Five things I love this week #3

There's a definite autumnal feel to my 'five things' this week; that much is evident from the muted beige tones of these photos. After a wonderfully warm October, I think I'm finally ready to embrace the onset of autumn, and all the delicious produce it brings with it. 

1. Wild mushroom and truffle risotto. I've been craving risotto ever since I had a beautiful starter at the Yorke Arms last week: truffled partridge boudin with ceps and carnaroli rice. The rice was a gorgeous risotto-like concoction, heady with the musky fragrance of truffle, the rice still with a little bite to it, creamy and savoury and incredibly delicious. I couldn't ignore my truffle/risotto cravings any longer, and succumbed with this lovely recipe. 

It's a standard risotto to which I added chopped chestnut mushrooms when frying the onion and garlic; I also used soaked porcini mushrooms and added their soaking water to the chicken stock used to plump up the rice. The risotto is finished off with some pan-fried girolle and shiitake mushrooms (shockingly expensive, but a nice little luxury, and so much more interesting to eat and look at than standard mushrooms), a drizzle of truffle oil, lots of lemon thyme leaves and a hefty grating of parmesan. Savoury, umami-rich wonderfulness. 

2. Pumpkins and winter squash. It's easy to just pick up the knee-jerk butternut when planning winter squash recipes, but the other day I discovered these beauties at the farmers market. I think the pale blue one is a Crown Prince squash; the others I'm not too sure about. 

I cut them all into chunks (risking life and limb and a hernia in the process; who needs a gym when you can spend an evening hacking your way through an unyielding orb of orange?) and roasted them with olive oil, salt, pepper and lots of chopped fresh rosemary. They softened into intensely flavoursome, sweet, fudgy deliciousness. Their flesh was much more dense and full-flavoured than your standard butternut squash, while the skin went beautifully dark and caramelly. 

I served them alongside roast partridge (recipe to come) and also mixed them with some couscous, feta and cherry tomatoes for a salad. Winter squash are great with anything salty, like bacon, feta or goats cheese. The possibilities are pretty much endless. I'm definitely going to seek out different kinds of squash in future (and perhaps an axe to chop them with). 

3. Fig and orange cobbler. Figs and oranges are a surprisingly successful combination (my aim this autumn is to discover all possible partners for the wonderful fig - raspberries and oranges are two of my new finds). Mix sliced figs and segmented oranges (about eight figs and two oranges) with a little dark sugar and a splash of rum, orange juice or grand marnier in a pie dish. Dollop on this cobbler topping, then bake for half an hour or so until the fruit releases its beautiful garnet juices and the topping is crisp and crunchy. This also works wonderfully as a crumble, especially if you mix some oats and almonds or hazelnuts into the crumble mixture. The figs soften and the oranges become really sweet and flavoursome, and the combination together is juicy, fragrant and delicious. Add some good vanilla ice cream and devour: autumn in a bowl.

4. Porridge with apple and quince compote. A delicious, unusual and thoroughly seasonal way to start an autumn day. Simply simmer peeled, chopped quince in a little water and lemon juice until almost tender. Don't throw away the cores and peel - simmer those covered in water in a separate pan while you cook the quince. Add a few sliced cooking/Cox apples to the chopped quince (peel if you like - I only bother if they're quite big, otherwise it's too fiddly) and the water from the quince cores and peel, and cook until the apples start to disintegrate. You should have a lovely, pale gold bowl of fragrant goodness. You can add sugar, but I don't think it needs it - quince is sweet enough on its own. This is lovely on hot porridge scattered with a few blackberries.

5. The Great British Food Revival. A brilliant programme all about championing British produce that is in danger of being sidelined by foreign imports, putting us back in touch with our food heritage and urging us to save those traditional ingredients from extinction (think peas, pears, crab, pork, potatoes...). I loved the first series, and the second is just as good, judging from what I've seen so far: Gregg Wallace extolling the virtues of Yorkshire rhubarb, an ingredient very close to my heart and one that I hoard like a mad person during its short season. There's still some in my freezer. He comes up with some unusual and delicious recipes that I can't wait to try.

While on the subject, I love Gregg Wallace. I think he has an honest and immensely refreshing attitude to food. None of this poncing around with silly descriptions about umami, mouthfeel and acidity. He simply says "it's like a hug from the pudding angel". If that isn't a concise and accurate description of a dessert, I don't know what is. He is entirely unpretentious and seems like a genuinely nice, fun person. And I'm not just saying this because he likes rhubarb, though that does win anyone brownie points in my eyes.

I'm also looking forward to seeing Valentine Warner's contribution to the show, mainly because I had lunch with him a couple of months ago and am childish enough to get excited about having met people who appear on TV.

Pumpkin bread

Fresh from the oven, this bread has the perfect texture. Slightly crisp on the outside, the inside is soft and fluffy, more like a cake than a loaf of bread. In fact, it is somewhere on the dough spectrum between scone and cake (the "dough spectrum", categorising baked goods in terms of softness, running as follows: rye bread - soda bread - sourdough - ciabatta - ordinary loaf - scone - muffin - cake. I have just invented this - perhaps the most useful thing I have done all day). The incorporation of mashed, cooked pumpkin and a nice lot of butter into the dough keeps it deliciously soft and moist in the middle, with an intriguing deep autumnal flavour from the addition of winter herbs.

It's simple to make - steam peeled pumpkin or butternut squash until tender. Mash with milk and a beaten egg. Add lots (LOTS!) of black pepper, dried thyme, dried sage and rosemary. OK, so I am a little addicted to dried winter herbs, so add less if you're not a herb fiend. Fresh herbs would of course be preferable, especially fresh thyme and sage. Rosemary, I find, doesn't alter much in flavour whether it's dried or fresh, but fresh thyme has a nice sharpness about it lacking in the dried stuff. You could even add chopped cooked pancetta or bacon. Or grated cheese. Though I save these to eat with the finished product.

Rub butter into flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs (as you would for a crumble or pastry, or scones for that matter). Add the mashed pumpkin mixture and mix together into a loose dough. Shape the dough into a sort of round.

Now preheat the oven to 180C and heat some butter in an oven-proof frying pan - one with a fairly small diameter. You just want enough to cover the base of the pan. Use a mixture of butter and olive oil if you want to be sure it won't burn. When the pan is hot, place in the circle of dough and pat it out to fill the pan. It should sizzle nicely and start to smell of baked goodness. Cook for about five minutes, until the underside is toasted. Then - the tricky part - flip it over. You can do this by lightly oiling a plate and placing it over the top of the pan, then turning the pan over so the bread falls out onto the plate. However, it's a nightmare to get off the plate again as it sticks. Probably better to use a couple of fish slices/spatulas, and just try and lift it out and flip it as you would a pancake.

Cook the other side for a few minutes until lightly toasted, then put the pan in the oven for five minutes or so to cook the inside.

The result: a glorious cake-bread with endless uses. Because it's slightly sweet from the pumpkin, it's good eaten with things that are a bit salty: bacon, parma ham, very sharp cheddar. It's also very good dunked into soup - I made some broccoli and bacon soup to go alongside. That said, it's also delicious on its own, or with a bit of butter - a sort of savoury treat for afternoon tea.

A study in cranberry

It was actually an accident that both courses of last night's meal ended up containing cranberries. A realisation over the weekend that I still haven't eaten any pheasant this season, combined with the freezing cold weather and a need for something warming and substantial resulted in a trip to the butchers and a brace of pheasant in the shopping bag. I normally pot-roast pheasant with bacon, cider and apples, but thought I'd try a recipe involving red wine and sour cherries. Unable to find any dried sour cherries, I used dried cranberries instead. Dessert, a clementine and cranberry sorbet, arose for more practical reasons: fresh cranberries are half price in the supermarkets at the moment. You can't really get more festive than a sorbet combining two of Christmas's signature ingredients.

To accompany the pheasant, I made a sort of butternut squash crumble. Steamed pieces of squash, baked under a blanket of breadcrumbs toasted in olive oil with garlic, rosemary and orange zest. The colours are beautiful, and it tastes great too: the crunchy crumbs provide a nice contrast in texture to the soft, sweet squash. 

The pheasant is easy: brown the bird in butter in a casserole dish, remove and saute onions and garlic in the pan. Put the bird back in, pour in some red wine and stock, add the dried fruit, a cinnamon stick, a bay leaf and some fresh thyme, season, put the lid on and cook in the oven for about 40 minutes. You end up with a wonderfully aromatic sauce, and a truly beautiful tangle of soft, sweet onions with a sharpness from the wine they have steeped in. The combination of dense, gamey meat and sweet onions is superb, and the squash works with it better than I had anticipated. Its sweetness is a good foil for the acidity of the wine, and the crumbs on top give a nice crunch. Even better when the dark sauce from the casserole has soaked into the crumbs and made everything rich and delicious.

The sorbet recipe is from this food blog, Pastry Studio. It is the reason my degree is suffering at the moment; I am obsessed with the recipes and the photography is absolutely beautiful. It's more of a sherbet than a sorbet, really, because it includes milk. Orange zest and sugar are blitzed in a blender before you mix them with orange juice (I used clementine juice), milk, vanilla and a bit of lemon juice. The cranberry compote is just fresh cranberries stewed with lemon juice, brown sugar and water. I churned the sherbet in the ice cream maker and then layered it with the compote before putting it in the freezer. The colours are lovely, though it does look rather like someone has just mixed jam and custard in an ice cream tub! I'd quite like to serve this alongside something warm and sticky, like a Christmas pudding. I think the contrast in flavour and temperature would be rather nice.

Two ways with pumpkin and squash

I found something wonderful at the farmers' market a couple of weeks ago. A big wooden table groaning under the weight of about ten different types of pumpkin. There were big, blue-grey crown princes, the aptly named Turk's Turban (I'd never seen one before, but it does actually look like a turban - it's the most amazing-looking vegetable - google it), some Halloween-esque large golden varieties, and then several baby squashes. Given that I have never strayed beyond butternut squash in any recipe calling for pumpkin, I thought it would be a good time to give them a go.

I bought these two little ones, hoping they wouldn't consist of nothing but string once I got past their lovely, rustic-looking skins. This was a challenge, as the skins were quite thick. I wasn't sure whether to peel them or not, so I took a gamble and just roasted them, skin on and chopped up, as I would with butternut. I put some butternut and red peppers in there as well just to bulk it up a bit, and covered the lot in a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and honey. The whole tray of roasted pumpkin smelled amazing when it came out of the oven; the pieces had turned soft and sweet in the middle with lovely burnished corners where they the oil and honey had caramelised. The skins of the pumpkins hadn't been too thick: they had softened nicely and were perfectly edible.

One of my favourite things to do with roasted squash or pumpkin is a salad with goat's cheese. I normally use couscous, but I had some watercress and rocket in the fridge so used that instead. Pumpkin, roasted peppers, a few cherry tomatoes, chunks of goat's cheese, pumpkin seeds for something crunchy, and some roasted chestnuts that I had lying around. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and you have a lovely substantial salad. I think squash needs something salty to cut through its sweetness; goat's cheese works well, as does bacon.

And it is bacon that I used in my next recipe: soup. It's very easy to make and tastes wonderful, especially on a freezing cold misty day like today. Fry some chopped bacon, add a diced red onion and some cubes of fresh squash and cook for a few minutes until the onion is soft. Pour over enough chicken stock to cover, add a bay leaf and some thyme sprigs and dried sage, cover and simmer until the squash is soft (20-30 minutes). I then added the remained of the roast squash from the day before and left it to simmer for another ten minutes, but you can just stick with fresh squash if you can't be bothered to roast any first (though I find it is more flavoursome). Use a stick blender to liquidise the whole lot. I then added some more water to make it quite runny, and then put in a handful or so of pearl barley - I like soups with things to chew on in them, and it makes it go further. Simmer again for about half an hour or 40 minutes, until the barley is tender but still a bit al dente. Check the seasoning, add a bit more dried sage, and it's ready. I like to serve it with grated Gruyere cheese on top, but that is just because I have a weakness for soup with melted cheese on. I don't know why really.