Easy Autumn Meals

What's for dinner? Pomegranates and cranberries and butternut squash - oh boy!

As the harvest winds down, and the days get dark so early, how we eat changes. The fresh bright flavors of summer salads and barbecue give way to the rich subtleties of stews and soups. I love it when winter squash, pomegranates and persimmons start showing up. What a wonderful herald of the new season!

By their nature, the longer cooking autumnal fare can take longer to prepare and cook - but it does not have to be difficult or time consuming. I actually like making meals incrementally - 15 minutes here, another 10 minutes later. As long as you plan ahead, the longer cooking time can fit into your schedule while you do other things. Here are some suggestions to keep your autumn meals simple and lively.

  • Experiment with cooking methods: If you are home an hour or two before mealtime, get dinner started early and let it simmer or roast while you do other things. Since I work from home, sometimes I'll get dinner started during my lunch break.

    If you get home late, try crock pots or pressure cookers. With a crock pot you can start dinner in the morning and it's ready to eat when you get home. Pressure cookers also work well, yielding a delicious product in a ridiculously short time. Just 30 minutes is enough for beans and rice, soup or stew. My mother's pressure cooker scared me so much that I swore I'd never touch one. But I learned that the new models are quieter and safer. Now I use one regularly. A bonus is that because they cook quickly with high pressure, they use little fuel.

  • Soups: Make hearty soups with beans, barley (in its hull), and vegetables. Add winter squash and kale or other greens. You can add a little chicken or chicken sausage for extra flavor, but it is not necessary. Broth and a big can of stewed tomatoes make a nice base for vegetable type soups. Spice up a split pea soup with a can of light coconut milk for an exotic twist. The last time I made split pea soup I left it on the stove for about four hours and it was really good. The peas were tender after an hour or two, but the longer cooking time broke them down into that thick split pea goodness.

  • Stews: I grew up defining stew as the beef stew my mother made. She made it by simmering chunks of beef, onions, carrots and celery in gravy. I still get hungry for that once in awhile, but mostly my stews these days are more like thick vegetable soups. My favorite meat stew is a variation of a lamb and eggplant meal we enjoyed in Turkey. For this stew you sauté chunks of lamb and onions in olive oil. Add fresh or stewed tomatoes, diced eggplant, green bell pepper, garlic and a couple of hot peppers. Let it simmer, covered, for a couple of hours. It starts dry, but the vegetables break down to create a nice sauce. Since I don't cook with salt, I add extra flavor with cumin and the hot peppers - this is a dish that can handle extra jalapeños!

    Most of my stews are some version of beans and vegetables cooked in a base of tomatoes. I tend to use stewed tomatoes once the fresh ones are no longer available. This year I roasted and froze tomatoes. Roasted tomatoes are a great addition with an intense burst of flavor. As I write, garbanzo beans are simmering, to which I'll add butternut squash, tomatoes, onion, celery, parsnips, peppers and possibly cabbage. It is a good way to clean out the refrigerator before the new farm box arrives tomorrow.

  • Roasted Vegetables: This is one of my all time favorite foods. While you can roast different vegetable blends in different seasons, there is something special about the deep caramelized flavors that develop in roasted root vegetables.

    There are a variety of approaches to roasting. The most common is to lightly coat the diced vegetables with oil, spread on a baking sheet in a single layer, and roast quickly at high temperatures. It may be that my oven burns things too quickly, but I've developed a technique of roasting more slowly and for longer. I like to toss the vegetables in a large bowl with a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a dash of curry powder. I pour that into a shallow baking dish and cook for around 1 1/2 hours at 350 degrees. Part way through I'll pour the veggies back into the bowl and give them a stir again to redistribute the oil.

    Any of the root vegetables work well, with the possible exception of beets. They take longer to cook and unless you start with partially cooked beets, they are still hard when the rest of the veggies are soft. I usually use a base of either sweet potato or winter squash. Try adding a rutabaga or turnip. Carrots and celery work well too. Faster cooking vegetables that you may want to add half-way-through include onions, cloves of garlic and parsnips. If you haven't had parsnips in your roasted vegetables, you really must give these sweet roots a try!

    You can also cook any of the vegetables by themselves. Delicata squash is especially easy because you can eat the skin and it cooks quickly. Instead of roasting sweet potatoes with butter and brown sugar, try the same technique described above with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It is still good even without the extra saturated fat and sugar.

  • Cranberries, Persimmons and Pomegranates: These autumnal fruits are wonderful in salads. They are brightly colored and contrast well with spinach or other dark greens. I mostly use Fuyu persimmons - the little squat ones that are firmer and sweeter. The Hachiya persimmon is more astringent (due to high tannin levels) and must be fully ripe to enjoy. The soft persimmons make a good puree that can be added to soups, stews or smoothies. Try adding pomegranate seeds to salads or as a garnish for cooked dishes. Fresh cranberries can be added to stews for an unexpected burst of flavor. I recently made a delicious fruit crisp with pears and cranberries. It shouted "autumn"!

One of the really great parts of fall cooking is the opportunity to focus on the vegetable. Soups, stews and roasted vegetables can easily be vegetarian or use just small amounts of meat for flavor. Whether or not proposition 2 passes, it is clear that many of us want to see animals treated humanely. For this to happen, we need to be willing to eat less meat and to pay more for it. It is not a problem if you emphasize the fabulous autumn vegetables. They are good both for your own health and for the earth!

    Editor's Note: Kathy Nichols is the Healthy Habits Coach. As a registered dietitian and certified life coach, Kathy helps people who are tired of diets and feeling guilty find a way of eating that is sustainable, healthy and enjoyable. Visit her website or blog for more information.