I had great plans for June: cherry vareniki, a peach galette, a strawberry cobbler, and maybe even a jar of gooseberry jam. I went to the market, got all of the fruits, and then proceeded to eat them raw. Several times over.
Luckily, the name of this post is seasonal eating in June, not seasonal cooking, so it still counts. Summer is about eating berries by handfuls. At least in Russia it is. In my new home of Germany I have to pace myself as every handful is a couple of euros worth. At the Nuremberg city market a kilo of strawberries goes for nine euro. For comparison, in Russia I’d pay four.
Actually, in Russia I’d pay nothing because everyone and their babushka (grandma) has a garden, a dacha as we call it, where one grows fruits and vegetables. Berries are in such abundance that you need ten-liter buckets to pick them.
Both my babushkas had dachas. Both loved digging in the ground and taking care of plants to bits. One babushka was effective and self-sufficient: all I had to do was show up and eat the berries.
However, another babushka bought a dacha in my hometown while she herself lived three thousand kilometers away. Then she told my parents that they were the lucky owners of the said dacha until she decides to move. Thus, my summer struggles have begun. I got that summertime, summertime sadness…
Maybe for someone receiving a 900-square-meters piece of land (almost 10 000 square feet) with rows of potatoes, a green house, apple trees, and plant beds is a dream come true. For nine-year-old me it was a nightmare. Oh, how I hated that dacha.
In our time of farm-to-table movement it’s easy to romanticize the idea of growing your own vegetables and fruits. At the thought of “farm-to-table” slow motion shots of caring hands picking tomatoes off the vine probably come to mind.
In reality, gardening is hard labor. Better imagine pulling weeds under scorching sun until you can’t straighten your back or hilling up soil around potatoes till your hands are covered in blisters.
There’s little room for romance, except for that #blessed moment when you are done with work for the day and finally get to sit on the porch in your dirty clothes sipping cold kvas and anticipating the ride home and the hot shower.
Some babushkas choose to live at their dachas, build a nice little house on the grounds, and tend to the garden every day, little by little. Because my parents had day jobs, we drove to the dacha on weekends in an attempt to accomplish in two days what other people did in a week.
It was brutal. I hated it. I think my parents hated it too. The difference is, a teenager gets to nag, whine, and show her frustration by any and all means available, while parents get to do this adulting thing and work their butt off without saying a word.
August was the best month of summer. August meant harvesting. It still wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, but picking fruits and vegetables is definitely more fun than pulling weeds. By the end of summer we had so much produce it was impossible to eat all of it fresh, so my mom pickled vegetables and made jam of fruits. Hundreds of jars.
Was I grateful to have fresh, organic produce on the table during summer and fall? No. Did I realize how lucky I was to eat homemade strawberry jam straight out of a jar in the middle of winter? Of course not. It was delicious, but I always thought I’d skip all that food in a heartbeat for a chance to never set foot in the garden again.
Besides, appreciation rarely comes for things that are as normal as can be. Seasonal food grown by your own hands wasn’t a hot topic, it was a way of life. We never ate tomatoes in January.
In winter, potatoes came from a place called yamka, which translates to “little whole”. Yamka is a cellar, usually located under one’s garage. It’s dark, cold, and perfect for storing vegetables until the next season. Jams and pickles magically appeared from yamka too.
I didn’t know what avocado was until the age of twenty two when I first traveled to Sri Lanka. I knew the word, but I had no idea how one eats an avocado. Which is why I bought an unripe avocado at the market and tried to bite into it as if it was an apple. For a long time I thought avocados were not my thing.
At the age of sixteen I moved to a bigger city to study in University and thus was forever freed of gardening duties. The first time my parents gave me my weekly allowance I went to the supermarket and bought everything my heart desired. I remember there was definitely salami, a bar of chocolate, and pre-packed mayo-dressed salad.
A quick run down the memory lane reveals that fresh seasonal food was in and out of my life over the past fifteen years, depending on my geographical location and financial abilities.
The five years in University, for example, were the epitome of unhealthy food choices. I lived off buckwheat, pasta, and pelmeni. On Saturdays, my roommate’s mom would come to visit with a bag full of food: salads (not the leafy kind, the meat-and-carbs-layered-with-mayo kind) and plov (Uzbek fried rice with meat) in plastic containers. Saturdays were amazing.
In Sri Lanka, I had no choice but to eat local and seasonal. International and off-season foods were hard to come by, cost one an arm and a leg, and tasted like paper. As much as I craved cheese, salami, and big meaty tomatoes, life wasn’t too shabby with all the mangoes, papayas and pineapples I had in abundance.
In the USA I learned that farm-to-table movement was a thing. The thing I grew up doing was a thing. How wild. Apparently, gardening was not reserved for babushkas; people of all ages enjoyed it. Apparently, it was cool to grow your own food. Apparently, the said food costs a fortune.
The latter was especially surprising as the whole reason of having a dacha in Russia is to save money. However, a label “farm-to-table” on the restaurant’s menu meant the prices would be just a tiny bit frightening. Ok, a lot frightening.
My American friend once confessed that, growing up, she’s never seen fresh vegetables in the house, they always came from a plastic bag in the freezer. And here I was with my years of hilling up potatoes.
I only recently learned about Alice Waters, the chef, restaurateur, and food activist who pioneered in promoting “slow food” in the USA. For Mother’s day this year (my first one!) my husband got me a subscription for Masterclass. “The Art of Home Cooking” by Alice Waters was one of the first masterclasses I watched.
Hers was not about recipes or techniques, it was entirely about the philosophy of eating fresh, organic food grown within a few kilometers from your house. “Go to the market before you decide what you want to make”. I love it. Mainly because it confirmed that the way I cook is totally acceptable. Buy anything and everything that looks good, come home and make something of it.
In Germany, where I live now, eating good food is easy. Seasonal vegetables and fruits are always front and center on the shelves, and the sign “aus der Region” clearly marks what is grown in Franconia. Watching Alice Waters explain her philosophy wasn’t revolutionary, but it was inspiring. This whole series of posts about seasonal eating month by month was born while watching Alice Waters pound greens for vinaigrette with mortar and pestle.
So what have I been eating in June? There’s not much to tell really. Summer, in my books, is the time when cooking is reduced to cutting up veggies and mixing them with olive oil. Sometimes I take it up a notch and stick the veggies in the oven. I did, however, cook a few exciting things because I knew I would have to write this piece.
The first one is fennel salad! It might not sound exciting to you at all, but I’ve never used or ate fennel before. I had to watch a YouTube video on how to prep it, much like I did with rhubarb in May.
And then I asked my readers on Instagram what to make of it and got a ton of suggestions, fennel orange salad being by far the most popular. Some add olives to it too. However, as I followed Alice Waters’ suggestion of going to the market before deciding what I want to make I ended up with a bulb of fennel, but no oranges or olives.
I did have cucumbers and radishes. I sliced everything up — I’ve just bought a mandolin, everything comes thinly sliced in this house now. Dressed my salad with vinaigrette, served it with boiled potatoes.
If you are looking for fennel inspiration here a few (dozen) ideas. I think I’ll get some oranges and try that fennel orange salad in July.
Next, I made Momofuku ginger scallion noodles. Scallions, along with dill, are some of the most commonly-used greens in Russian summer cooking. I always have a bunch in my kitchen to top off soups and salads.
Since the new crops came in to the market I wanted to make a dish where scallions would be not just a garnish, but a prominent ingredient. With two and a half cups of sliced scallions, Momofuku ginger scallion sauce is just that. The sauce is not as liquid-y as you’d expect a sauce to be, with more substance in the form of scallions and ginger, but it coats the noodles well. I added fried pork medallions on top for husband and had mine as is.
In the last days of June I squeezed in Diana Henry’s peach and lavender chicken. It is as easy to make as it is fancy to pronounce. I had to pick lavender of a random flowerbed on the street. It was either that or peach and no lavender chicken. It was delicious. I regret nothing.
Finally, the best thing I’ve made in June was Jerrelle Guy’s strawberry spoon cake. The recipe on NYT Cooking has over two thousand five star reviews. “This unfussy cake with a top layer of jammy strawberries is so gooey it’s best to serve the whole thing with a spoon” is the official explanation on NYT. I’d take it a step further and say the cake is so gooey it should be eaten straight from a baking dish with a spoon.
And that is all for June, dear ones! Can I call you “dear ones”? I hope there’ll be more exciting seasonal cooking in July, but don’t be too surprised if next month I write once again that I ate all my ingredients before I had a chance to cook them.
Now tell me: what was the most exciting thing you cooked lately? Do you like Alice Waters? Maybe you’ve been to her Chez Panisse? Did you grow up eating fresh vegetables off the plant bed or frozen from a bag? This post is written solely for chitchatting so don’t leave me hanging here!