Dinner is different in winter. The change starts late on a summer’s evening, when you first notice the soft, familiar scent of distant woodsmoke in the sudden chill of the air. Then, a day or two later, a damp, mushroomy mist hovers over the gardens and parks. Later, you notice the leaves have turned silently from yellow ochre to the walnut hue of tobacco. Autumn is here once again. You may sigh, rejoice or open a bottle. For many, this is the end of their year. For me, this is when it starts, when warmth and bonhomie come to the fore. With the change of weather, supper takes on a more significant role. What I crave now is food that is both cosseting and warming, substantial and deeply satisfying. Food that nourishes but also sets me up for going back out in the cold and wet. And yet, I still find my diet is heavily plant-based with less emphasis on meat. It is simply the way it has progressed over the years and shows little sign of abating.
At the start of the longest half of the year, our appetite is pricked by the sudden drop in temperature, and as evenings get longer, we have the opportunity to spend a little more time in the kitchen. To mash beans into buttery clouds. Simmer vegetable stews to serve with bowls of couscous. To bring dishes of sweet potato to melting tenderness in spiced cream. And, of course, the pasta jar comes out again.
My cold weather eating is more substantial than the food I eat for the rest of the year. Dinner becomes about one main dish rather than several lighter ones, and the focus shifts towards keeping warm. On returning home I will now happily spend an hour cooking. Maybe a little longer. The oven gets more use at this time of year, the grill and griddle probably less. More food will come to the table in deep casseroles and pie dishes. The temperature of the plates and bowls will change. We want to hold things that warm our hands, a sign of the happiness to come.
There will be carbs. They protect and energise us. They bring balm to our jagged nerves. (Winter is nature’s way of making us eat carbohydrates.) Crusts – of pastry, breadcrumbs and crumble – add substance; potatoes fill and satisfy and there is once again a huge sourdough loaf on the table. Rice and noodles are no longer a side dish, and now become the heart and soul of dinner.
And, of course, there must be pudding. An early autumn crumble of damsons and almonds. Chocolate puddings (you really must make the ones with dulce de leche). Ginger cake with a cardamom cream and a custard pudding set with cake and apples. There will be nut-encrusted shortbreads with blood orange and baked apples with crisp crumbs and cranberries.
I probably eat more puddings during the cold months, but mainly at the weekend. The main course recipes are predominantly for two; the puddings though, are all for four or more. The recipes are made for sharing with friends and family. That said, most of them are rather fine eaten the following day. Especially those little chocolate puddings.
Beetroot, blood orange, radish
Bright flavours for a cold day.
beetroot 400g, small raw
olive oil 1 tbsp
blood oranges 2
mint 10 leaves
parsley leaves a handful
pumpkin seeds 2 tbsp
For the dressing
blood-orange juice 2 tbsp
sherry vinegar 2 tbsp
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Place a large piece of tin foil in a roasting tin. Wash and trim the beetroot, taking care not to break their skins, and place them in the foil. Add the olive oil, two tablespoons of water and a grinding of salt and pepper, then scrunch the edges of the foil together to seal. Bake the beetroots for 45 minutes to an hour till tender to the point of a knife, then remove and set aside.
Slice the radishes in half and put them in a mixing bowl. Slice the peel from the orange flesh, taking care to keep any escaping juice, remove the segments from the membranes, then add the segments to the radishes. Peel the beetroot and cut each one in half, then into quarters, and add them to the mixing bowl.
Wash and trim the watercress. (I like to dunk it in a bowl of iced water for 20 minutes to crisp it up.) Put the mint and parsley leaves in with the orange and beetroot together with the trimmed watercress and the pumpkin seeds.
Make the dressing: put the blood-orange juice in a small bowl, add the sherry vinegar, season with salt and pepper then pour over the salad and toss gently.
Orecchiette, cauliflower, cheese
The reassurance of pasta. The soothing notes of cheese and cauliflower.
cauliflower 1 medium
olive oil 3 tbsp
double cream 250ml
dill fronds 10g
Put a deep pan of water on to boil and salt it generously. Finely grate the parmesan. Cut the cauliflower florets from the main stalk.
Warm the butter and oil together in a shallow pan, then fry the cauliflower florets for five minutes or so until lightly crisp and golden. Put the orecchiette into the boiling water and cook for about nine minutes or until tender.
Pour the cream into the cauliflower, add the grated parmesan and lower the heat. Drain the pasta and add it to the cauliflower and cream. Season with black pepper. Chop the dill fronds, stir into the pasta and serve.
• Broccoli, brussels tops, brussels sprouts and kale are all perfectly acceptable in place of the cauliflower. The pasta is interchangeable too, but it’s worth choosing one that will hold a little puddle of sauce, such as casarecce, anelli, cavatelli or ditalini. I suggest you avoid the larger varieties of penne, which is rather like eating pieces of rubber tubing.
Gnocchi, peas, egg yolk
Hot stock, green peas and the allure of dumplings.
vegetable stock 500ml
frozen peas 350g
egg yolks 2
parmesan 4 tbsp, grated
Bring a deep pan of water to the boil and salt it generously. Add the gnocchi and let them cook for three or four minutes, until they come to the surface, or follow the instructions on the packet. Bring the stock to the boil and add the peas.
Remove the gnocchi with a draining spoon and divide between two bowls. Ladle over the stock and peas, then separate the eggs and lower a yolk into each bowl. Sprinkle two tablespoons of grated parmesan over each serving. Stir the yolk into the stock and peas as you eat, making an impromptu sauce.
Potatoes, tomato, horseradish
“Toast-rack” potatoes, spicy tomato sauce.
potatoes 6 large
olive oil 6 tbsp
garlic 6 cloves
fresh horseradish 6 tbsp, grated
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Place the potatoes flat on a chopping board, then slice them at ½cm intervals, cutting almost through to the wood. It becomes immediately obvious why they are sometimes called toast-rack potatoes.
Place the potatoes in a roasting tin, trickle with some of the olive oil and roast for about 45 minutes till crisp and golden. Meanwhile, put the tomatoes and unpeeled garlic cloves in a small roasting tin with the remaining olive oil, grind over a little salt and black pepper, then place in the oven. Roast the tomatoes for about 35 to 40 minutes, until they are soft and lightly browned.
Remove the tomatoes and garlic from the oven. Pop the garlic from its skin and add the flesh to the tomatoes. Crush the tomatoes and garlic with a fork, stirring in the fresh horseradish as you go. When the potatoes are crisp and golden, remove them from the oven and serve with spoonfuls of the crushed tomato.
• Some people find it easier to “hasselback” the potatoes by placing each one in the hollow of a wooden spoon and slicing downwards, thus avoiding cutting through to the chopping board. It’s a good trick.
Celeriac, horseradish, pumpernickel
A soup to soothe the soul.
vegetable stock 400ml
olive oil 125ml
horseradish root 15g, grated
pumpernickel or other rye bread 100g
Peel and roughly chop the celeriac, then place in a deep pan with the stock and milk and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
While the soup is simmering, chop the chives and put them in a blender with the olive oil. Blitz to a bright green dressing.
Puree the celeriac mixture, in two or three batches, using a blender. If you have a stick blender, process it directly in the pan. Stir the horseradish into the soup and check the seasoning. Crumble the pumpernickel and toast briefly in a dry, shallow pan till lightly crisp.
Ladle the soup into bowls, pour in the chive oil and scatter over the pumpernickel.
• Celeriac is one of the more unsung vegetables, but has plenty going for it. I like it shredded and stirred into a mustardy mayonnaise, but also coarsely grated and fried in olive oil and butter until golden and sizzling and served with a spritz of lemon.
Fregola, greens, pecorino
The smoky flavours of mushrooms and greens.
dried mushrooms 25g
greens, such as cavolo nero 200g
Bring 1 litre of water to the boil, add the dried mushrooms, remove from the heat and cover with a lid. Set aside for 15 minutes to infuse.
Wash and finely shred the cavolo nero. Finely grate the pecorino. Bring the mushroom stock back to the boil, add the fregola and cook for 12 to 15 minutes until tender but not soft. The pasta should still have a slight chewy quality. Drain the fregola and mushrooms.
Melt the butter in a frying pan and add the shredded greens, frying them for a minute or two till they start to brighten and wilt. Fold in the drained pasta and mushrooms, then the grated pecorino. Pile into shallow dishes.
• Fregola is easy to find in Italian food stores. I like to look out for the Sardinian toasted variety, which has a pleasing nutty flavour.
• In place of cavolo nero, you could use crinkly-leaved savoy cabbage or young kale.
• The quantity of pecorino sounds alarming, but it is there to bring the whole dish together and offer a luxurious contrast to the otherwise humble ingredients.
Rice, milk, fig jam
The humble sweetness of baked rice. The syrupy luxury of fig jam.
green cardamom pods 6
milk 1 litre
bay leaves 2
vanilla pod 1
pudding rice (short-grain) 80g
caster sugar 3–4 tbsp
fig jam/preserve 8 tbsp
Set the oven at 140C/gas mark 1.
Crack the green cardamoms, extract the tiny brown-black seeds, then crush them to a powder. A pestle and mortar will work if you don’t have a spice mill. Pour the milk into a saucepan. Add the ground cardamom seeds, bay leaves, vanilla pod and butter, and bring to the boil.
Put the pudding rice and caster sugar in a baking dish, then, as soon as the milk boils (watch carefully), pour the hot milk over the rice and stir till the sugar has dissolved.
Slide the dish into the preheated oven and bake for two hours until the rice is soft and creamy and the skin is pale gold. Serve with spoonfuls of soft fig jam.
• No effort involved here. Just a little patience.
• If fig jam proves tricky to track down, slice six small fresh figs in half and put them in a saucepan with four tablespoons each of granulated or caster sugar and water. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer till the sugar and water have turned to a syrup and the figs are soft and on the point of collapse.
Chocolate, dulce de leche, cantucci
Fragile crust. Oozing chocolate.
dark chocolate 100g
dulce de leche 2 tbsp
caster sugar 100g
cantucci to serve
Set the oven at 160C/gas mark 3. Break the chocolate into small pieces and leave to melt, without stirring, in a heatproof bowl suspended over a pan of simmering water. As the chocolate melts, gently stir in the dulce de leche and turn off the heat.
Break the eggs into a large bowl, add the sugar and beat until thick and fluffy. A food mixer with a whisk attachment will give the best results. Stir the chocolate and dulce de leche into the mixture. You need only two three or three stirs to incorporate it. Any more and you might over-mix it.
Transfer to two ramekins, using a rubber spatula. Put the ramekins into a roasting tin or baking dish. Pour enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins, then bake for 20 minutes until the surface is lightly crisp and the inside thick and creamy. Serve with a teaspoon and, if you wish, cantucci biscuits.
• A soft crust appears on these puddings as you bake them, while the inside stays rich and fondant-like. It will stay like that for an hour or two, should you wish to make them a little ahead of time.
• Heatproof china ramekins are ideal for these, but you can bake them in ovenproof cups too, or even metal thali dishes.
• I have baked these chocolate puddings and eaten them the following day, when they are like thick, fudgy chocolate mousses.
Greenfeast: Autumn, Winter by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate, £22). To order a copy for £19.36, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.