It’s full-on fall gorgeousness here, and mid-weight meals are very much in effect. The sun is warm, and the leaves are incandescent, but the shade has a chill to it that makes one glad for a layer and come sundown it gets brisk in a hurry. The garden is transitioning nicely into fall, with lots of greens and roots to make for a nearly full spectrum of colors and textures until the first freeze culls the tenderer plants and leaves a narrower but still plentiful assortment into winter. I’m setting up the hoop houses this week, and I’ll try to write a bit about it for anybody considering season-extension technologies involving a minimum of effort and expense. Meanwhile, food.
Sauces become important in cooler weather. Summer’s bounty is so luscious that it often needs little more than a clean vinaigrette to set it off, but autumn’s sturdier fare is conducive to something a little thicker and more assertive. And I’m always trying, with varying success, to look at the things at hand in new ways, to break the all-too easy habits of certain treatments and combinations. Given what a culinary pack-rat I am, there are many interesting things in cupboards that can be called upon for an assist when I’m feeling ambitious. Taken with the notion of fajitas, I set about cobbling together a totally bootleg yet oddly decent-tasting mole to add that extra saucy something. I took some freshly-liberated pumpkin seeds and sautéed them with cumin and coriander for a minute, then added onion, serrano chili, and some oregano. I let it soften, then dumped in what will likely be the very last of our tomatoes (trimmed of damage) plus some cinnamon, cacao nibs, an ancho chili rehydrated in wine, Espelette pepper, cilantro, garlic, and a bit of honey. It cooked down for a bit.
And then I put it all in the blender and hit the switch and it blorted out all over the place because blenders are idiotic and I’m an idiot for using it and that’s why I’ve only used the stick blender for ages now. Most of it did remain inside the device, though, so there was plenty. It was an appealingly seasonal burnt orange, and of a delightful thickness. And it was comely indeed with the meat: grass-fed ribeyes trimmed and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and Espelette and then seared, rested, and sliced. On burner-singed tortillas, they got nice and snuggly with sautéed green pepper and onion and re-braised cabbage from the night before. And we had a variant of this very same thing with fried rice and scrambled eggs with friends for brunch this morning.
And as I cleared the dishes I thought about what I was going to do with the sauce come dinner time. There were chicken thighs, so I defrosted them and thought some more. The volume of sauce was such that it needed augmentation to work with the chicken, so after I floured the thighs with a seasoned mixture (salt, pepper, 5-spice, smoked paprika) and put them in the iron skillet I added some carrot-orange juice (that I bought when we were sick but it wasn’t very good so I’ve been using it for things like this) and a fat dollop of white miso and whisked it all together. After the thighs were good and brown, skin crisp, I gently poured the sauce around them to finish cooking and reduce a tetch. A butternut squash was roasting away, and I spun some pan di zucchero with olive oil, walnuts, garlic, salt, and raspberry vinegar to make a stellar mash that really made an impression. The quality and simplicity of the ingredients–perfect, peaking bitter greens, good oil, the monk’s vinegar–made this in essence a puréed salad, and in the best possible way; it was a revelation and a wicked counterpoint to the meat and sauce. I whisked up some polenta.
This sauce was so unbelievably good that I felt like the guy who thought he’d see what happens when you microwave baking soda and blow and made crack for the first time. Seriously, the addition of abundant sweet and umami from the juice and miso transformed fake-a-mole into something that junk food wishes it could be in its wildest fever dreams. If George Lucas had eaten this back in the mid-Seventies, the Force would have been called the Sauce. The Sauce is strong in this one, and it has lessons to teach us:
1. Use stuff in your pantry that you usually don’t. I have several kinds of dried peppers that I tend not to use, and don’t save squash seeds as much as I should.
2. This sort of concoction gets better over the course of a day or three; make extra.
3. No matter how pleasing the result, spend some time with it and try to pin down what it’s missing. I was too happy with the mole the first time around; it was sorely lacking in two whole tastes. Filling in those gaps made for something epic.
4. I’m way more interested in cooking when it cools off outside.