Kimberly Winter Stern
Though the debate rages about whether it’s gauche to wear white after Labor Day, I play it safe—my almost-white apron is now packed away until next spring. My well-worn kitchen uniform has survived a summer of grilled salmon and chops, uncooked tomato pasta sauce, fried chicken for picnics in the park and a colorful batch of watermelon gazpacho that added more than a few connect-the-dot stains to the apron’s dulled white background.
Changing of the seasons for me is more than switching out closets, a ritual my mother taught me decades ago or the serious endeavor of preparing the yard for winter—my father’s area of domestic reign. It means hauling out my prized kitchen accessories for months of cooking rib-sticking meals—an electric blue Le Creuset Dutch oven, the fire engine red Emile Henry tagine, a battered and somewhat warped handed-down roasting pan that’s cradled countless Thanksgiving turkeys and Sunday roasts.
Napkins, placemats and tableware that signal an entertaining motif of earthy colors replace summery buttercup yellow-and-white dinner plates, gauzy tablecloths and the trio of striped pots that marched down my dining room table during July and August, filled with hydrangeas and fresh-cut flowers from the farmers’ market.
Invitations start arriving from friends coming out of hibernation from the summer’s heat—cocktails, dinner parties and casual Sunday afternoons watching football. More important to me than what I will wear to these soirees is what will be served, and what I can contribute.
Tonight it’s dinner with friends at my house. A gathering of intimates around a candlelit table filled with a platter of chicken tagine and couscous, a bubbly gratin, a tureen I brought back from a Chicago shopping excursion, tonight filled with a vibrant carrot soup. It’s a fall rite that I cherish, despite a schedule brimming with deadlines and pressing obligations. The older I get, the more I value face time and earnest conversation over good food.
I’m puttering around in my kitchen on a day that looks like fall—a baby-blue sky infused with softer light, the trees in my backyard sanctuary already shedding leaves from the summer’s brutal heat, the cicadas’ drone dwindling from a choir to a timid chorus. Though there are delicious Indian summer days ahead and the air conditioner isn’t finished doing its expensive work, I’m happily settled into an autumn frame of mind, a caramel-colored apron replacing the white one is tied around my waist waiting for the splatters of my favorite soups, beef carbonnade and cassoulet toulousain—and tonight’s main course, chicken tagine.
The Emile Henry tagine sits on the counter, a seductive vessel that will soon hold browned pieces of exotically seasoned chicken, onion, garlic and a couple of cinnamon sticks. My nose twitches in anticipation of the tantalizing smell of toasted coriander, star anise, cayenne and ginger that will dance throughout the house as the tagine bakes.
The trappings of my fall kitchen and the methodical way I plan a meal for friends fascinates my significant other and faithful sous chef, Mr. G.
“It’s more than just a meal to you, isn’t it?” he wonders aloud, chopping an eye-watering white onion, not waiting for my response. “It has a sense of ceremony to it.”
As I pull the tagine from the oven and lift the lid, stirring in dates, figs, olives and fresh cilantro, I simply think, “Precisely.”
Lighting the tapers, a jazz mix from my iPod playing in the background, jewel-tone flowers spilling from glass vases marching down the dinner table, I reflect on the evening ahead. A sacred time for friends to share bits of our busy lives, discuss the world and soak in the cozy ambiance of an approaching dusk that promises crisper temperatures.
I remove my caramel-colored apron as the doorbell rings, preparing to welcome guests to my personal ritual. This first dinner party, on a night where fall whispers in the air and all is right in my universe, is indeed a sacred homecoming, a reconnecting with what fuels life.
Friends and food.
A tagine is a slow-cooked, sweet and spicy, rich and satisfying North African stew that is named for the earthenware dish in which it’s cooked. Here’s a recipe for chicken or lamb tagine—the meat is moist and tender as a result of braising at a low temperature. I like to serve the tagine at the table, straight from its base, lifting the cone for guests to enjoy the full effect of the aromatic dish. Serve with a crusty bread, a crisp salad or add courses like I do—a velvety and light carrot soup to start, a gratin of butternut squash, a spicy pudding cake with a buttery sauce to end the meal.
Tagine of Chicken with Dried Fruits, Green Olives, Coriander and Lemon Zest
Serves 4 to 6 as a main course
From The Dean & DeLuca Food and Wine Cookbook
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon star anise pods, coarsely crushed
1 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
1 teaspoon salt
3# chicken, cut into 8 pieces (wings/backbone discarded)
3# lamb shoulder or stew meat, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 white onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups water
2 cinnamon sticks
½ cup dates, pitted
½ cup dried figs, halved
½ cup green olives, with or without pits
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Honey for drizzling
1 teaspoon minced lemon zest
Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a dry small sauté pan or skillet, combine the cayenne, ginger, coriander, star anise, and pepper. Toast over medium0ghih heat, stirring until fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Removed from the pan and let cool. Grind the spices in a spice mill or crush to a fine powder in a mortar. In a large bowl, combine the spices and salt. Add the chicken or lamb and massage the seasonings thoroughly into the meat with your hands.
In a Dutch oven, ovenproof sauté pan or skillet or tagine, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken or lamb and brown on all sides. Reduce heat to medium. Add the onion and cook for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 5 minutes; do not brown. Add the water and cinnamon sticks. Bring to a simmer, cover and bake until tender, about 2 hours, adding more water as necessary to keep the meat form drying out.
Add the dried fruits and olives, mixing them in thoroughly. Bake, uncovered, until browned on top, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and stir in the cilantro. Serve over couscous, drizzled with honey sprinkled with lemon zest.
Overland Park, Kan.-based freelance writer Kimberly Winter Stern writes travel, food, lifestyle and design. Also known as the gregarious and cuisine-informed Kim Dishes, listeners tune in weekly for her on-the-road segments on “LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen,” a popular Kansas City radio food show. Prolific in eating, writing and discovering, this foodie satisfies an innate desire to sample the world’s gastronomic rainbow by meeting food artisans and trendsetters, gaining insight into the culinary points-of-view of everyone from cheese makers, chocolatiers and chefs who set their city’s locavore pace to farmers who are passionate producers. Stern is a sought-after writer, with work appearing in Better Homes and Gardens, Unity, KANSAS! Magazine, 435 South magazine, KC Homes & Gardens, Generation Boom, Shawnee Magazine, KC Magazine, KC Home Design, KC Business and Midwest CEO. Stern is a national blogger for the Dean & DeLuca Gourmet Food Blog where she cooks, styles, shoots and writes about life and cooking … and loves to lick the bowl clean. This writer may have been given product and/or other compensation from Dean & DeLuca for this post.