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Chef John Foster: Life moves on with change of seasons and so come chilis, stews and roasts

And just like that the gateway to the summer slams shut. No, it goes out not with a whimper but in a deluge of rain and dark clouds, spiraling from 60-degree weather and falling leaves to 85 and mosquitoes. Keeneland waits at the end of the week, and beyond that, there is already talk of Black Friday and the new year ahead.

It all seems to change without our even noticing. Just a few weeks ago I was talking about the bountiful crops of the summer, but those are looking worn and tired, and with the rain, waterlogged. While it might have been nice to ease into the fall with some nice crisp sunny days, that may not happen at all. So, it’s onto the gleaning, the last of the canning or freezing, and then the shifting of gears back into chilis, stews, and roasts.

It’s not an easy transition for some. The grills that were used all summer (or not, in the case of neighborhoods inundated with mosquitoes) are still out, standing in the rain with a covering of wet leaves, picnic tables are silent for the moment, gathering moss (literally) as they wait for the fall round of picnickers to settle in. People are grumbly, sometimes downright angry, and some bemoan the shortness of their favorite season. Get over it kids, life and nature move on and so must we. Let’s examine, from the food point of view how special this little slice of heaven can be.

Apples, of all kinds, are probably the best reason in my mind to welcome fall. Versatile from the start of the meal to the end, apples provide a clean break from the diffuse flavors of late summer and snap us back to attention. A roasted apple and sweet potato soup to start, applesauce with a pork roast for the main dish and of course apple crumb pie with vanilla bean ice cream for dessert. Standard fare that never gets old, it is also an ingredient that can go global. Apple chutneys, a curry with apples and raisins, apple kuchen, are all dishes that showcase the range of this fall fruit. When all else fails, the snap and juice of a Jonathon or a Spy is the very tonic needed to chase the last of the summer heat away.

If the apple of the air is not your favorite how about the apple of the earth, the pomme de terre or potato? Aside from the usual potato soup or baked potatoes, why not spice things up with patatas bravas with saffron garlic aioli? This dish incorporates all things good about potatoes; frying, spice, and mayo. On a cold fall day when the football games seem to stay on all day, this is a great snack food that can be adapted to suit the crowd or your diet. Roast instead of fry, dress the potatoes in saffron, garlic, and olive oil once they get out of the oven. Another adaptation of the potato that is starting to get some traction is gnocchi.

We do a variety of dishes at The Sage Rabbit that have gnocchi as a side dish. On the fall menu, it will move into a slot all its own with a different sauce every night, that is the power of the potato.

And let’s not forget that as the weather cools and the rains continue, it helps with the re-emergence of greens of all kinds. Swiss chard, kale, spinach and more. You might even see some nice salad greens for a brief amount of time. Perhaps not as tender as the spring variety, fall greens, especially after an early frost, can intensify in flavor as the sugars concentrate.

Apple Raisin chutney

I sometimes feel a little spoiled as I get to dabble in some of these items earlier than most. And as in the case of the apple and potato you need to be a bit careful as to which season’s apples and potatoes they’re selling you. I also welcome the challenge of diminishing product, and how best to manipulate specials and menu items from ingredients aren’t often familiar or favored. Given time, some of the more familiar items will return until the real cold weather hits. And we can hopefully count on having squashes and root vegetables well into the winter. It’s just this brief period when you first miss the summer tomato and the grilled zucchini, the fresh herbs and the peaches and corn. That’s when you have to double down and accept a new season, filled with potential when you finally let go of the summer.

There is method to combining all three of these ingredients into a satisfying and versatile dish. Part braise, part stew this dish is created by blending the tartness of the apple with the earthiness of the cabbage and potato. A little cider, a little apple cider vinegar, some onion and if desired, some bacon fat and you have a hefty side dish or manageable main course with some rice or noodles.

Take a medium head of cabbage or 2-3 pounds of kale and cut into wide ribbons. Slice a medium onion thinly with the grain and slowly sweat in whole butter or bacon fat. Add in the cabbage and cook slowly for up to a half hour. When the cabbage is soft, add in several large apple’s worth of thick slices of a crisp, tart apple, small whole blanched new potatoes, a little cider and a touch of cider vinegar. I like to put some caraway seed and bay leaf in, salt and black pepper, and I keep the cider handy in case the braise gets dry. The whole process should take about an hour, and it’s better the second day.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here. 

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