Fall Vegetable Menu

Monday, November 19, 2007

I've discovered that I'm not alone in finding the autumn and early winter rather challenging months. It seems like the change in weather patterns, drop in temperature, falling of the leaves, and general end of that summer exuberance subdues my mood a bit, and invites nostalgia, wistfulness, and melancholy.

The seasons of one year are often compared to the stages of a full human life: Spring is the birth and youth, summer is the heyday, followed by the golden years of autumn and finally winter, death. All followed by the whole thing all over again.

My mother always used to say, when God closes a door, He opens a window, and I think that spirit is alive in the various seasonal harvest. As melancholy as I find autumn, I think it's a nice benevolent treat that the autumn harvest tends so heavily towards warming, starchy, filling vegetables. The Earth throws me off with the change in season, but with a conciliatory offering: comfort food.

I've been trying to form new, positive sense-memories of these seasons by taking advantage of that food, so last night I had a bunch of good friends over for dinner, and made a vegetarian menu of seasonal food, most of it local.

First, a word of thanks to my friend Marysol. Marysol runs Hands of the Earth Farm, previously known (and still referred to at that website) as Oasis Gardens Farm. It's less than 9 miles from my house in central Austin, and is a beautiful, 10 acre organic farm. I'm a member of their CSA program right now, and when I invited Marysol to dinner she offered to get me any vegetables that she could. I gave her the list of what I was planning to use, and when I showed up on Saturday to get my regular basket, she gave me the amazing gift of a huge bounty of fresh, local, organic veggies. Even a dozen fresh, local eggs! Almost everything here was from her (with only a few notable exceptions like the apples, oranges, pears, and celery.)


And much of that went into the dinner.

My camera battery was dead and I was busy trying to cook for 8 people and hang out and drink wine all at the same time, so I don't have any more photos, but I'll describe the menu.

First, I'd intended to serve the eggs Marysol gave me, poached, with roasted cherry tomatoes, boiler onions, and golden beets. But I ran out of time. Planning for a big dinner party is still a lot of intuition for me. Even when I write out all the various steps, it's hard for me to visualize exactly how all the pots, pans, stove burners, oven, steamer, blender, and stand mixer will be utilized. I actually considered trying to plan dinner parties out in Microsoft Project. Maybe I still will, someday, even though it seems really dorky. If it works, why not?

Plus, I wouldn't be the only one going a bit overboard on large meal logistical planning. So at least I'd be in good company.

Cortland Cider

I sat Dave down with my juicer when he arrived and had him juice a big bucket of Cortland apples (from New York -- I'd be a bad Locavore, I know.) The result had a lot of solid to it, so it was halfway between cider and applesauce, but it was delicious, fragrant and complex. A week or two ago I bought one each of 7 different kinds of apples from Central Market and juiced them all, and Cortlands made the best cider.

Parker House Rolls, Kerrygold Butter

I got this recipe from Epicurious, wanting a nice yeasted white roll. The one step I take issue with is where you add cold milk to melted butter and "heat until lukewarm." In my case it was more than lukewarm after mixing, even with the milk straight from the refrigerator, and so it ended up hot enough even in the few moments it took me to realize its temperature that when I poured it into the dough I'm pretty sure it killed a lot of the yeast. The dough didn't seem to rise as much as I expected.

But they came out alright, still had decent loft to them, weren't tough like hockey pucks or anything, just not quite as airy and pillowy as they might have been.

Serving them with good cultured Irish butter doesn't hurt, either.

Tamopan Persimmon, Crimini Mushroom, Pine Nut

This was modeled somewhat after a soup Lulu and Robin had at the French Laundry when we just went at the end of October. Theirs was, I think, Parsnip, Fuyu Persimmon, Black Truffle, and Pine Nut. It's easy to prepare and delicious; I used Tamopan persimmons because that's what Marysol grows. They are like Hachiyas in that they are astringent until totally squishy-soft ripe, whereas Fuyu you can eat when their flesh is still firm.

I just cut the persimmons in half, scoop the flesh out with a spoon, and put it at the bottom of a bowl. Then, saute the mushrooms in butter for a bit until they soften, then add some milk and continue to simmer for a while. In the meantime, toast the pine nuts in the toaster until they are a golden brown and aromatic. Puree the mushrooms, milk, and pine nuts in a blender for several minutes to get it as smooth as possible, adding milk to get it to the consistency of thick soup. Pour that mixture over the persimmon and serve.

It's amazing how well these flavors combine. This is really the only thing I know to do with persimmon beyond the cookies, pudding, and serving it in a salad.

Sweet Potato & Shallot Agnolotti with Celery-Mustard Green Puree

One downside to using local, organic sweet potatoes is that they're funny shapes and harder to peel. One upside is that they are delicious, creamy, soft, and richly flavorful. In the end, it's a good trade if you can make it.

I peeled and sliced maybe 3 pounds of the potatoes since they were all different sizes and I wanted them to cook evenly. I layered them in a baking dish, scattered a few minced shallots over the top, and then drizzled with olive oil and a teaspoon or two of salt. Covered the pan with tinfoil, popped it in a 350F oven, and just let it sit there for an hour or two while I prepared other stuff. Took off the tinfoil eventually and gave it another 30 minutes to brown some of the potatoes for a little extra roasty flavor.

Then I pureed it gently in the blender, leaving some small bits of potato and shallot intact for texture and salting again to taste, put it in a gallon ziploc bag and refrigerated it overnight.

I make the agnolotti as described in the French Laundry Cookbook. I make my standard semolina egg dough and roll it out in my Imperia machine to setting 5 (one short of the thinnest, 6). As Keller says, you should be able to see your hand through it, but it should not be so thin to be translucent. Then, cut a 1/4" hole off the tip of the ziploc bag of filling and pipe a tube out onto the pasta, close to the bottom edge. Roll it up, seal it by pressing with my fingers, then pinch it so it forms 1" wide pockets of filling separated by 3/4" pinched spots, and roll a ravioli cutter along the pinched spots to divide them into individual pieces.

For the sauce, I just blanched a few mustard leaves (with any particularly fibrous stem removed) and about 4 large ribs of celery, chopped. I blanch them separately, as they take totally different lengths of time. I threw them together in a blender with a splash of water and a pinch of salt and pureed them to as smooth a consistency as possible. I bet I could strain them to get a really extra-smooth puree, but I didn't bother. The key is to blanch them only long enough that they are still vivid, bright green, so the puree is a beautiful emerald color.

I urged everyone to sauce the agnolotti lightly. Celery and mustard is a sharp, bright combination, and could overwhelm the low, warm, sweet and bulby nature of the filling. In the right balance, it's a really nice dish.

Pickled Okra, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Bell Pepper, Jalapeno, Onion

I stuck a salad in the middle to add a little zip in between courses that were otherwise very warm, deep, and heavy. This was actually at a friend's recommendation: He glanced at my planned menu and said, "I know you're going for comfort food, but that might be a little more like coma food."

I took the advice but didn't plan ahead enough to make good fermented pickle, so instead I made quick vinegar pickle as per Cooks Illustrated. Distilled vinegar, spices, water, boiled and poured over a big nonreactive bowl full of the various veggies. I kept them submerged with a sheet of parchment and a heavy plate, wrapped it all up in cellophane and left it in my refrigerator for a week.

It was definitely sharp. The red okra bled all its color out into the brine, and the cauliflower turned a neat shade of pink. Okra's really surprisingly good when pickled; the acid seems to totally eliminate the sliminess.

Between the sweet potato pasta and the next course, this quick pickle was a nice palate cleanser and also functioned like smelling salts, keeping all my guests from falling asleep at the table!

Main Course
Baked Beans, Brussels Sprouts, Parsnip, Brown Bread

The brown bread and baked beans were from America: The Vegetarian Table by Deborah Madison. I made the brown bread first thing in the morning, dumping out a can of Chock Full 'o' Nuts I'd bought expressly for the purpose, mixing up the batter (rye flour, whole wheat flour, cornmeal, molasses, baking soda, salt, buttermilk) and pouring it into the well-buttered can, sealing the top with tinfoil and tying it with string. If you do this, use heavy tinfoil and good string, and tie it tight. And I recommend mixing it a little longer than you might otherwise; mine must have had a pocket of undermixed batter with more soda than the rest, because it made a big bubble in the center of the bread and some of the batter squirted out the side while it was cooking.

The bread cooks in a bain marie -- "double boiler" doesn't seem quite right here, it's really just a hot water bath -- with the can sitting in a large covered pot with boiling water halfway up the side of the can. For 3 hours! So I did it early so I could have my soup pot back later for all the boiling and blanching.

I boiled the brussels sprouts just until tender. I think I prefer them steamed; boiling in salted water left them a little bit funkier than I'm used to. I tossed them in coarse kosher salt (a bit too much kosher salt, it turns out) and then finished them in a scorching-hot cast iron skillet to brown them. It took a while to brown them, as they still had a lot of water in them. I'm not sure how I might prepare them differently next time to dry them out more before frying. At any rate, they came out well and were a nice component of the course.

The parsnip I just peeled, chopped, salted, and steamed in my handy rice cooker & steamer until it was nice and soft, then pureed in the blender with just enough cream to get it to blend. (This is one reason I might eventually break down and get a food processor: you can't puree without liquid in a blender.)

The baked beans are a real preparation; Madison uses yellow soybeans which soak for 12 hours beforehand and then simmer for 3 more just to be tender, followed by roasting for another hour and a half! It's worth it, though; the beans with the onion, molasses, brown sugar, soy sauce, and chipotle come out sweet and dark and especially hearty, with a bit of smoke to them. In the past I've added a pinch of lapsang souchong tea instead of the chipotle for the smokiness, but I forgot it at my office this time. The beans really do have some heat to them with the chipotle. I think I prefer the tea.

All together, this makes a very good course. The parsnip is sweet and herbal and ultra-smooth and thick with the cream. The beans are intensely spicy and sweet and creamy and rich. The sprouts are green and funky and salty and crispy-brown, and the brown bread is the perfect complement to the beans, sticky and moist, dense and warm.

Poached Concorde Pears, Brown Butter Creme Anglaise

I made the creme anglaise as per the Joy of Cooking (although mine's the previous version), substituting brown butter for a portion of the milk/cream mixture. It was just about the perfect amount. The eggy custardiness combined really well with the brown butter nuttiness and complexity. I could have cooked it a bit thicker, though.

I poached the pears with the recipe in Chez Panisse Fruit. White wine, water, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla bean, lemon juice. Simmer until the flesh offers no resistance to a paring knife.

I sliced the pears and served a half pear, sliced and fanned out, topped with the sauce.

Originally I'd intended to pair them with buckwheat cakes, as described on Shuna's awesome dessert menu at Sens (I've wanted to try my hand at making something like it since I didn't get it when I was there), but again, I left it to the end and ran out of time. Or, I probably could have made it, but would have been standing at my Kitchenaid making noise in the middle of the meal instead of sitting at the table socializing. Tough balance! I was also going to roast some chestnuts, but again, ran out of time.

Chocolate-Hazelnut Macarons with Chestnut Buttercream

I roasted some of the chestnuts ahead of time as a test, and ended up with enough I went ahead and whipped out some macarons early in the day, hoping they'd have time to settle, absorb moisture, do their magic thing they do that turn them from cakey, chewy cookies into delicate, crispy, melting meringues.

Turns out it takes more than the 5 or 6 hours I gave them, but they were still good, if a bit more unwieldy to eat. I made the buttercream directly from the Joy of Cooking, pureed the roast chestnuts in the blender and mixed the puree into the buttercream, and then let it sit in the fridge as I made the shells. The shells are old hat by now; I made them the usual way, with the proportions described in David Lebovitz's seminal post on the subject. They came out quite well. I like these cookies because, once you get the hang of them, you can crank out a whole batch from scratch in well under an hour.


At November 19, 2007 3:11 PM , Blogger Roberto N. said...

That soup sounds quite interesting.

At November 21, 2007 2:06 PM , Blogger Amy said...

Oh my! What a feast!


At November 27, 2007 9:57 AM , Anonymous Ron Fosner said...

Wow - I search for Brian Sharp and I get a plethora of stuff!

Brian - wow, it's been five years since we talked and at least 9 or 10 since we were in semi-regular contact. All I can say is ;-)
quite a lot of stuff to digest. Give me a shout, we'll catch up.

Ron Fosner - same email as always


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