November scents and flavors are special; they have to be in order to help us forget summer’s sweet aroma of basil warmed by the sun. In November, it’s wood smoke, toasty spices and the glow of candles on the holiday table. The foods that most please us now are luscious, rich and redolent with herbs and spices like cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg and sage, flavors that converge in holiday feasts but that please us throughout the season. Although we enjoy many of the same wines that quenched our thirst around the pool, the flavors of fall accent subtle qualities that we may not have noticed in the heat of August. An Anderson Valley Gewürztraminer, for example, may seem bright and floral alongside a peach salad, but when it is served with winter squash, its spicy notes blossom.
What is it about spices that make them so welcome now? Anyone who eats seasonally—shopping mostly at farmers markets, for example, and avoiding fresh produce from the southern hemisphere—understands. It is the wisdom of nature, beckoning us to pay attention. Spices are long-lived, as are the foods of fall and winter. Of course they go together, just as the fleeting foods of summer flatter each other. Spices, by definition, are warm as well, and comfort us from the inside when we need it most, offering a hedge against the chill and, in some visceral way, the season’s darkness.
The spice pantry
Fall is an excellent time to restock spices and herbs. Most of us have ancient tins and jars shoved to the back of the spice cupboard and ignored for years, sometimes decades. It is good to cull these relics.
Common wisdom recommends that all spices be discarded after six months but this is neither practical nor necessary. Many spices retain their flavors nearly indefinitely; black peppercorns, for example, deteriorate only after the outer black mantle has been cracked, which is why it is always best to buy whole rather than ground peppercorns. Star anise, cardamom, clove, cumin, caraway, coriander, allspice berries, nutmeg and cinnamon retain their flavors until they are crushed or ground, as long as they are kept away from heat and light. Dried herbs, on the other hand, begin to lose their flavors almost immediately, no matter how they are stored. Sage, the season’s signature herb, is the most fragile and should always be replaced at this time of year. Rubbed sage, which contributes truer flavor than ground sage, should be stored in the refrigerator, as should dried sage leaves. Other dried herbs—thyme, oregano, marjoram, basil and such—should be replaced annually and stored in a cool, dark cupboard.
It is important to understand that a dried herb is not a substitute for fresh leaves. Dried herbs contribute different flavors than their fresh counterparts and some dishes, including many of the season, benefit from both. Others, especially the rich stews of Cajun cuisine, rely on the particular qualities of dried herbs for their signature flavors. Some herbs— parsley, chives and cilantro, especially—do not retain flavor during the drying process.
A fall feast
When crafting a fall menu, even a casual weeknight dinner, paying attention to the flavors of the season will produce richly satisfying results with less effort than you might imagine. From hot mulled wine to pumpkin pie, sweet spices shape fall’s pleasures. Grated nutmeg stirred into butter or crème frâiche, for example, enlivens simple baked sweet potato. Cinnamon in a short rib ragout adds an extra layer of warmth to a classic comfort food. A vinaigrette spiked with clove can transform a humble salad into a seasonal treat, just as caraway sprinkled on a grilled cheese sandwich can be just the pampering you need on a dark day.
The recipes that follow showcase these flavors. A voluptuous soup presents the season’s spices in layer upon unfolding layer of flavor that teases the palate in a delicate symphony. Creamy turkey risotto meets some of the season’s most traditional expectations—the tang of cranberries, the earthiness of turkey, the sultry perfume of sage—in an entirely unconventional way, with the sturdiest of winter greens, lacinato kale, providing a rich yet refreshing foundation. Add oysters and naturally-spicy Sherry mignonette to start and an almost ethereal pear soup perfumed with cardamom as a finalé and you have an extraordinary fall feast.
Risotto is one of those dishes, like soup,bread salad and gumbo, that provides a perfect canvas for leftover holiday turkey. But you needn’t wait until after Thanksgiving to enjoy this dish. As the holidays approach, markets begin to stock fresh turkey, sold both whole and in pieces. And because turkey breast is the most popular cut, the more flavorful thighs, legs and wings are generally readily available at a good price. Simply roast a couple of thighs, a leg and a wing or two, reserve the best of the meat and simmer the meaty bones to make a simple stock. Cranberry chutney adds a spicy warmth and enhances the dish’s compatibility with a variety of wines.
7 to 8 cups homemade turkey stock
3 tablespoons butter
2 shallots, minced
1 celery rib, minced
2 teaspoons rubbed sage
2 cups Carnaroli or Vialone Nano rice
2 cups cooked turkey, preferably thigh meat, shredded
1 tablespoon minced fresh sage leaves
Black pepper in a mill
3 ounces (3⁄4 cup) dry Jack cheese, grated
Fresh sage leaves, for garnish
Cranberry Chutney, commercial or homemade*
Pour the turkey stock into a saucepan, set over medium heat and when it begins to boil, reduce the heat to low so that it barely simmers. Melt the butter in a large deep saucepan set over medium low heat. Add the shallots and celery and cook slowly until soft and fragrant, about 10 to 12 minutes; do not let the vegetables brown. Season with salt and stir in the rubbed sage.
Add the rice and sauté for 2 minutes, stirring all the while, or until each grain begins to turn milky white. Add 1⁄2 cup of the stock and stir constantly until it is absorbed, adjusting the heat as needed so that it is neither too high nor too low; the stock should simmer but not boil. Continue to add stock 1⁄2 cup at a time, stirring constantly, until the rice swells and is just tender, about 18 to 20 minutes.
When there is about 1⁄2 cup of the stock remaining, fold in the turkey and the sage. Add half of the remaining stock, taste, season with salt and pepper and stir in the cheese. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining stock.
To serve: Ladle into warm soup plates and garnish with fresh sage leaves and a spoonful of chutney. Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.
*Note: There are several brands of cranberry chutney on the market, such as Stonewall Kitchen’s (stonewallkitchen.com), which is among the best. It is also easy to it make at home.
The creamy delicacy of the rice combined with the earthy flavor of turkey, the perfume of the sage and the sweet tang of cranberries suggest an equally complex and delicate red wine – something luscious yet light, lest the subtle qualities of the dish be eclipsed. Pinot Noir from California’s coastal vineyards provides the best possiblities. Ridgeway Family Vineyards 2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, from a small vineyard in southwestern Petaluma, is a stellar match. For a more playful, lighthearted match, consider Beaujolais Nouveau, an exuberant companion to cranberries.
Lacinato kale, also known as dinosaur kale, Tuscan kale and cavolo nero, has a husky, almost meat-like depth of flavor and a texture that is sturdier, even when tender, than other winter greens. These qualities, combined with the smokiness of the bacon in this recipe, make a perfect counterpoint to the creamy risotto.
3 bunches (about 21⁄2 pounds) lacinato kale
5 bacon slices, preferably dry-cured
1 shallot, minced
3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
Red pepper flakes
Zest of 1 lemon
1⁄2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
Use a sharp paring knife to remove the stems and tough ribs from the kale. Cut the leaves into 2-inch-wide crosswise slices. Put the cut leaves into a large colander; rinse but do not dry as you want water to cling to the leaves. Set aside.
Fry the bacon in a large deep saute pan until crisp; transfer to absorbent paper to drain. (Once cool, crumble the bacon.) Pour off all but about 1⁄3 cup of the bacon fat, return the pan to medium heat, add the shallot and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 1 minute more. Season with salt and 2 or 3 pinches of pepper flakes. Add the kale and sauté for about 2 minutes, stirring all the while. Cover the pan and cook over low heat until the kale is tender, about 12 to 15 minutes; uncover and stir now and then. Remove from the heat. Fold in the lemon zest, half the bacon and half the pine nuts, taste and correct for salt. Transfer to a serving bowl, scatter the remaining bacon and pine nuts on top and serve. Serves 6 to 8.
Kale is almost always a side dish and as such, should be taken into consideration when selecting a wine for the main course. Lacinato kale’s texture, which is rich and velvety, engages well with most Pinot Noir and the bacon in this particular preparation furthers the resonance. Should this dish take center stage on your table, you can stick with a Pinot Noir or shift to a plush white wine, such as Peter Michael Winery Cuvée Indigene Chardonnay.
This tart is thin, elegant and perfumed with three kinds of ginger, fresh, ground and candied. It unfolds on the palate in layer upon layer of flavor, qualities that engage beautifully with the Madeira that accompanies it.
For the crust:
1⁄2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄4 cup, packed, light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1⁄8 teaspoon ground clove
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3⁄4 cup walnut pieces, lightly toasted
11⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
For the filling
10 ounces fresh Chèvre, such as Chabis
1⁄2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
3⁄4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
1⁄2 cup chopped candied ginger
To make the crust:
Put the butter, salt, brown sugar, cinnamon, clove and ground ginger into the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse several times, until well blended. Add the vanilla and the walnuts and pulse until the walnuts are evenly incorporated into the butter mixture; use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides of the work bowl as needed. Add the flour and pulse several times, until the mixture is smooth and uniform. Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour. Clean the work bowl and blade. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Press the chilled dough into a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Bake for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool thoroughly.
To make the filling:
Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F. Put the Chèvre, sugar, egg and egg yolk into the work bowl of the food processor and pulse until smooth. Add the cream and fresh ginger and pulse until just smooth; do not overprocess.
Spread the candied ginger over the surface of the crust, pour the Chèvre custard over the candied ginger and agitate the tart pan very gently to even it out, if needed. Set the tart on a baking sheet and set the baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven and bake for about 25 minutes or until the custard is firm and the top is pale gold. Remove from the oven, let cool for about 15 minutes and remove the ring of the tart pan. Cut into wedges and serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 6 to 8.
This rich, fragrant dessert, with its layers of ginger, wants something slightly lean on the palate, yet elegant and engaging. You can’t go wrong with a well-aged Madeira but fans of single-malt Scotch, especially those of Islay, will be delighted by the flirtatious resonance of the match. Try Laphroaig 15 Year Old.
Percy Watley, executive chef at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite Valley, presides over the landmark hotel’s grand dining hall, where hundreds of guests gather for December’s Bracebridge Dinner, a four-hour dinner theater extravaganza featuring a seven-course feast. This voluptuous soup is one of this year’s seasonal specials and is offered on the hotel’s regular menu without the pork belly, a gesture to vegetarian guests. Yet adding the succulent cured pork, Chef Watley promises, makes the dish soar.
For the pork belly:
1/ 2 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
1/ 2 cup kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 star anise, broken into small pieces
12 black peppercorns, cracked
6 whole cloves
1/ 2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 pound raw pork belly
1/ 2 cup soy sauce
Peel of 1 orange, colored part only
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
4 cups chicken stock
For the soup:
1 winter squash (about 2 1/2 pounds), such as acorn, butternut, kabocha, sugar pumpkin, blue pumpkin, turban or hubbard, halved and seeded
4 ounces (1 stick, 1/2 cup) butter
1 yellow onion, diced
1 leek, white part only, diced
1 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 large russet potato, peeled and diced
8 cups homemade chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 cup heavy cream
Black pepper in a mill
Small celery leaves, for garnish
To make the pork belly: Start the pork belly a day before making the soup. In a small bowl, combine the 1/ 2 cup sugar, salt, cinnamon, star anise, peppercorns, cloves and nutmeg. Toss with your fingers or a fork to make a uniform mixture. Set the pork belly in a glass dish and cover it with the mixture, turning it once so that it is nearly buried. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
On soup day, preheat the oven to 300 F. Brush the spice mixture off the pork. Set an oven-proof pot that will hold the belly flat over medium heat. Add the soy sauce, 3 tablespoons of sugar, stock, orange peel and ginger and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves.
Add the pork belly, turn to coat it thoroughly and set in the middle rack of the oven. Cover and cook for 4 hours. Remove the pan from the oven. Transfer the pork belly to a plate or dish; use within an hour or so or cool, refrigerate and return to room temperature before serving. Discard the cooking liquid or refrigerate it to use as a sauce with stir fry; skim the fat before using it.
To serve, cut into 12 to 16 1/ 4-inch thick crosswise slices. Store leftover pork belly wrapped in the refrigerator and use within a few days.
To make the soup: Preheat the oven to 400 F. Lightly brush a sheet pan with olive oil and set the squash, cut side down, on it. Brush the skin of the squash with olive oil and bake until very tender, about 45 minutes, or longer depending on the variety. Remove from the oven and cool. Separate the cooked squash from the skin and discard the skin. Set aside.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan or soup pot set over medium heat; add the onion, leek and ginger, lower the heat and cook slowly until soft, fragrant and translucent, about 20 minutes. Do not let brown. Season with salt.
Add the potato, squash purée, stock, bay leaves and thyme and increase the heat to high. When the stock boils, reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 30 minutes, until the potato is very tender and the flavors have come together. Cool slightly; use tongs to remove and discard the bay leaves.
Purée the soup with an immersion blender or pass it through a food mill fitted with the smallest blade. Strain through a fine sieve into a clean saucepan. Stir in the cream, set over medium heat and heat through; do not let the soup boil again. Taste, correct for salt and season generously with black pepper.
To serve: Place 2 slices of pork belly in 6 warmed soup plates. Ladle in the soup, garnish and serve. Serves 6 to 8.
Keith Hill, food and beverage director at The Ahwahnee, recommends pairing this soup with Thomas Fogarty 2008 Monterey Gewürztraminer, Trefethen 2008 Napa Valley Dry Riesling or Hatcher Winery 2008 Calaveras County Viognier.