Golden wonders: Nigel Slater’s comforting autumn recipes | Autumn food and drink

It feels a long time since that glorious spring, when I ate outside day after day. Autumn has come quickly this year (I was sweeping up crisp, brown leaves in July) and with it, a change of step in the kitchen. The lush green of summer has turned to yellow, orange and brown, the spice jars are down from the shelf, the deep casseroles and baking dishes have come out to play.

Tomatoes, which I seem to have eaten every day this summer, are now destined for the oven rather than the salad bowl, their juices seasoned with thyme rather than basil, or perhaps paprika or harissa. The mushrooms I marinated in a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil and tarragon are now more likely to appear sliced and fried with thyme and butter and piled on to thick toast. The courgettes have finished and I have moved on to the early autumn squashes, the small ones shaped like Chinese dumplings or ridged like the rim of an apple pie.

This subtle change of season is more welcome than winter’s slip into spring. Unlike the change from cold weather comfort food to the “hungry gap” of early spring, this is a change of bounty. The green summer squashes have been replaced by those with firm ochre flesh, slim climbing beans have ousted the broad beans in their fur-lined pods and root vegetables are now firm enough to make into soup and mash, rather than for snacking on like sweets. Aubergines are fat and glossy, and there is the start of the game birds. I have kicked off this autumn with pigeon, a fine set of plump birds for roasting, cooked with purple figs and inky red wine.

I also lifted the lids on the pulses this month. The dark, mossy lentils I have dressed with basil and Banyuls vinegar and scattered on burrata all summer moved over in favour of the golden varieties, the chana dal and the smaller, darker orange masor dal that turns to soup in the blink of an eye. The kitchen has changed from green to gold and this cook couldn’t be happier.

Roast wood pigeon, figs and beans

The pigeons have been gorging on the figs, their fat bodies bouncing on the grey, whippy branches. Plump though they are, these city scavengers are not the birds I wish to eat. The wood pigeons in the shops, plucked, tied and ready for the pot, are from further afield. In the past I have brought them to tenderness slowly, with onions, juniper and red wine but, at this time of year, they roast sweetly enough. They need a strip of fat to keep them moist. I use dripping or butter and maybe a strip of fatty bacon. Fruit works well with the slightly gamey character of their flesh – plums, blackberries or tiny apples can be slipped into the roasting tin. This time, mine are getting figs.

Serves 4
pigeons 4, oven ready
olive oil 3 tbsp
butter 40g
thyme 8 bushy sprigs
streaky bacon 8 rashers
red wine 200ml
figs 8 small or 4 large
borlotti or cannellini beans 500g, bottled or canned
parsley leaves a handful

Check the pigeons for any stray feathers (there are almost always a few). Set the oven at 180C fan/gas mark 6. Warm the oil in a large roasting tin. Brown the birds as evenly as you can, turning them over with kitchen tongs, then remove from the heat.

Turn the birds breast side up in the roasting tin, rub the butter over their legs and breasts, then season with the thyme, a little salt and finely ground pepper. Lay strips of bacon over their breasts, then roast the birds in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes.

Pour the red wine into the roasting tin, tuck the figs around the pigeons, then return to the oven for a further 10 minutes. Remove the birds from the oven, place on a warm plate and leave to rest, covered, for 10 minutes.

Put the roasting tin over a moderate heat and bring to the boil, add the beans and turn the heat down to a simmer. Check for seasoning, then serve the beans with the rested birds, figs and bacon.

Roast tomatoes with harissa and couscous

Roast tomatoes with harissa and couscous.
Roast tomatoes with harissa and couscous. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer

I found an old press cutting the other day, a piece in a Sunday newspaper about how I grew vegetables on the windowsill of my flat. Pots of cherry tomatoes (and courgettes and basil and strawberries) hung down from a second-floor window. Although the photograph is faded now, the tomatoes seem to be doing quite well. It was a reminder that I have always grown tomatoes in some form or another. Rows of Marmande and Costolutu Fiorentino in the vegetable patch, marble-sized Sungold in terracotta pots and, this year, an old variety of plum tomatoes, green with flashes of rust red, whose label has gone awol. Tomatoes are forgiving, which is probably why I do well with them.

At this point in the year, I am left with a mixture of sizes, colours and shapes. Cooked carefully, they retain something of their character, their juices mingling deliciously in the roasting tin. That juice becomes a dressing for steamed rice, sautéed potatoes or, most substantially, couscous.

Serves 3-4
assorted tomatoes 750g
garlic 3 cloves
olive oil 3 tbsp
red onion 1, medium
cumin seeds 2 tsp, lightly crushed
coriander seeds 2 tsp, coarsely crushed
harissa paste 1 tbsp

For the couscous
vegetable stock 500ml
quick-cooking couscous 200g
mint leaves 10g
parsley leaves 15g

Cut the larger tomatoes in half and place in a roasting tin, tucking the smaller ones between them. Peel and crush the garlic and add together with the olive oil. Peel and slice a red onion and add it to the tomatoes with a seasoning of salt and black pepper. Crush the cumin and coriander seeds using a pestle and mortar or spice mill, then scatter over the tomatoes and onions. Roast at 180C fan/gas mark 6 for 35-40 minutes until the tomatoes are soft and the skins lightly browned.

Bring the vegetable stock to the boil. Place the couscous in a heat-proof bowl, then pour the boiling stock over, cover and leave for 15 minutes. Remove the leaves from the mint and parsley and roughly chop.

Use a fork to lightly crush the tomatoes so the juices bleed into the pan, then stir in the harissa paste. Run a fork through the couscous to separate the grains, then stir in the chopped herbs. Serve the roast tomatoes and their juices on top of the couscous.

Mushroom and roast garlic toast

Mushroom and roast garlic toast
Mushroom and roast garlic toast. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer

Mushrooms on toast was a Sunday morning thing when I was growing up. Each mushroom wide and dark gilled, the size of a saucer. We sprinkled them with mushroom ketchup, a piquant seasoning to which my dad seemed addicted and I really should use more often. He insisted it made his meal more “mushroomy”. Made from dried mushrooms, vinegar, spices and sugar it slots comfortably into the soy, Worcestershire sauce shelf of seasonings.

I have been enjoying having mushroom ketchup back in the kitchen. This time, I ended up shaking it over pieces of hot toast before spreading it with creamed, baked garlic and the cooking juices from the mushroom pan. That said, Lea & Perrins will suffice, just a few shakes onto the toast. Not one of my usual seasonings, and yet one whose warm, mellow notes feel appropriate now the weather is cooling.

Serves 2
garlic a whole, large head
olive oil 2 tbsp
mushroom ketchup or Worcestershire sauce a little
double cream 4 tbsp
bread 4 slices, such as ciabatta or sourdough

For the mushrooms
mushrooms 300g, such as king oyster
butter 50g
olive oil 3 tbsp
thyme 6 sprigs
lemon juice of ½

Set the oven at 180C fan/gas mark 6. Put the head of garlic on a large piece of kitchen foil. Add the olive oil, then bring the sides to loosely enclose the garlic. Scrunch the edges together to seal. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes.

Remove the garlic from the oven and leave until cool. Lift out of the foil, break into cloves and squeeze the creamy flesh out of its skin into a small bowl. Mash the garlic to a soft paste with a fork or small wooden spoon, then gently stir in the mushroom ketchup or Worcester sauce (I suggest about 1 tsp) and the cream.

Slice the mushrooms to approximately the thickness of a pound coin. Warm the butter and olive oil in a shallow pan, then add the mushrooms, in a single layer. (You will probably need to do this in batches.) Fry for about 3 or 4 minutes until golden, then turn and cook the other side. Add the thyme leaves, salt and pepper and continue cooking until the mushrooms are golden brown. Squeeze in the lemon juice.

While the mushrooms are cooking, toast the bread on both sides, then spread with the garlic cream. Spoon the mushrooms onto the toast, then tip the pan juices over the top and serve.

Stuffed squash with gruyere and sauerkraut

Stuffed squash with gruyere and sauerkraut.
Stuffed squash with gruyere and sauerkraut. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer

The green-fleshed summer squash and marrows are pretty much over, and it is now the turn of firm-fleshed orange varieties to get their moment.

The small ones are particularly charming. Stuffed and baked, it is rather like having a neat, golden pie all to yourself. The flesh is sweet and fudgy, so they can take a piquant stuffing such as these I have filled with sauerkraut and melted cheese.

Serves 3
squashes 3, small, orange-fleshed
butter 30g
thyme leaves 1 tsp
onions 2, medium to large
olive oil 3 tbsp (or use any oil)
parsley a small bunch
sauerkraut 250g
double cream 100ml
gruyere 125g, grated

Set the oven at 180C fan/gas mark 6. Cut the squashes in half and use a spoon to remove the seeds and fibres. Place the squash hollow side up in a roasting tin, then divide the butter and thyme between them. Season with salt and black pepper and bake the squashes for 40 minutes until the flesh is soft and giving.

While the squash bakes, peel and finely slice the onions. Warm the oil in a deep pan, over a moderate heat, add the onions and cook until pale gold and soft. Expect this to take a good 20 minutes, stirring regularly. Roughly chop the parsley, then stir into the softened onions. Remove from the heat and add the sauerkraut, cream and cheese.

Take the squash from the oven, divide the filling between the halved vegetables, then return them to the oven. Continue baking for about 20 minutes until the filling is turning gold and the cream is bubbling around the edges.

Grilled aubergines, lentils and spinach

Grilled aubergines, lentils and spinach.
Grilled aubergines, lentils and spinach. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer

The seasoning of the lentil porridge I love so much varies according to the day. Sometimes I will stir cumin and turmeric into the onions, on other occasions it will be ground coriander and nigella. Always, there will be dried chilli. The warm, smoky notes are what makes any dal soup or stew fit for an autumn day. When lentils are used with greens (I stir the leaves in only once the pulses are truly soft), I usually forgo my last-minute addition of herbs as it feels like green overkill. That said, a handful of bushy coriander leaves would be quite appropriate here.

Serves 4
yellow lentils (chana dal) 250g
onion 1, medium
ginger 35g piece
garlic 3 cloves
ground turmeric 1 tsp
dried chilli flakes ½ tsp
fresh spinach leaves 100g
aubergines 2, medium to large
olive oil
onions 2, small
cumin seeds 1 tsp

Wash the lentils in a bowl of deep water, then pour away the water, refill and leave for an hour.

Drain the lentils and put them in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan, cover them with cold water and bring to the boil. Peel and chop the onion, coarsely grate the ginger and peel the garlic. Add them to the pan, then add the turmeric and chilli flakes and lower the heat to a simmer. Leave to cook for 35-40 minutes, keeping an eye on the liquid level and adding a little more water if necessary. The lentils are done when they are soft and easily crushable against the sides of the pan.

Wash the spinach and stir it into the lentils until it has wilted. Beat the mixture with a wooden spoon, checking the consistency is thick and soupy.

Slice the aubergines and place them in a colander or large sieve and sprinkle them with salt. Leave for 30 minutes, during which time they will soften in texture.

Get a griddle hot. Wipe the aubergines with kitchen paper and lay them on the griddle over a moderate heat and leave for about 10 minutes till golden on the underside. Turn them over with a palette knife, brush with olive oil and brown the other side. They are done when they are soft and tender.

While the aubergines are cooking, peel, thinly slice and fry the 2 small onions in a little oil till crisp. Add the cumin seeds and cook for a minute or two longer until fragrant, then remove to kitchen paper.

Spoon the lentils onto a deep-sided serving plate, place the aubergines on top, scatter the onions over and serve.

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