Today—after what felt like at least a month of fetid, slug-covered, swelteringly humid torpor, interrupted by days of rain that only augmented the ambient moisture—dawned dry, clear, and breezy. I wasted no time, rushing out to attend to the neglected garden, mustering hours of energy despite a shitty, insomnia-dented night of inadequate sleep. There’s a lot going on, not least of which is the full arrival of what I like to call the “round food.” No longer are leaves the bulk of each day’s harvest; they’re shrinking into the minority as the roots and fruits gain girth by the day. Yesterday saw the first new potatoes of the year, roasted along with a spatchcocked chicken, taking advantage of a cooler evening to use the oven (and bake some much-needed bread). Today, thanks to a basket piled high with the various thinnings, cullings, and eager grabbings that attended my earnest horticultural ministrations, dinner comprised a perfect, seamless conclusion to the most pleasant summer day of the year so far.
The inspiration began with a cucumber, just like on Doctor Ruth. The first full-size specimen of the year get me thinking about gazpacho, especially since the jalapeños are getting going too, and the purslane—easily the most welcome of the weeds, for its combination of superior taste and superlative nutrition—sprawls all over the place and needs eating. Purslane makes great gazpacho.
And yet, as the food processor whirred, full of purslane and shiso and green coriander and cucumber and jalapeño and zucchini and green garlic and sumac vinegar and olive oil, it occurred to me that the thickness of the resulting liquid resembled sauce more than soup. There’s an infinitely subtle spectrum of green sauces from chimichurri to salsa verde to this green gazpacho-esque concoction, but they all hold certain culinarily essential characteristics in common: verdant complexity (herbal, bitter, sweet) plenty of acidity, and a little heat from garlic and chiles or pepper. This had it all, plus funky umami from fish sauce.
Speaking of fish, a couple of branzino found their way into my basket on a foray to the store. Local duck and beef also ended up in there, but the fresh fish demanded prompt attention. And we loves us some whole fried fish in these parts. The sauce positively cried out to enhance the sweet fried fish. I just did what I was told. Salt and flour, then hot oil in the wok, and the fish went from sleek, shiny silver to crisp, flaky tenderness in minutes flat. Having a stove where the rings remove, allowing for dropping the wok right down into the fire, makes this sort of cooking awfully authentic, restaurantically speaking. I also steamed a big bunch of amaranth, since that patch needed thinning and the leaves are so lusciously spinach-tender when steamed. I tossed them in olive oil, cider vinegar, and fish sauce once they wilted.
And that was dinner: crispy fish, bright sauce, and silky greens, plus chilled Provençal rosé in sweaty, overfilled glasses on the porch, which presented itself as a viable venue for the first time since this heat began. There’s nothing quite like the tactile attack on a whole fish, with the hands-on bone-picking and probing of meaty nooks behind the head. Using the garden’s greatest hits, weeds and domestic plants alike (enhanced with the vivid microbiota of vinegar and fish sauce, of course) provides the ideal foil for fried flesh. Summer wants us to eat plants. When we grow them, bidden or unbidden, they offer us infinite inspiration for vectoring billions of years’ worth of botanical wisdom into our bellies every day.
The platter was commissioned, but I thought I’d take it for a test drive before sending it out. I haven’t put up any ceramic pictures for quite some time.