Chef Robert Lyford Wants to Remind Us How a Fresh Summer Vegetable Really Tastes

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The memories are so vivid, it feels like it's possible to crawl inside them. Summer sunsets, the quiet cries of cicadas in the background, tiny bursts of light from fireflies making the entire world sparkle. I can feel the grass beneath my jean shorts from evenings spent shucking a grocery bag full of fresh, late-summer sweet corn, the sound of husks being ripped from the ear. The way the silk tickled my bare legs. The smoky scent that filled the air as the grill warmed up. The juicy, bright red orbs in a countertop bowl, Mom's annual harvest from the vegetable garden. I ate those tomatoes, but did I ever really appreciate the juice that dribbled down my chin? 

So much of summer's magic disappears as time passes and the season is spent in fluorescent-lit cubicles, air conditioning replacing warm breezes. That lack of magic extends to meals. After a lifetime of shopping in grocery stores, where the pyramids of produce remain unchanged throughout the year, can anyone even remember what it feels like to bite into a fresh summer vegetable? 

Chef Robert Lyford of Patina Green Home and Market wants to change that. His summer cooking class at Luscombe Farm in Anna delves into the vegetables of the moment — not what's trendy, but what's in season.

"This is the best time of the year," Lyford says, standing in Luscombe Farms' kitchen with a spread of fresh herbs, shishito peppers, carrots and the first tomatoes of summer laid out on the counter. These tomatoes, Lyford says, will be the first fresh tomatoes he's had since last year.

"I only eat tomatoes in the summer," he says. "Why? Because they taste like a tomato."

Lyford's first class, held June 7, focused on the basics of cooking summer vegetables. As a room full of wine-sipping home cooks watched from chairs in front of the kitchen island, Lyford worked his way through the menu, answering questions and explaining the steps. He showed the room how to chop an onion, blanch a carrot, sprout wheat berries and whip up a verdant dill vinaigrette on the fly. As a teacher, he's charming and attentive, sharing recipes and answering questions kindly, even when people like me sheepishly inquire about the difference between boiling and blanching. 
He shared his favorite farms, his pimento cheese recipe, the basics of pickling, which he'll delve into at length in the next two classes. But more than anything else, he shared the magic of fresh vegetables pulled from the earth nearby. When he passed around plates of shishito peppers — sauteed whole in olive oil and butter — the room went silent as everyone tasted the bright earthiness of the peppers. 

As I left the class, I stepped out into Luscombe's picture-perfect Anna farm at sunset. Staring out at the rolling hills, I noticed a flicker from the corner of my eye. Then another, and another. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by fireflies, and I suddenly felt, in my bones, vivid childhood memories of chasing fireflies at dusk on warm summer nights. We caught them in our hands and sat in the grass, watching the world sparkle. But my memories of fireflies stop abruptly at my pre-teenage years, and I genuinely don't remember seeing one until that night, leaving Lyford's class. I don't know what's sadder — the idea that the fireflies went away or that I just stopped noticing their magic as I got older. Either way, stepping out of Lyford's class, belly full of fresh summer vegetables, I was happy to notice that magic again after all these years.

Robert Lyford's Preservation Class
: 6-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 5 and Tuesday, August 2 2016
Where: Luscombe Farm, 8649 Luscombe Farm Dr., Anna
Cost: $85; Purchase tickets for July 5 here and for Aug. 2 here

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