Nov 21 2016
Originally published at Paddling.net on November 15, 2016
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds —
From “No!” by Thomas Hood
November is an indecisive month, teetering on the cusp between autumn and winter. At least that’s how it is in Canoe Country, and while the New Model Climate is now pushing the thermostat up in every month of the year, November is still full of surprises. On one day, we wake to summer-like temperatures and balmy breezes. On the next, drifts of new snow blanket the ground.
And then there’s the sky. Gray is the dominant color note, a theme echoed by the gray hills — only the evergreens provide some welcome visual respite here — and reflected in the ominously gray water. All in all, November doesn’t invite us to linger out of doors. Day trips are fun, but it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for anything longer: A little bit of gray goes a long way. I’d rather camp in the drifts on a mountain col on a sunny (if arctic) February weekend than pitch a tent by the shore of a gunmetal gray pond on a monochrome November day.
Yet the relentlessly gray days of November have their compensations. Thanksgiving comes in November, for one thing. (That’s for paddlers living in the bits of Canoe Country lying south of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty line, of course. Our neighbors to the north celebrated the holiday last month.) And Thanksgiving is a good time to sample …
The Fruits of the Year
As I’ve already said, I don’t often do overnight trips in November. But day outings are something else altogether, and on the rare days when the clouds part to reveal a wan sun (and ice conditions permit), I warm to the idea of a moveable feast on some nearby waterway. Such November picnics can be a real treat. I don’t do much cooking on the shore, however. I’ll use my Trangia burner to make tea or heat soup, perhaps, but that’s about it. The daylight hours in the shank of the year are too precious to spend time over a hot stove. So I complete my meal prep at home, then stow the resulting ready-to-eat treats in a pack. (Hint: Soft “coolers” help keep food warm as well as cold — but be sure the food isn’t hot enough to melt the fabric! — and vacuum flasks make it possible to leave your stove in the pack, if you want.)
Does this sound good? It is, and notwithstanding Thomas Hood’s lament about “no fruits,” farm and field have quite a lot to offer at this time of year. In fact, the cornucopia of seasonal delicacies makes late-fall picnics especially memorable. Want to know what’s on my menu? Well, let’s begin with a holiday staple that will grace quite a few tables in the months ahead:
Cranberries. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’m crazy about cranberries. They have a delightfully tart flavor that complements many dishes. Dried cranberries — “craisins” in marketing-speak — are usually sweetened. They can be eaten like raisins, and while they’re all right as snacks, fresh, unsweetened cranberries are more versatile. These can be added to cooked dishes or simply ground up with oranges (peel and all) and sweetened with honey or maple syrup to make an intriguingly sweet-tart relish. And my own Hundred-Mile Plus Oatmeal Bars also incorporate dried or fresh cranberries.
But that’s just the start. Fresh or frozen cranberries — there’s no need to thaw the frozen berries first — make a delightful accompaniment to braised or roasted beef, chicken, or pork. Simply cook them with the meat. Not that you’re likely to be preparing a roast at the water’s edge, I imagine, but you can always stir a small handful of cranberries into a tin of lunchtime beef stew as it’s simmering and dish it up as soon the berries are soft. (A dash or two of balsamic vinegar further enhances the stew.) Fresh cranberries can also be added to instant oatmeal, sweet or savory steel-cut oatmeal, or oatmeal groats. (Add cranberries before steaming.) Cranberries make a tasty addition to grain pilafs, too. And bakers long ago discovered that cranberries are a flavorful embellishment to quick breads, yeast breads, and apple crisp, not to mention that seasonal staple, apple pie.
Ah, yes. Apples. If any food says fall, it’s …
The Apple. The heady perfume of “wild” apples* is one of the season’s signature scents, and the fragrance of cooking apples perfumes countless kitchens at this time of year. Here’s why: Apples are versatile. Stew or sauté chopped apples with nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom. Add shaved or chopped apples to both quick and yeast breads, pancakes, and waffles. Stir apples into cooking pilaf and risotto. Bake apples with maple syrup and nuts. And lest you forget (fat chance!), there is apple cider and apple butter — and apple pie.
Of course, you can also eat apples right off the tree, and if your river happens to wind though an old, abandoned orchard, be prepared for a happy surprise. Wild apples taste nothing like their store-bought counterparts. It’s like the difference between Monet’s Magpie and a Hallmark Christmas scene. Or between Corelli’s Concerto grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8 (the “Christmas Concerto”) and Irving Berlin’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Each member of these pairings of unequals is exemplary in its own right, but only one is sublime. Guess which one.
OK. We’ve explored the possibilities of cranberries and apples. What’s next? Well, how about …
Squash? I’m talking winter squash, the hard-skinned kind that will last till spring if properly stored. I like them all, but my favorites are acorn, buttercup, and pumpkin squashes. (Yes, pumpkin is a squash. Surprised?) All are delicious no matter how they’re prepared: roasted, steamed, sautéed, pureed — on their own or incorporated into other dishes. Winter squash soup is silky and flavorful. (You haven’t eaten all the cranberries and apples, have you? Then mix some into the soup.) Or you can roast your squash. Cubed, sliced, or halved, it makes no difference. And don’t forget squash pie. Pumpkin pie is a holiday staple, to be sure, but other squashes can also be pressed into service, yielding a whole litany of sweet and savory pies. And this is just a start. Whole books have been written on how to prepare winter squash. But I like to keep things simple. I halve and roast my squash, cut side up, with a pat of butter and a drizzle of maple syrup in the seed cavity — I save the seeds and roast them separately — season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with walnut pieces.
Now, with that mention of walnuts, another seasonal treat takes center stage:
Nuts. Actually, since nuts keep very well when properly stored, any time of year is a good time for nuts, but tree nuts like pecans, walnuts, and almonds are at their freshest in fall. I eat them out of hand every day, but I also add nuts to oatmeal and other hot cereals, rice and grain pilafs, and pasta, along with quick and yeast breads, pies, cakes, energy bars and cookies. I like nut “butters,” as well. To be sure, peanut butter — peanuts are legumes (“ground nuts”), not tree nuts — is a commonplace, but almond butter is even better. Grind almonds into a paste, then spread on hot toast, grainy breads, and pancakes. Delicious!
Have we exhausted nuts’ repertoire? Not yet. As we’ve already seen with roasted squash, broken or crumbled nuts make a tasty garnish, especially on …
Soups. There’s a thermos of hot soup in my pack on every shank-of-the-season paddle. My favorites include squash soup (already mentioned), tomato-bean-and-kale soup with leeks, my Irish grandmother’s potato and cabbage soup, and pot-au-feu, the last being as much a boiled dinner as it is a soup.
And there you have it, my inventory of fall treats, from soup to nuts, not to mention berries, apples and squash.
But… Perhaps you’re wondering if I’ve left something out. After all, for most people in the States, Thanksgiving dinner is the gustatory high point of the month, and for many, that means only one thing:
It’s Time to Talk Turkey
Not for us, though. I find myself paddling against the current here, I know, but I prefer my holiday turkey alive and strutting. Wild turkeys stop outside my office window to pass the time of day every now and then, and I’ve developed a strong aversion to dining on my neighbors. I admit that I don’t feel quite the same bond of affinity with the plastic-wrapped corpses in the HyperMart freezer, however. But then the frozen turkey I’ve eaten has tasted mostly of the plastic wrapper, and even if this weren’t the case, I’m loath to reward the factory farms in which these unfortunate creatures live out their short and miserable lives. Such industrial enterprises are a far cry from the turkey farms I can remember from my youth, where clear-eyed and muscular birds roamed free during the day, conversing volubly with their neighbors all the while, before returning to individual apartments (no joke) at night to enjoy a well-earned rest.
A field trip to just such a farm was the highlight of the second-grade curriculum in my school, and the tour included a full and frank discussion of every aspect of commercial turkey farming, from rearing the poults to killing and processing the mature birds. We all left the farm with a better understanding of where our holiday meals came from — and with an appreciation of the farmer’s humane approach to animal husbandry. Such considerations have no place in today’s upscaled, bottom-line-driven farm operations, of course. Which is why my holiday table is conspicuous by the absence of turkey in any form. What do we have instead? Lasagna, that’s what. But that’s another story.
Is there still open water in your corner of Canoe Country? Then why not plan a moveable feast — a shank-of-the-season picnic? And with that in mind, I’ve made a few suggestions for seasonal treats. Whether eaten on a riverside rock or reserved for dinner at home after returning from a day on the water, this autumnal bounty is sure to please. But maybe I’ve left out your own favorite. If so, why not drop me a line? The cornucopia can never be too full, after all.
- “Three Quick Breads Anyone Can Bake”
- “Queen of Tarts — An Unlikely Snack”
- “Credit Crunch Bars — Better Than Store-Bought”
- “Secrets From the Test Kitchen: Apple of My Eye”
- “Go Nuts!”
- “Bean Soup for Everyone!”
- “Five Easy Pièces — Homemade Soups for Camp Cooks”
- “Soup’s On!”
- “Voices from the Wild: Talking Turkey”
- “Cold Comfort: Why Chilling Out Can Do You In”
- “Weather Matters: A ‘Be Prepared’ Omnibus”
Questions? Comments? Just click here!