Fall has always seemed an especially sweet season for me. When I was a kid I’d get a thrill seeing the neatly lined up boxes of fresh pencils and rows of unmarked notebooks in the stores. Not to mention the new season’s lunch boxes!
I feel the same way now about the fall fruits and vegetables overflowing the stands at farmers markets. Well, there is one difference: While the idea of new notebooks and pencils was irresistible, I wasn’t so crazy about what I’d have to do with them. I have no such qualms about fall produce.
Sweetness, in particular a specifically honeyed kind of sweetness, is one of autumn’s hallmarks. You find it in familiar crisp apples and melting ripe pears as well as in quinces, persimmons and, perhaps most emphatically, Asian pears, which sometimes taste so frankly of honey it seems like they must be coated with it.
Indeed, it seems appropriate that Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year that will be celebrated next week, has as part of its ritual the eating of a slice of apple dipped in honey.
If it wasn’t apples, though, it could have been grapes, like the late Thompson Seedless we’re getting that have hung on the vine until they’re golden. Or, perhaps even more appropriately, the first, semi-dried Barhi dates, which taste like nothing more than honey candy.
How comforting to have the new year begin at a time of such plenty, rather than in the bleakness of winter.
Besides having that particular honeyed flavor, fall also has other kinds of sweetness. A great fig, for example, has a taste and texture like an extremely concentrated jam. This throws off some people. Just recently, a farmer offered to give me a substantial discount on a box of perfect, nearly collapsing, soft figs because they weren’t as pretty as the firm (and almost certainly dry and starchy) ones. My wife insisted as a matter of ethics that I pay full price and not take advantage of his ignorance, and so, grudgingly, I did.
Fall’s sweetness isn’t limited to fruits. It’s there in some of the season’s vegetables as well: in late-summer holdovers such as red peppers and tomatoes and cool-weather crops like fennel, broccoli and cauliflower.
Sweetest of all, there is winter squash (so-called because its hard rind preserves it through the cold, even though it is harvested -- and most flavorful -- in autumn).
AND then there are the nuts, for which I go, well, you know. Fresh pistachios, such as those from Gail Zannon of Santa Barbara Pistachio Co. Almonds, sometimes still in their paper-soft shell. Walnuts so recently picked their meats are still a little creamy.
The other day at the Long Beach farmers market, one of my favorite growers, Joe Avitua from Walker Farms, pulled out a surprise from behind the counter: the first fresh-crop walnuts, still in their spicy scented green husks.
Welcome as it is, this sweet abundance can be a little overwhelming. Used injudiciously, it’s easy to wind up with a dish that’s just short of gooey. The trick is harnessing the sweet rather than letting it run away with the dinner, pairing it with partners that will keep it from getting cloying.
This is especially true when combining sweet ingredients with savory. While this is a hallowed fall tradition -- think of duck with figs, fish with grapes, foie gras with Sauternes -- it is to be approached with great caution. As wonderful as the combination can be, it can also turn into a train wreck of flavors.
Consider carefully what kinds of savories you’re going to pair with the sweets -- not everything works equally well. In general, the best rule is the fattier the food, the better.
Cheese is almost a category of its own. One of the real pleasures of fall dining is the return of a good cheese plate. And just as sweet wines provide the surest pairings with cheese, I try to include a sweet element with the cheese: either sliced fresh fruit, cooked-down essences like membrillo or even a dribble of something like slightly bitter chestnut or eucalyptus honey. And of course, a handful of fresh walnuts is always welcome.
Also, pairing sweet and savory ingredients entails more than just throwing them together in a pan. You have to carefully bring them together. There are several ways to do this.
Striking a balance
FIRST, of course, is remembering to balance the sweetness with acidity. Even the most luscious dish needs an element of rigor. Vinegar is one obvious solution, certainly not so much as to make your eyes sting, but just enough that it cuts through the fat and sweet and provides a kind of backbone for the dish. Fruits with high acidity work, too -- dried sour cherries, blackberries and raspberries or citrus.
Without a healthy shot of sweet-tart balsamic vinegar, braised duck legs with quince would taste simple and one-dimensional. It’s the acidity that throws the flavors into relief so you can appreciate them.
Texture is important, though we rarely think about it in this context. Foods that are sweet or fatty tend to seem a little flabby. Pair them with something crisp or crunchy. Raw vegetables such as fennel or watercress can provide this. So can ground nuts. Contrast soft pickled figs with crisp fennel.
All of these ideas apply to desserts as well as sweet-and-savory combinations. Sliced Fuyu persimmons taste simple until you dress them with tart lime juice, and split figs topped with whipped cream take on another dimension if you first drizzle a little liqueur over the fruit. At the same time, it’s the texture of the crisp crust of a fruit tart, or a crunchy almond topping over nearly melting baked Asian pears, that makes those dishes special.
Another key is finding a bridging flavor, a strong enough taste that provides a link between the sweet and savory, or at least distracts you so their differences are not so jarring. Even something so simple as sprinkling fresh parsley over the braised duck legs and quince changes the dish. Suddenly, it’s no longer about the contrast between sweet and sour, but about the harmony of the two.
The warm flavor of toasted nuts can do the same thing. This was brought home when I was preparing the fennel salad with pickled figs. It was good the first time I made it, when I tried using thin shards of salty ricotta salata as a bridge. But when I made it with toasted walnuts instead, the dish became something much, much better.
It’s the combination of all these elements that makes any dish -- great or small -- work. Think of the best apple you’ve ever tasted -- there is sweetness balanced by bright acidity and snappy crispness. Remove one of those elements -- dull the sweetness, dim the acidity or make it mushy in the mouth -- and even the best fall apple becomes just another mediocre piece of fruit.
With so much to celebrate this fall, would that be any way to start a new year?