I have always looked forward to fall. After the summer doldrums, fall is invigorating and energizing—a crisp breeze chasing away those hot, hazy days. It is when I feel like tackling new projects, when I am raring to go, when the plans and ideas made over the summer go into effect.
For me, it marks the beginning rather than the end of the year.
And when it comes to food, let’s not forget the wonderful colors and aromas all around us. Fall ushers in a bounty of ingredients and flavors: The markets are bursting with gourds and squash of every shape and color; sweet and juicy apples and pears; deep red beets and bright orange carrots; huge heads of cauliflowers and bushels of Brussels sprouts. The produce matches the colors of the changing leaves, and the warm spices that best go with them: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves. It seems that their scent has permeated the air.
These cool fall days and earlier nights call for heartwarming soups and stews; rich, creamy chowders; baked fruit desserts, and warm drinks. I love coming into the warmth of my house with rosy cheeks, ready to light the fireplace and prepare a cozy, comforting meal—even better shared with family and friends.
Yes, it is the season for gathering, and gather we must.
Entertaining at home has always been my passion. After all, eating together and spending time at a table is the best way to solidify friendships and create lasting relationships. Such shared rituals and traditions are what unite as families and clans. And now, as our groups have shrunk to those who are just around us, they are even more important. Eating at home is the new norm.
This exercise doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated; in fact, the easier it is, the more often it can happen. It has always been my opinion that everyday dinners can turn, with little effort, from total chaos into civilized pursuits. Just the act of lighting some candles, or arranging fresh flowers, or serving warm bread will pacify the pickiest of eaters and calm everyone down.
I am not suggesting setting out an elaborate eight-course dinner every day of the week (unless, of course, you want to). Drawing up a few well-thought-out menus with interchangeable recipes using fresh, seasonal ingredients, easy cooking techniques, and lots of flavor is my way of getting it done. Everyday meals then easily become a special way to entertain your family—and a trial-run for when you entertain your friends.
A Comforting Fall Menu
In my arsenal of classic, fool-proof entertaining menus, this is one of my favorites.
Everything is incredibly easy to make, and can all be made ahead of time and reheated just before serving. I have to admit that I don’t like to cook in my evening dress, or when friends are already over—I want to be chit-chatting with a martini in my hand, not in the kitchen over a hot stove—so menus that can be prepared well in advance are essential to my entertaining prowess.
The centerpiece of the menu is a spicy Cajun sausage, shrimp, and corn chowder, a colorful and charming dish to look at, to serve, and of course, to eat. Inspired by jambalaya, the chowder is a nod to those wonderful dishes of Creole and Cajun cooking, in which spices and peppers are combined to make flavorful stews.
Be generous with the spices and let them work their magic. I use chili powder, turmeric, and curry powder, a mix that I love to use, as it gives dishes a wonderful depth of flavor.
A touch of heavy cream gives the chowder the necessary luxury; it’s only one cup, so don’t fret. The Cajun andouille sausage is essential. As it cooks, it will release its smoky, spicy flavors into the creamy broth, giving the chowder a pale pink hue and even more depth of flavor.
On the practical side, the recipe uses whole vegetables, no counting cups here—a pepper is a pepper, an onion is an onion. To allow for even cooking and a more elegant presentation, dice all the ingredients to the same size and leave the starring roles to the sausage and shrimp.
I serve this chowder over black beans and rice to make it a full meal, rather than a first course, and then garnish it with diced tomatoes, chopped scallions, and sour cream (to take some of the heat off), a la chili. It makes it even more festive and celebratory.
I am totally partial to fruit for dessert; it must be a vestige of my European upbringing, in which seasonal fruit was always on the menu. And so today’s dessert is a delicious, autumnal, and easy-to-make pear crisp.
I am using Bartlett pears, which are so ripe and juicy right now, but this recipe can easily be used for any other fruit—peaches, plums, blueberries. Pecans, oats, butter, and brown sugar combine to make a nutty, crumbly topping that will turn to a golden brown crust as it bakes. It is more like a crisp granola topping, rather than a classic crumble made with flour.
I serve the crisp warm, right out of the oven, with a dollop of butter pecan ice cream. The ice cream will melt and mingle with the toasty topping and spiced fruit filling, resulting in an unforgettable treat.
Setting the Table
Taking the time to set the table is a wonderful way to show your guests that you care. The table setting doesn’t have to be ornate or extravagant, but should make sense with where you are eating (a formal dining room or the garden, for instance), what you are eating (keep in mind the colors and aromas of the food), and how it’s going to be eaten (a lobster dinner needs more elbow room than a chicken stew!). Most importantly, the setting should be comforting and comfortable.
As in many other instances, it is the small details that together create a beautiful picture.
Fall accents on the table can be as simple as small flower vases filled with leaves and a few seasonal flowers in autumnal colors—dark pinks, oranges, yellows, reds. I love mixing dark pink asters and deep orange roses, small bunches of red berries, and different colored leaves from the garden. Avoid marigolds, as their scent will interfere with the aromas of the food. Cut the flowers short so you can see each other across the table.
Napkins should be ironed, folded, and placed on the plate or the side plate. Bread and butter plates should be set with, well, bread and butter, and water glass filled with, well, water. Complete the table with decanters for the wine, or at least a wine coaster, and salt and pepper cellars, because, well, they just look pretty.
Once the wine is served, water poured, and bread toasted, I am ready to sit down and enjoy the meal, accepting accolades from my friends. Thank you, thank you!
RECIPE: Pear Crisp
Victoria de la Maza is an award-winning cookbook author, columnist, and international TV host. Passionate about great food, she combines American traditions with her European heritage to create classic-with-a-twist recipes and ideas for stylish entertaining at home.