Steve Haas od HaaShrooms says the heat hasn't dried up his mushroom supply. Photo by Isaac Harrell
Humidity hasn't factored into the misery of this summer because it's been so unbearably, unrelentingly hot. Moist air is beside the point when each time you open the door to go out, you're blown back by the oven blast of hell's fiery inferno that is Richmond in the summertime.
During a visit to the Byrd House Market in early July, the farmers look like wrung-out washcloths. They aren't as enthusiastic as they were in the springtime, and you can tell they're in the middle of the hard slog to autumn.
Despite the heat, the plants keep growing. "When it's 100 degrees, nothing likes it," says Autumn Campbell of Tomten Farm in Prince Edward County, "but [the fruits and vegetables are] still coming in." They grow a little more slowly, but heat-loving plants like tomatoes, eggplant, green beans and peppers are in abundance here, in other farmers markets and in plenty of backyards.
"I have lots of melons," says Amy Hicks of Amy's Garden in Charles City County. "Next week, they'll be gone, and I'll have lots of tomatoes." She doesn't even want to talk about eggplants. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who claims them as a favorite. "Put them in a dip — make baba ghanoush. Grill them!" Hicks says.
"There's always eggplant Parm," volunteers a customer.
There's also ratatouille, which, not so coincidentally, uses all of the prime suspects of summer: tomatoes, zucchini, peppers — and eggplants. "It's a great thing to make in the summertime," says Campbell. It also helps to get rid of that other bane of vegetable gardening — zucchini.
"I don't like large squash," she says, but inevitably, some of those plants are going to get away from you. The solution? "Grate them up, drain them in a bowl with a little salt, and then mix that with cheese and egg and make little patties," says Campbell. "These are great when you're sick of ratatouille." Fry the patties in a spoonful of olive oil and offer them as an appetizer or as a side dish.
Out in the woods, the mushrooms are growing, too. The most important thing for their survival is moisture. Steve Haas of HaaShrooms says, "We go wherever the rain goes — we're rain chasers." Though based along River Road in Goochland County, he forages statewide and hasn't seen the heat slowing down varieties like boletes, chicken-of-the-woods or chanterelles. He grows other domesticated varieties such as shiitakes and portobellos indoors, so they aren't affected by the weather. Melt a little butter, add some garlic and throw the bounty you scored at the market into the pan and sauté to a golden goodness, and you have the perfect accompaniment for that steak you just pulled off the grill.
The dimpled darlings of the farmers market are peaches and berries. The strawberries are gone, but blackberries are in full swing and so, too, are those ambrosial peaches. Because of the unusual weather this summer, "we may have fall-bearing raspberries early this year," says Agriberry's Travis Brace. "As long as it stays dry, the heat is OK [for fruit]." Blackberries from the Hanover County farm are extra big, and although they're great macerated with sugar and ladled over ice cream or baked up in a cobbler, I asked Brace how he likes to prepare them. "My favorite way? Warm off the vine, as you wander through the fields grabbing handfuls of them."
As I left the market, I realized that it was up to all of us to help these poor farmers out and take some of the excessive amounts of produce off their hands. If they're willing to go out and pick it in this heat, the very least we can do is eat it.
Below you'll find a recipe that not only makes use of the prolific eggplant, it's quick enough for a weeknight meal and tastes nothing like ratatouille.
Spicy Eggplant and Tomato with Poached Eggs
Reprinted with permission from Very Fond of Food: A Year in Recipes by Sophie Dahl, ©Ten Speed Press, 2012
1 large eggplant
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika
1 cup of chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon of tahini
1 teaspoon of brown sugar
A splash of white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
A handful of chopped fresh parsley
Cut the eggplant into bite-sized chunks and soak them for about 20 minutes in a bowl of cold water with a few large pinches of salt. Drain, rinse and pat dry.
In a heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat a tablespoon of oil, add the garlic and onion, and cook for a few minutes until softened. Add the eggplant along with the rest of the oil, making sure the eggplant is thoroughly coated, then add the paprika and cook on a very low heat, covered, for about half an hour, turning occasionally. Add the tomatoes, tahini and brown sugar and cook for another 10 minutes, mixing it all through. Taste and season accordingly. Keep warm to the side.
Poach the eggs in a pan of gently boiling water (a splash of white wine vinegar should stop them separating). You should poach the eggs for about 3 minutes if you want them soft in the middle (5 minutes if you want them stern and unyielding).
At the last moment, add the lemon juice and parsley to the eggplant mixture. Plate in shallow bowls and place the poached eggs on top, with perhaps a hunk of sourdough to sop up the juices.