PHOTOS BY KATIE NOBLE / STYLED BY CATRINE KELTY
In Boston, fall arrives early and with a thud. It’s not just the crisp air that descends on cue when the sun goes down September 1, or the ever-lengthening shadows that appear before then. In my neighborhood, there’s a literal thud—the first moving van of the season crashing into the Memorial Drive overpass as 250,000 students return to the city.
In your neighborhood, fall’s arrival might be heralded with the instant overnight reappearance of a zillion commuters on the Mass Pike, your shockingly early alarm on the first day of school or the sudden realization that you need a pickup and drop-off schedule that juggles impossible sports practices, music lessons and club meetings. Thud.
While summer is all frosé and ice cream and days that go on forever, fall is when life—and dinner—suddenly gets serious again.
The beginning of fall does bring certain harsh realities. But it also offers an embarrassing richness of ingredients to cook with: end of-the season sweet corn, tomatoes and peppers; first-of-the season apples and sweet potatoes; wild mushrooms, broccoli and amazing fractal-like Romanesco; cauliflower of every color; Brussels sprouts; squashes from acorn to zucchini; beets, beans, cranberries and pumpkins. And weather that tempts you back into the kitchen.
This is, without question, the best starting lineup to be found at the farmers market any time of the year. Unlike the moody delicacies of the mid-summer garden, hearty fall harvests don’t demand that you use them fast before they wilt or spoil. They’re happy to chill in the fridge or hang out on a cool countertop until the time is right to be baked or braised or roasted. They don’t ask for much.
What they do ask for is a plan.
Light summer dinners virtually resolve themselves and barely require the stove. Fall stews, roasts and casseroles require some thought. I like to think about two kinds of fall meals: weekend cooking when things move slower and dishes can be a bit more complex, and weeknight cooking when dinner simply needs to be done. Weekends are a great time to make soup, stew or pasta sauce from all that farmers market produce and then make it reappear for a weeknight dinner. But after a full day of work, making soup from scratch is rarely on my Monday agenda. Every night, people expect to eat, so something needs to become dinner. And with all the great ingredients available, what appears on the table should also be delicious.
I’ll admit that when my daughters were young and my wife and I both worked outside the home, our weeknight plan included a fair share of mac and cheese from a box and frozen chicken nuggets from, well, wherever chicken nuggets come from. When the choice was fast mac and cheese or a from-scratch dinner and homework that stretched into the wee hours, we sometimes went with the mac and cheese. Without apology. Eating together at the table every night was also part of our weeknight routine, along with soccer and gymnastics practice, riding lessons and theater crew. So, figuring a plan for how to get actual dinner on the table became a necessity.Along the way, we developed a set of quick dinners that mostly required one pan and never required a whole lot of fuss. These dishes had us in the kitchen for a half hour or so of active prep, and then took another half hour or so of cooking time. The active time—chopping and sautéing—was a necessity and was ideal for meaningful conversation, homework advice or a review the day’s events. I’m reminded of an actual dinner prep conversation. Dad: “What did you do in school today?” Elementary-aged-daughter: “How should I know?” I gave it a try again the following night. Eventually I got an answer. It was time well spent.
Many fall dinners made during those soccer-homework-repeat years, and the years after, inspire the recipes that appear here. These recipes make use of some of those great early-fall ingredients: tomatoes, kale, eggplant, sweet peppers, chard, Brussels sprouts. They add in quick-to-cook proteins: eggs, chorizo, pork tenderloin, chicken thighs, hake. With a few exceptions, the recipes use only one pan. (I promise it’s worthwhile to break out a saucepan to make some apple cider glaze for your pork tenderloin.) For me the pan that’s most frequently pressed into service is a well-loved 12-inch cast-iron skillet. Most of the dishes here work in a pan that size, although would do equally well in a larger Dutch oven or an ovenproof skillet with a lid.
The recipes also follow the general plan of an hour or less of total time. Some active prep time, but not too much. Some fussing at the stove, but not too much. And always enough time in the plan to ask: What did you do in school today?
Michael Floreak is a food writer who lives and often eats in Cambridge. His interviews with authors, chefs, writers, food policy experts and other characters from the food world have appeared regularly in the Boston Globe and To Market magazine. Michael holds a Master of Arts in Professional Writing from Carnegie Mellon University and recently completed a Master’s of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy from Boston University. In addition to writing about food, Michael works as a brand strategist and writer. You reach him by email at Michael.Floreak@gmail.com or follow on Twitter: @floreak.