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Every year I tend a small plot in a community garden not far from my house. I coddle and baby it all summer long and am usually rewarded with an abundance of something as well as a complete failure of something else. It’s always a learning experience. As September moves into October and fades into November, my interest and enthusiasm wanes a little with the season. It’s cooler and rain is more frequent so I don’t have to worry about wilting or watering like I do in the hot summer months. The plants still produce, especially the tomatoes which don’t seem to realize it will snow in a few weeks, but do slow down as the days get shorter. At this point, I just let it do its thing. In early November when it’s time to shut down for the winter and put the plot to bed, I throw anything remaining in a bag and deal with it back home. This final harvest usually contains greens, big bunches of green herbs, the string beans which seem to peak the day I have to clear everything out and a surprising amount of cherry tomatoes in all shades, mostly unripe green.

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Not long ago, I was flipping through Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, Michael Solomonov’s excellent cookbook based on recipes from his Philadelphia restaurant of the same name. His hummus is legendary, rightly so, and the twice cooked eggplant is something to behold. I was fascinated with a recipe for a Yemenite condiment called schug. I have zero knowledge of Yemenite cuisine and the recipe sounded fantastic – green chilies and lots of fresh parsley and cilantro. Given that I had a lot of the ingredients on hand from my garden plot that needed a purpose, I decided to give it a shot.

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When the squashes start appearing in the farmers markets and grocery stores, I get a little twitchy. First, it’s a harbinger of fall. Summer’s over and the grey and cold where I live is inevitably on its way. After all these years you’d think I’d be used to this but I’m not. Second, the site of the first squashes and pumpkins make me want to cook warm, comforting, homey things. Then it happens: I’ll buy a bunch and they’ll sit on my kitchen table for weeks.

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The summer of 2011, I was in Southwest France for the first time, about to start a stagiere at the Michelin stared restaurant of Chef Dany Chambon, Le Pont De l’Ouysse. I’d met him the previous fall at a food and wine event in Bangkok and when he offered to come work in his restaurant, I did. It changed my life. For the first few days, I stayed in a little b&b in the tiny town of LaCave. The owner was a very opinionated woman, who proceeded to tell me much of what I knew about French cooking, particularly that of the Dordogne Valley, was wrong. I kept my mouth shut and let her lecture me because I found it amusing but one morning she proudly presented a cookbook with a strange padded cover and declared it the best thing ever. It was by Yotom Ottolenghi, a strange name I’d never heard of and couldn’t pronounce. I took the book up to my room that night and never looked back. That book was Plenty.

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Hey guess what? It’s October first. That means another year of Unprocessed October, my 7th if you’ve been tracking. This is the time when I commit to giving up processed food for 31 days. It really shouldn’t be that hard to stick to; it shouldn’t. And yet, despite many strong starts, somewhere along the way I skid sideways. Life intercedes every damn time. That doesn’t really bother me too much because I’ll do it again; I like the challenge and the reminder to avoid the garbage ingredients. It is SO easy to backslide without even realizing it. I have always been an end goal oriented person. So here we go.

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Despite this recent heat wave, we’re nearing the end of the gardening season and my little community plot is still happily cranking along. Though it wasn’t the best year for tomatoes, my herbs have been unbelievable. At least once a week I’m aggressively cutting back the basil, lemon verbena and mint in an effort to tame and contain the little beasts. I recently trimmed the oregano so aggressively I think it might shiver a little as I approach. My rosemary bush is having a year like no other but it’s the parsley that is the most surprising. No matter how much I cut it back, it springs forth with new vigor in all its vibrant, bushy glory. I’ve been using it quite a bit in the last month but needed to step up my efforts. It was time for tabbouleh.

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For the first time, in all my years of community gardening, my rosemary was popping this summer. Much to my surprise, it had grown into a large, vibrant bush. This had never happened before. Last year it flat out died on me in the middle of the summer and in other years it was small, stringy and unimpressive. I have no idea what I did differently this year. Maybe it liked that I went to France for most of the summer and left it alone. The good news is I can easily replicate that situation next year. Whatever happened, I was delighted to see it upon my return.

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