A mound of peppers, tomatoes and eggplants glows scarlet, gold and lavender at the farmers market, a reminder of lingering late summer. At the stand next door, the first sweet winter squash and delicate fresh shelly beans catch early autumn's glimmering light.
At one table I find ripe, Muscat-y Princess grapes and figs that have hung on the tree so long you can almost see their concentrated sweetness. But just beside them are honeyed Bartlett pears and fragrant, tangy Golden Delicious apples.
It's hard to plan dinner when you're standing atop a teeter-totter, but that is the nature of October in Southern California. It's a season on the tipping point. Fortunately, no matter which way you fall, you're in for a feast.
One foot in summer, the other in winter, we never know when we wake up whether we'll be greeted by clear skies and temperatures in the 90s, or cool gray and gloom. And some days we get both.
Farmers markets are the same way. They bristle with energy and a sense of nervous transition. Half of the fruits and vegetables we see are from the summer and are on their way out; the other half are just arriving.
Walking the market, I find myself tugged first one way and then another. What am I going to serve?
The colors of summer vegetables are never quite so rich and saturated as they are right now. But at the same time, look at the rough knobs of celery root, woodsy wild mushrooms and the calm, chromatic shades of hardy cooking greens. How can I pass them by?
Grapes and figs seem irresistible until I turn the corner and see a table stacked high with crisp Asian pears, fresh-crop walnuts, ruddy pomegranates and the first pale orange persimmons. Which to choose?
Back and forth I go. Peppers or squash? Hot or cool? Summer or fall?
Finally I decide on one last, passionate fling with summer's old flames.
A flowery frittata One farmer has a huge bag of zucchini flowers for only $1; his plants must be just about done. I'll make a frittata. I'll soak the flowers and pat them dry, stew them gently with some long-cooked onions and then cook them with beaten eggs, stirring constantly so the eggs set evenly. When they are nearly done, I'll top the frittata with plenty of grated Parmigiano, brown it under the broiler and serve it at room temperature.
I also pick up some eggplant to grill. Following the stern instructions of the Filipino grandma shopping beside me, I choose the long lavender ones with rounded ends that are no bigger around than my thumb. I have never cooked these before, but she is insistent. And she is right. They grill quickly to a suave creaminess that I accent with a sauce of walnuts and cilantro pounded into a paste and then thinned with olive oil.
Dinner starts with crostini topped with plum tomatoes roasted to the point where they've almost caramelized. They are so sweet and intensely tomato-y that all by themselves, they seem to have the magical power to make summer go on and on.
The roasted tomatoes are a great basic dish that can be used in many different ways, and it couldn't be simpler to make.
Split the tomatoes in half lengthwise, arrange them cut-side up in a baking dish with a generous bath of olive oil and a few cloves of minced garlic, and then bake at 300 degrees until the tomatoes shrivel and start to brown around the edges, about 3 hours. For crostini, cut a baguette in half-inch slices and toast them lightly. If you already have the grill fired up, that adds a certain smoky something. Then spread them with goat cheese — or not. (On this also I equivocate.) Sometimes I just spoon over a little of the tomato-flavored oil and leave it at that.
The crostini I pass with bowls of garlicky olives and whole almonds that I've toasted and tossed with a little good olive oil and sea salt. After that we move on to a bunch of vegetable salads, which are set up on platters outside on the patio; everyone helps themselves.
As good as the tomatoes are, for me there is no vegetable more emblematic of this time of year than red bell peppers. I remember when I first started to cook, befriending my neighborhood produce man so he'd order me a case during the two weeks of fall that they were available.
For one salad, I roast and peel them, tear them in sections and roll them around a spoonful of fresh goat cheese spiked with capers. Search out salt-cured capers; they add a haunting floweriness that the pickled ones never seem to have.
At first glance, there doesn't seem to be anything special about Marcella Hazan's recipe for a salad of steamed zucchini, but it has the elegance of a simple idea done perfectly.
You steam whole zucchini until it's soft, cut it in quarters lengthwise and, while it's still hot, rub each cut surface with a crushed clove of garlic, then slice it up. Dress the salad with lemon juice and fruity olive oil and serve it with a generous amount of toasted pine nuts. Laid out next to the grilled eggplant and the squash blossom frittata, it's a complex mix of colors, flavors and textures.
The California season for swordfish is at its peak in early fall, so for the main course, I thread some on skewers, alternating with chunks of Italian sausage and red onion. Poach the sausage beforehand in just a bit of white wine and the grilling time will be the same as that for the fish, which you want to stay moist. If you remember, throw a handful of those long thin Italian frying peppers on the fire at the same time; they add a subtle perfume.
It would be unthinkable to have a summer dinner without ratatouille, so red bell peppers, eggplant and zucchini show up again stewed down to a sweet, vibrant vegetable jam to accompany the main course (or as the main course for the vegetarians in the crowd).
The only real secret to a great ratatouille is to cook each ingredient separately, then bring them all together at the end just long enough to let the flavors meld. This way each vegetable keeps a hint of its own identity. Make a lot; it may be even better the next day, served cold.
With all that food, dessert can be kept simple: a pair of goat cheeses from Redwood Hill Farm and the semi-dried Gouda from Winchester Cheese Co., served with ripe grapes, honeyed Asian pears, the last green Calimyrna figs, and absolutely luscious Halawy dates that are only partly dried (rutab, the fruit geeks call that stage). Oh yes, and some crisp little butter cookies we pick up at the bakery.
To drink? What else? In keeping with this summer romance, we pour rosés — Californian, French and Spanish.
We eat at the picnic table under a bower of bougainvillea. As the night falls, we laugh and talk and argue about music. One of the kids eats the center out of every slice of baguette. We have captured the sweetness of summer for one last night.
But afterward, I still find myself dreaming of the menu not taken. What if I had gone the other way? What if, rather than embracing the season just passing, I'd thrown myself into the one coming on?
Looking ahead to fall That menu probably would start with different crostini, these topped with a walnut spread that has been perfumed by a hint of white truffle oil. I'd purée walnuts, some canned white beans and a couple of tablespoons of softened butter in a food processor with a little Cognac, and then add the faintest whiff of white truffle oil. Too often cooks douse the stuff on like teenage boys using aftershave — you want just enough to lend an aura.
With that, I'd slice some tangy dried salami. San Francisco legend Molinari is sold at some farmers markets by cheese vendors; ask around. The slightly smoky cured chorizo Leon made by La Española, the Harbor City Spanish deli, would also be terrific.
Maybe a sharp little salad of pickled mushrooms would be good. I like the recipe in Antonio Carluccio's "The Complete Mushroom Book": You blanch the mushrooms, then briefly cook them in a vinegary brine. (They'll keep in the refrigerator for months.) Slice them thin and dress them with olive oil, chopped parsley and a little minced garlic.
For a main course I would slowly braise thick-cut pork chops with winter greens. The nearly black Tuscan kale turns particularly sweet and verdant with long cooking (you'll also find it labeled cavolo nero or dinosaur kale). Brown the chops in a hot pan, reduce the heat and cook them with a little bit of stock until they are nearly done. Add the kale and keep cooking until it is melting, another 10 minutes or so.
I'd serve that with a gratin made from meaty dried beans mixed with delicately sweet winter squash, the whole baked under a blizzard of garlicky bread crumbs. The most familiar gratins are made from potatoes thickened with the starch they release during cooking. You get much the same effect in this version by simply stirring the cooked beans so roughly that some of them crush into a paste.
Instead of cheese, I'd make a salad of crumbled blue cheese, tart crisp Belgian endive and toasted walnuts. Make the dressing partly with walnut oil and be sure to include some minced shallot to give a jolt of sharpness for contrast.
Being a cook who is pastry-averse by nature, one of my favorite basic dessert recipes is a clafouti. Slice some fruit into a pie plate. Pour over a batter you've whipped up in the blender. Bake. How simple is that? And the result is glorious, something between a custard and a pancake. I make it with all kinds of fruit, but pears are one of the best, especially right now. Chopped pistachios add a little texture, or you could use sliced almonds instead.
Start this menu with a tart white wine, maybe Sauvignon Blanc or a well-made Pinot Grigio. Serve a medium-weight red with the main course: Chianti, Barbera or Tempranillo. Port would be a natural to accompany the salad.
Would I like this dinner better than the one I chose? There's really only one way to find out. And fortunately, fall is likely to be here for a little while longer.
Times staff writer Russ Parsons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. *
Grilled eggplant with walnut-cilantro pesto
Total time: 35 minutes
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons minced garlic,
1 1/4 cups olive oil, divided
1 cup walnut pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus up to
1/4 teaspoon additional
1 teaspoon paprika
3 tablespoons chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 pounds long thin eggplant
1. In a bowl, combine the red pepper flakes, half of the garlic and one-half cup of olive oil. Let stand until ready to grill the eggplant.
2. Using a large mortar and pestle, crush the remaining garlic, the walnuts and one-fourth teaspoon salt to a paste. Add the paprika, then slowly add three-fourths cup olive oil, stirring it in with the pestle. The sauce should have the consistency of a loose, coarsely ground peanut butter.
3. Stir in the cilantro, grinding it with the pestle to release its oils. Stir in the lemon juice. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Be particularly careful with the salt; the sauce should not be overtly salty, but I usually have to add a little more (about one-fourth teaspoon) to get the full flavor of the walnuts. Makes 1 cup sauce. Set aside until ready to use.
4. Slice the eggplants about one-half inch thick, leaving the slices attached at the stem end. Brush the cut surfaces with the flavored olive oil and grill over medium heat. Turn the eggplant frequently so it cooks through without scorching. Before each turn, brush lightly with the olive oil. You'll know the eggplant is cooked through when it flops lazily when you turn it, about 8 to 12 minutes.
5. Arrange the eggplants on a platter, spreading the cut slices slightly. Spoon over half of the walnut sauce and pass the remainder at the table.
Each serving: 348 calories; 3 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 25 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 0 mg. cholesterol; 101 mg. sodium. *
Bean and winter squash gratin with garlicky bread crumbs
Total time: 30 minutes prep time plus about 3 hours cooking time
4 slices thick-sliced bacon (about 1/3 pound)
1 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, crushed,
1 pound pinto or other dried beans
5 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 tablespoon chopped sage
3 pounds butternut or other winter squash
1/2 stale baguette (to make
2 cups bread crumbs)
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
1. Chop the bacon into rough squares. Combine with the onion, 1 crushed garlic clove, the beans, water and salt in a heavy pan. Bring to a simmer, then cook, tightly covered, over low heat until the beans are tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Check occasionally; if the beans begin to go dry, add a little more water.
2. When the beans are quite tender, remove from the heat, add the tomatoes and sage and stir very roughly to crush some of the beans (their starch will thicken the liquid).
3. While the beans are cooking, peel the squash, cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. Cut the flesh into one-half-inch dice. Steam the squash over rapidly boiling water until tender, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from the steamer and cool slightly before stirring (so cubes retain their shape).
4. Remove the crust from the baguette and coarsely chop the bread. Place it in a blender or food processor with the remaining garlic clove and grind to coarse crumbs.
5. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Generously brush a 3- to 3 1/2 -quart gratin dish with 2 teaspoons olive oil. Spoon the squash cubes into the dish, being careful not to crush them. Using a slotted spoon, ladle the cooked beans over the top. Add just enough of the bean liquid to cover the bottom of the dish. Stir lightly to combine.
6. Spoon the garlicky bread crumbs over the top, covering the dish in a thick mound. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake until the bread crumbs are deep brown (you will notice the fragrance turning from overtly garlicky to something more complex and beany), about 40 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Each serving: 410 calories; 16 grams protein; 63 grams carbohydrates; 18 grams fiber; 12 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 5 mg. cholesterol; 605 mg. sodium. *
Pear clafouti with pistachios
Total time: 1 hour
1/4 cup plus 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
3/4 cup whipping cream
3/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup flour
3 ripe Bartlett pears
1/3 cup raw pistachios, coarsely chopped
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. In a blender or food processor, combine one-fourth cup sugar, the eggs, cream, milk and vanilla and blend until smooth. Sift the flour over the mixture and pulse just to mix. Set the batter aside to stand 10 minutes.
3. While the batter is resting, peel the pears, cut them in half lengthwise and remove the core and the stem line with a spoon (a grapefruit spoon works best). Cut each half in crosswise slices one-fourth to one-half-inch thick; do not separate the slices.
4. Arrange the sliced pear halves in a 9-inch pie plate with the stem ends pointing toward the center and a little space between each. Depending on the size of the pears, you may be able to use only 5 of the 6 halves. Pour the batter over the top and sprinkle with the pistachios. Depending on how sweet the pears are, sprinkle an additional 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar over the pears that peek out from under the batter.
5. Place on a cookie sheet to catch any spills. Bake until the clafouti is puffed and brown in the center, about 40 to 45 minutes. Cool slightly before serving.
Each serving: 332 calories; 8 grams protein; 36 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 151 mg. cholesterol; 58 mg. sodium.