pan.  Turn off the heat and keep covered for 5 minutes.  Stir the crust into the soft vegetables before serving.