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Archive for Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Garden variations lead to freestyle cooking

July 6, 2005

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One of the pleasures of growing food for the table is being able to cook sizable portions of a meal entirely with freshly picked vegetables from my own garden. Because the bounty from every year's vegetable garden is just a bit different, the ingredients I have to work with vary. This adds an element of adventure to the cooking end of the process and forces me to be a bit creative sometimes.

This year, for example, summer squash and okra are turning out to be my best crops. One of my favorite ways to serve them is stir-fried with onion and red and green pepper.

The squash, onion and pepper should be cut to a half-inch dice, while the okra pods can be sliced into pieces a little more than a quarter-inch thick. Press a clove of garlic into the cooking oil before you start, salt and pepper to taste, and toss until the okra's juices have been cooked into the mixture. At the tail end of the cooking process, add a bit of chopped fresh basil and chunks of fresh tomato, if you like.

This is a colorful dish that is possible only in July - if you cook with fresh, locally grown ingredients, that is. I've been making variations of this stir-fry for several years. Because the whole point is to improvise with what is available, and because this is just a little bit different every time I make it, I eventually stopped trying to squeeze it into a fixed recipe.

If you aren't an okra-eater or you don't have a red pepper at the moment, there's no reason you still can't make a delicious stir-fry.

I recognize that some cooks find freestyle cooking a bit disconcerting, and every once in awhile I run across a variation on the theme that does come with precise instructions. Such is the case with the following soup recipe from Victoria Wise's "Gardener's Community Cookbook," which calls for both summer squash and okra. For those who don't like to wing it in the kitchen, this may be more reassuring.

Southern Summer Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 ribs celery, cut lengthwise and thinly sliced

1 medium carrot, scraped and cut into half-inch pieces

1/2 (one-half) medium onion, cut into half-inch pieces

1 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut into half-inch pieces

1 medium yellow squash, trimmed and cut into half-inch pieces

6 small okra, trimmed and cut into half-inch rounds

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 (one fourth) cup shredded basil leaves

3 cups chicken broth

Heat the oil in a large soup pot. Add the celery, carrot and onion and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes, until slightly wilted.

Add the zucchini, yellow squash, okra, salt and basil and continue sauteing for 5 minutes more, or until the okra releases its juices. Stir in the broth, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked al dente.

Serve immediately. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

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