Gulf Coast Cooking

Spring menus from local produce

Saturday, during a trip to the local farmers market, I found tomatoes, yellow crooked neck squash, cucumbers, banana peppers, new potatoes and a great variety of fresh herbs -- almost everything I needed for a Sunday family meal.

It is a good idea to get to know your farmers market before you commit to shopping it. State agriculture and commerce departments certify markets that sell only products made or grown in their state, and it is always a good idea to support local farmers. Markets that are not certified still may offer local produce, but you should check with individual vendors.

All of the recipes presented in this column can be prepared almost in their entirety from a good farmers market. A few exceptions will be some spices, oil and a few other odds and ends.

What you will be making for your family will be without any processed food, it will be healthy and you will be supporting the growing number of small farmers who are bringing back healthy local food.

EARLY SUMMER SHRIMP AND GRITS

Fresh tomatoes and peppers are just coming to farmers markets now, and so this spicy version of shrimp and grits is just right for early summer.

1 pound peeled Gulf shrimp

1/2 cup grits

1 chopped banana pepper

3 to 4 chopped cloves of garlic

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup red bell pepper

2 ripe tomatoes, liquid and seeds removed

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pinch red pepper flakes

Prepare the grits according to package directions, set aside but keep warm.

Season the shrimp and quickly sauté in olive oil over a hot flame,

remove and set aside. In the same pan, sauté the banana pepper and garlic, along with a pinch of red pepper flakes until tender, then add to the cooked grits. A little butter can be added if they are too thick.

Spoon the still-warm grits in ice cube trays and allow to come to room temperature. Remove from the trays carefully and set aside.

In the same pan sauté the onions and bell peppers until tender, chop the tomatoes, add them and cook until the sauce is thick.

Plate one or two cubes of grits for each person, top with two to three shrimp and several tablespoons of the sauce. Serve with a local beer.

POTATOES AND CHEESE AU GRATIN

A gratin of potatoes can be a thing of wonder, and making this recipe with all local ingredients makes it even better. If you decide to use cheese, a locally made Cheddar would be great, but if you have to cheat and buy an imported cheese, consider Gruyere or a good Swiss like Emmentaler.

12 new potatoes, sliced thin

1 cup shredded Cheddar or Gruyere cheese

1 to 2 cloves garlic

4 to 6 tablespoons butter

2 eggs

2 cups milk

2 to 3 tablespoons cream

Season the sliced potatoes with salt and pepper, then rub a baking dish with the garlic and then butter. Next, layer the potatoes into the dish.

Mix the eggs, milk and cream, pour over the potatoes and then dot with pieces of butter, top evenly with the cheese and bake at 325 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.

If you want to soup up this dish a bit, add fresh cilantro or mix the shredded cheese with panko bread crumbs.

TOMATO AND CUCUMBER SALAD

This is a Greek-inspired salad that is good on its own but even better when served with a grilled pork loin seasoned with lots of oregano.

4 to 6 tomatoes, cut in thick slices

1 cucumber, cut in medium slices

1/4 cup chopped red onion

Salt and pepper to taste

Good quality olive oil

Vinegar to taste

Combine all of the ingredients and chill before serving. To add another dimension to this salad, replace the olive oil and vinegar with yogurt or crème fraiche. This also makes a killer topping to a hamburger.

TOMATOES, BASIL AND CHEESE

This is one of my favorite summertime dishes. It makes a great appetizer or is wonderful for a light lunch.

If you make this, it would be a good time to try a Gruner Veltliner, if you have not yet done so. It is an Austrian white wine that is taking this country by storm. It has just the right fruit and spice for this dish.

4 to 5 very ripe tomatoes, sliced thickly

12 large basil leaves

12 slices of cheese (Cheddar, Swiss or a soft cheese like Taleggio)

First cold press extra virgin olive oil

Best quality balsamic vinegar

In an attractive serving platter layer the tomatoes, basil leaves and cheese down the center of the platter. Drizzle generously with the olive oil and dot conservatively with the balsamic.

Serve at room temperature or the cheese will not develop to its full flavor.

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