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Archive for Wednesday, July 24, 1996

GARDEN FLAVORS RESET THE STANDARD

July 24, 1996

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I take no deeper satisfaction from gardening than when I am able to place on the table a dish or even an entire meal that's entirely homegrown.

Right now, with tomatoes ripening on the vine, onions and potatoes dug out of the ground, and eggplant, squash and peppers ready to be eaten, our options for eating fresh produce are as open as they get.

The season affords us an opportunity we can't get any other time of year, namely to appreciate the fullest and most genuine flavors fresh produce has to offer. Although it seems obvious to many people, it bears repeating because so many grocery shoppers, out of ignorance or habit, reach for the ``brand name'' vegetable that's been trucked in from Texas or California rather than the locally grown one in the next produce bin.

Although wholesalers, using the miracles of modern transportation and packing systems, find ways to zip produce cross-country and even from one hemisphere to the next in order to keep a seasonless stream of vegetables flowing to consumers, they've had to sacrifice a certain amount of flavor to do the job.

The effect has been a gradual deadening of the American palate. Alas, the tomatoes sold in grocery stores in December have set the standard for how tomatoes are supposed to taste.

That's most unfortunate because a vegetable picked even a few days early and ripened in a crate won't have achieved its potential. Sugars and other flavors manifest themselves throughout the growing cycle and an early picking cuts that process short.

``Vine-ripened flavor'' is more than a marketing cliche and the difference is anything but subtle.

It really never occurred to me to eat raw vegetables, other than salad food, or to focus my attention on the vegetable rather than the way it was prepared until I was able to eat from my own garden. My expectations for crispness, flavor and texture have been irretrievably altered.

This time of year, when the outside temperature makes cooking indoors seem uninviting, cooking straight from the garden or a trip to the farmers' market needn't be an elaborate process. As always, stir frying and steaming preserve the flavors of fresh vegetables and some, such as eggplant, lend themselves to grilling.

Although the individual flavors of fresh vegetables are noteworthy, combining vegetables produces some imaginative and multidimensional dishes. I like this ratatouille recipe, borrowed from Annie Sommerville's ``Fields of Greens'' cookbook because it draws on the bounty of the July garden and doesn't ask you to use the oven on a sweltering summer day.

Regular eggplant may be substituted for the long, slender Japanese variety, although their sweetness recommends them. This stew shines when it's garnished with grated Parmesan cheese and served with a stiff-crusted sourdough bread.

Ratatouille

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, cut into quarters and thickly sliced

salt and pepper

6 garlic cloves, finely chopped

3 medium Japanese eggplants, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced rom the garden or a trip to the farmers' market needn't be an elaborate process. As always, stir frying and steaming preserve the flavors of fresh vegetables and some, such as eggplant, lend themselves to grilling.

Although the individual flavors of fresh vegetables are noteworthy, combining vegetables produces some imaginative and multidimensional dishes. I like this ratatouille recipe, borrowed from Annie Sommerville's ``Fields of Greens'' cookbook because it draws on the bounty of the July garden and doesn't ask you to use the oven on a sweltering summer day.

Regular eggplant may be substituted for the long, slender Japanese variety, although their sweetness recommends them. This stew shines when it's garnished with grated Parmesan cheese and served with a stiff-crusted sourdough bread.

Ratatouille

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, cut into. Salt and pepper to taste. Serves four.

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