Photo: April McGreger
Try as I might, I cannot hate on August. I half-heartedly complain in solidarity with the masses about the stifling heat and humidity, as well as my scratchy, ragweed-irritated eyes.
But in truth, this is the time of year I long for. August means watermelons, okra, fresh corn, peppers, tomatoes, and the seasons’ first figs. I am obsessed with these sun-drenched summer vegetables. They form the basis of my food identity, shaped by the geography of my Mississppi birthplace and my family’s particular affinities.
These heat-loving vegetables are what the South grows best, and Southern cooks show a deft hand in preparing them. My relationship with them is intimate, rooted in family history. My grandfather and my father taught me to grow them in doted-on backyard gardens. I learned to prepare them and to put them away for the winter at my grandmother’s elbow.
My grandmother would often prepare a meal with as many as six different summer vegetables and serve them up with hot and crispy cornbread. I still find this food to be the best food in the world, and at least once every summer, I host an all-out Southern summer harvest feast to share these traditions with my friends. Eating them in the much the same way that my family did many generations ago is my dinner-party version of a séance.
Photo: April McGregerMy everyday reality, however, is that I live a hectic modern life in a two-person household. I have a need for simple, quick meals with a minimum of cleanup required. I have, therefore, found myself returning meal after meal to the versatile fritter.
Fritters are everywhere in the South, from street vendors selling sweet rice calas in New Orleans to the ubiquitous hushpuppy, which accompanies both barbecue and fried fish. The food scholar Jessica Harris, who has spent her life studying the culinary cross-currents between Africa and the Americas, says that wherever fritters have been perfected anywhere on the Atlantic rim, an African hand most likely had a hand on the pan.
Though an age-old culinary tradition, fritters adapt perfectly to our modern lives. They come together in a flash, are endlessly adaptable, and are a perfect medium for recycling leftovers. And they work just as well as a cocktail nibble as they do at lunch, dinner, breakfast, or even dessert, for that matter. They can be a main dish, a side, and/or the bread component of your meal. They are perfect for summer, too. For just when you just can’t bear to turn on the oven, they cook quickly on the stovetop.
I have many favorite combinations for fritters. Grated zucchini or summer squash pair well with herbs and flour or breadcrumbs. Corn cut fresh from the cob gets an extra dose of corn flavor from stone ground cornmeal. Whenever I have leftover rice in the refrigerator, they make the perfect basis for a fritter, delicious with cheese, beans, or seafood. Serve them with a simple salad or top with a dollop of chutney or sour cream.
Here are a couple of my favorites, with guidelines for making them your own.
Serves four as a main course, or eight as an appetizer
Fritters are often deep-fried, but in my version I simply pan fry them in the smallest amount of oil for a healthier, neater and more economical version. For fluffier, fancier fritters, beat the egg whites to soft peaks separately of the yolks and fold them in at the end. Leftover batter holds well in the refrigerator for a couple of days. I absolutely love these fritters with a Indian-style tomato chutney.
1 1/2 cups stone ground cornmeal (or crumbled cornbread OR cooked rice)
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4-1 cup buttermilk, or milk or yogurt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups thinly sliced okra (see suggested substitutions and other additions below)
A big pinch of cayenne
Salt and pepper
olive, safflower, or other neutral vegetable oil for frying
Measure the cornmeal and the baking powder into a medium bowl and whisk to blend. Mix in all the remaining ingredients together except the oil. Season with about 1 teaspoon of salt and a big pinch of black pepper and cayenne pepper.
Film a large skillet (or two) with about 2 Tablespoons or so of olive oil. When the pan is hot (on medium heat), drop heaping tablespoons of batter into the skillet. Cook over medium to medium low heat until dark golden brown on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook the second side. Eat while hot with salsa, chutney, or other condiment.
Substitutions: fresh corn cut off the cob, diced green tomatoes, cooked shell beans or field peas, coarsely mashed
Additions: diced hot pepper, diced onion, garlic, herbs, spices
Photo: April McGregerZucchini Fritters
Serves four as a main course, or eight as an appetizer
Fritters are easy, resilient, and flexible. Excess water from vegetables such as zucchini, however, can result in soggy fritters. We remedy that problem by salting and squeezing out the excess water before mixing it with the batter.
4 cups grated zucchini (1 ½ to 2 pounds), squeezed dry
About 1 ½ cups of bread crumbs, flour, or cornmeal
2 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, beaten
4 scallions, chopped including the greens
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 cup chopped herbs–any or a combination of parsley, cilantro, basil, mint
salt and pepper
A splash of milk or buttermilk, if needed, to give the batter a spoonable texture
Olive oil for the pan
Sprinkle about 1 ½ teaspoons salt over the grated zuchinni and set it aside in a colander to drain for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the remaining ingredients together except the oil. After 15 minutes squeeze any excess water from the zuchinni and then mix it with the batter. Season with a big pinch of black pepper. Film a large skillet (or two) with 1 Tablespoon or so olive oil. When the pan is hot (on medium heat) drop heaping tablespoons of batter into the skillet. Cook over medium heat until golden brown on the bottom. Flip and cook the second side. Eat while hot with sour cream, yogurt, or salsa verde.
Substitutions: grated eggplant, butternut squash, sweet potato, cubes of roasted vegetables
Additions: cheese, other spices or herbs, seeds or nuts.