The Autumn Things

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fall cocktail

As I poured myself the apple, sage, and bourbon concoction I whipped up from what was sitting on my kitchen table—the first official fall cocktail of the season—I thought, “why is this so foreign? What did I do last year?”

Oh. Right. I was pregnant. There were no cocktails. There was a lot of caramel corn and ice cream, but it was a cocktail desert. A [totally appropriate and worth it]pregnancy prohibition.

So this season, all of the sudden, I have the fall back again and it is my favorite. I baked no pumpkin things last year, drank no cider and whiskey, made no rich dish to pair with Alsatian whites, drank little Champagne by fireside…my god, I am SO EXCITED that it’s fall again! And here are all the reasons.

1. My daughter’s birthday

The primary reason I “missed” last fall was that I was steeped in the torrents of new motherhood (I say that as though I’ve gotten used to it…), and now I’m about to have a magnificent one year-old. She has the hair of Julius Caesar, the arms of a T-Rex, the smile of the century, can say “dada,” “mom,” “flower,” and “HA” pretty convincingly, and last night, in the throes of a tumbling mishap, gestured at my husband’s whiskey glass with a dramatic Liza Minnelli-like flinging of her arm as though to say, “that will solve these woes!” She is spectacular. And now she will be one. Which means there will be a celebratory luau, which means my husband will figure out a way to build a pit-oven and roast animals while I tend to gentler side dishes and beverage managing, maybe a throwback tropical punch and some cupcakes. Doesn’t much matter. The celebrating is the point.

2. My birthday

My birthday celebrations of the last few years included a stellar bottle of Galician wine, a lovely Côte-Rôtie, and two different 1985 Champagnes, which is not my birth year (or my “vintage,” as my husband affectionately refers to it), but is a far better year in Champagne and since it’s my favorite everything, we’ve made concessions. There have also been family meals, pho with my mom, surprise lunch celebrations, and late nights watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and with the addition of my firecracker daughter, this year it has the potential to be the best time ever

3. Alsace, in general

I miss Alsace every year at this time because it wasn’t that long ago I was almost knee-deep in mud in a beautiful vineyard in the northeast of France, snipping Pinot Gris into bucket after bucket at Sipp Mack winery in Hunewhir. The region is not only linked to the fall because I was there in that season, but also because their wines are remarkable for the richer fare we tend towards as the weather cools. The predominantly white wines Alsace makes include Riesling (though made in a dry style), Pinot Gris (made in a richer, sweeter style), Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, and the token red, Pinot Noir. The region is located just across the Rhine River and you can literally see Germany from its hills, so naturally, the food (as well as the grape varieties), is pretty influenced by its surroundings. Rich stews, funky sauerkraut and muenster cheese, sausages, potatoes, pork, apples, all the things growing around the region make perfect sense with the unctuous white wines, but their natural acidity and whispers toward fruity sweetness keep all of the fat and funk in check. It’s a remarkable place.

4. Braising

By far my favorite cooking method, I finally feel like I can brown something, dump in a bottle of wine, and let it simmer for hours before I put it in a bowl with something starchy and devour it. I don’t eat red meat or pork, so generally this means making Coq au Vin or Chicken Cacchiatore, but that will not stop me from making dozens of variations thereof in the coming months. Wines to keep on hand: plenty of average Chianti (Chianti Colli Senesi or even entry level Sangiovese from surrounding regions) and lots Côtes-du-Rhône, whose generally modest price point and robust flavors provide the perfect foil for caramelized chicken bits and pearl onions browned in butter. Ohmygod, can we just eat this right now please.

5. Bourbon

And Gin, while we bid you adieu for now, we will not weep long: Whiskey awaits. I admit I prefer whiskey to most of its counterparts, but I prefer it most in the form of warming, spicy, sweet vanilla corn liquor…good ol’ Kentucky bourbon. It lines itself up perfectly with other telltale flavors of fall, from cinnamon to nutmeg to apples and pumpkin. I put it in my sweet potato pie. I make blondies with it. Mostly, though, I just want a little in a glass with good sweet vermouth, tart cherries, and a squeeze of lemon to sip by a fireplace somewhere.

6. Apples

Apples, guys. The joy of fall cuisines is that the availability and ubiquity of this fruit makes it presence in all the dishes acceptable. Sweet apple cakes, pies, donuts, cookies, beverages, and the like litter coffee shops and homes alike. Savory preparations of apples with rosemary, sage, thyme, squash, pork roasts, bacon, and winter greens also surface and introduce sweet-tart elements to meals, making room for those Alsatian white wines to join the autumnal table, as well as assertive American Pinot Noirs and cozy red Zinfandels.

7. Pumpkin

Did you know I made zero pumpkin things last year? Zero. After I learned that pumpkin pie was a solo act in my house (dear spouse: what does “I don’t like pumpkin pie” even mean?”), I guess I just gave up. But not this year. No, sir. If I can put pumpkin in it, I will put pumpkin in it. I will roast a chicken with pumpkin on the side. Pumpkin in tacos. Pumpkin in brownies. Pumpkin in risotto. Pumpkin, like apple, lends itself to both sweet and savory applications and has a rich texture that brings creaminess to cake and cookies and soups all on its own without the addition of cream, although a little certainly doesn’t hurt. I was at my parents’ house last week and my daughter devoured half a loaf of pumpkin bread and it occurred to me that I’ve been depriving her all this time…today, with her asleep on my shoulder, I reached for a pumpkin cookie a friend made and her head immediately popped up and before I could blink she’d grabbed the cookie and shoved it into her mouth. She gets it. That’s my girl.

Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager at Bin 201 in Annapolis.

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