Miriam's Garden: As summer winds down, garden misses her

It's been an unusual garden year. Wet and cool. Too cloudy and chilly for the heat-loving stuff. Time is speeding by and I haven't been home enough to give my garden the attention it needs. Part of the time, I've been out looking at other gardens.

Where has the summer gone?

A few weeks ago, it felt more like summer when my husband, David, and I took a road trip to Winston-Salem, N.C.. I had some book appearances lined up, but really we went to visit one of our favorite places, historic Old Salem.

We're always happy in a town where there's somewhere to walk and good food to eat, such as Moravian sugar cakes from Winkler's Bakery. Or the layered tomato pie, and the cheese platter and local beer served at the Old Salem Tavern.

We are not beach people. Instead, for vacation, we love museums with historic buildings and historic gardens. Even better was the stunning cemetery on the grounds of Old Salem, an early Moravian settlement dating from the 18th century. The gravestones were flat squares of clean white limestone lined up on gently rolling hills. Serene and simple -- very moving. The children's gravestones were smaller than the adults'.

Moravians hail from what is now part of the Czech Republic, and they came to the United States seeking religious freedom. Their North Carolina settlement, Old Salem, is now a historic site, though people live there, too. As you tour the buildings you are greeted by "townspeople" in costume, who eloquently converse about the culture, the trade, the crafts and the food.

The other part of Winston-Salem is simply called "Winston" by the locals. It's a young, devoted community with lively, Southern-themed and locally-sourced restaurants and a bustling arts and theater culture. There's even a building that was the prototype to the Empire State Building, just not so tall.

Back at Old Salem, gardener Eric Jackson gave us a tour. At the Triebel garden, diagonal rows of mounded raised beds that resembled quilting squares are planted according to the oldest documented garden design in the U.S.

Mr. Jackson pointed out rows of fish peppers, an African-American heirloom hot pepper with a variegated leaf. The pepper grows from green to striped, and ripens to red. A heat-tolerant Portuguese Tronchuda kale grew almost like cabbage, with huge dark-green, oval leaves. There were spiky rows of salsify, a vegetable I've never before seen in the field. Mr. Jackson held up the thin root, which is black on the outside and must be peeled before cooking. It tastes a bit like asparagus.

There were healthy rows of peanuts with tropical, glossy leaves. The plant is actually a legume or bean. Stalks of broomcorn, a relative of sorghum, waved in the background, destined to sweep cobblestones, while Brown-Seeded Lazy Wife pole beans dried on the vine.

Lazy Wife?

"They grow in bunches," Mr. Jackson explained. "To pick the beans, you pull off bunches, instead of picking individual beans."

One of the newest things in Old Salem is the revival of its farmers market. One of the oldest things is a squash Mr. Jackson is growing called Emkwana squash. It's hard-shelled with scalloped edges like a patty-pan squash. Slices are cut and dried, then added to soups. A Native American squash, it was grown by the Menominee nation. He gave me one as a present.

Somewhat closer to home, I've been checking out farmers markets. It's a way to get vegetable inspiration. See what's growing well and stock up.

Markets right now are filled with peaches, plums, eggplants, hot and sweet peppers, corn, plus, of course, zucchini and summer squash. There are onions and garlic, herbs and herb plants. Raspberries. Some cooler weather crops, too, including cabbage, potatoes, kale and cauliflower.

At the Farmers@Firehouse market in the Strip District the other weekend, I cut up mounds of tomatoes for a demonstration with my Slow Food Pittsburgh friends. Piles. As we worked, it felt warm in the busy market. Of course it was the middle of August, but earlier that morning I wore a sweatshirt.

I always buy with my eyes at the farmers market, getting more than I need because it's all so tempting. At the Main Street Farmers Market in Washington, Pa., I filled a bag with a small, perfect cauliflower, a dozen yellow-green bell peppers and a shiny purple eggplant. Toted it home and cooked up a storm.

The other night, though, we were dragged out from a long week. I put the water on to cook some corn for dinner. With that, we had our own potatoes, parboiled then fried with bacon, sweet and hot peppers and sweet onion. With a little hot sauce.

It was good to be home.

Easiest-Ever Zucchini and Tomatoes

PG tested

Use Juliet tomatoes or another small plum or pear tomato here. Cherry tomatoes are too small and will bake faster than the squash.

  • 2 to 3 medium zucchini and/or yellow summer squash, trimmed, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into 2-inch chunks

  • 8 small tomatoes, halved

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or oregano

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Place squash pieces and tomatoes cut side up on large rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and drizzle with oil, rubbing it into the surface. Sprinkle with thyme or oregano.

Bake until squash is tender and browned on the bottoms and tomatoes are hot and juicy, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot or cold.

Makes 3 or 4 servings.

-- Miriam Rubin

Fried Eggplant

PG tested

The eggplant I used was so fresh it was creamy inside when cooked, crisp on the outside. The original recipe called for dried bread crumbs but I used panko crumbs with great results. Serve as is, maybe with a light tomato sauce or an additional sprinkle of grated parmesan or wedge of lemon. Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the oil. Shoo pets out of the kitchen before you start the frying and keep focused.

  • 1 large eggplant (about 1 1/2 pounds)

  • Kosher salt

  • 2 large eggs

  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

  • 2 tablespoons water

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour

  • 2 cups bread crumbs (I used plain panko)

  • Vegetable oil for frying

Trim eggplant and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Sprinkle lightly on both sides with kosher salt. Stand slices in a colander set over a plate; let drain 1 hour. Rinse off salt with cool water and dry slices with paper towel.

In medium bowl, beat eggs, cheese, water and pepper to taste until well combined. Put flour in one pie plate; crumbs in another. Dip eggplant into flour, then into egg mixture (letting excess drip off), then into crumbs, patting to coat both sides. Place slices on wire rack over waxed paper or on a baking sheet to dry about 15 minutes.

In large, deep, heavy skillet (I used cast-iron), heat 1/2 inch oil to 375 degrees. Add eggplant slices, a few at a time without crowding. Fry until golden brown, turning once, about 3 minutes on each side. Drain slices on paper towel. Keep warm in 200-degree oven while frying the remainder.

Makes 8 servings.

-- Adapted from "The Antipasto Table" by Michele Scicolone (Ecco, 1991)

Stuffed Pepper Wedges

PG tested

Super as an appetizer or a side dish. At a large birthday celebration we attended over the weekend, I stuffed myself with some smaller roasted peppers that were filled a little differently than this. That dish used halved, colorful, sweet baby peppers that you buy in bags in the supermarket. I haven't tried it, but I bet this stuffing would be delicious in those little peppers as well. Maybe bake them about 10 minutes less.

  • 3 large red bell peppers (or 4 smaller peppers, or 6 to 8 baby peppers)

  • 1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped

  • 1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

  • 12 pitted kalamata olives, chopped

  • 2-ounce can anchovies, drained and chopped (I used 8 jarred, oil-packed anchovies, and blotted them first)

  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish.

Cut peppers lengthwise into quarters and remove seeds and white membranes. Arrange skin side down in prepared dish.

In large bowl, mix tomato, garlic, olives, anchovies, parsley and pepper to taste. Spoon into pepper wedges. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake about 45 minutes, until peppers are tender when pierced with fork. Serve warm or cold.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

-- Adapted from "The Antipasto Table" by Michele Scicolone (Ecco, 1991)

Peach-Plum Cake with Cinnamon Sugar

PG tested

When I saw the plums and peaches at the Main Street Farmers Market in Washington, Pa., I knew I had to bake something. This simple cake is the result. To peel the peaches, dip them into a saucepan of boiling water for about 20 seconds, turning once, until the skins feel loose. Cool and slip off the skins. Prepare all the fruit before making the cake batter.

For the cake

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon fine table salt

  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten

  • 3/4 cup milk

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 3 medium firm-ripe peaches, 1 pound, peeled, pitted and cut into rough 1/2-inch-thick slices (about 3 cups)

  • 10 to 12 small prune-plums, about 1 pound, halved, pitted and halved again

Topping: 1/4 cup granulated sugar mixed with 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and pinch ground allspice

For cake: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Generously butter 13x9-inch glass baking dish.

In large bowl, stir together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add eggs, milk, melted butter and vanilla. Beat with wooden spoon until fairly smooth. Scrape into prepared pan and spread evenly.

Gently mix fruit in another bowl and arrange casually on top of cake. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar topping.

Bake the cake until it's puffed, the fruit topping is glazed and tender (but could be a little juicy) and a toothpick inserted in the center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer to wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

-- Miriam Rubin

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin.


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