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On a particularly gusty evening last week, I decided to forgo my typical “cooking for one” expedition, to browse the aisles and hunt for dinner inspiration at Gourmet Garage, and instead, took a gander through my pantry to see what I could whip together from what I already had on hand. I had leftover veggies – carrots, celery, basil, and a few, lonely looking remnants from the summer tomato harvest – and, on top of the fridge, three quarters of a big French boule that was getting, well, very stale. A quick dig through the cupboard revealed a can of San Marzano tomatoes, and I knew just what I’d make.
Papa al Pomodoro: a hearty Italian tomato soup thickened with old crusty bread and topped with a gutsy drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Easy and delicious, this soup screams fall and reminds me of my Mamma and Mrs. Newton, our next door neighbor back in Buff. Mrs. Newton first introduced my family to Papa, or a homelier version thereof (we didn’t call it by its Italian name until Mamma and I ventured to Italy and tasted the real-deal in Tuscany), after both families agreed to plant tomatoes in the garden that separated our two yards. It became something of an autumnal staple when I was growing up, and with the crisp weather descending on the city, I decided to give Mrs. Newton a call to double check the recipe.
I was rattling off the steps involved – start with a basic mirepoix (diced carrots, onions and celery) and throw it a pan with some olive oil – when she chuckled. “Well, sort of.” When I asked her why she was laughing, she said, “Well, you know, in those days, olive oil hadn’t really been invented.”
Of course, she didn’t mean that literally; olive oil has been around since the hunky youths of Greece were shining themselves up before wrestling practice, but she did have a point. Just because these days there’s a bottle of extra virgin on every countertop across the country, doesn’t mean that’s always been the case. The average American pantry has undergone a complete makeover in the last few decades, and much of it has been for the better. Old standbys like Folger’s coffee, iceberg lettuce and iodized salt seem to be slowly disappearing, replaced by Colombian whole bean blends, heads of romaine, bags of baby spinach and flaky fleur de sel. The once ubiquitous butter (or, God forbid, margarine) has been replaced by EVOO for many of our sautéing needs.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps the place where these changes are most apparent is in the selection of produce at your local farmers’ market. I’m pretty sure that few but proud farmers’ markets existed twenty years ago, but am willing to wager that they weren’t overflowing with Chinese long-beans and kohlrabi as they are today. Last week, on my weekly shopping trip through Union Square, I came across another delicacy that was quite rare even a few years ago, but because of changing tastes, has become more and more readily available.
Fresh figs! Either bright green or a very dark purple, fresh figs share little resemblance with the dried supermarket variety that were popularized not by Mrs. Newton, but by Nabisco. On my last trip to the market, standing in front of a table filled with figs, a woman turned to me and asked, “These are figs?” I smiled and nodded, and could see the gears in the her mind reconciling the soft, juicy little orbs in front of her with the flat, chewy Fig Newtons of our childhoods. I encouraged her to buy a box, since like so many other things, compared to the dried, year-round version, the taste of fresh figs straight from the farm is incomparably more nuanced and delicious.
Each year there are two fig harvests in New York. The first takes place in mid-summer, and is actually born from the branches that sprouted the previous year. Then several weeks later (the harvest that’s finishing up now), this year’s branches bud. These harvests usually overlap and for the NYC market-goer, fig season seems to stretch from mid-summer into late fall. Which means there is plenty of time to experiment with different ways to cook with figs! I’ve tried them in salads with sherry vinagrettes, roasted them to serve over sundaes (or since I don’t like ice cream, clouds of freshly whipped cream), minced them to add sweetness to a savory stuffed chicken recipe, and even tried my hand at jam.
A bit hardier than summer fruits, figs make a perfect finish to an early autumnal dinner. On this night, I stuffed mine with manchego cheese and wrapped them in Serrano ham as I sat reflecting on the success of my Mediterranean meal (Italian soup from market veggies, topped with Greek olive oil, and bites of fresh fig surrounded in Spanish flavor sensations). I couldn’t help but think that from pantries to produce, change can be a good thing.