One of the tragedies of summer is that while produce peaks, it’s too damn hot to cook. The slew of cold dishes and grilled dinners is great in theory, but it’s stuff and nonsense for most urban apartment dwellers. September, however, is the perfect liminal zone. Bounty + cooler weather = let’s get cooking.

My first concerted effort at early autumn cooking was Cooking Light’s Butternut Squash au Gratin with Wild Mushrooms and Crispy Bacon. Based on an Alain Ducasse recipe from his Manhattan restaurant, Benoit, it combines all the title advertises into what looked like a hearty offering to the season. However, I had a hugely skeptical moment during the part where you mix the mashed squash and mushroom mixture with a mere 2 tablespoons of part-skim ricotta cheese and 1 ounce of Parmesan cheese. Please keep in mind that my definition of “au gratin” does not always mean “swimming in cheese sauce.” In fact, I know darn well that “au gratin” indicates a specific type of baking dish. However, when confronted with Cooking Light’s adaptation of Ducasse’s recipe, I couldn’t help but scan the recipe again to see if I missed something. I didn’t, so I pressed on trusting in the expertise of the cooking gods. The end result was successful in that the recipe worked and I liked it well enough. I just couldn’t get over the feeling that something was missing though. After some discussion, it was decided that the recipe needs a touch more salt; it only calls for 1/2 teaspoon and squash is often difficult to flavor. It also needs more ricotta to kick it over the twice cooked squash line into au gratin.

This weekend’s fall cooking menu was Mark Bittman’s Skillet Pork Chops with Apples. Bittman is a very reliable recipe author in my experience with his New York Times column. However, I suspect he may have compromised his integrity a bit when he released this recipe on Oprah.com because the cooking times are 5,000 kinds of off. Two minutes per side to sear 1-inch thick pork chops? Two minutes on medium to cook 1/2 cup of wine (hard cider at my place) until almost evaporated? It wasn’t happening last night in Rogers Park. Thankfully, braising has become a bit of specialty for me and I reality checked the suggestions of Oprah’s food research team to fit mine with great success. Also? Use granny smith apples.

So what is the lesson we can take away from all this? Confront recipes with a critical eye. Don’t be afraid to question the gods. And, apparently, I pull a particular face when cooking from someone else’s guidelines – sort of a determined, battle strategy look.

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