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Chef John Foster: Aw, pumpkins already; seasons wane but summer’s vegetable variety will be missed

I saw my first pumpkin of the season in a neighbor’s front yard and the realization hit me that fall is coming.

One of my farmers delivered an order to me this weekend with the warning that they would probably not have any more squash and zucchini this season.

Sitting out on my porch this morning at 5 a.m. you could hear the clock tick, and the wheel slowly turn. Into one season and out of the other, just like that. I can’t say how that affects me, because things certainly don’t slow down. I’ll be just as busy at Sullivan and at The Sage Rabbit well into the holidays.

Except for a brief lull around Labor Day things move quickly on and the seasons changing offer new opportunities and challenges.

Frankly, I welcome the change, even though it will eventually mean the loss of great summertime produce.

Fall is perhaps the best time to blend seasons as the produce tends to carry over somewhat and people’s perceptions of the food are not drastically changed. Grilling is still acceptable, tomatoes ripen more fully, herbs are sometimes renewed with the first chilly evenings. We are also still far enough removed from the winter squash and root vegetable dishes that will carry us through winter. There will be enough time for them later in the year.

What I’ll be missing most is the arrival of the next new item. Spring and summer seem to bring with them a new “something” every week. Asparagus, berries, green garlic are all brief and impactful all at the same time. I’ve been using tomatoes since March, and while the flavors deepen as the summer moves on they will have occupied a space on my plates for three quarters of the year. The staying power of summer produce makes it easier to plan menus long term, and for buying purposes it’s great to know that barring any disaster, tomatoes, squash corn, and peppers will be around for a while.

Pumpkin time?

But I’m a restless soul sometimes, and I’m prone to overlooking the beauty of something if it’s too easily accessible. I want stimulus, in the form of new produce and we are about to go into a period of downsizing. Time to focus.

What to do differently with tomatoes?

Smoke them, roast them, salt them down and /or pickle the small ones. Not only does this vary the flavor of the plates but also the textures, and the colors will change with each method and pairing on the plate.

Peppers pretty much follow the same pattern with the exception of chilies. Exclusively I will either dry chilies or make hot sauce, both great preservation methods and ways in which you can drastically change a dish. Peppers I will roast, smoke and occasionally blanch, peel, and freeze. Drying bell peppers doesn’t work out very often due to their moisture content and thick walls. Corn I cut off the cob and freeze raw, the better to have more options later. Enjoy your zucchini and squash fresh every day until its done, then leave it in peace until next year.

Remember, not everything can be saved to retain the full or even suitable impact of the ingredient. It doesn’t pay to preserve something that won’t remotely resemble its original soul. Berries, peaches and early apples are no-brainers when it comes to preservation and will create not only jams and jellies for breakfast or a great pb and j, but also produce accents in fall dishes that may have been missing from your previous recipes.

Squash, tomatoes, peppers . . .

Finally, the herb question seems to pop up at every community class I teach. Precisely because the yield is so high, we dread wasting any part of the plant before it goes to flower. Relax, one of the benefits of a big herb garden is an almost certain renewal of the same size garden (or bigger) next year, especially if you let some plants go to seed and then collect that seed. Proper trimming and maintenance, (not benign neglect) will create a renewable resource that should last from early spring until the first hard freeze.

Not everything will survive all year (dill and cilantro are notorious for leaving the party early) but the range of herbs should be versatile enough to cook most cuisines. The best course with what’s left over, say basil for instance, is not to make pesto, that should have been done when the basil was middle-aged, in the prime of its yield and strength. No, you should cut it and hang it to dry in a cool, well-ventilated space. Avoid heat and humidity, and that goes for storing dried herbs as well.

As long as I’ve had an herb garden I have not purchased dried herbs. While they may come in a nice, colorful bottle inside a handsome wooden rack, they are pale imitations of the herbs that grow right outside your door. I’m not for freezing herbs as well, they invariably blacken and get very slimy. The next step is to actually use those dried herbs in your recipes, they are not for show!

So, there are ways to push through the last few weeks of the summer season and open fall without losing all the continuity and creativity that the season brings with it. Using some of these items now makes that transition make sense, saving some for the winter gives you an ace in the hole to play some blustery January. It’s simply a matter of making the effort to preserve a bit of each season that enhances the quality of the food and the reputation of the restaurant. It also makes it more challenging and thereby rewarding to know that you can carry a little bit of each season with you and establish a true farm to table experience.
Smoked tomato vinaigrette

1 tomato, cored and scored on the bottom, smoked slowly to caramelize and remove the skin. After smoking, puree and strain the seeds and excess pulp. The remaining liquid should have some viscosity to it, if not you can reduce it on the burner until it thickens. Add enough apple cider vinegar to the cool liquid to give it a tartness, season it with salt and pepper, and then add approximately two times the volume of oil to smoked tomato liquid. Whisk to emulsify, and if too tart add a touch of honey and re-whip.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.   

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