Avocados, Tomatoes and The Cure for What Ails

Pasta with Fresh Tomato-Avocado Sauce

I’ve long held this crazy theory that people who really love food lead ever-so-slightly happier lives than those who don’t. This theory comes from my own experience, mostly, and the observation that however bad I might feel, all I usually need is a bite or two of something tasty to feel myself again. I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t regularly get as down in the dumps as the next person, but when I do, it’s rare that these sentiments survive beyond mealtime; even the very worst of cases are nothing a freezer full of ice cream can’t resolve. By contrast, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have my one true passion be something like, say, glacier climbing or comet watching, or for that matter any activity that is next to impossible to do on a regular basis; maybe I’m missing something here, but those poor folks must spend an awfully large percentage of their time miserable, don’t you think?

That said, however, sometimes a food-focused life can seem pretty frustrating too. There is, for example, the agony that comes from striking up love affairs with foods I can only get ahold of once in a blue moon, or the endless battles against a metabolism that lags far behind the speed at which I can chew, or even the more abstract discontent that comes with having to earn a living rather than, well, dabbling in food all day. And then there’s the particular bane of all us food lovers who love to cook as well as eat: the fact that there are simply too many recipes out there to ever make in one lifetime. Honestly, between the tens of thousands of recipes I have in cookbooks, bookmarked online, clipped from magazines and newspapers over the years, scribbled on the backs of envelopes while daydreaming, and received with great fanfare from friends and relatives, I feel like even if I were able to spend every single minute of every day of my life cooking, I still wouldn’t manage to make a dent in the pile.

While this is plenty frustrating in itself, of course, the icing on the proverbial cake is that even when I find a truly wonderful recipe – which is ostensibly the point of all this collecting, isn’t it? – it rarely stays in the rotation for long. I honestly don’t know how cookbook authors do it; you know how they’re always saying in recipe headnotes how this is one of their favorite things to eat and they’ve been making it religiously for thirty years and blah blah blah? Well I know I’m lucky if I can manage to make something twice before retiring the recipe to the graveyard better known as the "to make again" pile. In fact, if I manage to make something twice that already means it’s beaten the odds; some of my favorite things in the world (many things that appear on this site, even!), I’ve only managed to make once. It’s not that there’s anything less than perfect about them – it’s just that there are too many other undiscovered masterpieces waiting in the wings to waste time on what I’ve already tasted.

That said, when I tell you that today I’m giving you a recipe I’ve made at least a dozen times, I hope you understand how unusual that is. Admittedly, most of those occured in the first three or four weeks after discovering it, but please don’t think that reflects at all on the quality of the recipe itself. It dates to about five years ago, if my memory serves me correctly, to a summer I spent in Germany which defined itself (in retrospect, as these things always do) as our ‘farmer’s market summer’. You see, that was the summer I discovered Manuel had been keeping this very big secret from me, namely that his town was blessed with the most wonderful weekly market offering every variety of ripe, farm-grown product under the sun at ridiculously cheap prices, and all we had to do to partake was drag ourselves out of bed at a reasonable hour on Saturday mornings (well, I called the hour reasonable; he called it some things I can’t repeat on a family-friendly website). In any case, that was the summer I suddenly understood why everyone was always harping on about cooking seasonally, that it wasn’t just about supporting local farmers or reducing carbon footprints or anything like that, it was about how much better everything tastes when it’s in season. In fact, I think I had an epiphany to that very effect the first time I made this pasta, which I ran across one day in one of the few cookbooks then in my possession. It’s quite a simple dish, just some hot spaghetti tossed with mashed avocados, a couple of diced tomatoes and a sprinkle of crispy bacon; yet made with the ripest, candy-sweet tomatoes, buttery avocados and generous handfuls of spicy summer basil, its perfection defies description.

Although we gorged ourselves on this pasta like it was going out of style, eventually the summer passed, the recipe was filed and, like every other once-favorite dish, it was forgotten, relegated to a text file on my computer in one of many overstuffed recipe folders. When I ran across it last week – I was looking for something else, mind you – at first all the memories from that farmer’s market summer came flooding back, but just as quickly my delight at having found it was replaced by frustration, and then a surge of self-deprecation for having being so fickle as to have not even thought about it in half a decade. Why is it, I asked myself disparagingly, that I am so driven to find the next great recipe that I can so easily forget about the ones I’ve already discovered? Is this how the rest of my life is going to unfold, in the senseless pursuit of things I will discard as soon as I possess them?

But then I went into the kitchen, mashed up a bowl of avocados, put on a package of pasta to boil and chopped up some fat, dripping tomatoes. And after scraping my plate clean, I couldn’t quite remember what it was I’d been so worked up about. Who knows, maybe that theory of mine is not as crazy as it seems?

Pasta with Fresh Tomato-Avocado Sauce

This is one of those recipes that works best if you follow your instincts. Find the raw onions too overpowering? Leave them out. Have more tomatoes in your garden than you know what to do with? Stick a couple more in. You get the picture – just make sure, whatever you do, that you use only perfectly ripe, in-season ingredients. If you can’t (and I realize it’s not summer for everyone reading!), do as James says in the recipe headnotes and "please choose another recipe".
Source: inspired by a recipe in James McNair’s Favorites
Yield: 4 generous servings

for sauce:
3 large ripe Haas avocados
3-4 large ripe tomatoes, diced
1 small red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely minced
1-2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, or to taste
large handful fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped or torn
salt and pepper

about 1 lb (500g) spaghetti or fettuccine, cooked al dente
cooked, crumbled bacon (I usually cook 2 strips per person; you can easily leave this out to make it vegetarian)
freshly-grated parmesan cheese (this time I actually used crumbled feta and it was excellent as well)

In a large serving bowl, mash the avocados, leaving a few chunks. Stir in the tomatoes, onion, garlic, vinegar and basil. Add salt and pepper to taste, being mindful of the fact that you’ll be topping it with salty bacon and cheese later.

Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente, drain and then immediately comb
ine with the cold sauce, tossing to combine. Sprinkle with the bacon and cheese (or you can pass these separately if you wish) and serve immediately.

Dog Days, Fruit Nights



Did you know that we can thank the ancient Romans for coining the classic summertime refrain "the dog days of August"? Apparently the phrase was born from the conviction that in late summer, during the forty consecutive days when Sirius (the ‘dog star’) could be seen rising at the same time as the sun, everything would go topsy-turvy: wine would sour, seas would boil, animals would go mad and pestilence would strike – you know, the usual apocalyptic stuff. While I’ve certainly never seen anything as extreme as that, dog days around here bring their own share of unpleasant side effects which, regardless of how much stock I generally put in Roman wisdom, have convinced me they weren’t entirely barking up the wrong tree where that sly old dog Sirius was concerned.

August, to me, unfolds like a 45 record played at LP speed (why does this analogy make me feel old?). The same tune is playing, but instead of bouncing along with its usual upbeat tempo it drags its feet, barely able to muster the energy to hit the middle notes, the voices hoarse and lethargic. This pretty well sums up what I feel like in the moment; energy, creativity and stamina are all at their yearly nadir. While I would love to blame the relentless heat of late summer, this being Scotland of course I can’t. I would like to blame The Festival too, and while this gets a lot of enthusiastic agreement from other Edinburgh locals, I’m not sure how much blame it really deserves. I mean, sure, what is essentially a month-long street party takes its toll on those who have to live and work in the middle of it. To understand what Manuel and I go through every year, imagine New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and now imagine you live on Bourbon Street. While you may be enthusiastically joining the throngs for the first few bead-tosses, after a few days of battling inebriated crowds everywhere you go, of having the nearest resident parking that is not taken over by international tour busses be a 25-minute walk from your apartment, of having every restaurant you want to go to for your upcoming anniversary already booked out weeks in advance, and of being scared out of your wits night after night as the loudest fireworks in the known universe explode right above your roof, well, the enthusiasm understandably starts to fade. Frustration and threats to sanity aside, though, I can’t really point the finger at it for everything that’s wrong with this time of year, can I?

Whatever the reason, though, these dog days are brutal on my appetite, and most of them pass in a haze of subsistence eating; a piece of cheese here, a hastily-assembled sandwich there. The only thing I actually find myself craving, indeed the only thing that seems to motivate me through the endless, stifling workdays, is the contents of the fruitbowl waiting for me at home. Ah yes, you see, because whatever August takes away from me in energy and sanity, it repays amply in fruit. After waiting months for prices to fall and rock-hard offerings to soften, August is when the waiting finally pays off; the local raspberries, tayberries and blackberries are finally sweet, France’s plums and Italy’s nectarines and Turkey’s cherries are being harvested so thick and fast that they have no choice but to offload some of the surplus on us. And needless to say, after so many months of fruit famine we don’t pull any punches, buying the stuff in quantities more in line with industrial application than personal consumption. Last week alone we went through twenty-four nectarines, twelve apricots, a pound each of raspberries and cherries, an entire watermelon and a mix-n-match bag of plums that contained some of the most delicious greengages ever. Some nights I feel I wouldn’t be capable of cooking a package of pasta if my life depended on it, but I seem to have no trouble buying and eating my weight in fruit.

The only problem, of course, is what we’re not doing with all that fruit. Considering that I spend all year stashing away recipes for things like pies, tarts, cakes, cobblers and clafoutis that I swear I’ll make once the appropriate fruit is in season, you’d think I’d cherish the chance to crank out as many of them as possible. Like a grizzly to jumping salmon, though, I’m powerless to resist; all I can do with each and every piece of fruit that lands in my hands is direct it straight into my gaping mouth. If I can wait long enough I might rustle up a handful of nuts to go alongside, and if the clock tells me I ought to be assembling a proper meal I might throw in a piece of cheese for good measure, but that’s about as sophisticated as it gets. Not that there’s really anything wrong with that, I know – I mean, nature makes fresh fruit so irresistibly tempting for a reason, right? – but it certainly doesn’t make for riveting food blogging. Ah well, maybe things will pick up soon – after all, according to ancient Roman calculations these dog days should be ending any day now. And failing that, surely next month will be different. In fact, I’ve already christened them the ‘cheetah days of September’ in anticipation.

Summer Fruit-and-Cheese Plate

This is probably my platonic ideal of a summertime dessert, presuming of course the fruit is worthy of such a starring role. In particular it makes an elegant ending to a meal that was a little heavier than it should have been, and guests always go surprisingly crazy for it, particularly if you’ve made the effort to track really top-quality fruit. We’ve even been known to forego dinner entirely in favor of this… Shhhh, don’t tell!

Fruit (peaches, nectarines, cherries, berries, plums, etc.), washed and cut, if desired
Cheese (one kind or an assortment; goat cheese, ricotta, mascarpone, or even something pungent like a pecorino or stilton all work beautifully)
Nuts (I like roasted and salted Marcona almonds for this, though I’ll happily use toasted hazelnuts or walnuts if that’s what I have)
Honey (something with character, or else something mild that you’ve infused with, for example, vanilla or lavender*)

an assortment of rustic breads and/or cookies are also a nice accompaniment, if you’re looking to gild the lily

Mix according to taste. Eat with relish.

*to infuse honey, warm however much you want to infuse in a small saucepan with your aromatics (e.g. a halved vanilla bean or a spoonful of dried lavender). Let it just come to a simmer, then remove from the head and let sit until cool. Strain before using.