Jane Says: There’s More to Fall Eating Than Pumpkin Spice
October is a great time to start working an assortment of vegetarian mains into your weeknight culinary rotation. The month is nature’s star turn, after all, when the last of summer’s bounty vies for attention with wonderful pot greens and the first winter squash and root vegetables. I like to celebrate with Swing-Season Polenta, which does take a bit of time and effort but is well worth it; you’ll have enough left over for another meal later in the week.
This is also a good time of year to reassess your pantry, especially if you aim to build more meals around grains or roasted vegetables, which benefit from seasonings with complex, satisfying umami flavors. So stock up on quality balsamic vinegar, soy sauce or tamari, miso, Parmigiano-Reggiano, medium-dry or dry sherry, tomato paste, salt-packed capers, or an Asian chile paste like gochujang.
For homemade condiments, one of my fall and winter refrigerator staples is Tuscan Kale Pesto, from the book Red, White & Greens: The Italian Way With Vegetables, by Italian-food authority Faith Willinger. Although it’s nothing more than cooked Tuscan kale, salt, garlic, and good olive oil—no cheese, no nuts—whizzed up in the food processor, its deep flavor gives new interest to pasta night. You can also swirl it into a white bean stew, minestrone (see below), or Leek and Potato Soup for extra richness. The pesto is also excellent spread on a thick slice of toast and topped with a fried egg.
Treating your freezer like an extension of your pantry is another key to preparing nearly effortless vegetarian meals. Dedicate a Sunday afternoon to making minestrone—skip the pancetta, if you’re in meatless mode, but if so, be sure to use that richly flavored pesto—and freeze a few quarts. When reheating the thawed soup, just add water to thin it. If a bowl of soup, no matter how hearty, doesn’t seem like enough for supper, serve it with a platter of parmesan or garlic toast.
Plan on cooking a big batch of whole grains or dried beans on the weekend, when you have the time, then freeze them in small, useful amounts. If you’re unsure about how to cook grains, relax. Here’s the lowdown on soaking, as well as a shout-out to farro, my favorite gateway grain.
As for beans, I tend to steer clear of cannellini beans—they never seem to get tender. Instead, I prefer borlotti (cranberry) beans, great northerns, navy beans, or pintos. Soak a pound of them on a Saturday or Sunday morning, then cook them up that night while you’ve got supper working. Meatless soup beans are always in my freezer, for instance—just add cornbread, and you have a meal that may look very plain but nourishes body and soul. They also lend a meaty savor to enchiladas or Martha Rose Shulman’s Vegetarian Chili With Winter Vegetables. Adding a judicious dollop of gochujang (see above) won’t make the chili taste Asian but will simply give it some deep, resonant heat.
One neat trick I learned from Kempy Minifie, a former Gourmet colleague, is “bean bar night,” which, if you have cooked beans in the freezer or fridge, is more a matter of assembly than cooking. Simply put a big bowl of hot soupy beans (black beans work especially well) on the dinner table and surround it with stir-ins and add-ons such as rice, quick-roasted cubes of sweet potatoes or butternut squash, sliced avocado, jicama, toasted pepitas or pine nuts, cilantro, radishes, and/or lime wedges. Everyone can mix or match as much as desired, and the concept works equally well as a family supper or casual dinner party. If there are any beans left over, purée them with stock or broth to make soup. Stirring a little sherry or Spanish smoked paprika into black bean soup, by the way, will take it over the top.
Beans are a terrific plant source of protein, of course, but when working meatless meals into your diet, you don’t need to obsess over “complete proteins.” We Americans get plenty of protein, and I go a bit deeper into the subject in this 2013 column.
Roasted vegetables are all too often relegated to side dish status, yet once you start thinking of them as the main event, a whole new world opens up. Potatoes, red onions, parsnips, celery root, carrots, butternut squash, garlic, and fennel, for instance, can all be tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted together on a large rimmed baking sheet. Just remember to cut up the vegetables so they’re of a similar size; you want everything to finish cooking at the same time. Scatter the mixture with a few sturdy herb sprigs, such as rosemary, thyme, or winter savory, if inclined, then roast in a preheated hot (425° or so) oven, stirring every once in a while, until caramelized around the edges and tender within. Halfway through cooking, you may want to gild the lily by drizzling them with balsamic vinegar or tamari.
One of the nice things about a mixture of roasted vegetables is that guests at the table can help themselves to whichever ones they want—a boon if you’re cooking for a picky eater or two. Another plus is that the caramelization of the natural sugars in the vegetables turns them sweet. Many a child (or grown-up) who “hates vegetables” will polish off a plate of roasted vegetables without thinking about it.
They also lend themselves to all sorts of improvisations. Fold roasted vegetables into risotto or a hot grain such as barley, farro, or quinoa, or add to couscous, pasta, or polenta. Along with a little goat cheese, they’re delicious in an omelet or frittata. Roasted vegetables also keep beautifully in the fridge, so make extra, and save the leftovers for serving at the end of the week, with a roast chicken, for example.
You’ll have gathered by now that planning ahead makes a big difference when it comes to putting interesting, satisfying vegetarian meals on the table—especially this time of year, when we intuitively want to stockpile things for the winter, à la Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper. Well, we can’t be expected to exhibit ant-like behavior all the time, can we? Yet even though the freezer is bare and you can’t make it to the grocery store, let alone the farmers market, I’ll bet you have a few onions kicking around and probably a box of pasta. That is all you need to make one of my favorite go-to vegetarian meals of all time: Spaghetti With Mellow-Yellow Onions. It doesn’t get much easier.