What is it with this time of year anyways? It’s so, I don’t know, distinctive, I guess. Not that other times of the year aren’t, but fall feels more ephemeral and therefore somehow stands out from the hot days of mid-summer, the frigid days of mid-winter, or the muddy days of spring. All of which last long enough to wear you out, at least slightly.
Fall manages never to outstay its welcome. It’s like a favorite uncle, or other cooky relative, who blows in and out, full of color and liveliness, and who never sticks around long enough to grate on you. But, perhaps you never really get to know them either.
Fall tends to be a bit of a yearning season for me. A busy, yet philosophical season. And beyond a doubt, the most nostalgic season (which is saying something since I am, as a general rule, nostalgic!). I think of the line in that goofy movie “You’ve Got Mail” when Meg Ryan’s character says that fall makes her want to buy a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils.
Except, for me, when the weather becomes as bracing and clear as it was this morning, I find what I want to do is go door to door and sell folios full of static cling window decorations shaped like skeletons and bats and pumpkins and turkeys.
Do kids even have to do fundraisers like that anymore for school? I can’t believe we ever actually sold any of those things. And year after year, too! Yet another testament to how wonderfully generous and forbearing all our dear neighbors were.
A year or two ago a friend of mine sent me an essay that suggests that fall forces us to think about mortality, which I suppose may also be why it prompts nostalgia for the past. (Am I being a total downer here? Sorry!) The author ties together fall, marriage, mortality, and root vegetables very elegantly. Unfortunately I can’t remember how she does it.
But, I can see the reasoning there. Fall reintroduces us to a cast of fruits and vegetables that are a little more rugged. Wizened seeming.
There’s no more proffering of juicy tomatoes from the vine, or berries profligately weighing down bushes, ready to be popped right into your mouth. Nope, we’re seeing the winter characters again, with thick skins, seedy interiors, sometimes with bitterness that needs to be tamed or dirt that needs to be scrubbed off. These are vegetables that need preparation, commitment.
Which is, indeed, like life and relationships. And when you slow down and take that time to cleave through the thick skin, carve out the seeds, mellow the bitterness, wash off the grime, there’s a softness, earthiness, sweetness and complexity that is unique to these vegetables. I think they’re my favorites.
Red cabbage is one of those whose character you can dramatically change through preparation. When raw, it can have an abrasive nose-numbing spiciness, like many members of the cruciferous vegetable family. But, with cooking, it takes on a very different flavor, funky, musky and sweet. You can cook it long and slow, like in my family’s rødkål, but it also takes well to a quick sautee.
For this dish, I decided to take the basic ideas of rødkål, the sweet and sour combination in particular, but make it instead as a slaw, briefly warmed in a frying pan just long enough to wilt it and make it go all weak in the knees. You start with some creamy white matchsticks of parsnip, which are sauteed until caramel blonde on the outside and tender inside. These are then joined by pieces of apple, which likewise soften and take on the flavor of cider or pie. Next, in go thin ribbons of red cabbage and chunks of pear (which cooks rather more quickly than apples).
Once the cabbage has been lightly cooked through, a generous splash of apple cider vinegar adds the sour component. You could leave it there, but being one never to miss the opportunity to round out a dish with a little dairy, I crumbled soft goat cheese all over mine.
I recommend you do too. It added extra richness and heartiness, which colder days demand. With a sprinkling of toasted pecans or walnuts, this could become a main dish. Or it’s a nice side dish for a roast, one of the sort that also takes some preparation. But it’s worth it.
Warm Sweet-Sour Red Cabbage Slaw with Chevre (Serves 6-8 as a side dish)
- 3 Tbs. olive oil
- 2 medium parsnips (or carrots), peeled and cut into matchstick-sized pieces
- 1 large apple, core removed, cut into 1-inch pieces
- ½ of a large red cabbage or a whole small red cabbage, sliced very thinly
- 1 large pear, core removed, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
- 2-3 oz. soft goat cheese, such as chevre
- In a large sautee pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it is shimmering. Add the parsnip pieces, stir, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover and add the apple pieces. Cook for 3-5 more minutes until the parsnips and apples are getting tender.
- Stir in the cabbage and pear, sprinkle with about ½ tsp. salt, and cook, stirring frequently, for about another 5 minutes, until the cabbage has wilted and softened slightly.
- Stir in the vinegar. Remove from the heat. Taste and add more vinegar and salt to taste. Transfer the vegetables to a serving bowl or platter. Crumble the cheese over the top, toss very gently, then serve.