Autumn's Leavings
December 4th, 2003

I want to thank California. After the bizarre and screwed-up gubernatorial election, you might and should ask, "Why?" I'm going to tell you why. See, I was under some strange impression that it wouldn't feel like autumn here in the Golden State. Sure, it would get chilly, and the sweaters and jeans could come out, Sep would have to come up from San Diego and take me shopping for a gorgeous indigo fleece pullover and some grey fleece gloves, and I'd be able to see my breath as I ran around Alamo Square Park, but I still didn't think it would truly feel like fall. I needed evidence. Leaf evidence.

We have palm trees lining our street (I know, I know -- that still trips me out, too!) and there are many varieties of trees in the park, but I certainly didn't think any of them would drop their leaves and flock black wet pavements with that wetly musty scent. As far as my experience is concerned, Minnesota and New England can rip each other's ears off deciding who has the most brilliantly colorful foliage, and in spite of all the gold and russet-laden groves Sunset magazine was showing me in Anderson Valley and further wine points north, I didn't think California would even be a contender for the title. I was most happy to report to my parents and friends back in Minnesota that I was very wrong.

I started to notice changes around the neighborhood that looked and smelled suspiciously like foliage, and by the time Sep dragged me (willingly, of course) to Golden Gate Park, I was completely convinced that California -- or, at least, Northern California -- has a lovely fall. And with that lovely fall comes quite a delicious bounty of tasty treats, both liquid and solid. From the sea and from the soil.

Although there are no pumpkin pie spices to be found in it, I am now completely enamored of San Francisco's own special holiday offering. The local brand of Anchor Steam puts out a delightfully rich and deeply chocolately Christmas ale. Every year they change the label and even slightly alter the recipe so each brew is unique and that, in my opinion, makes every year a vintage year. I plan on collecting and archiving a label every year and, though this is my first season with the Christmas ale, I think this particular label will be my favorite.

I also have this elaborate plan by which Mathra and I hold back two bottles from every year and compare it to the next. Mathra doesn't think that will work. He wants to drink them all. Now.

Since this weather means I'm stirred (Heh -- these food puns never get tiring! To me.) to make ridiculously large batches of soups and stews, I have a huge store-up in my freezer and fridge. First, there is an Italian white bean and chard soup with tons of garlic and parmesan cheese that I got out of an article my friend Cat wrote in Sunset. It's a great way to benefit from all the vitamins and disease-fighting antioxidents without really trying. Plus, it's completely tasty. Next, there's the Two Fat Ladies' French Onion Soup with sharp tangs of lager and stilton, and finally there's the newest addition: Lentil Stew.

This is another recipe I got from Sunset to which I made some slight modifications of my own. It starts with bacon as the fat -- and I truly believe any dish that starts with bacon is bound to be heaven in a spoon -- and into that go the aromatics. Well, I didn't have celery, so I sliced up some aging endive I had in the crisper and tossed that in instead. Then, since I wanted to sass up the flavor a bit, I did a little white wine reduction with the endive, onions, carrots, garlic and bacon before adding three kinds of lentils (I was clearing out my stash and had exactly the four cups needed), bay leaves, sage (didn't have the dried thyme as required by the recipe), and water. All that simmered until the lentils were nice and tender and then in went the canned tomatoes and another cup of water. It simmered a few minutes more, I adjusted the seasonings, and then, perfection! What's awesome about this stew is that it tastes really meaty and rich without having anything more than just the bacon used as cooking fat. The recipe write-up says that this stew tastes even better the second day, and I can now attest to that. All the flavors got real friendly overnight and made a party in our mouths when we partook.

I know words like "white wine reduction" or "adjusted the seasonings" can sound like a lot of intimidating fancy chef-talk, but it's really not. A white wine reduction -- or any reduction, actually, which is usually referred to as "acid reduction" since any old acid will do: wine, citrus juice, or vinegar -- is simply adding wine to stuff (usually a combo of aromatics like onions, celery, leeks, carrots, or garlic) and letting it cook/boil off. The acid helps to release flavor from the aromatics while also adding its own flavor to the pot. The reduction/cooking down part concentrates that flavor as it reduces/cooks down, making it even more flavorful. You see? It's really quite easy and a great way to "build" any soup, stew, sauce, or braise.

Adjusting seasonings only means that you should add as much salt, pepper, or whathaveyou so that the dish doesn't taste blander than Mr. Blanderson of Blandonia. Sometimes even a dash of nutmeg or a few squirts of lemon can respectively deepen or brighten whatever you're making. Although people with high blood pressure or other health concerns need to be careful, salt is really your friend. In fact to food, salt is that friend you have from high school who you know you can walk around a lake with, benefit from email advice while in completely different time zones, and discuss almost anything with, because with that friend, you are more yourself than you ever have been. That friend brings out the best in you and accentuates all your unique flavors. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you have a partner for life who is your Salt, as well as having still another friend who, though she is your Salt from Afar, she will visit often and spread her saltiness everywhere. And now I think I'll stop with the metaphor before I get hypertension and cavities at exactly the same time. Anyway, that's what salt does to all foods -- it makes that food realize its full and truest flavor potential. Yes, Virginia, even sweets. When making up that batch of homemade ice cream, salt is added. Cakes, cookies, pies, and creams that fill all have at least a pinch of salt.

Wow. I just too another bite and swig -- that beefish lentil stew goes so well with Anchor Steam's velvety Christmas Ale that I may decide never to eat or drink anything else ever again.

Well, perhaps not, but they both warm the insides with dark brooding qualities that make them impossible to resist on a chilly autumn night in Northern California.

Late autumn and winter in California also means the arrival of the most succulent little insect ever to traverse the ocean's floor. Look, I loved Finding Nemo with all the funny voices and cute personalities (Mathra has been running around cocking his head, saying, "Mine? Mine? Mine?" just like the odd gulls with freakishly miniscule eyes) but it's not going to make me swear off Dungeness Crab. Ever. I was over at my friend's brother's place in Hayes Valley and he just happens to be a chef at the Four Seasons in San Francisco. In addition to a crispy roast purple potato salad, local clams steamed in white wine, and chilled shrimp, Kim's brother served us each a huge crab of our very own. This crab is so tender, so melting that none of us needed the drawn butter at the side of our plates. It was simply fantastic. I can't wait to land a few crabs of my own and serve them to the Salt of My Life.

Still no takers on that metaphor? Oh, fine.

It seems to be quite the tradition in these parts to have Dungeness Crab for Christmas Eve, so I might actually have to shear away from some of our usual favorites and incorporate that into our celebrations this year.

I AM looking forward to Christmas this year. We're in a new place but we're surrounded by friends and family, who are inviting us here and there and generally making us feel quite immediately at home. Most of our Christmas shopping is done -- and done well, I might add. I am working on several paid assignments which, not only do I adore and feel passionate and excited about, but are also fulfilling my dream of working on cookbooks, food magazines, and being a test kitchen chef. Pretty soon, thanks to those same friends who have been making us feel so at home, I might even check off the little box that says, "Restaurant critic."

Now, if we can only find a Christmas tree within walking distance!

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