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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A selection of produce at Bryden's Market in Hixson.

Like many area residents staying close to home these days, Doris McNabb, 67, says she and her husband, Larry Pinkard, have "cooked more in the last few months than we've cooked in several years."

Although they haven't opened their business, 4 Way Produce in Ringgold, Georgia, this year, fresh fruits and vegetables are mainstays at mealtime during the summer. In the off-season, they can feast on some of the foods Pinkard cans as crops come in, including tomatoes and green beans.

"He does a lot of canning," says McNabb.

Experts say canning could be making a comeback as Americans hunker down during the coronavirus pandemic. According to NPD BookScan, which tracks book sales among major retailers, Americans have been reading more how-to books about container gardening and food preservation techniques amid uncertainties about the food supply.

Books are great, but novice cooks might also consider going to the source for advice on the fresh foods they buy. Owners of produce stands can usually give a quick tutorial on how to prepare the seasonal fruits and vegetables you're picking up. Their likely favorites are foods they've grown up with or recipes they know by heart. It may not be fancy fare, but these days, simple pleasures can be a great source of comfort.

Better yet, if you're not proficient in the kitchen, simplicity is the best way to learn your way around. Modern kitchens may be filled with an array of gadgets, but previous generations could whip up sustenance using just a few saucepans and skillets.

Tyler Swafford, whose family owns American Pride Produce Market in Dayton, Tennessee, says one of the easiest recipes he'd suggest is fruit salad.

"Just get bananas and oranges and apples, cut them up and mix them together," he says. "You can add in blueberries and strawberries, whatever you like."

The fruits will create their own juices, and you can top the mixture with a store-bought whipped cream or blend it into yogurt.

Another go-to for fresh summer fare is sweet corn cooked on the grill. He leaves the ears in their husks and browns the husks on all sides on medium heat.

"It won't take too long, and get some tongs so you can keep it turning it so it's not burned," he says.

He also likes to wrap slices of onion, yellow squash and zucchini together in a packet of aluminum foil on the grill. Before closing the packet, add butter and seasonings such as salt and pepper.

"You cook it all together wrapped up in aluminum foil," he says. "That's an easy meal."

Swafford also recommends specialty breads to elevate classics such as a grilled cheese sandwich or french toast. American Pride carries several specialty breads, made from a sourdough base by a Mennonite cook who delivers fresh loaves twice a week.

"We have sourdough wheat and white bread, along with apple bread, which is really good for french toast, and banana nut, cranberry, pumpkin, jalapeno."

The jalapeno bread gives a grilled cheese sandwich a nice kick, he says.

McNabb says she comes from a long line of gardeners, so fresh produce is a regular part of her cooking repertoire.

Fried squash is a favorite for her and Pinkard. McNabb says they slice yellow squash into discs, lightly coat the pieces in a mix of flour and cornmeal, then fry it in a hot skillet with oil.

They just can't agree on how long to fry it. "I like mine really brown," McNabb reports. "My husband likes his not so very brown."

Pinkard also likes boiled cabbage. McNabb says she usually boils it in maybe a half cup of water, with a little salt, pepper and bacon grease added for flavor.

"You don't need a lot of water, just enough to keep it from scorching," she says. "It makes its own water as it cooks."

McNabb says she likes these old-time methods passed down through generations of her family.

"Old folks, way back, they always cooked like that," she says.

Michielle Bryden, owner of Bryden's Market in Hixson with husband Aaron, says they're big fans of tomatoes and squash and zucchini during the summer.

They often take home the less attractive produce that hasn't sold.

"I've raised my family on things other people would reject," she says, laughing. "There's nothing wrong with it. You just have to cut out the bad spots."

***

Here are two favorite family recipes from Michielle Bryden. The tomato pie is compliments of her sister-in-law, Cindy Bryden-Davis.

 

Key Lime Cake

1 box Betty Crocker lemon cake mix

1 small box lime Jell-O

Buttermilk

Key lime juice

Powdered sugar

In large bowl, add cake mix and the Jell-O powder. Add remaining ingredients as listed on cake box, BUT use buttermilk instead of water. Bake as directed in 9- by 13-inch pan. When done and while hot, poke holes all over the cake (the handle of a wooden spoon works well). Mix 1/2 to 2/3 cup Key lime juice with 3 to 4 tablespoons powdered sugar. Pour over cake while still in pan. Let cool, and frost with cream cheese frosting. Refrigerate overnight.

Don't have a recipe for cream cheese frosting? Here's one from BettyCrocker.com to add to your files when making this cake.

 

Cream Cheese Frosting

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups powdered sugar, plus more as needed

In large bowl, beat softened butter and cream cheese with electric mixer on medium speed 2 to 3 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally, until smooth and creamy.

Stir in vanilla, then stir in powdered sugar. Add more powdered sugar as needed until frosting is a thick spreadable consistency.

Spread or pipe frosting on cooled cake or cupcakes.

 

Tomato Pie

1 deep-dish, ready-made pie crust

2 medium tomatoes, sliced and juice drained

1 medium chopped onion

2 ounces freshly chopped basil (more if you like)

1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated

1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/2 cup mayonnaise

Partially bake pie crust according to directions. Layer half of tomatoes, onion and basil. Then repeat with with remaining tomatoes, onion and basil.

For the topping, mix cheeses and mayonnaise. Spread evenly on top of pie.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place pie pan on a cookie sheet, and bake for 45 minutes or until golden brown.

Email Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com.

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