We tend to talk about seasons as if the year were a house with four separate rooms. You walk through a connecting door and slam it shut behind you. The reality is subtler, closer to a meandering hallway with no distinct stopping points.
And this spot that we’re in right now, October shading into November, is one of the sweetest.
Just take a walk through any produce section or farmers market. The pale, watercolor shades of fall are packed tightly against the lingering bravura of summer. Pears, apples, hard-shelled squash, pomegranates and walnuts intermingle with the last tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. They keep telling me that you can’t have it all, but at this time of year I have a hard time believing it.
Of course, the only possible reaction to all of this bounty is to share it with friends. There is no bad season for dinner parties, but I have noticed that the start of fall does seem to trigger the entertaining urge in people. After a quiet September, I looked at my calendar last week and realized that our weekends are almost fully booked until Thanksgiving.
If there is a problem with planning a dinner party at this time of year, it is certainly not the lack of something to cook. If anything, there’s too much to choose from. How do you focus when you can serve anything from melons and tomatoes to shell beans and winter squash?
Maybe the best solution is not to choose a season. Instead, pick the best of what you find in the market and then combine it more with an eye to complementing flavors and textures than adhering to any strict seasonal code.
Take tomatoes, for instance, which may be the last thing you associate with late October. Granted, the fall tomato is a different thing from those grown in summer. Coming after the quieter pleasures of spring, the intensity of flavor of the first summer tomato comes almost as a shock.
But let’s face it, after a couple of months of them, we become a bit jaded. If tomatoes no longer thrill the way they once did, it’s not because they’re not as good. In fact, after all that extra time hanging on the vine and soaking up sunshine, they may even be better.
To give them that little extra bit of pop, try roasting them in olive oil. Like making confit from a duck leg, this concentrates the tomato’s flavor and gives it an unctuous texture. The effect is something like a really good sun-dried tomato, one that isn’t tough and leathery or tasting of rancid oil.
Making them couldn’t be simpler: Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise and jam them into a baking dish. Scatter whole garlic bulbs over the top, season generously with salt and pepper and then pour in what may seem like way too much olive oil. Then you just let them bake ... and bake ... and bake.
I love these served as crostini, smeared on a crust of crisp bread for texture and topped with a balancing dab of creamy, fresh goat cheese. Don’t worry if you can’t use them all. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks more. Try mincing some of the leftovers -- garlic and all -- and adding them to a pan of braised bitter greens.
Pair these crostini with some roasted whole almonds (toss them with a little very good olive oil and a sprinkle of fleur de sel just before serving). Green olives are always a good bet too. I’m crazy about the garlicky picholines made by Ciara West, a local company that sells at several farmers markets.
What to drink? This is a great combination to serve with the last of your summer rose. A light, uncomplicated red will work well too, something like Rosenblum Cellar’s sweet, juicy “Vintners Cuvee” Zinfandel.
Having kissed the last bit of summer goodbye, move into autumn for the main course. I’ve been playing around with applesauce lately, after years spent recovering from one too many jars of baby food. Normally, it is served only with pork or sausage, but there’s no reason why applesauce can’t be matched with other meats as well.
I was thinking about how wonderful pomegranate molasses works as a marinade for lamb when I came up with the glazed lamb chops. Pomegranate molasses has a deep, cooked flavor, tart and sweet at the same time. But it can be hard to find if you don’t live near a Middle Eastern market. I find that spiking commercial pomegranate juice with a bit of balsamic vinegar makes a nice alternative. It’s a little lighter and less sticky than the molasses, but in some ways that makes it even better.
Save a little of the marinade to flavor the applesauce. Mix in some minced rosemary -- just a bit, it quickly overpowers -- and then garnish it with pomegranate seeds.
In perfect balance
You’ll be surprised at how well this applesauce goes with lamb. But remember that the balance of flavors is much more tenuous than you might think. All it takes is a little bit of something to throw the dish out of whack. Don’t be afraid to add a little sugar (maybe a half teaspoon or so) if the flavors are out of focus. Though it’s not enough to make the dish taste perceptibly sweeter, this is usually all it takes to bring everything together. If the applesauce seems a little bland, season it with a sprinkle of salt. Again, don’t use so much that you taste it, just enough to give the dish a lift.
One of the nice things about homemade applesauce is that you can vary the texture. Commercial products tend to be pretty close to strained -- there’s that baby food thing again. I like sauce with some chunks left in. A heavy wire whisk is a good tool for breaking up the apples.
Because of the slight sweetness of the apples, this is a fairly difficult dish to match with wine. I’d go with a Zinfandel that is a little heavier than the Rosenblum “Vintners,” a Chianti Classico (nothing as serious as a riserva, though), or maybe a Barbera.
If the night is cool enough, you have to have a cheese course. After a summer of skimping (who can eat Roquefort when it’s 95 degrees?), we’re back in the fat part of the year. Serve a mix of milks and textures. Maybe a mature goat like Humboldt Fog, with its curd almost like cake; a ripe, runny cow’s milk like Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk; a hard cow’s milk like Vella’s Sonoma Jack, or a good Parmigiano Reggiano. Something blue? Go ahead.
After years of trying to match cheese courses with the perfect wines, I’ve just about given up. There simply isn’t one single bottle that will complement the entire range of flavors. Narrow your focus, fromage-wise, or do what I do -- just finish whatever wine is left from the main course.
Maybe the best accompaniment is a nice tart salad. Use a good portion of peppery cresses and dress the salad simply -- a vinaigrette made with olive oil and either good red wine vinegar or lemon juice. Whichever acid you choose, stir some minced shallots into it before dinner and let it steep for an hour or so. Then use just enough dressing to lightly season the greens.
A meal like this deserves a grand finish: Try the rich hazelnut torte. Top it with billows of bourbon-scented whipped cream. Or, if you’re a chocolate freak, make a glaze by heating a quarter-pound of bittersweet chocolate and about one-third cup whipping cream. Beat in some Cognac. While the mixture is still warm, pour it over the top of the torte and spread it with a spatula. It will set in a dark, dense wrapping that is perfectly smooth.
On the other hand, if you’re doing a big dinner, who says you have to choose? Why not make both? Remember, at this time of year, you can have it all.
Russ Parsons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.