The thrill of Halloween is behind us. This year, we celebrated it with the lingering rays of daylight savings time, with "fall back" day occurring on Nov. 4. Without the fanfare of trick-or-treat or glow of jack-o-lanterns, the early dark seems sudden and, well, cold. We've grown accustomed to the long days, gaining an extra 30-plus as we did this year, thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Along with the time change, here in the Triangle our nights are finally dipping into the 30s and 40s—perfect weather for a stick-to-your-ribs fall menu. I recently had good reason to come up with one: My daughter, her band, plus a few fans came to town to play a contra dance and stayed (and ate!) with us. What do you feed a dozen or so starving-musician college students? Especially when you want to be dancing the contra, instead of slaving over the stove? Easy, do-ahead chili—a dish that requires time to simmer and meld flavors but not much attention beyond the assembly. (Crock pots are great for this.) Knowing the gang would be ravenous after the gig, I wanted food that I could put on the table as they came in the door around midnight—with no more than a sleepwalker's wakefulness. A friend who was at that late supper reproduced the menu for his post trick-or-treat neighborhood gathering, and we agreed it makes festive, standby party food.
Experts in Tex-Mex and Southwestern cuisine may have issues with the thousands of liberties taken with chili these days. Every region in this country has its version; the following recipes make no claims to authenticity and are meant to be modified to taste. They are simply hearty and warming stews, if you will—chockfull of veggies and good carbs and as spicy-hot or mild as you like. Even better, except for the spices and pintos, you can make these dishes with locally grown sweet potatoes, peppers, onions, chilies, peppers, tomatoes, corn, carrots and garlic.
Serve with cornbread or tortilla chips, and toppings of salsa, sour cream and shredded cheese. Pumpkin tarts and cold or hot mulled cider round out the festive food. Individual recipes below are designed to serve six with freezer-friendly leftovers.
American Chili Con Carne1 lb dried pintos, cooked according to package directions, OR two 16-oz cans
1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
2-4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
Chili powder or fresh chilies to taste
1 28-oz can tomato puree OR the equivalent of end-of-season tomatoes whirled in your food processor
1-2 cups tomato juice or beef stock for thinning pot liquor
1-2 lbs browned ground chuck or pot-roasted beef shoulder, shredded
In a large pot, in which you will simmer the assembled chili, sauté the onion, garlic and chilies or chili powder (1-2 tablespoons) in the oil over low heat until the mixture has melted together thickly, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato puree and heat through until bubbly. Add the browned chuck or shredded beef shoulder and the cooked or canned pintos. Heat thoroughly, stirring to combine. Simmer gently for two hours (or longer in a crock pot), adding beef stock or tomato juice as necessary to adjust thickness to taste. Check for seasonings, adding more spices, salt and pepper if desired.
For a super easy vegetarian version, omit the beef and stock, and in the final stage of the above recipe, add the following vegetables:2 cups fresh or frozen corn
1 lb fresh carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 large green or red bell peppers, seeded and chopped
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
This is also good served over brown rice for a complementary protein.
This is a great project to do with kids or a companion, and if we get our pumpkin—that great symbol of autumn and harvest—from a local farm or farmers' market, we have a farm-to-fork moment.
Tart Pastry1 stick butter
4 ozs cream cheese
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon unbleached white flour
1 tablespoon ice water
Combine the first three ingredients in a food processor or with a handheld pastry blender until mixture begins to hold together. If necessary, add ice water, a drip at a time, to make the pastry bind. No need to chill before pressing dough by hand into muffin tins, to line as for pie. Needless to say, the younger the better for this task. (My 15-year-old has been doing this since he was 3—and he is now known as the pie guy). Meanwhile, mix up your ...
Pumpkin Tart Filling
This is standard pumpkin pie mixture—found in some variation even on cans of pumpkin. I like this one because it has less sugar.2 cups cooked, pureed pumpkin, fresh or canned
(For fresh pumpkin, cut it in half and bake it in a 325-degree oven, shell side up, strings and seeds removed, a la Joy of Cooking, for an hour or so, depending on size. Scoop the pulp out of the shell and puree.)
1 1/2 cups evaporated milk (12-oz can)
1/4 cup each white and brown sugar
2 slightly beaten eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon each ginger and nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cloves
Whisk together all ingredients until blended. Using a quarter-cup measure to dip filling and pour into pastry lined muffin tin. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.