Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Joys of Seasonal Eating

As Summer Draws to a Close, a New Larder Opens...........

It is with a heavy sigh that I find the cricket season drawing to a close. This is not just a sporting matter for, as the final ball is bowled, no doubt batted nonchalantly to a close fielder, the umpires will signal not just the end of  another match but the demise of summer itself. Temperatures are already starting to cool and the days drawing shorter, fingers crossed in hope of an “Indian Summer”. However, for the committed “foodie”, passionate about seasonal eating, the autumnal skies come with a silver lining. There are many virtues to cooking and eating according to appropriate seasons and one of them is definitely this – just as you need solace for summer’s passing, and the impending cold and dark, we are blessed with the finest food season of them all.
The main harvest is underway and nearing completion of the yields of wheat and barley. Here, in England, late summer presents us with more and better seasonal fruits than the (supposedly) hotter weeks and this overlaps into autumn to complement the arrival of a multi-coloured harvest festival of autumn fruit and veg. Wild mushrooms are in season, root vegetables, nuts and squashes in classic autumn hues colour the market stalls, we have seafood back with an “R” in the month (see my last blog), and game birds such as pheasant and partridge, given summer respite to breed, are back on the menu. 
Wild blackberries, or brambles, adorn hedgerows alongside apple and pear trees. As the first apples ripen there should be an abundance of brambles to complement them in pies and desserts. Blackberry and apple is one of the food world’s great combinations and so I find my taste buds trembling in anticipation as I see them growing together. The apples will be around long after the brambles have gone, but these juicy berries do freeze especially well. 
One of my favourite English classics is a blackberry and apple crumble. Slice enough cored and peeled apple to almost fill an ovenproof dish. Bramleys are, of course, the best cooking apple but even better to include a crunchier variety such as cox’s. Any apples or pears will work. Mix in at least two handfulls of blackberries and 3 tablespoons of sugar. For the crumble topping put 6oz (170g) of plain flour, 5oz (140g) of cold butter (diced up) and 2oz (55g) of sugar in a bowl and mix with the tips of your fingers until it combines to resemble breadcrumbs. Spread the topping over the fruit, dot with a little more butter and bake in the oven at 200 degrees C (400 F, gas mark 6) for 45 minutes. It’s that simple and it’s fantastic. Traditionally served with hot custard, but I like it with ice cream.

Braised Pheasant

Roast pheasant is most certainly delicious, but pretty much impossible to get the tough leg meat tender without overcooking and drying out the breast. To cope with this, many years ago, I experimented with a slow cooking method and came up with this pot roast, or braised, version. It also works very well with partridge and may well work with other birds, though I’m yet to try it with them.
Serves 4-6
4 Pheasants, oven ready
4 medium sized apples
4 medium sized onions
A large bunch of thyme or rosemary or both.
300 ml (7fl oz) Chicken stock (pheasant stock, if you have any, would be even better)
8 Rashers of streaky bacon
250 ml (1 cup) of dry cider
4 Beurre Manie balls (ping pong sized) made by mixing together equal quantities of butter and plain flour.
Roughly dice half the apples and onions and cut the rest into thick slices. Insert the chopped apple and onion, along with two sprigs of herbs, into the cavities of the pheasants.
Place the sliced apple and onion in the bottom of a dish suitable for roasting. Pour on the stock and then sit the pheasants on top of the apple and onion. “Bard” the pheasants by draping the bacon over the breasts. Then place in the oven, pre-heated to 170 degrees C (325 F, Gas mark 3). Cook for four hours.
Pour the cider into a saucepan and bring, gently, to a simmer. Strain the juices from the roasting pan through a sieve in to the saucepan and stir into the cider. Thicken by whisking in the butter and flour balls to make a sauce to pour over the pheasant.
Best served with roasted root vegetables, as well as the apple and onion slices from the roasting pan.

Butternut Squash Curry

This is a very simple recipe for delicious vegetable curry. If you insist on meat, you can separately cook some cubes of diced chicken or lamb, either fried or in a very hot oven, and add them at the end. It will work with just about any squash or pumpkin, but I prefer the slightly buttery, nutty, version that lives up to its name. Like most of my recipes the quantities feed two, but can easily be double, tripled, etc.
1 Butternut squash, seeds removed and diced into roughly three quarter inch (2cm) cubes.
! teaspoon each of ground cumin and paprika.
1 Red pepper, halved lengthways, seeds removed.
2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil.
1 Medium sized onion (red ones are best), finely chopped.
2 Cloves of garlic.
2 Teaspoons of grated fresh ginger.
2 tablespoons of Rogan Josh curry paste.
Juice of half a lemon.
1 Can of plum tomatoes.
Salt, to taste.
1 Tablespoon of natural yoghurt.
A handful of chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves.
First, pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees C (400 F, Gas Mark 6). Place the diced squash, dusted with the ground cumin and paprika, and red pepper in a roasting dish, drizzled with half the oil. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes.
Heat the rest of the oil in a deep frying or saute pan or wok. Gently fry the onion until translucent. Then add the garlic and ginger for 1 minute, before stirring in the curry paste and cook for another minute. Squeeze over the lemon juice, then pour on the tinned tomatoes. If the tomatoes are not already chopped, chop them up with the edge of a spatula. Give it all a good stir and leave to reduce on a gentle simmer for about 25 minutes, until it has reached your preferred curry sauce consistency.
Take the roasting dish from the oven, cut up the red pepper (however you like it) and stir into the curry. Take the curry pan off the heat and stir in the yoghurt. Sprinkle over the coriander leaves and serve with naan bread or rice.

Mushroom Orzotto

Orzotto is, essentially, the same as risotto but made with pearl barley instead of rice. You can certainly make this with wild mushrooms while in season. You can use rehydrated dried mushrooms and use the soaking liquid in the stock (but do strain out the grit through muslin or a tea strainer). However, it will also work well with cultivated mushrooms. The brown varieties are the best.
Soak the barley in water for at least three hours before, or it will take forever to cook.
Serves two
40 grams (1.5 oz) of butter
1 Teaspoon of olive oil
Mushrooms, roughly chopped (see text). Enough to cover the bottom of a wide saucepan.
2 Cloves of chopped garlic
80 grams (3 oz) of pre-soaked pearl barley
750 ml (2.4 fl oz) Chicken stock (vegetarians can use a vegetable stock, but chicken is best)
Thyme (leaves stripped from four sprigs
1 Tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
On a low heat, melt the butter in the saucepan, and add the olive oil which helps prevent the butter from burning.
Stir in the mushrooms, coating them with the butter. When the mushrooms appear just cooked, stir in the garlic. Cook for another minute before adding the pearl barley to the pan. Give it another stir then pour over the stock and add the thyme. Leave to simmer, lid off, until the barley is nice and tender –  30-40 minutes.

Stir in the parmesan and season to taste.

Crab Pasta

I am lucky enough to live in the fine county of Norfolk, home to the famous Cromer crab. I recently acquired a dozen claws, conveniently ready cracked which made separating the meat from the shell very easy. Any good fishmonger should do this for you. I was determined to utilise the shells, which I knew would be full of flavour. Usually for me this would mean a risotto made with a broth from boiling the shells, or perhaps a soup. However, this time I came with this pasta dish.

Wherever in the world you live, I’m sure your local crabs will work well in this recipe.

12 cracked crab claws
1 tablespoon of lardons (finely chopped cubes of fatty bacon)
2 cloves of garlic, sliced or crushed
1 heaped teaspoon of paprika (hot or sweet, it’s up to you)
2 tablespoons of soured cream (you could use crème fraiche)
80 grams (3 oz) of linguine (or whatever pasta you prefer)
A few basil leaves

First separate the crab meat from the shell, using a dinner knife.

Put the shells in a saucepan and cover with just enough water, bring to the boil and then simmer for 15 minutes to make a stock.

While the stock is simmering, in another saucepan fry the lardons until nicely coloured. Turn down the heat to low, then add the garlic and cook for another minute, before stirring in the paprika and cooking for another 30 seconds.

At this point, put your pasta on to boil.

Pour over the crab shell stock, straining through a sieve. Leave to reduce until there is only about a tablespoon of liquid at the bottom of the pan. Be careful not to let it boil dry. Take the pan of the heat and stir in the cream.

Serve with the pasta and tear over the basil leaves.

Late Summer Pudding
Or: Autumn pudding or “Indian Summer” Pudding

Summer pudding is an English classic and a wonderfully simple idea. Replacing the heavy stodge of most of our traditional puddings that use a sponge or suet pastry base to keep us warm in our cold, damp, climate, with slices of stale bread provides a lighter pudding for the warm, hopefully hot, summer days. Using dark red and purple fruits, whose juices are then soaked up in the bread crust also makes his one of the most visually stunning of all puddings.
However, the truth is that, for the seasonal cook, the ideal ingredients don’t really come into being until the very end of summer. I like to include an apple or a pear, or two. It gives the soft fruits a little more substance. Wild blackberries appear in August, but the early ones are sharp, it takes a little more time to develop their full sweetness (just as English strawberries are nowhere near their best until long after Wimbledon is over). So, the recipe I have given here, of a pudding that I made on the 6th of September, is one that I prefer to call “Late” Summer Pudding. The ingredients listed are what I had to hand on the day. Don’t be afraid to improvise.
You’ll need a bowl ideally in a classic curved pudding bowl shape. For this, I used one 6 inches in diameter at the top and 4 inches deep, tapering down to 3 inches diameter at the base (an inch is 2.5 cm if you insist on metric). This should feed two gluttons, or four people comfortably with a generous helping of clotted cream or ice cream. You can, of course, double up the size of the bowl and, therefore all the ingredients accordingly. Heck, make it as big as you can!
1 medium sized Apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped.
1 large red Plum, roughly chopped and stoned.
10 Strawberries, hulled and sliced lengthways.
70 grams/2.5 oz Raspberries
70 grams/2.5 oz Blackberries
55 grams/2 oz  Redcurrants and Blackcurrants
10 dark red Cherries
80 grams/3 oz White Sugar
6 slices of slightly stale white Bread, crusts removed.
Put the apple in a saucepan over a medium heat with a tablespoon of water. Cook for about 5 minutes – until the apple pieces are soft to touch. Then add the other fruit and the sugar and simmer for another 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the bread to form an inner lining for the bowl. Cut a disc to fall into the bottom of the bowl and shape the rest so that it will line the sides and form a lid on top.
When the fruit is cooked, strain through a sieve, reserving the juice. Dip the bread slices, lightly, in the juice and line the bowl with them. Then spoon in the fruit and place the “lid” on top. Pour any remaining juice onto the top of the pudding, then place a saucer or small plate on top, and then a weight of about 400 grams (1 lb). I used a can of butter beans.
Leave in a cool place overnight and then place your serving dish over the bowl and flip over so that the pudding, encouraged by a sharp shake, falls onto the dish.

As the days get darker, temperatures drop and the leaves begin to fall from the trees, i hope you can find solace in the wonders that nature brings to the table at this time of year.