Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ode to Autumn

I love the word autumnal. It looks the way it sounds and it sounds the way it feels and it feels comfortable, and slightly hungry, and slightly chilly but happy. I woke up this morning and thought it was autumn, the sky was a pale grey and everything was so very still. And then the day rolled on and the sun covered everything in heavy heat, and (apologies, summer-lovers) I was a bit grumped. Obviously reverse psychology was the only thing left to do. I put on a cardigan, found 'autumnal music' (Jeff Buckley, Iron and Wine, Leonard Cohen, all things soft and lush), and made soup. Take that, September sun! Your move.

2 giant butternut squash were idly hanging around the kitchen, so I put them to use. By 'I', I mean my sous-chef, who can manoeuvre a giant santoku through a gourd like butter. We picked up the squash a few days ago and apparently autumn was already on my mind - I have a slight habit of bursting into song or prose in grocery stores. There were piles and piles of manicured fruit, pyramids of peaches and, off in the distance, a sturdy hill of squash and pumpkins. And so, eyes closed - 'SEASONS OF MISTS AND MELLOW FRUITFULNESS!' - I love Keats, and anyone that can make gourds and hazel shells sound sexy. My husband had meanwhile run off to hide in the egg/cheese/butter aisle (excellent taste) until I was done. Hmph.

Man cannot live on squash alone, so we found some gruyère and grainy mustard for a tomato-tart-thing. There was a recipe online that looked good, and another in one of Laura Calder's books (French Taste) that looked Good.

The soup was a tiny but too thick but a touch more broth fixed that up. The only other thing - fiddle with the bacon to your liking. I tried being a good girl and followed the recipe exactly but good grief it was too bacony (the husband assures me there's no such thing as too much).

Butternut Squash and Apple Soup! - adapted from Fine Cooking
8 slices of bacon, crisply cooked and sliced
2.5 lbs cubed squash
1 diced apple (I used granny smith with happy results)
1.5T chopped sage
1tsp salt
half a tsp pepper
1 quart (about 4.5 cups) broth

Over medium high heat in a large pot sauté the squash until browned, about ten minutes. Stir in the chopped apple, sage, salt and pepper, and cook for another 5 minutes until the apple softens. Add the broth and scrape up any browned bits stuck to the pot. Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook barely simmering for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool somewhat. Add the chopped bacon to the soup and puree in batches or with an immersion blender. Season, and serve right away, garnished with whatever you have on hand!

Now about this tomato thing. Laura Calder's recipe is more of a free-form tart, slightly more informal and quick to make. Thing is, I needed an excuse to make a proper formal pastry crust because...I've never made one. I've been carrying this around for most of my life with terrible shame. For some reason proper pastry crusts always had serious gravity in my mind, the kind of thing only professional chefs and ancient grandmothers can make properly. So, momentarily courageous after reading Keats, I did it. Not to sound like an culinary egomaniac but it was fantastic, and oddly therapeutic.

I used Martha Stewart's Pâte Brisée recipe, found on her website. Assembling the tart took a bit of time, and so I cheated, and skipped skinning and seeding the tomatoes. Whoops. Don't skip this! Learn from the error of my ways! It made the whole thing a bit soggy and the skins turn slightly bitter after so long in the oven. Universal solution to such situations - smother in grated cheese. Mmmmmm. If only that applied to everyday life.

The tart seems perfect for a light lunch, and it followed the soup well. It's so...light somehow, and french, and comforting. So thank you Keats, for your Ode to Autumn, for a day of cooking, and overcoming fears. The only downside to the day? I have a primal urge to make crusts one after another, smother them all in warmed nutella, and see what happens. It would make for an interesting post, no?

Roasted Tomato Tart, from the illustrious Orangette
4lbs plum tomatoes, halved
Quarter cup olive oil
1T thyme (I used dried, fresh would be wonderful)
2 cloves garlic, sliced
half a batch of savory pastry (I used the aforementioned pâte brisée)
2T devon cream
1T grainy mustard
Half a cup grated gruyère

Ideally, seed the tomatoes right at the start. Toss them with the oil, thyme, and some salt. Bake them (skin down) at 350F for about half an hour. Remove from the oven, let them cool slightly, and remove the skins. Put them back on the rack, toss the garlic over them, and bake for another half an hour. Set aside and let cool.

While all this is happening - line a 9-inch tart pan (with a removable bottom) with the rolled out pastry, folding in the overhang and trimming any excess. After the tomatoes are out of the oven, blind bake the pastry for about 30 minutes with pie weights, and for another 5 minutes without, until slightly golden.

Mix the cream and mustard together, and spread over the bottom of the tart, sprinkling the cheese on top. Arrange the tomatoes (cut side up) in pleasingly concentric circles (or whatever pattern fits your obsessive-compulsive side) and bake for 30 minutes.


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