Food & Drink: Season of soups and mellow vegetableness

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Autumn thoughts. The sodden ground, sodden leaves, rain, first chill winds. Also, last harvests, last fruits. With winter ahead, conservation. One's diet changes. Last night we ate the season's first beef stew with its white onions and wine, its turnips and carrots, our old iron stove working full- time as the wind tried to work its way through our walls.

In the Italian Country Gentleman I find a list of splendid things to be done with the gifts of autumn. Especially for those who live in the country.

Beetroots. Uncommon in Italy. We tend to boil them up and use them to decorate salads. They lose less of their tremendous flavour if baked in a hot oven until a skewer will go through them with ease. Sliced, and still warm, they are to be laid out on a plate, interspersed with fresh anchovies, and sprinkled with olive oil and fine chopped garlic.

Cardoons, the edible thistles. These gain in sweetness from the first cold snap. They can be kept wrapped in newspaper, but are best eaten as soon as harvested. Whiten them in a bowl of warm water with lemon.

Chestnuts. To be found on the streets of my childhood, roasted, warming the hands. They require a very hot oven or open fire to burn the shell. Once half-done, sprinkle them with red wine (or better, a sweet muscat) and let them caramelise.

Cabbage for winter. Cut thick slices and lay in a wooden tub (people who do not have tubs - which is most of us - can use that old, slightly cracked salad bowl kept around for no good reason), interspersing each layer with salt, cumin and juniper berries. Up in the mountains of Piedmont, this is called crauti.

Pumpkin. Associated in some minds with American Hallowe'en or the purely American pumpkin pie, they can form the basis of a wonderful autumnal soup.

Cut them into large chunks and fry them in mixed (half-and-half) butter and olive oil, with a chopped onion and diced leeks. Add potatoes, likewise cut into big sections, cover with water, then salt and simmer until the potatoes are suitably soft. Serve with fresh pepper and parmesan - alternatively, with a big spoonful of cream.

Jerusalem artichokes. Knobbly, awkward vegetables which make a remarkable soup. To eat them otherwise, they should be absolutely fresh. They are splendid sliced very thin in a salad; they make a fine gratin in a bechamel sauce with a gentle mountain cheese (a gruyere will do, a fontina is better).

They are an important part of that great Piedmontese dish (with endless variations elsewhere), the bagna caoda, which I will come back to another day (above all the Piedmontese, with their wines, truffles and game, are superb cold-season cooks).

Chick peas. The Tuscan soup made of these is one of the world's most warming delicacies. For an ample quantity, you will need about 12oz of dried chick peas, which you soak in ample cold water; about 1lb of beet-leaves (from the beets you cooked above?) and some tomato concentrate.

Cook the leaves without water on a gentle heat until they wilt, then drain well; wrap them in a kitchen towel and squeeze. Heat some olive oil (about 2tbs) in a large pan and cook a clove of chopped garlic and a chopped onion until just slightly golden. Add two anchovies washed free of their brine and crushed.

Mix them well into the onions and garlic (do not let them burn). Add the chick peas, drained, and give them time to absorb the flavour of the mixture, stirring steadily for a few minutes. Now add the beet leaves, a generous spoonful of tomato concentrate, a sprig of rosemary (whole, so you can take it out before serving and, if possible, fresh), and pepper (but beware of salt, which the anchovies will provide).

Cover with water, mix, cover tightly with a lid and cook very gently for about three hours. Serve over a slice of crusty, toasted farmhouse bread with a dribble of the best olive oil.

Potatoes. Tuscans also make a remarkable autumn potato dish combined with the tomatoes they have turned, at the end of the summer glut, into a conserva (a risky business: bottled tomatoes have a way of exploding at regular intervals throughout the winter). You can use all sorts of tinned tomatoes for this recipe, but whole tomatoes have to be chopped and crushed to make a thick liquid.

First, cook the potatoes (preferably the less floury sort that retain their consistency) until they are nearly done. Slice them thin and mix in a bowl with a glass of white wine, the tomatoes and two bay leaves. Season generously with salt and black pepper. In a large pan, fry two cloves of chopped garlic in a substantial amount of olive oil. (You will be cooking the potato mixture in it, so the amount of oil is to be judged by the quantity of potatoes), and tip in the potato and tomato mixture. Turn the heat down as low as it will go and turn the potatoes often. If they begin to stick, add more tomato puree or water.

The point about this time of year is not to let yourself be defeated. There is nothing so awful - whether a week's-worth of rain, a marital quarrel, a refractory child - that it cannot be resolved in the kitchen. Appetite revives mind and soul; its satisfaction keeps the external world at bay. And what is more, all the above dishes are cheap.

Comments