It's a little blurry. Sorry about that. There was a small leaf situation in front of the lens. Shouldn't be a recurring problem. They're all gone now, blown down in last week's bluster.
Fall flew the coop last week. I realize we've another month yet before it's official, but we all know a season's soul doesn't much mind the datebook.
(I, on the other hand, often do, and I noticed Thanksgiving's rapidly approaching. So do please feel free to scroll right on down to a bang-up sweet potato side, if you're in the market. Sweet potato and bacon fat. No offense taken. I'll be down soon.)
(And actually, while we're on the topic, much of our menu hails from here: cream biscuits, bacon-braised brussel sprouts, maybe this shaved fennel + mushroom salad, definitely this chocolate pie. In case you have any loose ends to tie up.)
Me, I wanted to pause a moment, say a proper goodbye to fall. I'm in need of a little eulogy. No, better, a commemoration. Maybe both.
To autumn, then. It's been swell.
Ginko, oak, pear, sweet gum: your stamina pleases me no end. You are, I've learned, the final act, and you don't take your duties lightly. Under any other circumstances, your flamboyant crimson-amber-gold would be gaudy, but in quickening, dark November? Spot on. A final riot to ready us for winter's monochrome.
So long, filigree trees, stained glass leaves, filtered light from threadbare canopies.
Au revoir, actually, all you leaves. You've filled our hands, our pockets, our boots, our days. We never got back to the beeswax this year, but instead painted and stamped and pressed and compiled. And built and buried and tunneled and jumped. I've decided each season comes equipped with its very own abundant building material: fall's leaves, winter's snow, spring's mud, summer's sand. (Dear Universe: Excellent planning, and well done.)
We've got one final rake to do, then to the shed's archives they go. Time to move snow shovels to the head of the class.
Bye for now, pleasant weather and shirtsleeve afternoons. We've been flirting with freezing, all month long, but we've also enjoyed a stupendous November. Several days in the sixties, a red letter seventy. On my birthday, no less. (Dear Universe, P.S.: Many thanks!) But there's this palpable shift, brisk to bracing, that happens here, sometime around the end fall. This fall, that shift happened last week. And even if you Seattle folk beat us to snow (???), we've already dabbled in the lower twenties.
We'll catch up with you yet, just wait and see.
Farewell, zinnias. You rocked our garden for months, early July right through the first frost. But crisp doesn't suit you in the least. Let's re-seed next spring.
Dear ancient roses: how do you do it? You're this neon spark in an otherwise-brown landscape. You, and those industrious orangeity-orange daisies. We may have fresh flowers on our groaning board, yet. Fingers crossed...
Adios, for now, outdoor field trips. I wondered whether even November was pushing it. But with a hearty band of fifth-graders and a Surviving in Nature theme, it seemed within the possible realm. And the day dawned crisp but dry and clear. And I learned so much I'd be embarassed by my ignorance, if I weren't thrilled with my newfound knowledge. (Don't burn logs with vines: poison ivy smoke can kill. Gypsy moths can wipe out whole tree stands in a weeks. If looking for water, first find the sycamore, because "it likes to keep its toes wet". Who knew? And how many lifetimes would it take to scratch the veneer of the surface?)
Even if the flint was devilishly difficult to work.
I'm not moping, mind you, not mourning in the least. Fall is my favorite, but winter's a close second, in my (possibly) oddball book, anyway.
There are candles to glow, and fires to burn, and indoor pleasures masquerading as escapes from the cold. And outdoor adventures, I'm counting on it. No hunkering down, here, just a turn of the dial.
So goodbye, fall. You've had a fine run. Same time, next year, we'll be ready and waiting.
And hello, winter. Welcome back, old friend. Hello hats, mittens, balaclavas, board games, cold noses, colder toes, carols, Christmas, birthdays, brrrrrr days, sleds, snow. All that lovely jazz. I am so ready.
And hello, sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes, of course, are no more citizens of winter than are these next several pre-solstice weeks. They've been popping up at our market, in these parts anyway, since the early days of September. But I always hold out, while summer's best bleed into fall, the eggplant and greens and last windowsill tomatoes. It seems a shame to squander the bounty.
But right around the time of that first bone-chilling breeze, a line invisible to all but me is crossed, and my own personal sweet potato season begins. That line is behind me. I'm ready for that, also.
My sweet potato love runs deep, if not wide, usually teeter-tottering between straight-up baked sweet spuds in their jackets, and this roasted salad with black beans, lime, feta and cilantro. It's a rut, I admit, but a delicious rut, one I'm more than contented to settle into. Or was, I guess. Until last year.
Last year, I tasted a sweet potato like no other, prepared on the fly by my mother-in-law. There were sweet potatoes, clearly, cooked and puréed, and I thought, when I dolloped, that that was that. And then I tasted. And paused. And had to begin again. Because behind that ordinary earthy-sweet, lay this wicked backbone of smoke and salt and flavor and what exactly? I couldn't quite pin it, had a second spoonful, a third, and finally inquired after all the other mystery ingredients.
You, dear reader, of course already know the answer, seeing as I gave away the ending at the outset. But on that first day, with that first bite, my tastebuds went through more twists and turns than The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. And I was about as surprised by the ending: bacon fat. Not a lot, either, a tablespoon or so per potato. But one ingredient. That tasted like twenty. I waited all last spring, and on through summer, and even into fall to try it myself. I've now made three batches in as many weeks. I'll understand entirely if you beat my record.
This is one of those recipes that's more art than science, a firsthand dabble in balance and preference. It is, on the one hand, no more than cooked sweets and bacon fat, with a bit of salt and sugar to round out the flavors. But each time I've varied the quantities a bit, as both root and fat are variable. Some sweet potatoes are notably less sweet than others, and so need four teaspoons of sugar, not two. One brand of bacon is saltier than the next, its fat going farther in seasoning the spuds. The one indisputable truth I've learned is to use the best bacon you can find, and to cook it p-a-t-i-e-n-t-l-y. I got antsy with a batch this past week, cranked the heat, "gained" two minutes, and gleaned a panful of burnt drippings. Lesson learned: smoky good; charcoal bad.
But don't be fooled by all this talk of finesse: this is child's play, steam, blitz, and eat. Or better: cook your sweet potatoes a few days early, leverage a little saved fat (from, say, those aforementioned brussels), and just before serving, warm gently and purée. Sides don't get much simpler than that: no oven, no prep, no sweat, yes please. To date, they've been everday, busy night fare, and they fit this bill most comfortably. But these sweets, they've got the swank-rugged flavors of a side with pride of place at the table and personality to spare. I'm speculating here, but I suspect they'd sidle up to a Thanksgiving spread with no trouble at all.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends. And thank you, always, for stopping by.
Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Bacon Breath
with great thanks to Julia
yields: 4 side servings
Ordinarily, I prefer my sweet potatoes roasted, but here I like the clean sweetness of them steamed. The sweet potatoes can be cooked (and the bacon fat rendered) several days ahead. Just warm both over low heat in a small saucepan, to reheat. Double or triple, as you wish.
2 medium sweet potatoes
2-3 tablespoons good, fresh bacon fat
2-3 teaspoons sugar (white or brown)
1/2-1 teaspoon kosher salt
Cook sweet potatoes: peel, slice, and steam over simmering water, 20-30 minutes, until knife pierces easily at thickest point. Use immediately, or cool and refrigerate, for later.
When potatoes are cool enough to handle (or after warming them, if re-heating), return to a small saucepan with the bacon fat, 2 teaspoons sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Blitz with a stick (immersion) blender until no lumps remain, bacon fat is incorporated, and potatoes are creamy-smooth, 2 minutes or so, pausing to scrape sides with a spatula a few times. Taste for deliciousness: the major themes here are smoky and earthy, with just enough salty-sweet to italicize the above. Smoky, earthy (salty, sweet). Seasoning is especially variable (and important) here: it will depend on how sweet your potatoes were, and how salty your bacon, and your materials may demand more or less of the above quantities. If the spoonful tastes flat, add another pinch of salt and two of sugar, blitz again, taste again, and repeat until everything sings. Sings. It will. You'll know. Nom nom nom...