In this series, Sybil Kapoor explores how a sense of seasonality in your cooking can be enhanced through colour, forms, textures and aromas, which together create an emotional resonance, evoking a time and place
September marks the divide in British cooking between light summery dishes and cold weather comfort food. It’s a wonderful month for cooks, spanning as it does the last glut of summer and the first of the autumn foods. The markets are full of blueberries, figs and plums, as well as partridge, grouse, celery and myriad different onions. Blackberries, elderberries and rowanberry can be found in hedgerows and parks. As the days cool into autumn, sloes intensify their flavour and wild mushrooms such as chanterelles, field mushrooms and puff balls appear on mossy banks and dew-laden meadows.
At this time of year, British cooks tend to vary their seasonal dishes according to the weather. A wonderful fig and feta salad or chanterelle and chilli tagliatelle might be served on a warm day, only to be followed on a cold, damp day by a hearty minestrone or a bubbling celery, onion, white bean and cheese gratin. However, by adopting a few other culinary devices, it’s possible to create a much stronger sense of the changing season in your cooking.
Begin by taking local seasonal ingredients. Try to combine foods from the sea and the wild with farmed ingredients in more of your meals. British sardines, for example, come into season in September and make an evocative autumn starter if grilled plainly, seasoned with lemon juice and served with bread and butter. Cook extra to make a delicate sardine pâté with butter, lemon juice and cayenne pepper—perfect for a weekend lunch. Keen cooks can even serve them as a dainty appetiser, filleted and marinated in lemon juice, then finished with a few fine slices of red onion and a hint of chopped parsley. To fillet a sardine, behead, split down its tummy, gut the fish, then spread it out tummy-down on a board, before lightly pressing along its backbone. Turn over and gently pull out the spine.
Expressions of wildness
Wildness can be expressed in many different ways this month. Partridge, for example, comes into season in September. To capture a feeling of the end of summer, serve it simply roasted with minimal accompaniments. Perhaps just gravy, watercress and game chips and an apple and rowanberry jelly or bread sauce.
Given the profusion of wild fruit, it is worth preserving it in different ways. This will enable you to add a dreamy autumnal note to wintery dishes later in the year. Elderberries and sloes can be pickled or turned into syrup, jelly or gin. The former has a fabulous port-like flavour, the latter an intense plum taste. Both are irresistible with wild duck and excellent in plum fools, ice cream and pies. Elderberries also taste good with late (or frozen) summer fruits, such as in a steamed lemon and blackberry pudding or added to cakes such as a swiss roll or victoria sponge.
Think about the colour and appearance of every meal that you make. Even breakfast can capture a sense of early autumn by using soft, harmonious colours. A bowl of muesli made with porridge oats, blackberries, diced russet apples, sunflower seeds and early hazelnuts instantly captures the heathery notes of the moors, just as a glass of celery, apple and spinach juice conjures up the colours of a tousled suburban garden.
Shafts of sunlight
Even a glance out of a dusty train window, with golden shafts of sunlight hitting the trees can inspire a golden onion tart, served with a salad of oak leaf, baby spinach and curly endive, or a plate of figs, drizzled in honey or saba (vin cotto) and served with some creamy cheese such as burrata.
Arrange your food in a more relaxed style and add a little height to salads. A tumbled informal look reflects the wind-blown, over-grown natural world. Curls of celery mixed with slices of early apple, watercress and rocket might accompany cold roast chicken and mayonnaise. Don’t worry if your autumn (as opposed to summer) pudding collapses into a purple mess when you turn it out—just dig in and accompany with a bowl of clotted cream. It will taste all the better for its juice-soaked soggy bread.
As the month progresses and turns colder, subtly change the texture of your dishes by gradually including more soft, chewy and unctuous recipes. We find such textures comforting and associate them with cold weather food. A melt-in-the-mouth beef stew with button onions, carrots and mushrooms will seem more appealing in September than a grilled steak, especially if served with parsley dumplings floating in its rich gravy. In a similar vein, a hazelnut and blackberry meringue is delicious at the beginning of the month but by the end of September, your guests will find a soft hazelnut and blackberry roulade twice as tempting. Much happiness will be found in such experiments. After all, it’s hard to go wrong with so many delicious seasonal ingredients.