That first frost had me digging out a pair of thick knitted socks and a recipe for Irish stew. It was the steaming broth I was after, a liquor of deepest amber, with small discs of fat glistening on its surface. With the floorboards up and the wind blowing through the holes in the bare-brick kitchen walls, this stew - scrag of lamb, sliced onion, carrots, celery, bay and potatoes - warmed us right down to our little toes. A stew so good that we forgot, for a moment, the depressing news of the dry rot in the kitchen joist. Pears followed, Doyenne du Comice that I simmered slowly in sweet Marsala and brown sugar, with a vanilla pod and a few star anise to give a faint aniseed note, again to warm us.
I saw the first of the Brussels sprouts this week, small and sweet and still attached to their long, thick stems. How do people get them home, I wonder. I love my vegetables freshly picked, but I'll be damned if I'll walk through town holding a bunch of sprouts on a stick. I did pick up a red cabbage, leaves splayed out, as black as claret and crisp as ice. I snapped them off, cut them into finger-wide strips like pappardelle pasta and cooked them for 6 minutes in oil and butter in a cast-iron pan with a tight lid. We ate them, seasoned with crushed juniper berries and cider vinegar, with slices of grilled belly pork and onion pickle, though roast rabbit would have been even better.
A cold, wet autumn begs for game birds, roasted and served up with mash (potato, celeriac and potato, pumpkin, parsnip), if for no other reason than they feel right. Imagine a roast partridge, its skin crisp, its flesh the rose side of bloody with mounds of nutty-tasting celeriac and potato mash; a grouse with a pool of hot bread sauce and a couple of roast parsnips; pigeon as bloody as you like with a mash of buttered, peppered swede. This is the food dreams should be made of, but the reality is that game birds are always cheaper than you expect, and roots, mashed with butter and pepper, always tastier.
I roasted a partridge last night, spread with butter and crushed juniper berries; it took only 30 minutes at 190 C/gas mark 5. As it hissed and crackled I steamed some thick slices of pumpkin over hot water, then beat them to a fluff with butter and a scraping of nutmeg. As a weekday supper it seemed extravagant, yet was less trouble than, say, pasta alla carbonara.
Supper has changed in our house of late, becoming more substantial, more richly seasoned and just a little more formal. That's cold weather for you. Proper cooking, with its layers of onions, root vegetables and spices, demands the respect of a knife, fork and table. Unless it's shepherd's pie of course, when you can eat, feet curled under you on the sofa, one eye on Six Feet Under .
This is soup weather, too. It is hardly icy enough for pea and ham yet, but certainly cream of mushroom or hot, blood-red beetroot. Mushrooms left for a few days in a paper bag in the bottom of the fridge make a more deeply flavoured soup than those tight and white straight from the shop. You want all the moist, woodsy character you can get. I make it in the French manner, softening a small onion and a few cloves of garlic in butter, then stirring in chopped parsley, salt, a glass of white wine and 500g of sliced mushrooms. After 5 or 6 minutes, I add a litre of stock or water and let everything bubble gently for half an hour. I then blitz it in the blender with a few spoonfuls of cream, some black pepper and more parsley. Last time we ate it with some rosemary focaccia from the deli, toasted under the grill. Meals rarely come more steeped in autumn than this.
It is worth catching the last of the locally grown tomatoes. They should be finished but, as with beans and lettuce (though sadly not plums or damsons), the season hangs on longer than you expect. Once they are gone it will be imports till late spring. Sometimes I just split and grill them, then mash them, scarlet flesh and blackened skins, with a fork. As a sauce for penne it will at least see off the end of the basil plants before the frost totals them.
The oven, still housed in the temporary kitchen under the stairs, has been on almost nonstop. Roasts of pheasant and pork (with apples and lemon); a cake with chocolate chips and broken walnuts; a pie of Blenheim Orange apples and the first Italian quinces; a lasagne with mushrooms instead of minced beef. Oven food. Weekend food.
Sweet potatoes have been cropping up in the kitchen lately. They bake quicker than the big whites. They seem happiest with a good peppery butcher's sausage or two, or thick slices of grilled ham. You want something savoury to balance their brown-sugar flavour. Put them on a baking sheet rather than the bars of the grill: sweet potatoes leak a sugary syrup and are prone to puff up and collapse.
I have cooked very little on the hob this month; pasta - once, that chewy, corkscrew-shaped pasta with black olive paste and tomato (horrid, I cannot imagine what I was thinking of) and another day some melting ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach. It was like eating the softest silk cushions, a dribble of creamy olive oil over them and just a scattering of crunchy, toasted pine nuts. There was a stir-fry of squid with noodles and Vietnamese chilli sauce. Garlic goes in first, frying with chopped spring onion in a little smoking-hot peanut oil, then the squid cut into rings, then, just seconds later when all is popping and banging in the wok, some tiny bird's eye chillies - the ripe red ones - and then the boiled noodles and a shot (several, actually) of hot Vietnamese chilli sauce. A fast, mouth-stinging bowl of food for a frosty midweek supper.
Seafood is as good as it gets right now. Mussels (which I steam with lemon grass and chilli), clams (with garlic and linguine) and scallops are all in good nick. The mackerel is back again and herring isn't to be missed if you can cope with the pesky, whiskery bones. The other night I grilled one like a kipper and ate it for my tea with slices of bread and butter, pickled cabbage and some boiled floury potatoes.
It is hard to find a fish that isn't worth a look in November, but it was the English squid that caught my eye this week. I cleaned it myself, but only because the fishmonger misheard (did he really think I wanted to deal with that black ink and yuck myself?) Once the long white bodysack was clean and pearl white, I slit it in two and ran my sharpest knife back and forth across it, a neat crisscross of slashes that help tenderise the thick slabs of white flesh. This time, I grilled it on the ridged iron griddle for a few seconds till the flesh was opaque, then splashed it with olive oil into which I had crushed a clove of garlic and crumbled some chopped thyme leaves. On the side I put sweet green chillies, charred on the grill, and some small potatoes that had been baking with olive oil, more garlic and rosemary needles.