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love letter to autumn

The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina beckon to Floridians when long, hot days here seem endless, air conditioners keep cranking and food preparation grows wearisome. The crisp, cool mountain air, the smell of vegetation nipped by frost and red and yellow leaves drifting down send us in search of mountain fall harvested fruits and vegetables.

As October rolls in, Florida grocers have started mounding up the new crop of apples, heaping hard squash in baskets and piling pumpkins all around.

I've lived in Florida 35 years, but it's still possible to find me in the grocery produce section, gently caressing big yellow pumpkins with a lump in my throat. This 63-year-old — cradling butternut squash in her arms — is transported back to her grandma's North Carolina farm in the fall, staring into the big log barn stalls at piles of hard squash waiting to be chopped with a hatchet into chunks for cattle feed or carried back to the kitchen for a satisfying meal.

The memories take me back to foods I loved as a child and, as an adult, continue to enjoy often with a new tweak for added nutrition or to keep pace with current trends.

Baked butternut squash with a drizzle of honey is still a favorite. A great side dish, it's sweet enough to double as dessert. Hard squash mashed or pureed can be interchanged with pumpkin in any recipe, the texture being the same. With apples, onions, cider and a hint of curry, butternut squash makes a splendid soup, an idea foreign to me 50 years ago.

Both squash and pumpkin can be challenging to prepare with their hard outer shell, but they're easy to bake. First cut them in half and remove the seeds. Then, put them skin side down in a pan with a half inch or so of water, and bake covered at 350 for 45 min. The less water used with squash or pumpkins, the better to preserve taste. Squash or pumpkins can be cooked whole, but they need a few holes poked in before baking to allow steam to escape.

Few tastes are as satisfying as a freshly picked North Carolina apple, the skin so tight it snaps with first bite and the juice so succulent it's easy to rush chewing to get the next bite. Whether raw, baked in a pie, part of a salad or pureed in a creamy soup, apples bring a wealth of nutrition, a burst of flavor and, for me, a nostalgic trip back to the farm where my grandma grafted apple trees. Her efforts yielding fruits with unusual colors and tastes like a wonderful black-freckled yellow sweet apple that I carried in my pockets, satisfying the hunger of a preschooler romping outdoors.

Also claiming high nutritional value are sweet potatoes, harvested from small ridges of mountain soil. They're good baked, combined in a casserole or worked into a Southern favorite, Sweet Potato Pie. A recent recipe combines crisp bacon in twice-baked sweet potatoes, giving them a contemporary edge.

When the chill of autumn air settles on the Blue Ridge, the harvest of fall crops is in full swing and includes black walnuts, wild grown with a distinctive taste. Hard as rocks, they must be cracked with a hammer on a very hard surface, like the rock step outside my grandma's kitchen. As a child, I nursed many mashed fingers, minus complaints, knowing my grandma would bake a black walnut pound cake and that a warm slice washed down with cold milk would balance any discomfort.

Give me a chance to be "back home" in North Carolina in the fall and I'll hunt a favorite shop for a small chunk of black walnut fudge!

I can't bring back that mountain air or that wonderful autumn outdoor smell, but when my car heads back to Florida, somewhere tucked away there'll be plenty of those mountain harvest fruits and vegetables and some black walnuts.

Once home, favorite recipes will come out of my files and I'll have a little bit of a North Carolina mountain fall in my Florida kitchen.

Gail Diederich can be reached at


North Carolina Apple Cake

¾ cup vegetable oil

¾ cup unsweetened applesauce

2 cups sugar

4 eggs, beaten

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

3 cups peeled and diced apples

1 cup chopped walnuts

For the glaze:

1 ½ sticks butter

1 cup brown sugar

¼ cup milk

½ teaspoon vanilla

Mix oil, applesauce, sugar and eggs. Sift flour, baking soda and salt together and add to egg mixture. Mix thoroughly.

Add vanilla, apples and walnuts.

Pour into a greased and floured tube or Bundt pan. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 1 hour. Cool briefly, remove cake from pan and top with glaze.

To make the glaze: Mix ingredients well in saucepan. Slow boil for about 10 minutes. Cool and spoon over cake.

Source: Mountain Cooking by John Parris, published by Citizen-Times Publishing Co., Asheville, N.C., 1978


Green Bean, Walnut and Blue Cheese Salad

Have all ingredients prepared ahead of time but don't toss the beans and vinaigrette until just before serving, otherwise beans may discolor. They should be a bright green, contrasting with the cheese and walnuts.

1 ½ pounds fresh, tender green beans, stem ends snapped

1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup black walnuts (may use English walnuts)

8 ounces Danish blue cheese or Gorgonzola

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves

Bring pot of salted water to boil. Add green beans and cook just until tender, about 4 minutes. Drain, run under cold water or immerse in bowl of cold water, drain again and pat dry with paper towels.

In a large bowl, prepare vinaigrette. Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the olive oil and continue whisking until slightly thickened.

Before serving, add green beans and walnuts and toss with vinaigrette. Adjust the seasonings if desired. Transfer to salad plates and sprinkle with blue cheese and parsley.

Source: Gail Diederich


Pumpkin and Apple Bake

1 pumpkin, 7 to 8 inches in diameter (see note)

6 tablespoons butter or margarine, divided

6 tablespoons brown sugar, divided

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

Pinch of black pepper

2 cups bran or corn flakes crushed

½ cup chopped black or English walnuts or pecans

1 ½ pounds apples, peeled and sliced (about 4 large)

To prepare the pumpkin, remove seeds, cut into strips and lay skin side up in a shallow pan. Add water to cover bottom of pan and bake at 350 degrees until tender. Scrape from skin and mash. Stir in ¼ cup butter, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper.

To prepare the topping, melt 2 tablespoons butter, add bran flakes, walnuts and ¼ cup brown sugar. Toss until coated.

Grease a 2-quart casserole. Add apples and pumpkin in layers. Cover with topping. Bake 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

Note: More or less pumpkin is fine. You can also substitute 2 medium butternut squash or

1 medium Hubbard squash for the pumpkin.

Source: Gail Diederich


Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 cups chopped yellow onions

2 tablespoons mild curry powder

2 large butternut squash

1 ½ pounds sweet apples (about 4 large)

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 cups water

2 cups apple juice or cider

Warm butter and olive oil in large pot over low heat. Add onions and curry powder and cook, uncovered, 15 to 20 minutes, until onions are tender. Stir occasionally, scraping across bottom of pan.

Peel squash, remove seeds and cut into chunks. Peel, quarter and core apples. Cut into chunks. Add squash, apples, salt, pepper and 2 cups of water to the pot. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until squash and apples are very soft.

Process the soup through a food mill fitted with a large blade or puree it coarsely in a food processor. Pour soup back into pot. Add apple juice and additional water to make soup the consistency desired. It should be slightly sweet and quite thick. Serve hot.

Makes 3 ½ quarts.

Source: No Small Feat: Party Secrets from the Silver Sisters


Bacon-Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

6 large sweet potatoes

Nonstick vegetable oil spray

1 cup low-fat sour cream

¼ cup margarine

½ teaspoon salt

1 egg, beaten

Freshly ground white pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

12 bacon slices, cooked and crumbled


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Wash sweet potatoes and spray with vegetable oil spray. Place on baking sheet and bake for about 1 hour.

Cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the pulp, saving the shells. To the pulp add sour cream, margarine, salt, beaten egg, freshly ground pepper and sugar. In a food processor, puree the mixture. Add the crumbled bacon. Fill the potato shells with the mixture, sprinkle paprika on top. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until heated through.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Source: The Sweet Potato Cookbook by Lyniece North Talmadge, Cumberland House Publishing, Nashville, 1998


Apple Cranberry Brulee

2 medium apples (any kind, about 1 pound), peeled, cored, quartered and thinly sliced

cup dried cranberries, cherries or raisins

5 tablespoons maple syrup (preferably Grade B), divided

3 tablespoons brandy, bourbon or rum, divided (optional)

1 large egg yolk

1 tablespoon cornstarch

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch table salt

2 large egg whites, room temperature

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

In a 9-inch round shallow baking dish, combine the apples, cranberries, 2 tablespoons of the maple syrup and 2 tablespoons of the brandy, if using. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake in the middle of the oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a paring knife goes through the apples very easily. Remove the apples from the oven and increase the oven heat to 500 degrees.

While the apples are baking, in a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolk, remaining 3 tablespoons maple syrup, remaining tablespoon of brandy, the cornstarch, vanilla and salt. Set aside.

Once the apples are tender, in another medium bowl, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Stir half the whites into the yolk mixture, then gently but thoroughly fold in the remaining whites. Spread the mixture evenly over the top of the apples.

Place the brown sugar in a mesh sieve. Hold the sieve above the egg topping and press the sugar through it to evenly sprinkle it over the topping. Bake the dessert in the top third of the oven until nicely browned, about 2 minutes. Serve right away.

Makes 6 servings.

Source: Sara Moulton for the Associated Press

love letter to autumn 10/02/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 4:30am]
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