The second-to-last summer Ben and I lived in the river house, our neighbors Steve and Kelly Putnam started farming an unparalleled variety of beautiful fruits and vegetables right down the road from us. When, after a wildly busy first summer season, they were ready for a break, the couple told us we were welcome to pick as much eggplant, squash, and okra as we liked before the plants died off at first frost. You would have thought they’d offered us access to an osetra caviar mine the way we were out there stuffing trash bags full of okra and eggplant before work.
Our morning gleans supplied a smoky, meaty grilled salad dressed with the first spicy arugula of fall, lemon juice, and sharp feta. It blended the end of one season with the beginning of another and made me want to grow something of my own the next year. Turns out I did, but it was babies, not vegetables.
Note: This makes more pesto than the recipe requires, and that’s a good thing. Toss the leftovers with pasta, put it on top of beans, spread it on toast, eat it with eggs, or have it on a steak. Basically, pesto of any kind is something you want to have around.
- 1 large yellow squash
- 1/2 large globe eggplant
- 16 small to medium okra, left whole
- 1 large red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, and cut into strips
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons salt
- Half a lemon
- 4 to 5 turns of the black-pepper mill
- 1/2 cup Arugula Pesto
- 1/4 cup crumbled feta
- 5 or 6 medium okra
- 1/3 cup buttermilk
- 1 garlic clove, grated on a Microplane
- 1 scant teaspoon salt, divided
- 1/3 cup cornmeal
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
ARUGULA PESTO (makes 1 1/2 cups)
- 2 cups packed arugula
- 1/3 cup packed mint leaves
- 1/3 cup packed basil leaves
- 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1/2 cup pecans or walnuts
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 scant teaspoon honey
- 1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes
- 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Make the pesto: In the bowl of a food processor, combine everything but the olive oil. Blend for about 30 seconds. Then stream in the oil while the processor is running. The end product should look like an arugula puree blended into olive oil, not sludgy or watery. It should pour nicely off a spoon. Store the pesto in the fridge till about 30 minutes before you’re ready to serve. The flavors are much better at room temperature.
Make the salad: Slice both the eggplant and the squash lengthwise down the center. Then slice that half into 1/2-inch wedges that are the length of the vegetable.
Heat an outdoor grill or grill pan over medium-high heat. In a large bowl, toss together the okra, eggplant, squash, olive oil, and salt. Grill the vegetables on both sides, or, in the case of the okra, all around, until they are cooked through and just tender. Once they’re done, I like to cool them down on a rack in a single layer to prevent steaming and further cooking. Squeeze the lemon over the top and season with black pepper while they’re still warm.
Make the okra nuggets: Slice the okra into 1/2-inch rounds. In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, garlic, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Drop the sliced okra the buttermilk and stir to coat.
In a medium bowl, stir the cornmeal, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and cayenne together. Lift the okra out of the buttermilk and dredge it in the cornmeal. Set aside.
In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, heat the oil till it shimmers when you gently shake the pan. Carefully drop the okra in the oil and fry till crisp and brown on one side. Flip it over and do the same on the other side.
Drain the okra on paper towels. It’s okay to fry these ahead of time and have them be room temperature.
To serve: Spread the pesto down on the bottom of your plate. Arrange the grilled vegetables and the roasted pepper strips on top, and finish with the feta and okra nuggets.