Saturday, December 5, 2009

food of the season


Pennsylvania. Autumn approaches with its less languorous days, an intimation of chill at night. I hear conversations at the market or walking in the neighborhood, bemoaning winter’s coming, the cost of heating oil and general misery over summer’s end. Not for me – no, among the many pleasures the cooler months hold for me none surpasses the unalloyed joy of meals I’ll eat and, most often, prepare. At the farmers markets I can barely suppress my near-lust at the sight of voluptuous squashes, ruby-red baby beets to be combined with bitter salad greens and shards of Gorgonzola in a perfect autumn salad. I obsess over the torpedo onions, to be roasted along with imperfectly formed, sugary carrots, hunks of butternut squash and chunks of bitter radicchio that become almost candy-like after caramelization in the roasting pan. There is a hint of wood smoke in the air, prompting thoughts of crisp apples, slow-cooked, bourbon laced beans, a pot of heart-warming minestrone. Time to bake a big round of country bread – it will soothe me, along with a mug of Darjeeling tea, and leftovers will become robust croutons for a late summer panzanella.

An obsession, a love affair, a passion, a metaphor for life. I awaken, at home or away , to think of my next meal. The perfect figs that I’ll have for breakfast and the particular pasta – penne with garlic, red pepper and broccoli rabe- I want for dinner that night, showered with a generous downpour of Pecorino Romano.
It’s early October in Provence – St.Paul de Vence., hotel La Colombe d’Or. There is a faint dustiness to the colors, the blowzyness has abandoned the roses to take residence with lavender turnips. Eggplants appear in myriad shapes and sizes, all seductive. An array of mushrooms, irresistibly arranged next to pencil-thin leeks that in turn lie next to straw baskets of a seemingly unending variety of earth-encrusted potatoes. My sister and I tear ourselves away from the market to return to our hotel for breakfast, taken in the courtyard that faces the square across the road where old men, all dressed in white, play boules and chatter away the morning. We ask each other, over our morning coffee and brioche, is this really happening, are we really here; figs and lemons raining on the ground and , occasionally, on our table – an exquisite array of confitures adding to the near-overwhelming satiety of sensation. Where will we lunch after the museum – where will we have dinner.

New Orleans, before Katrina. September. Steamy. Mardi Gras and the Blues Fest long over, giving easy access to the streets but no diminishment to the wanton sexiness of the city, its unabashed self-indulgence. The insistent, unapologetic, unending talk of food – it’s everywhere. My taxi driver tells me where to go for the very best oyster po boy. Over beignets at Café du Monde I strike up a conversation with a relaxed fellow sporting a panama hat who riffs on a place across the river that dishes up amazing shrimp and crab dishes. That night a friend and I dine in a lovely restaurant on Rampart Street at the seamier end of the quarter. The chef-owner is a young woman from the Midwest, classically trained, who indulges us with molasses-glazed quail, their tiny legs raised toward the pressed tin ceiling. I’m committing infanticide and I don’t care – they’re sublime. The chef comes to our table at the end of dinner and the talk turns to Paris, the perfect apple tart, radishes, remembrances of the little cafés where most dinners began with crocks of supernal French butter accompanied by crusty, yeasty bread and radishes, lovely jewels in shades of garnet, amethyst and opal. We talk of the joys of gardening. The importance of knowing the provenance of our food. She’d been raised on a large working farm and her cooking was profoundly influenced by her background.

At home, in my sun-filled kitchen. Friends are coming to dinner Saturday night. I put Charlie Haden and Cyrus Chestnut on the CD player, awaiting divine inspiration – menu inspiration. Should it be a whole fish lying regally on a bed of braised root vegetables, a fat capon accompanied by a savory bread pudding – no, it is to be duck in licorice and merlot sauce for the main course, the licorice a hinted-at back note, the whole a rich and nuanced bedazzlement. Baby turnips and braised leeks its companion, a salad of frisee, pear and toasted walnuts to begin, garnished with the lovely speckled basil lingering in the garden, and then the dessert. Ah, I think, the perfect choice. There’s still lemon verbena, draping over the little stone wall of the herb garden, so I’ll make a sorbet, and a platter of delicate hazelnut wafers. And really good merlot throughout. I’m revved up, ready to go, suffused with anticipation. The pleasures of the table. The pleasures of touching, feeling, tasting, seeing. The pleasures of loving and living.
Sunday morning. Coffee and thick slices of country bread, grilled and spread with the bitterest orange marmalade. Seated on the deck, the garden it overlooks a blaze of bronze and cinnamon mums, I reminisce about last nights gathering of good friends, good conversation laced with irreverent humor, and abundant food and wine. We’d gathered in the living room for cheese-stuffed figs and a lovely, fresh muscadet. Then, to the table and our autumnal dinner.
I think of a line from Keats ---“Autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Amen.

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