Fall is for Lovers

By Bridget Weiss

I’ve been in love so many times, I thought I knew the score—predictable days, long nights sweating it, months on end with no relief in sight. My girlfriends and I placed bets on whether it might ever happen again. The loser would buy the winner a snifter of Calvados. Then, when we had all but lost faith, the first cool front of the season hit town (“cool” meaning daytime highs in the 80s). I’d put my money on September 17 but gleefully bought drinks for the winners. And why not?

I’m in love again. With Austin. What a guy.

A glass of red wine with early supper on the back porch (after a three-mile run) is no longer a recipe for heatstroke. Now we can slide back into welcoming boots and jeans, and put the sunscreen and umbrellas into cold storage.

While we’re changing clothes, let’s change menus too. Push the tequila, vinho verde and gin to the back of the cabinet; pull close the bourbon, brandy and red wine and think hefty appetizers and galvanizing casseroles for supper parties.

The Scene: votive candles in empty water glasses placed around the yard or patio provide cool backlighting. A few sticks of cedar incense in potted plants mock the aroma of a wood fire.

Fall Toddies: empty a 10 dollar bottle of red wine into a soup pot with some brown sugar, citrus peel, nutmeg and whole cloves. Bring to a simmer and serve warm with cinnamon-stick swizzlers.

Snacketizers: treat thick slices of baguette or ciabatta to brushed olive oil, generous spreads of homemade tapenade and sprinkles of Parmesan cheese. Toast the bruschetta briefly under the broiler until crispy and brown.

Suppertime: pull out the dusty casserole pan and consider comfort food. There is no need to dig through boxes to find your grandmother’s cookbook. Her mayonnaise-laden, canned tuna-infused specialty can forever remain a fond memory. Think scrumptious! Become an innovator of the sophisticated 9”x 13”. And name that dish while you’re at it. The basic ingredients are pasta, veggies, meat (or meat substitute), sauce and a 1960s-style crispy topping. Need to know more?

• Preheat the oven to 425° and grease a 9”x 13” casserole dish.

• Boil your choice of pasta until barely al dente.

• Sauté 1 or 2 chopped onions in olive oil or butter until translucent. Add a few dashes of sea salt and a teaspoon of brown sugar to caramelize. Stir for a few minutes longer and set aside.

• Sauté 6 chopped tomatoes until they have given up most of their liquid and set aside.

• Sauté veggies until barely al dente and set aside.

• Sauté or grill your choice of meat (or meat substitute) and set aside.

• Warm 4 tablespoons of butter or olive oil in a non-stick skillet. Whisk in 4 tablespoons of white flour until the lumps are gone. Slowly whisk in 2 cups of half-and-half, wine or stock until mixture is thick and bubbling. Stir in 1 or more cups of your favorite cheese (or cheese substitute). Stir in the sautéed tomatoes and season to taste. Set aside.

• Throw cooked noodles into the casserole dish. Spoon the meat and veggies over the pasta and gently stir them into the pasta. Pour the sauce over the contents of the pan. Top with your choice of crispy topping. Cook uncovered for 20 minutes, or until lightly browned.

La Casa-role—vermicelli noodles, black beans, corn, ground beef, Monterey Jack cheese and queso fresco, crumbled tortilla chips

Grilled Godfather—fettuccine noodles, spinach, grilled fennel sausage, ricotta and Parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs 

The Lovely American—elbow macaroni, mushrooms, bell peppers, ground bison, cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, crushed potato chips

The Late Salad: toss raisins, toasted pecans, chèvre or bleu cheese with chunks of romaine lettuce and dress lightly with a quiet vinaigrette. Serve salad after the casserole has been inhaled, and introduce the topic of a group trip to France in November for backwoods guests who aren’t familiar with the tradition of salad as a third course.

Dessert: offer Grappa or Calvados in snifters with a platter of sliced pears and apples, dark chocolate and fresh pansy blossoms.