Growing up in California, I never though much about seasons. Occasionally I grew wistful for a White Christmas, or astounded at the range of colors in a New England autumn. However, I have enjoyed enough January walks on the sunny sands of San Diego to know that my grass was equally as green. For the most part, I marked the passing seasons by how long the days were and if I needed to bring a sweater to school – just in case it got a bit chilly.
Then I moved to Boston. This photo is from 2003, taken during a calm moment amidst the largest Nor’easter I can recall in my seven years there. Here is where I finally acquired a deep appreciation for seasons, the coming of spring in particular. Spring in Boston meant not having to scrape the windshield each morning AND the beginning of baseball season (go Red Sox!). However, spring was relatively short. Ushered in around mid-April by the marathon, by late May we were often sweltering at our Memorial Day BBQs.
Paris is different. Slower. More graceful in her seasonal change. And, although the calendar says that spring is officially upon us, the season itself has not quite awoken from hibernation. Bright blue mornings are transitioning into thunderstorms each afternoon, bringing with them cold winds and black clouds (today there was hail), reminiscent of the late days of winter. It is not quite cold enough to turn on the heater, but also not yet warm enough to leave the windows wide open to finally fill the apartment with fresh air. Both spring and fall seem (to me) to be slightly manic-depressive.
In the kitchen, early spring always reminds me of the coming bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of which I have already seen at markets in the neighborhood, which have me craving strawberry shortcake. Yet, like fall, the chilly evenings find me warming my hands around a mug of chamomile tea and experimenting with soups and stews that will heat me from the inside out.
This is one of my favorites. Originally inspired by an eggplant based soup in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, I have tweaked it considerably, adding my favorite veggies or whatever happens to be on hand (I would recommend this book to anyone without reservations, it is awesome and I’m not a vegetarian). I find chopping vegetables sort of meditative, and it is the full extent of skill required for this recipe. Topped with some crumbled Boursin and accompanied by fresh pain aux céréales, it is a hearty and healthy spring (or fall) stew.
Vegetable and Chickpea Stew
I am not a fancy cook. Comfort food will get me every time. I keep coming back to this recipe because I am always amazed at how rich and filling a pot of simple vegetables can be after simmering a while on the back burner.
1 medium eggplant, peeled and chopped into cubes
2 medium (3 small) zucchini squash, sliced into rounds
2 red bell peppers, roughly chopped
1 small yellow onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, pressed or chopped finely
15-20 cherry tomatoes, halved (or 3-4 vine ripened tomatoes, chopped)
1 can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained
1 can sweet yellow corn (or, if available, 2-3 ears, kernels fresh off the cobb)
¾ cup red wine
¾ cup water
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
soft cheese, (I have used garlic and herb Boursin, because I forgot to add garlic this time around, but a soft goat cheese is also wonderful)
crusty, fresh bread
Heat olive oil (enough to get a thin coating on the base of your pot), over medium-high heat in a large, heavy-heavy bottomed pan. Once hot, add the eggplant. Try to spread pieces out evenly in one layer on the bottom of the pan, so they can brown. Do not stir right away. After the eggplant crisps on one side, add the zucchini, bell pepper, and onion. Stir vegetables together and allow to soften. Stir occasionally to keep veggies from sticking to the pot, but try to allow them to brown as well. Once the squash and peppers are starting to soften, add the tomatoes and stir together. As the tomatoes cook, they will release their liquid and start to fall apart. At this point, add the beans, corn, wine and water. The soup will be pretty thin. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes. The soup will thicken considerably as the vegetables and beans cook together. If you would like it thicker, remove the lid, bring to a rolling boil and reduce the liquid. Season to taste, it will need salt and pepper (in my opinion). I am a big fan of the sweet tang of balsamic vinegar, so I always add a splash at the last minute. Top with a creamy cheese, which will melt into the soup and thicken the broth further. Serve in wide bowls – all the better for dipping bread.
Leftovers heat up wonderfully on the stove in the following days.