By Holly Verbeck | Special to Moonshine Ink
Some things in life are sad, it’s true, and while summer isn’t one of them, its ending surely is. To stretch your summer and extend the joy and flavors of the season into the reaches of fall, enjoy this menu of blistered shishito peppers, a classic Tuscan panzanella, and apple crisp dessert made solely from ingredients picked up at our local farmers market.
You won’t find a strict recipe for this meal because, like summer, the time you spend cooking it is meant to feel carefree, even lazy. It’s perfect when warm days make you shy away from the hot stove in favor of lingering in the cool evenings on the patio. It’s also deeply satisfying and a breeze to throw together. Remember those summer days when you tossed a suit and beach towel in your bag and headed to the water for a day in the sun? Making this menu evokes the same sense of freedom. Whip this up and express yourself through its many creative variations.
In the spirit of carefree summers, start with the blistered shishito peppers. (Don’t worry, their flavor is mild and delicious.) You’ll only need a skillet, olive oil, salt, and lemon. Wash and dry the shishitos before tossing and coating them evenly in oil. (This eliminates excess oil in the skillet.) Preheat the skillet until a water droplet sizzles and evaporates, then stir every minute or so until the skins are nicely charred and blistered. (If this smokes out your kitchen, your temp is too high.) Serve them in a bowl with a squeeze of lemon and sprinkle with salt. Serve alone or alongside cheese and olives; you can’t go wrong with this irresistible finger food.
The classic Tuscan panzanella is a chopped salad made from soaked dried bread and in its simplest form includes onions, tomatoes, awnd bocconcini (small, semi-soft mozzarella balls) dressed in olive oil and vinegar. Its simplicity, like a classic bikini, is wildly popular in summer when tomatoes are their ripest and full of the flavor of long summer days. Gloriously, panzanella is a canvas for other flavors of summer like cucumbers, basil, and herbs. Even bell peppers, olives, or capers are invited to this pool party. The great news is: There is no recipe, only a couple of important elements of this tossed salad. First, use dried (or toasted bread); it marinates in and soaks up the juices from the tomatoes, vinegar, and olive oil while providing a satisfying texture. Next, remember the secret to simple deliciousness is the quality of your ingredients, so use excellent vinegar. Finally, toss and serve your panzanella when the bread is softened but not soggy. This dish can be served as a meal in itself or topped simply with a boiled egg or a fresh piece of grilled fish if you prefer a more filling meal. Either way, the warmth and charm of central Italy will fill your senses.
The perfect ending to this meal is an apple-blueberry crisp. Crisps are different than a betty, cobbler, or crumble, and that’s great news. Again, no recipe needed. Grab apples from your favorite farmer (I love visiting John at the Truckee market) and remember to use multiple varieties in your crisp to vary its texture and deepen the flavor profile. Slice the apples, add berries, and toss them lightly with lemon juice before placing in a greased baking dish or individual canning jars. Then make an uncomplicated crisp topping. Just mix a small amount of a flour — almond, rice, or wheat, for instance — with a texture (e.g. pecans, walnuts, or oats), plus any spices you like (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.) and cut in enough butter (dairy or vegan, your choice) to create a mixture you sprinkle atop the fruit. Yes, you can use your fingers to mix in the butter. Oven bake till the topping crisps and the fruit bubbles like slow lava. Make fruit crisp in advance and experience carefree entertaining. (We keep a large bag of crisp mix in the fridge so we can make it on the spot all summer long.) Serve it hot or cold, topped with crème Chantilly (a fancy word for sweetened whipped cream) or a la mode.
There are so many great reasons to relish this menu. Grab everything at our local farmers market and unchain yourself from the stove. Play with the butter like a kid in the sand. Above all else, savor our wonderful Tahoe summer a little bit longer with every bite.
~ Holly Verbeck and her husband, Chef Grog, are the founders of HeyChef!, the area’s premier culinary staffing company. Since 1997 their private chefs, servers, and bartenders make in-home entertaining personal, distinctive, and effortless.