Without a doubt, autumn is most people’s favourite season, mine included.
There is a freshness in the air after the sticky heat of summer, along with a brisk chill and lingering smell of smoke from the bonfire of dead leaves raked up in someone’s garden. You gradually add more layers to your wardrobe; thick jumpers, a warm coat, a woolly hat, scarf and gloves, wellies so you can crash around in soggy leaves. Fireworks, Catherine wheels and sparklers, candy floss and toffee apples, dark starry nights closing in at 6pm all whisper the cosy comfort of this season, and in particular, the food.
This is the season I love because of the red and russet colours, the hot chocolate and snugly blankets, but also because stodge is back on the menu. Sizzling sausages with onions tucked into soft pillowy rolls, steaming baked potatoes drenched in melted cheese, baked beans with chunks of salty bacon, and apples tossed in cinnamon and slid under a blanket of pastry. Autumn is the season for the monstrous, less-polished vegetables, the hairy, knobbly and warty – horseradish, salsify, truffles and celeriac. Goodbye to the glamourous vibrant colours of summer and hello to the rough tumble of root vegetables.
This year, autumn’s sudden appearance took us all off-guard. One moment there was searing sun and skin sticking to chairs, then mid-August brought grey skies, cold drizzle, rain coats, umbrellas and gloomy faces. Where had the summer gone? Is this really the autumn of which we dream, the season that embodies hygge?! Hopefully not, but no one has dared swap their raincoat for a thick coat, hat and gloves as the muggy atmosphere will drown us in sweat within seconds. Autumn will come soon enough; leaves will turn gold and red and litter the pavements, children will collect shiny conkers, and evenings will be swallowed by darkness once again.
In the meantime, here’s my autumn guide to help you plan your dinners, warming your cockles for when those dark nights draw in…
Still around but not for long:
Starting this list of sorry summer fruit and vegetables is sweetcorn. Corn on the cob accompanied every single homemade dinner this summer, slick with melted butter, the kernels bursting under our teeth.
Apricots and Peaches
Surprisingly, these downy fruits are still around but not for long. Now a little squishy, a little floury they are best in a clafoutis, or stewed or roasted before served with crumble or cobbler topping and a blob of ice cream.
Aubergine, Courgette & Globe artichoke
I appreciate that this category is in fact category-less. Unless we can say these three vegetables simply epitomise summer? Although we continue to eat these meaty vegetables all year thanks to imports around Europe they will soon be officially out of season. My dad proudly grew courgettes this summer, appearing with a tiny one, an average-sized one and an enormous one, more marrow than courgette. He now claims to be sick of courgette. Unfortunately for him, marrow is still on the menu this season.
Gooseberries and Raspberries
Late spring is dominated by the fragrant and tart combination of gooseberries and elderflower. Late summer is the time for ripe raspberries, pavlovas and these little fuchsia fruits in glasses of prosecco. These two are the hardiest berries and have seen us through the warm summer days but will now bow out to make room for the orchard fruits of autumn.
Goodness me, fennel, you’re good to me. Now is the time to shun the raw crunchy salads and instead turn to braising these woody bulbs or nestle them under a chicken along with wine and garlic and roasting in the chicken juices.
Ah watercress, you’ve been wafting your peppery leaves at me for six months so I’m not sorry to see the back of you at last!
I am sad, however, to say goodbye to tomatoes – their season is far too fleeting! Here one second, gone the next. Walking into a toasty greenhouse to see clusters of these shiny red baubles dangling off a branch is the novelty of summer. Come back quickly, please! In the meantime, enjoy ratatouille while you can.
Likewise, the wily fig. Not a native British-grown fruit but if the endeavour is attempted they will only grow in warm sunshine so it’s a risky business here. That said, there are still shelves of them in the supermarket and outside grocers so stock up and make a sticky figgy jam or fig and caramelised onion flatbread.
Runner bean, Turnips, Kohlrabi, Beetroot, Carrot, Celery, Cavolo nero & Blackberries
This ungainly, rather messy category consists of all the summer fruit and veg we met last time that will see us through the autumn months. Although, where oh where are this season’s blackberries?! Instead of speckling our hedges with deep purple jewels they are dead little husks. Other than that, the root vegetables and greens are here in abundance ready for roasting, braising and simmering in butter.
You may recall in the spring chapter the sly asparagus, then in the summer section, the mysterious elderflower? Both appear for a couple of weeks, maybe a month, then you blink and they’ve gone, whisked away on a cloud of allusiveness. This season, it’s the damson. Vividly purple and lip-smackingly sour if eaten raw, these little stone fruits can be roasted or simmered with sugar to make a jammy sauce.
Like the rest of the brassicas, poor broccoli has a bad reputation. Those who bad-mouth broccoli will never appreciate it’s juicy tufty leaves and it’s sweet stalk which can be sliced and sautéed.
We also met leeks in the spring chapter. Leeks are a conundrum to me as they are in their element in spring however here they crop up again six months later. Either way, they stick around throughout winter and pad out our casseroles and stews, or hide under a velvety layer of cheese sauce.
I think Thanksgiving has a lot to answer for when it comes to how we cook in autumn. Without a conscious thought I now grab the maple syrup when preparing my parsnips for roasting, or sprinkle them with cinnamon and a little orange zest. Thank you thanksgiving, without you our vegetables would not receive the attention they deserve.
The knobbliest root vegetable there ever was. This root is particularly gnarly with an equally distinctive flavour to match, similar to mustard and wasabi. Peeled and finely grated, horseradish is folded into creams and sauces to serve with roast beef, beetroot or swirled into mashed potato.
Wild mushrooms & Truffles
Every season there is something to forage – elderflower in spring, berries in summer, now wild mushrooms and the coveted truffles in autumn. Forests and fields are full of chestnut mushrooms, ceps and chanterelles which just need a lick of heat and butter to be dolled out on toast. Truffles are not much to look at but their earthy flavour adds depth and complexity to any dish. Try shaving onto pasta or just buying the oil to drizzle over risotto.
The stunning purple leaves glow with autumnal colours, making a delicious salad for the season accompanied by rich blue cheese, caramelly pecans and balsamic vinegar to off-set the bitter crunch of the leaves.
Also known as celery root, the celeriac is ugly like a mandrake in Harry Potter, with a puckered angry face and hairy bottom. Appearance aside, the vegetable can be boiled and mashed with butter, chipped like a potato, or julienned along with matchsticks of apple to make a remoulade to serve with grilled fish.
Apples, Pears, Plums & Quince
It was a disappointing but necessary decision to combine these four famous fruits into one category. These are known as orchard fruits. Every September the branches of my parents’ apple tree are weighed down by heavy fruit which begin to fall much to the peril of anyone standing underneath. All four fruits can be sweetened with treacly brown sugar and tucked under pastry, or diced and blitzed to complement a savoury dish such as pear and butternut squash soup, or quince paste to serve with cheese.
Pumpkin & Butternut squash
Autumn wouldn’t be autumn without the sound of crashing knives carving their way through the armoured skin and firm flesh of a squash. Who doesn’t love chiselling a face out of a pumpkin every Halloween, even when your table is covered in soggy tendrils of innards and seeds. And, like the parsnip, the squash has been glamourised by Thanksgiving – pumpkin pie spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, butternut purée with maple syrup, or whizzed into a soup with fresh ginger.
Similar to the leek, kale is bountiful in spring and autumn. It is therefore the favourite winter green, ideally gently wilted with salt, pepper and a grating of fresh nutmeg.
Another lumpy root vegetable of the season. Look for some knobbly brown sticks at the green grocers, but don’t judge too soon; underneath the flesh is pearly white. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recommends roasting the vegetable in chunks and serving with zesty gremolata.
Rosehips, Cranberries & Sloes
Cranberry sauce is inherent to Christmas and sloe gin is the tipple of New Year’s Eve. Even thinking about Christmas and New Year’s Eve already brings me out in a nervous sweat but autumn is the time to find these gem-like fruits growing in clusters. Although cranberries aren’t native to the UK, more farms around the country are producing these little berries at this time of year. Rosehips are the seed pods of roses and are part of the hedgerow family. They are harvested to make jam, syrups and cordials.
Coming out in later autumn:
Again, like the leek the cauliflower will prevail until the spring, and also like the leek, it benefits ten-fold with a thick glossy covering of cheese sauce and toasted breadcrumbs.
This wonderfully adaptable vegetable is not actually a potato. It is simply a root vegetable with tremendous health benefits and counts towards your five a day – until we sizzle it chipped in copious amounts of oil and salt, or bake it into a tray of brownies.
Although it appears like a turnip they taste completely different. Swedes are sweet and earthy, an ideal replacement for potato, and is the ‘neep’ component to haggis, neeps and tatties.
Another lumpy root vegetable of the autumn! This artichoke is unrelated to the globe artichoke; they only share the name because of a vaguely similar flavour.
Once again, it looks like Christmas is looming… Unlike most other nuts, chestnuts soften as you cook them, therefore easy to blend into a soup or purée for dessert-making. Throw a trayful in the oven and roast, then snack on the warm soft kernels.
A victim of over-cooking and a lack of love. Nowadays though there are endless recipes for roasted, stir-fried, shredded, sautéed, crispy, buttered, braised and smashed Brussels sprouts no one will endure the sad, soggy boiled one for their dinner.
It would be a mistake to eat these acidic apples raw therefore they are famous as cooking apples, reducing to a appley mush within minutes and delicious served with fatty roast pork or in a sweet spiced crumble.
Also known as the fruit of Christmas. Sweeter than other tangerines and oranges the segments can be juiced, dipped in chocolate or rustled up into a marmalade.