Best of Summer

The view from our house in Aveyron

Oh, what a wonderful summer it has been!

Did you have fun? I hope you did.

Summertime in Aveyron

Maxence, the boys and I had a marvellous summer vacation in July: we are juilletistes, the French term for people who take their summer break in July, as opposed to aoûtiens who take it in August. Don’t you love that we have words for that?

We spent our summer vacation in Aveyron, a beautiful low-mountain region three hours north of Toulouse, and we loved everything about it. We rented a house with a gorgeous view of an untouched valley and a vegetable garden where we were welcome to pick zucchini and tomatoes and kale.

We visited medieval castles and organic farms, we rented boats to chill on lakes, we mini-hiked, we barbecued, we took part in village meals cooked in 15th-century woodfire ovens and served in barns on long communal tables, we filled our lungs with fresh air, we made friends, and we came home happy and a little tan.

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Quick Nori Roll with Cucumber and Avocado

Quick Nori Roll with Cucumber and Avocado

It all started with this photo on Gena’s Instagram feed. Gena is the author of the excellent blog The Full Helping, and she has long extolled the virtues of the vegetable nori roll as a quickly and easily assembled snack: her site offers almost a dozen examples, including this latest version.

The process is not unlike that which leads to maki, but here you forgo the seasoned rice altogether — this saves time and effort, and also means you don’t have to plan ahead — in favor of fresh vegetables, lots of them.

I was so inspired by that latest shot that I went out and got some cucumbers and sprouts the very next day to make my own, and I have been weaving variations on that theme about twice a week since then — that’s how enthused I am.

Although Gena likes to apply a thick layer of some sort of spread — think hummus or cashew cheese — directly on the nori sheet, I start with the sliced cucumbers as I prefer my nori to stay as crisp as possible* — the drier, the crisper — and find it most pleasing to bite into the crunchy layer of cucumbers first.

My Take on Nori Roll

Having played around with various ingredients, I have now determined the foundation I like to build on (cucumber, avocado, sprouts, sesame), and will add whatever little things I have on hand — leftover chicken or fish, tofu, spread or dressing, crudités, greens, and herbs. I have a great fondness for the mango and jicama version I make as an affectionate nod to the maki served at Bob’s Kitchen.

Mini Cookbook of Vegan Staples

These make for a lovely item to add to the mix when we’re composing a lunch or dinner from sundry elements (see “leftovers night” in my Menu Planning Tips & Tricks). You could offer them as finger food as well, cut into maki-style slices, and I’ve been known to fix myself a nori roll as a refreshing afternoon treat, too.

* For optimal texture, I like to eat the roll the moment it is made, but of course it’s fine to let it sit while you make the others, or if you’re packing them for lunch at the office or a picnic.

Quick Nori Roll with Cucumber and Avocado

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Chocolate Zucchini Cake

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

An American friend once explained to me that nobody ever locks their car in her small town… except when it’s zucchini season. Leave your door unlocked then, and you risk coming back to find a crate of zucchini left on your passenger seat.

You see, zucchini plants grow with supernatural vigor, and when harvest season comes around, gardeners are overloaded with their crop, so they’re desperately seeking ways to use it productively.

Chocolate & Zucchini Cake To The Rescue!

And one of the popular uses of a zucchini glut — aside from abandoning it on the steps of the church — is baking quick breads and cakes, including chocolate and zucchini cake, because everything tastes better with chocolate, even zucchini.

I myself did not pick the name of my blog in reference to this cake: I chose it to illustrate the two sides of my culinary personality, my love of fresh, seasonal produce as well as my appreciation for desserts. But knowing about this zucchini baking tradition, I couldn’t not have a Chocolate & Zucchini Cake in my repertoire.

I am not a gardener myself, so I just get my zucchini from the greenmarket, and over the years and the batches, I have tweaked my Chocolate & Zucchini Cake recipe to get it just right for my taste.

It produces a delightfully fluffy cake with a crisp outer crust. The advantage of using grated zucchini in the batter is that it provides extra moisture, allowing you to reduce the overall amount of butter — not that there’s anything wrong with butter, but this cake feels less heavy than most. And there is no way anyone can taste the zucchini in there, as the strands meld with the batter and disappear.

In addition to being a deep and beautiful shade of brown, this chocolate zucchini cake has a voluptuous chocolate flavor. We can thank the cocoa powder and chocolate chunks for that, and also the dash of coffee. This is a trick that my grandmother taught me, and it’s a good one to keep in mind for any chocolate cake; you can’t identify the coffee as such, but it makes the flavor of the chocolate that much more vivid.

Got zucchini? Here are more ideas to use it:
Zucchini Tarte Fine,
Oven-Roasted Ratatouille,
Zucchini Noodle Salad.

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Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

Slow Roasted Tomatoes

Every summer when the good local tomatoes arrive, I think I will never ever get enough of them. I picture myself diving into a ball pit filled with tomatoes and paddling about for hours like kids do at IKEA.

But then after a few weeks of tomato frenzy, I am suddenly faced with what seemed utterly impossible before: we have too many tomatoes to eat them all.

Tomatoes

And that’s when I start making batches of slow-roasted tomatoestomates confites in French — which are a fine way to eat them, in salads, sandwiches, and pasta dishes, and also freeze really well.

Contrary to what some recipes have you do, I don’t skin the tomatoes before roasting because I don’t mind the skin and who wants to skin plum tomatoes in the summer heat?

Tomatoes

It usually take two and a half hours in my oven to get the tomatoes to the consistency I’m looking for, the edges wilted and curled, but still the memory of plump flesh. This is quite different from sun-dried tomatoes, which tend to be a bit leathery for my taste.

Slow-roasting concentrates the tomato flavor in subtle and beautiful ways, and accentuates their sweetness.

I typically choose to season my slow-roasted tomatoes with salt and pepper, and sometimes ground chili pepper or dried herbs. It depends if I want to make “plain” tomates confites, and add my choice of herb when using them in a dish, or want them pre-seasoned.

Slow Roasted Tomatoes

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Shakshuka

These days our produce guy is all about tomatoes — big and small, ribbed, smooth, or pointy, red, yellow, green, or pearl — and at the rate I’m going, I am bound to turn into one very soon. I’ve been making tomato salads and sandwiches like they’re going out of style, I’ve been making tomato tarts and tomato tarragon bread soup, and I’ve been mixing batches of gazpacho.

(My two stand-by tomato tarts are the tomato tart tatin and the tomato mustard tart respectively featured in my first and second cookbooks. Get yourself a copy of Chocolate & Zucchini and of The French Market Cookbook today!)

Another one of my top uses for this tomato bounty is shakshuka, a preparation that can be found in slightly different incarnations across North Africa and the Middle East. My first encounter with it was in Janna Gur’s excellent Book of New Israeli Food, which I told you about here and here, and I have since become acquainted with the Tunisian version as well.

A not-so-distant cousin of Provence’s ratatouille, Corsica’s pebronata, and the Basque piperade, shakshuka is most commonly a dish of tomatoes stewed with onions, bell peppers, and chili peppers. This forms a thickish sauce, in which eggs are cooked — either scrambled or (my preference) undisturbed so they’re halfway between poached and sunny side up.

It is a simple, family-style dish that is quickly assembled, and highly flexible.

You can:
– add other vegetables, especially zucchini or eggplant that you’ll cook in the sauce; artichoke hearts, drained from a jar; and diced potatoes, which you should boil beforehand,
– substitute quality canned tuna or merguez (spicy beef sausages) for the eggs,
– garnish the dish with black olives and parsley or cilantro, as I like to do, or serve it plain,
– serve the sauce with lamb skewers or other grilled meats (just not pork, for cultural consistency),
– freeze the sauce for later use: think how thrilling it will be to eat shakshuka in November!

Some recipes call for roasting the bell peppers first, which is good if you find them hard to digest, but I don’t think anyone wants to fire up the oven more than strictly necessary when it’s hot out. Others suggest you peel the tomatoes, but it seems unnecessarily fussy to me.

If your spice rack boasts a Moroccan spice mix, such as ras el hanout, now would be a good time to use it, in place of the separate spices (cumin, caraway, paprika, turmeric, and cinnamon) I’ve included. And if you don’t have a mix, and you don’t have all the spices listed either, don’t worry about it too much and just use what you have.

Get your FREE seasonal produce calendar!

If you're excited about greenmarkets, in Paris and beyond, you need my seasonal produce calendar; it's FREE to download! I've drawn up this handy guide to tell you what's in season when, and how long things will stay fresh, so you can cook healthy, colorful meals and not waste a single lettuce leaf, like, ever.

Shakshouka

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