BILOXI, MISS. -- Even though we are a coastal community, we share the South's love of all the good things that come from the garden.
Even if you don't have a green thumb and an acre plowed and planted in the huge variety of vegetables that grow so prolifically here, there is almost certainly a farmers market nearby where you can find locally grown vegetables.
As the summer progresses what you can find at the market will change, and I hope you are following the responsible trend of eating as much locally produced food as possible, but for now squash, corn and tomatoes are the highlights of the season.
These are versatile vegetables that can be cooked in many healthy ways, but caution should be used not to overcook them and so deprive them of the nutrients that make them so healthy.
Corn and squash make up two thirds of the traditional Native American "Three Sisters," which would also include beans, but the beans will come along later in the season. Tomatoes are also a product of the New World; so much of the early summer harvest comes to us from the inventive farmers who labored here years before the Europeans arrived.
When I was a kid, we never had a summer time meal that didn't include a side of freshly sliced tomatoes and if you can find them locally grown they are delicious and healthy on their own. You can also add a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper and a little salt but they really don't need much more
than that. If you do feel compelled to get a little fancy you can add boiled shrimp, cheese, thin sliced ham, make a salad or a sandwich. The Italian Caprese salad below is a longtime favorite, but I have added the Mortadella to make it a bit more substantial.
CAPRESE SALAD PLUS
3-4 sliced tomatoes
8-10 thin slices of Mortadella or best quality ham
8-10 whole basil leaves
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Rosemary-infused olive oil
Optional French bread
Interlayer the tomatoes, Mortadella and basil on a large plate, sprinkle the Parmigiano-Reggiano on liberally and drizzle with the infused olive oil and serve chilled. A more traditional recipe for this salad used a soft cheese like Taleggio.
For the infused oil place several sprigs of fresh rosemary, a few black pepper corns and a fresh bay leaf in a squeeze bottle and fill with good quality olive oil. Do this several days in advance if possible. If you want something with a lot more zest buy a bottle of inexpensive balsamic vinegar, place in a large sauté pan and reduce by one half. Add this to the infused oil and use in on salads, roast chicken or on bruschetta.
SQUASH AND CORN CHOWDER
2-3 slices of smoked bacon
1/2 cup sliced green onions
1 pound sliced yellow squash
1 pound fresh corn kernels
2- 1/2 cups whole milk
3-4 cloves chopped garlic
1 pinch fresh thyme
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/4 cup Irish cheddar
Salt and pepper to taste
Fry the bacon crisp, remove from the pan and chop. Wipe most of the bacon drippings from the pan, leaving just enough for flavoring (add a little olive oil if necessary). Add the onions and squash and 1 cup of the corn to the pan and cook until tender. Add the garlic and cook for 2-3 more minutes. Remember to season with the thyme, salt and pepper as you cook. Remove all from the pan and set aside, but do not wash the pan. Place the rest of the corn in a blender with the milk and process until smooth. Add to the pan and simmer for 5 minutes, add the vegetables and the cheese and simmer for 3 minutes. Serve in individual bowls and garnish with the bacon.
SOUTHERN FRIED CORN
4 slices bacon (healthy substitute: cubed lean ham)
10-12 ears corn, kernels removed
1 pinch sugar
3-4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk (half-and-half or cream are optional)
Salt and pepper as needed
Cilantro as a garnish
Cook the bacon until crispy, remove, chop and set aside. Sprinkle the corn with the sugar, salt and pepper and toss. In the same pan you cooked the bacon (remove the bacon grease if you are trying to eat healthy and replace with olive oil) add the butter and corn. Take the corn cobs and scrape with the blunt side of a knife and add this pulp to the pan too. Cook over medium heat until the corn begins to brown, add a little cream as you go, allowing it to cook off before adding more. Cook for about 30 minutes. When tender top with the bacon and garnish with the cilantro. Serve hot.
SIMPLE SAUTEED SQUASH
If you really want to keep it simple slice yellow squash thickly, season with salt and pepper and sauté until it starts to take on some color. Add a little garlic and cook for a minute or two more. Add1/4 cup of water and quickly cover with a tight fitting lid. Steam until just tender, about three minutes or so. Remove the lid, let the moisture cook off. If you want a light vegetarian meal serve with steamed rice.