A Dinner for the Autumn

As the leaves fall from the trees and the weather becomes truly chilly, we want to eat heartier dishes that will warm our bellies. The menu below—Champignons à la Grecque, Lamb and White Bean Soup, and Pumpkin-Praline Ice Cream—is one that actually needs to be prepared in advance, so it’s perfect one to plan for a busy day when you have no time to spend in the kitchen. The soup is a substantial one, almost a stew; accompany it with a vinaigrette-dressed green salad and some crusty bread. It’s also one of my rotating Christmas Eve standbys: here in Woodstock, NY, Santa always comes to the Village Green at five o’clock, and almost the entire population turns out to see how he’ll arrive this year (it’s always different, and always a well-kept secret—actually the only secret in this small town). By the time we sing carols and cheer Santa and hug and kiss everyone we know, it’s really too late to go home and start dinner, especially if we have friends coming. We’re all frozen from milling about in the icy air, and so this soup is a perfect antidote—warming to eaters, and a cinch for the cook. Champignons à la Grecque This recipe is a little different from the tradition French preparation for cold vegetables à la Grecque–that is, Greek style—in which they’re cooked in an herbed court bouillon of water, oil, and either lemon juice or vinegar, which is then reduced and poured over the vegetables. But this recipe was given me by a real grecque, Mama Nike; it’s a little less refined, a bit more rustic, somewhat simpler, and to my palate, even more pleasing. If you can find fresh mint, use it in preference to the oregano option—it’ll resonate nicely with the lamb that follows. In a saucepan, cover thickly sliced trimmed mushrooms with a mixture of 2 parts red wine vinegar to 1 part cold water, seasoned with a little salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer the mushrooms only until they’re just cooked (taste one, silly!). Drain, discarding the poaching liquid. Combine the mushrooms with extra-virgin olive oil and lots of minced garlic (how much? taste, silly!). Flavor with chopped fresh mint or oregano (or you can use dried oregano, but not dried mint), and salt and pepper to taste. Cover well, refrigerate, and marinate for up to 3 days, but at least overnight. Serve either on a lettuce leaf or sprinkled with some more of whatever fresh herb you used, and accompany with bread to mop up the juices. Lamb and White Bean Soup This soup is more than halfway to being a stew. As is true of virtually all stews except for fish ones, it benefits from being made a day ahead of time so that the flavors can blend and mellow. It also freezes very well (for up to 2 months or so). Just be sure to add the lemon juice and parsley right before serving, not in advance. You can substitute 2 pounds of lamb shoulder for the lamb shanks, but you’ll lose a little body to the soup because you won’t get the gelatin that the shank bones provide. 1 pound dried white beans, such as Great Northern or cannelliniWater2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or goose fat1 1/2 cups chopped onion1/2 cup finely diced peeled carrot4 cloves garlic, minced2 1/2 pounds lamb shanks1 pound canned plum tomatoes, drained and cut up roughlyBouquet garni: 1 bay leaf, 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, 2 cloves, and 30 peppercorns, all wrapped in cheesecloth and firmly tied with kitchen twineSalt to tasteCayenne pepper to taste1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, preferably Italian (flat-leaf) Pick the beans over, removing any pebbles or other debris; rinse. In a large saucepan, cover the beans with enough water to come 2 inches higher than the bean level. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil for 2 minutes, then remove from the heat and cover; let them soak for 1 hour. Drain them, discarding the soaking liquid. In a large soup pot over medium-high heat, heat the oil or goose fat and add the onion, carrot, garlic, and lamb shanks. Sauté until browned, about 5 minutes, making sure not to burn the garlic. Add the beans, 10 cups of water, tomatoes, bouquet garni, salt, and cayenne. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 2 hours. Watch the water level; add more, judiciously, if the beans seem to have soaked up a lot of liquid. Remove the lamb shanks from the soups and shred the meat into bite-sized pieces. Simmer uncovered until slightly thickened. Fish out the bouquet garni and discard. Just before serving, stir in the lemon juice and chopped parsley. Serves 6.  Pumpkin-Praline Ice Cream French praline is a wonderful thing. Almonds (or hazelnuts) and sugar that are caramelized together and then more or less pulverized, it can be sprinkled on top of ice cream, folded into whipped cream, added to cookie dough, folded into a soufflé batter, strewn over warm sautéed pears or apples and then run under the broiler just until melted, sprinkled over a warm compote of dried fruits, stirred into applesauce—use your imagination. Make it in advance and keep it sealed airtight in the freezer (it’ll keep for months), and you’ll have a terrific resource for quick, elegant desserts. In a large mixing bowl combine 1 cup canned puréed pumpkin with 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon rum or brandy, and ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to taste. Add 1 quart vanilla ice cream that you’ve allowed to soften in the refrigerator until malleable but not melted, and combine thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Take 6 serving dishes (footed glass dishes or goblets are ideal, but don’t use anything too thin, because fragile glass might crack in…
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