I know that I am a bit early for our usual Thursday chat, but I made this tart last night and liked it so much that I couldn't wait five whole days to tell you about it.

As with so many happy accidents, I came about this success without paying much attention. It is the improvised partnership of recipes from others I admire, brought together by the downright-unglamorous need to clean out the fridge on Friday night before Saturday's trip to the market.

Heidi's Lasagna Tart was an instant favourite in our kitchen, first made within days of her kindly sharing the recipe. The barely-cooked sauce and the raw zucchini keep the flavour remarkably fresh and light even after baking, while the ricotta layer brings creamy relief to all that acidity. I have used the olive oil crust she provided, as well as the Parmesan variation she suggests. Both to great acclaim.

I had never made Rachel's Tomato and Zucchini Tart before, but is a recipe that piqued my interest. Instead of sauce hers has tomato slices, roasted briefly along with the summer squash to concentrate and sweeten their flavours. And her cobblestoned topping of fresh mozzarella is far from a bad thing.

Since yesterday brought rain and temperatures that bespoke the quick arrival of fall, I chose to take elements from each. I wanted a dish that brought some comfort, but didn't ignore that fact that it is still August. What follows is what I think I did, written without formality and with only my best estimates of quantities and timing.

I had not intended this tart as anything greater than our evening's meal. And so, to be safe, let me emphasize the essential parts of my hastily-scribbled instructions; sticky caramelized onions line a butter-laden crust, profoundly rich and yet well-matched by a smear of sharp, young cheese. Atop that are tiles of eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes, softening into each other, lush with their juices.

The final effect is one of substance without brawn, something so good that I had to share.

Happy weekend.

LATE SUMMER VEGETABLE TART

My adaptation of recipes from Rachel and Heidi, with thanks. The amounts and particulars below for the filling are a non-specific guideline. I was working with what we had on hand, but feel free to make omissions and substitutions to best suit your tastes (and contents of your fridge).

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/4-inch slices
  • 1 medium zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch slices
  • 1 large onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 shallots, sliced thinly
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves picked from their stems, plus more for garnish
  • 2 beefsteak tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch slices, I used a mix of varieties and sizes
  • 4 ounces herbed unripened goat's cheese
  • Parmesan cheese (an ounce or so)
  • Fresh mozzarella (around 1/2 a large ball)
  • Good quality olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper
  • 1 9-inch pastry shell of your choice, partially baked (see note)

METHOD

Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C).

Take the eggplant and zucchini slices and toss in a large bowl with a generous sprinkling of salt. Transfer the slices to a colander and leave to drain.

In a medium skillet over medium-low heat, cook the onions and shallots in bit of olive oil, stirring occasionally. After about 20 minutes, or when the onions and shallots are lightly-caramelized and starting to catch in places, add the garlic. Cook for about 3 minutes more, so that the garlic has chance to mellow and soften. Pour in the vinegar to deglaze the pan, scraping and the bottom of the skillet with your spoon to pick up any brown bits. Cook for a minute or so, until most of the vinegar has evaporated. Remove the vegetables from the heat and stir in the thyme. Set aside.

Pat dry the eggplant and zucchini on a (non-terrycloth) kitchen towel. Coat the eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes in olive oil lay them out in a single layer on baking sheets. Season all with pepper, the tomatoes with salt too. Roast vegetables in the preheated oven, working in batches, until the vegetables are just beginning to brown in spots, around 20 minutes. Although the tomatoes were too delicate for such a procedure, I flipped the eggplant and zucchini over halfway through roasting. You want them tender, but not falling apart.

When the vegetables are done, remove from the oven and turn down the temperature to 350°F (175°C).

Beat the goat's cheese in a small bowl, with a drizzle of olive oil if needed, until creamy. With an offset spatula, spread the cheese over the parbaked pastry crust. Layer in the caramelized onions, then the eggplant, next the zucchini, and finally the tomatoes. Tear the fresh mozzarella into rough chunks over all. Using a vegetable peeler, shave a few large, thin shards of Parmesan on top.

Bake in the preheated over for 30 minutes, until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown. Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving, with a sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves to finish.

Makes 1 9-inch tart.

Notes:

• Yesterday I used an all-butter pâte brisée from Martha Stewart, making the full recipe and sending a second tart off to loved ones. I did make one change, using 1 tablespoon of vinegar (in this case white balsamic, usually apple cider vinegar) in place of an equal amount of ice water. I also make this crust with 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour instead of using all white.

• This was especially good the next day, gently warmed and served with a soft-yolked fried egg for brunch.

Mark Bittman's tomato jam; wonderful to look at, tastes even better. Photos taken by my sister-in-law.

It was love at first sight. Or at least greed at first glance.

It was early. I was still in my pajamas and had only recently padded into the kitchen. Coffee in hand, I flicked open the newspaper and there it was. Across the countertop lay spread a photo so alluring, so beautiful, that my breath caught and I stopped mid sip.

Now what ever could have caught my rapt attention? What was the object of my early-morning desire, you ask?

Mark Bittman's Tomato Jam. (You know me well enough to know it would be about food.)

But seriously. Look at this. It is just a spoonful of gorgeousness. To call it red would be a disservice; it seems too plain. Scarlet doesn't cut it, brick doesn't even come close. Vermilion? Crimson? I cannot come up with an adjective that captures the particular hue of this luscious-looking stuff.

Attempts to describe aside, I did know one thing from the start. I wanted to try this jam. I needed to make it. And I needed to make it right away.

And so, I set about making a batch of tomato jam. Lucky for me, my dear Sean is used to the vagrancies of my behaviour and said not a word when I started mincing green chilies and ginger. After a minimal bit of chopping, stirring and grinding, on my stove sat a bubbling pot. Soon the smell of coffee met and mingled with scents of ripe tomatoes and grassy cumin, with an underlying warmth of cinnamon and clove.

The pot remained for the remainder of the coffee, and for the duration of breakfast. All the while deepening in colour and texture; what started out as bright and watery slowly turned darker, richer. In the end, I was left with a sticky sweet relish, heady with spice but with a good balance of acidity. It was complex without being overly complicated.

The jam was even better after it cooled overnight in the fridge. Akin to a chutney, it is an unexpected but delicious accompaniment to bread and cheese. I would offer more suggestions for its use, but I haven't gotten that far; I've just started exploring the possibilities.

I can tell you this though, this tomato jam looks good enough to eat. And its looks do not deceive.

TOMATO JAM

By Mark Bittman, as published in the New York Times (August 19, 2008) and in syndication.

Recipe and an associated video are both available online.

Notes:

  • I used a mix of tomatoes from our garden, all rather sweet in their own right. While I understand its role in setting the jam, I was still wary of the amount of sugar in the recipe - so I used a generous 3/4 of a cup and upped the tomatoes to a full 2 pounds.
  • For another savoury note I included 1 large garlic clove, grated.
  • Wanting enough heat to cut through the sweetness, I used two small green chilies instead of the jalapeño.
  • When I make this again I might include a bit of lime zest..
  • Most likely due to the reduced amount of sugar and additional tomatoes, my cooking time was closer to 2 hours to reach the consistency I was looking for.

It is beautiful out.

No wait, let me say it again for those who feel differently about heat than I do. It is hot. It is humid, with clear sunshine interspersed with rather-impressive thunderstorms and torrential rain.

Now I'll admit, I am a lucky one; I am one of those sorts that lives for heat and revels in temperatures others may consider rather sweltering. Dry heat or sticky with humidity, I will always choose a day that is blistering over a day that is remotely cold.

I even take particular joy the dramatic tendencies of our climate. There is something wholly romantic about a midday thunderstorm. The day suddenly turns to dusk, the air heavy and thick with moisture; and afterwards, who cannot enjoy the green, green, green smell of wet grass and soaking leaves, and the reward of a cool breeze. Even as I write this, rain is pouring through trees alight with sunshine and I can hear not-so-distant peals of thunder.

But, even though I consider the weather to be lovely and sultry, I can see my loved ones virtually wilting as the days go on. And so I feel compelled to aid as only I know how - with food.

While I will admit my days have been busier as of late, what with the arrival of our newborn son and the constant entertainment that is his big brother, I have still managed to get back in the kitchen. Like the lovely familiarity of a tune you've hummed for a lifetime, getting back to cooking and baking has brought me the satisfaction of beloved habits. In this mood I have been looking over my cookbook collection, rediscovering old favourites that somehow seem new again.

With that in mind, I have brought together a few of my best-loved recipes I hope will keep you cool for the summer nights ahead.

I have come to embrace the fact that I'm a creature of habit. As such, I revel in my Pavlovian-impulse to make a beeline for a patio once the warm weather hits. In my mind, there is little better than some nibbles and sips under the sun during those muggy months of summertime. Conversation flows as evenings give way to starry nights that stretch on endlessly.

The only drawback to this tendency is that I only associate the al fresco lifestyle with restaurant dining. Save for a few backyard barbecues and poolside afternoons, I rarely eat outside at home - or at least, until recently.

It was most likely that coffee one morning, enjoyed on the back patio, that made me realize how much a simple change in environment altered the feel of the meal. All of a sudden, my morning cup seemed more of a treat than a ritual. It was as if I was on holiday, as my pace turned leisurely and I began to take notice of the trees above me and the birds all around.

Since then, we've been having our meals outdoors at every chance. Not just those meals prepared outside, but even those made in the kitchen are piled up onto a trays and taken to the patio, the deck or even to the porch step. Somehow, these meals feel an event; inherently festive as we all come together under a canopy of leaves.

Fitting for our verdant surroundings, this salad is full of vibrant colours and tastes. The red onion loses much of its harsh edge in a quick pickle of fragrant puckery vinegar, while jammy sundried tomatoes add another acidic but sweet note. They tumble together with meaty chickpeas and salty feta in a garlic vinaigrette, blanketed by a green shower of herbs. Twangy, sweet, creamy and satisfying, this is the sort of salad that is meant to be put in the middle of the table, allowing everyone to dive in.

Chickpea salad with sundried tomatoes, feta and a fistful of herbs
My own recipe. The fistful of herbs is literal; I head outside to our herb boxes and pick whatever needs pruning or strikes my fancy. Once I have a fistful, I know I have enough. One caveat, I have small hands.

Ingredients
1/4 large red onion, sliced wafer thin
2 tablespoons (30 ml) red wine vinegar
Salt
6 tablespoons (90 ml) olive oil
A good pinch, about 1/8 teaspoon, red chili flakes (optional)
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced wafer thin
8 sundried tomatoes, julienned
2 cups (500 ml) chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
1 teaspoon (15 ml) English mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
Approximately 1/2 cup (125 ml) of mixed herbs; examples include parsely, lemon thyme, coriander/cilantro, basil, oregano and mint
5 ounces (150 g) goats milk feta cheese

In a small bowl, douse the red onion with the vinegar. Sprinkle over a good pinch of salt, then use your fingers to squish the mixture a bit - this will work the salt into the onions and expedite the breaking down of their acrid bite. Set aside.

In medium saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil, garlic and red chili flakes. If there is any sizzle at all, turn the heat to low. Once the oil is fragrant and the garlic turns translucent, turn off the heat. Add the sundried tomatoes and chickpeas at this point, allowing them to steep as the oil comes to room temperature. This step of bathing the chickpeas in the warm oil is wholly optional, but I feel it imparts more flavour into the beans.

Once the oil has cooled, remove the tomatoes and chickpeas from the saucepan and put them into a large bowl (keep the oil, set it aside). Do the same with the onions, adding them to the salad but reserving the vinegar.

In that vinegar bowl, whisk in the mustard, salt and pepper. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the steeped olive oil. Once the vinaigrette is emulsified and thick, coarsely chop the herbs and add to the bowl. Pour this dressing over the chickpeas and tomatoes. Toss to combine.

Crumble over the feta, then fold gently to distribute. Check for seasoning. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours for the flavours to combine. Can be served cold or at room temperature.

Serves 4-6.

Notes:

• Canned chickpeas are a convenient pantry staple, but dried beans (soaked, then cooked) will result in a better texture and are my preference.
• To make this a heartier meal, add chunks of grilled steak or chicken when combining the chickpeas and onions.
• Toss through some handfuls of arugula or other greens, then pile the salad onto slices of grilled bread for an appetizer.
• I have been toying with the idea of buzzing this salad in the food processor (with additional olive oil or maybe yogurt as needed) to make a spread. I'll report back on that - but if anyone tries it first, let me know.

While it is lovely when expectations are met, the greatest performances are sometimes those that are stumbled upon and steal the show entirely.

To more succinct in this particular case, stumbled upon means came home in our grocery bag.

I had intended to make something to satiate a craving for smoked salmon. I had decided upon a sandwich. I had thought I would thinly slice some red onion, sprinkle over some capers and be done with it.

But then the tomatoes arrived; Sean had gone to the store for provisions, and came back with some of the most gorgeous little beauties from the market. Golden yellow, sunset orange and robustly red, the pint of mixed varietals demanded the spotlight.

Their delicate scent courted centre-stage status; a paltry sandwich seemed too gauche for their charms. And so, the smoked salmon was relegated to the chorus line, providing the backdrop to a tomato salad-crowned tartine.

Like any good production, this light lunch offers a play of dramatic contrasts. Heavily silken folds of salmon are undercut with the twang of fresh chèvre and astringent lemon. Juicy tomatoes rendezvous with their long-time companion sweet basil, and take a tumble with saline capers and spiky, fiery red onion.

While I refrained from a standing ovation, an encore is surely deserved.

Smoked salmon and tomato salad tartine
Please forgive my lack of truly specific quantities; you can treat the list as if each item includes the modifier "or thereabouts". This is one of those dishes for which personal taste is paramount. Choose the proportions that work with your taste to best balance the salty, sour and sweet elements.

Ingredients

For the tomato salad
1 1/2 cups small tomatoes (cherry, grape, strawberry), cut into halves or quarters
1/3 cup small diced red onion
2-3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
Basil, cut into chiffonade
Fresh parsley, minced
Lemon zest
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sandwich
4 tablespoons cream cheese
4 tablespoons chèvre (unaged, fresh)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
4 slices country bread, or 2 slices halved if large
4-8 slices smoked salmon, depending on the size
Lemon juice, freshly squeezed

In a small bowl, combine the ingredients for the tomato salad. Toss gently and season with salt (judiciously) and pepper.

Combine the cream cheese, chèvre and Dijon mustard. Beat until fully-blended and light. Season with pepper.

Lightly toast bread slices under a preheated broiler.

Spread cheese mixture over bread. Top with sliced smoked salmon and a squeeze of lemon juice. Pile tomato salad over all and enjoy.

Makes 4 pieces.

Title with thanks to Judith Viorst.

Monday started out with me slipping in a mud puddle. Tuesday introduced impossible deadlines to be met – and was a day that did not seem to have enough hours in it. Wednesday, well, I forget Wednesday, I’m sure it happened but I have no recollection of it. I think it was so traumatic that I blocked it from my memory.Thursday brought misunderstandings of seemingly endless proportions. And now it is Friday, and it’s raining outside.

As you may guess, I’m in a bit of a mood.

It is times like these, when I am feeling overwhelmed, that I transform from a usually capable person into a somewhat dramatic, hopeless mess. And it is times like these that the smallest of favours are the grandest of gifts.

These adorable little tomatoes for example, a co-worker brought them to me from her garden – she is a kind and thoughtful lady who never thinks twice when given the opportunity to do something for another. Perfectly ripened, almost candy-like in their sweetness and utterly photogenic, I have had the pleasure of enjoying three miniature little harvests of tomatoes, my morning brightened by a little bag of these babies waiting on my desk in the morning.

Or this lovely green dish, a gift from my dear S in apology for setting fire to one of my roasting dishes (long story involving preheating the oven without remembering that he’d hidden dirty dishes in there earlier). Smooth and sleek with its feminine fluted edge, I love the weight and feel of the ceramic — and the colour is so utterly of him (as you may have noticed, I have a fondness for white serving ware).

So things may not be as dire as they seem. Last night, I surveyed the kitchen and came across some gorgeously crusty Calabrese bread, some herbs and my darling tomatoes. Remembering a recent sunny afternoon at the Taste of the Danforth food festival in Toronto, with the company of great friends and laughter all around, I was inspired to recreate the fabulously fresh bruschetta we’d had at Il Fornello.

The first bite of crusty bread, tangy soft cheese and luscious tomatoes, and I’d banished the gloom. Such a simple pleasure, coupled with a quiet evening, had a wonderfully restorative effect. I slept soundly, and woke this morning with a renewed sense of enthusiasm to face the work ahead.

That’s when I noticed the rain clouds.

Bruschetta with tomato salad and chèvre
Bruschetta, from the Italian bruscare (to roast over coals) technically refers only to the grilled bread. My apologies that I have not included amounts here, instead just the ingredients. But truly, when in a mood like the one I’ve been in, the last thing one wants is to stress over measuring spoons. Use the proportions that best suit your palate. This is supposed to be a dish that exemplifies the “path of least resistance” – the quickest way to pleasure with minimal effort.

Ingredients

Tomatoes, grape or cherry halved, or your favourite large variety cut into manageable bites
Red onion, finely minced
Garlic, finely minced or microplaned (optional)
Basil, in fine strips (chiffonade)
Parsley, finely minced
Salt and pepper
Red wine vinegar (optional)
Olive oil
Slices of Calabrese bread, or any other crusty bread you like
Garlic (left whole)
Chèvre

Preheat broiler.

Combine tomatoes, onion, garlic and herbs in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper and a scant splash of red wine vinegar. Pour over a good-quality olive oil, mixing gently to combine. Allow to sit at room temperature while you prepare the bruschetta.

Under a hot broiler, toast bread on one side until golden brown. Turn and toast the second side until just starting to turn colour. Remove from oven and, working quickly, rub the cut side of the whole garlic clove all over the lightly toasted side. Top with crumbled chèvre, and return to the broiler until the cheese is starting to melt.

Serve topped with tomato salad and a final drizzle of olive oil.

Notes:
• This recipe can be done on a barbeque, grilling the bread first over medium high heat. To melt the cheese, turn the grill down to medium heat and close the lid, checking after 2-3 minutes.