Thursday, October 9, 2008

Getting Autumn the Best Way We Can

Here in Southern California we don't get much change in the leaves until AFTER Christmas. And seeing nature's orange, red and gold confetti in January sits a little oddly--it's like seeing Christmas decorations in April or lots of American flags at Halloween. (Of course, with the general election falling just four days after Halloween this year, I guess we will be experiencing the orange & black/red, white & blue eyeball disconnect soon.)

This past weekend, Andy and I cruised up the coast to enjoy a change of scenery and celebrate our anniversary away from the crush of LA busy-ness. Along the way we stopped at Underwood's, our favorite place to pick up fresh produce when we're making a jaunt to the country.

They do a good job this time of year of making you think it's actually autumn, or at least the kind of autumn people get in other parts of the country. The kind of autumn I really miss. So stopping here was necessary, even if we didn't need to buy anything (of course, we brought a cooler and packed it with fruits and veggies).

The place was covered in pumpkins, Indian corn (do they call it Native American corn now?) and gourds of all types, including some quite peculiar ones, the likes of which I've never seen.

I just had to bring some of them home. These two look rather like birds nesting in my bumble bee bowl. They're curious enough that I might have to keep them around even after the harvest season has passed. Maybe I'll make tiny Santa hats for them to wear . . .

This trip was one of those we occasionally indulge in with a full tank and an empty agenda. Only after we started our drive did we decide to do some wine tasting in Los Olivos, in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley. This hamlet has a number of tasting rooms to choose from, so we stopped at the one with the sleeping cat on the porch. To my mind, that's a better indicator of a good place to sip wine than simply picking one with any mention of the movie Sideways posted outside. (Yes, there are still people who visit the area looking for a tasting room that will allow them to recreate the film's infamous spit bucket scene for their camera-wielding friends.)

Of course, tasting led to buying, which led to planning meals with which to enjoy the wines we selected. The syrah we'll pull out next time we put pork ribs into the smoker. That should happen soon, now that the evenings are getting cool, and smoky rich flavors beckon. The riesling was a surprise purchase, because neither of us are fans of sweet wines. This one is unusual, though, because it's sweet and yet minerally. We're eager to see what kinds of foods it will pair well with. I'm betting it will be pretty versatile. And the port, well, we went back and forth with the port. I leaned toward the tawny, which would pair well with salty cheeses, and Andy leaned toward the ruby, with its chocolate-loving potential. Finally we settled on the ruby, since we knew we had some tawny left at home.

One of Los Olivos' galleries has an outdoor sculpture gallery, which includes this fine lass in all her whisk-haired splendor. I don't think L'Oreal can help her, even if she IS worth it.

After prowling the business district with its abundance of galleries, we went for dinner, which finished the job of putting us in the mood for fall. Andy's pumpkin papardelle with duck confit, toasted walnuts, dried mission figs and sage beurre noisette helped us bid goodbye to summer's light salady fare. The heft of the duck, pasta and figs and the richness of their flavors paired well with the warm syrah in his glass and the cool stirring of the autumn air around our table out on the restaurant porch.

Mushrooms always remind me of cool weather, so the portobello layered with pecan caviar and gruyerre, baked in a crust and served on a bed of wilted spinach with a port jus, was just what I required--sweet, salty and earthy with a slight kick from the jus and a grating of lemon peel. And it looked so amazing that I heard each diner who passed behind me ask their server, "What IS that!?"

It was a good meal, a good drive, a good day and a great way to spend time with my favorite person. Autumn excursions always seem to be the best. We tend to luxuriate in the golden light and linger over wine and conversation, talking about trips past and things we'd like to do--or do again. The walks seem more leisurely and the times, somehow more special. I don't know what it is about autumn that makes these things so, but it does, at least for me.

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