While not your stereotypical autumn comfort food - piping hot, featuring both meat and potatoes and generally various shades of brown - I sometimes think there is comfort to be had, in the frost of autumn, in vibrant flavours that wake your tastebuds up from their stew-induced stupor.
You can't think of British autumn produce without thinking of apples. I'm especially aware of their existence now that I have an apple tree in my garden, laden with bulbous blushing fruits ready to drop at the slightest breath of wind. I've been donning my wellies and heading into the long grass on a weekly basis to collect the windfalls. It always makes me sad when I find one too bruised or worm-eaten to be gastronomically viable, as it seems such a waste. Still, I try and do what I can to ensure they don't all become food for the lawn and the worms. This month has seen an apple and blackberry pie, an apple, date and cranberry crumble, a delicious apple and blackberry baked oatmeal for breakfast, and a wonderful quince and apple compote that I've been eating over cinnamon-enriched porridge studded with blackberries.
When they're not baked into a tart-sweet froth and nestled juicily under a buttery crust, apples have a lot of savoury potential in the kitchen too, particularly when coupled with other autumn ingredients - they're delicious in a casserole with pork, sausages or pheasant, or roasted in wedges with some potatoes to serve alongside a roast. I also love them thinly sliced in a sharp salad to accompany richer ingredients; their crispness and sweetness is always welcome, particularly when encased in a tangy mustard dressing.
Fennel is something I pretty much always have in the fridge. I can't resist a salad of thinly sliced fennel (I actually bought a mandolin just for this purpose) tossed in grain mustard, olive oil, herbs and salt. It goes with pretty much anything - meat, fish or cheese - and is infinitely adaptable, working with a huge variety of other fruit, herbs and veg. I usually add pomegranate seeds - their sweetness works well against the aniseed tang of the fennel - and sliced pear, which is a delicious contrast in texture, tending to be soft and melting against the crunch of the fennel strands. Here I've used apples, but pears would work well too. Fennel also goes very well with orange.
Also, a little cook's tip for you - don't try slicing a ripe pear on a mandolin, unless you want to be hunting around in your salad for the tip of your middle finger.
If you're not a big fan of the aniseedy crunch of fennel, try caramelising it in butter and a little brown sugar before using it in a recipe. It might have you converted. I love using it in any recipes involving fish, where its fresh, light flavour is a perfect complement. Fennel seeds are also a hugely underrated ingredient, working incredibly well with tomatoes, pork, fish, cheese and anything in need of a little herbal note.
Beetroot is something I always mean to eat more of, but fail to. I think it's because I can find it quite sickly. I absolutely cannot stomach those dark purple globes that come ready cooked and peeled in the supermarket - they have a disgusting squidgy texture and vile sickly flavour that makes me gag. Don't even get me started on the pickled stuff.
However, raw beetroot sliced into wedges, tossed in oil and liberal seasoning, then roasted until tender and caramelised, is a beautiful thing. One of my favourite ways to eat it is in this beetroot, carrot, orange and mackerel salad. It goes really well with mackerel, providing a sweet earthiness to counteract the rich flavour of the fish. It also works well with apple, being similarly crisp and sweet.
Raw beetroot isn't something I've eaten a lot of, but when I found these gorgeous candy and golden beetroot in the supermarket I knew I didn't want to roast them and risk marring their stunning colours. Instead I decided to slice them wafer-thin (again using my trusty mandolin, and risking the tips of my fingers with every stroke) to add another layer of crunch to my salad. They were just so pretty. I tend to wax lyrical about the beauty of fruit and veg at the best of times, but these really were incredibly beautiful. Why would you ever buy that pre-cooked vacuum-packed (or worse, vinegar-soaked) stuff when you could get some of these globes of gorgeous goodness? (To use a Nigella-esque phrase).
I also like how they are called 'candy' beetroot, which conjures up images of lurid sweet shop jars and neon sherbet, somehow making the beetroot more appealing. Maybe it's a clever marketing ploy. If so, I fell for it.
Speaking of beetroot and candy, I've always been intrigued by the use of beetroot in chocolate cakes and brownies. Think carrot in carrot cakes - the vegetable adds a moisture and subtle sweetness, and apparently its earthiness goes very well with chocolate. Something on the 'to try' list.
Also, another bonus of these beetroot varieties - they don't stain your fingers nearly as badly as traditional beetroot, nor bleed horribly into the other salad ingredients, which is always sad.
Pomegranates are everywhere at this time of year; they are, to me, the Christmas fruit (along with clementines). There's very little I won't scatter a load of pomegranate seeds over - their snap of juiciness is always welcome, as is their jewel-like appearance. Here they add a delicious bite to the salad, and a little freshness to counteract the strong flavours of the mackerel.
Finally, the mackerel. While perhaps not as obviously autumnal as something like pheasant or venison, mackerel is the perfect partner for a lot of autumn fruit and veg. It's very healthy, very quick and easy to cook, and you can throw all sorts of strong flavours at it without it blinking an eye (well, I'd hope not anyway - if your mackerel is blinking then your fishmonger probably isn't doing his job properly). Mackerel is one of those fish that is generally better cooked as fillets - you can roast a whole one, but because it's quite oily the skin doesn't really crisp up properly, and it's all a bit flabby. Go for a nice big fillet, which will sizzle deliciously in the pan, its skin becoming burnished and crispy while the oily flesh stays wonderfully moist and meaty.
Here I've covered it in turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes, mixed with a little oil to make a spice rub. This gives it a gorgeous aromatic crust, and the spicy flavours work so well with the oily flesh of the fish. It goes into a very hot pan to allow the skin to crisp up, and then is ready to serve alongside the salad.
I really love this dish. The salad, with its lemon and mustard dressing, is tangy, crunchy and fresh, which is perfect to sit alongside the spicy, oily fish. It's also cooling against the rather assertive heat of the chilli flakes, resulting in little explosions of sweet/spicy/sour flavour in your mouth as you eat it. It takes everything that is great about British produce at this time of year, and uses those ingredients in a slightly unusual, and exciting, way. If you're sceptical about raw veg, don't be - it really works.
If you wanted to, you could swap the fish for chicken or pork, or to make it vegetarian use thick slices of griddled halloumi. This is a great main course to follow the stuffed squash starter, which is quite rich and filling. Plus it's super-nutritious - by the end of the main course you'll have had all of your five-a-day!
(For more information on Floral & Hardy and their contemporary garden ideas, click here.)
Spiced mackerel with apple, fennel and beetroot salad (serves 2):
2 mackerel, filleted
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
A generous pinch of chilli flakes
Juice of half a lemon
2 tsp wholegrain mustard (I used Tracklements horseradish mustard)
Salt and pepper
2 large eating apples (I used Cox)
1 small bulb fennel
2 small beetroot (about the size of a golf ball)
2 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
A few sprigs lemon or normal thyme, leaves picked
Seeds of half a pomegranate
A large handful of pea shoots, rocket or watercress
First, make the spice rub. Mix together the turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes with some salt and pepper, then add enough olive oil to form a thick paste. Rub this all over the mackerel fillets, on both sides. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together a generous glug (around 2-3 tbsp) of olive oil with the lemon juice, mustard, and some salt and pepper. Cut the apples into quarters, remove the core, then thinly slice. Add these to the bowl. Using a mandolin, slice the fennel and the beetroot wafer-thin and add these to the bowl (or use a very sharp knife and try and slice as thinly as possible). Add the parsley, thyme leaves and pomegranate seeds, then toss together well. Divide between two plates or bowls and top with the pea shoots/rocket/watercress.
Get a non-stick frying pan very hot. Add a little olive oil, then use some kitchen paper to rub it evenly over the pan. Press the mackerel fillets into the pan, skin-side down. They should sizzle. Cook for around 3 minutes, or until the underside of the fish is nearly opaque. Flip over and cook for another minute. You may need to do this in batches if all the fillets won't fit in the pan at once.
Place two mackerel fillets on top of each plate of salad, then serve immediately.