In the current Newsweek, I have a food column about the tyranny of late summer vegetables. By this time of year, everything has gone mad – zucchini and summer squash proliferate before our very eyes, tomatoes split open on the vine before you can pick them, basil plants are as tall as small trees. In the column, I write about my mother literally chasing me down the driveway with an armload of corn she was trying to get rid of when I visited her in Mississippi in late July. And then last weekend, when I thought I’d eaten all the corn I could ever eat – at least until next summer – I found myself in Long Island where the farm stands were overflowing with the stuff.
The tyrannical part comes from the fact that we feel absolutely obliged to eat all this seasonal bounty, but Mother Nature is faster than we are. The pressure to keep up is just too much, and so is the guilt. “You can’t even feed the hungry,” says Robert Harling, my friend the playwright and screenwriter (“Steel Magnolias,” “Soapdish”). “You could try, but you’d have to do it in two days.”
Harling tells me that at this time of year the church parking lot in his hometown of Natchitoches, LA, is in a constant state of “vegetable gridlock” after Sunday services, with amateur gardeners like his father trying to pawn off bushels of okra and corn and peaches on friends not equally burdened. Corn is especially problematic, because from the moment it’s picked, the sugars begin to convert, making the kernels starchy and tough. This is why I had to accept the armload from my desperate mother. I couldn’t possibly allow her corn to meet such a tragic fate, so I dutifully cooked it as soon as I got home.
On Newsweek’s website, I include a recipe for a delicious corn and tomato dish from my good buddy Stephen Stryjewski who is the co-owner and chef at New Orleans’s exceptional Cochon restaurant. But I also love it plain, scraped raw off the cobs (a task made much easier by my excellent new “corn zipper” by Kuhn-Rikon at Williams-Sonoma) and sautéed in olive oil or butter or both, along with the chives and mint and tarragon that have taken over my herb garden.
Here, I also include the best pesto recipe I’ve ever found. It is from my mother’s good friend and neighbor who grows whole fields full of basil, much to the delight of the rest of us who anticipate her jars of pesto every summer. This stuff is so good I put it on everything. I toss it with pasta of course, but I also drizzle it on: roasted plum tomatoes or sliced raw ripe ones; summer squash sautéed with onion (the yellow and green together is gorgeous); a baby butter bean puree; any number of cold summer soups. My friend M.T. smashes it with tiny fingerling potatoes that have been steamed or roasted, which is unexpectedly delicious. The list is endless, so before Labor Day comes and goes, I urge you to try it.
Mary Lou Sandefur’s Pesto
4 cups basil leaves, removed from stem
1 ½ cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup walnuts or pine nuts
4 large cloves of garlic
1 ¼ cups extra virgin olive oil
½ to 1 tsp. salt
½ to 1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
Rinse basil leaves and dry thoroughly. Place them in the bowl of a food processor with the cheese, nuts and garlic, and pulse until mixture is ground to a paste. Add oil slowly until texture is creamy. Taste for salt and pepper and mix well.