Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Hanging on to Summer

It's official: Autumn is here. For those of you lucky enough to have had an actual summer, the cool, wet weather of Fall might be a welcome respite from the heat, but on this side of the Atlantic, it's just more of the same... Summer never really made it to our shores, and Autumn just made himself at home. Luckily, food is always a good medium for a vicarious experience, and nothing says summer more than tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchini.

If you like ratatouille, than you will enjoy the following recipe for caponata. Generally thought of as a Sicilian eggplant stew, it can easily be mistaken for an Italian version of ratatouille (just don't say that to a Sicilan!), but there are just enough differences to convince you to try out this recipe. While I am sure there are as many versions of caponata as there are Sicilian grandmothers, I like to think of caponata as the zippy cousin of ratatouille. I also like to under-cook a lot of its components for added texture and crunch.

Serves 4 as a generous side dish, or 2-3 as a vegetarian main dish

2 large or 3 medium eggplants
1 red pepper
1 yellow or orange pepper
2 zucchini
1 clove garlic
1 medium onion, red or white
1 medium carrot, peeled
2 sticks of celery
1 generous handful of cherry tomatoes
90g/ ¼ cup pine nuts, or pumpkin seeds (or a combination of both)
4 bay leaves
4 sprigs of thyme
salt and pepper to taste
125ml/ ½cup red wine vinegar
180ml/ 6Tbs tomato paste
125ml/ ½cup olive oil
sugar, optional

Top the eggplants, and chop into 2cm/1" cubes, set aside.
Finely dice the onion, and set aside.
Over medium heat, warm the olive oil in a large saucepan.
Gently fry the nuts in the oil until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon, and set aside on some paper towels.
Turn the heat up to medium high, and throw in the eggplants. Toss them every now and then so that every cube gets toasty brown.
Add the onion, a crushed clove of garlic, the bay leaves and the thyme.
Meanwhile, finely dice the carrot and the celery. Add to the pot when the onions are translucent and the eggplants have collapsed.
Chop the peppers into large-ish chunks, add to the other vegetables, and let them cook for about 5minutes.
Add the tomato paste and about half the vinegar. Let simmer over medium heat for about 5 minutes.
Chop the zucchini into chunks, and cut in half the cherry tomatoes. Add to the pot, and let simmer until just warmed through.
Adjust the seasoning: the stew should be salty-sweet with a noticeable tartness. You may need to add some sugar to enhance the sweetness. 
Stir in the nuts.
Let it cool down before serving.

Caponata is traditionally served lukewarm or even at room temperature, as a side dish, but can also be the star of the meal if you serve it alongside some crusty bread. It is also a lovely accompaniment for a tartine of goat cheese. It will keep for several days in the refrigerator, just leave it out for an hour before serving. Although you can probably freeze or can caponata, you will lose the crunch, so I would advise against any long-term preservation.

Bon app'!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Last Hurrah

Although I haven't been giving my garden the attention it deserves, it has continued to grow with wild abandon. The lettuces are now all passed their prime, the coriander has gone to seed -which is not a bad thing, as green coriander is in a flavour register of its own. Whatever strawberries that persist on appearing on the plants get snatched up by a wile squirrel, and a few herbs have decided to depart from this world. 

Yet, the runner beans are finally setting pods after having set flowers over a month ago.

The tomatoes are doing well, though I have momentary doubts that they will actually ripen before the arrival of frost... Ah well, if I end up with a harvest of green tomatoes, I can always churn out a batch of green tomato ketchup.In any case, for those of you who do have a few ripe tomatoes on hand, whether from the shop or the garden, this tart could be a quick and simple meal to enjoy tonight.

The harvest tart is a bit of a fridge cleaner-outer; it is also a very handy recipe for those who are perplexed by their CSA baskets. The following is more a guideline than a recipe, so here are a few pictures to inspire you.

Start with a sheet of puff pastry. Prick it all over with a fork to prevent the pastry from puffing up too much in the oven, leaving a little border. Layer sliced tomatoes, olives and thin slivers of onions. Season with salt and pepper, then pop in a hot oven (200°C/450°F) until the edges of the pastry are puffed up and golden, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, make a quick salad with whatever you happen to have on hand. Thin ribbons of zucchini can be made with a vegetable peeler; sugar snap peas and runner beans can be sliced on the diagonal; green onions are a zippy addition. If you can get a hold of fresh corn on the cob, just cut them off the cob, and add to the salad. Kohlrabi can add lots of crunch and colour, and fennel is a boost of flavour. For extra colour, toss in a few more tomatoes and olives. Add a few torn leaves of basil and roquette, season with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Pile the colourful vegetables on top of the hot tart. Pop back into the oven for another five or six minutes, just to wilt the tougher greens a little and warm them through.

You can serve the tarts straight from the oven , or top with torn shreds of mozzarella, or any other cheese -a creamy goat's cheese would be lovely. As a starter on its own, or a main with a side salad.

Bon app'!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Nippy Nights and Autumn's Approach

It kind of creeps up on you, sneaking in from behind, startling you when you least want it to. The signs are blatantly obvious, but you don't want to acknowledge them. Fall, with all its implications, is just around the corner. You will still insist on wearing your shortest shorts and barest top at the mere hint of warmth, but as soon as the Sun hides behind a cloud or the rooftops, out comes the sweater and jeans. The light definitely slants at a different angle, its heat still intense, yet less enduring. A jacket is now de rigueur when leaving for work in the morning. Windows are shut at night, because the brisk air is no longer refreshing, but downright chilly. September harbours the beginning of the end...

Yet, not all is doom and gloom at this time of the year. There will still be a few days just hot enough for a last hurrah at the beach. And with September arrives a bounty of foods that are just perfect for staving off the cold. While you may be squirrelling away hoards of tomatoes, peppers and other remnants of summer, the hearty roots and squashes are a welcoming sight. The cool nights give apples a crispness that cannot be equalled in August. And if you happen to reside near wine country, September is when the bulk of the harvest happens: drive along a 'wine route' with the windows down, and the air will be heavily laden with the scent of ripe grapes and fermentation. 
Just picture a sunny picnic in an orchard or vineyard: left-over roasted roots, a stuffed squash, a bushel of apples and a bottle of wine... What more can you want?
Bon app'!
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