The season for pumpkins is over!, I hear you cry. Well, not if you're me, and you've spent the last two months steadily stockpiling massive gourds so that you now have a small collection on your balcony, enjoying a radiant sea view. In my head I refer to them as The Gourd Gang, and they're a mighty attractive bunch, some with delicate slate-blue skins, some knobbly and dark green. I'm pretty sure I've burned enough extra calories from lugging them around town in my bike panniers (at one point I was carrying three, which is basically like having a pregnant bike) to justify an extra large slice of this recipe, which remains my favourite ever sweet dish with pumpkin. (Contenders for the savoury title are a lasagne, a Thai coconut noodle soup, and Italian pumpkin ravioli with sage brown butter. In case you were wondering, which I'm sure you were).Read More
While piles of crisp, eddying golden leaves and a nip in the morning air are sure signs that autumn is in full swing, I tend to feel the seasons more through their food. Nothing for me is more autumnal than the sight of pumpkins, in all shapes, sizes and colours, lined up at the farmers market, or russet apples piled in abundance in the grocery stores. At this time of year, my appetite shifts towards hearty, bolstering foods in varying shades of gold, green and red; porridge becomes a staple breakfast and my love of baking shifts up a gear or two. Here in Denmark, we are blessed with fabulous bakeries on every corner, and one thing I particularly love about this little Scandinavian corner of Europe is the dark, flavoursome nature of the breads on offer, which are often punctuated by crunchy seeds and dense with nutty wholegrain flours.Read More
How do you go about making a home?
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the gradual process by which a place shrugs off its aura of newness and unfamiliarity and starts to become home. The repetitive performance of micro-rituals that, step by step, wear down the strangeness of a place and cosset it in the comforting blanket of domesticity and belonging. When do you stop being a tourist and start becoming a citizen? When does house become home? How do you stop staying in a place and start living there?Read More
If J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I could measure mine out in apples. For those fussy nursery years, the inoffensive blandness of the Golden Delicious, which I wanted pre-chopped in my lunchbox but would refuse to let my mother put lemon juice on to stop it turning brown, because the idea of something as exotic as lemon juice seemed, to my picky infant self, a truly atrocious adulteration of my lunchtime snack. During my pre-pubescent years, having figured out that the Golden Delicious was in fact anything but, I craved the juicy sweetness of the ubiquitous Pink Lady, soothed by the succulent flavour of homogeneity. The perfect apple for a child who just wants to blend in. For my teenage years, I favoured the Granny Smith. Hard, speckled and slightly sour, I think this apple is a fitting metaphor for my experience of adolescence.Read More
In How to Turn a Bird into Dinner Part One, I waxed lyrical about the moral benefits of eating game, and directed scathing retributions at those who termed my pheasant-butchering activities ‘gross’ whilst simultaneously chomping away on meat of dubious provenance without a second thought. I disclosed photos of my apron-clad self clutching a pair of bloody scissors looking nervous yet jubilant, the bare breast of a pheasant gleaming baldly before me. Fast forward two years and my butchery skills still leave something to be desired, I still feel a sense of considerable elation when I manage to produce something edible from a feathered carcass, and I still feel strongly about the issue of meat ethics and the advantages of eating game. Fortunately, however, all that moral high ground was covered in Part One, so this time you just get straight to the good stuff: roast bird.Read More
Autumn is here in earnest, which means my fridge is constantly bursting with trays of plump figs. I adore the voluptuous, muted purple curves of this photogenic fruit, and its versatility in the kitchen. The luscious, melting flesh of a ripe fig is beautiful nestled in both sweet and savoury recipes: so far I've pan-fried them with almonds, honey and goat's cheese to serve alongside slow-cooked Greek lamb; simmered them into a glorious purple jam with pomegranate juice and molasses; baked them with honey to serve with a biscuit crumble and a scoop of vanilla whipped ricotta...and this. This is possibly my favourite fig creation yet. Grilled with honey until bubbling and impossibly sweet, these beautiful figs sit atop a pillow of labneh, a Middle Eastern cheese made by straining yoghurt until thick and firm. I've used goat's milk for extra tang, to counterbalance the sweet figs, and finished with a scattering of zesty lemon thyme, which works beautifully with dairy. The whole lot makes a glorious breakfast or lunch on top of thick slices of sourdough toast. Click here for my recipe, over on Great British Chefs!
There’s something rather magical about the pleasing and versatile word ‘glaze’. To coat porous pottery in a thick, impenetrable gloss that survives the trial-by-fire of the kiln is to glaze, combining aesthetics and ergonomics. To have one’s eyes glaze over suggests thoughts have slipped blissfully into the realm of reverie. Double-glazed windows reassure, promising warmth and comfort. Finally, there is my favourite, edible sense: to glaze food is to paint it with slick, concentrated flavour, to make it shine like a pot fresh from a kiln. It makes it glossy, inviting, shimmering with promise: think of a bountiful berry tart, multicoloured fruits nestling in a pillowy bed of pastry cream, their tops brushed and glinting with a sweet glaze of molten apricot jam; or a roast aubergine, its flesh collapsed into silken softness, smothered in a dark, umami-rich miso glaze.Read More
Everything turns orange in the world of food media around this time of year. You can’t look at a recipe without finding that pumpkin has been sneaked in there somewhere. Sweet or savoury, breakfast or dinner, between the months of September and December it’s almost guaranteed to contain the golden vegetable, especially if it’s come from anywhere near America (in which case it will almost definitely also include cinnamon).Read More
Damsons are a high maintenance love affair. You can’t just coast with damsons, putting in minimal effort for a lot of reward, like you can with a strawberry, perhaps, or a pear – all you need with these easy goers is, at most, a knife. They’re not a fruit to be popped carelessly into the mouth while reading the morning newspaper, or something to munch as a snack on the go. They’re not something you can half-heartedly throw into a cake batter for a sweet and sticky result, or toss into the smoothie maker for an afternoon pick-me-up.Read More
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.Read More
There are some fruits that just provoke a standard, knee-jerk response in the kitchen. Glut of apples? Make apple pie. Lots of bananas? Banana bread. Been too enthusiastic with the pick-your-own strawberries? Jam, of course. Oranges mean marmalade, and blueberries pancakes. Rhubarb equals crumble. When my supervisor told me she had a surplus of crab apples, and needed recipe suggestions, her only stipulation was “Don’t say jelly.”Read More
In my mind, there are two types of plums. The first are those that appear year-round in supermarkets, often in plastic punnets with a label saying 'Ripen at home'. They are imported, usually from South Africa. They are often nearly perfectly spherical, firm and glossy-skinned, and come in three different colour varieties: bright greenish-yellow, slightly translucent; dark black-purple, with a matt white bloom misting the surface; or vivid uniform magenta. These are perfectly fine - they are very reliable, delivering without fail a pleasantly tart crunch when slightly underripe and something slightly more sweet when ready. They also cook well, holding their shape under the pressure of heat.Read More
I’ve had an apple tree in my garden for as long as I can remember. When I lived with my parents in Cambridge, our neighbour’s apple tree overhung our garden and reliably dropped large quantities of cooking apples onto the lawn every autumn. My house in York, by happy coincidence, also has an apple tree in the garden, but this time it is entirely mine and entirely my lawn that bears the brunt of the October windfall.Read More
If I had to name my biggest personality flaw (or, rather, select one from an epic list that includes 'raging temper', 'neuroses' and 'inability to not say what I really think'), it would probably be my impatience. I'm just awful. I notice it the most when in public places. Striding quickly down the street, for example, keen to get to my destination, I frequently find myself stuck behind some idiot who insists on dithering around, moving from side to side of the pavement and generally holding up my entire life with their sheer ineptitude.
Perhaps I'm in the pool, eager to get my sixty lengths over and done with so I can go home and eat dinner (that, after all, is the only reason I swim: so I can eat more). But oh, there's someone who is clearly blind and hasn't read the 'Medium Lane' sign properly, so is floating along on their back without a care in the world, flailing their arms wildly and preventing any kind of normal or serious swimming from going on around them while moving at a pace approximately slower than a pond snail. This is the kind of person who inevitably believes that breaststroke on your back is actually a legitimate stroke that really exists. It doesn't. You look like an idiot. Roll over and move on.
I could be on a cycle path, breezily pedalling away until I come to a crowd of people, invariably middle-aged and therefore not in a hurry, walking five or six abreast along the path, laughing away, not a care in the world, completely oblivious to the fact that I'm hovering behind them, making that 'Um, hello, there's a cyclist behind you' noise by back-pedalling. So I ring my bell, and they take approximately two hours to actually move and let me past. What amazes me is always the look of surprise and/or indignation that accompanies this action, as if the path was their sacred domain and I've just waltzed in and hideously violated it.
Oh, and don't even get me started on the tourists when I used to live in Oxford. You can tell someone who's just moved to Oxford a mile off by the fact that they actually stop to avoid getting in the way of tourists' photos. It doesn't take you long to realise that if you make that a habit, you WILL NEVER MOVE ANYWHERE in the city centre. Literally nowhere. You will be stuck, for eternity, slowly circling the Rad Cam, unable to progress beyond the Bridge of Sighs and definitely without a chance of ever passing the Sheldonian theatre. You will perish tragically, incarcerated in this touristic Bermuda triangle, unable to escape to find food, water, or your own house.
'But,' I hear you ask, 'Why don't you just say 'excuse me'?'
Because, dear readers, I long ago decided that the best strategy in all these situations is not politeness. The obvious solution is to passive-aggressively mutter 'Moron' at a decibel level that is not quite under my breath, so is still vaguely audible to the offending party, and then fly past while simultaneously making a sort of huffing noise.
It surprises me, then, that when I get into the kitchen I become a different person in this respect. What I lack in everyday life in terms of patience, I make up for in the world of cooking.
While there is a lot to be said for food that you can get on the table in a matter of minutes (but not, I think, for the crazed antics of a certain Mr Oliver who writes meal plans which are only feasible if you have a small army of kitchen minions on hand to wash everything up on the go, plug in your blender, open your packets and weigh out your ingredients), there is also much merit to be had from taking it a little bit easier, culinarily speaking. (Again, I can only do this in the kitchen - I'm totally incapable of taking anything remotely easy when it comes to normal life).
Take a stew, for example. While a stir-fry or pasta dish is a lovely thing, it can't really compete with the utterly divine aroma of a meaty mass that has been bubbling away in the oven for a good three hours or so - or even longer, if you go for that slow-roasting, oven on overnight thing (the idea of an unattended oven scares me a little, so I've never tried this). My favourite thing about stew is the total transformation it undergoes, from a mass of disparate meat and veg floating around in stock to a sumptuous, tender medley of slippery vegetables, ultra-soft meat and rich, thick gravy.
While I frequently make a loaf of soda bread for breakfast, enabling me to have fresh, warm, cake-like bread on my plate slathered in jam in under forty-five minutes, it can't quite compete with my homemade sourdough, the starter for which has been months in the making. The actual loaf takes pretty much a whole day to make, but oh my goodness is it worth it. The first time I took homemade sourdough out of the oven, I may have done a small gleeful dance when I spied its burnished, floured crust, looking exactly like something you'd pay good money for at an artisan baker's. When I bit into it, and tasted that tangy, sour, aerated crumb, it was so worth the days and days of stirring up an increasingly pungent mixture of flour and water.
Then there are marinades - nothing quite like placing some lovely meat or fish in a veritable bath of flavour for a few hours then taking it out to cook, knowing it's been soaking up all that deliciousness. I'm always suspicious of recipes that instruct you to marinate something for around 30 minutes - surely that's not enough time for proper absorption to take place. I love the feeling of sticking a tray of spice-rubbed, oil-soaked meat or fish in the fridge before I go to bed, knowing it's sitting there becoming tastier and tastier as I sleep.
Then there are the joys of preserving. While it is a faff, during the height of summer, to slice and poach kilos of apricots before packing them into a jar, spooning over syrup and sealing them in the oven, when there are gluts of these gorgeous fruits at the market, it is so worth it a few months later, in the middle of January, when I can spoon these delicious golden fruits onto my morning porridge; just as tasty as they were when they were in season. While my first instinct with gluts of fruit is just to gorge myself on them, pure and unadulterated, there's a lot to be said for taking the time to make jam, to be enjoyed at a later date.
Last autumn, I made sloe gin. I couldn't resist picking the sloes that were everywhere up in the Yorkshire dales when I was on holiday for a week. It's funny to read that post, where I extol the delights of Yorkshire eating, a year later, now that I've ended up living here.
I spent an hour or so dodging thorns to end up with a bag of fat, speckled sloes which I put in the freezer then bashed with a rolling pin until they were all crushed. They went into a big jar with gin and sugar, and then the waiting game began. I shook the jars every week or so, to let everything mingle nicely. It was a good seven months later before I had my first taste. Definitely more patience involved than I've ever had in public.
Sloe gin is a delightful beverage. Unfortunately it's so delightful because it's sweet and warming, and you can easily forget it's alcoholic. That way awkward drunkenness lies. However, as luck would have it, it's also wonderful to use in cooking. During the summer I baked halved peaches and apricots with a splash of sloe gin in a foil parcel in the oven and on the barbecue, and they were utterly luscious. The gin imparts a gorgeous rich syrupy sweetness.
So, in the spirit of using two classic autumn ingredients, I've combined our lovely sloes with one of my favourite autumn fruits: the fig. While figs are generally imported from Turkey at this time of year, you can grow your own if you're lucky. Running with the idea of the baked peaches and apricots, here I've baked halved figs in sloe gin and brown sugar until the figs mellow and soften, leaving behind purple syrupy juices. It's sweet and delicious, and a beautifully simple way to enjoy the perfection of a fig without too much messing around. All you need is a spoon and some good ice cream.
Figs baked in sloe gin (serves 2):
- 6 figs, ideally fairly ripe, but rock-solid ones will still work
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 5 tbsp sloe gin
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Slice the figs in half and place into a baking dish that will fit them snugly. Toss them together with the sugar and gin, then arrange cut side down in the dish. Cover with foil and bake for 20-30 minutes, until soft and tender. Serve with some of the cooking liquid spooned over.
This salad that showcases everything special and beautiful about our British autumn produce. It also uses my absolute favourite fish, mackerel, smothered in warm and aromatic spices and fried until crispy. This sits on a bed of tangy, crunchy, flavoursome salad that is also stunning to look at, using beautiful tangles of ivory fennel and apple, slivers of bold pink beetroot and sparkling pomegranate seeds. Just looking at it will make you feel warm and nourished, and every mouthful is an absolute treat to eat.
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.
Pomegranatesare 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. It's super-nutritious - by the end you'll have had all of your five-a-day!
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
- Olive oil
- 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.
I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling that autumn is the best time of year to be cooking. While I love the colourful bounty of summer, particularly gluts of downy apricots and bouncy red berries, autumn brings with it wonders of equal beauty, along with another crucial ingredient: weather.
You see, along with the mists and chill days of autumn comes that magical thing: an excuse to eat comfort food. Suddenly we can justify wanting nothing more than to curl up with a bowl of hearty stew and a pile of pillowy mashed potato. How lucky that Mother Nature chooses this time of the year to offer us dark, rich game; golden, robust root vegetables; glossy burnished nuts; curled, crunchy, springy greens; mellow, juicy, russet-skinned orchard fruits. While perhaps not as obviously glowing and vibrant as the produce of high summer, to me autumn ingredients have a dark, subtle and muted magic of their own.
In order to celebrate British autumn produce, I was asked by Floral & Hardy garden designers to come up with a three-course autumn feast, to demonstrate the range of ingredients that can be grown in British gardens, making the most of our gardens and also saving a bit of money in the supermarket. Given my aforementioned love of the culinary potential of this season, I of course said yes, and had great fun coming up with three lovely autumnal recipes for you, the first of which is this starter - stay tuned for the main course and dessert over the next week or so.
You probably don't need to be told that growing your own fruit and veg is a great thing to do. I am looking forward to turning the patch of wilderness that is the garden of my new house into a treasure trove of home-grown delights at some point; I love the romanticism that comes with being able to take your dinner from its natural habitat to the kitchen by walking a matter of metres, saving money and food miles. Among the wealth of produce available to be grown by the home gardener are courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, beetroot, blackberries, beans and mushrooms - all beautiful autumn ingredients. I'm no expert on home-grown, though, so if you're keen to get started I would recommend the wonderful Tender cookbooks by Nigel Slater, who talks about growing your own from a cook's point of view. Floral & Hardy also have a gardening blog for the keen (or amateur!) gardener.
This recipe, a perfect autumnal starter, combines several of my favourite seasonal staples.
Firstly, we have squash. Perhaps the most quintessential autumn vegetable, owing to its presence on our doorsteps hollowed out with an evil grimace and a candle inside, there are very few uses to which squash cannot be put in the kitchen (but don't try cooking with those pumpkins the supermarkets sell for Halloween, which are watery and tasteless). It generally finds its way into my lunchbox every day alongside couscous and feta cheese, but can form a sturdy basis for substantial cold-weather salads, combined with pulses like lentils, pearl barley, or bulgur wheat. It's also excellent in risotto. Owing to its sweetness, squash needs to be paired with salty flavours - strong cheeses are ideal, or bacon. It also works surprisingly well with other sweet things, like dried fruit and chestnuts, which somehow make it seem less sweet in comparison.
While the butternut squash is ubiquitous in markets and supermarkets, it's worth tracking down other varieties if you can - farmers' markets often have them. Crown Prince squash are lovely, with a delicate teal-coloured skin and a robust flesh, although they're often giant. I'm a big fan of the little squash that can be served as individual portions, as is the case here. They come in a multitude of shapes, sizes and colours, and possess a knobbly, rustic charm that is lacking in the predictably super-smooth, tapered butternut. That's one of the reasons for growing your own, too - you can enjoy varieties you might otherwise struggle to track down.
Next up, Swiss chard. This is both a blessing and a curse to the magpie-like food shopper, a breed to which I am unashamed to state I belong. Whenever I spy bunches of glorious chard at a market or supermarket, I can never resist hoarding it. Those rainbow stems are just too beautiful. However, it then languishes in my fridge because I'm never entirely sure what to do with it - unlike squash, I have no knee-jerk recipes up my sleeve for chard (until now). The best guide is to treat the stems a little like celery, and the leaves like spinach. I once made a delicious Swiss chard and feta filo pastry pie, which combined the chard with salty feta, pine nuts, and plump raisins. The combination is delicious - the raisins go wonderfully well with chard, enhancing its natural sweetness and preventing its iron tang from cloying, while the nuts provide texture.
I adapted that combination here, for the stuffing of the squash. I sauteed the chard stalks along with some sliced red onion - another ingredient that seems very autumnal to me - and garlic. To this I added dried cranberries, soaked in boiling water until plump and juicy. I could have used raisins, but cranberries - though not grown over here - seem very British at this time of year, given our penchant for them on the Christmas table. The chard leaves went in too, to soften, and finally some chestnuts.
Chestnuts are an ingredient I only discovered a couple of years ago. I went through a phase of dutifully roasting my own in the oven, until I realised that life is too short and you can buy perfectly decent pre-cooked, pre-peeled vacuum packed ones that are fine for cooking (though if you just want to eat them on their own, I'd suggest buying a bag of raw ones and doing it yourself). I may also have had a few explode in the oven due to my sub-standard scoring of their skins - they make a thoroughly alarming cannon-like explosion sound; I wouldn't recommend it, for your own sanity.
Chestnuts, with their rich flavour and fudgy, crumbly texture, add a beautiful sweetness and interest to all sorts of autumn dishes. They're great with rich meat, like game, because of their sweet flavour. They're also good with other sweet ingredients, like squash. I added them to my chard mixture for texture and flavour, where they went extremely well with the sweet cranberries and the crunchy, earthy chard.
This is a really lovely starter dish for autumn. The sweet chard mixture is combined with gruyere cheese, spooned into a squash that has been hollowed out, seasoned and roasted until tender, then everything is baked in the oven with more gruyere cheese on top. You could use any cheese - blue cheese, goat's cheese or feta would all work well - but gruyere has a delicious strong, salty, rich flavour that is necessary to contrast with the sweet squash, cranberries and chestnuts. Each person ends up with a delightful little squash bowl encasing a delicious sweet-sour-savoury filling, with a moreish crust of salty, burnished gruyere cheese on top. It's pretty easy to make, can be assembled in advance, and is vegetarian (though gruyere probably isn't totally veggie, like a lot of cheeses, so you might want to check which cheese you use).
I really love the combination of flavours in this dish. It would be the kind of nauseating food-writer cliche that I hate to pronounce it 'autumn on a plate'...so instead I will call it 'autumn made better by putting cheese on top'.
Stuffed squash with swiss chard, cranberries, chestnuts and gruyere (serves 2 generously):
- 2 small squash - best if you can get round ones, but if not just use the rounded ends of butternut squash
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- A few sprigs lemon thyme (or normal thyme)
- 50g dried cranberries
- 80ml boiling water
- 2 bunches swiss chard
- 2 red onions
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 150g cooked chestnuts
- 60-80g gruyere cheese, grated (or more if you love cheese...and who doesn't?!)
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the squash in half horizontally and scoop out the seeds, so you have four cup-shaped halves. Rub the squash inside and out with olive oil, then season well. Sprinkle over a few thyme leaves. Place in the oven and cook for around 30 minutes, hollow side up, until just tender.
Meanwhile, make the stuffing. Soak the cranberries in the boiling water. Heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan. Peel and thinly slice the red onions. Cook these over a gentle heat for a few minutes until starting to soften, then add the garlic cloves and cook for a few more minutes. Slice the chard stalks thinly and add to the pan. Cook for a few minutes until these are softening too, then add the cranberries, the cranberry soaking water, and the chard leaves.
Cover with a lid and cook for around 5 minutes, until everything is softening. Remove the lid and allow the water to evaporate away. Roughly chop the chestnuts and add to the pan, along with a generous amount of salt and pepper and a few thyme leaves. Taste and check the seasoning.
When the squash is cooked, remove it from the oven. Stir half the gruyere into the chard mixture, then use this to stuff the squash. Sprinkle the remaining gruyere over the top of the chard in the squash. (If you have any chard mixture left over, just serve it alongside when the squash are done). Put these back in the oven for 10-15 minutes, until the cheese has melted.
The street is a soothing, nondescript muddle of brickwork and grey cobbles, glistening slightly in the aftermath of the morning rain. The sombre wares of the shop windows merge into a blur; dusty vintage clothing, old leather-bound books, pens of various shapes, sizes and degrees of antiquity. Everything has an air of tiredness to it, of weary age yearning to be invigorated with new life. It's calming, easy to walk down the street in a daze as everything blends into the background.
But there they are. Sitting there in their little wicker basket. Great orbs of primrose-coloured sunshine, their vivid yellow blazing out like a flame amidst their drab surroundings. Their voluptuous curves whisper seductively of hotter, more exotic and carefree climes, yet the soft down that clings to their skin like cobwebs suggests light snowflakes, or a vain attempt to wrap up warm for the winter. They are firm in the hand; heavy, satisfying. They feel sturdy, promising robust, heady flavours; whispering of brightness both to look at and to eat. I pick up two, cradling them gently against my stomach, leaving the rest to their quiet yellow repose.
I am, of course, talking about the first quinces of the year. Always a happy moment, the arrival of quinces in the markets promises delicious culinary joy for the coming months. It's like Mother Nature's way of making up for the cold, dreary weather that starts to grate and sadden at this time of year. You can't refuse to be cheered up by the bright spectacle of a quince, and you definitely can't refuse to be made happier by eating one.
Okay, so maybe all that was a little over-the-top and wannabe-poetic. But I really do love these fruits, which seem so modern and exotic despite dating back thousands of years. We still haven't quite figured them out as a nation - they're pretty tricky to track down, and currently the only place I can find them in York is a lovely little deli called the Hairy Fig, which is where I spied the aforementioned glowing yellow basket. None of my new friends at university have ever heard of, let alone eaten, a quince.
I'm not quite mean enough to try the 'Oh, just bite into it - it's really nice, like an apple!' trick, though. Damn my good nature, getting in the way of hilarious practical jokes.
To celebrate the first quinces of the year, I've made a rather wonderful little tart. While I love using quinces in savoury recipes, sometimes their fragrant perfumed flesh just yearns to be coupled with a liberal amount of butter, either in the form of pastry or crumble. This tart does both, in that half the crumble is pressed down to form a rough pastry, onto which the fruit is spread, while the remaining half is scattered over the top, to bake into a rough, crunchy, buttery mass. This was inspired by a Dan Lepard recipe that uses plums and cobnuts, but I figured it would work with quinces and almonds (and, dare I suggest that it might be even tastier?)
It's very common to pair quinces with apples - sometimes pears - in baking. This is, I think, because their strong flavour can rather overwhelm when left to its own devices. I don't agree, loving the taste of quince pure and unadulterated, but this is the first time I've tempered it with apples and I rather liked the result. I used cooking apples from the tree in my garden, which are rather tart, and take the edge off the cloying sweetness of the quince. The result is a gorgeous marriage; it tastes homely, somehow, like going back to basics - you can't beat the purity of stewed fruit, enhanced only with a little sugar.
There's also something rather texturally appealing about cooking apples with quinces - the quinces don't soften as much, remaining delectable, tender morsels, while the apples dissolve into a froth. The combination is delicious, and the perfect filling for this crumble tart. It's basically apple crumble, but in sliceable form, and improved with the delectable fragrance of quince. I added some flaked almonds to the crumble mixture, which give a lovely nutty crunch, and sprinkled some demerara sugar over the top for the same reason.
One of the reasons behind this dessert, apart from my passionate love for the quince, is that I was recently sent some lovely wines from South West France to sample (I know, it's a hard life being a food blogger). Home to around twenty indigenous grape varieties and the point of origin for grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, the South West is a wonderful region for wine diversity (there are 16 PDO wine denominations). Even more excitingly, wines from this region have the highest procyanidin content of any in the world - the chemical that means wine can have positive effects on cardiovascular health.
I haven't noticed any immediate benefits yet, so I guess I'll just have to keep drinking it until I am fully conscious of my arteries expanding.
My first taste was of the PDO Gaillac, Domaine Rotier, 2008. This is a beautiful dessert wine. I don't know that much about wine, so I won't be a fraudulent bore and start waxing lyrical about bouquets and body and finish. Instead, I will tell you that this wine is like drinking liquid honey. It warms you from the inside, and is gorgeously sweet and aromatic. It has, according to the bottle, notes of apricot, fig and quince, which makes it the perfect partner for this dessert.
I made the dessert with the inkling that it would go well with the wine. In fact, it was an even better match than I could have hoped.
It's quite hard to pair wine with dessert, because very sweet or tart things tend to make the wine taste overly sour and acidic. The best way is to ensure there is a rich, buttery component to said dessert, to mellow out any assertive fruit flavours. This crumble, then, is the ideal way to go. It provides a rich, buttery base for the sweet, fragrant wine, which perfectly reflects the quince flavours in the fruit filling.
It's a way of putting a proper autumnal pudding on the table without the heaviness of crumble (not that I'd ever turn down crumble, but sometimes you want something a bit lighter and more refined). You can serve it in elegant slices. It looks far more effort than it actually is. It's exotic and will make people say 'Ooh, what's quince?' It's an amalgam of two very traditional British ingredients: quince and crumble. It breathes sweet and tasty life into a much misunderstood fruit.
Then you have the taste, which is just wonderful. Serve it with lots of vanilla ice cream, while it's still a little warm from the oven. There's rich buttery pastry, the crunch of toasted almonds, and the soft, unctuous collapsed autumnal fruit inside; sweet, yet tart, standing up robustly to its crumbly trappings.
Buttery crumble, a sweet fruit filling and a glass of ambrosial dessert wine - the absolute best way to end a meal.
Quince and apple crumble tart (serves 6):
(Adapted from a recipe from Dan Lepard's Short and Sweet)
- 1 medium quince
- 3-4 tbsp brown sugar
- Squeeze of lemon juice
- 3 medium cooking apples
- 2 tsp cornflour
- 3 tsp water
- 100g plain flour
- 75g wholemeal flour
- 100g cold butter, cubed
- 50g brown sugar
- 50g flaked almonds, toasted, plus 1 tbsp to garnish
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 2 tbsp milk
- 1 tbsp demerara sugar
First, make the fruit filling. Peel and quarter the quince. Remove the core. Cut into 2cm cubes and put in a medium saucepan with the brown sugar, lemon juice and enough water to just cover it. Cover the pan and bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 10 minutes or so until almost tender. Peel, core and chop the apples into similar sized pieces, then add to the quince and simmer for another 10-15 minutes, uncovered, until the fruit has mostly collapsed. Taste and check the sweetness - add a little more sugar if it's too tart (but you want it fairly tart to contrast with the crumble). Mix the cornflour with the water then stir into the fruit to thicken it. Set aside to cool.
Grease a 20cm tart tin with a removable base. Pre-heat the oven to 190C.
For the pastry, rub the butter into the flours using your fingers or a food processor. Stir in the sugar. Finely chop the toasted almonds (except the ones for the garnish) then stir these in too along with the baking powder. Stir in the milk. Press half of this mixture into the tart tin, along the bottom and up around the sides too, to make a crust. Spoon in the fruit filling, then scatter the rest of the pastry mixture evenly over the top, but don't press down. Sprinkle over the demerara sugar and reserved flaked almonds.
Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Check it halfway through to make sure it isn't burning - if so, cover with foil and turn the oven down slightly. Leave to cool in the tin before dusting with icing sugar, removing and slicing to serve (preferably with ice cream).