I have bought more bunches of beetroot than I have ever eaten. I pick them up with a wide-eyed flash of enthusiasm, wondering how anyone could resist the lush, magenta-veined leaves and bewhiskered carmine globes. A fortnight later I find them at the back of the salad 'crisper', their flesh soft and withered, their leaves turned to slime. It wouldn't be quite so shameful if I could say I had done it only once.
Those that manage to keep my attention are usually baked in a low oven for an hour or so, wrapped loosely in foil, then once tender enough to pierce with a skewer are effortlessly peeled and tossed with a dash of white-wine vinegar and a pinch (even less) of caraway seed. But I've always suspected I could do better than that.
The beetroot this week was crisp, bushy leaved and the golden rather than claret variety. And it was sodden with rain. This bunch was not getting the better of me. I peeled and grated it coarsely, tossed the golden splinters with lime juice, finely grated ginger and finely cut spring onions, and left them to settle for an hour or two. What I ended up with - a sort of coleslaw on Viagra - was something to make a plate of cold roast beef sing a little louder than usual. There was more than something autumnal about the colours, but the flavours were all snap, crackle and pop.
Now, at this tail end of summer, the late-season sun and cool, spirit-lifting mornings make food shopping as fulfilling as it can ever be, the markets smelling of wild mushrooms and late berries, the stalls almost collapsing with the weight of the farmers' harvests. If ever there is a moment you need to convince sceptics that there is a better way to buy at least some of their food than pushing a wayward trolley round a neon-lit supermarket, this is it. Drag them to the nearest market and show them the piles of deep orange pumpkins, the mounds of fat, tight corncobs, get them to hunt out the last of the plums and to crunch the varieties of apples they will never taste at the big four supermarkets.
If I could prolong the season of any fruit or vegetable it would be that of the plum, whose oval fruits of amber, bronze and darkest burgundy visit us for just a few weeks, from August to early October. If we are lucky we will find the last of them now, heavy with honey-scented juice. There may even be a last few damsons to make jam or ice-cream or to sit under a soft and fragile crust - freeze some today. There will be beans, too, the last of the runners, borlotti speckled like bird's eggs, beans of duskiest purple and palest canary yellow. Boil them briefly then toss them with softly boiled and tenderly shelled quail's eggs and a dressing of red-wine vinegar and olive oil.
For the next month or more there will be more freshly harvested local produce than we could ask for. I will eat as much of it as I can get my hands on. It might be a long, long winter.
Baked aubergines with tomato and mozzarella
4 small aubergines
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 medium-sized red chilli, as hot as you like, chopped
1 ball of mozzarella
a small, bushy bunch of basil
50g grated Parmesan
Set the oven at 180C/gas 6. Slice the aubergines and courgettes thinly - about the thickness of a couple of pound coins. Brush them with a little oil and cook them on a griddle pan on both sides until tender. If you prefer you can fry them in shallow oil and drain them on kitchen paper.
Chop the tomatoes, removing the cores, and cook them in a shallow pan with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, the garlic and chopped chilli. Let everything bubble down slowly, stirring occasionally, to a rich, tomato-red slush - about 15-20 minutes. In a shallow dish, layer the grilled aubergines and courgettes with thick slices of the mozzarella, the torn basil leaves and sauce. There will be enough aubergines and courgettes for two layers, with one layer of mozzarella. Cover the top with the grated Parmesan. Bake for 40 minutes till bubbling and juicy.
A beetroot salad for cold roast beef
juice of 2 plump, ripe limes
a large knob of ginger, the size of your thumb
1 tsp black mustard seed
250g red or golden beetroot, or a mixture, peeled and coarsely grated
2 spring onions, finely sliced
a handful coriander leaves, roughly chopped
2 tsp nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
Squeeze the limes in a bowl, finely grate and add the ginger. Toast the mustard seeds in a dry pan and toss them in with the beetroot, the onions, coriander and fish sauce. Set aside for half an hour in the cool before serving.
Plum and pine nut streusel
260g plain flour
125g soft brown sugar
100g ground almonds
220g fridge-cold butter
50g pine kernels
Set the oven at 180C/gas 4. Line the base of a baking tin, 20-22cm, with a single piece of baking parchment, bringing it up two sides of the tin so you can lift the streusel out easily. Put the flour, sugar and almonds into a bowl, cut the butter into chunks and rub it into the flour with your fingertips until the mix resembles coarse, fresh breadcrumbs.
Tip two-thirds of the crumb mixture into the baking tin, then gently flatten it to form a thin base, pushing it well into the corners. Firm it gently, but don't compact it.
Cut the plums in half - if they are huge, quarter them - remove the stones and lay the pieces of fruit on the crumb base. Mix the pine kernels into the remaining crumbs and scatter them loosely over the plums. Let some of the fruit show through. Bake for 45-50 minutes - the fruit should be gently bubbling, the crust golden. Leave to settle before lifting out of the baking tin and on to a cooling rack.