Autumn has always been my favorite season.
In spite of the fact that the days are getting shorter and so many plants are either going dormant or dying, there's something invigorating about the cooling air, changing leaves and crisp sunlight.
Something that whispers of new beginnings and fresh chances.
Part of what I love about the season is the cooking. It would be hard for me to pick a time of year as my favorite one in the kitchen, but this may well be it.
Not only does the cooler weather make a warm kitchen more inviting, the comfort foods that we crave in that weather are so satisfying to cook.
Those words "comfort food" inevitably conjure thoughts of pot roasts, meaty stews, chili, gumbo, and chicken soup. But oddly enough those are not the things that I love best about fall cooking. Our idea of comfort at the table is so fixed on animal protein that we neglect what I think is by far the most satisfying comfort food of all: fall produce.
Admittedly, the selection of fruits and vegetables (with the possible exception of apples) isn't as varied in the fall as it is during summer's full bloom. But its flavors are often richer, denser, and mellower, and its textures are always meatier and more toothsome.
In short, the fall harvest has just as much to offer as summer's explosive variety. We have only to give it our attention and savor it.
Part of the problem is that we all too often think of fall fruits and vegetables as "also rans" at the table. That is, we treat them as something that merely accompanies the main event and rarely let them shine on their own.
To that end, the recipes that follow are all meatless and feature seasonal produce as the main ingredient. With a hunk of cornbread or dish of rice on the side, any of them would make a satisfying meal in themselves.
The object isn't so much to be conscientiously vegetarian as it is to be conscious of and to celebrate fall produce as it deserves to be celebrated - as an end in itself.
Carrot and Pear Soup with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
From friend and fellow Christ Church chorister Monica Sliva, this lovely soup is vegan if you use vegetable broth and omit the cream garnish. It's hearty enough to stand on its own as a main dish at lunch or supper, but is suave enough to serve as a first course, and would be a perfect beginning for Thanksgiving dinner.
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 small or one large sweet onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, diced
2-inch piece of ginger, grated
1-1/2 pounds of carrots, scrubbed, peeled, and sliced into 1 inch rounds
4 ripe Bosc or Bartlett pears, peeled and diced
64 ounces vegetable or chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon salt.
1/2 teaspoon cumin
2 heaping tablespoons orange juice concentrate (if needed), or grated zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream (optional)
About 1/4 cup salted toasted pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1. Heat olive oil on medium low until it shimmers and add onion. Saute until translucent and then make a well in middle and put in garlic and ginger. Allow to soften, but not brown. Add carrots and pears and stir to mix. Add 1/2 cup water so garlic doesn't burn. Simmer for about 2 minutes until carrots soften a little and then add cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, cayenne, and pepper.
2. Saute a few minutes to deepen flavor and add broth. Bring to boil and simmer about 30 minutes or until carrots and pears are very soft. Puree with an immersion blender until smooth or puree in batches in conventional blender.
3. Taste and adjust salt and add white pepper as needed and, if it isn't sweet enough, add either orange juice concentrate or if it is sweet, just add orange zest. Let simmer 1 to 2 minutes to blend flavors. Serve garnished with creme fraiche or heavy cream, if liked, pumpkin seeds, and parsley, or simply with seeds and parsley.
Caramelized Onion, Pear, and Havarti Sandwich
From friend Melanie Thomas Finnegan, who likes to serve this with a hearty soup or light arugula salad. When the pears are especially hard, Finnegan softens them by cooking them briefly in butter with a little water, using the pan in which the onions were caramelized.
3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 Vidalia or sweet onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large firm but ripe pear, quartered, cored, and cut into slices
8 slices 7-grain bread or French bread, sliced thin
Dijon mustard or honey Dijon mustard
8-16 thin slices Havarti cheese (enough to cover sandwich)
Melt butter in deep, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add onions and saute until caramelized (nice deep brown but not scorched), about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Position rack 6 to 8 inches below heat source and preheat broiler.
Thinly spread each slice of bread with mustard and put spread-side-up on rimmed sheet pan. Cover each with single layer of sliced pear, then top generously with caramelized onions. Cover with single layer of cheese and broil until warm and melted. Serve open-faced.
Braised Winter Squash
Winter squash are so meaty and flavorful that they don't need meat to make them a satisfying main dish. Braising is a perfect way to bring out that meaty quality. Adapted from my book "Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches" (2nd edition, Globe Pequot Press).
2 small (about 3/4 pound each) or 1 large (about 2 pounds) winter squash, such as acorn, butternut, cashaw, or kabocha
3 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil (or half butter and half olive oil)
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled
8-10 fresh (or 5 to 6 dried) sage leaves
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1/2 cup chicken broth, vegetable broth, meat broth, or water
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1. Peel squash and cut into 1-inch chunks.
2. Put butter or oil and onion in large, lidded skillet (preferably cast iron) or heavy sautÃ© pan that will hold squash in one layer. SautÃ© over medium heat until onion is transparent but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add squash and raise heat. Toss until they are glossy and hot, about a minute, then add garlic, sage, and season well with salt and pepper. Toss and add liquid. Bring to boil, cover, and reduce heat to bare simmer. Cook until squash is nearly tender, about half an hour.
3. Remove lid and raise heat to medium high. Reduce liquid, shaking pan and turning squash frequently to prevent sticking, until liquid is evaporated and thick, and squash are just beginning to brown. Turn off heat. Taste and correct seasonings, transfer squash to a warm bowl, sprinkle with chopped sage, and serve at once.
Squash Country Captain
Country Captain is a spicy tomato-based curry that has been popular in the South for at least a century. While the traditional main ingredient is chicken, it's also good with shrimp and is an excellent way to cook winter squash. Adapted from my book, Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches (2nd edition, Globe Pequot Press).
1 medium (about 2 pounds) winter squash, such as acorn, butternut, or kabocha
3 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil (or half butter and half oil)
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 large green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 large cloves garlic, crushed, peeled, and minced
1 to 2 tablespoons curry powder, to taste
1 tart apple (such as Granny Smith), peeled, cored, and diced
2 cups seeded and chopped canned Italian tomatoes with their juices
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup currants or raisins
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
4 cups steamed rice, optional
1/2 cup grated unsweetened coconut, optional
1/2 cup toasted peanuts, optional
1. Peel squash and cut into 1-inch chunks. Put butter or oil, onion, and bell pepper in large lidded skillet or heavy saute pan over medium heat. Saute, tossing often, until softened but not colored, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and curry, and saute until fragrant, about half a minute more.
2. Add squash and apple, and toss until hot and evenly coated. Add tomatoes, sugar, large pinch of salt, and currants. Bring to boil, reduce heat to simmer, and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender, about 1 hour.
3. If, when the squash done, there's too much liquid in pan, raise heat briefly and let boil away. Turn off heat and stir in parsley. Serve hot over rice, with coconut and peanuts passed separately if liked.
Kale, Chickpea and Potato Stew
From friend Jacqui Belcher, who always accompanies this hearty main dish stew with cornbread. Belcher is British by birth and uses Tate & Lyle's Golden Syrup in this stew instead of sugar. You can sometimes find it in specialty grocers if you'd like to try it.
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 large sweet onion, sliced
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning to taste
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
3 to 4 medium red potatoes, peeled and diced into 1-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
1 cup good vegetable broth
14-1/2 ounces canned diced tomatoes
1 to 2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon dried basil
4 to 8 ounces destemmed, washed, and torn up kale
4 ounces dried chickpeas, soaked and cooked (see note below) or 15-1/2 ounce can of chickpeas, drained
Whole black pepper in a mill
In large shallow saucepan or sautÃ© pan, heat oil over low heat. Add onion, salt, and turmeric and caramelize onion, stirring often, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add potatoes and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring continuously.
Deglaze pan with broth and add tomatoes, sugar, basil, and kale. Cover and simmer gently until potatoes and kale are just cooked, about 20 minutes, stirring frequently and adding broth as needed. (Cooked dish should be moist but not soupy.)
Add chickpeas, stir and simmer, covered, for 5 to 6 minutes until peas are heated through.
Note: To soak and cook dried chickpeas, cover 4 ounces dried peas with water by at least 1 inch. Soak 6 to 8 hours. Drain and put in pot with fresh water to cover by at least 1 inch, bring to boil, skimming away foam, and cook until tender but still firm, 30 to 40 minutes. Turn off heat, add 1 teaspoon salt and let sit until ready to use. Drain before using.
Sweet Potatoes with Horseradish
When friend and fellow cookbook author John Martin Taylor graciously gave permission for me to share this lovely dish from "The New Southern Cook" (Bantam, 1995), he said it was quite simply his favorite dish in the book. It pairs well with roast lamb or chicken, but it's hearty enough to stand on its own, and is equally delicious warm or at room temperature.
The recipe originally came from Chef Frank Lee, one of Charleston's leading chefs. Taylor says that Lee also makes this into a soup by pureeing them with stock and a little cream.
Taylor says the best sweet potatoes for this are small ones, all the same size, that are pointed at their ends.
Serves 4 to 6
4 average sweet potatoes (about 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 pounds)
3 tablespoons grated horseradish (fresh is better but prepared will do)
1 cup cream
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Peel sweet potatoes and slice evenly into 1/4-inch disks. Toss all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl so that the potatoes are evenly coated, then turn into a baking dish such as a 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole.
2. Cover with foil and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until sweet potatoes are slightly soft, or al dente, tender but firm to bite. Serve immediately.
3. Alternatively, Taylor says this can be cooked in a microwave: Loosely cover dish with plastic wrap instead of foil and cook on high 10 minutes, stopping twice at 4-minute intervals to toss potatoes around so they evenly cook.
This sumptuous side dish is a fine companion for just about any meat, poultry, or fish that doesn't contain cream, but is substantial enough to stand on its own as a main dish. Adapted from my book, Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches (2nd edition, Globe Pequot Press).
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds medium-sized turnips
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1 cup heavy cream (minimum 36 percent milkfat)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup dry bread crumbs
1. Position rack in upper third of oven and preheat to 400 degrees F. Scrub turnips under cold running water. Trim and put in large saucepan. Add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil and adjust heat to steady slow boil. Cook until turnips pierce easily when stuck with paring knife. Drain and while still warm, peel if liked (I never do). Slice 1/4-inch thick.
2. Lightly grease a 2-quart gratin or shallow casserole with butter. Add turnips in overlapping rows in no more than two layers, lightly seasoning each layer with salt and pepper. When all are in dish, pour cream evenly over all.
3. Melt butter in small skillet over medium heat and turn off heat. Add crumbs and toss until butter is evenly absorbed. Sprinkle crumbs over casserole and bake in upper third of oven until cream is thick and bubbly and crumbs are nicely browned, about half an hour.