A time to reap

When I was a child, harvest always signaled a special time. Early in the season — when the southern-Ohio sun still promised many afternoons in the creek under the trestle bridge — we’d feast on mounds of green beans fresh out of the garden, drizzled with olive oil and Lawry’s seasoning salt.

This simple dish blended my parents’ favorite condiments in a satisfying union. My first-generation Italian father would put olive oil on or in just about anything that wasn’t wine or dessert. My mother — whose roots extend back at least six generations into the Appalachian hill country, and who raised four chefs, a beer connoisseur, a professional waiter and four nonculinarians — relied on Lawry’s to rescue many of her kitchen “experiments.”

My father, a chemical engineer by trade, enjoyed waxing philosophical about the therapeutic value of our garden — how, after toiling all day in a lab, he found working the soil and reaping its fruits infinitely rewarding. I’m sure he did, but I suspect the dent the garden put in the grocery bill for a family of 12 was also a consideration.

Whatever the impetus, though, the lusciousness of those ripe tomatoes seasoned with fresh basil, the sharpness of sauteed Swiss chard tempered with scrambled eggs and imported Parmesan, and the tangy ecstasy of fresh raspberries cut with just a hint of sugar left me with rich memories that still come alive at harvest time.

Lucky folks who’ve planted bountiful gardens need look no farther to create their own sweet, gastronomical memories. Those less fortunate can get in on the action by visiting the local farmers’ market, where you’ll find harvest-fresh goodies guaranteed to keep you busy in the kitchen: Garlic and fresh herbs can be preserved in wine or turned into pesto and frozen. You can always stuff or stew excess zucchinis or bell peppers. And the wide variety of chili peppers — along with tomatoes (both red and green), onions, cilantro and garlic — are the basic ingredients for many salsas. In any case, why not give the following simple-yet-tasty, autumn-drenched recipes a try?

Salsa verde

1/2 pound green tomatoes
2-3 serrano chilies
1 clove garlic
1/3 white onion
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Boil tomatoes until tender, then core, reserving the cooking water. Mince chilies, garlic, white onion, cilantro and cooked tomatoes. Blend, adding reserved water if necessary. Salt to taste.

Hot pepper sauce

1 cup hot peppers
2 large shallots
1 sprig thyme
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
2 large cloves garlic
2 sprigs each basil and tarragon
1 tablespoon sherry

Wash and stem the peppers (remove veins and seeds for a milder sauce). Chop garlic, shallots and herbs. Mix ingredients and place in an eight-ounce jar. Mix vinegar, sherry and salt. Pour over pepper mixture and cover with lid or plastic wrap. Store for at least three months in a cool, dark place before grinding the mixture in a blender.

Tomato and green pepper salad

3 large tomatoes, cut in wedges
1 medium sweet onion, cut in thin slices
1 large green pepper, cut in strips
2-3 sprigs fresh basil, cut in thin strips
1 cup virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1-3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
1 clove smashed garlic

Mix vegetables and basil in a suitable bowl. Blend oil, vinegars and garlic. Coat vegetables with dressing, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Basic tomato sauce

1 medium onion, finely diced
2-3 cloves smashed garlic
3 tablespoons virgin olive oil
2 pounds tomatoes
1 cup white wine
1 large sprig fresh basil, minced

For a refined version, peel and seed the tomatoes. To peel, score the blossom ends with two cuts in a crisscross fashion; place the tomatoes in boiling water for about 30 seconds; remove and plunge immediately into ice-cold water for several minutes; peel back the skin where it has loosened at the cuts. To seed, cut the tomatoes in half and dig out the seeds with the handle end of a fork or spoon, rinsing out any remaining seeds with cold water. Saute the onion, garlic and olive oil in a 10-inch pan. When the onions appear clear, add tomatoes and reduce until broken down. Add wine and basil, and reduce again. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

This sauce can be used on pasta, over stuffed zucchini or peppers, or as the base for more complex Italian dishes. It can also be embellished by adding additional herbs, meat or mushrooms. If you omit the basil and add cilantro and a few serrano peppers, you have a salsa ranchero, great for serving over egg dishes.

Swiss chard Italiano

2 pounds Swiss chard
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves smashed garlic
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
6 large eggs
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper
1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

Wash chard, making sure to remove all grit from the stem ends. Cut into two-inch pieces. Steam in a minimal amount of salted water until tender. Remove. Saute the onion and garlic in olive oil. Add chard when the onions appear clear. Blend eggs, grated cheese, salt, pepper, bread crumbs and water thoroughly. Pour over chard and cook like scrambled eggs. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and more grated cheese.

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