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Generic Mediterranean

September 14, 2011

The end of summer and the beginning of fall is really a marvelous time. It’s harvest season. Spring is full of potential, but here in the northeast we don’t eat much fresh local produce in spring. In spring the earth is still frozen. The snow melts, seeds get planted, and the sun shines. But the first edibles seem to take an eternity to rise up from the earth.

Fresh local produce begins to trickle in at the beginning of summer. But it’s the end of July and early August when sweet corn and tomatoes are so good that cooking them seems like a crime. And all this time, other plants are in the ground basking in the sun and sucking up rain.

Despite the devastation left by Irene, the subsequent rains, and multiple floods, we are still getting delicious vegetables from our CSA with Roxbury Farm. This week was filled with sweet Italian red peppers and tomatoes. There were some root vegetables and winter squash too, in addition to a couple other pepper varieties.

It’s always interesting, when confronting a basket of produce, to see where inspiration comes from. For some it might come from Mexico, leading them to combine tomatoes, onions and jalapenos in a variety of ways. Others might turn to India, putting potatoes, red onions, and eggplant together in a curry.

But I’ve come to realize that first and foremost The Fussies look to the Mediterranean.

Let me tell you a story about last night’s dinner. It had no recipe. It had no underpinning in a specific dish, but was rather an amalgamation of many dishes. It was decidedly Italian, but was heavily influenced by a Spanish dish Mrs. Fussy had just made. Although it wasn’t fundamentally different from Marcella’s panzanella, either.

Not too long ago Mrs. Fussy made an amazing escalivada. I helped by baking, peeling and draining the eggplants. I also drizzled some beefsteak tomatoes with olive oil, oregano and marjoram before slow roasting them for 14 hours. She took all this, roasted a red bell pepper and sautéed some Italian red peppers. Then all the vegetables were combined together in a dressing of Spanish extra virgin olive oil, some stunning sherry vinegar (picked up from Adventure in Food Trading), garlic, salt and pepper.

In theory there should have been some lemon juice in there too. But I think that is meant for those who might be using a lesser vinegar. Because this dish was amazing, and when served on toasted ciabatta bread from The Placid Baker, it was the best thing on the table.

But for a quick weeknight supper, I was going to make some kind of pasta. And given that the bulk of my haul was tomatoes and peppers, I figured I would make some kind of sauce.

So I started by melting one jarred anchovy in some extra virgin olive oil. This doesn’t make food taste fishy, but rather gives in a depth of flavor and a baseline that would be missing without its funk. Had I not been cooking for kids, I would have also added some hot red pepper flakes.

Then came the sliced red peppers. These got salted and softened on medium heat, then caramelized on higher heat. Garlic was added to the pan, and the rawness was cooked away. After that came the capers. Then finally fresh, halved Juliet tomatoes were added to the pan. Not long enough to cook down into a sauce, but just to wilt them and get the fruit to give up a bit of its juice. Off heat I stirred in a little of a very special Italian red wine vinegar.

The whole thing was tossed with spiral pasta and served with grated Parm-Reg.

Not only did Young Master Fussy eat it all up, unsolicited he thanked me for making this delicious dinner. Frankly, I’m surprised he liked it.

This is one of those things I love about cooking. Once you understand the flavors of a region, you can combine them in all kinds of ways. Cook it down a bit more, leave out the peppers, add some olives, punch up the anchovies and spice, and it’s puttanesca. Make a few other small changes and it’s piperade.

I’m reminded of the nightshade pinwheel of eggplant, roasted peppers and sun-dried tomatoes of the Nunzio’s entry in the 2009 Tournament of Pizza finals.

Speaking of pizza, the 2011 TOP will be starting up soon. I’m excited to be judging for the third year in a row. Maybe we’ll talk more about it in the days and weeks to come. But I’m thrilled the AOA readers voted Pizza King back into the brackets this year. Maybe with Pasquale’s out of the running this can finally be their turn in the top spot.

Only time will tell.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2011 6:53 pm

    It all sounds delicious, as usual. I grew some Juliets this year with my San Marzanos and I’m impressed with how versatile they are.

    Usually when I make dinner, I tell Dave it’s coming from the top of my head, not from a recipe. He tends to like those dishes best (as do the kids). Mine always end up decidedly French, though. Interesting.

  2. September 15, 2011 2:08 am

    Sounds tasty, especially with the use of anchovies.

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