Despite the certainty that there will be one last burst of heat as Indian summer burns its way into fall, the mood has shifted. Contest for the most creative disposition of the Giant Zucchini has been won by the man who planted his entry upright in the flower garden, punched holes in the top and used it as an outdoor candelabrum. Pumpkins are edging out summer squash in the farmers' markets and gardeners are once again being overly creative in their search for ways to use up green tomatoes.
The advent of fall also brings a change in the way we eat. Whether it is childhood conditioning or some ancient instinct that leads us to store up a layer of fat as protection against the cold, autumn signals the return of the hearty meal. It's out of the garden and back to the kitchen, where the bread will rise and the stew will simmer.
In New England the change has already taken place. The air is chill, the leaves are red, and in Cushing, Maine, Leslie Land is getting ready to fight the annual battle of the rutabagas. The cooking columnist and former caterer finds the return of those large waxy globes to the supermarket vegetable bins the only dark spot in an otherwise bright season. "According to the Larousse Gastronomique," she writes in her new cookbook, Reading Between the Recipes (Yankee Publishing Inc., Dublin, N.H., $15.95), "a rutabaga is a 'turnip with yellowish flesh, edible but seldom used in France as foodstuff.' No recipes are given, though the Larousse is otherwise thorough enough to provide nine different recipes for camel meat. Sometimes the French know what they're doing."
For a dozen summers in Cushing, I was one of many who waited eagerly for the annual invitation to Land's house for dinner; for a dozen falls, before heading back to the city, I was one of the many who hid the rutabagas when the strongly opinionated chef hove into view. Like other rutabaga eaters, I have decided to forgive her this attack on one of the cold season's staple vegetables. Never get on the cross side of a good cook.
If Land is daunted by the reappearance of the ubiquitous Swedish turnip, she finds other reasons to rejoice in the return of cold weather. There are apples served up in a double-apple cake, studded with nuts and raisins and flavored with rum, and a suggestion that when the gallon jug of apple cider sits too long in the refrigerator, we emulate our boozy ancestors, letting it turn into hard cider. "Unscrew the cap, very slightly, just enough to let a bit of the gas escape (thus preventing explosions)," Land writes, "and let the process continue until you like the taste. At first you will have 'fizzy cider,' about 4 percent alcohol. Next you will have hard cider, about 8 or 9 percent alcohol. And then, almost before you know it, you will have vinegar. Drink it up, therefore, as soon as it's ready."
There is also a discussion of which varieties of both apples and pears are best for cooking and step-by-step instructions on how to turn the rock-hard pears available in the supermarket into an eater's delight. If you can't wait for them to turn fully ripe, pop them into her pear-macaroon pudding.
Land, whose catering career taught her to overcome the difficulties that can come with cooking in someone else's kitchen, is philosophical about the way food mania takes so many of us. After all, this is a woman who once steamed two 3 1/2-foot-long fish in a bathtub.
"The monsters were destined to become cold salmon with green mayonnaise for 70 wedding guests. It was my job to cook them. It was not required that I cook them whole. It wasn't even suggested. One can only suppose the devil made me do it," writes Land, who, remembering the Indian lore taught her in childhood by the head of her Brownie troop, did the deed using heated rocks and more energy than most of us would want to expend. Nevertheless, for the Washington hostess seeking the different dinner, she explains how you too can steam salmon in the bathtub.
Such madness makes her understand the food foibles of others, like the chocoholic friend whose "often awestricken husband got a hint of what was to come on their very first date, when he discovered she'd eaten two dozen large peanut butter cups before the movie even started ... This is a person who once smeared her infant son's mouth with a bit of her chocolate ice cream, 'just to see how it'll look.' " And this is a person whose madness Land encourages with double-chocolate ice cream, and a black-and-white apricot mousse torte that uses not only both white and dark chocolate, but chocolate liqueur as well.
If the chocolate doesn't add enough layers to last the winter, there are recipes for wonderful fall meals like sauerbraten or sauerkraut, shepherd's pie or braised short ribs and apples in cider sauce or scotch collops with spiked onion sauce. The only fancy Land refuses to cater to is the one for rutabaga. Like the Larousse Gastronomique, she gives not a single recipe.