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Ratatouille or caponata?


Summer has ended and the cool, dry days of fall are here. On Saturday morning the only question worth asking and answering is whether to make ratatouille or caponata, or even if--perish the thought--it is finally too late in the season to make either. The Durham Farmers' Market opens at 8 and the answer should come quickly: Will there be eggplant and zucchini to make one or the other?

Ratatouille comes from Provence and is a stew of eggplant, zucchini, onions, garlic and tomato, livened with basil, rosemary and whatever other herbs are around and give a Mediterranean taste. Our cookbook claims Tunisia as the homeland of caponata (although, Maria, my wife, true to her Calabrian heritage, insists that--like all real food--it is Italian). Eggplant again is the main ingredient, cooked to a fragrant spread with tomato paste and onion and olives and artichoke hearts.

My bicycle's carrier will hold a plastic milk crate that's strapped down with a carrying cord. The height of the crate makes it hard to swing my aging leg over it, so I have to climb on by tilting the bike down toward the ground. Knees creaking, up the hill I pedal to the market. Zucchini is out--it is November after all--but the nice, warm, dry weather has enabled a few of our farmers to bring in a last load of eggplants, small and just turning tender. They stand out, jet black and wonderfully shiny, against the dull green chard, orange pumpkins and brown potatoes. Caponata, then, especially since Wendy has not made the trip over from Louisburg with her expected huge bucket of fresh basil.

But wait--the Durham Food Co-op, just a few minutes' cycle farther along, has a few organic zucchini, left--maybe it's ratatouille after all. The coop is also the only local source of onion nan--pita bread suffused with chips of onion--that makes the perfect breakfast underlayer for either spread.

On the way home I can bike by Bill's house to see if he has got the book for our book group and will be coming next week--he did and he will, he tells me out in the street, where I interrupt his chat with Donovan, a Duke student who lives across the street. We hang out for a few minutes by the side of the street and chat about books, our kids and college applications, college students as neighbors ("They really are good kids, though," Bill tells me of the recent big drinking busts on his street) and the beautiful weather.

Our herb garden has pretty much dried out, but Fran, around the corner, has plenty of fresh oregano and rosemary and sage. Her car is there, loaded with big bags of potting soil. I can "pay" for my raid on her herb patch by unloading her trunk for her and by chatting about our new neighbors and her plans for her back yard. Just up the street, Frank has a big basil bush in his meticulously planted and watered garden--no one answers the door, but they won't miss a few stems (I tell myself it's for a good cause, after all).

And home, to sauté the last of last week's onions and then the eggplant. The Tar Heels somehow are holding their own against Boston College and the zucchini is standing up to the ratatouille, too, stewing with the herbs to tender perfection. Our house fills with the aroma of simmering onion, garlic and herbs. It looks like it's going be to be a great weekend ...

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