One of the many wonderful things about autumn is the end of the cold food. "Simple" salads -- which always involve too much washing and chopping, two thankless chores -- are over for the year. No more poaching and chilling of asparagus, molding of salmon, pure'eing of cold soups -- all things wonderful in their time, but old and tiresome when the first chill hits the air.
About this time of year, I yearn for the first bit of serious cooking as much as I yearn to pull the sweaters out of mothballs. Both are a cozy comfort, and they suggest a third. Stoking up the fireplace for the first fire of the season is one of those rituals that make the heart sing. Really, is anyone more handsome than a man in a flannel plaid shirt with an armload of wood, gearing up for a convivial evening?
And if your wood-toting man is one of those who knows that a fire drains the heat from the house and makes the furnace work harder and the oil bill go up, but he makes a fire every weekend anyway, well, you know you've got to cook up something special to meet this enthusiasm.
A good fire, of course, is magnetic. Once people get to sitting next to it, they are at once warmed and hypnotized, they unwind, they glow. If they have also been warmed by a bit of sherry or a stiff scotch neat, then you will have a dreadful time dragging them to the dinner table both uncomfortable and literally cold.
So why bother? Don't even force them to the buffet -- just hand around some big filled plates and lap-sized napkins and let them laze away by the blaze. After all, an evening of good fire, good friends and good food is a lucky and special moment; you can't just order it up every day.
As waitress, of course, the Family Cook won't want to be tripping all over these reclining bodies with course after course and plate after plate. The menu should be hearty, since fires make men feel they've been hunting all day and deserve a good meal. Past that, it should be finger food for the first course, fork food for the second course, and fork or spoon food for dessert. There should be no drippy dips, no soup, no chops that need to be cut with knife, and no ice creams that melt or crumbly things that shed.
Salads are only marginally acceptable -- I personally find them too spirtually astringent for fireside eating, and of course, you don't want olive oil on the rug.
With those guidelines in mind, I recently whipped up a Sunday night fireside supper that seemed right in every way. We started with guacamole, a nice non-drippy dip that didn't add an extra ponderous protein to this most divine boeuf bourguignonne. This boeuf will make you look like a serious cook, by the way, so be prepared for that. It's in a category I call "Tedious, But Not Difficult;" that is, there are lots of little steps and time elapsed but nothing about it is truly tricky. Nor does it require any sort of strange equipment. You do need an afternoon the day ahead, and you do need for your children to be quiet, although not absent. (That's a different recipe category altogether.)
The spinach souffle' recipe I loved because you don't have to whip egg whites or treat it like a hothouse flower. It doesn't puff like a balloon, but it does have the desired, impressive little cracks on the top and it tastes good and does not slide off the plate.
The apple macaroon recipe has been kicking around the family for 80 years and requires no milk or butter. It's easy, makes the kitchen smell good, and is a good treat for the dairy allergic.
One note about party size for a dinner by the fire: Six is a party, four is company, and two is perfect. GUACAMOLE (6 servings) 1 soft, ripe avocado 1 clove garlic, minced 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes 1 teaspoon lemon juice 1/4 cup fresh plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped Salt and pepper Peel, pit and mash avocado. Add garlic, pepper flakes, lemon juice, tomatoes, and salt and pepper to taste.
Either serve immediately or place the pit from the avocado in the mixture, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 4 hours. (Remove pit before serving.)
(From "The Joy of Cocktails and Hors d'Oeuvres" by Bev Bennett and Kim Upton, Barrons $13.95) BOEUF BOURGUIGNONNE (6 servings) 1/4 pound salt pork, diced 1/4 cup cognac 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped, plus extra for garnish 1/8 teaspoon plus 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1/2 cup flour 1 1/2 teaspoons salt Dash cayenne pepper 3 pounds bottom round of beef, cut in 1 1/2-inch pieces 8 tablespoons butter 4 medium onions, chopped 2 cups beef stock or as needed 1 1/2 cups burgundy wine 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram 1 pound fresh mushrooms 16 small white onions, peeled
Marinate salt pork in cognac, parsley and 1/8 teaspoon pepper for 2-3 hours. Combine flour, salt, remaining pepper and cayenne. Dredge beef in seasoned flour. Melt half the butter in a heavy skillet and brown meat on all sides. Add chopped onions and brown. Transfer beef and onions to a 3-quart casserole with a tight-fitting lid. Drain salt pork, reserving marinade, and brown it in one teaspoon butter. Add to beef. Deglaze skillet with marinade and 1/4 cup beef stock. Pour over meat. Add wine, thyme, marjoram and enough stock to cover meat. Cover and bake in a 375-degree oven for 2 hours. Saute' mushrooms in 2 teaspoons butter until just barely cooked. Add to meat. Parboil onions for 3 minutes. Drain well, and saute' in remaining butter to brown lightly. Add to meat, replace cover, and continue cooking for 1 more hour. Add more wine or stock if needed. Adjust seasonings and serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.
-- "San Francisco A La Carte," Doubleday VEGETABLE SOUFFLE (6 servings) 3 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons flour 1 cup milk 12 ounces cooked corn, broccoli, spinach or artichokes 3 eggs 1/2 cup mayonnaise 4-5 scallions, minced Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste Curry powder to taste (optional)
To make the white sauce: In a saucepan, melt butter until foamy, sprinkle with flour and cook and stir for 3 minutes. Gradually add milk, cook and stir until thickened. In a blender or food processor pure'e vegetable, eggs, mayonnaise, scallions, seasonings and white sauce. Pour into unbuttered souffle' dish and bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour. APPLE MACAROON (6 servings) 3 medium apples Butter for pie plate 3/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 2 eggs
Cut apples into quarters and remove cores. Put in a buttered 9-inch pie plate, and cover with 1/4 cup sugar and cinnamon. Mix flour, rest of sugar, salt and baking powder together; add eggs and beat together. Pour over apples. Bake in 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.