The last week of September, while the rest of the country was busy raking leaves, cleaning out chimneys, and taking out sweaters and boots preparing to welcome the imminent arrival of Autumn, the air in Southern California was set on fire. The AC units which were in hibernation throughout the summer came to life grunting and grumbling, spewing around the droplets of condensed water which hissed on the first contact with concrete shimmering from the heat.
People disappeared from the palm lined streets looking for respite from the sun’s fiery touch in cool and artificially lit malls. Only the crickets gave life to patios and back yards with their monotonous summer songs. It seemed like the whole world was suspended in the sweltering limbo, counting down every hour-long second, desperately awaiting relief.
In spite of the thermometers breaking loose and showing temperatures well over 110F, the stores dutifully showcased the pumpkins, the winter squashes, the apples, and the pears. Our plates were overflowing with crisp, refreshing salads; light pastas just touched with garlic, olive oil, and lemon; and even grilled meats in the rare cases of courageous humans willing to leave the comfort of their insulated living rooms, armed only with an ice-cold Sam Adams Oktoberfest brew. At the same time the rest of the world, at least in our hemisphere, was excitedly chattering about braised short ribs, hearty and comforting soups, stews simmered for hours, and different types of chili. Just thinking of winter fare raised the temperature several degrees, and we continued grazing, while trying to ignore the images of steaming heaps of buttery mashed potatoes, rich, red-wine sauces, and salubrious pot roasts surrounded with glistening carrots.
And then October rolled around and brought a long-awaited change. The breeze from the Pacific tamed the sun’s rays and invited us outside. It encouraged us to open the doors and shut off the air-conditioning. We slowly ventured out to the patios and back yards, skeptical at first, but growing bolder every minute. In a couple of days you could almost hear a communal sigh of relief. Paradise regained!
My Californian roots are still tender and weak. I hope with every new day to become more and more entrenched. But it is so easy to join the natives and take for granted the balmy days of perpetual spring, technicolor-blue skies, and the barely noticeable salty ocean air. We are definitely spoiled.
The last week our blue skies turned gray. Everything became subdued, void of color, like in an old black-and-white movie. In the morning a dew-like drizzle wets our cheeks as we hurry off to work. Once in a while, a short shower battles the dust and perks up the tired plants craving the water. The sun hides behind the uniform mass of leaden clouds. Girls wear boots, traffic is worse than ever, and all of a sudden the vibrant orange of the omnipresent pumpkins fits the color scheme.
We know that this weather will not last. Frantically, we drag the Dutch oven from the dark recesses of the pantry, print the book-marked recipes for comfort food, and plan shopping trips around big chunks of meat and root vegetables. How many braises and stews can we cram into our lives until the clouds break and the sun spills its warmth on us, liberated and victorious?
Husband made a huge pot of chili that we ate for two days. And we never eat the same thing twice, day after day. Those were some serious chili withdrawals! I made braised beef shanks with a hearty vegetable and red wine sauce. Even my older Beastie, Anya, who is not too enamored with meat, attacked the tender shreds with unusual gusto which made me smile and pat myself on the shoulder. We left the white wine in the refrigerator and uncorked the red, admiring its ruby color swirling in the glasses. It had been too long…
Rumbling thunder woke me up last night. For a moment I felt disoriented and thought I was in Cleveland. When I got up, I went outside and moved my sun-loving plants (lemon, fig, rosemary, and cacti) out of the reach of the deluge. The rain was coming down in sheets, fiercely attacking the arid soil, punching the leaves into submission, and flowing off the slopes in muddy streams. It continued relentlessly throughout the day, changing the rhythm occasionally, stopping for a few minutes, barely enough to trick the sun into peeking from behind the clouds as if to see if it was safe.
Feeling grateful that I do not have to face the blobs of water spilling from the clouds, I embraced another day of comfort foods. I browsed my cookbooks, checked some online sites, and tried to get inspiration from thousands of recipes I have stored in my virtual cookbook. The recipes I chose did not require a trip to the store. They were the epitome of hearty meals meant to warm up the body and the soul. I enjoyed gathering the ingredients, chopping, dicing, and browning, wishing for a second that every day was a comfort food day.
Californians are very fickle. I know that one of these gray days I will wake up annoyed by the pitter-patter of the rain drops and yearn for blue skies. But for now, I will cherish the chilly mornings and skip over the puddles. I will greet the clouds knowing that they are rare guests who allow me to treat my family to some incredible food.
PASTA E FAGIOLI (Giada De Laurentiis, Everyday Italian)
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 large sprig fresh rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 3 ounces pancetta, chopped (I used bacon)
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 5 3/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (used my own, home-made)
- 2 (14.5-ounce) cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed (I used only 1 can)
- 3/4 cup elbow macaroni
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch red pepper flakes, optional
- 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Wrap the thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf in a piece of cheesecloth and secure closed with kitchen twine. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and butter in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, pancetta, and garlic and saute until the onion is tender, about 3 minutes. Add the broth, beans, and sachet of herbs. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium and simmer until the vegetables are very tender, about 10 minutes. Discard the sachet. Puree 1 cup of the bean mixture in ablender until smooth. Before putting the puree back into the soup, add the macaroni and boil with the lid on until it is tender but still firm to the bite, about 8 minutes. Return the puree to the remaining soup in the saucepan and stir well. Season the soup with ground black pepper and red pepper flakes.
Ladle the soup into bowls. Sprinkle with some Parmesan and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil just before serving.