Shortly after moving to Maryland a decade or so ago, I got a gig writing food and entertaining pieces for The Washington Post. I spent one Fourth of July with a charming couple and tons of their friends. One of the hosts was a caterer; his partner was a former chef. I got to watch them fry chickens, toss salads and create a spread I can mimic only in my dreams.

As they were cleaning softshell crabs and preparing to roll them in cornmeal, one summed up his cooking philosophy:

“Never eat dead food.”

I was watching crates of crabs squirm around on ice as he said this, waiting for their faces to be lopped off with a butcher knife. “I kind of wish things were a little more dead in your kitchen,” I replied.

But I think I finally understand what he meant.

Don’t eat spirit-less food. Food that’s over-manufactured. Over-processed. Over-transported and -fertilized and just plain messed with.

garden

We had our first big garden harvest this weekend, which brought to mind my long-ago hosts. We picked the first of the sugar snaps. Snipped the first of the spinach. Pulled up the first golden beets, the last green asparagus and the final French radishes. Dirt pooled at the bottom of our picking bowls while we washed off tiny slugs and shook other creepy crawlies away. (Living food, indeed.)

veggie salad1
A summer garden staple at our house.

Dinner was an Asian-inspired vegetable salad. We boiled up some soba noodles, then combined them with thinly sliced ribbons of spinach, finely chopped asparagus and radishes, whole sugar snap peas and grated beets. We added some chicken meatballs — redolent of garden herbs — for the boys. Tossed everything in a sesame, soy and balsamic vinaigrette.

I still can’t see myself butchering live softshell crabs in my kitchen. But if I ever make them, I’ll be sure to buy them fresh and have my fishmonger prepare them for me.

I’d like to make my foodie hosts proud.

First Of The Garden Veggie-Noodle Salad

veggie meatballs
Chicken meatballs are entirely optional.

This is a dish we eat throughout the summer, subbing in whatever is growing. In a few months, it’ll be rich with summer squash, fennel and bush beans. A little later on, we’ll add peppers and tomatoes to the mix.

Meat is a completely optional component. Both my husband and kids like it in the salad, but I try to use it sparingly. I’ve added shredded chicken breasts, cubed pork tenderloin and tiny shrimp before. But my favorite are these meatballs, which I can load up with garlic, ginger, cilantro and basil.

Dress this salad with your favorite vinaigrette. I use the one here, courtesy of Bon Appetit. A light peanut sauce is a good option, too.

  • 6 ounces dry soba noodles (I use Hakubaku Organic Soba)
  • About 3 cups assorted vegetables, chopped into bite-size pieces (Consider leafy greens, carrots, peppers, radishes, peas, green beans, asparagus and beets. If your peas are small, don’t blanch them. If they’re large or you’re using green beans, put them in boiling, salted water for about 30 seconds to soften. Grate the raw beets for a fantastic flavor addition.)
  • 1 pound ground chicken (preferably organic)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
  • 1/2 cup fresh chopped herbs (I like to use cilantro, basil and parsley)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3-1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon chili sauce
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt it, then cook the soba noodles according to the package directions. Drain and rinse well in cold water. Drain again.

veggies
Cut your veggies into bite-size pieces.

Place the noodles and vegetables in a large bowl. Set aside.

Mix the ground chicken with the garlic, ginger, herbs, egg, 1/3 cup breadcrumbs and salt and pepper. Mix lightly with a fork. If the mixture seems a bit too wet, add more breadcrumbs.

Using slightly damp hands, shape the chicken mixture into balls and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Cut into a meatball to check for doneness, baking a bit longer if necessary. Cool, then add to the vegetables and noodles.

Heat the canola oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for about a minute. Remove from heat and add the remaining ingredients. Whisk well to combine and to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the ingredients in the bowl and toss well. Serve immediately or refrigerate until you’re ready to eat.

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