So the harvest season is one for pickling, smoking, fermenting freezing and bottling in all its Little House on the Prairie glory. But this year, all that joyful preserving has taken on a slightly more serious feel. Slowly but surely, survivalists are starting to sound not quite so eccentric. Countryside estate agents everywhere are being asked by potential clients to look out for “at least a hectare with running water”. Preppers, with their once sinister forest lairs, tripwires, vicious hounds and “keep out or else” signs are going mainstream. Even the Scottish police issued guidelines for how to pack an emergency rucksack!
As a child, the “we plough the fields and gather” lavish harvest celebrations in our usually austere Presbyterian church always made me marvel at the colour and bounty of an Northern Irish autumn. And upon moving to France, the October market stalls heavy with late figs, grapes, mushrooms, apples, pears, pumpkins and game transported me directly to cosy lunches and suppers, with a wood fire lit to stave off the nip in the air. You could secretly start thinking about Christmas (haven’t you?). Pre-exams, the children were still enthusiastic about school, it felt good to move indoors slowly and spend more time in the kitchen cooking dishes which themselves required more time to cook. Autumn is my favourite season in every way, and I refuse to have it spoiled by either apocalyptic mutterings or any excess of practicality.
One current craze, batch cooking – or le batch cooking as they say here in France (while I roll my eyes) – I find particularly sad. Not only because I envy the astronomical sales figures of books on the subject, but also because, in my mind, it reduces food to a frustrating, utilitarian chore. There is a great deal of sense in cooking larger than necessary quantities in order to manufacture next day leftovers, or even deliberately cook a double amount of something delicious which freezes well – say, a stew or soup or ice cream. But the most usual batch cooking principle I have encountered consists of buying in bulk and cooking all family meals of the week in one go – usually on Sunday. Each meal is then stored in Tupperwares and/or frozen with menus set for each day.
To me, this all smacks of food control issues, of distancing oneself from daily pleasure or togetherness around food, of the ever continuing professionalisation of home cooking. You might as well be a hospital caterer. Of course you save time during a busy week, no more shopping or prepping, and arguably it reduces waste and energy used, but in doing so you sacrifice a good part of your weekend’s free time. And to my mind, having the ping of the microwave replace the spontaneity of a quickly assembled weekday supper, with all its delicious cooking smells and sounds, simply sucks the joy from food.
Even without going the whole batch-cooking hog, every autumn there is, of course, a sense of laying down nourishing supplies for winter. And perhaps our most emblematic autumn harvest crop is the pumpkin. Its colours match the falling leaves, its texture and sweetness suit our growing hankering for warm, creamy, comforting food. It is endlessly versatile, great for soups, stews, tarts and just wonderful when roasted and caramelised. The other good news about pumpkin is that it freezes very well. Either raw and cut into cubes that you can roast or simmer from frozen, or puréed raw or cooked.
Butternuts have become our favourite squash, and have a manageable size requiring few headaches about future storage. But with the bigger varieties, and those which are still edible after their Halloween performance, it’s good to set aside some time to cook several recipes you can freeze ahead. Yes, yes, it’s a batch cooking of sorts, but I know how well pumpkin every night for a week would go down in my house!
Roast pumpkin with sage and Ardsallagh Phantom cheese
These three ingredients were made for each other. Any medium ripe goats cheese will work here, as would blue cheese, a Durrus Òg or a ripe Taleggio.
30 minutes preparation and cooking
1 medium butternut squash, cut into slices of around 1cm (no need to peel)
3 tbsps olive oil
1/2 Ardsallagh Phantom cheese, cut into thin slices
8–10 medium fresh sage leaves
Salt and pepper
Heat the oven to 180oC.
Lay the slices of pumpkin on a lined baking tray, sprinkle with olive oil and a little salt and dot with the sage leaves.
Roast for 20 minutes or so, until the pumpkin looks caramelised and the sage crispy.
Remove from the oven and immediately set the cheese on the hot pumpkin, allowing it to soften and melt slightly. Serve immediately.
Butternut squash caramelised in pomegranate molasses
Pomegranate molasses are wonderfully rich, fruity, sweet and sour and work very well as a glaze for all root vegetables. Here, it gives the golden orange butternut flesh a beautiful ruby sheen.
30 – 40 minutes cooking
1 small butternut of around 300/400g
3 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp runny honey
Salt and pepper
Heat the oven to 180C.
Cut the butternut in two lengthways, brush with olive oil, season with a little salt and roast, cut side up, for 20 minutes.
Combine the molasses and honey with a whisk.
Remove the butternut and brush it with the honey/pomegranate mixture. Put it back into the oven and roast for a further 10 to 15 minutes, until the surface is bubbling and caramelised.
Remove from the oven and serve hot.
Pumpkin Maple Pie
All the flavours of autumn, Halloween and Thanksgiving in one pretty tart. You can, of course make your own pastry. My current favourite ratio is 275g flour to 175g cold butter and 100ml iced water. Chill for at least an hour before rolling out and using. This will yield enough pastry offcuts to decorate with lattice work or leaf shapes for your pie.
5 minutes preparation
50 minutes cooking
1 ready to roll shortcrust pastry
400g tin of unsweetened pumpkin purée
250ml single cream
150ml maple syrup
1/2 tsp each of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
Heat the oven to 180oC.
Line a 22cm tart dish with the pastry.
Beat all the ingredients with electric beater until frothy and well combined.
Pour the cream into the pastry base and cook for 50 minutes or so, until the cream is just set.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool before serving with whipped cream and/or ice cream.
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