Socca Punch

Is there anything that chickpeas can’t do? They’re the Swiss army knife of legumes, seamlessly working their way into dishes sweet and savory, from breakfast to midnight snacks, as the bold feature or silent base. Fresh, dried, or ground, every form of this humble bean opens up new culinary possibilities, each more innovative than the last. Of course, many of the best preparations are those tried-and-true formulas, having withstood the test of time through the hands of countless cooks. Such is the case for socca, alternately known as farinata depending on who you ask, and is the meal-sized enlargement of the crisply fried, well-salted bar snack, panisse.

Essentially a large, thick pancake made with chickpea flour and a touch of olive oil, it could be categorized as peasant fare for its humble ingredients. However, proving that the sum is greater than its parts, the taste is fit for a king (or queen.) Legend has it that the first socca was hastily whipped up in Nice, France, while under siege from invading Turkish forces, these pantry staples were the only sustenance available. Since then, it’s come a long way, especially in this lavish seasonal twist.

“Wholesome decadence” defines my sun-kissed ode to summer, featuring peak produce picks set atop this beguiling chickpea base. No longer the food of strife, but of victory and resilience, this socca still began life as the results of a pantry raid, but could ultimately grace a table set with fine linens, should the occasion arise.

Sweet corn, stripped from the cob in crisp rows, and peaches so explosively juicy they quiver at the mere sight of a knife, tangle together in a tender nest of baby kale. A bite of minced jalapeƱo warms the palate periodically, lending gentle heat without overwhelming the delicate flavors at play. Of course, there must be tomatoes, though I’d admit the assembly might be improved with fleshy heirlooms, rather than more toothsome cherry tomatoes, if you can get them.

Then again, there’s no wrong way to dress a socca, and no bad recipe for using chickpeas. Make it count while harvests are abundant. While the season will be gone in a flash, such a deeply satisfying taste memory will last forever.

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Long-Suffering Syntax

If you’re a child of the 90’s like myself, you grew up with Looney Tunes and all the idiosyncrasies of those animated characters. Much of the “adult” insinuations went right over my head, precisely as intended by the creators, but offer curious nuggets of knowledge today.

Uttered many times by a certain conniving cat, the term “suffering succotash” comes back to me in a flash, just as quickly as summer produce proliferates in local markets. The dish itself comes from the native Americans, originally a stew of vegetables, not limited to one season at all, but Sylvester undoubtedly had nothing of the sort in mind. Supposedly a bastardization of the curse “suffering savior,” it has religious undertones that have lost their original bite today, through the current vernacular of much more harsh language.

Things sure have changed since 1910, the earliest record of its usage in print. Primed for the ridiculous by the 1940’s when these cartoons took off, it managed to fly under the radar of most conservatives, and of course by all the kids distracted by comfortingly predictable cat-and-mouse antics (or cat-and-Tweety-bird antics, as it were.)

In any event, this is all to say, words are strange, wonderful, and only meaningful if you want them to be. No matter what, you should try your hand at making succotash this season while the corn is sweet and tomatoes are plentiful. I don’t give a flying fish what you call it, either.

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Water You Waiting For?

Dramatically heaving the bag out of the kitchen with exaggerated effort, punctuating every few steps with a few groans for good measure, my dad could have won awards for that performance. “What did you put in here! Are you throwing away a pile of bricks?”

Heavy with the remains of a recently eviscerated watermelon, our garbage bin was easily overweight. Summertime trash days came with a built-in upper body workout. Though I knew he was only putting on a show, that sentiment remained along with an unintended, yet indelible sense of guilt. There was no municipal composting in my hometown nor enough knowledge on my part to make my own mulch at the tender age of 16. All I knew was that I loved watermelon, and that passion came with a lot of excess baggage in the form of rinds.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was throwing away perfectly good food, despite conventional wisdom that says otherwise. Turns out, I’m not the first to have that thought. Thrifty homemakers have been turning those scraps into pickles for centuries, particularly in the south, with a penchant for a syrupy sweet brine. One or two batches of these preserves was enough for me, but the refuse continued to amass.

Further experimentation led to greater rewards. Once cleaned of the hard outer skin and diced, the watermelon rind itself becomes almost translucent while cooking, taking on a neutral flavor much like that of simmered zucchini or any other summer squash. Perfect for bulking up a stew when the budget is lean or adding a bit more fiber that picky eaters can easily enjoy, my secret ingredient for everything savory from June to September is formerly fodder for the wastebasket.

Even now, with effortless curbside compost pickup, this “rubbish” is too good to toss. Further trials have turned out delicious results, including a delightfully crisp, crunchy watermelon rind slaw and deeply satisfying, piping-hot breaded watermelon rind fries. An easy entry into the world of watermelon rind cookery is curry, for anyone who remains skeptical. The bold spices paint any vegetable in a rich palate of warm flavors, ideal for mixing and matching any produce you might have left into the bin. Curry is my go-to answer for using up odds and ends that otherwise don’t go together, but with a bit more deliberate planning, you can craft a truly superlative stew.

Serve over rice or with chewy flatbread like naan or roti to complete the meal. You could also lean more heavily on the southern roots of these produce picks and dip a wedge of soft, sweet cornbread into the brew. No matter what, just don’t toss those rinds. They still have a lot of culinary potential left to savor.

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Greetings from Plumland

Named for the dense woodlands of tall and mighty oak trees in the 19th century, come summertime, I sometimes wonder if Oakland should be called Plumland instead. Most of those original oaks are long gone, cut down to make space for the growing city, as pavement invaded the landscape like a thicket of unrelenting weeds. Now it seems like the dominant flora comes in the form of plum trees.

Sprouting along sidewalks and leaning over backyard fences, as if peeking out to say hello to passersby, they go largely unnoticed through much of the year. Just another leafy plant, unremarkable from the next, you might never notice their silent invasion… Until summer hits.

Like the flip of a switch, buds blossom and transform into fruit overnight. Suddenly, fruit begins pelting the streets below with splatters of tiny plum grenades, painting them with a sticky patchwork of yellows, reds, and purples. Even for those with a voracious appetite for the juicy stone fruits, it can feel like a plum-pocolypse, or plum-demic this year, I suppose.

Friends from all corners of the city have been foisting their excess upon me at every turn. Make no mistake, I’m not complaining about such kindness; it’s a truly wonderful problem to have too many locally grown, organic, impeccably fresh plums. I just sometimes kick myself for accepting another five pounds or so, while I still have at least as much threatening to over-ripen in the fridge.

After making a few rounds of plum jam, peppered plum sorbet, a luscious brown sugar plum crisp, Plum Good Crumb Cake, and indulged in untold plain plum snacks, I turned to my reliable Facebook family for help. Suggestions poured in as fast as the fruit, but what really stood out was a suggestion from Craig Vanis, Chef and founder of Austin’s one and only Bistro Vonish. Drawing inspiration from his Czech heritage, he offered plum dumplings (Svestkove Knedliky) without missing a beat. Never having experienced sweet dumplings before, the mere concept was a revelation to me. I had to try it.

Butchering his recipe right off the bat, I wasted no time mangling every last ingredient until it would be completely unrecognizable to any of the chef’s predecessors. My sincerest apologies, Craig. It’s the inspiration that counts, right?

Traditionally made with a potato-based dough, purple sweet potato takes the place of a plain starchy spud for a bit more flavor and of course, a vibrant new hue. Wrapped tenderly around whole plums, it’s soft like pillowy sheets of gnocchi, melting into the juicy, sweet flesh. The pitted plums seemed so empty, so hollow and sad, I couldn’t leave them bare. Refilling the centers with whole, toasted almonds, that crunchy surprise inside added textural contrast to create a more satisfying treat.

For serving, some prefer the dumplings simply tossed with melted butter, while others might add toasted breadcrumbs, poppy seeds, cottage cheese, or my suggestion, cinnamon sugar. Since there’s no sugar in the dough, that sweet finish is just the right touch, especially if your plums have a gently tart twang.

Welcome to Plumland, where everyday is fruitful and the residents are very sweet.

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Popit! for Soba All Summer

Come July, the heat is on. Bare feet scorch on sizzling pavement and even shady trees provide little relief. The only thing that appeals for lunch is either cool, cold, or straight-up frozen. There’s no place for a hot entree on this picnic table.

Luckily, Popit! is here to help! Since both their plastic and glass containers are ideal for advanced prep, you can pull a meal, ready to eat, right out of the fridge. That means you only need to suffer the brief heat of the kitchen once to reap the rewards all week long.

When I saw the small Popit! bread box, also billed as a “lettuce container,” I must admit, I didn’t think about using it as storage for a fresh loaf or salad fixings. One thing came to mind immediately: Zaru soba.

Chilled buckwheat noodles served with a light, brothy dipping sauce is the quintessential summer dish of Japan. Served on a special tray with elevated slats, the mat at the bottom allows excess water to run off, keeping the noodles from getting soggy. With that in mind, I couldn’t see these unique rectangular boxes in any other way. It was simply too perfect to do anything but build a warm weather bento box around that eastern inspiration.

Mentsuyu, the deeply savory dip that accompanies those chewy soba strands, traditionally contains bonito dashi, or fish stock, but is easily veganized by naturally umami dried shiitake mushrooms and kombu seaweed instead. Packed away in a small Popit! snack container, it fits flush right inside the main box. There’s no risk of leakage with those airtight lids locked tightly into place. Perfect for travel and eating alfresco, it also helps prevent messy drips by keeping everything close together.

Lightly blanched spinach is served on the side for a healthy serving of dark leafy greens, enhanced by the nutty flavor of toasted sesame. Tender pods of salted edamame provide all the plant protein you could want in a fun finger food. All together, it becomes a well-balanced, refreshing, and highly versatile meal that will help you keep your cool.

Grab your chopsticks and chill out. Don’t forget to slurp for maximum enjoyment!

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Nuevo Gazpacho

Chill out. Watermelon might sound like an unconventional base for the classically tomato-red gazpacho, but it’s nothing to lose your cool over. Given a surplus of the highly perishable fruit and an oppressive heatwave to contend with, this sweet and savory mashup was inevitable.

As preferences quickly skew toward the fast, easy, and refreshing dishes, I can think of no better recipe to fit the bill. Gazpacho, no matter the color nor contents, must always be on hand for days like this, waiting in a properly chilled pitcher for instant access.

Balancing fruit and vegetables in elegant sufficiency, with a subtle bite of vinegar and fresh, verdant pop of basil, it’s an invigorating study in contrasts.

Don’t let the juicy inclusion scare you off. I promise, it’s not a vegetable-forward smoothie… Although it’s so good that you’ll still want to drink it straight from the blender.

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