There’s something about the falling of leaves and the first scent of wood fires in the air that arouses our appetites. If you’re entertaining this season, you’ll do well to consider all the possibilities of including locally sourced produce, warm spices and rich, comfort foods in your menu planning.
“The aromas of fall food tend to go hand-in-hand with the weather better than in any other season,” says Scott Hoegel, general manager of The Mansion on Main Street in Voorhees, N.J.
Soups are a natural choice for the longer evenings and the extra chill in the air. Whether it’s for a cocktail hour, dinner, event or brunch, The Mansion on Main Street might offer a butternut squash soup or a toasted pumpkin seed soup, he says
Seasonal vegetables can be used in a variety of traditional and unexpected ways. Roasted squashes can be made into spreads and chutneys to accompany dishes, Hoegel says. Pumpkin, of course, makes a regular appearance in items ranging from pumpkin gnocchi to brandy pumpkin spice pancakes with a vanilla cinnamon whipped cream topping.
Pumpkin pie is a no-brainer, but why stop there? The Mansion on Main Street also offers a pumpkin mousse for dessert, and for some extra fall festiveness, an apple cider and donut station that scores for both taste and appearance, Hoegel says.
JoAnne Morton, chef/owner of Della Terra Catering and Events in Montclair, N.J., had similar success recently with a candy apple station for a corporate client that included toppings as varied as coconut and cereals.
Morton, who works primarily with local produce, says she likes to take fresh items from her summer menu and deepen the flavors for fall. She creates a winter caprese sauce with slow-roasted tomatoes and caramelized squash added in. The more the caramelization, the better. “We’re looking for lots of color,” she says. She’ll toss it with pasta and burrata or another soft cheese, like locally sourced ricotta or mozzarella. The sauce also can be used over chicken or with pizza.
Short ribs are a fall standard, especially with slow-cooked porcini mushrooms and a braised cabernet sauce. She’ll also do unexpected and slightly richer versions of foods like grilled chicken, topping it with a pistachio crust for more heartiness and serving it over diced caramelized squash and wilted winter greens.
Literal translations of fall food aren’t always necessary. Farm-style dinners are popular this time of year including items such as mac and cheese and fried chicken. Morton offers her clients a southern hospitality theme that includes those perennial favorites accompanied by buttermilk biscuits and smoked bacon with collard greens. She’s also created chili bars for parties with cinnamon-spiced beef and a variety of toppings.
“Even weddings are leaning toward a less formal menu,” she says. “Our most popular dishes have become these family-style dishes. It’s a lot of fun for us because it’s great foods we enjoy eating.”
For dessert, she’ll sometimes create mini pies or cobblers. And ice cream isn’t out of the question, especially at events that involve dancing. A pumpkin ice cream float might be just the thing you need to cool down at the end of the night.
While the food is important, presentation counts, too. Morton will place foods in hollowed out pumpkins, gourds or apples. She’ll decorate bars and stations with flowers, foliage and anything that reflects the bright bounty of the season. “It’s great when aesthetics of the table replicate that,” she says.