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In the Garden

Oct 31, 2016 10:37AM ● By Lesley Stiles

Lesley Stiles

November slides through on the heels of frantically played and forgotten Halloween festivities, reminding us to be more grateful than a feline scampering in a field of catnip lined with soft pillows. Diablo Valley and the surrounding ridges are resplendent come November, bushwhacking us with hues, scents and textures galore. Trees wantonly paint themselves in sumptuous finery like a Gold Rush Goddess ( before shedding their coverings in delightful piles everywhere and begging small people to jump in and destroy carefully raked yards. Evergreens, bay laurel and eucalyptus, dampened by showers and dew, release decadent scents and follow us for a few months as we take our walks amidst roiling clouds and candy corn skies. With the surrounding hills starting to green up, everyone can cling to a few items of gratitude against the incoming tide of an impending holiday season. Thanksgiving represents powerful moments as well as obscure emotions in our lives, especially as we age and grow families or bury loved ones during the year. Whatever the circumstances, we come together in one way or another and share food from the season. Pagan in origin, Thanksgiving has evolved into the sharing of treasured family recipes, football, neighborhood walks, and sharing stories of thanks as it opens the flood gates of merriment and revelry to come.

Late fall brings seasonal produce that perfectly matches our climate of wet and cool. Winter squashes beg to be roasted and souped or stewed. Taste buds lead our minds to bubbling polenta, lavishly draped with chicken Parmesan or vegetable stew. Couscous desires tagine, thick with carrots and roasted veggies, scented with cumin and cinnamon, and dotted with golden raisins and garbanzo beans. Summer tomatoes frozen a couple months ago go into luscious bolognaise sauce, tossed with unctuous pasta al dente and showered with grated Romano cheese.

Salads don’t dawdle behind the stovetop’s cozy show by any stretch. Lettuce and greens artfully come alive with cool weather and rain, tempting tummies quite strongly by virtue of looks alone. Fuyu persimmons pretty much dominate the fresh fruit show at this point, leaving stage room for cold storage grapes and pomegranates. But the fruits of summer are indeed a thing of the past. Don’t be lured by southern hemisphere strawberries and peaches; you will be disappointed. Citrus fruits are coming along with kiwi, cementing patience as a culinary virtue. Toss enticing greens with sliced fuyu persimmons, pomegranate seeds, feta, lemon oil, and lemon juice for an amazing treat to show that ole stew who is who. Lightly sauté kale or Swiss chard and toss with lots of olive oil and garlic for a food group you can live on. Steamed bok choy with a touch of rice vinegar restores energy and the belief that there is a higher power controlling the seasons and produce performing within it.

Trust me (no really!), this is not a time for constrained physical activities simply on the belief that shorter days, sometimes cold and damp, translate into staying in that warm chair by the window. No way. This is the most rewarding time of the year to get out and hike, bike, whatever, and enjoy all this precious season has to offer, leaving us with gratitude for our ability to do just that, just here. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

Hearty Chicken Ragout

1 whole organic chicken, cut in 8 pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup sliced fresh shitake mushrooms

1 red onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed

2 carrots, sliced

2 cups vegetable stock

1 cup white wine

1 cup tomato sauce

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

3 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste


Heat a large oven proof skillet and add olive oil. Season chicken with salt and pepper and brown well in olive oil. Add onions, garlic and shitake mushrooms and sauté for another 5 minutes. Add carrots and sweet potato and sauté for another 3 minutes. Add the stock, white wine, and tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Let simmer 40 minutes. Add parsley and oregano and season to taste. Alternately, you can put everything into a big roaster and put a lid on it and cook the whole thing in a 350* oven for an hour or 2, finishing with the above herbs and seasonings. Serve over creamy polenta. Serves 6.

Creamy Polenta

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 chopped red onion

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 quart chicken stock or broth

1 cup coarse ground cornmeal or polenta

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 ounces Parmesan, grated

Sea salt and pepper to taste


In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and sauté onion and garlic for a few minutes, until onion is opaque and garlic is fragrant. Bring chicken stock to a boil. Gradually add the cornmeal while continually whisking. Turn to medium low and stir frequently until polenta is done, about 20 to 30 minutes. Add the butter, salt, and pepper. Once they are incorporated, gradually add the Parmesan. Serve as is or pour the polenta into a 9 by 13-inch cake pan lined with parchment paper. Place in the refrigerator to cool completely. Once set, turn the polenta out onto a cutting board and cut into squares, rounds, or triangles. Brush each side with olive oil and sauté in a nonstick skillet over medium heat, or grill.