IN THE HEIGHT of summer, my favorite potluck dish comes from groundbreaking farm-to-table chef Jerry Traunfeld — an orzo salad loaded with aromatic basil and fresh corn cut from the cob.
This time of year? It’s the same dish, just more hothouse than hot-weather, with frozen supermarket kernels replacing those shucked ears from the farmstand. Traunfeld himself, while he wouldn’t serve the dish in March at his seasonal Poppy restaurant, absolved me of guilt when I called to ask if I was committing a culinary crime.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said, though fresh corn would give the salad a better bite. But for home use, frozen is fine for a lot of things, “if it’s appropriate.”
And by appropriate, he means “first of all, that it’s good.”
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As the drear lingers and the thought of one more parsnip or potato seems more bleak than comforting, some frozen vegetables can bring a legitimate taste of warmer weather. Forget eggplants and cucumbers, which don’t freeze well under any circumstances. But properly processed corn and peas, for instance, are often frozen immediately after they’re picked in the fields, leaving them fresher in taste and nutritional value than the ones that show up days later on supermarket shelves.
Cooking instructor Bruce Naftaly, another pioneer of using seasonal, local food at his former Le Gourmand restaurant, believes frozen peas work best.
Decades ago at a restaurant in Cornwall, England, he ate the best peas he’d ever tasted. “I embarrassed myself by singing their praises very highly and wanting to know where they came from. They told me they were frozen . . . If you freeze them right, you can preserve their sweetness, and their texture doesn’t suffer.”
Sometimes these choices come down to philosophy as much as flavor. Naftaly says, for example, that it feels like cheating to use nettles out of season, even though frozen ones make fine sauces and soups. Why are nettles different? Because “they’ve got this particular flavor and smell, and it feels like spring is happening.”
Fortunately for early foragers who share his views, this is the time when nettles generally show up in the wild. And for those who feel otherwise, harvest extra now to blanch, chop and freeze in airtight bags.
Corn, Orzo and Basil Salad
Makes 10 servings
½ medium red onion, finely diced
¼ cup white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons kosher salt
¾ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
8 ounces orzo pasta
5 cups frozen corn kernels
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced into ¼-inch pieces
1½ cups torn leaves of sweet basil or lemon basil
1. Stir together the red onion, vinegar, lime juice, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Let it sit while you continue with the recipe, allowing the acidic ingredients to mellow the raw bite of the onion.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the orzo and when it is just tender, after about 8 minutes, add the corn to the pot. Cook until the water boils again, then drain in a colander and rinse with cold water.
3. Stir the olive oil into the bowl with the dressed onion. Toss in the pasta and corn, red pepper and basil until evenly combined. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving.
— adapted from “The Herbal Kitchen” by Jerry Traunfeld
Rebekah Denn is a Seattle food writer and regular contributor to The Seattle Times’ All You Can Eat blog. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.