by | Aug 31, 2015

keeping dinner simple, katrina vandenbergMinnesotans love summer like no one else I’ve ever lived among. It’s the six months of winter that does it; the 75-degree days and the lakes don’t hurt, either. My husband and I love the break from teaching; our daughter loves spending hour after hour swinging from the monkey bars at our neighborhood park. Weather permitting, we eat in our backyard every night.

To have as much time as possible to write, we try to keep dinner simple. For us, simple means shopping each weekend at the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market.

Cooking with local vegetables — which I first did fifteen years ago this summer, with the Rolling Prairie CSA in Lawrence, Kansas, — wasn’t always easy for me. At first, I didn’t know the rhythm of the growing season, or what grew where I lived. I didn’t know how to store greens, or pick out a recipe that would use up the huge pile of carrots in my fridge. So I understand when other people tell me that they’d like to cook from what they find at the farmer’s market, but it sounds like too much work. And several of the cookbooks that purport to focus on using local produce don’t exactly make it sound easy.

Here’s what changed everything for me.

  1. The phrase “What grows together, goes together.” That means, if the items are available and in season where you live, their flavors are probably compatible, and therefore they can be used in the same recipe. If you’re still unsure about whether two foods go together, you should own a copy of this book.
  2. Along with serving as a side dish, almost anything from the farmer’s market can be made into one of five things:
  • A pizza;
  • burritos or quesadillas;
  • an egg-based dish – frittata, omelet, or quiche;
  • pasta; or
  • a dinner salad.

As the weather cools in September, I knock the dinner salad from the list and add in its place a baked dish, like a casserole, and soup.

Once I learned this, planning summer meals became easy. I buy certain staples — whole wheat tortillas, eggs, pasta, a couple of different kinds of cheese, black beans, flour and yeast for pizza crust, along with meat to grill — and let the week unfold.

Two cookbooks I’ve found useful as I’ve learned to make friends with a lot of vegetables that were foreign to me:

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
by Deborah Madison
Our kitchen Bible. Her cookbook Local Flavors focuses on produce bought at farmers’ markets, but it’s only useful if you live where blood oranges and avocados are local food. See her books.

The Rolling Prairie Cookbook by Nancy O’Connor
This cookbook grew out of the weekly “In the Bag” sheets — containing recipes and other tips — that the customers at our first CSA used to receive along with their produce. The cookbook’s author, Nancy, still directs education and outreach at The Merc Co-Op in Lawrence. Every recipe is super-simple and good.

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