I absolutely love summer. The sandy beaches, the seemingly endless hours of sunlight, and the late nights sitting around bonfires are just some of the highlights of the season. But perhaps my favorite aspect of summer is the refreshing and delicious bounty of food that accompanies its arrival.
Melting banana splits and scoops piled in a waffle cone. Hamburgers on the grill with potato salad and an ice-cold beer. Marshmallows on an open fire, toasted until golden brown and then smushed between two graham crackers and piece of chocolate. These are just a few of summer’s delights, and all of them are among my favorites. Yet though these reflect some of the season’s guiltiest pleasures, summer also offers some of the year’s healthiest ingredients. Think luscious, juicy berries; sweet and buttery corn on the cob; red-as-lips ripe tomatoes; fragrant basil that perfumes hands for hours.While some might crave an ice cream as relief from the summer’s sweltering heat, there are times when I rather prefer the succulent taste of fresh strawberries to cool me down. Macerated in some sugar and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, it is one of the simplest and loveliest sweet treats. Never mind that its healthy, a bowl of strawberries is as much a sign of summer as is a hot dog on the grill.
Fortunately for me, I am now living in a city where the summer bounty is readily available at any of the District’s dozens of farmer’s markets. Though I could certainly buy my produce at the 24-hour Safeway up the road, I just love the atmosphere of strolling around a market on a Sunday morning, eager to see what I can put in my bag to take home with me. Unfortunately, as a college student slowly sinking into debt, the prices at the open-air markets are often much more expensive than the grocery stores-think $3.95 for a pound of tomatoes or $6.00 for a quart of strawberries. However, the high quality of the ingredients and the opportunity to interact directly with the food’s producers (almost) makes up for the sticker-shock.
Considering the vast amount of work and effort that farmers put into their work, their prices are set so that they can earn a profit and continue planting, harvesting, and selling. Farmers do not want to empty consumer pockets. Instead, they want to produce a product they can be proud to put their name behind; they want consumers motivated to buy. This is why many items from farmers’ market vendors cannot be found at the supermarket. Many of these producers feel that the grocery stores compromise the value of their ingredients, that the items simply become lost in the industrial food chain. Thus, to ensure quality is not sacrificed, local prices remain higher than the supermarket and distribution is contained to the farmers’ market or other local, organic businesses.
As Michael Pollan wrote in his food manifesto The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “Instead of looking at labels, the local food customer will look at the farm for himself, or look the farmer in the eye and ask him about how he grows his crops or treats his animals.” Looking into the eyes of the farmers is one way to learn about your food and how it is grown, but no words can adequately attest to a product’s quality. A tomato’s vibrant hue might hint at juiciness, but that does not mean its flavor bursts at first bite. Luckily, many vendors at farmer’s markets let their food do the talking by allowing shoppers to taste their selection. During the summer months, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, and rhubarb are just a few of the many products readily available. With products such as these, the possibilities for fresh, healthy meals are endless.
After a weekend visit to the Dupont Circle Freshfarm Market, I was very excited to savor the season by experimenting in my apartment kitchen. Armed with a bag of fresh tomatoes and with some bread in the pantry very close to becoming stale, I derived the perfect, simple supper. Combining many of my favorite items, mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and bread, a Caprese Panzanella Salad was as easy as it was delicious.
Because I do not have a toaster oven, I decided to cut up some slices of multi-day-old bread. I sprayed it with some butter spray (perfect for making healthier grilled cheese sandwiches and panini), and then sprinkled on some garlic powder for flavor. As I toasted the cubes in my oven until crispy, I diced up my tomatoes and mozzarella. Once the bread turned a golden color, I added it to the diced mixture. To complete and further enhance the Italian theme, I added fresh leaves of basil and a healthy drizzle of balsamic vinegar from Modena. Light, straightforward, and cheap: the perfect recipe for a food-loving, money-strapped college student. As Julia Child once said, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.”
Caprese Panzanella Salad
- 2 slices of day-old, crusty bread
- Extra virgin olive oil or Butter spray
- Garlic powder
- Half a tomato, diced
- Salt and pepper
- 2 oz. of mozzarella, diced
- A handful of fresh basil
- Balsamic drizzle, to taste
- Cut the bread slices into small cubes. Drizzle with EVOO or butter spray to add moisture. Sprinkle with garlic powder.
- Toast the bread in a toaster oven, or alternatively, place bread in an oven-safe dish and toast in a 450° oven until desired crispiness.
- While bread toasts, dice tomatoes and place in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Dice the mozzarella and add to tomatoes.
- Once bread has crisped up to desired doneness, add cubes of bread to the mozzarella and cheese and toss to combine.
- Tear basil with one’s hands, careful not to bruise the leaves. Per one’s taste, add as much or as little as one desires to the bread and tomato mixture.
- Finish with a healthy drizzle of balsamic vinegar.