THE CALIFORNIA COOK
A late-summer fling or a new romance with fall? Either way, you're in for a feast.
Peppers or squash? Hot or cool? Summer or fall? October in Southern California is a season on the tipping point, when late-summer produce still delights but autumn fruits and vegetables beckon. (Allen J. Schaben / LAT)
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.