I'm a creature of habit. The older I get, the more I rely on recipes that are tried-and-true favorites, the golden oldies. Here's what I see in the market this month -- eggplants, red peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, Italian prune plums and fresh figs. And, like re-playing music I once danced to, I'll make them mostly from memory.
• Caponata is a September dish if there ever was one. Its origins are in Sicily, where the dish primarily is a sweet-and-sour eggplant side dish. But with diaspora comes fusion. Many recipes marry the quartet of ratatouille's eggplant, tomatoes peppers and zucchini with the original caponata's raisins, vinegar, capers and olives. Many recipes also stew the veggies in a covered pot in the oven. Too mushy for me. I prefer to cook ingredients quickly on top of the stove so the veggies retain their shapes and a barely soft texture. Caponata is good hot, warm or at room temperature. It's great as a side dish for any grilled or roasted meat. For a long-lasting, fiber-filled breakfast, warm up a bowlful of caponata and top with a poached or soft-cooked egg.
• Mission figs -- now you see them, now you don't. Raise your game from the usual quartered figs drizzled with honey by scattering chunky slices of pistachio halvah over the top and adding a warm honey syrup. Just a few neighborly blackberries on the side makes for a show-stopper dessert.
• Italian prune plums. Raw, prune plums are blond and bland with a mere hint of sweetness. When cooked, the plums rev up their color and flavor, becoming crimson and tart-sweet. They shine in rustic tarts, coffee cakes and muffins -- all good hiding places for the small football-shaped plums. My first go-to recipe every year is plain poached plums, delicious served alone or over vanilla ice cream. Save leftover syrup for a plum gorgeous sundae sauce.
• Eggplant, again and again. Do you find yourself eating less meat? I do. Maybe because so many vegetable dishes are delicious and filling. I like to bake, not fry, thickish planks of un-peeled eggplant, then roll them around a savory filling of ricotta cheese; plop the roll-ups on a bed of jarred marinara sauce, blanket with cheese and bake till bubbly. The dish comes together in under 30 minutes, is economical, high in protein and serves up familiar Italian flavors. Bonus: it smells and tastes like you've been cooking all day. Make this dish now when eggplants are in all their purple glory.
Fresh Figs with Shaved Halvah and Warm Honey Syrup
This is an unorthodox combo of fleshy, fresh figs and thin slices of halvah, a dense confection that resembles shards of cheese. Any honey you use will be delicious.
- 1/2 cup fragrant honey
- 12 ripe large fresh black or green figs, or a combination
- 6-ounce chunk pistachio halvah
- Handful of fresh berries, if available
Combine the honey and 2 tablespoons water in a small saucepan; boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and keep warm. Wash the figs; cut in half lengthwise. Arrange, cut side up, on 4 large plates. Cut the halvah into paper-thin slices. Drizzle the honey syrup on the figs; scatter the halvah on and around the figs. Garnish with berries. Makes 4 servings.
-- "Radically Simple" by Rozanne Gold (Rodale, 2010)
If you think of the recipe in fashion terms, the garden vegetables are a basic black dress, which you then accessorize and customize with salty, sweet and tangy add-ins. Try to have all the vegetables cut approximately the same size, cubes about 1/2 inch square. Quick way to make: get everything out, trim and wash. Start cooking the onions and add veggies as they are chopped. This recipe makes a big skillet-full. Plan to share with a neighbor.
- Olive oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 or more cloves garlic, sliced
- 1 stalk celery, diced, optional
- 1 sweet red pepper, diced
- 1 poblano (or other green) pepper, diced
- 1 medium yellow or green zucchini
- 1 small eggplant, sliced 1/2 inch thick, then cut into sticks, then cubed
- 2 medium tomatoes (or more to taste), coarsely chopped
- Pinch hot pepper flakes, to taste
- 1/2 cup golden raisins
- Few tablespoons capers, drained
- Black salted olives, coarsely chopped
- 4 anchovies, mashed, optional
- Fresh lemon juice or red wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup pine nuts, optional
- Sugar, about 1 teaspoon
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
Get out your largest skillet. Set over the heat, and add the olive oil. Add the onions and garlic and stir occasionally over medium heat. Add celery and peppers. When they are about half softened, add zucchini and eggplant. Add a bit more olive oil to keep the mix from sticking. Mash up the tomatoes with your hands and add to the skillet. Sprinkle with pepper flakes to taste. Add raisins, capers and olives. Stir the contents of the skillet, and allow to simmer quietly about 5 minutes. Allow to cool a little. The mixture will be soft with a little juice. Do not dry out. Turn off the heat.
While all that is going on, prepare the add-ins.
In a small bowl, mash the anchovies if using. Now comes the important part. Taste. Flat and dull, probably. Add coarse salt. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Toss in the nuts. Grind pepper. Taste. Add a bit of sugar. Maybe a teaspoon or vinegar. Add to veggies. The ideal dish is a bit sweet, salty, spicy, with shades of umami, the occasional crunch and recognizable cubes of vegetables. Makes at least 8 servings.
-- Marlene Parrish
Eggplant Involtini with Ricotta
Fast, economical, high protein, familiar flavors. Smells and tastes like you've been cooking all day. That's a recipe for a winner at my house. I gave up making my own tomato sauce when all the kids left home. My favorite brand of jarred sauce is Rao's; either marinara or arrabiata is good in this recipe.
- 1 large or 2 small eggplants, sliced lengthwise into 1/3-inch slices
- Olive oil
- 1 cup fresh ricotta
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley (or basil)
- Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 cups basic tomato sauce
- Shredded mozzarella cheese, optional
- Grated cheese for passing
- Parsley clusters for garnish
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Spray a baking sheet (or 2) with non-stick baking spray. Fit the eggplant slices on the tray(s) and brush generously with olive oil. Bake, about 10 minutes or more until the slices are softened and beginning to color. Be careful they do not get too dark. Remove from the oven and cool.
Reduce the oven heat to 375 degrees.
In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, egg, parmesan, nutmeg, lemon zest, salt and pepper to taste.
Lay the eggplant slices out on a work surface and place a generous tablespoon of the ricotta filling at the base of each slice. Roll the eggplant up around the filling to form a neat roll and set seam-side-down on the work surface.
Lightly spritz a baking dish just large enough to hold the eggplant roll-ups. A 9- by 9-inch square or large oval dish should do it. Pour the sauce into the dish and place the rolls seam side down in the sauce. Spoon a bit of sauce over the rolls. If your family likes cheese, top with a good handful of shredded mozzarella cheese. (Make in advance to this point, if you like.)
Bake until the cheese starts to melt out of the roll-ups, and top is beginning to brown. Remove from oven and let set-up for a few minutes. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with parsley clusters. Makes about 4-5 servings.
-- Adapted from "Molto Italiano" by Mario Batali (Ecco, 2005)
Poached Italian Prune Plums
- 1 pound Italian prune plums
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 small cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
Wash the prunes and halve them, but do not peel. Remove the pits. In a large saucepan, boil the sugar, water and cinnamon stick over medium-heat for about 5 minutes or until the sugar is dissolved and a light syrup is formed.
Add prune halves and poach gently until tender, spooning the liquid over them occasionally and turning them once during the cooking. Stir in the vanilla. Serve the plums warm or cool with their syrup. Makes about 8 servings.
-- Marlene Parrish
Marlene Parrish may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-481-1620.