As surely as I reach for my wool coat and warm mittens when the leaves turn to crimson and gold, so do I pull out the soup pot and casserole dishes that were set aside for months.
Once again the windows steam up from the bubbling pots on the stove and make a cozy nest of the warm kitchen.
The heady perfume of dinner fills every corner and seeps outdoors, teasing passersby with hints of an upcoming meal. We nestle in for the coming cold months, wrapping ourselves in the hearty flavors of the season that keep us warm and content.
For this menu we start out with a ginger-flavored squash soup with a color alone that shouts fall. Small phyllo bites of warm, savory caramelized flavors serve as an accompaniment for this starter.
For the main course, long-cooking braised short ribs show that a great meal doesn't require a lot of time in the kitchen for the cook. An age-old starch -- polenta -- dresses up the menu. For the finish, a cranberry-pear version of the traditional apple crisp offers just the right change of taste.
These recipes are from my book, "Come One, Come All/ Easy Entertaining With Seasonal Menus," a collection of 32 menus that make dinner parties practical for even the busiest of cooks.
Gingered squash soup
Note: You can use any hard-skinned winter squash for this soup, including cooking pumpkin (but not the oversized type used for jack-o'-lanterns). Or use precooked squash (either frozen or baby food). From "Come One, Come All/ Easy Entertaining with Seasonal Menus" by Lee Svitak Dean (Minnesota Historical Society Press)
3 lb. winter squash, such as delicata or butternut (about 4 cups cooked)
1 tbsp. (or more) grated fresh ginger root
3 c. vegetable stock (or water or chicken stock)
Salt and white pepper
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 c. heavy cream
Sour cream, for garnish
Sprigs of fresh thyme or slivers of uncooked squash, for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut squash in half and scoop out seeds. (If the squash is too hard to cut in half, poke holes in it with a knife and microwave for several minutes to soften.)
Place squash halves face down in a lightly oiled baking dish or on a baking sheet; cover with aluminum foil. Bake until the pulp is soft, about 1 hour. Scoop pulp from the skin; discard skin.
In a large, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, stir together cooked squash, ginger, and stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Simmer about 20 minutes, breaking up squash with a spoon.
Remove soup from heat and puree with a food processor or blender until smooth. If desired, strain for a smoother texture. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and add nutmeg.
Stir in cream and heat throughout. Serve hot, garnished with a small dab of sour cream, sprig of thyme or sliver of uncooked squash.
Nutrition information per serving with 1 tsp. sour cream:
Calories: 200; Fat: 13 g; Sodium: 170 mg; Carbohydrates: 20 g; Saturated fat: 8 g; Calcium: 100 mg; Protein: 2 g; Cholesterol: 46 mg; Dietary fiber: 2 g Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1/2 bread/starch, 1 other carb, 21/2 fat.
Caramelized leek, goat cheese and sun-dried tomato triangles
Makes 24 appetizers
Note: Goat cheese too tangy for you? Then use cream cheese.
These bite-size appetizers go nicely with squash soup. Or serve them separately with wine. Remember that phyllo dough, found in the freezer section of the supermarket, comes frozen and must defrost overnight in the refrigerator, so plan accordingly. From "Come One, Come All/ Easy Entertaining with Seasonal Menus" by Lee Svitak Dean (Minnesota Historical Society Press)
1/2 c. dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 tbsp. minced red onion
2 tbsp. minced shallots
11/2 tsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
11/2 tsp. brown sugar
3/4 c. finely diced leeks (1 leek)
11/2 tbsp. butter
8 oz. goat cheese (chevre), at room temperature
11/2 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper
8 sheets of phyllo dough (see note, above)
1/4 c. melted butter
In a small pan over medium heat, saute the tomatoes, onions and shallots in olive oil, stirring frequently, until the onions are softened, about 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar and saute, stirring constantly, until the vinegar evaporates. Remove from heat, and reserve.
In a large pan over medium heat, saute leeks in 1-1/2 tablespoons butter, stirring frequently, until they are golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, fold in the goat cheese and thyme, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the onion-tomato mixture.
Unfold the phyllo dough; keep unused sheets covered with damp paper towels. Lightly brush 1 sheet of phyllo with melted butter. Top with another sheet of phyllo; brush lightly with butter. Using a sharp knife, cut the phyllo dough in half, widthwise. Cut each half into 3 even strips across the short side, giving you 6 strips.
Place a generous 1/2 tablespoon of the goat cheese mixture at the base of 1 strip. Fold a corner of the strip over the filling to enclose it. Continue to flag-fold the strip into a neat triangle. Lightly brush the edges with a little butter. Continue with remaining strips. Chill triangles for 20 minutes. (Can be made in advance to this point and refrigerated or frozen.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake the triangles until they are golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool briefly on a baking rack. Serve warm.
Serves 6 to 8
Note: Prefer apples to pears or cranberries? The fruit in this recipe can be mixed and matched however you prefer, even substituting apples for one of the fruits. Keep in mind that the 1/4 cup granulated sugar is for the cranberries, because of their tartness; if you eliminate or decrease the cranberries, the granulated sugar should also be cut. Want some style for serving? Bake these in individual ramekins instead of a 9- by 13-inch pan. From "Come One, Come All/ Easy Entertaining with Seasonal Menus" by Lee Svitak Dean (Minnesota Historical Society Press)
8 ripe pears, peeled, cored and cut in 1/4-in. slices
1 tbsp. lemon juice
2 c. fresh cranberries
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 c. rolled oats
3/4 c. flour
1/2 c. firmly packed brown sugar
8 tbsp. (1 stick) butter, softened and cut into pieces
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Toss the pear slices in lemon juice and combine with cranberries in an ungreased 9- by 13-inch baking pan (see Note); toss with granulated sugar and cinnamon.
In a bowl, mix oats, flour, brown sugar and butter with a fork until crumbly. Sprinkle over fruit mixture. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the fruit is tender and the topping is lightly browned. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.
Nutrition information per serving of 8:Calories: 400; Fat: 15 g; Sodium: 91 mg; Carbohydrates: 67 g; Saturated fat: 9 g ; Calcium: 48 mg; Protein: 4 g; Cholesterol: 38 mg; Dietary fiber: 8 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 2 fruit, 1 bread/starch, 11/2 other carb, 3 fat.
Serves 6 to 8
Note: A fast-cooking version of cornmeal is sometimes available at supermarkets. If using that, follow package instructions. You can substitute chicken broth for water, or use half water and half chicken broth. From "Come One, Come All/ Easy Entertaining with Seasonal Menus" by Lee Svitak Dean (Minnesota Historical Society Press)
5 1/2 c. water, divided (see note)
1 tsp. salt
1 c. yellow cornmeal (see note)
8 tbsp. (1 stick) butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 c. freshly grated Parmesan
In a large saucepan, bring 4 cups water to a boil with salt. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, stir together remaining 11/2 cups water and cornmeal.
Gradually add the cornmeal to the boiling water, over medium heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low and cook until the cornmeal is thick, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in butter and Parmesan. Serve immediately.
Variation: Substitute a blue cheese, such as gorgonzola, for the Parmesan.
Nutrition information per serving of 8:
Calories: 190; Fat: 13 g; Sodium: 440 mg; Carbohydrates: 16 g; Saturated fat: 8 g; Calcium: 51 mg; Protein: 3 g; Cholesterol: 33 mg; Dietary fiber: 1 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 bread/starch, 21/2 fat.
-- Lee Svitak Dean is Taste editor. Used with permission of the Minnesota Historical Society Press.