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Feasting with Friends

Text by: Elizabeth E. Ellenbecker

Fall is by far my favorite season. I love the cool crispness in the air; the trees painted reds, yellows, oranges, and browns; the sound of the leaves crunching under your feet. I love sitting outside, bundled up, with a warm cup of tea and good book. I love visits to apple orchards and pumpkin patches, picking ripe, fresh fruits and making them into a delectable treat. Most of all, I love sharing these autumn favorites on cool evenings, warmed by conversations with good friends.

A year ago my neighbors and I supported one another as our husbands were away at war and our families lived a continent away. We shared birthdays, holidays, and ordinary Tuesdays together. We laughed, cried, had fights, and eventually made up. We were, in essence, family neither by marriage nor blood but by an unrelenting circumstance that bonded us together for survival. We were the girls of Stairwell 10.

After babies were asleep and the stillness of an empty home became unbearable, we would gather in one of our apartments (baby monitors in hand), and find comfort in each other's presence. We would take turns making meals for one another to replace the otherwise lonely meal for one. We shared special moments that soon slipped away once our husbands returned, but we had created cherished memories that will last a lifetime.

Today, our husbands are home and families are once again complete. Life has continued to move forward— two of the girls moved away, one has a new addition to her family, and another is about to expand her family of two to a family of three. I will forever remember these friends that helped me survive one of the most difficult years of my life. It was a moment of time, and a season of my life that I will be forever grateful for.

One recipe that I shared with this special group of friends on one particular cool fall evening was called Spicy Pumpkin Soup, adapted from the website for "Simple Recipes." I served it with an Apple and Walnut Spinach Salad and fresh bread from a local bakery. This year, to commemorate our year of survival, I wanted to share these recipes with you.

I hope you find warmth and happiness in your meal and are able to cherish the time you spend with your friends and families during this season.

© Elizabeth Ellenbecker Photography

Spicy Pumpkin Soup

Adapted from www.simplyrecipes.com

4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 tsp. minced garlic
1/8 to 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
2 tsp. curry powder
½ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. ground coriander
Pinch ground cayenne pepper
3 (15 oz) cans 100 percent pumpkin or 6 cups of chopped roasted pumpkin*
5 cups chicken stock
1 cup milk
½ cup brown sugar and ½ cup cream to cut down on heat (optional)

*To make pumpkin purée, cut a sugar pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds and stringy stuff, lay face down on a foil-lined baking pan. Bake at 350 F until soft, about 45 minutes to an hour. Cool, scoop out the flesh. Freeze whatever you don't use for future use.

Melt butter in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add spices and stir for a minute more. Add pumpkin and chicken broth; blend well. Bring to a boil and reduce heat, simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Use an immersion blender to puree to desired texture. With soup on low heat, add brown sugar (if desired) and mix. Slowly add milk while stirring to incorporate. Add cream. Adjust seasonings to taste. If too spicy, add more cream to cool it down. You might want to add a teaspoon of salt.

Serve in individual bowls. Sprinkle each with toasted pumpkin seeds.

Fall Cornbread

1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
1 egg
1 cup milk
1/3 cup oil

Mix dry ingredients together. Mix wet ingredients together in a separate bowl, and then combine. Pour into muffin pans with liners and bake for 20-25 minutes at 400 F.

© Elizabeth Ellenbecker Photography

Maple Thyme Roasted Chicken

Adapted from Finecooking.com

4 or 5 lb. whole chicken
Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper
½ lemon
½ onion, quartered
1 bunch fresh thyme
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinaigrette
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

Position an oven rack to lower third of oven and preheat to 350 F. Rub olive oil or butter all over chicken including cleaned cavity. Place lemon, onion, and thyme into cavity. Set it breast side up in a roasting pan.

In a small bowl, whisk the maple syrup, oil, vinegar, thyme, and, cayenne with 1 tsp. salt. Pour the mixture evenly over the chicken. Sprinkle chicken with salt and several grinds of black pepper. Place chicken on a roasting rack, and place in oven. Roast chicken, basting or brushing occasionally with pan juices for about 1 ½ - 2 hours until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the deepest part of the thigh registers 170-175 F. For a delicious and crispy bird, bump the temperature up to 450 F for the last 10-15 minutes (keep an eye on pan juices, as they can burn easily. Good rule to follow, add a few tablespoons of water each time you baste).

Let the chicken rest for a few minutes, cut into pieces, drizzle generously with pan juices, and serve immediately.

© Elizabeth Ellenbecker Photography

Spinach Salad with Apple, Walnuts, and Gorgonzola Cheese

1 lb. fresh or pre-packaged baby spinach leaves
2 crisp apples (such as Granny Smith) chopped into bite-sized chunks
1 cup toasted walnuts
¾ cup Gorgonzola cheese
Honey Dijon Vinaigrette *

Toss spinach, apples, walnuts, and cheese in large bowl with desired amount of dressing (less is best)

*Mix ¼ cup olive oil and ¼ cup rice wine vinegar with about 2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard and 2 Tsbp. honey. Add salt and pepper to taste. (My husband and I prefer ours with a bit of a tang, so add less vinegar and Dijon to tone it down.)

© Elizabeth Ellenbecker Photography

Roasted Fall Harvest Vegetables

Find a variety of your favorite, fall vegetables in season at your local farmers market to make this dish reflect the flavors of the season.
1 onion, quartered
1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1 inch cubes
Carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch disks
A few red potatoes, quartered
2 turnips, cut into 1 inch Cubes
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 450 F. Toss prepared vegetables with olive oil, salt, and pepper in large bowl. Pour onto foil-lined baking sheet, and bake 30 -35 minutes until golden brown and tender.

© Elizabeth Ellenbecker Photography

Apple Cranberry Crisp

1 cup rolled oats
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
2/3 cup chopped pecans, toasted
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
Pinch fine salt
½ cup cold, unsalted butter, cut into bits
6 medium baking apples (such as Braeburn, Rome, or Golden Delicious), peeled, cored, and chopped
1 - 12 oz package cranberries
½ cup sugar
1 Tbsp. flour
Whipped cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 375° F.

For topping: mix oats, flour, brown sugar, pecans, spices, and salt in a medium bowl. Mix in butter until moist clumps are formed.

For filling: Butter 8-10 individual ovenproof ramekins. Combine apples, cranberries, sugar, and flour, and spoon mixture into individual bowls. Sprinkle the topping mixture on top of fruit.

Place on baking sheets, and cook until fruit bubbles around the side and top is golden, about 30 minutes.

Use a butane torch or broil in oven (about 4 inches from top for 30 seconds) until golden brown.