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Comfort Food

Falling in love with the indoor foods of autumn

By Gretchen Giles

THERE IS A SATISFYING SAVAGENESS about the fresh foods of summer. The ingredients are either sliced, peeled, grilled, frappéed, or actually torn into stuff for the plate and palate. One often sits around half-nude imbibing such nourishment out in the elemental heat of the waning twilight. And it is not unusual for summer foods to be eaten in small human gatherings around fire, like meals shared by the cave dwellers.

But come autumn we return to our more civilized natures. First off, it's getting a mite bit chilly for that half-nude thing, and the squirt of a unskinned grapefruit is less satisfying for an October breakfast than a steaming bowl of cinnamon-spiked, raisin-plumped oatmeal enlivened with the sweet grate of an entire Gravenstein apple.

Because the fact is, in the fall, most of us begin to feel terribly like a cat that's just been spayed--all soft and comfortable, instincts distinctly subdued--with an innate longing for food just as soft and comfortable as we are. Food that is slow-cooked, meats whose roasting overwhelms the scent of the house, the secret tastes of vegetables that are coaxed, dirt-clung, from the loam.

This is the time for casseroles, cassoulets, the fussy work of creamy risotto, stocks and soups and stews, and just most anything that resolves itself into terrific leftovers. The definition of the perfect fall dish is when one can truthfully lean across the table and utter the phrase "This always tastes better the second day."

Sunday afternoons in old novels are often dominated by the smell of roasting chicken, perfuming the angst and wonder of the protagonist's childhood, marking the return from church. For those of us whose remembered Sunday afternoon smells include the long-stale odors of parents' Saturday night parties, a new tradition can be readily founded by opening the oven door and recklessly throwing a panned bird into its maw.

Almost that simple, roasting a chicken is a lot easier than say, pie, which has long held the "easy as" distinction. A lie, this pie, as anyone who's ever struggled unsuccessfully with rolling pin, ice-cold water, and the grim stick of wet flour can attest.

(Actually paté's a helluva lot easier to make than pie, but it's doubtful that the phrase "as easy as paté" will ever catch on like wildfire in American society.)

But chicken's a cinch when washed and patted dry, the body filled with the quarters of a yellow onion, salt and pepper, half a lemon, and a pungent sprig of fresh rosemary. Splurging on the free-range wisdom of a Rocky chicken makes for the best possible yellow-skinned flavor (and just knowing that the bird spent it's life happily pecking around at worms in the dirt can help to assuage any guerilla vegetarian emotions that might ambush you at the table).

Being careful not to dwell on the plucked roaster's resemblance to the heft of a baby, separate the skin of the breast from the meat, and push fresh sage leaves and butter into the two pockets that will form. The butter helps self-roast the bird and the sage will flavor as well as adorn the breast, darkly patterning through the skin as it crisps and goldens. A handful of butter rubbed liberally all over the body helps, too. Just don't talk a lot about it at dinner.

Tie the bird's drumsticks together with kitchen twine, tucking the fatty cavity flap (which I will continually call the bishop's pope and will continually be wrong about) so that it secures the body closed. Place the chicken breast down on a rack in a roasting pan. The elevation of the rack helps prevent the stew-in-your-own-juices phrase taken from the world of poultry and used so liberally in adolescence. Cover loosely with a foiled tent and roast at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 and then let 20 minutes a pound be the guide (though don't actually believe that; the true tests are bloodless juices running from the thigh or breast, and the ability of the drumstick to easily be waved back and forth). Midway through, flip the bird so that the breast browns beautifully. Baste.

MAKING RISOTTO is like courting Elizabeth Taylor: lots of trouble but damn well worth it. Beginning with a base sauté of finely chopped onions, leeks, garlic, and shallots in sweet butter, pour one cup of the Arborio rice in with the onion family and stir to coat, roasting each individual grain until it begins to opalesce slightly. Meanwhile, busily heat 4 cups of either chicken or vegetable stock. Add this hot liquid (which must stay that way) 1/4 cup at a time to the risotto, stirring ably and allowing the stock to be completely absorbed each time. The Arborio package will also say this--believe it. Do this with the repeated ability of a mindless automaton until all the liquid is gone, absorbed, finito. Add a bunch of grated Parmesan and a goodly chop of fresh parsley. Stir, cover, serve.

Fresh crookneck and zucchini squash wrested straight from the failing plants in the garden can be sautéed with plenty of chopped garlic in butter and olive oil. Those purchased and encased in plastic from the local large-chain grocery store taste fine, too--give up that guilt.

Sprinkled at the last moment with fresh oregano, the squash sit well on the plate next to the chicken and rice. A final salad of butter lettuce studded with crunchy bits of chopped pear, crumbled gorgonzola cheese, and toasted walnuts is enlivened with a dressing begun from 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar in a small bowl. Added to that is a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a grind of pepper and shake of salt, a press of garlic, and a small chop of fresh basil. Stirring constantly with a fork, pour a thin, steady stream of extra-virgin olive oil into the dressing base until it takes on a thick, lustrous quality. Dress the salad to taste. Good bread, a light red wine, candles, kids with napkins in their laps, Miles Davis on the player.

One small happy moment--sometimes it seems immensely selfish to ask for more than that.

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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