Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Late Summer Bliss

I'm all for any attempt to save some of summer's bounty for later. A few years ago, I invested in a second freezer so that I could freeze multiple quarts of tomato sauce and gallon bags of blueberries for consumption in the dead of a New England winter, a reminder that summer would, eventually, return, and in the meantime, I could eat something that might take me away from snow and ice, at least momentarily and in my mind (and stomach).

But there are some dishes that shouldn't be saved for later. I'm not talking about things you can't save for later--the salad with the perfect garden tomato, the steamed ear of corn. But dishes or combos that reflect the essence of a season, and even if they could be recreated later, it just wouldn't be the same. I'd put my beloved peach-blueberry crumble in this category along with Deborah Madison's eggplant and summer vegetable gratin, from her great cookbook Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

I could write an ode to Deborah Madison--as a long-time vegetarian, I'm so grateful for her cookbooks. But I could write an ode to her just on the basis of this one recipe. Even though I've had the book for years, I somehow missed this recipe until last year. Once I made it, I became this recipe's biggest fan. On the one hand, I'm frustrated not to have had this in my late summer food repertoire for longer, but it also makes me want to make up for lost time and make it as often as possible in these weeks of late summer. It's not a hard recipe at all, and though it's slightly time-consuming, it's totally worth it.

Basically, you bake some eggplant, make a little fresh tomato sauce (I put a summer squash in it this time, since I'd snagged one from the garden before it had reached baseball bat proportions), then layer them together in a gratin dish. Bake for 45 minutes, then add a layer of bread crumbs and parmesan cheese, and bake for another 25 minutes. And voila. A dish that is the essence of late summer in its rich vegetable goodness. I made a huge panful on Monday and have been eating it greedily ever since. I told Alex he could have some tonight, but now I'm regretting that invitation, just a little bit.

So, my recommendation for the upcoming long weekend is this. If you have a garden, gather as many of the vegetables as you have (or beg them off friends with gardens, who are almost always happy to share). Otherwise, head to the farmers market and find them there. You'll need eggplants, red peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil and a squash, if you feel like it. Get some good bread to go with it (good to make the breadcrumbs with, plus good for wiping up bits of vegetables from your plate). Set aside a little chunk of time in the kitchen for the chopping. (You can bake the eggplant at the same time as you're cooking the sauce, and once everything is put together, you mostly just have to be around to take it out of the oven and put it back in again.) Invite someone to share, or save it all for yourself. And once you've tasted it, I'm pretty sure you'll also be contemplating how many more times you can make it before fall finally, irrevocably, arrives.

Eggplant and Summer Vegetable Gratin

from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

2 to 2 ½ lbs. globe eggplant, preferably on the small side
olive oil
salt and pepper
2 large onions, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large bell pepper, finely diced
2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
10 large basil leaves, torn into small pieces
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 425˚ F. Slice the eggplant into rounds about ½ inch thick – if it’s in season, there’s no need to salt them. Brush both sides of each piece with oil and bake on a sheet pan until browned and tender on both sides, about 25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Reduce heat to 325˚ F.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a wide skillet, add the onions and garlic, and cook over medium heat until limp, about 8 minutes. Raise the heat a little, add the pepper and tomatoes, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until everything is soft and thickened to a jam, about 20 minutes. Raise the temperature at the end to reduce the juices. Add the basil and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Lightly oil a 2 ½ quart gratin dish. Make a layer of eggplant in the bottom and spread a third of the tomato-onion mixture over it, followed by another layer of eggplant, half the remaining sauce, then the rest of the eggplant. End with the remaining sauce on top. Cover the dish and bake for 45 minutes.

Toss the bread crumbs with olive oil to moisten and add the grated cheese. Remove the cover, add the bread crumbs and cheese, raise the oven temperature to 375˚ F, and bake until the crumbs are nicely browned and crisp on top, about 25 minutes.

Note: I have no idea how Deborah Madison gets 3 layers of eggplant out of 2 smallish eggplants, especially since you can't slice them too thinly. I've never gotten more than 2 layers, ever, though maybe it's because my pan is too big. This last time, I actually used 4 tomatoes, plus the zucchini, and had just enough sauce to cover my 2 layers. So, some flexibility is possible, and I'd definitely rather have too much sauce than not enough.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dreaming of Stephen Maturin

Many years ago--13, to be exact--I read an essay by Tamar Lewin in the New York Times called "Hooked on Boy Books." It was about her newfound obsession with Patrick O'Brian's long series of novels set mostly on British navy ships during the Napoleonic Wars--despite the fact that she had no interest whatsoever in British naval history.

At the time, I paid attention. The man who had broken my heart just a few months earlier had been a huge Patrick O'Brian fan, and even though he is long gone from the city and state where I last saw him, I can still see the novels--all with drawings of ships on the covers--lined up neatly on the top of the bookcase in his living room. Like Tamar Lewin, I had no interest in British naval history, but after reading her essay, and while still in mourning for my lost love, I read the first one, Master and Commander. I can't say that I was an instant fan. I liked it well enough, but I couldn't really see reading the whole series, which, at that point, totaled 17 books (and now totals 20 complete novels plus the beginning of the 21st). It seemed like too much of a commitment, more of a task than a pleasure.

A year or so later, though, I took a teaching job at a local college, and suddenly I had a 35-40 minute commute each way, 3 times a week. It only took one day of driving to realize I needed a diversion, and so I turned to books on tape, combing various local libraries for my supply. One day, I saw the second Patrick O'Brian novel--Post-Captain--and decided to try again. It was fortuitous because Post-Captain is O'Brian's "homage to Jane Austen," set mostly on land and the book in which the two main characters--bluff naval captain Jack Aubrey and physician/spy/ardent natural philosopher Stephen Maturin--meet the women they will eventually marry. It only took one drive, one way, for me to be hooked. I discovered that listening to the books made much more sense for me than reading them. There was enough plot to hold me, and if he went on a bit too long about mizzen topsails or main foretop-gallant sails or whatever, I could space out and tune back in when the plot picked up again.

Over the next 3 years, I listened to the first 10 in the series, all on tape and read by Richard Brown. But then life interfered. I went to India and came back and went to India again, and though every once in awhile, I thought of picking up book 11, I never did.

A few years ago, though, having graduated from books on tape to books on CD to books downloaded onto my iPod, which meant that I could listen to them more easily and not just in the car, I decided I wanted to finish the series. But when I went in search of Richard Brown's reading of book 11, I learned that there were multiple narrators of the books, and only one narrator, Patrick Tull, had narrated the entire series. At that point, it had been long enough that many of the details (not to mention major plot points) in the earlier books were fuzzy, so rather than starting halfway through with a new narrator, I decided to let Patrick Tull read me the entire series, from start to finish.

Since then, I've traveled with Jack and Stephen to Malta and Gibraltar, to Java and Peru and Botany Bay. I've been shipwrecked with them, both in the far south and on a tropical island, and taken prisoner, by the Americans and the French. I've worried through Jack's near ruin, through a false accusation of rigging the stock market, and Stephen's near ruin, through his addiction to the alcoholic tincture of laudanum. And it's true that I know more about life on a British naval ship and about the Napoleonic wars than I did before, but that's secondary for me. What keeps me going is the deep, contradictory friendship between the two main characters, who I know so well now and who know each other so well. I nod along as they tell familiar stories, tease each other (Stephen's frequent references to Jack's weight, Jack's continued amazement at Stephen's ability to fall in the water despite years of living on ships), console each other, play duets on their beloved violin and cello night after night in the cabin of the ship they're sailing, most often the "dear old Surprise," first introduced in book three.

In the last few weeks, I've even found myself dreaming of Stephen Maturin, twice now. (The second time, he was in a dream with Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and I really wish I could remember what happened.) Alex likes to say that I have a crush on him, which isn't exactly true, though I suppose if your girlfriend is going to be dreaming about other men, it's probably not a bad thing that the other man is a fictional character who lived several centuries ago. I will admit that I do sometimes find myself wanting to talk like Stephen, as read by Patrick Tull, with a slight Irish lilt. "Never in life," he likes to say, and "I would like that of all things."

As I've found myself proselytizing about the Aubrey/Maturin books these past few months, I've tried to explain what it is that draws me to these books, when the actual subject matter isn't what I'm really interested in. (In the same way that I enjoyed the "peace" parts of War and Peace much better than the war parts, I could easily live without the various fleet actions in O'Brian's books, except, that, of course, they're kind of the point.)

Mostly I think it's that, as adult readers, we don't get to follow the same characters very often. When I was a kid, many of my favorite books were series books, and there were series' that I read over and over again--The Little House on the Prairie books, the Betsy-Tacy books, Madeleine L'Engle's various series'. I loved the familiarity of the characters and the ability to watch their lives go on over time, to be able to return to them over and over again.

I miss that quality as a grown-up reader, and I'm always delighted when I find it. I'm a mystery reader, which helps, because that's where you find series most often, but I treasure it when I find the occasional literary writer who chooses to stick to the same characters. It's one of the reasons I love Barbara Trapido's books, that sense of a broad fictional universe I can see from multiple perspectives and over multiple books.

As I write this, I'm just finishing book 17, The Commodore, and book 18, The Yellow Admiral, is waiting on my iPod. I'm in a slight state of denial that the end is so close in sight. Patrick O'Brian died in 2000, several chapters into the 21st book, so there's no real ending, just an unfinished novel and legions of readers left without closure.

Since I haven't read any of the books since the first one, I don't own any of the books to dip into, and I can't quite see myself with the matched set with all the ships on the cover and diagrams of the sails on the inside flap. But I can see that, in a few years, when the details start to get a little fuzzy in my head, I might want to have Patrick Tull take me through the series again. And even though I'll know that Jack is reinstated to the Navy list after his near ruin, that Stephen will eventually marry the tempestuous Diana Villiers, that the dear old Surprise will be sold out of the service but bought by Stephen, it won't really matter. It will be a pleasure to return to that long ago concert in Port Mahon, in Minorca, where Stephen and Jack first sit next to each other (and insult each other to the extent that they nearly have a duel), when all their voyages and adventures are before them, and when they don't yet know what their future holds.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Small Garden Triumph

I love red peppers. Ever since I was a kid, I've loved red peppers. I might have picked the tomatoes out of things, but I never picked the peppers out. They're one of the few vegetables I'll buy when they're out of season and expensive--my vegetable drawer doesn't feel complete without at least one colored pepper in it. I eat them raw, in salads and sandwiches. I make sauce out of them. I add them into whatever vegetables I'm cooking. I roast them in the oven. If I had a grill, I'd grill them. They're my number one go-to vegetable.

So, when I started gardening, I was very excited to grow peppers. Over the years, I've grown things that I don't eat that much or can't eat quickly enough. But that didn't seem like it would be an issue with peppers.

My first few years at the community garden, I put in at least 6 or 8 plants. And every year, the same thing happened. The peppers would arrive, and when they were green, they were fine. But when I waited for them to turn red, they would rot before I could pick them. No matter where I got the starts from, no matter what kind of peppers. They'd start to turn red, and then they'd rot. Alex started some from seed one year, and the same thing happened. It was one of my greatest gardening disappointments.

Finally, I gave up. It was just too frustrating. But when I bought the house and started gardening here also, I thought I'd try it again. I thought that maybe there was something in the soil at the community garden that made them rot, or maybe there was some kind of insect. And the first year I planted the peppers here, I got a few red ones, and I thought the problem was solved. But last year, it was back to square one--as soon as they were close to being all the way red, they were rotting. I asked one of the guys at the farmers' market who had a nice spread of peppers what he did to keep them from rotting, and he said he didn't--he had rotten ones too, only he'd planted so many that he got some good ones to sell. I found this very dispiriting--I didn't really want to take up a ton of garden space growing peppers that would inevitably mostly rot.

Still, this year, I found myself buying just a few plants at the beginning of the summer. At the same time, I've tried very hard not to get attached to the idea of having red peppers. I'd take casual glances at the plants when I was out there picking basil or digging around for potatoes, but otherwise, I paid them no special attention. Still, when I was poking around in the garden yesterday, I couldn't help noticing that there was a red pepper on one of the plants. I felt it, sure that I would find the mushy spot that indicated that the rotting had begun. But there wasn't one. So, even though it wasn't all the way red, it felt like tempting fate not to pick it, so I did. Here it is, in all its glory, green spot included:

There are some green ones still on the plants, and I'm trying to stay detached from those too, just in case this one misshapen red pepper is the only red one I get. It won't last very long and won't make much of a dent in my need for a late summer supply of peppers, but still. Just the fact that it's whole and red and came from my garden feels like enough of a triumph for the moment.

p.s. Those eggplants and tomatoes keeping the pepper company in the top photo are from the community garden and will probably become either tomato soup or, in the case of the eggplant, Deborah Madison's fabulous summer vegetable gratin, which I will write about another time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Everything tastes better when you add Mexican chocolate

I made cookies last night for the first time in ages. I'm not quite sure what got into me. We've had some of the loveliest weather of the summer these past few days--cool and clear and sunny--but it's actually chilly at night. Like, under 50. Cold enough to need an extra blanket and a couple of cats to stay warm. So, maybe the oncoming chill made me want to turn on the oven, and maybe it was that I needed an activity while I was waiting for the tomato sauce to cook down. (The first garden tomato sauce of the summer, and it was delicious!)

So, I found a recipe for chocolate oatmeal cookies in a Dorie Greenspan cookbook, and I decided to make half a batch, so I could satisfy my cookie-making urge while not tempting myself excessively. I had to improvise a bit--I didn't have enough chocolate, or exactly the right kind of chocolate--and I found myself thinking, Oh, I can just put some Mexican chocolate in to make up the difference. And as I was grating the Mexican chocolate into the dry ingredients, I thought back to my first real Mexican chocolate experience and realized that it was 15 years ago, and that made me feel very, very old.

In the summer of 1993, I was living in Seattle and studying Hindi at the U of Washington in preparation for going to India on a Fulbright in the fall. A few of my college friends were living in Seattle, and we hung out pretty often. I saw my friend Andrea quite a bit, as well as her sister Lindsey, who was studying Mandarin for the summer. (We'd meet sometimes on campus, and after listening to what she was doing in class, I would have to acknowledge that Mandarin was a harder language to learn than Hindi.)

One day, just a week or two before I was leaving, we decided to make cookies. We were in the apartment I was subletting, and there was a copy of the Silver Palate cookbook, and we decided to make oatmeal cookies. Except that the recipe called for 1 1/2 sticks of butter, and we only had one, and it called for 3 cups of oats, and we only had 2 1/2. It was a situation--like last night--where the cookies wouldn't have gotten made if we'd had to go out to get stuff. We could have fudged it, or reduced the recipe, but instead we decided to improvise. We used peanut butter in place of the butter we didn't have. And then Andrea pulled out a little yellow box in the shape of a hexagon from the cabinet. It was Mexican chocolate, the kind with cinnamon in it that you usually use to make Mexican hot chocolate. "Let's put some of this in," she said. So, we grated it up, and used a half cup to make up for the oats we didn't have.

We started to get the idea that we might be on to something before the cookies were out of the oven. The smell was somewhat more sophisticated than the usual sweet cookie smell. And as we tasted them, we were both silent. The peanut butter gave the cookies a mellow base, and the cinnamon in the Mexican chocolate picked up the cinnamon already in the recipe. The chocolate was subtle, but present, and our mouths were suffused with this oaty-spicy-chocolaty-peanuty flavor. We decided that, perhaps, we were geniuses.

We ate more cookies and divided the rest up. I gave some to a few of my Hindi class friends (at least one of whom has gone on to bigger, better, and more dangerous things), and Andrea gave some to her housemates. Somehow, though, she did not give any to her sister. And so a few days later, after having bragged about our cookie-making prowess extensively, we found ourselves having lunch with Lindsey, who mostly wanted to talk about the cookies she hadn't tasted. "So, tell me again, it was the peanut butter you tasted first?" she asked wistfully. Why we didn't go home right then and make another batch, I have no idea.

For years, I was scared to make these cookies again, afraid that they wouldn't be as good as I remembered. But I had nothing to fear.

(As for last night's cookies, they were these, as discussed by Tartelette. Very chocolaty and rich, with some chewiness from the oats. And I have no doubt that the Mexican chocolate made them taste better.)

Oatmeal-Peanut Butter-Mexican Chocolate Cookies
adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook

8 tbsps. (1 stick) butter
4 tbsps. peanut butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
2 tbsps. water
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 1/2 cups quick-cooking oats
1/2 cup grated Mexican chocolate (Ibarra brand)
1 cup raisins (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Grease 3 cookie sheets.

2. Cream butter and both sugars until fluffy. Add egg and beat thoroughly. Add peanut butter and mix again. Mix in water and vanilla.

3. Sift together flour, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda; add to the egg mixture and mix well. Add oats, grated Mexican chocolate and raisins, if using, and mix.

4. Form cookies on cookie sheets. Bake 10-12 minutes (15-17 if cookies are extra large).

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Stormy night crumble

I haven't gone blueberry picking yet this summer. It's always on my summer to-do list, but somehow it hasn't happened yet, maybe because of our continued monsoon climate. But last Saturday at the farmer's market, I bought 2 pints, thinking I would make some nice blueberry dessert.

Somehow, I managed not to just eat all the blueberries, sitting so temptingly in my fridge, and today, I used the fabulous Food Blog Search and scrolled through pages and pages of delicious blueberry-related recipes--cakes and pies and tarts and muffins. Did I decide to make any of them? Well, no. I did mark a bunch of recipes for later, but instead, for tonight, I returned to my very old standard, blueberry-peach crumble.

1989 was the summer of crumble. I had just graduated from college and was housesitting for the summer with a bunch of friends, and we made crumble nearly every night. Sometimes, we would make it til 10 p.m. or so, feeling very restrained, and then we'd give in and make a late night crumble, just because we could.

There's something very comforting about making something you've made a zillion times before. I think of my various kitchens, I think of all the various people I've eaten crumble with over the years. I made a crumble for my first date with Alex in 2001. We knew each other casually but not well, and he'd invited me over for dinner. It was August, crumble season, and I offered to bring dessert. It was not the most successful dinner as dinners went, which has nothing to do with his cooking and everything to do with my pickiness. He knew I was a vegetarian and had made me this lovely Japanese meal, with soup with soba noodles and tofu with a dipping sauce and daikon. The soup was in lovely little bowls, and there were blue glasses. The problem is that I am a vegetarian who hates tofu, and I don't like daikon much either. (I did like the soba noodles, at least.) But clearly, he'd gone to all this effort to make this lovely meal, and I felt terrible, especially because it would have been easy to say that I didn't like tofu ahead of time. But I'd brought the crumble for dessert, and it turned out that peaches and blueberries were his favorite combination, and we ate it, and things worked themselves out after that.

So, on this rainy August afternoon that morphed into a stormy August evening, I went down to the kitchen and went through my very familiar routine--blanching peaches, rinsing blueberries, melting butter, measuring flour and sugar and oats. I like that it's such a casual and forgiving recipe and that you'd have to do something really dramatically bad to it for it not to taste good. My peaches weren't perfectly ripe, for example, but I knew that the time in the oven would take care of that. (A month or so ago, I made this breakfast apricot crisp from Smitten Kitchen, and the only apricots I could find were from Trader Joe's. Some were too ripe and some weren't ripe enough, and the rest were mealy. Really, not a stellar batch of apricots. But after some time in the oven, they'd broken down into this sticky, jammy, apricot mush that was quite delicious.)

I usually like to put walnuts in the topping, but meal moths have been wreaking havoc in my cabinets, and the only suitable nuts the moths hadn't gotten into were slivered almonds, so I threw some of those in instead. I also put some lemon zest in, which I usually don't do. But a few years ago on my birthday, we went out for a fancy dinner. Most of the dinner wasn't that memorable, but the dessert--something with lemon and blueberries--was fabulous. We'd restrainedly only ordered one to share. Strangely, while we were eating, the waiter appeared and asked if we knew the name of King Lear's third daughter. There was Cordelia, of course, and there was Regan . . . "Goneril," I said, former English major that I am. "Goneril, of course, thanks," he said and went back to the kitchen. We both stared after him, but we weren't quick enough because really, in exchange for my literary knowledge, we both thought we deserved another dessert. By the time he came out again, the moment had passed. Alas, that restaurant is now closed, so we can't even go back and see if it's still on the menu.

Anyway, this recipe is wonderfully flexible and adaptable. I took the basic proportions from Molly Katzen's recipe for Summer Fruit Crumble in Still Life with Menu and adapted it from there. (Crumble isn't crumble to me without oatmeal in the topping, and her original only has flour.)

Alex came over this evening, and we ate the first ratatouille of the season (another farmer's market/garden amalgamation) with cous cous and bread. And then, of course, there was the crumble, predictably and reliably delicious. The stains on my tablecloth at both of our places are testament to its soupy goodness.

Even though I can't believe it's already August and I'm wanting to slow time down and stretch things out just a little bit, there are things that August is certainly good for, and one of them is that summer fruit is abundant, and you can make crumble every single night if you want to.

Summer Fruit Crumble
Adapted from Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu

3-4 cups sliced fresh peaches, apricots, or plums, or a combination
(I usually use 5-6 peaches)

2-3 cups berries
(I use 1 1/2 pints blueberries.)

1/2 cup, plus 1 tbsp. white flour

1 cup rolled oats

2 tbsp. granulated sugar

3 tbsp. brown sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4-1/3 cup nuts (chopped walnuts or sliced almonds)

4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) melted butter

zest of one lemon (optional)

1) Preheat oven to 375

2) Combine fruit in a bowl. Toss with 1 tbsp. flour and the granulated sugar.
Transfer to a medium size baking pan (8 or 9 inches square, or a small rectangle)

3) Combine oats, 1/2 cup flour, brown sugar, salt, nuts and melted butter. Distribute over the pan of fruit and pat into place

4) Bake at 375 for 30 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and the fruit bubbly. Let cool at least 10-15 minutes, then serve hot, warm or at room temperature.