This, harvest-time, is my favorite time of year to go to the farmer’s market and garden-stands. It’s a cornucopia!
Now, harvesting technically begins in spring, when the first asparagus tips poke up boldly through the still-cold soil. And harvesting goes wild in the summer, when cukes and zukes overwhelm us with their fecundity, when the okra, its pods pointing happily erect sunwise, doesn’t know when to quit, when blackberries stain our teeth, when the blooming flowers make fireworks of our bouquets.
Still. THE harvest is now, right now, in the year’s last hurrah of color and energizingly cooler weather and vivid blue skies: fall.
Depending in where you live, and assuming you’re in the northern hemisphere, this is sometime in September-October-November.
The pumpkins and squashes with their bright, sweet orange flesh: butternuts, buttercups, delicatas. The lumpy bumpy warty decorative gourds.
The last of the beans: Blue Lakes, rattlesnakes, musica, flat Italian, limas.
Still more okra. (Just last week I bought a new-to-me variety, with shorter, plumper stumpy pods, not long skinny ones. The woman selling them told me they were called Big Bucks!)
The cruciferous greens — cabbage, brussels sprouts, the kales (lacinato, Russian, red, blue), boy choi, mustard greens, collards.
The last, and possibly best, tomatoes (Cherokee purples! Brandywines! Green Zebras! Sungolds!).
The peppers! Sweet and hot, short and stubby, long and skinny. Golden, red, every possible shade of green, all shiny as brand new Maseratis.
And oh oh oh, the apples.
Over the years I’ve been doing these Deep Feast posts, I’ve done many with individual fall favorite recipes. This year, I felt it was time to round several of these up, in one indexed cornucopia that could take you through a whole autumn-centric feast.
So here we go.
To begin, how about a butternut squash or pumpkin soup?
This post, Pucker Up, Butternut: Soulful Winter Squash Soup with Ginger Apple Salsa, takes you on a walk through the pumpkin patch with me, offering one actual recipe and links and/or descriptions of half a dozen other riffs on squash soups, sweet, spicy, creamy or not, tomato-y or not, creamy or not.
(It even offers a look back to my now-vanished summer pleasure of a soup, my chilled cucumber and green grape soup… remember it when August rolls around again.)
MAIN DISHES & ACCOMPANIMENTS
Why am I combining entrees and side dishes?
In Passionate Vegetarian, my James Beard Award-winning cookbook, I talked about meal planning and getting past “the pork chop syndrome.” The pork chop syndrome is when non-vegetarians picture a plate with a pile of green beans (usually overcooked), a pile of mashed potatoes, and a big blank spot where the pork chop is supposed to be. Instead of this, I suggested, one could either try a casserole, any sort of one dish entree which “incorporates what would be side dishes into its substance. Take lasagna: pasta, cheeses, vegetables, sauces ll in one dish. The ingredients are ensemble players, all equally important to the finished dish.”
But I also suggest a component plate. “Instead of the meal having a single focus, like that mythical pork chop or a serving of lasagna, the meal consists of a number of smaller dishes, usually with one portion of rice or another starchy grain or vegetable… Instead of the ingredients being pre-combined, the diner picks and chooses, putting together different combinations with each bite. Each small dish is a distinct component, making an essential contribution. While the grain is essential, it does not serve as a centerpiece, instead, it’s a kind of backdrop for other more highly flavored, nutritionally dense dishes. Since every bite is different, this is a tremendously interesting, sophisticated way to eat.” I still agree with this.
Here is one of my favorite component dishes, perfect for late summer and early fall: Greek-Style Smothered Okra. If you think you don’t like okra “because it’s slimy” or you only like fried okra, “because it doesn’t taste like okra,” have you ever got a great, delicious surprise coming!
But if you want more of a centerpiece main dish, you could hardly do better than my Ragout of Shiitake Mushrooms, Butter Beans, & Southern Greens, served over a bed of Oven-Baked Polenta, and finished with a few shavings of Parmesan (unless you are vegan, in which case omit, or use a non-dairy cheese or a sprinkle of nutritional yeast).
This is a fabulous, satisfying recipe, and as you will see from the ragout link, was selected by Camellia Beans out of New Orleans to showcase their butter beans. It will also take you handily into and through the winter, as the cooked dry beans, cornmeal for polenta, and hearty greens are all available through the colder months.
Another dish that will serve you well through the winter is my storied Greek Lentil Soup with Spinach and Lemon. Yes, you’ve heard me brag on this before because 1) it is just SO good, and 2) it is the single most-reposted recipe EVER, in the history of the Washington Post’s food section… we are talking just shy of a million reposts!
And the story behind the story, concerning a nurse who brought it to work every single day for fifteen years, is just as good as the soup.
It wouldn’t be fall without my mother’s baked apples. Every time I make them, I share it on Facebook, and I am amazed at how many people have never had a baked apple, and fall in love with ’em! Here is a detailed post about how to make them: Comfort Me with Apples — But Make Them Baked, Please.
But of course apples are not the only fruit blessing us with its presence in fall. Consider the pear.
And, when you get tired of eating the perfect Bartlett out of hand with a wedge of Emmentaler or gorgonzola dolce, try my exquisite Maple-Pear-Pecan Upside-down Cake, brightened with dried cherries (the soaking liquid from the cherries goes into the cake, adding an extra layer of flavor that’s unbeatable. I developed this recipe back in 2006 for Relish magazine; few falls have gone by since then when I do not make it.
Let me close with my annual favorite, one I’ve been making for at least 45 years (the mind boggles): my one and only Fabulous Green Tomato Mincemeat. No, no meat (suet was traditional). Yes, tremendous flavors — beloved, improbably, both by those who say “I love mincemeat” and those who say, “I hate mincemeat.”