This time of year reminds me of the front cover of a Sophie Dahl cookbook. Wrapped in a cosy thick coat (in a pink print much like a rug you’d see in a vintage shop which you’d immediately notice then avoid) her elegantly crossed legs ending in some sturdy wellies, she’s sitting on the steps of a multi-coloured caravan, a cluster of seasonal veg, including a pumpkin, to her side, a wooden pail which she probably never used to the other, and she’s grinning over a bowl of something no doubt warming and delicious. Doesn’t that just epitomise October? Isn’t everyone’s October as kitsch as that? My evenings always involve heading down to the local paisley-print caravan with a trusty wooden pail to cook up a storm.
Even if this image is completely unrealistic, I love the sense of comfort it emanates. It makes me think of cold crisp mornings with your breath steaming the air. All I want to do is pad around the home in my pyjamas and a snuggly jumper and brew a mug of tea while my third piece of bread toasts, and I lick the jam-smeared spoon as I wait.
Autumn conjures up endless comforting fantasies, usually centred around food thus leading me to an infatuation with cook books categorised by season (the aforementioned Sophie Dahl, aka Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights). Eating seasonal vegetables or merely allowing myself to dream of that cosy crispy roast chicken now summer is over catapults me into the autumnal spirit. The turning of the page into the ‘Autumn’ section of the cookery book is the official change of season and is like a permission slip to cook whatever I please. This month is abundant with, in my opinion, the best fruit and veg – apples from the tree in the garden ready for cakes and crumbles, pears to roast and caramelise, or just eat raw juice dripping down your chin, soft squidgy figs to liberally spread with goats cheese (who needs an extra vehicle) plums to stew with star anise and cinnamon, butternut squash roasted with rosemary, beetroots blitzed into the most vivid purple soup spiced with fresh ginger…
Limiting oneself to just fruit and vegetables, however, is ludicrous. The point of these months, as the weather gets cooler and the nights longer, is to prepare for winter and thus ensure you have a good layer of body fat. Filling stews and cobblers, rice pudding with gooey blobs of jam, hot bowls of porridge, sticky toffee pudding, and in my case an indulgence of a Croque Madame the other day – thick slabs of sourdough spread with homemade cheese sauce spiced with mustard, a layer of grated cheese, two pieces of smoked bacon then closed and topped with more cheese sauce before frying until greasy and golden and eating with a fried egg. The whole experience is messy, drippy and utterly exquisite, the cheesy crusts used as trenchers to mop up the spilled egg yolk.
Soup is autumn in a bowl. Soup that is sweet and spicy simply tastes of October. My family’s favourite ‘red’ soup is thick and rich and the perfect comfort food, filled with roasted peppers and sweet potato. I don’t know why we call it red soup – it’s not even red. It is fiddly to make but there is something reassuring about peeling a roasted pepper, the satisfaction as the skin gives way from the flesh, the syrupy juice that pours over your fingers – the nectar for soup. Blitz all the vegetables and eat this bowl of healthiness with a cheese toastie, or a Croque Madame, on the side. Sophie Dahl probably had one in the picture but it was concealed by the pumpkin.
Red Soup (Roasted pepper and sweet potato)
3 red peppers
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled
1 small onion, chopped finely
1 clove garlic, chopped finely
3 ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped (flesh only)
Pinch of dried chilli flakes
700ml vegetable stock, add more to your liking
- Boil the sweet potatoes until just soft and drain.
- Roast the peppers whole for 20-30 mins and allow to cool. Remove skin and seeds but retain the liquid as you cut them into small chunks.
- To skin the tomatoes, put them in a bowl and pour over boiling water from the kettle. Leave in the water for about 30 seconds and remove with a slotted spoon. The skins will split and peel easily. Chop and scoop out the watery seeds.
- Fry the onion in a large pan to soften. Add garlic and then tomato flesh and allow to simmer to reduce down.
- Add the chilli flakes and seasoning, before adding the peppers and continuing to simmer until soft.
- Finally add the sweet potatoes and stock and bring to the boil.
- Blitz the soup with a hand blender until slightly chunky or smooth, however you like it, and serve with a dollop of crème fraîche.