I have never enjoyed shopping for my supper more so than in the last few weeks. The air is crisp. The market stalls are groaning with fat roots, purple cabbage and wacky mushrooms. The new apples spurt with juice and the Conference pears are still hard enough to hurt your gums. There are pomegranates, quinces and fat figs. Partridge is there, too, with plump, wet scallops and diminutive beetroots complete with their bloodshot plume of leaves. And someone, somewhere, is roasting chestnuts.
Fish, be it mackerel, mussels, lobster or crab, is now at its autumn peak. The piscatorially minded are spoilt for choice, and there seems no reason to do anything more than fling your fillet on the grill and offer it up with wedges of fat lemon or bake it with a drizzle of oil and some salt. Last week I roasted tiny cubes of aubergine, salted to stop them soaking up too much oil, then laid my mackerels, whole and unboned, on the side. Olive oil, a pinch of ground cinnamon and a couple of sprigs of thyme went in there too: a robust Mediterranean-scented supper for a wet Wednesday night.
We must cook rather than graze if we are to survive the cold and the wet. Those allergic to cooking may need to bite the bullet and get the casserole down from its shelf if they are not to short-change the family dinner table. No supermarket dinner-in-a-dish will hit the spot now. Only onions, starch and meat juices can get through to our marrow when everyone comes home soaked through to the skin. Herbivores might like to try boiling onions in their jackets then lifting them into a roasting dish with butter, salt and black pepper, letting them bake sweetly till their flesh is as soft as silk.
Game figures high on any omnivore's autumn shopping list. How you cook your partridge, pheasant or mallard will depend on what else looks good when you get to the shops, but apples could figure in there somewhere. Try throwing some peeled and chopped Worcesters or Cox into the roasting pan, then crushing them to sweeten the pan juices. A potato masher will do nicely. A tart sauce made by simmering a couple of peeled Bramleys, Grenadiers or lesser-known George Caves with a very little water can be whisked to a smooth slop, and is for me a happier accompaniment than most for a roast wild duck. Both sauce and bird will take about half an hour.
Whether it flies or waddles, duck seems right for this pre-Christmas season. The inevitable march of the turkey will soon be upon us. The Chinese way with star anise or five-spice powder is warming enough. Some days I use oyster sauce with it instead. Those who cannot face roasting a whole bird - too much fug and grease, if you ask me - might like to have a go at a leg or two instead. I cook mine this way: slowly sauté the duck legs in a covered casserole with a little oil and salt, then cut the meat from the bone and set it aside. Shred half a red cabbage, then fry in the same pan but with a clove or two of crushed garlic and over a higher heat till its colours shine like pickled cabbage. Shake in a little oyster sauce, a little dark soy, then add the shredded duck.
Late autumn, with the air on the slide from cool to cold, was the time many families used to kill their pig. The offal, which could not be cured or dried or made into a fat-covered confit for keeping, would be the après-slaughter feast. The blood that was saved was made into black pudding. How convenient then that it should go so well with apples, the fruit of the moment. I fry finger-thick slices of Bury black pud, and thinner ones of apple, in butter, then drizzle them with an impromptu sauce made from the buttery juices left in the pan thickened with cream and a spoonful of mustard.
I took my fill of home-grown tomatoes and green beans this year and, now they are gone, I have taken to the season's kale, chard and cabbage more than ever. The high spot has been the January King cabbages that have been around for the last couple of weeks. These are true winter brassicas, their leaves crisp and frilly, their flavour as deep and earthy. Steamed, shaken dry and tossed with salted butter or hot bacon fat, it is as fine as any other veg. The trick is simply not just to slightly undercook it, but to serve those heavily veined green and mauve leaves as hot as you can get them.
We shouldn't ignore the chubby white roots of celeriac. The time-honoured treatment is to grate the woody lump and stir it into a mustard mayonnaise to make celeriac remoulade, but with a bit of tweaking you can eat it hot, too. I give it much the same treatment, just changing the mayonnaise for crème frache and adding a shake from the wine vinegar bottle. The mustard is what makes it, but don't go overboard - you don't want to cancel out this root's deep mineral flavour.
We are approaching the polenta season. You can, of course, eat this substantial golden maize paste at any time of the year, but we only really need it, like porridge, when the wet sets in. Good as it is with thick gravies, I like mine with a slice of blue cheese melted into it. Try a collapsing Gorgonzola, or for a milder taste, the stripy hybrid that includes layers of that and mascarpone.
With my weekly purchase of Comice pears edging their way toward perfection on my kitchen windowsill it seems right and fitting to get the most suitable cheese to go with them. With their cold flesh as soft and clear as a fruit sorbet, you could take a salty or nutty cheese - either will work. Nuggets of old, craggy Parmigiano Reggiano fit like a dream with a ripe pear, but so too do the milder English varieties such as the floral, buttery Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire. My cheese of the month has to be the Ticklemore I have been picking up from Neal's Yard's shop in the endangered Borough Market. Its crust the beige and white of a field mushroom, this is a nutty, firm-fleshed goat's cheese whose milk-and-green-hazelnut flavour seems more pronounced than I have ever known it.
The chestnuts that are cooked over coals in the street rarely live up to the promise of their nutty, charcoal aroma. At home, they are worth taking trouble with, by which I mean soaking them in boiling water, peeling and scrupulously de-fuzzing them. It takes an age, but the vacuum packed and tinned varieties all taste muddy to me and have none of the rich nuttiness of the fresh. (The delectable and hideously expensive marron glacé are a different matter altogether.) I roast my peeled nuts in a dry frying pan, letting them colour deeply before salting them gingerly and offering them warm, with pre-dinner drinks. The wonderful thing is that everyone thinks you have gone to so much trouble. The truth is that you have.
While I shall miss those autumn raspberries, the first zest of a peeled clementine - a teasing whiff of Christmas if ever there was one - will suffice for a while. Better still is the honey-and-rose scent of a bowl of quinces. The English ones, such as pear-shaped Meech's Prolific, are worth tracking down for poaching in muscat wine and vanilla. Quince-tree owners seem blessed with the generosity gene. Make friends with one before the frosts bring the deep golden fruits off their branches.
I would be failing my duty if I omitted to remind you of the Italia grapes in the shops now. They have the sweetness and flavour of Beaumes de Venise and should, I think, be served very cold, so they burst juicily in the mouth. I have taken to eating them after supper with the new walnuts, which if you catch them young, are pale and supple. Don't eat the grapes too soon. They are worth keeping until they reach an almost transparent golden-green, when their sweetness will be at its most noticeably honeyed.
The Turkish figs - plump, purple and tender as a bruise - make up for the autumn's lack of peaches and apricots. What they miss in flavour they make up for in sheer sensuality. Unless you are going to bake them, they must be wantonly ripe. Look for a bead or two of nectar around the base. A ripe autumn fig is gagging to be eaten.
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