Autumn is here: cold days and dark nights. Crispy ombre leaves under foot and cold just pinching your cheeks; scarves wrapped around necks and flip flops finally relegated. Half of me is sad to say goodbye to the heady days of summer and quick thrown-together suppers eaten outside, but a bigger part of me is excited. This is my favourite time of year in the kitchen. The spoils of a long summer finally come to fruition and there is a proper bounty at our fingertips before the freeze sets in.
This time of year is marked by thorny skirmishes in bushes, trying to reach the best-looking blackberries and sloes. We have a grapevine in a sunny spot out front, which is older than me and yields tiny but almost bubblegum-sweet little grapes – half get pickled and the other half made into a jelly which gets handed round at Christmas with little bottles of sloe and blackberry whisky and gin. This may all sound a bit twee and Countryfile, but the hedges of all our cites are jam-packed with edible little berries – most of mine come from Hackney Marshes and are picked between football fields and canal boats.
There is a generosity to autumn that isn’t equalled by any other season. The colours match the falling leaves, the warm glowing oranges of squash, the sweetshop jewel colours of beetroots and the subtle earth tones of mushrooms, all backed up by the very last of the summer tomatoes and courgettes.
And there is a new energy in the kitchen. The dark nights mean there is more time to cook. Gone are smoothies and salads in place of deeper, satisfying and nourishing piles of roasted veg, big cast-iron pots of soup and crispy-topped bakes and pies.
My body craves warmth, heady spices, hearty roots and bolstering grains. Salads move from spritely leaves and summer bursts of citrus to bowls of just-warm grains, roasted veg and dressings of tahini or thick, sweet balsamic. Mornings mean oats or porridge, topped with plums, greengages and figs and a drizzle of raw honey. Lunches are deep bowls of soup sprinkled with crisped herbs, breadcrumbs or toasted nuts. There is a harvest festival feeling about autumn, which brings together the best bits of summer- and winter-eating. Greengrocers are still brimming with vegetables, but the time and energy to cook is back – no longer does it seem a waste of a bright evening to be in the kitchen and the warmth of the cooker is welcome. My year is marked by kitchen rituals and these are what I do when autumn draws in.
Tomatoes won’t be British-grown or tasty for some time, so buy up a box of good ripe ones and slow-roast. Cut them in half and lay cut-side up on trays, sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle with a little olive oil, scatter with a little thyme, if you like, and roast them at 150ºC/fan 130ºC/gas mark 2 for about an hour or until they have dried out and become sweet and sticky. Put them in a sterilised jar, cover completely with olive oil and keep in the fridge until needed; they will last a few weeks in the fridge or all winter if you sterilise the jars properly.
Try sloe or blackberry gin
Pick enough sloes or blackberries to half-fill a few bottles – they should pop easily between your finger and thumb if they are ripe. Wash and check for any grubs. If using sloes, put them in the freezer overnight to “shock” them and bring out their natural sweetness; this saves having to prick each one individually with a pin. Sterilise your bottles and half-fill them with the fruit. Add two to four tablespoons of unrefined sugar (depending on how sweet you like things, you could use agave, too) and top up with good gin. Shake well and seal, then keep in a dark place for two to three months, shaking and turning every few days when you remember. It will be ready by Christmas – even better if left longer.
When autumn arrives, I want my food to be heartier and a quick way to make this happen without having to handcraft a pie is to have some cooked grains on hand to throw into a salad or a soup. They will keep in the fridge for up to a week and in the freezer for a couple of months, so you are only ever a few minutes away from a hearty meal. My guide to cooking grains is here.
Roast a big pan of root veg
This is another trick for quick and easy weeknight suppers. I roast a big tray about once a week, when I have time, with whatever looks good at the greengrocer’s – this week, it was yellow, purple and candy-cane beetroots with delicate squash. Simply peel (if needed), trim roughly, chop and roast the veg at 180ºC/fan 160ºC/gas mark 4 for 45 minutes to one hour, depending on how small you chopped it all. Flavour with winter herbs, such as thyme, rosemary, sage or bay, whole unpeeled garlic cloves (which can be squashed out of their skin once buttery and cooked) and halved lemons or oranges, squeezed over the veg and then chucked into the tray.
Make the most of mushrooms
Our amazing wild mushrooms don’t last for long, so make the most of them. I sauté them simply in a hot pan with a little oil or butter until crisped round the edges and smelling of the woods – whatever you do, don’t overcrowd the pan; you want them to see some serious heat. Finish with a little finely chopped garlic, a tiny squeeze of lemon and some parsley for the last couple of minutes, then pile on to toast. Or, make the mushroom and parsnip rösti pie below – its my all-time favourite mushroom recipe.
Mushroom and parsnip rösti pie
Preparation time 30 minutes
Cooking time 40 minutes
- Olive or rapeseed oil
- 750g mushrooms (I use a mixture of portobello, chestnut and wild mushrooms, if I can get them), roughly chopped into chunky pieces
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
- Small bunch of thyme, leaves picked
- 2 red onions, peeled and sliced
- 2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
- 1⁄2 a swede (250g), peeled and finely chopped
- 200ml white wine or vegetable stock
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce (I use a vegetarian version called Henderson’s Relish)
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
- Small bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
- 2-4 tbsp crème fraîche (optional)
- 4 parsnips, scrubbed clean
- First of all, get your biggest frying pan on a high heat (I use a large cast-iron sauté pan that can go into the oven) and add a good glug of oil. Add enough mushrooms to cover the base of the pan, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until nicely brown and beginning to crisp at the edges. Transfer to a bowl and keep frying the rest in batches until all the mushrooms are golden.
- When all the mushrooms are in the bowl, put the pan back on the heat and add another lug of oil. Add the garlic, thyme, onions, carrots and swede, season with a good pinch of salt and pepper and cook on a medium heat for 10 minutes, until softened and starting to brown. Preheat your oven to 200ºC/fan 180ºC/gas mark 6.
- Next, add the cooked mushrooms and the wine or stock, and simmer until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Now add the Worcestershire sauce, mustards, parsley and crème fraîche, if using, and cook gently for a few more minutes, until you have a rich gravy. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Grate the parsnips into a bowl and season with salt and pepper.
- Transfer your mushroom mixture to an oven dish if necessary, then pile the parsnips on top, leaving a little gap around the edge. Drizzle generously with oil and bake for 40 minutes, until golden brown and crispy. Serve with some cheerful greens – I sauté some chard with a little chilli and lemon zest.