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Women with Fish

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Sirens and fishes. My good luck muse. Charm me today.

15Octlead

Recipe below: Linguini with Clams, Vermouth, and Thyme

My first serious cooking job was at Restaurant Florent. Florent Morellet hired me despite my lack of experience. I’d been through only a few months of cooking school, and I’d worked for several caterers, but never in a restaurant. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I guess because I was so buzzed up and eager he took a chance.

I was put on lunch duty alongside a perpetually pissed-off chef who welcomed me with, “If I can’t yell at you, I can’t work with you.” I suppose because I was female he needed to get that straight on day one. I was actually happy to hear there’d be no special treatment for a five-foot-one-inch, 90-pound girl who hardly knew what she was doing. But this guy couldn’t stop yelling. I guess I was slow at first at whisking tubs of salad dressing, cleaning sinks full of mussels, roasting beef bones that were almost impossible for me to lift out of the oven.

The job was harder than I expected, but I was determined. Still, the more he screamed, the more anxious, insular, and slow I became. My string beans were problematic, because I don’t know why. They got brushed off my station onto the floor by Mr. Chef as he screamed, “Fucking shit!” Same with a bag of expensive scallops he told me to slice. I asked him how he wanted them cut. That brought only silence and an angry stare. Just tell me what you want me to do. But no. I then heard how “retarded” I was. The heat did scare me a little at first, but at least I avoided Bronsoning the hell out of those silvery fish, as he did. Customers complained that his were too blackened.

“Don’t stare at the busboy when I’m talking to you.” “Stop fucking around with your side towel.” And then he’d get all chatty, talking theater and Beckett, or that awful Blue Man Group, while I raced to wash three tubs of salad greens before the 11:30 lunch countdown.

At first I thought, well, this is just the passionate behavior of a dedicated chef. But I soon realized this guy was more suited for a sloppy American diner than a good kitchen. His cooking was, not up to the charm of the place at all. In his hands a grilled ham and gruyère sandwich, which should be a thing of beauty, turned into a burnt, oozing mess. He was all about speed, at any cost. He had little interest in detail, which surprised me, since even back then I understood it to be a given. Otherwise what’s the point?

Mr. Chef’s specials were particularly unpolished. One 7:30 a.m. I found cans of nasty chopped clams piled on my station. My chore was to open all the cans and pour the clam nibs, dark gray and smelling like cheap cat food, and their rank liquid into one of those stainless inset pots. “They’re gonna love this,” he said, as I watched him execute the first order, throwing in a fistful of garlic and then a ladle of the rubbery bits with their stinking liquid. That was the entire sauce, poured over flaccid spaghetti. I thought of my mother’s calm sauce, with its purple tinged Manilla clam shells, its aroma of white wine, parsley, and olive oil, and its touch of peperoncino. What was this guy doing here? And why was he serving this at all in a French bistro, when he should be spending his time trying to keep the boudin noir from exploding across the stove? The meatpacking guys who ate at Florent, many of them Italian-Americans, complained loudly about the stupid plate of pasta. I was deeply embarrassed. Schifo of the highest order. I told Mr. Chef my grandmother would have rolled over in her grave had she seen what he did to that spaghetti. With that, he threw a big sauce pan at my stomach. Oddly, it didn’t hurt, but it did startle me. Okay, I shouldn’t have said that, but by then I was so sick of his perverse anger and crappy cooking, it just came out.

Can-to-table method aside, this guy was such a dick. I told the head chef I might need to quit. He said, hang on, he was working on something. I assumed this meant working on replacing him, which I learned was true. But before that even happened, Mr. Chef had one of his time-consuming fits that greatly underlined the issue. This time he was provoked not by me but by one of the hardworking Mexican stock guys. I’m not sure what he did wrong, but Mr. Chef again threw a sauce pan across the kitchen, missing the stock guy but smashing into the restaurant’s fire protection system. White foam came spraying from the ceiling, not only in the kitchen but in the front of the house too. It was magical. A silence fell over the place as we all stood there and watched the lovely snow fall. Florent closed down for a day to clean up the mess. The next day Mr. Chef was out. I was more than relieved. In his place came a real chef, someone who taught me much and became a friend. I went on to work at Florent for four more years.

I’ve given a lot of thought to tyrannical kitchen culture and how harmful it is. I’m not talking about sexual abuse, I’m talking about bullying, which is a tradition. I’ve been told it developed as a way to keep twelve-year-old kitchen apprentices in France under control, a repulsive explanation. It certainly traveled here, and here it had nothing to do with kids. And I don’t think it’s a productive way to energize the weak or unmotivated. What is does is mess up performance, keeping good cooks from blossoming. After my stint with Mr. Chef, I went on to work with many chefs, and only one other subscribed to this creed. Mostly they were decent. If I screwed up, they told me, and we worked it out. Once I got fired for not being a fast enough line cook at a trendy, packed restaurant. The chef didn’t throw anything at me, he didn’t curse at me, he just fired me. And rightly so.

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Linguini with Clams, Vermouth, and Thyme

(Serves 4 as a main course)

Extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup dry vermouth
½ cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 to 5 dozen (depending on their size) littleneck or Manila clams, soaked and cleaned
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh peperoncino, minced
Salt
1 pound linguini
6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves chopped
The grated zest and a little of the juice from 1 lemon

Set up a pot of pasta cooking water and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.

Pour the vermouth and chicken broth into a wide pot. Add the butter and about 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Turn the heat to medium high, and bring the pot to a boil, letting it go for a minute or so. Now add the clams, and partially cover the pot to let the steam build back up. Then uncover the pan, and, with tongs, start pulling the clams out, one by one, as they open, dropping them into a big bowl. Clams are not as predictable as mussels; they proceed at their own pace, so to avoid overcooking the early openers, this tedious procedure is unavoidable. Drizzle the clams with a little olive oil.

Strain the clam cooking liquid into a bowl to get rid of any sand.

Drop the bucatini into the water.

Rinse out the cooking pot to remove sand, and then pour in about 3 tablespoons of olive oil and get it hot over medium heat. Add the garlic, the fresh chili, and the thyme, and sauté until fragrant, about a minute or so. Add the clam liquid, and let it simmer for about 2 minutes. Now add the clams, with any liquid they may have given off, and stir everything around for a few seconds. Turn off the heat.

When the bucatini is al dente, drain it, leaving some of the cooking water clinging to it. Place it in a large serving bowl, and give it a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

Pour the clams and their liquid over the bucatini. Add the lemon zest and the parsley, and squeeze on a little lemon juice. Taste for salt. You may or may not need it, depending on how salty your clams are. Toss well. Serve hot.

 

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Still Life with Clams, by Trish Savides.

Recipe below: Fregola with Clams, Saffron, and Sweet Wine

For a long time I shied away from making cooking videos. I thought they’d make me nervous, and the results would be stiff. I’m not sure why I thought that, since I’m pretty freewheeling, though I guess somewhat insular. I love my kitchen. I love cooking and writing about what I cook. But I’ve often been too happy alone, with my flames, steam, knives, heat.

I finally decided to just  jump in, no planning. The result has been unexpected. I feel no tension. I simply move along with what I’m doing, the natural flow of a dish put forth by a person who loves to cook. No talking about measurements, ¼ cup of this, teaspoon of that. That’s not helpful. My thoughts go to flavor, technique. I just want to show you how it rolls out.

I hope you’ll enjoy my videos. Please leave comments and thoughts. I’ll be doing more, getting inspiration mostly from what I’ve decided to cook for dinner. So all will be spontaneous. My aim is to help you to be the best cook you can, with warm encouragement.

This recipe for fregola with clams is one of my favorites. I like it almost as much as the classic linguini with clam sauce. Fregola is a Sardinian pasta made like couscous—durum wheat rolled, sometimes by hand, into little balls, although ones quite a bit larger than most couscous. But—where it really differs from couscous—fregola is roasted, giving it a slightly smoky taste and an interesting uneven coloring, ranging from light beige to dark brown in one package. The texture is chewy and porous, and the winy, herb-loaded clam broth soaks in easily, creating a rounded flavor.

Here’s my video of making it.

Fregola with Clams, Saffron, and Sweet Wine

 (Serves 4 as a main course)

¾ pound large fregola
Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 ¼-inch-thick slice pancetta, cut into small cubes
1 large shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh red chili, minced (a peperoncino is perfect)
½ cup slightly sweet white wine such as a sweet prosecco or Riesling or even sweet vermouth (you don’t want a super sweet dessert wine like vin santo)
½ cup chicken broth
About 4 dozen littleneck or Manila clams (which are basically the same), the smaller the better, well cleaned
A large pinch of saffron threads, ground to a powder and dissolved in a few tablespoons of hot water
The grated zest from 1 lemon
A few large sprigs of marjoram
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, lightly chopped

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Season with salt. Drop in the fregola, and cook it until just tender. Drain it, and pour it into a large serving bowl (one big enough to also hold all the opened clams). Drizzle it with a little olive oil, and cover the bowl to keep it warm.

In a large pot big enough to hold all the clams when opened, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta, and sauté until just crisp. Add the shallot, garlic, and hot chili, and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the sweet wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the chicken broth, and simmer uncovered for a few minutes.

Add the clams, and cook them partially covered for a few minutes. Take off the cover, and give them a stir. As they open, pull them with tongs from the sauce into a bowl. (They won’t all open at once, so if you leave the early openers in the skillet, they’ll be overcooked by the time the rest decide to pop.) Drizzle the opened clams with a little olive oil,

Add the saffron water and the lemon zest to the broth, and boil down for about a minute.

Add the marjoram and parsley to the fregola. Add the clams and a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Now pour the clam sauce on top, and give it all a good toss. Taste for seasoning. It probably won’t need salt, since the pancetta and the clams are pretty salty, but you never know. Serve in big bowls. Spoons are a good idea, to scoop up the broth.

 

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Butternut Squash, by Andrea Hill.

Recipe below: Orecchiette with Butternut Squash, Leeks, and Sausage

I’ve unpacked my Uniqlo cashmere V-neck and my suede Beatle boots. I’m ready, but maybe not as willing as I should be. Fall used to be my favorite season. Now I make the bad mistake of gazing beyond into the future. I know that’s not very Zen of me, but I already feel winter breathing down my neck. And New York winters now seem grayer and creepier, more drawn out one-tone affairs. Is it just me who thinks the seasons are changing? We hardly even get seriously cold weather or snow to break things up anymore. And when I go to the market to try to perk myself up, what do I find? Tons of hard squash. Nothing juicy going on right now.

Butternut squashes, both long and bulbous, are piled high at the Union Square market, along with all sorts of pumpkins and brown and green hard ribbed things that look fibrous and impenetrable. But, you know what, I love the flavor of butternut squash. It can be a challenge for a cook, as I’m sure you know, especially for a cook like me who focuses on Mediterranean flavors. But even Southern Italians have to deal with rough stuff in chillier weather, and they’ve found excellent ways of doing so. This pasta with squash and pork sausage is a good example.

I love this dish. It smells and tastes like the Thanksgiving of my dreams. And it’s great a for a party, which is what I recently cooked it for, followed by a fennel and celery salad. To me this particular pasta speaks of the season more than any other. It has put me solidly in the present, which is where I prefer to be.

Here’s a video from my preparation for that party.

Orecchiette with Butternut Squash, Leeks, and Sausage

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium butternut squash, skinned and cut into ½-inch cubes
2 leeks, well cleaned and thinly sliced, using only the tender white and light green parts
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 sweet Italian pork sausages, the casings removed, the meat pulled into bits
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground allspice
5 rosemary sprigs, the leaves well chopped
5 sage leaves, chopped
2 big splashes of dry vermouth
1 pound orecchiette
The grated zest from 1 lemon
A chunk of primo sale cheese

Set an extra-large sauté pan over medium heat. Drizzle in about a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Add the butternut squash and the leeks, and sauté for a minute or so. Add the garlic, and season with salt, black pepper, the allspice, the rosemary, and the sage. Continue sautéing until the squash is tender and fragrant and the leeks are soft, about 8 minutes. Add the splash of vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds.

While the squash is cooking, get out another, smaller sauté pan, and set it over medium heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil. Add the sausage, and sauté until it’s browned. Add a splash of vermouth, and let it bubble.

Bring a big pot of pasta cooking water to a boil, and season it with salt. Drop in the orecchiette.

Add the sausage to the butternut squash. Add the lemon zest, and give everything a good stir.

When the orecchiette is al dente, drain it, saving a little of the pasta cooking water. Add the orecchiette to the pan with the squash, and sauté it over low heat for about a minute, just to blend all the flavors, adding pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce. Taste for seasoning.

Pour the pasta into a large serving bowl, and grate on some primo sale. Give it a quick toss, bringing the rest of the cheese to the table.

Zuppa di Zucca

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Moonlight Pumpkins, by Christie.

Recipe below: Zuppa di Zucca

A few days ago I got myself a big cheese pumpkin, a wide, flat beige thing whose insides cook up creamy, not watery and stringy like other varieties. This odd looking pumpkin has been around since the 1800s, first cultivated in this country on Long Island. The one I bought was huge, maybe six pounds. I lugged it home from the Greenmarket, hacked it in in half, scooped out the seeds and all the fibrous stuff, and roasted it. The aroma from the oven was sweet and heavy.  From one of the halves I made a favorite recipe, torta di zucca, a Ligurian savory torta. Then I had a half a pumpkin left, oozing in my refrigerator. Its deep orange flesh was so lovely, so pumpkin, I couldn’t let it go to waste. After a little thought, I decided to make a soup.

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Pumpkin soup American-style. I don’t always love it. Too much spice, too sweet. When I was a kid, I think we had it made from a can, corn starch slimy. But prepared with Italian flair, it becomes a more beguiling creation (surprise). I’m sure you’ve seen the way Italians serve the soup inside a scooped out pumpkin. I love that. But even just in a bowl it can be what the Italians call vellutata, velvety, and it’s often garnished with shaved Parmigiana, a drizzle of balsamico, or crisp bits of pancetta. It’s truly savory. Here’s my take on it.

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Zuppa di Zucca

(Serves 6)

½ a small cheese pumpkin, or a large butternut squash cut in half, the seeds and fibrous stuff removed (save the pumpkin seeds for roasting if you like)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
1 ¼-inch-thick round of pancetta, in one piece
1 large onion, well chopped
2 carrots, cut into small dice
½ teaspoon ground allspice
About 10 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
5 rosemary sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
1 teaspoon honey
1 quart light chicken broth, preferably homemade
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup heavy cream
Balsamic vinegar for drizzling
A small chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Drizzle the inside of the pumpkin with olive oil, and sprinkle on a little salt.  Place it, cut side down, on a sheet pan, and roast until it’s soft and fragrant, about an hour, depending on the size of your pumpkin (it might need a bit longer.; you can test by poking a thin knife through the skin to feel for softness). Take it from the oven, and when it’s cool enough to handle, scoop out its insides. You’ll want about 3 cups of pulp.

Get out a large soup pot, and set it over medium heat. Add the piece of pancetta and a little olive oil, and let them sizzle for a few minutes, letting the pancetta brown a bit and turning it a few times. Add the onion and carrot and allspice, and sauté until the vegetables have softened, about 5 minutes. Add the thyme and rosemary, and heat to release their aromas. Add the honey and the chicken broth, and let the liquid heat through. Add the pumpkin, and stir it around well to loosen it into the broth. Season with a little black pepper and salt.

Let simmer, partially covered, for about 10 minutes, adding some hot water if it gets too thick.

Pull out the pancetta. Purée the soup in a food processor ,and pour it in back into the pot. Reheat it gently, and add the cream. Taste for seasoning. Ladle the soup into bowls, and garnish  it with a thread of balsamic vinegar and shavings of Parmigiano.

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Recipe below: Mussels with Leeks, Saffron, and Cream

A strange phenomenon occurs in Manhattan. It concerns restaurants. With so much turnover, often two or three changes a year, we often can’t remember what was there before. Was Reno Sweeney in the Sotto 13 building or next door in the kid’s school? Or was it where that hairdresser recently moved in? Is the new sushi joint in the former Filipino takeout counter or at that nice looking taco place I never went into? I sometimes think it’s just me going a bit senile, but so many people experience it, having things pulled out from under us. Ungrounded New York. But there are places I’ll never forget. Café de Bruxelles is one of them.

Beginning in the mid-1980s you could find me at Bruxelles several times a week. It was a true hangout, something hard to come by in this erratic city. It was on the corner of Greenwich and Horatio, right down the block from my apartment. With its yellow neon and odd grayish-greenish-blue paint job, it pulled me right in. It was in a one of those West Village triangular buildings immortalized by Edward Hopper in his 1942 painting Nighthawks (which was supposedly patterned after a triangle-shaped building just down on Greenwich, at the corner of Seventh Avenue).

At Bruxelles it was the barroom, not the restaurant itself, that drew me. There was a lumpy old Zinc bar, on which it was hard to balance a wine glass. The few bar tables that overlooked Greenwich Avenue had large windows with short lace curtains that had seen better days. It got busy on weekends, but I always found a bar seat on a Tuesday or Thursday. There was a Duvel beer poster on one wall (or was it Orval?), and on another a recent (at that time) New York magazine writeup stating that the frites at Bruxelles were the best in the city. That was, in my opinion, pretty much true. The general ambiance was a blend of dowdy European and New York chic. An odd mix that really worked for me.

The French chef and wife owners were gracious and aloof. She worked the house with a tight jaw and all-seeing eyes. Francine or Frances (why can’t I remember her name?) was thin and petite, her dark hair pulled back with a scrunchie, her knee-length straight skirt, white blouse, and ballet flats signaling some sort of French preppy look. She mostly ignored the bar crowd, I think not really understanding the watering hole mentality. Her chef husband was sweaty and anxious when he occasionally emerged from the basement kitchen. Francine gave out little boxes of Leonidas Belgian chocolates to her regulars every New Year. I felt proud that I always got one.

Bruxelles wasn’t as freewheeling as some looser American places. The bartenders were instructed not to do too much chatting, and, more important, not to give away too many drinks, a rule they followed only when Francine (or Frances) was around. It wasn’t at all a pickup place. The clientele was a mix of the old West Village gray hair, Mexican skirt, and Birkenstock crowd, slightly worn-out middle-aged regulars who still had a bit of cool in them (like me), and younger people who drank strong cocktails. I sat there next to Lou Reed a few times.

Dinner at the bar for me was often two parchment paper cones of their exceptional frites (which came with homemade mayonnaise), three or four glasses of Côtes du Rhône red, and half dozen Marlboro Lights, which I bummed from friends or guys hanging at the bar (in later years, of course, we couldn’t smoke anywhere, and by that time, luckily, I had lost interest anyway). I know this “dinner” sounds sort of disgusting, but I can assure you that at the time it was perfection. When I wanted a real meal, I’d get a big bowl of mussels with cream and leeks and maybe a Delirium Tremens, one of the powerful Belgian beers they stocked. The serious food, such as waterzooi, a murky braise that, I was surprised to learn, was made with chicken, or the carbonade flamande, a beef stew cooked in beer, was mushy and dull. I usually stuck to the frites.

And they had mice. The mice would come out at night. One night I arrived at the bar, straight off a long plane ride, tired and seriously hungry, and after a few wines and a cone of frites I started experiencing a weird jet lag sensation, a sort of out of body feeling of falling backward in slow motion, even though I was sitting still. Not altogether bad, actually. But I sensed some kind real motion at my feet. I looked down and saw mice scurrying around my bar stool. I wasn’t sure if they were real or just my jet-lagged mind playing tricks. So many tiny baby mice. They were real. I asked Robert, the bartender, about them and he said, smirking, that the owners didn’t think they had any mice, so he guessed they didn’t have mice. Since they didn’t exist, I just went on with my bowl of mussels, staring out at the hard rain and the street lights. Robert said he liked my sweater. “Is it cashmere?” It wasn’t, but I felt good in my neighborhood, in my mousy place, on a chilly night, in my faux cashmere sweater.

Bruxelles closed in 2010. At first the owners said it was temporary, damage from a kitchen fire. That might have been the case, but we soon learned they’d sold the lease to a guy who planned to open a pricey, hip French place. That was very hard to bear. In a few months, there it was, the new place, zinc bar gone, packed with banker types, bone marrow on the menu. That didn’t last long. Then I think an eclectic American something or other opened up, also with bone marrow. I never ate there. And now Rossopomodoro, a more than decent, slick-vibed Italian trattoria run by people associated with Eataly. I can take it or leave it. I want Café de Bruxelles back.

red wine re-do

Red Wine with Mussels, by Carolyn Ritchie Bedford.

Mussels with Leeks,  Saffron, and Cream

(Makes 2 large servings)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium leeks, cleaned and cut into thin rounds, using some of the tender green part
About 8 large sprigs of thyme, with the blossoms, if available, the leaves chopped
About 2 or so pounds black mussels, on the small side, well washed
¼ cup dry vermouth
A big pinch of saffron threads, dried and ground, and then dissolved in ½ cup of warm chicken broth
½ cup heavy cream
Black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
Salt, if needed
A handful of flat leaf parsley leaves, chopped

Get out a really big pot, and set it over medium-high heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the leeks and the thyme (saving the blossoms, if you have any, for garnish), and sauté until everything is fragrant and the leeks are softened, about 4 minutes. Add the mussels, and stir them around in the leeks for a minute. Add the vermouth, and let it boil out for about another minute. Now add the saffron-scented  chicken broth. When the liquid starts bubbling, stir the mussels so they’re well moistened, and then cover them for about about half a minute, just to build up some heat. Uncover,  adding the cream, and stir the mussels a few more times. They should start to open after about 5 minutes (a few might take longer, but don’t wait too long for them or the others will get overcooked).

Add the butter, the parsley, and the thyme blossoms, if you’ve got them. Toss. Taste for salt—you may or may not need any depending on the saltiness of the mussels. Serve right away. And have plenty of good bread to soak up the juices.

After the mussels, a big salad of bitter greens and a good soft goat cheese will be perfect—and very Bruxelles.

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Still Life with Tomato, by Kevin H. Adams

Recipe below: Braised Eggplant with Tomatoes, Crème Fraîche, and Cinnamon Basil

Late summer in Manhattan can be sweltering. Last week we went into the mid nineties. I have to admit I love when high heat and humidity hang in the city air, making me feel cloaked in a matted hot wool blanket. But the heat can’t disguise the fact that summer is coming to an end. This year I’m more apprehensive about that than usual. I wish I had a big project, driving me into the fall. Instead I have several intimate projects, things that can require greater immediate concentration than, say, a major book deal, but may not, to the outside world, seem as cool. That’s fine. I also worry about our country and our planet. Existential anxiety you say? Why, yes. It’s my specialty.

At this particular summer’s end, when our elected rulers are acting especially tawdry, the garden brings me something grand: tomatoes. All the rain and sun and heat have come together to produce late summer’s ultimate gift. My plants are ten feet tall and covered with various types of little Italian tomatoes, some deep red or orange, others still green and tight. The little guys are perfect for tarts, which I’ve been making a lot of, or for quick-seared sauce for pasta, which I’ve been eating tons of. I’ve yet to try growing bigger tomatoes. They seem too heavy for my small space. For those, I go to the farmer’s market.

To keep your mind off the petulant three-year-old running the paranoid circus we’re all forced to attend, why not consider a combination of eggplant, tomatoes, crème fraiche, and cinnamon basil. I can tell you it’s wonderful. The crème fraîche adds just the right touch of acidity to cut through eggplant’s richness. I don’t think I ever blended those two ingredients before. Is that possible? I just happen to have cinnamon basil growing on my deck. I’m not sure why I planted it. On a whim, I guess, and I don’t use it much. But somehow it seems exactly the thing for this dish. If you don’t have it (and why would you?), regular basil will be perfect here.

I served this with a side of merguez, but it stands alone, with a green salad and good bread, as an all vegetable dinner. And don’t forget a glass of cold rosato.

Happy end of summer to all my Italian food friends.

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Braised Eggplant with Tomato, Crème Fraîche, and Cinnamon Basil

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
5 or 6 small Japanese eggplants, cut into small chunks
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
5 or 6 sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
1 large summer garlic clove, thinly sliced
Salt
1 teaspoon ras el hanout
Black pepper
4 medium-sized round summer tomatoes, seeded and cut into medium dice
A splash of dry Marsala
A drizzle of honey
Aleppo pepper
A heaping tablespoon of crème fraîche
Cinnamon basil or regular basil

Get out a big sauté pan, and set it over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of good olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the eggplant, the shallot, and the thyme, and let them sauté until the eggplant is golden and tender, about 10 minutes. Now add the garlic, some salt, the ras el hanout, and a bit of black pepper. Sauté a minute or so longer, just to blend all the flavors.  Add the tomatoes and continue cooking until the they’re soft and starting to give off juice, about 5 minutes longer.

Give the pan a splash of Marsala and let it boil off. Add the honey and a sprinkling of Aleppo.

Pull the pan from the heat, and stir in the crème fraîche.

Spoon the eggplant into a wide serving bowl, and scatter on the basil. Serve hot or warm.