My favorite foods of summer — ripe tomatoes, meaty eggplant, skinny green beans, toothsome wax beans and tender squash —never cease to inspire. I buy them nearly every week at one farmers market or another. Then I blanch, steam, grill or chop them in readiness for a shower of garden fresh herbs for side dishes, salads and amazing meatless mains.
To keep things interesting, I'll add an intriguing pantry ingredient to my market standbys. This summer, my eggplant dishes feature bright green, crunchy Castelvetrano olives from Sicily. Other veggies go into pasta salads that start with fregola pasta.
A specialty of Sardinia, fregola's toasted, nutty flavor and toothsome texture pairs beautifully with summer vegetables. The pasta, about the size and shape of peppercorns, is gaining favor in this country. Look for it in stores with a good selection of imported Italian pastas.
As for the Castelvetrano olives, they're going into a summer vegetable gratin worthy of company. I put eggplant and summer squashes on the grill every time it's lit — no kidding — and generally toss them into the salad bowl. In this case, they are layered with those bright green olives and other goodies from the market — small creamy potatoes and crisp onions. Tons of fresh basil keeps the dish light and fresh.
Here's to relaxed mid-summer veg love with a twist. Enjoy them on the deck, take them on a picnic. Pack leftovers for lunch. What could be better?
Fregola salad with green beans, raisins and mint
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
¼ cup pine nuts, sliced almonds or chopped pecans
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 ½ teaspoons salt
12 ounces skinny green beans, wax beans or haricots verts, ends trimmed
1 pound fregola pasta, Israeli couscous or whole wheat orzo
1 cup small raisins or currants
1 pint fresh shelled peas or 2 cups thawed frozen tiny peas
2/3 cup chopped fresh chives
½ cup freshly packed sliced mint
1. Put the nuts into a small nonstick skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring and watching them closely, until barely golden, 1 or 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.
2. Finely grate the zest from the lemons into a small bowl. Juice the lemons into the bowl. Stir in the olive oil, garlic and salt.
3. Heat two large pots of salted water to a boil. Add the beans to one of the pots; boil uncovered until tender-crisp and bright, about 5 minutes. Drain; let cool. Add the fregola to the other pot; boil, stirring often, until al dente, about 10 minutes. (Alternatively, cook couscous or orzo according to package directions.)
4. Meanwhile, put raisins and peas in bottom of a large mixing bowl. Drain the pasta well when it's done; pour it over the raisins and peas. Let stand a few minutes without stirring to let the heat of the pasta warm the raisins and peas.
5. Pour the lemon juice dressing over the pasta; toss well to mix. Stir in the cooked beans and herbs. Toss to mix. Sprinkle with the toasted nuts. Serve while still warm.
Per serving: 438 calories, 14 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 70 g carbohydrates, 11 g protein, 483 mg sodium, 7 g fiber.
Grilled vegetable gratin with olives and basil
Prep: 45 minutes
Cook: 1 hour
1 ½ pounds small potatoes, scrubbed clean
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
3 pounds medium eggplant, small zucchini or yellow squash (or a combination)
2 medium red onions
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
4 large ripe tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 cup sliced pitted green olives, such as Castelvetrano, or fresh, cured green ripe olives
1 cup loosely packed, thinly sliced fresh basil, plus more basil, chopped, for sprinkling
5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1. Prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in a large pot of boiling salted water until nearly tender, about 15 minutes. Drain. When cool enough to handle cut into 1/4-inch thick slices; salt them lightly.
2. Slice the eggplants and/or zucchini lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick slabs. Cut the onions into 1/4-inch wide slices. Put the slices onto a baking sheet (taking care to keep onion slices intact). Brush vegetables on all sides with olive oil; sprinkle lightly with salt.
3. Grill the sliced vegetables, working in batches if necessary, in a single uncrowded layer directly over the heat, turning once, just until they are golden and tender, 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a baking sheet to cool.
4. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Reserve enough tomato slices for a top layer. Layer the remaining tomato slices, potatoes and grilled vegetables in the baking dish. Sprinkle some of the olives, sliced basil and garlic between the layers. Finish with a layer of the reserved tomatoes.
5. Bake until piping hot and tender, about 45 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the chopped basil. Cut into squares; remove carefully from the pan with a flexible spatula. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Per serving: 259 calories, 10 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 41 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 380 mg sodium, 10 g fiber.