Florida’s seasonal change from summer to fall is subtle, but home cooks can make the most of it by creating hearty harvest meals with seasonal ingredients.
I love fall in Florida. I especially like to see pumpkins and a wide variety of winter squash in local grocery stores. As the temperatures finally begin to cool down a bit, I enjoy imagining a fun harvest-inspired menu that takes advantage of the bounty of the season. I am all about in-season, locally grown, organic ingredients and farm-sourced meat. The best thing about using fresh ingredients to create a flavorful menu is that it can all be prepared with minimal fuss.
The earthy aromas of succulent butternut squash and nutritious pumpkin seeds roasting in the oven fills the whole house with the scents of fall, while a big pot of my savory Autumn Harvest Soup simmers on the stove. This delicious soup, rich with sausage and veggies—as well as my orecchiette with pancetta, butternut squash and broccoli rabe—can both be served as stand-alone meals. By pairing these hearty entrees with a healthy salad of arugula, pears and walnuts, and following it up with a family-favorite dessert like Apple Layer Cake, you can present a truly festive feast.
Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. Go ahead and set your table a couple of days in advance with items that make you feel festive, from layered place settings and earthy candlesticks or votives to a bounty of seasonal greenery, pumpkins and gourds right out of Mother Nature’s garden.
Do as much food prep as you can ahead of time. Getting your ingredients peeled, cut and ready to cook, a few at a time in the days leading up to preparing your meal, can cut your actual “day of” time in the kitchen in half.
Emphasis on Organic
Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive. At this time of the year it’s easy to find a wide variety of winter squashes, multicolored carrots and an abundance of nuts and seeds, often locally sourced. Many area farmers markets, such as the Ocala Downtown Market, held on Saturdays, have vendors who have great organic offerings.
Organic protein is also available locally and shouldn’t be overlooked. My family has a competitive fishing team and we sponsor our captain’s daughter’s pig for 4-H each year. We also get our beef through him. The benefit of organic protein is that it is free of artificial pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, GMOs, or other synthetic contaminants.
Tweaks and Tips
I often taste things while dining out and know that I can replicate the dish at home. That is how I created the recipes for this delicious Autumn Harvest Soup and the pasta dish.
Along the way I learned that an entree like the orecchiette and broccoli rabe can change seasonally. You can, for example, switch out the butternut squash for fresh garden peas or snap peas. Instead of pancetta, you could substitute roasted chicken.
I’ve learned to flash boil broccoli rabe in Himalayan pink salt and then immerse it in ice-cold water to take out the bitterness.
As you tweak, write it down. I used to just say, “Oh, you know, it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that,” when guests asked for my recipes. I quickly learned that they want the exact details, so I document it so I can pass the recipes on.
Make It Easy on Yourself
When my son was a kicker for Charleston Southern, I used to take my Apple Layer Cake to tailgating events, which I adapted from a recipe I found in Southern Living. It’s simple to throw together. You can make it the day before and it’s all set to go.
You can cut it small, cut it large, eat it with your fingers or with a fork. You’ve got the sweet yet tart flavor of the Granny Smith apples, softened up a little with cinnamon. Then, once you put the cream cheese icing on top, you’ve got a balance of tangy, sweet and a little hint of salt.
Let People Help
Be ready for your guests an hour before they arrive. To make them feel at home, have drinks ready at the bar that they can pour themselves.
When someone asks, “Can I help?” tell them “Sure, you can put the ice in the glasses. You can slice a lemon for me. Here, bring the bread into the dining room.” People want to help—
Refine the Wine
For this kind of meal, it’s important to think about the wines that pair well with the various dishes and courses. I usually start by serving a Santa Margarita Pinot Grigio with the salad. For the rest of the meal, I’ll serve a cabernet sauvignon. I like Austin Hope Cabernet Sauvignon, which they have at Katya Vineyards in downtown Ocala. It’s a $60 bottle of wine, but tastes like a $200 bottle.
More than a Meal
It takes the right group of guests to truly create a great meal. I learned to cook at an early age and now I cook for all our extended family events. My husband and I have five children and seven grandchildren. Even with an intimate group, we will have nearly 20 people.
Over time I have learned one essential truth—even with all the pre-prep and attention to culinary detail, whether everything turns out as planned or not, the actual secret to a great meal is making everyone gathered around your table feel taken care of and loved.
Autumn Harvest Soup
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings
- and crumbled
- 8 cups chicken stock
- 2 cups diced peeled sweet potatoes
- 2 zucchini, cut into 1-inch wedges
- 3 to 4 cups baby spinach
- One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
- One 15.5-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
- 4 ribs celery, diced
- 3 medium carrots, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 lemon, cut into wedges
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving
In a large stockpot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook until no longer pink and just turning brown, 5 to 8 minutes. › Add the celery, carrots and onions and sauté until translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the rosemary, tomato paste and garlic and cook for 1 minute. › Stir in the stock, tomatoes, beans and bay leaf and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 40 minutes. › Add the sweet potatoes and zucchini and simmer until cooked al dente, about 10 minutes more. › Place 1/2 cup of baby spinach at the bottom of each serving bowl and ladle on a portion of bubbling hot soup. The heat from the soup will wilt the spinach perfectly. › Serve with some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Apple Layer Cake
- 4 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into medium-thick slices
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
- 1/2 cup butter, melted
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
Stir together melted butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla in a large bowl until blended. › Combine flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon; add to butter mixture, stirring until blended. › Stir in apple slices and 1 cup walnuts. Spread into a greased 13- x 9-inch pan. › Bake at 350° for 45 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely in pan on a wire rack. › Spread with Cream Cheese Frosting; sprinkle with chopped walnuts, if desired.
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 3 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Beat cream cheese and butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. › Gradually add sugar and salt, beating until blended. Stir in vanilla.
For more recipes, go to www.ocalastyle.com