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Labor Day is the ‘unofficial’ end of summer, but of course, summer continues for some weeks – thank goodness!  I am, among other things, a caterer, and as the end of summer approaches, I am filled with ideas for what to do with the goods of the garden which continue to come in, in abundance.  I learned so much about cooking from the garden from my grandmother, Norma Racine, and a number of the recipes I use were hers, dating back 100 years or more.  There’s also one real prize-winner from the other side of the family that’s great for the High Holy Days coming right up…thank you, Estelle Weiner, of blessed memory.

So here are some suggestions for what to do if you’ve got too many of a few of those great things:

ZUCCHINI:
– Zucchini Relish –  delicious, tangy and sweet, very easy to make with a food processor
– Zucchini Bread and Butter Pickles – just like grandma used to make but with zucchini instead of cukes
– Zucchini Cinnamon Brownies – just fantastic, moist and delicious, even better with a few butterscotch chips thrown in
– Zucchini Bread – spicy and chewy and a welcome change from banana bread but made as a loaf
– Zucchini Pancakes – tiny little fritters, turning what can be a bland vegetable into a delicious accompaniment for your dinner
– Zucchanoes – scooped out zucchini ‘boats’ stuffed with chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, bread crumbs, olive oil, cheese and spices, then baked
– Zucchini/pear soup – delicious cold or hot, and all-vegetarian
– Zucchini parmesan – just like eggplant, but made with thin-sliced zucchini (which I grill rather than bread and fry)
– Zucchini/potato/dill/shallot soup – almost like a vichysoise, and again, good hot or cold

CUCUMBERS:
– Cold cream of cucumber soup with fresh dill – our family’s favorite summer soup, just wonderful served with crusty bread, cheese, and a salad
– Cucumbers sliced with fresh dill and yogurt dressing
– Cucumber/radish dip –  shredded cukes and radishes with a little onion, whizzed up with a mixture of cream cheese, sour cream and a little mayo, spices.  creamy and crunchy at the same time
– Bread and Butter Pickles – Gram’s original recipe, easy when you have a mandoline or food processor handy
– Dill Pickles – Great way to use just a few extra cukes, because you can make them up several jars at a time.  Add a little alum to the brine mix to help the cukes stay crisp

TOMATOES:
– Country salad:  tomatoes (cherry/grape are the best) sliced in half with diced red onion, cucumber and green pepper chunks, and a lime/olive oil dressing
– Corn, tomato, red onion salad, jazzed up with some fresh jalapenos and a citrus dressing
– Chili Sauce –  Gram’s recipe, email me for copies:  tomatoes, peppers, onions, vinegar, mustard seed, celery seed, sugar, and a little more – fantastic with pork or chicken or baked beans
– Homemade tomato soup, to which I add some half and half to ‘lighten’ it up
– Shaker chowder, with corn, tomatoes, carrots, celery, onion, and cream
– Tomato Quiche and/or tomato pie – made with ricotta or cheddar or a mix of cheeses, sliced tomatoes on top, fresh herbs, and just delicious.
– Aunt Estelle’s Brisket –  perfect for your Rosh Hashanah dinner, and sooo easy to make.  It’s got essentially five ingredients:  brisket, onions, tomatoes, worcestershire sauce, and oil (plus salt and pepper).  How easy can it get?

EGGPLANT:
– Baba Ganoush, with roasted eggplant mixed with tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, and spices – a to-die-for appetizer
– Eggplant Parmesan –  one of Carmela Soprano’s faves, and mine too:  I slice and grill the eggplant, rather than fry it.
– Moussaka –  from a recipe I learned while living in Greece, made with ground lamb, tomatoes, onions, and a bechamel sauce on top (but NO potatoes!!!!)
– Ratatouille –  the classic French vegetable stew which will use up those other things in the garden as well:  tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, onions, zucchini and summer squash, cooked slowly with red wine, spices, bay leaf, and just wonderful with a baguette and butter and a salad.  If you need meat with it, add some grilled chicken sausages and you’re all set!

Many of these things will also use some of the herbs you’ve been growing all summer.  Right now I’ve got African Blue Basil, Italian Basil, Pineapple Sage, Garlic Chives, conventional Chive, Rosemary, Tarragon, Italian Parsley, Dill, Cilantro, Borrage, Lovage, and Shallots in my garden.  Use ’em in these dishes to pump up the flavors!  And if these ideas appeal to you and you just don’t have the wherewithal to make them yourself, let’s talk:  I might be able to make your culinary dreams come true!

That’s my end-of-summer food reverie.  Happy cooking!

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I just finished processing the last of seventeen jars of four-berry jam (currant-blueberry-raspberry-cherry) in my canning kettle.  I’ve had the blue kettle, with it’s now-rusty jar rack, for years, and it’s the same one my mother had.  Hers was just like the one her mother had — the one I remember when we visited the farm in Cuddebackville, New York.

Canning is not easy.  I realized, only after I had prepared all the fruit for the jam, that I didn’t have enough jar lids — or, for that matter, enough jam jars — to handle what I was making.  So I sent Ben off to the store to buy jar lids (and more sugar).  Turns out that almost no one knows what canning jars are, or dome lids, for that matter.  After a bunch of calls, I found that one of the four supermarkets in the area had the lids — but they had already closed for the night.  At 7:15 this morning, I was at the store, sweeping up a couple of flats of jars and three boxes of lids, so as not to run out again.

I fear that putting food by is a dying art.  The bounty of the season is coming in right now.  I suppose the stores may view supplying canning supplies (including paraffin, pectin, and even drying racks) as competition for their prepared foods, but to me, this is a matter of reminding all of us where food comes from and what it means to eat healthfully. I bought almost all the fruit for this jam at the local farmers market, knowing that I was supporting local agriculture and getting food that was not processed – most of it organic as well.

Ben asked me today why I do this, and it’s a good question.  I didn’t grow the fruit myself and it’s not cheap – although the cost of ingredients makes it about 1/3 less than what I would pay in the supermarket for the jam. It takes a lot of time and last night, a lot of sweat as well, to make your own preserves.  But I know exactly what went into this jam, and there are no additives, no corn syrup, no preservatives.  It’s got three ingredients in it:  fruit, sugar, pectin (if you count the 1/2 teaspoon of butter that went in to reduce foaming while cooking, make that four ingredients).

I support local farmers wherever I can, a tribute to my grandfather and all who work to grow our food.  I want my children and our family to remember that food is sold in grocery stores, but it’s not grown there. And pretty soon I will be harvesting my own produce, and I’ll be thinking about what I can ‘put by’ for the winter from the garden:  dilly beans, perhaps, or tomato jam.

For the big-ticket canning that I’ll be doing, however, I’ll be buying local.  I just talked to my best friend Connie, and we compared notes on what’s coming in in western Montana vs. the northwest Boston suburbs.  She’ll be making cherry jelly and putting cherries by in a crockpot, along with sugar and vodka, to have delicious cherry cordial in the winter.  Even though she’s made dozens of jars of rhubarb jelly already, there will be a second crop, along with raspberries, which are starting to yield now.

Here in my area we’re starting to see local peaches, and that may spur me to make some of my Gram’s recipe for peach and cherry jam, or my own spiced peach preserves.  In a few weeks, the rest of the canning will commence:  bread-and-butter pickles, and a run at my Gram’s oldest recipes, which date from her mother:  corn relish and chili sauce, which our family always ate on the New York-style baked beans (less molasses than New England style) that were a regular feature of Saturday night suppers.

When I was a kid I remember my father, who grew up poor in the tenements of Newburgh, New York, going downstairs to the basement as the winter set in, to the fruit cellar he had built to hold my mother’s and my canning efforts.  He’d organized all the jars of red, green, yellow, orange, purple by color and type.  He would smile, survey the jars and say, “Well, we’re ready for the winter.”  That was all he needed to be comfortable as the snow began to fly.

Life is good.  In the kitchen behind the table where I sit, I hear the ping of the dome jars sealing.  My hard work has been preserved for the months to come.  Some of this will go to friends and relatives, some will go to our store room downstairs, waiting to be opened up for biscuits or even the best peanut butter and jam sandwich you could want.

Sometimes I joke about being a “pioneer woman,” but after a morning of canning, I do feel like I have that spirit.  I’m not putting the canning kettle too far into the back of the closet, because I’ll be dragging it out again soon.  The summer’s in full swing, and I’ve got my jars ready to go!

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Looking for more about food?  Visit Deb Weiner’s catering company — named, of course, The Delicious Dish!

Years ago, in Connecticut, I went through a period where I was underemployed.  In addition to being a radio talk show host and a freelance arts fundraising consultant and events producer, I decided to diversify.  First, I started working with friends who had opened a flower shop in New Haven.  I had always had a flair and a passion for flower arranging, and here were friends who needed help.  I learned about the proper way to cut stems, take the ‘work leaves’ off roses, names of things like lisianthus and tuberose and bear grass.  I made lovely arrangements and bouquets for folks;  I had a great time.

Then I decided to branch out a little more.  Another friend was starting a catering business out of her little gourmet store.  She needed some extra help, so I came in and started making things.  First, buckets of fruit salad and fruit skewers.  Then, palmiers, chicken almond salad, wild rice salads, cookies, and then some of my own ideas.  It was fun — but not all the time.  We started doing events.  I enjoyed making the harvest table displays out of veggies and dips and fruits, and the charcuterie and cheese tables, featuring different kinds of baked bries and more pates than I had ever known of before.  But fighting the drunk party-goers who positioned themselves right outside the kitchen door at a party so that they could snatch handfulls (I am not kidding) of hot hors d’oeuvres — not so much.

The most challenging gig was a wedding reception which took place at a home, on a wickedly hot and humid Connecticut day in August. Not only was there no air conditioning, the kitchen was about the size of a postage stamp…and there were about fifteen stairs going down out of the kitchen to get to the yard where the wedding reception was taking place.  Back and forth the wait staff went, schlepping trays of hors d’oeuvres and bowls of salads and grilled tenderloins.  The mother of the bride wouldn’t stay out of the kitchen, the circuits blew from our convection ovens, and it was so hot that the small chocolate mousse balls we had on plates as a ‘before the cake is cut’ treat, melted in the heat.  I remember coming home, where the air conditioners were blasting, and dropping one item of sweaty clothing after another, as I walked like a zombie toward the shower…where I stayed for a very long time.

Still, it was fun to produce good food that people enjoyed, and so I kept it up.  After I moved to Massachusetts, I would do occasional gigs for friends, or to pick up a little extra money at holiday or vacation time, and I took to ‘selling myself’ at our annual church auction — for a respectable fee, of course. I didn’t have a name for my little company, though, until I saw the Saturday Night Live skit about the two NPR reporters who have a food show.  This was the famous interview with Alec Baldwin as Pete Schweddy which had me on the floor crying with laughter.  That was it:  I would call my company “The Delicious Dish,” the name of the NPR show in the skit.

Since The Delicious Dish has started, I’ve done a number of engagements over the years, and I continue today.  I’ve catered parties for 100, cocktail parties for 20, surprise birthday events, and more.  They’re fun, creative, and a great way for me to share some of the recipes I’ve developed with others.  Some of you have read my rant about bad food, cheap.  What I enjoy is making good food, at reasonable prices, knowing that others appreciate it.

I view catering as part of my portfolio of other interests…it’s not the main thing that I do, but something I enjoy, that uses my creativity, and that I do pretty darned well.  When the local produce comes in and my garden starts to ramp up, I start thinking:  what could I make out of that item that people would enjoy?  So if you have an event coming up, you might want to make a date with The Delicious Dish.  I hear she’s great at a party!

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Yesterday I was with my cousins who were visiting from Illinois, and their son, who lives in Cambridge.  It was great to see them, and we went for lunch to a new place in the area between Porter Square and Harvard Square.  We’ve all done lots of dining out, and the Cambridge resident and I are both cooks — good ones.

So there we were, catching up on family news and wanting to have a nice lunch, at a place that turned out to be…just barely mediocre.  A wait-person who wasn’t well-informed or proactive about taking care of us was there, and we were served food that was …food.

As I contemplate what I’m making for dinner tonight at our house I’ve got grilled lamb with persillade, grilled vegetables with balsamic glaze, an orzo/wild rice/lentil pilaf, and a salad with feta, red onion, and fresh apricots on the menu.  Plus homemade mint iced tea, and cupcakes with a dark chocolate buttercream for dessert.  The cupcakes are from a box, the buttercream is not.  Not bad.  And not difficult, either.

So why is it that we seem to be moving toward culinary decline at such a clip?  I see ads every day on TV and in the newspapers for chain establishments offering “nine entrees for $12.99” or “unlimited pasta” or “share an appetizer, get two entrees, share a dessert all for $19.99″…or whatever.  And people are flocking to those places and spending money they don’t have or have scrabbled to make on a crummy meal.  The sauces are full of corn syrup derivatives, the protiens are lousy, and the rest of the prep’s not so great either.  And we pay.

Have we lost our way?  What would Julia Child say?  Or Ina Garten or Giada DiLaurentiis, current goddesses of easy, fine cuisine?  I learned to cook from watching my grandmother and my mother.  Then I added my own touches.  I watched Julia on TV and said, “I bet I can do that.”  And I screwed up occasionally, but mostly, I learned.  I wonder if the ability to cook is going by the wayside.  I remember being at the home of a friend of my daughter, when they were pre-schoolers.  The child ate peanut butter and nutella sandwiches, and not much else.  Dad, who had a good job, ate at Mickey D’s every day.  What was up?  Turned out neither parent knew how to cook, nor were they interested.

As garden season approaches and the locavores rev up, I know that other people can learn how to cook, too, by buying the local stuff that will soon be coming in to farmer’s markets or raising the stuff in our own gardens, and watching Ina on TV or picking up a cookbook and opening it.  It ain’t that difficult.

More than that, I’m convinced that at the same time, we would learn something about using our money well.  Long ago, I told my husband that I’d rather have really good roast beef less often and enjoy it.  So I watch for the sales that come once or twice a year on prime rib, and when they hit ($4.99/lb, 3 days only) I buy and freeze.  I watch the other supermarket sales and then riff off of those for our menu, or what’s in at the market or in my garden.  It works, and it’s economical too.

I’ve been whacked by the economy, too.  And I like to go out as much as anyone.  I love fancy places, and I love dives…places that are really informal and have great local, cheap food. So my point is not about going for high-falutin’…I’m talking about quality.  These are tough economic times, and we have to use what we have, sensibly and well.  And that means no bad food, cheap.

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