We didn't really talk tomatoes.
We can't put summer to bed without talking tomatoes, now can we?
Of course, last week was fall's official kick-off. And you'd better believe we were ready and waiting. Zoë's first words upon waking Friday: "Is it fall today?"
Yes! Yes, indeed.
Not that any season turns by calendar date. No more than do decades, when the last digit flips to zero. (Surely I'm not the only one who remembers all the deeply feathered, deeply seventies, David Cassidy style do's, still circulating circa 1983?) We've been sitting on the summer/fall fence all week, one foot firmly planted in each.
The leaves are still mostly all on the trees, but browning around the edges, like good shortbread. The crab apples are enjoying their della Robbia moment, that brief, vivid window when leaves and berries rub elbows. The echinacea's gone all architectural, the sunflower's weighing the zinnia down. The Japanese anemone's got a terrible case of dropsy. The gauzy little white one has picked up the slack.
The entire color scheme, indoors and out, has taken a turn toward the dark, saturated. I feel fortunate our flowers are in the back, as whole beds are looking downright Husky. (Purple and gold don't really fly in Buckeye Nation.) Well, Husky plus white, daisies, clematis, mums, those windflowers. Apparently, Mother Nature didn't get the memo: Labor Day's come and gone, and still, she wears white.
The green beans continue to come on strong, but the plants themselves are looking bedraggled. Also, we harvested that basket, below, in the rain. In slickers and wellies and impending twilight. Already, at 6:50. Yesterday's cucumbers were likely the last.
The weather turned, right on schedule, even if it was more coincidence than coordination. When we left for school Monday morning, I exclaimed without thinking, "Isn't it beautiful?!" My oldest busted up, then shot back, "Mom, it's gray, cold and rainy outside!" I know, I know. Like I said: beautiful.
Homework is working its way into our days in something like a semblance of routine. At its best, big brother helps little brother with his, and little brother helps little sister with hers. Not that, at three and a half, she has homework. Nor are we, for that matter, workbook sorts of people. But for She Who Will Not Be Left Out, we've adapted.
(And no, we're not always at our best. Sillies.)
Our kitchen can't decide which way to turn. Last Saturday's market was one serious split-personality, melons and squash, zucchini and cider, sunshine and goosebumps, everything good.
We cut up our last watermelon and canteloupe, and fall's first (and second, and third) sweet potato. We ate our last peaches, plain, sauced and crisped (our favorite topping on a bed of plain fruit, neither sugar nor starch required of peaches), and within the same day, our very first pumpkin. After-school snacks have been new-crop apples, a good match to the little tissue paper trees coming home. Dinner last week was soup, smoothies and toast, about as September a meal as any.
We made more pesto. And then more pesto. And fall's first giant vat of chili. And we finally re-filled the granola jars, after months of not-so-patient waiting. (Ohio's humid summers soften it overnight, and granola sans crunch is no granola at all.) And we simmered twenty pounds of tomatoes into sauce.
This fall business distracts me terribly.
Tomatoes have had a tough time of it, this year. Ghastly, actually. I didn't know actually know ghastly was possible in these parts.
I've been telling my friend Heather, who moved here last November, how easy, abundant tomatoes are an Ohio given. Like gravity, I might have implied. I may have dropped words like scads and you'll be sick of them. But if I went a little off the land of milk and honey deep end, it's because that was our first two summers' yield.
Reality this year's rather more Oliver Twist. (Sorry, Heather!)
Turns out, wet Julys and hot Septembers add up to a tomato disaster. Squirrels ravaged the first two months' fruit, sampling every tomato to quench their thirst. Never mind they might have drained one before moving on. Never mind the bird bath, not two feet away. Two tiny chiseled tooth-marks. Every last fruit. Ugh and sigh.
Once the rains set in, the squirrels let up, but the onslaught of water caused rot, cracks and splits. This is nothing, of course, as these things go; nothing next to farms hit hard by Irene. It is only small heartbreak, and learning by doing, and a parade of some seriously ugly tomatoes.
It hasn't been a complete loss. We had a few beauties early on, enough for glorious BLT's and capreses. (Those big beefs weigh in at two-plus pounds. One was enough to feed us all. With leftovers.) We learned to harvest them barely yellow, and finish them off on the window sill. And I re-discovered the purpose of sauce, as an ideal resting place for the less-than-perfect. Which is not to say that sauce is sub-par; not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. Especially if said sauce hails from the sub-continent.
The sauce of which I speak today has little to do with our ordinary, straight-up Italian standby. It comes from the lovely Maddhur Jaffrey, whom I turn to often for accessible Indian. Tucked into her latest book's chapter on vegetables is a discreet little dish she calls Tomato and Onion Curry. There's no photo and no hoopla, but if you ask me, it deserves both, plus a dog-ear, besides.
If your notion of curry is turmeric-stained, or chicken-filled, or coconut-milk-creamy, then set those expectations aside for the moment. This curry is an altogether different animal, a fragrant assembly of two vegetables, wisely spiced, deeply good. There's a bit of chili, more for warmth than heat, plus ginger and garlic, which need no because. There are, if you've got them, asafetida and curry leaves; there are substitutes below, if like me, you do not.
Then there are the other bits, equal parts flavor and texture: a smattering of split peas, fried in the hot oil, plus brown mustard seeds, both of which bring crunch. And then—my add—unsweetened coconut, which I tossed in on impulse, and out of habit. I adore the Keralan dry curries called thoren that include a bit of coconut along with the veg. So not like this cauliflower; so equally fine.
The end result is a rich, concentrated affair, by turns sweet, nutty, savory, warm and bright. I found it at once comforting and completely thrilling, being both so familiar and so brand new. Jaffrey recommends tipping it over potatoes, or burgers, fish, chicken, basically anything that stands still. I suspect a pristine bit of white halibut would be dreamy, poached directly in, or broiled and tucked under. I can report, first-hand, that it's mighty satisfying over basmati, studded with chickpeas, heaped high with raita.
(I should also report my kids ate none of it. Heck, they've only just cottoned to the simplest, milled sauce, which is what's filling those freezer tubs, up and down. I'm not complaining. Mini-moi wouldn't have touched anything with onion in it's title, either.)
One last thing, though I slurped it as greedily the first: the leftovers make one bang-up soup.
On a whim, I blitzed my remaining curry the next noon, with water to thin and a squeeze of lime. While the pot warmed, I scavenged for toppings, knowing I prefer my smooth soups well-embellished. On top went a dollop of thick greek yogurt, another chopped (split) tomato, and a quick-and-dirty tarka. Do you tarka? Oh, say you do. A traditional finish to Indian dals, a tarka is nothing more than a few seasonings—minced onion, chili, garlic, and/or select seeds—heated to fragrant in ghee or oil. On this day, I used only a pinch of chili, plus a generous spoonful of mustard seeds (which contrary to their name, taste not at all of sharp mustard, but have instead an addictive earthy, nutty sweetness). Drizzled over all, the tarka sealed the soup, bringing crisp crunch and gentle heat to each bite. Sad tomatoes, made very good, indeed.
I've included the recipes for both, below, since I'm on the fence as to which I like more. Not that a person must choose, I suppose. Time may march on, summer into fall, but in my book, excellent leftovers are always in season.
Tomato and Onion Curry
adapted from Maddhur Jaffrey, At Home with Maddhur Jaffrey
yield: 4 1/2 cups
Urad dal, asafetida and curry leaves are available at well-stocked grocers (Central Markets in Seattle), as well as any Indian grocer. Alternatively, yellow split peas (bean aisle or bulk section) make a fine substitute for the dal. Curry leaves freeze well, if you find them, and lend a wonderful earthy muskiness to dals and soups. I was out; it was fine. Typically, fresh (or frozen) grated coconut would be used, but I had neither. Instead, I added dehydrated wide flakes at the start, which plumped beautifully as the tomatoes cooked down. Use finely shredded "macaroon"-style, or large natural flakes (Bob's or the bulk bin), anything but sweetened Angel Flake.
Jaffrey has you salt and set aside the tomatoes, to let off juices at the start. I've included this step in the directions, but if you, like me, wind up chopping tomatoes while the onions cook, no worries—it will still be wonderful.
3 pounds tomatoes, chopped (5-6 cups)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons olive or canola oil
generous pinch asafetida or add a bit more garlic (below)
2 teaspoons yellow split peas or urad dal
2 teaspoons whole brown or yellow mustard seeds
1/2 cup unsweetened large flake or small flake (macaroon) coconut
3 whole dried red chilis (I used small thai chilis) or 1/4-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste
15 fresh curry leaves (optional), or 6 basil leaves, torn
1 1/4 pounds onions, chopped (about 3 1/2 cups)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 heaping tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped (from 1-1 1/2" of root)
Set chopped tomatoes in a bowl with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and set aside.
Pour oil into a wide, heavy, deep skillet and turn heat to medium-high. When oil shimmers, add asafetida (if using), urad dal or yellow split peas, and mustard seeds. As soon as mustard seeds begin to pop, a few seconds, add the whole red chilis/chili flakes and, a few seconds later, the curry leaves (or basil) and onions. Stir well to coat onions in spices, then fry over medium-high heat until onions are translucent, stirring occasionally and adjusting heat as needed so that onions don't brown. Add garlic and ginger, stir, and cook another 1-2 minutes, until fragrant. Add tomatoes and their liquid and bring to a boil
Turn heat down to medium and simmer vigorously for 20-40 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened to a thick-ish, gloppy consistency. (Jaffrey calls for 35-40 minutes; mine only took 25 to reach this stage, perhaps because I used a wide skillet instead of a pan). Check the salt, and add up to 1/2 teaspoon more, as needed, to taste. Remove the whole chilis and serve hot or at room temperature.
Fragrant Tomato Soup with Indian Flavors
I inadvertently left the whole chilis in the mix, resulting in a soup with considerable heat. Feel free to do the same, if you like a bit of fire. Otherwise, remove chilis before blending.
2 cups tomato onion curry, chilis removed (or not)
1-2 cups water
two pinches salt
juice of one half fresh lime
For the Tarka:
2 tablespoons coconut, olive or canola oil
2 teaspoons whole brown or yellow mustard seeds
red chili flakes or whole chili
Blitz 2 cups' leftover curry, plus 1 cup water/stock in a stand blender, or alternatively, directly in the pot with a stick blender. Add water as necessary to make blending easy, and process until smooth to your liking, 1-3 minutes. (Because I used large-flake coconut and a stick blender, my soup took 2-3 minutes to reach consistency. Finer flakes and/or a stand blender will do the job more quickly). Place blended soup into a pot, if you haven't already, and add two generous pinches of salt. Over medium heat, warm soup until steaming, stirring occasionally. Add juice of half a lime, and stir well. Check for seasonings and consistency, and add additional water, lime and/or salt as needed.
Divide soup into bowls, and top with garnishes of your choice: dollop of greek yogurt, chopped fresh tomato, additional fresh lime wedges, and/or fresh cilantro. Finally, top with a drizzle of the hot tarka...
To make the tarka: in a small skillet or saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Have a lid ready, add mustard seeds, and cover. When seeds begin to pop, a matter of seconds, add chili, cook a few seconds, then remove from heat. Pour a bit of the hot seasoned oil over each bowl, and enjoy.