Just between you and me? I swear I smell fall. I know, I know, it's weeks away yet. And yes, that was me rattling on about sweat and swelter barely a fortnight back. Don't get me wrong: muggy's still the status quo. The Calamine's still parked on my kitchen window sill, our daily dozen mosquito bites the wages of not staying in. We spent much of last week in north-of-ninety territory, and I'm confident there's more where that came from. Not full-on fall, then. A faint whiff. A whiff-ette.
(Hot DIGGITY dog!)
But the light's been doing its sneaky slanty late summer thing, swaggering in at that James Dean angle. It lights up our kitchen like nobody's business. And makes it look like I haven't dusted since March. Which, come to think of it... How about them peaches? They've been especially fine, this year. They're coming to a close, though. Another itty-bitty sign.
Not that I'm counting. Or taking notes. About the way twilight's suddenly closer to eight. Or the green acorns we've been pocketing on walks. Or the goosebumps I felt this week. Twice. I'm fine with getting my fix before seven. I'll take under-seventy, early or bust.
Or the shelly beans in our CSA box last week. Or, yesterday, the giant white squash. Not the summer kind (well yes, that too, but what's new?). The winter one! Inedible shell and all. Or the fact every item in our dress-up trunk has been worn ten times over, this past week alone. We've got some decent quick-change artists in our house. But speed like that takes a whole summer's practice.
I couldn't help but notice those sacks by the door, thick with Ticonderogas and rulers and Pee Chees. And that not-so-subtle note on my calendar, "BUY A WATCH!" That alone is so totally completely un-summer. But I haven't worn one once since spring. And I've got a schedule, all of a sudden. I set the alarm this morning. For six-thirty A*ouch*M. I sent two boys off to school, for the first time in months. Two boys. Same school. For the first time, ever. Maybe it's the tick-tocking of time that I smell. Maybe the goosebumps go beyond nighttime lows.There's an edge to this turn, to be sure. The anemones are still humming, but dropping petals, drooping. The Cucumber of All Time began looking like eyelet, devoured by something other than us. Long gone now, just like that.
So I'm suddenly looking askance at the rest. I cross-examine the zucchini about its intentions. Interrogate our tomatoes over their turning-red timeline. On the one hand, we hauled in six pounds. Today! Seven or more, if you include the cherries. On the other, I see so many WIPs, hard tiny marbles and Pollyana flowers. I'm not expecting 100%. But I'm rooting like crazy.
And stockpiling like mad.
The thing about this particular phase is it's all very cusp-ish, one foot here, one foot there. August is, as far as I can tell, the alpha and omega of yum. We've been feasting for weeks on, well, everything. It is all good and local and fresh and right now. I'm keeping my mind just this side of spinning by socking away a bit of this summer for snow. It's like Christmas in July. Only the other way 'round.
I bought a full flat of blackberries, to this end. It nearly killed me to pay real money, but the price was as good as it gets in Ohio, and every August of my life has involved purple fingers. We won't talk about how all twelve pints of ripe, plump-to-bursting berries flipped over on the way home from the market. No. No-ho-hooooo. Nope. We will only mention that we ate our fill, and froze two sheet-trays full for cooler weather.
The grooves of my thumbs are deep nicotine-brown, though the only habit I've adopted is serial-basil picking. We whipped up our fourth batch of pesto last week, and I'm due another triple-header any time now. We doubled our run of spanikopeta, tucked one in the deep freeze that came with the house. It's sitting on top of two trays of stuffed zukes, and underneath a pile of roasted, peeled peppers. I bought ten last week. Two for a dollar. Squirreling away, I feel pretty certain, is the only socially responsible answer to such steals.
It wasn't just peppers going at fire sale prices; eggplant were an eye-popping two quarters each. Not that I'd buy them on price alone. One eggplant's one eggplant too many, if you don't get along. (Speaking of which, I've been meaning to mention, you can also find me at Edible Columbus. We talked eggplant in August, turnips in July, and I'll drop a note when September rolls around.)
Anyway. Eggplant. Food of the gods. Or such is my humble opinion, these days. There are dozens of ways I inhale the stuff, and every last one involves screaming heat. For a rip-roaring salad, see that Edible post. For a brand new addiction, stick around a few moments.
If it's convenient, fire up the grill; if it's not, crank your oven to its limit. 500° is fine (crank the fan, while you're at it). What we're gunning for is incinerated eggplant. It sounds a little strange, and looks a little stranger. Or, as Zoë said, "It looks burned all over!" There's a long tradition of grilling whole eggplant until it blackens and collapses in a heap. There is also a very good reason for said tradition, namely the insides transform into plush silky gold. Edible gold, if you add a few fixings.
There are countless directions the fixings can take, but my longstanding most very favorite is this, a sultry smart spread spiked with citrus and parmesan. You start with a few of those incinerated eggplant, which have worked serious magic under the hood. While the skin crumples and chars, the flesh goes all soft and smoky and sweet. Profoundly so, all of the above.
You scrape out the insides, into a bowl, where they slump in a plush little heap of potential. Alone, it's nothing, except ugly (this dip will never win in the looks department). But add a mountain of fine, freshly grated parmesan, a shot of fresh lemon, a drizzle of oil. A wink of pepper, for flavor (two winks, if you're angling for heat). Pita chips, to scoop up great heaving piles. Because I've only ever eaten this in giant heaps, a dip:chip ratio of 2:1. I've also mostly called it a meal, because I can never eat just eight. But it's only eggplant, and it's nearly fall, and it would be a cryin' shame not to inhale summer's last stand.
Adapted from Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything
Quantities are vague here, as eggplants vary so in size. Start with the lesser amounts, test, and adjust, knowing that the end result is going to be full-throttle flavor. Pita chips are pretty much essential here. Trust me.
As for the cheese, use a microplane if you've got one. The shred is so fine, the parmesan melts into the eggplant (even cold). Or substitute the smaller holes on a box grater. Pre-shredded cheese won't hack it, but you can skip it altogether and substitute greek yogurt, half the lemon juice, and add a heap of cilantro, and still be one happy camper.
I'll usually toss whole eggplant (and peppers) on the grill after the evening's meal is done, to leverage the dying coals and get a head start on tomorrow's meal. On Barbara Kingsolver's recommendation, and with a huge dose of skepticism, I tried freezing the grilled, skinned eggplant flesh, sans seasoning, last year, 2 per bag. It worked brilliantly. Just defrost, drain juices, and proceed.
2 globe eggplant
2 lemons, juiced
1-2 ounces parmesan, freshly and finely grated (1 1/2 cups of feathery microplaned fluff)
1 tsp. salt
pinch aleppo pepper (or whatever heat you keep on hand, cayenne, etc.)
Pita chips, to serve
Toss eggplant on the grill, cover, and cook, flipping once after fifteen minutes or so, until completely black and collapsing, about 30 minutes. Alternatively, place eggplant on a foil-lined baking sheet and pop into a 500° oven for 30 minutes, flipping halfway through.
When eggplant is cool enough to handle, split skin and scoop roasted flesh into a bowl. Mash roughly with a fork, to break up large strands. To start, add the juice of 1 lemon, a good heaping cup of fluffy microplaned parm (which, though it sounds extreme, is only about an ounce), a teaspoon of salt, and a few glugs of olive oil, 2 Tablespoons say. Beat all this into the eggplant with a fork, taste, and add more, to taste. For this batch, I ended up using the juice of three plump, heavy lemon halves, and closer to two cups (1 1/2 ounces) of parm. You are angling for balance but not subtlety; this is full-throttle flavor in every bite. Once you've got serious umami from the parmesan and clear zip from the citrus equal to the eggplant's sweetness and smoke, you are golden. And set for a feast.