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.
The spot we’re in right now 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 saying that you can’t have it all, but at this time of year I have a hard time believing it.
The only logical reaction to this bounty is to share it with friends. If there is a problem with planning a dinner party at this time of year, it certainly is not the lack of something to cook. If anything, there’s too much there. 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 comb ine it more with an eye to complementing flavors and textures than adhering to any strict seasonal code.
Tomatoes might be the last thing you associate with this time of year. Granted, the fall tomato is a different thing from its hot-weather counterpart. Coming after the quieter pleasures of spring, the intensity of flavor of the first summer tomato comes almost as a shock.
But 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 might even be better.
To give them an extra bit of oomph, roast 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 similar to a good sun-dried tomato, one that isn’t tough and leathery or tasting of rancid oil.
Simply cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise and jam them into a baking dish. Scatter peeled cloves of garlic over the top, season generously with salt and pepper and then pour in what might seem like far 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.
Mince some of the leftovers — garlic and all — and add them to a pan of braised bitter greens.
Pair these crostini with roasted whole almonds (toss them with a little premium olive oil and a sprinkle of “fleur de sel” — the salt of choice among gourmets — just before serving). Green olives are a good bet, too. I’m crazy about garlicky French picholines.
What to drinkâ¢ 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 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.
I was thinking about how wonderful pomegranate molasses works as a marinade for lamb when I came up with 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 fresh rosemary — just a bit, it quickly overpowers — and then garnish it with pomegranate seeds.
You’ll be surprised at how well this applesauce goes with lamb. Keep in mind, however, 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. Although it’s not enough to make the dish taste perceptibly sweeter, this usually is 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.
A nice thing about homemade applesauce is that you can vary the texture. Commercial products tend to be pretty close to strained — it’s that baby food thing. 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, such as Humboldt Fog, with its curd almost like cake; a ripe, runny cow’s milk, such as Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk; a hard cow’s milk, such as Vella’s Sonoma Jack; or a good Parmigiano Reggiano.
Something bleuâ¢ 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 “fromage” focus, 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 a rich hazelnut torte, available at upscale bakeries. 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 still is 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.
But if you’re doing a big dinner, who says you have to chooseâ¢ Why not make bothâ¢ Remember, at this time of year, you can have it all.
Heat the oven to 300 degrees.
Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise and arrange them, cut-side up, in a 14- by 111/2-inch baking pan, preferably earthenware. They should fit tightly.
Separate the garlic into cloves and peel the cloves. Scatter them among the tomatoes. Season the tomatoes liberally with salt and pepper and pour on enough olive oil to come at least halfway up the sides of the pan.
Bake, uncovered, until the tomatoes turn golden brown on top, for at least 2 hours. Cool for at least 10 minutes.
Cut the baguette on a bias into 1/2-inch slices. Toast the bread until lightly browned on both sides.
To serve, use a fork to remove each tomato slice from the pan (allowing excess oil to drip back into pan) and place it on a slice of toasted bread. Top each with a dab of fresh goat cheese, about 2 teaspoons.
Makes 10 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 373 calories, 28 grams fat (7 grams saturated), 10 milligrams cholesterol, 8 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams dietary fiber, 273 milligrams sodium.
This dish will look nicer if you “french” the lamb chops first. Simply remove the meat and gristle attached to the rib bone, and scrape away any cartilage. (You also can ask the butcher to do this.) If you cannot find pomegranate juice at your supermarket, check for it at health foods, natural foods or ethnic markets.
Lightly salt the lamb chops and arrange them in a deep baking dish. Mix the pomegranate juice and the vinegar. Reserve 1/4 cup. Pour the remaining 2 cups over the chops. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Turn once to make sure the chops are evenly marinated.
In a covered medium-size saucepan, cook the apples, water, sugar, the reserved pomegranate-vinegar mixture and 1/2 teaspoon salt over medium-low heat until the apples are soft, for 20 to 25 minutes. (Remove the lid during the last 5 minutes to let the liquid evaporate if the apples are very juicy). Roughly mash the apples, using a wooden spoon or a potato masher, to make a thick, chunky sauce. Stir in the pomegranate seeds and rosemary and keep warm.
Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Pat the chops dry with a paper towel and cook them to medium doneness, for about 7 minutes per side.
Mound the applesauce in the center of a serving platter. When the chops are done, arrange them, bone-side up, leaning against the applesauce. Serve immediately.
Makes 10 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 308 calories, 11 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 105 milligrams cholesterol, 33 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams dietary fiber, 210 milligrams sodium.