It’s fall, so savory, roasted fall veggies are what I’m feeling right now. Not to mention, bitter greens, figs, pears and apples. Oh, and let’s throw in some nuts to really up the earthy flavors of late harvest season. If you drizzle reduced balsamic vinegar over the top, now, you’ve got magic on a plate.
Fine dining, farm-to-table and even casual restaurants the world over have been reducing vinegars and other sauces for decades. It sounds so refined on a menu: “balsamic honey reduction…” It makes you think you’re getting something that perhaps took hours to reach peak flavor, the chef tentatively watching over a pan of dark liquid, simmering it just so, all the while gently stirring it to make sure nothing burns or sticks.
I hate to ruin the mystique, but it’s pretty simple to reduce balsamic vinegar into intense, flavorful, syrupy goodness, and it only takes about 30 minutes total. Drizzle it over a plateful of fall produce or even ice cream, and experience reduction nirvana. Here’s a recipe for a simple salad or an impressive appetizer.
Endive with apples, figs, walnuts, goat cheese and honey balsamic reduction
1 cup of decent quality balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup of apple cider
2 Tablespoons of honey
2-3 heads of endive
1 ripe honey crisp apple, thinly sliced
8 ripe purple figs, cut into quarters
1/4 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
goat cheese crumbles
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme
freshly ground pepper
In a medium sauce pan over medium high heat, mix the first three ingredients. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a high simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the mixture is reduced by half and beginning to resemble the consistency of syrup. The bubbles from simmering will enlarge and hold their shape longer when it’s getting close to done. Remove from heat and let cool for another 10 minutes. The mixture will continue to thicken as it cools.
In the meantime, assemble the salad. Separate the endive leaves whole and place on individual plates (I use three leaves per serving). Top each endive with an apple slice, two to three fig quarters and walnuts. Drizzle each plate with the balsamic reduction and sprinkle with goat cheese, thyme and pepper. Serve immediately.
Early simmer. Bubbles are smaller and around the outside of the pan.
Almost done. Bubbles are bigger and hold their shape.
You can make the reduction sauce up to a week in advance and store at room temperature in an airtight container. If it thickens up too much so you can’t pour or drizzle it, add a Tablespoon of apple cider or water and heat it up slightly, just until its pourable.
I’m a big proponent of buying and eating seasonal, local food. It just tastes better, and when it comes to cooking and eating, in my book flavor trumps all else. I also like to support local communities, businesses and economies. Helping my neighbor is immediate and tangible, and it ultimately benefits me, too, when it comes to my quality of life. But what qualifies as local?
In my not-so-distant previous career, I worked closely with Colorado Proud and the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), promoting and encouraging consumers to buy Colorado food and ag products whenever possible. We were asked A LOT and had lots of discussions about what “local” is and means. Even before my stint with the CDA, I liked to support business based in the state in which I was living; I sought out food and other products when I was shopping; and I travelled and visited communities closer to home. When it comes to defining “local,” I’ve always considered it to be whatever state I happen to be in at the time.
Since venturing out on new career adventures, exploring food among other things, I’ve joined the international organization Slow Food. I love Slow Food’s message of slowing down when it comes to cooking, eating and mealtime. And as I mentioned above, I’m an advocate of seasonal, local food. To further its cause, Slow Food is challenging its members and eaters around the globe to eat local from October 16 through November 5. I’m in! Sort of. Wait, slow down. As I was reading the elements of the “challenge,” I noticed that one of the options was to pledge to “buy no imported food or products made over 200 miles away.”
Colorado is approximately 380 miles across and 280 miles north to south. According to the Slow Food Eat Local Challenge, I’ve just been cut off from foods grown and raised on Colorado’s Western Slope, one of the state’s largest and most important agricultural regions. Most of Colorado’s fruit and wine grapes are grown on the Western Slope. I’ve just savored the last of the season’s Palisade Peaches with a Late Season Peach Thyme Sorbet. And now, apples and pears are in season and ripe for the picking. Sure, Colorado’s Front Range and Eastern Plains have lots of bounty, but my favorite Colorado apples and pears come from Hotchkiss, more than 200 miles from my home. Even in the grocery stores that carry Colorado apples, those apples are from…you guessed it, the Western Slope.
A Colorado vineyard on the Western Slope
Palisade Peaches (or Rocky Mountain Gold)
Wine grapes ripe for the picking.
I hosted another pop-up dinner demo recently, and in my quest to buy all local produce, I discovered the mid-week farmers market had shut down for the season. Boo hoo! Now, I could have driven dozens of miles in and around Denver looking for local endive, or I could go right across the street to my local grocery store and buy what I needed. And that’s what I did. I still looked at labels, seeking out Colorado products. If Colorado wasn’t available, I looked for stuff from the region and neighboring states. If that wasn’t available, I looked for food grown, raised or processed in the good ol’ U.S.A. As a last resort, I turned to our neighbors to the south.
Getting ready to cook…and eat!
Roasted figs, among other things.
And this is where seasonal comes in. I planned and prepared a menu with food I knew was in season. I served two dishes with figs (figs don’t grow in Colorado, but they do in California and they’re in season, so they’re abundant at the grocery store). I roasted cold-weather vegetables like cauliflower and Brussel sprouts. And I had a leek that I did buy at the farmers market several days prior. I didn’t have to turn to imported products because I was buying what was in season. While my menu wasn’t completely Colorado-grown, it was all in season and grown regionally. That works for me.
So back to “local.” Much like everything else in our world, the United States’ food system isn’t perfect. But it is the most abundant, safest, affordable system in the entire world. Less than two percent of our population grows and raises all the food the rest of us in the 98 percent consumes. As good and romantic as it sounds to only buy and eat products from within 200 miles of where you live, it’s completely unreasonable and unattainable for most of the population.
I respect organizations like Slow Food and the cause they’re pursuing. It’s admirable, and deep down, I’m on board, because it fits with my values and ideals. But if we want to make real change when it comes to our food system, we need to get people back in the kitchen, cooking and eating better, and we need to have a better definition of “local.” I think we should start with a better understanding of where our food comes from in the first place, who grows it, how it’s processed, how it’s prepared and the people preparing it. There is a disconnect between the people who grow food and the people who eat it and the gap is only getting wider.
So in my personal quest to reinvent myself and my career, I’m encouraging people to get back in the kitchen, to eat fresh and seasonal food, to shop in the outer aisles of the grocery store, and to celebrate the home cook, not just the celebrity chefs and food advocates with abundant staff and resources to tell us that the ideal is to eat food grown within an arbitrary radius of our homes.
That definition of local? To me, it’s anything from my current home state of Colorado. Every time I go to the grocery store, I make my own pledge to buy Colorado first. I encourage everyone who lives and works in Colorado to do the same.
Oh, I have so much more I’d like to write and say on this topic. It sort of gets me fired up. But, alas, I don’t want to lose focus. Instead, here is my seasonal menu from my latest pop-up dinner demo. As the harvest winds down and the weather gets colder, I’m working on more seasonal menus to share and get YOU back in the kitchen. Stay tuned!