I have a secret. You can't tell anyone, because I've spent the last four weeks moping around in huge jumpers moaning about how cold and rubbish England is compared to Asia, rolling my eyes every time I see grey skies (so my eyes have basically taken up permanent residence in the back of my head, then) and huffing every time anyone seems pleased to live in this ridiculous country. I'd hate to be inconsistent. But...and I can barely bring myself to admit it...tonight I actually found myself enjoying the English autumn.
Thank goodness for food, is all I can say. Without its comforting, bolstering crutch, I think I might just have attempted to hibernate by now. Or emigrated to Indonesia. Neither of which are particularly viable options when one is embarking upon one's second year of a PhD. But the other day I found myself snuggled in a jumper at my kitchen table tucking into a piping hot bowl of creamy porridge with roasted plums, spending the weekend chopping apples and quinces and simmering them into a golden vanilla-scented compote, and baking a gooey spiced pudding cake with caramelised apples and pecans that made my kitchen smell like Christmas. It rained, it was grey, but it reminded me of why few things can beat an English autumn for delicious food prospects.
Like a plate of dark, rich, mysterious game. Slightly bloody, it promises that addictive, ferrous tang with every mouthful. It's taken me a while to get back into the game game (excuse the wordplay), but this meal reminded me of just how delicious it can be, done properly. It enables you to enjoy the other bounty of autumn - sweet fruit, dark, earthy greens, creamy root vegetables - alongside, with all the comfort of a roast but a little more exotic.
When I moved to York last autumn, there was a food festival on in town. I took it as a providential sign, an omen that I was definitely in the right place - it was never confirmed but I am fairly sure the food festival was put on in my honour. I spent a delightful few hours wandering around sampling various calorific treats and parting with much more money than I anticipated (as one always does at food festivals) for bottles of infused rapeseed oil, wild mushrooms powders, heather honey, chilli plants and smoked cheese. On my way out, I spotted a packet of goose breasts at one of the butchers stalls.
I'd never tried goose before. Every year my mother and I have the same tired conversation: I suggest goose for the Christmas dinner, she turns her nose up and dismisses the idea with a disdainful toss of the head. I've never been given a rational explanation as to this; I think it's partly to do with the cost, partly to do with the fact that my family aren't that adventurous when it comes to meat. It saddens me every year when I speak to friends who have boasted of the magnificence of their Christmas goose, its luscious, melting flesh and the huge quantity of fat they now have ready for incredible roast potatoes, while I reminisce about the congealed leftovers that I managed to make into something resembling 'coronation turkey'.
Buying the goose breasts seemed a slightly more affordable way of sampling this denied Christmas delicacy, so I took some home (having never seen them before, I was quite excited) and put them in the freezer.
And there they stayed for an entire year. I think I was so keen to make sure I did them justice that I actually shied away from taking the plunge and cooking them for twelve whole months. This autumn I decided I would just have to man up and take the risk, as they'd been sitting in there long enough.
It's fig season, and luckily figs partner incredibly well with game and red meat. I made a very nice recipe using duck breasts and figs in red wine a couple of years ago, and decided to partner the goose breast with figs, figuring it would be quite similar in taste and cooking method to duck. I decided at the last minute to marinate the goose breasts, which was an excellent decision. They sat briefly in a dark bath of sugar, balsamic vinegar, sherry, cinnamon and seasoning, before I seared them to crisp up the skin and roasted them in a hot oven. Before they went into the oven, I tucked some quartered figs into the roasting tin around them and drizzled the lot with honey. They emerged dark and caramelised, the figs meltingly soft, surrounded by incredible sweet-sharp roasting juices. I rested them for a few minutes before slicing, to reveal perfectly medium-rare meat, and served them with the sweet, caramelised figs and roasting juices. I planned to simmer these and make a gravy, but there was absolutely no need - they emerged from the oven perfectly rich, thick and tangy.
Normally I would serve this sort of thing with mash, but I decided to try a Nigel Slater recipe for a layered cake of potatoes cooked in stock in the oven. I adapted it quite a lot, using more potato, adding celeriac (so good with game), more stock, and some dried thyme. Very thin slices of potato, celeriac and onion are placed into a pan of sizzling butter and layered alternately with herbs and seasoning, before you pour over stock, tightly cover with foil and bake in the oven. The vegetables turn beautifully tender and are imbued with the rich flavour of the butter and stock, while the top crisps up amazingly in the heat of the oven. It's probably one of the simplest but best things I have ever made, and I have vowed never to eat potatoes in any other way again - why would you want to? Words can barely express how delicious this was - so rich and buttery, despite not having an obscene amount of butter in, with that incredible contrast between the gooey bottom layers and the crispy top. All the fun and tastiness of a dauphinoise, but less of a faff and decidedly less fattening.
It was the perfect accompaniment for the strong flavours of the goose. Dark, tangy, iron-rich game, very similar in flavour to duck but a little stronger, with that wonderful sweet-sour syrupy sauce and then the charred figs. I also served some cavolo nero, sautéed with garlic and then braised gently in stock, for a nice crunch and slightly bitter contrast.
This was very much a meal I made up on the spot, thinking as I went along, and it turned out to be probably one of the best combinations I've ever made. It also takes the best of autumn, and puts it all together in one amazing plateful. As long as there's food, I have reason to tolerate the grey mornings, perpetual drizzle and biting wind, because I can retreat to my kitchen and immerse myself in everything nature provides to compensate us for her mood swings.
But if it really does get too bad, you'll know where to find me: cloistered in some kind of makeshift burrow, swaddled in blankets, stuffing my face with that potato and celeriac cake.
2 goose breasts (you could use 4 duck breasts if you can't get goose, just roast for about 7 minutes)
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
4 tbsp sherry
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Salt and pepper
6 figs, quartered
2 tbsp honey
Using a sharp knife, make 4-5 slashes in the skin of the goose breasts. In a shallow bowl or dish, mix together the sugar, balsamic, sherry, cinnamon and some salt and pepper. Rub the goose breasts in the mixture then leave to marinate for as long as you can, ideally overnight (I only left mine for 25 minutes and they were still delicious).
When ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 200C. In a large non-stick frying pan, heat a little olive oil over a high heat, then add the goose, skin side down (reserve the marinade). Cook for 4-5 minutes until the skin is very crispy and the goose has released a lot of fat into the pan (pour this off and use for roast potatoes!). Put the goose in a small roasting dish with the marinade and surround with the figs. Drizzle over the honey, then roast for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and place the goose on a chopping board. Rest for 5 minutes before carving and serving with the juices that have collected in the roasting dish and the figs.
Potato and celeriac cake (serves 4):
1 small celeriac (about 500g peeled weight)
900g large potatoes, peeled
1 tbsp dried thyme
Salt and pepper
250ml vegetable or chicken stock
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Using a mandolin or slicing attachment for a food processor, thinly slice the onion, celeriac and potatoes (you can also do it by hand, but make sure your slices are thin, around 2-3mm). In a large ovenproof frying pan, heat the butter until sizzling, then arrange some of the vegetables in a layer over the bottom of the pan (you don't have to be too neat about this, just throw them in). Sprinkle over a little of the thyme and a generous amount of salt and pepper, then add another layer of veg. Add more thyme and salt and pepper, and repeat these steps until you've used up all the veg. Pour over the stock, then cover the pan with foil or greaseproof paper and place another ovenproof dish on top to weigh it down. Bake for an hour and 15 minutes, then remove the foil or greaseproof and check with a knife that the vegetables are tender. Turn the oven up to 210C, then bake for another 10-15 minutes to crisp up the top layer of potatoes. Remove and cool for a few minutes before slicing and serving.