Cooking with color from autumn's harvest

Color is everywhere, in everything. The key to color's effectiveness, whether we are wearing it or designing a meal around it, is in the way it is used.

When planning a meal, cooks have an artistic opportunity to create a composition that is both appealing and appetizing. Consider this: Food is your palette, and the plate is your canvas. This approach may take a little getting used to. Even the most skilled cooks sometimes overlook the power of color to create excitement in a meal.

Most people, in general, aren't conscious of color or what some scholars say are its powerful effects on mood and attitude.

In his book "The Elements of Color," for example, Johannes Itten, the famous German color theorist, writes that "Colors are forces, radiant energies that affect us positively or negatively, whether we are aware of it or not." He developed and taught the basic course on form and color from 19l9 to 1923 at the Bauhaus, an internationally known school of design.

One doesn't have to read his book, however, to grasp some basic points about composing an attractive meal. Ingredients that are all white, for instance, will have less appeal than a meal that balances foods that are white, orange, and green. And green vegetables, such as broccoli, will be most striking when they are cooked just to their peak brightness and no longer.

When shopping for produce, you might try selecting vegetables with complementary colors as well as varying textures and tastes. A salad composed of ingredients of multiple colors – tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, olives, and mesclun with radicchio, for instance – will have particular eye appeal when tossed together in the same glass or wooden bowl.

Choose simple and understated plates to highlight food's color. The food is your hero. A simple white plate or bowl will set off your food better than a fancy patterned one. Garnish only with an ingredient in the recipe such as a sprig of fresh thyme, oregano, or marjoram. Keep it simple – it should be an accent.

A meal that integrates a variety of colors could also be better for you, say nutritionists, who assert that each color category of vegetables, for instance, contains a different vitamin.

Ready to get started? Fall is an ideal time of year to design a meal of appetizing colors and to take full advantage of the harvest season's deep orange carrots and pumpkins, golden yellow butternut squash, vibrant green zucchini, or tomatoes picked before the first frost.

You might begin an autumn menu with carrot soup accented with orange and a pinch of cumin. Serve it in a white tureen or in individual bowls topped with a swirl of sour cream and a speckling of chopped chives for contrasting color.

A versatile Vegetable Medley, made by sautéing peppers, onion, and tomatoes with fresh herbs, could be served on the side. Peppers now come in a variety of colors: red, orange, green, and even purple.

End-of-the-season green tomatoes can be sliced and broiled with goat cheese that has been mixed with fresh chopped sage. Top the tomatoes with the cheese-sage mixture and place them under the broiler until they are lightly browned. Serve this impressive and simple dish as a vegetable or an appetizer.

If you plan ahead for holiday gift-giving, shop at farmstands for the second crop of raspberries, make raspberry vinegar, and put it in a decorative bottle. This makes an attractive, colorful gift for any occasion.

Carrot Soup With Orange

1 tablespoon butter

1 medium onion, chopped

1 teaspoon cumin

4 to 6 medium carrots (about 1 pound), peeled and thinly sliced

1 teaspoon grated orange rind

2-1/2 cups chicken broth

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

4 tablespoons sour cream

Chives and chive flowers for garnish (if available)

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and sauté chopped onion until translucent. Add cumin and cook 1 minute longer.

Add carrots, orange rind, chicken broth, and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, until carrots are tender. Remove from heat.

In a food processor fitted with a steel blade or in a blender, purée the mixture in small batches.

Put soup back in saucepan on low heat and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and serve with a dollop or swirl of sour cream. Garnish with chives and chive flowers, if available.

Serves 4.

Vegetable Medley With Fresh Herbs

This recipe, which is similar to ratatouille, can easily be doubled or tripled and frozen for later use.

1 or 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups sliced onions

1 medium zucchini, unpeeled and thinly sliced (about 1-1/2 cups)

1 large green pepper, sliced

6 to 8 fresh ripe tomatoes, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped basil

1 tablespoon chopped oregano

1/2 teaspoon chopped sage

1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon apple-cider vinegar

Heat olive oil in a 6-quart pot. Add onions and cook over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add remaining ingredients, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes, until vegetables release their natural juices. Remove cover and continue to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes. Vegetables should be slightly tender.

Serves 4.

Raspberry Vinegar

To make herb vinegar, follow this same procedure, replacing raspberries with your favorite herb and omitting sugar.

1 quart white-wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

2 cups ripe fresh raspberries

In a medium-size saucepan, combine the vinegar with the sugar. Heat but do not boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat.

Place the raspberries in a 2-quart sterilized bottle and add the vinegar-sugar mixture to the raspberries. Seal the bottle and shake slightly. Store for 2 to 3 weeks in a cool, dark place.

Makes 1 quart.

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