As my husband and I stood there at the tip-top of Arbor Street in Pasadena overlooking the Lower Arroyo Seco filled with California Oak trees twisted up like old, gnarled fingers, we were awed by the site of the early evening sky on fire with fall. Our nostrils were filled with the sweet scent of the purple-leaved trees that love to shed and create a pastel carpet on the lawns and street below and the slightly damp and mossy smell all too familiar in Pasadena at sunset. We stopped and stared at the sky just above the canopy of trees; we couldn’t take our eyes off of the glorious colors before us on the horizon. A shocking pink mingled with peach and gold and melted into a dramatic lavender purple and grey; blue became silver beneath it all, and all at once the lyrics “purple mountain majesty” entered into my mind and had meaning. Some clouds were wisps and some were puffs, and became whatever the breeze of this late summer evening shaped them into. And in the center of this sky was what looked like nature’s version of an atomic bomb, a concoction of all of the many clouds pressed together and seemingly exploding, only this one silent, soft and safe to be transfixed by. It was quiet. Only a few crickets could be heard offering up chirps in hopes of rounding up the rest of the members of their nightly orchestra, and the squawk of a few of the wild Pasadena parrots, our favorite companions on our walks here, punctuated the air; they seemed to be giving us full agreement that they, too, were mesmerized by the beauty of it all. My husband and I squeezed one another’s hands as our hearts leapt for joy in our chests because we suddenly realized what this view meant; and as we looked at one another then back at the canvas that was the sky, one of us said, “Finally; fall is coming.”
We are “fall people” through and through. It is hands down my personal favorite time of the year. The hues of the late summer as it disappears into early fall are unlike anything else. They begin with a boldness, and slowly fade into a heavenly golden shade that just seems to shimmer and reflect. And then I begin to reflect. This brilliance elicits a melancholy, a sweet longing for a richer depth. It pulls me to get lost in matters of the heart, in issues of the soul. I became cheered by the thoughts of soon being able to once again turn my oven on and use it whenever the whim hits to make a savory, roasted, fall gratin bubbling with cheese, without regard for how hot it is outside. Soon, the air will be cool enough. And that gives me comfort. It provides hope in an upcoming new chapter of life, one that each season seems to bring with it as part of life’s package.
Something in my creative soul hibernates, oddly enough, in the spring and summer. I know it’s quite the opposite of what happens for most, as the spring and summer are typically times of birth and rebirth for most living creatures. And don’t get me wrong, they are precious to me in a unique way, but fall is when my spirit comes alive. It comes alive with zeal and a vengeance, with voracity and a hunger. Perhaps it’s the uniqueness of the fall’s light that entices it so entirely, the way that it huddles solitarily in a corner or falls across the bed or dining room table in an almost eerie, glowing way. I don’t know. What I do know is that fall has made itself known; I can feel its breath, carried as a breeze, through the canopy of the old, twisted and gnarled California Oaks.
Taste what’s good and pass it on.
Four-Potato Gratin with Thyme, Caramelized Onion, Tomato and Squash
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(Serves about 6)
Drizzles of olive oil
2 large sweet onions, sliced in thin semi-circle slices
2½ teaspoons sea salt, plus a pinch, divided use
½ teaspoon black pepper, plus a pinch, divided use
1 large sweet potato, skin-on, and sliced to ¼” thick circles
3 large red-skin potatoes, skin-on, and sliced into ¼”- ½” thick circles
3 large gold potatoes, skin-on, and sliced into ¼” – ½” thick circles
3 large purple potatoes, skin-on, and sliced into ¼” – ½” thick circles
1 zucchini, sliced into ¼” – ½” thick circles
1 yellow squash, sliced into ¼”- ½” thick circles
½ teaspoon paprika, plus a pinch
¼ teaspoon garlic powder, plus a pinch
3 Roma tomatoes, sliced into ¼”- ½” thick circles (make about 12 slices)
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, divided use
2 cups shredded Quattro Formaggio cheese (or any combination of Asiago, Provolone, Parmesan or Fontina cheese)
(*This gratin produces a good amount of savory, natural juices, and is best eaten with thick slices of rustic bread to sop them up with!)
-Preheating the oven to 400 degrees, and line a baking sheet with foil to place the gratin onto while baking in order to catch an drippings; have 12”x 9 ½” x 2” deep (roughly) baking/casserole dish on hand.
-Begin by placing a large, non-stick pan over medium-high heat, and add about 2 tablespoons worth of olive oil to it; once the pan/oil is hot, add the sliced sweet onion in along with about ½ teaspoon of the sea salt and ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper, and caramelize for a few minutes until light, golden-brown; once lightly caramelized, turn the heat off.
-Next, drizzle the bottom of the baking/casserole dish with about 1 tablespoon worth of olive oil, and add the caramelized onions to the bottom of the dish, creating an even layer of the onions; next, begin adding the sweet potato, red-skin potato, gold potato and purple potato slices to the dish, alternating the colors as best as possible, at a slight angle in the dish so that they’re not flat on top of the onions, and not completely vertical in the baking dish, but layered almost resembling fish-scales (this is a very rustically presented dish, and is not supposed to be “perfect”, just layer as best as possible alternating the colors); continue this until all potato slices are used up, and the dish is filled.
-Once all of the potato slices are layered into the baking dish, begin adding the zucchini and yellow squash circles into the dish, squeezing them in between the potato slices, here and there, to create some color; once all of the zucchini/squash circles are layered in, sprinkle the 2 teaspoons of sea salt over top, along with ¼ teaspoon of black pepper, ½ teaspoon of the paprika, and the ¼ teaspoon of the garlic powder; finally, add the Roma tomato slices over top, and sprinkle the remaining pinches of sea salt, pepper, paprika and garlic powder, along with about 1 tablespoon of the fresh thyme leaves, over top; cover the baking/casserole dish tightly with foil, place it onto the foil-lined baking sheet, and place into the oven to bake for about 1 hour, or until the potatoes are tender.
-After about an hour, or once potatoes are tender, remove the baking/casserole dish from the oven and carefully remove the foil; sprinkle the 2 cups of shredded Quattro Formaggio cheese (or other Italian cheese blend) over top, and place the baking dish back onto the foil-lined baking sheet and into the oven, uncovered this time, for another 20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden-brown and melted.
-Remove the baking/casserole dish from the oven, and sprinkle over top the remaining 1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves, and allow the gratin to rest for a few moments, as it will be extremely hot.
-To serve, use a slotted spoon to scoop up generous portions of the gratin into shallow bowls or onto plates, making sure to get lots of the onions from the bottom, as well as the juices, and serve with warm slices of thick, crusty bread on the side.