Warm fall dishes bring son to the kitchen, table

Friends warned me. People who, before me, had sons. They told me that my son would suddenly and abruptly not want to spend time with me. He would, they said, leave my camp. They said he would first leave me and then leave my husband. At the time it was hard to believe. He was so joyful, so fun, so very excited about the world and all of its gifts.

And then, of course, he did. He found his own interests, his own people, his independence. That was many years ago and I did my best to let him go. It’s good, it’s fine, it’s the way parenting is supposed to be. They grow and push you away and hopefully, if everything is right, they come back.

I’m working on Elliot coming back. He’s 16 now and a pretty laid-back guy. He does what we ask of him. Mow the lawn? Empty the dishwasher? Walk the dog? Yep, yup and did it already. Sometimes, we have to ask twice but it’s not a fight. My husband and I do ask him to hang out with us and to this he almost always says no. He’s got homework. The guys are waiting for him. He’s tired. You know, anything is better than spending time with his parents.

Recently, we’ve been asking him to go for short hikes with us or watch a movie. Heck, I even asked him to sit beside me and learn to knit. That I said knowing there was no way my 16-year-old son would knit. But in asking and showing Elliot my project, I had a few more moments with him.

I’ve also been calling him downstairs when I’m cooking dinner. I’ll place an onion and the chef’s knife on the counter and when he arrives, I point and say, “Chop.” He does it easily, without complaint. I fall in beside him and knowing that teenagers are a bit like scared animals (approach too fast and they run away), I move in slowly. I ask about school, friends, guitar. I keep it to things he likes. I don’t grill him for information; sometimes we just chop quietly.

It’s crazy but I do forget that food is the best thing to bring us together. It’s our common denominator. Elliot doesn’t want to spend an afternoon hiking with Paul and I or even watch a movie. He definitely doesn’t want to knit. But he will chop or stir or whisk, even for a few minutes. If you’ve ever waited for a child who has left your camp, you’ll understand how sweet it is to just stand with him.

What follows are a few things that have come out of my kitchen in recent weeks. Things Elliot has helped me make, and also things his only part in was the eating. I know he would rather have sausage and chicken, pasta and plain salad to vegetables. But while I’m willing to do a lot to bring him back over to my camp, we still have to eat vegetables.

For me, fall cooking involves lots of vegetables, a few herbs and plenty of sugar and spice. All of these recipes contain ingredients that need chopping (wink, wink). And all are full of flavor and color; it’s what feels good right now.

First up is a beautiful autumn soup, made from butternut squash. Butternut squash is like fall itself, rich and sweet and deeply golden. Pureed or roasted, it pairs well with so many things: bacon and spice and curry powder. Here, I’ve matched it up with tahini, the paste made from sesame seeds. Tahini is nutty and can be slightly bitter. Added in small amounts, it adds depth and goes well with the bite of ginger and a squeeze of lemon. I like fresh herbs for their taste and the contrast in color, so I added a sprinkling of cilantro and a few chopped green onions. You can find tahini near the peanut butter in the supermarket. It keeps forever in the refrigerator, and can be used in hummus, salad dressings and stirred into soups like this one.

The roasted vegetable dish is one I make now and again and some people eat it accompanied by meat (husband and son) and others as a main course (me). I love roasted vegetables, and it’s what is on the table a few times each week in our house during cooler months. It’s nice to mix it up, so I toss the veggies with spice or herbs and sometimes turmeric. Here, the vegetables of choice are roasted with just olive oil, then layered with cheese and tomatoes and herbs. Roast unpeeled garlic cloves alongside the vegetables, then stir the mashed garlic paste into the tomatoes for sweet, mellow garlic flavor. You could also add chopped raw garlic into the sauce for a spicy garlic bite. This is the kind of gooey, saucy food I crave as soon as the weather changes from warm to crisp and cool. A Sunday afternoon hiking in the woods (without Elliot, of course) calls for something warm and cheesy and this hits the spot. It also works well with carrots, or kale (which you would add at the of roasting and leave in for about five minutes.) It also works with just cauliflower and onion. Anyway, you get the idea: vegetables plus tomato sauce plus cheese, equals something that tastes good, no matter the combination.

Lastly, cookies. I’m proud to announce that cookie season is back! We are cookie lovers, cookie eaters, cookie sharers. I like to take a seasonal ingredient (looking at you, apples) and turn it into cookies. This recipe calls for plenty of apple-y goodness, in a few different forms. Two apples are in the dough, one chopped and one grated. The chopped apple adds nice toothy bites of apple and the grated lends a tenderness to the texture of the cookie. Pecans are soft and rich in flavor, but you could use toasted walnuts or almonds with good results. The sweet drizzle is made from a reduction of apple cider, butter and confectioner’s sugar and tastes intensely apple-ish. A good pinch of salt is needed to balance out all the sweet. Finely minced pecans sprinkled on top make these cookies even prettier.

Update! Paul and I spent a pleasant evening with Elliot and his friends, watching a band play at the drive-in movie theater. I like to tell myself that they would have gone with us, even if they had their driver’s licenses and could go on their own. Either way, Paul and I basked in the company of three smart, fun, young people. Maybe it was a shift, a tiny movement toward a time when he’ll want to spend more time with his parents. Maybe, too, the time he spends with me in the kitchen is a sign that he’s coming back. Or it could be that for now, he’s just hungry. He’ll be back though, one day when I least expect it. I’ll look up and he’ll be there, right back in our camp.

Caroline Barrett is a freelance writer who lives in Delmar. You can reach her and follow her work at carolinebarrett.com.

Roasted Vegetable Parmesan with Fresh Herbs
Serves 5

1 medium head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into florets (see note)

2 cups Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved (see note)

1 small head broccoli, trimmed and cut into florets (see note)

1 yellow onion, trimmed and sliced into strips

4 garlic cloves, unpeeled

Olive oil, for roasting

Kosher salt

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 handful fresh herbs (basil, parsley, rosemary, etc.), plus more chopped for garnish

½ teaspoon black pepper

Pinch crushed red pepper

Kosher salt, to taste

2 cups shredded cheese (any combination of mozzarella, Parmigiano, asiago, provolone)

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cover two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, onion and garlic into a large bowl and drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil, just enough to coat all. Toss well. Spread out on the prepared baking sheets, sprinkle with kosher salt and roast for 15 minutes, stirring halfway through, until golden brown.
  • Meanwhile, combine the crushed tomatoes with the extra virgin olive oil, herbs, peppers and salt in a small saucepan. Place over low heat, stir well and keep warm. Taste and add more salt if you like.
  • Remove the vegetables from the oven and pick out the garlic cloves. Squeeze the roasted garlic out of the skin and mash with a fork. Stir into the tomato sauce.
  • In a 9-inch cast iron skillet, layer in half of the vegetables, half of the tomato sauce and half of the cheese. Repeat with the remaining vegetables, tomatoes and cheese, then sprinkle the herbs over all. Place on the stove over low heat, until the sauce is bubbly. Slide the pan under the broiler and leave for 1-2 minutes, until melted and golden brown. Serve hot. 

Note: Or substitute vegetables of your choice (carrots, squash, fennel, etc), enough to equal about 6 cups chopped vegetables.

Butternut Squash Soup with Tahini and Lemon
Serves 5

Olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped

1 1-inch knob of ginger, grated

Pinch red pepper flakes

1 heaping teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 heaping tablespoons tahini

1 14-ounce can coconut milk

4 cups water

Juice of 1 lemon

1 handful cilantro, chopped, for garnish

3 green onions, trimmed and sliced, for garnish

Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish

  • In a large pot set over medium heat, pour in a swirl of olive oil. Add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the ginger and cook for one minute, then add the cumin, red pepper and salt. Stir well and cook until very fragrant, about one minute. Add more oil if it’s dry.
  • Add the squash, tahini, coconut milk and water, stirring well. Bring to a gentle simmer, partially cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until the squash is tender. Remove from the heat and cool. Use an immersion blender to puree, or puree in a blender, to a smooth consistency. Stir in the lemon juice, taste and add salt if you like. Serve warm with the garnishes. 

Apple Oatmeal Cookies With Pecans and Apple Cider Glaze
Makes 2 dozen

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

½ cup brown sugar, packed

½ cup white sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 egg

1 medium apple, peeled and grated

1 medium apple, peeled and chopped

1 ½ cups rolled oats

1 ½ cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

¼ teaspoon each ginger and nutmeg

¾ cup chopped toasted pecans

Apple cider glaze (recipe follows)

2 tablespoons finely chopped toasted pecans, for decorating

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and cover two pans with parchment paper.
  • Use a mixer to beat the butter and sugars. Add the vanilla, egg and apples.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk together the oats, flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in the mixing bowl, along with the pecans and stir by hand until just combined.
  • Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  • Use an ice cream scoop to place the cookie dough on the baking trays, keeping a few inches between. Bake for 12 minutes, or until just golden on the bottom. Remove from the trays and cool.
  • To glaze the cooled cookies, scoop all of the glaze into a zip-top bag and snip off a tiny bit from the corner. Use a sweeping motion to spread the glaze across each cookie, being generous. Sprinkle the finely chopped pecans on top of the glaze. Keep covered for 3-4 days, but best the day they’re baked. 

For the glaze:

1 cup apple cider

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

¾ cup confectioner’s sugar

½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)

  • Bring the cider to a gentle simmer in a small saucepan. Simmer until syrupy and reduced. Remove from the heat and add the butter, sugar and salt. Whisk until very smooth. Taste and add more salt if desired, a small amount at a time. Allow to cool. 

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