Walk around the parks, the garden, the woods, even the leafier of our streets and there is a mild scent of sweet decay. The smell, that of autumn on the cusp of winter, hangs over our markets, too, with their late mushrooms and game birds, venison and fashionable, purple-ribbed greens. This, and the dampness in the air, brings me hungrier than ever to the table, much more so than at any other time of the year. To be honest, I look forward to supper all day.
The list of ingredients that these last gasps of fall bring with them is long and delicious: partridge, green lentils, black cabbage, onion squash, mushrooms, blackberries, oysters and the last raspberries. It is also the time to get out the juniper berries and the sweet spices of nutmeg and cinnamon, ginger and mace. Deep flavours abound.
Getting robust flavours into our cooking means starting with stronger-flavoured ingredients, yes; but, kid ourselves as we might right now, with a distinctly wintry feel to the weather, slow cooking is the only food that will really, truly hit the spot. Onions need to be cooked on a low temperature till they fill the kitchen with the scent of warm sugar. You can't do that in five minutes. The flame must be low, the pan sturdy and true, the onions need to be cut into large pieces and left to form a sticky coating in the butter. Once the colour of amber and soft enough to crush between thumb and finger, the onions are ready for a further deep flavour: pancetta or streaky bacon, thyme leaves, or any of the spices.
I often introduce depth into my cooking with a couple of chopped anchovies, stirred into the softened onion so that they cannot be seen. The result is far from fishy. The anchovies dissolve, leaving only a ghost of themselves behind, but will beef your cooking up a notch. Even in a fry-up of mushrooms they are undetectable, but will add body and warmth. Dried mushrooms will add a woodsy depth to a casserole or stew, soaked first in vermouth, dry sherry or water, then stirred into the onion base. The liquid - no, don't waste that. Stir it in when you add the stock or wine. Porcini are the best for this, and despite their cost they go a long way. I can get away with half a dozen slices in a small casserole.
Roots are the cheapest way of introducing deep notes to your cooking, especially parsnips, which have their own earthy brand of sweetness. A few added to the roasting tin and mashed into the gravy before draining add much body and soak up every ounce of savour in the pan. It is the little things that matter enormously in bringing that woodsy depth to our winter cooking. Sprigs of thyme, bay leaves, a few rosemary needles. These are the small, cheap ingredients that are so often forgotten, but can make so much difference.
I'm not a great one for adding alcohol to my cooking, but when there is frost on the ground and there is time for the flavours to mellow (such as in a slow stew of game or pork) then I will upend the wine bottle into the pot. The two I find most worth including are Madeira and dry Marsala. Both add a sweetness, but more importantly a mellow depth to your cooking.
For the most part, the smoky, herbal notes are introduced into our cooking at the start: slow-cooking the onions, stirring in bay, thyme, earthy vegetables, bacon or mushrooms. But there is also the chance to add it at the end too. I find a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, often less, will mellow out any dark sauce such as the gravy of a stew or the pan juices from a slow-cooked joint. Yes, they will add sweetness, but it is not as simple as that, with good balsamic lending low base notes that appear to have been in the pot right from the start.
Nothing fancy, this, just a sound pot-roast with classic flavourings and a thick, old-fashioned gravy. You will need some bashed or creamed root vegetables to soak up the copious juice. Serves 4
a small handful of dried mushrooms, such as porcini
4 plump, oven-ready pigeons
4 plump, herby sausages
1 medium to large onion
1 large carrot
2 sticks of celery
a few sprigs of thyme
2 cloves of garlic
4 rashers of unsmoked streaky bacon
12 juniper berries
2 bay leaves
1 level tbsp of flour
1 wine glass of Madeira
250ml fruity red wine
250ml chicken or game stock
mashed parsnip or potato to serve
Soak the dried mushrooms in water, vermouth or white wine for 15 minutes. Melt half the butter in a heavy casserole, then brown the whole pigeons and the sausages, cut into four, lightly on all sides. Lift them out and set aside. Set the oven at 190C/gas mark 5.
Peel the onion, cut it in half, then slice each half into five from root to tip. Melt the remaining butter over a moderate heat and add the onion. Peel the carrot, cut it into large dice and add it to the onion, together with the chopped celery, 4 or 5 sprigs of thyme and the peeled and sliced garlic. Continue cooking, stirring from time to time.
Remove the rind from the bacon and cut each rasher into about six pieces. Stir into the onion and add the juniper berries, lightly crushed, and the bay leaves. Leave to soften, making certain the vegetables have a chance to colour.
Stir in the flour, let it cook for several minutes, then stir in the Madeira, wine and stock. Add the dried mushrooms and 100ml of their soaking liquid. Bring almost to the boil then return the pigeons and sausages to the pan, cover with a lid and bake in the preheated oven for about 50 minutes, until the pigeons are tender.
Taste the gravy, then stir in a little balsamic vinegar, starting with 2 teaspoons, then increasing as you feel it needs it. You are after a deep, mellow warmth, not an obvious sweetness.
Pan-fried mushrooms with toasted bread and parsley
The weight of mushrooms you need here will depend on the variety you choose. The softer, more tender mushrooms such as chanterelles and oysters will need less cooking time than firm, cultivated fungi.
2 anchovy fillets
2 medium-sized cloves of garlic
a small bunch of parsley
a small ciabatta loaf
Cut the mushrooms into large bite-sized pieces. Leave the smaller ones whole. Carefully remove any growing medium, but don't wash them. Chop the anchovy fillets.
Melt 50g of the butter in a shallow pan together with the peeled and crushed garlic. As soon as the garlic is soft and fragrant, add the anchovy and stir until it has almost dissolved into the butter, keeping the heat low enough that the butter doesn't brown. Stir in the prepared mushrooms, let them soften and colour for a few minutes, then add the parsley and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.
Meanwhile, in a second pan, melt the remaining butter, tear the bread into bite-sized pieces, and fry till golden. Toss with the mushrooms and serve.