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A tokaji for your tarte Tatin

It doesn’t take much to make me bake something. A ripe banana crosses my path? I’ll bake a banana cake. A hunk of chocolate lands in my grocery cart? Clearly, I’m supposed to make some brownies. That pound of butter in the freezer? It’s very pushy, always begging to be used, foisting itself into batters and stuff. Gah. And with apple season upon us, you can well imagine the pressure I’ve been under. I must, I must, I must bake something! So when Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page – authors of the must-have book Culinary Artistry, among others – dropped me a note to tell me about their newest title, What to Drink with What You Eat, I was elated. Not only did it give me a perfect excuse to bake a little something – all in the name of beverage pairing, you see – but it gave me good reason to drink a little something, or somethings, too.

As for what to bake, it was easy. Ever since I made my first tarte Tatin – in preparation for this piece over here – my stomach has rumbled at more or less regular intervals for its dark, winy flavor. Both complex and comforting, it is the flavor of fall, if you ask me – although I won’t exactly refuse it in winter, spring, or summer, either. [I’m a real pushover.] And given that it is late October, it seemed only fitting that I pick up a few local apples at the market, tuck them into a skillet, cover them with puff pastry, and turn them into a tarte Tatin.

And then – here comes the fun part – I would send said tart down the gullet with sips of, well, whatever Andrew and Karen told me to.

The plan thus hatched, I sat by the door and waited for the book to arrive. A big, glossy tome with an inviting close-up on the cover, What to Drink with What You Eat is laid out in a fashion that reminds me – in a good way – of a foreign language dictionary. In this case, the “translations” are pairings: part of the book matches beverages to foods, and another matches foods to beverages. If you’re wondering what to drink with miso soup or cheese straws, you’ll want to search the first portion. On the other hand, if you’re curious about what foods go with the bottle of Chimay Blue in your fridge, you’ll want to flip to the second. Each type of food or beverage comes with a list of recommended pairings, some classic – pineapple with rum, or Stilton with port – and some surprising. [I would have never thought to put a glass of Fizzy Lizzy sparkling orange juice alongside a dessert with plums, but come to think of it, it just might work.] And for those seeking general principles and guidelines, there are also a few introductory chapters that explain everything from the sensuous science of balancing flavors to the temperature at which red wine is best served, with chatty, down-to-earth anecdotes. As for me, I headed straight for one page in particular: the one about apples, and apple desserts, more specifically.

Andrew and Karen suggest no fewer than 22 possible pairings for apple desserts, but for the sake of sanity – and so that I wouldn’t slump my way to work the next morning – I decided to choose just three: a sauternes, a Hungarian sweet wine called tokaji, and bourbon.* The first I had tasted before, but not with apples; the second I had read about but never tried; and the third was a shoo-in, seeing as a bottle of Woodford Reserve was sitting in our liquor cabinet. With the help of my preferred local wine shop, I chose a 2003 Château Lamothe Guignard Sauternes - a good year, the merchant told me - and a 2000 Royal Tokaji. A couple of hours and one warm tarte Tatin later, we were ready to taste.

Now, far be it for me to make bold exaggerations - I usually leave that to Brandon - but I discovered something momentous at the table that evening. It is this: apples were invented, I believe, for the express purpose of being served alongside a Hungarian tokaji. Sure, bourbon is lovely: smooth, spicy, with a whiff of vanilla and a delicious afterburn that together bring intrigue to the simplicity of apple. It’s awfully hard to quibble, too, with the soft sweetness of sauternes, or with its satisfying, syrupy mouthfeel. But the amber-colored tokaji was the only one that had us pausing to mull over its complex flavor - brown butter, butterscotch, silky, delicious - and then reaching for a refill. It not only made the tarte Tatin’s deep, caramelized flavor taste even deeper, but in turn, the tarte somehow made the tokaji taste even better too. Less sweet than sauternes and less cloying than bourbon, this stuff is addictively good; as Brandon said, “I want to drink the entire bottle.” But thank heavens he didn’t, because the little bit we have left - not to mention the other 19 pairings to be tried - gives me good reason to bake another tarte. Andrew and Karen, I owe you one.

* Brandon, Mr. Bourbon Man, was surprised to see that his beloved booze was not listed as a possible pairing under the word “apples.” But we flipped to the listing for whisky, and sure enough, there it was: “apples.” We assumed that whisky / bourbon’s absense from the apple listing was just a simple oversight, and so we forged ahead. Please pardon our boldness.

Tarte Tatin
Adapted from David Rosengarten’s Taste and Julia Child’s The Way to Cook

Don’t be intimidated by this classic dessert’s fussy look, or by the length of this recipe: it’s very straightforward. And I’m very verbose.

5-6 large apples, preferably Golden Delicious or Ginger Gold
Juice of 1 lemon
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
6 Tbs unsalted butter, divided
About 14 ounces puff pastry (store-bought, such as Dufour brand, is just fine; if frozen, be sure to let it thaw for about an before using)

Peel and quarter the apples, removing the cores such that each quarter has a flat inner side. Toss the apple quarters in a large bowl with the lemon juice and ½ cup of the sugar. Set aside for 30 minutes.

In a 9-inch cast-iron skillet set over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. Add the remaining 1 cup sugar, along with a few tablespoons of the apple-lemon juices. Stir to mix. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat, stirring regularly with a wooden spoon, for about 15 minutes, or until the mixture is a smooth, bubbly, pale caramel color.

Remove the pan from the heat and carefully add apple quarters, arranging them rounded-side-down in a decorative pattern. Arrange a second layer of apples on top wherever they fit, closely packed. This second layer need not be terribly neat. Top the apples with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into dice.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cook the apples over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, occasionally spooning the bubbling caramel liquid over them. Press them down gently with the back of a spoon — don’t worry if they shift a bit in the liquid; just move them back to where they were — and watch to make sure that no one area of the pan is bubbling more than another. Shift the pan as necessary so that the apples cook evenly. They are ready when the liquid in the pan has turned to a thick, amber ooze. The apples should still be slightly firm. Do not allow them to get entirely soft or the liquid to turn dark brown. Remove the pan from the heat.

On a floured surface, roll the puff pastry out to a thickness of about 3/16 inch. Using a sharp, thin knife, trace a circle in the pastry about 10 inches in diameter (1/2 inch wider all around than the skillet), and trim away any excess. Carefully lay the pastry circle over the apples in the skillet, tucking the overlap down between the apples and the inside of the pan.

Place the skillet on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake for about 30-35 minutes, until the pastry has risen, and is dry and golden brown. Remove the skillet from the oven, and let it to rest for a minute or two. Tilt the pan and look down inside the edge: if there is a lot of juice, pour most of it off into the sink. [Do not pour it all off, or the apples may stick to the pan.] Place a serving platter upside-down over the skillet and, working quickly and carefully (it’s hot!), invert the tart onto the platter. Rearrange any apple slices that may have slipped or stuck to the skillet. Serve warm or at room temperature, preferably with a tokaji.

Yield: 8 servings - or less, if you, like me, like seconds


The smaller, the sweeter

Once upon a time – not so long ago, but it sure feels like it – I lived in a little studio apartment in Paris.* It had a front door that closed only when slammed, a tiny terrace guarded by a garden gnome named Vincent, and an almost-kitchen in an alcove, with a two-burner electric stove, a dorm room refrigerator, no oven, and a microwave that I stood on my tiptoes to reach. It was humble, but it was sweet. And above all, it was in France. People, it could have been Stuart Little’s matchbox, for all I cared. To me, that apartment was a petite – Parisienne-size, let’s say – piece of paradise. I used the top of my dresser as a de facto countertop and cheerfully cooked my ovenless meals. The foot of my bed made a handy dinner table, where I sat to eat my daily baguette dunked in soup and bowls of ratatouille with runny poached eggs. One entire shelf of my wee fridge was taken up by cheese, wrapped in waxed paper and stinky with promise. I ate it to the televised soundtrack of Les Guignols and PPDA, licking my knife** to get every last nub and smear. Never mind that I had to break myself in half to shave my legs in the pocket-size shower stall. That place was paradise.

Now, this little studio of mine was situated in the eleventh arrondissement, not too far from a particularly good market street called rue Oberkampf. Gently curving up an ever-so-slight slope, the narrow street was lined with shops and stands: a butcher under a red awning, with chickens spinning on a rotisserie outside; a cheese shop here; a cheese shop there; a wine shop; a boulangerie; and a pâtisserie too, its windows lined in puff pastry and marzipan. But my favorite shop on Oberkampf was a greengrocer on a corner, under a kelly awning. Behind boxes of wares stood the shop’s keeper, a man in something akin to a doctor’s coat, meting out the pick of the day. He was chatty but serious, almost professorial. He made small talk about carrots with his customers. On that first visit, when my turn came, he promptly offered me half an apricot, plump and rosy around the shoulders. Needless to say, I was an easy sell. I’m a sucker for a man who knows his stone fruit, and who genuinely cares about carrots. So I snatched up a dozen apricots and, over the months that followed, came back for eggplant and tomatoes and lettuce, along with mushrooms and soft green pears. And sometime in the winter, perhaps as a reward for my devotion, he pointed me to a wooden crate near the door. Within it lay the cutest, tiniest cauliflower in the whole world. It was the size of my fist, snowy white, with leaves curled shyly around its cheeks. It would be extra sweet, he promised me, and mild and tender. So I took it back to my studio and its stunted little stove – for which the cauliflower seemed to have been destined, anyway – and while I set the table-slash-bed, I steamed it until it melted under my fork. Eaten warm with a mustard vinaigrette, it was nutty and warming and delicious, a small wintry meal for someone living in small quarters.

And to make a long story short, this is exactly what I thought of last week, when I stumbled upon a cache of pint-size cauliflower at the market. They were about a pound each – small by American standards, albeit still rather giant in comparison to their Oberkampf counterpart. I brought home two of them, nubbled and pearly, and set to work in our Seattle kitchen to cook them as I would have done in Paris, had I had an oven or a pastry brush.

First, I steamed them for a few minutes, so that they just softened. Then I painted them – the whole heads, still intact – with a slurry of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and slipped them into the oven. Tucked under a tent of aluminum foil, the little crucifers went completely relaxed, letting loose their limbs and florets to slump on the floor of the roasting pan. When they yielded to a serving spoon without the slightest squeak or fight, we doused them with vinaigrette and ate them, sweet and silky, on the spot. For a minute there, it was like just like Paris – or better, even, what with all that roasting and relaxing, not to mention a real dinner table.

* Should you wonder what I was doing there, here you go. The pay is puny on first glance, but for only twelve hours a week, it’s pretty wonderful. I highly recommend it.
** I know, Mom, I know. I was living dangerously. Please forgive.

Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Mustard Vinaigrette
Adapted from Parisian Home Cooking, by Michael Roberts

Really, is there anything cuter than a short, squatty, lightly burnished head of cauliflower? [The answer, ahem, is no.] Now is the perfect time for this dish: the beginning of cauliflower season, when the heads are small and sweet. And the recipe itself couldn’t be easier, not to mention delicious. I like to serve this pretty, rustic dish on the warm side of hot, and with a little boat of vinaigrette on the side, so that each eater can drizzle or douse to their heart’s content. I usually use my standard red wine-mustard vinaigrette, but if you like, you can play with different vinegars in your dressing. On the night that the above photograph was taken, we used Banyuls vinegar, and its tart, nutty flavor was a welcome change.

2 small cauliflower, about 1 pound each
3 Tbs good-quality olive oil
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice
1 tsp fine sea salt
A few grinds of black pepper
A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
This vinaigrette

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Set a steamer basket inside a large, deep pot, and add water to a depth of ½ to 1 inch – just below the bottom of the steamer. Rinse and trim the cauliflower. Place them in the steamer, cover, and steam for 15-20 minutes. By this point, they should be tender and should have changed in color from a raw, opaque white to a slightly more translucent, yellowy off-white.

Meanwhile, combine the oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in a small bowl, whisking to mix well.

When the cauliflower is ready, gently transfer them from the steamer to a medium baking dish or small roasting pan, something just large enough to hold the two heads side by side. Using a pastry brush, paint the cauliflower with the oil mixture. Cover the pan with aluminum foil, and place it in the oven. Roast the cauliflower for 30 minutes, basting every ten minutes. [You should have just enough of the oil mixture for three light bastings in total, including the first one.] Remove the foil, and continue to bake for another 10-20 minutes, until the cauliflower is pale golden and a knife can be easily inserted into its core.

Serve hot or warm, with vinaigrette.

Yield: About 4 servings


Special game, fennel salad

Every now and then, Brandon and I like to play a special game. It has no real name, but if I were to give it one, it might be called the “Your Partner Has No Past” game. It goes like this: whenever one of us mentions a previous boyfriend or girlfriend, the other feigns deafness, dumbness, or outright incomprehension. For example:

Molly: “Oooh! I love this song! Turn it up! [Ex-boyfriend] put it on a mix tape for me when we first met.”

Brandon: “What? Who did? You mean I did? I did, right?”

It’s not so much that we dislike knowing about each other’s previous significant others — because in fact, I take a sort of perverse interest in the topic. No, it’s just that it’s so fun to pretend that your partner came out of the ether, fully and perfectly formed. You know — the way that Athena sprung from Zeus’s head? It makes us both look terribly talented and precocious, like minor geniuses in the romance department. To wit:

Brandon: “Oh baby, you’re such a good kisser. It’s really amazing, since I was your first kiss and everything. Riiiiight?”

Molly: “Of course! [Wink, wink.] And you, mon cheri, are so good at hugging! It’s really amazing how good you are, especially since I’m the first person you’ve ever hugged. Riiiiight?”

As you can see, our game is really quite fun. You should try it — so long as both players are in on the plan, of course. Otherwise, it could get messy.

But all that said — sex, lies, and special games — I have to admit that I am actually quite grateful for Brandon’s ex-girlfriends, and one of them in particular. Without Gillian’s wise tutelage, he would be, he tells me, “a terrible hippie.” He would also douse all edibles with inedible — for most people — amounts of vinegar. And he might never have done any homework, or made it through college. Clearly, I owe the woman quite a lot. But more than anything else, I owe her — or, technically, her parents — a big one for teaching Brandon about shaved fennel salads.

Apparently, Gillian’s parents once owned a CD-ROM of Julia Child’s series Cooking with Master Chefs. In one of the episodes, Alice Waters, Patron Saint of All Things Fresh, teaches Julia how to make a shaved fennel, mushroom, and Parmesan salad. Gillian’s parents were quite taken with the idea, and it quickly became a regular in their repertoire. Brandon tasted it for the first time in their home, and now, one breakup and a few years later, it is a regular in ours. To Gillian’s parents, I say: things may not have turned out as you imagined, but inadvertently, you sure did a good thing for me and my man. Thank you.

This salad is a wonderful cool-weather standby: crisp, fragrant, a little cheer for the jaw. Now that the soft, baby lettuces of summer are gone, it’s time for fall’s sweet fennel and earthy mushrooms. Shaved paper-thin and layered on a platter, drizzled with olive oil and fresh lemon juice, this is what salad looks like when it wears its winter whites — or, rather, pale greens and browns. Finished with curls of sweet, fruity Parmigiano Reggiano, it makes a lovely Sunday lunch for two, with a hunk of baguette, a pat of butter, and a piece of fruit for dessert. If you’re anything like us, it might even inspire a special game — something involving forks, stealth, and the last bite of salad.

Shaved Fennel Salad with Mushrooms and Parmesan
Adapted from Alice Waters and Julia Child

Part of what makes this salad feel special is its elegant, layered presentation. But if you’re short on time — or just don’t feel like fussing — you can certainly toss it in a bowl like any other salad. As for variations, you can try adding a dash of truffle oil for some sophistication and snazz, or, if you’re feeling frisky, try replacing the mushrooms with paper-thin slices of Asian pear. We thought of that a couple of days ago, when we shared an Asian pear after big plates of this salad. The mingling of flavors was fantastic. Needless to say, it’s next on our list.

1 medium fennel bulb, about 10-12 ounces
5 or 6 small mushrooms, preferably crimini or white button
Good-quality olive oil
A lemon
Sea salt, such as Maldon
A hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

First, prepare the fennel. If it still has its feathery fronds, cut them off at the base of their stalks, and discard them. Rinse the bulb under cool water, and dry it thoroughly. Using a vegetable peeler or paring knife, trim away any bruises or brown spots on the very outermost “skin” of the fennel. Cut the bulb in half from root to stalk, and trim the root end. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, slice the fennel as thinly you possibly can.

Now, prepare the mushrooms. Wipe away any dirt on their surface with a damp paper towel, and trim off and discard the stem end. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, slice the mushrooms very thinly.

Assemble the salad in layers on a large platter or, if you prefer, on individual plates. First, make a layer of fennel slices. Drizzle lightly with olive oil. Then place a layer of mushrooms on top of the fennel. Drizzle lightly with lemon juice, and season with salt. Using a vegetable peeler, cut thin shavings of the cheese, and arrange them on top of the mushrooms. Add another layer of fennel, followed by a light drizzle of oil, and then another layer of mushrooms, lemon juice, salt, and cheese. Repeat until you run out of fennel and mushrooms; you might have two layers of each, or you might have more; it doesn’t much matter. Finish the salad with a good drizzle of lemon juice and a hearty splash of oil, and garnish with a few shavings of cheese. Serve immediately, with salt and pepper to taste.

Yield: 2 quite generous servings, or 4 side servings


Big, bad, banana

I was not an easy child. I was afraid of thunderstorms, and of the vacuum cleaner. My head was so big that I would wind up in tears when my mother tried to wedge it through a turtleneck. I was terrified of needles, so much so that nurses had to sit on me to give me my booster shots. Even sweet, wrinkly E.T. scared the crap out of me, with his weird misshapen head and creepy glowing finger. And on top of all that, I hated bananas. Kids are supposed to love bananas — when all else fails, that, at least, is supposed to be easy. My poor, patient mother did her best. To ease her mind, she once consulted a psychic, who told her that I was a “new soul,” that this was my first time on Earth, so quite naturally I was scared — of nearly everything. This didn’t explain the turtleneck problem, but still, it was something. Bless you, Mom.

But anyway, new soul, old schmoul: if little seven-year-old me could see what is in my freezer right now, she would shriek in horror. Lurking within its icy depths are no fewer than six ripe bananas: hard, frosty-skinned, dull brown boomerangs, a veritable stockpile of tropical fruit terror. And what’s more, I love them. Growing up is really a great thing.

I’m not exactly sure of the chain of events that led to my conversion, but I’m quite certain that it started sometime in my pre-teens, with a banana nut bread made by the mother of my childhood friend Jennifer. Linda is a genius at quick breads, not to mention Christmastime sweet rolls and chocolate cream pies — this last being best, I find, if eaten straight from the fridge when your babysitter isn’t looking. Such is Linda’s talent that not even I, Scaredy-Cat Supreme, could resist her banana nut bread. It is persuasive, soulful stuff, and should be fed to all children in need of calming.

So today, even though I am still not a big fan of bananas straight up, ooh boy, do I find it easy to tuck away baked goods made from them. Sometimes — don’t tell anyone — I buy bananas for no real reason at all, just to bring them home and let them go brown on the countertop. I can’t help myself. There is something profoundly reassuring about having a bunch of them at the ready, ripe and speckled and almost stinky. It’s like hoarding gold bullion — but the kind that needs to be stashed in the freezer, lest it start to rot. Never mind that I have to stifle my gag reflex every time I open a defrosted one and watch its slug-like contents ooze out; by god, I love baking with bananas. They make baked goods miraculously moist and tender, with a sweet, wholesome fragrance that, I like to imagine, Betty Crocker herself might have worn.

Lately, I’ve been dumping banana purée into anything that will hold still long enough to let me, from this unusual cake — which, like many sweets, tastes even better frozen — to an old favorite banana bread with chocolate chips and ginger. I find that a girl really cannot have too much banana cake with chocolate ganache, nor can her man eat too many bran muffins scented with the stuff. So great is my love for this once-loathed fruit that last weekend — despite several consecutive weeks of the above sweets — I felt compelled to bake up this delicious beauty.

Humble, homey, and crowned with a fallen halo of coconut cream cheese frosting, this baby is a keeper. Its crumb is light and rustic, more coarse than fine, making for a good, unfussy foundation on which to spread a generous layer of frosting — tangy, fluffy, and barely sweet. With a subtle banana flavor and a soft, tender chew, it’s the sort of thing that begs to be cut into big slices, and then later into sneaky, stolen slivers. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also follow that up with a careful licking of the fork — and, ahem, knife. I would dare to venture that even seven-year-old me would have found it sort of tasty — maybe even frighteningly so.

Banana Cake with Coconut-Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Gourmet, December 2005

This cake is a cinch to make — perfect for a weeknight dinner with friends or a lazy weekend treat. The original recipe calls for bananas that are “well mashed,” but I almost always prefer to purée mine. A little zizz in the blender or food processor makes them smooth, airy, and blissfully free of lumps, and that, in my opinion, makes for a better, more consistent crumb. For this recipe, I found that about 2 medium very ripe bananas yielded ¾ cup purée.

For the cake:
1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
¾ cup puréed very ripe bananas
¼ cup sour cream
½ tsp pure vanilla extract

For the frosting:
3 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
3 Tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup confectioners sugar
3 Tbs well-stirred canned cream of coconut (I used Coco Lopez brand); not coconut milk
1 tsp dark rum
1/3 cup sweetened flaked coconut

Place a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly butter or spray a 9-inch round cake pan (I used a springform pan), and dust it with flour, shaking out any excess.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In the bowl of stand mixer, or in a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and brown sugar on high speed until pale and fluffy, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary. Add the egg, and beat until well combined. Add the banana purée, sour cream, and vanilla, and beat to combine well. Reduce the speed to low, and add the flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Do not overmix. (I found that it was best to beat in the flour only a little, and to finish mixing it by hand, with a rubber spatula.)

Spread the batter in the prepared cake pan, and bake until the top is pale golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20-27 minutes.

Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around the edge of the pan; then invert the rack over the cake and invert the cake onto the rack to cool completely. (Alternatively, if you are using a springform pan, simply remove the sides and leave the cake on the rack to cool.)

While the cake cools, make the frosting. In a medium bowl, beat together the cream cheese and the butter on medium speed until smooth. Reduce the speed to low; then add the confectioners sugar, cream of coconut, and rum. Mix until combined; then increase the speed to high and beat until light and fluffy, about two minutes.

Spread over the top of the thoroughly cooled cake, and sprinkle evenly with coconut.

Yield: About 8 servings, or fewer, if your name is Molly


On stewing, and soup

I haven’t been cooking much lately, and it’s got me feeling sort of sad. That Brandon, I tell you, has some kind of nerve. He’s been doing the cooking, nearly every night. I think I might be too lucky for my own good.

Now, hear me out. Before you rush to call me an ingrate, I should clarify: it is, of course, awfully nice to be betrothed to a man who not only can cook, but does. He makes a mouthwatering chana masala, any number of chutneys and spicy salsas, a golden fennel soup worthy of loud slurping, spicy soba noodles with lots of cilantro and radishes, sourdough pancakes, salads with delicious this and delicious that, and dressings to go with. Heck, he’s even started putting poached eggs on everything, and you know that makes me weak in the knees. Let’s not be silly: suffer, I do not. I love Brandon, and I love that Brandon cooks. But so much loving makes a girl very lazy, and rather lax when it comes to cooking.

For some people, this might not be a problem at all. For some, it might be close to paradise. And it is, sometimes — especially at the end of a long workday, and when I’m up to my ears, as I have been lately, in a side project that (dear sweet god permitting) will see the light of day sometime soon. But in the Before Brandon Era (B.B.E., as the historians might call it), when I was the sole cook in the kitchen, I had to step up to the stove and make something happen, no matter how long or how bad my day, and strange though it may seem, I liked it. For most of my adult life, the kitchen has been my place to think and brainstorm and sort things out, a place that forces me to slow down and settle into my senses. There is nothing to match the active meditation of moving a knife down the length of a carrot, or through a pile of coarse greens. Cooking is a way to make sense of my days, and to make something beautiful of them. We all find ways to do this, I think, whether we are conscious of it or not. For me, writing is another way, but it’s not the same. Cooking makes me generous. It makes me someone I want to spend time with. I didn’t know any of this, of course, until a certain curly-haired man came along and, ever so sweetly and with the best of intentions, started doing the cooking for me.

So I’ve been a little out of sorts, not knowing quite what to do with myself. But one night last week, I decided to make something of it — a soup, more precisely. I wanted something slow and quiet, sans sautéing and other jumpy methods, something that would make the kitchen warm and sweet-smelling, and me along with it. A riff on a recipe from September’s Gourmet sounded like just the thing: a fragrant soup made from the season’s last tomatoes, a pinch of summer-colored saffron, fresh herbs and fennel seeds, and, with a nod toward cold weather, a bit of orange zest.

I shooed Brandon away with a wooden spoon, and then, in the silent kitchen, sank my fingers into a bowlful of blanched tomatoes and coaxed from them all that early fall has to offer. Subtle, softly acidic, and laced with saffron, it was much tastier than stewing in my own juices. We scraped our bowls and looked at each other, and Brandon went back for a second helping.

Provençal Tomato Soup with Orange, Saffron, and Tiny Pasta
Adapted from Gourmet, September 2006

This business of blanching, peeling, and seeding the tomatoes may be a little fussy, yes, but it makes for a lovely, soft tomato flavor. Plus, there’s nothing quite so satisfying for the fingers as slipping the skins from a few tomatoes, or scooping out their seeds and juicy slop. And aside from that mild labor, this soup is pretty straightforward. With a stir every now and then, it mainly cooks itself. And it makes for easy eating on the front stoop — a table for two with a view! — on an early fall evening. With a hunk of bread and some cheese alongside, it’s dinner.

2 lb good-tasting tomatoes
2 medium onions, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and thinly sliced (~2 cups)
1 medium carrot, finely chopped or cut into very thin rounds
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 (3- by 1-inch) ribbon of fresh orange zest, minced
1 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme
Scant ¼ tsp dried hot red pepper flakes
¼ tsp fennel seeds
1 Turkish bay leaf
3 Tbs good-tasting olive oil
2 Tbs tomato paste
4 ¾ cups water
¾ tsp salt, or to taste
Pinch crumbled saffron threads
1 to 2 tsp granulated sugar
¼ cup small soup pasta, such as acini di pepe
2 Tbs finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
¼ cup finely chopped fresh basil

Bring a 5- to 6-quart saucepan of water to a boil. Cut a shallow X in the bottom of each tomato with a sharp knife, and blanch them, 2 or 3 at a time, in the boiling water for about 15 seconds, until the skin around the X starts to curl. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to a bowl of ice water. When they are cool enough to handle, peel them, core them, and halve them crosswise. Set a sieve over a medium bowl, and squeeze the tomato halves gently over it, cut sides down, to extract the seeds and pulp. You may have to use your fingers to coax them out. Press on the seeds in the sieve to push through any juice; then discard them. Reserve the juice and the tomatoes.

Pour the water out of the saucepan, and wipe it dry. Pour in the oil, and warm it over medium heat. Add the onions, carrot, celery, garlic, orange zest, thyme, red pepper flakes, fennel seeds, and bay leaf. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very soft but not brown, about 8-10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes with their reserved juice and the tomato paste, water, salt, saffron, and 1 tsp sugar. Simmer, uncovered, stirring and breaking up the tomatoes with a spoon occasionally, about 25-30 minutes. Add the pasta, stir to mix, and simmer, uncovered, until tender, about 5 minutes. Discard the bay leaf, and stir in the parsley and basil. Taste, and adjust sugar and salt as needed. Serve.

Yield: 4-6 servings, depending on what else you’re eating