Above, the Caramel Apple Pie. Below, A relish so versatile that I might make it year -round; Cranberry Chutney from Clean Food.

It's just after lunch on a chilly Sunday and I feel like this is the first moment I've had to collect my thoughts in a good, long while. I hope to coast my way through the rest of the afternoon, with time to stare at the leaves that have caught fire outside my window. Last week there were only sparks of colour flickering amongst branches of green. Now the scene is almost fully aflame.

Whenever the world gets the better of me, I find I rely heavier on the recipes of others. Do you do that too? It's the culinary equivalent of handing over the wheel, and when my mind is taken with the business of other things there's that certain feeling of relief in the ability to relinquish responsibility and to say "here, you drive."

On Thanksgiving there was a Caramel Apple Pie with a boozy applejack and almond crust inspired by Andrea. Believe you me, that pastry was a stunner. Then the other day I tried Nikole's Walnut Oats, which were exactly the thing one should make for breakfast on a grey morning, preferably with your woolen socks on and a broad-bowled spoon at the ready. Later this week I'm making Ashley's Chocolate Chip Cookies and I have a feeling they're going to be tremendous*.

Using their recipes feels like there is a friend with me in the kitchen. I like that.

Even if it is my hands that are doing the heavy lifting, their guidance is there - a voice in your ear through words on a page - and it is a comfort. It is almost as good as having someone there to cook for you. Yes, only almost, but not quite. But it is something.

In case of the circumstance that you too might need similar inspiration, I thought I would tell you about a few the new-to-me books and the recipes that have been filling our table and keeping us fed.

Happy reading. And eating.

* Psst. I made the cookies last night, and tremendous does not even begin to describe how good they are. They are deserving of every superlative imaginable.

Earth to Table (by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann, Random House, 2009)

This book is as much of a treatise on seasonal, local cooking as it is a cookbook alone. And let me tell you, I will solemnly swear my allegiance the succulent perfection of their Braised Short Ribs; they are a lusty, gutsy affair with the braising liquid reduced to lacquer that coats the ribs in thick gloss. The robust combination of wine, port and balsamic vinegar is elevated by the firecracker brightness of Gremolata and the sweet subtlety of Apple and Parsnip Purée.

My adopted Irish roots grew proudly at a taste of Colacannon Potatoes, a shameless combination of potatoes, butter, wine, and bacon folded through with tendrils of Brussels sprout. The Heirloom Beet Salad with Feta and Pumpkin Seeds lives up to the quote from Tom Robbins on the facing page; these roasted beets beets are "the most intense of vegetables, ... deadly serious."

Recipes from Earth to Table

• A selection of recipes, including Roasted Autumn Fruits with Torched Sabayon and Mulled Cider and Cranberry, can be found here.

Martha Stewart's Dinner at Home (by Martha Stewart, Clarkson Potter, 2009)

It takes a lot for me to introduce a completely new, untested recipe to our holiday table. But leave it to Martha to charm her way into a seat at our Thanksgiving spread with her Gratinéed Baked Squash Halves. An acorn squash is cleaved in half and then anointed with sage and garlic infused cream. It's then baked in a shallow water bath, so that the steam turns the thick flesh tender but the dry heat causes the cut edges to curl and brown. Once soft, gruyère is grated over and back into the oven until its all golden and bubbling. Brilliant. It was so delicious that I made some more two days after the festivities for a particularly-sumptuous lunch. (Just so you don't worry about my health I should say that there was a salad of bitter greens as well, but the squash was the main attraction.)

After those days of excess, the Tofu and Scallions in Mushroom Broth was a welcome change. Simple and straightforward, dried shititakes bring character to the broth. Even though The Warm Swiss Chard and Bacon Dip is suggested as a part of a larger menu, it does make a fine, fine addition to a lazy Sunday afternoon of watching movies. An icy beer as its partner isn't a bad thing either. Not that I'd know anything about that.

Recipes from Martha Stewart's Dinners at Home

• A slideshow of menus and recipes from marthastewart.com

• Watercress-Cauliflower Soup

Chicken Paillards with Walnut Sauce

• Gratineed Baked Squash Halves

Clean Food (by Terry Walters, Sterling Epicure, 2009)

This is the book I wanted to cook from when summer began to wane. Full of healthful recipes and an emphasis on whole foods, it offered the substance sought as the cold sets in, but still with a produce-centric perspective that celebrated fall's harvest. The Refried Pinto Beans with Chiles were a quick dinner alongside the Skillet Cornbread and some chopped tomato and avocado. In the beans, the unmistakable tang of lime brought dimension, the classic match to the grassy notes of cumin. As for the cornbread, the texture was light and bouncy, with only a slight sweetness from a modest pour of maple syrup. Leftovers made a merry weekend brunch, with a fried egg perched upon the beans with fresh pico de gallo, and the cornbread toasted with butter alongside.

The Wild Rice, Barley and Arame Salad is what I'll be eating until the winter comes I think, the hearty combination of grains and nuts is somehow soothing and restorative at the same time. Finally, Walters' mother's Cranberry Chutney was the second untried recipe to make its debut on Thanksgiving Day; full of autumnal flavours of maple and ginger and spice, the addition of apple and celery brings a freshness and subtly that allows its easy pairing with the other dishes of a holiday meal.

Recipes from Clean Food

• A selection of recipes are available on Walters' own site.

CRANBERRY CHUTNEY

As a child, I insisted on store-bought cranberry sauce – no chunks, just that smooth roll, complete with indentations from the can. When I finally tasted my mother’s homemade chutney, I was converted. I now make it in huge batches, give it as gifts around the holidays and even freeze it to have throughout the year. It goes great on a turkey sandwich with avocado and honey mustard or with vegetable pot pie. Once you taste it, you’ll understand why I’m addicted. - Terry Walters

I chose to dice all the ingredients so that the chutney cooked into a softly-textured relish. - Tara

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups fresh cranberries
  • 1 cup raisins
  • ½ cup sucanat
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 medium apples, cored and chopped
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

METHOD

Combine cranberries, raisins, sucanat, maple syrup, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and water in Dutch oven. Place over medium heat and cook 15 minutes. Stir in onion, apples and celery and cook 15 minutes more. Remove from heat, fold in lemon peel, and serve.

Chutney can be made in advance and stored in an airtight container in the freezer.

Makes 4 cups

Note: Coincidentally, all three books are organized by season; I have only been cooking from the Fall chapters of each. Author biographies and further information about the books can be found through the links provided. Cover art and recipe reprinted with permission from the respective publishers.

This dish is similar to peperonata, shares ingredients with caponata, but is more of a relish. It could be used sparingly as a condiment or generously as a main ingredient.

With all of that variation, it is hard to reason why I am having such trouble finding the words to appropriately introduce this bowl of piquant peppers and eggplant. I feel a bit sheepish, as the inadequacy falls squarely on my shoulders; the relish is rather tasty and possesses a multitude of positive attributes. Cut into thin lengths and roasted, the vegetables delicately slip across the palate, sweet and unctuous. Vinegar-steeped then soothed with olive oil, they have an acidity that sets the mouth to water.

I will say, despite the lack of fanfare and my difficulty with uncharacteristic taciturnity, this relish has been extraordinarily easy to enjoy. Three jars have resided in our fridge in as many weeks, with the ingredients for a subsequent batch always waiting at the ready. Maybe that record is endorsement enough.

ROASTED EGGPLANT AND PEPPER RELISH

The generous quantity of vinaigrette thoroughly bathes the cooked vegetables and results in a particularly-succulent result. These juices will cloud slightly when refrigerated, due to the olive oil, but will clear once brought to room temperature. Can be served as a sandwich spread (above), an antipasti, or as an accompaniment to grilled and roasted meats and poultry.

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 red bell peppers, seeded, cored and sliced thinly
  • 1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/4" batons
  • 1 large onion, halved lengthwise and then sliced very thinly
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons good olive oil, divided
  • 1/4 cup good quality balsamic vinegar, see note
  • 1 tablespoon capers, drained and chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh basil
  • sprinkle of dried red pepper flakes (optional)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

METHOD

Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). On a standard rimmed baking sheet or large roasting pan, toss together the peppers and eggplant. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast, for 15 minutes, turning occasionally. Add 3/4 of the onion (reserve the rest) and continue to cook until the vegetables are soft but without much colour, about 25-30 minutes more.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, make the vinaigrette; combine the vinegar, capers, garlic and basil. Slowly whisk in the 1/2 cup of olive oil, until thick and emulsified. Mix in the reserved onion and the red pepper flakes (if using), season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside.

When finished roasting, tumble the hot vegetables into the vinaigrette, tossing well to combine. Make sure to scrape any caramelized bits off of the pan and any accumulated juices. Allow the vegetables to marinate for 20 minutes at the least, serving the relish warm. My preference is to cool the mixture, then refrigerate in a sealed container overnight. It can then be served at room temperature or warmed gently.

Makes about 2 cups.

Notes:

• The reserved raw onion will slightly pickle in the vinaigrette. You can skip this step, but I like how they turn into translucent ribbons of concentrated acidity.

• For those who might find good quality balsamic vinegar overly intense, you could substitute 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar for the same quantity of balsamic.

Mark Bittman's tomato jam; wonderful to look at, tastes even better. Photos taken by my sister-in-law.

It was love at first sight. Or at least greed at first glance.

It was early. I was still in my pajamas and had only recently padded into the kitchen. Coffee in hand, I flicked open the newspaper and there it was. Across the countertop lay spread a photo so alluring, so beautiful, that my breath caught and I stopped mid sip.

Now what ever could have caught my rapt attention? What was the object of my early-morning desire, you ask?

Mark Bittman's Tomato Jam. (You know me well enough to know it would be about food.)

But seriously. Look at this. It is just a spoonful of gorgeousness. To call it red would be a disservice; it seems too plain. Scarlet doesn't cut it, brick doesn't even come close. Vermilion? Crimson? I cannot come up with an adjective that captures the particular hue of this luscious-looking stuff.

Attempts to describe aside, I did know one thing from the start. I wanted to try this jam. I needed to make it. And I needed to make it right away.

And so, I set about making a batch of tomato jam. Lucky for me, my dear Sean is used to the vagrancies of my behaviour and said not a word when I started mincing green chilies and ginger. After a minimal bit of chopping, stirring and grinding, on my stove sat a bubbling pot. Soon the smell of coffee met and mingled with scents of ripe tomatoes and grassy cumin, with an underlying warmth of cinnamon and clove.

The pot remained for the remainder of the coffee, and for the duration of breakfast. All the while deepening in colour and texture; what started out as bright and watery slowly turned darker, richer. In the end, I was left with a sticky sweet relish, heady with spice but with a good balance of acidity. It was complex without being overly complicated.

The jam was even better after it cooled overnight in the fridge. Akin to a chutney, it is an unexpected but delicious accompaniment to bread and cheese. I would offer more suggestions for its use, but I haven't gotten that far; I've just started exploring the possibilities.

I can tell you this though, this tomato jam looks good enough to eat. And its looks do not deceive.

TOMATO JAM

By Mark Bittman, as published in the New York Times (August 19, 2008) and in syndication.

Recipe and an associated video are both available online.

Notes:

  • I used a mix of tomatoes from our garden, all rather sweet in their own right. While I understand its role in setting the jam, I was still wary of the amount of sugar in the recipe - so I used a generous 3/4 of a cup and upped the tomatoes to a full 2 pounds.
  • For another savoury note I included 1 large garlic clove, grated.
  • Wanting enough heat to cut through the sweetness, I used two small green chilies instead of the jalapeño.
  • When I make this again I might include a bit of lime zest..
  • Most likely due to the reduced amount of sugar and additional tomatoes, my cooking time was closer to 2 hours to reach the consistency I was looking for.