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updated: 10/16/2013 10:42 AM

Bring on the autumn char

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  • Few foods conjure the fall season like acorn squash. Try it on the grill.

    Few foods conjure the fall season like acorn squash. Try it on the grill.
    The Washington Post

By Jim Shahin
Special to The Washington Post

Barbecuers need a Declaration of Independence. That famous document, although written in summer, knows no season. And neither should barbecuing.

Fall is my favorite time to grill. Unlike summer's searing temperatures, fall's mild weather makes standing before a hot fire a pleasure. But the practicality of temperate days, fine though it is, is secondary to their poetry. The smoke carries differently on fall's crisp air. The vapors perfume the neighborhood, bracing and seductive, hinting of nostalgia. In brutish summer, smoke practically congeals above the grill in its thick torpor.

It presents a false choice, really. Can't a barbecuer like both? Of course. But if I have to choose, I pick fall as my favorite season for grilling. (If I lived in the Deep South or Texas, as I did for many years, I might well choose winter.)

Except for tomatoes and corn and maybe peaches, a person could even argue that autumn's eating is better: It is the harvest season, for crying out loud.

Before we started trucking and flying everything from everywhere, obliterating seasons, the natural foods of autumn were cabbage, potatoes, onions, beets, brussels sprouts, eggplant, garlic (yes, garlic), Hatch chilies, potatoes, all sorts of squashes and tomatillos, not to mention apples and pears. They take to a little fire and smoke just as those summer gems do.

We can grill and smoke meat any time of the year. Why limit a low-and-slow pork butt or a quick-grilled rib-eye to one season? I'll grant that burgers and hot dogs are summer icons. Fine. Summer can claim them. But does anybody follow the rule about not wearing white after Labor Day anymore? So, grill burgers and dogs throughout the colorful months.

As for bigger meats, such as pork ribs and briskets, I prefer eating them when it isn't so hot outside. Confession: I actually enjoy eating lighter in the summer. Fall is a better time for more substantial meals, prepping, as it were, for the robust winter dishes to come.

Last autumn I charred apples, one of the iconic fruits of the season, as the base for a salsa to go with pork. This fall, I borrowed from adventurous Dallas chef Tim Byres, who combines apples and tomatillos to make a slightly tangy, creamy salsa.

Fall is great for acorn squash, too, and I found inspiration in "Where There's Smoke: Simple, Sustainable, Delicious Grilling" (Sterling Epicure, 2013), by former Washington chef Barton Seaver. His treatment is simple and easy, requiring little more than a few minutes at the fire. It yields nutty, luscious, caramelized wedges.

With the holiday season on the horizon, I also wanted to play around with an elegant dessert to serve at a dinner party. I found it in wood-smoked poached pears. The smoke gives the pears an evocative winter's-night-by-the-fire flavor that pairs beautifully with the poaching syrup of red wine, orange and vanilla.

In the end, though, the recipes are just excuses to get out and grill in the riot of autumn's color. Who decreed, I wonder, that summer should rule our grills? Not the Founding Fathers, that's for sure. In his diaries, George Washington wrote of hosting "a Barbicue [sic] of my own giving at Accatinick." You know when that was? Not June. Not July. Not August. September.

And that brings me back to the Declaration of Independence. Summer is to barbecue what Great Britain was to the American colonies: an unyielding overlord. We bring out the grills on Memorial Day and drag them back to the garage on Labor Day. In between, we do summer's bidding.

In the course of inhuman events (which is to say, searing summer heat), when the natural order of things is to be sitting in an air-conditioned bar or movie theater, where are we instead? Standing in front of a 500-degree fire.

We are subservient to the Sun King. And so, here, in the fall of the year of 2013, I say that we hold this truth to be self-evident, that all barbecuers are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Smoked and Grilled Foods Whenever They Darned Well Please.

Especially the fall.

• Follow Jim Shahin on Twitter @jimshahin.

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