Picking produce at its zenith ensures that working with it will be simple, and every mouthtful worthwhile. In this second excerpt from her new cookbook, our columnist shares ideas for vibrant autumnal platefuls
The techniques I lean on in the kitchen change as the year unfolds. In autumn, my oven is in constant use: I start roasting again, big trays of jewel-coloured roots, the last of the corn, broccoli and cauliflowers. In winter, my heavy, cast-iron pots seldom leave the hob, always full of soup or a vegetable braise. In spring, the tender and fresh vegetables need only a lick of heat from a hot frying pan. And, in summer, I use my mandoline most, to slice fennel and courgettes finely for grilling and for raw salads. The seasons mean that the way I cook and the time I spend doing it change as dramatically as the contents of my fruit bowl and fridge.
While I shop as locally as possible and focus on British produce, I have no qualms about leaning on our other European friends and their incredible offerings: citrus from the Mediterranean, the imminent winter tomatoes from Italy, pink and purple winter radicchio. Never has it been more important to foster these links, the trade it encourages and the barriers it breaks down. I long for a vegetable garden and to grow what I eat, but that’s not possible just now. The bulk of what I buy is from nearby shops and our excellent farmers’ market, topped up with supermarket deliveries for bulky things and dry goods.
Supermarkets are getting better at stocking and championing local produce, so it is absolutely possible to eat seasonally wherever you regularly shop. If you aren’t in tune with the season, then perhaps remind yourself of what’s growing and good to eat now before you shop, look at labels, buy food from nearby if you can. If you are after some greens to steam alongside your supper, I’d urge you to scan them all and perhaps choose some British purple sprouting broccoli over the Kenyan green beans. It will taste better, support our farmers and have used up fewer resources in getting to your plate. This is nothing new, but while our shops still stock Peruvian asparagus in December, I think we all, myself included, need a reminder from time to time.
Using produce in its prime means your work in the kitchen will be simpler and quicker. Putting what’s most flavourful at the centre of your plate often means you will need only the lightest of touch, adding to and accenting that flavour. You won’t need to work hard to boost lacklustre vegetables, but instead gently enhance and celebrate the vibrancy.
This week’s offering from my new book gives you eight recipes that put seasonal produce at the centre of your table. From a hearty beetroot gratin to the transportive flavours of feather-light sweet potato bao, and from a stellar breakfast of chocolate rye porridge with pears to comforting malt loaf at tea time, there should be something for everyone.
Party bao with sweet potato and pickled cucumber
If you’ve not come across them, bao are light but pleasingly chewy little steamed buns stuffed with flavourful fillings. You can make them a day in advance (re-steaming them before serving).
Makes 20 For the bao
120g unsalted butter
2 x 7g sachets of dried yeast
1kg strong white bread flour, plus extra for rolling
1 tsp baking powder
¾ tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tbsp flaky sea salt
For the filling
1.5kg sweet potatoes, sliced lengthways and chopped into 2cm slices
4 tbsp tamari or dark soy sauce
2 tbsp runny honey 2 tbsp finely grated ginger 1 tbsp five-spice powder 2 pinches of chilli flakes 6 tbsp toasted sesame oil 1 large cucumber
2 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp honey or maple syrup 3 tbsp rice wine vinegar A pinch of white pepper
For the dipping sauce
3 tbsp white miso
3 tbsp runny honey
1 tbsp brown rice vinegar 1 green chilli, finely chopped A large piece of ginger
A bunch of spring onions, finely sliced A large handful of coriander, leaves picked
250g salted roasted cashews
1 Melt the butter in a saucepan over a low heat. Put the yeast into a large bowl with 450ml warm water and leave for a few minutes until tiny bubbles begin to form.
2 Mix in the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, sea salt and the melted butter until it all comes together, then knead for 10 minutes to a silky dough. Put in an oiled bowl, cover and leave in a warm place to prove for a couple of hours.
3 Once the dough has doubled in size, knock it back by kneading it for a few seconds on a floured surface. Split it in half, then, using your hands, roll each half into equal-sized logs.
4 Cut each log into 20 small, equal pieces (I find it easiest to cut each into 4, then cut those smaller pieces into 5). Roll each piece of dough into a ball and put on baking sheets lined with greaseproof paper. Cover and leave to prove again for 30–45 minutes.
5 Knock each risen bun back with the palm of your hand, then, using a rolling pin, roll into oval shapes about 12cm long and 9cm wide. Coat a chopstick with a little oil, put it across the width of each bun and fold the dough over, then gently remove the chopstick.
6 Set a large steamer (preferably with two tiers) over a medium
heat, and get the water boiling. Put a layer of baking parchment in each steamer basket, then arrange the buns on top, spaced at least 3cm apart, then leave them to steam, not too fiercely, for 10–12 minutes, or until they have puffed up and are light, fluffy and cooked through. Leave to cool, then cover and chill overnight if you are preparing them in advance. You could make the bao even further in advance and freeze them until needed.
7 Preheat the oven to 240C/475F/gas 9. Meanwhile, make the filling. Toss the sweet potatoes into a roasting tin with the tamari, honey, ginger, five-spice, half the chilli flakes and 4 tbsp of the sesame oil. Roast for 20–30 minutes, turning halfway, until glazed and soft.
8 Shred or slice the cucumber into a bowl with the other pinch of chilli flakes, the mirin, honey, rice vinegar, white pepper and the remaining sesame oil. Toss to coat and set aside for 10 minutes before you want to eat, or chill for up to 5 days.
9 Make the dipping sauce by whisking all the ingredients together until you have a thick, rich sauce. Split the buns open and fill with the roasted sweet potato, drained cucumber, spring onions, coriander and lots of cashews crushed for texture.
Gentle potato chowder with toasted chilli oil
Warms you right down to your toes.
25g unsalted butter or 2 tbsp coconut oil
2 leeks, washed, trimmed and cut into 1cm-thick rounds
A pinch of salt 2 tbsp flour, such as spelt 1 tbsp vegetable stock powder or 1 stock cube
800g floury potatoes, peeled and cut into rough chunks
300ml whole milk or soy milk 400g tin of green lentils, drained (or 250g home-cooked)
For the chilli oil
2 red chillies 1 tsp to 1 tbsp dried chilli flakes 2 garlic cloves 1 tbsp almonds Salt and black pepper 200ml mild-flavoured oil, such as light olive or rapeseed
1 Fill and boil a kettle. In a mediumlarge pot, melt the butter over a medium heat. Add the leeks with a pinch of salt, lower the heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for around 10 minutes, or until soft and sweet.
2 Stir in the flour and allow to cook for another minute or so to get rid of the raw flavour. Gradually add 600ml hot water from the kettle, a bit at a time, then add the stock powder or cube. Add the potatoes and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook until the potatoes are cooked through, which should take about 25 minutes, making sure you stir from time to time to stop it sticking.
3 Meanwhile, make the chilli oil. Put the fresh and dried chilli and garlic into a food processor and pulse until fine, then add the almonds, a good pinch of salt and a generous amount of black pepper. Pulse again, put the lot into a small saucepan with the oil and cook slowly for 10 minutes or so, until everything is toasted and golden, then remove from the heat and set aside. The oil can be used warm (not hot) on your soup. The leftovers should be left to cool completely, then stored in a jar in the fridge for up to 3 months.
4 Back to the soup. Add the milk to the pot, stir in the lentils, and heat until the milk is just simmering. Serve the soup ladled into deep bowls, topped with a slick of the chilli oil.
Beetroot, rhubarb and potato gratin
This might just get the all-time gratin crown. I tend not to cook with a lot of dairy, but here I make an exception, using the best I can get.
Butter, for greasing
1kg potatoes, preferably waxy ones such as desiree or charlotte 500g cooked beetroot, peeled 300ml weak vegetable stock 300ml double cream
150ml sour cream
2 bay leaves
2 tsp pink peppercorns or ½ tsp black peppercorns
200g forced rhubarb, thinly sliced
1 Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6. Butter a large gratin dish.
2 Peel the potatoes and slice them very finely – a mandoline or the fine slicer attachment on a food processor is the best way to do this. Cut the beetroot into fine slices as well – they don’t have to quite be as thin, so you could just use a knife.
3 Put the stock and both the creams into a large saucepan, along with the bay leaves and 1 tsp of the peppercorns. Bring the liquid to just under the boil, then take off the heat and leave to sit for 30 minutes or so. Remove the bay leaves, leaving the peppercorns in, then bring the liquid to just below a simmer. Add the sliced potatoes and cook gently for 5 minutes.
4 Remove from the heat, season really well with salt and pepper, and spoon half the potatoes into the gratin dish. Put half the beetroot and
rhubarb on top, seasoning as you go, then top with the rest of the potatoes and their cream, followed by the rest of the beetroot.
5 Roughly bash the remaining pink peppercorns in a pestle and mortar and sprinkle on the gratin. Bake for 1 hour, or until the vegetables are completely tender. Cover the top with foil after about 45 minutes if it looks like it is becoming too dark.
Chocolate rye porridge with quick honey pears
The traditionalists out there might be rolling their eyes, but porridge is personal. This is my very favourite of winter breakfasts: chocolate, a malty back note from the rye flakes and a very quick pear compote with honey.
50g rolled rye flakes 50g rolled oats 300ml unsweetened almond milk or cow’s milk
A pinch of flaky sea salt 2 tsp raw cacao or unsweetened cocoa powder
A pinch of ground cinnamon 2 tsp runny honey 2 pears, cored and sliced 1 tbsp runny honey 2 tbsp almond butter
A handful of chopped almonds
1 First, make the pear topping. Heat the pears and honey in a small pan over a medium heat for 5 minutes, or until just warmed through and beginning to soften, adding a tiny splash of water if it’s looking too dry.
2 Meanwhile, put all the porridge ingredients into a pan with 100ml hot water and cook for 5–8 minutes, or until the oats come together; add more water if it looks too thick.
3 Spoon the porridge into bowls and top with the pears, almond butter and almonds.
Bay and lemon-laced creme caramel (on the cover)
Making caramel can put people off, but I have given easy instructions here so don’t be nervous – it’s really not hard at all. Be sure to check the wobble on the baked creme caramels – you want a very light wobble in the middle; they shouldn’t be too liquid. You will need six ramekins or dariole moulds.
A knob of butter, for greasing 500ml organic whole milk 1 unwaxed lemon
2 bay leaves
1 vanilla pod
2 medium organic eggs, plus 4 egg yolks
75g golden caster sugar
For the caramel
60g golden caster sugar 60g light muscovado sugar The juice of 1 lemon
1 Preheat the oven to 170C/335F/gas 3½. Grease all the ramekins or dariole moulds with butter.
2 Start by infusing your milk. Pour the milk into a saucepan. Peel 4 strips of zest from the lemon with a speed peeler and add to the milk with the bay. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod and add to the milk along with the pod. Heat gently over a low heat and, when it’s just under a simmer, take off the heat and allow to cool a little and infuse for 15 minutes.
3 Next, make the caramel by melting the caster and muscovado sugars together in a large, deep saucepan with the lemon juice and 2 tbsp of water. Try not to it stir once it’s heated (stirring will encourage the sugar to crystallise) – a gentle shake and tilt of the pan now and then will help the sugar to melt evenly. Let the sugar mixture cook until it’s bubbling, is a rich molasses colour all over and smells biscuity. It should take around 3 minutes from when it starts to bubble. If you’re nervous and want to test that it’s done, pour a small dot on to a cold plate; if it sets, it’s done. Pour the caramel into your greased ramekins, distributing it evenly across all 6, and leave to one side to set.
4 Now, on to the custard. Crack the whole eggs into a mixing bowl and whisk with the yolks and caster sugar until everything is combined. Gradually add the cooled milk to the eggs and sugar, gently combining with a whisk as you go. Fill and boil the kettle.
5 Pour the mixture through a sieve into a jug, then pour into the ramekins and put them in a deep roasting tray. Cover each ramekin tightly with foil. Carefully pour the hot water from the kettle into the tray until it reaches about halfway up the ramekins’ sides.
6 Bake in the centre of the hot oven for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for a further 15–20 minutes, or until they’re set with a bit of wobble still in the centre. Cool on a roasting tray, then put them, covered,
Porridge is personal. This is my very favourite of winter breakfasts
in the fridge – ideally overnight, but definitely for at least 3–4 hours.
7 Remove from the fridge at least 30 minutes before you want to serve them. When you’re ready, gingerly run a small palette knife around the edge and invert each one on to a plate.
Salted chocolate truffles
Just some melting, mixing and pouring – your own little chocolate factory. This batch makes a lot, and can be wrapped up and given as Christmas presents. 60g coconut oil, plus a little extra to grease
30g coconut or light brown sugar 200g raw almond/cashew/ hazelnut butter
200g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
Seeds from 1 vanilla pod 2 big pinches of flaky sea salt
Zest of 1 unwaxed orange Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon Zest of 1 unwaxed lime Swap the salt for smoked sea salt 1 red chilli, finely chopped Seeds from 2 cardamom pods, removed and crushed
½ tsp ground cinnamon
To coat (use one or more)
50g raw cacao or cocoa powder Pistachios, almonds and/or hazelnuts, finely chopped Candied orange peel, finely chopped Candied ginger, finely chopped Chocolate (dark, milk or white), grated Dried rose petals, crushed
1 Grease a 20 x 20cm square brownie tin with coconut oil. Heat the coconut oil and sugar in a saucepan on a low heat. Once the oil has melted and the sugar has dissolved into the oil, take the pan off the heat and add the nut butter, chocolate, vanilla and salt. Stir off the heat until everything has melted. If you’re adding another flavour, stir it in now.
2 Pour the mixture into the tin. Chill for about 2 hours, or until set solid. While the truffle mix is cooling, get your chosen coating or coatings ready and put each in a little bowl.
3 Once set, turn the truffle slab out on to a cool work surface and cut into squares (mine are 1–1½cm), then gently dip each truffle in its coating to cover.
4 The truffles will keep in the fridge for up to 2 weeks in a sealed container.
Malt loaf with prunes and black tea
Pure nostalgia. I remember eating this in my grandma’s flat – high up in a 1970s tower block. How I wish we could share a slice now. 125g prunes, pitted 125g raisins
150ml strong black tea, hot Butter or oil, for greasing
150g malt extract, plus 2 tbsp to finish 100g light muscovado sugar
125g wholemeal spelt flour
125g white spelt flour
1 tsp baking powder
A pinch of fine salt
2 medium eggs
1 Put the prunes and raisins into a shallow bowl, cover with the hot tea and leave to soak overnight (or as long as you can manage). Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4.
2 Butter a deep loaf tin measuring 20x9cm and line it with baking paper. Put the malt extract and muscovado sugar in a small saucepan and warm, without stirring, over a medium heat, until the sugar has dissolved, then take off the heat.
3 Put the flours, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl and use a whisk to get rid of any lumps.
4 Using a stick blender, puree 2 tbsp of the soaked fruit into a chunky paste. Pour the warm malt and sugar mixture into the flour, and add the fruit paste and whole fruits.
5 Break the eggs into a small bowl, beat lightly with a fork and fold into the mixture.
6 Scoop the mixture – it is quite soft – into the lined loaf tin and gently smooth the surface. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until lightly springy, then remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin. While the cake cools, brush the top with a little more malt extract.
▲ The Modern Cook’s Year
Anna’s new book, published by 4th Estate, is out on 5 October