Photos by Leigh Beisch

One good reason to live in Southern California is the wonderful climate. It has such generous weather that farmers (and simple gardeners like myself) easily grow fresh produce all year round. Come mid-September, my local Santa Monica farmers’ market and neighborhood grocery display the full glory of summer’s finale and autumn’s promise. The choices are extravagant: dozens of tomato varieties, mix-and-match peppers, Last Chance peaches, multiple corns, perfect apples. The value of this local food goes beyond full flavor and superior nutrition; it is simply soul-satisfying to connect with those who work with food. And when you carry all those wonderful fruits and vegetables into your kitchen, the inspirations of farm country land right in your own pots and pans.

Seasonal food, picked in its prime, needs only very simple preparations.

Seasonal food, picked in its prime, needs only very simple preparations; the goal is to let the fresh and distinctive flavors maintain their own fullness. When shopping at this time of year, the challenge is to not buy more than I can possibly cook. I try to contain my excitement and focus on tomatoes, peppers, corn, and apples. Here are a few things I cook during the month.

Peach and Tomato Salad
Serves 6–8 / I love these two fruits combined, and they ripen in tandem only a month or so out of the whole year. I use multiple colors of heirloom tomatoes, including yellow tomatoes, to playfully confuse the eye because they are the same color as the peaches. Any combination will be delicious as long as the fruit is juicy ripe. It looks like tomato salad, but the peach is the surprise that everybody loves.

4 tomatoes, diced large
2 peaches, diced large
2 tablespoons finely chopped sweet onion (red or scallion)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil
3 tablespoons fruity olive oil
Sea salt
Dash of freshly ground black pepper

1. Gently combine tomatoes and peaches in a serving bowl. Add onion and basil and toss lightly. In a small bowl, mix olive oil, salt, and pepper. Drizzle over tomato mixture and toss with care.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 91 calories
% fat calories: 66
Fat: 7g
Saturated Fat: 1g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Protein: 1g
Carbohydrate: 7g
Fiber: 2g
Sodium: 7mg

Pepper and Herb Stir-Fry
Serves 4–6 / Natural foods stores and farmers’ markets often carry a colorful variety of peppers, many of them mild and sweet. I like to mix the pepper colors in this dish, using supersweet red lipsticks, yellow corno di toro or banana peppers, and light green Armenian peppers. None of these are hot, but you could add the heat of a jalapeño if you like a kick.

4 each of red, yellow, and light green peppers (about 2 pounds total)
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
1 bunch fresh basil
1 bunch fresh chives
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil, or more to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Stem and seed peppers, cutting them into large 1- or 2-inch pieces. Make a rough chop of the parsley, basil, and chives. Mince garlic.

2. Over high heat, add oil to a sauté pan. Put in all the peppers at once and stir every minute or so as they cook for about 5 minutes. When they wilt slightly, add garlic, cooking 1 minute more. Toss in all herbs, salt and pepper to taste, and turn off heat. Let herbs cook from the pan heat and add the lemon juice to finish.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 139 calories
% fat calories: 44
Fat: 7g
Saturated Fat: 1g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Protein: 3g
Carbohydrate: 18g
Fiber: 5g
Sodium: 14mg

Cumin-Crusted Chicken Breasts
Serves 4 / A well-seasoned chicken dish that can be prepared quickly. It nicely sets off all the flavors of fresh vegetables, making a perfect meal with the polenta and pepper recipes.

4 tablespoons ground cumin seed
4 tablespoons ground coriander seed
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
Salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil for sauté

1. Mix cumin and coriander together in a shallow dish and dredge both sides of all four chicken pieces. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

2. In a nonstick frying pan, heat about 2 tablespoons olive oil, or less if your pan is well-seasoned. Over medium-high heat, sauté chicken on both sides until just cooked through, about 5–6 minutes per side.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 211 calories
% fat calories: 45
Fat: 10g
Saturated Fat: 2g
Cholesterol: 73mg
Protein: 27g
Carbohydrate: 1g
Fiber: 1g
Sodium: 66mg

Polenta with Fresh Corn
Serves 4–6 / There’s nothing quite like late-summer corn. This dish is a favorite with children because of its creamy mashed potato consistency.

1 cup white corn grits
2 cups reduced-fat (2 percent) or whole milk
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3 ears fresh corn, kernels removed
Butter (optional)
Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

1. In a medium saucepan, combine grits, milk, water, and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until grits become soft and creamy, about 5 minutes. Add more water if the mixture becomes too thick. Remove from heat.

2. Stir corn kernels into the cooked grits. Cover and let stand to allow heat to cook the fresh corn. Just before serving add butter, if desired, and sprinkle with parsley.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 268 calories
% fat calories: 12
Fat: 4g
Saturated Fat: 2g
Cholesterol: 11mg
Protein: 9g
Carbohydrate: 51g
Fiber: 7g
Sodium: 208mg

Cherry Tomato Bruschetta
Serves 8 / In September there’s no such thing as too many tomatoes. Here’s a little switch for bruschetta: You don’t have to chop the tomatoes. Provide small dishes so each diner has his or her own olive-oil mixture for dipping.

2 tablespoons flavorful olive oil
4 fat anchovy fillets, packed in oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3/4 cup high-quality olive oil
Dash of freshly ground black pepper
8 thick slices rustic bread, for dipping
2 pints cherry tomatoes, assorted colors

1. Cook 2 tablespoons flavorful olive oil, anchovies, and garlic over very low heat until anchovies mash using the pressure of a fork, only 3–4 minutes. Be careful to keep the heat low enough not to burn the garlic. Remove from heat. When cool, add to 3/4 cup high-quality olive oil and grind on a twist of pepper.

2. Toast bread. Rinse cherry tomatoes and arrange on a platter. Dip pieces of bread into oil-garlic-anchovy mixture, then pop a cherry tomato into your mouth and eat together.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 381 calories
% fat calories: 56
Fat: 24g
Saturated Fat: 3g
Cholesterol: 2mg
Protein: 7g
Carbohydrate: 35g
Fiber: 21g
Sodium: 391mg

Apple Crisp
Serves 8–10 / Here I make my childhood favorite shine with a bit of adult sophistication. I often use multiple varieties of heirloom apples for a complex flavor composition, and garnish with a special rose-geranium-scented whipped cream (see recipe at left). If you don’t have rose geraniums, use a fruit-flavored liqueur folded into whipped cream, as noted below. The recipe will make more cream than you need for the crisp, but I always like extra for my coffee the next morning.

5 cups apples, peeled and sliced (such as Gala, Granny Smith, and Braeburn; about 2 1/2 pounds total)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup sucanat or brown sugar
1/3 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, softened
2/3 cup rolled oats (not instant)
1/3 cup pecan pieces
Zest of 1/2 lemon

Whipped Topping (optional)
1 pint heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon raspberry-flavored liqueur (such as Chambord), or other fruit- flavored liqueur
2 tablespoons powdered sugar

1. Preheat oven to 375°. In a large bowl, toss apples gently with lemon juice. Lightly coat a 9- or 10-inch, deep-dish pie pan with cooking spray and fill with apple slices.

2. In a separate bowl, mix sucanat or brown sugar, flour, spices, and salt. Cut in butter. Toss in oats, pecans, and lemon zest. Spread topping over apples and bake about 30 minutes.

3. If using whipped topping, whip cream with liqueur and powdered sugar until soft peaks form. Dollop over crisp.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 226 calories
% fat calories: 38
Fat: 10g
Saturated Fat: 4g
Cholesterol: 15mg
Protein: 2g
Carbohydrate: 34g
Fiber: 3g
Sodium: 121mg
Organics for kids
Click here to learn about Donna Prizgintas’ organic menu for the Painted Turtle, a camp for children with life-threatening illnesses.

Rose-Geranium Whipped Cream

6 rose geranium leaves
1 pint heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons powdered sugar

1. In a bowl, steep rose geranium leaves in cream until soggy and gray; refrigerate. When chilled, strain with a fine sieve, pressing all of the flavor from the leaves into the cream. Whip with vanilla extract and powdered sugar until soft peaks form.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (2 tablespoons):
Calories: 86 calories
% fat calories: 90
Fat: 9g
Saturated Fat: 6g
Cholesterol: 33mg
Protein: 1g
Carbohydrate: 2g
Fiber: 0g
Sodium: 9mg