Peppers. HANNAH SELINGER
There is a moment in late August: a deep inhale, a pregnant pause. We know that summer is on the gentle decline into autumn. The sunset is minutes earlier every night. In the mornings, that first breath of cool air emerges, washing over us, reminding us: It all ends, eventually.
It’s the confluence of events—the pinnacle of bounty, bound by the confines of an all-too-short season—that makes August so sad.
This is the heart of nightshade season.
Nightshades are a classification of plant that practically define summer’s end. Eggplant, peppers, tomatillos, potatoes, ground cherries and, of course, those coveted tomatoes—these plants come of age at August’s waning. Whence arrive the first purple peppers at the market, I know: Time is growing short again. Grab on. Autumn is coming.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many of the recipes associated with nightshades are preservationist in nature. We make sauces, jellies, salsas. We core, score, peel and can our tomatoes. We store our tubers in root cellars in anticipation of a long, hard winter. It seems that, even at their peak, nightshades remind us of how ephemeral summer is.
There is no better representation of the glory of summer than the tomato. As a child, the only tomatoes I knew were the wan, mealy variety chosen from a chilled produce department at a chain grocery store. It’s no wonder I thought I hated tomatoes. I had not yet tasted them, not really.
Now, every time I cut into a Green Zebra or Cherokee Purple, I mourn every diner-issued January BLT I ever ate. A tomato is a dish best served sun-warm, not refrigerator section-cold.
Nearly a decade ago, I went to Pocantico Hills, where I was treated to a celebratory birthday dinner (mine falls at August’s end) at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Chef Dan Barber has made it his mission to extol farm-grown vegetables, and, on that particular night, nightshades were out in full force. First arrived a wooden block adorned with metal spokes, upon which cubed heirloom tomatoes rested. They needed nothing, not even salt.
Next, a fairy tale eggplant, bite-sized, draped solely in olive oil and sesame seeds. I tasted every minute of ripening, every last sun-soaked July morning that brought forth those nightshades on that late August evening. For a moment, I captured summer as it was most decidedly on its way out.
And so, as August wanes, I find myself hoarding the bounty, storing tomatoes every which way in my kitchen, stewing eggplant with onions and garlic for … what? I’m not yet sure.
Even on the hottest summer evenings, I will transform my humble kitchen into a factory of flame and steam. My family eats every iteration of nightshade until they are sick of the sight of lilac eggplant, red- and yellow-striped tomatoes, indigo potatoes. Lime-green tomatillo, pulsed in a food processor with ripe peaches from my backyard tree, make a far more delicious salsa than any competing store-bought variety.
What are the best ways to eat nightshades? For me, a caponata is king. This Italian condiment, which combines eggplant, bell pepper and tomato, is the articulation of agrodolce: sour and sweet. The stewed vegetables, made piquant with the addition of capers and sweet with the addition of raisins, can fortify a cool fall evening. I prefer mine on crusty, lightly oiled bread.
For me, the finest expression of the tomato, apart from its un-gussied presence on a plate with a dusting of kosher salt, is in its primal transformation to sauce. Marcela Hazan’s sauce is famous for its simplicity: a slab of butter, added toward the end, provides an unctuous, stick-to-your-pasta touch. It can be canned, but, let’s be honest—there are rarely leftovers available for such niceties.
Although if I have the time, on a thunderstorm-heavy Sunday afternoon, perhaps, I’m happy to spend a day hunched over a lobster pot, mason jars in hand, dropping blanched tomato after blanched tomato into glass for use in the thick of some faraway winter storm.
Then, when I wake in February, to frozen ground swell and snow dust, I can take comfort in the hiss of tomato in a stockpot, awaiting its butter.
Someday again, I know, it will be summer.
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One fine body…