Even in September, the thought of turning on the oven for an afternoon of bread baking is about as exciting as the thought of another raw zucchini stick or fresh tomato slice with basil vinaigrette (which at this point makes our teeth ache). Yet, with the coming of fall, we still want something warm, dark and soothing.

Last of the Season Smoked Chicken takes care of all these finicky transitional eating dilemmas. It's done outside on the grill, so the heat stays outside; but over a smoky, hot fire -- the deep, dark flavor of which comes inside with you to eat on a candlelit table once the sun goes down.

The labor is minimal, though the cooking takes 60 minutes and someone has to stay by the fire. It's a matter of melting butter with whatever fresh herbs you can find and keeping that warm on the grill top to baste the chicken halves every 10 minutes while they cook.

To get the proper amount of smoke, soak 10 chunks of hardwood (hickory or mesquite, for example) in cold water for 20 minutes. Then lay them on a hot hardwood fire that is ready for grilling. Lay the grill rack over the coals and lay the chicken on top of the rack. Cook the chicken with the cover down (or at least cover the entire grill with heavy aluminum foil) to keep the smoke in.

Serve the chicken with eggplant fans and white rice cooked in chicken broth. The fans are a simple baked dish that requires little attention. Once the eggplant is sliced into 1/4- to 1/2-inch steaks and the bitter juices removed with salt, the steaks are turned into fans by slicing lengthwise from one end to within an inch of the other. Tomato eighths are stuffed into the fans and all is drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, pepper and finely chopped garlic. The fans are oven-baked and the rice is cooked on top of the stove during the last thirty minutes that the chicken is on the grill. The dinner's dark colors -- purple, red and brown-skinned chicken -- add another dimension to the fall theme.

So long as you have butter, salt and pepper on hand, here is what you'll need for a quick trip through the Express Lane.

EXPRESS LANE LIST: Fresh herbs (such as thyme, tarragon, rosemary or basil), whole chickens, eggplants, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, white rice, chicken broth. LAST OF THE SEASON SMOKED CHICKEN (4 to 6 servings) 2 sticks (16 tablespoons butter) 4 tablespoons fresh herbs (thyme, tarragon, rosemary or basil) 2 3 1/2-pound chickens, split in half Salt and pepper

Melt butter with herbs. Wash chickens and split in half. Lay chickens on hot, smoking grill and baste with melted butter. Cover. Turn every 10 minutes, basting each time and sprinkling with salt and pepper. Chicken is done when a fork easily pierces the thigh and the juices run clear (about 60 minutes). Remove from heat, cover with foil and let sit 10 minutes. Carve and serve with eggplant fans and white rice.

Note: There should be some leftovers, which are great on toasted bread with lettuce and tomato for the next day's lunch or dinner. EGGPLANT FANS (4 to 6 servings) 2 small to medium eggplants Salt 3 medium tomatoes, cut into eighths Olive oil Pepper 1 clove garlic, minced

Slice top off each eggplant and cut into three steaks. Salt heavily and set aside for 25 minutes. Using paper towels, pat the steaks dry and wipe off all the salt. Lay each slice, flesh up, on a cutting board and make two cuts down each steak lengthwise, stopping one inch from the end, to form the fan. Each cut should be about 1/2 an inch apart. Stuff two tomato slices in each cut. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until tender. Serve one eggplant fan to each person. GARLIC, CHICKEN BROTH WHITE RICE (4 servings) 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 clove garlic 2 cups uncooked long grain white rice 4 cups chicken broth

Warm 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy saucepan and saute' garlic until golden brown (about 1 minute). Add rice and saute' 2 more minutes. Add broth, turn heat to medium low and simmer rice, covered, until fluffy and cooked through (18-20 minutes). Turn off heat, fluff with a fork and serve.