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Late Summer Produce

Sep 01, 2015 12:26PM ● By Lesley Stiles

by Lesley Stiles

September commences, unconsciously loosening summer’s incendiary grip on the Diablo Valley. Small armies of squirrels race in circles around trunks of oak trees, jumping from roofs to trees in circus-like fashion, fulfilling their métier for releasing as many acorns as possible, as quickly as possible. Vacations to far-off fabled places are completed, while children scurry back to school.

Late summer produce is especially thrilling (as sugars concentrate from day heat and extended summer evenings) and abounds in the form of figs aplenty. Late season tomatoes, grapes, early apples and the beloved Bartlett pears comingle on market tables with local, tooth-achingly sweet grapes. Early winter squash peek quietly out, like little old aunties in the corner, and patiently begin to compete with current crops as they fade into fall, just barely beating out persimmons and pomegranates.

In Greek mythology, figs are associated with Dionysius, God of wine, and drunkenness, and some cultures in India believe that any job sullied with the flowering fruit will be left undone. Fig trees are seen as trees of wisdom, vigor, and creation, as well as abundance. Any foods wrapped in the leaves of a fig and cooked gently over a low fire will impart strong flavors of coconut. Native to the Mediterranean areas, figs are not hard to envision paired with feta or chevre and drizzled with thickened balsamic. Quarter figs and add halved cherry tomatoes, then toss with lemon juice, olive oil, basil and salt for a stunning combination of two of summer’s finest stars. Saute organic chicken with onions, garlic, white wine, and figs, and finish with a touch of cream for something Dionysus would swoon over. Quinoa, faro, and brown basmati rice, all cooked separately and tossed with scallions, parsley, figs and rice vinegar, then showered with chopped toasted almonds is a meal in itself, but goes well nestled stealthily under grilled lamb. Avocados sliced with fig halves and tossed with pristine arugula and lemon oil is the perfect foil to lay wild roasted salmon upon. Caramelized figs and reduced Muscat spooned lusciously over plum sorbet with shavings of dark chocolate can land you the attention of a wealthy sultan under the right circumstances.

Pears also figure large in Greek mythology, being sacred to Hero, Venus, and Pomona, all three revered as goddesses of gardens, fertility and harvests. Ancient Chinese revered the pear as their symbol of immortality as pear trees grow very old, sometimes older than the person that planted it. Many cultures believe pears should never be divided between friends and lovers in order to prevent separation of lives between them. Possibly the first known mention of the pear is in the 9th century poem by Homer, The Odyssey, where they are mentioned as a gift of the gods. Pears of today bow tables and tip scales at local farmers’ markets, and they do not disappoint or diminish any of yesteryear’s praise, being as beguilingly sweet and luscious as any in Venus’ garden. Picked green and ripened in a root cellar or paper bag ensures smooth creamy flesh, but when left on the tree to ripen, beware of mealy, bland fruits.

Pears masochistically crave molten, buttery, fresh-made caramel sauce on their flesh, followed rapidly by chilled, honey-sweetened mascarpone to quiet the burn. Apply to fresh, poached or baked pears. No cake needed. Pears cut into fall salads of arugula, mizuna, and tatsoi, with crumbled-in, luscious, veiny gorgonzola, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic and showered with toasted, chopped, almonds turn any time of day into a paradisiacal moment of splendor to be shared with a glass of rose and a close friend. Standing in your garden, gazing upon autumn’s natural splendor with pear juice dripping down your chin and hands can cause a blockage of pathways of normal productivity, until the stupor of deliciousness clears from your taste buds and recent taste memory. It’s as if you are waking from a dream and returning to normal life…. until the next pear.

Lesley Stiles is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy, sustainable caterer and school garden educator. Contact Lesley at [email protected], and visit her new website: 

Roasted Tomato and Fig Tarts

Makes 24 or so

Preheat oven to 450˚. Spray 2 mini-muffin tins.

24 cherry tomatoes

2 sheets puff pastry

½ cup chevre

3 figs cut into eighths

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cut cherry tomatoes in half and roast with olive oil, thyme and salt at 450˚ for 25 minutes.

Lay a sheet of puff pastry onto a baking sheet. Cut into 12 pieces, repeating with other sheet. Press into tins. Place 1 tomato half, 1 piece of fig, a dollop of chevre and a sprinkle of Parmesan in each one. Bake for 15 minutes. Serve warm.