Scare Up a Taste of Summer

Following September’s brutal heat wave, I am ready for fall. I’m ready for a tower of pumpkins on the porch; a wreath on the front door;  a roaring fire in the fireplace and flickering candles throughout the living room; a pot of soup simmering on the stove; and a fluffy down comforter in the bedroom.

But maybe not so fast. The farmers’ market still features a few delicious remnants of summer that merit our attention. When long-simmered to silky perfection, end-of-season vine-ripened tomatoes, firm and shiny eggplant, crisp bell peppers, and pungent garlic conjure up the flavors of summer without sacrificing the essence of autumn.

The French celebrate the dwindling harvest with ratatouille, a summer vegetable stew; but Sicilians make caponata, a masterful example of agrodolce—an addictive blend of sweet and sour flavors. So popular is the latter, ersatz versions can be purchased in jars and tins; and many a Sicilian mama cans her own to be enjoyed throughout the coming months. In a pinch you can always make it from scratch year ‘round—using canned tomato products—but it will be little more than a poor imitation of the following recipe.

Eggplant caponata is rustic by nature, so there are no fancy knife cuts to master or veggies to peel or seed. Relish the aromas as it simmers, then refrigerate for a while to develop the flavors. (It will keep several days in the refrigerator, and is actually best if made a day or two in advance.)If you’re looking for a little added crunch, top with a shower of toasted pine nuts just before serving.

Serve caponata at cool room temperature as a dip or spread, with celery sticks, California endive, crackers, or pita bread. (Crostini topped with a generous smear of California goat cheese and a spoonful of caponata is life-changing.) It can also be served as a condiment alongside plain grilled chicken or fish; as a zesty topping for a simple pasta dish; or as an unforgettable sandwich spread.

Caponata makes a bewitching snack for adults to nibble between trick-or-treaters on Halloween, as the garlic will surely keep the vampires at bay. Give this concoction a bloody name if you must—just be sure to eat, drink, and be scary!

Farmers’ Market Caponata

1 onion, chopped

1/4 teaspoon crushed hot red chili flakes, or more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

California olive oil

3 or 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 large eggplant (about 1 1/4 pounds), chopped

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 large celery rib, finely chopped

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

4 very ripe medium tomatoes (about 12 ounces total), coarsely chopped, juices reserved

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pitted olives, such as black Kalamata or green cerignolas, or a combination

2 tablespoons drained capers

1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley, marjoram or oregano, and basil

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more to taste

Toasted pine nuts (optional)

Lemon wedges for serving

 

  1. Place a 12- to 14-inch skillet or saute pan* over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, swirling to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the onion, red pepper flakes, and 5 or 6 grindings of black pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes.

 

  1. Stir in the garlic and cook just until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute.

 

  1. Add the eggplant, bell pepper, and celery and cook until the vegetables begin to soften, about 10 minutes. If the mixture starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a tablespoon or two of water to loosen things up.

 

  1. Stir in the tomatoes, olives, capers, and herbs. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is very soft, 15 to 20 minutes.

 

  1. Remove from the heat and stir in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Taste, adding more salt, pepper, and lemon juice as needed. Refrigerate, covered, for up to 3 days. Freeze for longer storage.

 

  1. To serve, let return to cool room temperature for an hour or so. Taste again, adjusting the seasonings if needed. Mound the caponata onto a plate, drizzle liberally with olive oil, and sprinkle with pine nuts, if desired. Surround with lemon wedges, for guests to squeeze. Makes about 4 cups.

*A shallow pan, like a skillet or saute pan, speeds the cooking process by allowing the cooking juices to reduce quickly. Lacking such a pan, go ahead and use a Dutch oven or other similar pan. It will just take a bit longer to cook.

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad & Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at www.pcfma.org. This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well.

 

 

 

Tulips, Iris and Hydrangeas

Q. My tulips and daffodils were removed from the ground and stored after the foliage turned brown. When should I replant them and should they be chilled first?

A. Spring or summer flowering bulbs stored from the previous year are replanted during their typical planting season. So you’d replant daffodils, narcissus, tulips, etc., in the fall, while dahlias, gladiolus and others would go back into the ground in the late winter or early spring. Yes, tulips should be chilled for six weeks before planting, but not the daffodils as the ground doesn’t get cold enough. When chilling tulips in a refrigerator, be sure you remove all apples, bananas, tomatoes and other fruits. The Ethylene gas from the maturing fruit can damage the immature flower(s). That being said, the real question is whether it’s worth the effort. Tulip flowers vary so don’t expect last year’s tulips to be as showy this year, as they won’t. They require another growing season before they reach their peak again. You improve the color show by mixing in new bulbs with the older ones. Personally, I’d plant new bulbs each year. This is not the case with daffodils and narcissus, as they’re planted anytime before the rainy season begins. Also, it is common to leave them in the ground year after year. The clumps are dug up and divided when the groupings become so crowded that the flower size is reduced. Also, the overcrowding is the major reason why daffodils and narcissus stop blooming altogether. Typically, they’re divided every three to four years. As with new planting, you should add Bulb Food or Bone Meal. Depending on the size of the bulb, add a teaspoon or tablespoon under each bulb so that nutrients are immediately available to the new roots.

Q. How do I go about planting and caring for Bearded Iris? Is now a good time to plant?

A. Fall is an excellent time to plant Bearded Iris. They like a sunny, well-drained soil so incorporate generous amounts of soil amendments or homemade compost and a starter fertilizer. Next, you will need to level the area and plant the new Irises so three-quarter of the rhizome is above the soil surface. If they’re planted too deep they will rot. Also, be sure the fan of leaves is facing the sun. Bearded Irises are water-wise so be careful not to over-water them during the summer and fall. Remove the spent flowers on a dry day so the soft tissue will callous over quickly. With established plants, do not trim the foliage off except to remove the areas with leaf spots. Only when the leaves turn brown in the fall should they be cut back or pulled off and the clumps can be divided as early as August.  You feed them twice a year—spring and fall—with an organic fertilizer. And finally, keep litter and grass away from the Iris plants because clean cultivation is the best precaution against future troubles.

Q. I read that to keep Hydrangeas a pink color you should feed them an acid fertilizer and then to turn them blue, use something alkaline. Each spring, I fertilize my pink Hydrangea with an acid fertilizer but the blooms turn out to be a dirty white color. What am I doing wrong?

A. The flower color on Hydrangeas is determined by the acidity or alkalinity of the soil and it’s measured by the soil pH. A pH scale runs from one to fourteen with seven being neutral. Any reading below seven is acid while any reading above eight is alkaline. A simple pH kit is available at your favorite garden center to measure your soil. Unfortunately, your blue/pink formula is backward. Hydrangeas turn pink in alkaline soils while we get blue tones in acid conditions. You keep Hydrangeas pink or red by fertilizing with Superphosphate or 0-10-10. For blue and/or lavender Hydrangeas feed them Aluminum Sulphate, EB Stone True Blue or similar acidifer. Begin in the fall and continue monthly, February through May. These additives are a supplement to your usual plant fertilizers, not a replacement.

Always Chardonnay

Fall is upon us but the weather has yet to cool down. As a result, our preference in wine still tends more towards chilled, white wines. These wines are often lighter and more refreshing than say, a heavy, red wine. If you are seeking out something delicious and easy to enjoy this October, you need not look much farther than a classic favorite, chardonnay.

Chardonnay is considered a “noble grape” because its fine qualities are discernible and unique in chardonnay wine produced around the world. From France, where the chardonnay grape originated (there is even a town called “Chardonnay”), to California, Australia, South America and beyond, chardonnay is produced in different styles and qualities to suit everyone’s taste and budget.

How can a single type of grape taste so drastically different from one wine to the next, you may wonder. The answer is based on numerous factors including the location of the vineyard, the viticultural practices, and of course, the actual winemaking.

As in real estate, growing wine grapes is all about location, location, location. Winemakers often say “You can make bad wine from good grapes but you can’t make good wine from bad grapes.” Everything starts in the vineyard. If the grapes are good, the wine has a fighting chance of being palatable as well.

Long ago, Cistercian monks in France’s Burgundy region painstakingly chose the plots of land on which to plant some of the great vineyards of the world by actually tasting the soil in each location. Today the fine chardonnay produced in the famed vineyards of Northern Burgundy (called “Bourgogne Blanc” or “White Burgundy”) serves as the benchmark of excellence in the world of wine. The hard work of those monks did not go unnoticed. Chardonnay producers will often strive to make their chardonnay more “Burgundian” in nature. People want to emulate the best.

The location of a vineyard determines the daily temperatures and the amount of sun and rain the vines will receive. It also establishes the type of soil the vines will sink their roots into, and the annual schedule of planting, pruning, and harvest. The type of soil directly affects the grape vines.

Unlike with most agriculture where a rich soil is desired, grapevines grow best in poor soil and often thrive in the least likely environments. For example, the vineyards of Chateauneuf Du Pape in Southern France are replete with large, round stones that look like moon rocks and in Portugal’s Douro Valley, growers must blast solid walls of rock with dynamite to plant their vines.

The best vines are usually planted on slopes to allow for sun exposure and root drainage. Grapevines often do not require irrigation. In France, irrigation of vineyards is actually illegal. The French believe that to irrigate is to manipulate the vines and to create a product that is not accurately reflective of the region. As ever, there are conflicting points of view on this issue but few other countries besides France place such restrictions on growers.

Chardonnay can be produced both with and without the use of oak. Some less expensive wines use oak chips or staves in an attempt to produce the taste of oak without the considerable expense of oak barrels. The theory is better than the actual practice and often the wood flavor is not well integrated into the wines.

Old oak barrels are neutral and don’t affect the flavors of a wine. New oak barrels will deepen the color of a chardonnay and lend to it toasty flavors and aromas of wood, spice, and vanilla. When crafted without the use of oak, in stainless steel tanks or cement vats, a chardonnay might smell and taste of rich, golden apples, or tangy, tropical fruit. Neither version is right or wrong, but simply different and appealing to diverse palates.

Chardonnay from the Napa Valley or France’s Burgundy region is priced according to its market demand and in accordance with the value of the land on which the vines for each wine are planted. Often the prices can be quite high. The good news is that these wines are beautifully made and deserving of their top-shelf status. If you have the opportunity to indulge in these wines, by all means do! The bad news is they may still be out of reach for those on a budget. But that’s where the rest of the world comes into play.

Lesser-known wine regions in California like our own Livermore Valley and the Lower Sierra Foothills produce wonderful wines with more accessible price tags. If you love a good California Chardonnay, don’t overlook the wines from these areas. If you prefer to sample wines from across the globe, try chardonnay from Australia, South Africa, or South America. You’ll find interesting chardonnay produced in a myriad of styles and might happen across a new favorite.

The most popular white wine grape in the world maintains its top standing for one reason only: the wines are consistently delicious and have been for centuries. Any way you look at it, chardonnay is great.

Cheers!

Questions? Comments? Email Elizabeth at 4elizabethkate@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram at @ielizabethkate.