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Nine Fantastic and Inexpensive Summer Recipes Using Fresh Seasonal Foods
For me, the best part of summer is the seemingly endless variety of fresh produce. It’s everywhere, from gardens to CSA baskets, from farmers markets to family gardens, from roadside stands to your local grocery store. The variety of produce available this time of the year is out of this world – and the best part is, it’s cheap!
This time of the year, almost every meal we put on the table is centered around fresh vegetables. We prepare a wide variety of vegetables in a wide variety of ways, ensuring that there’s always something interesting to eat.
We collect those vegetables from all over the place. We have three different small gardens that are teeming with vegetables, as well as neighbors that we often swap vegetables with. We’re also members of a CSA, which places a basket of fresh vegetables on our front step each week. If that doesn’t give us enough, we hit up roadside stands in the area as well as the weekly farmers markets, five of which are within 10 miles of us.
In short, we’re flooded in cheap vegetables. While we do freeze some of the produce, we also constantly look for ways to use them in interesting ways while they’re fresh.
Of course, there’s another factor: We have children. While they’re pretty adventurous eaters, they still like the routine of familiar foods and often repeatedly request dishes that they like.
This article is simply a listing of nine dishes that fulfill all of those requirements.
One, they use a lot of fresh vegetables that appear in the summer months at low prices. The inexpensive fresh summer vegetables available around here includes a wide variety of things, from tomatoes to sweet corn and from root vegetables to bell peppers and countless other things as well.
Two, they are easy and relatively quick to prepare. Nothing in this entire article requires a ton of preparation time. Most take less than half an hour.
Three, they are flavorful, but not monotonous. These recipes are all tasty, but there’s a lot of variety from recipe to recipe. You’re not going to be eating the same old tired pile of food each night.
Finally, they all earn a seal of approval from at least the majority of our family. That includes two adults, a nine year old, a seven year old, and a five year old, all with different food preferences.
Let’s dig in.
Easy Grilled Root Vegetables
This is about as easy as possible. Just take whatever root vegetables you have easy and inexpensive access to – potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, kohlrabi (yes, it’s not a root vegetable, but it basically acts like one), turnips, onions, and so on – and dice them into 1/2″ cubes. You can either combine them into one mix or keep them separate, your choice (though beets will color everything into a reddish-purple color if you mix them). I usually mix onions with the potatoes, for example.
Take out a piece of aluminum foil and spray it with a bit of olive oil, then make a pile of the vegetables in the center of the foil. Add an ice cube, a bit of salt and pepper, and maybe a small pat of butter (totally optional, but I like it in particular with the turnips), then wrap the vegetables in the foil to make a flat packet. If you need more foil, add another layer to the packet so that the vegetables are all well covered.
Take this packet and toss it on a preheated grill and leave it over medium heat for 20 minutes, flipping at about the halfway point. This is one of those things you’ll have to check regularly, as there is a lot of variance in packet size and grill heat. Just pull the packet off, open it up, and check for doneness – ideally, the vegetables are somewhat browned but deliciously soft in your mouth, with the softness being the most important factor.
I would eat vegetables prepared like this every single night if it were possible.
If you want to experiment a little, try adding some minced garlic to the packs, as that will add some additional flavor. You can also try out herbs that match well with the vegetables – I’ll often put chives in with the potatoes, for example. I love trying different root vegetables with different flavorings, like adding some honey to the carrots. I even like doing things like chopping up an apple and making an apple packet for dessert or adding some apple slices to the turnips.
Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes
Again, this recipe is the height of simplicity. Just take a few fresh tomatoes from your garden, cube them into small pieces (depending on how big you want the pieces to be in your pasta), then add a few teaspoons of olive oil to the tomatoes and heat them just a bit in a saucepan, not enough to really cook them down but to bring out a bit of flavor.
If you want more flavor, chop up an onion into small pieces, add some olive oil to that, then cook the onion over high heat until the onion is translucent and slightly caramelizing, then remove it from the heat and add the tomatoes at that point, letting the residual heat warm up the tomatoes.
While you’re doing that, just boil up whatever your preferred kind of pasta is, drain it, and serve it, putting the tomato mix right on top (or mixing it in with the pasta, whatever your preference is).
This is such a fresh and delicious meal. Pasta does a wonderful job of providing a backdrop for the delicious flavors of fresh tomatoes.
We often serve this with a salad of fresh greens from our garden. In fact, just the other night, we made a simple salad dressing out of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and some fresh berries we picked… it was delicious!
Another tip: if you have an extra ear or two of already-cooked corn on the cob, cut off the kernels and add them to the tomatoes. They go hand in hand together for a delicious meal.
Grilled Corn Medallions
Sure, you can grill corn by just tossing the whole ear on the grill (whether husked or not), but I find that these medallions make an interesting twist.
All you do is slice a shucked ear of corn into one inch thick discs, then soak them in olive oil for a little while. I usually season the olive oil with some garlic and a bit of black pepper. You can try lots of additional flavorings if you’d like – anything from lemon pepper to paprika to Parmesan cheese.
Then, fire up your grill over medium-high heat and toss the medallions on there. Flip them every few minutes until the kernels on the edge of the medallions just begin to char, then pull them off and fill up a bowl with them.
These little discs have a wonderful flavor that isn’t really matched by a full ear. The flavor is caused by greater exposure of the kernels to the heat, which means they’re cooked more thoroughly down near the base of the kernel. They’re also really easy to eat as a finger food and complement almost every meal.
You can even make them sweet by tossing them with some honey and grilling them, making them a delicious sweet side or even a dessert.
Zucchini/Summer Squash Chips
Take a zucchini and/or a summer squash or two and slice them as thinly as you can, making lots of little thin round discs. Take those discs, pat them dry, then toss them in a mixture of a cup of olive oil, some salt, and some black pepper.
Take the discs out of the olive oil and lay them flat on a baking sheet. Sprinkle some additional black pepper on the top or whatever flavorings you’d like – we’ve made them with paprika sprinkled on them, cayenne pepper, even a cheesy popcorn seasoning.
Toss the baking sheet in the oven (preheated to 450 F) for 25 minutes. Check and see if the chips look golden brown and, if not, cook for another five to 10 minutes. Pull them out, let them cool, and enjoy!
If you make thinner chips, they don’t take quite as long to cook and tend to be really really crisp. If you make them a bit thicker, they’ll take longer and won’t be quite as crisp, but they can easily hold some dip. Either way, they’re delicious.
You can make these with any root vegetable as well – really, any firm vegetable works, as do firm fruits like apples. Yes, apple chips, though you may want to season them a bit differently (try cinnamon).
In the summer, we tend to have lots of peppers, tomatoes, onions, and other such things coming in out of the garden all of the time and we often want to use them for quick lunches that the kids will love. This is one of our go-to options.
We take some bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes and dice them very thinly, sometimes adding a bit of cilantro and salt to the mix. This makes something similar to a salsa except without the chunks. We usually dry the tomatoes a bit as we’re dicing them to make the “salsa” nice and thick.
Then, we take a tortilla, spread some of this mix on one side of it, then sprinkle some cheese on top of the mix. We fold this tortilla in half, then either toss it on the grill or in a skillet over medium-high heat for just a minute or two, flipping it halfway through. Our goal is simply to warm up the “salsa” and melt the cheese a little.
This ends up being delicious, as the outside of the tortilla gets a little crispy and the cheese on the inside melts. This makes me hungry just thinking about it!
If you want to experiment, try adding other vegetables to the “salsa.” I love mixing in some avocado, for example, and any and all hot peppers are always welcome on my palate.
Baked Root Vegetable Fries
If you’re like us, you’re probably flooded in kohlrabi, beets, carrots, and many other root vegetables. I don’t want to even guess how many pounds of turnips we’ve had in our house in the last week or two.
One great solution is to use them for the same thing many of us use potatoes for – fries! This really works for any root vegetable – turnips, kohlrabi, beets, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and so on. Just be sure to avoid the cores on some of the root vegetables (like parsnips) – if you’re unfamiliar with the vegetable, do a bit of research on it.
Just cut up two pounds of root vegetables into the shape of fries. It’s easy – just peel them (and that’s optional), then cut the vegetable by both length and width, leaving a bunch of square fries. At that point, I pat them thoroughly with paper towels to dry them a bit.
Then, toss them in olive oil with the flavoring of your choice – I like to add a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of lemon pepper and a teaspoon of black pepper.
Then, I toss them into a few eggs that I’ve beaten to get an egg coating on them, then I toss those egg-coated fries-to-be in some bread crumbs (just let some bread dry out and pulverize it in a blender). I lay these fries out on a baking sheet and bake them at 400 F for about 40 minutes.
These are a wonderful way to use lots of root vegetables and make a very finger-friendly food that works as a surprisingly flavorful accompaniment to grilled meat or veggie burgers.
This is a “kitchen sink” recipe that we use to take care of whatever vegetables we have on hand. You can basically put anything into this and have something tasty.
I’ve actually written a full post about ratatouille before, where I describe multiple different ways of making it, but I’m just going to stick to the easy one here. (The “hard” one was Julia Child’s method, which was mind-blowingly delicious but took a lot more work.)
With the “easy” method, you just slice a lot of vegetables into disc shapes, then sort them by their hardness. I usually put them on separate plates and saucers and line them up, with the “hardest” vegetables closest to a big skillet.
Then, I add a bit of olive oil to a skillet, turn the heat up to medium high, and start adding vegetables. I add the hardest ones first, let them cook a bit, then add another one. The goal is to get everything done approximately at the same time, so what I usually do is get the hardest ones mostly done (like potatoes, for instance) and then add the soft ones rapidly at the end, just giving them enough time to get nice and hot.
Along the way, I’ll add dashes of salt and pepper, and I usually add some minced garlic early on.
This smells amazing when it’s cooking. The whole house smells wonderful and the dish usually has a unique and rich flavor and has something for everyone in it.
So, what’s the “hard” method like? You simply cook each vegetable individually until they’re just shy of being done and then lay them out in a lidded casserole dish, making layers of vegetables. Then you simply bake this casserole for a fairly short time to allow the flavors to combine. This takes a lot of work, but I love it as more of an early autumn “harvest” meal.
‘Kitchen Sink’ Stir Fry
This is another “kitchen sink” recipe that works with almost anything you have on hand.
Just take those vegetables and chop them into thin slices or shell them as appropriate. I usually make two bowls of vegetables – one full of “hard” vegetables like onions and peppers and one with “soft” vegetables like tomatoes and peas.
We’ll start cooking some rice and then we’ll take a large skillet (or a wok), add a bit of oil, and turn the heat up high. Toss in the “hard” vegetables and let the heat do its work, caramelizing them a bit.
I usually judge this step by the onions – I’ll add the “soft” vegetables when the onions are translucent and just starting to brown a little bit. I then cook the “soft” vegetables for just a minute or two, then I pull the whole thing off. If you’re using a sauce, add it at this point and toss it thoroughly, then serve it with the cooked rice.
Much like the ratatouille, I love this dish because it winds up with unique flavors each time you cook it, depending on the vegetable choice and the varieties that you use.
You can “pickle” almost any reasonably firm vegetable, from cucumbers to root vegetables and even things like squash. All you need is a well-sealed container, water, vinegar, salt, and maybe some flavorings like garlic cloves or peppercorns.
All you need to do is cut your vegetables up into fry-shaped batons or into discs. Then, mix three cups of water, one cup of vinegar, and half a cup of salt. Fill your container about halfway with vegetables, add anything you might want for additional flavoring such as peppercorns or garlic cloves, then add the liquid on top until the vegetables are covered by at least a fingernail’s depth of water.
Cover the container and put it in the refrigerator for a week. You’ll have pickled vegetables within just a few days.
When I first did this, I stuck mostly with cucumbers and onions, but I learned before very long that this procedure worked well with lots of vegetables. I love doing this with turnips and kohlrabi now and simply having a container of them in the fridge is one of the rites of summer.
In the end, the key is to just try cooking fresh produce in lots of different ways and see what works for you. Don’t be afraid of a vegetable you haven’t tried before – take it home and just try some simple recipe with it, whether it’s one of these or something else.
For me, a fresh vegetable that I’m unfamiliar with that’s on sale is an opportunity. It’s a low-cost way to figure out if I like something and, if so, to add it to that ever-growing list of things that I like and that I know how to prepare and that might someday find a place in our family garden.
Just try it. Don’t be afraid. Remember, the worst possible outcome is one meal that you don’t like very much. The good outcome? You’ve found a new food that you love and can’t wait to try again. That’s always a great reason to try new dishes and new ingredients.
May the smells of freshly-cooked summer vegetables fill your kitchen and dining room!