It's official: I adore house guests.
For three weeks now, we've hosted a little Seattle delegation of one sort and another, and I have to say, I can't imagine where the naysayers get their gripes. Because not only did we get good company, we got great stuff. Fluffy stuffed bears and the coffee I pine for and catapult spoons that finally check the payback box for that awesome 10,000 sticker mega-pack I once bought a 3 year old (um, oops?). And services! Free kid entertainment, ingenious off-label uses for roof flashing, D.I.Y plumbing chutzpah, and a truly admirable policy of gutter-cleaning-before-sight-seeing. And fall.
They brought fall. I'm sure of it. Because the day before they arrived we were being steamed alive, and happily ever after it's been blustery and brash and unmistakably autumn. They didn't make a big deal of it, didn't mention it, actually. And I really can't imagine how they got a tilt of the planet and this riot of leaves past Homeland Security, what with Code Orange and all. But they did, bless their sneaky little hearts.
Our morning school runs have a snappy new soundtrack, the snap *crackle* crrrrunch of a thousand acorns underfoot. We wander to the park for long, lazy afternoons, not so hot we can't move, not so cold we leave fingertips on the monkey bars. We walk home a three-person parade, Henry crushing sycamore and oak leaf confetti to mark our progress. We were tardy to preschool last week, twice. Henry was dressed on time. It was me. All he had to do was whisper, "let's go for a little walk before school, eh?", and I was a goner. Albeit a goner with a guilty grin and a double jogger, playing hooky under the impeccable swagger of early autumn shadows.
There's color in the garden yet, but it feels less like full throttle and more like grand finale. The goldenrod that towered over us all by August, that just weeks ago stood eight feet high, is Zoë's height again, brilliant and weary.
There's a funny little renaissance happening over in the roses and anemones. Come and gone already in early summer, they're back for an encore. I can't decide if they're generous or shameless. I'll take them either way.
We're still playing in the yard as much as ever, maybe more. Autumn afternoons in Ohio are shaping up to be just the way I once loved my Seattle summers: cool and sunny and bright. Seed pods and acorns are the toys-of-the-moment.
And the signs of summer's end are everywhere. This week has taken a turn for the chilly. The last of the green beans have been picked, so thick and tough we shelled them for their tiny purple insides. We culled the final tomatoes at the first word of frost. Now our kitchen sill is its own roly-poly parade, red and green and everything in between. Fall fashion is out in force: long sleeves and light coats and that timeless male style statement, dark socks and sandals.
And at the market, a twilight round of Ohio eggplant. For all my nattering on about brisket, beef is an occasional visitor at our table, a once-a-month emissary to the carnivores I love to make up for all the garlicky greens and eggplant I'm always trotting out under the guise of supper. Like this.
You could call it eggplant Parmesan if you wish; I do. It's not, though, not technically. I've made a proper Parmigiana before, an all-afternoon affair full of breading and frying and oil-spattered tedium. It was very authentic, and good. This is very easy, and better.
Roasting sliced eggplant -- oiled and salted and blasted at high heat -- transforms its texture from tough and spongy to edible gold. As is, bronzed and tender, I snitch so many slices I nearly compromise dinner. But (ahem) little gaps and torn slices matter little in a dish like this, because in the end eggplant and tomato and sharp, nutty cheese blur into one. It tastes of summer all bundled up for fall, and smells like the best of both. You can bake it at pretty well any temperature, though I usually slide it in at 350° and take it out when its sultry sweet smell fills the house. It's no substitute for a home full of guests, but it's not a bad consolation prize.
Not Really Eggplant Parmesan
3-4 medium globe eggplant
2 1/2 cups light, herbed tomato sauce (see note below)*
8 oz. fresh mozzarella, sliced 1/3" thick
1 1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan
1 c. panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
Top and tail eggplant, then slice into 1/2" thick rounds. Toss generously with olive oil (4-6 Tbs., or as needed) and salt (2 tsp.) to coat. Spread in single layer on two baking sheets, then place in pre-heated 450° oven. Roast 15 minutes, or until most undersides are freckled with brown. Flip slices over with spatula (don't worry if some collapse), rotate trays if needed (top to bottom), and return to roast another 10-15 minutes, until reverse sides are browned. Remove and set aside.
Turn oven down to 350°.
Drizzle a little tomato sauce over the bottom of a baking pan. Place roasted eggplant slices, cheek to jowl, in a single layer along the bottom of the pan. Place half of mozzarella slices on top, then 1/3 grated Parmesan, then dollop with 1 cup of tomato sauce, spread slightly to distribute. Repeat. Sprinkle top with panko, remaining parmesan, and fling a little salt and pepper overall for good measure.
Bake 30 minutes at 350°, or the juices are bubbling and the house smells like heaven. Run the broiler 3-4 minutes to brown cheese and crumbs (watch closely), then remove. Let sit 30 minutes, then serve.
*Use your favorite basic tomato sauce here. I cracked open our first jar from August. If you don't have any on hand, here's one quick and simple template: While eggplant is cooking, saute one onion, chopped, in two Tbs. olive oil until golden, 5-8 minutes. Add one 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes, drained of most juices. Add 1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (thyme, basil, parsley), generous 1/2 tsp. salt, pepper (black or flakes). Simmer over low heat 5-10 minutes, to blend flavors. Adjust seasoning to taste. This produces more than you'll need in this recipe, but leftovers are lovely for pizza, pasta, etc.