Excerpted from The Picnic by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker, and Jen Stevenson (Artisan Books). Copyright (c...
The pleasures of early autumn are not to be trifled with. It is as if the earth is just coming into its own, growing heavy with dense fruit. I always appreciated the way the weeds sort of explode this time of year. As a gardener, am I allowed to appreciate weeds?
Actually, speaking of the garden, now that the temperatures have dipped below the 90-degree mark, the garden is breathing a noticeable sigh of contentment and relief. The few kale plants which were able to survive the atrocious heat and the onslaught of insects and worms are actually looking healthy enough to harvest from. The mustard greens, bok choy, and tatsoi (like spinach but a little more interesting) are thriving, and even my beets look like they might, someday, if the planets align, produce fruit.
People love to gush about summer produce. I’ll admit, the variety is stupefying, and the colors on a summer market table are seductive to say the least. I know I’m not the only one who ends up lugging home more summer produce than I can possibly use in a week. But for all the appeal of the tomato and bright bell pepper, I’m a sucker for fall produce.
Autumn in the garden is a study in contrast. Peppery mustard greens are layered against buttery winter squash. Piquant radishes vie for attention with barely sweet turnips and sugary sweet beets. And one of my favorite things about fall vegetables is that they keep so well for so long. If you have a corner of your house that stays cool, keep your winter squashes, potatoes, garlic, and even apples there and you’ll still be set come February. The storing power of this bounty almost seems a consolation prize from nature. We still have to endure winter, but we’ll be provided for.
And in the spirit of saving fall vegetables, today I’m actually going to propose that you do just that. Put down the butternut squash and let what is left of the late summer produce have a final moment of glory in the kitchen. At the farmer’s market this week, I was able to score a couple of the last eggplants of the season. Eggplants have been somewhat en vogue this summer. And why not? Luxuriously plump, purple, and meaty, eggplants manage to be suave nonetheless. If you’ve ever tasted baba ghanoush you know what I mean. It’s like eating silk, but far tastier.
This recipe is based on baba ghanoush, but without the tahini. I took a summer vegetable and used it in an autumn preparation, paring the ingredients down to allow the eggplant to really take over the dish. The chive oil is purely optional, but it adds a lovely richness to this spare soup. The same goes for the slow roasted cherry tomatoes. Their acidity pairs nicely with the tameness of the eggplant. I might also recommend garnishing this soup with tahini (as it is clearly a fine companion), Greek yogurt, smoked paprika, or crunchy, garlicky croutons.
You may find this soup to be a bit too thick for your tastes. Simply thin it with more chicken or vegetable broth and season accordingly. This recipe is not a flavor-packed taste bud extravaganza, so don’t expect to be blown away by flavor. Of course, if the hedonist in you cannot be squelched, I see no reason why a bit of fresh, smoky, crumbled bacon would be amiss here. You might also benefit from smoking the eggplants rather than simply roasting them.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. With a paring knife, pierce in several places:
2 medium eggplants (about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds)
1 head garlic
by peeling off the outermost layers of skin and chopping off the top of the head to reveal the cloves inside. Place the garlic on a small square of tin foil and drizzle over:
2 tablespoons olive oil
Seal the garlic in the foil packet and place it on a foil-lined baking sheet along with the prepared eggplant. Roast for about 45 minutes or until the garlic is soft and the eggplants have turned a deep mahogany color and are soft to the touch.
Allow the garlic to cool enough to handle, and squeeze it until each clove pops out. In a food processor, purée the eggplant and garlic. Remove to a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Add:
1 1/4 cups chicken broth
Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 2-3 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste
Heat until piping hot and serve immediately with:
Quick Chive Oil
Makes 1/2 cup
Much has been made of the dangers of botulism from infused oils. The important thing to remember is that these oils are not dangerous in and of themselves and are incredibly delicious. Simply make a little at a time, and store the leftovers in the refrigerator for two weeks at the most. For a more time-consuming but beautifully green chive oil, simply purée the chives with the oil and strain it through a coffee filter. This process may take several hours, but you don't have to stand over it.
In a small saucepan, gently heat over medium-low to medium heat:
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup roughly chopped chives
When the oil starts to simmer and hiss, set a timer for two minutes. After two minutes, strain the oil through a fine-mesh sieve. Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Slow-Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Toss in a medium bowl to combine:
1 pound cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Spread in an even layer on the baking sheet and roast, undisturbed, for about 2 hours or until the tomatoes are shriveled.