Isn't this the loveliest time of the year? The mornings arrive fresh, there often is a north breeze and the days are long, bright and sweet. All seems right with the world, doesn't it? The brilliant fall weather also stimulates our appetites, and we long for something hearty, warming and good for the culinary soul.
It may be that something in our DNA recognizes the beautiful fall as a harbinger of a bitter winter to come. Our craving for food that will add a pound of two of winter fat, just what you might need to get through the frugal months of bitter cold, is strong and compelling. That fear is of little account to us on the Gulf Coast, where the winters are mild and usually wonderful. But that doesn't mean you should not forage ahead with your longings.
Our forefathers, if you are of European descent, have been fulfilling that desire for countless generations, so, with a nod to the past, embrace the cravings, and head for the kitchen. Get out the biggest braising pot or stock pot that you've got, gather from the abundance of the fall garden and make a hearty stew or soup big enough for all of your friends and family.
If you have any roots in the Deep South, then you know that this is the time of the year for a big gumbo, but there are plenty of other recipes that will do just as nicely. A big beef stew just might be what you are looking for, or if you want something on the lighter side, try a vegetable puree. Best of all just might be a traditional Italian bread soup, a recipe that has its beginnings in an almost empty pantry and a hungry family.
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2 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
4 cups beef stock
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon dried Italian seasoning
4 cups potatoes, chopped
3 cups carrots, chopped
Fresh basil to garnish
Cut the beef into equal-sized cubes so that the meat will cook evenly. Combine the flour, paprika, salt and pepper, mix well, then toss in the cubed beef to coat evenly. Take your time and make sure every cube is completely covered.
In a heavy bottom brazing pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil to smoking, then add the butter. Sear the beef in small batches, again taking your time to get a deep brown, good sear. Remove the browned beef and set aside.
The beef should be browned but not cooked through.
Add the onions and garlic to the pan, add a little more oil if it is needed, and cook for 5 minutes. Now deglaze the pan with the wine, being sure to scrape up all those delicious brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Now add the stock and Italian seasoning, add the beef back to the pot, cover and gently simmer for about 40 minutes.
Add the potatoes and carrots, being sure that they are cut into equal sizes, just like the beef and for the same reason. Cook until the vegetables and beef are tender. Taste and re-season as necessary.
If you want to make the sauce even richer, add more butter. Serve in individual bowls, garnished with the fresh basil.
If you're a smart cook, you have used a wine to make this dish that is good enough to drink with it. A hearty pinot noir or a good red Zinfandel would be grand. Don't forget a crusty loaf of freshly baked bread.
YELLOW SQUASH PUREE
2 sweet onions, chopped
1 leek, white part only
6-8 cloves of garlic, chopped
5-6 yellow squash, chopped
4 cups homemade chicken stock
Small bunch fresh thyme
Salt and red pepper flakes
Add a good dollop of olive oil to a sauté pan and heat to medium. Add the onions and leek, season aggressively and sauté until tender. Add the squash and cook for 5 minutes. Now add the garlic and cook 2 minutes longer.
Next, add the broth and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the thyme 5 minutes before the squash is tender.
Allow the mixture to cool, remove the thyme, and blend until smooth. Taste and add seasoning as necessary. Add a nice splash of olive oil to each bowl after serving.
This is as soul stirring and satisfying a soup as you will ever encounter.
ITALIAN-STYLE BREAD SOUP
1 diced red onion
3-4 gloves of garlic, chopped
1 cup white wine
8-10 red ripe tomatoes
10-12 fresh basil leaves
2 cups tomato juice
2 cups day-old bread
1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano
Salt and red pepper flakes
Sauté the onions in olive oil for 8 minutes and season aggressively. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes more.
Now add the wine and reduce by half. Add the tomatoes, season again, and simmer for 10 minutes. Chiffonade the basil (roll the leaves up, like an old-time cigarette, then slice cross ways), and add them as well. Puree this mixture in a food processor until smooth.
In a large pot, add the cubed bread and the tomato juice, and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste and season again as needed. Place in individual bowls, garnish with Parmigiano-Reggiano and drizzle on some of your best olive oil. Serve hot.
Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes the Coast Cooking column that appears in Wednesday's Sun Herald and for a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with regular columns also in magazines.