In other parts of the country, this time of year means breaking out the winter wear, checking on the weather stripping and putting up the storm windows. Baby, it's gonna be cold outside.
In Southern California, fall comes gently, almost imperceptibly. It is, for the most part, a benevolent season--the days beginning with cool foggy mornings, moving gradually into warm, sunny afternoons before ending with the caress of a gentle ocean breeze. It's when we can finally open our windows, after the oppressive heat and dirty air of late summer have finally passed.
This is my favorite California season, maybe because it was my first California season. I moved here about this time 10 years ago. I left "sunny" New Mexico the morning after the major cold front had moved through. The grass was brown and crackled underfoot from the frost. Bundled against the cold in a parka, gloves and scarf, I still shivered. Sixty miles out of town, I ran into serious snow that continued for another couple hundred miles.
But the next morning I was in California, beginning what seemed an almost dizzying descent into Los Angeles. Arm out the open window, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, I marveled at the exotic-looking flowers that seemed to bloom everywhere--even along the highway! Even in fall!
I was home.
Just as we've no need to bundle up in mittens and snow boots, neither do we need to do the culinary equivalent. Truth be told, for all of our instinctive rushing toward preparing for winter--many of us, after all, come from some colder place--even in the chilliest part of the year, we can usually get away with what in most of the country would be considered warm-weather food.
But we don't have to, and that is what makes this one of my favorite times of year for cooking. You can really serve almost anything you want, from hot-weather salads to cold-weather stews. And although when it's hot here, it's hard to get up much of an urge to eat anything at all, now we have both the appetite and the luxury of choosing. In Los Angeles, stew is an option, not a necessity.
Stews can take on many different characters, from deeply flavored and dense meat dishes to lighter, brighter kinds of things, like this one. Is it a stew? Is it a soup? Is it a pasta? I don't know and, frankly, I'm not going to worry about it. It's not liquid enough to be a soup, but it's too wet for a pasta. That makes it a stew in my book.
Be on the lookout this time of year for the various types of shelly beans. These are beans that usually turn up dried, but right now you can find them fresh. To me, the flavor is more delicate and, certainly, the cooking is easier. Most shelly beans are done in half an hour of gentle simmering.
I used cranberry beans for this stew because that was what was in the market. But you could use most anything: anasazi or appaloosa beans, even black-eyed peas. Failing that, you could use dried beans, but they'll have to be cooked for another hour and you'll have to add a bit more water to make up for the longer cooking time. By the way, remember that dried beans don't need to be pre-soaked.
When I served this, I garnished two of the servings with the basil and the other two with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. It was a warm day, and the basil was absolutely perfect. But I found myself thinking that the cheese--with the addition of maybe some chopped mustard or collard greens--would be comfortable and nourishing on some rainy December evening. Real stew weather.
STEW OF CHARRED TOMATOES AND CRANBERRY BEANS
3 plum tomatoes
2 ounces prosciutto, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 carrot, diced
1/2 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small sprig sage
1 pound cranberry beans, shelled (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound dried pasta shapes, like gnocchi or medium shells
2 tablespoons torn basil leaves
Charring the tomatoes gives a slight smoky quality to this stew and intensifies the tomato flavor as well. You don't need to push the idea too far, just let the tomatoes scorch enough to flavor them.
Slice tomatoes in half lengthwise and place cut-side-down on hot griddle. Cook until tomato begins to blacken and char, about 5 minutes. Turn over and repeat on opposite side, another 3 minutes. Cool, squeeze out seeds, chop and reserve.
In large saute pan over medium heat, cook prosciutto in oil until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add carrot, onion and garlic, reduce heat and cook, covered, until vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.
Add sage, cranberry beans, tomatoes, water and salt. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer and cook, covered, until beans are soft, about 30 minutes.
When beans are done, cook pasta in plenty of rapidly boiling salted water. Drain well and add to beans. Raise heat to high and cook, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes to meld flavors. Divide among 4 pasta plates and garnish with torn basil.
Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
299 calories; 782 mg sodium; 8 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 52 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 1.05 grams fiber.