It appears I have neglected fall.
Obviously, this won't do.
After all, fall is my favorite season, October my favorite month. Or maybe it's my almost-favorite month; I may pull a switcheroo in a few weeks, re-cast my vote on behalf of November. I can't possibly commit, this early on. Better to go with the season itself.
Either way? I can't help but bear witness.
Because fall is when the weather turns lovely, becomes what I think a summer should be. The nasties—heat, humidity, mosquitoes—leave town, with plenty of rain taking their place. The nights are cool, the days, sometimes sunny, punctuated by plenty of gray. Temperatures swing between fifties and seventies, sweaters and shirt-sleeves, hot oats and cold cider. Absolutely perfect, in other words. The summer of my dreams, slightly delayed.
(Did I mention I'm from Seattle? Where summer as often means fleece as one-piece?)
There are puddles for jumping, and breezes for bicycling, and just-sunny-enough days for fairy-house building.
(Apparently, in Ohio, fairies need more than the standard issue leaf-and-twig hut. I didn't ask Zoe for details, but she seemed certain they needed four walls and a roof. It does get nippy. I can't blame them.)
Fall is when every clearing of the table for homework winds up looking like some trite still life. Like the colors can't help themselves. Like sunset and harvest are the only hues allowed.
Fall is when coat zippers need waxing, after their long summer hibernation. And while we're at it, satchel zippers, also, and bird feeders, filling, and the last of the garden tomatoes, gathering.
And the very last.
And the very very last.
And the very very very last.
We've harvested our last at least six times, now. Ditto the zucchini, which by rights should be toast, two tinies of which were spotted, just yesterday. Ditto also the green beans, transitioning toward shelly, still putting out, despite a few frosts.
Apart from the chard and kale, both champs, the harvest is nothing to write home about. The tomatoes are on the sour side; the bean yield, miniscule. But the thrill, for some reason, is inversely proportional. And the amounts allow beans to become a math moment. Which leads to groan-worthy bean counting jokes. All of which makes me feel endlessly better about putting off "rip out vegetables" for three weeks. Maybe four...
The flowers have proven no less generous, soldiering on despite several nighttime freezes. As everything around them goes withery brown, the stalwarts carry on, all the more stunning for it. There are mums, of course, which never fail to tickle, so boisterous and raring, all "Winter? What winter?"
But it is the others, the true blooms and elegants, that dazzle and astound in equal measure. Mums, I don't know, they just look hardy. Like the Land's End of flowers, ubiquitous, sturdy. But windflowers, toad lilies, pink-petalled roses? They seem fragile things, wispy, frail. To the eye, anyway. Underneath? Abs of steel.
(And with all due respect to Mademoiselle Dickinson?
Hope is the thing not only with feathers, but with petals and buds at the end of October.)
The foliage isn't too shabby, either. Our morning school walks are a russety shuffle, as the oaks finally begin to let loose. Afternoons, when our route takes us under maples, we might as well be Sigourney, so crimson's the carpet.
Driving into the country, yesterday, it felt for all the world like blizzard conditions. Only blizzard conditions brought to you by Ted Turner, all brilliant color, no black and white.
For all that, we've a few weeks of splendor ahead yet, as we stand on this cusp between full and empty. Our hawthorne and honey locust are almost bare. Our crabapple's so bald, it might as well be February.
But our dogwood and hyacinth are just now turning color. The oak delivers leaf piles right up through Thanksgiving. Their days are numbered, and they well know it, and they seem intent on going out in a blaze of glory. Amen.
Most days, fall follows us right indoors. My hand slips into my pocket for keys, comes up instead with acorns galore. Pinecones and tissues go through the wash. Walnuts and small nuts we can't quite identify accumulate everywhere. After last year's hiatus, due to the crud, we were doubly happy to get in a batch of leaf-dipping.
Fall may, to you, smell of apples and spice, the leaves' funk and ferment, the thrill of fresh air. Yes, those. But to me, I think it will always, also, be tinted with beeswax's honeyed sweet.
Fall, to my kids, means unearthing The Fall Box, which to them might as well be The Halloween Box. Or, more properly, "THE HALLOWEEN BOX!!!!!!" Yes, it contains our acorn and bat stamps. And indeed, there are the odd wool felt leaves.
But the immediate excitement is directed toward all things All Hallow's Eve: the old outgrown costume bits, and artifacts from Octobers past, and especially the excellent loot from what we have come to realize are Mamo's annual Halloween box.
Thus begins weeks of glow-in-the-dark necklaces, and goofy glasses, and appropriately-themed duct tape bracelets. (You didn't think we were all beeswax and dried leaves, did you? When there is outrageous duct tape to be had? Oh, c'mon.)
And, since this year's haul included twenty tiny spiders, we hung two bags of fake webbing, out front. I do not, as a rule, decorate for Halloween, but can I tell you, four dollars have rarely delivered such fun?
Of course, there are bad jokes. Halloween begs bad jokes.
Q: "Why are witch twins so confusing?"
A: "You can never tell which witch is which."
Fall is when we riffle through the construction paper for orange, black, yellow and green. When jack-o-lantern patterns are trialled in 2-D. When ghosts appear everywhere, on paper, in meringue.
It is first (double) batches of everyday cocoa mix. And ruling one mini-marshmallow per year, reasonable. Then re-considering. Twelve marshmallows? Really? Yeah, no. Because, come middle school, that makes for a lot of marshmallows. Revision to Parenting Code 139.00179: one mini- per year, up to age 10.
In fall, pumpkins come home from farm field trips, an easier "yes" than the alternative, newborn piglets. This necessitates the cooking of a pumpkin, which all but requires the baking of a pumpkin pie. I highly recommend the baking of a pumpkin pie, several weeks prior to Thanksgiving. (Actually, I highly recommend the baking of a pumpkin pie, several weeks prior to anything.) But right now, absent turkey and trimmings, pumpkin pie has the spotlight all to itself. Few things are as worthy.
Does it sound like I'm here to talk pies today? I am not. I am no baker of pies. I love them, pumpkin particularly, and can muddle my way through, inelegantly. But all I can tell you by way of wisdom is that homemade pumpkin makes for an especially delicate filling, and to tip in a heaping teaspoon of cardamom, and to otherwise follow Libby's label to a T. (Yes, I'm suggesting you follow the canned pumpkin recipe. Without, you know, ever opening the can.)
No, I'm here today to talk up another orange lovely, specifically the sweet potato. Specifically, the sweet potato and fellow fall veg, aswim in a warm, fragrant coconut milk curry. Specifically, and delightfully.
I wrote this up first for the fall Edible Columbus, and nearly forgot to mention it, here. It's easy to do, the forgetting, magazine deadlines being what they are. There are those among you for whom this is standard, and I'm finally beginning to bend my mind around it. But it still seems awfully peculiar to me to be hunting down sweet potatoes in high July.
No excuse, mind you, for missing this korma. Missing this korma won't do at all.
A korma—and I'm generalizing wildly here—is a catch-all for an Indian braised curry. Eloquently spiced, often creamy, deeply flavored, always balanced, a korma is a treat and a half. There are chicken kormas, and lamb and beef also, and all manner of vegetable-based kormas, my favorite. Today's korma fits into that last category, and eats like a love letter to fall.
Like all good kormas, this one is built on aromatics—onions, garlic, a pile of minced of ginger—softened and mellowed and sincerely browned. Mustard seeds fry in the oil alongside, adding their nutty addictive crunch. Warm spices bloom briefly, coriander, turmeric, plus just enough chili for background blush. Firm vegetables follow, white potatoes, cubed sweets, plus, if you wish, cauliflower and/or kale. These are joined by tomatoes and coconut milk, the former a foil to the latter's rich lush. As the tubers and crucifers braise away in the sauce, the sauce thickens and intensifies. Meanwhile, the aromatic gunge built at the outset infiltrates both, a rather excellent incursion.
Toward the end, I like adding some sweet green thing, green beans in season, frozen peas, any time. I also like a tin of chickpeas tipped in. The buff velvet nubs blend in like old friends. Once everything's in, there's the matter of seasoning, a final, brief, critical step. First bites may be dull, as the real seasoning must wait until the braising and reducing is done. Never fear. Salt, and sugar, and lime juice, in turn, are added and sampled and tweaked until grand. Don't be shy. When the quantities are right—and your buds will know—sauce and vegetable will suddenly sing.
We ate it tonight with a mound of basmati, which soaks up the mellow, rich sauce brilliantly. Naan is nice, also, and I'm already anticipating leftovers wrapped in tomorrow's crêpes.
This sounds strange, I realize, like leftovers without borders, like tupperware run amok. But it comes off like a cheat's curried sweet potato dhosa. A well-fed, albeit inauthentic, cheat. I'm not normally keen on shortcuts and cheating, no more in cooking than anywhere else. But when cheating involves a scoop of sweet potato korma? This will do, very nicely indeed.
adapted from Plenty, by Diana Henry
This is a mild, ecumenical curry, which travels well throughout the season. Add the last zucchini, or the first cauliflower, or ribbons of kale, as summer’s green beans give way to fall’s greens. As with all curries, leftovers are wonderful.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds
4 garlic cloves, minced (2 teaspoons)
1 ½ inch fresh ginger, peeled, finely chopped (2 tablespoons)
1 fresh red chile, seeded and chopped, or 1 whole dried arbol chile
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon salt, plus 1 teaspoon, or to taste
2 small sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1” chunks (3 cups)
6 ounces waxy white potatoes, peeled, cut into 1” chunks (1 cup)
12 ounces fresh tomatoes, chopped (or 15 oz. tin diced tomatoes, drained of juices)
1 cup regular coconut milk, well-shaken
1-3 teaspoons sugar, to taste
8 ounces green beans, cut into 2” lengths (optional)
1 15-ounce tin chickpeas (optional)
1 cup frozen green peas
juice of ½-1 plump lime
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
In a large, heavy saucepan, heat oil until shimmering. Add onion and fry, over medium-high heat, stirring regularly, until browning, 5 minutes. Add mustard seeds, and continue to cook until onions are bronzed and sticky, lowering heat as needed to prevent burning, 2-3 minutes. Add garlic, ginger and chili, reduce heat to medium, and cook 3 minutes. Add turmeric and coriander and cook another minute, to meld.
Add tomatoes, sweet potatoes, white potatoes and 1 teaspoon salt, then stir to coat with aromatics. Cook 4 minutes to relax tomatoes, then add coconut milk, plus enough water to just cover vegetables, ½-1 cup. Bring to a steady simmer and hold, cooking until potatoes are tender, 10-15 minutes. The sauce will thicken, and should generously coat the vegetables.
Add beans, and simmer until just tender, 4-5 minutes. Add frozen peas, and simmer 1 minute. Remove from heat, add juice of half a lime, and begin the final seasoning. The first bite will be underseasoned, intentionally, to allow for all the recent reducing. In this final step, you'll add salt, and likely sugar, and pepper, and possibly more lime juice, in turn. Add pinches, stir, taste, and adjust, until everything is bright and in balance. You will want more salt, and likely sugar, possibly pepper, probably more lime, until everything is bright and balanced and round. Pinch and stir and taste and repeat, until dull is a distant memory. Stir in chopped cilantro, and serve.