Autumn at Anson Mills
Five years ago I left the dying embers of a New England autumn for South Carolina. I had fallen in love with a man from those parts, and that alone was worth a dozen autumns. Tossing fate to the breeze like a handful of heirloom oats, I packed my unrepentant Northern-ness and two small dogs and moved down to Charleston—to the lush gardens and Federal manses South of Broad and the toasty-warm sea island beaches. The Red Sox won the World Series that October and George Bush the election a month later, but Charleston remained stubbornly summer. Thanksgiving came and went, the marsh grasses segued from green to gold, and the air conditioner puffed its shivery gusts. Wreaths appeared and tiny lights danced on the Battery. My dogs got fleas in December, and my husband-to-be never once changed out of shorts.
I spent five successive autumns in South Carolina, but I never quite got the hang of it. Sure, there were seasonal signs—school buses, Halloween candy, standard time—but they seemed thin and hastily affixed, like a decal transfer. The palpable sensations and deep scents of autumn were missing for me: spicy wood smoke and bright, crunchy stars. Cold, dark rain dripping off the eaves. Whole cloves in a bath of hot cider. Warm sun. Wet leaves. Outerwear.
(Seriously, how can it be autumn without outerwear?)
Well, this October I’m in Vermont. My handsome husband visits for days at a time. He wears long pants. We have a cord of wood and the storm windows locked tight. The mountainsides blaze with color and our only dog sleeps by the fire. I’m cooking soup.
I said I’d give a dozen autumns for the fabulous twists of fate life has offered me. But maybe just the five will do.
All right, enough of this reverie! Who wants some soup?
Two of our recipes in this newsletter are old school French, one has roots in ancient Persia, and one is a Southern classic in search of a revival. We’re calling this the “old school, new tricks” newsletter. Collectively, the recipes constitute a full four-course meal, but it is a meal more honored in the breach than the observance, we’d imagine. None of the recipes gets close to pumpkin, game, root vegetables, dark greens or wild rice, yet lovely glimmers of autumn can be found in each.
Let’s talk about shrimp bisque in sartorial terms for a moment. Bisque is a classic preparation, of course, but who said that meant heavy wool skirt and thick, pilly sweater? The rumor must have started in those hotel kitchens where shrimp bisque was mishandled for decades. Ideally, shrimp bisque translates as “flowing evening gown of silk crêpe-back satin in a fetching shade of soft coral."
I once had shrimp bisque dressed in this way. It was the first course of a prix fixe lunch in a tiny French restaurant in Montreal on a cold, gray winter weekday. The server placed the bisque before me, a plume of steam curling from it. I breathed in sweet shrimp essence that drifted along the twin currents of wine and cognac, and a tiny pulse of tarragon just within reach of my senses. The bisque was silky with shrimp, smoothed with just a fillip of cream, and as subtly complex in its flavor as its fragrant plume had promised. Our recipe does all these things and more, beginning with the requisite components, including a fine homemade fish stock, and the clean, delicate thickening properties of Carolina Gold Rice Flour.
And, in the category of Southern fare, the autumn newsletter award goes to . . . [drum roll] . . . hush puppies! We thought it was about time to give hush puppies a 911-intervention before they embarrassed themselves publicly any further. (Their years-long decline is catalogued at the beginning of our recipe.) Here’s what should happen when you order hush puppies: the hush puppies are brought to the table, bite sized and screaming hot. You grab one before the platter touches down and break it in half, drawing in the sensation of heat and the powerful fragrance of sweet corn and fresh onion roiling from the open halves. You pop them in your mouth and experience the dual pleasure of the crunchy-thin cornbread coating and soft steamed cornbread center all in the same morsel. Ideally, you eat the hush puppies in such rapid succession that sensations, textures, fragrance, and flavors trip over each other and become, in your mind, the archetypal hush puppy. You know you’ve had enough when all the hush puppies are gone, your guests look offended, and you’re dying for a beer. Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse Yellow Cornmeal and our recipe will deliver this experience right to your doorstep. And we’ve concocted a pretty dreamy dipping sauce, too.
Lamb and Eggplant Pilaf
This pilaf with lamb and eggplant must be the most exotic creature ever born of Carolina Gold Rice. It has the dark woodsy base notes of the East in its spice mix and autumn in its colors and composition. This is a big warm jumble of flavor, texture and fire, falling to clear individual voices: firm, separate-grain rice swept with flavor; rich sautéed ground lamb and eggplant; lush tomatoes; and a cool, conciliatory spoon of whole-fat yogurt.
Pilaf is Persian, but old Charleston has a stake in this dish, too, as the first new crop rice casserole of the fall season. Satisfying in the way only a pilaf can be—the way that makes you wipe a napkin roughly across your face and stare despondently at your empty bowl—all this pilaf really wants (practically whimpers for) is a companion red. We consulted our favorite wine guy, George Cossette, owner of Silverlake Wine in Los Angeles, on this one. George said a young, fruit-forward red with a spicy repartee would make this particular pilaf very happy. He recommended Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or a Languedoc blend (Grenache, Syrah, Carignan) as suitable prospects. You could check up in northern Spain, too. (We always listen to George.)
If you believe a pale crêpe stuck together with Nutella from a street vendor or carnival is the real deal—even if you happen to be standing on a street in Paris or at a carnival in Bruges—allow us to correct this assumption. To make crêpes as they are intended, with ingredients that drive them to excellence—high-fat butter, sweet whole milk, fine pastry flour, fresh eggs, and good liqueurs—the cost for a street vendor would be prohibitive. I mean, yeah, we eat street crêpes, too, but they fall far, far short of our own. In fact, we defy you to find any breakfast, snack, or dessert more alluring than these sheer, lace-patterned, tawny-gold crêpes rushed right out of the pan. Period. It’s Anson Mills Colonial Style Fine Cloth-Bolted Pastry Flour to the rescue again.
What’s almost better than a crêpe? Fourteen crêpes, freshly made, stacked high, and lined with thin rings of roasted apple, pastry cream lightened with whipped cream, and a trickle of cider syrup. Oh, we almost forgot! There’s a crunchy-thin caramel glaze on top, too. This is the do-ahead dessert of the fall: light, fresh, elegant. The mere scent of it makes us feel faint.
Here’s to outerwear, y’all—and Good Food!