The Short Life of Summer Produce

A few weeks ago, I was leaving my parents' house in Mississippi when I saw my normally fairly composed mother in the rearview mirror, running down the driveway wild-eyed, carrying an armload of corn. "Wait, wait, you have to take these. Please take them with you, please."

Now, I am crazy about corn, but during my four-day visit I had already consumed corn pudding, succotash (twice: once with corn and tomatoes and okra, and again with corn and baby limas), corn "fried" in bacon grease in an iron skillet, and, of course, corn on the cob (boiled and grilled, but also zapped in its husks in a microwave for a minute or so, a procedure that not only instantly steams the corn but makes it easier to remove the silks).

Still, the second refrigerator reserved for farm-stand binges and the generosity of our neighbors remained full of the stuff. I let her throw the ears in the back seat and when I got home five hours later I went to work immediately, scraping the kernels off the cob and sautéeing them in olive oil with the chives and mint that had taken over my herb garden in my absence.

Welcome to the tyranny of summer produce. Depending on where you are, by August or early September squash is falling off the vine, birds are after the figs, tomatoes and blueberries are bursting, peaches and plums shriveling. Then there are the herbs: parsley and dill are going to seed; basil and tarragon and mint are becoming impossibly leggy. The pressure to keep up with it all is just too much—and so is the guilt.

"It gets to the point where the folks selling the tomatoes at the farmers' market are like, 'Just take them—we don't even want any money,' " says Stephen Stryjewski, chef and co-owner of New Orleans's Cochon restaurant. Last summer he took so many, he ended up making 10 gallons of ketchup he still doesn't know what to do with.

Yet every year, more and more of us take the plunge and plant. The Burpee seed company reports that by the end of 2009, almost 20 percent more households will have grown their own vegetables, fruits, and herbs than in 2008, which translates into 7 million new gardeners and the biggest renaissance in "edible gardening," since World War II. Spurred on by Michael Pollan, the recession, that photo of Michelle Obama hoeing the White House plot, springtime optimism—whatever—there are now 43 million gardeners in this country.

It is no surprise that in a National Gardening Association poll taken earlier this year, 23 percent of those gardeners said they intended to share their summer crops (though I'm sure by now the number will have tripled). What they can't give away, they'll put up: sales of Ball canning jars have jumped, too, by 28 percent in the last year. This means that in addition to crazy people running after me with fresh stuff, I will also have them pressing into my hands sealed jars of corn relishes and chowchows, fig preserves and pickled green beans.

In truth, I'm not complaining. Before she laid the corn on me, I had already snagged from my mother a bag of Arkansas Travelers, which may well be the best tomatoes in the entire world, along with an exceptional jar of pesto from her neighbor who cultivates a whole field of basil. Also, while listening to my buddy Stephen bemoan the piles of produce he has tired of, I was happily ensconced at one of the tables in his restaurant enjoying a roasted corn cala (a sort of soft fritter) accompanied by a salad of heirloom tomatoes and basil; another salad of shaved summer squash, mint, and goat cheese; and looking forward to fig-and-strawberry sherbet for dessert. Some burdens, I am, in the end, happy to bear.

For the tomato salad:
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved (Or substitute 2 or 3 large ripe tomatoes, cut into a generous dice)
1 small handful basil leaves, cut in a chiffonade (thin strips)
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Combine above ingredients and toss. Adjust the seasoning to taste including th e vinegar. (We have been using vinegar that we made ourselves with the wine that sat through the hurricane. Since it's very mild in acidity, we add more then the 2 tablespoons this calls for.)
Let sit for 15-20 minutes before serving.

For the cala cake:
2 ears roasted corn, cut off cob
1 small onion diced
1 Tablespoon garlic
1 cup cooked white rice
1 bunch green onions sliced
1/2 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg lightly beaten
3/4 cup buttermilk
Salt and pepper
[Butter, lard, olive oil, vegetable oil, or canola oil for sautéing]

We roast ears of corn in the restaurant's wood burning oven and always have a few left over, but boiled ears or grilled ears would work just fine. You could even cut the corn off of the cobs, raw, and saute it with the onions.
Saute the onion and garlic (with corn, if doing it that way) in a little butter, lard, or oil, until the onion is translucent and lightly golden. Cool slightly and combine with all remaining ingredients in a large bowl and mix well.
In a heavy bottomed frying or sauté pan (preferably a well-seasoned cast iron skillet) heat about 1 ounce of fat and spoon in about 2 oz of batter per cake. They should look like plump pancakes. Cook until the edges begin to appear dry then flip and finish. To serve we simply spoon a generous helping of the tomato salad over the fritters.

Serves 4 to 6 as a first course