That Fall Feeling

How can I celebrate autumn in my kitchen without dusting everything in pumpkin spice?

A basket of apples
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.

Fall is my favorite time of the year, and I like to celebrate it by spending more time outside, dressing for the weather, decorating, etc. However, I don’t think that I take the best advantage of the season in regard to food. Just baking with pumpkins is tasty, but it feels uninspired. First, what characterizes a “fall flavor,” and second, are there some template meals that use fall flavors that I can make? I like making meals for myself and my roommate.

To me, fall is about an in-between state. Not yet winter with its thick and heavy soups, slow-cooked meat stews with intensely dark sauces, and voluptuous cheesy gratins I would never stomach in warmer weather, nor late summer anymore with its last tricolored insalata caprese, grilled chicken topped with peach and fresh chili salsa, and arugula salads with tangy goat cheese and shaved grilled corn.

Fortunately, fall gives us something in exchange: Nature cranks out a dizzying array of riches before caving into hibernation, and temperatures have dropped to a comfortable level. It’s the season for light comfort food with fresh notes and for rolling up your sleeves to make the season’s last fresh produce extend into winter by jamming, canning, and fermenting. Such a vision is, of course, a romantic cliché, because seasonality is an ideal that hardly anyone in America really lives by these days (although it has certainly become a strong marketing scheme). Still, it’s easy to fall prey (forgive the pun) to the alluring dream of bronze, late-afternoon sunlight shining on autumn leaves, knit sweaters worn without a coat, pumpkin patches, and apple pies eaten on Adirondack-chaired wooden decks overlooking a Vermont dreamscape. Why not embrace the cliché, if not quite as far as to fall into a pumpkin-spice wormhole, and examine what kind of dishes would support the fantasy, even if you happen to live in Southern California or Florida?

First, there is the produce: After a bracingly short period during which you will find Concord grapes and “Italian” plums—the latter of which I feverishly pursue to make tarts, compotes, and jams—in come new apples, cranberries, robust cabbages, Brussels sprouts, myriad squashes in all colors and nearly vulgar shapes (warts and all!), mountains of plump pumpkins, and root vegetables that weather the cooler weather and long storage: beets, carrots, parsnips, celeriac, and potatoes.

Second, let’s remember that fall, historically, has always been hunting season, not just for wild game (see the next question for suggestions on how to cook rabbit) but also for wild mushrooms. Look for them at your local farmers market or, if you happen to live near one and care for that sort of diversion, in an actual forest. (Is it hunting or gathering, I wonder?)

Next, there is a notable difference in the way we prepare the food: Colder weather means that we can finally use the oven again without turning an already-hot kitchen into a sauna, and we may also feel generally more inclined to spend more time cooking as temperatures outside drop. And this brings me, at long last, to formulate a fitting approach to creating what you call “fall flavor.”

In my mind, it should be distinguished by a combination of two things: a certain muted flavor profile that comes when several ingredients are brought together and cooked or roasted for an extended period of time, and a punctuation of bright accents created by acidity and fresh aromas. Think of the latter as akin to the piercing, still-warm rays of sunshine at an autumnal sunset. I would go gentle with those pumpkin-season-associated spices that add a lulling warm velvet blanket to the dishes they adorn (cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, cardamom, and allspice). Forgo the touted mix and make an informed choice by using only one at time—sparingly.

Roasted meat can be topped with a gremolata of chopped bitter greens and diced tart apple or pomegranate seeds. Spaghetti al cacio e pepe is a perfect autumn meal when served with a salad of crunchy radicchio, dressed with balsamic vinegar, pomelo sections, and toasted pumpkin seeds. Or consider gently stewed fresh cranberry beans with Tuscan kale (added at the end), seasoned with both the juice and zest of a lemon and topped with hearty chunks of olive oil–drizzled, toasted sourdough bread. Roast sliced and seeded delicata squash until tender and lace it with honey and chili powder. Pumpkin and ricotta-filled ravioli tossed in sage butter benefit from a topping of crushed and toasted speculoos mixed with ground parmesan and orange zest. and wild-mushroom risotto perks up from a drop or two of sherry vinegar and a heap of sweet and crunchy pea-shoots. Or you might deglaze a pan in which you have browned medallions of fresh rosemary-seasoned pork tenderloin (or chicken thighs) with apple cider, cranberries (heat them until they pop), and a touch of butter.

I recently had a great rabbit dish out at a restaurant and would love to learn how to work with it at home. Any tips on how to get started?

Cooking and eating rabbit has fallen out of favor for different reasons. For one, hunting is not as common as it used to be, nor is raising and slaughtering rabbits in your backyard. Perhaps even more significantly, rabbits have, at least in our urbanized society, become “bunnies”; that is, they have achieved “pet status,” like dogs and cats. Eating them requires overstepping an emotional threshold fewer people may be willing to cross these days. When I was a young kid, I had a bunny that I loved dearly, and I was horrified at the thought of eating such a cute creature (not to mention my love for the Easter Bunny and the chocolate eggs he hid around the house on Easter Sunday). I promptly declared that eating rabbit was henceforth verboten in our household. One day, my mother served a rather suspicious-looking meat stew. I knew right away. My parents tried in vain to pretend that it was pheasant. I may have been only 9 years old, but I was no dumb bunny. I was livid and refused to touch it.

Which brings me to another bunny story recounted to me by a little boy, this one 11 years old—a friend of mine, and much smarter and more mature than I was at his age.

This boy, like many boys his age, has a passion for shooting. Though I am not personally in direct support of this activity, my sense has been that he, guided by his libertarian but conscientious father, approaches shooting in a methodical, considerate, and disciplined way, like a sports skill that requires serious training. In any case, a couple of months ago, he and a friend of his were practicing their shooting skills with their air guns in the garden of his family’s country house, aiming at a target board propped against a hedge, when, lo and behold, a bunny came hoppling by. What do you think my friend did? He instinctively took aim at its head. “I think I am going to try to shoot it.” he announced, wincing slightly at his own reflex. “Don’t do it!” his friend screamed. And then, he did it. His air gun’s pellet did not miss its target. The bunny’s little head virtually exploded, and at that, my little friend instantly dropped to his knees and burst into tears, fully realizing what his reflex had made him do.

But here is the beautiful second part of the story: His father insisted that the bunny must be properly skinned, dressed, and cooked to honor its death. They did this, together with the help of an experienced neighbor. The boy was inconsolable for a long time, but he had learned a lesson—about himself, about responsibility, about, well, life and death. How did they cook the rabbit? They simply seasoned it with salt and pepper and dried herbs and grilled it. It was rather tough, said my little friend, and slightly bitter. Or perhaps it was the taste of his own tears mixed with it as he dutifully ate it.

Think of rabbit as very lean chicken and cook it accordingly. The meat is sweet and tender and best when it’s braised—that is, cooked slowly with plenty of juices to prevent it from drying out. Cutting it up into parts requires a bit of skill and research—this webpage offers a comprehensive breakdown—or you can ask your butcher to do it for you. Rub some olive oil over the pieces and season them well with salt, pepper, and crushed thyme. Brown the pieces in batches in a Dutch oven, deglazing the pan each time with a splash of white wine before browning the next, saving the glaze in a separate cup.

From here, you can take it in different directions. You can go the traditional French route by browning a batch of mirepoix in the same pot, scattering the rabbit pieces over the vegetables, adding a bay leaf, and covering everything halfway with the saved glaze and more white wine as needed. Bring it to a simmer, place a round piece of parchment paper with a hole in its center directly onto it (to trap the flavor, but not the steam), close the pot with the lid, and braise the lot in a 325 degree oven until the meat is very tender, for about an hour. Remove the pieces from the sauce, reduce it a bit over a lively flame before adding a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and a cup of cream. Bring the sauce to a simmer (you can purée it in a blender and press it through a fine mesh sieve if you prefer a thick sauce over a chunky one), check the seasoning (it probably needs salt), add the rabbit pieces, and gently warm up the lot. (Don’t let the sauce come up to a boil again.) Served with roasted potatoes or basmati rice; it’s barbarically delicious. For a Belgian variation of the same dish, add some cubed bacon to the mirepoix, use dark beer instead of wine, add some dried prunes to the braise, and omit the mustard and cream.

Or you can go the Italian route, which in this instance, for once, is more laborious than the French, but worth the extra effort: Add some tomato paste to the mirepoix (which should now be correctly called sofrito but is basically the same) and, once the lot has caramelized a bit, a shot of vin santo or Marsala wine as well as about three cups of hand-crushed canned San Marzano tomatoes and a bay leaf. Braise the stew as described above, and, once the meat has cooled down enough to handle, strip off every tiny morsel of meat from the bones before discarding the latter. (Reduce the sauce over a medium flame while you’re at it.) Stir the shredded meat back into the warm sauce, cook it gently for another 10 minutes, and season it with salt, pepper, a hint of nutmeg, and fresh, chopped marjoram leaves. This ragù is a perfect dressing for fresh egg pasta like tagliatelle. Serve with freshly ground—never grated—parmesan, and go down the rabbit hole toward a culinary wonderland.

Are octopuses too intelligent to eat?

They would be very stupid not to.

Jokes aside, this is a political question with religious undertones and a hefty dose of virtue signaling with all its implications of moral superiority, and as such, probably better to avoid. But since I like to play with danger now and then, let’s dive into this murky ocean.

Citing intelligence as a decisive (and no doubt divisive) factor in the food chain is a strange argument. I wonder where this classification comes from, and where does it lead? What does it mean for the species on the lower end of the intelligence echelon? Who decides? Are all octopuses equally intelligent? Are all cows dumb, and does eating them make us a better person than those who eat octopuses? What about beauty as a characteristic? Have you seen pictures of the gorgeous chickens Isabella Rossellini is raising? Has it made her a vegetarian? Or is it OK to eat chickens as long as they are ugly? What about cultures harboring the belief that you take on the qualities of what you eat? Or the saying that you are what you eat? Also, I am not one for beating a dead horse, but there was a time when eating horse meat was quite normal and accepted in Western culture, despite the species’ nobility and reported intelligence … should we perhaps try to elevate octopuses to “pet status”—like horses, cats, and dogs? If we could train octopuses to, say, do our taxes, perhaps people would no longer crave them in their seafood salad. Come to think of it, that would put countless accountants out of work and make them useless—should we consider eating our accountants, then? Eating the highly intelligent dolphin is illegal in most countries, but should we consider the lobster, again? What about the intelligence of plants? Isn’t that prohibitive as well?

My friend Jeremiah Tower, widely considered the godfather of modern American cuisine, is an avid diver. In The Last Magnificent, a poetic documentary about his life and legacy, Tower is seen cooking octopus with a special Yucatán black mole made with charred Cascabel peppers that I have yearned to taste ever since I first saw the movie in 2016. A year later, over lunch, Jeremiah told me of an exquisite experience he once had underwater when he encountered an octopus that ever so gently explored his face with its silky tentacles. He admitted that he refrained from cooking octopus for a long time afterward. But he did not become a militant foe of anyone who considers grilled octopus a desirable delicacy.

Don’t get me wrong. Questioning what we eat, when, how, and how much of it, is extremely important, especially now. Instead of debating the intelligence of other species, let’s use our own intelligence to address the actual challenges of feeding a planet that is slipping into an ecological crisis. In my opinion, the real radical choice is not to give up human’s ancient and biologically determined omnivorism for the sake of haloed veganism or a new, intelligence-calibrated food pyramid that puts the octopus above us, but to be more discriminatory about how we go about it, since we clearly are on top of the food chain, virtually eating up the entire planet. Let’s support sustainable farming to cut back on chemical fertilizers and bioengineering, advocate for restricted fishing so as to not further disrupt the ocean’s vast ecosystem that is vital for our planet, and cut back on meat consumption (instead of clamoring for giving it up altogether) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and gradually return to more “humane” traditions of livestock breeding.