Written for Edible Santa Barbara - Autumn 2009 issue



I like to think of the food that comes from this season as a reflection of the following simple philosophy. Nature has in its annual harvest, offered up some of its most delicious elements; a luscious fig, an ornamental pomegranate, a perfectly ripe delicate pear, a rotund pumpkin and an avalanche of exquisite tubers. Rushing their preparation and the subsequent eating of such splendors seems to be contrary to the season itself.

History it seems agrees. From the time of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, annual festivals have occurred to celebrate the harvest. For thousands of years the human race has, in all parts of the world, taken the time to give thanks for the abundance that surrounds them.

The Jewish harvest festival, Succoth, is held in either September or October. It stems from the time of their exodus from Egypt, during which Hebrews traveled in the wilderness on route to Canaan. During their pilgrimage, they lived in makeshift shelters called a succah. They also gathered in sukkot (the plural of succah) to pray and eat together. As a result, Succoth is also known as the Feast of Tabernacle.  During harvest time, farmers also lived in sukkot in their open fields. During this festival, farmers pray and thank God for the crops. It is a tradition that continues to this day, with festivities taking place outdoors.

Every year on October 4th, the Ancient Romans celebrated the Cerelia Harvest, an event that honored Ceres, the goddess of corn, (the origin of our word cereal), with festivities that included parades, games, sports and feasts. Modern day ‘Thanksgiving’ is an extension of just that.

Since 1621 Americans have annually given thanks for the abundance that befalls them. When Governor William Bradford proclaimed this day, they celebrated with their neighbors, their fellow pilgrims and with Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag Tribe. The Native Americans brought many of the dishes served that day. They feasted upon oysters and eel, ate goose, venison and corn bread with leeks and watercress and had berries and plums, washed down with sweet wine. A menu that would be fitting today.

It is a holiday which I have entirely embraced since I came to California. A holiday where families come together and eat together. There are no other constraints, no pressure for gifts and it is universally enjoyed by all in America, irrespective of ethnicity or religious preference. What better way to honor a season.

Thanksgiving Day is a perfect allegory for a delicious autumnal day, just not as elaborate. Growing up in London our Sundays were often like this. We would take huge long walks across the heath on blustery days with billowing white clouds scooting low across the London skyline. We would fly kites and run pell-mell down the hills, play hide and seek and climb trees. Then home to a languorous lunch that often shuffled into dinner. Hearty soups such as the Celeriac Soup played a prominent part in those meals, followed by roast chicken or pork tenderloin with apples and prunes. As more friends dropped by, another plate would be added to the dinner table and conversations were lively and animated. It is a tradition which I enjoy to this day.

Autumnal meals bring warmth and nourishment and ideally create a culinary landscape in which we are all active participants, whether picking fruit from an apple tree, laying the table or chopping vegetables together in the kitchen. Edwin Way Teale, one of America’s great naturalists, once wrote ‘For man, autumn is a time of gathering together. For nature, it is a time of sewing, of scattering abroad’.  So as nature sheds her splendid crimson coat and edges towards hibernation, I like to imagine all of us pulling up a chair at our dinning tables and sharing a meal, such as this one, with our friends.

CELERIAC SOUP WITH PANCETTA AND CRÈME FRAICHE

I spent my first Thanksgiving in Newport Rhode Island in freezing weather. My lovely friend Brooke cooked a feast fit for kings. We began with an aromatic soup and we ate for hours as the winds howled outside. Over the past two decades I have cooked Thanksgiving each year with great pleasure. We - as all families do I am sure – now have our own traditions. One of ours is to begin the meal with a soup, but each year it is a new soup, one usually created for that day. This is one of our favorites and I now make it many times during the autumn and winter months. It is warming and fragrant and perfect when the wind is howling or in our case, a chilled day by the California Coast.

Serves 12 people

4 medium sized celeriac – peeled and coarsely chopped

3 medium sized potatoes – peeled and chopped

2 large onions, finely chopped

10 cups vegetable stock

4 or sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

2/3 cup cream

Salt and pepper

4-5 slices pancetta – diced

2/3 cup crème fraiche – placed in a small bowl

Small bunch chives – finely chopped

  1. Place the celeriac, potatoes, onion, vegetable stock and fresh herbs in a large saucepan placed over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook for 35 minutes.
  2. Whilst the soup is cooking, place the pancetta into a small pan and sauté until crispy. Remove, pat dry and mix the cooked pancetta into the crème fraiche along with the chives.
  3. Purée the soup in small batches in a food processor or a blender, taking care as the soup will be hot, or purée the soup in the saucepan using an immersion blender. Pour the puréed soup through a regular strainer into a clean saucepan. Add the cream to the soup, a little salt and pepper and taste to check the seasonings. If you want a very smooth soup, pass the soup a second time through a fine-mesh strainer.
  4. Serve the soup in warm soup bowls with a dollop of the crème fraiche/pancetta mixture in the middle. This is good served with hot crusty bread.

ROASTED CORNISH HENS WITH GRAND MARNIER STUFFING

I have over the years roasted many stuffed turkeys, as tradition warrants. Recently I have tried some new dishes and found that Cornish hens – stuffed or otherwise – are a great substitute for a huge turkey, particularly if you can find organically raised hens. We are fortunate to have at our local farmers market a lady who has just that. They are succulent and moist. Filled with the Grand Marnier stuffing and basted with the juices of luscious oranges it is a fitting dish for the occasion.

Serves 12 people

6 Cornish game hens

For the stuffing:

3 sausages (choose either spicy Italian, pork, turkey or chicken of your choice) taken out of its sausage casing and cut into small pieces.

1/3 cup olive oil

2/3 cup Grand Marnier

1 cup orange juice

2 large yellow onions – finely diced

1 lb. small Crimini mushrooms – cut into quarters

1 lb. assorted dried fruit – apricots, prunes, dates etc of your choice – cut into small pieces

4 garlic cloves – crushed

1 oz Herbes de Provence

salt and pepper

2 large oranges – cut in half

olive oil

6 sprigs fresh rosemary

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. In a large frying pan/ skillet cook the sausage meat for 5 – 7 minutes until just cooked and slightly browned. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, pour in the olive oil, Grand Marnier and orange juice. Stir together. Add in the chopped onions, the chopped mushrooms, dried fruit, crushed garlic and the cooked sausage meat. Stir to combine the ingredients and coat evenly with the marinade. Add in the Herbes de Provence and some salt and pepper. Stir once more and set aside until ready to stuff the Cornish hens.
  4. Rinse the Cornish hens under hot water and then pat them dry. Place the hens in a large roasting pan and rub the outside of them with the cut oranges, squeezing out the juice of the orange over the skin. Stuff the cavity of the Cornish hens with the Grand Marnier stuffing. If there is any stuffing left over, spoon it in around the sides of the birds to bake with them in the oven. Drizzle a little olive oil over the Cornish hens and then top with the fresh rosemary.
  5. Roast in the oven for 1 ¼ hours. When cooked, remove from the oven and let rest for 5 – 10 minutes before serving. To serve, cut each Cornish hen in half and spoon stuffing around the meat. Note: The stuffing will create a large amount of sauce in the bottom of the pan.

 

CARROT PUREE

Serves 8 – 12 people as an accompaniment

2 lbs. carrots – peeled and cut into ¼ rounds

2 oz butter

2 tablespoons chives – finely chopped

2 sprigs fresh thyme – leaves removed from the stems

salt and pepper

  1. Steam the carrots for 15 minutes until quite tender.
  2. Puree the carrots in a food processor with the butter, salt and pepper until quite smooth. Stir in the fresh chives and thyme and keep warm until ready for serving in a bain marie.

TURNIP PUREE

Serves 8 – 12 people as an accompaniment

2 Lbs. turnips – peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks

½ cup crème fraiche

2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley

salt and pepper

  1. Steam the turnips for 15 – 20 minutes until quite tender.
  2. Puree the turnips until smooth in a food processor. Add in the crème fraiche, parley, salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm until ready for serving in a bain marie.


 

TARTE FINE AUX POMMES

Whereas I make a new soup and have tinkered with the main course for Thanksgiving annually, there is one dish I make without fail at the request of my godson Charlie and his brother William with whom we have shared this holiday since the year he was born. It is a dessert I learnt to make with my mother when I was little and I have loved it ever since. It is filled to the brim with apples and is to me the epitome of an autumnal dessert.

Serves 8

For the pastry:

5 oz unbleached all purpose flour – sifted

5 oz almond meal or almond flour

6 oz slightly softened butter – cut up into small pieces.

1 large egg

Pinch of salt

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Butter either a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.
  3. Place all the ingredients into a food processor and use repeated pulses until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs, then use longer pulses until the dough forms a ball in the bowl of the food processor.
  4. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes before rolling out.
  5. Place the unwrapped dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll the dough out to a 1/4 inch thickness. Line the tart pan with the dough, trimming any excess from the edges.

For the apples:

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons Calvados

1/ 3 cup apricot jam

8 large apples (Granny Smiths, Golden Delicious, Gala’s – a mixture is also fine) peeled, quartered and cut into thin even slices.

  1. Place the sugar, calvados and the jam into a small saucepan placed over low heat. Stir the mixture until all the ingredients have melted together and you have a thick glaze. Set aside.
  2. Arrange the apple slices, standing upright, running perpendicular to the outside edge of the whole tart. Once the first round is complete, create a second round inside the first and so on until the entire dough is covered with the apples. You should have three concentric rounds of apple slices.
  3. Using a pastry brush coat all of the apples with the apricot glaze.
  4. Bake for 25 minutes or until the dough is golden brown.

Origins: Apples are the most widely cultivated fruit in the world. They originated in Asia Minor and grew wild in Europe in pre-historic times. From Greek mythology - Zeus and his bride Hera are said to have received a tree with golden apples on their wedding day – to great classic poets such as Homer who wrote of apples in The Odyssey in 800BC, the fruit has been part of the world’s cultural and gastronomical heritage. The Greeks, Romans and Ancient Persians all cultivated, grafted and wrote about apples. Shakespeare spoke of them in his plays and Sir Isaac Newton, inspired by watching falling apples discovered the laws of gravity. Certain cultivars are closely associated with their countries of origin, Cox’s Orange Pippins and Russets in the UK for example and Golden Delicious in the US. Granny Smith’s originated in Australia, McIntosh in Canada and Reinettes are a French specialty. One of the most scented apples known as Calville Blanche d’Hivers, a rare variety form Normandy, that dates back to the 1500’s, is said to be the most delectable of all.

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