“The turning” is what a friend calls this in-between season—and that’s exactly what it feels like here on the northeastern coast of the United States, the “turning” of summer into fall. You can almost feel this old earth straining to turn away from summer’s heat, flowing into the joy of autumn. Sunny days are still hot enough to take a last swim in the chill waters of Penobscot Bay, but evenings and early mornings are blessedly cool, good sleeping weather.
Chinese calendars recognize these in-between, transitional seasons.Culinary expert Nina Simonds explains that, instead of our four seasons–or rather, on top of the four seasons—the Chinese year is divided into 24 agricultural cycles, a way of accounting for these transitions when the world adjusts to a new balance, a new harmony between yin and yang. So now we’re in the period of Ch’u Shu, often translated as “stop summer” or even “last heat.” (You can learn more about this from Nina’s many books, including especially Chinese Seasons; see www.ninasimonds.com )
Happy as I am to celebrate “last heat,” what’s on my mind these days is another great outcome of the turning season—tomatoes.
As the days move toward autumn, tomatoes are ripening all over the northern hemisphere, from lush San Marzanos in the Agro Sarnese outside Naples, to small, intensely sweet cherry tomatoes on Greek islands, to big, fat and tasty beefsteaks, one of the few agricultural products for which New Jersey is noted. Even here in Maine, with our short growing season, tomatoes are popping out like Christmas tree balls, in gardens and local markets and farmstands. Maine tomatoes are not as flavorful as those from Greece or Italy or even New Jersey, but we make do happily with what we have and are grateful for that: Big ones, little ones, tiny cranberry tomatoes growing like berries on a vine and sweeter than any cranberry ever dreamed of becoming, yellow ones, green ones, striped ones, deepest red ones, heirlooms and standards.
What to do with such bounty? First off, simpy slice on a plate, sprinkle with some crunchy coarse sea salt, add a drop or two or three of a very spicy extra-virgin olive oil, and eat, slowly, savoring each bite.
Next, chunk up a bunch of tomatoes and toss in a bowl with crisp sherds of red onion, a few torn basil leaves, and cubes of toast leftover from breakfast, more oil, more salt and possibly a drop or more of aged red-wine vinegar. Or for breakfast itself, rub a cut clove of garlic over your toast, sprinkle liberally with olive oil, then take half a ripe tomato and smoosh it all over the bread, pushing the juices and flesh down into all the toasty crevices so that you’re left with nothing but tomato skin to discard. This might be the most heavenly breakfast imaginable when tomatoes are dead ripe and almost ready to fall apart.
And then, when imagination stretches to dinner time, make this outstanding pasta, a favorite from the old-fashioned trattorie that line the cobble-stoned streets and piazzas of Rome. It’s called Pasta alla Checca (that’s pronounced KAY-ka), it comes from The Four Seasons of Pasta, written with my daughter, Sara Jenkins (https://tinyurl.com/ycjhfj4p), and it’s so quick and easy it should be in every cook’s repertoire for summertime. NB (or nota bene, as the ancient Romans would say), this is not pasta salad—rather it’s hot spaghetti (or linguine or tonnarelli or other long, skinny pasta shape) with a cool (totally cool) tomato sauce, an unbeatable combination.
PASTA ALLA CHECCA
To dress a pound (500 grams) of pasta, you’ll need: 2 or 3 pounds of very ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped (you can skin them if you wish but it’s not necessary); 2 or 3 finely chopped garlic cloves; a medium red onion, sliced very thin; about ½ cup of extra-virgin olive oil; some aged red-wine vinegar; some torn fresh basil leaves, and of course salt and pepper.
At least an hour ahead of time (but you could also do this in the morning to serve in the evening), combine in a salad bowl the tomatoes, garlic, onion and salt and give it a toss. Then add about 1/3 cup of oil and toss again. Add a touch of vinegar—how much depends on the acidity of the tomatoes, you might need just a teaspoon. Toss once more, gently, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside at room temp.
When you’re ready to make dinner (or lunch), bring the usual 6 quarts of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the pasta and cook till done. Meanwhile, taste the tomato “sauce” and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt or vinegar if it seems warranted. Finally, add the basil leaves and stir them in, keeping aside a few to garnish the plate.
When the pasta is al dente, drain and immediately turn into a warm serving bowl. Cover with the tomato sauce, garnish with the basil, and serve immediately.