Being a cook, and a lover of food who can whip up a meal from just about anything, gives friends, clients, and neighbors the green light to hand off all manner of food-related items that they can’t use. This is a total blessing for me, as there’s always room in my fridge for more. The items passed along, preceded by the question, “Can you use this?”, are generally quite reasonable: a jar of coconut oil that’s never been touched, a chicken carcass that I can use to make broth, homegrown ginger and herbs, a couple handfuls of dried chilies to lighten the load, an entire pint of Zatar seasoning from a ginormous bag, etc. Adam and I are typically operating on a shoestring budget, so gifts of food/ ingredients are much appreciated, and it’s fun for us to find a way to utilize the loot at hand.
Last week, I got a call from my friend, Matt, who said he had some stuff from his mama’s garden that he’d like to pass along to me before heading out of town. I know Matt’s mama, Gustave, and her produce is consistently amazing. So, I jumped at the opportunity to get my hands on her fruits and veggies. When I arrived at Matt and Star’s house, this is what I found.
Holy toledo! Three giant bags of okra, two huge bags of mixed peppers and a small bag of jalapenos, and a slew of pears picked from a tree that Matt planted twenty years ago. Exciting bounty, but omg, that’s a lot of food! You know I love to eat, but not even I could stomach all of this before it went bad. So, I sent out a message to all of my neighborhood peeps, and a few came to the rescue. My girlfriend even instituted a Hops for Crops program- making an excellent and most delicious trade of hoppy beer for bags and bags of produce. Another friend, a self-proclaimed non-cook, acted as the neighborhood Pepper Fairy, delivering the goods to a couple men with a passion for pickling. And then she went home and surprised the heck out of herself by quickly transforming a bunch of the firey peppers into a vat of hot sauce,
and just a few hours later, she baked up a batch of jalapeno poppers. This lovely lady was inspired by the beautiful goodness at hand, and that brought a huge smile to my face.
Meanwhile, Adam and I incorporated those peppers into everything we could imagine, including our own tongue-melting hot sauce, salsa, a game day hot dog topper, and a fire-roasted vinaigrette, using peppers Adam cooked over charcoal and then peeled.
I also featured the peppers in marinades, quesadillas, cheese sauce for homemade tortilla chip dippin’, and this pretty pot of tomato, pepper, and pear soup.
You know, as luck would have it, I had just visited the Decatur Farmers Market two days prior to Matt’s phone call. What do you think I bought there???
Ring o’ fire peppers,
sweet red peppers,
and okra, of course!!!
The market was overflowing with late summer goodness
and some very special treats.
Concord grapes!!! Never in my life have I enjoyed grapes that tasted like real grape juice. It was an intense and brand new experience for my taste buds!
With a fridge AND cooler full of fresh fruits and veggies, you know we did a lot of cooking. And eating.
And, of course we took a few photos along the way. So, today I share with you…
Tomato, Pepper, and Pear Soup with Fresh Corn and Okra Johnny Cakes.
For the soup:
6 -8 medium to large tomatoes
1 pint grape tomatoes
1 Vidalia or other sweet onion, diced
8 – 10 cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
4 sweet peppers and a handful of hot peppers (Use bell peppers if you like, skip the hot ones if you want….up to you!)
2 or 3 pears or apples, peeled and diced
3 T butter
3 T flour
3 Cups milk, heated
5 Cups chicken or vegetable broth
juice of a lemon
pinch of sugar, plus salt, pepper, and seasoning of your choice
To get started, bring a large pot of water to boil and make an X in each of your large tomatoes.
Cut your small tomatoes in half.
When your water is boiling, add the large tomatoes, and let them swim for about 2 minutes. When you see the skins cracking, remove the tomatoes to a bowl of ice water.
From there, you can very easily peel the skins away from the tomatoes.
Meanwhile, to start the soup, place a large, heavy pot over medium heat and add your 3 T butter.
When the butter melts, add the onions and a pinch of salt.
Allow the onions to soften, stirring now again, for about 5 – 7 minutes. During that time, get your flour ready, heat your milk, and grab a sturdy whisk. You’re going to make a roux!
Add your garlic and turn your heat up to medium high, stirring for about 30 seconds, until the garlic becomes fragrant.
Working quickly, add your flour and stir for one full minute. Your onions and garlic will become a ball of floury-ness. That’s a good thing. Then, begin to add your milk, a little bit at at time, stirring all the while to incorporate the milk gently into the floured aromatics. Once you’ve got all the milk in the pot, let it come to a good bubble- stirring, stirring, stirring. Next, add your broth. Stir the liquid in and then let it come up to a boil as well, stirring occasionally. Season with the juice of a lemon, a couple pinches of salt and pepper, and a good pinch of sugar.
You can turn the liquid down to medium and let it hang out while you cut your peppers, pears, and tomatoes if you haven’t done that ahead of time.
I like to cut the peppers in half lengthwise, and then strip the seeds from each one.
Caution!! If you are using hot peppers, you may want to don some gloves. Adam’s hands were on fire for a few hours after this de-seeding process.
Sir in your tomatoes and peppers, and add your pears as well.
Allow the fruits and veggies in broth to come up to a simmer over medium heat, and then you can turn the heat down to medium low. Let the soup do its thing for at least 30 minutes. The flavors need to meld together.
*You can add any kind of seasoning you like when you add the tomatoes to the pot. If you want to make this a curried soup, add curry powder. You could add Italian seasonings or cumin and chili powder to give it a Mexican flare. You could make a bouquet garni and float that in the liquid while it simmers. It’s totally up to you.
We chose to keep our soup very simple and straightforward and just let the produce itself sing.
After simmering the soup for 30 minutes to an hour, grab your immersion blender or your food processor, and puree away.
Then check your soup’s flavor and adjust seasoning to your liking. Our soup was pre-ty hot! So, I added a little honey to sweeten her up a bit.
With the flavor just right, you can continue to simmer as long as you like, allowing the soup to continue to thicken on the stove over low heat. Or, you can serve it right away.
*If you want your soup to be soup-er smooth (haha), you can run the whole lot of it through a sieve with tiny holes.
A grilled cheese or quesadillas or fresh bread would make perfect dunkers for this soup. But, I had okra and corn to use, and I’ve been trying to work out these Fresh Corn and Okra Johnny Cakes in my head for quite some time now…
Last year, at okra time, we made okra fritters and I wasn’t really happy with the results,
although Adam and our friends enjoyed them thoroughly.
I wanted more of an okra laced corn pancake. And after several failed attempts, I have mastered these babies. Soooo yummy!!!
For the Fresh Corn and Okra Johnny Cakes:
2 Cups corn meal (mine was fine and organic)
2 t baking powder
3 cloves garlic, pressed
1 1/2 Cups milk
1/4 Cup water
2 1/2 T honey (Use less honey if you are against sweetened corn bread!)
1 ear fresh corn, kernels stripped off the cob
6 – 10 pods fresh okra, sliced very thinly at the last minute
good couple pinches salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Mix your dry ingredients with a fork, and then add the honey, garlic, milk, and water, and stir to combine. It’s okay if you see a few lumps. Taste and adjust your seasoning to your liking.
You can let the batter rest in that stage for a bit, so you have time to strip the kernels from the cob and slice your okra.
Add corn and okra to the batter and heat a well-seasoned cast iron skillet or a big non-stick pan with a good layer of canola or vegetable oil in the bottom to just below medium heat. You definitely want to cook these guys at a lower temperature, because the honey and corn will cause them to burn if the pan is too hot.
Use a 1/4 Cup measuring cup as your scooper, and cook up a tester cake! Employ the flat side of the measuring cup to even out the batter in the pan.
You will find that these Johnny Cakes cook up very quickly. They only take about a minute per side. As with any pancake, you’ll begin to see the bubbles form, and that’s your cue to begin loosening up the edges for a flip. Just be careful. If you try to flip too soon, your cake will come apart and make you sad.
I used a long spatula to loosen the edges and check to see if the underside was browning well. When I was able to get under the whole golden brown cake, I flipped quickly and carefully. We are working with hot oil here, so be smart and protect yourself.
Remove your tester to a paper towel lined plate, taste, and assess. You can tweak the seasoning in your batter before you proceed.
I only cooked two cakes at a time, since I found that they browned more evenly that way.
I was able to cook up quite the stack of Johnny Cakes from this batch- at least ten. You could make the cakes smaller if you wanted to, and create little silver dollar Johnny Cakes!
I finished off my soup with few thyme leaves and some freshly grated Pecorino Romano. You could certainly use basil or cilantro or any kind of herb you’ve got. A crumbly cheese like feta would be great too. Ooooh, or if you’re going the curried route, you could top the soup off with grilled or pan seared Paneer. Yum!
This meal was deeeelightful! I loved dunking my corn cakes in the soup! It read a little bit tamale to me, as the corn, peppers, and tomatoes mingled in my mouth. The flavor of the soup was layered- the tomatoes were most prevalent, followed by a hint of sweetness from the pears and honey, and each bite finished with a flare of spiciness from those awesome peppers. It was balanced and hearty without being heavy. I am so proud of the way the Johny Cakes turned out. I think I ate four in my first sitting. I appreciated the corny sweetness against the heat of the soup, and the fresh bits of corn and okra were laced evenly throughout each cake. The edges were scrips, and the texture was perfect in my opinion. They were light, and not too dense, but they were substantial as a side dish. They also froze well! I can take one out at a time to use as a dunker or even as a slice of “bread” for an open faced sammich. Success!!!
They say it’s going to get colder tonight and tomorrow as summer dwindles here in Georgia. The leaves are falling like crazy in my backyard, and I can feel that autumn is creeping up on us. I hope you’ll try your hand at making this soup (or your own version of it) along with the Johnny Cakes to utilize some of these late summer crops and warm yourself on a chilly evening.
If you find yourself with more produce than you can handle, just reach out to your friends and neighbors! They will be excited to receive a gift of freshness, and you may even inspire them to spend some unanticipated time in the kitchen, which really is good for the soul!!!
Happy cooking and eating to you,