Monday, May 3, 2010

Summer love: kissing tomatoes goodbye

I have finally admitted the tomatoes are done until next summer. Between now and then I will live on dried, bottled and preserved tomatoes, lamenting my loss until I can consummate my lust with the ripe, firm, sweet juicy globes grown under the summer sun, drenched in warmth and olive oil. Goodbye to bell peppers, zucchinis, big purple eggplants and long skinny brinjals.

The supermarket, well-lit den of vice, will call its siren call. Like a corner-standing, trench-coat-wearing pimp, the supermarket whispers lies of eternal access and pleasure. Of constant supply. Of seamless, timeless, endless shiny foodstuffs. It is easy to be seduced. It is easy to be naive or forgetful - beneath the fluorescent lights and climate controlled air-conditioning and immaculately clean floors and shelving and plastic wrapped packaging - that our food grows in dirt according to the rhythms of the seasons and the turning of the earth.

On days when food is just fuel I do succumb. Of course I have eaten tomatoes in the dead of winter. I have bought imported cherries. Stored pumpkins and cold-storage apples and hot-housed cucumbers. But I remember one calabrese salad in August that was so distressingly tasteless that I couldn’t eat it. I picked out the bocconcini and left the basil and tomatoes. I should have known better. The supermarket quickie is not satisfying.

Seasonality is not about permaculture or organic farming or slow food or being a 'locavore'. It is almost inherent in all these things, but it is much, much more simple. You can eat seasonally shopping in your local supermarket. Seasonality is the idea that plants (and animals, really – although this is a bit complicated), when left to their own devices, naturally flower, fruit, ripen and grow in certain ways at certain times.

The secret of seasonality is that things taste best when allowed to grow according to this natural rhythm. The rocquette from my Dad’s veggie patch was the most peppery, fresh, flavourful rocquette I have ever eaten. My Mum’s tomatoes cannot be highly enough praised. Peaches warm from the sun? Mulberries eaten whilst climbing the mulberry tree? Pumpkin soup on the first day of winter? It just tastes right.

It’s not that tricky to work it out. Educate yourself. Get a list. And refer to the list. Try
Seasonal Cornucopia (it’s for the north west coast of America, but I make adjustments for being on the other side of the globe – where the seasons are reversed) – or this pdf for Australia. Ask questions. Visit farms. Look at price and availability. If it’s cheaper or there’s heaps more of it, chances are it’s in season. Things grow best in their natural season, therefore there is more of it, and (basic supply and demand) therefore it will likely be cheaper.* Try trial and error (I like this way best) – observe and trust your own senses. Taste things, remember how they tasted (you could be organised and keep notes, but seriously, who does that?).

And so: I admit that the tomatoes are over. But they tasted good while they were here. And we had time for one last steamy fling.

* This of course lead to the great asparagus over-indulgence of 1999 (which in turn lead to the great asparagus avoidance of 2000-2006).


Ratatouille is a French vegetable stew or sauce (depending on how long you cook it and how finely you cut the vegetables) made with vegetables from the tail-end of summer – and lots of garlic and olive oil. It is similar to the Italian caponata and the Catalan samfaina. It works well on its own, with grilled fish or meat, over pasta or rice, with chickpeas or other dried legumes, or crusty bread.

Serves about 8. Make a lot and freeze it.

½ cup olive oil (plus more to serve)
2 heads of garlic (or to taste), 1 head minced and the other peeled but left whole
2 red onions, roughly chopped into large dice
5 long thin aubergines (or 2 medium sized eggplants), sliced into ½ inch rounds
5 zucchinis, sliced into ½ inch rounds
1 red capsicum, roughly chopped into 1 inch pieces
2 yellow capsicum, roughly chopped into 1 inch pieces
1 kg really ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled and chopped
Handful of green beans (optional)
½ cup roughly chopped parsley, to serve

Heat oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add onions and whole peeled cloves of garlic and cook for a couple of minutes. Add minced garlic and cook until soft but not browning. Add eggplant and cook for three to four minutes. Then add zucchini and capsicum, stirring gently until softening.

Add chopped tomatoes and cook until the vegetables are very soft. Check for seasoning – add a generous amount of sea salt and pepper (I sometime like to add fresh chillies along with the capsicum for a bit of kick).

Add green beans (if using) and cover and cook until just cooked through (you could add them with the tomatoes, but I like my beans quite crisp, so I add them at the end – it’s a nice textual balance to the mushiness of the rest of the vegetables).

Serve scattered with chopped parsley.

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