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 roses -- 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 puree 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 Espanola, 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.