THE BACKYARD HARVEST is probably coming in fast and furious, and the farmstand and farmers-market tables are loaded, too. So, what to do with all those gorgeous zucchini and tomatoes, and how to savor every kernel of the fleeting peak moment of sweet corn?
I called my friend Alexandra Stafford, author of “Bread Toast Crumbs” and creator of the indispensable food website Alexandra’s Kitchen, for ideas, and she had as many as I have zucchini at the moment. Uh-oh.
If haven’t followed Ali on Instagram, where her how-to videos and stories are like a short course in better cooking, don’t delay any longer. She joined me on the radio show and podcast to talk about summer’s best flavors, with recipes for squash, corn and tomatoes in particular—galettes (top photo) and gazpacho, fritters and quick sauces, ratatouille and more. Links to each recipe we mention are in the text—with a list of more ideas below the transcript.
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Read along as you listen to the September 2, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
corn, zucchini and tomato recipes, with alexandra stafford
Margaret: So I had to laugh when we started brainstorming in preparation for this segment about these ingredients, and neither one of us could stop naming recipes we wanted to make before the harvest dwindles. [Laughter.]
Ali: I know. It’s just so much good food at every turn.
corn recipe ideas
Margaret: Yes, so where to begin? I have a farmstand in my neighborhood, and had farmstand sweet corn for dinner twice this week. Should we start with corn?
Ali: Sure, Yes. It’s the best sign when you see that first sign that says the local sweet corn has arrived-
Margaret: I know.
Ali: … because it’s just … There’s just really nothing better.
Margaret: Yes. Yes, now I think you make a fresh corn polenta, don’t you, even?
Ali: Oh my gosh. That’s my favorite, after probably corn on the cob, that’s the first thing I make. And I don’t make it a ton, because truthfully, it’s kind of a pain. You have to grate the ears of corn, and you grate so much, and it really feeds one or two people. But if you’ve never done it, you have to do it, because it’s so, so good. Top it with an egg, some Parmesan, and dinner is done.
But after that, I’d say my favorite things to do are to strip the ears from the cob and to make soup. And I first learned about the trick from making a corncob stock from Samin Nosrat’s “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.” She has this amazingly simple—it’s just butter, onions, corn, salt, water—but you, I think it’s eight ears of corn maybe, strip the ears.
She has a great trick for getting the ears off without stumbling and having the corn fly everywhere. You just line a shallow bowl with a tea towel and hold the cob upright, and strip them down [details, and Samin’s soup recipe, here]. And then as the cobs simmer in water, you start making the soup. And it’s just really simple, and she pairs it with this herb salsa, which I think is essential, because the soup is so sweet you need something to cut it.
And then, after I made that, somebody else directed me to Debra Madison’s curried corn soup with coconut milk. Same idea: You make a stock with the stripped ears of corn and there’s garam masala, there’s onions, there’s cumin, lots of cilantro, coconut milk, and it’s so … they’re so good. They freeze well so you can … If you’re overloaded with corn you could make a ton of it, put it in quart containers, save it. It feels so great pulling out a quart of soup in the winter.
Margaret: Yes, and so I should say that with all of these, we’ll go into some of them in detail and others that we don’t, we’re going to, with the transcript of the show, besides the fact that I’m going to buy an extra copy of your book, Bread, Toast, Crumbs and have a book giveaway because I love it-
Ali: Oh, thank you.
Margaret: ... and I love to encourage people to use it and it’s full of delicious vegetable things as well as bread and etc.
So we’re making some soup. We made the broth, which, I mean, even if you don’t make that particular recipe, other cooks I’ve read, and I believe Ronna Welsh, “The Nimble Cook,” that we both really admire, in her new book I think she talks about that. About don’t throw away those corn cobs, right? I mean …
Ali: I’m sure she did. I can’t believe … I mean, she’s … I made her collard green salad last night actually, and she has a recipe for something to do with the stems of the collard greens, so I’m sure she has something to do with the- [Laughter.]
Margaret: Exactly. So, more corn thoughts?
Ali: Yes. So, Melissa Clark has also this amazing corn pasta recipe, and same thing: You strip the ears of corn, and it’s almost like you’re making the fresh corn polenta, but you saute them. And you puree … You keep some aside, so you have some texture, but you cook some of them down, and then you puree it. So, you’ve got this creamy corn sauce, but there’s no cream in it. There is butter and some Parmesan-
Margaret: Of course. [Laughter.]
Ali: … but, over all it’s not-
Margaret: Of course, butter and Parmesan, yes.
Ali: Of course, yes. And it’s just, it’s really nice, it’s just so summery. Lots of basil at the end, pepper. That’s a really good one. And I haven’t made this one yet, but I was looking on the Milk Street website, and they have a pasta recipe that’s very summery. And it also calls for using the cobs to make a stock, but you can use that as a sauce for pasta as well. And I think that one has tomatoes and basil and just other summer ingredients. I think it’s a very versatile thing to have. And you could even probably just make the stock and freeze it, you know?
Margaret: Yes, absolutely. Have you ever made corn fritters? Because one of the local places near me sometimes makes them in season, and I always think, “Is that a lot of work?” Because they’re so delicious, I want them. But do you know what I mean? Do you ever do that?
Ali: Yes, they’re so good. And I have made Deborah Madison’s recipe for those as well, and they’re so good. The cheese is cheddar, which sounds a little bit like maybe boring, but it’s actually so perfect with the corn. I think because the corn is so sweet. And there’s scallions, and you just make a batter … I think the trick with fritters is you make your batter, then you’ve got to do a little tester one and see if it’s seasoned right, see if it holds together properly.
But once you get that one little guy ready, you can either store the batter in the fridge until you’re ready to make them, or you can just fry away and reheat them, or keep them warm in an oven until you’re ready to serve them. [Note: Ali makes zucchini fritters, too, like this.]
Margaret: It’s funny, it reminds me of if you’re making pancakes, the first one’s never quite the right one-
Ali: I know.
Margaret: … but after that, the griddle’s right, and you know what I mean? You get the right moment.
Ali: Right. Exactly.
Margaret: The right technique, Yes. I mean, some restaurants near me, one in particular, at this time of year you can just count on the fact that even though he’s a fabulous chef and can make anything, he just has a beautiful plate of sliced, big, heirloom beefsteak-sized tomatoes and fresh corn kernels, and some basil, and some beautiful oil. You know what I mean? And so, there’s also just that, right?
Ali: Oh, Yes. So good.
Margaret: Yes. Any other salad ideas that involve corn?
Ali: I love, if you have never made a raw corn salad … when I first had a raw corn salad, I thought this is … I mean, I like eating the corn raw from the cob, but I’d never thought to kind of strip all the ears and make a whole salad with the raw kernels. And that’s also a revelation for people.
And I think the key with that, because the corn is so sweet, is to almost treat it more like a salsa. So, you wouldn’t season it with like … you would use more acid to olive oil, like maybe 2:1, or even maybe higher, 3:1, like fresh lime, lemon, vinegar, whatever you have. And from there, as long as you—again, because the corn is so sweet—as long as you use enough acid, enough salt, really you can go anywhere with that. Onions, scallions, any herbs. I’ve seen some with cheese like feta, or even Parmesan. Just some sort of salty cheese is really good.
tomato recipe ideas
Margaret: Right. So, corn. I don’t know, I’m tempted to just stay with corn for like the whole discussion because I’m so hungry now. [Laughter.] But should we move on to tomatoes, or where should we go? [Above, Ali’s oven-dried tomatoes served as tomato toasts.]
Margaret: Yes, so, I mean tomatoes are, of course, the thing. And I was out in the garden today, and there were some … One of my favorite cherries is actually a hybrid, ‘Sun Gold.’ You know, and I mean, I just-
Ali: Oh, I know. Yes.
Margaret: … I just can’t imagine not having that. And you know, you could just stand by the vine and just eat them all, they’re just so fabulous. But there’s lots of other things including making sure that you save some for later. Like, I just put whole tomatoes, and even whole cherry tomatoes, in freezer bags, and I use them instead of canned tomatoes later in the year, as I always mention at this time of year on the show. So, I freeze whole tomatoes.
You can roast them on a sheet pan with some oil and some herbs and whatever, and then sort of put that slurry in freezer bags, and make it into soup or sauce later. I mean, there’s so many things we can do—obviously, make tomato sauce and freeze it.
But about right now recipes, what are some of the right now tomato favorites that you’re excited about?
Ali: Right. I mean it’s hard to not just eat like an open-faced sandwich all day long with [laughter] ... You know, either like a bagel with cream cheese, or a slick of mayo and salt and chives. Or, just a simple salad, olive oil, vinegar… It’s like once you’ve done that and once you’ve had your pico de gallo… I mean, something that’s along the same lines, but maybe not as popular, are these no-cook tomato sauces, or raw tomato sauces.
I feel like every summer I make at least one. Smitten Kitchen has a great one. If you Google “naked tomato sauce,” I think it comes right up. And that one’s really good. And then, I have a couple bookmarked that I’m hoping to try soon. But often they call for either grating a tomato and then you discard the skin, or blanching them and removing the skin, and then just chopping it.
I saw one in Bon Appétit, it’s for a no-cook puttanesca sauce. And it’s interesting because they just have you squeeze out the seeds, but you just chop them up and puree them in the food processor, which is nice because I don’t always love removing the skin. And in fact, I know we’ve talked about this before, but with Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce, I don’t peel the tomatoes anymore, and I know you don’t either, right?
Margaret: No, I don’t. Skins-on. I’m a skins-on girl, yes.
Ali: Yes, so, that one looks interesting to me because I’ve never … I haven’t done it where I’ve kept the skins on. It looks really delicious, lots of olives, capers. There’s no anchovies in it, which is interesting and-
Margaret: For puttanesca.
Ali: … it just looks really fresh, Yes, and summery. But what else? O.K., the other thing that I did make and I feel … I almost feel silly talking about it because I hope it’s just not old news for people. But Jenny Rosenstrach of “Dinner: A Love Story” wrote on A Cup of Jo about Julia Moskin’s (from the New York Times) gazpacho recipe a few weeks ago. She sort of talked about it how she sort of felt like the last person to know about this Julia Moskin gazpacho recipe. But I had never heard about it, either.
And so, as soon as I read it, I was like, “Oh gosh, I’ve got to try it.” And it really is the easiest thing in the world. You just chop up tomatoes, no peeling. Cucumber, peppers, one clove of garlic. What am I forgetting? Oh, a small onion. Into the food processor with olive oil. That’s it, and if you don’t have a high-speed blender, I think they say to strain it, but you just stick the pitcher of soup in the fridge, and it’s so nice and so refreshing to have on hand-
Margaret: So, it’s a puree, not a chunky gazpacho, yes?
Ali: It is. It’s very smooth, and there’s no … I think, traditionally, gazpacho has bread. There’s no bread in it, so it’s very silky, silky smooth. And I think Julia Moskin says this in her article, but what distinguishes it from just drinking like tomato juice essentially, is the olive oil. [Laughter.] There’s a fair amount of olive oil, about a half-cup or so. But it makes a huge, huge amount of soup. And I drizzled it also with like a little bit more olive oil, which is also traditional. But I had this chili oil, and it was nice to just have a little bit of heat with the refreshing, cold soup.
The thing that’s funny about this time of year, is that there’s so … It’s like endless inspiration everywhere you go, but almost everybody I talk to has like zero motivation to cook. And so, the simpler the things are, the more likely they are to be made. And this one … I mean, it really … I was blown away by how quickly it came together, and how much soup it makes. And if you have that on hand, it’s dinner or lunch, done, for a couple of days.
Margaret: Right. So, any entrée-ish sort of things? We talked a little bit about some no-cook sauces, no-cook tomato sauces, but any other sort of entree-ish ideas that you’re monkeying with right now?
Ali: Yes. This time of year, I always make David Lebovitz’s tomato and corn galette [photo, top of page]. It’s so nice. I love his dough. The dough has a little bit of cornmeal in it, so it gives it a little bit of texture. And you saute leeks, or saute onions. There’s corn, tomatoes, a little bit of Gruyere, and it looks so pretty. It’s, again, so summery because you’ve got the corn and the tomatoes, and top it with basil. And that’s a really nice one.
I also just made … Alison Roman from the New York Times has a poached fish recipe [below], and it comes together fast. I was visiting my sister and her husband and we went to the store, came home, and really like 30 minutes later, it was done. But you saute shallots, saute tomatoes, no peeling or anything. Add water, bring it to a simmer. So, you just make this … Actually, she has you make this kind of chili oil first that’s really delicious, and you reserve that. And then, you just poached the fish in this very fresh tomato sauce, which takes about 5 minutes. And then, you spoon this homemade chili oil right on top, but you have a lot of broth. And it’s definitely something to have bread with, because you know, this fresh tomato broth is so good, you need something to soak it up.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Huh, got to have the bread. Got to have the bread.
Margaret: Yes, hence the name of your cookbook.
Ali: Yes, right. No, exactly.
Margaret: Yes. So, you know, of course we’re talking about ripe tomatoes so far, yes? And that’s one of the things, just like you were talking about your tricks for getting corn off the cob without harming yourself with a sharp knife [laughter], you know, tricks for ripening tomatoes. And people, a lot of times, wonder because maybe they have either animals or birds in the garden who might decide to go after the tomatoes, if they don’t get them in time, if they let them ripen on the vine, or the weather may change, or sometimes a big storm is coming, whatever. Or, it may get to be the end of the season, and your weather is cooling down, and you don’t want to lose the ones.
But, you know, it’s interesting how the ripening, there’s no precise, prescriptive thing. Like, everybody has their own opinion, you know? Do you bring it in ad put it on the window sill? Or, do you … like Alice Waters in, I believe it’s “Chez Panisse Vegetables,” she says, “Ripen indoors as a regular practice.” You know, picking when the shifting color happens, from orange to red begins. Like, in other words, don’t wait too long.
She believes that it maximizes the sugar and acid content, and so forth. And a lot of people feel that, like not leaving it out, again, where it may crack because maybe it’s been dry out, and then suddenly you get 2 inches of rain in 5 minutes, and these crazy storms or whatever, and then the tomato swells too much and cracks. You know, protecting that almost-ripe tomato by bringing it inside, some people wrap them in newspaper once they bring them inside. You know, grouping fruits that are of a similar level of ripeness in the same pieces of paper so that you only have to peek inside to see if one is ready, and so forth.
You know, lots of different things. But the one thing I think for sure, and I can give a link into all the tactics for ripening tomatoes, but one thing I think for sure is don’t put tomatoes in the refrigerator, right?
Ali: Yes, no. Right.
Ali: No, definitely.
Margaret: Yes, because it really ruins the flavor, I think, you know?
Ali: Have you gotten your … are your getting your peak tomatoes now? Are you bringing in like a ton every single day?
Margaret: Yes, and then the people, the farmers around me are also. It’s really accelerating and into September, they will. So, it’ll be like from around now in August, into September, and again, we’re in the Northeast, so, we can have frost by early October. But it’s that later part of the tomato season that starts to be the real buildup of volume for me, generally speaking. What varieties are you growing? Are you growing any?
Ali: Well, we always grow ‘Cherokee Purple.’ That’s my absolute favorite. But then, after listening to your podcast with NC Tomato Man-
Margaret: Oh, North Carolina Tomato Man, right, Craig Lehoullier, yes.
Ali: Right. So, my husband bought ‘Dester’ seeds and started … so, we have both ‘Cherokee Purple’ and ‘Dester’ going. And the ‘Dester’ are ripening a little bit faster than the ‘Cherokee Purple.’ We’ve had one ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato that was absolutely amazing. And we took a page out of NC Tomato Man’s book, and we brought the tomato with us to a bagel place so that we could have like really good bagels and cream cheese with our own tomatoes. [Laughter.]
Ali: And we brought the salt along, too. And it really … it’s such … That first ripe tomato, I mean, it’s the same thing with that first local good piece of corn. You know, there’s just nothing like it.
zucchini recipe ideas
Margaret: So, just so we don’t run out of time, and I know we have lots more tomato recipes to offer, but I want to … You know, the much-maligned zucchini. [Laughter.]
Ali: I know, I know.
Margaret: What do you think? I think it’s over cooked sometimes. I think that’s part of the probably sometimes, you know?
Ali: Totally. I think this time of year, too, people have … they’ve done their, like the raw salad with olive oil and lemon and Parmesan. I have a spaghetti recipe I love that you have to julienne them thinly, either like on a mandoline or in a spiralizer. But you don’t cook it, you just toss it with the spaghetti and the heat of the spaghetti just softens the zucchini enough so it’s really nice.
Margaret: Exactly, exactly.
Ali: But I did just see, and I actually made it and it was so good, Heidi Swanson from 101 Cookbooks, she said this time of year the zucchini are really arriving. So, she is always looking for recipes, as many people are, that call for four or five or six zucchini.
And this one was so fast and so good. You essentially just saute some garlic, and you throw chopped zucchini into the pan with water. And I cut ended up shredding them all in my food processor, so it was really fast. I used like six zucchini. Throw them in the pan with water and you cover it and simmer it for about 10 minutes. Cook pasta on the side. And then, add, it’s a ton of Parmesan cheese, a ton of basil, a ton of toasted almonds, and just toss it all together. It’s so good, and it’s essentially the zucchini, like it melts and the zucchini becomes a sauce, the way tomatoes become a sauce.
Yes, and so the almonds add texture; it’s not a dish with like texture, it’s like the zucchini becomes mush, but the more I meet people, I meet so many people who are actually fans of mush.
Ali: It’s just, it’s so tasty. I feel like that’s one, like when you are overloaded with zucchini, it’s a great one because you just, you can cook a lot of zucchini.
Margaret: So we’ll give links to recipes for zucchini fritters, speaking of fritters before, and zucchini bread, which is so delicious, and pickles, which we both have recipes for that [Ali’s zucchini pickle recipe, from Zuni Cafe]. But, what about using all of these things, well maybe not the corn: Ratatouille, we haven’t mentioned that have we?
Ali: Oh, yes. Yes.
Margaret: Because I used to do that and freeze it, you know, like use up a lot of the vegetables at this time of year, and then freeze it and have this sort of casserole-y thing, for later on. So, ratatouille as well?
Ali: Oh, definitely. And I’ve already … I would say the past two or three weeks’ farm shares, my CSA, and that’s from Roxbury Farm, and probably everybody in this area looks similar, but it looks like tailor-made to make ratatouille: eggplant, zucchini, onions, peppers, garlic. It’s everything you need.
I have a recipe from Gena Hamshaw, it’s from the “Food52 Vegan” cookbook, it’s the one I always use. You toss all of the vegetables in olive oil and vinegar, and you roast them for a really long time. I mean, it depends on how many vegetables you’re using, but I heap them into my largest roasting pan, toss it with basically 2:1, so like, I did, I think most recently, did a half-cup of olive oil, a quarter-cup of balsamic vinegar. And I think I roasted it for 2 hours until it just gets really stewy and jammy-
Ali: … and then packed it into quart containers, and I mean, it freezes so well. You could toss it with pasta, put it on bread, put it in lasagna. There’s so many things you could do with it. [Get the recipe.]
Margaret: I make lasagnas also, and freeze them by the way, at this time of year. And I use my tomatoes. You know, I make a quick sauce for in between the layers, but I also use … Well, you could use the mandolin, or you could just make slabs, thin slabs of the zucchini cut lengthwise and put that as one of your layers, and so forth. So, that’s another place-
Margaret: … where I hide the zucchini. [Laughter.]
Ali: Definitely. No, actually, I have a Zucchini Parmesan recipe that was … I think it was Martha Rose Shulman, like it’s an adaptation of hers. But she roasts all the zucchini and then layers it with Parmesan. It’s so good, and that’s a great way, also. I mean, the roasting is a step, but still, you can really use a lot of zucchini.
Margaret: Yes. Well, Ali, we’ve used up our time, but the idea of this is to give people like a cornucopia of recipe links and ideas and pictures, here and on your website. Thank you.
(Photos from Alexandra Stafford, used with permission.)
more, more, more peak harvest recipe ideas
- Ali Stafford’s latest blog post, rounding up favorites seasonal recipes
- Ali’s archive of all corn recipes
- Ali’s archive of all tomato recipes
- Ali’s archive of all zucchini recipes
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the September 2, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).