Meat. I had almost forgotten about meat. So rich are the pickings from the fruit and vegetable world at this time of year, I have barely thought about the stuff for weeks. The early-autumn veg and, indeed, fruit have an affinity with the meat of the pig, its sweet flesh just the job for using with ripe peppers, mushrooms, fennel, the squashes and, on the fruit side, apples and sharp plums.
The cheaper cuts attract me just as much as the more expensive ones. Chops cut from the neck and ribs with their road map of fat and a bone running through the flesh are my first choice for slower cooking. They make a fine early-autumn pot roast. These cuts are not cheap when bought from a decent source, but they still work out less expensive than the prime cuts from the loin and leg. Their fat bastes them as they cook – especially if you cover them with a lid as I did this week, with a few fat rib chops bolstered with small potatoes, the first of the autumn fennel and a splash of booze in the shape of Marsala. I could have used vermouth or white wine.
Pot roasts are something I usually keep for when the weather is on the chilly side, but the evenings seem to have suddenly drawn in during the past week or so and out the cast iron casserole has come (a good couple of weeks earlier than usual). The point of roasting something in this enclosed way is that the meat partly roasts, partly steams not only keeping the meat moist but, more importantly, producing sweet, intensely flavoured pan juices.
The liquid left in the pan – the essence of the meat and aromatics mingling with the wine or stock – is there for all to see, but a little of it is also absorbed by the vegetables, making them taste fully part of the dish rather than something on the side. That doesn't stop you cooking them separately if you wish.
I chose pork because it feels right at this point in the autumn. This is traditionally when a family would kill the animal they have been fattening all year. I'm a bit early this year in getting the casserole out, but the flavours ring true with everything else that is ripe and ready right now.
I don't often splurge on expensive mushrooms – it's not my style – but this is a dish in which you may like to replace my potatoes with a few of the Scottish girolles popping up wallet-bustlingly on the odd market stall (though I am willing to bet a few readers know of a secret supply of their own).
Even now we have been eating outside, albeit well wrapped up. I didn't want to let go of the tail end of what has been a long and peculiar summer, with half the country experiencing too much rain, the other half begging for it on bended knee.
One or two ingredients are coming to the end of their season and I can't be the only one looking for ways in which to pass another bowl of runner beans around the table. This week I tossed what I suspect is the last of them on a sauce-cum-dressing of bubbled-down tomatoes and tarragon. Although I served it as a side dish for pieces of grilled hake, I wondered if there was a possibility of turning this into a main dish. I would have loved to put thin slices of chorizo in this, or maybe halloumi, the squeaky cheese of which I have become rather fond of late.
Pork and fennel pot roast
You will need a deep, wide pan with a lid for this. The heavier the better. Use chops cut from the neck or rib, with or without the bone. One per person with a couple of potatoes and fennel is plenty. If you want more potatoes you may need to cook them in a separate pan.
a thick slice of butter
4 pork neck chops (about 200g each with the bone)
8 new potatoes
2 bay leaves
100ml dry Marsala
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Warm the butter in a very large, deep casserole over a moderate heat. Season the chops with salt and pepper and let them colour very lightly in the butter. Remove them and set them aside.
Wipe the potatoes, peeling them only if their skins are thick, and slice into halves or quarters. Add the potatoes to the pan in which you cooked the pork and let them cook over a moderate heat for 10 minutes or until they are lightly toasted on the cut side.
Cut the fennel into thick pieces and add to the pan, tucking it in among the potatoes. Tuck in the bay leaves, add the Marsala and let it bubble for a few minutes, stirring from time to time. Return the pork to the pan, pushing the chops into the pan so that the fennel and potatoes partially cover them. You will find the chops and fennel stand proud of the liquid; no matter.
Cover the pan with a lid and place in the oven for 60-75 minutes until the potatoes are soft and the pork is tender. Check the seasoning and serve with the juices from the pan.
Warm bean salad, tomato herb dressing
A the start of the season I eat runner and French beans fresh from the steamer, with or without a coating of melted butter. As their season moves on I like to use them in more adventurous ways, tossing them with slivers of cheese, adding a few toasted almonds or occasionally serving them with a sauce. This week I used up a load of tomatoes to make a slightly piquant sauce.
Serves 4 as a side dish
400g assorted runner and French beans
For the dressing
3 spring onions
2 tbsp olive oil
275g small, sharpish tomatoes
a small bunch of tarragon
12 basil leaves
Discard the root of the spring onion and the toughest part of the green shoot, then finely slice the rest. Warm the olive oil and lightly cook the onion until it is tender. It shouldn't be allowed to colour.
Roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan, stirring and squashing them as you go with a wooden spoon. Pour in 150ml of water then bring the mixture to the boil, add salt and black pepper and the tarragon, roughly chopped, then turn down the heat to a slow simmer. Partially cover with a lid and leave for 20 minutes or so until the sauce thickens. Tear up the basil leaves and stir them in. Take the dressing off the heat.
Cook the beans in boiling, salted water or steam them as you wish, then drain, returning them to the hot, empty pan. Add the dressing to the drained beans and toss gently or spoon it over the beans.